Tag Archives: Michael Schmidt

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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Filed under American Literature, Poetry

A Silent Suffering, and Intense: Prometheus in Byron and Shelley

I’m about half way through Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets. It has been slow going because I keep pausing to read additional poems of the authors he discusses in his wonderful book.  I am glad that I will still be with Schmidt well into the summer.  Schmidt has caused me to look at the works of poets whom I’ve only encountered in English literature survey courses as an undergraduate.  For example, reading the poems of Byron and Shelley it’s been fascinating for me to compare their depictions of the ancient Greek Titan, Prometheus.

Byron’s “Prometheus”:

Titan! to whose immortal eyes
The sufferings of mortality,
Seen in their sad reality,
Were not as things that gods despise;
What was thy pity’s recompense?
A silent suffering, and intense;
The rock, the vulture, and the chain,
All that the proud can feel of pain,
The agony they do not show,
The suffocating sense of woe,
Which speaks but in its loneliness,
And then is jealous lest the sky
Should have a listener, nor will sigh
Until its voice is echoless.

Titan! to thee the strife was given
Between the suffering and the will,
Which torture where they cannot kill;
And the inexorable Heaven,
And the deaf tyranny of Fate,
The ruling principle of Hate,
Which for its pleasure doth create
The things it may annihilate,
Refus’d thee even the boon to die:
The wretched gift Eternity
Was thine—and thou hast borne it well.
All that the Thunderer wrung from thee
Was but the menace which flung back
On him the torments of thy rack;
The fate thou didst so well foresee,
But would not to appease him tell;
And in thy Silence was his Sentence,
And in his Soul a vain repentance,
And evil dread so ill dissembled,
That in his hand the lightnings trembled.

Thy Godlike crime was to be kind,
To render with thy precepts less
The sum of human wretchedness,
And strengthen Man with his own mind;
But baffled as thou wert from high,
Still in thy patient energy,
In the endurance, and repulse
Of thine impenetrable Spirit,
Which Earth and Heaven could not convulse,
A mighty lesson we inherit:
Thou art a symbol and a sign
To Mortals of their fate and force;
Like thee, Man is in part divine,
A troubled stream from a pure source;
And Man in portions can foresee
His own funereal destiny;
His wretchedness, and his resistance,
And his sad unallied existence:
To which his Spirit may oppose
Itself—and equal to all woes,
And a firm will, and a deep sense,
Which even in torture can descry
Its own concenter’d recompense,
Triumphant where it dares defy,
And making Death a Victory.

And the introduction to Shelley’s play “Prometheus Unbound”:

Monarch of Gods and Dæmons, and all Spirits
But One, who throng those bright and rolling worlds
Which Thou and I alone of living things
Behold with sleepless eyes! regard this Earth
Made multitudinous with thy slaves, whom thou
Requitest for knee-worship, prayer, and praise,
And toil, and hecatombs of broken hearts,
With fear and self-contempt and barren hope.
Whilst me, who am thy foe, eyeless in hate,
Hast thou made reign and triumph, to thy scorn,
O’er mine own misery and thy vain revenge.
Three thousand years of sleep-unsheltered hours,
And moments aye divided by keen pangs
Till they seemed years, torture and solitude,
Scorn and despair,—these are mine empire:—
More glorious far than that which thou surveyest
From thine unenvied throne, O Mighty God!
Almighty, had I deigned to share the shame
Of thine ill tyranny, and hung not here
Nailed to this wall of eagle-baffling mountain,
Black, wintry, dead, unmeasured; without herb,
Insect, or beast, or shape or sound of life.
Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, for ever!
No change, no pause, no hope! Yet I endure.

I ask the Earth, have not the mountains felt?
I ask yon Heaven, the all-beholding Sun,
Has it not seen? The Sea, in storm or calm,
Heaven’s ever-changing Shadow, spread below,
Have its deaf waves not heard my agony?
Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, for ever!

In Hesoid’s Theogony and Works and Days, Prometheus, whose name in Ancient Greek means “forethought,”  is depicted as a trickster who steals fire from Zeus in order to help mortals. Prometheus’s punishment, being chained to a rock for eternity with a vulture eating his constantly-growing-back liver is viewed as a fitting punishment. It is the Athenian tragedian Aeschylus, with his play Prometheus Bound, who changes the tone and focus of the Prometheus myth.  Aeschylus’s Prometheus is a hero who dares to defy a tyrant like Zeus and despite the consequences, embraces and accepts his punishment. Both Byron and Shelley borrow Aeschylus’s version and emphasize the pain, suffering and hopelessness suffered by the Ancient Greek hero.

On a personal note, it is the end of another semester for me and I am feeling a bit like Prometheus chained to his rock these days.  It’s been an unusually long and difficult year for me and I am looking forward to my “release” in the form of summer vacation.  In addition to Schmidt, Musil and possibly Proust are on my summer reading list.  What’s on yours?

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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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Filed under British Literature, Poetry

Go, litel bok: Lives of the Poets by Michael Schmidt

With Lives of the Poets, Michael Schmidt takes up the daunting task of tracing the history of English poetry from the Middle Ages to the present. His engaging style of writing has immediately drawn me into this wonderful book. He writes:

Poems swim free of their age, but it’s hard to think of a single poem that swims entirely free of its medium, not just language but language used in the particular ways that are poetry. Even the most parthenogenetic-seeming poem has a pedigree. The poet may not know precisely a line’s or a stanza’s parents; indeed may not be interested in finding out. Yet as readers of poetry we can come to know more about a poem than the poet does and know it more fully.

Schmidt’s point about pedigree and influence was proven for me almost immediately in his book with the chapter on Chaucer. The early English poets of the fourteenth century were struggling to break free from the literary supremacy of both Latin and French but, by including the introduction to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, Schmidt shows that although he chooses to write in English, Chaucer’s Latin ancestors are never far from his mind:

Go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedye,
Ther God thi makere yet, or that he dye,
So sende might to make it som comedye!
But litel book, so making thow n’envie,
But subgit be to alle poesye;
And kis the steppes, where as thow seest pace
Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.

The references to Ancient Epic authors is quite obvious, but there is also a hidden allusion in these lines to Catullus that Schmidt doesn’t mention. Catullus was not widely read in this period, but the discovery of his manuscript in 1300 does make it slightly possible that Chaucer know about Catullus’s own libellum (little book) and his introductory poem which is also self-deprecating. In Carmen 1, Catullus begins his collection of poetry(translation is my own):

To whom should I dedicate my new, charming, little book
that I just polished with my dry pumice stone? To you,
Cornelius, you who used to think that my petty scribblings
were actually worth something.

I’ve always suspected that Catullus knows the worth of his talent and that this modesty in the dedication is feigned. Schmidt’s discussion of Chaucer has me wondering the same thing about the English author and his “litel bok.”

I took a British Literature course which was required when I was in high school and I credit this course with making me the reader I have become as far as classic literature is concerned. The first work we read in the class was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which captivated my 16-year-old attention. I haven’t read Chaucer, unfortunately, since I was a teenager, and a pleasant side effect of Schmidt’s book is the rediscovery of old favorites. My plan is to read Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde as well as Gower’s Confessio Amantis from the same time period.

Last week when I translated Catullus Carmen 1 with my Latin students, I also read to them Chaucer’s lines from Troilus and Criseyde. Not a single student knew who Chaucer was; British Literature is not a required course. So sad…

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Respice Futurum: Reading Plans for 2019

As I have mentioned in a previous post, The Woodstock Academy where I have had the privilege of teaching Latin and Classics for many years now, is one of the oldest secondary schools in the United States and has a simple yet profound Latin motto which reflects and respects this tradition: Respice Futurum–-translated literally as “Look back at your future.” This is a fitting way for me to think about and discuss my reading plans for the new year since my previous literary patterns help to shape the future.

In 2018 I was not content to read a single book by an author, but instead engaged in what I called literary projects that involved immersing myself in an author’s oeuvre while also reading whatever additional sources were available by or about that author (letters, essays, biography, autobiography, etc.) Here are a few such projects I have in mind, so far, for 2019:

Classics (20th century or earlier):

John Cowper Powys: I am half way through his novel Wolf Solent and think Powys’s writing is brilliant. I am also planning to read his magnum opus A Glastonbury Romance and his autobiography, aptly titled, Autobiography. I’ve ordered a copy of The Pleasures of Literature which should be arriving any day now and I am also thinking of tracking down some of his letters and poetry which, I believe, are all out of print.

Anthony Powell: A Dance to the Music of Time (I have yet to purchase the entire series, but am leaning towards the University of Chicago Press editions). I also found, last week at my favorite secondhand bookshop, the first volume of his autobiography, Infants of the Spring. When the time comes I will complete my collection of his autobiographical books. Finally, I’ve ordered copies of his non-fiction writing, Miscellaneous Verdicts: Writing on Writers and Under Review: Further Writings on Writers, 1946-1990.

Andre Gide: I discovered Gide in 2018 by reading his very short book, Theseus. I’ve put together a pile of his books that I would like to read in 2019 which include: Madeleine, Journals: 1889-1949, Straight is the Gate, If it Die: An Autobiography, The Andre Gide Reader and Pretexts.

H.D.: I saw quite a few posts last year about H.D.’s writing, especially her poetry, and her volume of Collected Poems which I’ve already been dipping into is magnificent. I also plan to read: Palimpsest, Nights, Notes on Thought and Vision, and Bid me to Live. And I’ve ordered copies of The H.D. Book by Robert Duncan and A Great Admiration: H.D./Robert Duncan Correspondence 1950-1961 which should both arrive any day now.

Dawn Powell: I’m especially excited about this author which will be completely new to me. I bought Library America editions of her fiction as well as the volume of her Diaries from Steerforth Press. (Thanks to @deckr_j on Twitter for this discovery).

Anita Brookner: I’ve been tempted for a while to try this author because of Trevor from The Mookse and the Gripes who raves about her books. Having collected three of her books I’m ready to dive in: A Start in Life, A Friend from England and Incidents in the Rue Laugier.

W.G. Sebald: I did a Michael Hamburger reading project this year and discovered that he was also a translator of Sebald. I would like to read all of Sebald’s fiction in the order that they were written and published. I haven’t bought any of his books yet, though, because I would like to research which editions and translations would suit me best.

Other possible books that are sitting on my shelves awaiting my attention include the six volume set of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time I received for Christmas, Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries, Alexander Herzen’s massive autobiography, Casanova’s 12-volume memoir, and Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. I was thinking it might be a good idea to choose one of these as a summer reading project, but there is no way I could get to all of them! I would also like to explore Flaubert, whose Sentimental Education particularly captivated Kafka, and the last George Eliot novel I have yet to read, Romola.

Contemporary:

Giorgio Agamben: The few books I read by him in 2018 captivated my attention due to his discussion of words and language. I am especially excited that Agamben has quite a backlog of translations published by Seagull Books that I have yet to read. I’ve also acquired Profanations, Karman and his magnum opus, Homo Sacer. I will slowly work my way through his shorter pieces before I even think about cracking open Homo Sacer.

Sergei Lebedev: His previous two novels, Oblivion and The Year of the Comet, are brilliant. I am eagerly awaiting The Goose Fritz from New Vessel Press which will be published in March.

Claudio Magris: I have yet to finish his book Journeying from Yale Press and I will also add to my piles his new book, Snapshots, translated for the first time in English and also published by Yale Press.

Kate Zambreno: Her Book of Mutter was intriguing and I am looking forward to her new book due out in April entitled Appendix Project: Talks and Essays

Clarice Lispector: The Besieged City is due out in April. Even though she is a 20th century author, this is a new translation published by New Directions.

I will also catch up on some of the publications from the Cahiers series which are always a delight. And, finally, I have my eye on new releases from Seagull Books, Fitzcarraldo Books, & Other Stories (publishing Gerald Murnane this year) and New York Review of Books which I won’t list here. But all of these publishers are wonderful if you are looking for interesting contemporary authors, literature in translation, or reissued classics.

Poetry:

In 2018, I’ve read more poetry than any other year and would like to continue that into 2019. I always enjoy the variety of publications from Ugly Duckling Presse. I’ve also been tempted by flowerville to explore Emily Dickenson which I haven’t picked up since studying her in school. My intention is to also read Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets and Hamburger’s The Truth of Poetry to enhance my understanding of and appreciation for different types of poets and poetry.

Of course, all of this is subject to change based on weather, mood, alignment of the planets, attention span, etc.

What is everyone else excited to read in 2019?

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Filed under American Literature, Autobiography, British Literature, Essay, French Literature, Italian Literature, New York Review of Books, Poetry, Seagull Books