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Mad As Mists And Snow

Mad As The Mist And Snow

Bolt and bar the shutter,
For the foul winds blow:
Our minds are at their best this night,
And I seem to know
That everything outside us is
Mad as the mist and snow.

Horace there by Homer stands,
Plato stands below,
And here is Tully’s open page.
How many years ago
Were you and I unlettered lads
Mad as the mist and snow?

You ask what makes me sigh, old friend,
What makes me shudder so?
I shudder and I sigh to think
That even Cicero
And many-minded Homer were
Mad as the mist and snow.

William Butler Yeats 1918

COMMENTARY: We had a snow storm here today with hard winds blowing the snow up sideways and making a kind of mist, so I thought I’d post this poem. The music speaks for itself, so not much to say about it. Robert Bly apparently used to recite this one during his readings with a ferocious sneer and lots of spitting and hissing on the S’s “”even Cic-er-OWE!”

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From Charnel Rose

“Perhaps I came alone on a snow-white horse
Riding alone from the deep-starred night.
Perhaps I came on a ship whose sails were music
Sailing from moon or sun on a river of light.”
He lights his pipe with a streaked and pointed flame–
“Yet there were many autumns before I came
And many springs and more will come long after
There is no horn for me or song of laughter.”

–Conrad Aiken 1918

COMMENTARY: When Conrad Aiken was 11 years old, he was upstairs in his room when he heard two gunshots. He came downstairs where he found both of his parents dead. His father had shot his mother and then himself. It would be the trauma that would define the rest of his life. Though he would go on to have a comfortable upbringing at the hands of wealthy relatives, a good education, a successful career, his later prosperity and success would be tainted, just under the surface of his happiness, by the memory of what he’d witnessed as a child. In much of his writing this theme–delight poisoned by darkness– appears as a contrast of opposites: over here, a rich luxuriance and, over there, just behind it, a darkness that seems to threaten it.

This quick lyric, the opening of a much longer “symphony” is a fair example of this theme. The title, for instance, “Charnel Rose”–graveyard flower–prefigures the opposition of romance/music/light and melancholy/silence/darkness. The striking images of the stanza–the white horse, the starry sky, the ship of song, the river of light are set floating on melodious, richly-rhymed lines. But, just behind this lavishness is the sharp sputtering of the pipe flame and the speaker’s melancholy complaint about time and death–“no horn for me or song of laughter.” The romance of the stanza, therefore, is contaminated by hint of something dark and melancholy just under the surface, a lonely threat camouflaged by the mellifluousness of the language.

The Stranger

Her eyes are like the seeds of melons. Her breasts are thin and she walks awkwardly. I am in love with her.

With her I have adventured into a new love. In all the world there is no such love as I have for her.

I took hold of her shoulder and walked beside her. We went out of the city into the fields.

By the still road we went and it was night. We were long alone together.

The bones of her shoulder are thin. The sharp bone of her shoulder has left a mark on my hand.

I am come up into the wind like a ship. Her thin hand is laid hold of me. My land where the corn nods has become my land.

I am come up into the wind like a ship and the thin hand of woman is laid hold of me.

–Sherwood Anderson 1918

COMMENTARY: Sherwood Anderson was 36 years old–established, married, well-off–when he had a nervous breakdown and decided to become a writer. It seemed, all other things considered, an unlikely move. He was, at the time, a successful businessman, having founded a company that sold mail order roof-repair kits and other household products. Other than advertisements and company reports, he had written little and had published nothing, and it would not have been unreasonable for those who knew him to assume that he would go on selling repair kits for another 30 years, fiddling with investments, golfing, clicking pens–whatever it is businessmen did in the early 20th century. Then, one day, while dictating a letter to his secretary, he claimed that he felt as if his feet were turning into water and his body was melting. He ran out of the building and checked himself into a hospital. The experience–whatever it may have been–(nervous exhaustion, stroke, angelic visitation)–would change him for the rest of his life. He quit his job, divorced his wife, and devoted himself to his writing, producing several novels, and, more than a decade later, his masterpiece Winesburg, Ohio. Anderson told the story of his “conversion” throughout his career–to the point that it became part of his personal mythology. Whether it really happened or is self-romanticization is, of course, impossible to determine, but it does illustrate a thematic contrast that would be evident in much of his writing: the suffocation of “career” in affluent industrialized America vs. the poetic madness of the inner self.

This poem, part of the collection Mid-American Chants, (one of two poetry collections Anderson published) is a fairly direction treatment of this theme. In the forward to the book, he writes, ” I do not believe that we people of mid-western America, immersed as we are in affairs, hurried and harried through life by the terrible engine industrialism have come to the time of song….Here we stand in roaring city streets, on steaming coal heaps, in the shadow of factories from which come only the grinding roar of machines. We do not sing but mutter in the darkness. Our lips are cracked with dust and with the heat of furnaces. We but mutter and feel our way toward the promise of song.” Backlit by this statement, it’s possible to read this poem not only as a personal love-poem (after his divorce, Anderson had a number of lovers) but as an entreaty to the distant, mysterious, “strange” muse that takes hold of the mind and beckons it into the unknown. The long lines, rough with bare, elemental nouns (bones, field, ship) is half Whitman and half Song of Solomon and suggests a passionate journey towards a dark horizon.

Eldorado

Eldorado

Gaily bedight,
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.

But he grew old—
This knight so bold—
And o’er his heart a shadow
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.

And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow—
“Shadow,” said he,
“Where can it be—
This land of Eldorado?”

“Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,”
The shade replied—
“If you seek for Eldorado!”

–Edgar Allen Poe, 1849

COMMENTARY: Six months before his death, Edgar Allen Poe published this little poem in a popular Boston newspaper, The Flag Of Our Union (generously digitized by the Library of Congress)–a small-print broadsheet that advertised itself as “miscellany of humor, wit, and romance.” A better description would have been “8th-grade bathroom humor for the antebellum Yankees.” The poem appears on the second page buried among scurrilous joke-stories, the two on either side of it being “The Negro Who Did Not Believe In Ghosts” and “Singular Spelling” (about an old doctor who couldn’t spell “cat”). The fact that a writer as serious and cultivated as Poe was publishing in silly rags, though surprising by contemporary standards, was not unusual before the separation between academic and popular domains of printed literature widened in the 20th century. Poe, like many other writers, published where he could sell his work and shared a page (as well as a readership) with hacks and fops and jesters. There’s something charming and organic about that–all sorts of writing shoved together in a messy commune, like human language is anyway.

Publication history aside, the poem is as lovely as any poem Poe wrote, and, like the best of his work, operates at the level of sound prior to the level of meaning. The double-rhymed, 4 syllable lines create a quick two-step that pauses, teeteringly, in each stanza, on the word “shadow” before stepping canteringly away on another two, quick-rhyming lines. The effect is that the music performs the ride-and-search, ride-and-search of the knight’s longing and futile quest. The repetition of the word shadow at the middle of each stanza not only enacts the temporary disappointment (a shadow is a false find) before the search is resumed but also shows the way the search changes in meaning as it progresses. The first shadow means a physical shadow; the second, emotional despair; the third, a ghost; and the fourth, the underworld. The gradual alteration in the meaning of the word is an expression of how the quest, though always meeting the same end, becomes more meaningful (from the physical to the transcendent) with each failure. Eldorado is a mirage, but the search for Eldorado is real and is a means of transformation. But this thematic meaning is ultimately secondary to the dreamy, trance-like, almost immediately internalized music of the piece, a music which, like “The Bells” and “The Raven” fixes itself almost immediately in the memory.

The Wood-Pile

The Wood-Pile

Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day,
I paused and said, ‘I will turn back from here.
No, I will go on farther–and we shall see.’
The hard snow held me, save where now and then
One foot went through. The view was all in lines
Straight up and down of tall slim trees
Too much alike to mark or name a place by
So as to say for certain I was here
Or somewhere else: I was just far from hoe.
A small bird flew before me. He was careful
To put a tree between us when he lighted,
And so no word to tell me who he was
Who was so foolish as to think what ‘he’ thought.
He thought that I was after him for a feather–
The white one in his tail; like one who takes
Everything said as personal to himself.
One flight out sideways would have undeceived him.
And then there was a pile of wood for which
I forgot him and let his little fear
Carry him off the way I might have gone,
He went behind it to make his last stand.
It was a cord of maple, cut and split
And piled–and measured, four by four by eight.
And not another like it could I see.
No runner tracks in this year’s snow looped near it.
And it was older sure than this year’s cutting,
Or even last year’s or the year’s before.
The wood was gray and the bark warping off it
And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis
Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle.
What it held it though on one side was a tree
Still growing, and on one a stake and prop,
These latter about to fall. I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
Could so forget his handiwork in which
He spent himself, the labor of his axe,
And leave it there far from a useful fireplace
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
With the slow smokeless burning of decay.

–Robert Frost, 1914

COMMENTARY: After graduating from Harvard at the turn of the century, Robert Frost spent a decade living a quiet, semi-reclusive life in rural New Hampshire. He had inherited a small farm just west of the town of Derry from his grandfather, and for nine years he lived in a white clapboard farmhouse with his wife–going for walks, spending time with his family, and laboring (all too sporadically) at actual farm work. He wrote a good deal of poetry but published nothing with the exception of a few articles in local trade journals on the subject of raising chickens. It must have been an uncertain seed-time for him, his late 20’s and early 30’s, a time of incubation and waiting, dormancy and camouflage. It isn’t terribly hard to imagine him living like that for another 10 years, another 20, writing the best poems of his generation on unread little sheets of inventory paper and then succumbing one day to tuberculosis or a mule kick. That mysterious author “Anonymous” (in more ways than one) has written some of the best literature in the English language.

That image of solitude and invisibility–potential hidden away in the frozen swamps and snowy woods of some random nowhere–defines this little poem, which seems, paradoxically, both fleeting in its glimpse-like digressions and absolute in its suggestions of parable: the way it recreates, detail by detail, the unplanned actuality of a walk in the woods–the nameless trees, the surprising little bird, the rotting woodpile wrapped in clematis: all of this seems unpremeditated, purposeless, and yet, above all, real–the sorts of things anyone might see in a walk in the woods. But slowly, by the tiniest hints, these details turn into broad, metaphoric suggestions. That view “all in lines”–is that the lines of a poem? The wood-pile cut “four by four by eight”–is that stanza and meter? The uncatchable bird–inspiration? The “slow, smokeless burning of decay”–the way handiwork–whether of wood or of words–outlasts the moment of its making, (whether “warming” an empty spot of woods or the dusty corner of a library) yet isn’t entirely invulnerable to time either?

These can only be phrased as questions, and, as questions, aren’t really answerable. The poem isn’t fed into “a useful fireplace”–that is, it doesn’t combust into a single, practical allegory. The workman “turns to fresh tasks”–leaving the pile finished, in one sense, but futile in another. That notion of being done but not done, of being immediate yet hidden, smokeless yet burning, is the paradox at the heart of the poem and the man both.

A Baroque Wall Fountain In The Villa Sciarra

Under the bronze crown
Too big for the head of the stone cherub whose feet
A serpent has begun to eat,
Sweet water brims a cockle and braids down

Past spattered mosses, breaks
On the tipped edge of a second shell, and fills
The massive third below. It spills
In threads then from the scalloped rim, and makes

A scrim or summery tent
For a faun-ménage and their familiar goose.
Happy in all that ragged, loose
Collapse of water, its effortless descent

And flatteries of spray,
The stocky god upholds the shell with ease,
Watching, about his shaggy knees,
The goatish innocence of his babes at play;

His fauness all the while
Leans forward, slightly, into a clambering mesh
Of water-lights, her sparkling flesh
In a saecular ecstasy, her blinded smile

Bent on the sand floor
Of the trefoil pool, where ripple-shadows come
And go in swift reticulum,
More addling to the eye than wine, and more

Interminable to thought
Than pleasure’s calculus. Yet since this all
Is pleasure, flash, and waterfall,
Must it not be too simple? Are we not

More intricately expressed
In the plain fountains that Maderna set
Before St. Peter’s—the main jet
Struggling aloft until it seems at rest

In the act of rising, until
The very wish of water is reversed,
That heaviness borne up to burst
In a clear, high, cavorting head, to fill

With blaze, and then in gauze
Delays, in a gnatlike shimmering, in a fine
Illumined version of itself, decline,
And patter on the stones its own applause?

If that is what men are
Or should be, if those water-saints display
The pattern of our aretê,
What of these showered fauns in their bizarre,

Spangled, and plunging house?
They are at rest in fulness of desire
For what is given, they do not tire
Of the smart of the sun, the pleasant water-douse

And riddled pool below,
Reproving our disgust and our ennui
With humble insatiety.
Francis, perhaps, who lay in sister snow

Before the wealthy gate
Freezing and praising, might have seen in this
No trifle, but a shade of bliss—
That land of tolerable flowers, that state

As near and far as grass
Where eyes become the sunlight, and the hand
Is worthy of water: the dreamt land
Toward which all hungers leap, all pleasures pass.

–Richard Wilbur, 1967

COMMENTARY: Richard Wilbur passed away earlier this week, and so, after a long silence, I figured I should post one of my favorite poems of his to my blog. Re-reading it just now, I was newly impressed by his mastery of language and form.”Lines like “The main jet/ Struggling aloft until it seems at rest/ In the act of rising, until/ The very wish of water is reversed,/ That heaviness borne up to burst/ In a clear, high, cavorting head, to fill/ With blaze, and then in gauze/ Delays, in a gnatlike shimmering, in a fine/ Illumined version of itself, decline/ And patter on the stones its own applause?” This is stunning. What more is there to say? Except the obvious point that Wilbur was a poet who believed in stunning language–in poem as well-wrought artifact–unity in variety and variety in unity–a perfect, precise, and deliberate connection between part and whole and whole and part. To borrow an expression from Yeats, he believed in creating “golden grasshoppers and bees”–fine-tuned and delicate and intricate. In an age where contemporary poetry is practiced, by some, simply as high-amplitude rambling in slovenly lines that break off somewhere before the end of the page, well, he was a craftsman of meticulous effects in a time of rorschach-splatters.

One Flesh

Lying apart now, each in a separate bed,
He with a book, keeping the light on late,
She like a girl dreaming of childhood,
All men elsewhere–it is as if they wait
Some new event: the book he holds unread,
Her eyes fixed on the shadows overhead.

Tossed up like flotsam from a former passion,
How cool they lie. They hardly ever touch,
Or if they do it is like a confession
Of having little feeling–or too much.
Chastity faces them, a destination
For which their whole lives were a preparation.

Strangely apart, yet strangely close together,
Silence between them like a thread to hold
And not wind in. And time itself’s a feather
Touching them gently. Do they know they’re old,
These two who are my father and my mother
Whose fire from which I came, has now grown cold?

Elizabeth Jennings, 1966

COMMENTARY: When Elizabeth Jennings published her first book of poems in 1953, the critic Robert Conquest lumped her in with a group of British poets that he called “The Movement.” Made up of Jennings, Phillip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, and Thom Gunn, “The Movement” poets rejected the freewheeling style and obscure themes of modernism in favor of a poetry that used rhyme and meter, simple language, and everyday subject matter. Though certain critics accused the The Movement of superficiality, they were capable of a clarity and emotional distillation that made up for any lack of complexity.

In this regard, though the ending of “One Flesh” is naive, the poem makes up for it by the technical ease of the music and the intelligence of the metaphors. “Flotsam from a former passion” and “Silence between them like a thread to hold/ And not wind in” are striking and memorable comparisons for the separation-in-togetherness that defines the old couple’s boring and apathetic partnership. I also like “Chastity faces them, a destination/ For which their whole lives were a preparation” and “They hardly ever touch/ Or if they do it is like a confession/ Of having little feeling–or too much”–a sharp lamentation for the disappointment and diminishment that often seems on the opposite horizon of so much romantic hope.