I return in this young year to my long project of familiarizing myself with the American poetic tradition. Richard Henry Wilde is next up in the Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry.
The first poem of his included is “The Lament of the Captive,” a poem in three stanzas. The first goes like this:
My life is like the summer rose
That opens to the morning sky,
And, ere the shades of evening close,
Is scattered on the ground to die:
Yet on that rose’s humble bed
The softest dews of night are shed;
As if she wept such waste to see—
But none shall drop a tear for me!
In the final analysis it’s nothing spectacular, but it’s less tortured than much of the work in this volume so far: it’s easy in its rhythm and natural in its rhymes. It flows smoothly within its formal constraints, rather than calling attention to them. And turning the nightly dew into tears is a nice touch. The subsequent two stanzas are much the same, with different images, each culminating in an image of nature lamenting (“The wind bewail the leafless tree” / “On that lone shore loud moans the sea”). As printed on the page, the poem’s failure to develop is a blemish, though as a song (it was set to music) it is more forgivable.
Taken by itself, then, I think it’s one of the better selections in the volume thus far, though still such as to justify Emerson’s sense that the United States still lacked its national literature. But the appeal of the piece fades when one realizes that Wilde was a slaveowner. True, he was writing about his brother, but it cheapens the feeling behind the piece to discover that it was so haphazardly applied.
The other selections from Wilde are the forgettable sonnet “To the Mocking-Bird” and selections from his unfinished long poem “Hesperia”. Interestingly, in both cases Wilde shows a fondness for within-line lists (if there’s a more technical term for this, I don’t know it):
Thou pour’st a soft, sweet, solemn, pensive strain… (“To the Mocking-Bird”)
Hill, dale, brook, forest, lake, or lawn supplies… (“Hesperia” 3.50)
Wood, water, rocks, turf, flowers, salute the eye… (“Hesperia” 3.101)
Victims of love, hope, anger, fear, remorse… (“Hesperia” 4.67)
Gigantic Sauri, lizards, bats, and fern… (“Hesperia” 4.86)
A fertile, verdant, woodless, boundless plain… (“Hesperia” 4.91)
All that can awe, delight, o’erpower, amaze… (“Hesperia” 4.104)
He’s not as good at it as John Donne, alas:
All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies
Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes… (Holy Sonnet VII)
In Wilde’s hands, it feels like a crutch.
It isn’t that Wilde isn’t capable of a nice line here or there, sometimes even a nice stanza (“Hesperia” is written in eight-line iambic pentameter stanzas with an ABABABCC rhyme scheme). The skeptic in me especially enjoys the stanza that begins with the line, given above, about the “Gigantic Sauri”—the stanza goes on to tell us how these fossils might teach us “How limited at last is human thought!” (I may like the sentiment more than the poetry, I admit.)
But, so far as I can tell from the selections provided, “Hesperia” is a sort of paean to the American landscape, turning breathlessly from beauty to beauty. But in doing so it doesn’t capture anything of what it is to be American, to live in this landscape. It is pure spectation. Most frustrating is that Wilde at times hints at a better version of his poem:
If the romantic land whose soil I tread
Could give back all its passions—first and last—… (“Hesperia” 4.74)
But this is left as a mere tantalizing hint. Nowhere in the given text does the land give back its passions. Wilde himself almost realizes this, when he laments his inability to tell certain stories, and wishes for an “Indian Dante” or Homer:
Stern Nature’s monument of savage pride,
Before that rock of famine well might quail,
Did but an Indian Dante tell its tale. (“Hesperia 4.92)
Assiniboin and Sioux both confessed
Such prize well worth the struggle to destroy
A kindred people; but no Homer kept
The memory of thy charms, and so they slept. (“Hesperia” 4.105)
All that Wilde is competent to give us, unfortunately, is “a scene to gaze on!”, as he writes in one stanza. And in another:
…Where fields of cane, with orange-groves between
Embosoming white villas, interlace,
Making a bright and happy sylvan scene,
Viewed by its very serfs with laughing face… (“Hesperia” 4.69)
A scene to gaze on. But, it would seem, nothing more.
With any luck, I’ll be moving in mid-2018, so it’s not the best time to be accumulating books. My main aim, then, is to work through some of the many, many unread volumes currently occupying my shelves. Knowing myself, this resolution will go about as well as most resolutions made around this time, but here’s a prospectus for my 2018 reading premised on optimistic assumptions. I’ll cover only poetry, though undoubtedly I’ll read other things as well.
One of my long-term goals is to familiarize myself with the American poetic tradition, beyond the obvious names. To that end, I’ve been reading the Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry (2 vols.)—see here for my reflections. I’ve still only barely made a dent in the first volume. In 2018, I’d like to make substantially more progress.
Another ongoing project I’ll be continuing is John Peck’s Cantilena, which I began in August 2016, only to set it aside for other reading in 2017. (It’s a demanding book.) But in 2018, I will finish it. I will.
I’d also like to delve further into two contemporary poets whose work I’ve loved. Anne Carson’s Nox and Glass, Irony, and God are sitting unread on my shelf; by the end of the year they’ll be sitting read on my shelf. (I may re-read Plainwater while I’m at it.) Similarly, having loved her recent book Debths, I purchased Susan Howe’s The Nonconformist’s Memorial. I’ve made some brief forays into it, but haven’t read it properly. That’s coming, too.
Leaving the land of the living, I’d like to spend some time with the recently dead. Both of John Ashbery’s Library of America volumes are in my possession. I’ve read about 2/3 of the first, and none of the second. If all goes well, I’ll have read all of both (except perhaps for the unpublished poems) by the end of 2018. Going back a bit in 2017 deaths, I also have The Poetry of Derek Walcott, 1948-2013 lying around, unread, as well as Walcott’s Omeros. And, stretching all the way back to summer 2016, Geoffrey Hill’s collected, Broken Hierarchies, calls to me (I’ve read Without Title and little else by him; see here).
I love Virgil, and spent much of 2017 reading various translations of his Aeneid (Lombardo, Ruden, and Ferry). In 2018, I’ll expand out into some of the other great Roman poets, starting with Horace’s Odes and Epodes (tr. Shepherd) and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (tr. Mandelbaum).
2018 will also be the Year of John. I recently had a poem of mine described as a “metaphysical poem.” It might be good if I knew what that meant, so I’ll read that greatest of the metaphysicals, John Donne, whose Complete Poetry and Selected Prose (Modern Library) I conveniently own. And John Milton’s Paradise Lost was among my delusions about what I’d read in 2017. That didn’t happen; it will in 2018. Finally, John Berryman’s The Dream Songs will also find itself read before the year’s end.
For the curious, my three most-read posts of the past year were:
 This post detailing my first encounter with the work of John Ashbery, written shortly after he died (why it was most-read should be obvious).
 This detailed analysis of William Carlos Williams’ “Between Walls.”
 This post considering the role of ambiguity in Virgil’s Aeneid, book 4.
Among the functions of the Iliad is to preserve the names of those who fought valiantly in the Trojan war, and thereby to give to them the eternal glory they had earned. So it is intriguing to come across this passage, in the middle of book 17.
Around the corpse they kept pressing hard
With sharp spears and killing each other.
Some Greek would say from his bronze mask:
“Friends, there’s no point in returning
To the hollow ships. It would be better
For the black earth to swallow us here
If we’re going to let the Trojans haul him
Back to the city and win all the glory.
Or some Trojan would say:
“Friends, even if we’re all fated to die
By this body, don’t take a step back.
These words would lift everyone’s strength.” (17.424-35, tr. Lombardo)
The corpse is that of Patroclus. Hector has killed him and stripped him of Achilles’ armor (which he was wearing). The Greeks and Trojans are now fighting to gain possession of his body. On both sides, we see the soldiers rallying themselves with the thought that glory is worth the price of death, and that shame is a fate worse than death.
What is curious is that these speeches are anonymous, spoken by “some Greek” and “some Trojan.” Why? For one thing, this allows the poet to suggest that many soldiers give speeches along these lines. But the reason, I think, goes deeper. There is a basic tension in the Iliad. It is, on the one hand, a story about a relatively small number of central heroes, flanked by a few more minor characters noteworthy enough to be named. Yet, on the other hand, it is also a story of war, of a fight between large masses composed of individuals who cannot all be named and honored.
In making these speeches anonymous, the poet seems to acknowledge this tension, to acknowledge that, for most of those seeking glory in war (at least glory of the sort the poets can offer), they will fail, whether or not they survive. They will remain anonymous, recognized only by the actions typical of “some Greek” or “some Trojan.”
In Book 12 of the Iliad, as the Asius and his troops storm a Greek wall, soldiers on the wall throw stones to repel them. Homer describes it as follows:
……………………The stones fell like snow
Down to the ground, falling, falling, like flakes
A cold wind from the shadowy clouds
Drives thick and fast upon the bountiful earth. (12.162-65; tr. Lombardo)
This is an astonishing simile, and provides insight into the general manner in which Homer’s similes operate. Though they begin from a conspicuous, generally visual similarity, they gain their power and poignancy from their operation on other levels. In this instance, there are at least four salient movements in the comparison.
The first movement is the obvious similarity that sparks the simile: the stones fall thickly from the wall, like snow. By a natural extension of the simile, we arrive at an implied hyperbole: the stones cover the ground to the point where the earth is invisible. We may likewise imagine the stones thick enough to seriously obscure the Trojan soldiers’ vision.
But this perception of similarity soon gives way, and we are struck by the stark differences between the two scenes. There is something calm and peaceful about the snow-covered earth, however thickly the snow falls. We imagine the earth devoid of action, tranquil—completely unlike the conflict between Trojans and Greeks.
This second movement gives way in turn, however, to the third. We realize that Homer has called attention to the fact that the earth is bountiful. Yet we see it in a snowstorm, in winter, when its productive function is at its lowest point, and we still await the rebirth of spring. Winter, though the most beautiful season, is also the harshest, and its association with death suits it for comparison with war.
But this, too, moves in the opposite direction. Winter is only a temporary cessation of the earth’s productive function. In directing our attention toward that function, Homer invites a contrast with its other function: as the permanent resting place of the dead. The Greek stones render the earth—the bountiful earth—a graveyard.
In the end, the simile does not resolve itself one way or another. The stonestorm is and is not like a snowstorm. The visual similarity provides the opportunity to be struck successively by both sides of the comparison. I might note that, of the four motions described above, I felt only the first two during the regular flow of reading. Only when I stepped back and began to dwell on the tension between those two did the third and fourth reveal themselves. This is one reason why I like Lombardo’s choice to set off Homer’s similes in italics: it encourages one to spend with them the time they require to bloom.