Allston, Washington

When I was in high school, writing dreadful poetry, when I thought of sonnets as 14-line rhymed poems with ten syllables per line, I used to develop odd rhyme schemes. I wasn’t going to be constrained by Shakespeare and Petrarch, damnit. This is an embodiment of my younger self’s unserious attitude toward poetry, seeking greatness through pointless invention rather than simply learning my craft.

Happily, Washington Allston’s sonnets marry a similar playfulness about rhyme schemes with a level of craft my younger self wholly lacked. The Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry includes nine of his sonnets (plus one 15-line pseudo-sonnet). Here are their rhyme schemes:


They are mostly variants on the Shakespearean sonnet (at least insofar as they end with a couplet), only with the occasional Petrarchan quatrain or heroic couplet. But the third is basically two Petrarchan sestets bridged by a heroic couplet, and the eighth is a Petrarchan octave with a sestet of Allston’s own devising.

But enough about the rhyme schemes—are the poems any good? I think so. Most are reactions to various works of art that he admired (think Keats on Chapman). Here, for instance, is Allston on Peligrino Tibaldi’s Aeolus:

On Seeing the Picture of Æolus by Peligrino Tibaldi, in the Institute at Bologna

Full well, Tibaldi, did thy kindred mind
The mighty spell of Bonarroti own.
Like one who, reading magic words, receives
The gift of intercourse with worlds unknown,
’Twas thine, decyph’ring Nature’s mystic leaves,
To hold strange converse with the viewless wind;
To see the spirits, in embodied forms
Of gales and whirlwinds, hurricanes and storms.
For, lo! obedient to thy bidding, teems
Fierce into shape their stern, relentless lord;
His form of motion ever-restless seems;
Or, if to rest inclined his turbid soul,
On Hecla’s top to stretch, and give the word
To subject winds that sweep the desert pole.

Allston praises Tibaldi for the way in which he captures Aeolus’ motion even in rest, and suggests that Tibaldi is able to do so because of a heightened perception of the “viewless wind” that lies behind the visible motion of leaves. (On this point, the poem pairs well with “Project” by A.R. Ammons.)

The octave sets this up nicely. It is not overly impressive on its own, though it reads well. Where the poem really succeeds is in the sestet, for here, to make his praise of Tibaldi believable, Allston must himself capture Aeolus. I think he succeeds, starting with his bold decision to enjamb line nine (“teems”) and then begin line ten with a trochaic substitution (“fierce into shape”). Aeolus is thus thrust abruptly into our “view”. The metrical substitution serves to make “teems” believable.

The sestet continues to impress from there. I find the move from “relentless” to “restless” evocative. And describing his soul as “turbid” plays nicely off the earlier description of the wind as “viewless,” suggesting that invisibility need not imply a lack of complexity. No, Aeolus’ inner life is as murky and unmanageable as anyone’s.

All in all, then, it is a fine sonnet, and one I have come to enjoy even more through writing this.

His other appreciations of specific paintings similarly succeed. I’ll look at just one other:

On the Group of the Three Angels Before the Tent of Abraham, by Raffaelle, in the Vatican

Oh, now I feel as though another sense
From Heaven descending had inform’d my soul;
I feel the pleasurable, full control
Of Grace, harmonious, boundless, and intense.
In thee, celestial Group, embodied lives
The subtle mystery; that speaking gives
Itself resolv’d; the essences combin’d
Of Motion ceaseless, Unity complete.
Borne like a leaf by some soft eddying wind,
Mine eyes, impell’d as by enchantment sweet,
From part to part with circling motion rove,
Yet seem unconscious of the power to move;
From line to line through endless changes run,
O’er countless shapes, yet seem to gaze on One.

Here is a case where I think the unconventional rhyme scheme aids the meaning of the poem. Specifically, I think it replicates in the experience of reading this poem something like Allston’s experience of seeing the painting, namely the combination “Of Motion ceaseless, Unity complete.” The first four lines are set apart, both a complete rhyme unit (ABBA) and a complete sentence. But, the next four lines, though also a complete sentence, introduce two unresolved rhymed (CCDE). This leads us past the period onward into the next part of the poem. Moreover, within these four lines, all but the last are enjambed, meaning that the heroic couplet does not stand as a compact unit, but bleeds into the rest of the quatrain. The final six lines are then a single sentence, carrying us onward to the end. The whole poem (except a little bit the first quatrain) feels like a complete unity, yet a unity that moves ceaselessly, over which our eyes “From part to part with circling motion rove, / Yet seem unconscious of the power to move.”

And I will end by leaving, without further comment, Allston’s 15 line pseudo-sonnet:

A Word: Man

How vast a world is figured by a word!
A little word, a very point of sound,
Breathed by a breath, and in an instant heard;
Yet leaving that may well the soul astound,—
To sense a shape, to thought without a bound.
For who shall hope the mystery to scan
Of that dark being symbolized in man?
His outward form seems but a speck in space:
But what far star shall check the eternal race
Of one small thought that rays out from his mind?
For evil, or for good, still, still must travel on
His every thought, though worlds are left behind,
Nor backward can the race be ever run.
How fearful, then, that the first evil ray,
Still red with Abel’s blood, is on its way!

It is frustrating to be given only a selection of Washington Allston’s “The Sylphs of the Seasons” in the Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry, since it is the strongest poem in the compilation thus far. The basic premise is that each of the seasons argues to the narrator its charms, and he is then to choose his favorite from among them. (If any information is given about who this narrator is, it is not included in the selection.) The selection includes the case for Autumn and for Winter. The poem is written entirely in eight line stanzas with an AABCCCB rhyme scheme, the A and C lines in iambic tetrameter, the B lines in iambic trimester. It can get a little wearying, but Allston mostly wields it competently, and I admit to some friendliness simply on the grounds that he didn’t use heroic couplets.

The poem has the same commitment to moralizing that has been present in so many of these selections. Here, for instance, is the Sylph of Autumn:

‘Twas I, when thou, subdued by woe,
Didst watch the leaves descending slow,
To each a moral gave;
And as they mov’d in mournful train,
With rustling sound, along the plain,
Taught them to sing a seraph’s strain
Of peace within the grave.

I am not much moved by this, I think because I have no sense of who the narrator is. (I stress that I do not know if this is the fault of Allston or of John Hollander, who made the selections for this volume.) Because the narrator is faceless, this moral appears as universal. To see this in the leaves becomes the universal experience of autumn. But the moralism of nature is always more personal than this. Nature needs the aid of individual experience to put on such garb, and the poem (or selection) lacks that necessary element. So it lacks some credibility.

But there are portions I enjoy, as these three stanzas spoken by the Sylph of Winter:

Though Autumn grave, and Summer fair,
And joyous Spring demand a share
Of Fancy’s hallow’d power,
Yet these I hold of humbler kind,
To grosser means of earth confin’d,
Through mortal sense to reach the mind,
By mountain, stream, or flower.

But mine, of purer nature still,
Is that which to thy secret will
Did minister unseen,
Unfelt, unheard; when every sense
Did sleep in drowsy indolence,
And Silence deep and Night intense
Enshrowded every scene;

That o’er thy teeming brain did raise
The spirits of departed days
Through all the varying year;
And images of things remote,
And sounds that long had ceas’d to float,
With every hue, and every note,
As living now they were:

The crucial moment is in the second stanza: the enjambment of the third line. The spillover, the way it is not contained within the natural boundaries of the form, accentuates the mystic power of Winter’s ministry. As it happens, I think Allston is wrong here: the appeal that Winter makes to us is precisely through our senses. The austere minimalism of the winter landscape does not bring our senses to “sleep in drowsy indolence.” Just the opposite—it invigorates them. It is rather more the messy abundance of spring that is likely to berate my senses into a stupor. But no matter: that small moment of poetic craft makes the falsehood believable.

The poem ends on a disappointing note, with the narrator failing to choose between the seasons:

“Oh blessed band, of birth divine,
What mortal task is like to mine!”—
And further had I spoke,
When, lo! there pour’d a flood of light
So fiercely on my aching sight,
I feel beneath the vision bright,
And with the pain I woke.

Such tepid indecision, combined with the “reveal” (which may not be such in the context of the full poem) that it is all a vision, undermines what is good in the words of the Sylphs.