Wednesday, March 20, 2013

`I Eternally See Her Figure Eternally Vanishing'

The wife of a longtime reader, a retired professor of English in Wisconsin, died last year on Feb. 21, W.H. Auden’s birthday. I’ve written before about Roger and Grace Forseth’s sixty-two-year marriage, his devotion to Shakespeare and Keats, and his inclusion of lines from the latter’s “Ode to Melancholy” on the program for Grace’s memorial service: 

“She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
       And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu.” 

Their granddaughter, Cassandra E. Csencsitz of New York City, has sent me photographs of Roger holding William, his great-grandson (and Cassandra’s son); of the stone marking the Forseth cemetery plot, carved with the lines from Keats’ ode; and the headstones for Grace and Roger, the latter inscribed with the date of his birth: June 15, 1927. In a note she sent last week, Cassandra writes: 

“I've turned to poetry with some of my saddest or recurring thoughts since losing Grandma and wanted to share Part II of what I'm calling `An unsentimental quartet on the death of my grandma’ with you. I'm unsure about my line breaks but I'm sure you'll get the gist...” With Cassandra’s permission I post the poem, “Pronoun Pain,” and its dedication: “A poem for my grandma on the first anniversary of her death.” 

“There is no linguistic way around her death
When 'she' had always been one half a 'they'
All my life referring to two as one.
They even had one favorite poem. 

“`They’ still calls for 'are,'
Though they are no more.
To say `They did’ when he still does
Is to bury him before his turn is come
Though half an inscribed bed awaits.
It reads Keats. 

“Now so many words and revisions
To say a simple thing:
`Oh, they love good food!’
I mean she did.
`My, how they hated bad manners.’
He, of course, still does. 

“They have been split like a continent.
My grandpa remains.” 

Pronouns can be treacherous, shape-shifting parts of speech. With the end of a romance we cling unthinkingly to “our restaurant,” “our favorite movie.”  Pronouns carry traces of the past, as does their absence, and neither is always welcome. In July 1820, a year after composing the great odes and less than a year before his death, Keats writes “to say a simple thing” in a letter to Fanny Brawne: 

“I long to believe in immortality. I shall never be able to bid you an entire farewell. If I am destined to be happy with you here—how short is the longest Life. I wish to believe in immortality—I wish to live with you for ever.” 

Consider the multiple implications of the second sentence, the absence of a question mark after the third and the plaintive repetition in the fourth. On Sept. 3, 1820, Keats writes to his friend Charles Brown: 

“The thought of leaving Miss Brawne is beyond every thing horrible - the sense of darkness coming over me - I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing.”

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