Saturday, December 22, 2012

`Something Is Here That Was Not Here Before'

A friend resolved to stop drinking one Christmas while eating dinner in a Howard Johnson’s, alone. “Canned corn and processed turkey,” he said. “That’s no way to spend the holiday.” He sobered up, returned to his wife and kids and, so far as I know, gave up the bottle and never spent another holiday alone. He told the story in the Irish manner, grimly amused by the memory of his misery. But it was more than a good story. That Christmas back in the nineteen-seventies represented a desolation he hoped never to revisit. It was the bottom, at least in the human realm. In Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet’s Life (2007), Scott Donaldson writes: 

“On Christmas day [1934], which he spent alone in his room at 328 East Forty-Second Street, he sent a note to [his friend Craven Langstroth] Betts in California. `This is a Christmas word to let you know that I am here alone with a compound of cold and collywobbles. I hoped to be at Westport with the Frasers, but couldn’t quite make it. I’m better than I was but still not so good.’” 

“Collywobbles” is splendid folk poetry, as Robinson surely understood. The Oxford English Dictionary calls it a “fantastic formation on colic and wobble,” and defines it as “a disordered state of the stomach characterized by rumbling in the intestines; diarrhœa with stomach-ache; hence gen. indisposition, ‘butterflies in the stomach’, a state of nervous fear.”  A joke, yes, but in brief it suggests a hard drinker’s physical and emotional state, and Robinson was no stranger to alcohol and the solitude it virtually ensures. He had been treated for depression by the poet-psychiatrist Merrill Moore and, at age sixty-five, was celebrating his last Christmas. He would be dead less than four months later. 

In 1928, Robinson had published Sonnets, 1889-1927. Among its eighty-nine poems is the last sonnet he ever wrote, “A Christmas Sonnet,” subtitled “For One in Doubt”: 

“While you that in your sorrow disavow
Service and hope, see love and brotherhood
Far off as ever, it will do no good
For you to wear his thorns upon your brow
For doubt of him. And should you question how
To serve him best, he might say, if he could,
`Whether or not the cross was made of wood
Whereon you nailed me, is no matter now.’ 

“Though other saviors have in older lore
A Legend, and for older gods have died—
Though death may wear the crown it always wore
And ignorance be still the sword of pride—
Something is here that was not here before,
And strangely has not yet been crucified.” 

Donaldson says the poem “arrives at a hard-won affirmation,” but I don’t find it convincing. By the early nineteen-twenties, Robinson had written his best poems, all of them short rhymed lyrics, and for the rest of his life he turned out book-length poems, almost novels in verse, and most were not very interesting. “A Christmas Sonnet” is a late lyric with a tacked-on ending. The last line is disappointing after the promise of “Something is here that was not here before.” Robinson was born on this date, Dec. 22, in 1869, and died April 6, 1935.

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