Tuesday, August 12, 2014

`Drowned in This Deluge of Security'

Among the treasures collected in Quest for Reality: An Anthology of Short Poems in English (Swallow Press, 1969), edited by Yvor Winters and Kenneth Fields, is an eight-line poem by the allegorically named Philip Pain. We know little about the author with much certainty, even his nationality and place and date of birth (usually given as “c. 1647-c. 1667”), though his work was first published in Massachusetts in 1668. In 1936, the Henry E. Huntington Library published a 36-page facsimile edition with an introduction by Leon Howard, the future author of Herman Melville: A Biography (1951). Howard calls Pain a “lost” author. He is unable to substantiate the claims that his little book, Daily Meditations, is the first original American verse published in the English Colonies. Another earlier edition says that Pain “lately suffering Shipwrack, was drowned.” Here is “Meditation 8,” selected by Winters and Fields: 

“Scarce do I pass a day, but that I hear
Some one or other's dead, and to my ear
Me thinks it is no news. But oh! did I
Think deeply on it, what it is to die,
My pulses all would beat, I should not be
Drowned in this deluge of security.” 

The tone and syntax are remarkably modern for a poem written 350 years ago. The sensibility is recognizably Puritan-inflected but personal. It carries conviction because it doesn’t preach. Unlike many early American epitaphs, there’s no suggestion of admonishment. The writer, not the reader, is being warned of his mortality. Howard describes Pain’s peculiarly meditative modernity: 

“Pain had no well-disciplined attitude toward death and Life: he alternately feared and contemned death; and he became restless under the uncertainty and mutability of life, fearful that he had lived in vanity or carelessness, worried over the rapid progress of time…or restful in a devout faith. In other words, the sixty-four stanzas of his poem express neither consistent soul-searching, confident saintliness, nor objective piety, but rather the spontaneous doubts, fears, and hopes of a very human young man.” 

Howard hears echoes of the English metaphysical poets – Marvell, Donne and especially George Herbert. Just as Herbert’s introductory poem in The Temple is “The Church-porch,” Pain’s is “The Porch,” written in a similar six-line stanza. Here is his “Meditation 26”: 

“Alas, what’s sorrow? ‘tis our portion here;
The Christian’s portion, Trouble, Grief, and Fear;
 He is The Man of Sorrows here below
Of all the men on earth; yet let us know,
Christ left his Grave-clothes, that we might when grief
Draws tears, or blood, not want an Handkerchief.” 

The final two lines, Howard notes, are the concluding lines of Herbert’s “The Dawning.” And “Meditation 29” – 

“How mutable is every thing that here
Below we do enjoy? with how much fear
And trouble are those gilded Vanities
Attended, that so captivate our eyes?
Oh, who would trust this World, or prize what’s in it,
That gives, and takes, and changes in a minute?” 

--is a “condensation” of Herbert’s “The World.” In Pain’s verses I also hear pre-echoes of Emily Dickinson’s “distinctive quirkiness,” as Fields calls it in his introduction to Quest for Reality (published shortly after Winters’ death).  Here is one of the Dickinson poems they include in the anthology: 

“The difference between Despair
And Fear – is like the One
Between the instant of a Wreck
And when the Wreck has been - 

“The Mind is smooth – no Motion -
Contented as the Eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust -
That knows – it cannot see –

1 comment:

marly youmans said...

As a great Herbert fan, I am glad to meet the unfortunate Mr. Pain...