Saturday, May 14, 2016

`Where the Wind is Always North-North-East'

After reading Wednesday’s post, a friend sent me, without comment, Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “New England,” written in 1923, published in the London journal Outlook, and first collected in Dionysus in Doubt (1925):

“Here where the wind is always north-north-east
And children learn to walk on frozen toes,
Wonder begets an envy of all those
Who boil elsewhere with such a lyric yeast
Of love that you will hear them at a feast
Where demons would appeal for some repose,
Still clamoring where the chalice overflows
And crying wildest who have drunk the least.

“Passion is here a soilure of the wits,
We’re told, and Love a cross for them to bear;
Joy shivers in the corner where she knits
And Conscience always has the rocking-chair,
Cheerful as when she tortured into fits
The first cat that ever was killed by Care.”

The sonnet scandalized residents of Robinson’s home town, Gardiner, Maine, who read it as an attack on their region and an act of disloyalty on the poet’s part, which reminds me of my own brush with easily offended provincial pride. In 1981 I went to work as a reporter for the newspaper in Bellevue, Ohio, five miles east of Clyde, the town where Sherwood Anderson lived as a boy and used as a partial model for Winesburg, Ohio (1919). Other than the Whirlpool factory and a Spanish-language radio station (for the migrant workers who had settled in the area, often going to work for Whirlpool), Clyde had little to distinguish it from other small Midwestern towns. For a story about Anderson’s once-scandalous book and his vision of Clyde/Winesburg, I interviewed anyone in town I could locate who knew something about its literary claim to fame, and that amounted to almost no one. An old lady told me the adult residents of Clyde when she was a girl hated the book and the reputation they feared it would lend their town. She had adopted their sense of wounded pride second-hand, and was proud to say she had never read Anderson’s book. There was a Winesburg Inn in town, but no longer, though I see that a Winesburg Motel hangs on.

In Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet’s Life (2007), Scott Donaldson reports Robinson was “more or less astounded by the brouhaha.” In a letter to his friend Laura Richards in Gardiner he says the sonnet’s octave is “said sarcastic.” In a letter to Gardiner’s newspaper, Robinson says the first eight lines are “an oblique attack upon all those who are forever throwing dead cats at New England for its alleged emotional and moral frigidity.” He confesses that having to acknowledge one’s use of irony was “always a little distressing.” Donaldson defends the poem:

“The first lines should have aroused immediate suspicion by way of their obvious hyperbole. The wind did not always blow from the same direction, even in New England. Nor was it true that children took their first steps on frozen feet. The passage EAR referred to in his letters to Mrs. Richards and the Journal represented a classic example of the Swiftian technique of offering for approval a hideous alternative, inviting envy for a scene of distasteful, noisy, and hypocritical excess.”

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