Daily Archives: 6 October 2009

#34a & #34b: untitled Lucy poems (William Wordsworth)

#34 in the Countdown is the promised “twofer,” listed here as #34a and #34b. The two poems are from a set called the “Lucy” poems, by William Wordsworth, our daffodil poet. They do not have individual titles. These two tiny lyric poems are among the most celebrated short pieces in the English language. They have occasioned thousands of words of critical commentary, and I will invoke none of that commentary here. For our purposes, the poems are not verbal puzzles, but stark expressions of what it means to lose someone: a lover primarily, but in the larger sense anyone at all.

What does it mean to die, and be dead? Several of our Countdown poems have dealt with this question, and it lies ahead in many others. For most people in the world, whether any particular other person lives or dies is pretty much the same thing. We’ll never know them, anyway. “Few could know / when Lucy ceased to be,” says the speaker in the first of our Lucy poems. Multiply that “few” by only a very few more, and you have the entire ripple effect of the death of the most beloved person on the planet.

But “oh, / the difference to me!” It doesn’t matter how widely a death is felt; if someone feels it that intensely, the disappearance alters the universe. The wonder of a single existence, if it is beloved, is incalculable.

The second Lucy poem is one of the greatest evocations, in English poetry, of the finality of death. A dead person is the equivalent of “rocks, and stones, and trees,” that last line coming in to chime with the rhyme-word “sees” with a tremendous inevitability.

Wordsworth was perhaps the most long-winded poet ever to write in English. That long-windedness obscures the fact that he was also among the most gifted. When Wordsworth is too much with us, it’s best to return to these simplest examples of his lyric gift.


#35 “Mnemosyne” (Trumbull Stickney)

Another lonely poem, “Mnemosyne” by Trumbull Stickney, stands at #35 in the Countdown.

“Mnemosyne” is very simple and very beautiful, which is reason enough for it to appear on a list of best poems. But it also has features that show a high degree of artistry. The rhyming of the poem is intricate. Six words that rhyme (or sort of rhyme) with “remember” are woven into the ends of the middle lines of the three-line stanzas. Meanwhile, the first and third lines of each of these stanzas present a contrasting rhyme. Individual lines, printed as one-line “stanzas,” alternate with the three-line stanzas; each of those single lines ends in “remember.”

“Mnemosyne” is the Greek word for “memory.” In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne was a goddess. She was, in fact, the mother of the Muses, nine goddesses who inspired all the world’s art. The constant refrain of “remember” in the poem is lovely in itself, but it also calls up the idea of memory, that highly provisional place where we stow everything we know about the world except for a rapidly dissolving slice of the immediate present.

One key beauty of the poem lies in the fact that there are two ways of understanding “It’s autumn in the country I remember”: two ways, if you like, of diagramming the sentence, and all the parallel sentences that serve as repetitions of that refrain.

In sense #1, “I remember” that “it’s autumn in the country.” In sense #2, it’s autumn, in “the country I remember.” Well, it’s autumn in the country either way, though in sense #1 the autumn may be a permanent state, in sense #2 more seasonal. Is the poem about the country or about the man who remembers it?

The rest of the poem is abstract, or perhaps “stylized” is a better word. “Yellow cattle browsed upon the plain” is certainly a realistic image, but it’s so stark and uses so few details that the cows are reduced to a few brushstrokes, such as we might see in a “primitive” painting. The whole effect is stark, eerie, and, as Stickney puts it, “very sombre.”

This is one of those poems that has been set to music, though long after Stickney’s time, as an art song: “Mnemosyne.”

#36 “Ulysses” (Alfred Tennyson)

Like several other poems on the Countdown, Alfred Tennyson’s “Ulysses” [hideous website alert, but the best text I could Google up] requires a little backstory. Fortunately the backstory is Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, frequently taught and read to this day. This bestseller of ancient Greece recounts how Odysseus (or as the Romans spelled him, Ulysses) made his way home from the Trojan War. Ulysses was the original guy who went out for a pack of cigarettes and stayed out for 20 years. He kept talking the whole time about how he wanted to get back and spend more time with his family (wife Penelope and baby son Telemachus), but Telemachus was finishing college by the time Dad wandered in the door with a load of likely stories about the Cyclops and the Sirens and his buddies getting turned into pigs.

The Odyssey ends with Ulysses being told by some Gods that he needs to go out on a further adventure. Typical sequel hook; but if Homer even wrote the sequel, it was lost during the Dark Ages. Tennyson imagines Ulysses embarking on that “lost” final adventure. Ulysses addresses his men and tries to talk them into getting back on those ships and exploring the unknown once more.

But here’s where the poem breaks free from its backstory and becomes – I won’t avoid the word – noble: in the sense that Victorian writers like Tennyson could bring off, unashamedly; a sense that we’ve lost, perhaps, in a more cynical and self-conscious era. As soon as Ulysses starts his speech, the setting fades into lower profile. This could be anyone encouraging people to embark on a project without huge immediate Return On Investment, without “cost certainty,” without well-defined outcomes measures – and I suspect that Ulysses is yet another of these guides “who only has at heart your getting lost.”

Why do we keep looking after we should be satisfied with what we’ve found? Why do we get up in the morning?

Most poignant of the many themes in Tennyson’s “Ulysses” is that of age. Ulysses’ last voyage is magnificent to contemplate because he’s so old, yet so driven to continue seeking for whatever’s out there to be sought. Mandatory retirement is not in his vocabulary. Telemachus, who plays it safe, comes in for some damning by faint praise, but not much. “He works his work, I mine.” And “mine” – Ulysses’ – is the work of living itself.