Who has heard of the poet Thomas Buchanan Read?
None, is our guess.
Poe called Read “the echo of an echo,” a “copyist of Longfellow.” “His sin is imitativeness.”
We love this line, however:
As if the star which made her forehead bright
Had burst and filled the lake with light.
Poe also called Thomas Read, “one of our truest poets,” and praised his “fancy,” “tenderness” and “subdued passion.”
But Poe, always on the look out for plagiarism, felt Read may have seen this by James Russell Lowell: “As if a star had burst within his brain.”
The lovely effect of Read’s couplet is a simple matter of what poetry does best: it lays movement over meaning.
The word “burst,” because the ‘r’ and the ‘s’ and the ‘t’ are all pronounced, stops the progress of our reading with an “explosion.” The result of the explosion is replicated in the steady iambic rhythmic of: “and filled the lake with light.” The ‘l’ sound of “lake” and “light” makes for beauty, just as “bright” and “burst” do—it is the brightness of the star which is bursting and creating the image of a lake filled with light—rhyming with bright.
Anyone who doesn’t appreciate this, and who does not believe this belongs to the highest aspiration of poetry, is not human.
Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just ourselves—
Dickinson, in her famous line, is doing the same thing: Because I could not STOP (same iambic rhythm, same pause—instead of Read’s “burst,” we get Dickinson’s “stop.” And the charm is when Dickinson repeats the word in the line: Because I could not stop for death, He kindly stopped for me. And “stopped,” pronounced on our lips, is literally more of a stopping than the word, “stop,” since with “stopped,” we have to pronounce more letters—which is appropriate, for we are dealing with the stop, absolutely—death.
Dickinson’s line continues, “the carriage held but just ourselves—and immortality.” This is brilliant, because who wants to be immortal inside a carriage (coffin)? It reminds one of Hamlet’s line, “I could live in a nutshell and be a king of infinite space…” Immortality inside a coffin, infinity inside a coffin—a crucial difference. Or perhaps not. How would it be, if there are two lovers, in love forever? Inside a coffin? A common theme: Love and death. But the Madness 2017 features words, not whole poems, so let’s not get distracted.
Personifying death is artificial and labor-intensive, although it awakens a certain primitive thrill, this courting scene which Dickinson (like the old German artists) sets up.
Read’s “star” is finally more purely thrillling than Dickinson’s “death.”