December 10, 2011


All said and done I had rather spend my time discussing what I believe than what I don’t. My plight is a common one for cynics. It is much easier to deny than to affirm, and especially easy to deny what other people affirm.

In such straits, I usually turn to poetry. I used to write it, and then was convinced by many well-wishers to give it up before one accidentally got published and set the literary arts back several hundred years.

The last poem I wrote was an epitaph for Antony Flew which is hidden away at New Oxonian somewhere and may be marked private. As I don’t have access to New Oxonian here in China, I’m not sure. But in any case it wasn’t about the old, confused Flew but the young tousle-aired Flew who could quote modern philosophy and Horace as though they lived on the same block. I think what I wrote was sentimental to the point of being mawkish, but you can get by with that kind of thing in “elegies,” to a point.

Auden’s epitaph on Freud is a terrible poem on an ambitious and elusive, maybe even an impossible, subject. He seems to know that, and strains throughout to make the poem detached and accessible at the same time:

Such was this doctor:/still at eighty he wished to think of our life from whose unruliness / so many plausible young futures / with threats or flattery ask obedience,/ but his wish was denied him: he closed his eyes/upon that last picture, common to us all, / of problems like relatives gathered / puzzled and jealous about our dying.

Primarily, the poem is famous for being one of the only poetic memorials of Freud, who not only loved poetry himself but had inordinate influence on poets of the twentieth century, not least Auden.

When the subject is a fellow poet, Auden’s restraint is real and his melody line is sure. ”In Memory of W. B. Yeats” links the death of the Irish bard to the collapse of civilization.

It seems extravagant until you listen to the question Auden poses: What is left of us if there are no more true poets? Who will sing our story when we are left only with the “importance and noise of tomorrow/When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse”? Poetry doesn’t come into this battle against anarchy fully armed; it “makes nothing happen. It survives in the valley of its own making where executives would never want to tamper.”

Auden’s face was a living description of this mid-century despair about the future of the poetic word “that flows down (south) to the raw towns that we believe and die in.”

Auden came to America to find poetry in the land of Whitman. He thought it had died in England, but found it dead here too. Eliot went the other direction, to England, to escape the Harvard philosophy department. (He refused to return to Boston for his viva after he finished the PhD thesis on F H Bradley). He may be the only true philosopher-poet of the twentieth century, but even if there were other good ones no one had Eliot’s ear and grace. Eliot did not share Auden’s intensity about writing epitaphs, but there are elegiac moments in many of his poems, like this from “Little Gidding”:

Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue. (IVQT, Little Gidding, iii)

People who don’t like Eliot usually realize that he is using words to hypnotize them into learning ideas. He is easy to resist and the ideas are rife with metaphysics.

I personally find Theodore Roethke’s poetry more lyrical, and I have tried a hundred times, without success, to imitate him without letting on. The ascendancy of American poetry in the late twentieth century has many explanations, but one of them is the preference of German-American poets for the strict sounds of English as a germanic language. Eliot, a typical New Englander, though reared in St Louis, is full of classicism. assonance, but (to be fair), controls it as Henry James, his near-contemporary Boston expatriate did not in his prose. But Roethke subordinates the idea to the sound without sacrificing the idea.

Unfortunately, all of my attempts to sound like Roethke sound just like Roethke. His German father was so much like my German father that I can see my whole childhood in “My Papa’s Waltz.” And I remember writing an elegy for my own father that was nothing more than a paraphrase of his.

Roethke wrote one of the most beautiful elegies ever done about a tragic, uncommon incident in his teaching career.

Every professor, male and female, knows what it is to fall in love with a student. When it happens, it can be, I think, the pure φιλíα (philia) that exceeds friendship but does not lapse into sexual love–which is one definition of eros. For Plato, this is one of the risks and effects of knowledge.

Knowledge is hardly risky anymore, and in a “coarse” age, these sorts of relationships have been sexualized to the point where knowledge hardly factors. But in “To Jane: My Student Thrown by a Horse,” Roethke ponders the anguish of not knowing how to express grief when someone he loves has been killed.

Let his be the last word on how to write an elegy:

remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;
And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,
And she balanced in the delight of her thought,

A wren, happy, tail into the wind,
Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.
The shade sang with her;
The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing,
And the mould sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.

O, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth,
Even a father could not find her:
Scraping her cheek against straw,
Stirring the clearest water.

My sparrow, you are not here,
Waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.
The sides of wet stones cannot console me,
Nor the moss, wound with the last light.

If only I could nudge you from this sleep,
My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover. (1950)

4 thoughts on “Elegies

  1. I remember the image you painted, a moment in time. I remember his wild unruly hair, and those corridors, because I liked it so much. I remember it disappearing within days. I also looked for it now and can’t find it, not even disguised as something else. Why did you kill it! You didn’t, I hope. Freud won’t be happy with Auden’s for him but Flew could have been very happy if you’d let yours live. My Donne arrived today, the final in my seven replacing ones on the other side of the world. He wrote 20 elegies at least, obviously 300 years earlier than Roethke, and this one rather erotically, ‘to his mistress going to bed’:

    Come, madam, come, all rest my powers defy ;
    Until I labour, I in labour lie.
    The foe ofttimes, having the foe in sight,
    Is tired with standing, though he never fight.
    Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glittering,
    But a far fairer world encompassing.
    Unpin that spangled breast-plate, which you wear,
    That th’ eyes of busy fools may be stopp’d there.
    Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
    Tells me from you that now it is bed-time.
    Off with that happy busk, which I envy,
    That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
    Your gown going off such beauteous state reveals,
    As when from flowery meads th’ hill’s shadow steals.
    Off with your wiry coronet, and show
    The hairy diadems which on you do grow.
    Off with your hose and shoes ; then softly tread
    In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed.
    In such white robes heaven’s angels used to be
    Revealed to men ; thou, angel, bring’st with thee
    A heaven-like Mahomet’s paradise ; and though
    Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know
    By this these angels from an evil sprite ;
    Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.
    Licence my roving hands, and let them go
    Before, behind, between, above, below.
    O, my America, my Newfoundland,
    My kingdom, safest when with one man mann’d,
    My mine of precious stones, my empery ;
    How am I blest in thus discovering thee !
    To enter in these bonds, is to be free ;
    Then, where my hand is set, my soul shall be.
    Full nakedness ! All joys are due to thee ;
    As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be
    To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
    Are like Atlanta’s ball cast in men’s views ;
    That, when a fool’s eye lighteth on a gem,
    His earthly soul might court that, not them.
    Like pictures, or like books’ gay coverings made
    For laymen, are all women thus array’d.
    Themselves are only mystic books, which we
    —Whom their imputed grace will dignify—
    Must see reveal’d. Then, since that I may know,
    As liberally as to thy midwife show
    Thyself ; cast all, yea, this white linen hence ;
    There is no penance due to innocence :
    To teach thee, I am naked first ; why then,
    What needst thou have more covering than a man?

  2. If a purpose in poetry is to move others, be it hearts or minds, then please – do play on.

    When you mention “All said and done I had rather spend my time discussing what I believe than what I don’t.” – as an authority on religion you no doubt have to reduce every argument to its simplest assertions and stark words, they being the bones of thought.

    Whereas, as a poet, you can release images from your hands that, like the wren, do make the shade sing.

    Would that humanism and poetry came alive again together, its raiment and rhetoric reclaimed.

    • Yes indeed Dwight! Perhaps it is the essence of humanism. From Percy Bysshe Shelley’s (wonderful) essay defending poetry:

      “Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be “the expression of the Imagination:” and Poetry is connate with the origin of man. Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Æolian lyre; which move it, by their motion, to ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them. It is as if the lyre could accomodate its chords to the motions of that which strikes them, in a determined proportion of sound; even as the musician can accommodate his voice to the sound of the lyre.

      …Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present, the words which express what they understand not, the trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire: the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.”

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