Sunday, March 6, 2016

Trumbull Stickney's hopeless exercise of beauty

Sir, say no more.
Within me ‘t is as if
The green and climbing eyesight of a cat
Crawled near my mind’s poor birds.

This poem or fragment ends the 1905 Poems of Trumbull Stickney, the poet who resembles a real-life Henry James character: an American born in Switzerland, home-schooled by his classicist father until old enough for Harvard.  Doctorate at the Sorbonne, then a faculty appointment back at Harvard.  Meanwhile, he wrote poems, a few of them extraordinary, many of those published as Dramatic Verses (1902).  A brain tumor killed him in 1904, at the age of 30.

I recommend that the (imaginary) reader of Stickney skip anything that resembles a verse drama, including the odd attempt to write a Shakespearean play about Emperor Julian in which Julian is Hamlet, and maybe avoid anything with a strong narrative thrust, like “Lodovico Martelli,” which culminates in a swordfight between a poet and the Pope over a prostitute.  I am not sure his Classical knowledge serves him so well, either.

Skip to his sonnets.  Skip to this:

The melancholy year is dead with rain.
Drop after drop on every branch pursues.
From far away beyond the drizzled flues
A twilight saddens to the window pane.
And dimly thro’ the chambers of the brain,
From place to place and gently touching, moves
My one and irrecoverable love’s
Dear and lost shape one other time again.
So in the last of autumn for a day
Summer or summer’s memory returns.
So in a mountain desolation burns
Some rich belated flower, and with the gray
Sick weather, in the world of rotting ferns
From out the dreadful stones it dies away.

I think this is terrific as a whole, but especially good in the last six lines, where please note that Stickney alliterates and rhymes the beginnings of each line – So / Summer / So / Some / Sick / From.  What a show off.

I do not expect original ideas from a sonnet, or any poem, but Stickney’s commonplaces are at least a little bent.  In “You Say, Columbus with his Argosies,” Stickney argues with a champion of Columbus, of human greatness:

You say this is the glory of the brain
And human life no other use than this?

But Stickney calls the great men, “The line / Of wizards and of saviours” – labels that seem to go beyond Columbus –

                 Actors, ill and mad with wine,
And all their language babble and disgust.

Poetry is something else, as Stickney says in Poem XXVI of the “Juvenilia” section of Poems not a path to anything like greatness:

I struggled, and alongside of a duty,
A nagging everyday-long commonplace!
I loved this hopeless exercise of beauty
            Like an allotted grace, –

This is the first of the four poems I have mentioned that does not invoke the poet’s brain.  He refers to his brain or mind incessantly, both before he had cancer and, as in the fragment atop the post and in the next poem, after.

I used to think
The mind essential in the body, even
As stood the body essential in the mind:
Two inseparable things, by nature equal
And similar, and in creation’s song
Halving the total scale: it is not so.
Unlike and cross like driftwood sticks they come
Churned in the giddy trough: a chunk of pine,
A slab of rosewood: mangled each on each
With knocks and friction, or in deadly pain
Sheathing each other’s splinters: till at last
Without all stuff or shape they ’re jetted up
Where in the bluish moisture rot whate’er
Was vomited in horror from the sea.

The poem is from the year of the poet’s death, and I do not know for a fact that it refers to his cancer, but that is how I take it.  It is an outstanding poem.  What a loss.

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