Category Archives: Poetry

She is the Spider, not the Fly: The Poetry of Emily Dickinson

The breadth of Michael Schmidt’s 600 page, 64 chapter book Lives of the Poets is so extensive that he had to make the biographical sketches of each poet rather succinct and brief.  But this brevity does not detract from the joyful experience of reading his work because one gets the sense that he chooses every word he writes on the page carefully and he makes every sentence, every paragraph significant. He says, for instance, about Emily Dickinson,

Life, time, nature and eternity are the big counters she moves about the rapid little quatrain squares of her verse, but each counter she makes her own through metaphor and her vivid subversions of expectation. ‘Her wit is accuracy,’ says the poet Alison Brackenbury, but ‘She is the spider, not the fly.’ Not being the fly: perhaps that was her strategy of withdrawal from a world in which she saw women snared in the strict geometries of the social web, and decided that for her the freedom of an elected solitude—not of a spinster only but of a recluse—was preferable, even necessary.

Schmidt points out that scholars over the years have come up with a myriad of reasons for her self-imposed solitude—from being rejected by a man or a woman to suffering from agoraphobia—all of which are mere speculations.  “We have the legend,” Schmidt writes, “but the crucial facts in the recorded life are absent.”  Schmidt first becomes aware of Dickinson’s poems at the age of fourteen when Robert Frost visits his school and recites one of her poems aloud; from that point forward he grapples with what, exactly, makes her poems so unique. “Dickinson’s reticence seems part of her poetic strategy: if we could assign the poems to specific emotional events, we would ground them. As it is, they are a miracle and a mystery of language.”

For eight decades editors of her poetry have stripped out Dickinson’s original punctuation; they have been especially targeted her dashes, taking all of them out of her poems.  Editors have also corrected her diction and substituted lower cases letters at the points where in her original poems she had used capitals. The Thomas H. Johnson edition in 1955 restored her original formats for all the poems and it was only then, Schmidt argues, that we finally began to understand her unique voice: “Here is her originality, unmuffled after eight decades of propriety, an irregularity that answers to the darting, tentative process of the poet’s sight and feeling, the rapid transformations that follow an unfolding argument or feeling. Dickinson’s poetry is the drama of process.”

I was reading Dickinson’s collection of Envelope Poems alongside Schmidt’s chapter and even in these poetic fragments one feels her “rapid transformations.” The majority of these envelope poems were written between 1870 and 1885. I found them equally as powerful as her longer, more formal poems. It seems fitting for her that they were jotted down on corners or backs of envelopes.

A139 Begins:
As old as Woe—
How old is that?
Some Eighteen
thousand years—
As old as
Bliss
Joy—

This edition has photos of the original envelopes and transcriptions of each text.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And A317 begins:
On that
specific Pillow
Our projects
flit away-
The Nights’
Trememdous
Morrow
And whether
Sleep will stay
Or usher us—
a Stranger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m glad to have much more Dickinson and Schmidt to read going into my summer holidays.

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De Senectute: Sappho, Ovid, Tennyson, Musil and Cicero

Aurora Taking Leave of Tithonus. Francesco Solimena. 1704

In classical mythology Tithonus was a Trojan prince with whom Eos (Aurora to the Romans), goddess of the dawn, falls in love.  This deity, whom Homer calls “rosy-fingered,” captures Tithonus and sweeps him off to the home of the gods and asks Zeus to grant Tithonus immortality.  Eos, however, forgets to also ask for eternal youth.  Even though Tithonus is immortal, he grows old and frail.  Sappho, in her “Tithonus” or “Old Age” poem uses him as a metaphor to illustrate the effects of her own aging (translation is my own):

Old age has already taken from me my once soft skin,
and my hair, at one time so dark, has grown white.
My spirit has grown heavy, my knees, which used to be
nimble enough to dance like fawns, no longer carry me.
I mourn these things but what can I do about it?
It is not possible for men to be ageless. For at one time
they say that Eos, smitten by love, carried off Tithonus in her
rosy arms to the edge of the earth, he who was handsome
and young; but in time gray old-age took hold of him who
was a still a husband to an immortal wife.

In Ovid there is a brief mention of Tithonus as Aurora and some of the other goddesses complain that they cannot stop the aging of their mortal lovers )trans. my own): “Aurora, daughter of Pallas, mourned the old age of her own husband.”  But, as Sappho says, what could she do?

What is missing in these myths is Tithonus’s own words.  Tennyson’s brilliant poem about the Trojan prince gives him that voice: “Let me go: take back thy gift,” Tithonus begs her.  He laments his inevitable aging, recognizes that as humans we must accept this fate, and pleads with Eos to release him from his immortality. I offer here one of my favorite stanzas, but please do read the entire poem:

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-hair’d shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.
Alas! for this gray shadow, once a man—

So glorious in his beauty and thy choice,
Who madest him thy chosen, that he seem’d
To his great heart none other than a God!
I ask’d thee, ‘Give me immortality.’
Then didst thou grant mine asking with a smile,
Like wealthy men, who care not how they give.
But thy strong Hours indignant work’d their wills,
And beat me down and marr’d and wasted me,
And tho’ they could not end me, left me maim’d
To dwell in presence of immortal youth,
Immortal age beside immortal youth,
And all I was, in ashes. Can thy love,
Thy beauty, make amends, tho’ even now,
Close over us, the silver star, thy guide,
Shines in those tremulous eyes that fill with tears
To hear me? Let me go: take back thy gift:
Why should a man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men
Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance
Where all should pause, as is most meet for all?

I was also reading Robert Musil’s Thought Flights over the weekend and one of his short narratives struck me as a similar commentary on aging, how we see ourselves and how others see us.  In “Susanna’s Letter,” a married woman is writing to a friend about a train journey during which she reflects on her changing body as she ages.  Her chin was “once energetic” she notices, and her neck used to be straight.  But despite these physical reminders of her age, “It is all downward going from here on out, but every step becomes calmer and more secure.”  And my favorite passage, bitter sweet—both hopeful yet sad—from the story is the one in which she connects her aging body to her spouse (trans. Genese Grill):

My husband much have seen every details of my body by now, and he loves me anyway; he loves me as I am.  Sometimes that makes him unbearable to me.  For it takes all my power from me.  I should say, it takes all the fantasizing out of my body.  Then I am like a finished book, one that has already been declared to be very beautiful; for, the fact that a book is beautiful is no consolation for its having already been read.

On one final, positive note, in Cicero’s philosophical treaty De Senectute (On Old Age), he writes (trans. my own):

I follow and obey nature who is the best guide as if she were a divinity; it cannot be true that she has arranged well the other parts of our lives but then, like a bad poet,  neglected the final act of the drama.  It is necessary, however, that there be a certain kind of end, frail and withered with a timely maturity,  just as the berries on the trees and the fruits of earth, which wise men must gently endure.  To fight against nature would be as useless as the giants rebeling against the gods.

 

 

 

 

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Why has Happiness no Second Spring: The Poetry of Charlotte Smith

Spring by Francois Boucher. 1755. The Frick Collection

Some of my favorite discoveries in Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets are neglected and new-to-me female poets.  Schmidt says of one such poet, Charlotte Smith:

Eighteen years after Cowper’s birth, in 1749, a unaccountably neglected poet (half remembered as a novelist) was born.  If Cowper had his hand on the latch of Romanticism, her foot was firmly in the door.  Wordsworth read her: Dorothy Wordsworth recalls his turning the pages of her Elegiac Sonnets, and Other Essays—the fifth edition, for she as popular in her time; and he visited her in Brighton. She treated him politely, introducing him to other women writers in the town.  In London at the end of the century she dined with the young Coleridge.  A recurrent footnote, doggedly represented in anthologies by a sonnet that is wonderful (“Pressed by the moon, mute arbitress of tides”) and to which few attend closely, she is a key poet of the transition to Romanticism.

“Written at the Close of Spring” is one of her elegiac sonnets that showcases her intimate view of nature mixed with personal meditation:

The garlands fade that Spring so lately wove,
Each simple flower, which she had nursed in dew,
Anemonies, that spangled every grove,
The primrose wan, and hare-bell mildly blue.
No more shall violets linger in the dell,
Or purple orchis variegate the plain,
Till Spring again shall call forth every bell,
And dress with humid hands her wreaths again—
Ah! poor humanity! So frail, so fair,
Are the fond visions of thy early day,
Till tyrant passion, and corrosive care,
Bid all they fairy colors fade away!
Another May new buds and flowers shall bring;
Ah! why has happiness—no second Spring?

For her elegiac poems,  like “To Night,” I agree with Michael Schmidt that, “She deserves to be read today.”

I love thee, mournful, sober-suited Night!
When the faint moon, yet lingering in her wane,
And veil’d in clouds, with pale uncertain light
Hangs o’er the waters of the restless main.
In deep depression sunk, the enfeebled mind
Will to the deaf cold elements complain,
And tell the embosom’d grief, however vain,
To sullen surges and the viewless wind.
Though no repose on they dark breast I find,
I still enjoy thee—cheerless as thou art;
For in they quiet gloom the exhausted heart
Is calm, though wretched; hopeless, yet resign’d.
While to the winds and waves its sorrows given,
May reach—though lost on earth—the ear of Heaven!

I’m eagerly awaiting my copy of Smith’s complete collection of Elegiac Sonnets.  I am also tempted to try one of her novels.  If anyone has read any of her novels, please let me know which one(s) you would recommend.

 

 

 

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Love is Finite, We Grow Old


Pierre Bonnard. A Man and a Woman. 1900.

I put my reading of Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets on hold while on a delightful trip to London this past week. I’ve picked up Schmidt’s narrative again with his insightful description of Andrew Marvell’s poetry:

“Marvell’s verse delivers sharp surprises in part because of its quietness. Surprises emerge, they are insisted on. He seems always to be recognizing significance in what he sees. His whole mind is engaged along with his senses. His intensity is awareness; even as he speaks he is aware of things he might have said. The classics shaped his poems, but scripture is never far away. He doesn’t discharge his poems but launches them quietly.”

“His verse is urbane, detached, with recurrent motifs and words and a recognizable tone that distinguishes it from the work of other Metaphysicals. He has his own themes, too. Wise passivity marks some poems, which leads to closeness with the natural world as his imagination relaxes and receives. Other poems strive for contact through passion or activity, a kind of contact in which individuality is lost in the teeming variety of the world. Underlying these themes is the knowledge that in love or action time can’t be arrested or permanence achieved. A sanctioned social order can be ended with an axe, love is finite, we grow old.”

One of my favorite Marvell poems that came to mind and that I keep rereading because of Schmidt’s writing is “The Definition of Love”

My love is of a birth as rare
As ‘tis for object strange and high;
It was begotten by Despair
Upon Impossibility.

Magnanimous Despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing
Where feeble Hope could ne’er have flown,
But vainly flapp’d It’s tinsel wing.

And yet I quickly might arrive
Where my extended soul is fixt,
But Fate does iron wedges drive,
And always crowds itself betwixt.

For Fate with jealous eye does see
Two perfect loves, nor lets them close;
Their union would her ruin be,
And her tyrannical pow’r depose.

And therefore her decrees of steel
Us as the distant poles have plac’d
(Though love’s whole world on us doth wheel)
Not by themselves to be embrac’d;

Unless the giddy heaven fall,
And earth some new convulsion tear;
And, us to join, the world should all
Be cramped into a planisphere.

As lines, so loves oblique may well
Themselves in every angle greet;
But ours so truly parallel,
Though infinite, can never meet.

Therefore the love which us doth bind,
But Fate so enviously Debra’s,
Is the conjunction of the mind,
And opposition of the stars.

 

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Living Poetic Matter: Catullus Carmen 51

Catullus at Lesbia’s. by Sir Laurence Alma Tadema. 1865

It has been argued that Catullus translates and borrows Sappho Poem 31 to describe the first time he sees his lover Clodia (pseudonym Lesbia) at a party.  In Carmen 51, the Roman poet describes Clodia sitting by an unidentified man (perhaps her husband?) talking and laughing and Catullus is captivated by her presence and experiences what many might call love at first sight (translation is my own):

That man seems to me to be just like a god,
or, if I can get away with saying it,  he is even
better than a god, because of the fact that he
gets to sit near you, and watch you, and continually
listen to your sweet laughter.  But the sight of you and
the sound of your voice destroys all of my miserable
senses; for whenever I lay eyes upon you, Lesbia,
everything else in the world ceases to exist—my
tongue is tied, a delicate flame burns beneath my
limbs, my ears start ringing with a strange sound,
and both of my eyes are covered in complete
darkness.

Louis Zukofsky, in A Test of Poetry, dedicates a chapter of his fascinating little book to presenting different translations of the same passage of an ancient author—Homer, Ovid, Catullus—and provides a brief analysis and commentary on these translations.  For a comparison of different translations of Catullus 51 he presents first Lord Byron’s rendition (1807):

Ah! Lesbia! Though tis death to me,
I cannot choose but look on thee;
But, at the sight, my senses fly,
I needs must gaze, but, gazing, die;
Whilst trembling with a thousand fears,
Parch’d to the throat my tongue adheres,
My pulse beats quick, my breath heaves short,
My limbs deny their slight support;
Cold dews my pallid face o’erspread,
With deadly languor droops my head,
My ears with tingling echoes ring,
And life itself is on the wing,
My eyes refuse the cheering light,
Their orbs are veil’d in starless night:
Such pangs my nature sinks beneath,
And feels a temporary death.

And then Sir Philip Sidney’s translation (1579):

My muse, what ails this ardour?
Mine eyes be dim, my limbs shake,
My voice is hoarse, my throat scorched
My tongue to this my roof cleaves
My fancy amazed, my thoughts dulled
My hearth doth ache, my life faints
My soul begins to take leave.

Zukofsky comments, “Evidently there must be some living poetic matter in the poem of Sappho which has attracted the attention of other poets.” It’s interesting to me that both Byron and Sidney’s poems veer into hyperbole by equating love with death. I don’t think that Catullus meant to push the limits of his metaphor quite that far. His focus on the loss of his senses suggest that love, for him, is a disease, and he is fainting from his symptoms. He’s not dead yet, he’s just “sick!” I also prefer the brevity and repetition of Sidney’s version over Byron’s expanded, rhyming verses.

Zukofsky sums up the reasons why we continue to translation and interpret and identify with poems that are more than 2,0000 years old:

A valuable poetic tradition does not gather mold; it has a continuous life based on work of permanent interest (quality). This tradition involves a knowledge of more than English poetry and the English language. Not all the great poems were written in English. There are other languages.

There are all kinds of measure (metre) in verse. No measure can be bad it if is a true accompaniment of the literal and suggestive sense of the words.

 

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