Archive for January 2009
From Poems of Places, vol. 17, Germany: vol. 1 (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1877), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
From Saxony, Sir Albert says, “In sooth, my treasures shine
As ores of gold and iron, in the dark shafts of the mine;
The gold our women teaches to be refined and pure,
The iron makes our manhood reliable and sure.”
— from “Maximillian, Roman King” by Graf von Auersperg (tr. John Osborne Sargent)
From Poems of Places, vol. 24, Africa (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1878), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
[Egypt, Nubia, and Abysinnia]
…But still its waves their annual tribute bring,
And bless the parchéd wold with vernal bloom.
And pay obeisance at stern Memnon’s feet, —
The monarch grim of Thebes’s solitude,
Who to Imagination’s ear yet sings
The dirge notes of the nations as they die.
— from Seymour Green Wheeler Benjamin, “Thebes”
There are holes in time, call them events, around which a poet’s words leave the most intriguing traces. Not powder burns or blood spatter, but smudges, odors, rubble; signs that somebody lingered where others pass quickly. Events, of course, take many shapes, and some indeed are wounds. But the holes I have in mind are peepholes, or entranceways; moments of understanding set at a distance from the thing understood. And yes, I know that this metaphor is faulty. But how else evoke the special character of moments when a castoff sentence draws our attention, leading us to see what is always there anyway: history. And the closer we look, the farther we see.
Call the above a hypothesis; I’m not sure it is really workable as a model of understanding. Holes of time rimmed with language quickly enough become holes of language rimmed by time. The reversibility is beffudling; the fact that texts can be “in,” “of,” and “about” history, all at the same time, makes nonsense of all prepositional knowledge. And knowledge of history is indeed prepositional: it establishes direction, articulates relationships, arranges an order. Where is poetry, or a poet’s language, in all this?
Whitman read his contemporaries with intermittent enthusiasm, granting them their virtues while insisting on his difference. He had no doubt that his work, not theirs, would belong to the forward drift of time, and this belief, as much as any content, marks Leaves of Grass as an avant-garde project (the very first in American poetry). He conceived of his posterity as a confirmation, and since we do confirm him, it is easy to share in his literary judgments, to read his contemporaries with intermittent enthusiasm, feeling ourselves broad-minded when we grant them their virtues.
Dickinson’s futurity was of another order. Though she had an imagination of posthumous fame, it was not a matter of confirmation for her, of being on the right side of history. Time passed for Dickinson, it did not progress. She was no avant-gardist; she conceived of posterity as a kind of memory, as liable to be forgot as remembered. Her future was a figure for alterity, not a sequence of triumphs (of “glories strung like beads,” as Whitman had it), and her only anticipation of its actions was a willingness to meet them.
Whitman called Longfellow the poet “of all sympathetic gentleness ― and universal poet of women and young people.” He said this in Specimen Days, in 1882, upon Longfellow’s death, a moment that he might justly have considered the end of an era. That this era is now associated with Whitman instead of Longfellow ― or rather with Whitman and Dickinson instead of Longfellow ― only serves to remind us that the centuries do not simply follow one another, they invert one another, like hourglasses that can only keep measuring time by being turned upside down. We can turn them over yet again, but the sand does not run backward. To see Whitman, then, as he is in this photograph, as a model “of all sympathetic gentleness,” is to see the age of Longfellow through the gauze of the age of Whitman, an unfamiliar face dissolving into a familiar one, like an old-fashioned special effect in a movie that feels vaguely familiar, probably because we’ve seen it before, though only in bits and pieces.