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.”