Friday, April 23, 2010

How to read a poem

Here are two poems about people who inhabit or prefer the solitude of "untrodden" ways but differ in so many other ways as to be virtually incomparable—yet both poems are undeniably 'romantic' in some sense yet to be determined. I am not going to tell you who wrote these poems because that's information that you don't need to know; the biographies of these poets—and of most poets if they are any good—is irrelevant to their poems.  Everything you need to know in order to read poems such as these intelligently is contained in the poetry—words, meter, rhyme, grammar, syntax. But of course you have to know what the words mean and how they are being used.

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove.
A maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love;

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from eye!
—Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!              
Let us begin with the first of these, #1, about a young woman, or "maid," who leads a life of nearly absolute seclusion without family or neighbors (or even a house for all we know), praised by none, loved by few—and is not even given a name, 'Lucy,' until she dies—or rather ceases "to be," as if the verb 'die' were almost too active for such a passive existence as hers: so passive indeed, so secluded or cut off from human contact that the poem compares her to a violet by a mossy stone or a single star implying that she'd be lost or indistinguishable in any group whatsoever. Strangest of all, in this very strange poem, is the vague, muted anguish of the poet at the thought of Lucy in her grave: "But Lucy is in her grave, and, oh, the difference to me." That "but" is intended, with but partial success, to enforce the contrast between the indifference of those who have nothing good to say about Lucy—and the few who love her—and the anguish of the poet who not only knew her but knows of her death: well, what difference has the death of Lucy made in the life of the poet? Not much, it would seem, despite his best efforts. Neither the life nor the death of Lucy, of whom we know so little, is of much consequence in this world—and that, it seems to me, is the point, or even the sting in the tail, of this poem. For most of the people in this world—and here I step outside the poem—lead lives not so very different in their anonymity from Lucy's. Whether this is a point that the poet intended to make is uncertain.                      

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.  

This second poem plays a trick on the reader at the same time that the poet is making fun of himself, and most of Frost's readers are taken in.

Two identical roads diverged in a yellow wood. The poem insists more than once that these roads were really about the same. The fact that one is chosen instead of the other is an accident, pure chance.

But the poet knows himself pretty well and he knows something about human nature: he knows that people will always try to find meaning in their lives even if they have to make it up.  We all need to think well of ourselves and we will. The poet knows how he will tell this story in the future, that he will romanticize himself, as a loner who goes his own way, takes chances, lives life on his own terms. That's how autobiographies are written. "I shall be telling this with a sigh," he says knowing that he will do so with melodramatic intent—you can hear it in that repetition of "I", which, not irrelevantly, rhymes with "lie," which is not what he is doing exactly; it's just that he is not quite telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth which is that there was absolutely nothing to distinguish the one road from the other.

Most lives are lived almost randomly, especially when we are young. We don't know what we're doing most of the time; it is only later, looking back on our lives, that we lay claims to wisdom. See, it all made sense we say, though of course none of it did at the time.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Romantic Solitude

Consider this well-known poem by William Wordsworth:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils,
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee;
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company;
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.                     1813

The poet is alone but no more lonely than a cloud and no less aimless. He is not looking for anyone or anything nor is he trying get anywhere or do anything. He's got nothing on his mind, including poetry, and no expectations. The daffodils, when he first sees them, "all at once," are just that, daffodils, lots of them, crowds of them. But then, as memory quickens, he elaborates: there are thousands of these flowers, in a continuous band, like the stars "on" the milky way; he begins to think of them as a crowd of people, dancing. (Though, if he had actually come upon a bunch of people there, along the shore of the lake, he'd have been mightily displeased.)

Throughout the poem—or at least until the last line—the poet gives the appearance of being entirely passive, even in his gaiety—which he seems to catch from the daffodils as if it were an infection: avoiding the more active first-person pronoun, he concedes dourly that "a poet could not but be gay" in such company. And, though his mind is actively taking notes on this "show," he is unaware of what it is doing: "I gazed—and gazed—but little thought what wealth the show to me had brought: for . . ." That "for" tells us, though, that unlike the first two stanzas, each of which comes to a full stop, the third will continue on into the fourth with what will turn out to be a very deep thought indeed. 

This is a poem about solitude, which does not just mean 'alone' simply but absolutely alone, a possibility which no one had ever, or rarely, considered before; heretofore, one had always known that he or she was in the presence of God, if no one else. [Foot Note: When, in 1829, the Quakers of Pennsylvania began experimenting with enforced solitude—solitary confinement—as a method of spiritual reformation, it soon became clear, to some observers at least, that instead of forcing the inmates of those penitentiaries, so called, to become closer to God, they were driving them mad.] 

It is also a poem about imagination which, as the poem makes clear, also works in mysterious ways; this power or faculty is not subject to the control of the rational mind. One can lament the absence or loss of this creative power [so called: notice that one can also 'create' a nuisance or a disaster] as Coleridge does in his "Dejection" Ode, but that's all. And that is Wordsworth's point: he gives as little thought to the memories that "flash upon" his inward eye as he does to the act of remembering them in the first place: he does not consciously try to summon them, but when they come unbidden, they are fully engaging and he becomes fully engaged in the experience: "And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils.").  Such, for a romantic poet, when everything falls into place, is the bliss of solitude.

I should note, in passing, that no one much before 1800 had had anything good to say about the imagination (or, indeed much to say about it in any case) as anything but a source of illusions, delusions or madness.

Two years before Wordsworth wrote his first draft of this poem, his sister, Dorothy, had written the following description of [these same?] daffodils in her journal of April 15, 1802:

"When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park we saw a few daffodils close the water-side. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore, and that the little colony has so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more; and at last, under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones about and about them; some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness; and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that flew upon them over the lake; they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever changing. This wind blew directly over the Lake to them. There was here and there a little knot, and a few stragglers a few yards higher up; but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity, unity, and life of that one busy highway."

Should we conclude that when Wordsworth wrote this poem, he was not describing things in themselves—daffodils in the wild— but an already fully-formed work of art? Does it matter? Why? Or, if not, why not?