Die Erlkönigin is Reviewed

Kevin Maclellan, over at Reviews and Responses has reviewed what I think, perhaps, is my best poem to date – Die Erlkönigin. As I wrote him, I don’t often get much comment on my poetry; and that makes his reading all the more enjoyable. Without seeming too conceited I hope, visit his blog (the links have been corrected) and see what you think. Even if you don’t agree with what he’s written or his estimation of the poem (or anyof my poems), he’ll still appreciate your thoughts. ❧

Vermont Poetry Newsletter • November 19 2011

[The Vermont Poetry Newsletter is not issued by me but by Ron Lewis, by whose permission I post this. PLEASE NOTE: I have edited his newsletter so that links are provided rather than text. If I cannot find a link, I will either omit the relevant portion of the newsletter to avoid copyright violations, or I will provide an alternate link. Please contact Ron Lewis if you would like to receive his Newsletter in full. All images are linked.]

Vermont Poetry Newsletter

Your Poetry & Spoken Word Gateway
In The Green Mountain State

November 19, 2011 (Previous issue: 09/20) –

In This Issue:
  1. About VPN
  2. Newsletter Editor/Publisher’s Note
  3. Writing Assignments/Suggestions/Exercises/Prompts
  4. 100 Thousand Poets for Change
  5. Poetz.com
  6. Poetry Editing by Wyn Cooper
  7. The Joy of Writing Conference
  8. Book of American Slang
  9. Vermont’s Literary Magazines
  10. Nothing Gold Can Stay, Frost Poem
  11. Following Words Through a Labyrinth
  12. An Interview With Annie Finch
  13. Bellowing Ark Literary Journal
  14. Wallace Stegner Literary Weekend Canceled
  15. Lighght Verse, Poet Aram Saroyan
  16. American Poets Added to British Poetry Archive
  17. Humorous Children’s Poetry
  18. Guidelines for Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest
  19. Walden Pond State Reservation
  20. Site Lets Writers Sell Digital Copies
  21. NYC’s Police Athletic League Poetry Contest
  22. The Roustabout, Clive James
  23. Poetry Contest Watchdog
  24. Jerry Johnson/Jon Gailmor/Pete Sutherland Collaboration CD
  25. The Prose-Poem Project
  26. e-poets.network/Book of Voices
  27. PennSound
  28. The Poetry of Herman Cain
  29. Everything Moves To Live
  30. Great Poetry Links: Noun Project
  31. Poetry Quote – Charles Baudelaire
  32. Linebreak Poem
  33. Copper Canyon Press Poem: Taha Muhammad Ali
  34. American Life in Poetry Poem
  35. US Poets Laureate List
  36. Vermont Poet Laureates – Updated!
  37. US Poet Laureates From Vermont
  38. New Hampshire Poet Laureates
  39. US Poet Laureates From New Hampshire
  40. National Book Critics Circle
  41. Contact Info for Editor/Publisher of VPN: Ron Lewis
  42. Vermont Literary Journals
  43. Vermont Literary Groups’ Anthologies
  44. Vermont Poetry Blogs
  45. State Poetry Society (PSOV)
  46. Year-Round Poetry Workshops in Vermont
  47. Other Poetry Workshops in Vermont
  48. Year-Round Poetry Writing Centers in Vermont
  49. Other Writing Groups in Vermont
  50. Poetry Event Calendar

1.) About the Vermont Poetry Newsletter Network

The Vermont Poetry Newsletter Network is made up of people of all backgrounds, ages and skills who appreciate the craft of poetry and want to promote it in the beautiful state of Vermont. The network consists of a free e-mail list, an eventual web site, workshops, open mics, poetry performances and other literary events. The network provides opportunities to meet local poets, talk about and enjoy poetry, and motivate and inspire yourself in whatever writing projects you are involved.

The mission of the Vermont Poetry Newsletter is to foster the poetry arts community in the Green Mountain State, home to more writers and poets per capita than any other state in the nation. Its goals are to serve as a resource for and about VT poets; to support the development of individual poets; and to encourage an audience for poetry in Vermont.

Dating from 2009, the Vermont Poetry Newsletters are being archived on a blog maintained by poet Patrick Gillespie at PoemShape.

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Quick Read ❧ Sidney’s Sonnet 64

This post is a request. Since the sonnet is relatively straightforward, thought I might be able to squeeze in a “quick read”.For a brief overview of Sidney’s metrical practice and the types of sonnets he wrote, you can try my earlier post: Sir Philip Sidney: His Meter and his Sonnets. The present sonnet is a kind of hybrid between what would become the Shakespearean Sonnet (with it’s closing epigrammatic couplet) and the Patrarchan sonnet, with its less argumentative closing sestet. As to Sonnet 64, I’ve copied it from an edition of Sidney’s selected writings by Richard Dutton. First, in plain text:

Sonnet 64

No more, my dear, no more these counsels try,
··O give my passions leave to run their race:
··Let Fortune lay on me her worst disgrace,
Let folk orecharg’d with brain against me cry.
Let clouds bedim my face, break in mine eye,
··Let me no steps but of lost labour trace,
··Let all the earth with scorn recount my case,
But do not will me from my love to fly.
··I do not envy Aristotle’s wit,
Nor do I aspire to Caesar’s bleeding fame,
Nor aught do care, though some above me sit,
Nor hope, nor wish another course to frame,
··But that which once may win thy cruel heart,
··Thou art my wit, and thou my virtue art.

Next, the scansion. The lines are space so that I can insert scansion markings. All unmarked feet are iambic. If you’re unsure of scansion, my post on Iambic Pentameter (The Basics) might help you.


A Note about the Scansion

There are modern readers and poets who make the argument that meter doesn’t exist. Then there are others who grudgingly admit that English is an accentual language (sort of like admitting the earth is round) but that scansion is arbitrary. And then there are readers and scholars who argue that we should scan poems the way we read them, now, without regard to the poet’s intentions or how language was spoken in the poet’s day.

I disagree with all of them.

In the scansion above, I try to take into consideration the era in which Sidney was writing. Iambic Pentameter was brand-spanking new, Elizabethan poets were excited to have a meter comparable to that of the Lain poets. Poets weren’t yet interested in how they could break the rules. They were still making the rules. With that in mind, I’ve scanned the sonnet with the assumption that Sidney intended his poem to be Iambic Pentameter throughout.  In the first foot of the third quatrain, one can easily read |Nor do I| as an Iambic foot if one slurs the vowels. This, in fact, was standard practice in the day and is reflected in the punctuation of a poet like Donne (when modern editors don’t blithely edit it out). So, Sidney probably would have read the first foot: (Nor d’I). Modern speakers of English do the same thing on a daily basis. We slur our words when it suits us.

  • The poet Sydney Lea (and my state’s Poet Laureate) rightly points out (in my Guest Book) that Chaucer wrote Iambic Pentameter. As a historical matter, Iambic Pentameter was not new to the English language. However, Chaucer’s innovations were not adopted by the poets immediately following him or in the centuries that followed. By the  time Sidney and his circle settled on Iambic Pentameter, their experimentation shows little, if any, of Chaucer’s influence. Iambic Pentameter was essentially new to the Elizabethans.  They rediscovered it, in a sense, and reinvented it, making it the verse form that we are now familiar with. As to the Elizabethans’ opinion of Chaucer, Donald R. Howard writes:
Between Chaucer’s time and Shakespeare’s, the pronunciation of English changed, so much so that Chaucer’s poems no longer sounded right. He was admired for his rhetoric and his “philosophy,” his skill as a storyteller, and as the “first finder of our fair language,” but his rhythms were a puzzle and his rhymes did not sound true. People tolerated Chaucer’s “rough” verse and assumed he had a tin ear. Henry Peacham, writing in 1622, found “under a bitter and rough rind,” a kernel of “conceit and sweet invention.” Dryden said there was in his verse “the rude sweetness of a Scotch tune” — “natural and pleasing, though not perfect.” (p. 513Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World)

On the other hand, in the first line line of the closing couplet, I’ve read cruel is disyllabic: cru|el. I can’t swear that Elizabethans, normally, pronounced this word disyllabically, but even among modern speakers of English, we sometimes can hear two syllables in the word. What is certain is that Sidney, knowing full well how to write an Iambic Pentameter line when he wanted to, was treating cruel as a conventionally poetic, two syllable word.

Sidney’s Argument

Nearly all Elizabethan sonnets were displays of argumentation and Sidney’s, earliest among them, are a prime example. Addressed to Stella, his imaginary mistress, they try to cajole, persuade, dissuade, convince, argue, concede, and manipulate with all the rhetorical cleverness and inventiveness expected from a brilliant Elizabethan soldier and lover..

No more, my dear, no more these counsels try,
··O give my passions leave to run their race:
··Let Fortune lay on me her worst disgrace,
Let folk orecharg’d with brain against me cry.

Sidney may be playing on the sense of a lawyer, a counsel, who pleads a case. In Sidney’s day, the word could mean, advice, consultation, deliberation, one’s secret and inmost thoughts or to one who gives counsel in law. Sidney is saying, enough with your arguments. There’s a sense, possibly, that he’s personifying the woman’s arguments as if they were, themselves, like lawyers attempting to persuade his better nature. If you’ve seen the old cartoons, think of an angel on Sidney’s right shoulder, a devil on the left, and the woman’s “counsel” attempting to persuade them. Sidney won’t have it. Try no more counsels (lawyers), my mind is made up. The devil has decided.

Let my passions run their race, he says. Putting it politely, that translates into: Let me make love to you! Damn the consequences. If “fortune” (reputation) disgrace me, then so be it.  The fourth line, “Let folk orecharg’d with brain” refers to the Elizabethan commonplace contrasting the corrupting lusts and passions of the body with the ennobling pursuits of the mind. He says, let those orecharg’d with “high-brow” self-regard (in the sense of an explosive being “too charged” with powder) cry against him. Sidney was the Elizabethan ideal – the nobleman of good birth who is both brilliant (he was an accomplished man of culture) and an accomplished soldier.

This stuff was in the air. The protestants had redefined the meaning of chastity, making it no less upright than celibacy.

In this light, a man or woman could still claim chastity so long as sexual intercourse occurred within the sanctity of marriage. (Catholics considered chastity to be lesser than celibacy.) The essence of chastity pertained to the purity of mind and body, and the absence of carnality. The above quote comes from Society and religion in Elizabethan England by Richard L. Greaves. Greaves continues:

Chastity was not associated with sexual abstinence, but the suppression of sexual lut, unnatural sexual desires… and sexual affections for someone other than one’s spouse. To be chaste, a single person must not burn with sexual desires, engage in sexual relations, or sexually abuse his mind or body. pp. 122-123

And all this is the background to the fourth line of the first quatrain and to the entirety of the sonnet in general. The argument of Sidney’s sonnet is a refutation of chastity.

  • Just a few years later (perhaps less), Shakespeare would write a play poking fun at the pretensions of noblemen who pompously agree to forgo the company of women for the sake of “higher” pursuits: Love’s Labour’s Lost.  Did I mention that the play is a comedy? Here’s how Wikipedia sums up the plot: “The play opens with the King of Navarre and three noble companions, Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville, taking an oath to devote themselves to three years of study, promising not to give in to the company of women – Berowne somewhat more hesitantly than the others. Berowne reminds the king that the princess and her three ladies are coming to the kingdom and it would be suicidal for the King to agree to this law.

Naturally, rejecting chastity was ruinous to ones reputation. Sidney acknowledges this, and this gives more force to his plea. Reputation was everything to a well-heeled Elizabethan man. The Earl of Oxford (erroneously claimed to be the author of Shakepseare’s plays by “Oxfordians”) reportedly bowed to Queen Elizabeth and cut a fart that must have brought down the house and has survived the ages. Oxford was apparently so humiliated by the episode that he promptly exiled himself from the entire island nation known as England. These were a people who took reputation seriously. Here’s how the 17th historian John Aubrey, in Brief Lives, tells the story:

“The Earl of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to travel, seven years. On his return the Queen welcomed him home and said, ‘My Lord, I had forgot the Fart.'”

It’s no small matter that Sidney is claiming he “doesn’t care” what others think. Obviously he does, or he wouldn’t claim that he didn’t.

…I would suffer for you…

Let clouds bedim my face, break in mine eye,
··Let me no steps but of lost labour trace,
··Let all the earth with scorn recount my case,
But do not will me from my love to fly.

In the second quatrain, Sidney offers up boilerplate proofs of his love. Let clouds bedim his face or, as Shakespeare would later write, let him suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Clouds, akin to weather, is offered as a metaphor for life in general. Let life’s misfortunes (like a storm) break “in mine eye”. (Break in the sense of a storm cloud finally releasing its rain.) In other words, let me see (mine eye) nothing but misfortune; let all my labour (efforts and undertakings) be “lost labour” (counterproductive); let the earth, the world’s population, recount my story with scorn. So long as you do not will me (demand me) to fly (to leave) I will willingly suffer all these misfortunes.

…because you are everything to me…

I do not envy Aristotle’s wit,
Nor do I aspire to Caesar’s bleeding fame,
Nor aught do care, though some above me sit,
Nor hope, nor wish another course to frame,

  • Aristotle’s wit • Aristotle was considered the exemplar of reason and the rational.  Aristotle’s “wit”, in this case, refers to the “charge” of a his brain but, as Sidney closes his sonnet, his take on “wit”, will take a bawdy turn.
  • Caesar’s bleeding fame • refers to Caesar’s reputation as a great military leader of a great empire (not an insignificant reference in a country itself on the cusp of empire). But matters didn’t end well for Caesar. He was murdered by Brutus in a conspiracy that involved nearly the entire Roman Senate (painting below). Brutus accused Caesar of being too ambitious and of being a threat to representative governance. Caesar was stabbed 23 times.
  • some above me sit • Sidney doesn’t care that others may have a higher station and rank.
  • nor wish another course to frame  • He has no desire to reconsider (to re-frame) the object of his ambition. “Give my passions leave to run their race…”

··But that which once may win thy cruel heart,
··Thou art my wit, and thou my virtue art.

If you read the last line of this poem and think to yourself, what a sweet thing to say, then the joke’s on you.

The last line, in fact, is more like the punchline of a joke (and the whole sonnet has set up). This gets good. Let’s begin with the word heart and a visit to A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns and their Significance.  To quote the editor, Frankie Rubinstein,  “heart is no sentimental metaphor”. There’s a pun at work having to do with the Hart and the Hind. A Hart was a male deer and a Hind was a female deer. The joke, in Elizabethan times, was on both words.  The word heart became a pun on hart and all that the male deer signifies — fertility, erection, etc… The word “hind”, which was too close to “behind” (read arse or ass) for poets (especially Shakespeare) to pass up, evolved into a pun on a woman’s behind along with all that that signifies — fecundity, her womb, and chastity.  As the pun evolved, a “woman’s heart” could be understood as a pun on her hind (read hind-end), womb and chastity.

From this, Sidney proceeds to the inevitable pun: “Thou art my wit,” he writes. The word wit was a pun on genitalia — his and hers.Here is how Rubinstein defines the pun:

Wit/whit/white Puns on each other and on genitals. Jonson, The Alchemist, ii, iii: Mammon spies Dol Common (each part of her name means a mistress – F&H; P), a ‘brave piece’: ‘Is she no way accessible? no means/No trick to give a man a taste of her — wit — /Or so?’ In archery, 15th cent., the white or target was placed on a butt and was called the prick (LLL, iv.i.134: ‘let the mark have a prick in it’).

This is followed by an example from Shakespeare:

RJ, I.i.215 With reference to hitting the ‘mark’ (vulva – C; P). Romeo says Rosaline will ‘not be hit/ With Cupid’s arrow; she hath Dian’s wit’ — the wit or chaste white mark of the goddess of moon and chastity cannot be with/ wit (K) the arrow (‘the dribbling dart of love’- MM, I.iii.2).

So, Sidney’s puns work at various levels. Stella is a cruel heart — pun on arse. This is followed by a pun on wit. She is his white mark, ‘his wit’, the thing that he aims at (vulva) with his ‘wit’, his erection. In this sense, she is both his target and his erection.  “Thou art my erection,” and “thou art the wit I aim at”. The pun also works because it stands in contrast to his earlier assertion that he does not envy “Aristotle’s wit”. That is to say, Aristotle’s wit is that of the “orecharg’d brain”. That’s not the “wit” he wants.

“And thou my virtue art…”

Here too, Sidney plays on meanings. As I’ve written elsewhere, in discussing Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, virtue had a double meaning. For women, virtue referred to chastity. In men, predictably enough, virtue meant the opposite: potency, virility, manhood and prowess (again from A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns). So which meaning, exactly, is Sidney using when he states that Stella is his “virtue”? To the gullible reader, she is everything that is good in him; but, to the Elizabethan reader, she is also everything he claims to give up earlier in the sonnet – his potency, virility, manhood and prowess. By gaining her, he gives up nothing. He looses nothing. This is both the pinnacle of flattery and the height of seduction. She glorifies him, not the other way around.

Puns on the hunt, marksmanship and male prowess abound.

…and in conclusion

Anyone who reads Sidney’s Sonnets as platonic and ethereal professions of love is being played for a fool. The Elizabethans weren’t a sentimental crew and Sidney’s sonnets are full of double meanings. They loved language and prided themselves on their “wit”, in every sense of the word. Sidney’s sonnets are, addressed to Stella, full of sly and lascivious subterfuge. This was expected and enjoyed by an Elizabethan audience who lived in an age of spies, subterfuge, deceit  and intrigue – political and sexual.  If you detect a sly and not-to-be-trusted subtext in Elizabethan poetry, trust your instincts. The fun in Sidney’s sonnets is in reading between the lines. Read them in the spirit with which they were written, not as distant and fusty works of dry and elevated ambition. They are full of brilliant wit and sparkling jest.

The Sheaves by Edwin Arlington Robinson

Edwin Arlington Robinson

  • I have only one objection to free verse and that is that it seems to me to be a makeshift. About the best I can say is that the best free verse that I have seen contains subject matter for good poems. ~ EA Robinson

Before Frost brought a vernacular gait to Iambic Pentameter, Robinson was the first poet to bring a modern American diction to meter and form. Some readers might argue for Emily Dickinson, but Dickinson never ventured beyond the common meter of the hymn and ballad.  I also don’t feel a uniquely modern American diction in her poetry (as opposed to British). If we heard Emily Dickinson speak today, she would probably sound more British than American. (In the environs of Boston and Amherst the British accent was still studiously cultivated.)

  • I know that many of the new writers insist that it is harder to write good vers libre than to write good rhymed poetry. And judging from some of their results, I am inclined to agree with them. ~ EA Robinson

But where Robinson’s voice may sound modern, his heart remains with the classicists. Where modern poets write as though the poem were just another species of prose, poetry to Robinson is more than content. A poem is also an excursion into the felicities of language. The two go together. A good subject is heightened by the language’s expressiveness, and vice versa. I know I like to get my licks in when it comes to free verse (it’s like skeet shooting), but appreciation of Robinson’s poetry is heightened when a reader understands a little about his life.

  • Nine-tenths of poetry is how it’s done…. Ideas are, of course, inseparable from the medium, but much memorable poetry is not important for what is said. ~ EA Robinson

Until the very end of his life, Robinson was ignored. Times and poetic tastes were changing, and for good reason. As Robert Mezey points out in his introduction to The Poetry of E.A. Robinson, the luminaries of the times were writing chestnuts like the following:

What is a sonnet? ‘T is the tear that fell
From a great poet’s hidden ecstacy;
A two-edged sword, a star, a song–ah me!
Sometimes a heavy-tolling funeral bell.

And that little morsel was by Watson Gilder, the John Ashbery of his day, famous in his age and held in high esteem by his contemporaries. Every heard of him? Mezey provides another example:

Alone it stands in Poesy’s fair land,
A temple by the muses set apart;
A perfect structure of consummate art,
By artists builded and by genius planned.

The subject matter of these two extracts by no means typify every poem written at the end of the 19th century, but they do reflect what was popular and esteemed. Poetry by this point was so pleased with itself that poets could write swooning poems about poetry.

The only poet to survive the 1890’s was E.A. Robinson. When every other poet of his generation was writing forgettable metrical and rhyming poetry in a decidedly British tradition, Robinson’s survived by doing something none of the other poets did – appealing to readers in their own language.

  • I had no idea of establishing any new movement in poetry. As I look back I see that I wrote as I did without considering how much of the old poetical machinery I left behind. I see now that I have always disliked inversions as well as many other conventional solemnities which seem to have had their day. I could never, even as a child, see any good reason why the language of verse should be distorted almost out of recognition in order to be poetical.  ~ EA Robinson

Just as Robinson rejected the burgeoning age of free verse, he also rejected the excesses of traditional poetry. He represented the first among America’s rarest poets – those who could infuse traditional poetry with a the modern voice – something that a poet like the much younger Edna Saint Vincent Millay, for example, never really managed to do. Even in the 21rst century, the number of poets who can skillfully infuse traditional poetry with a modern, vernacular voice are few and far between.

  • My poetry is rat poison to editors, but here and there a Philistine seems to like it. ~ EA Robinson

Despite Robinson’s unique genius, he was ignored until the last decade of his life. He lived in boarding houses, with generous admirers and friends and skirted homelessness. He lived, at times, in abject poverty, drank whiskey to excess, depended on free lunches at saloons, and haunted taverns. He was the Charles Bukowski of his age and, in truth, his clear-eyed observation of fellow men put him in the same league as Bukowski. The two poets could have been friends in another era.

  • I’ve always rather liked the queer, odd sticks of men, that’s all. ~ EA Robinson

It’s hard to exaggerate the degree to which Robinson was ignored. Mezey, in his introduction, suggests that Robinson was a poor self-promoter. He kept to himself. He didn’t tour or give lectures. He preferred solitude. But luck and critical reception plays a part. Frost’s sudden success, for example, was more luck than design. Frost met Ezra Pound and was championed by the famous poet. As a result, American publishers, who had previously ignored Frost, took notice. Robinson, it seems, never enjoyed that kind of breakthrough until the very last decade of his life, when Tristram won the Pulitzer prize. A healthy income and fame finally caught up with him. That was in 1927. He died April 6th, 1935.

  • I think we must leave my contemporaries out of it. I don’t mind your saying, though, that I think a lot of Robert Frost’s work. ~ EA Robinson

Robinson continues to be overlooked. My own opinion is this: Robinson possessed a masterful ear for the colors of language, its rhythm and poetic form. What he lacked, perhaps, is a great poet’s gift for imagery. One will rarely find the ravishing sensuality of a Keats— sensitivity to touch, taste, smell and texture— or the arresting metaphor (or extended metaphor) of a Robert Frost or T.S. Eliot. Robinson’s plain style equally characterizes his poetic abilities. He seems, sometimes, almost embarrassed by the poetic image. He limits himself to only the most necessary description. In what some consider to be one of his greatest poems, Eros Turannos, the reader will be hard put to find anything that might be called simile, metaphor or imagery. A face is an “engaging mask”. We read of the “foamless weirs of age”, but the image is more like a still-life. Robinson frequently prefers the abstract to the concrete. We find collocations like “blurred sagacity” or “dirge of her illusions”, or “kindly veil”. These evoke nothing and range from the inventive to the mundane. They are intellectual abstractions. In his great poem For A Dead Lady, the reader will find abstractions like “overflowing light”, “eyes that now are faded”, “flowing wonder”, and the slightly more inventive “woman-hidden world”, but all these collocations are of the still-life variety, and some are just mundane, like “flowing wonder”. When Robinson does describe, his sense of imagery is mostly prosaic. We find “pounding waves” or “A sense of ocean and old trees”. Such descriptions are as typical of the novelist as of the poet. You will never find anything like Frost’s extended metaphor in Birches:

They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust–
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

You will only find, every now and then, the seeds and hints of something that might have more fully flourished in the hands of a poet with a more metaphorical bent. What Robinson excels at is the pithy line. There’s a tight, powerfully succinct, terse and epigrammatic feel to his lines that, to a reader who revels concision and eloquence, is a joy to read. Robinson’s style is compressed and elliptical – talents that naturally made him a master of the short poem. In truth, most modern poets (some of whom are widely read) have no more talent for simile or metaphor than Robinson, but lack Robinson’s powerful feel for language. The wonder is that Robinson isn’t more widely read. To some, probably, he reads like a watered-down Frost, to others, more used to the transparently straight forward voice of free verse, Robinson’s powerfully compressed lines can feel archly intellectual. Robinson ends up neither here nor there. But read him for the concision of his lines. Read Robinson for his ability to compress a whole story into the space of a few lines.

  • I am essentially a classicist in poetic composition, and I believe that the accepted media for the masters of the past will continue to be used in the future. There is, of course, room for infinite variety, manipulation and invention within the limits of traditional forms and meters, but any violent deviation from the classic mean may be a confession of inability to do the real thing, poetically speaking. ~ EA Robinson

What makes Robinson’s poem, The Sheaves, so unique among his poems is that it offers the reader both powerful concision and  an almost Keatsian (or Frostian) beauty of imagery and metaphor – the latter being more of a rarity. To me, who values both these elements, The Sheaves is his greatest, most perfect and most moving poem. Others, for other reasons, might choose other poems.

Here it is:

Where long the shadows of the wind had rolled
Green wheat was yielding to the change assigned;
And as my some vast magic undivined
The world was turning slowly to gold.
Like nothing that was ever bought or sold
It waited there, the body and the mind;
And with a mighty meaning of a kind
That tells the more the more it is not told.

So in a land where all days are not fair,
Fair days went on till on another day
A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay —
As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.

And here, for those who enjoy such things, is how I’ve scanned the poem:

What does it mean?

My first answer would be to say that it means what it says. Robinson called himself a classicist. What that means aesthetically, and from a poet’s perspective, is that the beauty of the great poem is both in what is said and how it’s said. Robinson’s quote: “Nine-tenths of poetry is how it’s done…. Ideas are, of course, inseparable from the medium, but much memorable poetry is not important for what is said.” To a classicist, a poem is a linguistic performance. (In that respect, rap has more in common with traditional poetry than with free verse.) Perhaps an apt analogy is to compare the classicist’s ideal oem to a statue by Michelangelo. We might ask how to interpret the Pietà: Why, for instance, did Michelangelo choose to omit signs of the passion when sculpting Christ? But no one would care if the sheer skill of its conception, in and of itself, weren’t a masterpiece of genius. In other words, we can appreciate the beauty of the statue without needing to interpret it or give it meaning. It’s meaning is, emphatically, not what makes the Pietà a masterpiece. Likewise, Robinson’s sonnet, The Sheaves, isn’t memorable for what it says (which is fairly mundane) but for how it’s said – the sheer skill of its conception. Robinson’s sonnet is, in a sense, like a sculpture. It’s an aesthetic, by the way, a way of writing poetry that is almost entirely absent in modern poetry. As I have writtene elsewhere, modern poets write at the alter of content. If we were to rewrite Robinson’s sonnet as  free verse, it would loose much of a power and beauty, and this isn’t necessarily to diminish free verse, in and of itself, but to distinguish between the different aesthetic approaches of a poet like Robinson and most modern poets.

  • Many causes prevent poetry from being correctly appraised in its own time. Any poetry that is marked by violence, that is conspicuous in color, that is sensationally odd, makes an immediate appeal. On the other hand, poetry that is not noticeably eccentric sometimes fails for years to attract any attention… More than ever before, oddity and violence are bringing into prominence poets who have little besides these two qualities to offer the world… ~ EA Robinson

The sonnet is a beautiful example of a Petrarchan Sonnet written in Iambic Pentameter. As far as metrical innovation goes, the sonnet has nothing out of the ordinary to offer. There is one interesting spondaic foot: |vast mag|ic. The spondee, I think, reinforces the sense of vastness. The effect probably wasn’t cultivated by Robinson but, in a metrical poem, the accentual nature of the language takes on a little added emphasis.

What is beautiful about the poem is an opening quatrain like the following:

Where long the shadows of the wind had rolled
Green wheat was yielding to the change assigned;
And as my some vast magic undivined
The world was turning slowly to gold.

Robinson’s sonnet begins in a kind of darkness – the beautiful image ‘shadows of the wind’. From there, the sonnet’s world begins to grow into a beautiful golden brilliance: green wheat, as though by some vast magic, is turning “slowly into gold”. After the first quatrain, the second gives to an impersonal landscape, something like thought, shape and intent.

Like nothing that was ever bought or sold
It waited there, the body and the mind;
And with a mighty meaning of a kind
That tells the more the more it is not told.

What is the It that begins the second line of the quatrain? – body and mind. Robinson begins to shape the landscape into something human or divine (though the magic is undivined).  The reader is in a world of ambiguity, but Robinson has introduced all the elements of a metaphor that, like the landscape, will coalesce and beautifully take shape in the sonnet’s closing sestet (last six lines). What is the body? What is the mind? Does the mind of meaning or intent? He doesn’t yet tell us, only that it is like nothing that was ever bought or sold. It is without price or estimation. It cannot be constrained by any limitation but is free. And it’s meaning? Robinson is content with ambiguity. The read will ask, but Robinson will only answer that it is a “mighty meaning of a kind, That tells the more the more it is not told.” There is a power in these lines that is comparable to a zen koan. Lao Tse might have written such lines in his Tao Te Ching. To me, the simple, plain spoken mystery and truth in these two lines is equal to anything written by any other poet in any other language or  time. Such is the mystery of life that tells the more the more it is not told. The reader, the novitiate, seeking answers, must be silent. True knowledge does not come through the telling, and yet tells the more it is not told.

And now all the pieces of the metaphor will come together in one of the most beautiful images of all of poetry.

So in a land where all days are not fair,
Fair days went on till on another day
A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay —

Robinson begins the patrarchan sestet with an almost off-handed tone, anticipating and equal to anything Robert Frost was to write in later years. We are back to the impersonal landscape of wind and shadow. Robinson writes, simply and matter-of-factly, that though all days are not fair, fair days went on until a thousand golden sheaves “were lying there”. The first three lines are all but a restatement of the sonnet’s opening octave. But Robinson has placed the elements of a greater “meaning”, a “meaning of a kind that tells the more it is not told” the will take life with “body and mind”. The leaves will lie there, shining and still, but not for long. They will wait there like nothing that was ever bought or sold, until one day, they will be embodied,

As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.

Body and mind coalesce. In these last two lines, with a power akin to the closing couplet of a Shakespearean Sonnet, body, mind and meaning take shape, become metaphor, embodied in the inexpressible will and beauty of a thousand girls, whose meaning is greatest if left, perhaps, “untold”.  They have slept but will arise out of the impersonal shadow of the wind, suddenly alive, willful, free, golden haired, light, and inexpressibly lovely. Their meaning is in a beauty that defies definition. Beauty is truth and truth is beauty, Robinson almost seems to say. But their beauty is fleeting. The arise. They do not come to us, speak to us, or explain. They will go way and that is all ye know and all ye need to know.

So will we all.

Can there be a more beautiful or profound way to express something so simple? I find this poem to be one of the greatest poems of the English language.

Other readers of Robinson:

Der Erlkönig

  • One of the best poems I’ve written, in my opinion, is Die Erlkönigin. Back when I posted the poem I included links to videos dramatizing Goethe’s original – Der Erlkönig. My own poem is a retelling of Goethe’s. In the meantime, a new youtube video has been released that’s just incredible. Let me know what you think. Soon, I hope, I’ll have a post on EA Robinson’s The Sheaves.