poem of the week

Attempting, once again, to restart the long-moribund Poem of the Week feature, though I imagine that the definition of  “week” is going to remain flexible.* You’ll note that this entry doesn’t have the usual linkage and fun with GoogleBooks and Wikipedia – I’m somewhat short of internet in my new apartment, so am trying this crazy method of writing offline instead. Among other things, this means I didn’t bother to look up the date of the poem. And this is all pretty much just stream of consciousness with the occasional nod towards close reading. (Even more than it was before.) If we hate this, we can figure out a way to do the other thing.

This week’s theme? Don’t just do something, sit there!**

296. Magna Est Veritas – Coventry Patmore

Here, in this little Bay,
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,

Where, twice a day,

The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,

Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,

I sit me down.

For want of me the world’s course will not fail:

When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;

The truth is great, and shall prevail,

When none cares whether it prevails or not.

I was on an honest-to-God vacation last week, which included a couple of days at the San Francisco Zen Center (you wanna talk about “sit me down…”) and, more resonantly, several more in Santa Cruz, which is on a bay and includes the ocean crashing against high cliffs, though perhaps with more surfing culture than Patmore had in mind. Nevertheless, I was initially drawn to this poem because it seemed to resonate with my experience of Northern California.

And I’m attracted to this poem because, like so many of Arthur Quiller-Couch’s selections, it doesn’t entirely shy away from the commonplace and the cliché, while at the same time twisting it just enough to be interesting, to briefly undermine the typical. It doesn’t seem particularly earthshattering to me to that “tumultuous life” would be contrasted with “great repose,” though at the same time I wonder what’s doing the living and the reposing. That we are near cliffs and away from the town suggests that we are not witnessing a bustling port scene, but this is pretty thin as far as nature poetry goes. I mean, not that I think he’s trying to write a poetry of nature here. There’s just a certain extravagance there, as if he’s going out of his way to refuse the description.

Same thing with the following lines. Really, the tide goes in and out every day? Thanks, Victorian poetry! But there is something incredibly striking about the use of “purposeless, glad” to describe the ocean. At first glance, I took it as a welcome change from the fraught, churning, and highly overdetermined “Sea of faith” that we all associate with “Dover Beach.” (And there is something of the anti-“Dover Beach” here now that I think about it.) I don’t say that just because I enjoy poking Matthew Arnold every chance I get. We shouldn’t, I think, underestimate the effort that it took – takes – to see the natural world outside of a religious discourse. It’s not just a matter of having to deal with Tennyson’s “nature red in tooth and claw” – sometimes it’s harder to let go of the narrative when you’re looking at something beautiful. (I participated in various forms of Christian camping for over a decade; I know that of which I speak.) On a closer examination, the “purposeless” also seems to gesture towards the Kantian sublime, reminding us that aesthetic judgments are supposed to be ends in themselves, or almost no ends at all, and that the vastness of the ocean itself overruns and smashes any use or purpose we might see in it. What I want to say about the “glad” is less formed right now. I was tempted just to pretend I forgot it, or that it was a way of tempering the purposelessness, but of course “glad” and “purposeless” aren’t opposites, and perhaps the image we’re supposed to have here is something more like “pure,” undirected joy – the sense that a lack of purpose (or, I would say here, a going beyond purpose) does not mean a lack of energy. It’s a hard thing to get my head around, but it suggests to me both a passage in Nietzsche about a boat without a helmsman (the “must” without the “should,” as a very dear friend and professor describes it) and what’s been presented to me recently as part of Zen practice – making your best effort without a grasping idea; aspiring without desire.

This is a lot to put on Coventry Patmore and on you, dear readers. Good thing that the poem invites us to sit down. (And there is something kind of wonderfully hypnotic about watching the waves, don’t you think?)

Are we meant to think that the act of sitting in such a place is enough to suspend our relationship with the world, at least temporarily? It’s always liberating to go on vacation and not check my email every seven seconds, to realize that I’m not as necessary to the world as it sometimes seems. (This is, of course, an easier feat to pull off after the semester’s over.) It’s liberating, but then again it can also be slightly depressing when you do get around to checking your email and it’s basically just 237 messages from the VICTORIA list, with some Friendster spam thrown in for good measure. Patmore rather ups the ante on us here, though perhaps the nod to the Analytic of the Sublime should have warned us that this was coming. We let a few letters go unanswered while we’re at the shore, and then all of the sudden we’ve slipped into a kind of deep time. Once again, there’s this return to the near-cliché—the eventual victory of truth—undermined by the last line. There’s a lot to be unpacked here, I think; at any rate, it’s not as simple as “the truth” being indifferent to particular individuals and time….the more I look at the last two lines, the more I’m inclined to read it as a specifically causal relationship—that is, the “truth” (whatever it is) will win because everyone will have stopped caring about the victory. (Initially I’d read it more as just a deep time kind of thing, that is, the truth endures beyond our human sense of time.) I wonder if this could also be read as an implicit encouragement to stop trying to push your truth to victory: just live, calm down, watch the waves. But I’m suspicious of that conclusion as well.

Over 1,100 words in (sorry, Mia!) and I haven’t yet talked about the prosody – this seems like a sin when it comes to Patmore who, as I’ve been finding out, is one of the leading lights of nineteenth-century versification. As I realized down in Philadelphia a few months ago, I don’t really have the chops for this kind of analysis. So, suffice it to say that no doubt the form of the poem is also significant and probably experimental. It might also be obvious to everyone else. Yes, this is a cop-out, but I’m sure your joy at the (possible) return of the Poem of the Week will outweigh my lack of scansion-tasticness.

*There’s a long history of this, actually. When Coleridge was putting out The Watchman, he did so every eight days to avoid the tax on weekly publications.

**Okay, so I saw that on a little sign in the San Francisco Zen Center gift shop last weekend.

(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.

Apologies for the radio silence of the past couple weeks. I assure you that I was not trying to pull a Sarah Palin; I was merely housesitting and didn’t feel like hauling the OBVV across Brooklyn with my laptop and the stack of other books that I didn’t manage to get around to reading. I’ve also been pretty mucked up in my dissertation chapter — I’ve pretty much just been rewriting the first twelve pages all month. But that’s a different post, maybe.

Those struggles are, however, obliquely related to something that I see happening in this week’s poem:

365. “The Last Wish” by Edward Robert Bulwer Lytton (1831-1892)

Since all that I can ever do for thee

Is to do nothing, this my prayer must be:

That thou mayst never guess nor ever see

The all-endured this nothing-done costs me.

(Just so we’re clear, this isn’t that Bulwer-Lytton — this dude is the son.)

I don’t think this poem needs a huge amount of explication, but I am really taking with this idea of doing nothing — or, as it comes in in that last line, the “nothing-done.” One of the things I’ve been struggling with conceptually in my dissertation is an argument I’m trying to make about suspension being a performative gesture, but of course what it does, much of the time, is, essentially, nothing — which potentially negates the whole “doing things with words” part of performativity. Nevertheless, there’s a residue in this nothing — and I can hear my undergrad adviser’s voice in my head saying “a no-thing that is not nothing, either” — this sense that “nothing” does take effort, that it rarely is simply void or interruption — or, for that matter, detachment or agnosticism. One of the things I’m trying to work through with Browning is how you can have a suspension of judgment that isn’t just a matter of rigorously marking the boundaries of the knowable and not going beyond them; I’m seeking a suspension that also maintains some kind of engagement, whether it’s an interest in the outcome or something more about the process and the working-through. Something more, well, performative, but a performative that “does nothing” in a kind of double sense. I would love to feel like Eve Sedgwick’s whole thing on the periperformative is helpful here — it may be in the same neighborhood (her metaphor), but I’m not sure where to put it yet.

And I’m well aware that at some level I’m probably giving this poem too much credit, that I’m writing more about Browning and my own life than “The Last Wish.” And it’s funny, too, because in the process of writing this post, I’ve begun to like this poem a lot less. I can almost feel the cliches swooping in — that whole “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice” kind of thing — and something that’s not a cliche, some inchoate idea of political inaction, a suspension, say, of judgment or action that does more damage than any other alternative. And the fact that I’m writing in such tortured sentences suggests that I’m still writing around what I actually want to say.

And even more so. To call this “The Last Wish” is, I think, a bit self-indulgent, but that also may be, now that I think about it, the most transparently performative part of this, at least in its aspiration. But one does not place an end to things by drawing attention to one’s overweening efforts to end them — in what is, the more I look at it, a strikingly passive-aggressive bit of verse. (To a certain extent I think the same argument could be made about “Two in the Campagna” and probably a lot of love poetry in general. Second book?) This whole, “oh, don’t look at me, suffering for your sake” kind of thing. It pains me more than a little to say that because it’s also an experience close to my own heart and because it also engages a couple of topoi that I hold near and dear. (The other one is prayer.) And I think there’s probably a way to pull off what this poem is trying to accomplish without sounding like a whiny asshat, but for whatever reason, this isn’t doing it for me.

There are also at least two elephants in this interpretive room. One, if you clicked on the Wikipedia link to Earl Lytton, you no doubt read that poetry (which he published under the pseudonym “Owen Meredith”) is really only a minor claim to fame; his other accomplishments include presiding, as Viceroy of India, over the Great Famine of 1876-78. Or, as Mike Davis and others have recently argued, for helping cause it in the first place. (I admit that I’ve only read the first chapter of this book and that was some time ago — Mia and Kiran, can you shed light where light is needed?) That doesn’t “settle” anything one way or another when it comes to this particular text, but we’ve certainly pilloried our poets for lesser offenses (Oscar Wilde, anyone?). And forgiving political wrongdoings is always partially an aesthetic choice — in general, good poetry by bad people still gets read. It may also be hard to come up with a critical idiom for relatively minor literary work by people who are politically prominent. In some ways, I think this is probably one of the great mysteries of human nature, but it does, at least in this case, place a bit of an extra chill between the poem and me.

The other elephant is named “Textual Criticism” and has to do with the fact that I couldn’t really date this poem. I admit that I didn’t try all that hard and that my GoogleBooks-fu pales in comparison to Mia’s mad computer skills. But I’m usually able to find some trace of even minor poems. The “having a very similar name to your literar-ily famous father” and “writing under a pseudonym” parts didn’t help either, I’m sure. What I did find was a poem called “To A Woman,” which is kind of like this poem but also not:

Since all that I can ever do for thee

Is to do nothing, may’st thou never see,

Never divine, the all that nothing costeth me!

The first line and a half are the same in both versions, but without the interruption of prayer (which makes the utterance of the first one into something of a citation), this one feels a lot more direct. I’m suddenly inspired to go out and start a relationship just so I can use this as my parting shot in the breakup email. It’s either that or Tori Amos, right?

…in honor of the upcoming July 4 holiday, the Poem of the Week takes a quick, spasmodic step backwards in the Oxford Book of Victorian Verse.

304. Sonnets. America by Sydney Dobell (1824-1874)


Men say, Columbia, we shall hear thy guns.

But in what tongue shall be thy battle-cry?

Not that our sires did love in years gone by,

When all the Pilgrim Fathers were little sons

In merry homes of England? Back, and see

Thy satchell’d ancestor! Behold, he runs

To mine, and, clasp’d, they tread the equal lea

To the same village school, where side by side

They spell ‘Our Father.’ Hard by, the twin pride

Of that grey hall whose ancient oriel gleams

Thro’ yon baronial pines, with looks of light

Our sister-mothers sit beneath one tree.

Meanwhile our Shakespeare wanders past and dreams

His Helena and Hermia. Shall we fight?


Nor force nor fraud shall sunder us! O ye

Who north or south, on east or western land,

Native to noble sounds, say truth for truth,

Freedom for freedom, love for love, and God

For God; Oh ye who in eternal youth

Speak with a living and creative flood

This universal English, and do stand

Its breathing book; live worthy of that grand

Heroic utterance–parted, yet a whole,

Far, yet unsever’d,–children brave and free

Of the great Mother-tongue, and ye shall be

Lords of an Empire wide as Shakespeare’s soul,

Sublime as Milton’s immemorial theme,

And rich as Chaucer’s speech, and fair as Spenser’s dream.

(c. 1855)

Dobell will be familiar to some of you as one of the major poets and theorists of the Spasmodic school. The entry on Dobell in Cambridge History of English and American Literature in Eighteen Volumes describes him as the “best of this group” and lavishes such praise as the following: “…England in a Time of War contains a good deal of rubbish, with some things as different from rubbish as it is possible to conceive.” Ridiculed in their time and afterwards as practicing a kind of overly materialist, cut-rate version of what the Romantics had been doing, the Spasmodics have more recently been reclaimed by VP scholars–for example, the Winter 2004 issue of Victorian Poetry was dedicated to “Spasmodic Poetry and Poetics.” My own attitude has always been that I’ve found the theories of the Spasmodics more palpable than their poetry; in some circles this makes me a snob. On the other hand, some of the poems that I love most dearly, among them Maud and Aurora Leigh, were derided in their time as spasmodic productions. (The other one that always gets named here is Arnold’s Empedocles on Etna.) So I’m a snob but not a particularly discerning one. Or something.

At any rate, a good intro to Spasmodic theory is Dobell’s own “Nature of Poetry.” I read this for my orals last year and remember it as being an interesting mishmash of the material (trying to ground meter and poetic form in the pulsations of the human heart) and the idealist, a sort of interesting though often reductive distillation of Kant and Burke with a strong strain of Shelley. And if my notes from that period of my life are any indication, I saw at the time a couple of ideas that seem to anticipate the Austinian performative as well as reflect more quintessentially Victorian theories of language.

Now, as the poetic works of the Spasmodic school go (or so I have heard), these sonnets are pretty tame. It took a little while for their weirdness to sneak up on me.

But let’s start with a bit of context.

These poems are excerpted from a longer series of sonnets on the subject of the Crimean War. “That’s funny,” you say, “I don’t remember there being significant American involvement in the Crimean War.” However, if this website is to be believed (and, hey, when has the first hit on Google ever been wrong?), America did end up being fairly sympathetic to Russia in the whole thing, and that relationship paved the way for American expansion in Alaska and Hawaii. Which basically means that Barack Obama’s presidency is perhaps the best thing to have come out of what was by all accounts a huge disaster. (Remember “The Charge of the Light Brigade“…)

I digress. But I do think that the historical context, such as it is, is at least a little bit helpful for understanding Dobell’s otherwise sort of perplexing insistence on the English language as this sort of sacred bond between Britain and the United States that reduces the Revolutionary War, for instance, to the outgrowth of a spat between schoolboys, some of whom then took their “satchells” and their Shakespeare and, apparently, crossed the Atlantic in a huff. That first sonnet in particular is pretty insistent on this idyllic childhood in England–note especially the emphasis on parity between these two “ancestors” that tries to appropriate some of the discourses surrounding American democracy–the “equal lea” sounds a lot like “equality,” and we have the “same village-school” (no class disparity here!), the “twin-pride” in an architectural patrimony, and women who are also equally attractive.

Of course, I’m not really doing justice yet to the first question that Dobell’s poems pose: “in what tongue shall be thy battle cry?” It’s an interesting version of a kind of linguistic imperialism, but it also seems to be a version of that truism of high school political science classes about democracies not fighting each other. I assume that Dobell is overstating the case for effect–though it’s interesting to think that in 1855 it could be seen as even a halfway plausible idea that the main language of America was still up for debate.

…but there’s the rub, isn’t it? I’m no Americanist, but I’m going to venture a guess that, by 1855, the majority of people who called themselves Americans were not, in fact, descended from those “Pilgrim Fathers” back in England–or *any* fathers back in England. Indeed, I’d even go out on a limb and say that many of these folk spoke English as a second or third language, if at all. (Americanists and/or people with more of an interest in Googling the above can feel free to correct me on this one.)

The developmemt of thought across the two sonnets suggest that Dobell himself knows that the “common national heritage” argument isn’t really going to carry the day. Something more complicated happens in the second sonnet–almost a kind of imagined community based on a common language–as in, you become American by speaking English (and who hasn’t heard versions of that one even now) but, in Dobell’s rendering, you also get the bonus of carrying on the “living and creative flood / This universal English”–you become the heir of Milton, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Spenser. So in a single fell swoop, American literary production–which, you know, by 1855 was not all that insubstantial–is reduced to something of a symptom, the triumphant productions of wandering children.

(And, let’s face it. “Ye who in eternal youth” is rarely a compliment in these kinds of contexts.)

There is also, of course, the “we use the same words so we obviously mean the same things with those words” canard that’s going on in that second sonnet. However, I am nearing 1200 words on this puppy and will therefore let you imagine what I would say about that.

Just, um, happy upcoming Fourth of July holiday, y’all.

Before I start, I should say that I had every intention of coming back from the woods to take on Coventry Patmore again (specifically, this gem [#290] from The Angel in the House), largely because Mia’s always after me to write about poems that I dislike. Alas, I am finding that my Victorian heart is not rising to such an occasion today. (The reasons for this can be roughly approximated by the sentiments expressed in Browning’s “Two in the Campagna” [not in the OBVV]) So I plunged again into the pages of the OBVV, through poems about dead brides and modest attractions and Christian consolations. You know, the usual–without anything in particular striking me as an appropriate site for kicking my Victorianist brain back into gear. And it seems self-indulgently biographical to leap right to the “Bride’s Song” from Christina Rossetti’s Prince’s Progress (#338 — “Too late for love, too late for joy! / Too late, too late!” — yeah, you know what I mean).

Instead, I offer the following sonnet from George Meredith (1828 – 1909), which should at least be a change of pace:

332. Lucifer in Starlight

On a starr’d night Prince Lucifer uprose.

Tired of his dark dominion swung the fiend

Above the rolling ball in cloud part screen’d,

Where sinners hugg’d their spectre of repose.

Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those.

And now upon his western wing he lean’d,

Now his huge bulk o’er Afric’s sands careen’d,

Now the black planet shadow’d Arctic snows.

Soaring through wider zones that prick’d his scars

With memory of the old revolt from Awe,

He reach’d a middle height, and at the stars,

Which are the brain of heaven, he look’d and sank.

Around the ancient track march’d, rank on rank,

The army of unalterable law.


This is a particularly masterful sonnet, in my humble opinion, in both its content and the use of its form. I was particularly struck in the transcription of it by the number of end-stopped lines–especially the ones where a single line is also a single sentence–this, for me, helps convey the sense of disenchantment so powerfully present in the language. It verges almost upon the boring, the desultory. Everything is contained and measured, and “unalterable law” is as much a matter of meter and structure as it is of those epic geological forces that come to replace God’s providence in our narrative of Victorian thought. It’s not so much that the struggle naught availeth, contra Clough, but more that the struggle itself was just one manifestation of a different time, something to be looked back upon from an almost Hegelian historical distance, memories of Milton and Romanticism, and how quaint indeed these echoed questions of being of the devil’s party. Lucifer, in the old mythologies, was a star himself once. Now even his fans don’t do much for him.

Reading this, I’m reminded of that thing that Kant says about the two things that fill him with wonder: “the starry sky above us and the moral law within us.” “Awe” (as in “the memory of the old revolt from”) is sometimes used as a figure for the sublime as well as for God himself. Is it possible, then, that the memory here is not simply that of the epic battles of good and evil (decided in advance, though only according to another set of laws) but also of awe itself, of the sublime, of wonder? For Meredith writes of the stars as the “brain of heaven”–a jarring, striking, clinical-seeming image. Something vast but mappable: a game of connect the dots that is infinite only because we’re better at spurious connections than intrinsic ones. Ever-expanding, but also ever dying.

Yes, these are reflections of the “middle height”: a mediocrity that passes, in these times (though I’m not speaking historically here, necessarily) for an apex, a zenith. In the old days–or so it seemed, we thought–he flew much higher, burned much more brightly before he sank.

And it’s possible, of course, that I’m projecting too much of my own world-weariness onto these fourteen lines. We could see this all, certainly, as simply another iteration of a detente between rationalism and religion–in a world where the hand of God has become more difficult to see, we still need not worry about the old demons–they are here, but the laws that bind them to defeat are more stable, more unalterable, than the myths by which we used to contain them. “Brain” will triumph, even if we no longer call it Providence or Love. It’s not so bad. It’s just that–it’s this formalist itch again–something about doing this in a mostly end-stopped sonnet that makes me feel like it’s not just projection. What still moves in all of this is the dark shadow, the “huge bulk” of Lucifer himself–and it moves more fleetingly, more powerfully, than the forced march below or the intelligent pulses above. Yet, in this movement, it doesn’t seem entirely malignant anymore, possibly because Lucifer, in leaving the sleeping sinners alone, has perhaps learned to pick his battles more carefully–no longer subject to this one “hot fit of pride,” now itself passed on?

…but what does it mean for us if the Awe (revolted against and otherwise) is a memory that only Lucifer has?

288. “Heraclitus” by William (Johnson) Cory (1823-1892)

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,

They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.

I wept as I remember’d how often you and I

Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,

A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest

Still thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;

For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

(written 1850?ish, published 1891)

There’s a moment in the “Fair Ship” sequence of In Memoriam where the poet imagines himself meeting the ship that bears the corpse of Arthur Hallam and for just one moment finds that he expects his friend to simply walk off the ship instead. Absence is a funny thing, something we can get used to as long as it meets our expectations and conforms to our timetables. Temporary if somewhat open-ended absences are bittersweet, though they often don’t change our routines so much; when more definitive, traumatic partings take place…well, it’s also sometimes striking how quickly their effects fade. This is all, to some extent, par for the course in a world of constant flux–a world, perhaps, as understood by Heraclitus–though that very sense of flux, perhaps akin to a kind perpetual Paterian weaving and unweaving of ourselves. How can you register absence when the river you step into isn’t even really the same river, or when you can still hear the nightingales?

There is, of course, a fairly obvious “trick” going on in the first line of this poem (which, according to its Representative Poetry Online page, is a translation of “an epigram of Callimachus”–though if you read that epigram, you’ll see that the repetitions and the tricks, as it were, belong to Cory). “They told me you were dead” suggests the kind of misinformation that one recalls years later while having a good laugh with Heraclitus himself–who may, if we read line 5 too quickly (the one about “thou art lying”), have faked his own death. But Heraclitus is dead–so far as we know, for the poem’s speaker still seems somewhat divided on this point. Sure, his friend’s ashes are not just at rest but “long, long ago at rest” (“Cinders there are”? Anyone?), but so much of the rest of this short poem seems to be conspiring to make the speaker’s hold on this bit of knowledge somewhat tenuous. He knows it in his head but not, perhaps, in his senses, in his body.

Aside from all their overdeterminedness as poetic symbol* the nightingale voices strike me as interesting here because they’re used to invoke a kind of permanence that is actually produced through a kind of endless replaceability. Death “cannot take” the nightingales away because there is nothing to take–unlike Heraclitus himself, they are not individuated (since this isn’t an Oscar Wilde fairytale–see “The Nightingale and the Rose”) and in fact are kind of expendable–it’s not death, exactly, but a kind of mindlessness in advance thereof.

The other thing I just want to observe about this poem is the overall difficulty of talking about the issues of death–and survival. I’ve been beginning to think about this as an angle on Browning’s “Epistle,” since one usually doesn’t get the chance to be both the dead guy and the dead guy’s survivor at the same time. But even when they are (as per usual) different people, the lines get blurred a bit.

William (Johnson) Cory, in case you were wondering, was a famed tutor at Eton and, as Wikipedia puts it, “the ‘coach’ of the cult of Victorian pederasty,” in actions as well as in literature, which seems to be related to his eventual resignation from his post. He was also an influence on Pater, Symonds, and perhaps Wilde. You can see the 1891 edition of his Ionica (from which “Heraclitus” was taken) here. He also said, according to an unsourced quote on the Wiki page, that “Above all, you go to a great school for self-knowledge,” which seems quite lovely and true indeed.

*Really, can you think of a bird more overdetermined in Western poetry/literature than the nightingale? I’m not sure even the albatross holds a candle to this. (I think Google’s going to back me up. 4.2 million hits for albatross, 7.9 million for nightingale.)


A brief programming note. By this time next week I will have winged my way to the woods of Northern Wisconsin and a cabin remote enough from the rest of the world to be served only by a dial-up connection that runs somewhat slower than a Victorian-era telegraph. So there will be no new Poem of the Week until June 22 or thereabouts. Try not to miss me too much while I’m gone.

Something about gray weather near the end of May puts me in a quasi-canonical mood. Kind of. Also, in the interest of at least partial disclosure, I spent most of my afternoon reading Melanie Klein and various Kleinians. This seems at least obscurely relevant to what I’m about to inflict on you, and stands in for all those other things I can’t say in this semi-professional space.

270. “Isolation” by Matthew Arnold ( 1822-1888 )

Yes: in the sea of life enisled,

With echoing straits between us thrown,

Dotting the shoreless watery wild,

We mortal millions live alone.

The islands feel the enclasping flow,

And then their endless bounds they know.

But when the moon their hollows lights,

And they are swept by balms of spring,

And in their glens, on starry nights,

The nightingales divinely sing;

And lovely notes, from shore to shore,

Across the sounds and channels pour;

O then a longing like despair

Is to their farthest caverns sent!

For surely once, they feel, we were

Parts of a single continent.

Now round us spreads the watery plain–

O might our marges meet again!

Who order’d that their longing’s fire

Should be, as soon as kindl’d, cool’d?

A God, a God their severance rul’d;

And bade betwixt their shores to be

The unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea.

(1852, 1857)

Oh, Matthew Arnold. You have a way of making me feel like the Dover Bitch (“To have been brought / All the way down from London, and then be addressed / As a sort of mournful cosmic last resort / Is really tough on a girl, and she was pretty”)–even when I’m in the mood to be much more serious, liable to feel guilty about how I never really believed in the “object as in itself it really is” and I may have kind of used Tennyson to poke fun at your whole “Buried Life” troping–even though I think it’s a much better poem than its omission from the Oxford Book of Victorian Verse suggests.

But the thing about this poem–yeah, I get it. Believe me. You thought nineteenth century society was all estranging, try living among Facebook and Twitter and Gchat and *still* feeling enisled and isolated–yes, there’s something about these fictions of connectedness that are always throwing the gaps in intimacy into stark relief, at least for a certain kind of personality…I think part of what you and I share–what allows, for instance, a poem like “Dover Beach” to stop me in my tracks as if I am encountering it for the first time every time I read it–is a genuine wish for things to be better than in themselves they really are–things, of course, beginning with ourselves as we really are.

Except that this poem bothers me in ways that “Dover Beach” and “The Buried Life” don’t. A rather forecful interior voice calls out, “It’s so whiny!”–hence, I’m sure, the Dover Bitch thing. The scientific language of the third stanza, coupled with the image of a severing God in the fourth, takes this mounting sense of helplessness over the top–it’s a kind of geological version of Tennyson’s “Lotos-Eaters,” where the self-administered narcotic lethargy has become a matter of mindless plate tectonics–a situation in which we not only cannot intervene, but we are never asked nor expected to. This seems like kind of a troubling model for thinking human relations. Not that I haven’t been guilty of this myself. And it’s also not like you invented the trope exactly…it’s just–maybe it’s that first line. “Yes” as in response to something, a gesture that necessarily opens and connects this poem to something–as in, it is not itself an island (more on this anon)–but it’s followed by this very disconnected non-image image of being “in the sea of life enisled”–we don’t even know what’s “enisled” until the “we” of line 4. (Thanks, GRE reading sections!) It’s meant to be oppressive, I know, meant to make us feel boxed in–and, again, the limitedness of these human/islands is thrown up against the limitlessness of whatever it is that estranges us, which is given a kind of absolute power of separation and force and movement and expansion. This isn’t your sea of faith.

But it still is the *sea*–which I think is why this metaphor seems so frustratingly partial to me. The sea separates but it also connects and moves and allows–for instance, the “lovely notes” of the nightingales to travel across great distances. Instead of longing for the time when we were all one big supercontinent (yawner), why can’t there be another way of understanding the archipelago, as it were?

Yes, Matthew Arnold, I know it’s your poem. But the answer may have more to do with the title that Arthur Quiller-Couch chose to attach to this particular set of stanzas in the OBVV. To call this poem “Isolation,” as you did in the 1857 edition of your Poems and as AQC does here, rather reinforces that whole enislement, forcing us to see ourselves as fixed in our estrangement, about which we can do nothing.

On the other hand, if we were going to approach this poem as, “To Marguerite, in returning a volume of the Letters of Ortis” (as we would do if we were reading this poem in 1852 or thereabouts), things change a bit. Personally, I might have just let you keep that copy of the Letters of Ortis, even though I can’t get it on Google Books. And what makes this all more confusing, of course, is that “To Marguerite” in the 1857 edition is a different poem and this one also appears as “To Marguerite: Continued.”

My point in going through all of this (and I’m sure someone’s untangled this somewhere) is only to highlight this very obvious tension, wherein a poem that seems to be about the fixity of isolation is itself part of a conversation with another person (even an imaginatively projected one) and with other texts, real or not. And on the one hand this makes me even more annoyed by this poem–not only is it positing an entire lack of agency, it’s doing so while making use of agency that it isn’t supposed to have. And that’s the kind of thing that Coleridge is always going to do better.

But then again. The act of responding to this poem has helped shake me out of some of my own despair, at least temporarily. Nothing you say here is anything that doesn’t cross my mind on a regular basis, that I wasn’t thinking about tonight. I came to the OBVV looking to have my own sense of something articulated and reinforced in a way that would help me gain some comfort. In this, you failed miserably, taking all those thoughts that I was hoping to cherish a little longer and taking them to such an extreme that it’s making me intervene to say, “No–this isn’t how it has to be”–and to look for possibilities within the poem of thinking these relations differently.

Because maybe we’re not the islands–maybe we’re just on the islands. And if that’s the case, then there doesn’t have to be this absolutely estranging space between us–if the longing is already there as a connection, that’s something. Sure, we can’t turn back the tide of divine severance. But we can teach ourselves how to build boats, right?

Yes, that’s right. I’m On A Boat.

Also, a quick follow up on one of the recent Poems of the Week. When I was consulting the Penguin Book of Victorian Verse (a collection of rather more recent vintage) to see what its stance on the Marguerite poems were, I noticed that Emily Bronte’s “Stanzas”–which I wrote about here–made it into this anthology as well, with a few changes. The poem does contain the final stanza that Mia mentioned in her editor’s note, but–perhaps more intriguingly–the poem is attributed to either Emily or Charlotte. Daniel Karlin’s editor’s notes mention that this poem was originally published in a memorial edition of Wuthering Heights (edited by Charlotte) in 1850–but apparently there’s some debate about the authorship. Karlin’s source is Janet Gezari’s edition of Emily Bronte’s Complete Poems (Penguin, 1992)–but, sadly, GoogleBooks is giving me only a snippet view. Alas.

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