James Joyce, “Ulysses”

1922

The novel, probably the most famous ever written in the English language, was first serialized in The Little Review from 1918-1920 and published as a whole in Paris by Sylvia Beach in 1922 (the same year as Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, Eliot’s The Waste Land, and McKay’s Harlem Shadows). It takes place over the course of a single day in Dublin (think Woolf, McEwan). Leopold Bloom, an Irish Jew, represents Ulysses, whom Joyce believed to be the “most complete man in literature” and “the only all-round character” because he is shown in all his contradictions of valor and vice. The novel is set on June 16, 1904, as Stephen Dedalus (almost 2 years after the end of Portrait) begins his day. The fourth episode brings in Leopold Bloom, and after Stephen and Leopold get drunk together, hallucinate, and reveal their subconscious in a soulful discussion, Bloom goes to bed with his wife Molly (having an affair with Blazes Boylon), whose 8-sentence “monologue” finishes the novel.

Joyce was born in Dublin and 1882 and left in 1904, never to return from the Continent, where he died in 1941. Ulysses was written from 1914 to 1918 – the period of the war (think of what Yeats was writing…). Variously banned on charges of obscenity. Among the first “stream-of-consciousness” novels, it mixes the real and the imagined to accurately, if confusingly, reveal the psyche of the narrators, so that “the symbolic aspect of the novel is at least as important as the realistic aspect.” Essentially, Stephen searches for a father (Simon Dedalus is artistically stunted and emotionally unavailable) and Bloom for a son (Rudy is dead). Note the correlations between Leopold Bloom and Odysseus, Molly Bloom and Penelope, and Stephen Dedalus and Telemachus. Some of the novel’s many themes are of the underdog, the voyage/loss of home/exile, the crisis of faith, and everyday kindnesses. Parallax, an astronomical term that Bloom encounters in his reading and that arises repeatedly through the course of the novel, is a good word with which to relate the novel to faceting. It refers to the difference of position of one object when seen from two different vantage points, which is the project of the text. I am including plot summaries from Wikipedia for study in italics and then adding my own notes in plain text.

The opening: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:—introibo ad altare Dei” 3 (I will go in the altar of God).

The ending: “. . . and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes” 644.

Joyce divided Ulysses into 18 chapters or “episodes”. At first glance much of the book may appear unstructured and chaotic; Joyce once said that he had “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant,” which would earn the novel “immortality” [reminds me of Nabokov].  The two schemata which Stuart Gilbert and Herbert Gorman released after publication to defend Joyce from the obscenity accusations made the links to the Odyssey clear, and also explain the work’s internal structure. The original text did not include these episode titles and the correspondences; instead, they originate from the Linati and Gilbert schema. Joyce referred to the episodes by their Homeric titles in his letters. He took the idiosyncratic rendering of some of the titles–– ‘Nausikaa’, the ‘Telemachia’––from Victor Berard’s two-volume Les Phéniciens et l’Odyssée which he consulted in 1918 in the central Zurich library.

Part I: The Telemachiad

Episode 1, Telemachus – 8am

It is 8 am. Buck Mulligan, a boisterous medical student, calls Stephen Dedalus (a young writer encountered as the principal subject of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) up to the roof of the Sandycove Martello tower, where they both live. There is tension between Stephen and Mulligan, stemming from a cruel remark Stephen has overheard Mulligan making about his recently deceased mother and from the fact that Mulligan has invited an English student, Haines, to stay with them. The three men eat breakfast and walk to the shore, where Mulligan demands from Stephen the key to the tower and a loan. Departing, Stephen declares that he will not return to the tower tonight, as Mulligan, the “usurper”, has taken it over.
Stephen wakes up, like Telemachus, in a usurped tower (imagines himself as fatherless Hamlet). Buck Mulligan is not unlike Cranly of Portrait, more crass but personable than Stephen. Stephen refers for the first of many times to “agenbite of inwit, a religious term meaning the “remorse of conscience,” connected to his refusal to kneel at her deathbed (Mulligan calls him Kinch, meaning ‘blade’). Bannon refers to “the photo girl,” probably Bloom’s daughter Millie. Steven decides not to return to the place of the “usurper” that night.

Episode 2, Nestor – 10 am

Stephen is teaching a history class on the victories of Phyrrus of Epirus. After class, one student, Sargent, stays behind so that Stephen can show him how to do a set of arithmetic exercises. Stephen looks at the aesthetically unappealing Sargent and tries to imagine Sargent’s mother’s love for him. Stephen then visits school headmaster, Mr. Deasy, from whom he collects his pay and a letter to take to a newspaper office for printing. The two discuss Irish history and the role of Jews in the economy. As Stephen leaves, Deasy makes a final derogatory remark against the Jews, stating that Ireland has never extensively persecuted the Jews because they were never let in to the country. This episode is the source of some of the novel’s most famous lines, such as Dedalus’s claim that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” and that God is “a shout in the street.”

Unlike the charioteer Nestor, Mr. Deasy inspires Stephen by negative example. He argues with Mr. Deasy’s anti-Semitism, insisting we have all sinned against the light and saying that “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” 28. But for Deasy history is teleology, moving towards “one great goal, the manifestation of God” 28. Deasy says Stephen is not a born teacher, and Stephen counters that he is “a learner rather” 29. Deasy gets one last jab in – “Ireland has the honour of being the only country which never persectued the jews… Because she never let them in” 30. This idea of Ireland as a chaste female body plays interestingly against Molly and other women who “let them in.”

Episode 3, Proteus – 11 am

Stephen finds his way to Sandymount Strand and mopes around for some time, mulling various philosophical concepts, his family, his life as a student in Paris, and his mother’s death. As Stephen reminisces and ponders, he lies down among some rocks, watches a couple and a dog, scribbles some ideas for poetry, picks his nose and urinates behind a rock. This chapter is characterized by a stream of consciousness narrative style that changes focus wildly. Stephen’s education is reflected in the many obscure references and foreign phrases employed in this episode.
Stephen wandering on the beach: “INELUCTABLE MODALITY of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see.”
Proteus is the mutable sea-god. Stephen’s thought is like the god, changing, shifting shapes, only to be captured by special cunning. His ideas move from inner thought and philosophical solipsism toward the material world in this section. Stephen’s first thought of the “ineluctable modality of the visible” counters Kantian idealism and Berkleyan immaterialism with the Aristotelian view tactile matter, though for Aristotle, we always see form or pattern, rather than the thing itself. The line has a postcolonial parallel in Rushdie’s “ineluctable superiority of northernness!” in Midnight’s Children, which may mean that the view is immutable, and based on a criterion of the visible: race. Like Prufrock, Stephen angsts about his personal appearance and habits, and like The Waste Land his thoughts at the sea are of drowning (a man has drowned, also). Ironically, the “word known to all men” (except Stephen?) here is love.

Part II: The Odyssey

Episode 4, Calypso – 8 am

The narrative shifts abruptly. The time is again 8 am, but the action has moved across the city and to the second protagonist of the book, Leopold Bloom, a part-Jewish advertising canvasser. Bloom, after starting to prepare breakfast, decides to walk to a butcher to buy a pork kidney. Returning home, he prepares breakfast and brings it with the mail to his wife Molly as she lounges in bed. One of the letters is from her concert manager Blazes Boylan. Bloom is aware that Molly will welcome Boylan into her bed later that day, and is tormented by the thought. Bloom reads a letter from their daughter. The chapter closes with Bloom defecating in the outhouse.

We meet Leopold Bloom (“people’s prince”/”flower”), whose bodily delights are a far cry from Stephen’s closed-eyed testing of the world, but whose imagination, though seemingly wasted on making advertisements, is alive and brilliant: “Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls… Kidneys were in his mind” 45. He imagines never growing older by traveling around the world fast enough. We feel his warm anticipation for breakfast, as well as the unity of “kidney” and “mind” here – the wholeness of Bloom. Calypso is the name of the half-goddess who keeps Odysseus on her island for years. Her name means “to cover or conceal,” and Molly here conceals her letters under her pillow, covering her affair. He watches the beautiful cat, relating as a fellow creature (Leopold has lion in it, too…). We begin to see the odd things in his pockets, as befit a ‘traveler’ – here a potato, later soap, a watch, and a pig’s foot. He brings breakfast to Molly and she asks him the meaning of metempsychosis – reincarnation which he explains to her through the concept of metamorphosis. He gets a letter from Milly, while Molly gets only a card. He reads the newspaper and defecates, wiping himself with it. He pities Dignam, who is dead.

Episode 5, Lotus Eaters – 10 am

Bloom makes his way to Westland Row post office where he receives a love letter from one ‘Martha Clifford’ addressed to his pseudonym, ‘Henry Flower’. He meets an acquaintance, and while they chat, Bloom attempts to ogle a woman wearing stockings, but is prevented by a passing tram. Next, he reads the letter and tears up the envelope in an alley. He wanders into a Catholic church service and muses on theology. He goes to a chemist where he buys a bar of lemon soap. He then meets another acquaintance, to whom he unintentionally gives a racing tip for the horse Throwaway. Finally, Bloom heads towards the baths.

This chapter introduces many of the recurring figures in the novel. The lotus-eaters are lazy and drugged, and so is Bloom here. He ends by imagining “the dark tangled curls of his bush floating, floating hair of the stream around the limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower” 71.

Episode 6, Hades – 11 am

The episode begins with Bloom entering a funeral carriage with three others, including Stephen’s father. They drive to Paddy Dignam’s funeral, making small talk on the way. The carriage passes both Stephen and Blazes Boylan. There is discussion of various forms of death and burial, and Bloom is preoccupied by thoughts of his dead son, Rudy, and the suicide of his own father. They enter the chapel into the service and subsequently leave with the coffin cart. Bloom sees a mysterious man wearing a macintosh during the burial. Bloom continues to reflect upon death, but at the end of the episode rejects morbid thoughts to embrace ‘warm fullblooded life’.

The funeral makes Bloom think of his son Rudy, who is dead. He imagines the soil “quite fat with corpsemanure, bones, flesh, nails… of course the cells or whatever they are go on living. Changing about. Live for ever practically. Nothing to feed on feed on themselves” 89. This reminds me of Eliot.

Episode 7, Aeolus – 12 pm

At the office of the Freeman’s Journal, Bloom attempts to place an ad. Although initially encouraged by the editor, he is unsuccessful. Stephen arrives bringing Deasy’s letter about ‘foot and mouth’ disease, but Stephen and Bloom do not meet. Stephen leads the editor and others to a pub, telling an anecdote on the way about ‘two Dublin vestals’. The episode is broken up into short sections by newspaper-style headlines, and is characterised by an abundance of rhetorical figures and devices.

Aeolus is the god of winds, here compared to the media, who does not determine history, but records it. The “windblowing” of the media is false and often out of control here. The chapter is structured as a series of news pieces.

Episode 8, Lestrygonians – 1 pm

Bloom’s thoughts are peppered with references to food as lunchtime approaches. He meets an old flame and hears news of Mina Purefoy’s labour. He enters the restaurant of the Burton Hotel where he is revolted by the sight of men eating like animals. He goes instead to Davy Byrne’s pub, where he consumes a gorgonzola cheese sandwich and a glass of burgundy, and muses upon the early days of his relationship with Molly and how the marriage has declined: ‘Me. And me now.’ Bloom heads towards the National Museum to look at the statues of Greek goddesses, and, in particular, their bottoms. Bloom suddenly spots Boylan across the street and, panicking, rushes into the museum.
The Lestrygonians were giant cannibals. It’s an interesting allusion in this chapter, full of his thoughts about food. He stresses out about what to do about Blazes Boylan, shifting perspectives but too afraid to do anything. He ducks into the library and avoids him at the end of the chapter.

Episode 9, Scylla and Charybdis – 2 pm

At the National Library, Stephen explains to various scholars his biographical theory of the works of Shakespeare, especially Hamlet, which he claims are based largely on the posited adultery of Shakespeare’s wife. Bloom enters the National Library to look up an old copy of the ad he has been trying to place. He encounters Stephen briefly and unknowingly at the end of the episode.
Scylla is a monster and Charybdis a whirlpool – Odysseus makes the mistake of trying to fight Scylla, much as Stephen, in his argument with Mulligan, gets too wrapped up in the battle. Odysseus must go nearer the rock of Scylla (Aristotelian material reality) rather than the whirlpool (Platonic essences and ideas). Stephen admits he does not believe his argument – he merely knows it. The chapter takes the form of a dialectic. They pass Bloom on the way out. Mulligan accuses him of being gay and Jewish. Stephen thinks his anti-Semitism comes from English boarding school.

Episode 10, Wandering Rocks – 3 pm

In this episode, nineteen short vignettes depict the wanderings of various characters, major and minor, through the streets of Dublin. The episode ends with an account of the cavalcade of the Lord Lieutenant, William Ward, Earl of Dudley, through the streets, which is encountered by various characters from the novel.

In 19 vignettes in 35 pages, Joyce alights on over a dozen characters. This would therefore be an interesting section to compare to Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. They are somewhat interconnected, but objects are not used as jumping points in the same way – there are divisions.

Episode 11, Sirens – 4 pm

In this episode, dominated by motifs of music, Bloom has dinner with Stephen’s uncle at a hotel, while Molly’s lover, Blazes Boylan, proceeds to his rendezvous with her. While dining, Bloom watches the seductive barmaids and listens to the singing of Stephen’s father and others.

The sirens were the singing creatures whom no man survived hearing. Odysseus got around this by having his men (their ears stuffed with wax) tie him to the mast of his ship. There is a lot of wordplay here “throw, flow, flower,” etc, like song lyrics, an experiment with the sound of language over its sense. The chapter begins by “tuning” and swells, then falls at the end to ppprfff, almost like an orgasm (foreshadowing Boylan’s?).

Episode 12, Cyclops – 5 pm

This chapter is narrated by an unnamed denizen of Dublin. The narrator goes to Barney Kiernan’s pub where he meets a character referred to only as the ‘Citizen’. When Leopold Bloom enters the pub, he is berated by the Citizen, who is a fierce Fenian and anti-Semite. The episode ends with Bloom reminding the Citizen that his Saviour was a Jew. As Bloom leaves the pub, the Citizen, in anger, throws a biscuit tin at Bloom’s head, but misses. The chapter is marked by extended tangents made in voices other than that of the unnamed narrator: these include streams of legal jargon, Biblical passages, and elements of Irish mythology.

This is the chapter of parody: of legal jargon, poetic language, and translation, even the parroting of the Bible by the average man. Cyclopean view is here related as narrowmindedness, and the citizen is “nobody” (what Odysseus tells the Cyclops his name is), a short sighted nationalist. It is the only section in the first-person, but it seems to condemn that perspective as being narrow and limiting in many ways.

Episode 13, Nausicaa – 8 pm

Gerty MacDowell, a young woman on Sandymount strand, contemplates love, marriage and femininity as night falls. The reader is gradually made aware that Bloom is watching her from a distance, and as she exposes her legs and underwear to him it is unclear how much of the narrative is actually Bloom’s sexual fantasy. Bloom’s masturbatory climax is echoed by the fireworks at the nearby bazaar. As Gerty leaves, Bloom realises that Gerty has a lame leg. Bloom, after several digressions of thought, decides to visit Mina Purefoy at the hospital. The style of the first half of the episode borrows from (and parodies) romance magazines and novelettes.

Nausicaa is young and lovely, but also a kind of mother to Odysseus. A similar phenomenon is at work here – the chapter begins with Gerty McDowell’s novelistic gibberish about love and moves to Bloom sort of solipsizing her as he masturbates and the fireworks go off. It’s ambiguous how much is Gerty’s perspective, especially since Bloom is an expert with advertising language, but there are several facts of her personal life that turn out to be true and that Bloom could never know about. Interspersed with romantic language are pills and ads, as well as her “long adolescence” limited knowledge of sex. Phrases like “apple of discord,” “castle of sand,” “ivorylike purity” (purse) and “golden rule” suggest to me that Nabokov had this chapter in mind when writing Lolita – it is also a Sunday, there are magazine photos, and she identifies Bloom as a foreigner with “an intellectual face,” the “image of the photo” she had of a matinee idol. In turn, she is imagining herself as a picture cutout for him, “pictures cut out of papers of those skirtdancers and highkickers and she said he used to do something not very nice that you could imagine sometimes in the bed” 299. This is different because “she could almost feel him draw her face to his.” Again the golden and Os are like Lo. He animates her: “Mutoscope pictures in Capel street: for men only. Peeping Tom. Willy’s hat and what the girls did with it. Do they snapshot those girls or is it all a fake? Lingerie does it” 301, but the key here is mutuality: “Why me? Because you were so foreign from the others” 311. “Darling I saw, your. I saw all” 305. “I begin to like them at that age. Green apples” 308 – literal fruit vert! He calls himself a “murderer” for wanting to come back. Time is instated: cuckoo…

Episode 14, Oxen of the Sun – 10 pm

Bloom visits the maternity hospital where Mina Purefoy is giving birth, and finally meets Stephen, who is drinking with Buck Mulligan and his medical student friends. They continue on to a pub to continue drinking, following the successful birth of the baby. This chapter is remarkable for Joyce’s wordplay, which seems to recapitulate the entire history of the English language. After a short incantation, the episode starts with latinate prose, Anglo-Saxon alliteration, and moves on through parodies of, among others, Malory, the King James Bible, Bunyan, Defoe, Sterne, Walpole, Gibbons, Dickens, and Carlyle, before concluding in a haze of nearly incomprehensible slang.

A midwife delivers a boy – no coincidence that this is where Bloom and Stephen meet! This is interesting in light of the idea of faceting. It is a kind of bildungsroman for the English language itself, and like Stephen in Portrait, it moves from the impersonal to the personal, the abstract to the concrete, through the spiritual to the political. It is a rejuvenation of language by dragging it through mud that also reminds me of Eliot and Stein. The unity of form and content on display here is remarkable (form is content, content is form – a Keats chiasmus like beauty is truth, truth beauty). The two men are both outcasts, and this is how they bond. The connection to Odysseus is his men eating the sacred cattle, which come back to life in distorted, zombielike forms.

Episode 15, Circe – 12 am

Episode 15 is written as a play script, complete with stage directions. The plot is frequently interrupted by “hallucinations” experienced by Stephen and Bloom—fantastic manifestations of the fears and passions of the two characters. Stephen and Lynch walk into Nighttown, Dublin’s red light district. Bloom pursues them and eventually finds them at Bella Cohen’s brothel. When Bloom witnesses Stephen overpaying for services received, Bloom decides to hold onto the rest of Stephen’s money for safekeeping. Stephen hallucinates that the rotting cadaver of his mother has risen up from the floor to confront him. Terrified, Stephen uses his walking stick to smash a chandelier and then runs out. Bloom quickly pays Bella for the damage, then runs after Stephen. Bloom finds Stephen engaged in a heated argument with an English soldier who, after a perceived insult to the King, punches Stephen. The police arrive and the crowd disperses. As Bloom is tending to Stephen, Bloom has a hallucination of Rudy, his deceased child.

Bella Cohen, the brothel mistress, is Circe, and all the men dogs. This is the section of “Gentleman of the jury, let me explain” and “the halcyon days” 373 – also like Lolita. Both men have sexual neuroses, which are mocked here. The chapter ends as Stephen breaks a chandelier, Bloom pays for it, and they leave. On the street, he “brushes the woodshavings from Stephen’s clothes with light hand and fingers” – like Prufrock 496. Stephen is mumbling abstractions and poetry in the fetal position. Bloom thinks of “the rough hands of the sea” and a figure appears: “BLOOM (wonderstruck, calls inaudibly) Rudy!” 497 (it’s interesting that it’s inaudible – something only the novel can do). Rudy is all dressed up and unseeing.

Part III: The Nostos 

Episode 16, Eumaeus – 1 am

Bloom and Stephen go to the cabman’s shelter to restore the latter to his senses. At the cabman’s shelter, they encounter a drunken sailor, D. B. Murphy. Riding in the cab, Stephen sings a spirited song by the Baroque composer Johannes Jeep, and he and Bloom bond over its misogyny. The episode is dominated by the motif of confusion and mistaken identity, with Bloom, Stephen and Murphy’s identities being repeatedly called into question. The rambling and laboured style of the narrative in this episode reflects the nervous exhaustion and confusion of the two protagonists.

Odysseus meets Eumaeus the swineherd when he returns home. He welcomes and feeds him. I’m most interested in this chapter for its confused identities – the different characters being mixed up is like Ellison, Woolf, and Pynchon. The chapter returns to an older, more classical narrative style. “So they turned on to chatting about music, a form of art for which Bloom, as a pure amateur, possessed the greatest love” 539. Bloom admires Stephen’s voice, nice like his father’s. He tells the boy Molly would like to meet him (this chapter also like a bookend to “Sirens,” also “My Little Carmen.”

Episode 17, Ithaca – 2 am

Bloom returns home with Stephen, who refuses Bloom’s offer of a place to stay for the night. The two men urinate in the backyard, Stephen departs and wanders off into the night, and Bloom goes to bed. The episode is written in the form of a rigidly organised catechism, and was reportedly Joyce’s favourite episode in the novel. The style is that of a scientific inquiry, with questions furthering the narrative. The deep descriptions range from questions of astronomy to the trajectory of urination.

This episode toggles between a kind of Socratic dialogue and the depressing idea of memorized doctrinal response, beautifully creating tension between information and emotion as the two sit up and talk (309 Q and R – think of To the Lighthouse!). We return to the theme of water as Bloom begins to make tea and Stephen reveals himself to be afraid of water. Odysseus is a hero at the banquet, but Bloom is an ordinary man, whose heroism is his kindness to Stephen. Bloom also forgives Molly, considering all the crimes worse than adultery. This is the last we hear of “narrator” and “listener.”

Episode 18, Penelope – 3 am or later – the infinity symbol

The final episode, which also uses the stream of consciousness technique seen in Episode 3, consists of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy: eight great run-on sentences (without punctuation) describe the thoughts of Molly, Bloom’s wife, as she lies in bed next to her husband. Molly guesses that Bloom had an orgasm that day, and is reminded of his past possible infidelity with other women. She considers the differences between Boylan and Bloom, in terms of virility and masculinity. Molly feels that she and Bloom are lucky, despite their current marital difficulties. Molly recalls her many admirers, previous and current. She wishes she had more money to buy stylish clothes, and believes that Bloom should quit his advertising job and get better paid work elsewhere. Molly thinks about how beautiful female breasts are, particularly compared to male genitalia. She thinks of the time Bloom suggested she pose naked in exchange for money. Her thoughts return to Boylan and her orgasm earlier.

A train whistle blows outside, and Molly thinks of her childhood in Gibraltar. Out of boredom and loneliness, she had resorted to writing herself letters. Molly thinks about how her daughter sent her a card this morning, whereas her husband received a whole letter. She imagines that she may receive another love letter from Boylan. Molly recalls her first love letter from Lieutenant Mulvey, whom she kissed under the bridge in Gibraltar. She later lost contact with him and wonders what he would be like now. Her thoughts turn to her singing career, and Molly wonders what path her career could have taken had she not married Bloom. Molly senses the start of her period, confirmation that her tryst with Boylan has not caused a pregnancy. She gets up to use the chamberpot. Events of the day spent with Boylan run through her mind.

Molly climbs quietly back into bed and thinks of the times she and Bloom have had to relocate. Her mind then turns to Stephen, whom she met during his childhood. She conjectures that Stephen is probably not stuck-up, and is most likely clean. She fantasizes about having sexual encounters with him. Molly resolves to study before meeting him so he will not look down upon her. Molly thinks of her husband’s strange sexual habits. Molly speculates that the world would be much improved if it consisted of Matriarchal Societies. Thinking again of Stephen, and then of his mother’s death, evokes memory of Rudy’s death, whereupon she ends this line of thought as it is making her depressed. Molly thinks about arousing Bloom in the morning, then revealing the details of her affair with Boylan to make him realise his culpability. She decides to procure some flowers, in case Stephen Dedalus decides to come around. Thinking of flowers, Molly remembers the day she and Bloom spent at Howth, his marriage proposal, and her acceptance: “yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Helene Cixous cited this chapter of the novel as ecriture feminine, since “the body unfurls” in the woman’s voice here. (You could think about Woolf building a more structured and precise version of the in medias res “Yes because he never did a thing like that,” more drawn from Mansfield, perhaps, than Joyce). Part of her body unfurling is to consider her own beauty, greater than a man’s and to fart, proving women are not without scatological functions. As lovely as this chapter is and Cixous’ idea of it is, there is something troubling about the leaky chaos of Molly’s discourse – an infinity time free of the clock.

As Bloom, the modern man, is not the hero Odysseus is, so Molly, the modern woman, is not the faithful wife. Still, she is a storyteller, and she brings all of the ideas and passions to a close here in her eight runon sentences. (Penelope kept Odysseus alive through her weaving in the original story.) More materially, she will likely weave them together in reality – she thinks of offering Stephen the room upstairs “itd be great fun supposing he stayed with us why not theres the room upstairs empty and Millys bed in the back room… and if he wants to read in bed in the morning like me as hes making the breakfast for 1 he can make it for 2… Id love to have a long talk with an intelligent welleducated person” – and then turns right to shopping 641.

Strikingly, the stream of consciousness here is most like the Proteus chapter – Stephen and Molly get that concatenated, runon perspective more than Bloom. One of my favorite parts of the chapter is when she says she’d like to make a book of “Poldy’s” sayings. He called her “a flower of the mountain… one true thing he said in his life.” The repetition of O here connects it to the orgasms of the Nausicaa chapter, but the repetition of Yes reminds me of Bloom’s affirmation or choice of life in Hades. Like her husband, Molly chooses life, and this is the beauty between them, despite their problems.

 

Joan Didion, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”

1968

San Francisco for Didion is “the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart” xiii. “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests… writers are always selling somebody out” xvi. (see her use of facile, 162)

WHERE THE KISSING NEVER STOPS – On Joan Baez’s school with the boy and his violet marble, and the sky the same color as that marble.

7000 ROMAINE, LOS ANGELES – America is neither about money nor power (like Isherwood, she finds Europeans more materialistic), but “personal freedom, mobility, privacy” 71.

MARRYING ABSURD – the facsimile of tradition in Vegas weddings for “children.”

SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM – the long title essay on the very young hippies of the Haight in the summer of love, 1967. It begins, “the center was not holding” 84. It’s mostly about dirty kids doing drugs and watching detergent cut grease and talking about ideas they don’t really feel involved in. At the end, Didion meets a five year old on acid licking her lips and muttering.

ON GOING HOME – her daughter, a birthday, her legacy

NOTES FROM A NATIVE DAUGHTER – CA is 5 hours from NY, but it is “somewhere else” 171. It is “where we run out of continent,” and it is losing its history 186.

GOODBYE TO ALL THAT – She leaves NY. “That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in face irrevocable and that it has counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it” 233. She is a Californian again, with the sunshine and jasmine.

Claude McKay: Poems

Claude McKay, perhaps most known for his novel Banjo, was also a poet of the Harlem Renaissance. Jamaican by birth, he settled in America, where he became a citizen in 1940. He saw capitalism and racism as inextricably linked, and devoted much of his work to overturning conventional belief via conventional forms (the sonnet, the novel, etc.). He was a devout believer in the potential of the Soviet Union, but did not seem to experience the disillusionment that Hughes and others did.

“THE HARLEM DANCER,” 1917/1922

Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes
And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway;
Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes
Blown by black players upon a picnic day.
She sang and danced on gracefully and calm,
The light gauze hanging loose about her form;
To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm
Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.
Upon her swarthy neck black shiny curls
Luxuriant fell; and tossing coins in praise,
The wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls,
Devoured her shape with eager, passionate gaze;
But looking at her falsely-smiling face,
I knew her self was not in that strange place.

An English sonnet with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. Interesting to compare the dancer's dislocation from physical space with the stripper in Ellison's Invisible Man and with the dancers in Hughes' poetry.

“HARLEM SHADOWS,” 1918

I hear the halting footsteps of a lass
      In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall
Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass
      To bend and barter at desire’s call.
Ah, little dark girls who in slippered feet
Go prowling through the night from street to street!
Through the long night until the silver break
      Of day the little gray feet know no rest;
Through the lone night until the last snow-flake
      Has dropped from heaven upon the earth’s white breast,
The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet
Are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street.
Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way
      Of poverty, dishonor and disgrace,
Has pushed the timid little feet of clay,
      The sacred brown feet of my fallen race!
Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet
In Harlem wandering from street to street.
A poem about the senses and the exhaustion of the urban flaneur in three stanzas of six lines with the rhyme scheme ababcc dedecc efefcc.

“THE LYNCHING,” 1919

His Spirit in smoke ascended to high heaven.
His father, by the cruelest way of pain,
Had bidden him to his bosom once again;
The awful sin remained still unforgiven.
All night a bright and solitary star
(Perchance the one that ever guided him,
Yet gave him up at last to Fate’s wild whim)
Hung pitifully o’er the swinging char.
Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view
The ghastly body swaying in the sun
The women thronged to look, but never a one
Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue;
And little lads, lynchers that were to be,
Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.

An English sonnet with the rhyme scheme abba cddc effe gg. The horror of the subject in the rather prosaic form of the sonnet is striking here. The speaker shifts from the family of the victim to the body itself, ending on the women and children – “lynchers that were to be” thronging around the “thing” made of the victim’s body.

“IF WE MUST DIE,” 1919

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

An English sonnet with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. The first 8 lines are in a subjunctive tone of prevention, while the last 6 represent a turn that is a rallying cry to leftist political action.

“AMERICA,” 1921

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

An English sonnet with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. The poem is remarkable for enacting in its form (an English sonnet by a Jamaican-born black immigrant in America) the conflict of its content (a man torn between violent political resistance and cultural infatuation).

“MOSCOW,” 1953

Another sonnet, but in a Petrarchan octet/sestet structure (with the unusual rhyme scheme abcd bcda / efg fge). The octet describes Moscow as McKay saw it; after the volta, the sestet turns to how the memory preserves him and gives him hope (almost like Wordsworth’s daffodils). The poem transforms Moscow into Byzantium, perhaps a comment on a Yeatsian ideal of aesthetic and political union, as in “Sailing to Byzantium.”

Allen Ginsberg: Poems

Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) is perhaps the most famous of the Beat poets.

“A SUPERMARKET IN CALIFORNIA”

      What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for
I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache
self-conscious looking at the full moon.
          In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went
into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
          What peaches and what penumbras!  Whole families
shopping at night!  Aisles full of husbands!  Wives in the
avocados, babies in the tomatoes!--and you, Garcia Lorca, what
were you doing down by the watermelons?

          I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber,
poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery
boys.
          I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the
pork chops?  What price bananas?  Are you my Angel?
          I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans
following you, and followed in my imagination by the store
detective.
          We strode down the open corridors together in our
solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen
delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

          Where are we going, Walt Whitman?  The doors close in
an hour.  Which way does your beard point tonight?
          (I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the
supermarket and feel absurd.)
          Will we walk all night through solitary streets?  The
trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we'll both be
lonely.

          Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love
past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
          Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher,
what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and
you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat
disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

In this poem, Ginsberg considers Whitman’s legacy – and himself, as another gay poet, the inheritor. Its wild toggling between the “peaches and penumbras,” the “neon fruit” or “shopping for images” to the more transcendental “Are you my Angel?” locates a cultural contrast nascent in Whitman that is only clearer a century later (the poem is written at the centennial of “Song of Myself’). At the end, Ginsberg points to the fact that America always looks back nostalgically to an imaginary lost time, ever receding and never extant at all.

“AMERICA”

America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956.
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb
I don’t feel good don’t bother me.
I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind.
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I’m sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world.
Your machinery is too much for me.
You made me want to be a saint.
There must be some other way to settle this argument.
Burroughs is in Tangiers I don’t think he’ll come back it’s sinister.
Are you being sinister or is this some form of practical joke?
I’m trying to come to the point.
I refuse to give up my obsession.
America stop pushing I know what I’m doing.
America the plum blossoms are falling.
I haven’t read the newspapers for months, everyday somebody goes on trial for
murder.
America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies.
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid and I’m not sorry.
I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
I sit in my house for days on end and stare at the roses in the closet.
When I go to Chinatown I get drunk and never get laid.
My mind is made up there’s going to be trouble.
You should have seen me reading Marx.
My psychoanalyst thinks I’m perfectly right.
I won’t say the Lord’s Prayer.
I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations.
America I still haven’t told you what you did to Uncle Max after he came over
from Russia.

I’m addressing you.
Are you going to let our emotional life be run by Time Magazine?
I’m obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.
Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candystore.
I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.
It’s always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious. Movie
producers are serious. Everybody’s serious but me.
It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again.

Asia is rising against me.
I haven’t got a chinaman’s chance.
I’d better consider my national resources.
My national resources consist of two joints of marijuana millions of genitals
an unpublishable private literature that goes 1400 miles and hour and
twentyfivethousand mental institutions.
I say nothing about my prisons nor the millions of underpriviliged who live in
my flowerpots under the light of five hundred suns.
I have abolished the whorehouses of France, Tangiers is the next to go.
My ambition is to be President despite the fact that I’m a Catholic.

America how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?
I will continue like Henry Ford my strophes are as individual as his
automobiles more so they’re all different sexes
America I will sell you strophes $2500 apiece $500 down on your old strophe
America free Tom Mooney
America save the Spanish Loyalists
America Sacco & Vanzetti must not die
America I am the Scottsboro boys.
America when I was seven momma took me to Communist Cell meetings they
sold us garbanzos a handful per ticket a ticket costs a nickel and the
speeches were free everybody was angelic and sentimental about the
workers it was all so sincere you have no idea what a good thing the party
was in 1835 Scott Nearing was a grand old man a real mensch Mother
Bloor made me cry I once saw Israel Amter plain. Everybody must have
been a spy.
America you don’re really want to go to war.
America it’s them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia’s power mad. She wants to take
our cars from out our garages.
Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Reader’s Digest. her wants our
auto plants in Siberia. Him big bureaucracy running our fillingstations.
That no good. Ugh. Him makes Indians learn read. Him need big black niggers.
Hah. Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. Help.
America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
America is this correct?
I’d better get right down to the job.
It’s true I don’t want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts
factories, I’m nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

This heteroglossic poem is one of my favorites by Ginsberg because when you hear recordings of him reading it in Berkeley, you can tell that it was meant to be humorous – he and the audience are laughing. Its notation of the time and amount of money he has look ahead to Frank O’Hara’s cataloguing, and his lists look back to Whitman’s.

“HOWL”

The poem is introduced by William Carlos Williams (“Hold back the edges of your gowns, ladies, we are going through hell), who befriended Ginsberg in New Jersey after the younger poet left the mental hospital. Howl traces a course of American poetry of identity from Whitman into the 20th century, touching on the Inferno and Frost’s “Fire and Ice” as well. “The spontaneity of surface in Howl conceals but grows out of Ginsberg’s care and self-consciousness about rhythm and meter.” The first few lines actively set up over 10 pages of predicate clauses beginning with “who”:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up…

Part II turns more Yeatsian: “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?” proceeding to posit answers beginning with “Moloch…” Part III is the famous “I’m with you in Rockland” section to Carl Solomon, which ends:

I’m with you in Rockland
in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-
journey on the highway across America in tears
to the door of my cottage in the Western night.

The footnote is a cry for sacredness in its ironic repetition of “Holy!”

“KADDISH”

Written after his mother died in 1956, Kaddish is a moving exploration of the relationship of one’s personal and family memories. The speaker remembers his mother, Naomi (a leftist/Communist who was often in and out of mental hospitals), but also weaves her memories that he has inherited from her into the work:

Dreaming back thru life, Your time—and mine accelerating toward Apocalypse,
the final moment—the flower burning in the Day—and what comes after,
looking back on the mind itself that saw an American city
a flash away, and the great dream of Me or China, or you and a phantom Russia, or a crumpled bed that never existed—
like a poem in the dark—escaped back to Oblivion—

The poem is filled with love, but also with horrifying images of madness, loneliness, anger, and violent sexuality. It is written in a mix of Whitmanian, surrealist, and stream-of-consciousness styles. Part of the anxiety of the poem is the internalization of his mother’s madness, as well as a feeling of guilt, since he could not amass the necessary number of  men to properly make a minion to say Kaddish over her body. In this sense, his voice strains to “contain multitudes,” as Whitman’s speaker also claims. Much of the imagery seems miscegenous, from the “crown of thorns” outside of Judaism to the mix of metaphors and styles the speaker uses in straining to talk about his mother. Even the crows that caw are sad copies of the cries that end Eliot’s The Waste Land, scavengers like the birds in Yeats come to feed on the available carrion. Like O’Hara’s more lighthearted poems, it begins with the strange thought of being out on the street and thinking of his dead mother, now gone:

Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.
downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I’ve been up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph

Mixing tradition and mourning via pop culture, the poet expresses a desire for death himself:

And you’re out, Death let you out, Death had the Mercy, you’re done with your century, done with God, done with the path thru it—Done with yourself at last—Pure—Back to the Babe dark before your Father, before us all—before the world—

The poet turns back to memories of caring for his paranoid, ill mother:

By long nites as a child in Paterson apartment, watching over your nervousness—you were fat—your next move—
       By that afternoon I stayed home from school to take care of you—once and for all—when I vowed forever that once man disagreed with my opinion of the cosmos, I was lost-
       By my later burden—vow to illuminate mankind—this is release of particulars—(mad as you)—(sanity a trick of agreement)—
       But you stared out the window on the Broadway Church corner, and spied a mystical assassin from Newark…
…  The enemies approach—what poisons? Tape recorders? FBI? Zhdanov hiding behind the counter? Trotsky mixing rat bacteria in the back of the store? Uncle Sam in Newark, plotting deathly perfumes in the Negro district? Uncle Ephraim, drunk with murder in the politician’s bar, scheming of Hague? Aunt Rose passing water thru the needles of the Spanish Civil War?
There is something fearful in the fact that her paranoia, as the witch hunts of the 50s demonstrate, was somewhat justified. Her diminishing, ‘irradiated’ body registers the Cold War as manifest phenomenon, diminishing almost by half-life. Repeatedly, the speaker attempts to confront the horror of his own mother’s body (perhaps a stand-in for the ravaged dreams of the old Left in America), now gone:
     Naomi, Naomi—sweating, bulge-eyed, fat, the dress unbuttoned at one side—hair over brow, her stocking hanging evilly on her legs—screaming for a blood transfusion—one righteous hand upraised—a shoe in it—barefoot in the Pharmacy
Picking her tooth with her nail, lips formed an O, suspicion—thought’s old worn vagina—absent sideglance of eye—some evil debt written in the wall, unpaid—& the aged breasts of Newark come near—
       May have heard radio gossip thru the wires in her head, controlled by 3 big sticks left in her back by gangsters in amnesia, thru the hospital—caused pain between her shoulders—

One time I thought she was trying to make me come lay her—flirting to herself at sink—lay back on huge bed that filled most of the room, dress up round her hips, big slash of hair, scars of operations, pancreas, belly wounds, abortions, appendix, stitching of incisions pulling down in the fat like hideous thick zippers—ragged long lips between her legs—What, even, smell of asshole? I was cold—later revolted a little, not much—seemed perhaps a good idea to try—know the Monster of the Beginning Womb—Perhaps—that way. Would she care? She needs a lover.

As his mother begins to die, the speaker turns back to her days of youth in his imagination:

   O Russian faced, woman on the grass, your long black hair is crowned with flowers, the mandolin is on your knees—
       Communist beauty, sit here married in the summer among daisies, promised happiness at hand—
….
blessed daughter come to America, I long to hear your voice again, remembering your mother’s music, in the Song of the Natural Front—
       O glorious muse that bore me from the womb, gave suck first mystic life & taught me talk and music, from whose pained head I first took Vision—
       Tortured and beaten in the skull—What mad hallucinations of the damned that drive me out of my own skull to seek Eternity till I find Peace for Thee, O Poetry—and for all humankind call on the Origin
O beautiful Garbo of my Karma—all photographs from 1920 in Camp Nicht-Gedeiget here unchanged—with all the teachers from Vewark—Nor Elanor be gone, nor Max await his specter—nor Louis retire from this High School—

At her death, Kurtzlike, she yells out “All the Horror!” The poem’s mystical, bizarre ending picks up many of the references from earlier stanzas (keys, bars, sunlight), seemingly reclaiming the visionary status of the poet for the modern era:

2 days after her death I got her letter—
       Strange Prophecies anew! She wrote—‘The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight at the window—I have the key—Get married Allen don’t take drugs—the key is in the bars, in the sunlight in the window.
                                                       Love,
                                                               your mother’
       which is Naomi—
The key that unlocks the beginning of the poem is death itself. The last line plays on the adjectival meaning of Naomi – “beautiful or delightful” (in the Bible, the mother in law of Ruth who lost both her sons and her husband), turning over some of the horror of the memories with an act of love. The “roar of memory” at the end of the poem comes back as a vast highschool, representing America’s institutional wasteland and yet its unbounded possibilities as well.

Robert Lowell: Poems

Robert Lowell (1917-1977) was a confessional poet interested in history and writing as forms of repetition and revision. His characteristic style emerges in 1959 with the publication of Life Studies, the collection that led the critic Mendenhal to coin the term “confessional poet.” The poetry of the Beats caused him to reexamine his old work, which he saw, much as Yeats did in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” as “distant, symbol-ridden, and willfully difficult” with “a stiff, humorless and even impenetrable surface.”

LORD WEARY’S CASTLE, 1946

“COLLOQUY IN BLACK ROCK”

Here the jack-hammer jabs into the ocean;
My heart, you race and stagger and demand
More blood-gangs for your nigger-brass percussions,
Till I, the stunned machine of your devotion,
Clanging upon this cymbal of a hand,
Am rattled screw and footloose. All discussions

End in the mud-flat detritus of death.
My heart, beat faster, faster. In Black Mud
Hungarian workmen give their blood
For the martyrs Stephen who was stoned to death.

Black Mud, a name to conjure with: O mud
For watermelons gutted to the crust,
Mud for the mole-tide harbor, mud for mouse,
Mud for the armored Diesel fishing tubs that thud
A year and a day to wind and tide; the dust
Is on this skipping heart that shakes my house,

House of our Savior who was hanged till death.
My heart, beat faster, faster. In Black Mud
Stephen the martyre was broken down to blood:
Our ransom is the rubble of his death.

Christ walks on the black water. In Black Mud
Darts the kingfisher. On Corpus Christi, heart,
Over the drum-beat of St. Stephen’s choir
I hear him, Stupor Mundi, and the mud
Flies from his hunching wings and beak–my heart,
he blue kingfisher dives on you in fire.

Here, Lowell slowly moves from the localized construction site with its jackhammers penetrating the mud to the high language of Yeats and Eliot: “Stupor Mundi” (the marvel of the world) and “the drum-beat of St. Stephen’s choir” remind me of Yeats, while “Corpus Christi,” “House of our Savior,” and “In Black Mud Darts the kingfisher” remind me of Eliot.

“MR. EDWARDS & THE SPIDER”

I saw the spiders marching through the air,
Swimming from tree to tree that mildewed day
In latter August when the hay
Came creaking to the barn. But where
The wind is westerly,
Where gnarled November makes the spiders fly
Into the apparitions of the sky,
They purpose nothing but their ease and die
Urgently beating east to sunrise and the sea;

What are we in the hands of the great God?
It was in vain you set up thorn and briar
In battle array against the fire
And treason crackling in your blood;
For the wild thorns grow tame
And will do nothing to oppose the flame;
Your lacerations tell the losing game
You play against a sickness past your cure.
How will the hands be strong? How will the heart endure?

A very little thing, a little worm,
Or hourglass-blazoned spider, it is said,
Can kill a tiger. Will the dead
Hold up his mirror and affirm
To the four winds the smell
And flash of his authority? It’s well
If God who holds you to the pit of hell,
Much as one holds a spider, will destroy,
Baffle and dissipate your soul. As a small boy

On Windsor Marsh, I saw the spider die
When thrown into the bowels of fierce fire:
There’s no long struggle, no desire
To get up on its feet and fly
It stretches out its feet
And dies. This is the sinner’s last retreat;
Yes, and no strength exerted on the heat
Then sinews the abolished will, when sick
And full of burning, it will whistle on a brick.

But who can plumb the sinking of that soul?
Josiah Hawley, picture yourself cast
Into a brick-kiln where the blast
Fans your quick vitals to a coal—
If measured by a glass,
How long would it seem burning! Let there pass
A minute, ten, ten trillion; but the blaze
Is infinite, eternal: this is death,
To die and know it. This is the Black Widow, death.

Lowell takes apart Edwards’ sermon piece by piece, returning its wrought metaphors to the material world, where the spider does not struggle in hell, but dies. The ending of the poem, “To die and know it. This is the Black Widow, death,” parallels the spider’s hourglass marking – the curse is not the fear of death, but the knowledge – the fact of it. Could be compared to Larkin’s “Ambulances.”

LIFE STUDIES, 1959

“MEMORIES OF WEST STREET & LEPKE”

Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming
in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
I hog a whole house on Boston’s
“hardly passionate Marlborough Street,”
where even the man
scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
and is a “young Republican.”
I have a nine months’ daughter,
young enough to be my granddaughter.
Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants’ wear.
These are the tranquillized Fifties,
and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?
I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
and made my manic statement,
telling off the state and president, and then
sat waiting sentence in the bull pen
beside a Negro boy with curlicues
of marijuana in his hair.
Given a year,
I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short
enclosure like my school soccer court,
and saw the Hudson River once a day
through sooty clothesline entanglements
and bleaching khaki tenements.
Strolling, I yammered metaphysics with Abramowitz,
a jaundice-yellow (“it’s really tan”)
and fly-weight pacifist,
so vegetarian,
he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit.
He tried to convert Bioff and Brown,
the Hollywood pimps, to his diet.
Hairy, muscular, suburban,
wearing chocolate double-breasted suits,
they blew their tops and beat him black and blue.
I was so out of things, I’d never heard
of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Are you a C.O.?” I asked a fellow jailbird.
“No,” he answered, “I’m a J.W.”
He taught me the “hospital tuck,”
and pointed out the T-shirted back
of Murder Incorporated’s Czar Lepke,
there piling towels on a rack,
or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full
of things forbidden the common man:
a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American
flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.
Flabby, bald, lobotomized,
he drifted in a sheepish calm,
where no agonizing reappraisal
jarred his concentration on the electric chair—
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections….
Like Williams coming to terms with his domestic madness in “Danse Russe,” Lowell contemplates his age here – he feels old, at 40, to be a new father, so different from his youthful days as a conscientious objector to the war and getting a year of jailtime for it. He falls further back in time to those radical days, so starkly different from “bookworming” in “the tranquillized Fifties.”

“SKUNK HOUR”

(For Elizabeth Bishop)

heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son’s a bishop. Her farmer
is first selectman in our village;
she’s in her dotage.
Thirsting for
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria’s century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.
The season’s ill—
we’ve lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.
And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall;
his fishnet’s filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl;
there is no money in his work,
he’d rather marry.
One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.
A car radio bleats,
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
nobody’s here—
only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.
I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air—
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.
Nautilis Island is the location of the poem, but it’s also interesting that Lowell sets the scene with reference to this natural object, whose spiraling chambers reproduce the Golden Ratio perfectly. The rich woman buying up the houses to watch them die and the idea of “our summer millionaire” are reminiscent of Gatsby. The poet, painfully aware of death, climbs “the hill’s skull” to spy on lovers, and the insertion of the pop Lyrics and the speaker’s assertion, “I hear my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell, as if my hand were at its throat… I myself am hell” refers to Satan in Milton, but also feels like Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita. The foul but beautiful persistence of the skunk, swilling for sour cream in the trashcan, is an odd and visionary moment for the times Lowell describes.

“FOR THE UNION DEAD,” 1964

Relinquunt Ommia Servare Rem Publicam. (They sacrifice everything to save the Republic.)

The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.

Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.

My hand draws back. I often sign still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized

fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.

Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
a girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,

shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage’s earthquake.

Two months after marching through Boston,
half of the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.

Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city’s throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound’s gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.

He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man’s lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die-
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.

On a thousand small town New England greens
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic

The stone statutes of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year-
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns…

Shaw’s father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son’s body was thrown
and lost with his ‘niggers.’

The ditch is nearer.
There are no statutes for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling

over a Mosler Safe, the ‘Rock of Ages’
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
when I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessed break.

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

In the first 2 stanzas, Lowell displays a ruin to the reader and weaves it in with his childhood memories of desire and excitement. In the next stanzas, Lowell likens the ancient life of the sea (linked by “scales” to “fish and reptile” to “dinosaur steamshovels”) to the construction of a parking lot with “Puritan pumpkin-colored girders.” He turns to the monument to the Colonel Shaw and the Negro soldiers of the Civil War, imagining their suffering. Just as the Puritan girders and steamshovel dinosaurs create a flattening historical parallel, so do the Negro soldiers and  “the drained faces of Negro school-children [that] rise like ballons” on his TV, during the period of desegregation. The blank of the parking lot, too, being built underground, resonates with the boiling hole of Hiroshima (15 years before). “Space is nearer,” the speaker proclaims, ushering in a postmodern sensibility. He returns at the close of the poem to the ancient grease and fishiness of the technology around him, circling back to the start of the poem.

Wallace Stevens: Poems

Wallace Stevens

“THE SNOW MAN,” 1921

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

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

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

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

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

The poem does not introduce the completion of the first line “One must have a mind of winter” until the seventh line, “and not to think.” The frozen elongation of imagery over the intervening lines gives a picture of winter itself, of what a “mind of winter is” – patience, waiting, even self-effacement. This is reinforced in the final stanza where “the listener,” rendered impersonal, is “nothing himself” and beholds “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” This strange awareness of self as presence/absence and exterior world as presence/absence affords both the possibility of disjunction and a kind of transcendent unity.

HARMONIUM, 1923

“THE EMPEROR OF ICE-CREAM”

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

In Russian Formalist terms, the “story” of the poem differs sharply from its “plot.” It details a visit to the neighbor’s house to prepare a corpse for burial, while in the kitchen, a gaudy preparation of food and drink sharply contrasts the scene in the bedroom. Each stanza of 8 lines ends in a rhyming couplet, emphasizing through repetition the contrast of the two rooms: life and death. “Let be be finale of seem” endorses being over seeming, but acknowledges the power of the latter. “Let the lamp affix its beam” presumes control over the ineffable.

“ANECDOTE OF THE JAR”

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

The blank jar with Nature subdued around it has been read (by Helen Vendler) as an American contrast to Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” where the poet has firm grasp of Western history and culture. Here, instead, the poet places the jar in Nature and makes of it a center “It made the slovenly wilderness/ Surround that hill.” The made, aesthetic object seems to give shape to an otherwise unruly space. The repetition of Tennessee seems to be an insistence on the American locality of the poem. The jar reminds me of the Sybil hanging in a jar in Eliot, as well as Heidegger’s essay on “the jug,” which he takes as an ultimate example of the-thing-in-itself, its use available to us, the process of its making evident and textural. It is in that essay that Heidegger separates being (flux, non-thingliness) from a being (God or a system) that humans try to hang the essence of being upon.

“THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A BLACKBIRD”

I
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

The frozen landscape is reminiscent of a number of Stevens poems, including “The Snow Man.” The movement of the bird’s eye is that of perception. The choice of a bird to explore epistemological problems places Stevens in a tradition with Keats, Hardy, Yeats, Auden, and others.

II
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The speaker imagines the potential multiplicity of the mind as a hypostatic trinity, or three-in-one.

III
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

The speaker emphasizes the smallness  of the individual, again like “The Snow Man.”

IV
A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

In this stanza, Williams plays with the problem of unity between beings, versus their necessarily discrete nature.

V
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

The “beauty of inflections” comes in the actual sound of song or verse, while the “beauty of innuendoes” are in the silences and lacunae between experiences, or outside of them.

VI
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

This “barbaric glass” recalls Emerson, Frost, and a tradition of visual American questioning of Nature.

VII
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

VIII
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

IX
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

Again, this is an Emersonian idea, like the essay, “Circles,” in which Emerson claims interconnectedness through that geometric figure.

X
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

XI
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

XII
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

Again, interconnectedness seems impossible, but mystically tempting here.

XIII
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Here Stevens characteristically plays with the passing of time: the light of evening and its anticipation all afternoon, the experience of snow and the knowledge only after that it “was going to snow” more. The blackbird returns to a stationary place in the trees. Perhaps its eye is moving.

PARTS OF A WORLD, 1942

“STUDY OF TWO PEARS”

I
Opusculum paedagogum.
The pears are not viols,
Nudes or bottles.
They resemble nothing else.

“A small didactic work”: The pears are the things in themselves, and nothing else. They are not mere symbols.

II
They are yellow forms
Composed of curves
Bulging toward the base.
They are touched red.

The pears can be described concretely in visual terms by form and content: shape, color, and heft.

III
They are not flat surfaces
Having curved outlines.
They are round
Tapering toward the top.

They are not merely aesthetic representations, as in a painting. The pears which had round bottoms in the last stanza have tapering tops here.

IV
In the way they are modelled
There are bits of blue.
A hard dry leaf hangs
From the stem.

Nevertheless, Stevens gives a painterly aspect to his description of them.

V
The yellow glistens.
It glistens with various yellows,
Citrons, oranges and greens
Flowering over the skin.

It seems almost impossible to do verbal justice to the variance of color and texture here.

VI
The shadows of the pears
Are blobs on the green cloth.
The pears are not seen
As the observer wills.

The pears impose themselves on the viewer in their materiality: they “are not seen/ As the observer wills,” but as they are.

“OF MODERN POETRY”

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

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

In the first stanza, Stevens enters “in medias res” to “the poem of the mind in the act of finding/ What will suffice,” similar to the beginning of some Williams poems. The speaker recalls a time when “the scene was set,” but now “the theatre” is changed. Poetry has to “be living,” “learn,” “face,” “meet,” “think,” and “find.” Some of this language recalls and contrasts with Prufrock’s anxiety about performance (himself as a Shakespeare character) and need to “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” Here, the poem is “a metaphysician in the dark,” a happening, a process in flux –  music. It is the unity of two seemingly discrete things. It is the relaying of feeling.

Robert Frost: Poems

Robert Frost (1874-1963) was born in California but spent most of his life in New England. His style is characterized by its openness in contrast to the high modernists who left America for Europe. He was also a high school and college teacher, and his tendency to pedagogy, conversation, and questioning are evident in his poems, which are often staged as facets or flashes of a story, reworkings of a Victorian tradition of narrative poetry and dramatic monologue.

NORTH OF BOSTON, 1914

“MENDING WALL”

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

The interrupted or bizarre “Yoda” syntax “Something there is…” emphasizes an unnameable force reminds me of the in medias res beginnings of William Carlos Williams and e.e. cummings poems later in the century. It shows an almost-perfect iambic pentameter and is a good example of poetic impersonality. The artificial social world here “wants” to engage with Nature’s force, where Nature is a stage for the interaction. The wall is often interpreted as poetry itself – it is both artifice or craft and Nature and chaos – something that stands between and, as Frost wrote in an essay on poetry, “rides its own melting.”

“HOME BURIAL”

This long poem concerns the death of a child determined by a man’s perspective, seemingly cold and distant as he tries to see the perspective of the hysterically mourning woman. It is almost in a free indirect discourse, with his flat delivery of the narrative nevertheless inducing pathos because of his struggle to understand what has happened and the interest in the difficult relationship of parts to whole.

“AFTER APPLE-PICKING”

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
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 shake the shimmer from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the water-trough,
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and reappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
And I keep hearing from the cellar-bin
That 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.
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,
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,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

Concerned with abundance and visceral exhaustion, the poem repeats in cycles to parallel the natural seasons it describes. When he looks through “a pane of glass/ I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough,” it reminds me of the Emersonian lens – the making of the whole body into an eye. It also melts as the poem runs on, again like Frost’s idea of the poem that “rides its own melting,” just as the seasons and days pass.

MOUNTAIN INTERVAL, 1916

“THE ROAD NOT TAKEN”

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Here the emphasis is on the need to be one traveler – both fair and untrodden (a self-deception of how one moves through time). Think of the proleptic/analeptic notion of Genette, but compressed into a poem instead of a narrative.

“BIRCHES”

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. 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.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
Like Dylan Thomas’ poem “Fern Hill,” Frost builds an imaginative world here, one in which the boy’s play shapes Nature, rather than Nature shaping itself. Frost imagines this play, which he engaged in once himself, as a kind of calling, comparable to Salinger’s “catcher in the rye” – Frost writes that “one could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” In both cases, the desire to turn play and beauty into a career is impossible in society (especially an urbanizing capitalist society from which Frost’s idealized boy is separated by distance). Like Thomas’ poem, Frost here expresses a mixture of nostalgia for the imaginative world of childhood as well as a delight in poetry as a means of creating worlds as well.

“OUT, OUT -”

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside him in her apron
To tell them ‘Supper.’ At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws know what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap—
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart—
He saw all was spoiled. ‘Don’t let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!’
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened to his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

Here, a hard, empty center – a synecdoche – becomes the whole. The poem turns from the humorous independence of the living saw to the tragedy of the boy’s unexpected death. The line “in the dark of ether” reminds me of Eliot’s “Prufrock.”

SELECTED POEMS, 1923

“FIRE & ICE”

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Frost had spoken to astronomer Harlow Shapley, who told him that the world would either freeze or burn after the explosion of the sun. Desire is fire here, while ice is hatred, and the poem’s movement down 9 lines is like the 9 circles of hell, which get hotter and hotter and end with the worst sinners encased in ice at the bottom. The poem is also satiric, probably intended for humor.

“NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY”

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.

A poem about ephemerality, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” also posits a symbolic tension between the “green” of youth or spring and the “value” of gold or autumn. In this way, the poem questions how we choose what we value and whether we can in fact appreciate it before it has passed.

“STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING”

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

One interesting thing about what is probably Frost’s most famous poem is that this private, natural, Thoreau-like moment is taken by a man not out in the real wilds, but on another man’s woods – woods Frost knows are the property of someone else. It is also reminiscent of Auden’s idea in “Their Lonely Betters,” about the birds, that “Words are for those with promises to keep.” Here, the speaker is ready to let himself go, but his mantra at the end calls attention to the medium of language and to his societal obligations.

“SPRING POOLS”

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

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

The speaker considers the reflective pools in the woods that will soon be sucked up by tree roots to generate the dense, leafy foliage of summer. The penultimate line, “These flowery waters and these water flowers,” expresses a joy in the symmetry of reflection soon to be gone, although it has just arrived, “From snow that melted only yesterday.” It would be interesting to put this in conversation with Hardy’s poem “Neutral Tones,” also a pun on “reflection.”

“DESIGN,” 1936

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth —
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth —
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.

The rhyme scheme here is that of an Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet,  with a slight variation in the rhyming of the sestet: the abba abba / cdccdd instead of cdcdcd. The “dimpled spider, fat and white” recalls the “dimpled darling” of Little Miss Moffitt, The spider, the flower, and the moth (made into similes of “cloth” and “kite”) are all white, but Frost sees “death and blight” in this “design” instead of innocence and light. At the volta (the tonal turn at the sestet), Frost becomes less certain of the fatal design, and turns instead to questioning the larger forces of the universe (this is comparable to Yeats in the much less concrete and more symbolic poems “Leda and the Swan” and “The Second Coming”).

Dylan Thomas: Poems

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) was Welsh poet. In his brash, swaggering, and intensely variant poetry, he exercises “a kind of technical delayment, or withholding, which is at the heart” of his “formal method.” He also puns so that “one meaning of a word intervenes before another.” Thomas bashes words together, using them in unfamiliar ways to unveil not their literal sense, but some other sensibility (compare to Gertrude Stein?). He expresses mystical ideas, but they are often formally bound by the rules of Nature and art. He died of pneumonia while on tour in New York.

“A PROCESS IN THE WEATHER OF THE HEART”

A process in the weather of the heart
Turns damp to dry; the golden shot
Storms in the freezing tomb.
A weather in the quarter of the veins
Turns night to day; blood in their suns
Lights up the living worm.

A process in the eye forwarns
The bones of blindness; and the womb
Drives in a death as life leaks out.

A darkness in the weather of the eye
Is half its light; the fathomed sea
Breaks on unangled land.
The seed that makes a forest of the loin
Forks half its fruit; and half drops down,
Slow in a sleeping wind.

A weather in the flesh and bone
Is damp and dry; the quick and dead
Move like two ghosts before the eye.

A process in the weather of the world
Turns ghost to ghost; each mothered child
Sits in their double shade.
A process blows the moon into the sun,
Pulls down the shabby curtains of the skin;
And the heart gives up its dead.

Reminds me of so many other meditations on death and age, including Yeats in “Sailing to Byzantium.”

“THE FORCE THAT THROUGH THE GREEN FUSE DRIVES THE FLOWER”

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.
The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman’s lime.
The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.
And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.
This poem works in and through the same contradictions and paradoxes typical of his style. I especially like how the ones in this poem resemble the “mere anarchy” type lines from Yeats.

“AND DEATH SHALL HAVE NO DOMINION”

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead man naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

The heartbreaking refrain of the denial of death at the start and end of each stanza. I love the dual meaning of “windings” here – both movement and the stasis of death, which embodies the poem as a whole.

“A REFUSAL TO MOURN THE DEATH, BY FIRE, OF A CHILD IN LONDON”

Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

The majesty and burning of the child’s death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

The poem itself ironically draws more attention to the death of the child. The richness and ripeness of death here reminds me of the blackberries hanging in “Poem on His Birthday” – a shady Elysium. She is part of a cycle, a continuing, as illustrated by the gerunds throughout. The poem is an injunction to stop using death as a sentimental catharsis for the culture at large, and only the first person to die was unique, he jokes – after that we are all involved, repeating.

“DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT”

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

A rallying cry reminiscent of Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” here it is just one solitary man, one speaker. Thomas mixes the subjunctive, imperative and prescriptive here in expressing loss and memory.

“VISION & PRAYER”

This poem’s shapes demonstrate phases of birth (diamonds) and death (hourglasses), making me wonder if the shapes are influenced by Yeats’ gyres of history. The two shapes would fit together if placed in a line. My favorite lines from the yonic diamond stanzas of life are: “Behind the wall thin as a wren’s bone,” “To dumfounding haven,” and “spiral of ascension.” In the death stanzas, like the hourglass columns of George Herbert’s “Easter Wings,”  I like “I pray though I belong/ Not wholly to that lamenting,” “For the country of death is the heart’s size,” and “I am found.” These lines are forced to the shape – content stretched and squashed to fit form.

“FERN HILL”

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and
cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was
air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the
nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking
warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would
take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

Typical of Dylan’s more mature style, it shows a pattern of syllabics, like “the highly modified way a sea might be expected to be contained by its chains.” Some have read this as rich in allusions to Yeats, from apple-boughs to the further twisting of Yeats’ twists on formal stanzas and devices. Something like “Portrait of the Artist” in that it traces a development over time, it focuses on a child’s Godlike creation of the imaginary world around him. Something in it also reminds me of Frost’s “Birches,” with the boy swinging between branches that ignore his desire to bend them. The wonderful contradictions of sun and moon, green and dying, and the chained sea express the brevity and ineffability of the affective landscape Thomas paints. The sea is both totally bounded (it strives against the land, limited by the pull of the moon) and totally unbounded (dangerous, liquid, and wild).

“POEM ON HIS BIRTHDAY”

“And, in that brambled void,/ Plenty as blackberries in the woods/ The dead grow for his joy.”

William Butler Yeats: Poems

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was born in Dublin, but grew up in County Sligo, where he learned a great deal about peasant folklore. “Religious by temperament but unable to believe in Christian orthodoxy,” he “sought all his life to compensate for his lost religion,” turning to “various kinds of mysticism, to folklore, theosophy, spiritualism, and neoplatonism. He said he had ‘made a new religion, almost an infallible church of poetic tradition'” 2019. In London in the 1890s, Yeats adopted a Pre-Raphaelite belief in the dreamy, evocative tone of poetry and in symbolism and the occult. Finally, in Dublin, “where he founded the National Literary Society, he was influenced by Irish nationalism,” and saw poetry as potentially reinvigorating to Irish culture, even if he did not think it should explicitly serve political ends.

Yeats began as a self-conscious Romantic, influenced by Spenser, Shelley, and Blake. He called “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” his “first lyric with anything in its rhythm of my own music” 2020. He created hybrids of British and Irish tradition, reclaiming and reimagining Irish space, but also “insisting on the trandnationalism of the collective storehouse of images he calls ‘Spiritus Mundi’ or ‘Anima Mundi’… cross-pollinating forms, ideas, and images from Ireland and England, Europe and Asia” 2020. An early interest in Irish nationalism led Yeats to the simple, concrete image, free of cliche and abstraction.

In his middle period, at the turn of the century, Yeats attempted a more holistic aesthetic, combining passion and reason, the colloquial and the formal, a “will to leave behind the poetic ’embroideries’ of his youth and walk ‘naked” 2020. (Ezra Pound wintered with Yeats from 1913-16 and encouraged a stripped-down style.) He preferred the working classes and the aristocracy to the middle class for their traditions. Yeats founded the Abbey theatre in 1904 under Lady Gregory’s influence. He wanted to bring the two religious halves (Protestant and Catholic) together, but was abandoned by both sides and moved to England. In 1916, the Easter Rising drew Yeats back to Ireland. Torn between two political experiences, much of Yeats’ poetry “mediates between contending aspects of himself – late Romantic visionary and astringent modern skeptic, Irish patriot and irreverent antinationalist, shrewd man of action and esoteric dreamer. As he said, ‘We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry” 2021.

After marrying in 1917, he wrote prolifically, namely A Vision (1925), which he believed dictated by spirits and which held a theory of the movements of history and personality as dictated by phases of the moon. “At the center of the symbolic system were the interpenetrating cones, or ‘gyres,’ that represented movement through major cycles of history and across antitheses of human personality” 2021. In the later poems of the 20s and 30s, spirals, staircases, gyres, and tops allowed Yeats to explore what he had seen as contradictions as continuities. Yeats believed, like Robartes, that “The mind, whether expressed in history or in the individual life, has a precise movement, which can be quickened or slackened but cannot be fundamentally altered, and this movement can be expressed by a mathematical form, and this form is the gyre.” They gyre can be pictured as a single structure, widening and then narrowing back on itself, but the concatenated double-gyre is more often used in portrayals of Yeats’ theory, since his thought in many ways was fundamentally dualistic. Yeats called this “the Diamond and the Hourglass.” Much of the raw style he had cut from early work as ‘unpoetic’ appears in later poems, which focus on the mortal world as imbricated with the visionary one. (He was also influenced by Nietzsche, who led him to consider ruin as a key to creativity.) In some ways, this later work returns to the early through its spiritualism, but it remains more bodily and grounded, an influence of his middle period.

Formally, Yeats is both “a literary traditionalist, working within such inherited genres as love poetry, the elegy, the self-elegy, the sonnet, and the occasional poem on public themes. But he is also a restless innovator who disrupts generic conventions, breaking up the coherence of the sonnet, deidealizing the dead mourned in elegies, and bringing into public poems an intense personal ambivalence” 2022. Yeats’ idealization of feudal society and opposition to colonialism and the bourgeoisie led him toward authoritarianism and fascism toward the end of his life. Finally he was “appalled by all political ideologies” 2022. “Man can embody truth but he cannot know it,” Yeats said late in life of his poetry.

THE ROSE (1893)

“THE LAKE ISLE OF INNISFREE,” 1890

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

Typical of Yeats’ early style, influenced by peasant folklore, the poem employs a more cumbersome reversed syntax and stylistic tropes like the lovely kenning “bee-loud glade” in the first stanza. In the second stanza, peace, an abstraction, drops from the morning, and the different times of day are made magical and symbolic. The final stanza seems to return the viewer to the actual space of experience, in the urban setting of London. The overall tone of the poem is characterized by longing and resolve – I will arise and go now, shall have, etc., perhaps to emphasize the dreamy, reparative work the symbolic Ireland has on the heart.

IN THE SEVEN WOODS (1904)

“ADAM’S CURSE,” 1902

We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.’
                                          And thereupon
That beautiful mild woman for whose sake
There’s many a one shall find out all heartache
On finding that her voice is sweet and low
Replied, ‘To be born woman is to know—
Although they do not talk of it at school—
That we must labour to be beautiful.’
I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.’
We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.
I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.
Written about Maud and Kathleen Gonne, “Adam’s Curse” suggests that the artist’s invisible labor is parallel to that of the woman and the lover. Particularly, the domesticating image of “A line will take us hours maybe; Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, Our stitching and unstitching has been naught” connects this labor to the requisite effortlessness of hostessing and home-managing, but also the mystical work of the Fates, three women. Thus this invisible work is also that of the continuity of time – an important theme in Yeats’ poetry. The speaker laments that this work is undervalued by “bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen,” but Maud (?) sighs that beauty is labor, to which the speaker replies that all “fine things” after Adam’s fall do. This includes love, and as they consider the idea, the moon itself, that symbol of love, seems to break, and the poem ends with a desire “To love you in the old high way of love,” though “we’d grown as weary-hearted as that hollow moon.” Strangely, the speaker’s desire to particularize the difficulty of the poet but to generalize the difficulty of womanhood back into the realm of love in general acts as a bizarre ownership of the realm of taste, as well as a blindness to his own metaphors of domesticity.

RESPONSIBILITIES, 1914

“A COAT,” 1914

I MADE my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.

The first line, “I made my song a coat” abuts the two objects, song and coat, as predicates. In covering the poem “with embroideries/ out of old mythologies/ from heel to throat,” Yeats crafts an image of his earlier work, festooned with mythology as ornament, from beginning to end. The “fools caught it,/ Wore it in the world’s eyes/ As though they’d wrought it,” the speaker complains. This reminds me of the story of Joseph and the many-colored coat in the Bible, where Joseph has 2 dreams of leadership that, in addition to the gift of the coat, make his brothers envious, so they sell Jacob, naked, for 20 pieces of silver, dip his coat in blood, and tell their father he has died. In the final sentence, the poet addresses poetry itself with an apostrophe: “Song, let them take it,” he says, “For there’s more enterprise/ In walking naked.” Again, the presence of the word “enterprise,” as well as the image of the “naked” poet, stripped bare but retaining what is essential to him, is reminiscent of the story of Joseph. Perhaps Yeats saw the visionary act of poetry as something that engendered fear and jealousy in others, though this poem could also be simply about Yeats’ transition out of a phase of more symbolic work and into a more material, stripped-down era, one Ezra Pound encouraged in this period (1909-1913 or so). Yeats also maintains an interest in patchwork in “Easter 1916,” where someone wears “motley,” the patchwork of a jester.

THE WILD SWANS AT COOLE

“THE WILD SWANS AT COOLE,” 1917

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.
The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?
Like Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” and Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” birds serve as an epistemological point of cathexis for Yeats in “The Wild Swans at Coole.” The speaker marks 19 years since his last visit to Coole in 1897, and reflects that while “nine-and-fifty swans” (why this number? and did he count them?) still look “Unwearied still, lover by lover,” the speaker’s “heart is sore” because “all’s changed since” he heard their wings and “trod with a lighter tread.” The birds can “paddle in the cold/ Companionable streams or climb the air; their hearts have not grown old,” he claims. Like Keats, then, the speaker looks on the birds more as symbols in their continuity than as particular beings, though there is certainly an irony in the odd number of birds, leaving one of them unpaired. The poem also seems to speak to Wordsworth’s daffodils – the reminiscence of nature in past experience brings the speaker pain here, rather than solace.

MICHAEL ROBARTES AND THE DANCER (1921)

“EASTER, 1916,” 1916

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wingèd horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
The beginning of the poem, “I have met them…” reminds me of Eliot’s “Prufrock” – “and I have seen them…” The speaker refers to the Irish nationalists who held a 6-day revolt against the English in Dublin beginning on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916. Many of them were killed, especially the leaders, several of whom Yeats knew. In the seemingly routine and meaningless exchanges of the first stanza, the speaker detects “a terrible beauty,” a new power and struggle; Yeats was both passionately nationalist and wary and critical of Irish revolt. The second stanza refers to Countess Markievicz, Padriac Perse, and Thomas MacDonagh, various participatory culturalists of Dublin, as well as John MacBride, Maud Gonne’s estranged husband. The speaker reiterates: “A terrible beauty is born.” In the third stanza, the group seems enchanted to a stone – a sort of magical, unspoken pagan ritual of constant change, with one constant at the center of the wheel. In the final stanza, Yeats worries about the “stone” that may become the heart of Ireland after so much pain, English deceit, and sacrifice, as well as violence. He concludes by repeating once more: “A terrible beauty is born,” a line which resonates powerfully with “The Second Coming”‘s “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” The poem has 4 stanzas (April), alternating 16 lines / 24 lines / 16 lines / 24 lines, mimicking the year (1916) and the day (the 24th) of the uprising. The poem was edited over the summer and again in 1920.

“THE SECOND COMING,” 1919

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The poem was written after World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, as the stirrings of the Anglo-Irish war intensified. It is perhaps the clearest expression of Yeats’ historical theory of the gyre, a series of interlocking cones which meet as one historical cycle closes and another is at its peak. Yeats believed that one 2,000-year cycle had begun with the birth of Christ, and the time for the next was therefore nigh upon the 20th century. “The ceremony of innocence” may be religion or simply the facade of society, and it is thought that perhaps Yeats’ fondness for the feudal system, with its historical roots and rituals, is implied in “the best [the aristocracy] lack all conviction, while the worst [the lower classes]/ Are full of passionate intensity.” The invocation of “surely” twice seems to suggest a desire for revelation, for the arrival of Christ; instead, an image appears – a vision, almost a hallucination in the desert – of the rough sphinxlike beast “slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.” As the poem ends in an uncertain question, the birds that circle over the creature seem poised to eat the spoils of the Christian era.

“A PRAYER FOR MY DAUGHTER,” 1919

The poem, rather long to reproduce here, posits the speaker looking at his firstborn child sleeping through a howling storm. He is “Imagining in excited reverie/ That the future years had come,/ Dancing to a frenzied drum,/ Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.” Thus vision arrives in the same eerie way so many of Yeats’ visions do, even when concerned with the personal fate of his child. “May she be granted beauty and yet not…” he begins. He is concerned that if she is too beautiful she will “make a stranger’s eye distraught” or herself “Consider beauty a sufficient end.” He thinks of women who have suffered for beauty and wishes instead that she “live like some green laurel/ Rooted in one dear perpetual place” (the eerie thing here is how reminiscent this is of Daphne turning into a laurel in Ovid when her brother tries to rape her…) “An intellectual hatred is the worst,/ So let her think opinions are accursed.” Still fixated on Maud Gonne, he critiques her losses as based on her opinionated nature. “And may her bridegroom bring her to a house/ Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious…/How but in custom and in ceremony/ Are innocence and beauty born?/ Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,/ And custom for the spreading laurel tree.” Something about old-world society and tradition still have the greatest values in Yeats’ highly gendered hopes for his daughter.

THE TOWER (1928)

“SAILING TO BYZANTIUM,” 1926

I
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

II
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

III
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

IV
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Yeats idealized the world of Byantium in the 6th century C.E. In A Vision, he writes: “I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic, and practical life were one, that architect and artificers… spoke to the multitude and the few alike… almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject matter and that the vision of a whole people.” The poem has 4 stanzas, each of 8 lines. Each octet holds the rhyme scheme abababcc. The space of Byzantium is frozen in time, almost like the world of Keats’ Grecian Urn – it is ageless, full of food and life, with unageing monuments (all ironic, of course, since all has disappeared). In the second stanza, we get a sharp comparison of that world with the modern one, which once again invokes the image of a tattered coat and of old age (“an aged man is but a paltry thing,/ A tattered coat upon a stick”), and “therefore I have sailed the seas and come/ To the holy city of Byzantium.” In the third stanza, the religious dream of purity by fire is united with the aesthetic representation of gold-leaf mosaic (Yeats visited Ravenna in 1907), and he feels them “perne in a gyre,” or whirl in the spiral of history toward him, to “be the singing-masters of my soul.” His thick desire to be subsumed: “Consume my heart away; sick with desire… Into the artifice of eternity” rings with sadness and nostalgia. In the final stanza, the speaker vows that when he loses his body, he will not take a natural form again, but a hammered-metal body of a bird like Grecian sculptor would make “To keep a drowsy Emperor awake/ Or set upon a golden bough to sing/ To lords and ladies of Byzantium/ Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” The interchangeability of this role reaffirms the unity of aesthetic vision Yeats sees in this period – he can visually keep an emperor awake or sing as a poet – thus form and content unite in the ageless, frozen moment of “what is past, or passing, or to come. In this sense, too, Yeats enacts the timelessness of aesthetics, both by invoking and viscerally portraying Byzantium, but also by tying his poem to Keats and other poets of the past, and by providing nuances that gesture towards a poetic future. His friend Sturge Moore critiqued the idea that “a bird made by a goldsmith was just as natural as anything else,” so he wrote “Byzantium” as “an exposition” on that idea.

“LEDA & THE SWAN,” 1923

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                                  Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
This poem is almost a sonnet (abab, cdcd, efef, gg) – instead it is abab cdcd efgefg, combining the octet fromt the English sonnet with the volta from the Italian sonnet (a break that also connects the English-speaking and Greco-Roman worlds of tradition). It also strains against rhyme scheme, especially in the second part, and has a line break of “And Agamemnon dead./ Being so caught up,” disrupting the order of the poem and drawing attention to the rupture of history that will occur/is already somehow occurring in the moment. The nameless “blow” foists responsibility or agency off of Zeus – this is not so much an exposition of the rape, though the imagery is violent, as it is a meditation on the violence of history, even, perhaps, its fatedness. Like “The Second Coming,” the “engendering” here initiates a key cycle of history, and like that poem, too, it ends in a question. In fact, at the other end of the Christian gyre of history, Yeats himself compared this “annunciation” to that of Gabriel and Mary, though the immaculate conception is certainly a less dramatizable event than the rape of Leda. I love the thought that she might “put on his knowledge with his power/ Before the indifferent beak could let her drop,” a question that would be interesting to pursue in terms of the pregancy that results – the twins Castor and Pollux, as well as Clytemnestra and Helen of Troy, born of two separate eggs from the night she lay with Zeus and her husband king.

“NINETEEN HUNDRED AND NINETEEN,” actually written 1922 or later?

The poem, quite long, bemoans losses: “Many ingenious lovely things are gone/ That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude” – idols, toys, decency, justice: “We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,/ And planned to bring the world under a rule,/ Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.” “Man is in love and loves what vanishes.” “Some moralist or mythological poet/ Compares the solitary soul to a swan;/ I am satisfied with that,/ Satisfied if a troubled mirror show it,/ Before that brief gleam of its life be gone.” “We who, seven years ago/ Talked of honour and of truth,/ Shriek with pleasure if we show/ The weasel’s twist, the weasel’s tooth.”  The speaker enjoins us to mock the great, the wise, the good, and the mockers: “for we/ Traffic in mockery.”

“AMONG SCHOOL CHILDREN,”1926

I
I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and histories,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way — the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.

II
I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire, a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy —
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.

III
And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t’other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age —
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler’s heritage —
And had that colour upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child.

IV
Her present image floats into the mind —
Did Quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
And I though never of Ledaean kind
Had pretty plumage once — enough of that,
Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.

V
What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her Son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?

VI
Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Solider Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard:
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.

VII
Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother’s reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts — O presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise —
O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;

VIII
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Remarkable for Yeats’ interest in genealogy, mythology and folklore in the material bodies of the children, the references to Platonic and Aristotelian ideas about phenomenology and love unions, and ending with the famous aesthetic query, “How can we know the dancer from  the dance?” – in a perverse way, a precursor to Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message.”

THE WINDING STAIR (1933)

“BYZANTIUM,” 1930

THE unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night walkers’ song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miraclc than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the star-lit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.

At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after Spirit! The smithies break the flood.
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

As previously mentioned, Yeats’ friend Sturge Moore critiqued the idea in “Sailing to Byzantium” that “a bird made by a goldsmith was just as natural as anything else,” so Yeats wrote “Byzantium” as “an exposition” on that idea. This “exposition” seems to fix again on the eternal nature of artifice – as flame that does not burn,” and “those images that yet/ Fresh images beget” – an artistic tradition that culminates with dolphins (who would carry the dead to the Isles of the Blessed) and gong-tormented sea (reference again to that ceremony that Yeats so values?). The repetition of complexities is interesting too – first as men who are “mere complexities” (recall the “mere anarchy” of “The Second Coming”) then as aesthetic miracle and release.

“CRAZY JANE TALKS WITH THE BISHOP,” 1931

I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
‘Those breasts are flat and fallen now,
Those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.’

‘Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,’ I cried.
‘My friends are gone, but that’s a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart’s pride.

‘A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.’

From the perspective of the persona Jane in 3 6-line stanzas, this poem is shaped by allusions Jane herself never actually  makes – to Macbeth (fair and foul and the witches), to the Bible, and even in its violence, to Yeats’ own “Leda and the Swan.” As in “Leda,” too, woman is an important symbol for Yeats – while other figures are abstracted into swans and symbols, woman, by virtue of her reproductive power, already seems to be symbolic. While the bishop condemns Jane for her appearance and lifestyle, she is intent on “making hay while the sun shines,” as it were. Yeats was 70 when he wrote it.

NEW POEMS (1938)

“LAPIS LAZULI,” 1936

The poem concerns a piece of lapis lazuli from China depicting an ascetic, a servant, and a pupil climbing a mountain. For Yeats, “the east has its solutions always and therefore knows nothing of tragedy. It is we, not the east, that must raise the heroic cry. In the final stanza, Yeats ruminates on how perfect its accidents appear: “Every discolouration of the stone… Seems a water-course or an avalanche… On all the tragic scene they stare… Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,/ Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.” There is also a bird flying over, “A symbol of longevity,” doubling the symbolism of long-held knowledge and solution that Yeats seems to peer on here.

LAST POEMS (1939)

“THE CIRCUS ANIMALS’ DESERTION,” 1939

I

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.

II

What can I but enumerate old themes,
First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,
Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,
Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;
But what cared I that set him on to ride,
I, starved for the bosom of his faery bride.

And then a counter-truth filled out its play,
‘The Countess Cathleen’ was the name I gave it;
She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away,
But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.
I thought my dear must her own soul destroy
So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,
And this brought forth a dream and soon enough
This dream itself had all my thought and love.

And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread
Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;
Heart-mysteries there, and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.

III

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. 

Yeats’ last poem, it traces his career in interesting ways. The speaker begins by lamenting the lack of a theme; he must settle for his heart instead. With “Lion and woman and the Lord knows what,” Yeats looks back on the Irish folklore of his early poems, which are his “circus animals.” He reviews his early-middle period, from the poems and the play that retell old stories and legends to the more political play about Maud Gonne, in which she is idealized as a self-sacrificing heroine. “When all is said/ It was the dream itself enchanted me:/ Character isolated by a deed/ To engross the present and dominate memory./ Players and painted stage took all my love/ And not those things that they were emblem of.” Here Yeats claims his characterological and historical interests over his symbolic ones. In the final stanza, Yeats wonders where his “masterful images” originated – “A mound of refuse” that is reminscent of 1922’s “The Waste Land” with its “These fragments I have shored against my ruin.” He ends with a meditation on how bodily and spiritual his death is at once: “I must lie down where all the ladders start/ In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”