Archive

Poetry

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.

Advertisements

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.

In certain respects, Richard Henry Dana’s “The Dying Raven” is the most interesting poem I’ve so far encountered in the Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry. It’s the first unrhymed poem in the volume, a longish blank verse piece, and while most lines end with some form of punctuation, it does have some noticeable enjambments. As a result, it doesn’t feel quite as trapped in the past as the poems that precede it, at least at first.

Unfortunately, as a poem, it’s a dull piece. It begins well enough, with a description of the raven’s call as a promise of spring to come—a spring that has come, and is lovingly described. If not especially remarkable, it’s at least a refreshing change of pace. But it doesn’t sustain itself. There are any number of flaws—breathlessness (“Preacher to man’s spirit! / Emblem of Hope! Companion! Comforter!”) and redundancy (especially in the passage alerting us that the raven is now dead)—but the one that really undoes the poem is that it’s emotionally flat. Nowhere is this more apparent than this passage, which follows some musing on the cause of the bird’s death:

I needs must mourn for thee. For I, who have
No fields, nor gather into garners—I
Bear thee both thanks and love, not fear nor hate.

It’s completely bloodless, and it comes right where the poem ought to be reaching its zenith. After this, the poem descends into moralizing, and then it ends. There’s the material here for a good poem, but it’s weighed down by the dross, and the poem as a whole is a failure.

In Book VII of the Aeneid, Aeneas sends a few of his men on a diplomatic mission to speak with King Latinus, with the aim of convincing him to allow them to settle there peacefully. Latinus asks them,

“What are you seeking? What is it that has brought you
Across the cerulean waters to our shore?
Is it that you have lost your way, or was it
Tempests acting upon you (for we are told
That this has happened to many upon the deep),
That you have entered in, between our river’s
Banks, and harbored your fleet within our port?
Do not refuse our welcome. Remember that we
Latins are of the race of Saturn, who
Following in the ways of our ancient father,
Need no external laws to obey or be
Forbidden by; we act of our own free wills.” (7.265-76; tr. Ferry)

Perhaps picking up on this reference to the unfettered will, the emissaries stress that no error has brought them to Italian shores: they have chosen to go there:

When the old king had finished speaking, then
Ilioneus said these words: “O king, illustrious
Descendant of the line of Faunus, it wasn’t
A black storm of winter nor was it surging seas
That drove us this way, nor was it that we mistook
A reading of the stars or of a coastline.
We came of our own free will… (7.286-92)

This insistence is interesting, because it stands in direct contradiction to something Aeneas himself said earlier in the book, on not just one but two occasions. The first comes in book four, when he attempts to placate Dido after telling her he must abandon her. (I’ve previous written about this scene here.) There, he says:

“And now the messenger of the gods, whom Jove
Himself has sent to me, has come down here
Upon the blowing winds—I swear, it happened—
It was full daylight when I saw him coming
Toward me, coming through the walls, and with
My very own ears I drank in what it was
That the messenger of Jove was sent to tell me.
So you must cease your protestations now.
I go not to Italy of my own free will.” (4.499-507)

And, in book six, he again tells Dido (her shade, this time) that his leaving her was not a free action:

Tears fell from his eyes and he spoke tenderly,
And lovingly to her: “Unhappy Dido,
Is it true, what I was told, that you were dead,
And with a sword had brought about your death?
And was it I, alas, who caused it? I
Swear by the stars, and by the upper world,
And by whatever here below is holy,
I left your shores unwillingly. (6.625-32)

We have, then, an interesting discrepancy. Aeneas’ men appear to view the journey to Italy as a chosen destiny, while Aeneas himself more than once insists that it is forced upon him against his will. What explains this?

One might offer a deflationary explanation of the difference, on two fronts. First, in discussing free will, Ilioneus and Aeneas are actually drawing subtly different contrasts. For Ilioneus, the Trojans have come to Latium out of free will as opposed to out of miscalculation or the overwhelming power of, say, a storm. Here it is noteworthy that it is precisely a storm that drove the Trojans to Carthage. His point is that they aimed deliberately at that destination, and intend to stay there. In that respect, he is perfectly correct.

Aeneas, meanwhile, denies that he goes to Italy of his own free will because he draws a contrast between his desire (to stay with Dido in Carthage) and his destiny (to found a new settlement in Latium). In this case, too, what he says is true—though in this case it’s complicated, since he does also desire the destiny that has been promised to him (I discuss this further in the earlier post linked above). There is, nonetheless, a substantial part of his will that would, if given the chance, stay in Carthage, and he goes to Italy only because this part of his will is fettered by destiny.

A second way of deflating the difference is to recognize the pragmatics of these utterances. None is a bare statement of fact: each has a definite social purpose. Ilioneus seeks Latinus’ favor, and therefore has an interest in presenting the Trojans as self-possessed. Aeneas, by contrast, is attempting both to placate Dido and to escape judgment—both hers and his own—for abandoning her. Thus he seeks to distance himself, as much as possible, from his evil act.

Both of these deflationary readings—which are compatible and indeed reinforce one another—are undoubtedly true. They do not, however, give the complete story, and we miss out on a major aspect of the Aeneid if we rest content with them alone. What we miss is this: even though Ilioneus’ and Aeneas’ claims are, strictly speaking, compatible, since they rest on different notions of free will, they nonetheless do capture a real difference in perspective. Ilioneus identifies wholeheartedly with the decision to settle in Latium. Aeneas does not.

To see why this is, consider Aeneas’ first speech to his men—not the first in time, but the first we encounter in the poem. Aeolus has, at Juno’s behest, unleashed a storm on the Trojans, and this has driven them to Carthage. Several ships appear to be lost, and it falls on Aeneas, as leader to the Trojans, “to ease their sorrow” (1.263):

“O my companions, O you who have undergone
Together with me, worse things than thise before,
The gods will bring this also to an end.
You who were there so close to Scylla’s frenzy,
Right in under her howling wailing cliffs,
And experienced the Cyclops throwing rocks,
Remember how brave you were. Be of good cheer,
Send fear away. Perhaps there will come a time
When you will remember these troubles with a smile.
Through many perils, through whatever mischance
We may encounter, our journey is toward Latium,
Where Fortune offers us a peaceful home.
There Troy will rise again. It is ordained.
Therefore endure, and expect a happier time.”
These were the words he used, though sick at heart;
His face simulates hopefulness and he
Endeavors to suppress his deep distress. (1. 264-80)

Here we see Aeneas attempting to cheer his followers, promising to them what the gods have promised to him. But it is a simulation, and to give this speech he must “suppress his deep distress.”

This shows Aeneas serving in one of his crucial roles in the Aeneid: he is a buffer. It is his job, as leader of the Trojans, to absorb all the doubts and uncertainties of the journey to found a new home, and in doing so to shield his followers from those doubts. Only in being forced to serve as such a buffer does Aeneas become the complicated man I love, the man both severed and inseparable from his fateful decisions.