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Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
The forest-field of Shiloh –
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched one stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
Around the church of Shiloh –
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
And natural prayer
Of dying foemen mingled there –
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve –
Fame or country least their care
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
And all is hushed at Shiloh.

I have several poems in my half-full blank book of treasured poems that deal with war.  None of them are the trimphal, go-get-’em kind of poems, but poems like this, which speak of the agony and heartbreak of warfare.  This is the earliest of them, being written about the American Civil War.  Part of what makes this war interesting is that it is the preview, so to speak, of the First World War.  Almost all of the technological advances which made that war such a total horror were first deployed in the Civil War: trench warfare, chemical weapons, early machine guns.  However, since the war was a local struggle in the still provincial United States, these changes went largely unnoticed and unanalyzed by the European authorities.  Here, however, is an example of the kind of poem that would become associated with World War I, and the Lost Generation.

The poem is still a very American work.  Shiloh is a “forest-field,” a piece of land cleared so recently that it is still trying to return to its previous state.  The church is “log-built,” architecture specifically associated with the American frontier.  The church is also “lone,” isolated from any other buildings, farms, or traces of civilization.  Like America was largely left alone during its bitter struggle, the church and those who suffered there are profoundly isolated inside the now-silent church.

The poem begins and ends with the image of swallows flying through the sky.  The dipping, circling motion of their flight is evoked in the first line by words ending in “ing:” “skimming,” “wheeling.”  The birds are silent in their flight.  There is no bird song or bird calls.  This silence is part of the great stillness that lies over the entire poem, the silence of death.  The only sound mentioned is a “parting groan.”  There is no movement apart from the motion of the birds.  While the people mentioned might have been once “stretched in pain,” they now “lie low,” utterly motionless as the birds fly above them.

This is not a poem about a glorious victory.  There is nothing within the poem itself to indicate whether Melville (more famous for his seldom-read classic Moby Dick) found himself on the side of the North or the South.  It finds nothing beautiful in war.  The serenity of the battleground afterwards is an ironic contrast to the misery of those who died there.  The battle itself is a pointless episode, a fight between men who were “foemen at morn, but friends at eve.”  Their mutual suffering has brought them to realize the pointlessness of their combat.  This is followed by one of my favorite lines: “What like a bullet can undeceive?”  When confronted with the real results of their action, they are no longer to regard the other side as really their enemy.

The poem is profoundly sorrowful, and perhaps a touch angry.  This suffering, it seems to say, was needless.  In the end, the swallows still fly over the place where men died for nothing, only realizing their common brotherhood when it was too late.

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Dear father and dear mother: Let me crave
Your loving kindness there beyond the grave
For my Erotion, the pretty maid
Who bears these lines. Don’t let her be afraid!
She’s such a little lassie – only six –
To toddle down that pathway to the Styx
All by herself! Black shadows haunt those steeps
And Cerberus the Dread who never sleeps.
May she be comforted, and may she play
About you merry as the live long day,
And in her childish prattle often tell
Of that old master whom she loved so well.
Oh earth, bear lightly on her! ‘Tis her due;
The little girl so lightly bore on you.

Poetry in translation is always interesting.  I wish I had the original Latin to compare this to it.  I wonder if it was in sonnet for too, and if so, how many liberties the translator had to take with the text to make it fit into the sonnet form again.  As a sonnet it’s a wonderful example of the form.  It hits the turn dead on, and the heroic couplet at the end is gorgeous.

Quite a bit of the poem’s charm, however, comes from the subject matter, the charming Erotion herself.  Poetry about children can be sickeningly sentimental.  While this is definitely sentimental, it is not poisonously sweet or cloying.  This is even more remarkable because it is speaking of the child’s death.  That the poet loves her very much is clear.  His grief shines through in every line, even to the heartbreaking plea to the earth to weigh lightly upon her buried body, and his fear that she might be frightened on her long journey by the monsters that guard the underworld.  Much of the poem’s power comes from the words the poet uses to describe Erotion.  She is a “pretty maid,” a “little lassie,” who is “only six.”  She “toddles,” and the poet hopes that she may “play” and “prattle.”  She is “merry,” and she loved her master, the poet.  Through this, we can see the beautiful child whom the poet will miss dreadfully.

Another interesting aspect of this poem is that the child whom the poet so lovingly describes is the poet’s slave.  It is easy to think of slavery as uncompromisingly evil.  However, slavery in the ancient world could be more complex.  Depending on the size of the household or the traditions of the family, slaves could be something much more like family than property.  One of the ways a female slave could sometimes achieve freedom was through marriage to her master.  It is hard to imagine a 19th century American slave owner writing such a poem about a slave child.  But then, the ancients did not indulge in philosophical claptrap about inferior races (barbarians were quite another thing).  Regardless, it does make me wonder about the politics of the translator.

May mornings wear
light cashmere shawls of quietness,
brush back waterfalls of
burnished silk from
clear and round brows.
When we see them approaching
over lawns, trailing
dewdark shadows and footprints,
we remember, ah
yes, the May mornings,
how could we have forgotten,
what solace
it would be in the bitter violence
of fire then ice again we
apprehend – but
it seems the May mornings
are a presence known
only as they pass
light stepped, seriously smiling, bearing
each a leaflined basket
of wakening flowers.

It is difficult to write an original poem about Spring or May or any of the cluster of associated topics.  The idea has been explored so many times through the ages.  Frankly, there’s only so many baby lambs gamboling across dewy fresh pastures that humanity can take.  Every apt description has become cliche, and the poem is trite before it is even begun.  For all this, sometimes someone comes along who is able to say something new and unexpected, something that makes you see this old subject with new eyes.  The work is even more delightful because it comes up to a challenge, adding that extra oomph that catches your attention and makes you say, “Ooooh, that’s nice!”  It’s like a seamstress who finishes all her seams beautifully on the inside.  The casual looker will never know, but the wearer, or perhaps the few who know how to recognize quality, will immediately be able to appreciate the craft and care that went into the garment.  This particular poem on May Mornings is like that.

The poem is also of particular interest to me because I consider myself something of a connoisseur of May mornings.  I was born in time to appreciate one some thirty plus years ago, and I have loved them ever since.  Reading this poem is like hearing a loved one praised.  It makes me happy.

The poem itself begins with personifying May mornings as women stepping quietly across wet grass.  However, the choice of specifying “light cashmere shawls”  and “waterfalls of burnished silk” bring in elements of softness, warmth, and luxury.  Already we see the richness of the burgeoning season and the hint of warmer days even as it is still necessary to wear a shawl.  The cashmere shawls are shawls “of quietness,” which introduces the idea of how peaceful and serene these women are as they pass.  Later in the poem Levertov calls them, “light-stepped.”  They have such a quiet, gentle coming that you don’t even remember their existence until you see them coming towards you.  This is heightened by contrasting it with the “bitter violence of fire then ice again” of the other seasons.  Other days are violent and bitter, but May mornings are quiet and cool and pass gently by.

This idea is reinforced by the last image.  The May morning women, as they walk, are carrying “basket(s) of wakening flowers” as they smile seriously.  This is not a frivolous skipping past, swinging a basket from which posies tumble helter-skelter, forgotten once they pass.  No, this is a serious business, and the flowers are precious.  It is important that they be carried carefully as they slowly waken from their winter slumber.  The May mornings hold them and tend them with due gravity, and the viewer is reassured and comforted by their presence.

She dealt her pretty words like Blades –
How glittering they shone –
And every One unbared a Nerve
Or wantoned with a Bone –

She never dreamed – she hurt –
That – is not Steel’s Affair –
A vulgar grimace in the Flesh –
How ill the Creatures bear –

To ache is human – not polite –
The Film upon the eye
Mortality’s old Custom –
Just locking up – to Die.

Emily Dickinson challenges me.  Every poem is so utterly itself, capturing perfectly some small facet of human life.  They stick with me long after I have put the text down.  This poem is a good example of that.  I have met women like this sometimes, who pride themselves on speaking their mean version of the truth with no pity for those they slice with their words.  Dickinson’s turn of phrase is gorgeously precise – “wantoned with a bone” almost makes me shudder.

And yet, at the same time, I never know completely what to make of them.  There is a part of her thought that remains obscure to me.  I start thinking about the hyphens, almost operating as line breaks within lines, and they confuse me.  They emphasize certain words so precisely, and yet sometimes I am not sure why they are there.  Yet there is a rightness to them.  Each word and punctuation mark should be there, even if I do not quite understand why.

Dickinson is also one of those poets whose work cannot be seperated from her life.  The poems are so different, at least in part, because she was so different.  It would be easy to read her life as a cautionary tale on the cost of genius, particularly for women.  What does it cost a person to be truly Other, to refuse to forsake that Otherness, to insist on being most truly Yourself no matter what?  Would you abandon relationships for the sake of your genius?  How about hiding in an upstairs room for the rest of your life?  Is the poetry worth it?  These are questions I can’t answer.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since, to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

There are two trees in front of my across-the-street neighbors that are completely covered in white at the moment.  They are not cherry trees (I have no idea what they are), but the loveliness of them sooths my heart and makes me glad to live where I do, to be alive at this moment seeing the white glowing under the bright sunshine against the blue of the springtime sky.  This poem captures so beautifully the sweet satisfaction and wonder of witnessing something so gratuitously beautiful.  This is part of its enduring charm, and part of why it is consistently included in anthologies and textbooks, making it widely known even in our poetry-phobic world.

This poem is also an example of rhyme done right.  I have read too many poems (and written too many too) in which the rhyme scheme is forced and artificial.  The poem becomes written for the rhyme, rather than the rhyme supporting the poem.  In my opinion conventions like rhyme and meter should be almost invisible.  They should disappear into the poem, reinforcing the theme and structure, but so unobtrusively that it seems that the lines end with a particular word because that is the word it naturally should end with, not because it fits into a rhyme scheme.  For me, that is the mark of a truly successful rhyme scheme, and it awes and impresses me the way a really well-done Lindy swingout only impresses other Lindy dancers.  This poem impresses me no end.

Well there it is.  There’s nothing to do.
The cat steals the milk and it’s gone.
Then the cat steals you, and you’re found
Days later, with milk on your face.

That implies that you become whoever
Steals you.  The trees steal a man,
And an old birch becomes his wife
And they live together in the woods.

Some of us have always wanted
God to steal us.  Then our friends
Would call each other, and print
Posters, and we would never be found.

I love this poem, not least, I think, because I am one of those people who have always wanted to be stolen by God.  Karl Rahner, in his Foundations of Christian Faith, talks about transcendence as, “in its origin and from the very beginning the experience of being known by God himself.” (p. 58)  It is like negative theology, which says that in the end all we can know about God is that we know nothing about God.  Now I don’t buy into that completely (and, thank heavens, neither did Thomas Aquinas), but I do think when it comes to journeying towards God, God always started towards us the day before we started to think we might like to take a trip.  We can never get the jump on God.  He always loved us first.

I also enjoy the poem’s matter of fact towards life, and unblinking acceptance of the supernatural working in and through the natural world.  It progresses smoothly but without a hitch from a cat stealing milk to a cat stealing a person, then to a man being stolen by trees who then marry him of to one of themselves, and ultimately to a person being stolen by God and the person’s friends putting up Missing Person posters.  It’s wonderful.  Part of this effect is accomplished by Bly’s choice of very common, short, everyday words.  The only words over two syllables in the whole poem are “whoever” and “together” in the second stanza.  Although what Bly is discussing is rather high metaphysics, he uses a very plain, conversational, almost prosey style.  In a way this makes the poem seem even more deep and meaningful.  Because the concepts are not gussied up with flourishes or refined and scholarly language, they shine through with all their own original power.  It’s a good lesson to learn, perhaps, that the bigger the idea that you’re talking about, the more you can use plain language.

This poem is also very interesting for its line breaks.  Because of Bly’s prosey style in this piece, they become crucial to the success of the poem.  Although the first two lines of the poem are end-stop lines, every other line in the poem that does not end a stanza is enjambed.  The enjambment keeps the eye moving, stopping you from ceasing to read before the poem has laid out an entire thought.  The organization of the poem into three stanzas of four lines each also helps distinguish between the three main ideas, smoothing the transition between them.  When a new stanza begins, the reader knows to expect a new idea.

I think I should have loved you presently,
And given in earnest words I flung in jest;
And lifted honest eyes for you to see,
And caught your hand against my cheek and breast;
And all my pretty follies flung aside
That won you to me, and beneath your gaze,
Spread like a chart my little wicked ways.
I, that had been to you, had you remained,
But one more waking from a recurrent dream,
Cherish no less the certain stakes I gained,
And walk in your memory’s hall, austere, supreme,
A ghost in marble of the girl you knew
Who would have loved you in a day or two.

I can still remember the book I copied this out of.  It was on the shelves at a host family I stayed with in Washington, DC.  I had liked Edna St. Vincent Millay before, but this slim volume of her sonnets was new to me.  I was moving on in a day or two, but I copied this and a few others into my notebook to take with me.

Some of the impact of this poem comes from its form.  Millay wrote in a time before it was quite acceptable to discard rhyme and meter.  Her discipline shines through the careful word choice, and fitting of the subject matter into the sonnet form.  I don’t know if this is an Augustan or Sheakespearean sonnet (it’s been a long time since English Lit Junior year of high school when I learned the difference) but it doesn’t matter.  Millay is the master (mistress?) of the form.  She even hits the turning of the sonnet smack on.  The poem rings true as a bell, with no false note anywhere.  The heroic couplet at the end especially zings, set lightly at the end as the capstone that seals and finishes the piece.  It’s a beautiful thing.

The subject matter is also very interesting: attraction and a relationship that never gets off the ground.  The speaker is denying herself from the would-be beloved.  She shows how close she came to falling in love before some defect in the lover (his going away from her) brought her to her senses.  Love is a battle, a struggle.  In other poems Millay portrays herself as the besieged, but in this one she is the besieger who would have herself become ultimately vulnerable in the laying aside of her stratagems, but who has emerged triumphant by not giving in.

This poem is also significant for me personally.  Love and relationships have often been a struggle.  Sooner or later most people become cautious about who they allow themselves to love.  We approach the giving of ourselves in a relationship with care.  I can still remember the first time I was able to consciously decide not to fall in love with someone I was attracted to.  I know that too many times I have edged towards that brink, only to discover that the other person wasn’t really available or suitable or interested.  There can be a sense of, “Well, I would have loved you with all my heart, but now you don’t get me because you don’t really deserve me.”  This poem captures that sort of slightly outraged petulance very well.