Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"Kin And Companion To A Tree"

Recently, mornings here have been foggy.  The fog is thin, and takes on a pinkish-orange glow as the sun rises.  The scene puts me in an 1890s mood:  ethereal, half-lit, vaguely melancholic, vaguely resigned to . . . something or other.  "Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes/Within a dream."

As I have noted before, there are times during the year when dwelling poetically in the 1890s is entirely appropriate.  I am not one of those who feels that certain types of poetry have become "out-dated."  The word "progress" may (alas!) apply to the world at large, but it does not apply to poetry.  Certain things were done better in the 1890s (and at the turn of the 19th century) than in any other era of poetry, before or since.  We needn't give them up.

Today's news of the world?  Or the dreamy, twilit world of the 1890s?  No contest.

Ford Madox Brown, "Carrying Corn" (1854)


There is so little wind at all,
The last leaves cling, and do not fall
From the bare branches' ends; I sit
Under a tree and gaze at it,
A slender web against the sky,
Where a small grey cloud goes by;
I feel a speechless happiness
Creep to me out of quietness.

What is it in the earth, the air,
The smell of autumn, or the rare
And half reluctant harmonies
The mist weaves out of silken skies,
What is it shuts my brain and brings
These sleepy dim awakenings,
Till I and all things seem to be
Kin and companion to a tree?

Arthur Symons, The Fool of the World and Other Poems (1906).

Although this may perhaps be said of the entire poem, I think the lines "the rare/And half reluctant harmonies/The mist weaves out of silken skies" capture the 1890s mood in a nutshell.  However, come to think of it, "these sleepy dim awakenings" is not far behind.

George Mason, "The Harvest Moon" (1872)

                            Harvest Moon

Thoughtful luminous harvest moon, as I walk,
The rich and sumptuous night, the procession of trees
Under the moon; the stream's babbling talk;
One star on the eastern ridge hung low on the sea's
Border unseen; a rose-grey shade in the west,
Faded, a petal of sunset, and absolute rose;
Crickets chirp, the sounds of day are at rest;
Under the harvest moon, one by one goes
The austere procession of trees, that walk as I walk.

Arthur Symons, Ibid.

As I have mentioned on another occasion, "grey" is one of Symons's favorite words (together with "twilight").  Thus, it is fitting to find this pairing in line 5: "a rose-grey shade in the west."  The poets of the Nineties often used repetition to achieve a sort of lulling, murmurous, dreamlike -- and (of course!) melancholic -- atmosphere.  Thus, Symons follows "a rose-grey shade" with "a petal of sunset, and absolute rose."  (An aside:  "A petal of sunset" is very nice in and of itself.)  Likewise, we have "thoughtful luminous harvest moon" (line 1), "under the moon" (line 3), and "under the harvest moon" (line 8), as well as the repetitions of "as I walk" (lines 1 and 9) and "procession of trees" (lines 2 and 9).

John Everett Millais, "The Vale of Rest" (1858)


WAS said...

Hi, Stephen-

I've always appreciated your appreciation of the Decadent poets of late-Victorian England. You focus on Symons, understandably, because he one seems so at one with the movement, and two because his poems have aged so well, given his towering influence on Eliot (who basically stole from him whole-cloth for Prufrock and other early poems), Pound (who took his insistence on the resonant image - what Eliot later called the Objective Correlative - and turned it into a whole philosophy called Imagism - "no ideas but in things"), and, especially, Yeats (who was not only his best friend, but the dedicatee of his seminal work on the Symbolist Poets - mostly French, all Decadent - that was essentially the working draft for the modern movement from Stevens to Williams to Ashbery). This role as mid-wife (to something of which you don't seem particularly fond) has obscured his poetry, which is quite a bit more varied than even your care and attention reveals: religious, love, travel, journalistic, dramatic and mythic themes to go with the philosophical and "deep nature" poems, all done with that characteristic flair of using repetition, French troubadour forms, objects instead of concepts, moments in time instead of stories, extreme states of perception to get inside the moment, and always great care in the diction, tone and style of the poem. His open-ended sensitivity (his friend Oscar Wilde called him "an egoist without an ego"), and restless prolificness caught up with him in 1908, when he went bat-shit crazy on the eve of the Modern revolution he helped create. Despite him being on the sidelines, his poems somehow hold up, even if he never escaped the shadow of Baudelaire and Pater (few do), and even though he was not nearly the poet in the pure sense as Decadents like Swinburne, Dowson, Stickney, John Barlas and Park Barnitz (all of whom I've discovered and been astounded at in true First Known When Lost fashion).

I agree fundamentally with you on the decadent mood, how the melancholy transports you to another time and place. And I appreciate as I'm sure you do how the sudden move away from meter and rhyme consigns a whole generation of wonderful poets to the kind of half-life oblivion their dreamy poems celebrate. The demands of L'Art Pour L'Art as well as hundreds of years of prosodic tradition required the strictest meters and densest use of poetic language, something that later generations strongly rebelled against for the very artificiality that makes them so intoxicating in the first place. But we, in the timeless space of poetry blogs, can return, amid October's ghosts, and be intoxicated again.


Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Sigler: first: it's a great pleasure to hear from you again. I've missed your visits.

I completely agree with everything you say about Symons and his influence and milieu. As you have noticed, he is sort of a "project" of mine: I agree that he is unjustly neglected. (Along with most of the others of that time, save Yeats and Wilde.) I'm trying to do my tiny part to keep him alive.

I'm not suggesting that he is a "major" poet (who cares!), but what he did, he did very well. And there are other things he did in the service of poetry that very few people know of. For instance (as you likely know), he was responsible for bringing the poems of John Clare to publication when he was nearly forgotten. Now, who would have thought that a "Decadent" would care about Clare? But he did.

I agree that his mental breakdown probably had something to do with his work falling into neglect: he lost his poetic energy thereafter, didn't he? On the other hand, I'm not sure that he could have moved much beyond what he had already done.

I also agree that my selections from his poetry tend not to be from his twilit, misty, absinthe-tinged side, which is what he and his colleagues are usually known for. As you've noted, I've been trying to show that he has another side.

Your closing point is perfect: there are times when it just feels right to return to Symons's poetry and other poems of that time. I sometimes feel that I'm a bit defensive about my love of that era, but comments like yours make me realize that I needn't be. And I agree with your thought that consigning him and others to "oblivion" is a mistake -- and is a great loss for those who do so. They are missing out on a great deal.

Thank you very much. I hope you'll return soon.