Book review of Delphi Poetry Anthology
In many respects, the twentieth century was not a very nice one. Especially the first half. While there were remarkable developments in diverse fields, historians will one day sum up that part of our past as, to use the historiographic jargon, ‘a fucking bloodbath’.
And so we come to Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), whose lifespan tells you all you need to know.
I quoted this one in an earlier post about Armistice Day, 2018:
(. . .) Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole . . .
They don’t put that sort of truth-bomb on recruitment posters.
(. . .) A shrapnel ball –
Just where the wet skin glistened when he swam –
Like a fully-opened sea-anemone.
We both said ‘What a beauty! What a beauty, lad’
I knew that in that flower he saw a hope
Of living on, and seeing again the roses of his home . . .
But later on I heard
A canker worked into that crimson flower
And that he sank with it
And laid it with the anemones off Dover.
When we come to Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935), we find much more contemporary-sounding poetry. It is dismal, not in an adolescent way but in the manner of a new type of worldly man who has seen much and learned much.
From this moment on we will never again see poetry of the innocent, idealistic quality of Shakespeare or Byron – unless it is some sort of communist propaganda. Aside from evil or stupid zealots, the world’s poets feel like they have given up on purity, righteousness and any such childishness. There might be beauty yet, but it is of a sort that acknowledges its harsh, Darwinian origins, its transience, its objective unimportance. Nihilism would be too strong a word – there is still some passion, some hope, some care – but less certainty. Most of the world has known a long peace since 1945, but there shall always be a shadow over it. It is a kind of Promethean shadow upon a rebellious species that has discovered more than it really wanted to know.
The Valley of the Shadow
THERE were faces to remember in the Valley of the Shadow,
There were faces unregarded, there were faces to forget;
There were fires of grief and fear that are a few forgotten ashes,
There were sparks of recognition that are not forgotten yet.
For at first, with an amazed and overwhelming indignation
At a measureless malfeasance that obscurely willed it thus,
They were lost and unacquainted – till they found themselves in others,
Who had groped as they were groping where dim ways were perilous . . .
I highly recommend reading the whole thing.
The next is very sad, about a lonely drunkard. Because we have come to the end of the book I give it to you in full:
Mr. Flood’s Party
Old Eben Flood, climbing alone one night
Over the hill between the town below
And the forsaken upland hermitage
That held as much as he should ever know
On earth again of home, paused warily.
The road was his with not a native near;
And Eben, having leisure, said aloud,
For no man else in Tilbury Town to hear:
“Well, Mr. Flood, we have the harvest moon
Again, and we may not have many more;
The bird is on the wing, the poet says,
And you and I have said it here before.
Drink to the bird.” He raised up to the light
The jub that he had gone so far to fill,
And answered huskily: “Well, Mr. Flood,
Since you propose it, I believe I will.”
Alone, as if enduring to the end
A valiant armor of scarred hopes outworn,
He stood there in the middle of the road
Like Roland’s ghost winding a silent horn.
Below him, in the town among the trees,
Where friends of other days had honored him,
A phantom salutation of the dead
Rang thinly till old Eben’s eyes were dim.
Then, as a mother lays her sleeping child
Down tenderly, fearing it may awake,
He set the jug down slowly at his feet
With trembling care, knowing that most things break;
And only when assured that on firm earth
It stood, as the uncertain lives of men
Assuredly did not, he paced away,
And with his hand extended paused again:
“Well, Mr. Flood, we have not met like this
In a long time; and many a change has come
To both of us, I fare, since last it was
We had a drop together. Welcome home!”
Convivially returning with himself,
Again he raised the jug up to the light;
And with an acquiescent quaver said:
“Well, Mr. Flood, if you insist, I might.
“Only a very little, Mr. Flood –
For auld lang syne. No more sir; that will do.”
So, for the time, apparently it did,
And Even evidently thought so too;
For soon amid the silver loneliness
Of night he lifted up his voice and sang,
Secure, with only two moons listening,
Until the whole harmonious landscape rang –
“For auld lang syne.” The weary throat gave out,
The last word wavered; and the song being done,
He raised again the jug regretfully
And shook his head, and was again alone.
There was not much that was ahead of him,
And there was nothing in the town below –
Where strangers would have shut the many doors
That many friends had opened long ago.
How did it turn out like that? No doubt Eben burned a few bridges along the way. I probably find it so depressing because it may be an awful premonition of my own, far-off future. If I live that long. But have a contradictory premonition that I shall not see old age. Who can tell? And which would be better, anyway?
We shall next jump backwards and visit earlier English poems because that is the order I read them in. That is, I started in the middle of the book. Later we’ll come back to the twentieth century to look at some more recent work.
But that poor old Eben, hey? Robinson has gone and depressed everybody.
I need a drink.
Well, Mr. Vladivostok, if you insist, I might. Only a very little. Just for auld lang syne.