Thursday, September 09, 2010

`O Sweet Retirement'

Read this excerpt from a long poem and approximate its date of composition:

“Suburban villas, highway-side retreats,
That dread th' encroachments of our growing streets,
Tight boxes neatly sash'd, and in a blaze
With all a July sun's collected rays,
Delight the citizen, who gasping there,
Breathes clouds of dust, and calls it country air.
O sweet retirement, who would balk the thought
That could afford retirement, or could not?”

When most contemporary poets deign to write of suburbia it’s to denigrate the place where millions of people dwell in comfort and some degree of contentment. “Robot apartments! invisible suburbs!” froths Ginsberg, and the credulous mob chants: “Moloch!” It’s useful to remember that “suburb” entered English around the time of Chaucer’s birth and “suburban” close to Shakespeare’s death.

Snobbery had already tinged the word by Keats’ lifetime but the lines above were published a generation earlier by another English poet, William Cowper, in 1785. The source is his masterwork, The Task, and his admiration, even envy, for suburban life is striking. Cowper endured one of literature’s notably miserable lives – poverty, manic depression, suicide attempts, confinement in mad houses. “Suburban villas” were Cowper’s Xanadu. He takes a satirical jab at the citizen who sucks in dust only to call it “country air,” but the target is pretentiousness and the human capacity for delusion, not the suburbs.

Cowper has entered my small clutch of poets whose work I reread in steady rotation. I make no claims for his greatness, merely his congeniality. He is funny (especially in his letters) and observant of social custom and nature. He was a technically proficient poet on the cusp of Romanticism. I was reading The Task in school on Wednesday, in my worn green-covered Everyman’s edition. Visible through the window in my school room is a line of treetops, mostly conifers, above the roofs of a subdivision. The resulting green-black horizon looks like the teeth of a broken comb, and I read this in The Task:

“Nor less attractive is the woodland scene,
Diversified with trees of every growth
Alike yet various. Here the gray smooth trunks
Of ash, or lime, or beech, distinctly shine,
Within the twilight of their distant shades;
There lost behind a rising ground, the wood
Seems sunk, and shortened to its topmost boughs.
No tree in all the grove but has its charms,
Though each its hue peculiar; paler some,
And of a wanish gray; the willow such
And poplar, that with silver lines his leaf,
And ash far-stretching his umbrageous arm;
Of deeper green the elm; and deeper still,
Lord of the woods, the long-surviving oak.
Some glossy-leaved and shining in the sun,
The maple, and the beech of oily nuts
Prolific, and the line at dewy eve
Diffusing odours: nor unnoted pass
The sycamore, capricious in attire,
Now green, now tawny, and ere autumn yet
Have changed the woods, in scarlet honours bright.”

Outside the classroom window, except for the trees, it was strictly suburban.

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

Chaucer’s “subarbes” were dangerous places, outside of civilization, lurking with outcasts (kind of like Black Canyon City in Arizona):

“In the subarbes of a toun, quod he,
Lurking in hemes and in lanes blinde,
Wheras thise robbours and thise theves by kinde
Holden hir privee lereful residence.
As they that dare not shewen hir presence,
So faren we, if I shal say the sothe.”

This sense lingered at least until Dryden’s time, as seen in his beautifully hopeless translation of Virgil’s Georgics:

“But if a pinching winter thou foresee,
And wouldst preserve thy famish’d family;
With fragrant thyme the city fumigate,
And break the waxen walls to save the state,
For lurking lizards often lodge, by stealth,
Within the suburbs, and purloin their wealth.”

As the suburbs were brought civilization like the American West (Cowper’s stanza could equally be about a retiree pioneer at a Del Webb Community in, say, Rancho Mirage), Romantics like Keats saw an invasion of a different sort, the tread of humanity further into pristine wilds:

“A metropolitan murmur, lifeful, warm,
Comes from the northern suburbs; rich attire
Freckles with red and gold the moving swarm;
Where here and there clear trumpets blow a keen alarm.”

But it was the Modernists who, paralleling demographic patterns, scorched the paint off the veneer of what Eliot called “the illimitable suburbs,” portraying it as the final victory of the castrating female:

“Go to the bourgeoise who is dying of her ennuis,
Go to the women in suburbs.
Go to the hideously wedded,
Go to them whose failure is concealed,
Go to the unluckily mated,
Go to the bought wife,
Go to the woman entailed.”

(Ezra Pound, who also famously stated “the worst mistake I made was that stupid suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism.")

By the time we get to Ginsberg’s “Howl,” the suburbs were just part of the incomprehensible machinery, another replacement for God in our lives:

“Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses!”

This wounded take on the modern suburbs has the inclusiveness and urge to prophecy of Whitman, but none of the Christ-like spirit. I’m sure Walt would have a different perspective on this place where most of us nurse our candles against the darkness. After all, America’s first suburb is considered to be Brooklyn Heights, where Walt Whitman published in 1855 his first version of “Leaves of Grass.”