Thursday, March 17, 2011

`Is It Changed, or Am I Changed?'

For extra-literary reasons, a kindergarten teacher brought to school a book she bought in Boston while in college. Inside, she had found sixty-three four-leaf clovers pressed between pages 276 and 277, and wanted to show them to her students for St. Patrick’s Day. The clovers are flat and dry, and have turned a uniform gray-green, almost olive drab, but remain intact. The pages are stained rusty-brown, as though botanically foxed. On the front end paper, written in green marker, is the teacher’s maiden name, address and telephone number in Boston. Below, in a fine, spidery hand, the likely original owner writes:

“E. Mary Shellinger, Lowell, Mass., 1873-74.”

Published by Scribner & Co. of New York, the book collects the articles appearing in Scribner’s Monthly (“An Illustrated Magazine for the People”) between November 1873 and April 1874. There’s no precise counterpart to such a magazine today. You'll find no celebrities, scandal, sports or popular culture as we understand it, and little politics. The tone is elevated, genteel, high-minded, aimed at middle-class readers seeking distraction that edifies. I recognize the names of a few contributors – George W. Cable, John Hay (one of Lincoln’s secretaries, later ambassador to the United Kingdom), Bret Harte and Jules Verne. The Frenchman is represented by the first chapter of The Mysterious Island. Hay contributes a poem, “Boudoir Prophecies,” that fails to live up to the promise of its title:

“One day in the Tuileries,
When a south-west Spanish breeze
Brought scandalous news of the Queen,
The fair, proud Empress said,
`My good friend loses her head,’” and so on.

“Savage Man” by N.A.H. is what you would expect of an article on race published less than a decade after the Civil War. The "Type of the White Race" illustration looks like Lord Byron, the “Type of the Yellow Race” like a Sax Rohmer caricature. Someone has underlined several passages, including this:

“The white races may, without conceit, regard themselves as being the highest type of humanity as we see it today. Their pre-eminence is attested no less by their straight and regular features, and their superior musculature strength and endurance, than by their higher intelligence and refinement.”

An unsigned review of Longfellow’s Aftermath (1873) sets the tone for the magazine’s literary stance:

“His works are his confession. Almost every man of original genius bears upon him marks that strongly distinguish him. This is true of every one of the great writers of the time. Tennyson, Browning, Matthew Arnold, Emerson, Whittier, Bryant, Lowell, are all men of sharply defined individuality.”

The reviewer quotes in full “Changed,” a poem from “Birds of Passage,” the final section of Aftermath. He calls it “tender and lovely,” and it is:

“From the outskirts of the town,
Where of old the mile-stone stood,
Now a stranger, looking down
I behold the shadowy crown
Of the dark and haunted wood.

“Is it changed, or am I changed?
Ah! the oaks are fresh and green,
But the friends with whom I ranged
Through their thickets are estranged
By the years that intervene.

“Bright as ever flows the sea,
Bright as ever shines the sun,
But alas! they seem to me
Not the sun that used to be,
Not the tides that used to run.”

Most inexplicable is something I almost missed. Elegantly printed in a modern hand on the endpaper at the back of the volume are lines lineated like a poem. No title or author is given, and there’s no meter or rhyme. It starts like this:

“The Bells of Boston ring—
proclaiming freedom & independence
the 4th of July has arrived
the hot dogs have been eaten
the concert has been played
and listened to…”

and so for another twenty-nine lines, including these, my favorites:

“Slumbering peacefully in the
Subways, ignoring the headlines
of war & murder in the
and even mistreating their friends
and families
until this time next year
when they’ll be reminded of
their greatness.”

When I asked the teacher if she knew who had written this, she replied, “Not me! I just bought it for the four-leaf clovers.”

1 comment:

Jackson said...

'Aftermath' reminded me of a few lines from Dylan's 'Highlands'.

"The sun is beginning to shine on me,
But it’s not like the sun that used to be"

Then he goes on (uniquely?) :

"The party’s over and there’s less and less to say
I got new eyes
Everything looks far away"

New eyes being our dimming, older eyes, I suppose.