Saturday, October 27, 2012

"Autumn Refrain"

The nightingale is not, alas, native to the United States.  Thus, its sound is something that we can only imagine, or experience vicariously through the wonder of the Internet.  In the following poem, Wallace Stevens considers the nightingale's absence, an absence that is heightened by its recurrent presence in English poetry.  Commentators on the poem suggest that Stevens is referring to Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale."

                       George Allsopp, "Wharfedale Landscape" (c. 1960)

                    Autumn Refrain

The skreak and skritter of evening gone
And grackles gone and sorrows of the sun,
The sorrows of sun, too, gone . . . the moon and moon,
The yellow moon of words about the nightingale
In measureless measures, not a bird for me
But the name of a bird and the name of a nameless air
I have never -- shall never hear.  And yet beneath
The stillness of everything gone, and being still,
Being and sitting still, something resides,
Some skreaking and skrittering residuum,
And grates these evasions of the nightingale
Though I have never -- shall never hear that bird.
And the stillness is in the key, all of it is,
The stillness is all in the key of that desolate sound.

Wallace Stevens, Ideas of Order (1936).

The latter part of the poem is dominated by the repetition of "still" and "stillness":  "And yet beneath/The stillness of everything gone, and being still,/Being and sitting still, something resides . . . And the stillness is in the key, all of it is,/The stillness is all in the key of that desolate sound." Despite its changefulness, autumn can be the stillest time of the year.  Like a great pause.

                  Bertha Ridley Bell (1898-1955), "Poole Harbour, Dorset"

When it comes to nightingales, Keats's "Ode" is too ornate for my taste.  I prefer these lines by Christina Rossetti, which come from her poem "Twilight Calm":

        Hark! that's the nightingale,
        Telling the selfsame tale
Her song told when this ancient earth was young:
So echoes answered when her song was sung
        In the first wooded vale.

        We call it love and pain
        The passion of her strain;
And yet we little understand or know:
Why should it not be rather joy that so
        Throbs in each throbbing vein?

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862).

                                  Roger Fry, "Village in the Valley" (1926)

12 comments:

Andy McEwan said...

Hello again, Mr Pentz,
And of course Christina Rossetti also wrote, "I shall not hear the nightingale/Sing on, as if in pain." I sometimes think English poets were as much taken with the nightingale's habit of singing at twilight from deep in the thickets as they were by its actual song - a melancholy, Romantick thing, I suspect.
It's a shame you find Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale" too ornate. It has always been a great favourite of mine ever since I first encountered it in my schooldays (now long ago). I think the Ode and much of the work of the English Romantic poets struck a particular chord in my teenage soul.
The nightingale's range is confined to the south of England, so there's no chance here in Scotland to hear that song the poets hymned and, in any case, like that of so many creatures, the nightingale's presence in Britain is dwindling. Personally, I prefer the lovelier,fluid song of the Common Blackbird. It too is an Old World species, different from the various New World Bkackbirds, I'm afraid.

William A. Sigler said...

“Autumn Refrain” was written after a seven-year break from writing poems (give or take), and remains for me one of Stevens’ greatest poems. It’s “autumnness” may have diminished with (my) age, but it retains all the poignancy, in the trope of the non-native nightingale, of hearing something that is not there, and recognizing that it is in some incomprehensible way actually real. Just as the leaves are stripped away by fall, Stevens’ conception of reality and the imagination is brought to an essential level here, “some …residuum … grates these evasions.” I never got the connections people make to Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” or “To Autumn,” finding the mental space those cover way too remote. I sense something of Keats’ oft-bandied “negative capacity” here, however – to sense something as real at the same time one knows it is not would be a good example (although this arguably takes the concept far beyond what Keats was actually driving at, which was the human need to prove the truth of one or both contradictory thoughts).

Like you, Mr. Pentz, I find more common ground in the Rossetti, which speaks of the vast chasm of our understanding when hearing and responding to the (in her case, native) nightingale – how we are alone in our perceptions.

This extraordinary fall has brought out some extraordinary golden leaf gatherings on your part!

alice c said...

I was woken once by a nightingale outside my window. The song cut through the dark night silence and filled the room. It is the contrast between sound and silence that is so thrilling. The same is true of the skylark.

Alex said...

Keats' Ode to a Nightingale is perhaps a little overwrought; but consider these beautiful lines for a moment:

The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;


They seem to be subliminally associated with a thought expressed in Christina Rossetti's:

Hark! that's the nightingale,
Telling the selfsame tale
Her song told when this ancient earth was young:
So echoes answered when her song was sung
In the first wooded vale.


(Notice how the words 'ancient', 'self-same', and 'song' are engaged with similar ideas in both poems.)

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr McEwan: thank you for that reminder of another fine poem by Rossetti.

As for my feelings about Keats's "Ode," I confess that I've never (for some reason) warmed to the second generation of the Romantics (i.e., Keats, Shelley, and Byron). (Although, of the three, I prefer Keats.) I'm more of a Wordsworth and Coleridge admirer.

Of course, there are many things by Keats that I like very much. But I tend to gravitate more to the Hardy, Edward Thomas, Larkin, and Rossetti side of things. (Oh, and I do think Keats's letters are wonderful!)

I wasn't aware that the nightingale is threatened, which is sad to hear.

As always, thank you for your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Sigler: it is always good to hear from you. Your insights on Stevens are always appreciated as well.

I think I understand what you mean when you speak of something "remote" in Keats's odes. Perhaps that is what I was inarticulately reaching towards when I spoke of the nightingale ode as being too "ornate" for me. In contrast, Rossetti is -- as you suggest -- closer to us. At least it feels that way to me.

Thank you for the kind words about my autumn wanderings. There is a lot to chose from at this time of year, as you know.

Stephen Pentz said...

alice c: I envy you. Well, I plan to re-visit England at some point, so perhaps I will be as fortunate. And a skylark would be fine as well!

Thank you very much for stopping by again, and for your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Alex: thank you very much indeed for pointing out the correspondences between those two stanzas! I hadn't noticed them. Of course, Rossetti knew her Keats well, so it is not unlikely that she either intentionally or subliminally echoed his Ode in her lines.

As for my feelings about the Ode, please see my response above to Mr McEwan's thoughts. I'm not about to warn anybody off Keats -- far from it! I consider myself to be solely at fault, not Keats.

As ever, it is good to hear from you. And, again, I greatly appreciate you pointing out how well those stanzas play off one another.

bruce floyd said...

In reference to Stevens's splendid poem "Autumn Refrain" Eleanor Cook says,

"the yellow moon of words about the nightingale" might suggest Whitman's mocking-bird song in 'Out of the Craddle Endlessly Rocking.'" She adds that it's interesting to note that in a letter to his future wife, one written in 1909 just before his marriage, Stevens writes about nightingales, moon, and a "sweet outpouring of liquid sound." Stevens also writes, persumbably of some earthly pradise,of "what we have never heard." (Knowing what we do of Stevens's marriage, this letter makes for sad reading.)

I have over the years lost my youthful enthusiasm for Shelley and other Romantic poets, though I still treasure Keats and Wordsworth, but in Shelley's poem "To Jane (The keen stars were twinkling") Shelley touches on the deepest desire of the artist--or of anyone trying to make sense of the human predicament.

Says Shelley to Jane, who is playing the guitar and singing "As the moon's soft splendor / O'er the faint cold starlight of heaven / is thrown. . .":

Though the sound overpowers
Sing again, with your dear voice revealing
A tone
Of some world far from ours,
Where music and moonlight and feeling
Are one.

George said...

Then there is John Crowe Ransom's "An American Addresses Philomela", which ends

Up from the darkest wood where Philomela sat,
Her fairy numbers issued; what then ailed me?
My ears are called capacious, but they failed me,
Her classics registered a little flat!
I rose, and venomously spat.

Philomela, Philomela, lover of song,
I have despaired of thee and am unworthy,
My scene is prose, this people and I are earthy;
Unto more beautiful, persistently more young
Thy fabulous provinces belong.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: thank you for that background information on Stevens -- I hadn't come across it before.

And I appreciate as well the lines from Shelley. They echo and amplify quite well "Autumn Refrain." (Of course, they are very nice in their own right!)

Thanks for visiting again.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: thank you very much for the lines by Ransom, which are apt. Also: "How could her delicate dirge run democratic,/Delivered in a cloudless boundless public place/To a hypermuscular race?" I know that Stevens was familiar with Ransom's poetry. I wonder if he had Ransom in mind when he wrote "Autumn Refrain"?

You have brought me back to the days when I was devoted to the poetry of The Fugitives! And now I have a desire to revisit Ransom's poetry -- thank you for that as well.