A sunny break of fields along the way
And breathed the scent of daffodils instead—
There’s nothing like a crisp New England day—
But life gives nothing isn’t marred or flawed.
No, certain as a ten inch snow in June
And all the passing lanes gone by, by God
You’ll not be anywhere on time or soon.
The S.O.B. is only hell-bent sure
For just so long as takes to cut you off
Then drives as if he took a Sunday tour
And now’s your luck to watch his tail pipe cough,
····You’d swear, with malice of the kind that’s flaunted.
····You haven’t lived until you’ve been Vermonted.
February 25 2014 : by me, Patrick Gillespie
—Was it for this,
The sun, the fair and golden orb, the fiery
And intermediate visitant between
The dawn and evening star – fair shepherdess
And lithesome light of that uncertain hour,
Fretful demesne, who navigates and steers
The brief, contiguous days and nights – benignant
Shone upon my face? For this, dids’t Thou,
O Moosilauke! surveyor of Vermont –
Though situate within New Hampshire – maintain
Thy place immovable through night and day—
Though nowhere near my beauteous birthplace—
Didst thou, host every season — spring and summer,
Autumn and winter – the days and weeks thereof
And hours—not one skipped—nor minute either
But every second each one antecedent
To that which followed after; didst thou
Compose my thoughts to more than pious poetry,
Bestowing, midst the unsuspecting dwellings
Of men, and seasonable women, thy dim
Implacable knowledge of mankind and Nature,
Of congress midst the hills and valleys,
Uplands and contrastive lowlands. When
Made visible above the slumbrous landscape,
Thy broad, immotive height observable—
A neighbor’s house, not mine, though oft half seen
Behind a cloud or two or sometimes more
Or not at all if rain fell bleakly earthward,
Or if by unintentioned choice I stood
With leafy branches of a Maple, Elm
Or Birch between myself and that same view—
Thou wast a Playmate. Oh! Many a time
Did I, a naked boy—not girl though oft
Accompanied by a naked girl— cavort
In sand, shallows and the swift, uproarious
Descent of waterfalls, made one long day
A lazing summer’s day with girls — plunged
And bask’d and plunged and bask’d again, first one
And then the other alternate all day
In one delightful Rill and then another,
Or cours’d their hillocks and their valleys, leaped
Into the groves of bushy groundsel; or
When visiting the lofty grounds of Dartmouth—
The radiant coeds bronzing on the Green.
Then stood I, hunter, on the Indian Plains
Alert, of stern determination, savage
Who aims his nocked and blading arrow midst
The buffalo. Was it for this?
- This fragment of a later revision to The Prelude was recently discovered among the papers of a Mrs. M — who wishes to remain anonymous. The inks and papers have undergone rigorous testing and I am assured the fragment is not fraudulent but a heretofore unknown and final revision undertaken by the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth. I am pleased to offer the reading public a first glimpse of the sublime verse enclosed therein.
Amplificatio: The way in which style may elevate or depress the subject at hand… the first means of stylistic ornament, amplification or attenuation… (a) in the actual word employed to describe a thing… (b) by the four principle methods of amplification: incrementum, comparatio, ratiocinatio, and congeries. [Quintilian (VIII, iii, 90) from A Handbook of 16th Century Rhetoric p.28]
I’ve been hankering for some beautiful blank verse that isn’t Shakespeare, so I thought I’d try reading, once again, Wordsworth’s Prelude. I’ve been reading the Norton Critical Edition with its side by side printing of the 1805 and 1850 Prelude. Most seem to prefer the 1805 edition, but in terms of poetic quality, I occasionally find the 1850 version better — but not by much.
Here’s my problem with Wordsworth’s Prelude. I’m of the mind that Wordsworth is a second rate poet, but reading his Prelude convinces me that Wordsworth isn’t just a second rate poet who writes poorly but a third rate poet who only occasionally writes well.
The website goodreads offers several pages worth of very interesting comments by readers. They’re mostly favorable, but there’s often this proviso:
I like a lot of Wordsworth’s poetry, and this is my second time reading The Prelude, and it’s still a bit of a slog to get through for me. There are beautiful, lovely passages, but then a lot of trudging through rambly boring ones that make me sleepy. [Comment by Claire]
Right. Exactly. Reading Wordsworth is mostly a slog and I’m going to explain why. First this disclaimer: I don’t read for content, which probably makes me a poor reader of Wordsworth. The poets’s philosophical views hold almost zero interest to me. I read for poetry. All the criticism I’ve read on The Prelude, so far, has focused on the work as exegesis rather than poetry. By contrast, the criticism of Keats’ Hyperion is commonly far more invested in the poetry. Keats’ Hyperion is appreciated as great poetry. I presently can’t think of any critic who would seriously contend that the Prelude stands comparison to Paradise Lost or Hyperion. It has its moments, but they’re few and far between.
So, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to close my eyes. I’m going to slip the pages under my finger and open to a page at random — this so you don’t think I’ve deliberately chosen the dregs. And here we go. I’ve landed on Book Seventh lines 605-644 1805 (on the left side), 630-669 1850 version (on the right side). Pages 260-261 in the Norton Critical Edition. We’ll go with the 1850 version, since I can copy and paste it from here:
Thus have I looked, nor ceased to look, oppressed 630 By thoughts of what and whither, when and how, Until the shapes before my eyes became A second-sight procession, 1.) such as glides Over still mountains, 2.) or appears in dreams; 3.) And once, far-travelled in such mood, a.) beyond The reach of common indication, b.) lost Amid the moving pageant, I was 4.) smitten Abruptly, with the view (a sight not rare) Of a blind Beggar, who, with upright face, Stood, propped against a wall, upon his chest 640 Wearing a written paper, to explain His story, whence he came, and who he was. Caught by the spectacle my mind turned round As with the might of waters; and apt type This label seemed of the utmost we can know, Both of ourselves and of the universe; And, on the shape of that unmoving man, a.) His steadfast face b.) and sightless eyes, I gazed, As if admonished from another world. Though reared upon the base of outward things, 650 Structures like these the excited spirit mainly Builds for herself; scenes different there are, Full-formed, that take, with small internal help, Possession of the faculties,1.) --the peace That comes with night; 2.) the deep solemnity Of nature's intermediate hours of rest, 3.) When the great tide of human life stands still: 4.) The business of the day to come, unborn, Of that gone by, locked up, as in the grave; 5.) The blended calmness of the heavens and earth, 660 Moonlight and stars, and empty streets, 6.) and sounds Unfrequent as in deserts; 7.) at late hours Of winter evenings, 8.) when unwholesome rains Are falling hard, 9.) with people yet astir, 10.) The feeble salutation from the voice Of some unhappy woman, now and then Heard as we pass, a.) when no one looks about, b.) Nothing is listened to. But these, I fear, Are falsely catalogued; things that are, are not,
Right, so here’s the first thing that gets under my skin, Wordsworth’s pointless elaborating.
Thus have I looked, nor ceased to look,
Not only has he looked but he has not “ceased to look”.
By thoughts of what and whither, when and how,
It’s like a nervous tick. You can’t go more than 20 lines without Wordsworth essentially restating the same thing a dozen different ways. Do we really need to know that his thoughts are of what, whither, when, how? No, we don’t. It’s just pointless babbling. From there, the reader descends into a miasma of convoluted phrasing rife with redundancies.
I was 4.) smitten Abruptly, with the view ( a sight not rare) Of a blind Beggar,
He was smitten. Well, if he was smitten, we don’t need to know that it was “with the view”. This is implied and redundant, but if you’re trying to turn little ideas into a big epic, it’s apparently a good trick to be as wordy as possible. But even that’s not enough. He also has to tell us it was “a sight”. So now he’s given us the same information three times and then, finally, tells us what the object of the smiting, view, and sight was—”a blind Beggar”. What’s the blind beggar doing?
Wearing a written paper, to explain His story, whence he came, and who he was.
Not a paper but a written paper. Do we really need to know it was a written paper. No, it’s a needless detail but it conveniently fluffs up the meter. And then what? The written paper explains his story. But if it explains the beggar’s story, doesn’t it stand to reason that it would also explain “whence he came, and who he was”? Isn’t that the point of “his story”? Does Wordsworth really need to add that it explains whence and who? No, it’s redundant.
Wordsworth then goes on to tell us, once again, that he is smitten, viewing, caught by, gazing at, the shape of the unmoving man (lest you thought the beggar burst into song). And then, just in case you didn’t get it the first time — the part about the beggar being “blind” — Wordsworth reminds us that the man’s eyes are “sightless”. Round and round we go.
And then he sets up his next several lines by elaborating on scenes differing (a pretentious Miltonic inversion) beginning with:
--the peace That comes with night;
Good, but Wordsworth can’t leave it at that. Now he’s going to natter on about sleep and peace (see above for the latter):
the deep solemnity Of nature's intermediate hours of rest,
The word deep is lazy — just a bland adjective Wordsworth threw in to keep the meter. Most of his adjectives are tossed in with the blithe indifference of metrical expediency. Solemnity is a vapid poeticism and “intermediate hours of rest” is a wordy abstraction with little poetic power. But Wordsworth isn’t done:
When the great tide of human life stands still:
“Great tide of human life” is nothing short of a cliché, and writing that “life stands still” doesn’t improve matters. Next we’re going to get elaboration within elaboration:
The business of the day to come, unborn, Of that gone by, locked up, as in the grave;
The phrase “as in the grave” elaborates on “locked up”, but is such an embarrassingly clichéd addendum, and so artlessly tacked on, that if I were to read it aloud I could read it for laughs. But Wordsworth is just getting started:
The blended calmness of the heavens and earth, 660 Moonlight and stars, and empty streets, and sounds Unfrequent as in deserts;
More gratuitous elaboration. Do we really need to know about the “Moonlight and stars”? I thought “heavens” already covered that? (And notice how he uses moonlight instead of moon solely to keep the meter.) And then, because he just can’t stop himself, he tacks on “as in deserts’, echoing the simple-minded simile “as in the grave”. But what makes it worse is the generic cliché-edness of the verse. And what really sinks the boat is that this kind of writing does nothing to advance the narrative. It makes reading the poem a slog because the reader has to spend two dozen lines listening to Wordsworth state and restate the same information with pseudo-poetic obviousness.
And as if all that uninspired piling on weren’t enough, Wordsworth launches the reader in a whole new direction, further adumbrating scenes different:
7.) at late hours Of winter evenings, 8.) when unwholesome rains Are falling hard, 9.) with people yet astir, 10.) The feeble salutation from the voice Of some unhappy woman, now and then Heard as we pass, a.) when no one looks about, b.) Nothing is listened to.
It’s not enough that the rains are “unwholesome”. The unwholesome rains are also “falling hard”. The phrase “people yet astir” is blandly general. From there we descend into nonsensical stupidity. The phrase from the voice is utterly redundant. Obviously, if one hears a salutation, then it stands to reason that the salutation is from the voice. Right? Wordsworth then throws in some metrical fluffery with unhappy (another vacuous adjective). It stands to reason that if the salutation is “feeble”, she’s probably not happy. But Wordsworth piles on more redundancies, adding: “now and then/Heard as we pass”. Once again, if the salutation was worth mentioning, then it was obviously heard. We don’t need to be told that he “heard it” (now and then as he passed). Wordsworth then gets so tangled up in excess that the whole thing collapses into sheer contradiction. When no one looks about, he writes; but then that begs the question. If no one looks about, why the feeble salutation? And the salutations came more than once. They were now and then. Obviously the unhappy woman (and unnamed others who were astir) was looking about. Nothing is listened to, he writes. Well if nothing was listened to, then who did the hearing (now and then as they passed) and why the salutations?
There are just no two ways about it. It’s terrible writing. It’s terrible poetry. Even Wordsworth seems a little embarrassed:
But these, I fear,/ Are falsely catalogued
I can go to every single page of the Prelude and find more examples. It just doesn’t stop. Wordsworth is a veritable font of bad poetry — needless repetition, vacuous adjectives, pointless elaboration, redundancy, pretentious Miltonic inversions, metrical expediency, banal similes, non-sequiturs, double negatives, Latinate verbosity. You name it.
Wordsworth wasn’t entirely blind to his bad writing. The 1850 does make small improvements from time to time. the following is typical:
It hath been told already how my sight
Was dazzled by the novel show, and how
Erelong I did into myself return.
So did it seem, and so in truth it was —
Yet this was but short-lived.
[The Prelude p. 102 1805Version 204-208]
The portion in italics is pointless. Wordsworth apparently agreed because he weeded out the blather in his 1850 rewrite:
It hath been told, that when the first delight
That flashed upon me from this novel show
Had failed, the mind returned into herself
[The Prelude p. 103 1805Version 204-206]
And that was that, almost, because then Wordsworth launches into another round of “excess and superfluity”:
In climate, and my nature's outward coat Changed also slowly and insensibly. Full oft the quiet and exalted thoughts Of loneliness gave way to 1.) empty noise 2.) And superficial pastimes; 3.) now and then Forced labour, 4.) and more frequently forced hopes; 210 5.) And, worst of all, a treasonable growth Of indecisive judgments, that impaired And shook the mind's simplicity.--And yet This was a gladsome time.
This is the stuff of pure comedy. Each clause builds on the last adding more syllables and verbosity until, by the fifth clause, Wordsworth’s excess tumbles forth with an almost breathless panic:
And, worst of all, a treasonable growth
Of indecisive judgments, that impaired
And shook the mind’s simplicity.
Take a deep breath:
…yet/This was a gladsome time.
Indeed. It’s enough to leave a reader “insensible”. I’ve really come to the conclusion that the only reason Wordsworth is remembered for much of anything is due to the sheer volume of his output. If you write enough, if you’re a William Wordsworth (or a John Ashbery for that matter), you will eventually overwhelm your critics. You will also, like the broken clock, get it right twice a day.
The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,
The stationary blasts of water-falls,
And every where along the hollow rent
Winds thwarting winds, bewildered and forlorn,
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky,
The rocks that muttered close upon our ears,
Black drizzling crags that spake by the way-side
As if a voice were in them, the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds, and region of the heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity,
Of first and last, and midst, and without end.
[The Prelude Book Sixth Lines 624-640]
If only Wordsworth could have sustained more passages like this; and see here for a recently discovered fragment.
This time of year when I go out
Winter is like an inland sea—
Waves half way up the gutter spout
And ripples lapping at the tree.
You’d think the swelling tide of snow
Claimed memory of an ancient shore
And with a melting undertow
Would turn the stone to shells once more.
But only once when I’d come to
Half-wakened from a fitful dream
Did something like a tide slip through
The bedroom window’s broken seam.
The snow seemed finally come for good,
An icy shore beneath my bed,
And yet I think that if I’d stood
I would have stepped on sand instead.
The taste of salt was in the air
And though the frost had licked the hinge
I saw, at midnight, something there—
Sunlight skirting the doorway’s fringe.
I only had to go outside
To see the ocean at my sill—
I only had to—but that tide
Will come again. Someday I will—
— This time of year
February 11, 2013 by me, Patrick Gillespie
Reviewed and added the following books to Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • A review of Poets & Anthologies:
- Haiku for Lovers edited by Laura Roberts
- Erotic Haiku by Oliver Grant
- erotic poems: E.E. Cummings
You will find them appended to the larger review linked above.
To give myself something to do while the temperatures dip to the teens below zero (Fahrenheit), I thought I might try to understand what it is about this little poem that makes it so famous. If Keats can turn a poem, a little eight line fragment, into a masterpiece, maybe you can too. Here’s the poem, in case you’ve never read it:
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood,
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d. See, here it is –
I hold it towards you.
~ the Poems of John Keats, edited by Jack Stillinger (the hardcover) p. 503
Some History and Diversionary Thoughts
Now, curiously, the first thing I notice is that there’s a typo and, as it turns out, the typo is Keats’s. The verb tense in line 5 is incorrect. “Thou would” should read “Thou would’st”. I’m hardly the first to notice this, but it suggests a couple possibilities: that Keats wrote this hastily and/or that the use, by then, of archaic thee/thou still wasn’t second nature. I lean more toward the first explanation, since Keats had already written most of his poetry using this poetic convention.
Keats took some heat for his use of archaic diction. When Wordsworth was writing the following:
“There will also be found in these volumes little of what is usually called poetic diction”.
Keats was writing:
“…poetry should surprise by a fine excess, and not by singularity . As one’s environment is bound to mould one’s behaviour so is one’s writing likely to be influenced by what one reads. By this premise, to my mind, words such as “thou” and “thine”, though archaic in nature, would always justify their usage at least in poetic forms so long as the works of Shakespeare and those of the great poets of old remain relevant to the present and the succeeding ages. Therefore, if archaic words pervade my verse it is not out of a hope that taking recourse to such-like seeming affectations by themselves would lift my muse to sublime heights of the past; but, conversely, I poetise them mainly for reasons of effectual rhyming and in recognition of the fact that these discarded words had kept company with the best in literature. Furthermore, I feel secure in the knowledge that Spencer and Chaucer amongst many other of their ilk infused their inimitable writings with usage of archaic words; and therefore, I feel, by using any such words I am by no means committing any grave transgression which contemporary writing may find it difficult to digest.”
The conventional usage of poetic archaisms like thee and thou was still an acceptable one in Keats’ day (according to then prevalent aesthetics — and unlike now). Nevertheless, the first stirrings of a more “modern” poetic language were already to be found in some of his contemporaries.
The Cambridge Companion to Keats offers Keats poem this way:
This living hand, now wa[r]m and capable
Of ea[r]nest grasping, would, if it were cold
and in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
and thou be conscience-calm’d — see here it is
I hold it towards you — [Facsimile edition, 258 from p. 116 of The Cambridge Companion]
I’ve looked but haven’t been able to google an image of the orginal MS. If someone else has any luck, comment or send me a link.
According to Stillinger, the poem was “written probably toward the end of 1819″ and were “drafted or copied on the outside recto of a folded sheet on which, after turning it over and around, Keats drafted stanzas 45-51 of The Jealousies; they thus appear upside down…”
So, my own supposition, based on the misspellings and mistakes, is that this was not copied but was a quick draft. Keats apparently, and to judge by his writing of Otho the Great, could quickly and fluidly write competent verse (which by Keats’s standards is far and above the best verse of lesser talents). My hunch is that the lines occurred to him because of another prepossessing thought and quickly jotted them down to prevent them being lost. The idea, tone and imagery must have appealed to him as much as to us. He didn’t have a larger poem in which to place these lines and might have written something later. Perhaps Keats had been turning over these lines in response to another prompt. I’ve always felt that he had Fanny Brawne in mind when he wrote these lines, and I don’t have a clue as to why I think so. Maybe I read it somewhere, but I don’t think so. Did Keats write the lines in premonition of his own death by Tubercolosis? There’s a fascinating article here. Of concern to us is the following paragraph:
“On 3 February 1820, he traveled from town, sitting on the outside of the coach to save money, and, perhaps foolishly, he had left off his coat. He got off the coach at the top of Pond Street and stumbled into Wentworth Place at about 11:00 P.M. Brown did not like the look of him, thought that he might have been drinking, for he looked ill, and advised him to go to bed immediately. Brown went to Keats’s room with a glass of spirits, and, as he was getting into bed, Keats coughed and a small spot of blood appeared on the sheet. Brown heard him say, “That is blood from my mouth, bring me the candle Brown, let me see this blood.” And then, looking up at Brown, he said, “I know the colour of that blood; it is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived in that colour. That drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die.” And, indeed, how accurate he was in diagnosis and prognosis, for he died in Rome just over a year later.”
This tells us that Keats wrote This Living Hand before he knew that he had Tuberculosis (and was going to die from it). That said, he apparently had been suffering bouts of ill health, including sore throats, during 1819. Having been trained as a physician, and living in a time and place where Tuberculosis was rampant and had killed his brother, it’s hardly a stretch to assert that he must have dreaded and feared the disease and was mordantly alert to its symptoms. It’s possible that these lines were written in response to that constant dread.
Interestingly, at around the same time, or possibly a little earlier in 1819, Keats was revising Hyperion, and wrote these lines:
Since every man whose soul is not a clod
Hath visions, and would speak, if he had lov’d
And been well nurtured in his mother tongue,
Whether the dream now purposed to rehearse
Be poet’s or fanatic’s will be known
When this warm scribe my hand is in the grave (I.13-18 The Fall of Hyperion)
The final line bears more than a striking resemblance to “This Living hand…” Is there a connection? If chronologies are correct, then Keats wrote the line in Hyperion before writing “This Living hand…” Death was ever present. When thinking of his own art, he seemed to embody his craft and career in the metaphor of his hand, “this warm scribe”. The ‘I’ of the poem is a poet and I don’t think it’s far-fetched to imagine that Keats was largely projecting himself into the identity of the narrator.
- In 1818, in a letter to his brother, Keats was to write: “Warm is the nerve of a welcoming hand…”
All this is a round-about leading to a conjecture. Some have suggested that Keats might have been jotting down ideas for a proposed verse drama (with his friend Brown) but if this were true then one would expect to find more ideas and jottings. I doubt he was directing the fragment to Fanny Brawne who was, after all, his fiancé. If only because of Hyperion, and the chronological proximity of the line in Hyperion to the fragment This Living Hand, I ‘d argue that the poem is a reference to himself or more specifically, his art — the phrase “This living hand”, being a reference to his skill as poet. The poem, as I interpret it, is consciously or subconsciously a very personal cry of anger and terror. The you of the poem, addressed as thou, can be interpreted as you, me, fate, God, present and future readers, etc. His poetic art, embodied in his hand — his warm scribe — he holds out toward us and toward God. He writes, this is what you/we have to lose if my life is taken so soon. One could argue that Keats wouldn’t refer to God as wishing his heart “dry of blood”, but if understood metaphorically, then the threat is a way of communicating the magnitude of the injustice (rather than as anything literal).
It’s fair to counter that Keats didn’t write poems this way. Like Mozart, he always seemed to draw a veil between himself and his art. But this poetic fragment is unusual.
First, the meter is blank-verse and so regular that I’ll forgo a full-blown scansion:
This liv|ing hand,| now warm| and ca|pable
Of earn|est gras|ping, would,| if it| were cold
And in |the i|cy si|lence of |the tomb,
So haunt |thy days |and chill| thy drea|ming nights
That thou |would wish| thine own |heart dry |of blood,
So in |my veins| red life |might stream| again,
And thou |be con|science-calm’d.| See, here |it is –
I hold |it towards |you.
Or the last line may alternately be read:
I hold| it to|wards you.
All of the feet are Iambic Pentamter. In other words, there are no variant feet. I bolded wish and own to show how the meter emphasizes the content of them. The last line is the most interesting though, and changes everything. Depending on what Keats wrote next, the words towards could have been either disyllabic or monosyllabic. For clues, we would have to see how Keats used the word elsewhere. Here are some examples (from An Electronic Concordance of Keats’ Poetry):
|One, loveliest, holding her white hand||to|ward||Sleep and Poetry, Line 366|
|Might turn their steps||to|wards||the sober ring||Endymion: A Poetic Romance, Book I, Line 356|
|And then,||to|wards||me, like a very maid,||Endymion: A Poetic Romance, Book I, Line 634|
|Over the pathless waves||to|wards||him bows.||Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil, Line 96|
|Of the garden-terrace,||towards or to|wards ?||him they bent||Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil, Line 179|
|To spur three leagues||to|wards||the Apennine;||Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil, Line 186|
|A Cabinet, opening||to|wards||a Terrace.||Otho the Great, Act V, SCENE IV, Setting|
|And|||towards|||her stept: she, like a moon in wane,|
|So saw he panting light, and|||towards|||it went||Endymion: A Poetic Romance, Book II, Line 383|
|Walk’d|||towards|||the temple grove with this lament:||Endymion: A Poetic Romance, Book IV, Line 926|
To judge by these examples (and for the purposes of meter) Keats generally pronounced towards as having two syllables, pronounced to-wards. The last three examples show him opportunistically treating the towards as monosyllabic. What he never does (at least in his poetry) is to treat towards as a two syllable trochaic word, in other words — to|wards you. This would be perfectly acceptable, but based on precedence, he was probably treating towards monosyllabically:
This puts the emphasis on towards rather than you. Too bad we don’t know. It would be interesting if he had intended on putting the emphasis on you. This would considerably change the emphasis of the poem, suggesting a much more personal addressee. It would also be the first time, to my knowledge, that he treated towards as a trochaic word. Such are the subtleties of meter.
What’s also interesting is that he drops the archaic thou. For instance, he could have written:
I hold it towards thee.
Why drop the older address? Is it another sign of haste/hasty composition? — or does it possibly indicate a change of address and a more personal one? — encouraging us, in that case, to read the meter as emphasizing you.
One might be tempted to suggest that the use of thee and thou was a more formal address, but in some contexts it could also be more affectionate. Attempts have been made to discern if thou was normally one or the other but, at least based on studies of Shakespeare and Elizabethan usage, no hard and fast conclusion could be drawn. It all seems to boil down to context, which itself isn’t always reliable. How did Keats use it? That’s also hard to discern because his use, by this time, was a convention. He was imitating its use in poets like Shakespeare, Milton and his contemporaries, and probably was equally free with its connotations. Personally, in This Living Hand, I’m tempted to read the initial use as formal, and the final line, when he holds out his hand, as intentionally more personal. This means I’m also more inclined to put the metrical emphasis on you, (based on this shift of address), but this reading admittedly demands that we read Keats a little differently here than in any of his other preceding poems.
What’s the precedence? I notice that Keats will sometimes mix addresses, using Your when, by rights, he should use Thy. For instance, in King Stephen, Act I, sc. iv, Maud addresses Glouster as thou:
Not for the poor sake
Of regal pomp and a vainglorious hour,
As thou with wary speech…
But then a moment later she will say:
Your pardon, brother,
I would no more of that…
Rather than, more correctly, “Thy pardon, brother”. So, Keats didn’t always keep his forms of address straight, and it’s possible that these decisions were deliberate. Perhaps Maud’s change of address reflects a moment of affectionate politeness when asking for her brother’s “pardon”. This would suggest that Keats treats you and your as a more affectionate form of address and is suggestive when considering This living hand.
On the other hand, Keats makes a complete mess of pronouns in Ode on Melancholy:
NO, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kist
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.
But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globèd peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes…
Why? Your is the possessive form of Ye, but in this case I don’t think Keats intended the plural possessive pronoun of Ye when writing Your. I would have to say it’s one of two possibilities and I lean toward the latter. The first is sheer sloppiness. Yes, I know he was a genius, but there’s no better way to put it. Keats was using a poetic convention and slipped up because the archaic address just wasn’t something he used in everyday speech. The latter explanation is that he was more interested in sounds than correct grammar (the sound of your as opposed to thy). He was known to be very cognizant of the musicality of his lines. I lean toward the latter, but that’s speculation.
- Interestingly, an original sketch of the poem included these lines:
Though you should build a bark of dead men’s bones,
And rear a phantom gibbet for a mast,
Stitch creeds together for a sail, with groans
To fill it out, bloodstained and aghast;
Although your rudder be a Dragon’s tail,
Long sever’d, yet still hard with agony,
Your cordage large uprootings from the skull
Of bald Medusa; certes you would fail
To find the Melancholy, whether she
Dreameth in any isle of Lethe dull.
As you can see, the form of address is the modern you. What this suggests is that Keats originally used the more modern form then, in the process of finalizing the poem, switched to the archaic thou, but only did so haphazardly or half heartedly (the original sketches of the poem apparently haven’t survived). At any rate, Keats appears never to have been fully satisfied with the Ode, and so it’s possible that the published version (despite being published) is really more of an abandoned sketch — let go because he was fed up with it. It’s known that unlike other poems, Keats continued to edit the fair copy of Ode to Melancholy, settling on the first stanza’s ‘drowsily’ after trying ‘heavily’ and ‘sleepily’. He changed ‘Then feed thy sorrow on a morning rose / Or on the rainbow of the dashing waves’ to ‘Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose, / Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave’. By comparison, Keats does not, for example, confuse pronouns in Ode on a Grecian Urn.
What I can’t example (though I haven’t searched exhaustively) is a similar switch between thou and you within the space of a few lines or a single poem. So, in the case of This living hand, the whole matter remains open to conjecture. It also may shed some light on his use of would rather than wouldst. Possibly, his thinking was already two lines ahead when, knowing that he would switch to you, he absent-mindedly wrote would.
All these are questions that, to my knowledge, haven’t been dealt with by other critics or readers, but it does, I think, offer different ways of reading the poem.
What Does it Do?
What makes this poem work? Why do these eight lines stick with us the way ten thousand poems since, just as brief (and some book length) don’t? The answer is in the combination of its simple, concrete imagery and in the way Keats skillfully binds the whole around the central idea of blood as life force.
It works like this (red is life/blood and blue is cold/death):
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
In the first six lines, Keats contrasts opposites:
living <> tomb
warm <> cold
earnest grasping <> icy silence
He doesn’t just contrast living with the word dead, he evokes death by reference to the tomb — a concrete image rather than the abstraction of death. And characteristic of Keats is the physical sensuousness of his imagery. From a prior post on imagery, the following:
“Psychologists have identified seven kinds of mental images: visual (sight, then brightness, clarity, color, and motion), auditory (hearing), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste) tactile (touch, then temperature, texture), organic (awareness of heartbeat, pulse, breathing, digestion), and kinesthetic (awareness of muscle tension and movement).”
Temperature|tactile “warm” “cold” “icy silence”
Motion|Kinesthetic “earnest grasping”
Auditory “icy silence“
Icy silence is a synaesthetic image, my favorite kind, and one that especially suited Keats’ genius – giving a tactile sensation to silence. So, just as the hand feels it’s warmth, so too will it feel the icy silence of the tomb, but be incapable of earnest grasping, incapable of escape. What is especially powerful (and horrific) about this imagery is the subtle implication that there will still be consciousness in death — the consciousness and awareness of the tomb’s icy silence, but the inability to escape, the body having lost its warmth and ability to extricate itself.
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood,
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d. See, here it is –
I hold it towards you.
Once again, Keats hammers home the horror of the contrasting opposites.
dry of blood <> red life/stream
haunt/dreaming nights <> conscience-calmed
As if speaking from the tomb, he continues to evoke the breath of the tomb through words like haunt, chill and dreaming nights, as if describing the horror of the “living death” within the icy walls of a tomb — its endless “dreaming night” — suggesting that the addressee will be cursed by the same living death (even while still alive). The addressee — he or she — will wish themselves “dry of blood”. However, the astute reader will point out that being “dry of blood”, in the context of this poem, hardly allows one to escape the horror of an icy tomb and the consciousness of being dead (and icily unable to move from the tomb). But Keats suggests there’s a greater horror. What could be worse that a living death? — a tormented conscience. (Right, I know that the rest of you wouldn’t chose door number two, but this is the Romantic era and a guilty conscience was, I suppose, considered a fate worse than death.)
In terms of his use of imagery, Keats’ associative powers are the most like Shakespeare’s of any poet since Shakespeare — it’s little wonder that he’s considered, by most, our second greatest poet. After having written dry of blood, Keats’ imagination, in realizing opposites, quickly makes the association to a stream and streaming, the opposite of dry. The near-synaesthetic “red life” powerfully compresses color, blood, vitality and life into two short words. Compare this to the following concerning the Medieval French poet Villon:
Poetic shorthand was one of Villon’s strengths. Where contemporaries were sincere but long-winded he was sincere but succinct, stripping a thought to its essence. A typical example of this was how contemporaries expressed the idea of laughing through ones tears. Charles, Duke of Orleans, wrote:
Je ris des yeulx, et mon coeur place
I laugh with eyes and my heart cries
Alain Chartier wrote:
le pleure ens, et me ry par dehors
crying within, and laughing outside
Jean Molinet wrote:
Ma bouche rie at mon povre cueur pleure
My mouth laughs and my poor heart cries
je rie en pleursI laugh in tears.
[danse Macabre: Francois Villon: Poetry & Murder in Medieval France p. 93-94]
In truth, I think that all great poets share that capacity for brilliant elision. “Red life” is worthy of Villon and Shakespeare. The phrase “so that red life might stream” gives to red life a kinesthetic energy, makes it concrete through the descriptive and living stream. Shelley, by contrast, might have been more apt to leave it as an abstraction.
- Related to this is the following anecdote concerning the poet George Gordon Lord Byron who wrote that he didn’t understand Keats’ highly compressed metaphor from an An Ode to a Nightingale: “a beaker full of the warm south”. Byron, wrote Keats’ friend and supporter Leigh Hunt, was “not accustomed to these poetical concentrations.”
The fragment finishes as it began. In the first lines Keats suggestively uses the phrase “capable of earnest grasping”, then closes with “I hold it towards you”. Consciously or subconsciously, the reader will already have the image of “earnest grasping” in place, and will apply that image to the later image of Keats holding his hand towards the addressee.
The dramatic air of the poem hinges on its being, up to the last line, a single sentence. It unfolds its subjunctive proposition relentlessly, accusingly, baiting and defying the reader to escape before the final and thou be conscience-calm’d. It is a small tour de force of dramatic utterance and its no wonder some critics have speculated that the poem was intended for the stage — for a later play.
In The Cambridge Companion to Keats, the editor Susan J. Wolfson (when she’s not veering dangerously close to academese) nicely sums up this baiting of the reader:
“…the poem effectively works “for ever”: the poet ‘s hand has to be reanimated by the reader, revived as living and capable of writing “This living hand…,” and fated, in the sequence described, to write istelf back into the silence of the grave, thence to emerge again. The verse breaks off, suspended in mid-line, its last “heated” word, you, asking the reader to surrender to the writer in a charged economy of antagonisms — of friendship turned to haunting.” [p. 116]
Wolfson also suggests that it’s not clear, at the end, which hand the speaker is holding out — the “living hand”, or the cold and icy hand.
“The parting shot, “see here it is/I hold it towards you,” issues an invitation, but to what? Does it refer to a warm living hand or a cold dead one? The reader has to imagine the present as past, the sensation of earnest grasping as the chilling grip of a nightmare, the actual as spectral, and the spectral as actual.” [Ibid]
That all sounds compellingly Poe-ish, but I’m not buying it. Such confusion, in my view, requires, at worst, a willful misreading. Frankly, I think Wolfson has gone a bit overboard. At the outset the speaker makes it clear that his hand is now “warm and capable of earnest grasping”. The poem gives the reader no reason to think — in the course of the poem — that he has died, that his hand has turned cold and icy, and that he now reaches towards the addressee from the tomb. That’s just over-eager analysis. “It” is the earnest grasping of his hand. The speaker starts by saying that his hand is capable of earnest grasping, and closes saying “See, here it is –” In other words, his hand is capable of it and, at the close of the poem, does it. This isn’t as exciting as Wolfson’s phantasmagoria, but it’s what’s supported by the text.
contains all that was Mortal
Young English Poet
Whoon his Death Bed
in the Bitterness of his Heart
at the Malicious Power of his Enemies
these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone
Here lies One
Whose Name was writ in Water.”
It’s said that Keats only wanted the final words to appear on his tombstone: Here lies one whose name was writ in Water”. Joseph Severn and Charles Brown, Keats’ close friends, felt that Keats had been badly mistreated by the critics of the day and somewhat implicated them in Keats’ early death. Later, it’s said, both men regretted adding their words to the tombstone.
That said, it’s hardly unreasonable to conjecture that Keats was very unhappy at his critical reception and discussed the matter with both his friends — hence their angry and grief-stricken decision to add the commentary to Keats’ tombstone. Was Keats’ poem related to the sentiments expressed on his tombstone? Was there some truth in their description? — “the bitterness of his heart”? It’s hard to imagine that Severn and Brown entirely fabricated the sentiment expressed on the tombstone. I’m inclined to believe that, at the time, they thought they were — to some degree — expressing the sentiments of their lost friend. They were striking out at the conscience of Keats’ critics; and it’s entirely possible that Keats, in his poem, was striking out (as I described at the outset of the post) at the conscience of all those who denigrated his art or, as he might have symbolized it, his warm and capable hand.
An example to all poets. If you want your poetry to really grip the reader, communicate through all your senses, not just your sense of sight. These days, whole books of poetry are published (by experienced poets who should know better) in which the only sense every utilized is the visual sense. Keats’ poetry, above all, is famed for its physical sensuousness.
Visual (sight, then brightness, clarity, color, and motion)
Auditory (hearing), olfactory (smell)
Tactile (touch, then temperature, texture)
Organic (awareness of heartbeat, pulse, breathing, digestion)
Kinesthetic (awareness of muscle tension and movement).
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood,
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d. See, here it is –
I hold it towards you.
And that’s that. That’s all I can think to write at the moment.
- I was snooping around a favorite local bookstore and picked up a book by Robert Francis called Frost: A Time to talk. Conversations & Indiscretions Recorded by Robert Francis. The following little snippet really made me laugh, Frost’s opinion on the nature of poet’s and the writing process:
“As I tell in the entry for October 22, 1952, he had asked me what I had been doing and I said I had been trying to make my poems better. Disdainfully he asserted that poets don’t improve, they only change. A poem must be written in one impulse, at one sitting, like a piece of ice on a hot stove that rides on its own melting. But a moment later he admitted that it had taken Grey eighteen years to complete his Elegy. I think Frost, if put in a corner, would concede that spontaneity sometimes has to be labored for.” [p. 85]
I laughed because I didn’t originally read this in terms of a poet improving or changing a given poem, but as a sardonic comment on their overall development. I think there’s something to be said for that misinterpretation. The great poets (along with the mediocre) seem to be born with something that doesn’t improve, but only changes—and that invites a withering debate as to what we mean by change and improve. I won’t go there. Truth gets blurred in generalities, and I think it’s okay to enjoy the truth a little blurred. Certainly, the sly critique could be applied to a whole generation of poets who haven’t so much improved poetry, as changed it. I suspect the ever canny Frost would agree.
There used to be a time when Newspaper’s regularly printed poetry. The poetry was of the greeting card variety (by today’s standards) mainly because the editors of the papers preferred to studiously pretend that modernism wasn’t happening. In a 1922 editorial, Harriet Monroe was to write of “newspaper verse”:
“These syndicated rhymers, like the movie-producers, are learning that it pays to be good, [that one] gets by giving the people the emotions of virtue, simplicity and goodness, with this program paying at the box-office.”
Monroe’s fit of pique resulted in her founding The National Poetry Foundation, where the poet’s of the 2oth century could be liberated from the horrors of an appreciative readership. For the next 80 years (the rest of the 20th Century) Monroe and her coterie of poets, and their descendants, the babyboomers, triumphantly demonstrated to the world that their poetry deserved the same recognition for banal, venal, mediocrity as anything the Victorians had written. Their inaptitude was uniquely their own. They went home satisfied. The newspapers, in the meantime, decided poetry wasn’t worth it.
Up in New England, back in the early 20th century and late 19th century, nothing was wasted. When I remodel an old New England house, I’ll sometimes find old newspapers underneath floorboards or inside walls. It was used as a barrier for sound and air penetration. Whenever I find old papers like these, I always look for the poetry. Just before Christmas, I cut into some old boards (sheathing), in an old barn, underneath an old stairway that led to a dug cellar. There were two layers of boards and sure enough, between the two layers, I found layers of newspaper. Some old builder had put them in there to kill the air – cheaper than felt. The dates? Jan. 10, 1930. So, this stairway had been built in 1930 and hadn’t been touched since then. It just so happened that my skil-saw cut right through a little poem (you’ll see the cut in the scan). I saved it and am bringing this little poem, the kind that sent Monroe into paroxysms of indignation, back (and this time to the world). I hope the author, Francis Fuerst Quick, is smiling somewhere in the afterlife. She too wanted to be a recognized poet, I’m sure. I like to think that I’ve freed her voice, like a genie’s whisper, from the cold press of boards. I’ve searched for her name on the web and haven’t found it. So, it’s possible she appears on the World Wide Web for the first time. She speaks to you, tenderly and sentimentally, after a very long silence.
Poems for your Scrap Book
By Francis Fuerst Quick, in “Contemporary American Poets,” published by the Stratford Company, Boston
Such silly things my Baby sneaks to bed.
Sometimes a dolly or a crust of bread.
Sometimes a pencil with a blunty trend.
Tonight Dad’s hammer at the hammock’s end.
Such funny thoughts must flit about all night
From busy brain to active fingers tight
Clasping a book of storied fairy ream, —
“Oh mother, leave it—’cause it helps me dream!”
So, sadly, we—between sweet childhood and our Rest—
Clasping our old illusions to our breast,
Just as my Baby’s plea we also seem
To want to keep them—’cause they help us Dream!
~ Up in Vermont • January 5 2014
My kids are currently in grade school. They’re learning all about the various wars, the soldiers,
women and children collateral damage, and the heroic politicians and lawyers who saved us all. Just look at our currency. Way back when I was a child in Europe, before the Euro, European currency was (and somewhat remains) a colorful and lively affair, much different from the pompous self-importance exuded by our own US currency. Here’s what a 5 Mark bill looked like in Germany (before the Euro).
The site, banknotes.com, which offers a collection of currencies from around the world (and the site from which most of these images come), identifies the image on the bank note as a “Portrait of a young Venetian woman (“Junge Venezianerin”) (1505) by Albrecht Dürer.” There are two things I love about the bank note. The first is that it’s a smiling woman (remember? — there are women on this planet too?) and the second is that the banknote honors an artist – Albrecht Dürer. Imagine that! An artist! Not a white, male politician, banker or lawyer. When is the last time our politicians deigned to put a woman on our currency? There’s the Susan B. Anthony, but my favorite remains the Sacagawea dollar.
There’s almost a smile there. She’s beautiful. She’s a mother. There’s a child. She’s native American. (Whenever I played cowboys and Indians, I always wanted to be the Indian along with idolizing Daniel Boone.) As far as I’m concerned, Sacagawea, along with any number of great Native Americans, — men, women visionaries, chiefs and medicine men — deserve to be, permanently, on our currency. There’s not a single native American honored on the Fifty State Commemorative Quarters. (Remember the Indian head penny and nickel?) Likewise, there’s not a single artist, writer, architect, scientist, poet or composer (and I’m not sure there ever has been). Since its politicians (and by extension lawyers) who get to decide who and what’s important, they naturally conclude that they, in fact, are the most important members of our society. American’s politicians crafted their currency in their own image. Do we really need George Washington on the quarter and the one dollar bill? Washington, for all his good qualities, was also the owner of 135 slaves who played fast and loose with the law despite and during his (eventual) objection to slavery. He could have freed his slaves at any time, but chose not to, unlike his wife, who freed all the slaves she inherited some 12 months after Washington’s death. Washington’s status wouldn’t have been possible without his slaves. I’m not saying Washington doesn’t deserve to be honored, but what about Frederick Douglas? Douglas was, so I’ve read, greatly responsible for persuading and hardening Lincoln’s stance against slavery. Far as I’m concerned, Douglas deserves to be on the quarter. As Wikipedia puts it:
“Douglass was a firm believer in the equality of all people, whether black, female, Native American, or recent immigrant, famously quoted as saying, ‘I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.’”
Such are the ideals that have made and continue to make our country (and any country) great. By comparison, here is what the Confederacy chose for their currency:
This image comes from the online article Beyond Face Value: Slavery Iconography in Confederate Currency by Jules d’Hemecourt. Here is what d’Hemecourt writes about the 10 dollar note:
“When Baldwin, Ball & Cousland–another group of Northern printmakers hired by Confederates–produced a $10 note for the Central Bank of Alabama, it unabashedly presented detailed scenes of slaves picking and baling cotton beneath the reassuring bulk of the original Confederate capital of Montgomery, suggesting official protection of the slave system. Most telling of all is the inclusion of the iconic Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, whose presence serves as a reminder that the greatest of all American presidents to date had been a Southern slaveholder, and, by implication, a supporter of the Confederacy and the perpetuation of the slave labor system. No symbol was more potent to Americans than that of George Washington, and throughout the war, Confederate and Union printmakers alike would claim his image as their own.”
In its currency, a country reveals what it values, it’s expectations and its ethics (and, at worst, propaganda). It’s telling that US Currency ignores the ordinary women, men, craftsmen, laborers, poets, writers, architects, artists and scientists who, arguably, did more for this country than all but a handful (a small handful) of lawyers or politicians. Interestingly, Among Lincoln’s earliest ambitions was the ambition to to be a poet. Lincoln’s favorite poem was Mortality by William Knox. Lincoln said of it:
“I would give all I am worth, and go in debt, to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is.”
The value that Lincoln placed on language, the necessity of its beauty, and its power to persuade can’t be overstated. Lawrence Weldon, who heard Lincoln recite Knox’s poem, said of Lincoln:
“The weird and melancholy association of eloquence and poetry had a strong fascination for Mr. Lincoln’s mind. Tasteful composition, either of prose or poetry, which faithfully contrasted the realities of eternity with the unstable and fickle fortunes of time, made a strong impression on his mind.”
Lincoln’s awareness of poetry, inasmuch as poetry itself encapsulates a recognition of the beauty of language, rhetoric, style and its concomitant powers of persuasion, are unmatched by any other President (let alone American politician) and would eventually result in one of the greatest political speeches ever given — the Gettysburg Address. Nothing so encapsulates Lincoln’s genius and gift for rhetoric and language. But to really appreciate Lincoln’s awareness and ambition as a poet and writer, read Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America by Garry Wills.
So, I may like Lincoln for reasons other than that he was a lawyer and politician.
Here are some of my favorite bank notes (retired and current) from around the world:
The Euro: Most of these, but for Newton (which was retired for separate reasons), were replaced by the Euro. In an effort to avoid arousing nationalist rivalries, the Euro doesn’t feature personalities (absolutely no politicians) but pragmatically showcases architecture — all of it quite beautiful.
DDR: The only retired currency (that I know of) that featured a poet, and a truly great one at that, was printed by the DDR (former communist East Germany). Unfortunately it’s hard to know what part of Goethe’s prominence was cynical propaganda and what part a genuine honoring of the poet.
In 2011, the Israeli cabinet approved currency featuring four poets and writers. The result?
Interestingly, the new currency was met with some outrage. As the linked article states, “No Sephardic or Mizrahi figures were chosen for this new series.”
“This morning’s approval is a symptom of the government’s behavior toward the Mizrahi public,” [Shas MK Aryeh Deri] said. “Mizrahim are excluded from the Supreme Court, academia, the media, the Israel Prize, the current government, and now it’s reached our banknotes.
Netenyahu’s reaction was to suggest “that the next figure to appear on an Israeli banknote be Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, the Spanish-Jewish poet and philosopher.” But the article argues this is unlikely to happen. Which explains why the Euro chose to stick with architecture though, in my view, they could have also featured a great painting, the opening notes to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the blackboard scrawling of Neils Bohr or Einstein (without offending anyone). Such personalities are universal figures who collectively elevated mankind unlike, let’s say, Napoleon Bonaparte, whose ambition (despite what one may think of him) indisputable resulted in the deaths of millions (by some estimates).
And that brings me back to my children’s education.
What is taught as history is generally the history of warfare. Children learn about the nation states of classical Greece, their politics and strife, but little of its architectural, philosophic and artistic innovations (at least in my own experience and judging by my own children’s education). History seems to be the study of conflict, not innovation or creativity. Who decides what appears in our public school textbooks? The government. And that governance sometimes amounts to little more than a handful of (ironically) anti-government, elected, authoritarian, ideological, school board officials in Texas.
Politicians are naturally going to see history in their own image — a history of ideology (religious and political), conflict, strife, winners and losers. As goes the political ideology of those in power, so goes the history lessons and textbooks. Currently, my children’s history class (7th grade) divides history into five currents: Geography, Desire for Power, Technology, Values, Economics.
Geography: An advantageously location will encourage economical prosperity.
Values: A culture’s religious beliefs can profoundly affect economic growth.
Economics: Dependent on its economic and political systems, prosperity may or may not be sustainable.
Desire for Power: Economic prosperity breeds ambition (economic and political) and potential conflict with other rival nation-states.
Technology: By technology, we mean weaponry. Economic rivalries inevitably breed arms-races as economic, political and geographic exigencies are disputed.
Are these the forces that drive history? They beautifully define what drives politics and politicians. I wouldn’t argue that they don’t matter, but I personally find the most important forces in history to be philosophical, inasmuch as philosophy eventually became science and that it was science, thought, exploration and innovation that created the world we live in.
- In Ancient Tragedy and the Origins of Modern Science, Michael David finds the origins of modern science, in part, in the ancient classical Greek tragedy of Sophocles.
It was ideology and fundamentalism that destroyed the library of Alexandria. It was the ideology and fundamentalism of Islam that brought the brilliant mathematical innovations of Arabic mathematicians to an end. It was ideology and fundamentalism that nearly finished Galileo. Where freedom of thought (freedom from ideology) predominates, civilization flourishes. This is probably not the kind of history a good many Texas school boards would like (being populated, as they cyclically are, by rigid ideologues and religious fundamentalists). Ideology and fundamentalism are, by nature, authoritarian, and are traits that sit comfortably within (and gravitate toward) just about any religious context, and which frequently ignore or are in conflict with the liberal teachings of peace, love generosity and forgiveness. The problem is that most religions provide a ready toolbox for the ideologically and fundamentally minded — beginning with an unquestioning deference to authority.
What would I offer as the driving forces of history?
I think, first of all, that asking the question like this predetermines the answer because the word history is already rife with associations and assumptions. It’s how we’ve been educated. How about this question: What are the driving forces behind art, culture, innovation, cooperation, peace, prosperity? Instead of putting the emphasis on warfare and governance (and glorifying some extremely unsavory figures) we might teach children how human beings managed to get along and prosper (sometimes despite those forces).
I don’t expect everyone to agree. Many will remain much more interested in the world’s Cromwells than in its Aristarchus’s, Platos, Shakespeares, Bachs, DaVincis or Mozarts. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be and that they don’t have their place, only that our De facto starting point doesn’t have to be Alexander, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Charlemagne, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and any number of other egomaniacs, sociopaths, psychopaths and mass murderers — the inevitable biography of history, it seems, if history is reduced to nothing more than Geography, Values, Economics, Desire for Power, and Technology.
So, I admit I’ve vastly simplified the issues (it’s not my area of expertise) but I just wanted to sketch out some ideas.
Let me know what you think.
“I’m one of those people that think Thomas Edison and the light bulb changed the world more than Karl Marx ever did.” Steve Jobs
Up in Vermont • January 5 2014
My long two pointed ladder's sticking through a tree Toward heaven still, And there's a barrel that I didn't fill Beside it, and there may be two or three 5 Apples I didn't pick upon some bough. But I am done with apple-picking now. Essence of winter sleep is on the night, The scent of apples: I am drowsing off. I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight 10 I got from looking through a pane of glass I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough And held against the world of hoary grass. It melted, and I let it fall and break. But I was well 15 Upon my way to sleep before it fell, And I could tell What form my dreaming was about to take. Magnified apples appear and disappear, Stem end and blossom end, 20 And every fleck of russet showing clear. My instep arch not only keeps the ache, It keeps the pressure of the ladder-round. I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend. And I keep hearing from the cellar bin 25 The rumbling sound Of load on load of apples coming in. For I have had too much Of apple-picking: I am overtired Of the great harvest I myself desired. 30 There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch, Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall. For all That struck the earth, No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble, 35 Went surely to the cider-apple heap As of no worth. One can see what will trouble This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is. Were he not gone, 40 The woodchuck could say whether it's like his Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, Or just some human sleep.
- Interestingly, in Robert Frost’s reading (or memorization) of the poem, the line: “Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall…” is spoken as “Cherish in hand, let down, and not let fall.”
After Apple-Picking is one of Robert Frost’s great poems and among the greatest poems of the 20th century. The first thing I want to do is to revel in the structure and form of the poem. I’ve seen several references made to Rueben Brower’s analysis of the meter in this poem, and all the sources concur in calling Brower’s analysis a tour-de-force. I have not read Brower’s analysis and won’t until I’ve done my own. I love this sort of thing and don’t want my own observations being influenced. So, if there are any similarities, I encourage you to conclude that fools and great minds think alike. Here we go. First, T.S. Eliot:
“The most interesting verse which has yet been written in our language has been done either by taking a very simple form, like iambic pentameter, and constantly withdrawing from it, or taking no form at all, and constantly approximating to a very simple one. Is this contrast between fixity and flux, this unperceived evasion of monotony, which is the very life of verse… We may therefore formulate as follows: the ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind the arras in even the ‘freest’ verse; to advance menacingly as we doze, and withdraw as we rouse. Or, freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation.”
Eliot could have been describing Frosts’s After Apple-Picking (though he doesn’t say). Despite the appearance of free verse (which it is) Frost’s poetry moves toward and away from a regular meter, and into and out of rhyme, so that the arrhythmia of free verse and the rhythm of meter co-exist and beautifully blend.
- Unmarked feet are iambic. Yellow is pyrrhic (which I will never learn to spell). Purple is spondaic. Red is trochaic. Green is an amphibrachic foot (called a feminine ending when closing the line).
Worth noting is that the poem is, allowing for the usual variant feet, as iambic (if not more so) than many of his more “regular poems”. The difference is in line length. The alternate lines are trimeter, dimeter and one monometrical line. There are no alexandrines however. Frost seemed unwilling to extend the line beyond iambic pentameter. I listened to Frost’s own reading of the poem so that the scansion would more accurately reflect what he had in mind. Interesting to me is the fact that Frost, when he reads at least, prefers to emphasize the iambic lines. For instance, I was initially tempted to scan the following line as follows:
One can see |what will trouble
That’s two anapests, the second has a feminine ending. Frost, however, reads the first four syllables with an almost equal stress:
One can see what will trouble
This makes me more apt to scan the line as trimeter with two strong spondees:
One can |see what |will trouble
It may be reading too much into Frost’s performance (since he tends to emphasize the iambics in many of his poems) but the poems hard, driving iambics lend the poem an exhausted, relentless feel that well-suits the subject. There is no regular rhyme scheme, but there is a sort of elegant symmetry to the rhyming that’s easier to see with some color and some visual aids.
My own feeling is that one has to be careful when ascribing too much intentionality to the poet. How much of this rhyme scheme was the result of deliberate planning and how much arose naturally as the poem progressed? In other words, I grant that none of the rhymes are accident, but I doubt that Frost sat down in advance to build his poem around a rhyme scheme. The poem has the feeling, especially given the shorter (almost opportunistic) line lengths, of a certain improvisation. When he needed to rhyme earth, he cut short a line (making it dimeter) to end up with “As of no worth”. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s coincidence that we find bough/now just after the start of the poem, and fall/all shortly before the poem finishes. In the middle, as though bracketed by these two couplets, is the triple rhyme well/fell/tell. The effect is to nicely divide the poem and give a certain symmetry.
The last element to include is the phrasing, something I haven’t done in other poems, but will try to elucidate in this one. Part of the art of poetry, too often overlooked, is the achievement of phrasing that, at its best, mimics human speech. We don’t tend to speak in one long sentence after another and we don’t favor an endless stream of short sentences (unless “dramatic” circumstances call for it). Not only was Frost keenly interested in the colloquial voice, but also understood the importance of phrasing, of the give and take of normal speech. A mistake that many beginning poets make, in their effort to so much as fit their ideas into the patterns of rhyme and meter, is to sacrifice a naturalness in their phrasing. A telltale feature of such writing is a poem dominated by end-stopped lines — syntax and phrasing that slavishly follows the line.
So, what I’ve done is to color code what I perceive to be the rhetorical structure of the poem. I’m iffish on a couple details, but let’s get started. The fist five lines are a simple, declarative sentence. Frost (I’ll refer to the speaker as Frost) begins the poem with a scheme called the Italian Quatrain. This only means that the rhyme scheme follows an abba pattern one would find in Petrarchan sonnets. ( I don’t, for an instant, suggest that Frost was thinking to himself: I shall now write an “Italian Quatrain”.) I do mean to suggest that the quatrain has a certain closed feel to it. But the poem isn’t done and neither is the work of apple-picking. In the fifth line there are some apples “still upon some bough” and there is new rhyme, bough, dangling like an unpicked apple.
Frost turns inward:
6 But I am done with apple-picking now. Essence of winter sleep is on the night, The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
The light green and “Dartmouth” green (couldn’t resist calling it that) signify the moments when Frost’s gaze turn inward. This happens four times in the poem. Whereas the first five lines are comprised of syndetic clauses (clauses linked by the conjunctive and), the second clause, the turning inward from the orchard (which places the poem) to Frost’s exhaustion, is asyndetic. The first five lines, with their repeated and’s are the way we speak (and you’ll even notice it in children) when we want to express the idea of endlessness. We might say: I have this and this and this and this to do. In a similar sense, Frost wants to communicate the endlessness of this chore. The first five lines are a rush of description.
When his gaze turns inward, to his own exhaustion, the lines become asyndetic. The fifth line, introducing a new rhyme, is complete in and of itself. The syntax, I think, mirrors Frost’s own exhaustion. The sentences are short. Clauses are no longer linked by conjunctions (they could be).
But I am done with apple-picking now.
By rights, one could pause after that line as though to catch one’s breath. The pause is reinforced when the line completes the rhyme of bough with now, as if Frost had picked the apple. In some ways, one could stop the poem here. The rhymes are complete. We have an Italian Quatrain followed by a concluding couplet. In a sense, the first six lines are the larger poem in miniature. “Essence of winter sleep,” not just the sleep of a night, already hints at a longer hibernation. From there Frost sleepily stumbles onward and the rhymes, like unpicked apples, will draw him. The sentences become progressively shorter as though Frost’s ability to think and write were as curtailed as his wakefulness. The eighth line ends with the simple, declarative, “I am drowsing off.” There’s nothing poetic about such a line or statement; and that’s part of its beauty and memorableness.
- An apple ladder is usually tapered, much narrower at the top than bottom. This makes pushing them up through the limbs much easier. Some are joined, like the ladder in the picture, while others are not. Frost’s ladder was “two pointed”, and so not joined at the top. The ladder going up to my daughter’s loft is an old apple ladder.
The next six lines, beginning with “Essence of winter sleep…” are another set of interlocking rhymes DEDFEF
7 Essence of winter sleep is on the night, The scent of apples: I am drowsing off. I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight 10 I got from looking through a pane of glass I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough And held against the world of hoary grass.
The rhetorical course of the poem links lines 6-8 while the rhyme schemes of lines 1-6 and 7-12 are separate. There is an overlap between the subject matter (in green) and rhyme scheme (purple).
The overlap draws attention away from the rhyme scheme (at some level, I think, disorienting the reader). I know I’m flirting with Intention Fallacy, so I’ll try not to draw too many conclusions as to Frost’s intentions when writing a given rhyme scheme. However, whether he wrote these lines on purpose or instinctively, they produce a similar effect in this given poem. The poem’s rhetorical structure, which doesn’t always mirror the rhyme scheme, draws our attention away from the rhymes and may contribute to any number of the poem’s effect, including the feeling of exhaustion. At its simplest, the crosscurrents of rhetoric and rhyme, I think, help to create an organic feeling in the poem — the feeling that it’s not a series of stanzas knit together.
- I’ve probably mentioned this before, but there’s a good article on the 4 deadly fallacies in the New York Times. The editorialist, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt offers up another take on the Intention Fallacy with this nice little anecdote:
”Are you trying to tell me that I don’t know what I’m doing when I paint?” ”Well, not exactly . . . ,” I began. ”My God,” he roared, ”every time I put a brush to a canvas, I have an intention. And I damn well better know what it is, or else the painting ain’t gonna be any good.” He rolled his eyes. ”Intentional fallacy,” he muttered. Then with a weary sigh: ”What do these critics think art is? Monkeys dabbling? Art is nothing but decisions. Decisions, decisions, decisions.”
My response Ben Shahn’s outrage would be to point out that it’s all well and fine for the artist (or poet) to indignantly claim an intention behind every brush stroke, line break or stanza break. It’s another to expect the reader or critic to guess it right. This issue is what was behind the failure of Charles Hartman’s Free Verse, An Essay on Prosody. Hartman was essentially (in my opinion) trying to turn every line break into a prosody of free verse. The problem is that a prosody depends on the reader correctly guessing an author’s intention. Without that, all you’ve got is a game of Russian roulette called Intention Fallacy.
The rhyme scheme of DEDFEF forms a sexain, but Frost’s thoughts veer beyond it.
Just as before, there is one line more than the rhyme can bear: “It melted, and I let it fall and break.” Once again, the analogy of the unpicked apple comes to mind. Is this the analogy Frost had in mind? To say so would be an Intention Fallacy, but I think the analogy works in the context of the poem. Anyway, we’re left with an unresolved rhyme.
But Frost has other matters to address. As if remembering the course of his poem after an aside (a wonderful and colloquial technique that appears in many of his poems – Birches) he seems to gather his resolve with three rhyming lines, short and quick.
But I was well 15 Upon my way to sleep before it fell, And I could tell What form my dreaming was about to take.
Take resolves the hanging rhyme of break. For a moment, both the poem’s rhetorical course and the rhyme scheme meet. There is a moment of resolution before Frost’s dreaming overtakes the poem, and with it an interlocking set of rhymes that don’t find resolution until line 26.
25 The rumbling sound Of load on load of apples coming in.
At this point, the poem will once again pivot. Here’s another image to help visualize what I’m describing.
In terms of rhyme and rhetoric (in the sense of concluding thought and concluding rhyme) the poem could be divided into three parts. Until then, subject matter and rhyme overlap in a way that, to some extent, might subliminally propel the reader.
Magnified apples appear and disappear, Stem end and blossom end, 20 And every fleck of russet showing clear. My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
The word end like the stem end of an apple (or itself another unpicked apple) won’t find it’s blossom end until the next three lines that are (now this gets really cool) the only three lines where an identifiable rhyme scheme isn’t matched to subject matter. That’s to say, most of the other rhymes come in tercets and quatrains (look at the boxes surrounding them). It’s only in the weightless center of the poem where any sort of identifiable scheme more or less breaks down. There’s a kind weightlessness, right after the dreaming and at the center of the poem, seems almost meant to imitate the dreaming exhaustion of the poem itself. I would love to think he did this on purpose.
- I’ve suggested that other poems by Frost can be understood, beneath their surface, as extended metaphors for the writing process. Some others are much more transparently about writing (as much as saying so), so I don’t think such speculation is without merit (though I realize I could be accused of playing the same ace of spades with each hand). After Apple-Picking could easily be read as analogous to the writing process itself — apples being understood as poems. Frost, by this point in his career, may have been feeling like writing poetry was like picking apples. While Frost didn’t think much of Yeats’s description of writing as “all sweat and chewing pencils” he also stated that after getting paid for the first poem he found he couldn’t write one a day for an easy living: “It didn’t work out that way”. Poems were like apples, it turned out. One couldn’t just shake the tree and let them fall. Doing that would leave them “bruised or spiked with stubble”, which is another way, perhaps, of saying that the hurried poem would be the flawed poem. They had to be cherished. Writing the poem, imagining its landscape of imagery, perhaps was like looking through “a pane of glass… skimmed… from the drinking trough/And held against the world of hoary grass.” Looking at the world through a poem is, perhaps, a bit like looking at the world through ice, a distortion that is both familiar and strange.
21 My instep arch not only keeps the ache, It keeps the pressure of the ladder-round. I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
Ache remembers the rhyme of break and take, but is far removed and seems more like a reminder than part of any rhyme scheme. Round is new, and sends the ear forward with the expectation of a rhyme. Bend turns the ear back, remembering end (is far removed as ache from take). The poem “sways”, in its center, like the ladder. The reader is never given the opportunity to truly settle in with any kind of expectation, but like the speaker of the poem, is drawn forward in search of a rhyme’s “blossom end” and, with the next line, is drawn back to a different rhyme’s “stem end”. Rhymes are magnified, appear, then disappear.
- Notice too how Frost divides the central portion of the poem into three of our five (or seven) senses.
SIGHT What form my dreaming was about to take. Magnified apples appear and disappear, Stem end and blossom end, And every fleck of russet showing clear. TOUCH/SENSATION/KINESTHETIC My instep arch not only keeps the ache, It keeps the pressure of the ladder-round. I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend. SOUND And I keep hearing from the cellar bin The rumbling sound Of load on load of apples coming in.
Earlier, Frost touched on the sense of smell with the “scent of apples”. The point here is that part of what makes this poem so powerful are the concrete images and the evocation of our senses. Don’t ever forget this in your own poetry. I know I’ve written it before, but it bears repeating: remember each of your senses when you are writing poetry. Don’t just focus on sight (which the vast majority of poets do) but think about sound, smell, touch, movement, texture, etc… Notice too, how Frost turns the ordinary into some of the most beautiful poetry ever written. There are no similes to interrupt the narrative. There are no overdrawn metaphors. Frost makes poetry by simply describing and evoking the every day; and doing so in ordinary speech. The rhyme scheme knits the poem together in an organic whole. Think how much less impressive the poem would be if it were simply free verse, free verse as it’s written by the vast majority of contemporary poets.
Notice Frost’s thought-process. He muses over “what form” his dreams will take, then expands on it (in yellow). He mentioens the ache of his instep arch, then expands on that (in lavender), then describes what he hears from the cellar bin (in purple). It’s a nice way of writing that reminds me of the rhetorical figure Prolepsis (or Propositio) in Shakespeare’s To be or not to be….
With coming in we arrive at the third portion of the poem.
For I have had too much Of apple-picking: I am overtired Of the great harvest I myself desired. 30 There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch, Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall. For all -- That struck the earth, No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble, 35 Went surely to the cider-apple heap As of no worth. One can see what will trouble -- This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is. Were he not gone, 40 The woodchuck could say whether it's like his Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, -- Or just some human sleep.
Frost turns inward again.The phrase, “I am overtired…” reminds us of his previous declarative statement “I am drowsing off”, inviting a sense of symmetry and closure. This time, though, Frost won’t digress. He is overtired of the great harvest. He will plainly say what exhausts him and why. The rhyming couplet fall/all adds to the sense of symmetry, hearkening back to the couplet bough/now. In both subject matter and form, Frost is recollecting himself. Again, it’s a similar structure to Birches — an assertion, a digression, and a concluding restatement of the original assertion.
The closing rhyme scheme of lines 33-41 is essentially comprised of two Sicilian Quatrains, the same that characterize the Shakespearean sonnet. However, the first Quatrain is interrupted by heap. You can see it above in the overall rhyme scheme (at the beginning of the post), but also directly above. It’s as if the poem is coming out of a sort of fever, a confusion of consciousness, and back to order. The rhyme heap/sleep might have been the concluding couplet in a Shakespearean sonnet, but that kind of epigrammatic finality would have been out of place in a narrative poem like this. Instead, the word heap slips into the first quatrain, another new sound, and the ear perhaps subliminally or subconsciously looks for the rhyme, but it doesn’t come. We finish the first of the two quatrains without it.
With the second quatrain of this third section:
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is. Were he not gone, 40 The woodchuck could say whether it's like his Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
The speaker seems almost recovered from the confused reverie of the poem and once again the poem’s beautiful symmetry is upheld. The poem begins with a Sicilian quatrain and all but closes with a Sicilian quatrain. But there is still one loose-end, one apple that has not been picked. Frost metaphorically picks it in the last line.
Or just some human sleep.
It’s a beautiful moment. The line is short and simple. It’s shortness may remind the reader of the speaker’s own weariness. He doesn’t have it in him to compose a fully Iambic Pentameter line. His sleep may just be some human sleep, and nothing more.
- Frost asks whether his sleep will be like that of the woodchuck’s. The comparison seems almost like a moment of levity after so much profundity. Some critics throw all their weight into these last 5 lines. Because sleep is repeated several time, Conder (as is the habit with some critics I have noticed), take this to mean that “sleep” must be central to the poem’s meaning and that all other considerations are mere trivialities. As example, consider John J. Conder’s analysis of After Apple-Picking. There, you can also find a collection of other essays on the poem. Personally, Conder’s analysis makes my eyes badly cross. Almost every sentence seems like a Gordian Knot. Here’s an example: