Voices in the Cave of Being
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Grief of a Girl’s Heart (Anonymous)
A familiar scenario—a rural seduction and abandonment by a Luftmensch who may even (after all, this is Ireland) largely believe his own rhetoric. What differentiates it is the stage in this particular story, and the character of the girl.
We feel her poignantly still hoping, for he may not yet have gone, and she understands him, understands his weakness, and his boasting, and his lying, and still loves him, and would be as good for him, in practical terms, as she says.
So there’s the terrible force of her yearning—a strong and decent person trying by sheer force of will and sense of the truth of the situation to make the abandonment not happen.
She can judge him, clear-eyed—“You promised me, —and you said a lie to me.” She knows that the things he promised are not possible (though we’re still in a literal reality with that “suit of the dearest silk in Ireland” and those marketplaces). But she would be, if he could only see it, what his romantic yearnings sketch for him, or at least what would actually be available to him.
It’s not as if she were the voice of dull bog-trotting “practicality,” pooh-poohing romance. She too can speak poetically. She can envisage being splendid in bed. She can see the pathos of his lonely questing. She would be his sweetheart, not just a permanently pregnant wife. (Mercifully she doesn’t seem to be pregnant at the moment, so that’s not the issue.)
But he wasn’t out there in the field that night, and we can feel the cruel auto-intoxication of his lyricism, feeding on itself, one romantic promise topped by another. So that most probably he is lost to her. And there is a painful virtual acknowledgment of that in the last two stanzas, in the conditional voice, “I would…I would…” (in contrast to the “I will” of the first stanza), and the moving, because believable, vigour of, “And if you were hard pressed, I would strike a blow for you,” and then the horror of absolute loss and despair, expressed with its own deeper and more resonant poeticality in the final stanza.
O Donal Oge, what a fool you are, what a romantic fool. And yet maybe he has to go and try. And will she still be there for him (Peer Gynt’s Solveg) should he eventually return?
Think of the work that would have to go into a short story to achieve this complexity—and probably even then missing the emotional essences. A poem does permit not having to say a lot of things.
I found “Grief of a Girl’s Heart” in David Bergman and Daniel Mark Epstein’s excellent Heath Guide to Poetry (1983), where it’s described as having been translated from the Gaelic by Augusta Gregory, W.B. Yeats’ patron.
If you look up her translation through Google, you will find that it’s presented as a prose translation. The stanzas are printed as paragraphs, and there are eight extra paragraphs between “our” final stanza and the one preceding it, all of them weak and inessential. It’s as if two different poems had got jumbled up together. For example, “It is early in the morning that I saw him coming, going along the road on the back of a horse; he did not come to me; he made nothing of me; and it is on my way home that I cried my fill.”
I have no idea what the Gaelic original was like, or whether Bergman and Epstein adapted it themselves or found it adapted somewhere else.
So, should we feel obliged to ask which is the real poem or text? Or whether the text that I’ve given here possesses that supposed Coleridgean essence of poetry, “organic unity”?
If I hadn’t mentioned the prose version, no one would be worrying about whether or not it was a poem, would they? Obviously it is, at least if we mean that it consists of definite stanzas, that there is a clear relationship between syntax and lineation, and that there is a discernible rhythm to the lines, even if it would be hard to describe formally.
Furthermore (if that’s too minimal a definition), there’s a satisfying progression from what happens in one stanza to what happens in the next, and every sentence adds something of consequence to what’s gone before, and there aren’t unnecessary words or ill-chosen one, and the drama is poignant, and we’re experiencing the strong and deep feelings of a real-feeling young countrywoman.
So I myself would say that certainly it has unity. It’s about a single emotion-charged situation, and it has the kind of flow that we could discern in some graceful or dramatic stretch of physical action (such as a skating routine), or in a song that we like, or in a stretch of moving spontaneous speech, and with what feel like a natural beginning and ending, so that we don’t want more from before it begins or after it ends.
But if the question were about the poem’s “origins,” in an attempt to ascertain whether it evolved naturally inside a poet’s mind (a poet, not a mere “writer,” or “author”) in the way that a plant develops from a seed, well, my own feeling would be, Who knows? Who cares?
Obviously what we have here is a palimpsest, the result of some oral text or texts (probably the latter) in Gaelic being transcribed, and then translated, and maybe altered by the translator before it was printed (maybe in consultation with a friend or two?), and then altered substantially later on by at least one set of editorial hands. Bergman and Epstein are themselves published poets.
And if someone were to feel uneasy about not being able to feel in the presence of the “mind” of an author voicing his or her own poem as it evolves, well, that would be understandable, given the number of poems that do give us that sensation, including a number in my own selection here. But lots of feelings are understandable and wrong, and in fact most wrong feelings are more understandable than right ones, being simpler and cruder.
Personally I like the old gentleman who, when asked by the child why noodles are called noodles, replied gravely, “Well, my dear, they look like noodles, and they smell like noodles, and they taste like noodles, so we call them noodles.” If it looks like a poem and feels like a poem and moves you like a poem (which is to say like a lot of other works that you have no trouble seeing as poems), then it is a poem.
In one of his later books, F.R. Leavis indignantly dismissed the suggestion that a computer could write a poem, with its implication of the obsolescence of Man and all that rubbish. But of course it can, at least if you consider the result a poem when you don’t know its provenance.
Obviously the computer couldn’t do so without a lot of “poem” rules having been fed it or absorbed by it when told what to look for. It wouldn’t just sit there humming gently after doing rocket science and then burst into song. But that would be irrelevant to the quality of the resulting text.
In all likelihood, it would be a bad poem, or a banal poem, or, well, simply not a particularly interesting one. But if it were good, so much the better. We can always use more good poems.
To call something a poem, even though we indeed use the word honorifically—about some graceful physical action, say— doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, carry with it any implication of innate merit, any more than does calling something a novel or a play.
People don’t go around saying admiringly, “You’re a real playwright, Bill.”
In saying all of which, I am not, as Leavis (following Lawrence and himself deeply and intelligently Romantic), might have said, seeking to “do dirt” on life.
On the contrary, what I’ve said makes it easier to hang onto the goodness and greatness of great and good poems, unperturbed by any Lowest Common Denominator challenge.
By which I mean, the ploy by which someone who thinks he or she has isolated the minimum features which a group of works have in common, proceeds to treat the higher, richer, subtler forms as if they were really only what you have in the lower ones.
It also makes it easier to experience the poem in front of you as you experience other stretches of memorable speech, which is to say, without immediately wanting to make your way into increasingly amorphous experiences prior to its presence, as if they were the real reality.
And it’s not as though we were getting rid of “mind” or “quality.”
Creative acts of mind did indeed lead to “Grief of a Girl’s Heart” as we have it here.
Some Irish person or persons, somewhere, sometime, felt the pathos in a certain kind of situation and evoked verbally the thought processes of a certain kind of young woman. Augusta Gregory, herself a playwright, read or heard the result, and translated and published it, maybe with improvements of her own. Subsequent readers felt the quality of the good parts, and turned the prose into verse (or had it been verse before she translated it?), and left out the weaker parts. And I too felt the quality of the result, and the poem has stayed in my own mind.
But what is quality? (asked jesting Pilate, and did not wait for an answer). Well, it’s what we all have no trouble recognizing the existence of when we buy one stereo system or pair of jogging shoes in preference to others, and the kind of defining involved can occur in all manner of situations and has nothing to do intrinsically with snobbishness or class.
There are all manner of good qualities in all manner of things, including poems. What we have here in “my” poems are simply some of them, and there are lots of others in a lot of other poems that I admire (see A New Book of Verse ) and some of which are greater than all but a few of the ones here.
In the rest of these notes, I have largely been trying to clarify to myself what kinds of things it is that I myself have been responding to with lasting pleasure in these particular poems.
The Demon Lover (Anonymous)
This powerful poem came to me from Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren in their Understanding Poetry, the grandfather of the Introductions-to-Poetry as we now know them, and itself a splendid anthology.
“The Demon Lover” belongs up there with the escalating drama of the ballad “Edward” (“Why does your brand sae drip wi’ bluid,/Edward, Edward”), in which the refrains and repetitions slow down the uncovering of what lies behind his bloody sword, and allow spaces of the mind to open up in both speakers, mother and son, before, apprehensively, she puts the next question and he gives his next delaying answer, all of it building inexorably to the final ferocity of his “The curse of hell from me shall ye bear/, Such council you gave to me, O,” the facts that both of them have been trying to avoid facing now out there and irrevocable.
“The Demon Lover” is a distillation of what must have been a recurring situation over the centuries—the former lover returning to the now settled wife of another man, and asserting the moral claims of his own intense feelings (that convenient gush of tears!), and accusing her of disloyalty. And she fights back at first with the sturdy common sense of “If you might have had a king’s daughter,/Yourself you had to blame”, but weakens because of her own still persisting feelings (“Well, suppose I do go?”). And he pounces on that weakening and promises her magnificence.
And then we have her disquiet at finding the ship without any crew from that social world in which, as he’s claiming, he has made his mark, and her growing sense that something’s dreadfully wrong, and now he’s hardly bothering to soothe her but says pro forma, Oh shut up, I’ll give you a good time, and she recognizes that all her good things have been thrown away and no other good ones will ever come again, and it’s all too late, and it’s damnation.
With a lovely modulation from the natural into the supernatural, so that at first he is the returned lover, and then, allegorically, and with a nightmare-like speed-up of space and time—those hills, that mountain, the sudden giganticism—he becomes a figure of wickedness, a demon.
W.H. Auden, who was at his best in his lighter verse, makes an effective use at times of balladic intensifications, with their dreads and yearnings, particularly in “As I Walked Out One Evening.” At one time I had it by heart, along with a number of other poems or bits of poems by him, including most of “Now from my window-sill I watch the night,” which modulates from Yeats-lite (but Yeats could not have written “The silence buzzes in my ear”) into a world of mysterious powerful presences, with strong local details and tones, but no coherent literal sense to be made of those figures.
Hymne / Hymn (Charles Baudelaire)
Impossible, I would think, to render this poem into English, at least in eight-syllable lines, in a way that would capture its weight and beauty. Hard to believe that it’s the same verse form as in Gautier’s “Sur les Lagunes.”
How is it different? Well, there’s a greater conceptual and figurative density for one thing.
He is addressing her in terms that could almost as well apply to the Virgin Mary (somewhat eroticized). Which is to say that what we have here is an erotics of purity, the beloved adored because of the spiritual values that she brings into his life.
But we’re not given details. It’s more a matter of finding figurative equivalents for the sense of exaltation that he feels. She’s like an angel, an idol, she permeates his being like the way in which a salt breeze can be smelled (indoors?), or the scent of a sachet of dried flowers, or incense, or musk.
Which I suppose ought to make it a bit over-ripely romantic, except that it’s said and done with such conviction and such formal decisiveness.
We have the characteristically Baudelairean opening in which something is summed up and defined, in contrast, say, to Hardy’s characteristically unsummatory openings (“Why did you give no hint that night?”). And the praise mounts. She fills his heart with “clarté” (a broad-spectrum term encompassing, according to my dictionary, “light, brightness, splendour; limpidity; clearness”). She’s an angel, an immortal idol.
Her influence spreads through his mind and does something important—gives his unappeased, unsastisfied, hungry soul a taste of eternity (meaning, the possibility of salvation?). Eternity here is a good thing, since it entails continuity and permanence, not just disintegration and drifting atoms in an endless night.
This improvement is pleasurable, too, in more “human” ways. A beloved retreat, a personal hideaway, perhaps a love-nest, doesn’t have to be abandoned but in fact is made sweeter. During the night, probably an erotic night, the forgotten censer is still there, sending out its benediction.
And then, a final stab at finding (but with a sense of the impossibility) an equivalent that will do justice to this incorruptible figure and his joy in her. He does have the possibility of a benign eternity, and it is she, invisibly, by simple virtue of her being, who makes it possible.
Back to the opening summatory praise, with those slight but important changes. She’s not just beloved and beautiful, she’s good and beautiful, and she gives him both joy (probably sexual) and moral health, so that now the final two lines, with their blending of the Chrstian and, perhaps, pagan have been given more content.
Formally, the poem is definite, what Ezra Pound would call shaped.
Each stanza falls more or less into two parts. Each stanza, except the last, opens differently syntactically.
First, a prepositional phrase (To the beloved) leads to the suspended conclusion in the fourth line.
Then, a declarative statement (She expands).
Then, a question (How to?)
And then back to the beginning and a recapitulation.
Individual words are weighty conceptually—‘immortalité,” “inassouvie,” ‘l’eternel,” ‘incorruptible,” “verité,” “eternité.”
But actions are going on—filling, hailing, expanding, pouring, perfuming, smoking, expressing, lying. There isn’t a single “is” or “are” here, let alone “seems.” We are propelled forward by this energy of definition, his conviction of the reality and worth of his feelings, his trust, his hope.
And the rhymes help in that propulsion.
After the initial high-pitched linking of “clarté” and “eternité,” we modulate down into the second stanza with the gentler, lower pitched linking of “immortelle,” “sel,” “eternel,” and thence into the third stanza with “inassouvie,” “reduit,” and “nuit.” In so doing, we have also progressed from the brightness of the opening, and the open-air wholesomeness of the second stanza, into the secret erotic places of the night.
And then we get a kind of reverse flow, with “nuit” followed immediately by the same sound in “incorruptible,” itself linking to “invisible,” and the “ay” (é) sounds coming back in with “verité” and “eternité,” and that same sound continued (rising) into the final stanza, with “santé” and “immortalité.”
Moreover, I now see, we have also had a progression wherein all four rhyme words in the first stanza are value words, three of them spiritual, but in the second stanza only one is (“l’eternel,”) and in the third none. With a return back up with three in the fourth stanza and then all four in the final stanza, as in the first one.
This kind of quasi-musical organizing is part of what made Baudelaire so important in and to the Symbolist movement, using that term in its broader application (as distinct from the self-defined and publicized movement in the 1880’s).
We have been told nothing, novelistically, about her, and next to nothing, novelistically, about him, except that his spirit is unappeased and that he hungers for eternity. Nor has there been any prescriptive moralizing, or any general ideas presented as such, or any attempt to persuade or summon to action.
And yet by means of figurative language and the musicality that I have described, we have, or at least I do, a compelling sense of the innermost experiencing of a strong mind in a perhaps unfamiliar state of unqualified happiness and hopefulness, where he’s feeling the reality of certain values.
In this instance the values are substantially religious ones. But the feelings of enlightenment, and purification, and a heightened sense of rich possibilities beyond the daily pressures and etiolation of social life, particularly social life as driven forward by scientific positivism and the claims of politics, need not be dependent on literal religious truths.
I have known this poem, along with the ones by Villon and Gautier, since the summer of 1946, when I was lucky enough to spend two exchange months in Paris with distant and newly-moneyed relatives of my stepmother.
They had a Right Bank apartment on the Rue de la Boétie (a street, as I learned the other day, where Picasso and Olga had lived in the 1920s), which contained a white baby grand, several original recent oils (landscapes, still lifes), and a small collection of limited editions with cream, or pink, or pale-blue thick-paper covers, or morocco bindings. We had wine with meals, too. Wine! What nicer way, coming straight from the horrors of boarding school in austerity England, to experience French bourgeois elegance. I don’t imagine the Occupation had been too difficult for them.
I had with me Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems, which seemed to glow with the light of his own vision of Provence. And I managed to have a couple of minutes of sidewalk conversation in the Rue de l’Odéon with Sylvia Beach, the first publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses. I even wrote a handful of poems myself, one of them during a panic attack among the tennis courts at the très-snob Jockey Club, to which I’d been taken shortly after my arrival, wildly out of place in my patched-elbows tweed jacket and shapeless grey flannels. (No, this wasn’t understated elegance à l’Anglais. What an embarrassment I must have been!)
And later, when we were down in the Dordogne staying at Les Eyzies, near the great caves, there was a day trip to a narrow overgrown valley between cliffs in which there was a miniature abandoned Poundian castle, its sandstone battlements sharp-edged against the hot blue sky.
Meanwhile my would-be swinging opposite number was finding out what England could do in the way of a rain-drenched, food-rationed, and probably girl-less English seaside summer.
I knew nothing—nothing—about the current art-and-intellect scene in Paris, not the Cinémathéque, not Existentialism, nothing. I had only just turned eighteen at the start of the vacation. And “French,” in school, had been declensions, prose passages to translate, and Molière’s Le Malade Imaginaire, with those ridiculous little “scenes” that nobody bothered to inform us signal the entry or exit of a character. Those were the days of “standards.”
But the city, in which I walked a lot to save my handful of francs, was still, though I didn’t know it, partly the city of Baudelaire, the Surrealists, Atget. It was also where I was seeking a copy of that then-forbidden book of knowledge, Ulysses, guidebook to the eroticized city of the mind, so that every second-hand bookstore and quai-side stall, with its medley of unfamiliar shapes and titles, was charged with potentiality. Without knowing it, I was on my own kind of small quasi-Surrealist quest.
And I found my way, impelled by the horrific images and frustratingly opaque text in a French magazine in a pre-War seaside boarding-house (what did “Guignol” mean?), to the Théâtre du Grand Guignol in its converted chapel in Montmartre, but it was closed for the summer. And in a used bookstore in the Palais-Royale arcade, smelling of the forbidden (correctly, no doubt, given the history of the Palais Royale), I picked up a copy of the clandestine Don Leon, published in England by the Fortune Press, with Byron’s name as author.
”My” transgressive Paris, mild as it was, was more interesting than the Folies-Bergère and the more nekkid Casino de Paris that my hosts took me to. But I didn’t stumble upon the great Surrealist bookstore Le Minotaure on the Left Bank until the summer of 1949.
I even got part way into the narrow rue Mouffetard, which felt, and smelt, like essence-of-older-Paris, and which, not having noted its name, I failed to find again on a couple of subsequent visits and so remained an almost dreamlike memory. By the time I eventually got back to it, it had acquired boutiques.
Kate Simon speaks in one of her travel guides of “the Mouffetard smell, a combination of cheese, fish, bodies, discarded greens, overage flowers, urine—the smell of life in packed houses hugging a crowded market for centuries.” The Paris of Jacques Prévert and Marcel Carné, whose Quai des Brumes had been my first French film, experienced from a front-row seat in the lovely little Academy Cinema near Oxford Circus.
I have now learned from Google that the street follows the line of a Roman road and that some of the buildings supposedly go back to the 12th century.
What has all this to do with “Hymne”? Nothing specific, but I enjoyed the recall.
And yet, perhaps there is some relevance to this temps perdus stuff.
The “inner” Paris that I was experiencing, the Paris of values, was one in which a deeply Catholic poem like “Hymne” could be felt and spoken with perfect naturalness.
Nôtre-Dame, with its unvandalized stained-glass windows and its aura of romantic passions (the Hunchback and so forth) was there on its river island, a polar stone antithesis to the skeletal Eiffel Tower. The medieval Musée de Cluny sat at the intersection of the Boulevard Saint-Michel and the Faubourg Saint-Germain. And inside a low doorway in the foundation of a nearby building a stone spiral staircase led down (too expensively for me) into a purported medieval torture chamber. I got out to Chartres, too, and the stained-glass windows there.
And in the city of Napoleon’s huge black marble tomb in Les Invalides, and the Arc de Triomphe at the end of the immense Champs-Elysées, the idea of glory and gloriousness, as well as of the possibility of ignominy and damnation (the Occupation was only a couple of years in the past) was not something that needed apologizing for with deprecatory nervous coughs.
And you had the dramatic contrasts between the wearying and too-big spaces of the Champs-Elysées and the Place de la Concorde, and the intimacy of the older Paris of the Quartier Latin, and between the rackety, lavatory-tiled, early-modernist Metro (but with those sexy Art Nouveau entrances and those poetic station names—Porte de Vincennes, Porte de Neuilly, and so forth, very Proustian) and the classical calm of the Luxembourg Gardens, with the toy boats on the pool.
Some of these things can rub off on you. It was certainly all very different from the London on whose northern fringe I had grown up.
And the Roman Catholicism of such English poets as I had come across, always excepting the rural-based Hopkins, had been ungrounded (like Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven”) and all too conscious of being Catholic, which is to say, an alien and still suspect presence. I mean, what could you make of a religion that maintained that you were literally eating Christ’s body at what the Anglicans called communion? James Joyce beautifully encapsulates in A Portrait of the Artist the process of writing a Catholic poem, Stephen’s villanelle “Are you not weary of ancient days?”
The full-throated “Hymne,” with its confidence in the possibility of an un-ascetic redemption and transfiguration in this world, and its indifference to whether it was verging on heresy in its mingling of the religious and the erotic, would not have been possible in England.
I wish I had done more during my four weeks in that at that time still semi-mythical city. I don’t recall getting to Les Halles, or to the magical northern boulevards, Boulevard Poissonière, Boulevard Bonne Nouvelle, that were beloved of the Surrealists. But I only had ten pounds, at that time fifty dollars, in my billfold.
And at least I came back with Villon’s collected poems and Les Fleurs du Mal, and a couple of issues of Transition from the 1920s (one of them with the first installment of what became Joyce’s Finnegans Wake), and had done my best to buy Gautier’s Emaux et Camées after browsing in my hosts’ de luxe edition.
And one of the de luxe editions on my hostess’s shelves was Rilke’s Rose poems in French (his own), on delicately pink paper. So at least I got a whiff of him.
I never did find Ulysses. But an American edition was sitting, unexpurgated, on the shelves of the public library of a north London suburb near my own after I got back, and the following year the book was published in England.
[I have now read Walter Martin’s lovely and expressively faithful transmutation of Hymne in his dual-text Complete Poems of Baudelaire (1997). A good translation observing the form of the original can put you in mind of that comment by someone or other that Ginger Rogers wasn’t really so special as a dancer, she simply had to follow all Fred Astaire’s steps wearing heels and a gown.]
The Cottage Hospital (John Betjeman)
The rhyming is curious and very effective. Which is a dull thing to say about a poem so charged with feeling, but the poem can take care of itself, content-wise, so I shall continue.
The indentations and the endings of the first three lines (feminine/masculine/feminine) make you expect a ballad-like abcb pattern (“A brick path led to a mulberry,/ Whose leaves were turning brown”). But in fact you get the word “feet”—and then another word, “branches” that still isn’t rhyming with anything. And suddenly you get a rhyme (down/ town) and, pause, another rhyme, feet/ heat.
So it feels as if now you’ve arrived. You’ve had a couple of rhymes, and the pattern may be complete—town/ down, heat/feet.
And then it kind of starts up again and the last four lines feel more solid, particularly given those apples and plum espaliers basking upon bricks of brown, and the air swimming with insects.
After which, we have the shivery close-up tactility in the second stanza, with the “bright intentness,” the “slithery rigging,” the lithe elastic, the fizzing (brilliant word) hopeless fight.
And in the third stanza, the brilliant two-line closure carries us back to the hot, indifferent natural world going about its business, and “swimming” picks up on “drowning,” so that you feel an inflowing of that world in contrast to where and what he now is—the pale green walls and polished parquet, the orderly routines, and his own entanglement in the sweaty sheets of his screened-off bed of death.
I have seen the poem with a different lineation. Which one is the “real” poem? This one here (it’s in Brooks and Warren’s Understanding Poetry) is a poem, the other one is a poem. This poem here is better than the other one.
A cottage hospital like the one in the poem would have been a private nursing home.
Exhortation (Louise Bogan)
I would not have known this magnificent poem had Yvor Winters not discussed it in Forms of Discovery.
Hatred is a suspect emotion now. Or rather, it is a weapon in the culture wars whose use people seek to deny to their adversaries.
The glaring eyes, the vibrato in the voice—these testify to the moral certitude of righteous haters, the correctness of their feelings. But to hate back is to be a bad citizen, and shows that you and your opinions don’t need to be taken seriously. People should like one another, and respect one another, and co-operate with one another—except, of course, when the opinions of the other don’t deserve to be respected. Which can be—this delegitimizing and disarming of the troublesome—a major weapon in the arsenal of power-holders or power-seekers.
Hatred is a stage beyond anger. When you’re angry, you still believe in the possibility of dialogue, of changing the outlook of the other. You hate when you realize that there’s no possibility of that, and that you’re simply not there dialogically, for the other. And that what the other is doing is indeed hateful, even if not done with strong emotions. If someone is behaving smoothly, how can they possibly be hateful? But they can. It is the very smoothness, the sheltering behind the magic shields of their official roles, that makes them hateful.
So far as my own limited experience goes, there is more genuinely hateful behaviour among the cultural bureaucrats of the Canadian art world than in the academic one.
In “A Prayer for My Daughter,” Yeats wrote, “An intellectual hatred is the worst./ So let her think opinions are accursed.” And you know he’s talking politics and ideology, especially Irish ones. Sometimes dehumanizing people in one’s head can be literally lethal for them.
But there are times when the self, or part of the self, needs to be concentrated adversarially, in the interests of its own self-preservation, as a way of seeing what’s there, the de facto, not just de jure rules of this or that power game.
One of J.V. Cunningham’s epigrams goes:
Dark thoughts are my companions. I have wined
With lewdness and with crudeness, and I find
Love is my enemy, dispassionate hate
Is my redemption though it come too late,
Though I come to it with a broken head
In the cat-house of the disheveled dead.
It’s a zone of being, of real being, not just inchoate ”feelings” that swirl beyond the pale. You don’t want to live there long. It can poison the mind and the body, because there is no outlet in action. But defining the feelings can be a way of stabilizing them and authenticating them. They can be morally legitimate ways of responding to real harms and wrongs.
There’s a savage, bleak, stoical acceptance in “Exhortation” of the fact that at times the hateful can win, or at least advance successfully and without any sense of personal insufficiencies. Gerard Manley Hopkins enquired, “Why do sinners ways prosper? and why must/ Disappointment all I endeavour end.?”
I’m sure that Winters is right and that the “dead” in “Exhortation” aren’t ghosts but living power-players in the culture game—critics, editors, publishers, grant-givers, professors, whatever. Some of them, at least, or some types. This isn’t a paranoid poem. It’s a marvelously shaped and resonant affirmation of the hatefulness, in the larger scale of moral being, of certain kinds of insensitivity, shallowness, petty nastiness. It is more “philosophical” and closer to George Gascoigne’s “Lullaby” than Winters’ own powerful “Two Dream Songs.”
I have no idea what experiences lay behind the writing of “Exhortation.” But not all art is an affair of masks (tragic, ironical, and so forth) that can be put on and taken off at will, with behind them always the same comfortably worldly and opportunistic self.
And some defeats and deep-going frustratings cannot be turned aside with the deftness of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Art of Losing,” As witness the section “Artworld” on the Carol Hoorn Fraser side of this site.
People unacquainted with the academic life may have no idea of how fraught it can be at times, when a whole slew of ideological assumptions may be at work in any conflict, particularly in tenure-and-promotion assessments of individuals, and class assignments.
Winters’ “Two Old-Fashioned Songs” from the late 1950s may be relevant here.
Fra Bank to Bank (Mark Alexander Boyd)
In ABC of Reading (1934) Ezra Pound said of this poem, “I suppose it is the most beautiful sonnet in the language, at any rate it has one nomination.” Arthur Quiller-Couch, who had aspired, as he said, to “range over the whole field of English verse…and to choose the best,” had included it in 1900 in The Oxford Book of English Verse, but along with over eight hundred other poems. So it was Pound who retrieved it.
A brief glossing:
Ourhailit/ overcome/ overwhelmed
Ourblawin/ blown over
And a confession. It was only after this whole commentary was almost done that I went to the notes in The Norton Anthology of Poetry and learned that “lichter nor a dauphin” meant “more wanton than a dolphin” and not, as I had assumed, simply “lighter” (more freely moving, more sportive).
Which gives more force to Yvor Winters’ comment (unamplified) that “the characterizing [two-line] description of Venus…is one of the greatest moments in our poetry,” and to his judgment that this is “one of the most extraordinary poems in our language.”
The poem is so animate, isn’t it? The dramatic scene-setting in the first line keeps up. We feel that figure, driven half crazy, out there running erratically, and no doubt falling or crouching from time, in the woods, like a dog on a scent—but the scent of what? Out there seeking, or out there trying to escape from inner turmoil?
And then we have the powerful firming up of the erotic, like in Ovid’s Metamorphoses perhaps, in which those physical gods (unnamed) are more than just metaphors, but are physically there, in the domesticating language of “bairn” and “wife,” the child accessible to moral condemnation like an ordinary spoiled kid, and then the erotic evocation of roundness and smoothness and shining slipperiness of the body rejoicing in the amoral freedom of its own medium.
“Fra bank to bank” and Rossetti’s “The Woodspuge” make an interesting pair.
Some thoughts about language.
From the age of ten until sixteen I was “taught” Latin. I know no Latin. I never have. I cannot read the shortest Latin epigram by Martial or Catullus. The only benefit of that pedagogical experience was to make me sympathize later with students to whom poems that are “obvious” to so-called literates may be almost as obscure as Latin.
In high-school we did our homework on Chaucer’s Prologue the way we did it with Latin, looking up the meanings of words and trying to remember them. I’m sure we weren’t allowed to write them down in the textbook. It would have been bad for our “character,” and probably the textbooks had to be handed in at the end of the term. At Oxford, where we did Anglo-Saxon and Middle-English texts in the same glossary fashion, we were at least able to write the equivalents down. I vandalized my first edition of Sweet’s horrible Anglo-Saxon Reader in that way.
No-one ever helped us to read the texts aloud with a more or less correct pronunciation. In consequence, we entirely failed to acquire the awareness that writers in those tongues weren’t trying to be obscure or, necessarily, saying profound things beyond our comprehension. (It takes an effort, I find, when passing young people in the street speaking Chinese—Cantonese? Mandarin?— to realize that they’re probably just talking about what they had for lunch or who’s going to win the game.) And when we don’t understand them, individual words become overloaded with significance.
We didn’t get a sufficient sense of the need at times for a suspended judgment, a hovering over the meaning of a word in a particular line, a recognition that someone writing in a seemingly reasonable manner might not have suddenly lapsed into something incongruous—a false rhyme, a broken metre, a (to modern ears) screwy adjective.
I have glossed some of the words in Boyd’s sonnet. This may reduce slightly the romantic aura of the poem, the buzz of imperfect understanding (as my own was when I first read it, and for some time afterwards). But the power of statement, the muscular summarizing assertions about complex experiences increases as the literal meaning firms up.
How far there is a peculiarly “Scottish” sensibility in these voicings about Love, I am in no position to judge, being only one thirty-second part Scottish by birth (though with a good deal of Scottish romanticism during my boyhood—Flodden Field, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Hundred Pipers and a’ and a’). If there’s any Cornish poetry, or glamorous Cornish heroics, I’ve yet to hear about them. I myself am half Cornish. D.H. Lawrence loathed the Cornish. I guess there’s something to be said for myth-making about one’s “roots.” But my father didn’t go in for it and I’ve never been to Scotland.
Among the worthwhile things that we could have got from all that Latin, but didn’t (or from preparation for the dreaded paper on the English Language in the final exams at Oxford) was a sense of the expressive structure of words and the importance of noting their etymologies when looking up their dictionary “meanings.” I had to figure out for myself many years later, as I say elsewhere, that there are significant differences in meaning between terms like “investigate” and “look into,” “exterminate” and “wipe out.” And that poets with a reasonably full sense of the language make use of that.
But at least we did, back in highschool, encounter the juxtaposition of “incarnadine” and “making red” in Macbeth’s great soliloquy.
A self-cautionary afterthought.
Some months ago my friend from highschool days, the lighting expert and Quaker peace-activist John Lynes, asked me to tape some technical passages from Chaucer in connection with a lecture that he was preparing. And when I went to the Web and a book or two for guidance, I found that in fact the guides sometimes differed.
It occurred to me that asking what the pronounciation of Chaucer would have been when he wrote is a bit like asking what the pronounciation of Yeats’ “Among School Children” would have been in the 1930’s. It would depend on where the speaker was coming from, wouldn’t it, place-wise and class-wise? And London in the late fourteenth-century was home to people from a variety of English regions.
For that matter, what would be the right way of pronouncing the words in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”?
So it’s indeterminacy time again, then, is it? No, simply a matter of an acceptable looseness and a variety of overlapping systems. And you can still say that some readings are more consistent, and more expressive, and sound better than others.
Good poems can be read well in a variety of regional and cultural voices. Five of my seminar students once presented me at the end of the year, out of the blue, with a recording of Shakespeare’s sonnet “That time of year thou may’st in me behold,” which they had taped, one to each pair of lines, plus a final chorus, as a country-and-western. They sang it straight, and it really helped the poem.
I suspect that Charles Bronson—yes, the “action” movie actor—could read poetry well.
Certain kinds of regional or urban voices, with nasty nasal sounds in them and gulped consonants, can be a problem, as is my own. But one can overcome them, for poetry-reading purposes, with a tape-recorder and a bit of patience.
My own advice to students was: Keep enough air in your lungs, speak beyond the mike as if to someone on the other side of the room (meaning, don’t confide to the mike and assume the volume can be brought up later), don’t speed up as you approach the ends of a line (hey, gotta get on to the next one), don’t speak louder or faster when you want to convey emotion, and, if the verse is so-called regular verse, make sure that you haven’t “lost” any syllables in a line.
Yvor Winters talks importantly about some higher-level aspects of metre in his essay “The Audible Reading of Poetry.” Personally, with one or two exceptions, especially “At the San Francisco Airport,” I find his performances of his own poems a bit programmatically glum for my tastes, like a number of the photos of country people by Paul Strand. But he reads some poems by Williams, Pound, and Stevens magnificently, among them Pound’s “Lament of the Frontier Guard,” by which he was obviously deeply moved, and Williams’ “The Sea Elephant,” and his readings of Hopkins and some earlier poems are metrically impeccable.
His principles (at work also in readings by J.V. Cunningham) apply, with a bit of loosening, to a number of good readings by other poets, Frost and Stevens among them. Cunningham reads best, or at least with deepest feeling, a short passage from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.
Spencer Tracy’s advice to younger actors, according to one of them, was, “Know your lines, speak them to the other person—and mean them.” Which presumably means knowing what’s intended at every point, and not just trying to create a blur of emotion.
Coffee (J.V. Cunningham)
I have been familiar with this poem since the late 1950s but still don’t feel that I “know” it all.
Is she away temporarily or permanently? Has he fallen asleep downstairs in a chair perhaps? The word is “dusk,” not “dark.” And yet it feels like what can happen when you wake up in bed in the small hours. The glass may be window-pane glass, or the kind you hold in your hand, may it not? Or both.
The idea of “fleeing” not in order to escape one’s self but to “transpose” is complex. Transpose what?
Escaping from the self seems to suggest trying to forget or shut out whatever painful thoughts are in one’s consciousness at the time. Transposing, then, may be transposing experiences into words and making them more objective, and more endurable. As writing can do. Islands of order. Even, perhaps, archipelagos of order.
Wasting time by not doing what he ought to be doing? Such as preparing classes? Writing publishable articles? Working on a book? In any event, we have the true-feeling evocation of the freed mind (not simply the formless continuum of grey-outs) as a state in which new perceptions and structurings can start forming—with that blessed feeling of being wholly there in a piece of writing that’s going well.
“Serious” six-syllable poems are rare. But the lines here don’t skip or stalk.
Note how the first three may indeed suggest a continuing regularity, but then the fourth line isn’t something like, “I felt the breath of fear” (period), and how the enrichment of that “dusk” with the kinesthetic “rolled” is continued in “Not light or dark but drear.”
And then, in a way that Yeats was master of, what looks for a moment like a closure (a sentence having reached potential conclusion at the end of a line), we’re carried forward into the more complex “Unabsolute, unshaped.”
And a line or two further on, we have a similar carry-over whereby “escape,” which it is natural to associate first off with “from,” locks into “Myself,” so that that too gets weighted a bit.
In all this, the potential tidiness of the “form” is overridden expressively.
Enough about technicals.
Both in Cunningham’s The Exclusions of a Rhyme (1960) and his Collected Poems and Epigrams (1971) and the slimmer The Exclusions of a Rhyme (1960), “Coffee” comes immediately before the very different “To a Friend, on her Examination for the Doctorate in English,” which begins with octosyllabic couplets that my own mind persists in recalling as iambic pentameters.
After these years of lectures heard,
Of papers read, or hopes deferred,
Of days spent in the dark stacks
In learning the impervious facts
So well you can dispense with them……
It ends eighteen lines later with:
For you have learned, not what to say,
But how the saying must be said.
That did not seem to me, at the time, all that great a pay-off for all those dusty hours (and what, a Leavisian might ask, was a literary fact?) But later on, when I had supervisory dealings myself with students, there seemed to be more to be said for achieving “What ignorance cannot assail/Or daily novelty amaze/, Knowledge enforced by firm detail.” And the poem came to feel like a comfort poem for that rite de passage situation, just as Edward Gorey’s Mr. Earbrass Writers a Novel (in his Amphigorey) had been one when I was writing a book myself.
In any event, here were, and are, two poems and two aspects of the life of the mind and the self, one of them intensely private, shutting out the encumbering externalities, the other acknowledging that Caesar and academe exist, that structures are necessary, and that their importance, as ideals, can be independent of the particular fools or scholars who have power inside them.
Night Piece (J.V. Cunningham)
The title presumably echoes the title of Robert Herrick’s well-known, or at least well-anthologized, “The Night-piece: To Julia,” just as Cunningham’s “Monday Morning” and “New York; 5 March, 1957” no doubt echo for a number of readers Wallace Stevens “Sunday Morning” and W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” (“I sit in one of the dives/On Fifty-Second street”).
But the presumably marital quiet of Cunningham’s night-piece is very different from the elaborate carpe diem eroticism of Herrick’s poem, with its urging of her to come to him, my love, come to him unafraid through the dark rural night so that he can pour his soul onto her silvery and presumably bare feet.
Which of course would be part of the point, just as the “I” of “New York, 5 March 1957” is very different from the “I” of Auden’s poem, who is skittering apprehensively across the socio-political European landscape with war just a couple of days away.
It is interior spaces that we enter in:
Lady, of anonymous flesh and face,
In the half-light, in the rising embrace
Of my losses, in the dark dress and booth,
The stripper of the gawking of my youth.
Lady, I know not, care not, who you are.
I sit with beer and bourbon at this bar.
And the halting rhythms are different from those of “Night-Piece,” as are (I hardly need spell it out) the states of being.
Cunningham put the two poems, originally separate, together in Collected Poems and Epigrams.
Had he been thinking of the relationship between the two when he “wrote” whichever was the second of them? I haven’t the slightest idea, nor would I know what that hypothesized thinking would feel like. I mostly don’t even know what my own thinking, at least in any describable fashion, feels like before it issues in words. And the writing of a poem can extend across several years until the poet has a text that satisfies him or her, during most of which time she or he may never be thinking about the poem at all.
But of course when you read Cunningham’s hundred epigrams, so various and so rich, you can indeed talk about the “mind” in them, meaning the different kinds of experiencing and organizing that go on in—in, not behind, them.
And the “low” parts—the bitterness and contempt at times, the “ordinary” sexuality—feel as real, as existentially concentrated, as do the “higher” ones.
Dark thoughts are my companions. I have wined
With lewdness and with crudeness, and I find
Love is my enemy, dispassionate hate
Is my redemption though it come too late,
Though I come to it with a broken head
In the cat-house of the disheveled dead.
Neither undercuts the other as being the “real” self. Any more than Edgar Bowers’ moving “Wandering” (about presumably “gay” loneliness and pick-ups in Europe) undercuts the Bowers of the magisterial “From William Tyndale to John Frith,” with its celebration of intellectual heroism in the face of a horrible death, or the Mallarméan purity and difficulty of “Witnesses.”
Personally I prefer the Cunningham of the poems, and feel closer to him there than I do with the prose, which tends to be a bit quirky and dodgy at times. Whereas with Winters I am most excited, for the most part, by stretches in the prose, stretches often that have the compactness and weight and shapeliness that we tend to think of as peculiar to poetry or to short fiction.
The Sun Rising (John Donne)
The greater immediacy of this poem over Donne’s more ingenious “The Good Morrow” is partly formal, the varying line lengths and the placement of the lines being functional, as you can see if you left-align them all, as I’ve had to do at one point while getting things ready for the webmaster.
The poem is a lesson in metrics.
Note how different the first two lines in each stanza feel. And yet the marvelously mock-arrogant, swift-moving “Busy old fool, unruly sun” and the lyrically affirmative “She’s all states, and all princes, I” have the same number of syllables.
Note too how the flat, unqualified “Nothing else is.” (i.e., exists) is made more dramatic by its departure from the question form in the lines in the two previous stanzas that correspond to it.
Note, also, how each stanza comes to a momentary completion at the end of the fourth line (an opening eight-syllable line, a four-syllable one, and two ten-syllable ones, with enclosing rhymes—sun/ run). And then we progress from eight-syllable again (“Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide,” etc.) through to the magnificent clinching affirmations of the two concluding ten-syllable lines in each stanza.
You also have, or at least I do, the curious feeling that the last two lines in each stanza are longer—have more syllables in them—then the preceding two, though in fact the syllable count is the same.
This partly comes from the difference between the brisk directness of “Call country ants to harvest offices,” the slowing down with the more complex syntax of “Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime” (with an inescapable slight pause after the diphthong “knows” (in the previous line it’s all short vowels), and then the four-step effect of “Nor hours, days, months,” each word receiving slightly more stress, expressively, than the one before it.
All this has the flow of natural speech, so that noting the features that I’ve done is simply a way of preparing the poem better for oral performance. The poem may feel “dramatic” (you’re there), but you’re not peeping through the keyhole at the two lovers in bed, or overhearing a blank verse soliloquy. This is a brilliantly shaped evocation of sexual exhilaration.
It also, to my mind, feels more persuasive than “The Good Morrow” since it’s not being addressed to Her (“What’s he talking about, I wonder? Ah, well, if it makes him happy! He’s such a sweetie”) but to the sun shining into their actual window, with no hint of any anxiety or approaching departure. So that this is not an aubade (a dawn poem of going back to your own cold bed), but a poem of marriage, maybe the morning after the first night of marriage.
And the real elements of the world outside the room— kings, princes, apprentices, schoolboys, harvesters, merchant ships—aren’t metamorphosed into so-called metaphysical conceits, like the famous pair of compasses and the beaten gold in “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.” They’re simply transcended by the inner experience of the two lovers, no doubt naked, as was the custom then.
I see, on dipping into my two-volume Norton Anthology of English Literature, that “offices” deserves to be glossed as chores or duties, and that the East Indies were where spices came from, the West Indies where gold came from. But in any event, I don’t think one’s going to form an image of ants sitting at desks. I assume that they’ll be carrying off fallen grain.
Winters seems right to me in preferring “A Valediction; of My Name in the Window” to “A Valediction Forbidding Morning.”
The title “The Sun Rising” was appropriated by Carol Hoorn Fraser for a painting of hers in the late Fifties.
Sur les Lagunes / On the Lagoons (Théophile Gautier)
There are other lovely and/or memorable poems or parts of poems in Gautier’s Emaux et Camées (Enamels and Cameos, 1852-1872) from which this poem comes, a book brought to many anglophone readers’ attention by Ezra Pound’s praise of it, and which I myself first read in the kind of French edition that I describe in the comments on “Hymne.”
“Carmen est maigre” (“Carmen is thin”) is probably the best-known of them now, at least for English-speaking readers, again because of Pound. See those lines in his “To a Friend Writing on Cabaret Dancers,
‘CARMEN EST MAIGRE, UN TRAIT DE BISTRE
CERNE SON OEIL DE GITANA
And ‘rend la flamme’,
you know the deathless verses.
Pound did have an extraordinary ability to dramatize writing and make you want more of it.
But the three opening stanzas of “Ce que disent les hirondelles” (“What the swallows say”) are unmatched in their succinct evocation of the tristesse of autumn.
And “Sur les lagunes,” with its interpenetration of past and present, and its graceful eroticism, evokes brilliantly that theatrical venusian city, “joyeuse et libre,” joyous and free, that demonstrated that it was possible to be in major decline (“Once didst thou hold the gorgeous East in fee”; said Byron) without succumbing to guilt and despair.
My edition of Emaux et Camées, dated 1892, is the one with the “eau-forte par Jacquemart” (the frontispiece etching of Gautier’s head) that Pound alludes to in Hugh Selwyn Mauberly. I found it in 1964 in the large student-oriented Gibert bookstore on the Boulevard St-Michel, at a normal used-book price. Sometimes works become semi-mythical when they’re referred to, without any details, in another work, so that you’re surprised to find them still existing, like some 1920s jazz musician you’d assumed was long dead.
A friend, reading my translation, suggested “which a silly, sighing breeze/Has wafted into the ballet,” “The domes across the azure lagoon,” and “on a marble staircase,” and reversing the order of the third and fourth lines of the poem.
But while we may indeed know that the water is the water of the lagoon, Gautier’s term is waves, and those waves, or at least that water in motion, are what your eyes see as you look across them. You don’t see lagoon, which is more wide angle.
Similarly, when you step out from the gondola onto the marble, that’s what your feet feel.
Gautier also doesn’t seem to want adjectival clusters in which concepts overlap, as in “silly sighing breeze.” It’s still “un soupir de folle brize”ˆ—a noun plus a very specific kind of breeze or wind that’s done the transporting or carrying. (Whether soupir here should really be “breath” or “sigh” is another matter.)
In the first stanza, the energy of the air/tune/melody would be diminished by putting its qualities after whatever it did to our mamas. We would also lose, slightly, the hint of its being a sexual charmer when we read the fourth line before the third. Poems exist in time. With each rereading, one has to shut out once again one’s knowledge of what is coming later.
The adjectives in the poem, the signifiers of qualities, are all very simple. The charm comes in other ways.
Part of the weight of the poem results from the fact that every stanza is structured differently, almost as if each were a miniature poem. Look at the first lines in each, whether in the original or in the translation.
And look at the verbs—not a single “is” or “are,” all action, things being done to things— knowing, pleasing, carrying, playing, rising, following, swelling, landing, depositing, living, vibrating, restoring. A perfect demonstration of what Ernest Fenollosa said in his great essay “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” about the importance of active verbs, as he had discovered for himself while reading Shakespeare.
It might be interesting to compare the verbs in Emaux et Camées with those in Eliot’s Poems of 1920, indebted as he and Pound explicitly were at that time to Gautier.
As to which indebtedness on Eliot’s part, see, for example Gautier’s “Carmen is thin, A touch of kohl/ Outlines her gypsy eye” and Eliot’s “Grishkin is nice. Her Russian eye/Is underlined for emphasis.” The opening line of “Sur les Lagunes” is quoted in the epigraph to Eliot’s “Burbank with a Baedeker, Bleistein with a Cigar.”
Here is the opening of Gautier’s “Ce que disent les Hirondelles; chanson d’automne”:
Déjà plus d’une feuille sêche
Parsème les gazons jaunis;
Soir et matin, la brise est fraiche,
Hélas! les beaux jours sont finis!
On voit s’ouvrir les fleurs que garde
Le jardin pour dernier trésor;
Le dahlia met sa cocarde
Et le souci sa toque d’or.
La pluie au bassin fait des bulles;
Les hirondelles sur le toit
Tiennent des conciliablules:
Voici l’hiver, voici le froid.
What the Swallows Are Saying; Autumn Song
Already more than one dead leaf
Is strewn upon the yellowed lawns.
Morning and night, the breeze is cool.
Alas, the fine days are all gone.
You see the flowers opening, kept
By the garden as its final hoard;
The dahlia puts on her cockade
And the marigold her golden toque.
The rain makes bubbles in the pond.
The swallows up upon the roof
Hold their secret consultations:
Here’s winter. Here’s the cold.
The frisson here, the literal shiver, is intensified in “Hälfte des Lebens” by the great German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin:
Mit gelben Birnen hänget
Und voll mit wilden Rosen
Das Land in den See.
Ihr holden Schwäne,
Und drunken von Küssen
Tunkt ihr das Haupt
Ins heilignichterne Wasser.
Weh mir, wo nehm ich, wenn
Es Winter ist, die Blumen, und wo
Und Schatten der Erde?
Die Mauern stehn
Sprachlos und kalt, im Winde
Klirren die Fahnen.
The Middle of Life
Yellow with ripening pears
and full of wild roses,
caresses the lake;
and drunk with kisses,
you lovely swans
you dip your heads
in the pellucid holy water.
But I, alas,
where will I find,
when winter comes,
the flowers, and where
the sunshine and shadows of Earth?
speechless and cold;
in the wind,
weather vanes clatter.
The shivery last three lines are a perfect condensed imagist poem. But they wouldn’t have their full weight without what’s preceded them.
Is it just me, or is the fall more poetical than the spring?
Hopkins gave us “Spring,” and Chaucer sent his pilgrims off in April, and of course there’s that return-to-life stuff of the Elizabethans, and Hardy charmingly told us what weather the cuckoo liked.
But Keats’ “To Autumn,” the poems here, Lawrence’s “The Ship of Death,” Weill’s “September Song,” Rilke’s “Autumn Day,” McAllister’s “Rites of Autumn,” Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass’s “’Tis Autumn”—a strong team.
Oh, and also that poem by Onakatomi Yoshinobu, as translated by Arthur Waley, that Winters calls “the finest English poem which we have from the Japanese:
The deer which lives
On the evergreen mountain
Where there are no autumn leaves
Can know the coming of autumn
Only by its own cry.
I guess the fall is more weighted with memories and residues. And what is at work slowly destroying the good things is more inexorable and alien than what flows up from the earth in league with the spring sun.
Counting the Beats (Robert Graves)
Robert Graves was, of course, the twentieth-century British poet celebrating love, and this is his best love poem and, for my money, his best poem, period, and it is very lovely. It benefits from being so general in description (simply “he,” “she,” “here”) that we’re not drawn into an involvement with the rather quirky “character” that we have in Graves, whether in his ironical mode, his presentation of himself as the servant of the Goddess, or his costume dramas.
The poem is remarkably aural, starting with that “(He whispers),” so that we are in a kind of undimensioned space of emotional being, a sort of aural cave whose walls we can’t see, and where the quick-moving first stanza is followed by the increasingly slow-moving second stanza, where you expect the syntax to change as it does in the first stanza, but in fact the same basic assertion is made more slowly in the second line (there’s almost a one-two-three-four-step ascension in “the slow heart beats,” where the ‘weaker’ syllable “heart” is stronger than the strong syllable “slow”) and then more slowly still in the third line, with that “bleeding” now suggesting the dripping as well as the pulsing of blood.
You then have the momentary expansion and lightening of “Cloudless day,” and then that storm bursting from the bitter sky. And the next two stanzas go on from there, coping with that knowledge of finitude, and then back to the perhaps now slightly altered feeling of the repeated second stanza—altered because of their joint recognition of that finitude. It’s now the two of them who have been individuated (she’s asking in the fourth stanza) rather than he alone doing the conventional love-asserting in the first stanza.
For a sense of the poem’s uniqueness, here is another love poem by Graves, one with its own charm, and with a curious metre that I won’t even attempt to define:
Not to Sleep
Not to sleep all the night long, for pure joy,
Counting no sleep and careless of chimes,
Welcoming the dawn confabulation
Of birds, her children, who discuss idly
Fanciful details of the promised coming—
Will she be wearing red, or russet, or blue,
Or pure white?—whatever she wears, glorious:
Not to sleep all the night long, for pure joy,
This is given to few but at last to me,
So that when I laugh and stretch and leap from bed
I shall glide downstairs, my feet brushing the carpet
In courtesy to civilized progression,
Though, did I wish, I could soar through the open window
And perch on a branch above, acceptable ally
Of the birds still alert, grumbling gently together.
The Going (Thomas Hardy)
I have loved this poem for over thirty years.
Note the song-like effect of the so-called feminine rhymes in the shortened fifth and sixth lines of each stanza (“follow”/”swallow”), also the shift in every other stanza into what would be the second melody in a song, whether by Cole Porter or Lennon/McCartney.
Note, too, the questions in the first, third, and fifth stanzes, and the statements in the second, fourth, and sixth.
Note also the evocative particularity of “saw morning harden upon the wall” (the wall becoming clearer in the growing light) and of “And reigning nigh me,/Would muse and eye me” (separate from him, there in her own private space).
Note, too, the staccato rhythms of the first three-and-a-half lines of the final stanza, and then the sudden flow forward in the rest of it, enacting the speed of that going.
There’s a poem by a bad Victorian poet, Coventry Patmore, that begins:
It was not like your great and gracious ways!
Did you, that have naught other to lament,
Never, my Love, repent
Of how, that July afternoon,
With sudden, unintelligible phrase,
And frighten’d eye,
Upon your journey of so many days,
Without a single kiss or a good-bye?
No doubt Hardy had read it. Patmore was well known back then.
I can imagine the kind of reader who instinctively tries to reduce the intensity in works saying, or thinking, “Aha! So Hardy was being literary” (like the rest of us no doubt). But not all the experiences in literary works come from other literary works.
If anything, the sanctimonious selfishness of that passage might have sharpened Hardy’s determination to set down exactly how things were, and felt, in his own case.
The Haunter (Thomas Hardy)
So skillfully is it done, and so functionally, that one may not notice at first that in this marvelous poem, which Yvor Winters rightly judges superior to “The Voice” from the same group, the second, fourth, sixth, and eighth rhyme words are identical from stanza to stanza.
“The Voice “ is a straightforward, plangent articulation of loss and yearning, the yearning to see her again, for her to be there again::
Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair,
And so on.
“The Haunter” is more complex.
He (the speaker? the poet? Hardy?) is conscious of his own emotional inadequacy while she was alive, when he wasn’t speaking the words of love or wanting to do things together with her. And now we have a complex re-seeing of himself, missing her deeply, and wishing she were with him, and speaking to her remembered presence, a seeing presented with a novelistic firmness—he’s wandering restlessly, talking to her, revisiting places where they had been together.
And, in a major further imagining, she is there, speaking, thinking, feeling the words of the poem, attending on him, caring for him, close enough for him to touch if only she were visible.
So she is restored as loving him and forgiving him for his shortcomings, and also he (the maker of the poem) has recreated her, lovingly. It is a poem of comforting, with a sense of her real presence still, not the delusional sounds of the voice, or the more distanced and psychologically detailed figure of Hardy’s “The Going.”
(Nicholas Poburko has brought Montale’s “Xenia” to my attention at this point.)
The last stanza of “The Haunter” is particularly poignant. And who is it who is being asked to do that telling and making? A deity? I don’t imagine so.
But I do think we have a recognition of the naturalness of yearning at times for someone else to be there, and how that yearning is a fitting and not a foolish stabilizing of values. So that we are not being invited to feel ironical here about the desire for something else, some “beyond,” but respectful towards her desire (which could, after all, be felt by someone who wasn’t dead) that he be comforted.
So it’s not as if death were simply a passing into a black hole with a door slammed shut on it, or an utterly empty space, the postulated empty space of mechanistic science in those days. Death involves memory, people live on in memory, the dead do not go away all at once like a candle flame snuffed out. As Virginia Woolf knew in To the Lighthouse.
The slightly rocking rhythm, with its alternation of the longer lines with their feminine endings and the shorter ones with their masculine ones (“nightly”/ “know”) is both comforting and functional.
We have a flow-forward of action in the longer ones—“He does not think that I haunt here nightly//That whither his fancy sets him wandering// Hover and hover a few feet from him// But never answer a word he lifts me.” And then a kind of pausing, not always the same, in the shorter ones— “How shall I let him know?// I too alertly go// Just as I used to do// Only listen thereto.
The repeated words in each stanza help to establish that this is not a narrative situation that is leading somewhere, to some kind of resolution or closure. He is there and she is here and it isn’t going to change. But it isn’t going to change, or at least her feelings for him aren’t going to.
It’s a kind of reverse love poem, in contrast to the far more common pattern of a male speaker swearing his own undying love and accusing the lovee of unresponsiveness or fickleness—the fear of being no longer loved; perhaps, the fear of not being worthy of being loved.
There’s something in Paul Tillich’s theological writing somewhere about being accepted because unacceptable.
“The Voice,” “The Haunter,” and “The Going” are three of the more than twenty “Poems of 1912/13,” written by Hardy shortly after the death of his first wife, Emma, all in different stanza forms, without a sonnet among them.
The cumulative effect could be called novelistic, or perhaps cinematic, at least if we’re speaking of the script—a variety of “takes” upon a marriage that had been happy initially but fairly soon went sour. Philip Larkin, whose favourite poet Hardy seems to have been, said that she had thought that she was marrying a successful young professional man and he had thought he was marrying an intelligent and well-read woman, and both were disappointed.
It is tempting, I imagine, to treat those poems as if they were part of a piece of fiction, and to build up the whole, or perhaps I should say a whole, relationship from them. And so strong is Hardy’s poetic personality (with over seven hundred poems to his name) that holding back seems a bit, well, ungrateful perhaps?
Especially with the added drama, as we know it, of his literary career—the slow start as a novelist, the big success when it came, the increasing melancholy of the fiction, especially Tess of the Durbervilles and Jude the Obscure, the return to poetry, the long and still responsive/creative old age, warmed by the admiration of much younger writers, including Ezra Pound and Robert Graves, neither of them notably tolerant of their elders.
Graves wrote a poem about Hardy’s near-contemporary Robert Bridges (“The Laureate”) that opens with, “Like a lizard in the sun, though not scuttling/ When men approach, this wretch, this thing of rage, Scowls and sits rhyming in his horny age.” (No, “horny” doesn’t have a sexual connotation here.)
But the poems of 1912/13 are mostly not all that good. Sorry, but they’re not, useful though they may be as material for The Hardy Story. This isn’t one of those situations like the one with Cunningham’s hundred epigrams where some are much better than others but none, I think, is bad, so that you really can feel the play of intelligence without them falling into any kind of narrative or philosophical sequence.
The best of the 1912/13 poems seem to me to be, in addition to the two here, “After a Journey,” “Without Ceremony,” “Your Last Drive,” and “The Shadow on the Stone.” I wouldn’t have known of “The Shadow on the Stone” if it hadn’t been one of the ten poems that Winters and Fields included in the impeccable selection of Hardy’s poems in their anthology Quest for Reality.
However, those best ones are marvellous, particularly when taken together.
And they can be all the more moving if you have read Hardy’s novels, particularly Far from the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge (his best one), Tess of the Durbervilles, and Jude the Obscure, in which the biggest constant is a feeling of unworthiness, a sense of having committed some primary wrong, perhaps to another person, such that you have no right to subsequent happiness
Plus, too, a primitive supernaturalism, despite all the denials of it, wherein you, whether as character or spectator, just know that someone or some thing is going to make sure that you are punished—punished for the sin of hubris, of rising (perhaps not always by admirable means) above your social or moral status.
All of which can make the novels irritating, despite the famous passages of good writing in the first two that I named, and the solid construction of The Mayor of Casterbridge. It’s as if the exasperating Sue Bridehead of Jude the Obscure, struggling to be a liberated new woman, but unable to sustain emotionally the burden of the heretical new ideas, had had a hand in their composition.
So it’s a comfort to feel in Hardy’s best poems, of which there are a substantial number, a mind that is working freely and without predetermined positions and feelings, and which owes that freedom in part to his quasi- musical enjoyment of the expressive possibilities of stanzaic forms, often forms of his own creating.
It’s an especial pleasure experiencing not only the flow of feeling in the best of the 1912/13 poems, but also, when it happens, a kind of self-acceptance and self-forgiveness, a reviving, perhaps, of an earlier and better self, or of one of those selves.
In such poems, “After a Journey” prominent among them, it’s as if we have, as we do at times in To the Lightbouse, “existential” renderings of particular good states of being, of moral consciousness (not necessarily entirely happy) whose worth is not affected by either what has come before them or what may come after them. You can’t ironize them, as you could the happiness voiced in Donne’s “The Sun Rising” if you knew that the marriage went to hell the following year when he caught her in flagrante with the groom.
The poems at their best are the primary “Hardy” reality. If you came upon them without knowing anything about the author, they would not be enriched individually if you then read some of the novels.
And the Hardy who enjoyed being lionized by London society during the success of his early novels but kept his inner self always hidden, even in his letters, and who, as Larkin points out, destroyed documents and manipulated his image in the autobiography that appeared over the name of his second wife, is more elusive still.
If you want to have some idea of what that “inner” self was like, it’s back to the poems, where it’s most to be found.
“The Haunter” was a great comfort to me at one point. I can imagine its being comforting to others.
Church Monuments (George Herbert)
Yvor Winters singled out this poem, rightly, as one of the greatest in the language, and I talk about it in “Voicing ’Church Monuments’.”
I loved some of the other poems by Herbert when I read them as a first-year undergraduate, particularly the lines,
I read and sigh, and wish I were a tree,
For sure, some bird would trust
Its household to me, and I would be just.
But on revisiting the copy of his works that I used then, I see that there are no pencil markings on “Church Monuments.” It must have appeared at that time a “merely” religious poem, rather than the kind of cross-over and modern-feeling poem celebrated by T.S.Eliot in his two influential essays “The Metaphysical Poets” and “Andrew Marvell.”
Thom Gunn has a funny piece of reminiscence somewhere about arriving at Stanford as a graduate student, fresh from Cambridge, and Winters, affably a host to him, inviting his opinion as to what were the best Renaissance poems, and Gunn naming the predictable Leavisian ones, Donne’s “Valediction” among them, no doubt, and Winters, doubtless amused behind his pipe and deadpan expression, because having known what would be coming, saying simply in that (to judge from his recordings) deep voice of his, “You are wrong.”
Back in the late 1940s, Winters was a shadowy figure in England, little more than a name, though a name praised on three occasions in Scrutiny, particularly in the course of a 1939 article by the American historian Henry Bamford Parkes, who said that “As a statement of critical principles Mr. Winters’ work deserves wide attention,” and who found his independent-minded judgments of particular (unnamed) authors “often convincing.”
But Winters’ books weren’t available in England, and I myself didn’t get to read anything by him until 1953, when I was enabled to emigrate to the States by the friendship of Mike and Norma Zwerin, who knew about Winters through their friendship with Donald Justice and owned a copy of In Defense of Reason. (Yes, that’s the Mike Zwerin who at age nineteen was the trombonist on over half the numbers in Miles Davis’s The Birth of the Cool sessions and later went on to become a brilliant and at times marvellously funny writer about jazz and other topics.).
I forget when Gunn went to Stanford, or when Donald Davie did, but Winters obviously became for a few younger British poets an important counterweight to Leavis.
Winters talked about far more poems, especially modern poems. He was deeply knowledgeable about the French Symbolist movement and about American poetry. He allowed much more room in his thinking for minor poems, including ones small almost to the point of invisibility. He was a poet himself. And he was passionately interested in the expressiveness of poetic form, including metrics.
I talk about the two critics on poetry in an article (“Leavis, Winters, and Poetry”) in which I find them closer together than might be supposed but conclude that Winters is the better guide to the subject.
It is a pity that Q.D. Leavis, for I imagine it would have been she, never wrote the review-article on Winters’ book about American fiction, Maule’s Curse, that F.R. Leavis seemed to be promising in 1945.
A lot has obviously turned on the continuing dichotomy of Romanticism and Classicism, and the particular obnoxiousness of Classicism’s vapid half-brother Neo.
Leavis, himself a classicist who could read Aeschylus in the original, knew, as did E.M. Forster, the harm that had been done by the public-school mens sana, dulce et decorum variety (sound mind in sound body, sweet and fitting to die for your country, Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier,” etc.), including the then powerful British academic hostility, in the name of good form, to the “roughness” of writers like Hopkins, Eliot, and Lawrence.
In his 1939 article, Parkes spoke of Winters’ off-putting inability at times “to distinguish between writers who achieve formal mastery through a genuine mastery of experience and those who use the traditional forms but never grapple with experience at all”—specifically Bridges, Elizabeth Daryush, and T. Sturge Moore, a trinity whose names have probably continued to haunt such reputation as Winters has in England.
Roy Campbell’s epigram about certain (unnamed) South African poets is almost too well-known to need quoting here, but I shall quote it.
You praise the firm restraint with which they write.
I’m with you there, of course.
They use the snaffle and the rein all right,
But where’s the bloody horse?
You can see the same attitude lingering in the antithesis of heroically expressive Ted Hughes, with “experience” by the quart, vs. narrow-gutted Philip Larkin. But Larkin (“Oxford,” not “Cambridge”) is much the better poet, his poems far more deeply charged with significant feeling, and he himself, in the collection Further Requirements, an excellent critic of poetry.
I comment briefly on Bridges, Moore, and Daryush in the review-article “Winters’ Summa.” I have been unable to share Winters’ enthusiasm for them (the trouble with even Bridges’ best poems is that no problem-solving goes on in the course of them), but they are a very small part of the many good and great poems that Winters drew attention to over the years. On which see A New Book of Verse.
Morning Swim (Maxine Kumin)
I am grateful to Maxine Kumin (pronounced Kewmin) for her instantly given permission to a total stranger to use this lovely poem. I’m pleased to report that her Bringing Together; Uncollected Early Poems, 1958-1988 is now out.
The opening scene, in the first four couplets, is comfortably defamiliarized—out there alone and secret, nude, the everyday conceptual markers (sky/ water/ air) gone, the consciousness of “self” virtually coterminous with the shifting cocoon of visibility inside the whiteness.
And it’s a bit casual at the outset, the head “empty” (not fine-frenzying), the casually tossed adjective “cotton” (white and fuzzy?), the near-rhyme of “come”/ “wherefrom,” no capitalization of the second line, and a strong enjambment over to the next couplet, with one syllable less now in the third line, which throws a slightly increased emphasis on “oily,” balancing with “nude”.
The flexible rhyming (“come”/ “wherefrom,” “floor”/“air,” “out”/ “mouth”), the “omitted” syllables in several lines (“I set out, oily and nude,” etc), and the capitalization only at the start of sentences help keep it comfy.
There’s greater definiteness in the next three couplets, each self-contained, with the absolute absences, the strong night fog, the bathrobe, the pegs, the deliberate, slightly erotic entry into the water.
And then we have the lovely lift-off into a merging with nature that reminds me, different though the poems are, of what goes on in Marvell’s still unique (and also erotic) “The Garden.” The poem is now driven forward with a more regular beat and more energetic verbs—“twitched,” “hummed,” “drank.”
And the quiet exhilaration of being absolutely there builds— the rhythm, the vibrato in the nasal passages, the thrash of the feet, the bubbles leaving the mouth, the water, the merging, and the feeling, voiced in the words of that majestic hymn, of being in an animate universe where there is something protective and benign and permanent beyond the immediately problematic present.
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide!
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.
I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me!
The hymn, though never a favourite of mine as a kid, comes back to me from that moving episode in the movie A Bridge Too Far in which wounded and exhausted British paratroopers at Aachen are waiting at dusk for their German captors to come and take possession of them, and a voice, no doubt Welsh, starts singing that hymn and slowly other voices join in.
Having just looked the words up on Google (by Henry F. Lyte, 1847), I wonder if that isn’t the greatest poem among the English-language hymns.
Is there a name for the interlinked repetition (syntactical parallelism) of “I hummed…I hummed,” “rose in…”?
I came upon Kumin’s poem in Philip Dacy and David Jauss’s Strong Measures; an Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms (1986).
There are other fine poems there, especially, for me:
Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art” (“The art of losing isn’t hard to master”),
Martha Collins, “The Story We Know” (“The way to begin is always the same. Hello”),
Marilyn Hacker, “Sonnet Ending with a Film Subtitle” (“Life has its nauseating ironies”),
Joan LaBombard, “By the Beautiful Ohio” (“Now at the dark’s perpetual descent”),
Judith Moffett, “Mezzo Camin” (“I mean to mark the Midway Day”),
Theodore Roethke, “I Knew a Woman” (“I knew a woman, lovely in her bones”),
May Sarton, “Dutch Interiors” (“I recognize the quiet and the charm”).
I see, now, that all but one of those eight (nine, with Kumin’s) are by women. Perhaps there’s a lesson here about the notion that free verse is the most expressive and self-liberating, as in that dreadful anthology by Helen Vendler whose title I cannot now recall.
The editors’ introduction to Strong Measures opens with the discouraging words, “The revolution is over. The war has been won. As Stanley Kunitz has said, ‘Non-metrical verse has swept the field.’”
But of course, as they go on to point out, it, hasn’t really, and they show that there’s plenty of opportunity for being playful, tender, grittily colloquial, and so forth, without any loss of one’s self, in poems that make some use of repeated patterns, including rhyme and metre, whether established or nonce.
They quote Maxine Kumin as saying finely: “The poems that are the hardest for me to write are the ones I work most passionately at getting into matching stanzaic patterns and rhyme schemes, because in a paradoxical way that liberates me to say the hardest truths.”
It is a pity, though, that in their evident desire to foreground “accessible” works—particularly, I imagine, for the benefit of any students who might turn to the book—they have passed over the kinds of strong and more difficult poems by Edgar Bowers, Helen Pinkerton, Thom Gunn, and others that had been celebrated by Yvor Winters, for over three decades the most knowledgeable and emphatic American proponent of traditional forms. At least Bowers’ “Dark Earth and Summer,” Gunn’s “In Santa Maria del Poppolo,” and Alan Stephen’s “Prologue: Moments in a Glade,” with its awesome rattlesnake, wouldn’t have taken them too far beyond their preferred range.
The selection from Cunningham could have been stronger too (how about “Coffee,” “Doctor Drink”, and “To My Wife”?). And Winters’ own “At the San Francisco Airport” and “Two Old-Fashioned Songs” fell within their chosen post WWII period.
One reason I keep mentioning Winters is my dislike of the strategy of demonstrating one’s own originality by refraining from mentioning this or that “controversial” and pioneering (which is to say, risk-taking) figure from whom one has in fact learned a lot.
Incidentally, right from the start he saw quality, not gender. Here are some names of, at the time, living poets whom he praised: Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Mina Loy, Maurine Smith, Adelaide Crapsey, Louise Bogan, Pearl Andelson Sherry, Elizabeth Daryush, Janet Lewis, Agnes Lee, Ann Stanford, Ellen Kay, Catherine Davis, Helen Pinkerton.
Annie Finch’s anthology A Formal Feeling Comes (1994) consists entirely of more or less formal poems by living women. The writers’ accounts of why they have been swimming against the tide are interesting reading, especially Caroline Kizer’s robust assertion that “One of the problems of free verse…is that it is damned hard to remember.… Memorization, I believe, should go hand in hand with the reading and learning of poems.” Her own “A Muse of Water” is probably the most technically accomplished poem in the book.
My own other two favourites are Marilyn Hacker’s splendid multi-stanza re-doing of the strategy of Villon’s “Où sont les neiges d’antan” in terms of well-known women more generally from across the centuries, and her “Dusk: July,” in sapphics, a love poem that actually feels like the utterance of someone in love.
Everything Tells Me You Are Near (W.S. Landor)
I feel proprietary about this poem. I came upon it in an old multi-volume edition of Landor, sort of scrunched down in a corner (the poem, I mean), with ugly lineation and typography—unloved, you might say. The first two lines alone are worth having the poem for.
Through Google I’ve recently learned of the huge Château de Chantilly, some twenty miles north of Paris, set in the heart of what one of the tourist sites calls a vast estate in one of the largest forests near the city, actually three forests (Chantilly, Halette, Emenonville). So “forests,” plural, is the right term in the poem.
There were elaborate gardens, with a canal, fountains, a cascade or two, and smaller houses, including, no doubt, play-houses like the Petit Trianon at Versailles. It all sounds rather Fragonard. With lots of art in the Château.
So she hadn’t just stopped off at some country inn for a bit of picnicking. And what he’s calling her back to is quiet and intimate—that little grotto, those tiny twisted horns, her flowers. Are he and she cohabiting (they’re our fields), or is he simply living in the same village?
The editor had given the poem, in brackets, the title of “To a Lady in France,” which implies that he’s writing from England. But everything tells him she is near, so that can’t be the case.
What sort of date? Landor was born in 1775, the poem feels mature, there’s no hint of political troubles. So it would have to be nineteenth century.
I suppose I could go and do a bit of research in the dark stacks. When was he living in France? I see I’m assuming that the poem was addressed to an actual woman.
The Mower to the Glow Worms (Andrew Marvell)
One of the most charming older poems of serious play.
Tiny but magical natural phenomena—glow-worms, with a dash of nightingale and will-of-the-wisp—are recruited into a love poem as lamps, comets, and lantern-bearers (or torch-bearers), and bring with them the larger activities of the social world out there beyond the immediacy of this love-relationship, this man waiting for his lady love to come to him through the rural night. Singers work at their singing, comets reveal, or are thought to reveal, impending disasters, men make mistakes in their sexual seekings.
Note the high-pitched diphthongs of the rhyme words in the first stanza (“ay” is higher pitched than “igh,” beginning nearer the front and top of the mouth and being more pinched). And then we have the drop-down in the second stanza with “end” and “all.” And then a rise again to “ay” in both rhymes in the third stanza (unless there was a change in pronunciation over the years). And the lift-up continues at the start of the final stanza in the celebratory assertion about Juliana, with a comfortable drop down into what would surely have been “ohm”/ “ohm.”
The final stanza is an especially lovely expression of happiness, no less real-feeling for being spoken by a conventional pastoral character.
He’s not one of those overworked shepherds, though, but a mower. And there are grasses there to fall at some point, perhaps to this particular mower’s scythe, but with a slight speech emphasis, surely, on “grasses,” it being at this point only the death of grasses, not of soldiers or princes. And nightingales sing, and glow-worms glow, and this is real country, and you can imagine being out there walking in it yourself at night.
The offered torch-bearer services aren’t needed because now that she’s come (physically? into his life?) he doesn’t care where he is.
Thomas Hardy liked glowworms, to judge from the memorable scene in The Return of the Native in which two characters throw dice at night out on the heath by their light, with, after a bit, a ring of free-grazing ponies looking in on them.
It is a poetic episode, a beautiful nexus of attitudes and feelings that it might be hard to put into plainer words but gives you the impression that it either evolved as it was being written, initially minus the glow worms, let alone the ponies, or had come in a flash, an image in the mind’s eye—gambling/ glow-worms/a peculiarly human competitiveness?
You really can’t avoid using the P word (“poetic”) in that sense, can you? But what does it mean, or what do I myself mean when I use it? I still don’t really know. And I certainly can’t offer a definition.
But maybe there’s a heightened feeling of being there, in that moment or brief stretch of time, with old structures falling away, and something new and unexpected and sort of marvelous or beautiful going on, what the French call l’insolite, the unusual, the unprecedented. Something that you can’t simply arrive at methodically.
And oh dear, yes, there are indeed moments when a new and important configuration is suddenly seen or sensed in a glimpse, a flash (more overworked metaphors), as in “inspiration,” a breathing into or inhaling.
In the movie Topsy-Turvey there’s that lovely moment when the utterly “impossible” W.S. Gilbert, now by the looks of it terminally blocked in his efforts to come up with a fresh idea for a libretto, suddenly glimpses a shape that will, as it turns out, generate his and Arthur Sullivan’s best work, The Mikado.
We’re not given any details. All we see is the change, the relaxing, coming over that tense unlovely face, and the eyes widening slightly as if he’s now glimpsing beyond, and a tiny smile starts to form. And then, pow!, we’re given a sunburst of music from the completed opera in performance.
It’s mysterious, but there’s no mystification. He is holding the partly sheathed sword with which he’s been imitating Japanese swordplay, after buying it at the exhibition where he and patient Kitty have seen a scrap of Kabuki-type theatre. And we know that somewhere for him now is the nexus “sword/beheading” that’s at the centre of the plot.
I guess there’s some overlap here with that state that J.V. Cunningham talks about in “Coffee” where the mind becomes temporarily unencumbered and unconstrained, and there’s neither fear nor haste (both of them past- and future-driven), and something new can start forming in the present. After which, of course, it’s a lot of bloody hard work again.
There are words, “beautiful,” and “poetic” among them, that you really shouldn’t try to define and tame and put to work dragging a cart. You can’t construct a worthwhile aesthetic system around the idea of beauty. But woe to art—or to your aesthetic—if you never want to exclaim, in a sort of verbal equivalent of the spontaneous laugh that acknowledges that something’s funny, “That’s beautiful!”
Rites of Autumn (Claire McAllister)
It was a thrill coming upon this magnificent poem in the Partisan Review in 1954, all the more because I had been able to have two or three conversations with the author five years before.
It simply pulses with colour, and warmth, and light. If I had to choose for a desert island, I’d consider taking this lusher and more Southern-feeling autumn in preference to Keats’s statelier and by now perhaps a bit shopworn one. It’s all so animate—the lights grazing, lamps flickering, trees blazing, corncobs grinning. “The pheasant tails that streaked across the wind/ Come streaking through the wheatfields of the mind”—marvelous! You can feel the fruit growing red and round and ripe, smell the burning underbrush.
The nearest visual analogies to the richness of the poem are in some of the great 1980s series of watercolours by Carol Hoorn Fraser (see “Trees” on the CHF side of this site).
And it’s not all scene-painting. There is, as Leavis might have said, an individual sensibility there, meaning that you can feel her feeling the year passing, and other things too, and they are her own feelings and experiencings and you can’t simply move in with your own all ready to slot into place—a “romantic,” intensely, but a self-aware romantic.
It’s a celebration of plenitude and continuity, but with a consciousness of possible losses, and of the passing of the straightforwardly imaginative adventurings of youth, at times literally gun in hand.
And it builds to those memorable generalizations in the fourth and fifth stanzas, most of which have stayed with me, the way that ones by Yeats and Auden have, since I first read the poem.
The management of the stanzas is magisterial, and I have only just realized something.
The effect I’d noticed was the result of the shortened “Grew red and round and ripe,” and then the stepped indentation that makes you feel that those lines are sort of stretching away from you, so that you have to follow them to see where you are going. And so, perhaps, you want them to be a bit shorter so that you don’t have to chase too far after them.
In any event, you do come back to the more four-square assertions of the first four lines in each stanza. And there’s an increased momentum in almost all of them, vis-à-vis the preceding lines, a matter of length, or syntax, or the kind of action described in them— “Underbrush lay burning in a ditch”//(“Grew red and round and ripe”), “The scent of shoots and bramble smoking brought”//(“Dropping in the orchard of the heart”), etc.
But the shortened lines can have a weight of their own just because they’re shorter, and because, as Hugo Dyson, a lecturer with no special reputation (not a C.S. Lewis or J.B. Leishmann) pointed out during my first undergraduate term, apropos of Marvell’s Horatian Ode, when lines shorten you tend to want to increase their length to match the longer ones.
So there’s nothing mechanical or formulaic here in the peculiar “music” of the poem.
As to which music, see by way of contrast the statelier progression of the close of Allen Tate’s “The Mediterranean,” in which, after sharing in a succulent beach picnic that creates a feeling of kinship with travelers centuries before, on that great sea, center of our civilization, we’re given an image in which
Now, from the Gates of Hercules we flood
Westward, westward till the barbarous brine
Whelms us to the tired world where tasseling corn,
Fat beans, grapes sweeter than muscadine
Rot on the vine: in that land were we born.
I also like how “Rites of Autumn” doesn’t advance with strict linearity.
The second stanza is more meditative and “personal” than the first (an “I” rather than “we,” who’s seeing, thinking, almost weeping), but in the third we’re back again into the straightforwardly pleasurable particularities of the past.
And then we get the lift-off (“O milkweed blowing from the milkweed pod”) into the magnificent affirmations of the fourth stanza, and finally the calmer and more meditative lyricism of the final stanza, its two last lines contrasting richly, in the “interior” complexity of her thought, with the more dramatic complexities of the minds of those two valiant creators, Cervantes and Mozart, in the previous stanza.
The author had turned up in Oxford with my name given her by a mutual acquaintance in Dublin. With her long red hair, pale beautiful face, and gliding walk in a long green plaid skirt, she was the spirit of poetry, come across the sea from Ireland and living in a gypsy caravan near one of the colleges. I would guess that she was about nineteen.
She never saw the following, retrieved now from long-buried papers
This day moves slowly towards the edge of winter,
Burning above the roofs, making print sharp;
Below on the stone the leaves are crisp with shadow,
All lines defining trees, college, are clear,
But only emptiness is made precise.
Colour is your bright form emerging suddenly
From the black archway, life is your green and red. O
Come, be sun, be warm now on my cheek,
Keep me from falling.
Be strong with light when all the leaves are gone.
The emphasis is meant to fall on “your,” not “bright,” but I’m not sure it does, and I couldn’t fix it. The poem was mere hopeless yearning, of course. There was a lot of yearning at Oxford in those days, when there was one female student to every five males.
But she sort of liked one or two bits of the following, brought back uncertainly now by memory:
“He was indeed an altered Toad” (The Wind in the Willows)
Sweet and remote in that remembered landscape,
Where odysseys grew gentle in cool bar parlours,
And each red timbered manor house was home
Lovely with lavender at evening,
The tiny train, suddenly, grown huge
The bearded terrible policemen, the red guardsmen
Shut out the sky with firm descending hands,
But English, and not angry.
Great to the twelve householders, the wigged master
Explained coldly. A child could follow him.
But this was something new, following him,
A trip, almost, through somebody else’s tale.
Gear lever suddenly slippery with sweat,
Fields [?] forgotten while old friends
Were fought again, always in argument.
And all this, to the tick of the courtroom clock,
Was in time now, and the judge’s pen
Followed the criminal’s moves from crime to crime
To that terrible point where he too, turning judge,
With knowledge, could not ask or offer pardon.
You who in sunlight stand, a curious visitor,
Remember that to prisoners this cell was black
And that these plastered walls, a book to you,
Were to him known only through the finger tips,
Groping, always, to restore the lost moment ,
Recall the evidence, find words,
Not trying to command [?] or lead, but only
To go, childlike, back.
Hopeless yearning, adolescent guilt, fuzzy Audenesque symbolism, and neither of the poems ever worth trying to publish.
But I’ve sometimes wondered, reading some of the things that American academics have said with such certainty and ingenuity about poems and poetry, how many of them have known what it’s like to write poems, even if only for a few immature years, as their own “completest mode of utterance” (I.A. Richards phrase).
The two poems came, so far as I can recall, at a single sitting and were virtually unrevised. “Organicism”?
Here, for whatever it’s worth, is one more poem, from the fall of 1948, which also “came.” I haven’t seen it for over forty years. I appear to have been reading something by Edward Thomas. Or Lawrence. I didn’t try to publish this one either.
This was the garden in which, the following spring, I read Marvell’s “The Garden” in the first edition of his poems (folio), taken out from the college library, with its gorgeous thick-textured rag paper and antique fonts. I was making small pencil marks on it as I read. I think I erased them after the week’s essay was written. (Evidently I didn’t see books as sacred texts, but what could you expect of a grammar-school boy?) Holywell Manor was a college residence.
Holywell Manor Garden
The wallflowers are gone.
The beds are brown, prepared for new growth.
Tired now, wandering like a thin ghost,
I try, in the sun, to feel those flowers, that warmth
Of the dark red, glowing with life, the deep scent,
Sweetness at the heart. I am drawn in
To eat the honeycombs of fifteen years ago,
Hot, in my cousin’s garden, the hives white and tiny
In the long grass, among the trees.
Smoking now, I circle both gardens,
Towards my room, where the seventeenth century waits.
Shall I ever
In the peace of these flowers
Find a pattern which folds in all these flowers,
These houses, those figures working behind the windows,
And this small pattern, now, turned so clumsily,
Where the flowers wither, carried in my hands.
Do I like “Rites of Autumn” because I knew the author? Did anything in it remind me of her when I first read it? Did I hear her “voice” in it at any point? To the best of my recollection, the answer to all three questions is no. Did anything in it bring back for me anything that I had heard her talk about? Again, no.
Would I have attended to it if I hadn’t recognized the author’s name? I’m pretty sure I liked the poem before I came (shock of recognition) upon the author’s name at the bottom. It was so different from the at that time more cerebral American norm—Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, Karl Shapiro, etc.
When I chose the poem for the mini-anthology here, did I intend to talk about knowing the author (no, I hadn’t planned to go autobiographical about any of the poems) or to introduce my own poems? No, absolutely not. One thing simply led to another, perhaps as in the writing of a poem?
Is it vanity that makes me include my own poems here? A bit, perhaps. It’s nice to be able to give oneself just a touch of literariness. And, after all, I do, as Nihilism, Modernism, and Value may indicate, belong in that troubled age-group that included Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes, and I worked out my own kinds of solutions to some of its problems.
But what I have come to realize while doing these commentaries is that in one way and another, in fact a variety of ways, what is coming across or being built up, collage-like, is the actual multifariousness of the experiencing of poems, of being, if you like a “reader” of poetry.
And of the idea of a “self.”
The Trees are Down (Charlotte Mew)
Sentimentality? The pathetic fallacy? (Trees hearing?) But if you’ve loved particular trees, great trees, and they’re cut down…?
In 1961, a week or two after settling, newly arrived, into our scruffy but spacious top-floor apartment in Halifax on a European-feeling street, Queen Street, with several trees still in leaf sheltering our side of it and a single tall one opposite us, we woke to the sound of chainsaws, and the poem was instantly there for me, and the trees, despite a call to an alderman, did go down, and the road was widened to accommodate the cars of visitors to the Halifax Infirmary. It’s an ugly block in a city of trees.
Associationalism? (That rat?) But why not, I mean here, when it’s so much part of her and her experiencing, and we have that conjunction in the third stanza of the bough coming down, and then the rat “unmaking” the Spring with its revealed mortality, its lost experiencing? This is, I guess you might say, a holistic apprehension of things, without the old dead rat being made at all cute.
Mew’s free verse here, probably stimulated by Laforgue’s Derniers Vers, is unique in English so far as I know—those very long lines, with enough rhythmic coherence, though I don’t propose to try analyzing it, to hold them together as lines, and the quick gear-shifts down to very short ones, and back up.
In the fourth stanza, with its enclosing abab rhymes, we have a sweep-forward into poignant generalization and then there’s the further sweep forward, couplets, into her own deeper feelings of loss, a deep-rooted, long-enduring organic being having suddenly been taken away.
She was a gallant woman poet, as they used to be called, and a writer of quite a bit of prose, including a play in very credible-sounding dialect and an especially touching, but not sentimentalized, non-fiction piece about a little seamstress of their family’s acquaintance living uncomplainingly (before any kind of social insurance) in now-unimaginable poverty, far worse than Katherine Mansfield’s Miss Brill’s. Mew’s own family in their London house—widowed mother, several daughters— appears to have lived in what used to be called genteel poverty, though not as deeply in it as the two maiden ladies in Mansfield’s best story, “The Daughters of the Late Colonel.”
Hardy made a copy of one of Mew’s poems, and most of her works, I think, were published during her lifetime. But she died in despair, peculiarly horribly, by swallowing a bottle of disinfectant.
Cleanth Brooks, John Thibaut Purser, and Robert Penn Warren included her strong and Lawrence-like poem “The Farmer’s Bride” in their excellent An Approach to Literature, which is how I became aware of her around 1954.
If you care for trees and their passing, see also Yvor Winters’ very fine “The California Oaks,” one of his half-dozen best poems.
In Time of Pestilence (Thomas Nashe)
Another great stanzaic poem. The pauses between the stanzas are increased and the move to the next one made more deliberate by the double refrain—the personal cry, the shared humanness.
A relatively general opening stanza of near-commonplaces (except for the refrain) gives way to the more concrete second stanza.
The rich, like their doctors, are as vulnerable as anyone else and the plague goes past like the carts in which the dead are being taken for burial in a common pit. But it’s goes swiftly, like one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, or the scythe-bearing skeleton on a bony horse that figures in that comprehensive, nightmarish evocation of a whole variety of deaths and dyings, Peter Brueghel the Elder’s The Triumph of Death, a reproduction of which in an ornate gold-painted plaster frame I bought in a junk store and hung over the mantelpiece of my first undergraduate room.
Then comes the most famous stanza, with its swift progression from bodily beauty shriveling up like a flower, particularly one of those smooth-fleshed trumpet kinds, to the deaths of beautiful young (unnamed) queens, and thence to the most emblematic of beautiful queenly figures, Helen of Troy, with earth shoveled onto her dead face.
Could Nashe conceivably have read or heard of François Villon’s great ballade “Où sont les neiges d’antan?”—“Where are the snows of yesteryear?”—in which are named a number of the great and/or beautiful women gone like melted snow? Or is it simply a case of two poets feeling in the same way about the same phenomena? Not everything in a poem comes from another poem.
There’s more vigour in the fourth stanza. Heroic men too go down, the great Hector of the Iliad standing (in the present-tense) for many others. Death, the Enemy, is busily at work, the worms are feeding, the grave (or the way to hell?) is gaping, the death-knells are summoning.
(In the lower-right corner of The Triumph of Death, to which the main line of events in the picture winds down, a reveler caught at table has stood and is drawing his sword.)
And then, in the most personal stanza, even the writer, the man of wit and words, is merely, for Death, a figure as powerless as the impersonal executioner’s pleading victim on the scaffold. I speak about some technical aspects of the stanza in “Powers of Style.”
Finally, there’s an earned and acceptable moral accomodation in a time of literal belief. Nothing can be done now but prepare one’s mind for a death that will not in fact be a finality.
When I mentioned Breughel’s great picture (no doubt there were plenty of other works with some of that iconography), was I suggesting that the picture came or comes into my mind while reading or recalling the poem? Of course not. The two media are so different, and the poem is so utterly without colour and novelistic particularity.
But experiencings can overlap.
One of Eliot’s poems from just before The Waste Land, which I’d read on my own in high-school, opens with, “Webster was much possessed by death/And saw the skull beneath the skin.” I myself, while listening four or five years later to some observations by W.W. Robson in one of his dramatic set of lectures on the Metaphysicals, wrote in my notebook:
Rotten teeth and coated tongue
Moulded epigram and song.
Genius in a single breath
Made report, and stank, of death.
The famous line “Brightness falls from the air,” with its mysteriously dwindling down or diffused luminosity, got emended at one point to “Brightness falls from the hair,” which if anything required even more effort to realize the physical process involved.
It was finally re-emended, I think by Wesley Trimpi, back to its original form, but referring now to the belief that the fall of comets produced sickness, so that even queens can die prematurely. This is, after all, a time of pestilence.
I’ve no idea whether that suggestion has found general acceptance.
But as with that hair in Rossetti’s “The Woodspurge,” there seems in principle to be something to be said for not having to go into an elaborate dance of the mind when you come to a word or a bit of phrasing while reading a poem out loud. What you think you see there, linguistically, ought to be in keeping with the practice elsewhere in the poem.
I am morally certain, for example, knowing Hopkins’ voiced desire (in letters) to communicate, that Yvor Winters was right when, after recalling some of the over-cerebral interpretings of the difficult sestet of “The Windhover,” he remarked, deadpan:
I am no great philologist, myself, but in my casual reading of the more obvious dictionaries I have observed that the word buckle, in Scots and northern English, sometimes means to marry…I am not aware that Hopkins ever made a notation of this meaning of the word, though he may have done so; but we know that Hopkins was inordinately fascinated with folk locutions and examined them endlessly…
A bad habit of the would-be Symbolist or mega-symbolizing mind, whether operating critically or, as with poets like Hart Crane and Dylan Thomas, creatively, is to want to have individual words and phrases supercharged with meaning so that they can expand instantly like an airbag in a car (“The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath/ An embassy,” “Button your bodice on a hump of splinters,/ My camel’s eye will needle through the shroud,” and so forth).
It is a habit encouraged, perhaps, by an imperfect knowledge of French.
But the poetry of Baudelaire and Verlaine, at least, didn’t work in that fashion, and the mysterious mood of a poem like Rimbaud’s “Larme,” masterfully translated by Wyatt Mason, is a cumulative affair and not a matter of some “key” lurking in this or that word which, once found, permits, ta-da! a decoding of the message.
In Les ‘Tombeaux’ de Mallarmé, in which he looks very scrupulously at Mallarmé’s diction and syntax, Gardner Davies shows convincingly that that at times unspeakably difficult poet was working closer than might be assumed to a prose-sense sense, but in a fashion that deliberately prevented any easy extraction of a “meaning” from the words.
In a note in Forms of Discovery, after remarking that “Mallarmé is one of the most grammatical of poets, though his syntax is seldom French,” Winters offers an again, to my mind, entirely persuasive translation and glossing of the exceptionally difficult sestet of “Tout orgueil fume-t-il du soir.”
I was sneakily pleased recently to find Anthony Thwaite, a real poet and all, complicating Baudelaire’s “Le Cygne” (“The Swan”) in the third stanza by translating “baraques” (here, surely, “sheds”) as “barracks” (in French, “caserne”) and giving us, “at the window, Their Majesties’ bric-à-brac,” leaving us wondering just what we’re meant to be visualizing. Which in fact appears to be a construction site. I had found the passage perplexing myself earlier.
Some editorial interventions can make a poem worse.
I cannot believe that Emily Dickinson, had they been published during her lifetime, would have wanted her poems to appear with those ridiculous dashes, in the place of normal punctuation marks, that Thomas H. Johnson foisted upon them, making you proceed through the poems in a series of hiccups.
Carol Hoorn Fraser, born in Superior, Wisconsin in 1930, wrote poems as an undergraduate at Gustavus Adolphus College. In the manuscripts of some of them she uses small dashes instead of commas, and I’m sure this wasn’t because she aspired to be Emily Dickinson but because she was writing fast and it’s easier to make a tiny dash than a comma when you’re doing so. I assume that this was a not uncommon American practice.
But I did, after working at transcribing them, written as they were on a variety of pieces of paper, some of them with erratic punctuation and lineation, occasional illegibilities, and at times the replacement of struck-through words with ones that didn’t fit into the syntax at that point, wind up with a much enhanced respect for the labours of textual editors.
The finished-up poems in typescript or in a student magazine were without those errors, and the commas were commas.
The River-Merchant’s Wife: a Letter (Ezra Pound)
In 1996, an English radio programme polled its listeners to ascertain what were, as the title of the resultant book indicates, The Nation’s Favourite Poems.
Though only Edward Thomas’s Adlestrop makes it from my list, the hundred poems in the book are actually a pretty nice selection. (What would a comparable selection in America look like, I wonder? If there even is a radio programme like that). The first five in it are Kipling’s “If,” Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners,” Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning,” and Wordsworth’s “The Daffodils.”
If you polled a slightly higher-browed group, at least in North America, Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife” would probably make a good showing.
Some years ago, George Elliott Clarke presented me with five other translations of the poem. Here are the first two lines of each:
My hair had hardly covered my forehead.
I was picking flowers, playing by my door.
I would play, plucking flowers by the gate;
My hair scarcely covered my forehead, then.
My hair barely covered my forehead.
I played in front of the gate, plucking flowers.
I with my hair fringed on my forehead,
Breaking blossom, was romping outside.
Arthur D. Cooper
It’s a bit like trying to improve upon “When I consider how my light is spent,” or “Let us go then, you and I,/Where the evening is spread out beneath the sky.” Nothing else is the same.
It’s that first line that does it, of course—“While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead.” This is a young girl with things being done to her in the customary way.
“Two small people” is nice. The longish six lines of the first stanza, with time passing and playings going on, give way to the concise four-line drama (in shorter lines) of her, and no doubt his, initial marital unhappiness when, “Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.”
And then comes the lovely lyrical shift in the next stanza, with only a year separating fourteen and fifteen, and the flow-forward of “I desired my dust to be mingled with yours/ For ever and for ever and for ever.”
And then, despite the initial parallelism (“At sixteen…”), their momentum together is lost, Ku-to-yen is far away, the river is probably dangerous, the monkeys “make sorrowful noise overhead” (no “seeming,” their noise is sorrowful).
And then we have the longest section, with things all conjoined— the melancholy of their home without his care, the symbolic decline of the season, her memory of his reluctance when leaving. The lines
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
are virtually a haiku
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-Sa.
But neither of them would be so powerful in isolation.
Nor would: “They hurt me. I grow older.” be so charged with contextual significance.
Liu ch’e (Ezra Pound)
This lovely poem is haiku-like, but it is not a haiku.
I suspect that the haiku as a form remains an alien and imperfectly assimilated importation in English, ingenious though the problem-solving in some of the English ones can be. You always think, don’t you? (oh all right, I do) “That’s an ingenious haiku,” not, “What a moving poem!” A language without particles (“the,” “a”) can get more meaning into a specified number of syllables than when a language which has them is restricted to the same number.
There’s a lovely poem by Hitomaro, also not a haiku, that goes as follows in Arthur Waley’s translation:
Halting in front of it, I look
At the reflection which is in the depths
Of my clear mirror,
It gives me the impression of meeting
An unknown old gentleman.
Even without the linguistic nuances of the original, the experience is there.
In the dual-text edition, the original has eighteen words, the translation thirty-one. The line “At the reflection which is in the depths” (eight words, ten syllables) is offered as the equivalent of “Soko naru kage ni” (four words, seven syllables).
Pound’s poem, too, has room to breathe. It’s not simply a juxtaposition, as in his famous “In the Metro,” of two concepts (Heart-rejoicer lies still./Wet leaf clings threshold) in which the more concrete of the two gives more substance to the more abstract.
The former animation—the rustling silk of clothing—is followed by the slower drifting of the dust, and then, in a reversal, the absence of sound is followed by the animation of the scurrying leaves, and then the ending of that motion. And then comes the image of the rejoicer of the heart (not former rejoicer) lying beneath them.
In the final image the literally unmoving dead leaf nevertheless clings, as if in memory. The space separating that line from the preceding one increases the weight of thought in the analogy.
Notice also the alternation of longer and shorter lines, variously 11/7, 10/8, and 13/9 syllables. The first line is iambic, but after that things loosen.
“Dust drifts” has the slightly increased expressive weight that comes with two virtually equal “strong” accents. “Scurry into heaps” moves fast, then slows down with the almost equal stresses of “lie still.” “Wet leaf” is also two equal stresses.
J.V. Cunningham’s “Night-Piece” is haiku-like. As is T.E. Hulme’s “Above the Dock.”
Above the quiet dock at midnight,
Tangled in the tall mast’s corded height,
Hangs the moon. What seemed so far away
Is but a child’s balloon, forgotten after play.
And they’re fine poems. But actual haiku they too are not.
In his splendid Oxford Book of Twentieth- Century English Verse, Philip Larkin, lineating and titling a one-line jotting among Hulme’s notes, gives us the following “found” poem.
Old houses were scaffolding
and workmen whistling.
Wenige ihr / You few (Rainer Maria Rilke)
T.S. Eliot suggested somewhere or other that great, or was it good? poetry can communicate before it is understood. If he meant, like, you know, Hungarian or Swahili, it would be nonsense, of course, unless what he had in mind was an oral performance in which the rhythms and emphases had some of the expressiveness of song.
But if an “imperfectly” or “only partially” was hovering there above his statement, and a “sometimes,” well, yes, of course, whether the poem’s in your own language or someone else’s.
Back in 1946, not the best of years for things German, I remember a fellow scholarship candidate (we were staying in the same college) telling me that German, of which I only knew words like “Führer” and “Gestapo” and “Achtung!” was a more beautiful language than French. More beautiful than French? Come on!
And German poetry remained for me a just about literally closed book. I simply knew that I would never be able to get anything from it, just as I’d once known I’d never get anything from a Beethoven string quartet. Above all, not from Rilke, whose Duino Elegies in translation are still opaque to me.
But when in the late Eighties I impulse-bought at our best local bookstore (Book Mark) a copy of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus in David Young’s dual-text edition, it sent me back to the Teach Yourself texts that I’d used when mugging up enough German at Minnesota in 1957 to scrape through the Ph.D. language requirement. I even made a bundle of flash cards.
“Understood” or not, some of the Sonnets to Orpheus, Die Sonnette an Orpheus (1923), must surely be among the most beautiful poems in any language.
Young’s unrhymed translations were a good entry point. Stephen Mitchell’s loosely rhymed ones give you a feel for the rhythms and syntax of the originals. Stephen Cohn’s recent and also loosely rhymed ones seem to catch better the muscularity of some of the poems, such as the lovely pair that open the series, “Da stieg ein baum” and “Und fast ein Mädchen wars” (though I notice, ah the joys of pseudo-scholarship, that he’s omitted the umlaut in “Mädchen”) But Mitchell’s translation of “Wenige ihr” is truer in syntax if you have little or no German.
But oh that German, that thrilling original. The metre—dumtitty dum, di dumtitty dumtitty dum-dum/ dum-di di-dum-di dum-dum di-dum, at least in the opening two lines—is simply not one that can “play” in English without seeming close to doggerel. Not that the poem stays tightly in that mode, and a number of the other poems are pretty well iambic pentameter. But still, there’s a kind of rocking rhythm in some of them that you simply don’t get in “serious” English poetry, and which works marvelously here, in what I take to be a peculiarly Rilkean “music.”
For what you have is indeed an almost conversational, or at least low-keyed establishing of the scene, the situation, in the opening stanza, a recalling of those kids long ago, as kids do, getting together in different configurations of the various I take it public gardens (well regulated German ones, probably small, probably without high walls or fences, because not needed (who would dare trespass after closing time?).
And then it opens up into more psychological complexity in the second stanza as the syntax carries you over into the real-enough phenomenon of communication without chatter (I seem to recall seeing on a stained-glass window a lamb with a piece of parchment on a staff). And the shortening and more(for me) conceptually difficult point about nobody owning the created mutual enjoyment. And the abrupt two-word question.
And then the quasi-consolidation of the pleasure as something almost independent, dissolving among the passers by (one “space” impinging on another) and the powerfully shortened and direct fourth line, and those more amorphous fears, and the length of years in which so much beyond one’s childhood knowing can happen. (But is it one year here or several—a child’s long year, or the length of years to come?) It’s both ways in the translations that I’ve named.
But it is in the remaining six lines that things really lift off and become spine-tingling. The first line of the sestet sweeps forward by becoming more regular in its trochaic progression, evoking those carriages rolling past just across from the probably nominal knee-high divider of park from sidewalk, but separate from them and strange (with a contrast between the verb-driven directness of the first four lines, and then the more stately one-word reification of the passing by.
And then (for there are no grown-up people here), the houses across the streets from the traffic, or perhaps when the road is quiet, loom up, probably those four or five-story, higher rising, stone-faced buildings that you’d find in good quarters, Laforgue’s quartiers aisés of a progressive city. The houses stand there strongly, as if charged with energy, and surround them. But they’re “untrue,” perhaps not speaking with authority about how things really are, including their own massive presence. And nothing knew them, the children, knew what they were. Then the poignant question, the italics making it more than rhetorical, What was real in it all?
And the answer to what has now become a highly personal meditation is, Nothing. Nothing, or only the most fragile and evanescent of things, the beauty of the arcs of the thrown balls, their herrlichen, glorious, magnificent bows, almost there physically to the mind’s eye like rainbows. Even the children, the flesh-and-blood beings, were “unreal” (or not-real) perhaps in the sense of they too, like the carriages and houses, don’t have a kind of Platonic perfection and self-sufficiency.
But occasionally (and here I think I really don’t understand but it’s beautiful) one of them (with a poignancy in that “ach,” that “oh, a passing- or fading-away one”) would step there under the arc of the ball, or perhaps through that archway of the mind. With a meaning that seems firmed up in the memorial dedication of the poem to Egon von Rilke (cousin?). A reality, a finality, a permanency?
Do I perhaps partly understand the poem after all?
In German, nouns are capitalized and terminal E’s after consonants are sounded, as in “Eine kleine Nachtmusik.”
Roman / Romance (Arthur Rimbaud)
This must surely be one of the best-loved poems in France (what would their top hundred look like, I wonder?), and one of the most charming in any language.
“Roman”/romance/ novel /romantic novel? It’s like a compressed short story, and it’s about romanticism, the romanticism of male adolescence, and it’s all the more remarkable as coming from someone who was about that age when he wrote it. Talk about self-knowledge! Talk about genius!
It moves along so fast.
Four sections, two stanzas each, roman-numeral dividers.
Setting of the scene in the first section.
In the second, out alone under those trees, the mind racing, fantasizing.
In the third, the encounter—marvelous.
And then so much happens in the fourth that you can hardly believe, in memory, that it’s just eight more lines, two of them virtual echoes of lines in the opening stanza. And you don’t need to be told more about those two months, or about him, or about her—his cliché cravings and posturings, the guys fed up with this new earnestness, can’t he talk about anything else?
And then, so brilliantly, and again so convincingly, the spell is broken and the goddess-worshipping goes poof when the flesh-and-blood and maybe a bit ironical little miss in a solid family finally replies. No, he’d really rather be with the gang than be tied down to her.
”Serieux” here is a seriously used French term, meaning serious-minded, responsible, solid.
There’s nice contrast between the almost classical plainness of the opening stanza and the romanticism of the second section, in which the excited mind notes details like that cute little bit of deep blue sky with a wanton star, just the one stanza doing duty for all the other things he may have noted,
And none of it’s schmaltz. The breeze carries noises from the town, plus a smell of beer (with explanatory parenthesis— the town’s not far). And things go suddenly sharp in the light of that street lamp, her papa’s stiff detachable collar fashionably high, her little high-button boots trotting along to keep up with him, and he probably doesn’t even notice that she’s looking back. She’s got a little mind of her own, probably knowing how to sweet-talk papa when she needs to.
“Robinsonner” means making like Robinson Crusoe (voyaging sailor). Was this Rimbaud’s coinage? It’s not in the multi-volume Robert dictionary. Louis-Ferdinand Céline has a hither-and-yonning character in Journey to the End of the Night called Robinson.
The rules of French verse are being followed, I think, including those “e’s” at the end of every other line (see the note on French metrics.) And not a superfluous word anywhere.
Now for a bit of pedantry.
There’s no exact equivalent in English for “promenade” in the French sense. No-one says, “See you on the promenade,” unless it’s a seaside resort.
The Robert Dictionnaire alphabétique et analogique de la langue francaise (1966) indicates that a promenade (a formal area planted with trees where people can walk) could be on a boulevard, in a public garden, a square, a park, or, as on the Riviera (and in Britain), along a sea-front.
The one in this poem is outside the presumably small town (“la ville n’est pas loin,” it isn’t far), so “park” was tempting for its contrast with those cafes and its greater privacy. In England it would be the park, though no doubt a less formal one than the small, orderly, rectilinear French type, with gravel walks.
However, “promenade” is surely too much part of the no doubt famous line (“On va sous les tilleuls verts de la promenade”) to make the substitution acceptable.
And if Rimbaud, so precise and concrete in his diction, had had a park in mind, he would probably have contrived to use the word. For that matter, “boulevard” would have fitted the metre and rhyme scheme, if that’s what he’d meant. So I’ve stayed with “promenade” and will no doubt regret it if I later find some bolder spirit saying “park.”
But what, in equivalent English words, are we to see with those “lustres éclatant”? What is he recoiling temporarily from? (given that subsequently the cafes themselves are “éclatant”?)
Apparently “lustre” means “chandelier.” But for “éclat” my modest 680-page Cassells dictionary gives me “Burst, sudden bursting; crash, clap, peal, sudden uproar; shiver; splinter (of wood, stone, brick, etc); brightness, refulgence, glare, glitter; luster, pomp, magnificence; renown, fame; gaudiness (of colours); rumour, scandal”.
And for the verb “éclater,” “To split, to shiver, to break into pieces, to burst, to explode; to make a loud and sudden noise, to clap; to cry out, to exclaim, to break out, to blaze out; to shine, to sparkle, to flash; to show, to manifest itself.”
Wow! Talk about indeterminacy, when two short signifiers (the mix of straight and curving lines “éclat” / ”eclater”) can be attached to such an abundance of non-textual goings on, each linkage becoming a separate “sign.”
Some exclusions are obvious. The chandeliers are presumably not exploding or crashing, etc. But are they glaring, glittering, blazing, or sparkling (though probably not shining, too mild)—anyway doing things that can become wearying to the eye/mind?
And what does the word “chandelier” make one see. For me, certainly, the first thought is of the elaborate dangling cut-glass ornaments below the light source, like the one that memorably crashes down onto the audience in the Claude Rains Phantom of the Opera. Would there be things like that in small-town French cafes around 1870? If so, it would make for an effective contrast with the new green leaves of those lime-trees.
But the basic chandelier would presumably be the multi-branched candle-holders, whether or not with decorations (cf. the one in Edgar Allan Poe’s story “Hop-Frog”), now, presumably (ca.1870) with gas jets instead of candles. But were they jets fish-tail jets, or did they heat incandescent mantels, which seems more likely. And if there were lamp-shades, would they be white translucent porcelain globes, or ones made of fabric? Globes would certainly be brighter.
Simply staring at the two words, “lustres éclatant” (or at the word “tapisseries” in “Au Cabaret vert,” see below) as if one could somehow reach directly through to a three-dimensional physical reality back around 1870 doesn’t work. However, one needn’t then simply throw up one’s hands and say, “Who knows what they mean?”, opting for the supposed “indeterminacy” so beloved of the kind of academic who gets a thrill from, magus-like, revealing to the boobs that the world is really QUITE DIFFERENT from what they have hitherto supposed.
No, if I wish, I can look at more texts and try to find out in one of our local libraries how those kinds of cafes might have been lit at that time. (At least I’m now reasonably comfortable about that wallpaper in Au Cabaret Vert.) And we can be sure that there was no blur in Rimbaud’s own mind when he wrote those words.
And when you contemplate the poem on the page, the dictionary entry, possible books or articles about the history of lighting, possible photos or paintings of cafes at that time (in Van Gogh’s “Night Café” it’s oil lamps), and the general loose montage-like sense you have of three-dimensional French cafes, you’re into a useful reminder of how desirable it is to keep resisting the natural tendency of the mind to oversimplify the meanings of the term “text.”
As it’s now come to be used, we have an extension of the basic, the primary idea, as seen in printed or written words, of something human-made and communicative—we have the extension of this to lots of other things, including music scores, street signs, statues, dances, clothing, and so on and so forth, with the term “reading” stretching to include understanding, decoding, interpreting, and the rest of it.
Which is OK in itself, and I’ve used the term “text” myself here at times in that fashion, but it’s unstable, and when it’s used to make people uncomfortable, as in French-intellectual-type pronouncements, like “War is a text,” it encourages a collapsing back of the three-dimensional organic world into something that can be manipulated and changed at will, as you would change a computer text by a click on the mouse (with intellectuals at the keyboard, naturally).
But again, which word is right here for whatever is going on with those chandeliers (and cafés)?
If one wants to be Heideggerean and try getting at the root, there does seem to be the sense of a forceful, attention-seizing pushing out, whether with lightning, an explosion, or the sudden visibility of a politician.
Glaring? Dazzling? Flaring? After all, doing something with flair seems a bit like doing it with éclat.
I’ve settled provisionally on “dazzling.”
But “brilliant” would cover both the lights and whatever’s below them, and would make possible that little shift at the end whereby it’s now the cafes and not the chandeliers that are “éclatant” when he returns to them, perhaps with a hint of the “brilliant” talk, as they see it, of him and his pals, untroubled by bossy little girls who see him as naïve and laugh at his poems.
Au Cabaret Vert / At the Green Tavern (Arthur Rimbaud)
I also talk about this sonnet a bit in “Powers of Style.”
It’s fascinating how, as you move through it, you don’t know where it’s going, and first expect maybe a bit of adventure (was he on the run?) and then, maybe, a bit of sexual adventure, and then you find that the sentence that starts in the seventh line keeping going, sweeping over the division between octave and sestet (even muting slightly the first sentence in the sextet by making it parenthetical), and ending up with the foam on a beer-mug, which may have been a freebie, since if he’d ordered beer too he’d presumably have said so.
It’s a lovely poem. In his 1918 essay on what were at that time modern French poets, Pound said that the art of poetry hadn’t advanced since then.
You don’t forget that green table, the pink-and-white ham, the touch of garlic, and how the beer (poured no doubt from a pitcher) comes up inside the big beer mug, probably porcelain or earthernware, and the foam as it rises above the rim is caught by a ray of late-afternoon sunshine and glows golden.
The comfort of primary things. Also a sonnet very skillfully managed for expressive purposes.
To judge from Google (a term becoming as generic for me as The Dictionary is for freshmen), Charleroi, in Belgium’s biggest coal district, was heavily industrialized by then—iron, steel, glass—and not at all pastoral or idyllic.
A cabaret (nothing to do with song-and-dance here) was what my dictionary describes as “an inferior kind of wineshop, tavern, pot-house….” “Inn” makes it sound too much like one of those picturesque English rural pubs. Hence my “tavern.” A moitié froid and tiède may technically mean lukewarm, but there seems to be some French culinary distinction here about degrees of warmth, and you wouldn’t go into an English pub and order some nice lukewarm ham, please. Warm is warm—comfortable.
A friend suggested substituting “lounged at the table” and “Gilded by the declining sun” for what I have here. But “lounged” is an abstraction from Rimbaud’s precise physicality. So is “declining sun” vis-à-vis “rayon de soleil”/ray of sun/sunbeam. The sun’s declining is what we infer from the facts that it’s five in the evening and that the sunbeam is “late” and presumably, if it can penetrate into the room, coming from relatively low in the sky.
Until I settled down recently with two or three translations by others and a dictionary, I’d assumed that “arrièrée” meant “from behind,” and had written, “Which a ray of sunlight lit up from behind.” Which I still like, but it’s wrong.
I concluded years ago that it’s vastly preferable, even in a seminar, to muddle around in the original, however faultily, than to examine only translations. Pound gave you courage for that, both in his own bold translatings, some of them partly mistranslatings but coherent good poems in their own right, and in his assertion, which Leavis pounced on and savaged, that you only need to know a few hundred words in a language in order to read this or that poem.
But Leavis was talking about how to teach reading, and Pound about how to read, and he had enough truth there to make it relevant to teaching reading too. For if you do know, or have dictionaried, enough of the words in a dual-text edition, you’re in a much better position to feel your way into this or that poem.
I’m glad I taught myself enough Italian at age eighteen to be able to read the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno—“Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita/ Mi retrovai per una selv’ oscura/Que la diretta via era smarita”—and recognize their unadorned clarity of a sort that you only got in English in lines like “They flee from me that sometime did me seek/ With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.”
I’m also glad (though it came much later) to be able to read, with relatively literal understanding, “Da stieg ein baum! O reine ubersteigung/ O Orpheus singt. O hoher baum in ohr,” the start of the first sonnet in Rilke’s very great Sonnets to Orpheus. For what you can’t get without that kind of minimal consciousness is how the lines in a poem go, the kinds of pace and weight, the rhythms, the play of syntax, so important in Rilke.
It occurred to me years ago, though I didn’t dare say it professionally, that students of “English” agonizing for hours over the Old English text of Beowulf would have been far better off being led through enough ancient Greek to have been able to get a feeling for the opening twenty or thirty lines of The Odyssey. As it is, people in English go on talking about “Homer” as if they knew his texture the way they know the texture of Paradise Lost.
I don’t imagine you could persuade any Classicists of this, any more than you could persuade professors of French that you had any right to talk about French poems unless you “knew” French—which of course they would be happy to instruct you in if you would enroll in their classes.
But muddling around in the original with a dictionary, and comparing translations, can help to inhibit that process by which you infer the meaning of words from the “meaning” of the poem, as you’ve loosely extrapolated it, a process like that by which a bad actor or reciter extrapolates a generalized mood (angry, ironical, joyous, whatever) and then overlays the whole text with it.
A bit more, just a bit, about words. Sometimes a dash of scholarship pays off.
I had been uneasy about that “tapisserie” that he was gazing at in the tavern while waiting for the food to arrive.
The translator for the Penguin edition, Oliver Bernard, gives it as “wallpaper.” Wyatt Mason, in his more swinging translation in his Rimbaud Complete in the Modern Library, has him looking at “a tapestry.” What, I wondered, would be likely to have been on the walls of a Belgian tavern in an industrial town in 1870?
For you do, don’t you, want to be able to envisage, at least somewhat, what’s going on in this at other points very precise poem, with its ripped boots, green table, buttered bread, garlic-scented ham, etc? Would there in fact have been wallpaper back then? Or might there have been wall hangings of some kind? But if so, what kind? Crude embroidery? Appliqué?
Well, the Littré Dictionnaire de la langue francaise (1885), close enough to the time of the poem, informs me that, as a secondary meaning (“tapestry” being the primary one), “It’s also used of all kinds of materials … serving to cover or decorate the walls of a room.”
And then, in Henri Clouzot’s Le papier peint [wall-paper] en France du XVIIe au XIXe siècle (1931), I found that wall-paper in fact progressed from low to high, beginning as something that in the 17th century would serve “to cover the rooms of artisans, wardrobes, or the insides of cupboards” and which was made by humble wood-engravers (who also made playing cards) and would be patterned with “grotesques” and with medleys of flowers, fruits, animals, and little figures. Wallpaper, in other words, was originally what you had when you couldn’t afford something better.
Given the persistence of cultural forms, that settles it well enough for me, unless I were to make enquiries of someone who knows the history of design, such as a stage designer. So wallpaper it is. No doubt this point has long since been settled somewhere by someone more scholarly than myself.
Eros Turannos (E.A. Robinson)
“Tyrant Love” or “Love the Tyrant,” I suppose. Another poem that I know I wouldn’t have read attentively and taken seriously if Yvor Winters hadn’t praised it.
People probably think that when you say something like that, you only “like” the work because (weak and easily influenced as you are) you were told to do so. “Like this!” “Aye-aye sir, one sincere liking coming up.” Whereas, at least in my experience, it goes the other way. You like a critic because you have liked some of the works that he or she has praised, and so you are prepared to follow up their other tips expectantly. But I certainly haven’t found all Winters’ tips profitable, as I say in “Winters’ Summa.”
This poem trips along, doesn’t it? Bad sign, very bad sign. Where’s the expressive texture, the sense of struggle with the medium, the miming of the heuristic process, and so forth? A lot of feminine rhymes, too—“choose him”/ “refuse him,” etc. Will we have gravitas in that medium?
And isn’t it sort of, well, anecdotal, almost a short story, maybe even one that Faulkner (“A Rose for Emily”) read at some point? Those chorus-like village or small-town worthies (“We tell you, tapping on our brows,/ The story as it should be”). Not even the rough-hewn ruralism that you get in Frost, “The Death of the Hired Man,” for example, or “Out, Out—“
Well yes, actually we do have gravitas. The psychological situation here is so solid, so thought through, so believable. Like the speaker in “Grief of a Girl’s Heart,” she knows he’s a Luftmensch, an opportunist, a charmer, and yet she needs him, and who are we to think that we can push our way in and know the relationship between them merely because of that type-casting.
So much is packed into the analysis. She fears him (present-past tense), she knows she’s being “objectively” foolish, and yet the thought of a lonely old age is worse, and she holds back from pushing through to the full truth about him, in part because she does love him, does feel sexual passion. And though she may not be all that great a catch (is she older than him? a Plain Jane?), she has money—enough—and class, and it won’t be such a bad life, and he goes along with it.
And then, well, evidently it goes wrong, though not in quite the obvious way, perhaps, since they’ve both, it appears, felt sexual passion or at least desire, and we don’t really know, do we?
And in fact that “tripping” verse works marvelously.
The real weight, the fullest heft in each stanza comes in the second half, where instead of a continued pattern of masculine/feminine (“But what she meets and what she fears/Are not what she expected”) we get a second masculine rhyme that makes it start to look like one of those ababcc structures, but then that too doesn’t happen, for we get a third rhyme, giving that particular line in each stanza all the more weight. Only then do we drop away into a clinching shorter line.
And look at the difference in speed between “All reasons to refuse him” and “But what she meets and what she fears,” and then, the direction still in suspense, “Are less than are the downward years” (still in suspense, uncompleted) “Drawn slowly to the foamless weirs” (still incomplete) “Of age, were she to lose him.”
And just feel the kinetic weight of those downward years drawn slowly to those foamless weirs—foamless because swift-moving and unobstructed, and evoking, I’m sure, that feeling of hidden acceleration that you get when you look at that smooth lip of the line of water as it goes over the straight stone bed. Not just one weir, either, but one fall after another.
Weirs are always a bit scary, and the water, smooth flowing, tends to be going faster than normal, so that you don’t want to get caught in the current in your canoe, even if the water’s not all that deep.
I won’t plod through each of the stanzas and point to similar effects.
But we do get a speed-up again at the start of the second and third stanzas, with a solidifying into moral action in the second part.
And then, in the fourth stanza, the opening itself lifts up and intensifies more with the magnificent and complex intermingling of physical and mental, and of “Latinate” and “Germanic” diction—“The falling leaf” (one leaf) inaugurates/ The reign of her confusion;/” The pounding wave reverberates/ The dirge of her illusion.”
The fifth stanza is the lightest and least interesting, but necessarily so. We are dropped back down into the everydayness of gossiping townspeople who think they really know what’s going on inside her, and what she ought to do about the mess, whatever it is, that’s driven her into seclusion, in that no doubt big house of hers, close to the water, with its beguiling air of tradition (family pictures on the wall?). “Give him up, my dear, he’s not worthy of you.”
And then we move back into a different realm of being and feeling in the final stanza when it appears that whatever it is that has been happening has involved both of them, in a relationship where love, that god, that tyrant, may have been more than just an affair of cynical manipulation on one side and pitiable self-delusion on the other.
And the power of those feelings, whatever they are, is turned into the mysterious complexity of those final four lines, which modulate from the immediate realism of waves steadily breaking, to the slight oddness of a familiar tree changed (changed how?), and then the nightmarish image of blind figures being harried, terrified and not knowing what awaits them, down one of those cliff-side stairways leading to the beach—or to the water when the tide’s in.
No, it doesn’t all just trip along, does it? And though I can’t say how (but it’s not just the subject matter, I think) it feels quintessentially American in its form and metric, just as Hardy no doubt feels, to American readers, quintessentially English.
The Woodspurge (D.G. Rossetti)
This poem felt interestingly hallucinatory to me for several years, as if he was merging with nature (his hair sort of floating off), and hearing things with a preternatural acuity. However, I’m certain now that he is sitting on the ground bowed forward, that his hair, worn long in the mid-Victorian fashion, is falling into the probably long grass, and that his ears are exposed. So, no, this isn’t some kind of quasi-mystical out-of-body experience.
It also took me a while to register that part of the strangeness of the poem, its slowed-down feeling, is that all four lines in each stanza rhyme on the same sound, so that we have a diminished sense of moving forward. I don’t offhand recall any other poem, at least in English, where this happens.
The poem is unique in Rossetti’s oeuvre (as is “Mishka” in John Gray’s) and, I have little doubt, in Victorian poetry generally. It is a kind of proto-Symbolist poem, as you can see in Edward Engelberg’s excellent anthology The Symbolist Poem.
Very precise details are used to evoke, here entirely credibly, an inner state that is not itself explained or discussed, beyond our knowing—in this instance— that it’s total grief. Focusing on a physical object out there seems entirely credible as a way of temporarily anaesthetizing the mind.
We are also, I am quite sure, not being invited to start allegorizing the experience (aha! gotcha, SYMBOL!) when we note that the woodspurge (what an unattractive name, and not in fact a delicate plant) has a cup of three.
I don’t know anything about the provenance of the poem, except that it was by who it was by—Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet. It could be the only poem by an otherwise unknown writer, and it would be no less good.
So far as I could see when skimming through Rossetti’s collected poems, he wrote nothing else in the least like it, his normal style being much more conventionally literary.
Adlestrop (Edward Thomas)
In a perfect recording of the poem, late in life, Edward Thomas’s widow Helen, who ought to know, calls it “Addlestrop.”
How strange it is when someone you identify with a period—she’s named in two or three of Thomas’s poems—lives on beyond it. Her agreeably textured voice has exactly the right speech rhythms that an intelligent middle-class woman would have had (which isn’t a tautology, for you can speak unnaturally into the mike) while she recalled an odd episode that had sort of pleased her.
Have the voices of age become smoother and less distinctive, I wonder? Are there older poets around now who sound like Frost or Stevens, as distinct from trying to sound like them?
It’s lovely how the loosened forms in the first two stanzas—three sentences ending in the middle of lines, the quick movement of “Unwontedly. It was late June” followed by the slowed down “The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat”—give way to the smooth-flowing tactile lyricism of the “regular” third stanza, which in turn gives way to the aural openness of the fourth, with the softened rhyming of “mistier” and “Gloucestershire.”
Back in those 1914-1918 years, this poem must have epitomized a beloved Englishness for people who couldn’t stomach Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier.” (“If I should die, think only this of me,” etc).
The sign on the platform would have been big, not one of those wretched little things you now strain to catch as they whiz past. In the first two and a half lines of the second stanza, the country silence is intensified by that hissing steam and the cleared throat. No-one’s talking in the compartment. No-one’s left the express train, or got into it, to explain the unexpected stop. No porter is on the platform, opening or closing heavy carriage doors, moving crates or milk-cans.
The Owl (Edward Thomas)
This speaks for itself, though it doesn’t hurt to know that it was written while Thomas, a volunteer, was serving on the Western Front in the 1914-18 war.
Thomas’s is one of the most distinctive voices in twentieth-century English poetry. It makes you feel that you really do know him and that it’s the same man talking in all of them, whatever their forms and subjects. The best and worst of his some hundred-and-fifty poems, all written while he was in the army, are far closer together than the best and worst of Hardy’s. Thomas’s worst poems are merely not as good as his best, not different in kind.
The poem “Swedes” (the root-crop) was in the Leavis-influenced textbook by A.F. Scott that was used in the Sixth Form at my secondary school. A few years later, reading New Bearings in English Poetry after finishing my time as an undergraduate, I came upon Leavis’s memorable celebration of Thomas and his finely chosen quotations from a couple of the poems.
Robert Graves was influenced by Thomas. So was Larkin. Others too, no doubt (Heaney?). Remarkably, Thomas himself never sounds like Hardy, or at least you would never mistake one of his poems for one of Hardy’s, though you might be reminded of his friend Robert Frost, who had got him to try his hand at poetry in the first place.
Thomas’s best poems now seem to me some of the less conversational ones— “Sowing,” “The Unknown,” “Gone, Gone Again,” Lights Out,” “The Long Small Room,” and “Out in the Dark.”
All, it appears from David Wright’s Penguin selection from Thomas’s works were written shortly before he was killed in 1917 at the start of the Batttle of Passchendaele. His poetic career had lasted less than twenty-eight months.
In the same introduction Wright quotes C.H. Sisson, himself a poet, as calling Thomas “without a doubt one of the most profound poets of the century.” I don’t know about that—I mean, I don’t know about that—but here is “Lights Out” in full:
I have come to the borders of sleep,
The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose
Their way, however straight,
Or winding, soon or late;
They cannot choose.
Many a road and track
That, since the dawn’s first crack,
Up to the forest brink,
Deceived the travelers,
Suddenly now blurs,
And in they sink.
Here love ends,
Despair, ambition ends;
All pleasure and all trouble,
Although most sweet or bitter,
Here ends in sleep that is sweeter
Than tasks most noble.
There is not any book
Or face of dearest look
That I would not turn from now
To go into the unknown
I must enter, and leave, alone,
I know not how.
The tall forest towers;
Its cloudy foliage lowers
Ahead, shelf above shelf,
Its silence I hear and obey
That I may lose my way
Frères humains / O brother men (François Villon)
The title of Villon’s best-known poem seems to be up for grabs—variously “L’Epitaphe Villon,” “Ballade des pendus,” “L’Epitaphe en forme de ballade que feit Villon pour luy et pour ses compagnons, s’attendant etre pendu avec eulx” (“The epitaph in the form of a ballade that Villon made for himself and his companions while waiting to be hanged with them”), and, for Galway Kinnell in his 1982 double-text edition, simply “Ballade.”
I have chosen “Gibbet” (where bodies were left on display after being hanged) as more accurate for English readers. The speaker and his five companions here are evidently now simply skeletons and have been up there a good while. It is “nous les os,” we bones, that are speaking.
The idea of Villon sitting there in prison waiting to be hanged and whiling away the time with a poem, or at least this very polished one, sounds apocryphal. W.B. Yeats didn’t pace the floor of his new house that night composing “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory.” Walter Raleigh wrote a poem in the Tower of London before he was executed, as I recall, but it was simpler.
In any event, though, the possibility of being hanged, and the aftermath for the dangling body, is a grim reality in Villon’s masterpiece.
Typing out the poem was a pleasure, since this fifteenth-century French contains no accent marks apart from the two cedillas. Why couldn’t they have kept things that way?
The spelling appears to be more phonetic, too. The rhyme-word ‘S’s are evidently meant to be sounded (“endurcis” rhyming with “six”) . I don’t know if the Ss in words like “nostre” and “tost” (tôt) were sounded, or the L’s in words like “vueille” and “absouldre” (absoudre), though no doubt I could find out if I were to spend more time in the library stacks. Presumably we can glimpse here the French of Paris in the process of losing some of the Mediterranean fullness.
The original manuscript, Kinnell reports, was virtually without punctuation. The punctuation here comes from the scholarly-seeming French edition that I used.
Evidently a few words are in scholarly dispute.
“Debuer,” for instance, could, it appears, mean “washed with lye” but what would no doubt have been a familiar process then would draw too much attention to itself here in English. I would imagine that what would have been evoked for French readers up until fairly recently would have been the washerwomen boiling, pounding, and soaking clothes in a communal washing-place.
We ourselves saw it still going on in “our” Provence village in the 1960s. It figures prominently in Zola’s best novel, L’Assomoir.
The ballade form, in its several manifestations, is a given—three stanzas with the same rhymes in each, the same line at the end of each stanza, the reversal in the middle of each stanza, the concluding envoi repeating elements in the preceding stanzas.
So the art of writing a ballade is partly a matter of achieving naturalness in a highly stylized form, with everything anchored to, or tied together by, the repeated refrain.
The version here, technically a ballade supreme, is more difficult than the basic one with eight-line stanzas and a four line envoi.
Ballades in modern English have tended to be light and in octosyllabic lines, emphasizing the play and cleverness and being, perhaps, more song-like, as is Villon’s own lovely “Où sont les neiges d’antan?” (“Where are the snows of yesteryear?”)
In “Frères humains” the movement is slow and not at all playful. The hemmed-in-ness of the form answer to the plight of the hanged, who have no forward-reaching expectations beyond the hope of not being condemned to hell.
The stanzas are individuated, too.
In the first, we have the firmness of person-to-person statement, opening with a command. The lines are mainly self-sufficient syntactically. The first two are a complete unit, as are the next two. The one after that is free-standing, and the last three are a unit, the second and third of them self-sufficient.
In the second stanza, there’s more vulnerability, a greater felt need to argue and plead. They need help, they want prayers made on their behalf, they hope for divine mercy, The first sentence occupies two and a half lines, the next a line and a half. Then we have a run of four lines, leading out and down into hell.
In the third stanza, we have the sheer corporeality of it all.
To put things less formally, in the first stanza we’re presented with the situation—the skeletons, the gawking or joking visitors—and a demand for a recognition of a shared humanity.
In the second, there’s a fuller analysis of the ethical situation—an acknowledgment of having no right to sympathy, but a hope nevertheless for mercy, including the mercy of Jesus, since otherwise there will be the torments of hell.
In the third, the dreadful physicality of it all is presented in such a way that the six almost seem to have been alive during those depletings.
Finally, in the envoi, there’s a reaching out directly to Jesus, going over the heads of the more or less Decent Citizenry.
Around the time I wrote the first two poems quoted in connection with “Rites of Autumn,” I also wrote the following. It didn’t come at a sitting, though, as I had erroniously remembered, and I have conflated eleven drafts of it and solved an irritating syntactical problem with line eight.
Romance in Execution Dock
This captain’s heart in error was grown so black
That even the children, pausing, cried alack,
And loud the public winds roared where he swung.
Drowned were the tales that wagged that angry tongue,
Of seven-day hungers and waves tall as a house,
While the gulls deftly made ridiculous
The gaudy splendours of a long disease.
And all the journeying terrors of the seas
Shrank to the confines of a tattered chart,
Which shows none of the routes, now, of a heart
Tense with its fevers and the crew’s distress,
But only, with baroque inventiveness,
Hides the poor ragged dead by whispering
Of golden oceans where the mermaids sing.
I showed it to George Steiner, a staircase or two away from me, who showed me one of his (I thought some of the metaphors were overwrought), and he noted, as I did, the barely disguised echo here of John Crowe Ransom’s “Captain Carpenter” at the start, and objected that gulls aren’t deft but fierce, and threw up his hands in dismay, literally, at the mermaids. I tried replacing them with dolphins, but it didn’t seem to work.
I don’t recall whether he mentioned the general Robert Gravesishness, or the echo of Auden’s “And, taller than a tree,/ Hold sudden death before our eyes.” The poem is basically Graves with trimmings.
It’s bad, of course. You can see the harm done, as in Yeats’ early poetry, by an over-figurativeness that prevents you from getting further into whatever it is that’s really bothering you.
But I’m interested to see that back then, as now, I was concerned with the dwindling down of experience, and the reader’s possible unawareness of the intense muddling that can go into the creating of certain kinds of order.
I had bought Villon’s collected poems during my stay in Paris in the summer of 1946.
But I am morally certain that his great poem wasn’t consciously in my mind when I wrote “Execution Dock” (or it wrote itself) three years later.
You didn’t have to go to Villon to learn about gallows and gibbets. One of the Wiltshire Downs, a short drive from where my grandparents lived, was Inkpen Beacon, and on the top of it, as I learned at an early age, had stood the Inkpen Gibbet. A single post still marked the spot, ominous-looking as the car wended its way up-hill.
John Schlesinger and Alan Cook had made an amateur feature movie that summer about a couple who were hanged there, and they showed it that fall.
Execution Dock was the name for a spot on the Thames at London where pirates were hanged, according to, what? Treasure Island? Conan Doyle’s pirate stories? And of course, as a kid in London, I knew of Tyburn Tree on the north-east corner of what is now Hyde Park, to which highwaymen like Jack Shepherd were taken in a cart to be hanged. I could go on.
Though I dislike such terms, I guess you might say that the gallows/gibbet is one of the major archetypal images, not because it sends the mind racing out along literary paths, but because you can immediately enter empathetically into the experience of being hanged yourself before a crowd of your fellow citizens and then left there exposed for all to see. Not all literary influences come from literature.
Here is another well-known and remarkable poem on this topic:
Three Things There Be
Three things there be that prosper up apace
And flourish, while they grow asunder far,
But on a day they meet all in one place,
And when they meet, they one another mar.
And they be these: the wood, the weed, the wag.
The wood is that which makes the gallow tree;
The weed is that which strings the hangman’s bag;
The wag, my pretty knave, betokeneth thee.
Mark well, dear boy, whilst they assemble not,
Green springs the tree, hemp grows, the wag is wild,
But when they meet, it makes the timber rot;
It frets the halter, and it chokes the child.
God bless the child.
Remarkable how? I guess partly for its cool acknowledgment of a natural inevitability in the order of things. These are things that happen, and they can happen to you, to me, to anyone, dearest son, charming though you may be personally, if you have breached the social order.
It’s a nice world, partly. Things grow and flourish, and you can have fun while you’re young. And a father can be a good father, addressing his son as an intelligent being, separate from himself, and presumed capable of coping with grimmer facts. But none of this can protect or save.
None of the normal pageantry and horror is here. No judges, jailers, spectators, not even the conventionally awesome masked executioner, but simply, by implication, a functionary walking or riding to work with his equipment in a string bag.
And what a formidable progression through the stanzas! In the first, you’re listening, it’s general, what’s going on? is this a riddle poem? The second looks as if it will be more of the same, the riddle explained, the parallelism kept up. But that’s just the first line. Suddenly the wood is the gallows tree, a term going back, I see from my dictionary, to Angle-Saxon times. And then we have the instant locating in the present with that string bag. And then the clinching, shocking solving of the third element in the riddle as the stanza and line end with “thee.”
The third stanza stretches the two halves of the emotional equation—the lively livingness (greenness, the plant that also furnishes the hangman’s rope, the funning); but also the deadening and injuring of things, in a way that makes the tree and the plant seem also, to some slight degree, victims of the process by which crimes require laws which require implements for their enforcement.
It chokes the child. Brilliant! The wag, the smartass, who’s been running wild, may not now be literally a child, but you feel the tenderness of the still young throat that’s being choked. And maybe a child can literally be hanged, so that it’s that kind of dangerous world.
My dictionary also tells me that “wag” was short for “waghalter.” It has taken me far too many decades to appreciate the beauties of the dictionary.
I have given here the version in which I first read the poem. There is another one in which the appended phrase “God bless the child,” with its quiet evocation of the child now, is replaced with a conventionally moralistic couplet. To my mind this virtually wrecks the poem by converting it into one of those “Shakespearean” sonnets whose supposedly real point comes at the end, the preceding particularities serving to illustrate or necessitate it.
I was never A Poet. But it can be helpful to a teacher to have some idea of what it’s like to create even a bad poem.
At the San Francisco Airport (Yvor Winters)
In one of the two or three albums of recordings by Yvor Winters, the poems that he reads the most expressively are this one, which was the nearest to him in time, and several by William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Ezra Pound (especially “Lament of the Frontier Guard”).
When he reads his other poems, it is more as if he were demonstrating how they ought to be read rather than fully inhabiting the feeling in them at the moment that is being articulated in the poem. But he is indeed there at the airport
And so is she, small, vulnerable, and her own self now, separate from him and going where she must go, while he has faded temporarily from her mental screen. (“I am the past, and that is all.”) But though the temporal gap is widening, he sees a deeper resemblance in their overlapping values and ways of coping, not easily, with a difficult world.
Each stanza feels, and is, different.
In the first, we have five free-standing statements, three of them coextensive with the lines in which they are made.
In the second, the presentation of her flows forward through four lines, none of them free-standing.
In the third, an analytical parallelism helps in defining common features of the two of them.
In the fourth— syntactically the most fractured—there is no formulaic wisdom-of-the-books summarizing. Instead there’s a momentary disintegration of “mind”—as can indeed happen when one is simply overloaded sensorily, especially in the shadowless fluorescent light of airports—and a che sera sera acceptance of what has had to go into the fathering that has led up to this point.
In the last stanza, again, we’re back to the physical details, including the public externality of airline systems, and the absoluteness (for the moment at least) of the physical separation.
The rhymes seem to me to matter, but not in a way I can account for.
In Marvell’s “The Mower to the Glow Worms ” or Yeats’ “The Wild Swans at Coole,” you can identify the drama of the lift from a low-pitched sound at the end of a stanza to a high-pitched one at the start of the next.
With “At the San Francisco Airport,” I can only say that the sounds at the ends of each of the first lines are all different —“ight,” “all,” “un,” “enss,” “ake.” Oh, and that the first line of the poem ends with a relatively high-pitched diphthong (“light”/ah-ee), and that the last line of the poem ends with a still higher pitched one (“awake”/ay-ee), and that the other rhyme words in those two stanzas are substantially lower-pitched. In the other three stanzas, the sounds are closer together.
So the first and the last stanza, over and above the repetition and modification (including the more declarative sentences), serve to contain the poem.
I have a theory that from the late Twenties on, Winters had to some extent been re-doing Yeats, in ways that Winters himself could approve of.
I’m not speaking of romantic self-identification. His own strictures on Yeats, though never on all of Yeats’s poems, were severe.
But Yeats, even more than Pound, had been Mr. Poetry in the early 1900s when Winters (as we can see in his letters and early writings) was growing up, reading voraciously, and straining after a possessed experiential truth beyond the merely social or verbal.
And when the still hyper-intense Chicago-born Winters of the late 1920s turned away from the perils of that craving, as revealed in the deterioration and suicide of Hart Crane, and set about grounding himself in his new environment out in intellectually provincial California, Yeats had, figuratively, been there before him, just as Swift had been there before Yeats in Ireland.
With his reachings into the Irish past, and his increased recognition of symbolic figures and episodes, both distant and recent, Yeats had transmuted Ireland, image-wise, from the damp, priest-ridden, and drably and/or nastily political backwater of Joyce’s Dubliners into a dramatic country of the mind where heroism and self-realization were embodied and valued, in contrast to the spiritual mediocrity of imperial London.
So you have poems by Winters, now at a far remove from the East Coast power centers, and seeking to ground himself more deeply in the humanized world, about his friends and relatives, and about political dramas that bring moral values into a sharper focus (the corrupt prosecution of David Lamson), and about the machinery and demands of literal wars in which one was not oneself serving, and about the physical landscapes in one’s own part of the world, and about constructing one’s domestic site (Yeats’ tower, Winters’ garden). And other things.
When Winters dedicated this poem to his daughter, you can be pretty sure that he was well aware that Yeats had written the very different “A Prayer for My Daughter,” in which, he discloses that, “In courtesy I’d have her chiefly learned,” and in which he requests,
May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound,
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.
Written in a Copy of Swift’s Poems, for Wayne Burns (James Wright)
A lovely poem. I can’t recall where I found it (it may have been sent by a friendly correspondent, James C. White), but I think of it as being from the Sixties or Seventies.
The exact date, beyond its being from the boom years of the American academic industry, doesn’t matter. What is it about? Swift. No, but what is it about? You mean, what is Wright doing in it?
Oh, I suppose celebrating (himself an at times romantic and free-versing poet) the poignancy and nobility of a writer popularly taken to be essence-of-tidy-classicism in his verse. Also, of course, contrasting that really very private writer with the coarsely self-complacent doings of academic “experts.” Art is private and inward. Art lives in the sensitive individual reader. Art outlives the scholarly or pseudo-scholarly dissectings.
What I really love about the poem is how it sings to you—so relaxed and conversational (the conversation of good friends), and so comfortable in its use of slightly “off” rhymes, yet so graceful. I like the lyrical rise in the second half of stanza two, produced partly by the shift in the rhyme scheme that permits the higher-pitched “Wayne…day…Gay” diphthongs (the earlier line-endings are all lower-pitched), the repetition of “charming,” the here-lovely epithet “electric.” I like the further rise, the heightened but not stiff gravitas of the closing four lines.
Oh yes, and the poem is about love, and friendship, and admiration. And perhaps (obliquely) about a current turning away from a celebration of those things and of what one might (taking a tip from the poem itself) choose to call nobility. It’s almost as if Wright had been challenged to use the words “lovely, “happy,” “charming,” beautiful, “great,” “magnificent,” and “noble,” or their cognates in a single poem without becoming soupy. Which test he finely passes, it seems to me.
Among other things, he anchors the poem in the physical activities of conference-going, with a glimpse too of the still rural Ireland of narrow and probably winding lanes. The closing four lines would be less persuasive without those horses’ asses in there.
The first stanza is casual and contextual, about himself, and Wayne (whoever he may be), and Roethke (in conversation with them? in his writings?), and the associations the book has for him. The opening rhyming of “hold of” and ”told of” is throwaway, the first four lines are a unit (two lines/two lines), the next four move faster, all one sentence, and you keep going to find why he thinks about those lanes and what McNamara wrote and what came after.
The second stanza is slower, richer, denser.
There are the same number of syllables in “And the drunk Chairman snores alone” as in “His lovely elegy, before,” but what a difference! And there’s conceptual enrichment with the coinage “Swift-men,” the word-play on “fields” (contrasting with those lanes where, one supposes, Wright himself had walked), and the theatrical images of Swift singing and Swift and Gay and Pope alive and at ease together in an Elysium of the mind.
The rhyming’s become more complicated, too, with the off-rhymes of “gone/alone” and “lost/ghost,” the linkage of train/Wayne/day/Gay, and the consonantal overlappings in “gone/train/alone/Wayne.”
And also more complicated in another way.
After reading “Swift is alive in secret, Wayne,/Singing of Stella’s happiest day,” we expect, given what happens at that point in the first stanza (“I think of lanes in Laracor/Where Brinsley MacNamara wrote”) that the next line will end differently, but in fact the same rhyme continues, “Charming a charming man, John Gay,” which puts an increased emphasis on “Gay.”
And if we look more attentively, we see that the stanza has shifted into couplets for its last four lines, except that the couplet-effect is muted by the closing off-rhyme pairing of “lost” and “ghost,” in which the tighter vowel in “lost” is followed by the opening-up in the diphthong in “ghost.” (Voice the vowel and the diphthong by themselves and you will see what I mean.)
It is also a stanza with communities in it—the conference community, the private community of those three friends.
In the third stanza the focus is now on the individual, poignant, and, in his greatness, emblematic Swift, living and dying alone, private here in these small “songs” for his adored (at a safe distance) Stella, but also the Swift of the heroic range and ambition of his greatest works, and of his life, with a contrast between the literal statements in the first four lines and the powerful figurative one (plus those horses’ asses) in the remainder, linked by that lovely “Gently, listen,” with the feminine ending “passes”, the first since “hold of,” further differentiating the line.
I had assumed that Brinsley MacNamara’s “lovely elegy” was eighteenth-century, one Irishman paying tribute to another, maybe on the kind of good rag paper, with those odd long S’s, that are in the four little duodecimo volumes of Swift’s poems that I acquired forty-some years ago in Minneapolis, I forget how. It was exciting to feel that there might be a fine and overlooked poem out there.
But Google yields up the information that the name was a pseudonym and that MacNamara (John Weldon) lived from 1890 to 1963, writing novels and plays. There are no books by him in the city in which I write, and I haven’t felt ambitious enough to track the poem down. If poems, as someone said, aren’t finished, just abandoned, the same is true of every literary interaction. There is always more to be found out, but time and energy are limited. Would it matter if, on reading it, I didn’t find the elegy lovely? Not for the poem and its generous-spiritedness.
Here, in case you’re curious, is the first of the eleven so-called “Poems to Stella” that Wright is presumably referring to:
Stella’s Birthday, 1718
Stella this day is thirty-four,
(We shan’t dispute a year or more.)
However, Stella, be not troubled;
Altho’ thy size and years are doubled,
Since first I saw thee at sixteen,
The brightest virgin on the green,
So little is thy form declined
Made up so largely in thy mind.
Oh! would it please the gods to split
Thy beauty, size, and years, and wit,
No age could furnish out a pair
Of nymphs so graceful, wise, and fair,
With half the lustre of your eyes,
With half your wit, your years, and size;
And then, before it grew too late,
How should I beg of gentle Fate
(That either nymph might have her swain)
To split my Worship too in twain.
We know, biographically, that “Stella” was Swift’s pet name for his friend—and it was only a friendship—Esther Johnson. Even if we didn’t “know” this, I think we’d assume from the tone and details of the poem that a real woman was behind the name, in contrast, probably, to the “Juliana” in Marvell’s “The Mower to the Glow Worms.”
Is Wright’s poem “romantic”? “classical”? neither? both. Personally I would say that it was both. T.E. Hulme himself said that he half wished he’d chosen another pair of terms for that major essay of his, “Classicism and Romanticism.” I wonder what would be the right term here.
In The Angel-Makers (subtitle, A Study in the Psychological Origins of Historical Change 1750-1850) the science writer Gordon Rattray Taylor interestingly argues that the two socio-psychological poles are really Romanticism and Puritanism, or the Matrist and the Patrist. Classicism, in his typology, lies in between them.
Are there too many proper names in the poem?— the perennial question of readers irritated by The Waste Land and Pound’s Cantos. Too many for what, I suppose one might ask. Obviously the audience for it is narrower in comparison with, say, Yeats’ “The Wild Swans at Coole.” And if you had never heard of Swift or Pope or Gay you would be missing quite a bit. But not, I think, everything.
In my penultimate year in high-school (English-type), when I was discovering Eliot on my own and came upon the lines
Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin,
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin,
I thought that Webster was a fictive character like Eliot’s Sweeney.
Reading Webster’s The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi shortly afterwards for scholarship purposes slightly weakened the impact of the lines, diluting the nightmarish tactility of that fictive consciousness, and inviting, if one cared to give it, more thought about the truth-to-ness of the lines.
But with or without the correct knowledge, I still knew that what was being talked about in the lines was attitudes, takes on the world.
Maybe a principle about allusions is that when one learns more about them, it shouldn’t change the direction of the poem at that point. And that there should be enough there in the allusion for you to feel the being and embodied value of whoever is being referred to.
Some of the names in Pound’s Cantos simply sit there irritatingly on the page, as if we all already knew who Ming-tung or Mezzopizza were and if we didn’t, well, we bloody well ought to.
I took a three-term seminar at Minnesota from the distinguished and very modest eighteenth-century scholar Samuel H. Monk, whose own deepest passion was for Swift. We wrote eight papers for him, and it was one of those experiences where you did indeed spend willingly, even excitedly, those days in the dark stacks that J.V.Cunningham speaks of in “To a Friend, on Her Examination for the Doctorate in English,” trying to get ever deeper into the works themselves and into what, out in the real world of the time, was being talked about in them.
My own first paper was on the assigned topic of Swift and the Decay of Letters, and Monk (stopping me as we passed on the department stairs; he didn’t collect the six in-class papers) called it “an awfully good paper, Mr. Fraser,” one of those accolades that you cherish, and I included the paper thirty years later in my The Name of Action.
There are Swift-men and Swift-men, and Monk showed what the life of passionate scholarship, of “knowledge enforced by firm detail,” could be like. I threw something new his way, though, when in another paper, I called Swift’s letters to Stella “tipsy.” As I’m sure they often were, when he sat down to them at night after drinking with his well-born political friends. That was the first time, Monk said with a touch of amusement, that he’d heard that said of Swift.
James Wright taught for a bit at Minnesota when I was there, and I passed him too on the stairs occasionally, a stocky, thick-necked, slightly worried-looking man, with glasses. He was born only a year before me, I have found, but I thought of him as a grown-up, I myself being a mere student.
Are the things that I’ve said about the poem itself therefore “simply” due to these personal experiences? (Standard Reductive Question #7.) I don’t myself think so, and I don’t particularly care for Wright’s other poems, which too often feel like third carbons of Roethke. But in any event, the counter-question would have to be, “Well, does what I’ve said about the poem seem true to you?”
They Flee from Me (Thomas Wyatt)
This must by now be one of the best-known poems in the language, but, like “The River Merchant’s Wife,” it never grows stale. As Ezra Pound remarked, great literature is news that stays news. Like Rossetti’s “The Woodspurge,” “They Flee from Me” comes uncluttered by “period” stylistic baggage.
The only adjectives preceding nouns in it are “naked,” “loose,” “pleasant,” “strange”—no colour, no colour anywhere. No word-painting descriptions of “them,” either, or “her”— only naked feet, upright postures (“stalking,” like deer, with their precisely placed little feet), long slender arms.
We have movement in that first stanza—fleeing (rapid), seeking (slower), stalking (slower still), wildness again (a space opening up), approaching, taking held bread, ranging again, ranging restlessly.
Then in the second stanza there’s the lovely recalled slowed-down particular occasion, and she’s comfortably there with him, not having to be enticed, letting the loose gown drop (nothing under it, obviously), and holding him, and kissing him sweetly, and saying, softly, those loving words.
All a bit dream-like, but not a dream. He really was lying there, seeing her come into his room in that thin gown, probably in the afternoon, since there’s nothing about light and dark and candles in the poem, so probably he was resting.
But the relationship, and it was one, not just one of the transitory affairs, has terminated, he having been, what? not forceful enough, and she, a real self, having released him and asserted her right to her own new relationships. And how has it gone for her since then?
Notice the flow-forward in “They flee from me that sometime did me seek,/ With naked foot, stalking in my chamber, “ and in “To take bread at my hand; and now they range,/ Busily seeking with continual change,” and in “”When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall/ and she me caught in her arms long and small,/ Therewith all sweetly did me kiss,/ And softly said: “Dear heart, how like you this?”—lengthenings on the page and when spoken.
Note also that in present-day English some of the verbs in the first stanza would be a phrase or a more Latinate word rather than the single vigorous one here—“flee”/“stay away from” (or “avoid”), “seek”/ “came looking for me,” “range”/“roam around.”
The poem is remarkable for its freedom from the conventional Cupid’s-dart, Venus’-servant, Love’s-slave apparatus, the “Yew gotta love me ‘cos Ah loves yew” ethos. There doesn’t seem to me to be an “ought” there at all. He’s in a melancholy present recalling a happier and lustier time past, with some puzzlement as to how to conceptualize the changes. Wistful, might one say?
I know it’s been argued that he’s feeling bitter towards her, but he certainly isn’t presenting himself as Sir Truelove Faithful in the first stanza, and if it were demonstrated convincingly that the “kindly” in the third one is intended ironically, or that the alternate meaning of “according to kind,” i.e., according to the nature of Woman, is the right one here, the poem would be weaker because more conventional and morally a bit obtuse.
But I am not sure that it could be demonstrated (this isn’t like the hair in “The Woodspurge”), and in any event I find that I don’t want to go to the stacks and get bogged down in a no doubt complicated scholarly-critical controversy. All my other favourites here can be read without having to do that kind of trip because of a point of interpretation that affects the whole poem. I am content to leave this one open.
Or rather, to go on feeling, in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, that he’s wondering now how things turned out for her.
His also well-known “Madam, withouten many words” isn’t in the language of a pseudo-moral sense of erotic entitlement.
Madam, withouten many words,
Once I am sure ye will or no,
And if ye will, then leave your bordes,
And use your wit and show it so.
And with a beck ye shall me call,
And if one one that burneth always
Ye have any pity at all,
Answer him fair with yea or nay.
If it be yea I shall be fain,
If it be nay, friends as before;
Ye shall another man obtain
And I mine own and yours no more.
“Bordes” means jests. The non-romanticizing, non-“problematizing” tone is what we can still hear three centuries later in the conversation of the literal lords and figurative ladies of Harriet WIlsan’s glorious Regency memoirs.
Wyatt’s great, plangent “My Lute Awake” has too much of the gusto of craft to be a straightforward carpe diem expression of unhappiness. It is song, and rich in its self-dramatization and accumulating indictments of her, as well as deft in finding the rhymes for the word “done” at the end of each stanza.
The juxtaposition with those two poems serves to bring out further the looser rhythms and syntactical structuring of “They Flee from Me,” the first two lines all a subordinate clause after the first four words, lines four to six largely a subordinate clause (“That now are wild,” etc), and the second stanza almost all a subordinate clause.
It was better once when—and the rest is all the “when,” with an odd blurring of the straightforward narrative line by “In thin array, after a pleasant guise,” which in fact doesn’t attach itself immediately to a noun or pronoun.
And I suspect that the poem is less odd metrically than it appears when read with present-day speech patterns.
There is indeed a reversed foot with “stalking,” the rest of line two becoming trochaic (tumty, rather than ti-tum), but it’s still a five-stress ten-syllable line. And I don’t think that line three has only four stresses (“seen”/“gentle”/“tame”/“meek”). I think it’s more natural to feel the “I” as stressed too (the rhythm still trochaic).
And I’m reasonably sure that in line four, it’s not “That now are wild and do not remember,” but “That now are wild [pause] and do not remember.”
And in line five (continuing the trochaic pattern), the “That” is slightly stressed and “time” rather than “some” is stressed (“That some time they put themselves in danger”).
The word “special” in the second stanza is obviously trisyllabic, rhyming with “fall” and “small.”
In the first line of the third stanza, I think that “I lay broad waking” is said with an emphasis (denying that it was a dream) in which “I” and “lay” and “broad” and “waking” are all more or less equally stressed, lengthening that part of the line in the mind’s ear, so that you aren’t conscious of the “missing” syllable.
I would also think that “kindly” is not our “kin-dly” but “kind-ly,” which would make it, when voiced, trisyllabic.
Of course there are still five lines in the poem that lack (in iambic-pentameter terms) a syllable. But that’s just fine, it works. These are speech patterns.
In the late 1950s, a second-generation New Critic called Arnold Stein published what I recall as a twenty-plus-page “interpretation” of “They Flee from Me” in the Sewanee Review, in which he argued, among other things, that the plural in the first stanza shouldn’t be taken literally. I praised it deadpan, in the graduate-student quarterly that I was co-editing, as a devastating satire that gave the coup-de-grace to the New Exegeticism.
With characteristic humility, Samuel H. Monk stopped me in the corridor to thank me for having put him straight about the article. He had, he said, assumed that it was intended seriously. (No, he wasn’t being ironical, even though his best-known article was on the irony of Swift.)
You can see why people were starting to get fed up in those days with Nouveau Crit.
The Wild Swans at Coole (W.B. Yeats)
Yeats became a master of stanzaic organization, each stanza doing its own kind of work in a poem. Note here the power that accrues to the first lines, all different, of stanza two to five from their contrasts with the terse concluding lines of the preceding stanza.
Note also the various ways in which those stanzas depart from the neat structure of the first one, in which each pair of lines is a self-sufficient declarative sentence.
And how in the fourth stanza, with its forward-leading verbless first line (“Unwearied still, lover by lover”), the movement continues with the strong enjambment in the second line, and the third line is energized by the juxtaposition of the polysyllabic (latinate) “companionable” and the kinesthetic (folk locution) “climb the air,” where you feel the effort of flight required to get those heavy bodies airborne.
And after the emphatic generalizations that take us out into those so different consciousnesses from his own (“Their hearts have not grown old”), the final stanza opens with a bit of delicate mimesis, “But now they drift on the still water,/Mysterious, beautiful,” two words only, in balance, slightly rocking, and with the softened end of “beautiful.”
Note also the weight—partly a matter of position, partly a matter of departure from the norm of diction here— of words like “brimming,” “wheeling,” “companionable,” and “bell-beat.” Also the slightly softened rhymes of “stones/swans” (will there be more to come, one wonders?), “beautiful/pool.”
And no, this isn’t Irishness or what Yeat’s friend Ezra Pound would have called Oirishness.
The phrase “climb the air,” like the statement in “In Memory of Majory Robert Gregory” that the chimney has gone “black out,” are indeed Irish idioms. But Yeats could rhyme with perfectly conventional “English” precision when he wanted to, and you know that departures from that are deliberate, which is to say, expressively functional.
As they are in the 1917 epigram “The Balloon of the Mind,” an allusion to tethered observation balloons:
Hands, do what you’re bid;
Bring the balloon of the mind
That bellies and drags in the wind
Into its narrow shed.
That poem and “The Wild Swans” were in a copy (not, I think, a first edition) of The Wild Swans at Coole, with a cover design in gold by the poet T. Sturge Moore, that had mysteriously ended up in my high school library. I remember complaining to the master in charge about the library label that had been stuck on it.
But the poem that most fascinated me—this was around 1945—was “Her Praise,” with its strangely rocking rhythms and entirely uncoloured diction, beginning with:
She is foremost of those that I would hear praised.
I have gone about the house, gone up and down
As a man does who has published a new book
Or a young girl dressed out in her new gown…
Which helped make the life of “serious” authorship exciting by making it feel accessible.
I say a bit more about “The Wild Swans at Coole” in “Powers of Style.”
An Irish Airman Foresees His Death (W.B.Yeats)
I almost left this out as being too obvious—and besides, I talk a bit about it elsewhere. But I’ve had it by heart for years, and though the “I,” the speaker of the poem, is fictive and other for me in a way that the “I’s” of most of the other poems here aren’t, including the other two by Yeats, it is still a moving and very satisfying poem.
It’s highly artificial in its rhetoric—the speaker dead, the progression hyper-orderly, and all that syntactical parallelism— but it compresses real feelings and attitudes with respect to the deaths of young men in war before they have had a chance to live the full lives to which we feel them entitled; their “normal” life span.
And, in its particular compressions, it is not being some of the other ways of coping poetically with that subject, under the broader rubric of epitaphs.
Such poems are essentially comfortings, ways of seeing losses as not mere negatings, mere needless deprivings of the dead of their expected due, and others of the companionship that they hoped for.
Rupert Brooke had written in advance his own Great-War epitaph in that way, “The Soldier,” its central point (“If I should die, think only this of me/ That there’s some corner of a foreign field/ That is forever England”) being a simplification of what Thomas Hardy had done at the time of the Boer War a decade-and-a-half earlier in “Drummer Hodge.”
Hardy’s poem movingly progresses through its three stanzas from the opening casualness of “They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest/ Uncoffined—just as found,” via an evocation of the high dry South African plateau and the Southern constellations above it that would have been so strange to the representative English country boy (as young as thirteen or fourteen), to a mystical sense of the unity of that buried lad, that landscape, those constellations.
Brooke’s poem, in contrast, collapses into stuff about a personified “England,” and the “eternal mind,” and the like. But the sentiment of the opening, and of Hardy’s larger vision, still has its emotional truth, as you recognize when seeing on the box those Great War cemeteries of Canadians and others, still maintained in what used to be called Flanders Fields.
So that was, and is, one kind of comforting.
There was also (WWI still) the dulce et decorum sense of duty done and public good accomplished, such as in the clever pseudo-classical kitsch of A.E. Housman’s two-quatrain “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries,” about the small army of British regulars who delayed the German advance in 1914.
These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling,
And took their wages and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.
The magniloquent overstatements in the first stanza (“These in the days when heaven was falling,/ The hour when Earth’s foundations fled”) are neatly paralleled in the second (“Their shoulders held the sky suspended./ They stood, and Earth’s foundations stay”.)
And ironical play is made with Kaiser Wilhelm II’s dismissal of the soldiers as a contemptible little army of mercenaries. The Old Contemptibles (to give them their own self-designation thereafter) “followed their mercenary calling,/ And took their wages and are dead,” the word “mercenary” being given its full four-syllable weighting to fill out the line.
But when you stop to think about it, what’s he talking about with those falling heavens and collapsing foundations?
Well, simply the possibility that the German army that had swept through Belgium, following the Von Schlieffen plan, would have reached Paris and put an end to the conflict with the war-as-game speed that everyone, including young men tired of the tedium and complexities of peace, had expected when it started, and which, in view of the four years of insensate horror that ensued on the near-miss halting of that advance, would have been a blessing for everyone, including the French.
The poem is a good example of the patriotic “classical” rhetoric that would induce in F.R. Leavis after the war a hyper-sensitivity to muddled and/or inappropriate figurative language, and to the rhetorical self-beglamourizing of General Othello, and which would lead to the Scrutiny movement’s extending downwards into the British school system, where young readers were shown how to read more alertly.
But note—Housman’s rhetoric isn’t objectionable because of internal inconsistencies. It’s objectionable because of its misrepresentation of external realities—its referential falsity. Under different circumstances, such as the foiling of an H.G.Wellsian plot to lay waste London, Paris, and Rome, it would look better, wouldn’t it?
Robert Bridges’ was more economically “classical” in the two-line poem, also in 1914, that Yvor Winters praises in Forms of Discovery:
Askest thou of these graves? They’ll tell thee, O stranger in England,
How we Worcesters lie where we redeem’d the battle.
The classical metre presumably slows your reading down and serves to remind you, if you happen to know them (which I don’t), of comparably understated Greek epitaphs, with an implicit sense of shared nobilities across the centuries.
I can’t say that the poem seems all that wonderful to me, though.
But then, neither does Hugh McDiarmid’s “Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries” from the early Thirties, which Leavis praised at the time:
It is a God-damned lie to say that these
Saved, or knew, anything worth any man’s pride.
They were professional murderers and they took
Their blood money and impious risks and died.
In spite of all their kind some elements of worth
With difficulty persist here and there on earth.
It’s in the Nortons, I see, or at least in my oldish copy of one of them, and I suppose it’s felt to be speaking Important Classroom Truths that the impressionable young need to be inoculated with. But as an enunciation of I.C.T.s about professional soldiers (and sailors and airmen) everywhere, it’s a goddam lie itself.
So you have to do some filling in to get it to work right, such as by summoning up media images of the professional British army in 1914, or guessing what aspects of it MacDiarmid himself had in mind.
And was he contrasting the British volunteer army with those of Germany and France, where they had universal military service? Or were those the armies of capitalist countries, and would MacDiarmid, a hardcore Stalinist to the end, have condemned the Red Army fighting the Whites to save the Revolution in 1918-1921, or the Government forces trying to keep Franco from Madrid in 1937? You can bet your life he wouldn’t.
Anti-martial rhetoric can be curiously selective. It all depends, sometimes, on whose peace is being defended.
If you were to judge the two poems “in themselves,” meaning allowing some degree of referentiality (1914 and all that), but not pushing the point, and viewed them as, well, mimetic expressions of “natural” or “understandable” modes of feeling on the part of two individuals coming from vastly different and adversarial cultures, how would they fare?
Personally, I’d opt for the elegance of Housman’s epitaph, which at least has an operatic swell and flare to it, maybe with background music by Elgar.
Orwell said somewhere or other that some pleasures are like a taste for cheap sweets. He wasn’t being snobbish. There’s obviously a zone of the mind where you can, if you wish, say, “I know this is defective, but I just can’t bring myself to put it out with the trash.”
One of the numerous pleasures for me of Philip Larkin’s Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse was coming early in it upon Henry Newbolt’s gamey but effective Imperialist ballad-narrative “He Fell Among Thieves,” which I pretty well had by heart as an adolescent, just as a few years later I would have by heart most of Auden’s “Now from my window-sill I watch the night.” Newbolt’s poem had obviously lodged itself in Larkin’s own youthful consciousness, utterly different though his own verse would be.
Does what I’m confessing to here take us towards a welter of “camp” subjectivities, where you like this and I like that and never the twain can meet? No, or at least it needn’t. The term “like” is broad and loose, and one can still talk with others about what’s there in this poem or that, rather than moving out into autobiography. And either or both of you may notice things that you hadn’t noticed before.
Leavis famously suggested that a useful paradigm for critical exchanges is, “This is so, isn’t it?” “Yes, but…” (though I suppose the reply could also be, “Certainly not. Furthermore…”). Would I want to fight, in argument, for Housman’s epitaph over MacDiarmid’s, I mean really wanting to change someone else’s mind?
Certainly not. They’re both defective poems. But I’d be bothered if someone in a discussion group so disliked the politics of Housman’s poem that they simply couldn’t see its formal features at all, if only to better understand (from their perspective) how it worked its evil magic.
I don’t much care for Orwell’s category of the good-bad poem, though.
It invites the it’s-so-deliciously-bad-it’s-good ploy, as well as suggesting the existence of consensuses. It seems to me better to speak of things being good/quite good/not too bad of their kind, with the implication that they can be bad or unspeakably awful of their kind (as can this or that kind itself)—and be honest with yourself about things that you know are lousy but don’t or can’t wholly stay away from.
Some of the elements of goodness that I’ve talked about in Voices extend much further down the chain of “respectability”(or its absence) than people might think.
Snotty lists of the Ten Worst Movies are likely to contain egregious errors of inclusion. And King Kong doesn’t automatically make it onto lists of the hundred best ones.
Oddly enough, Rudyard Kipling’s thirty-two multi-perspectival “Epitaphs of the War 1914-18” in a variety of short forms aren’t jingoistic, and include “If any question why we died,/ Tell them, because our fathers lied.” (He had lost his own son in the war.)
But the effect, at least on me, of all those imagined first-person speakers (a coward, a nurse, a refined man, and so forth), and the insistently figurative language, is to make more remote and literary the actual flesh-and-blood figures who died in that collective butchery. This is not a space into which an Edward Thomas, a Wilfred Owen, a Henri Gaudier-Brzeska could enter and be spoken of meaningfully.
And Kipling achieves his own unique brand of repulsiveness in:
R.A.F. (Aged Eighteen)
Laughing through clouds, his milk-teeth still unshed,
Cities and men he smote from overhead.
His death delivered, he returned to play
Childlike, with childish things now put away.
Lastly, at least for my purposes here, there was that mind-set—increasingly difficult for someone like myself to comprehend now when watching totally insane skiing on the box, or total maniacs deliberately climbing overhanging rockfaces with nothing but the grips of their finger tips and their sneaker-clad toes to keep them from the sucking void—that Thomas Osbert Mordaunt had voiced in his eighteenth-century quatrain,
Sound, sound the clarion, fill the fife!
To all the sensual world proclaim,
One crowded hour of glorious life
Is worth an age without a name.
Julian Grenfell, a professional soldier who died of wounds in 1917 at the age of twenty-seven, and who—Eton and Balliol, “scholar, artist, poet, sportsman”—was described at the time as “one of the most complete Englishmen ever to come from Oxford” (though he sounds to me more like a more or less noble Nietzschean savage), wrote a famous forty-six-line poem, “Into Battle,” developing the proposition that, “life is colour and warmth and light,/ And a striving evermore for these;/ And he is dead who will not fight;/ And who dies fighting has increase.”
Apparently, to judge from Reginald Pound’s The Lost Generation (1964), he really meant it.
It was dulce et decorum stuff like this (“sweet and fitting to die for your country”) that made writers like Leavis and Céline and Breton, who had experienced up close the insensate horrors of that entrenched and long-drawn-out conflict, direct their energies subsequently against the public rhetoric, including bad “classical” figurative language, that had conduced to the conflict in the first place.
It was also those poems, well, not the Bridges one, that I myself was reading on my own, browsing in the library of my secondary-school during World War II in England, along with the weekly Illustrated London News (provided for the miniscule common-room in the boarding section of the school, with its reassuring battle maps and drawings of ingenious weaponry), and first-person non-fiction about tank battles in North African, and ingenious escapes from German prisoner-of-war camps, and heroic aerial combat, especially in Richard Hillary’s memoir The Last Enemy.
And you know, I think that irony would have been out of place there. The war was going on, the seniors (three of them I remember as especially admirable).whom you saw performing splendidly in rugger matches or keeping order by their mere vertical presence at morning assembly, went off to it, and others of us, who were given some rudiments of military expertise in the Army and Air Force cadet corps, were presumably going to go off in our turn.
This was simply how things were, it was the way the world was at that point.
And so, yes, the possibility of death, and the actuality of what would now be considered premature deaths, was, in a way, normal, so that you had no inclination to step outside the melée and say that this just shouldn’t be happening (though, come to think of it, my fellow DP from London, John Lynes, who was more politically sophisticated than I was, turned up after one vacationwith a scruffy paperback of savagely anti-war anarchist cartoons that struck me as practically treasonous—fat-pig top-hatted capitalists and all that. I mean, this war wasn’t about money surely?
Dachau and the torture chambers of the Gestapo were across the Channel. The Japanese with their long bayonets and their beheading swords were in China and on the Pacific islands. This was the world, and there had been wars before (as in Henry V), and there would no doubt be wars again.
Not that you particularly thought that you were going to die. There were hero-survivors a-plenty in the movies to identify with, and you certainly weren’t one of the supporting players who were casually picked off along the way. But if you did die, well, the self-sacrificing deaths of heroes in the final reel were not noble because they were deaths, they were fitting because they manifestly resulted from doing the only decent thing that could be done at that point, at least if you wanted to go on living with yourself morally.
Cowardice wasn’t an acceptable moral option.
And at that time, before teens and tweens and thongs and DVD’s, before Carnaby Street and Sergeant Pepper, before everything, it wasn’t as if an English male adolescent, at least a quasi-intellectual one, was looking ahead to a particularly rich and interesting future of which he would be deprived by some projectile.
But actually I wouldn’t have been conscripted until the summer of 1946, and after D-Day it was clear enough that the good guys would have won by then
So I think the kinds of comforting or death-defining that I’ve talked about were functional.
I myself was reading at the time the poems that I’ve mentioned, except for those by Bridges and Hardy. And it was moving, at least for a romantic like myself, when at the end of a memorial service in the school hall in 1945, some prefect read out from Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen” the lines that go, “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:/ Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn./ At the going down of the sun and in the morning/ We will remember them.”
Which, I now see, were a vulgarization of Housman’s irritating but deft “To an Athelete Dying Young,” and were the only remotely decent lines in an otherwise unspeakable awful poem.
It was at the same school, in the same years, that I read “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” And if I have gone on at the length I have about those other poems, it is by way of indicating what “An Irish Airman” isn’t, and what Yeats didn’t do.
The airman, the young Royal Flying Corps officer, being Irish, is a volunteer. He has not been conscripted. He has not been seduced by the ghastly patriotic rhetoric that D.H. Lawrence savaged in Kangaroo and elsewhere. He doesn’t hate the Germans (the Hun). He has not been put under any sensed or self-imposed moral obligation to enlist (those were the days when Englishwomen handed out white feathers to healthy-looking men in civilian clothes who could be presumed to “slackers,” a.k.a. draft-dodgers).
The airman is Irish, not English, he doesn’t love “England” (as did Brooke and Edward Thomas), and his own emotional commitment is to the rural Ireland evoked by the fictive name “Kiltartan.”
So why, then?
Well, I guess it does come down to something like Mordaunt’s “one crowded hour of glorious life,” an experience so dramatic, as the combats of those young knights of the air indeed were in those days and would be again during the Battle of Britain, that you simply couldn’t bear to miss. it, any more than these days, evidently, there are individuals who cannot contemplate a mountain without wanting to climb it.
But the speech is all stripped down, spare, analytical, an affair of weighing and balancing, pairing and contrasting, summarizing, with not a single “personal” detail, and only one adjective modifying a noun (“lonely”), and verbs driving the action forward.
So that it is the imagined voicing of someone who is choosing freely and existentially the path he wishes to take and the end that he is prepared to accept—an end a good deal less messy than what was happening below in the trenches and on No Man’s Land, as described by poets like Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg, but also much more likely to occur, the mortality rate for new pilots facing the accumulated skills of veteran opponents being appalling.
And the progression is masterly, with not a word wasted, and the evocative lift-off in lines 11-12 is magnificent, and the rhyming masterly, with not a trace of the stylistic fumblings or blurrings that you get in a number of the other poems in Yeat’s fascinating transitional volume The Wild Swans at Coole in which it appeared.
It too was a comfort poem, a self-comforting poem (comforting too, for Yeats’ patron and friend Augusta Gregory), and I have only just realized something about it.
“In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” (Robert being Lady Gregory’s airman son), which Winters came to consider “a very bad poem,” and which seems to me a very good poem, is dated 1918, and in it Yeats is doing what none of the other writers of those war poems did, namely talking about the richness of the life that had been cut short—”Soldier, scholar, horseman he/ As ‘twere all life’s epitome./ What made us dream that he could comb grey hair?”
But the poem, a dramatic monologue, albeit in the great eight-line stanza that Yeats had taken from the 17th century poet Abraham Cowley and made his own, makes no reference to the war or the nature of the death, and simply stops as “a thought/ Of that late death took all my heart for speech.”
It is in “An Irish Airman” that he provides an essentializing answer about the necessity of that death and its entailed loss of precisely those heroic and aristocratic qualities that he himself most admired, and it is his finest celebration of those qualities in their martial and more than merely personal or regional form.
I realize that I have been importing a lot of extra knowledge into the poem. But it came easily (that was “my” period), and it doesn’t change the direction of the poem in any way but simply helps firm up what’s there
When Leo Geary, the son of the American artist Carol Lind Geary, died in a paragliding accident in 1991 at the age of thirty-two, stanzas from “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” slightly adapted, were read at the open-air funeral service in New Zealand: www.wholeo.net/Caroling/leo/LeoService.htm
Sailing to Byzantium (W.B. Yeats)
Almost impossible to see it freshly now, and yet it never grows stale for me. I comment on it in “Playing for Real” and “Powers of Style.” Technically fascinating.
The mingling of near-rhymes and precise rhymes helps to keep its four four-square, eight-line abababcc stanzas from being oracular-marmoreal.
As is usual with Yeats at his best, each stanza is, and feels, different.
In the first, after the almost throwaway opening generalization, not even a whole line, the next generalization wriggles its way down to line six before you know fully what’s being said. The decisive wide-angle summation in the closing couplet is very different in its diction and the amount of information in it from the opening one. The balance of moral power now shifts to the wisdom that the sexy young don’t have (and what a marvelous evocation of fecundity that “mackerel-crowded” is).
In the second stanza, the pattern of generalization (as a way of ordering and controlling experience) is stronger, with its parallel definings of the nature of age and the possibility of a still young-in-spirit celebration of rich creativity. And therefore, still maintaining control and direction, he’s come to Byzantium, which is to say, more prosaically, Istanbul.
But the third stanza, opening with a request or prayer that’s not completed until the end of the fourth line, isn’t a site of verb-driven generalizations in the same way. In fact the second half of the stanza is curiously unmagnificent in its diction.
And syntactically, instead of the concluding neatness in the first two stanzas, an in effect parenthetical thought begins in the middle of a line (“sick with desire”), flows across line endings into the penultimate line, and we then get the conclusion to what was begun before the parenthesis—: “Consume my heart away, and gather me/Into the artifice of eternity.” With a muting in the near-rhyming of “me”/ “eternity.”
There’s an odd little reversal, isn’t there, with respect to the fire and the mosaic? The normal comparison would be to say that the sages in the mosaic look as if they were standing in a fire.
If the poem had ended with the third stanza, as it could have done, I don’t think it would have been honoured so long. And, oddly enough, I realize that I’ve always, when trying to voice the poem, thought instinctively of “and gather me/Into the artifice of eternity” as being the conclusion.
So it’s as if in the fourth stanza Yeats re-energizes the poem in his presentation now, concretely, of the imagined richness of that past time—the hammered gold, the gold enamelling, the golden bough—the lines all moving forward strongly in pairs, and this time the strong rhyme word (“come”) is the final one, reversing the “me”/”eternity” pattern.
Whether in fact this imagined future is really the wisdom of the sages as immortalized in the Byzantine mosaics is another question.
But it doesn’t seem to matter in this poem of an old man’s yearning, sixty-one being older in those days than it is now. (How Yeats would have taken to Viagra! So much better than the so-called monkey-glands treatment that he in fact expensively went for.)
And yet, when I pause to think, I’m not entirely sure what is being said at a reasonably literal level.
The salmon falls of that unnamed country do sound like Ireland, though the country could be quasi-mythological, as if in a past where people still sailed. And since it’s “that” and not “this,” he presumably isn’t there but “here,” which it seems natural to think of as here in Byzantium, except that the participle “sailing” suggests being en route, and Byzantium no longer literally exists, but here he is in it.
A literal voyage (two second-class tickets for Senator.and Mrs Yeats?) or a spiritual one? Well, let’s be literal, in the absence of clear signs to the contrary. But does he believe in the existence of actual sages standing in actual God’s actual fire and then coming out and spinning around like dervishes? Or is it more an If Only—if only the figures in those mosaics could come alive and give me wisdom?
And does he believe in a literal afterlife, with options—“No, no not the falcon, too much like hard work. But I rather fancy that clockwork nightingale over there.” “An excellent choice if I may say so, sir. It suits you perfectly”?
Or is it more As Iffing—if I were given a second chance, I’d like to have been just pure mind singing away to a (bored?) emperor looking for novelty and lords and ladies as little interested, probably, in the warblings as were the French aristos at their cards and gossip when young Mozart was making golden music for them on the harpsichord in the next room?
In any event, I’m not bothered. This is a human-all-too-human, and very understandable, utterance.
When things do get bothersome is when some academic lusting after Real Wisdom, and believing that “poets” are more able to provide it than mere prosateurs, and knowing or thinking he/she knows all the facts of Yeats’ life and what he must have been thinking about everything, tells us confidently what profound truths Yeats was uttering in each poem.
But Yeats at his best is a poet of questionings, not answers, even though he attempts different kinds of answers to his own questions. And when he becomes oracular and attempts a bit of perning himself, he can say some pretty silly things.
When Winters took off after Yeats as he did (but not all of Yeats), and after Frost, and Wordsworth, and the Eliot of Four Quartets, he was basically challenging certain kinds of would-be oracular stating, or at least was refusing to concede that generalizations, just by virtue of being made in metred lines, particularly iambic pentameter ones, acquire an intellectual benefit-of-clergy and become exempt from certain kinds of questions.
See, for example, what he does with Wordsworth’s sonnet “Mutability,” an analysis in which he nevertheless salvages from the sonnet the spine-tingling lines about the kind of ruined tower that
could not even sustain
Some casual shout that broke the silent air,
Or the unimaginable touch of time.
Gerald Graff’s Poetic Discourse and Critical Dogma is excellent, up to a point, in its testing out of some of the more prestigious claims that have been made on behalf of the immunity from truth-claims testing of “poetry.” And years ago there was a good sensible book by the philosopher Isabel C. Hungerland called Poetic Discourse.
The phrase “singing school” refers, I seem to recall, to a once fashionable attempt, probably at the elementary school level, to get pupils to memorize things by singing or chanting them. The term “singing-master” would be parallel to “dancing-master” and no doubt goes back to the Renaissance. A perne (here used as a verb) was a bobbin in a mill; a gyre (as in “gyroscope”) a circular whirling revolution or vortex, or so my dictionary tells me.
Gyring is what the slithy toves do in Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” but I don’t suppose Yeats had that in his mind’s eye when he wrote the line. Fortunately we don’t have to know his eccentric personal cultural history of the world in order to appreciate his best poems. Isaac Newton, or was it Christopher Wren?, had some pretty screwy ideas too, along with the ones that made them immortal.
I had thought earlier on of including the sonnet “Meru” in the mini-anthology, since it’s stayed in my mind for years. But recently I did what I should have done long since and went to an atlas. Mount Meru is in Kenya, near Kilimanjaro, and only some 14,000 feet high. So where are those hermits, shuddering in winter’s icy blast? For that matter, was Everest crawling with hermits?
And now I must confess to a cowardly inconsistency. A flick of the eye in passing has reminded me that Winters has objections to offer about various lines and phrasings in “Sailing to Byzantium”—and I don’t want to read them, not now anyway. I guess I don’t want to “lose” the poem, and can’t at the moment see what a corresponding gain might be for me.
Of course the criticism might not “take.” “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” is still one of my favourites, despite Winters’ amplified judgment that: “It is commonly described as one of the greatest poems in our language. I confess that I think it a very bad poem.”
I’m not sure what moral to extract here—I mean, one that isn’t to my own disadvantage.
But dammit, he liked some simply lousy poems (in my opinion). And the last two stanzas of Robert Bridges’ one-of-the-greatest-in-the-language “Low Barometer” are demonstrably defective in his own terms.
Oh, all right, I’ve checked and it wasn’t bad, and I may have got my own dervishes from him.
I don’t think it’s fair criticism to object to “Yeats’s familiar figure of the scarecrow, a melodramatic characterization of his old age, and one which becomes very tiresome.” It’s only familiar if you’ve read other poems by Yeats. If this is the only poem by him that you’ve read, it’s not a cliché, particularly since the phrasing doesn’t immediately bring to mind the cruciform shape of the conventional scarecrow but suggests more of a spectral drooping.
For me, too, the by no means conventional image of soul (not the soul) clapping its hands and singing is a powerful energizer in comparison with that static tattered coat, especially since it evokes the well body inside the tattered dress, and the innocent freshness of those young voices singing school.
I cannot resist—well, I won’t resist—pointing out an instance elsewhere where Winters is simply dead wrong.
In American English, the first three words of “Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie,” in Wordsworth’s “On Westminster Bridge,” may indeed come out as equally stressed, with “theatres” trisyllabic. But in English English, the language in which Wordsworth was writing, “towers” and “theatres” would both have been disyllabic. So there’s no metrical problem.