American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

For a Commonplace Book 6

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xenia

With a Pair of Spectacles

The glass set in gold
May soon break from its hold,
But the gold no such accident fears;
And so our frail senses
Are like these brittle lenses,
But the heart keeps the same all the years.

— Nathaniel Langdon Frothingham, Metrical Pieces, Translated and Original (1855)

I found this while looking into the Frothingham poem on Berlin; it comes from Metrical Pieces, Translated and Original, which carries a lovely dedication: “To the Friends of My life and of Its Lighter Studies.” Among the translations are poems by Propertius, Martial, Manzoni, Goethe, and Schiller. There is also a large number of poems by Friedrich Rückert, best known for his lyrics to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. Emerson chose one of the Goethe versions for Parnassus.

“With a Pair of Spectacles” relates to the translations, sort of. It’s one of ten (or eleven; I’m not sure about the last) grouped under the heading “Xenia,” which Frothingham introduces with the following prose note:

This Greek word has found its way into the English Dictionary. It meant originally the presents that were made by a host to his departing guests; but afterwards through various transitive meanings, came to denote gifts in general. Epigrammatic inscriptions for articles thus bestowed form a department, though a very humble one, of Latin literature. The word has been adopted by the French and Germans; the former using it most in the sense of new-year’s gifts.

I was attracted to this because it offers some context, I think, for Emily Dickinson’s practice of pinning notes to flowers and cakes.

Also noteworthy in Metrical Pieces: a poem on “The McLean Asylum, Somerville” (where Plath, Lowell, and Sexton all had stays), and a hymn for the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Female Asylum. The latter includes these quatrains:

It does not loose, but hold;
It says not, Go — but, Come;
And pens the feeblest in its fold,
And builds the orphan’s home.

O thanks for fifty years
Of woman’s pity shown!
For all it saved of Misery’s tears,
And Ruin’s heavier moan!

I also liked the opening quatrain of “To a Sigh”:

I am not ill, I am not grieved,
Pain has not wrung, nor hope deceived;
Why, then, thou sad, unmeaning guest,
Disturb the comforts of my breast?

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Written by Ben Friedlander

July 25, 2009 at 11:14 am

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