“For to make an eternity, we must build with eternities; whence, the vanity of the cry for any thing alike durable and new; and the folly of the reproach--Your granite hath come from the old-fashioned hills. For we are not gods and creators.”
The passage is from Chapter 75, “Time and Temples,” of Melville’s Mardi (1849). Don Stanford (1913-1998) uses it as the epigraph to New England Earth and Other Poems, a slender volume of twenty-six poems published in 1941 by The Colt Press of San Francisco, in an edition of three-hundred copies. The “Foreword” is by Stanford’s former teacher at Stanford University, Yvor Winters, who glosses the excerpt from Mardi without explicitly referring to it:
“It is not unnatural that a modern with some historical training should chance in his efforts to retrieve a classical sensibility to retrace in some sort the path by which that sensibility was lost; this in spite of the fact that he will probably carry with him, as Stanford appears to do, much of the knowledge accruing from that very experience of loss.”
Like his teacher, Stanford is concerned with the recovery of values, “a classical sensibility” rooted in tradition. Who can write a poem, or read one, without knowing what the best poets have written? The predictable reproach to such a stance, “old-fashioned,” is “folly,” plain and simple. Consider Stanford’s “Letter from the Widener Library,” titled “Letter to Yvor Winters: On Re-reading `The Journey,’ Widener Library, 1933,” when it was originally published in The Harvard Advocate:
“Now hushed and cool in brick that cannot yield
The eternal thought of centuries is sealed,
Broken and wary, record of living falls
The reddening ivy trembles to the walls.
“These trailing times from the idea fell.
Now every bed keeps sandals hot as hell,
Each senator grows plump for doing naught
And all’s puffed up and all’s revenging rot.
“Yet shrouded in your poems’ tired lines
I still see where truth and virtue shines
Clean as the deepest heaven’s untainted stars,
Till this sweet peace my blundering body mars.
“From coils of present art I may procure
What genius shrives, I cannot keep it pure.
My present self has sense and will to tame
The present age is loose and much to blame.
“When rage is laid away with my brisk years,
When lust calls vengeance, and when love appears,
In wisdom I may walk, where now I’ve strayed
The quiet past of which some men are made.
“And there, begotten in your silent mind,
I grow to sire my history, and to find
The future neither loss nor folly rears—
Each infant moment gains its parent years.
“When we read fuller lives and write them ours
We may increase what first were bounded hours
For who so reckons art he may profess
Where this life stays, where that life perishes?
“Though language loses the strict part of you
The feeling lives to set your meaning true
Ready to join a richer world than mine.
The Concept saves us when our forms decline.”
Within the library dwells “eternal thought” -- outside, lust, greed, “my blundering body,” politics as usual (Hitler came to power in 1933). In Winters’ poem “truth and virtue shines.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines “shrive” as both “to hear the confession of” and “to make one's confession,” to be priest and/or sinner. The word derives from the Latin scribere, “to write.” When Stanford writes “From coils of present art I may procure / What genius shrives, I cannot keep it pure,” he humbles himself before Winters’ accomplishment, before tradition. He scorns what Melville calls “the vanity of the cry for any thing alike durable and new.”
Stanford is a fine poet I would never have read without following a half-covered trail of allusions left by Winters and others. Winters says Stanford writes “with the complexity of Donne and the suavity of Dryden,” and yet I didn’t come to know his work until recently. Like any autodidact, my learning is spotty, but that doesn’t satisfactorily explain how so gifted a poet, scholar and editor remained unknown to me for so long. Stanford is not unique in this. Much of the Stanford School of poets around Winters, the Fugitives, the novelist John Williams (Stoner) – all half-remembered, or remembered only to be forgotten again, and all central to our national culture. Then think of Melville in his later years and for thirty years after his death: “For we are not gods and creators.”
Having just seen a lone goldfinch on a feeder in the backyard, I found Stanford’s “Summer Scene” stirring:
“With movement perfect and controlled
Through silence like the hush of sleep
The goldfinch cleaves the immobile deep,
Pale azure, in a loop of gold.
“Life changes yet remains the same.
The goldfinch flashes and is gone,
But through the emptiness is drawn,
The oriole’s thin dividing flame.”