Monday, March 06, 2017

`Full of Sweet Surprise'

One of many things I owe Yvor Winters is discovery of the much-ignored poet Elizabeth Daryush (1887-1977). I was late, as usual, and didn’t read her work until a decade ago, a failure I attribute to arrogance – mine, the critics’ and teachers’. She was the daughter of Robert Bridges, Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom (1913-1930), friend and editor of Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Here is her best-known poem, “Still Life,” published in 1936:

“Through the open French window the warm sun
lights up the polished breakfast-table, laid
round a bowl of crimson roses, for one –
a service of Worcester porcelain, arrayed
near it a melon, peaches, figs, small hot
rolls in a napkin, fairy rack of toast,
butter in ice, high silver coffee pot,
and, heaped on a salver, the morning’s post.

“She comes over the lawn, the young heiress,
from her early walk in her garden-wood,
feeling that life’s a table set to bless
her delicate desires with all that’s good,
that even the unopened future lies
like a love-letter, full of sweet surprise.”

Much is left unsaid, which is one of Daryush’s characteristic strengths. Poets who are voluble or, at the other extreme, brazenly elliptical, don’t trust their material or their readers. The lines, written in syllabics, are plain and unambiguous, though the scene glows with comfort and privilege. Daryush deftly builds tension into lines that otherwise might read like a documentary. The octave lives up to the title of the poem. A pretty scene, but static. The reader thinks: Is this going anywhere?

In the sestet, the scene comes alive. Our heiress, like Chekhov’s Irina, enters the carefully arranged stage, alone (“for one”). She is hopeful, perhaps even entitled, but Daryush gives us no hint of grasping or greed. She seems an innocent. We’ve been alerted to the mail awaiting her, part of the morning still life, “heaped on a salver.” Is her hope based on the realities of her life? Is she being courted? Does she have prospects? Or is she living in fantasy, as all of us do on occasion? We’ll never know. As with a photograph (or still life), we’re given exactly what we see. Daryush’s poem could have been written in prose as a short story, one of Chekhov’s. This will never be enough for some readers, who expect a quotient of Sturm und Drang. Guy Davenport writes in Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature (1998):

“Still life is a minor art, and one with a residue of didacticism that will never bleach out; a homely art. From the artist’s point of view, it has always served as a contemplative form used for working out ideas, color schemes, opinions. It has the same relation to larger, more ambitious paintings as the sonnet to the long poem....We must not, however, imagine that still life is inconsequential or trivial.”

1 comment:

Marius Kociejowski said...

Elizabeth Daryush also brilliantly translated a handful of poems by Hafez. Good for you in bringing her name up before a forgetful public.