Monthly Archives: October 2009

#19 “Two Tramps in Mud Time” (Robert Frost)

“Two Tramps in Mud Time” is one of the great American poems about work. Robert Frost here calls into question how we define work. He considers who should get to, or have to, do various kinds of work.

I am often struck by how much of “work” in human societies is really just a social agreement among people to look busy. Capitalism involves a rhetoric of lean, mean, ever-more-efficient production. But corporate employees spend an enormous amount of time in pointless meetings. (Academic employees spend even more time in them.) Retail employees bustle about moving things from one place to another, solicitous of customers to the point of aggravation.

Even more interesting is the “work” done not for the market but for the psychological and social well-being of the worker. In the 18th and 19th centuries, upper-middle-class (sometimes even upper-class) ladies would constantly “work” at embroidery or other sewing projects. This needlework had some economic benefit, but it was inefficient; it was done really out of a sense that idleness was not good for individuals or their communities. Today in American suburbs, people get out of work on the weekends and … go back to work: on their homes, their cars, their boats, their craft projects. Is such work play? Is play perhaps as important as work?

“My object in living is to unite / My avocation and my vocation,” says Frost’s speaker. Being a poet and a self-sufficient farmer (at least in this dramatic situation), he has the rare opportunity to combine the two. Or perhaps his assertions themselves are “play.” Does he really need to split the wood himself? It’s as if someone out for a jog met someone else running for their life. How do you defend playing at something so serious?

As so often in Frost’s poetry, the absolute plainness and matter-of-fact quality of the language is its great beauty. The phrasing of the poem is so perfect and so confident that I suspect a metaphor in the great lines about splitting logs:

And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.

When a great poet is on his game, even in play, the lines fall “splinterless” onto the page.


#20 “An Arundel Tomb” (Philip Larkin)

“An Arundel Tomb” is the third poem about love on today’s segment of the Countdown. But it is not a love poem. It’s about our attitudes toward love; about how marriage, as an institution, presents love to the world; about social class, and the history of class in England; and about how to “read” the past. Just as we may not understand contemporaries from another culture, we may not understand the culture of a distant century.

Choose your tombstone wisely, the poem seems to say. The aristocrats buried beneath this slowly-eroding sculpture were probably married by arrangement, with an eye to the succession of various properties and titles. We cannot know how they related to each other. We can infer that they did not have a modern “companionate” marriage, where Mom scrapes the dishes, Dad loads the dishwasher, and the couple settles down on the couch to watch Law and Order. The “Arundel” couple’s marriage was heavily regulated by ceremony. Both of them, after their heirs were born, may have gone separate ways in all but the most public of marital duties.

But the ideal of marriage, then as now, is literally engraved in stone: “His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.” A gesture of affection that they might never have enacted except on their wedding day and a few subsequent grand occasions “has come to be / Their final blazon.”

As in all of Philip Larkin’s great contemplations of other people’s lives, the tone is a remarkable blend of cynicism and sympathy. The Arundel couple are hypocrites. Or are they? If we keep acting out appearances, when do the appearances become reality – particularly if we arrange to keep enacting them forever?

#21 “After the Blitz” (J.R. Ackerley)

J. R. Ackerley’s “After the Blitz” is so little-known that only one blogger has ever bothered to post the entire text of the poem on the Web. And even this blogger has contributed to the continuing obscurity of the poem by not posting its title or author. Ackerley was a distinguished English journalist, a writer of great memoirs like My Dog Tulip. His poetry, privately published in short collections, is almost unknown. Some years ago I met a writer who had been a close friend of Ackerley’s. I mentioned “After the Blitz.” The writer was puzzled – she hadn’t known Ackerley wrote poems at all.

The form of “After the Blitz” deliberately recalls that of Tennyson’s sequence of poems “In Memoriam,” which, like “After the Blitz,” was written for a beloved friend who had died too young. Like the “In Memoriam” poems, “After the Blitz” rhymes ABBA, a lovely form that folds one couplet around an internal couplet. (“After the Blitz” uses 10-syllable lines, though, not the 8-syllable lines of “In Memoriam.”)

The “Blitz,” of course, is the German bombardment of London and other cities at the height of Hitler’s power during the Second World War. The speaker of the poem describes an apartment where he and his lover have spent some good time together. The apartment has been severely damaged in the Blitz, and he’s rebuilt it. Meanwhile, the soldier/lover has gone missing – presumed dead, but with his official fate unresolved. The speaker sets everything in the flat up so that the lover will feel at home, in the unlikely event he ever returns.

“After the Blitz” is an incomparable love poem that ranges far beyond a single or simple relationship, to talk about love itself, and the way in which war destroys people’s plans. Among the poem’s many beauties is the exquisite tension between “man’s resilience” in rebuilding after the Blitz, and the unbearable, final loss of the one person who would have been all the reason in the world to rebuild.

#22 “The Farmer’s Bride” (Charlotte Mew)

The next two poems in the Countdown are the most obscure, yet the high ranking I give them attests to my desire to make them less obscure. In Charlotte Mew’s “The Farmer’s Bride”, a farmer, quite a bit older than his bride, tells the story of their deadlocked marriage. He speaks in Mew’s version of a south-of-England dialect, probably close to that of Mew’s family home on the Isle of Wight.

The story is easily paraphrased. Marriage traumatizes the young title character. Whether she and the speaker have consummated their marriage is left deliberately unclear; what matters is that they’re celibate now. No explanation for her aversion to the speaker is ever given. And we must remember that all we know about the bride and their marriage comes via her husband. He claims that his wife treats all men with revulsion. But might it be just him that’s the problem?

“The Farmer’s Bride” is notable for its lushness of language. Indeed, one possible criticism is that the farmer/speaker, uneducated and not chock-full of people skills, expresses himself in the most gorgeous pattern of sounds that English is capable of. However, this is poetry. You want real life, go to the mall.

Mew’s poem uses the “free-rhyming” form we have seen in several Countdown poems, with shorter passages in more regular rhyming verse. Mew uses to beautiful effect the technique of the immediately repeated word (“Christmas,” “down,” “brown”). Like all great “dramatic monologues,” “The Farmer’s Bride” is more notable for what it leaves to our imaginations than for what it tells.

#23 “Musée des Beaux Arts” (W.H. Auden)

W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” is a free-verse poem that makes an idiosyncratic observation about art history. If that doesn’t sound like a promising idea for a great poem, it’s perhaps symptomatic of what we’re learning this semester: there are no great poetic ideas per se, but there’s the possibility of great poetry in any idea followed with enough verbal inventiveness and energy.

I don’t know the precise pictures referred to in the early lines of Auden’s poem. But the device he’s talking about is familiar from many paintings of the European Renaissance. A momentous event from sacred history or secular mythology is presented, and in the background people are doing something awfully ordinary. Take, for instance, Carpaccio’s “Birth of the Virgin,” where Mary, Mother of God, has just been born to St. Anne. You’d think everyone would stop in their tracks and think upon holy things, but Anne, propped up in bed, needs some hospital food, servants in the background are seeing to the laundry and other postpartum needs, two critters that look like rabbits are eating some scraps on the floor, and Our Lady herself is fixing to get her first bath.

The birth of the Virgin is a happy scene, where such laid-back behavior is at least in character. But details in horrendous scenes from Renaissance art can share this same oddness. In Fernando Gallego’s “Martyrdom of St. Catherine,” the saint is about to be put to death by a method too horrible to be contemplated. But in the foreground, the artist has painted a little dog. He doesn’t look too upset by the proceedings. Why the dog?

Auden has his theory, of course: that such mundane details add to, instead of detract from, the sacredness of the events being depicted.

The artwork described in “Musée” is Breughel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” where it’s hard to see Icarus at all. There he is, in the lower right-hand corner, just having hit the drink, with his feathers still fluttering above him like a cartoon character gone very wrong. The picture is a masterpiece of indirection. But Auden’s reimagination of the picture may be an even greater work of art. As Oscar Wilde said,

The meaning of any beautiful created thing is, at least, as much in the soul of him who looks at it, as it was in his soul who wrought it.

#24 “Dover Beach” (Matthew Arnold)

Matthew Arnold is one of the main inspirations for the Poetry Countdown: well, Matthew Arnold and Casey Kasem. Arnold insisted that we should study “the best that has been thought and said,” partly on the theory that life is too short to do anything else. Arnold’s idea is a profoundly humanist thought, one that might scandalize a religious dogmatist or provoke the scorn of a postmodernist.

As one of the great humanists, Arnold often pictured himself alone in the world. Religious certainty eluded him, though he often wished that religion could be accepted unquestioningly. “Two things about the Christian religion must surely be clear to anybody with eyes in his head,” wrote Arnold. “One is, that men cannot do without it; the other, that they cannot do with it as it is.” Because he couldn’t accept religion or do without it, he found himself, as he says in another poem, “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born,” and in yet another poem, he pictured each human individual as alone on an island in the middle of the “unplumbed, salt, estranging sea.”

Aside from establishing Matthew Arnold as one of the most quotable guys of the 19th century, these snippets from his writings establish a context for his greatest poem, “Dover Beach.” Here, too, he uses imagery of oceans and isolation, though somewhat in reverse: the “Sea of Faith” that was once so comforting has no withdrawn, leaving us high and dry.

The solution? There is no good solution, but the speaker of “Dover Beach” suggests that we “be true / To one another,” in a deeply humanist answer to a universe that may well make no sense at all.

This is another poem in the grand Victorian mode, like “Ulysses”, and just as noble in sentiment. Unlike “Ulysses,” though, “Dover Beach” employs a “free-rhyming” form that is looser than stanza form or blank verse. It is as if the speaker were trying out an idea that wouldn’t fit in the formulas of verse established for English by Shakespeare and Milton. In that respect, “Dover Beach” is a very “modern” poem, one that confronts uncertainties (“negative capability” again) with its own kind of plain-spoken grandeur.

#25 “The Convergence of the Twain” (Thomas Hardy)

One of the most amazing scientific feats of my lifetime was Robert Ballard’s discovery of the ruins of the Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The Titanic, as its name suggests, is a pretty large object, but looking for it on the sea floor was like trying to find a contact lens on a hockey rink.

The photos Ballard’s team took of Titanic artifacts impressed me all the more because they seemed to be a case of life imitating art. Imitating, specifically, “The Convergence of the Twain”, Thomas Hardy’s great poem. Objects that Ballard’s expedition found on the ocean’s floor (note: brief slideshow) seemed to echo lines from Hardy’s poem. The “gilded gear” that Hardy imagined in the immense loneliness of the ocean depths came to life in the expedition’s photography.

“The Convergence of the Twain” is a very grand poem, full of unusual words, an attempt to throw all the resources of the English language at one of the most momentous historical events of Hardy’s lifetime. Two of the common elements of Countdown poems are operating in “The Convergence” at full throttle. First, there’s the imagination of something sublime (the “Immanent Will” that brings ship and iceberg together), realized in precise, sharply-etched details.

Second, there’s the strongly heightened, energetic language. The poem, like many we’re studying, has a unique form. Each three-line stanza rhymes AAA, with the first two lines very short and the third very long indeed. The effect is oddly like that of waves, retreating, building, and breaking again – in fact, Hardy imagines “cold currents” at the bottom of the sea, though one supposes that in real life there are no waves there, and not much movement of any kind. The effect, whatever its verisimilitude, is that of ceaseless, inexorable movement.

“The Convergence of the Twain” is an attempt to do justice in art to an event too enormous to contemplate by any other human means – and to imagine the aftermath of a disaster that it took another 75 years of technological progress to uncover.