Daily Archives: 10 September 2009

#53 “Ode on Melancholy” (John Keats)

Beauty and danger again: or rather, beauty inextricable from the dangers of sorrow. That’s the main idea in the first ode by John Keats to appear on our Countdown: the “Ode on Melancholy”. The poem is easy to paraphrase: when you’re depressed, (probably the best approximation to the old word “melancholy”), it’s not a good idea to dwell on that depression. You should seek out the most beautiful things you can find. And not because they cheer you up, but because beauty and depression set each other off in a way that heightens the experience of both.

Well, that’s not a very sensible or wholesome idea, but this is poetry, not Dr. Phil. Keats’s speaker isn’t all about mental health. He’s about testing the boundaries of pleasure and pain, of experiencing the extremes where they meet.

And it isn’t simple physical pleasure and pain, which one could find coupled in overeating something delicious, running a marathon, or listening to really loud great music. The pleasure here is aesthetic (Beauty), and the pain is psychological (Melancholy). Things are both truly, absorbingly beautiful, and truly, crushingly, bad. The poem doesn’t have a “happy ending,” one might observe. The person who experiences the heights of both Melancholy and Joy shall “be among her [Melancholy’s] cloudy trophies hung.”

What makes this poem a great one? The lushness of the language, alternating between images of despair and images of utter loveliness. Keats died at the age of 25. He hadn’t seen much of life, and many of the things he refers to are not real (Lethe, Proserpine). He probably saw peonies, but I can’t imagine he did a lot of recreational wolfs’-bane, whatever that is. (Look it up!) But he was a true prodigy of the sounds of language, much as prodigies like Mozart and Mendelssohn were in the realm of musical sounds and rhythms.

And for much of his short life, he knew he was dying. Rather than cast this knowledge in the form of personal essays or diaries, he tried to write universal poems about the proximity of ecstasy to death. There are few more beautiful expressions of that proximity than “Ode on Melancholy.”

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#54: “We Wear the Mask” (Paul Laurence Dunbar)

“We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar is one of the shorter poems in the Countdown, a spare poem that one might call “inevitable.” It’s a very famous lyric, one that seems always to have been with us – which is not to say that there was anything automatic or unconscious about its composition, only that the best poems often seem like they were directly inspired by a Muse.

Who wears the mask? Dunbar was a great tragic writer, whose novels and poems write about the cruel period when a generation of African-Americans experienced the imposition of Jim-Crow-type segregation in America after the brief hope of Reconstruction. One assumes that the “we” of the poem are African-Americans in general. W.E.B. DuBois famously talked about the “double-consciousness” incumbent on black Americans:

the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,–a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.

We’ve also seen Langston Hughes write, if in a slightly more sanguine way, about the phenomenon of being seen by white Americans in a role or persona. (“Persona,” in Latin, means “mask.”)

But note that, unlike Hughes or DuBois, Dunbar’s speaker doesn’t use any identifying terms. We don’t learn his ethnicity. We don’t learn his sex. We don’t learn about him as an individual, in fact, because the poem is written in a generalized first-person plural.

“We,” in the poem, are a group that is hidden. On the outside, “we” grin, smile, and “mouth” what the world expects of us. The alternative is to have the world “count” all “our” grievances. The implication is that the world will be mighty unsympathetic, and any expression of pathos is going to be taken as a sign of weakness.

The poem is forged in very specific historical experience. It lives on because it describes a situation that still echoes through African-American experience, and tragically, repeats itself for other groups of people in other places and eras.

#55: “The Steeple-Jack” (Marianne Moore)

Marianne Moore was a poet who made intricate, elaborate, precise structures of words. As such, she has sometimes been classified as a finicky fusser over details, a kind of flower arranger of poetry, or, in the sexist language that prevailed in her day, a maiden aunt. (Moore was, literally, a maiden aunt, but that didn’t stop her from being a strong, sympathetic voice in modern American poetry.)

In “The Steeple-Jack”, one of her best and most widely-reprinted poems, Moore does a lot of flower-arranging. Several stanzas of the poem are simple lists of flowers in this small town. One stanza is even a list of what flowers are not there. The poem also itemizes sea creatures, land creatures, people, and buildings. It’s like a Charles Wysocki jigsaw puzzle or other folk art depiction of a simple, well-ordered community, full of distinctive elements of Americana.

But is this a deceptive simplicity? Everything is in its place; “It could not be dangerous to be living / in a town like this.” When you have to say that it could not be dangerous, are you really all that sure?

The form of the poem mirrors its content. (This is only sometimes true of poetry, and isn’t necessarily a great thing; when it clicks, though, it’s fascinating to watch.) The stanzas of the poem all consist of lines that have, respectively, 11, 10, 14, 8, 8, and 3 syllables. This is not like any other poem. It’s a form that Moore custom-made for “The Steeple-Jack.”

And it’s a lot harder than it looks. If you just took any stretch of prose you wrote and chopped it into lines of those lengths, it would be hard enough: you’d find you had a lot of words chopped in half, and you’d have to rearrange to keep sentences coherent while stretching them across the stanza framework. But then you’d be left with something that looked really random. Moore’s poem doesn’t look random. It’s full of turns and surprises, of cadenced sentences that gallop over the hurdles of line endings at 11, 10, 14, 8, 8, and 3, sometimes fetching up to start a new stanza with a word like “Danger.”

How safe is a perfect small town? Can it be dangerous? What reassures us that it isn’t? Is all human-imposed order (architecture, gardening, civilization) just a kind of superficial shoring-up of our lives against collapse?