Monday, October 1, 2007

Thomas Wade: minor early Victorian poet

Thomas Wade (1805-1875) has a Wikipedia entry lifted from a public domain encyclopedia. I found two of his sonnets on the web, printed below. He is omitted from the Oxford Companion to English Literature, at least the edition I have, and I have not been able to find his poems in any anthology published after 1910 or so. Harold Bloom includes him in his lists in The Western Canon. An unappreciated English professor assembled his collected work twenty years ago, an obscure press published it, and the University of Chicago library acquired a copy, which I read. Wade is not quite forgotten, but it’s a close thing.

Here’s one of the poems I found at

The Uncharmed
My piercéd life was all ablood with sorrow
For, suddenly, the veil of beauty thrown
By glorifying youth over sweet to-morrow
Fell, and disclosed to me the future's frown;
Within the wrinkles of whose unread brow
There was a lurking something which till then
I dreamed not hung before the lives of men,
Ready to fall upon them as they grow
Into the longer knowledge of brief years:
Blank vacancy; and doubt; and strangled tears
That never reach the eyelids; vanishing
Of all sweet things we love; death-beds; and graves;
And shadowy wrecks, where pale hopes trembling cling,
Heart-faint, and stifled by continual waves!

This is not an easy poem. Grammatically, it’s one sentence, with multiple clauses and phrases, which would be hard to read in prose. It may take two or three tries to discern that the subject is straightforward – the onset of a midlife crisis. The last five lines are a list of the horrors the poor fellow sees in his future. The form is a standard English sonnet, the rhymes are nothing special. If this is a good poem, it’s because of the effect of that list, and the surprise that the death-beds and graves don’t end the list, that there’s even worse to come.

Wade’s first little book was pure Shelley, completely derivative. Wade got out from under Shelley’s shadow through a narrow formalism – almost all of his best poems are sonnets. Nature poems, married love poems. Some political poems, not so interesting now. But he wrote a dozen or more as good as “The Uncharmed.” Here’s another.

"Julian and Maddalo"
I read of 'Julian' and 'Count Maddalo'
Till in their spirits' presence stood my soul;
And blending with their sympathy of woe
A tempest woke my thoughts, and they gan roll,
Billow on billow, toward eternity--
And passion's cloud hung over the vast sea.
Where is the essence now that thought and spoke?
Absorbed like water, the frail vessel broke
That held it trembling from the sand awhile?
Or doth it quiver still; and, quivering, smile
At the now cleared-up mystery of creation?
Which shook it once even to its mortal seat,
Which seems the brain and heart, that burn and beat
Till life pants darkly for annihilation.

Maybe this one’s even better. But it requires some specialized knowledge. You need to know that the poet is reading a Shelley poem, in which stand-ins for Shelley and Byron have an encounter in Venice. The poet’s thought turn to the early deaths of Shelley and Byron, particularly Shelley’s death by drowning when a storm sank his sailboat. You also have to know that Shelley was a notorious atheist for the puzzling over what happened to his ”essence” to have any meaning. Not everyone knows all this, and why should they, but this poem is pretty much lost without this background.

In a typical sonnet the last four lines are a unit, some sort of culmination. In the first poem, it’s the last five lines, in the second, the last three. This is how formalists innovate, pushing and pulling within the form.

* All of the early Victorian poets we still read sprung directly from Shelley and Keats, one reason the reputations of those two poets, barely known during their own short lives, is so high.

1 comment:

  1. I'm gonna see if I can work the phrase "all ablood with sorrow" into my newscast today. You can't top the Victorians for the catchy turn-of-phrase.