Voices in the Cave of Being
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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.