Saturday, July 21, 2012

`Rue, Not Rage'

The most rah-rah of sentimental poems, the least convincing and most annoying, the one known to people who cannot otherwise quote a line of verse, perhaps the first poem-as-bumper-sticker, is surely “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” For those few moments as a boy when I felt the pull of Dylan Thomas, even then I found it self-dramatizing, an embarrassment, and preferred the faux-Joyce of “Fern Hill.” I was present this week when an electrical engineer dragged out the first line while complaining about his recent failure to receive a government grant. The villanelle is a colossal failure of tone, a drunken yawp when a whisper or silence is called for. The late Samuel Menashe has the right idea in “Rue”: 

“For what I did  
And did not do  
And do without  
In my old age  
Rue, not rage  
Against that night  
We go into,  
Sets me straight  
On what to do  
Before I die—  
Sit in the shade,  
Look at the sky”

Menashe’s title is a quiet, mournful word, a street in French; in English, “sorrow, distress; penitence, repentance; regret,” and “pity, compassion.” Also a shrub with yellow flowers and scented leaves. Ophelia puns on it to Claudius: “Oh you must weare your rewe with a difference.”


William A. Sigler said...

“Measuring out your life with coffee spoons,” eh? It’s hard to imagine such an elegant and subtle poem characterized as a “yawp,” but then you do tend to prefer that kind of formal verse that’s had a certain life force squeezed out of it (making me yawn).

Spending one’s dotage in the sun with quiet sorrow for all the shit one’s done is not exactly living the examined life, or matching life with passion, or being present in every moment, much less understanding the karmic genetic heritage at the heart of Thomas’ message – the why not wherefore of it.

Helen Pinkerton said...

In contras to Menashe's "rue," consider Henry James's portrait of old Daniel Touchett, retired American banker, father of Ralph Touchett, husband of Isabel Archer's aunt Lydia. In the opening chapter of "The Portrait of a Lady," James lovingly describes him as seated in a "deep wicker-chair" on the lawn of his old English country-house. "The shadows were long on the smooth, dense turf" that sloped down to the Thames in the light of a "perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon." The old man sleeps often and James comments: "The old gentleman at the tea-table, who had come from America thirty years before, had brought with him, at the top of his baggage, his American physiognomy; and he had not only brought it with him, but he had kept it in the best order, so that, if necessary, he might have taken it back to his own country with perfect confidence. But at present, obviously he was not likely to displace himself." Then: "His journeys were over, and he was taking the rest that precedes the great rest." Is there a more tender portrait of the acceptance of impending death?

Anonymous said...

In perhaps her most wonderful book,Sapphira and the Slave Girl, Willa Cather describes the death of the crippled Sapphira Colbert:

" After tea, for the hour before supper, the Mistress preferred to be alone in the parlour. There were many snow-falls that winter, on into March. Mrs. Colbert liked to sit and watch the evening light fade over the white fields and the spruce trees across the creek. When Till came in with the lights, she would let her leave only four candles, and they must be set on the tea-table so placed that the candle-flames inside must be repeated by flames out in the snow-covered lilac arbour. It looked like candles shining in a little playhouse, Till, said, and there was the tea-table out there too, all set like for company. When Till peeped in at the door, she would find the Mistress looking out at this little scene; often she was smiling. Till really believed Miss Sapphy saw spirits out there, spirits of the young folks who used to come to Chestnut Hill.

"And the Mistress died there, upright in her chair. When the miller came in at supper-time and went into the parlour, he found her. The strong heart had been overcome at last. Though her bell was beside her, she had not rung it. There must have been some moments of pain or struggle, but she had preferred to be alone. Till thought it likely that the 'fine folks' were waiting outside for her in the arbour,and she went away with them."