As much as I have enjoyed Edwin Arlington Robinson’s books, and as good as The Man against the Sky (1916) is, it may be time for me to switch to his Selected Poems. Robinson is becoming more abstract; I am becoming more baffled.
Some of the abstraction is a move to an attempt to describe feelings or ideas at a more character-free level – at least I often can’t figure out who the characters are supposed to be – and some of it is a natural side effect of pared-down Robert Browning-like monologues. I am supposed to be doing a lot of the work, I get that.
Begin with the title of “Bokardo.” It is a term from formal logic, pure gibberish to me, given as a name to a man stricken with remorse and guilt to the point where he has perhaps attempted suicide. He is confessing or complaining to the poet, who is unsympathetic. The 120 lines are the poet’s ironic dismissal of Bokardo’s self-pity:
There’s a debt now on your mind
More than any gold?
And there’s nothing you can find
Out there in the cold?
Only – what’s his name? – Remorse?
And Death riding on his horse?
Well, be glad there’s nothing worse
Than you have told.
Those last lines are brutal, as are a number of others. It is possible that Bokardo is meant to be Robinson’s brother, who sold the family home at a loss and etc. etc., some list of irritating but petty nonsense that explain nothing about the poem, nor add anything to its imagery or moves toward wisdom:
They that have the least to fear
Question hardest what is here;
When long-hidden skies are clear,
The stars look strange.
The great treat for me in this collection was the least abstract poem, “Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford,” a 25-page monologue of one great poet talking about a greater. Jonson is having a drink with a Stratfordian:
And I must wonder what you think of him –
All you down there where your small Avon flows
By Stratford, and where you’re an Alderman.
Nominally, he is grilling his guest about Shakespeare and his mysteries – Jonson presents Shakespeare as something of a cipher – but Jonson ends up doing all the talking. This is all entirely plausible.
I gather something happened in his boyhood
Fulfilled him with a boy’s determination
To make Stratford all ‘ware of him.
The time of the poem is around Shakespeare’s retirement form playwriting, and he is given some kind of crisis of mortality:
“No, Ben,” he mused; “it’s Nothing. It’s all Nothing.
We come, we go; and when we’re done, we’re done;
Spiders and flies – we’re mostly one or t’other –
We come, we go; and when we’re done, we’re done.”
Jonson suggests that Shakespeare get a dog, and dang it get his plays published (“what he owes to Gutenberg”).
He’ll do it when he’s old, he says. I wonder.
He may not be so ancient as all that.
For such as he, the thing that is to do
Will do itself.
Just a wonderful tribute to “this mad, careful, proud, indifferent Shakespeare!” and to Jonson, too. “I love the man this side idolatry.”
No post tomorrow.