W.B. Yeats: The Fascination of What’s Difficult

William Butler Yeats, Irish poet

William Butler Yeats, Irish poet

I want to continue with the idea of modern difficulty but first, a digression. In my previous post I mentioned the irony inherent in W.H. Auden’s elegy to William Butler Yeats, ‘poetry makes nothing happen.’  (Link to Auden reading the first part of poem below.) The primary irony I was referring to was using a line of poetry to dismiss poetry. The second regarded the significance of the elegy. Yeats was an Irish Nationalist, however his active involvement in the cause varied through time. Despite this, he was a catalyst for the Irish Literary Revival and wrote some of the most significant elegies for the Irish political plight, immortalizing in verse the moment in time and those involved. This of course is not ‘nothing.’  In the poem, Auden questions the social viability of art but the irony is that he does it through poetry, or what he calls the mouth, perhaps the most viable option for change. The question to ask is how can poetry ‘make nothing happen’ while simultaneously being ‘a way of happening’? This is from part II of Auden’s elegy:

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

That’s the end of the digression. Some food for thought. Now let’s move on to Yeats’s poetics.

‘Modern Poetry’ anthologies often begin with Yeats because he straddled the line between Romanticism and what we call Modernism. Yeats struggled with his position both temporally and artistically. In terms of the latter, he often vacillated (poetically and politically, Yeats was clearly indecisive). In any event, in his poem ‘Coole and Ballyhee, 1931’ he wrote, ‘we are the last romantics.’ (Most poets after Yeats will have you believe they had severed all allegiances to Romanticism—don’t believe them. Eliot himself was a covert Romantic.)

Yeats’s poem ‘The Fascination of What’s Difficult’ (1912) is an interesting poem regarding his liminal position between romanticism and modernism. He begins by stating that the admiration for ‘what’s difficult’ has left him empty of spontaneous poetic power (Yeats was interested in the occult, especially Hermeticism and automatic writing); he is both ‘rent’ (without) of ‘natural content’ meaning poetic power and material and ‘content’ meaning happiness. He is complaining about the movement toward modernism and how the pedantry necessary for it will take the joy out of writing. However, the poem is also about freeing the Pegasus, the colt that symbolizes poetry. There is a natural strain in Yeats’s poem; at once a freeing and a containing: the bounding colt now seems as though it ‘drag[s] road metal’ and is stabled.

en: Portrait of William Butler Yeats by John S...

During the poem’s composition, Yeats was running the Abbey Theatre (consider the theme of the stage in the last post on Stevens). Here it seems it is the ‘Theatre business, management of men’ that pulled him from romantic Irish mysticism to the world of modernity. This poem, through form and content, so cleverly portrays the inherent struggle with desiring to move forward while longing for the past. It is a nostalgia recollected at the moment of significant, positive personal change. Yeats sees and understands the fascination of what’s difficult. In pulling out the bolt he frees the Pegasus, allowing him to write however he wants. He refuses to give in to the pedantry of modernism, to ‘shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt’, and so should readers of modern poetry. Yeats was a modern poet but he never lost sight of the Pegasus. So take from all poetry what you see and capitalize on change but never compromise yourself.

Here’s the poem.

The Fascination of What’s Difficult

The fascination of what’s difficult
Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent
Spontaneous joy and natural content
Out of my heart. There’s something ails our colt
That must, as if it had not holy blood,
Nor on an Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud,
Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt
As though it dragged road metal. My curse on plays
That have to be set up in fifty ways,
On the day’s war with every knave and dolt,
Theatre business, management of men.
I swear before the dawn comes around again
I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt.

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Wallace Stevens: Of Modern Poetry

Wallace StevensThe question of the appeal of modern poetry is a very big concern among modernists and a common question among readers new to the genre. Many prefer the aesthetics of the Elizabethan’s, enjoying the sing-song simplicity and rhyme. Often, when I tell people that I am passionate about modern poetry they ask, ‘Why?’ Some objectors of the place of poetry even use (in so many words) W.H. Auden’s line in his elegy to W.B. Yeats, seemingly unaware of the contradiction: ‘poetry makes nothing happen.’

When I consider what people call the difficulty of modern poetry I think of two things, T.S. Eliot’s essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ and Wallace Stevens’s poem ‘Of Modern Poetry.’ Eliot writes, ‘Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.’ Here modernists might discuss modernism’s tearing into pieces of the interiority of humanity as a result of some great event, and I do not deny that modernism consists of the ‘refined sensibility’ reacting to that (or those) events. However, the events and the emotions tied to the events are seldom new (though the events may be more monumental, the emotions more intense); the difficulty is in the projection of a subjective interiority that has always existed and has always been complex.

Modern art in PragueWallace Stevens’s ‘Of Modern Poetry’ begins with what I believe is a sense of Durkheim’s social Anomie. Modern poetry is the attempt to grasp and delineate something that cannot yet be understood by society at large. In this sense it is prophesying: modern poetry ‘has / To construct a new stage’ on which the norms of society will be played out after it is ruptured by anything: war, economic collapse, drought, etc. Stevens’s act of poetry, which is the act of the mind, is simultaneously solipsistic and intersubjective: it is for the self and the ‘invisible audience’ or collective consciousness of humanity. Stevens repeats what Keats wrote in ‘A Defence of Poetry’ [sic] : ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ (Anomie is from the Greek and translates to ‘without law’). In times of great variety and complexity, the mind will mirror that state. ‘The poem of the act of the mind’ is ‘difficult’ because it is the mapping of the intricacy of your (his, hers, theirs, our) mind. Poetry is there to recreate, to compose law, it is there to remind us of what it is that makes us human, and, more importantly, to remind us of what makes us a society.

Here’s the poem.

Of Modern Poetry

The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one. The actor is
A metaphysician in the dark, twanging
An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly
Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,
Beyond which it has no will to rise.
It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.

Robert Frost: Spring Pools

Robert Frost, American poet

Not uncommon to the northeast, our weather has been rather erratic this year. A week or so ago I walked through the park in a long-sleeve and today I’ve become something of a frigophobic. In any event, sustained warmth is approaching; and because of this there is a widespread air of relief among those that are out-of-doors, a latent optimism ready to spring. This type of optimism is not such a positive thing. It is, rather unfortunately, a form of the modern American condition: in winter, we whimper for warmth, come spring and summer, we grumble under the sun. Doubtless, we lack presence; or perhaps we’re a lot of malcontents. The former is more poetic. As I thought about this, Robert Frost’s ironic and incongruent nature struck me, particularly in his poem ‘Spring Pools’ (1928).

‘Spring Pools’ is the first poem in Frost’s 1928 collection titled West-Running Brook. The male speaker in the title poem ‘West-Running Brook,’ comes to take on a rather pragmatic reading of the brook and nature in general. It is difficult to isolate a single excerpt from the poem without desiring to quote the poem’s entirety but here is the ‘gist’ of the poem:

‘Speaking of contraries, see how the brook
In that white wave runs counter to itself
It is from that water we were from
Long, long before we were from any creature.
Here we, in our impatience of the steps,
Get back to the beginning of beginnings,
The stream of everything that runs away.
Some say existence like a Pirouot
And Pirouette, forever in one place,
Stands still and dances, but it runs away;
It seriously, sadly, runs away
To fill the abyss’s void with emptiness.
It flows beside us in the water brook,
But it flows over us. It flows between us
To separate us for a panic moment.
………………………………………………………..
Our life runs down in sending up the clock.
The brook runs down in sending up our life.
The sun runs down in sending up the brook.
And there is something sending up the sun.
It is this backward motion toward the source,
Against the stream, that most we see ourselves in,
The tribute of the current of the source.
It is from this in nature we are from.
It is most us.’                                  
                                -Lines 38-73

Reflection_2Emerson, a very important philosopher for Frost, writes in his essay ‘Nature’ (1836), ‘Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour and is not reminded of the flux of all things?’ Both ‘West-Running Brook’ and ‘Spring Pools’ are about the Emersonian flux, but they are dealt with entirely differently. More important than this common motif, is the Emersonian desire for presence. In ‘The Over-Soul’ (1841) (an essay that also discusses the omniscient flow of nature, as in the excerpt above) Emerson writes, ‘Do not require a description of the countries towards which you sail. The description does not describe them to you, and to-morrow you arrive there, and know them by inhabiting them.’ He means don’t strive to look into the future because we ‘will learn that there is no profane history; that all history is sacred; that the universe is represented in an atom, in a moment of time. He will weave no longer a spotted life of shreds and patches, but he will live with a divine unity. He will cease from what is base and frivolous in his life, and be content with all places…’ ‘West-Running Brook’ is about (among other things) accepting Time and Nature. ‘Spring Pools’, again the first poem of the collection, wishes to deny the course with (what I think is a sad) hubris.

The difference between the flow of the brook in ‘West-Running Brook’ and the trees in ‘Spring Pools’ is one of power dynamics. For Frost, the trees are tyrants, siphoning water and beauty from the smaller plants and the reflective pools through their xylem in order to secure their own splendor. The trees’ foliage garnered through this violent extraction would then ‘blot out’ the forest floor from the sun, killing more plants. Frost deems the trees malevolent (‘pent-up buds’ is, I think, a sinister language) and disregards the pragmatism in ‘West-Running Brook’—that Nature and Time ‘seriously, sadly, runs away’— preferring that the moment be sustained. He desires a presence akin to Emerson’s but without the consequence of death. He asserts this desire with phlegmatic hubris: ‘Let them think twice before they use their powers / To blot out and drink up and sweep away / These flowery waters and these watery flowers’ but the final line is stated with such a downhearted tone (note the word ‘only’) that we feel for the hubristic old man striving to stop the currents of time as we might feel for Milton’s Satan: ‘From snow that melted only yesterday.’

Throughout West-Running Brook nature becomes ‘dark,’ a sinister but necessary thing. In ‘Spring Pools,’ I believe Frost is cynically portraying a reversal of the American mind that will become corrected throughout the collection, reaching its culmination in ‘West-Running Brook,’ which asserts an understanding of flux. We must accept the way things are despite our own stubborn desires for something different. We must be the wave we are and learn to ‘run counter’ to ourselves. It will be winter for some time, but spring is soon to come.

Here’s the poem. Listen to the poem (read by Ted Hughes) by clicking the link below.

Spring Pools

These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.

The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods—
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.

Ted Hughes reading ‘Spring Pools’

Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Windhover

dscf0043Last night I returned to Manhattan from a long weekend in Vermont. I struggled to drift off to sleep because of an indelible image of a stately bird of prey high in the bare boughs of a tree against a crisp, blue sky stuck in my mind. This is a common sight for a Vermonter; I have probably seen it twenty or thirty times while traveling from Burlington to a nearby mountain. In all likelihood, it was just a Red-Tailed Hawk I saw (a bird whose plumage is similar to the kestrel). But this time it was more; it was the representation of the beauty and power of nature I had failed to appreciate when there and have continuously longed for since moving to New York. Beneath these thoughts that busied my mind while away, was Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’ (1877).

Gerard Manley Hopkins, an English poet, Roman ...A windhover is a kestrel, a small falcon that hovers in midair while searching for prey. The bird—figured here as the prince of daylight—is spotted, drawn to dawn, and hovering in a thermal or current of air. The bird then begins to ascend slowly: ‘how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing / In his ecstasy.’ This imagery is, I believe, the most important part of the poem. ‘Rung’ is a term in falconry meaning to ascend in a spiral motion. ‘Wimpling’ here has a double meaning. The simple meaning is rippling, meaning the wing’s plumage undulates against the wind. However, a wimple is also a headdress that covers the head, neck, and cheeks of nuns, pressing against the temple and keeping the hair in place. The hovering bird finds a literal balance between the liberating air and the friction inherent in his pursuit, i.e. the thermal. Like a wimpled nun, the bird is at once elated and at once restricted by the very nature of that elation. Hopkins was a Jesuit priest, torn between his religious life and his poetry. He admits that his ‘heart in hiding / Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!’ His heart in hiding, or his passion, is searching for a ‘bird,’ a state that would allow him to master both his callings at once.

The bird spots its prey and begins a rapid descent by buckling its wings: ‘Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume here / Buckle!’ In the morning-sun, the spotted bird seems to become aflame, an image likely taken from another of his poems ‘God’s Grandeur’: ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.’ (In a note Hopkins writes, ‘I mean foil in the sense of leaf or tinsel…. Shaken goldfoil gives off broad glare like sheet lightning….’) After the second stanza, Hopkins awakes to the ubiquitous beauty of nature. He says that even a plowed furrow (‘sillion’) shines in this way, likely due to the shimmering minerals the plow unearths. And embers, seemingly about to go out and giving off nothing particularly brilliant (‘blue-bleak’) fall to the ground and open up, revealing inside ‘gold-vermillion.’ The bleak ember appears to be a metaphor for the heart or soul in hiding that, after witnessing the wonder of nature, gashes open and reveals its true, passionate, blazing fire.

‘The Windhover’ is dense with intense language that mirrors the epiphanic reawakening to the wonders of nature. The meter and language are titillating, adding to the feeling of ecstasy felt by the speaker in the poem and so this poem should be read aloud for full effect.

Here’s the poem.

The Windhover

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! and the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

T.S. Eliot: Ash Wednesday

01x/24/Dian/15120/007uToday is Ash Wednesday and although I did not want to provide a reading of a long poem for some time, I thought not posting on T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday (1930) would be a lost opportunity. Below is a Dantean reading of Eliot’s poem. The wonder of Eliot’s poetry (like most great poetry) is that it can lead you anywhere. So read this post and take from it what you will but take a break before reading the poem. Grab a coffee, watch Downton Abbey, but try to read the poem without me in your head. I’d love to hear any interpretations. Enjoy.

For Eliot, Dante was more than a poetic master who had achieved the heights of poetry. As Eliot struggled through life literally searching for perfection, he rediscovered Dante, finding in his poetry not merely a poetics but also a way of life. Now, I don’t solely mean in regards to religion, in fact I am hardly concerned with religion at all. Eliot himself had written in that ‘It is wrong to think that there are parts of the Divine Comedy which are of interest only to Catholics’ and in his address ‘What Dante Means to Me’ (1950)—after his religious conversion—he stated, ‘to call [Dante] a “religious poet” would be to abate his universality.’ Eliot looked to Dante because Dante had succeeded in attaining the closest thing a poet could to poetical perfection, and he had done it regardless of the social and personal complexities of life. Eliot, initially captivated by Dante’s poetics, would come to grow engrossed by the man as their respective lives began to mirror one another to the extent that the modern and the medieval can.

Although Eliot’s early poetry uses many religious themes and motifs, it is not until 1925 that his poetry begins to convey any sort of leaning toward a single dogma. In fact, Eliot had regarded Buddhism as perhaps the most compelling form of spiritualism at the time of The Waste Land. Given these early, protean views, readers rising out of The Waste Land and moving directly into Ash Wednesday will experience one of poetry’s most difficult transitions in regards to philosophical positioning; however ambivalence may be what Eliot is attempting to convey, as it is his belief that the highest stage possible for the civilized man ‘is to unite the profoundest skepticism with the deepest faith.’

Dante StatueIn 1925—two years prior to his conversion and the subsequent writing of what is now part II of Ash Wednesday—Eliot had begun to reassess his studies of Dante. Sometime between 1926 and 1929 (the year Eliot published his most substantial work on Dante), he would come to parallel his beliefs most fundamentally with those of Dante’s. It is likely that—on some level—Dante influenced Eliot’s religious conversion. Despite its religious leanings, Ash Wednesday—as Eliot says of Dante’s Paradiso—is not didactic. The religious, Dantean themes in Ash Wednesday have been thoroughly excavated by scholars, as the allusions are relatively more palpable than they are in his other poetry. However, what is most important is that in Ash Wednesday Eliot searches for (and seems to gain) a particular assurance that his poetry can bridge the gap between the ‘low-dream’ of the modern world and the ‘high-dream’ of Dante’s vision. Ash Wednesday marks Eliot’s personal-poetic search for the ability to materialize the Word Incarnate with the written word.

Eliot’s view that ‘all faith should be seasoned with a skillful sauce of skepticism’ is what makes the first line of Ash Wednesday and the position of the speaker’s philosophy throughout so difficult to fully ascertain. Eliot institutes several disjunctive techniques as a type of objective correlative that sustains the vacillating nature of the speaker’s mind. These are the overlay of space and place, a lack of linearity, and ambiguous lexicon or multiple entendre. The ‘turn’ in the opening line of Ash Wednesday denotes the linchpin around which the whole poem rotates: ambiguity. The turn will come to signify the turning toward God, the look to a secular past, glimpses toward the future and many other possibilities. Most importantly, the turn is the repetitious but non-retrogressive movement from the active will to the contemplative mind.

Part I portrays the struggle between the individual’s will and intellect, collating the two pressing skepticisms within its ambiguity. That Eliot begins Ash Wednesday with an almost direct translation of Calvacanti followed by an almost direct quote from Shakespeare, marks Eliot’s first skepticism. The ‘gift’ Eliot desires to be gifted with is poetry that can transcend to heaven. Through the rewriting of text, Eliot tries to attain ‘a conception of poetry as a living whole of all the poetry that has ever been written.’ The word of the poet and the transcendent Word are wholly deliberated upon in both the fourth poem, in which the pure poetic imagination is considered, and the fifth poem, where the poet’s adequacy in the expression of reality is questioned. This questioning of his poetic transcendence is most explicitly present in his humility at the gate of Purgatory in the third poem: ‘Lord, I am not worthy / Lord, I am not worthy / but speak the word only.’

The passage through the gate of Purgatory will mark the full religious conversion and it is figured within a poem that is an exodus more fully realized than The Waste Land; the exodus here is one of necessary, willful expiation, as for Eliot the ascetic way of penance is the means to the way of grace. The will (which wavered in the opening poem) is strengthened in the final two lines, representing not the altered word of some poet but rather the pure speech of transcendence through the voice of the Churches invocation of Mary: ‘Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.’ The death is the spiritual death leading to baptismal rebirth that Eliot had feared (‘Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?’) out the outset.

The second poem of Ash Wednesday was originally titled ‘Salutation’, referring to the first time Beatrice greets Dante in La Vita Nuova III: ‘with a salutation of such virtue that I thought then to see the world of blessedness.’ In La Vita Nuova, Dante struggles twice with the desire of the physical; first with Beatrice and later with a mysterious lady to whom he is attracted. It is possible that Eliot’s renunciation of the ‘blessèd face’ is in fact the physical face, which Dante renounced in order to attain salvation, and not a turning from the spiritual face. Dante LeopardThe ‘three white leopards,’ might be read as a positive inverse of the leopard of lust of Dante’s Inferno, representing a violent though willful expiation of lust. After the leopards have ‘fed to satiety on my heart my liver and that which had been contained / In the hollow round of my skull,’ the left over bones ‘shine with brightness’ because of the virtuousness of the Lady. The now pure essence of the speaker—the  ‘I who am’—is able to ‘Proffer [his] deeds to oblivion’ and his ‘love / To the posterity of the desert,’ which is at once in ‘The desert in the garden [and] the garden in the desert’ brought about by Mary, ‘The single Rose’ who is now ‘the Garden / Where all loves end.’

In Part III, the speaker has awoken from the dream of contemplation at the violet hour and come face-to-face with three stairs of the active will. The progression of the winding staircase holds in the balance the presence of a metaphysical poetry within the modern world. ‘The broadbacked figure drest in blue and green’ who enchants ‘the maytime with an antique flute’ is not only a look back to secular desires— figured here in pagan imagery—which once enchanted the heart, but, if it is succumbed to would assert that modern poetry is only capable of the ‘low-dream.’ For this reason the look back to the pagan imagery on the third stair can purgatoryonly be glimpsed through a ‘slotted window bellied like a fig’s fruit’ (109); the vision is impeded upon by the narrowed window of secularism because both the will and the intellect are torn between the secular wor(l)d and the Wor(l)d of God. As Eliot climbs the third stair, having gathered the ‘strength beyond hope and despair,’ he is able to humbly admit that he can ‘speak the word only’. After this admission, he is able to re-experience for himself the vision of God’s Word that he had only evinced through Ezekiel beneath the juniper tree, and he recapitulates the experience through the great mediator of the Word (Dante) who Eliot considered to have the gift of incarnation.

While walking ‘between the violet and the violet’ in a garden where the ‘fiddles and the flutes’ of the pagan scene have been ‘bear[ed] away’, Eliot is able to initiate his transcendence. His memories of the previous years are restored through a ‘bright of cloud tears’ and he subsequently will be able to write ‘With a new verse the ancient rhyme’ in order to ‘Redeem / The unread vision in the higher dream.’ Then the Lady, Word of no speech, ‘signed but spoke no word.’ Logos is witnessed but it is still mediated through an Other.

However, he does not experience the transcendental movement into the still point of Incarnation. He is still aware of the ‘the empty forms’ of the secular world and also that through the process of memory he may renew the ‘salt savour of the sandy earth.’ In this moment, when face-to-face with a carnal past, ‘the weak spirit quickens to rebel.’ It is not until the crucial moment when he ‘[spits] from the mouth the withered apple-seed’ thereby purging himself of humanity’s first failure that he can attempt to reach Logos on a personal and intellectual level.

Here’s the poem.

Ash Wednesday

I

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

II

Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
It is this which recovers
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions
Which the leopards reject. The Lady is withdrawn
In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.
Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. And the bones sang chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper, saying

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of the day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.

III

At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitul face of hope and of despair.

At the second turning of the second stair
I left them twisting, turning below;
There were no more faces and the stair was dark,
Damp, jagged, like an old man’s mouth drivelling, beyond repair,
Or the toothed gullet of an aged shark.

At the first turning of the third stair
Was a slotted window bellied like the figs’s fruit
And beyond the hawthorn blossom and a pasture scene
The broadbacked figure drest in blue and green
Enchanted the maytime with an antique flute.
Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown,
Lilac and brown hair;
Distraction, music of the flute, stops and steps of the mind over the third stair,
Fading, fading; strength beyond hope and despair
Climbing the third stair.

Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy
but speak the word only.

IV

Who walked between the violet and the violet
Who walked between
The various ranks of varied green
Going in white and blue, in Mary’s colour,
Talking of trivial things
In ignorance and knowledge of eternal dolour
Who moved among the others as they walked,
Who then made strong the fountains and made fresh the springs

Made cool the dry rock and made firm the sand
In blue of larkspur, blue of Mary’s colour,
Sovegna vos

Here are the years that walk between, bearing
Away the fiddles and the flutes, restoring
One who moves in the time between sleep and waking, wearing

White light folded, sheathing about her, folded.
The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.

The silent sister veiled in white and blue
Between the yews, behind the garden god,
Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but spoke no word

But the fountain sprang up and the bird sang down
Redeem the time, redeem the dream
The token of the word unheard, unspoken

Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew

And after this our exile

V

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice

Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season, time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert before the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed.

O my people.

VI

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth This is the time of tension between dying and birth The place of solitude where three dreams cross Between blue rocks But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

Ash-Wednesday, from Collected Poems 1909-1962 by T S Eliot, © T S Eliot 1963, Faber & Faber Limited

A Mind of Winter: Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Snow Man’

snowA blizzard has begun. Their predictions were right but my vexation at having to reschedule a flight to Vermont subsided with that first sight of accumulation on the streets of Manhattan. I had hoped to experience the storm from some place of sylvan solitude; in lieu of drooping conifers and ivory fields, I turned to Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Snow Man’ (1921) and angled an IKEA chair toward the northeast window.

Since yesterday afternoon I have been mulling over how on earth I might follow the ‘The Broken Tower.’ Now it seems the obvious choice is Stevens. Crane and Stevens are both great 20th century American mystic poets. Both struggled intensely with the ideologies of a Judeo-Christian God and seemed to have favored in the end a form of Gnosticism, or what Stevens called ‘The Presence of an External Master of Knowledge.’ Put simply (something Stevens—and for that matter Crane—would not favor) it is a Oneness, a Oneness with nature, consciousness, all that mystic, Whitmanian jazz.

‘The Snow Man’ presents this sense of the unified whole brilliantly through the complete cohesion between form and content. Usually I would avoid this trope, however it is so well done in this poem that noted linguist Jay Keyser says it is the best short poem in the English language for this very reason. Personally, I feel that’s a stretch but it does accomplish that particular characteristic of great poetry better than any I can think of.

Wallace Stevens

The poem is a single sentence divided into syntactical units by semi-colons. As the poem is read and we arrive at the end of each unit, the mind renders the unit a completion. However each persistent ‘and’ necessitates the reassessment (the re-view) of what was read before and so through the apprehension of the unit, we try to reach the whole. In this way, reading ‘The Snow Man’ is in fact like watching a snowstorm: the eyes follow a portion of flakes down until they reach their supposed journey’s end, the eye then lifts, gathering another segment in its gaze and repeats in an attempt to witness the power of the storm. It is a wonderful analogy for the process of reading and re-reading—a necessary part of loving poetry.

More than this, the poem is the invitation to view things as they appear to you. This poem is more pertinent than ever in a world in which we take in information ceaselessly, clicking the shiny hyperlinks and formulating our opinions based not on the content of the page but the ads that flicker beside them or the inane comments that sit beneath. In the mystic tradition, the ‘nothing that is not there and the nothing that is’ is the void, the presence of absence denoted by the snow that seems to blot out the world by creating one anew. It is the everything out of nothing. The Snow Man sees things as they are because he is constantly reevaluating his position in relation to what is observed. He is aware that he is literally made up of the world that surrounds him—he truly has ‘a mind of winter,’ being a snowman, and knows that his presence in the world is directly affected by that which is outside of him and vice versa. The form and the content of the poem are entreating the reader to stop, pay attention to what they are reading, truly understand every aspect through reanalysis, see what is there and what is not and what is there because it is not there. It is asking you to understand your personal relation to the world and formulate your own opinions accordingly.

Here’s the poem.

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.