American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

The Dark Laurel

with 5 comments

To a Lady
Who Had Offered Him a Wreath
of Laurel

Laurel is a sacred leaf
And forbidden to be worn
Lest Apollo, flushed with scorn,
Shoot the rhymester for a thief.
Yet if any human grief
Be half uttered in a song
The dark laurel will belong
To all poets that have writ.
Let your heart but mend my wit
And my crown is not wrong.

— George Santayana

The half-uttered grief is unrequited love; yet by asking his Lady to mend his wit, not his heart, the poet is blending gallantry with ambition. Or ambition with gallantry, since he accepts the laurel on behalf of all poets, not just himself. Or rather, is willing to accept it — if that is what his Lady dictates.

The poem records an act of renunciation, bittersweet in all its implications. Records and revisits: according to William G. Holzberger, editor of Santayana’s Complete Poems, the dedicatee is Nancy Toy, “the attractive young wife of Harvard theology professor Crawford H. Toy when Santayana, as a young philosophy instructor and poet, made her acquaintance in the early 1890s.” The poem was written sometime before the end of the decade, but only published in the 1950s, after Santayana’s death. The manuscript is owned by Washington University (catalog entry here).

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Written by Ben Friedlander

July 13, 2009 at 1:08 am

Posted in forgotten poems

Tagged with ,

5 Responses

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  1. I didn’t know Santayana wrote verse. Ben, you are always educating me.

    Re: this verse… the bittersweetness of renunciation does not, to me, transmit via this stiff and mannered form at all. The motive and the form are terribly at odds here. Santayana needed to let loose.

    Nada

    July 13, 2009 at 10:33 am

  2. I can see why you feel that way. It’s not an affect-rich poetry. The poem is a knot of assertions untied by working out their implications. But that I think is a pretty fair representation of how Santayana understood his situation, which gives the poem’s reticence a certain poignancy. For me at least.

    Mostly Santayana wrote sonnets and so far I’ve not felt any compulsion at all to take them up; this is the one poem of his that caught my eye when I spent an hour or so with his work last week. But his story as a poet is kind of interesting, so I may write more about him later.

    Ben Friedlander

    July 13, 2009 at 11:23 am

  3. Hi Ben,

    Re: knotty implications, does the idea in that second sentence parse something like this: If just one poet abandons facility to express genuine pain, it validates the efforts of all poets who’ve ever tried to do the same? Or is it saying that all poets retroactively succeed (even the rhymesters) at the instance of a successful poem? If all poets finally win laurels, despite the quality of their poems, at the moment of an effective poem, do they win them in an “E for effort” kind of way? Or for preparing the ground, through their sequence of experiments and failures, for this particular utterance? Maybe I’m misreading altogether, and the basic idea is that all poets already deserve laurels, insofar as all poems are rooted in “human grief.” But then there’s that “will belong,” implying that some action is required from futurity to bestow the award, posthumously, on “all poets that have writ.” Just as Santayana has to wait for Nancy Toy to bestow her heart on his “wit” (which neatly conflates his mind, his self, and his poem.)

    Anyway, the poem’s basic judo seems to flip the idea of excellence on its back. I like, too, the drama of a poet being sure of his wit but unsure of his reader.
    Hope you’ll write more on Santayana.

    rodney k.

    July 13, 2009 at 1:38 pm

  4. 1. Why is the laurel ‘dark’?
    2. Last line is a bit of a train wreck, isn’t it?

    Kirsten Silva Gruesz

    July 13, 2009 at 3:32 pm

  5. Rodney:

    Thanks for those good thoughts! Interesting how much we need to fill in to make sense of the sentence. Talk about half-uttered…

    I’m not sure I do understand the line, but since wit is still involved I don’t think the successful song requires any abandonment of skill. The issue would be the purpose to which the skill is given. I took it this way: if the poet’s skill is put in the service of expressing grief, the result brings honor to all poets. Which is, I guess, a way of saying that the successful poem brings honor to poetry, not poet; to the profession, not the professor. So maybe not a flipping of excellence on its back, just a putting of individual distinction in its proper place.

    I like what you say about the conflation of mind, self, and poem, but maybe I would say “person” instead of self to emphasize that the true poem is embodied by experience but not necessarily particular to the individual. A neat formula for a lot of nineteenth-century poetry.

    Kirsten:

    You’re right about the last line. “Wrong” is just the wrong word there, and the line is also a syllable short. It sounds very awkward.

    Your other question, about the darkness of the laurel, opens onto some really interesting speculations. My take is that Santayana was thinking of the original myth, in which Apollo’s love for Daphne goes unrequited because she undergoes transformation into a tree rather submit to his affections. Which gives a pretty dark significance to the sacred leaf. In Santayana’s account, it’s not by matching Apollo in dedication to love than one earns the right to wear it, but by giving expression to his grief. An unusual twist on an old story.

    Unless he’s tapping into some source material I just don’t know. Which is very possible!

    Ben Friedlander

    July 14, 2009 at 12:06 pm


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