(Yes, I realize this feature is rapidly becoming the “Poem of the Week or Whenever I End Up Getting Around to It.” But POTWOWIEUGATI is an unwieldy acronym.)

380. “Art” by James Thomson (1834-1882)

What precious thing are you making fast

In all these silken lines?

And where and to whom will it go at last?

Such subtle knots and twines!

I am tying up all my love in this,

With all its hopes and fears,

With all its anguish and all its bliss,

And its hours as heavy as years.

I am going to send it afar, afar,

To I know not where above;

To that sphere beyond the highest star

Where dwells the soul of my Love.

But in vain, in vain would I make it fast

With countless subtle twines;

For ever its fire breaks out at last,

And shrivels all the lines.


This poem keeps reminding me of the Conclusion to The Renaissance, where Pater talks about “that continual vanishing away, that strange, perpetual, weaving and unweaving of ourselves.” That’s not exactly what it *is* about, mind you, for the images are more three-dimensional than that; here we are not so much using those lines to trace out a flat representation (pace the Lady of Shalott) as we are engaged in creating a kind of package — but a package where the package is also what’s inside. If that makes any sense — basically, there isn’t a “box” here — the container is the content or at least part of it — the “precious thing” isn’t rattling around in a box, but is serving as a kind of (suspended??) core of the overall object.

Indeed, this is quite an effective rendering of writing as a material process. The “fast” at the end of the first line serves as an anchoring, that first knot that holds all the threads together to be braided. The second stanza in particular exemplifies a kind of braiding or tying, where lines 2-4 are expansions of what is being tied up after the tying has been announced.  (So it’s almost looping back around — exactly as if one was tying one’s lines in a big silken bow.)

But this is all what gets undone — and not just unwoven — in the fourth stanza: fast / lines / last / twines gives way to fast / twines / last / lines, which leaves the image of trailing threads, shriveled at the site where the fire burst through. The letter (as it were) doesn’t reach its destination not only because the delivery address was murky to begin with (stanza 3), but because it was transporting such volatile material, something too strong for the “subtle twines” of words. (Of course, the meter doesn’t get broken in the same way as the image does.)

I’m interested, too, with the way “love” functions in the poem. Most obviously, it becomes both the package and, in its capitalized form, the recipient of that package. There’s an interesting ambiguity that emerges in the personification, too, for it’s not just “love” that is repeated but “my love” — almost as if that “Love” isn’t personified at all but is rather a projection of the poem’s speaker — the small-l “love” is seeking its mothership. (Or something. Okay. Fine.) What I’m more interested in is the way that the first line of the second stanza functions performatively (or nearly so) — bringing forth the “love” so that it can be contained. Though so much of the poem is so engaged in material processes, this line (and the entire stanza) is a kind of irreducibly non-referential core — and I mean that on a number of levels. It’s a little bit like the poetic equivalent of blowing up a balloon — and noticing the mutual dependence of content and form. (See also the last stanza of Yeats’ “Among School Children” and then go reread the introduction to de Man’s Allegories of Reading.)

There’s something about the last stanza that makes me think of a mail bomb — but a mail bomb that, again, never quite explodes where you want it to. That’s probably the wrong connection to make (but oh, wasn’t it a great undergraduate moment when you made the missive/missile connection?) because of all the silken threads and subtle knots, but it is at least a potentially violent image. (There are, of course, reasons we have restrictions on what you can put in the mail.) It’s a violence against the poem itself, a rending of the image, and a reminder that words and meanings don’t often coincide. It’s also kind of strikingly ambivalent about the nature of art and poetry itself. Though we are sure that this precious thing does not  get all the way to “my Love” — how could it? — it does get somewhere, namely, to us. The last stanza implies that the force of the poem is spent in a single outbreak, but of course some residue remains in that we are here and we are reading — perhaps not in the precise way that the speaker intends.

Which brings me, finally, to the reason I chose to headline this post with a Bob Dylan reference. The song “Tangled Up In Blue” makes a couple similar moves, including the mixing of very physical, material language (“tangled up”) with something that doesn’t have the same material referent (“blue”). And in some ways it provides a counterpoint to Thomson’s ambivalence:

Then she opened up a book of poems

And handed it to me

Written by an Italian poet

From the thirteenth century.

And every one of them words rang true

And glowed like burnin’ coal

Pourin’ off every page

Like it was written in my soul from me to you

Tangled up in blue.

Or maybe that’s just me. I mean, I’m no Christopher Ricks or anything. But there seems to be something having to do with writing to be untangled here as well.

To return to the plane of biography and half-assed textual scholarship. James Thomson was not a particularly happy man, if his Wikipedia page is to be believed; his most famous work is 1874’s City of Dreadful Night and it’s not exactly known as a great work of Victorian optimism. (As far as I know. This was one of those works that was on my orals list at some point and then kind of quietly slipped off. Now I kind of regret that.) Somewhat amusingly, though, the Thomson selected for the OBVV seems at least superficially sunny — this is probably the selection here with the most obvious dark side.

And even this is truncated. When I went looking for a date on this one, I found that there are actually two more sections to this poem.(GoogleBook here.) Part two is more of the same in its stanza form, envisioning one’s writing as a “carrier dove”–a bit more romantic than a pigeon, I guess, though arguably less efficient.  The third section puts the breaks on all of this — quite literally in terms of the stanza form (two lines instead of four, etc.) and also in its message; it begins: “Singing is sweet; but be sure of this / Lips only sing when they cannot kiss.” Burn! It’s an interesting refutation of poetry in verse — although for that reason, I’m not sure it’s totally in earnest. The ending couplet is pretty simplistic:  “Statues and pictures and verse may be grand / But they are not the Life for which they stand.” This is a bit finger-wag-y to say the least, but it’s possible that this poem was making an intervention into some contemporary aesthetic conversation (the rise of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, maybe?) where it made sense to highlight the inadequacy of artistic representation in this kind of moralizing way. There’s also a not-so-subtle discourse of heterosexual masculinity going on here — real men being too busy wooing the women, drinking the wine, and fighting the battles to do anything as dumb as art.

With that move, of course, Thomson is arguably castrating himself; at any rate, the first section of “Art” — the one excerpted in the OBVV — is vastly superior, in my opinion, to the other two, and at least in this case, Arthur Quiller-Couch knows what he’s doing as an editor. If, of course, one believes that the job of an anthologist is to make its contributors, most of whom are dead, appear in their best lights by lopping off parts of poems and presenting them as wholes with absolutely no scholarly apparatus. But that’s an issue best left to another day.

Fun if somewhat annoying fact: the home page for GoogleBooks lists “Poetry” as a subject link under “Fiction.” Shelley, had he not been cremated, would be turning in his grave about now.