ESCAPE THE DARK IN THE DARK

Alice Cary: a world of American Letters that’s forgotten.

When T.S. Eliot wrote that poetry is “an escape from emotion” and an “escape from personality” in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” he was defining art under advice from Socrates—who banned from his Republic “poetry that feeds and waters the passions.”  Escape is the key word.  The Socratic hero has emotions, but keeps them under control.  The human-centered world of Shakespeare’s Renaissance—another inheritance of the urban Socrates—lives anew in Eliot’s formula: poetry, more than anything else, seeks original expression—in the context of all that has come before, and as Eliot points out, his human formula is not just “historical,” but “aesthetic.”  Eliot was the product of cousins marrying cousins on his father’s side—perhaps this aided “Tradition’s” insight: the ‘short-wired’ prophecy gathering vital threads into one. 

Poetry is not revolutionary, then, but an heroic demonstration of how human emotion is conquered, and so it earns its place in Plato’s Republic.  Plato and the poets are reconciled, as art is defined by T.S. Eliot—an American with roots in New England transendentalism: poetry as the natural impulse of raw and honest emotion, but converted momentarily to Poe’s cold science.

Just as the Republic’s “guardians” escape emotion, just as Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter escapes the homely passions of prose, just as Poe’s narrator calmly escapes “the pit and the “pendulum” in his famous story, so the following poem from a forgotten American woman poet of the 19th century, picked out for high praise by Edgar Poe, demonstrates that high art which Eliot in his most glorious essay was at pains to show—for just beneath the surface of this poem cries sorrow which is escaped.

Here emotion is not indulged; beauty is, even though the journey that is made is to the hades of emotion.

Pictures of Memory

Among the beautiful pictures
That hang on memory’s wall,
Is one of a dim old forest,
That seems the best of all:
Not for its gnarled oaks olden,
Dark with the mistletoe;
Nor for the violets golden
That sprinkle the vale below;
Nor for the great white lilies,
That lead from the fragrant hedge,
Whispering all day with the sunbeams,
And stealing their golden edge;
Not for the vines on the upland
Where the bright red berries rest,
Nor the pinks, nor the pale, sweet cowslip,
It seems to me the best.
I once had a little brother,
With eyes that were dark and deep—
In the lap of the old dim forest
He lies in peace asleep;
Light as the down of the thistle,
Free as the winds that blow,
We roved there the beautiful summers,
The summers of long ago;
But his feet on the hills grew weary,
And, one of the autumn eves,
I made for my little brother
A bed of the yellow leaves.
Sweetly his pale arms folded
My neck in a meek embrace,
As the light of immortal beauty
Silently covered his face:
And when the arrows of sunset
Lodged in the tree-tops bright,
He fell, in his saint-like beauty,
Asleep by the gates of light.
Therefore, of all the pictures
That hang on memory’s wall,
The one of the dim old forest
Seems the best of all.

Alice Cary (1820-1871)

The following poems, one by Guiterman, two by Teasdale, and one by Parker escape emotion as well, but they all succeed more superficially and self-consciously than Cary’s somber and beautiful masterpiece.

On the Vanity of Earthly Creatures

The tusks that clashed in mighty brawls
Of mastodons, are billiard balls.

The sword of Charlemagne the Just
Is ferric oxide, known as rust.

The grizzly bear whose potent hug
Was feared by all, is now a rug.

Great Caesar’s dead on the shelf,
And I don’t feel so well myself!

Arthur Guiterman (1871-1943)

I Shall Not Care

When I am dead an over me bright April
Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,
Tho’ you should lean above me broken-hearted,
I shall not care.

I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful
When rain bends down the bough,
And I shall be more silent and cold-hearted
Than you are now.

The Look

Strephon kissed me in the spring,
Robin in the fall,
But Colin only looked at me
And never kissed at all.

Strephon’s kiss was lost in jest,
Robin’s lost in play,
But the kiss in Colin’s eyes
Haunts me night and day.

—Sarah Teasdale  (1884-1933)

Bric-a-Brac

Little things that no one needs—
Little things to joke about—
Little landscapes, done in beads,
Little morals, woven out,
Little wreaths of gilded grass,
Little brigs of whittled oak
Bottled painfully in glass;
These are made by lonely folk.

Lonely folk have lines of days
Long and faltering and thin;
Therefore—little wax bouquets,
Prayers cut upon a pin,
Little maps of pinkish lands,
Little charts of curly seas,
Little plats of linen strands,
Little verses, such as these.

—Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)

T.S. Eliot, before he became famous with his “Waste Land,” hit a homerun with perhaps his most important piece of writing: “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”  In poetry one must escape emotion, but one must have real emotion to escape from, first.  This has been the test of art since Plato made the rules over two milennia ago. T.S. Eliot, no matter what other ‘modernist’ credentials he may have, reminded us of this ancient truth once again.

Edna Millay sought this formula, too; read those harrowing sonnets of hers that strive for beauty and cold emotion.  Her poetry is practically “Tradition and the Individual Talent” personified.  As Plato writes in The Republic, Book X, “when we listen to a passage from Homer…he represents some pitiful hero who is drawing out his sorrows…but when any sorrow happens to us, you may observe that we pride ourselves on the opposite quality…”

IF I Should Learn, In Some Quite Casual Way

If I should learn, in some quite casual way,
That you were gone, not to return again—
Read from the back-page of a paper, say,
Held by a neighbor in a subway train,
How at the corner of this avenue
And such a street (so are the papers filled)
A hurrying man—who happened to be you—
At noon to-day had happened to be killed,
I should not cry aloud—I could not cry
Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place—
I should but watch the station lights rush by
With a more careful interest on my face,
Or raise my eyes and read with greater care
Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.

4 Comments

  1. David said,

    December 20, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    Poetry is not revolutionary, then, but an heroic demonstration of how human emotion is conquered …

    An excellent criterion of poetic worth! Beauty, not emotion, is indulged in great poetry, yet beauty forged in the crucible of suffering. As a Christian, I cannot but find deep resonance in such a definition of poetry.

  2. David said,

    December 20, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    These sentences jumped out at me from the bio of Edna St. Vincent Millay at Poetry Foundation:

    She suggested that lovers should suffer and that they should then sublimate their feelings by pouring them “into the golden vessel of great song.” Fearful of being possessed and dominated, the poet disparaged human passion and dedicated her soul to poetry.

  3. thomasbrady said,

    December 21, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    David,

    Yea, it’s simple: the stakes are higher in great poetry…

    William Carlos Williams writes of stealing plums from the fridge. I suppose one can write a poem like that, and you can make an argument that why shouldn’t poetry be about plain things in our daily lives?

    But the issue is always going to remain: Where’s the struggle? Where’s the beauty? Where’s the art? Where’s the full and honest triumph over sorrow?

    Tom

  4. David said,

    December 30, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    Tom,

    I enjoyed the following essay and hope that you might like it, too:

    http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19009

    It offers an interesting perspective on Tranströmer as a counterpoint to the ersatz existentialism of the language poets. The author of the essay is Tom Sleigh. Do you know of him? Here’s a poem of his inspired by Plato’s simile of the cave:

    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/181273

    Happy New Year!

    David


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: