Friday, January 06, 2012

`The Glance, the Pause, the Guess'

To be emotionally moved by a poem, especially one written as late as 1937, comes as a happy and wistful surprise. We’ve grown accustomed to flat affect or hysteria in poetry, two sides of one dull coin, and hardly recognize the quiet emotional power once expected of first-rate verse. Here is “Lonely Love,” one of four poems by Edmund Blunden chosen by Philip Larkin for inclusion in The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse (1973):

“I love to see those loving and beloved
Whom Nature seems to have spited; unattractive,
Unnoticeable people, whose dry track
No honey-drop of praise, or understanding,
Or bare acknowledgement that they existed,
Perhaps yet moistened. Still, they make their world.”

“She with her arm in his—O Fate, be kind,
Though late, be kind; let her have never cause
To live outside her dream, nor unadore
This underling in body, mind and type,
Nor part from him what makes her dwarfish form
Take grace and fortune, envy’s antitone.

“I saw where through the plain a river and road
Ran quietly, and asked no more event
Than sun and rain and wind, and night and day,
Two walking—from what cruel show escaped?
Deformity, defect of mind their portion.
But I forget the rest of that free day of mine,
And in what flowerful coils, what airy music
It led me here and on; these two I see
Who, loving, walking slowly, saw me not,
But shared with me the strangest happiness.”

Probably nothing is so difficult to write about well, with delicacy and precision, as human disability, a subject irresistible to lazy, sentimental writers. The devastating line in Blunden’s poem of muted devastations is “Deformity, defect of mind their portion.” Blunden uses “portion” in its unmodern sense. Today it refers almost invariably to food preparation or diet, as in “portion control.” Blunden’s usage suggests “A person's lot, destiny, or fate,” as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, which cites Milton:

“Such place Eternal Justice has prepared
For those rebellious; here their prison ordained
In utter darkness, and their portion set.”

Blunden writes not of disability but of love and its astonishing persistence. He writes of the couple as subject like the rest of us to Fate, not as genetic victims or medical oddities: “Still, they make their world.” To feel pity and then stop feeling, judging pity to be an obligation fulfilled, is self-congratulatory, costs nothing and can prove devastating (see Stefan Zweig’s 1939 novel Beware of Pity). Blunden takes the next brave, empathetic step and shares in the couple’s “strangest happiness.” In Edmund Blunden: A Biography (1990), Barry Webb quotes the first section of “Lonely Love” and writes:

“Edmund’s distance from the world of modern literature was part of his distrust and fear of the aggressive – either in personality or on the page. His instinct was always to look towards the lyrical, the hidden, the forgotten – an expression of his philosophy of following `the glance, the pause, the guess.’”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

What makes this poem shocking is the way it reverses the usual poetic move from specific to universal by putting all of us unattractive and unnoticed people into the lover's circle right off the bat, and then pulls the camera back to show the couple is disabled (which in real life, of course, is quite noticeable). It's an odd but powerful way of identifying with what we often find hard to identify with. Blunden here seems like a British Edward Arlington Robinson.