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Poem: ‘Out, Out—’
Poet: Robert Frost
Link: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/53087


At the outset, I must acknowledge a debt to several friends with whom I read and discussed this poem tonight. The insights (if such they are) I recount below are as much theirs as mine.

I first encountered this poem well over a year ago now, but only this evening did I quite grasp it. On the surface, the poem tells the grim and brutal story of a boy’s injury and death. As a telling of that story, it is gripping and horrifying, well told, and a good poem. But in fact that is merely the occasion for the real poem.

What is the real poem? Start with the title: ‘Out, Out—‘. This is an allusion to Shakespeare’s famous “out, out, damned spot,” from Macbeth, famous because it expresses so concisely and yet so forcefully Lady Macbeth’s overpowering guilt. This title clues us in that the narrator of this poem is not some outside observer who just happens to know what has happened. No, the observer is someone who was involved in that day’s fateful events, and who feels he could have prevented it from happening.

Once this is recognized, small cracks in the objectivity of the storytelling start to show through. When the narrator says, “Call it a day, I wish they might have said,” we can now recognize the thin illusion of distance that the “they” creates. For the narrator really meant, “I wish I might have said.” It is doubly depersonalized, changed to the third person for one, changed to the plural for two. This same “they” recurs throughout, but now we know better.

The scene in Macbeth in which Lady Macbeth makes her famous, despairing cry is, as I recall it, hardly subtle. She proclaims her guilt openly. Frost’s poem captures a rather different kind of guilt. The narrator is not a murderer. He is not even morally culpable in any real sense. What could he reasonably have been expected to do differently? Nothing, of course. But that doesn’t stop the brain from imagining what might have been done differently.

Because it is a different sort of guilt, it calls for a different kind of expression. The narrator tries, with every trick he has, to suppress it. Had he fully succeeded, there would be no poem. But he fails, and his failure is the poem’s success.

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Poem: Invective against swans
Poet: Wallace Stevens

Invective against swans

The soul, O ganders, flies beyond the parks
And far beyond the discords of the wind.

A bronze rain from the sun descending marks
The death of summer, which that time endures

Like one who scrawls a listless testament
Of golden quirks and Paphian caricatures,

Bequeathing your white feathers to the moon
And giving your bland motions to the air.

Behold, already on the long parades
The crows anoint the statues with their dirt.

And the soul, O ganders, being lonely, flies
Beyond your chilly chariots, to the skies.


It is a rare thing, the poem-as-polemic that succeeds at both tasks. This poem manages that balance. This success begins with the invective itself, which may be found in the middle four stanzas. Here, Stevens summons the clichés of bad poetry to attend their own public humiliation. The difficulty, of course, is that Stevens must himself not lapse into cliché. This he manages in a few ways. The “bronze rain” is saved by Stevens’ wise choice to have this beleaguered description be endured, not by the reader, but by time itself. The “listless testament / Of golden quirks” is livened, in Stevens’ hands, by the just-strange-enough invocation of the “Paphian caricatures” (suggesting illicit sexual love).

The entry of sex into the poem brings out a clever pun that Stevens leaves below the surface, as he ought. A “gander-moon” is the month after a woman’s confinement, i.e. childbirth. Thus Stevens quietly hints at the consequences of this illicit love, consequences likely lost in the vapid descriptions of “golden quirks.” Meanwhile, “bequeathing” hits just the right note of purple, and Stevens doesn’t pour it on too thick, allowing the swans’ “motions” to be, not bequeathed, but more modestly given. And then, of course, comes the most direct satire, the contrast between the swans and the crows that come in droves in autumn and shit on everything (I know from experience). Here, again, we Stevens brings out the consequences that are absent in the poems he is mocking: if summer is ending, that means the crows are arriving, and with them their shit.

But what takes this poem out of the realm of mere invective and makes it into something more satisfying is the pair of stanzas that bracket the poem. Here we get a sense of the loneliness that the narrator feels upon reading such uninspired poetry. He cannot fly with them. Even if it is haughty and aristocratic, it gives the poem a human touch. It is not mere mockery.

I was at first surprised that this poem should have appeared second in Harmonium, Stevens’ first collection. But, on reflection, it makes some sense. For the crows that tell the end of summer usher in the cold, and it is in the cold that Stevens thrives as a poet, as I have discussed before on this blog.

 

I have of late been reading A.C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy, an old but I am made to understand classic work, though perhaps out of fashion today. Regardless, I find it edifying, though I would like to correct what I think is one small but non-trivial error in his analysis of Hamlet, concerning the scene in which Hamlet chooses not to kill Claudius, who is praying.

Here is the relevant passage from Bradley (Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 132-33):

The incident of the sparing of the King is contrived with extraordinary dramatic insight. On the one side we feel that the opportunity was perfect. Hamlet could not possibly any longer tell himself that he had no certainty as to his uncle’s guilt. And the external conditions were most favourable; for the King’s remarkable behavior at the play-scene would have supplied a damning confirmation of the story Hamlet had to tell about the Ghost. Even now, probably, in a court so corrupt as that of Elsinore, he could not with perfect security have begun by changing the King with the murder; but he could quite safely have killed him first and given his justification afterwards, especially as he would certainly have had on his side the people, who loved him and despised Claudius. On the other hand, Shakespeare has taken care to give this perfect opportunity so repulsive a character that we can hardly bring ourselves to wish that the hero should accept it. One of his minor difficulties, we have seen, probably was that he seemed to be required to attack a defenceless man; and here this difficulty is at its maximum.

Nothing in this is quite wrong, but he overlooks an important aspect of the audience’s response to this scene, or at least of my response. What would be repulsive, were Hamlet to kill the King in this scenario? That the King is defenseless, perhaps, though since the King himself had killed a defenseless man, I am ambivalent about this. But the King is not merely defenseless: he is defenseless because he is praying. And while I am not religious myself, I can appreciate the significance that would have had at this time, and that contributes to making the opportunity “repulsive.”

There is, however, a complication. For the audience has already encountered the King’s conscience in play. Consider this interaction between Polonius and the King in Act 3, Scene 1:

Polonius
Ophelia, walk you here.—Gracious, so please you,
We will bestow ourselves.
[To Ophelia, giving a book] Read on this book,
That show of such an exercise may color
Your loneliness. We are oft to blame in this—
‘Tis too much proved—that with devotion’s visage
And pious action we do sugar o’er
The devil himself.

King [Aside]
Oh, ‘tis too true!
How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience.
The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plast’ring art,
Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it
Than is my deed to my most painted word.
Oh, heavy burden!

The King laments the weight on his conscience, the knowledge of the terrible crime he has committed. And yet this sting of conscience is utterly effete, is restricted to within his head. He certainly does not publicly take responsibility for his crime. From such a scene we learn not to sympathize with the King’s apparent moral sense, and when we see him praying, we know it is as false as the apparent remorse quoted above.

Thus to the audience, Hamlet killing the King as he prayed is not a repulsive act: we are fully convinced that the King deserves it. And yet that King’s aside is known only to us, and not to Hamlet himself. It thus remains open to Hamlet to recognize the prayer as genuine, and indeed he does, for he thinks that this prayer will ensure Claudius a place in Heaven if he is killed just then. Insofar as the opportunity has a repulsive element, it is repulsive only because we know that Hamlet does not know what we know: that the prayer is a sham.

Addendum

Reading on in the essay, Bradley does recognize the importance of the fact that the King is praying, and not merely defenseless. Commenting on the scene in which Hamlet kills Polonius, he writes:

Evidently this act is intended to stand in sharp contrast with Hamlet’s sparing of his enemy. The King would have been just as defenceless behind the arras as he had been on his knees; but here Hamlet is already excited and in action, and the chance comes to him so suddenly that he has no time to ‘scan’ it. It is a minor consideration, but still for the dramatist not unimportant, that the audience would wholly sympathize with Hamlet’s attempt here, as directed against an enemy who is lurking to entrap him, instead of being engaged in a business which perhaps to the bulk of the audience then, as now, seemed to have a ‘relish of salvation in’t’.

If I am right, then the King’s prayer should not appear to any audience (at least, any audience sensitive to the King’s earlier displays of “conscience”) as having “a relish of salvation in’t.” But it will appear so to Hamlet. The audience’s repulsion is, or ought to be, entirely on Hamlet’s behalf. But for ourselves, we are not repulsed.

Addendum 2

And still later in the essay, Bradley turns to discuss Claudius, and he explicitly recognizes that “his conscience, though ineffective, is far from being dead” (p. 161). Bradley clearly thinks this softens the character: it is among the evidence presented that “he is not without respectable qualities. And this explains why we have diverged on this point, for I do not think it respectable at all, but rather find it an especially damning kind of mediocrity.

Poem: [Who stands, the crux left of the watershed]
Poet: W.H. Auden
Link: http://www.thebeckoning.com/poetry/auden/auden1.html


There is much to admire about this poem. I want to hone in on one particular feature of it that I find especially effective, an series of ambiguities that Auden deftly exploits. Let us start at the broadest scale, with the overall motion of the poem. The poem has two stanzas. The first begins impersonally—

Who stands, the crux left of the watershed,
On the wet road between the chafing grass
Below him sees dismantled washing floors,

—while the second opens with a direct address—

Go home, now, stranger, proud of your young stock,
Stranger, turn back again, frustrate and vexed…

Immediately we must ask who the stranger is. Three options present themselves: the stranger is the reader, the stranger is the poet himself, and the stranger is some unnamed, private reference, not meant for us to know. The poem, as I read it, sustains each interpretation, indeed the poem, as it seems to me, rather asks to be read in each of these ways. I want to explore especially the possibilities of the first two readings: stranger as poet and stranger as reader.

The poem opens with an image of the decay of an industry (lead mining): “An industry already comatose, / Yet sparsely living.” But, just as the poem as a whole transitions from impersonal to personal, so the decay transitions from inhuman to human:

And further here and there, though many dead
Lie under the poor soil, some acts are chosen
Taken from recent winters…

This brings us to the death of a worker in a storm. What is curious here is the choice. Though many are dead, only some are chosen—only the one death makes its way into the poem. This creates a second ambiguity in the poem: who makes the selection? Is it the poet who selects this particular death for description, or is it the one who, standing by the watershed, recollects the death?

It is easy to see that this ambiguity intertwines with the first ambiguity. Perhaps the poet himself is the stranger standing by the watershed. The image that results from this reading is of the poet addressing himself. So now we have the poet observing the lead mines (call this the first order poet) and the poet observing (and describing) himself observing (call this the second order poet). Either may make the selection. Perhaps the first order poet is recalling one who died here whom he knew. Or perhaps the second order poet is bringing up one of the many who died, doesn’t matter which, to justify the warning command with which the second stanza begins. Once again, the poem sustains either reading.

In one regard the stranger-as-poet reading is the most natural. But because of the use of a direct second-personal address, the reader is invited on reading to take up the position of the stranger, to observe through the poet’s description. (Doubly so since the poet’s readers are primarily strangers in a literal sense.) Then it is the reader who is warned away, perhaps because it is too private, cannot be shared. (This is the fundamental tension and paradox of poetry, which tries to communicate what cannot be communicated: oneself.)

However it is read, the selection of the one dead man from among many must be understood in the light of lines that occur later in the poem. I juxtapose lines from both the first and second stanzas to make the basis for comparison clearer:

And further here and there, though many dead
Lie under the poor soil, some acts are chosen,
Taken from recent winters; […]

This land, cut off, will not communicate,
Be no accessory content to one
Aimless for faces rather there than here.

That these lines should be considered together is signaled by the inverted repetition of “here and there.” The description of the stranger as “aimless for faces” suggests an arbitrariness in the selection, that any face would do. If we understand the stranger as the poet, then this is a bit of self-reproach. Perhaps the story of his death in the storm is itself a poetic fiction, something the poet imagined, stimulated by the decay he was viewing. Such a death, he imagines, would be appropriate, regardless of its reality or lack thereof. On the other hand, if we understand the stranger as the reader, then this heightens the sense of private significance to which we readers are not privy.

As I said above, I think the poem invites each of these readings. The ambiguity, the shuffling between these different significances, is part of the delight of reading it. This is the first Auden poem I have read (I will be reading all of Vintage’s edition of his Selected Poems, and will post about some of them), and it is a fine introduction.

Poem: Pindaric 3
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Link: Google Books


Alexander Pope, in his “Essay on Criticism,” frequently mimicked in meter what he described in words. His dazzling technical proficiency in doing so is one of the poem’s greatest attractions. Here is my favorite instance:

A needless alexandrine ends the song
That like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.

An alexandrine is a line of iambic hexameter. Pope is here satirizing poets who used forms that involved concluding a stanza otherwise entirely in iambic pentameter with a single alexandrine. The trouble was that the alexandrine threatened to slow down the flow of the poem too much, which Pope illustrates with a brilliant alexandrine of his own. The cluster of stresses in the middle—wounded snake, drags its slow length—brings the line nearly to a halt, as if it itself were the wounded snake described. (Note for fellow pedants: in scanning the line, “drags its slow length” would most likely be read as a trochaic substitution—drags its—followed by a normal iamb—slow length—but this just illustrates how impoverished scansion is when it comes to capturing the full rhythm of a line.)

Geoffrey Hill, in the third poem in his sequence of “Pindarics,” draws from this Papish well. Here are the poem’s final four lines:

Power’s not every place that virtue is,
and anarchy by files deploys to order
as if through modes of conduct or of weight:
dactyls advancing against a contrived rest.

It is the last line I want to focus on. Here is how it scans:

Dactyls advancing against a contrived rest.

The rest of the poem is in blank verse (though with Hill’s usual interspersing of the occasional clipped line), so most lines have five beats and are in the vicinity of ten syllables. This line, however, opens in dactylic meter. Because dactyls (stress, unstress, unstress) have three syllables, while iambs (unstress, stress) have only two, this creates a tension between the two measures of line length: is this line going to be a five-beat line (thus stretching out to an unwieldy fifteen syllables), or will it stick to ten syllables or thereabouts (at the cost of falling short of the full five beats)?

Neither is an ideal solution. Hill solves the problem with, as the line tells us, a “contrived rest.” After three perfect dactyls, the “-trived” in “contrived” should be the start of the fourth. But instead of continuing on, Hill grinds to a halt on the stressed “rest,” thus bringing the line up to five beats (in only eleven syllables). This rest is doubly contrived precisely because it follows the word ‘contrived,’ a disyllabic word with the stress on the second syllable. While the “rules” of meter in some circumstances permit two stressed syllables to appear back-to-back (as in the mid-line trochaic substitution in Pope’s alexandrine), they generally forbid it when the first stress falls on the second syllable of a disyllabic word. Read Hill’s line aloud and you will hear why: the line gets caught up there. “Contrived” really wants to be followed by an unstressed syllable. Hill denies it this satisfaction.

Hill’s line thus consists in a line of dactyls advancing against a contrived rest.

At this point, having described the metrical perfection of the line, I would like to go on to say something insightful about how it enhances the meaning of the poem as a whole. Unfortunately, I find the poem as a whole basically incomprehensible right now. So I shall have to stop here.