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A Poem Combining Two Themes–“Costan and Merlu”

Sometimes, a poem just springs forth into the mind, however good or bad like the springing forth of Athena from the mind of Zeus.  This is such a poem, but I’ve thought about it a bit and managed to locate two themes from other works that I suspect contributed to its genesis.  The first is the tale of David and Bathsheba in the Old Testament, in which David sent one of his generals, Bathsheba’s husband, into battle so that he would be killed and David could have Bathsheba.  My favorite contemporary song, “Hallelujah,” mentions this episode briefly as well.  The second work is the tale “Billy Budd” by Herman Melville.  In it, a naïve midshipman, Billy Budd, is trapped into a confrontation with Claggart, a scheming superior officer, and accidentally kills Claggart in a fit of justifiable though excessive rage, and is condemned to death.  Somehow, I think these two stories came together in my mind and created this poem, which doesn’t exactly match either of them, but has the joint themes of a young officer being shoved into harm’s way, and a devious superior officer who is responsible for this.  The poem is cast back in time, which I think is also responsible for the somewhat old-fashioned tone of the remarks about the two main characters, being as Costan might today be seen as a womanizer plain and simple, and Merlu perhaps even a correctly behaving superior who gets the soldier’s mind back on what he is supposed to be there for, however harsh the task or sentence.  Still, I think with the tone cast as it is in the poem as written, the readers’ sympathies should rest mainly with Costan.  Here’s the poem:

Costan and Merlu

Costan
Was what women know as a warm man.
Up to all their wiles and tricks,
Even seeing a few where there were none,
But full of love and joy and yes, laughter,
Nonetheless.

Merlu
His superior
In the army
They wrinkled their noses up at
When they discussed him,
And more than one thought
“Cold fish.”
His love and attention wasn’t warm
Rather possessive and deigning,
Full of his own self-importance,
And seeing not them.

Costan
At the sight of a red petticoat,
Always had a second glance for it
Over his shoulder,
Merlu
Had the mort arrested
For crimes she’d only thought of committing
And thought disdainfully
Of poor people’s attire,
For modesty had nothing to do
With red petticoats,
And he flattered himself
That he was a modest man.

Costan one evening
Caught up with a lovely young smart thing
And chortled and sang with her
Under the wall, where they sat,
Sharing a bottle and some bread and cheese.
Merlu’s henchman
No less forward to impropriety,
But knowing what Merlu wanted,
Carried the news.
The next night,
Costan stood red-faced for reproach
In front of Merlu
Agreeing that yes, he had been most improper,
And bowing his head to anger and what was more,
Envy, though he hardly dared even to himself
Think of Merlu in that light.

Two days later,
There was a wall to storm,
A bridge to take,
And warning his friends to stand away from him,
Lest they too fall into disfavor
With the keeper of the garrison,
Costan accepted the mission
Forced upon him by Merlu,
But eager himself to shine.
The ending was inevitable,
Given Costan’s brave resilience,
And throwing of himself over the wall
Straight into enemy fire.
His loving and noble heart was breached as well,
By cannon fire he’d no way to fend off,
Since all he could think to offer was himself,
His skill with firearms not equaling
His skill with loving negotiations.

That evening, Merlu sat pondering:
What more need he do to preserve
The public order,
What ordinance or regulation pass
To keep his officers and men in line?
As he then stood, just before his window
He looked at another wall, like to the one
Of Costan’s trespass, and on it,
Flaunting bold and red,
As if someone had torn the red petticoats in pieces
And stuck them in place any way at all,
Someone had hastily painted the accusation
“Murderer!” to face his window;
He was startled, and for just a moment
Struck to the heart
That someone had read his thought.
Then, taking on himself once more
The yoke of office,
He sent a man out to clean it off
Or paint over it,
Sure, or no, not sure,
But avoiding the thought,
That someone knew him
Better than he had known himself.
Such knowledge comes too late for regret,
And in any case,
He was persuaded by the experience
That constituted all his life so far
That he was right to act so,
That Costan had been hostile
To the public temper and a danger
To public life.
And after all, once the word was painted over
From the wall,
There was no witness to the crime
And that made all the difference to him,
Though those who knew him sensed a subtle change,
A tension in the command,
As if he was second-guessing himself,
A lack of certainty, a questioning,
A questing for a solution to something
They knew not.
Came the day when he too was ordered over a wall
In front of his troops,
And taking a deep breath, nearly asking himself
If this was the price of it all,
He tried to be valiant, as valiant as he could imagine
Costan had been,
Though when his body came back also shot through,
The women and men of the town
Didn’t mourn him. Instead,
As his shattered body made its way on a stretcher
Through town, his last breath still not drawn,
He heard them saying, “It’s his time!” and laughing,
And then
Someone spitting by his frame,
And “Serves him right!”
“Vindictive peasants!” he thought, and shedding a tear
For his own passing, he died.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 10/27/17

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Working again at the sonnet form–this time, on the genuine article: “A Sonnet After Shakespeare”

Yesterday or the day before, I published a sonnet which was not a real sonnet, in the sense that it did not have a rhyme scheme at all, which sonnets have in one pattern or another.  Tonight, I decided to try my hand at something I hadn’t had practice in for a long time, and do an English sonnet.  Of course, though it’s “after Shakespeare” in the sense of being modelled on Shakespeare’s (while not nearly as perfect), it’s also after Shakespeare in the historic sense, which will have to account for its use of several contractions and a more various examination of money relations (in the extended metaphor using love as the tenor and finances as the vehicle), whereas Shakespeare’s extended metaphors were even “tighter” than this and stuck together better, for want of another way of putting it.  But barring the chutzpah of calling it by the title I’ve given it, I hope you will be able to enjoy it.

 A Sonnet After Shakespeare

You say you love me not, yet I have love
To pay your debt to me of equal sum
Though you'll no debt acknowledge, and you prove
In each account of holdings perforce dumb.

I can't both creditor and debtor be,
To this amount of love sworn to repay
Except by love's froward accountancy
That holds both my heart and my head in sway.

For heart, be owed the gentle passion still,
For head, do calculate the rueful cost.
I must desist, and yet present the bill,
By way of stating what's already lost.

But let my books become two sets in one,
And I'll cheat for you, though I won't have done.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 1/12/17

That’s all for tonight.  Sleep well.  Shadowoperator

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Case study, tribute, answer, or meditation?–Julian Barnes’s “The Sense of an Ending”

A month or so ago, I wrote a post on William Trevor’s book of short stories “After Rain,” and referenced in relation to it the fine scholar Frank Kermode’s critical work first published in 1967, The Sense of an Ending.  You may imagine my perplexity when I discovered on my library website a fairly new book, published in 2011, by Julian Barnes, a novel of sorts also called The Sense of an Ending.  My perplexity was mainly because at no point in the opening pages of the book and nowhere within is Frank Kermode given a nod for his work, except in the overall sense that it becomes overwhelmingly obvious by the end of the book that it is a sort of case study of, answer to, tribute to, or meditation upon Kermode’s work.  Perhaps it is all of these.  At any event, Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker prize and was nominated for other awards for this work, so Wikipedia’s confidence that the book is at least a “meditation” upon Kermode’s thesis seems well-founded, because the publicity attendant upon such fame would make it unlikely that the book could be seen otherwise.

To reiterate Frank Kermode’s notion, that humans, being uncomfortable with their short life span, have to imagine themselves as part of a historical curve of a sort of golden age in the past, to which their own lives are the present leading to an important future, is to deal with many imponderables, and yet it certainly makes sense in the way Barnes envisions it.  Barnes is in fact doing in a work which isn’t entirely novel-like what Kermode says critics must do:  whereas poets help to make sense of the way we see our lives, critics must help make sense of the ways in which we try to make sense of our lives.

The main character, the narrator, Tony Webster, tells a story in two parts in which he is engaged in the first part in telling about his younger years with his friends Alex, Colin, and Adrian, and his failed romance with Veronica (Mary), whose mother also comes into the story.  Later, Adrian writes to tell Tony that he and Veronica are now together, and Tony responds.  Then, Adrian commits suicide not long after another apparently less vital and virile classmate has done the same thing.  The remaining three friends engage in the same sort of philosophical speculation about why Adrian did it that they had shared as intellectually gifted students.  In the second part, we see Tony much later, as a retired man who has since been married to someone else, produced offspring, and been cordially divorced.  He is now reevaluating the earlier years because Veronica’s mother dies and leaves him a diary of Adrian’s; Veronica, however, is in between Tony and the bequest, and prevents him from a complete reading of the diary.  It is in dealing with her as someone who still parallels him in age that he questions himself and thinks about his past in a radically different way than he traditionally has.

“You get towards the end of life–no, not life itself, but of something else; the end of any likelihood of change in that life.  You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question:  what else have I done wrong?”  This is the almost casually stated thesis of Barnes’s work, not casual in the sense of its eventual importance, but in the way he slips it into the woof and weave of many other questions and ponderings about history and in particular personal histories.  For example, from his boyhood days, come memories of hilarity in the classroom at a dullard who, when asked what happened in a historical period of complexity, answers:  “There was unrest,” and when prodded to comment further, goes on to say, “There was great unrest, sir.”  Yet, this comment comes back with some significance to haunt Tony as an older man.  In the last paragraph of the book, he states, “There is accumulation.  There is responsibility.  And beyond these, there is unrest.  There is great unrest.”

That Barnes has pointed out time as one of his avowed subjects is clear from the first, when he says, “We live in time–It holds us and moulds us–but I’ve never felt I understood it very well.”  He elaborates, “ordinary everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly:  tick-tock, click-clock.  Is there anything more plausible than a second hand?  And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability.”  What is as malleable as time, apparently, or as a result of time, is memory, which lives in and changes with time, for Tony is suddenly shocked by a picture of his younger self in a letter which Veronica does return to him with a few of the diary pages before burning the rest.

And yet there is further shock to come–I will not ruin the surprise near the end of the book, for though this is a serious literary endeavor and not a suspense novel, there is a twist near the end which underlines many of the points that Tony gradually becomes aware of as he re-thinks his earlier history.  Suffice it to say that the novel is a very good book in this reader’s opinion, and one well worth the Man Booker Prize.  And I like to think that Frank Kermode might find it a fitting tribute (case study? answer? meditation?) as well.

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Intemperance, Cruelty, Perversity–How Negative Traits Combine to Produce a Haunting Halloween Tale: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat”

I was six years old.  I was spending a weekend with one of my role models, a twelve-year-old girl, a former neighbor who had moved to another town.  She was reading me a spooky story before light’s out one night.  The story was Edgar Allan Poe’s very chilling tale “The Black Cat.”  I don’t think I slept a wink that night, not only because the story itself was so haunting, but because she herself possessed a large cat, an affectionate creature to her, a distant and shy creature with me, though at this reach of time I can no longer remember if it was black or not.  Suffice it to say, every time I drowsed off and the cat settled in the huge king-size bed between the two of us, I felt I had to reach out and touch it, try to reassure it that I wasn’t going to hurt it, while also ascertaining that it didn’t mean to hurt me.  I have always loved cats, but that weekend was a severe test of my affection for the species.  How could it be otherwise, when a master wordsmith like Edgar Allan Poe had been working on my psyche?

Though in some ways Poe seems to be ascribing supernatural effects to people or animals, quite often eerie results are the products of overtaxed and strained imaginations, results brought on by the combination of character flaws and chance circumstances.  Yet the deeper his characters sink into the “bog” of their own making, the more they struggle with inadequate aids to help them, the wrong tools, in fact; the more they struggle, the faster they sink into the morass, as one might expect.

In the case of “The Black Cat,” the narrator starts out as an excessively affectionate man to animals and a good companion to his wife, but as he records from the jail cell where he is being kept awaiting execution, it was “through the instrumentality of the Fiend Intemperance” that he began to be cruel where before he had been kind, both to his many animal pets and to his wife.  A modern psychologist might look for a deeper cause, such as some basic personality flaw that produced a tendency to rely on such crutches as alcohol, but to the people of Poe’s time, alcohol was a chancy friend, and a labile personality with a tendency toward addiction was not the chosen explanation:  instead, there was something devilish and mysterious about the way alcohol could simultaneously aid or hinder.

The link between his “Intemperance” and a secondary quality is cruelty, and what his drunkenness is linked to is another quality which he calls “Perverseness,” or perversity.  He says of this quality:  “Of this spirit philosophy takes no account.  Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primary impulses of the human heart–one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which gives direction to the character of Man.  Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or stupid action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not?”  In the grips of this sentiment, the speaker has already committed one act against the cat, and proceeds to commit a second, more final one.  But this brings him no relief.  Instead, he becomes even more hateful to his wife, and more obsessed with the second cat he encounters, which is very like the first, except for a white blaze upon its chest, which he later realizes with premonitory horror resembles the gallows.

Though this is a very well-known tale, I’m not going to spoil it for you by revealing the outcome, except to say that while there is a horrible ending, the actual supernatural effects are all in the speaker’s mind, as he feels that he has been haunted and driven and diabolized into what he has done.  In actual fact, the horror derives from the way in which he is slowly but relentlessly pulled down by a combination of chance events (ones he regards as uncanny) and his own personality traits under the influence of alcohol, which have the force of Fate.  It is in fact a sort of fated ghastly fear of death which impels him to betray himself to others who are trying to find out what he has done, a kind of self-fulfilling prophetic knowledge of what is going to happen to him that draws him forward into ruin and punishes him for what he has done.

What exactly has he done?  Ah, if you have never read the story, then you’ll have to read it to find out–and if you have, Halloween night after the Damnéd Dinner* is the perfect opportunity to chill the blood of your favorite group of guests as you read them the story aloud.  I predict that everyone will be both “grossed out” and appropriately horrified.

*The Damnéd Dinner is a Halloween festivity in which each participant prepares one food which feels to the touch like something repellent or vile.  The other diners are asked to close their eyes, on their honor not to peek, and then they are served and asked to put their hands in their individual served dishes of the food as the server tells them a dreadful (made-up) story about what they are to eat.  They have to eat some of it with their hands or simple implements, and of course after all have eaten it and gotten a relieved chuckle (one hopes) about what it actually is, they are allowed to open their eyes and verify their impressions.  Individual after individual takes a turn as server, until everyone has told a Halloween story and (again, one hopes) everyone has had a full repast.  Some popular items are peeled grapes or mozzarella balls (which feel like eyeballs if you’re told that’s what they are), strings of long pasta in sauce (brains, of course), or chopped-up jello, which has passed as more than one item in my experience.

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The Romance of Reality, the Reality of Romance–Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Master of Ballantrae”

Yes, there are pirates and sea adventures.  Yes, there are crossed love affairs and duels.  And yes, there are shivery moments of speculation upon death and the devil, abundantly so.  Well, what else would you expect from a book by Robert Louis Stevenson?  Nevertheless, in this book, The Master of Ballantrae, what is in the forefront of the book for more of its length than anything else is a psychological case study of a family, its woes, its inner politics, its relationship to the outer world, and what brings it to grief.  Again, this highly reputed examination of the family of the Duries in Scotland during the time of the Scottish-English wars and the years thereafter not only takes place in a reality that was romantic for many by its very nature, but also makes real what would seem an otherwise romantic situation, rendering it thus susceptible to the dictates of reason.

Briefly, the situation is this:  Lord Durrisdeer has two sons between whom has grown up a fierce rivalry:  his elder son, James the Master of Ballantrae, and his younger son, Henry.  From the very first, there is a bitter feud going between them, though initially not in a sustained way.  But it is the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the opposing English King George, and the family is split down the middle.  This is not only due to where their allegiances and basic personality tendencies lie, but is also due to Lord Durrisdeer’s odd wisdom, of sending one son to fight for Bonnie Prince Charlie while the other son, Henry, the second in line to the tltle, stays at home and helps represent the family as loyal to King George.  Funnily enough, though this arrangement may seem like a highly fictionalized one, it is in fact an old tried and true method in the real world as we know it, even to the present day, for families in territories at war.  It enables at least half of the family fortunes to be saved, along with (possibly) one future heir.

One of the less political things at issue between the two brothers is their mutual love and rivalry over Miss Alison Graeme, a cousin, whom it is more or less assumed will marry Jamie (James), not only because she loves him and is ready and willing, but also because her fortune could help restore the family’s finances, which are in a sad state.  James puts on that he loves her, but he loves himself more, gads about among the women of the district, and even has a bastard child with one woman.  When he goes to battle with the Prince, Alison sews the revolutionary cockade upon his cap; she continues to bear allegiance to him even when he’s away.  Henry loves her too, but hopelessly and at a distance.  Not only does James have all the romance to which a young woman might be susceptible behind his role, but Henry is a practical young man not given to moonshine and daydreams, too pragmatic a figure to cut a dash in the world.

The rivalry and finally actual hatred between the two brothers creeps in further when, due to the apparent death of James, Alison agrees to marry Henry to improve the family’s monetary situation.  She continues to grieve and moan over Jamie’s loss, as does his father, Lord Durrisdeer, for whom he was the favorite son, and even after she has a child by Henry, and the title passes to him, they seem to shut Henry out from their fond recollections and reminiscences.  But the real problem arises when James returns “from the dead,” and continues to taunt and bait Henry in secret and make nice to him in front of the others, all the while courting Alison, his wife, in spite of the fact that he has no real intention to win her away from Henry, but only acts in order to make trouble for Henry.

There is, to be sure, more than one perspective to this book, even though James seems like the very devil himself and acts fiendishly throughout.  That he has abundant charm, a fine intellect, and a strong personality is shown as well.  As Mackellar, the land steward who is Henry’s friend and confidant even more than he is his employee, says to James, it’s not so much that he is evil, but that he has the capacity to be so very right-mannered and good a person that is discouraging to his approval of him.  Like Satan in Paradise Lost, however, James would “rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”  Mackellar’s perspective on the two brothers is the main narration device for most of the novel, though (as in other books using varying points of view) there are other narrators whose memoirs or editorial comments add sidelights to the narrative, which of course allows us to see that Henry too is flawed in his own particular way.  After a certain point in the story, even Mackellar, loyal as he is to the family and Henry in particular, must realize that in Henry as well there are negative traits which bite deeply.  Take the novel as a whole, the adventures and roamings, the war and sea tales and travels to India and the state of New York and the Adirondacks–the latter where Stevenson wrote some of the novel–are perhaps romantic, but at the same time, they provide the background and opportunity for the exhibition of the psychology of the two brothers’ interactions and mutual attempts to overreach each other.

Thus, a conflict which starts out in youth as a minor thing is gradually aggravated by opportunity for mischief on James’s part and stern and unforgiving resilience on Henry’s, and because of circumstances and chances, swells to fill the whole canvas of the changing locales in the novel.  Though I’ve enjoyed Treasure IslandKidnapped, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I don’t think I’ve been as spellbound from start to finish with such a fine psychological study as I found in this book.  I hope you will read its short number of pages and find it gripping likewise.

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The Portrait of a Discontented British Artist in Canada–Damian Tarnopolsky’s “Goya’s Dog”

A gifted novel about a Wyndham Lewis-like painter visiting Canada from his native Britain during WW II, Damian Tarnopolsky’s Goya’s Dog was a nominee for the 2009 Amazon.ca First Novel Award, formerly Books in Canada First Novel Award.  The book transitions from an initial state of what my mother used to call “cross questions and silly answers,” a state in which people are talking at usually unintentionally comic cross-purposes, through a series of vignettes in which the main character, the artist Edward Dacres, gradually realizes that he is a guest artist because he has been mistaken for someone else, to a finally quasi-tragic, quasi-uplifting ending.

From the first moment when I encountered the angry, frustrated, almost savage eye turned on Canadians and Canadian society by the main character Edward Dacres, as he repeatedly tries to make the best of his situation through amusing himself at their expense if nothing else, I was struck with his resemblance to another comic character of the early part of the twentieth century.  Though I cannot claim that Tarnopolsky in fact had P.G. Wodehouse in mind when he wrote Dacres, Dacres reads very like an avatar, sadder, more cynical, more anarchic and down-at-heels, of the Bertie Wooster “man-about-town” comic creation.  I say this with the proviso that I am not considering Edward Dacres’s indifference to the WW II effort as similar by design to P. G. Wodehouse’s own suspected collaboration with the Germans while in a European internment camp (a charge which was later fully investigated by MI5 in 1999 or 2000 and found to be baseless except for Wodehouse’s basic naïveté).  Tarnopolsky’s farcical characters (farcical as seen by the main character, that is) jump into and out of relation with each other with nearly the same alacrity as Wodehouse’s, but with a deeper seriousness lurking beneath their interactions:  for, Bertie Wooster’s pockets are well-lined; Edward Dacres’s are moth-eaten.  It is only their desperation, their comic clutching at weak straws, which for a time makes them alike.  We cannot imagine Tarnopolsky repeating his comic creation from book to book in different characters (as Wodehouse did, like a vaudeville performer with a “sure thing” of an act), or being called “a performing flea” as Wodehouse once was, though certainly unfairly.  This is to say that while the satirical lyricism flows with the same easy pace as did the elder author’s, with his background in the libretti of musicals, the stakes and consequences are those tied to far more serious issues, such as the real issues of cowardice (Bertie Wooster only “funks it” in a humorous way), misanthropy, and the role of art in wartime.  If forced to account for my sense of the elder comic genius lurking, I would have to say that the early sections dealing with women in general or one in particular (the main current romantic interest of the book, Darly Burner) have “comic turns” particularly situated around these relationships which are reminiscent of the earlier writer’s work.  Dacres finds a woman attractive, with the woman playing the role (as in Wodehouse) of “straight man” who also finds him desirable, while Edward Dacres is the desperate eiron who is deceiving her or himself about something to do with his state, his prospects, his intentions, etc.  The difference is that Dacres has a genuine tragedy in his background, the death of his own young wife of their happy mésalliance years before, in a car crash which he caused.  This is the “problem” which I would liken to some neurosis that might emerge in psychoanalysis, like a squid from its sea of ink, only slowly.  Though I have spent a lot of time on this authorial comparison, I don’t mean to overemphasize it, for this masterly and serious novel does not move as quickly as Wodehouse’s do almost from punchline to punchline.  But the manner in which Tarnopolsky deals with the women’s other claimants, such as fathers, suitors, relatives, and social acquaintances, smacks of the older author quite strenuously.

I’ve said this is a serious novel, and part of the source of the sombreness and the sense of tragedy which looms over Goya’s Dog, instituting from the frenetic pace rather a tense agony mimetically on the reader’s part, is the forced wait to find out if the artist will ever be able to make himself paint again.  There is the fact, for Dacres, that he simply cannot repeat the past, recreating one muse with another, and so the bittersweet ending is as much a victory and vindication as it might initially seem a defeat.  There is the sense, at the end, that he will be able to return to work, though when and how exactly is left undecided.  It does seem, however, that he is finally on his own tick, and will not be playing any more fool’s games with fate.

The sources of this novel are in fact far more complicated than I have given my reader to believe, up to this point, but I have emphasized the particular comic influence (which may or may not have been intentional) because it is what I am myself most familiar with.  To quote from Tarnopolsky’s own words in his “Acknowledgments” (the whole of which I call to the reader’s attention), “The painter and writer Wyndham Lewis spent an unhappy wartime exile in Toronto, and his novel Self-Condemned, along with his letters and the comments of his biographers, suggested much of what happens to Dacres in the first half of Goya’s Dog–together with the Polish writer Winold Gombrowicz’s simultaneous, similar experiences in Buenos Aires, recorded in his amazing Diary.  Dacres shares some attitudes with these men and uses some of their expressions, but he is not a portrait of either of them.  I should note that the “suicide” scene comes from Chamfort, and I think it was Fr. Rolfe who was ferried out of his hotel room in bed; Ovid grumbled definitively about the natives in his letters from Pontus.  And so on–“.  Thus, I have named only one possible influence, which moreover is not one named by Tarnopolsky, for the quite excellent and humorous portions of his important novel, and have had to quote from his own words to explain that and the other parts, which makes me perhaps a less adept reviewer, but certainly makes him no less a creative genius on this, his first novel.  There is in fact a great deal more to say, but I leave it to you, his other potential readers, to help bring about the conversation:  this is such a fine novel that to call it a “fine first novel” is already to be reductive of its worth and importance in the related worlds of fiction and painting.  Do give it a read soon:  you will be amused by a character’s dilemmas, confronted by his demons, and finally, in reluctant agreement with what he does to save his own soul.

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The Perennial Appeal and Vision of Tennyson’s “Tears, Idle Tears”

Though I was planning to post in a few days on another work entirely, today I happened to read Caroline’s post at BeautyIsASleepingCat , and was struck with an exchange she and I had about the material of a book she was reviewing, and which she is currently receiving comments on (for those who have read it or are interested in reading it, as am I).  Her review topic was J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, and I’ll just repeat the part of our discussion that is pertinent to my own topic today:  in effect, we talked about the way that sometimes, happy memories from the past can make us unhappy in the present because they are no longer a part of our current experience.  This is part of the character’s experience in the book she is discussing, and for some reason–and it turns out to be a fairly good one–I was unable to dismiss my own faint memory of some other work, at some other time, which had been on the same general subject.

As it so happens, it was one of my favorite of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poems, short and to the point though it is, in contrast with his several lengthier poems which have won worldwide acclaim.  The poem is “Tears, Idle Tears,” and I am able to give it here in complete form, because it is available elsewhere on the Internet as well:

“Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,/Tears from the depth of some divine despair/Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,/In looking on the happy autumn-fields,/And thinking of the days that are no more./”  “Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,/That brings our friends up from the underworld,/Sad as the last which reddens over one/That sinks with all we love below the verge;/So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more./”  “Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns/The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds/To dying ears, when unto dying eyes/The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;/So sad, so strange, the days that are no more./”  “Dear as remembered kisses after death,/And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned/On lips that are for others; deep as love,/Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;/O Death in Life, the days that are no more!/”

I’ve always said that no one can milk an emotion like Tennyson!  But how does the poem actually work?  It seems to work by an intricate set of connecting words and phrases which rely on experiences everyone has either had or has imagined having, so that its universal appeal can easily be understood.  In the first stanza, Tennyson begins with the rhetorical trope of paralipsis, or denying something that he is in fact going to affirm, when he first says, “I know not what they mean,” and then goes on to tell us exactly what they mean.  The tears are “idle” only in the same sense that they are “vain,” not as in “vain’ equalling “empty” or “egotistical,” but “vain” as in “useless,” “hopeless,” “having no worthwhile issue.”  The present “autumn-fields” are “happy,” but the speaker is sunk in recollection by what they call up to memory.  There have been other autumn days and fields which were happier still.

In the second stanza, it’s not just the memories that are said to be past, but also what would be a rather eerie visitation by friends “up from the underworld,” were it not a welcome visitation.  The beam of sunlight which the speaker can imagine “glittering” on the underworld sail as it rises is challenged in its “fresh” quality by the nearly concurrent “sad” quality (a word reiterated throughout the poem) which “sinks with all we love below the verge,” so that “the days that are no more,” the phrase repeated in the end of each stanza, has a focus on the distant horizon, whether in the rise of memories or their return to the underworld which apparently stores them, the horizon often being a symbol of life’s bourne, limits, and of death.

The subject of death having been well-introduced by now, the speaker makes a tie between an experience everyone has perhaps had, that of “dark summer dawns” and hearing “the earliest pipe of half-awakened birds,” and links it with an experience that awaits everyone but which only those who are already gone could actually have, “the dying ears” hearing the sounds, and the “dying eyes” which see the casement “slowly grow[] a glimmering square.”  This stanza uses the word “sad” as well to describe this imagined experience, but whereas in the second stanza it was  living persons watching those from the underworld approach and leave, at least in imagination, so here it is the imagined dying people who have the “strange” experience of watching the dawn of a day which they possibly will not live to see the end of.  In this respect, the poem reminds me a little of Emily Dickinson’s poem “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died,” which also discusses a moment when “I could not see to see,” and purports to be talking from a time after that moment, to judge by its past tense.

Lost causes seem to be the subject of the fourth stanza, whether that of kisses that are no longer accessible, or fantasies about love and lovers that did not bear fruit, and the word “hopeless” emphasizes the whole tenor of the poem, which acknowledges happiness only to grieve its short tenure.  The days that are no more are “deep as love,/Deep as first love,” which is another repetition emphasizing what is missing from the present that was available in the past, love itself, since the speaker seems not to anticipate any further happiness from the current moment or day.  And then, of course, “wild with all regret,” whether of things not done at all or things that can be no longer done, we get the strongest statement yet of the speaker’s dilemma, “O Death in Life, the days that are no more!”  Here, the grieving requires emphatic punctuation at the end of the line, and Tennyson caps off his line with an exclamation point, to emphasize that death is a main concern to the speaker, whether actual deaths that he is mourning or the loss of happier times which he cannot conceive will come again or be followed by more happy times.

Now, having written about this poem and having lived with it again for a short space, I can say that there is a sort of catharsis one experiences when reading a poem such as this one, so that as well as turning out an inspired bit of work, Tennyson has provided a vision with a workaday or utilitarian use.  My older teachers in grade school and even in high school were excessively fond of poems with this quality, which in Samuel Johnson’s words could “point a moral” and “adorn a tale.”  Their own confreres amongst the more exalted academic circles at the time of their own youth must have surely pooh-poohed this approach to literature, and it has its limits.  But I do have to say that having re-read the poem after a long time of not seeing it in front of me, I do feel not only admiration and reverence for its aesthetic qualities, but appreciation as well for the cathartic release it engenders.  I think it likely that the book Caroline is reviewing, A Month in the Country, may well have similar cathartic capabilities.  Why not visit her site and see?

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