Friday
Mar272015

White sleep and silence

Another poet I’d never heard of: James Russell Lowell, who seems, nevertheless, to bestride the nineteenth-century like a Colossus. He was born and died in the same big old house in Cambridge, Massachussetts, but between his birth in 1819 and his death in 1891, he travelled the world, wrote, edited and lectured, met kings, queens and presidents, outlived two wives and three of his four children, and more than once stood on the brink of suicide. He went to Harvard at 15 to study law and returned at 36 to lecture on languages. He never practiced law. He was an abolitionist who seemed to believe in white superiority, and a temperance advocate who drank heavily. He was one of the New England ‘Fireside Poets’, a group that also included the euphonious names of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier, but he also served as America’s ambassador to Spain, then England. He edited journals: his first, The Pioneer, only lasted three issues, but in one of those appeared a short story called “The Tell-Tale Heart,” by one Edgar Allen Poe. A little later, he was the first editor of The Atlantic Monthly, now in its 158th year. He knew Emerson and the Brownings and Leigh Hunt and Henry James. He was the grandcestor of poets Amy Lowell and Robert Lowell, and the godfather of Virginia Woolf. His achievements were many but his legacy is ambivalent. His poetic vocation was sincer, but his verse was derivative. He was both praised and pilloried by his contemporaries, and is now largely forgotten. He said of himself, “I shall be popular by and by.”

Here are three stanzas of his poem “An Indian-Summer Reverie,” which runs to five pages. Notably, the unrhymable word ‘purple’ appears in the poem no fewer than six times, including the variant ‘purpler,’ though never at the end of a line. It's not great poetry but there are felicities here I'd be sorry to miss. 

What visionary tints the year puts on,
When falling leaves falter through motionless air
Or numbly cling and shiver to be gone!
How shimmer the low flats and pastures bare,
As with her nectar Hebe Autumn fills
The bowl between me and those distant hills,
And smiles and shakes abroad her misty, tremulous hair!
 
How fuse and mix, with what unfelt degrees,
Clasped by the faint horizon’s languid arms,
Each into each, the hazy distances!
The softened season all the landscape charms;
Those hills, my native village that embay,
In waves of dreamier purple roll away,
And floating in mirage seem all the glimmering farms.

O’er yon bare knoll the pointed cedar shadows
Drowse on the crisp, gray moss; the ploughman’s call
Creeps faint as smoke from black, fresh-furrowed meadows;
The single crow a single caw lets fall;
And all around me every bush and tree
Says Autumn’s here, and Winter soon will be
Who snows his soft, white sleep and silence over all.

Wednesday
Mar182015

Roads diverge

So this week I'm walking to raise money for the women and girls who spend their lives walking. (You can sponsor me here!) Much less depends on my walk than on theirs, but the idea is to walk in their shoes, at least some part of the way. That set me thinking, naturally, of poems about walking, and there are many. Walking has a rich literature, even more so in prose; after all, prose is a kind of walking. According to this literature, there's a mysterious affinity between walking and thinking, and a persistent allegory between walking and living. Even as I write this I'm conscious of the gulf between poor women walking for their lives, and privileged men walking for their own amusement, but if part of that privilege is having written some beautiful poetry about it, that at least can be shared. Here are some bits of Whitman, Pound and Frost: poems to travel by. 

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. [...]

You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you are not all that is here,
I believe that much unseen is also here. [...]

All parts away for the progress of souls,
All religion, all solid things, arts, governments—all that was or is apparent upon this globe or any globe, falls into niches and corners before the procession of souls along the grand roads of the universe.

         (Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road”) 

At Rochecoart,
Where the hills part
                            In three ways,
And three valleys, full of winding roads,
Fork out to south and north,
There is a place of trees . . . grey with lichen.
I have walked there
                            Thinking of old days.

         (Ezra Pound, “Provincia Deserta” - March, 1915)

Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended. 

         (Robert Frost, “Reluctance”)

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, 
And sorry I could not travel both 
And be one traveler, long I stood 
And looked down one as far as I could 
To where it bent in the undergrowth; 

Then took the other...

         (Robert Frost, “The Road not Taken”)

Tuesday
Mar172015

Like a dim picture of the drowned past

Lately I've been straying beyond the canon, reading some authors who loomed large in their own day and are now largely forgotten. Rosamond Lehmann, for one, and Mrs Humphrey Ward, for another (of whom more presently). So here's an Autumn poem by one Thomas Hood, unknown to me until a week ago, but well known in early Victorian England as a poet, humourist and journalist, editor of literary magazines and publisher of verses and tales. It's simply called “Ode—Autumn.” The whole thing is rather long, so I include here only the first, third and fourth stanzas, which in my view are better worth your reading. I like the craft of it (things like alliteration and internal rhyme), and the more mysterious creation of atmosphere: silence, solitude, dampness, dimness, melancholy. I like “silence, listening to silence”, and the honey bees' “luscious cells”. You can see why, perhaps, it hasn't survived the way Keats or Blake have, but I think it deserves to be retrieved, if briefly, from the grey distance, the drowned past.

I
I saw old Autumn in the misty morn
Stand shadowless, like silence, listening
To silence, for no lonely bird would sing
Into his hollow ear from woods forlorn,
Nor lowly hedge nor solitary thorn;—
Shaking his languid locks all dewy bright
With tangled gossamer that fell by night,  
   Pearling his coronet of golden corn. 

III
Where are the blooms of Summer?—In the west,
Blushing their last to the last sunny hours,
When the mild Eve by sudden Night is prest
Like tearful Prosperpine, snatch’d from her flow’rs
   To a most gloomy breast.
Where is the pride of Summer,—the green prime,—
The many, many leaves all twinkling?—Three
On the moss’d elm; three on the naked lime
Trembling,—and one upon the old oak tree!
   Where is the Dryad’s immortality?—
Gone into mournful cypress and dark yew,
Or wearing the long gloomy Winter through
In the smooth holly’s green eternity.

IV
The squirrel gloats on his accomplish’d hoard,
The ants have brimm’d their garners with ripe grain,
   And honey bees have stor’d
The sweets of Summer in their luscious cells;
The swallows all have wing’d across the main;
But here the Autumn melancholy dwells,
   And sighs her tearful spells
Amongst the sunless shadows of the plain,
   Alone, alone,
   Upon a mossy stone,
She sits and reckons up the dead and gone
With the last leaves for a love-rosary,
Whilst all the wither’d world looks drearily,
Like a dim picture of the drowned past
In the hush’d mind’s mysterious far away,
Doubtful what ghostly thing will steal the last
Into that distance, gray upon the gray.

 

Thursday
Mar122015

Baby lit

Speaking of the matchless Miss Austen, Olivia has a baby version of Pride and Prejudice which tells the story, more or less, in fewer than 30 words. It's in fact a counting primer: “One English village, Two rich gentlemen, Three houses,” all the way up to “Ten thousand pounds a year.” It's clever and rather sweet, and it looks like this:

Olivia's cousin Elinor has a different baby version of the same novel, told in even fewer words, and illustrated with gorgeous photography. This is less educational for the under threes, but certainly a more faithful rendering of the story. It looks like this (note the muddy hem on Elizabeth's dress):

Both are lovely. I don't know if the babies prefer these classics to more contemporary infant literature, but for parents who like Jane Austen they're a delightful variation in a reading diet that otherwise consists almost entirely of bears. And ducks. So many ducks.

 

Tuesday
Mar102015

Autumn in prose

My favourite season has arrived, and since I've already posted plenty of Autumn poetry over the past five years (Herbert, Blake, Shelley, KeatsRossetti, Logan, Frost) I wondered this year about descriptions of Autumn in prose. These are harder to find, but here are a couple to start with, both from Jane Austen. The first is Anne Elliot in Persuasion, trying to take her mind off Captain Wentworth by thinking about poetry. 

Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves, and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn, that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness, that season which had drawn from every poet, worthy of being read, some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling. She occupied her mind as much as possible in such like musings and quotations; but it was not possible, that when within reach of Captain Wentworth's conversation with either of the Miss Musgroves, she should not try to hear it; yet she caught little very remarkable.

And here is the unromantic Elinor Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility, making fun of Marianne's romantic love of Autumn.

"And how does dear, dear Norland look?" cried Marianne.

"Dear, dear Norland," said Elinor, "probably looks much as it always does at this time of the year. The woods and walks thickly covered with dead leaves."

"Oh," cried Marianne, "with what transporting sensation have I formerly seen them fall! How have I delighted, as I walked, to see them driven in showers about me by the wind! What feelings have they, the season, the air altogether inspired! Now there is no one to regard them. They are seen only as a nuisance, swept hastily off, and driven as much as possible from the sight.”

“It is not every one," said Elinor, "who has your passion for dead leaves.”