Thursday, March 28, 2013

`We Are Wiser Than We Were Before'

“Lovely” is a word used sparingly by Yvor Winters in his critical judgments, though it aptly applies to lines in many of his own poems. Remember the opening of “Time and the Garden,” words that often accompany me on walks: 

“The spring has darkened with activity.
The future gathers in vine, bush, and tree:
Persimmon, walnut, loquat, fig, and grape,
Degrees and kinds of color, taste, and shape.” 

These are dense, deft lines spoken by a poet proud of his gardens, poetic and horticultural. Or read again “A Summer Commentary.” Never a “nature poet” in the banal, Mary Oliver sense, Winters loved the natural world without sentimentalizing it: 

“Amid the rubble, the fallen fruit,
Fermenting in its rich decay,
Smears brandy on the trampling boot
And sends it sweeter on its way.” 

In Edwin Arlington Robinson (1946), Winters says the poem I wrote about in Wednesday’s post, “Isaac and Archibald,” is “a kind of New England pastoral and is extraordinarily lovely.” He quotes with approval William James saying “Isaac and Archibald” is “fully as good as anything of the kind in Wordsworth.” Better, I should say, less mushy, romanticized and self-dramatizing. In the same paragraph, Winters praises another Robinson work, “Aunt Imogen,” as “a domestic poem of similar quality and similar excellence.” The narrator, referring to a little boy, the title character’s nephew, says, “Young George knew things,” and so does Robinson. Childless, a lifelong bachelor, his insights into our habitual vulnerability can make for uncomfortable reading. Imogen, too, is unmarried and without children. Her nieces and nephews adore their aunt, leaving her bewildered: 

“It puzzled her to think that she could be
So much to any crazy thing alive—
Even to her sister’s little savages
Who knew no better than to be themselves.” 

While cuddling George, her nephew confesses that “life was a good game— / Particularly when Aunt Imogen / Was in it.” His innocent declaration of love devastates Imogen: 

“And something in his way of telling it—
The language, or the tone, or something else—
Gripped like insidious fingers on her throat,
And then went foraging as if to make
A plaything of her heart. Such undeserved
And unsophisticated confidence
Went mercilessly home; and had she sat
Before a looking glass, the deeps of it
Could not have shown more clearly to her then
Than one thought-mirrored little glimpse had shown,
The pang that wrenched her face and filled her eyes
With anguish and intolerable mist.” 

Robinson understands Imogen’s fragility. A child’s love makes its absence in her life undeniable. Among other guides to Robinson’s emotional terrain are Wharton and James. One thinks of Catherine Sloper in the final sentence of Washington Square, who, “picking up her morsel of fancy-work, had seated herself with it again — for life, as it were." Robinson writes of Imogen: 

“Some grief, like some delight,
Stings hard but once: to custom after that
The rapture or the pain submits itself,
And we are wiser than we were before.” 

Winters writes of Robinson late in his monograph: 

“…his closest spiritual relatives, at least in America, are to be found in the writers of fiction and of history in his generation and the two or three generations preceding. I have called attention to his having certain more or less Jamesian vices as a narrator, but I am thinking now of his virtues: of the plain style, the rational statement, the psychological insight, the subdued irony, the high seriousness and the stubborn persistence. In respect to one or another of these qualities, one may find him related to such a mind as that of Henry James, but perhaps more obviously to Edith Wharton and Motley and Francis Parkman, and perhaps even at times to Henry Adams. He is, it seems to me, the last great American writer of their tradition, and not the first of a later one; and the fact that he writes verse is incidental...Robinson is more closely comparable to the great masters of prose than to the minor poets.”

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