Thomas H. Johnson: On 258 ("There's a certain Slant of light")

[Emily Dickinson's] dread of winter [is] expressed in one of her remarkable verses, written about 1861 [,"There's a certain Slant of light"]. It is, like the somewhat later "Further in Summer than the Birds," an attempt to give permanence through her art to the impermanent; to catch that fleeting moment of anxiety which, having passed, leaves the beholder changed. Such moods she could catch most readily in the changing seasons themselves. . . . /89/ Winter to her is at moments intolerably dreary, and she here re-creates the actual emotion implicit in the Persephone-Pluto myth. Will spring never come? Sometimes, winter afternoons, she perceives an atmospheric quality of light that is intensely oppressive. The colloquial expression "heft" is especially appropriate in suggesting a heavy weight, which she associates with the weight of great bells or the heavy sound that great bells create. This might be the depressing chill and quiet preceding a snowfall. Whatever it is, it puts the seal on wintriness. Coming as it does from heavens, it is an imperial affliction to be endured ("None may teach it—Any"). Even the landscape itself is depressed. When it leaves, she feels that whole body. The strong provincialism, 'Heft' (smoothed away to 'Weight' by former editors), carries both the meaning of ponderousness and the great effort of heaving in order to test it, according /216/ to her Lexicon. This homely word also clashes effectively with the grand ring of 'Cathedral Tunes,' those produced by carillon offering the richest possibilities of meaning. Since this music ‘oppresses,’ the connotation of funereal is added to the heavy resonance of all pealing bells. And since the double meaning of 'Heft' carries through, despair is likened to both the weight of these sounds on the spirit and the straining to lift the imponderable tonnage of cast bronze.

The religious note on which the prelude ends, 'Cathedral Tunes,' is echoed in the language of the central stanzas. In its ambiguousness 'Heavenly Hurt' could refer to the pain of paradisiac ecstasy, but more immediately this seems to be an adjective of agency, from heaven, rather than an attributive one. The hurt is inflicted from above, 'Sent us of the Air,' like the 'Slant of light' that is its antecedent. In this context that natural image takes on a new meaning, again with the aid of her Lexicon which gives only one meaning for 'slant' as a noun, 'an oblique reflection or gibe.' It is then a mocking light, like the heavenly hurt that comes from the sudden instinctive awareness of man's lot since the Fall, doomed to mortality and irremediable suffering. This is indeed despair, though not in the theological sense unless Redemption is denied also. As Gerard Manley Hopkins phrases it in 'Spring and Fall,' for the young life there coming to a similar realization, 'It is the blight man was born for.'

Because of this it is beyond human correction, 'None may teach it—Any .' Though it penetrates it leaves 'no scar' as an outward sign of healing, nor any internal wound that can be located and alleviated. What it leaves is 'internal difference,' the mark of all significant 'Meanings. ' When the psyche is once stricken with the pain of such knowledge it can never be the same again. The change is final and irrevocable, sealed. The Biblical sign by which God claims man for his own has been shown in the poems of heavenly bridal to be a 'Seal,' the ring by which the beloved is married into immortal life. But to be redeemed one must first be mortal, and be made conscious of one's mortality. The initial and overwhelming impact of this can lead to a state of hopelessness, unaware that the 'Seal Despair' might be the reverse side of the seal of ecstasy. So, when first stamped on the consciousness it is an 'affliction.' But it is also 'imperial . . . Sent us of the Air,' the heavenly kingdom where God sits enthroned, and from the same source can come Redemption, though not in this poem. /217/

By an easy transition from one insubstantial image to another, 'Air' back to 'a certain Slant of light,' the concluding stanza returns to the surface level of the winter afternoon. As the sun drops toward the horizon just before setting, 'the Landscape listens' in apprehension that the very light which makes it exist as a landscape is about to be extinguished; 'Shadows,' which are about to run out to infinity in length and merge with each other in breadth until all is shadow, 'hold their breath.' This is the effect created by the slanting light 'When it comes.' Of course no such things happen in nature, and it would be pathetic fallacy to pretend they did. The light does not inflict this suffering nor is the landscape the victim. Instead, these are just images of despair. /218/ 

From Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1955), pp. 189-190.

Donald E. Thackrey: On 258 ("There's a certain Slant of light")

One of the very best lyric poems which Emily Dickinson wrote, it seems to me, is ["There's a certain Slant of light"]. . . . /76/

This poem is frequently found in anthologies of American poetry but has seldom been discussed, as far as I know. Perhaps the explanation is to be found in the poem itself, which is unquestionably beautiful in its sound, and striking in its imagery, yet resists definition in terms of a logical, comprehensive statement. This poem, certainly, is one of those rare poems which are experienced, never completely understood. It seems to me impossible to read the lines without feeling a tragic, serene emotion which must be akin to the melancholy about which Keats writes. Emily Dickinson's poem is much less specific than the "Ode on Melancholy" in describing the nature of the emotion, but her poem captures and transmits the experience itself.

In regard to the poem's meaning, one finds himself perplexed at first. The poet experiences a profound affliction in the presence of something normally regarded as cheerful—a ray of light. If, however, one remembers the mystical approach which characterizes much of Emily Dickinson's writing, the poem assumes a new meaning. This is not a mystical poem, but it derives its ethereal quality from the influence of the mystical aspect of Emily, Dickinson's viewpoint. Light, itself a characteristic mystical symbol of the Divine, and perhaps also the natural splendor of the world which the light reveals and enhances in its afternoon, fading glow, strikes Emily Dickinson with the irresistible force of an Eternal Power. Not mere speculation is stimulated; an emotional ecstasy of such intensity that it is an affliction possesses her. Furthermore, it is an imperial affliction sent us of the air. It is again the mystical concept of the worthiness of painful ecstasy to promote the complete fulfillment of one's nature. No other education is comparable; only the experiencing of "despair" sets the enduring "seal" upon the soul. One recalls that beauty and truth, alike in their effect, are for her the agents of supreme human fulfillment and are accompanied by the complex sensations indescribable except in such paradoxical terms as rapturous pain. The slant of light, its illumination epitomizing the glorious sublimity of nature, would symbolize for Emily Dickinson the ultimate realization of truth and beauty. The immensity of light's compass, the intangibility of its substance, the mystery of its origin, the all-pervasive immediacy of its /77/ presence would create in her the sudden awareness of her own relationship to the natural world and yet of the inevitable change of this relationship at death. The awareness that she must cease to see the light gives her present vision its searing acuteness. . . .

An examination of the images in "There's a certain slant of light" reveals their extraordinary degree of consistency and appropriateness. The light is presented in its most effective form. The slant indicates that the light is refracted so that one may see the beam or ray itself and not just an illuminated surface. The slant is explained by afternoons. Sunset is near, for "winter afternoons" are short. The terms winter and afternoon both are suggestive of the end of life. The lustre and yellow warmth of the light stand out in striking relief in austere winter. Light compared with cathedral tunes demonstrates a consummate use of imagery in which the profoundest impressions of one sense are called forth to describe equally profound impressions of another sense. The senses of sight and hearing, as well as an emotional tone and a feeling of muscular tenseness in opposing weight, are all involved in the brief stanza. The nature of the paradoxical "Heavenly hurt" is made evident by the image of cathedral tunes. Most people are sensible of the sober disquietude that may be stimulated by great, solemn music, if not by the beauty of nature. The "internal difference" is, of course, the essential difference for Emily Dickinson rather than any outward change. . . . /78/

[The] significance of the slant of light is also within. The sudden, inward change is so thorough that the poet, holding her breath and listening, sees her own emotional state reflected in the very landscape and shadows. The emotion, too intense to last, subsides as the slant of light lengthens and lowers into the gray of twilight. Then "'tis like the distance / On the look of death." The feeling of softened, lengthened distances as seen at dusk, the poignancy in the departure of something precious, the resigned awareness of death—not felt with the acute sensations of before but contemplated dispassionately—all are included in this solemn final image.

The mechanical details of the poem are, to my mind, flawless. The second and fourth lines of each stanza end in perfect rhyme, and the first and third lines of each stanza exhibit the incomplete sound-rhymes for which Emily Dickinson has been alternatively praised and damned for something over fifty years. The recurrence of sounds in the complete and incomplete rhymes is not obvious and blatant; it has the effect of music lightly assuring the listener of its key by sometimes stating the tonic, but frequently only pausing on the dominant. The key or tone of the poem is maintained throughout by the preponderance of "s" sounds. The poem seems to demand to be read in a subdued tone ending with the whispered last two lines. There is not a jarring sound present; the liquid "I's" and the vowels add to the hushed, lyric quality.

The trochaic meter in this poem is much more skillfully handled than the majority of Emily Dickinson's meters. Even in the terse /79/ seven-syllable, five-syllable lines there is present much subtle metric variation, as reading the poem aloud will verify.

The simplicity of the organization of this poem is art which conceals art. The stanzas are self-contained, precise units, each one an extension of the basic meaning. The poem ends with the symmetrically balanced phrases "when it comes . . . when it goes . . . " and the final images of sound and sight complete in reverse the pattern created by the sight and sound imagery of the first stanza.

This poem exhibits none of the childishness, the self-conscious mannerisms, which mar some of her poetry. The characteristics which are present—the introspective analysis of the second stanza, the mystical implications of the third, and the supreme mastery of words and imagery throughout—contribute to make this poem one of the best products of Emily Dickinson's unique poetic genius. /80/

From Emily Dickinson's Approach to Poetry, New Series, No. 13 (University of Nebraska Studies, November 1954), pp. 76-80.

Kevin Stein on: "A Step Away From Them"

Borrowing a line from the poem itself, one could easily call this an example of O'Hara's "I look" poems. His ostensible intention for the poem and its impetus, at least initially, are identical, and both seem purely visual. Still, amidst the glow of "neon in daylight" and the smoke of a sign, the "blonde chorus girl" and the "lady in foxes," time suddenly and sullenly rears its ugly head: O'Hara, dead center in "Times Square," becomes aware it is "12:40 of / a Thursday" (and he dates the poem 1956). He is made fitfully aware that time imposes limits. On the most mundane level, it brackets the exhilarating hour of his lunch, and in a larger way, brackets his own lifetime as it already has those of his deceased friends Bunny Lang and Jackson Pollock, of whom he thinks while walking on the "beautiful and warm" avenue before heading "back to work." Quickly, though his "heart" is in his "pocket," O'Hara moves from the death of his friends to safer, more objective matters such as "BULLFIGHT" posters and "papaya juice."

From "Everything the Opposite" in Jim Elledge, ed. Frank O’Hara: To Be True to a City. University of Michigan Press, 1990.

D. H. Melhem: On "Gay Chaps at the Bar"

The sonnet form was not an eccentric choice for Brooks. It had already been favored by many Harlem Renaissance (or "Harlem Awakening," in Arna Bontemps's preference) poets such as Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes. The sequence of twelve sonnets is based on letters to the poet written by black soldiers. Each fourteen-line poem is composed in pentameter, mainly iambic, with modifications of Shakespearean/Petrarchan rhyme schemes. The alternate scansions possible in several poems, and elsewhere in Brooks's metrical work, attest to the theoretical difficulties of accentual-syllabic meter, as well as to the poet's intuited sense of rhythms that derive from content. She herself depreciates her own concern for meter or stress, preferring their spontaneous apprehension.

Dedicated to "Staff Sergeant Raymond Brooks and every other soldier," the poems represent contemplations of and by American servicemen in World War II. The sequence merits close attention for several reasons. First, formal confines are meaningfully relaxed by slant rhymes and assonance in terminal and internal positions, with the important line initial carefully attended. Second, dramatic rendering of contemporary life deepens. Bronzeville and even the individual portraits are largely sociological in conception; "Negro Hero" is archetypal. The sonnets, however, probe subtleties of situation and psychology and test the meaning of black life and American ideals under fire. Of the twelve poems (numbering added), the rhyme scheme of one (no.7) is Petrarchan, identified as "P"; another (no.1) varies the Petrarchan, identified as "Pv"; six (nos. 2, 6, 8, 10, 11, 12) combine the Shakespearean, "S," with the Petrarchan—the latter appearing in the sestet—and such combinations are identified as "S/P"; three (nos. 3, 4, 5) are Shakespearean ("S"); and one (no.9) varies the Shakespearean, identified as "Sv." The Petrarchan is rhymed as octet and sestet; the Shakespearean/Petrarchan as two quatrains and sestet; the Shakespearean as three quatrains and couplet. Prosody of the first sonnet, examined in detail, typifies the careful crafting of the rest.

1. "gay chaps at the bar" (Pv) The slant rhyme, subtly deployed, offers no trite or predictable couplings. Surprise abounds, along with the intellectual quality of half-rhyme. The poem takes its title from a letter written to Brooks by William Couch, an American officer in the South Pacific during World War II (see chapter 4,Maud Martha, and RPO, 191). He saw men return from the front crying and trembling, men who had been "Gay chaps at the bar in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York." The poet speaks through the collective voice of such an officer: black, schooled in the social codes of segregation ("bar" especially evokes the color bar, justice, and the "bar" between life and death, as in Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar"). Limits and dimensions of such conduct determined "Whether the raillery should be slightly iced / And given green, or served up hot and lush" (ll. 3-4). But the soldiers were not taught "to be islands" or "how to chat with death." The color green is central. Transposed into the tropics it becomes an island, untamed, menacing the soldiers who pave not been prepared "To holler down the lions in this air." Linguistic levels, from "raillery" (1.3) to "holler" (I. 14), which also summons the Negro "holler" in music, move the language from standard to vernacular as the soldiers move into the untamed environment. References to learning and knowledge emphasize the youth of the servicemen who are mostly fresh out of school, with its mock-battle sports, and cast into deadly encounters for which they lack "smart, athletic language" (1. 10).

"We knew how to order. Just the dash / Necessary. The length of gaiety in good taste" (ll. 1-2). The break after "dash " punctuates as a dash itself might do, further emphasizing "Necessary." The sentence fragments connote restrictions of decorum and indirectly comment on the brevity of life itself. Yet the second line struggles successfully to escape the confining pentameter. "Necessary," ordinarily a four-syllable word, can be compressed in quick, affected or Anglicized speech, the latter plausible following "Just the dash." Still, the meter breaks into six stresses. The long a's of gaiety and taste reinforce each other so that, again, a limit (taste) is imposed upon feeling (gaiety) through the connection.

And we knew beautifully how to give to women  The summer spread, the tropics, of our love.  When to persist, or hold a hunger off.  Knew white speech. How to make a look an omen.  But nothing ever taught us to be islands. [ll. 5-9]

Images of heat, food, and instruction continue as they will to the end of the poem. But the "tropics" of love hardly prepare anyone for the heat of the island, of war, solitude, death. And what is taught? To whom? Roles become tentative, arbitrary, confused. The lexical mode of this theme appears in white, which connects through consonantal taught with assonant islands, associating the ironic white / taught / islands. (Taught will also be recalled in brought, I. 12.) Islands refers by consonance toomen. (Note that women, deprived of its first letter, yields its half-rhyme omen, the look which now replaces the feminine presence.) Along with white / taught, it bridges the octet to the sestet:

But nothing ever taught us to be islands.  And smart, athletic language for this hour  Was not in the curriculum. No stout  Lesson showed how to chat with death. We brought  No brass fortissimo, among our talents,  To holler down the lions in this air. [ll. 9-14]

But, pivotal, turns from positives in the octet—the known and comfortable, the lexicon of decorum—toward negatives in the sestet—the unknown and threatening, the ferocity of death. But echoes the b of beautifully and alliterates with brought and brass, which accompany no.

The linking of positive with negative underscores the thematic irony and ambivalence. Brass, an almost comic touch, connotes army "brass," or officers. The eccentric "fortissimo" clips exactly the right pretension. And "brass fortissimo," very loud brass, invokes "sounding brass" (1 Cor. 13:1). Devoid of charity and, therefore, of spiritual power (note allusiveness of talents), brass can provide no sound/force to defeat the lions (a power image, also biblical) "in this air"—literally the attacking bombers. The last line's colloquial and unrestrained "To holler," an inappropriate if not useless defense, offers antithesis to the restrained beginning, "We knew how to order." And how ineffectual the knowledge, the order, and, finally, how false! The poem moves from social restraints to natural ones—death and the jungle; from the officers' known place in the ordered, white-dominated world of the past toward the spontaneous, unknown islands of their present and future and, by analogy, of their selves.

2. "still do I keep my look, my identity . . ." (S/P). Leaving the collective "we" for third person, the poet meditates upon death that fixes the body in the meaning of its days, so that the look "Shows what / It showed at baseball. What it showed in school." General observations open each quatrain of the octet ("Each body has its art . . . / Each body has its pose"), then shift to concrete images (castle, shack, rags, robes). Harsh alliteration counters the liquid I's. Placed on a "crawling cot" or "chasty pall," released from grimace and pain into the benign past, the anonymous casualty claims identity.

3. "my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell" (S). A soldier tells of the honey and bread of his past life that must, during war, be stored "In little jars and cabinets of my will." He seeks patience to endure hell, "keep eyes pointed in," that his spirit not be coarsened by this experience; and hopes not to become "insensitive / To honey and bread old purity could love." (Cf the "labeled cabinet" where "the Keeper" stores the chains of enslavement in "The Third Sermon on the Warpland.") Tight structure probes anxiety lest the soldier be unable to resume his past life and sensibility, to "remember to go home."

4. "looking" (S). The poet urges a mother to look at her soldier son in farewell, since words are inadequate. Although the poem enriches the sequence thematically, several problems make the piece less successful than the others. In the first line, "you have no word for soldiers to enjoy," the plural is used, rather than the singular, but an individual soldier, the son, "him," is referred to from the fourth line on. "'come back!' the raw / Insistence of an idle desperation / Since could he favor he would favor now" addresses the mother with a terseness verging on the cryptic. Nor does "beat back the storm" contribute more than a stock image.

5. "piano after war" (S). This is the most Shakespearean sonnet of the group, in structure and style. "But suddenly, across my climbing fever / Of proud delight" recalls the Bardic turn. Brooks makes all features of the poem her own, however. A soldier imagines what peace will be like, a room in which a woman will play the piano, retrieving the "old hungers" which "will break their coffins." But the Lazarus allusion collapses into "A cry of bitter dead men." Their intrusion on the speaker's reverie connotes not only human sacrifice, but also the inevitable postwar reappraisal. Premature, useless death serves an embittering retrospect to survivors and casualties (their shades) alike. And so the future will always be fingered by that cold. The "thawed eye will go again to ice. / And stone will shove the softness from my face." "Shove," crudely suggesting "shovel," provides the poem's inexorable moment.

6. "mentors" (S/P). The soldier continues to meditate upon his dead comrades, knowing that "my best allegiances are to the dead," and "all my days / I'll have as mentors those reproving ghosts." In the sestet, terminal full rhymes of the second tercet (wears, theirs) rhyme with each other and half-rhyme with whisper and her in the first. The quatrain rhyming is also complex. Terminal words in each group slant rhyme consecutively as well as alternately.

Brooks will not permit "mentors" and "piano after war" to be quoted separately. As a unit, they consider the tainting of postwar life. All is "changed utterly," Yeats observed—more positively—in "Easter 1916."

7 ."the white troops had their orders but / the Negroes looked like men" (P). This excellent sonnet, the only regular Petrarchan, is the most impassioned. Severely controlled, it gains strength from the tension. White soldiers reluctantly prepare to accept the strange Negroes with "A type of cold, a type of hooded gaze," and are perplexed by their ordinariness. The apartheid of coffins—("A box for dark men and a box for 'Other'") had, nevertheless, become a nuisance; often "the contents had been scrambled." The four feminine endings in the sestet contribute to the sarcasm about such mishaps that seemed to offend neither the universe nor the weather. At this dramatic turning point of the sequence, the critical edge sharpens. The incident jolts faith in American democracy and its God. Brooks takes the path of style indirect fibre(third person narration in a subjective mode; see chapter 4, Maud Martha).

8. "firstly inclined to take what it is told" (S/P). "Thee sacrosanct, Thee sweet, Thee crystalline, / With the full jewel wile of mighty light—". These words introduce the soldier's profound reassessment of his patriotism, addressed within the context of received beliefs. Alluding to "America" (the lyrics proclaim, "My country, 'tis of thee, /Sweet land of liberty," whose fathers' God is the "author of liberty"; a country that enjoys "freedom's holy light" and will "Protect us by thy might, / Our [or 'Great'] God our King."), the sonnet dissects the unrealized pretensions of the anthem. There is an interesting aural association, with vital semantic difference, between Christ (from the Greek chriein, to anoint) and crystalline (from Greek krystallos, ice, crystal; kryos, krymos, icy cold, frost), reinforcing the God/country duality. The Trinitarian emblem appears clearly in the three Thees of the first line and three Thys of the fifth. In the poem, unlike the song, duality becomes duplicity, betrayal of the youthful inclination toward belief and the soldier's need to be committed "To a total God. / With billowing heartiness no whit withheld" (11. 13-14). "Freedom's holy light" has hardened into "jewel wile of mighty light," precious yet stony (unfeeling), deceitful power. After the harsh reality and irony of no.7, succession by no.8 stresses the idea that conventional beliefs are also becoming war casualties. The remarkable phonic density, with its complex internal assonance and consonance and terminal ambiguities of half-rhyme render the ambivalences here as Brooks pushes allusion and metaphor toward symbolism.

9. "’God works in a mysterious way'" (Sv). The quotation ironically adapts a title from William Cowper's devotional Olney Hymns (1779), where the verb is "moves." Brooks continues to probe and prod the God/country duality. She uses double and internal rhyme to lighten the first quatrain, in which "the youthful eye cuts down its /Own dainty veiling, Or submits to winds." In effect she approaches the theme obliquely, even mysteriously. The objective tone of third person gives way to imperative address in the sestet, whose agitated rhythmic shifts subside in the closing tercet. At last the soldier directly petitions God, asking, "Step forth in splendor, mortify our wolves. / Or we assume a sovereignty ourselves" (11. 13-14). If we were comparing the religion here with Eliot's in Four Quartets, three-quarters a wartime effort, we would conclude that the last line is one he could not possibly have written. Relentlessly devotional, he pursues an ecstatic personal redemption that Brooks's humanism—pained, skeptical, critical, hopeful—must forgo.

10. "love note / I: surely" (S/P). In the next two poems, the soldier turns his skepticism to earthly attachments. "Surely you stay my certain own, you stay / My you. All honest, lofty as a cloud" (II. 1-2). Brooks augments the flag symbol into an astute conflation of personal/political allegiance, of flag and absent beloved. Together with the next poem, it deepens the resonance of doubt. The soldier knows he can still find his love's "gaze, surely ungauzed" (I. 7). But the flag, like democracy in "Negro Hero," is a woman the soldier has learned to mistrust. "Surely" ironically punctuates six times. No longer will the man believe her "Why, of course I love you, dear" (l. 6). (Compare also the personification in "Riders to the Blood-red Wrath.") Withdrawn from certainty, "From the decent arrow / That was my clean naivete and my faith" (11.10-11), he has learned to "doubt all. You. Or a violet" (1.14). He questions every aspect of his life, his received. politico-religious beliefs and, by implication, his personal relationships. The violet, a spring flower, connotes modesty, among other associations, and symbolizes a love returned.

11. "love note / II flags" (S/P). "Still, it is dear defiance now to carry / Fair flags of you above my indignation," (II. 1-2). The soldier's love of country is costly because it postpones addressing his racial indignation. (Cf "fair fables," I. 3, "ln the Mecca.") He will pull "a pretty glory" (Old Glory) into a foxhole, remembering "dandelion days, unmocking sun" of his freedom and innocence, before the present "scattered pound of my cold passion." "Glory," especially in context of flower imagery here and throughout the sequence, also invokes morning glory, spring, youth. "Pound" reverberates with its various other meanings: domesticated animal confinement, weight, a monetary unit, to crush, to pulverize, and it echoes Shakespeare's "pound of flesh." "Cold" evokes "crystalline" of no.8 and hints of death. "The blowing of clear wind in your gay hair" conveys the beautiful image of a personified flag. The word "gay" summons both the "gay chaps" in their innocence and a woman with hair streaming in the wind—her fickle love, "Love changeful in you." (The related "coquettish death " image of "the sonnet-ballad" develops in "The Anniad" and its "Appendix.")

12. "the progress" (S/P). "And still we wear our uniforms, follow / The cracked cry of the bugles" (II. 1-2). Now speaking for all troops, the soldier returns to the collective "we" of the first poem. "Still" in the first line and beginning lines 5 and 6 emphasizes the "lnitial ardor" that has been lost, persisting as a "cracked cry" recalling the cracked Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and the broken coffins of no.5. We shall salute the flag, applaud the President, and celebrate, "rejoice / For death of men who too saluted, sang. "The "soberness" and "awe" of the soldier turns to fear and "a deepening hollow through the cold." "Cold" here connotes death. Victory will be ephemeral.

The word "hollow" and the line beginning, "How shall we smile, congratulate" (I. 12) somewhat evoke, respectively, Eliot's The Hollow Men and Prufrock ("And how should I presume?"). Both works also address will and belief. But while apathy, timidity, and Angst flatten into social alienation or cosmological egoism in Eliot's works, Brooks's soldier faces concrete fears. These culminate in the poem's last, terrifying image, prescient in 1945 with the end of the war in sight:

How shall we smile, congratulate: and how  Settle in chairs? Listen, listen. The step  Of iron feet again. And again      wild.

Even so, this is a call to resistance. Brooks has projected strength, not elegy, throughout the sequence. The space between "again" and "wild"—missing in Selected Poems—suggests a leap across an abyss, a giant step conjuring for this reader a soldier's marching stride.

"Gay Chaps at the Bar" meditates on war, the Black American experience, and postwar expectations. The sonnet sequence casts a periplum (in Ezra Pound's sense) of discovery. Each review plumbs interpretation as we mine the semantic ore. Slant rhymes throughout (together with assonance and consonance) help convey instability and tension and further the intellectual content. Brooks's tone is usually conversational as well as contemplative. Her strengths lie in powerful images, often paradoxical, striking concepts, such as the God/country duality and the woman/flag personification, both pairs involving the presence of death. She employs allusion, metaphor, symbolism, but little simile. Homogeneity of language, text, and context afford greater modulation, subtlety, irony, and complexity of psychological and thematic detail than in the preceding sections. Like the other poems, however, the sonnets demonstrate Brooks's dramatic projection, while they philosophically augment the volume's central theme of entrapment.


From Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by D. H. Melhem.

Memories of West Street

That moral and intellectual relativism is itself an issue in the poem is indicated, I think, by the dominant imagery of clothing. Of course, Lowell has used this imagery throughout, to denote human absorption in roles; but its exaggerated employment here underlines the fact that Lowell must now perceive people and situations through these roles and appearances, without the prophet's confident penetration to spiritual conditions. A further complicating factor is that the characters in the poem are all extreme, contradictory, sui generis - all Dickensian solipsists. Their relation to social processes is obscure and mystified, most of all to themselves; and taken collectively, they mirror the author's own confusion about the possibility of interpretive or moral judgments on society. Indeed, not the least solipsistic among them is the author. The opening stanza reveals Lowell's subtle discomfort at his accommodated position, at the growing distance between his concept of himself and any of the roles he must or can play. He sees himself as an underground eccentric, wearing his pajamas most of the day; but this eccentricity - and the daily load of laundry - is made possible by a respectable job, though one so luxurious it hardly seems such: "Only teaching on Tuesdays." He "hog[s] a whole house" - a residential arrangement quite appropriate to his class and background, but clearly unnatural in terms of his own feelings. Lowell proceeds to invent a bizarre but appropriate analogue to his own paradoxical status: even the man scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans, has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate, and is a "young Republican." (Perhaps this figure deserves to be interpreted more seriously, as Marcuse's vision of the superficially unexploited proletarian who pays for his comforts by a subtle regimentation extending not only to his politics but to his play - "a beach wagon" - and his sexuality - "a helpmate." But the archness of tone suggests that Lowell intends him - for the present, at least - mainly as metaphor.) Within bourgeois community and responsibility, Lowell has found at least one vital center for his life, his baby daughter: "Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants' wear." Yet even the daughter's importance is cheapened when it must be expressed through the irrelevant poetry of departure of advertising. This rhetoric bears out a dominant pattern of excess, especially of over-size - in Lowell's house, his teaching arrangements, the age-discrepancy between him and his daughter - a pattern that has some of the terror, if not the moral implication, of Macbeth's "giant's robe/ Upon a dwarfish thief." At the very least, Lowell's exaggeration of his contentment is a subtle way of questioning it - of admitting that he is "selling" himself. One reason, presumably, for Lowell's delayed parenthood is the very different kind of commitment that engaged his youth: Ought I to regret my seedtime? I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O., and made my manic statements . . . "Ought I to regret my seedtime?" is the essential question of the poem: has Lowell's present ironic vision transcended, and so gained the right to reject, his earlier committed one? The question, for me, recalls one of Blake's Proverbs of Hell: "In seedtime learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy." The proverb is relevant to more than Lowell's occupation, for the Devil is satirizing the conventional life-cycle, claiming that it is merely a mind-forged manacle designed to prevent man from ever enjoying his instincts, ever distinguishing his true self from his society's rationalizations. Lowell's mature irony does indeed reveal disturbing, incontrovertible truths about his earlier self. His revolt was itself solipsistic, ineffective, merely bizarre, or at least society could make it seem so: the apolitical, Dionysiac Negro he was paired with was no better an objective correlative of his commitments than his fellow professors and Marlborough Street neighbors would be now. The phrase "telling off" makes his argument seem a sloppy emotional catharsis; just as, later, the comparison of the prison roof to "my school soccer court" would reduce his martyrdom to a compulsive repetition of childhood experiences involving authority, violence, and exhibitionistic attention-seeking (assuming that the reader makes the obvious connection with "91 Revere Street"). Of course, this too could be seen as part of society's mystification: prison makes the dissenter doubt his own manhood and judgment, since it reduces him to the dependence of a child. At times, however, Lowell's irony backfires: the use of a technical psychoanalytic term like "manic" in a subtle descriptive context, however accurate it may be, suggests a complacent patness attained at some cost to richness of feeling and recollection. In the prison scenes Lowell's vision of anomalies and disconnections becomes still more intense and maddening. The pervasive costume imagery absorbs - though with a grimmer irony than usual - so palpable a reality as the New York slums: "bleaching khaki tenements." The prisoners, defined by garments ranging from "rope shoes" to "chocolate double-breasted suits," are worlds unto themselves, and worlds full of self-contradiction. One, Abramowitz, carries pacifism to a cosmic extreme, yet clearly has his own problems about aggression and masculinity (he is called a "flyweight" and urgently wishes to be "tan"). Lowell can finally dismiss his point of view with a rather sneaky reference to Eden and the Fall. Nor can Lowell feel much common cause with the other war protesters, one of whom belongs to a sect the Catholic C.O. has never even heard of Still less, of course, is there a feeling of unity among the prisoners in general. Indeed, the prisoners' interactions reveal to Lowell another, equally important kind of disunity; the ethical contradictoriness of our society, which punishes the aggressive conformist for his acquisitiveness while bearing down on the eccentric for his dislike of force, but allows the persecution of the eccentric by the conformist to go on in prison just as it does elsewhere. Something unanticipated happens in the poem, however, when Lowell focuses on the last prisoner: "Murder Incorporated's Czar Lepke." . . . One difference is technical. Where, before, hesitancy and the sense of disconnectedness expressed themselves in abstention from eloquence, halting metrics, submerged or doggerel rhyming, now the lines become emphatically iambic, the rhymes prominent, regular, stately; there is a touch of the surging periodicity of Lord Weary's Castle. We are led to look for a reflection of this increased intensity in the moral content of the lines. One insight that becomes very clear is the real power of money and violence cutting across all claims of value and principle in American life. Morally repudiated and condemned to die, Lepke is still czar, still "segregated" into privilege like a Southern white, still given "things forbidden the common man." Further, these things are exactly what the conventionally respectable desire: the American Way of Life, an unexamined jumble of consumer goods, piety, patriotism. As the scavenger earlier identified with these things against his own class interests, Lepke identifies with them against the whole legal and moral tenor of his life; unless, of course, one cynically concludes that the law and public life are themselves so pervaded by this doublethink that their ostensible values are meaningless. For Lepke, as the citation from John Foster Dulles would suggest, is a symbol of at least one aspect of American public life. He has organized, bureaucratized, depersonalized individual murder; America, in the "tranquillized Fifties," has done the same thing with its power to annihilate mankind. Lepke is "lobotomized," has had certain electrical connections in his brain severed (whether literally or metaphorically is not to the point here). America, too, has "lost connections," between its values and its acts, the fiction and the reality of its motives, the news and the appropriate emotional reaction; it too "drifts" toward its fate, unable and unwilling to change. (Rightly considered, the phrase "agonizing reappraisal" was as grotesque when spoken by Dulles as when applied to Lepke.) America, too, is "calm," "tranquillized" as Lepke is "lobotomized"; but in both cases the calm may be merely the psychological effect of an overwhelming, inescapable fear of execution or nuclear annihilation. And here Lowell's analogy carries an especially frightening implication; for in Lepke's single-minded concentration on death, his attitude seems to change from terror to fascination to love. Death becomes an "oasis," the only escape from fear. A number of radical writers have seen such a Dr. Strangelove psychology in the attitude of Americans toward the bomb; and we remember that both Freud and Marcuse predicted a resurgence of the death instinct in very advanced civilizations. The concluding phrase, "lost connections," seems to reflect not only on Lepke and official America, but on the poet himself. For he too, at the beginning, suffers from an inability to connect his inner identity with his social roles; and an inability to go beyond an inclusive, defensive irony to the patterned vision of social processes that might allow him to locate himself, and reopen the possibility of political engagement. This vision arrives with the symbol of Lepke; and it is important that Lepke is a symbol, while the other characters, because of their obscure or mystified relation to society, remain unbudging, fruitless particulars. The return from observation to symbolism, like the more intense metrics, and like the vision itself, suggests a kind of breakthrough or change of heart in Lowell - one that, I believe, is mirrored in the structure of Life Studies as a whole.

George Monteiro: On "Birches"

SEVERAL TIMES in Robert Frost: A Living Voice, his account of the poet's talks at the Bread Loaf School of English, Reginald L. Cook quotes Frost's remarks on "Birches." Frost's words on one such occasion are given a context by Cook, who writes:

In spite of his deprecatory view of explication, Frost revealed a good deal about his art. When he disclosed his feeling about certain words in "Birches," he gave a searching insight into what makes a poet's use of descriptive words stand up. And how cavalierly he did it! He offered "this little note on 'Birches' before I begin to read it. See. The kind of explication I forbid," he said self-consciously. Then with disarming slyness, he said: "I never go down the shoreline [from Boston] to New York without watching the birches to see if they live up to what I say about them in the poem." Invariably the listener laughed, but on the double take he realized that Frost, the careful craftsman, was confirming his assertion that birches bend to left and right by verification. Getting details right was a telling responsibility. His birches, he insisted, were not the white mountain or paper birch of northern New England (Betula papyrifera); they were the gray birch (Betula populifolia).

[. . . .]

The way in which Robert Frost came to write "Birches" is described by Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant: "As for the poet, 'who never saw New England as clearly as when he was in Old England,' he could not tie down his creative moments. It was about this time, early in 1914, while tramping the muddy yard at the Bungalow [West Midlands], that he suddenly; he says, wrote a new poem, not to be included in North of Boston. This was the now so famous and beloved 'Birches,' with its cold and crystal memories of another kind of wintry world." As this account suggests, Frost's poem might have reflected pure, almost spontaneous invention, but if so, it was stimulated by memories of boyhood experiences of winter and summer in northern New England and sharpened by the perspective of the poet's self-imposed exile. What I would suggest, however, is that in "Birches," even though Frost saw New England most clearly when he was in Old England, he re-viewed his wintry New England scene through Thoreauvian eyes.

On December 31, 1852, a day of rain and ice in Concord, Thoreau wrote in his Journals with keen anticipation: "It is a sort of frozen rain this afternoon, which does not wet one, but makes the still bare ground slippery with a coating of ice, and stiffens your umbrella so that it cannot be shut. Will not the trees look finely in the morning?" For the next few days Thoreau described the storm's "fine" effects upon the landscape. On the first day of the new year he observed: "This morning we have something between ice and frost on the trees. . . . What a crash of jewels as you walk! . . . The drooping birches along the edges of woods are the most feathery; fairy-like ostrich plumes of the trees, and the color of their trunks increases the delusion" (436-38). The next day Thoreau continued his report:

In this clear air and bright sunlight, the ice-covered trees have a new beauty, especially the birches . . . , bent quite to the ground in every kind of curve. At a distance, as you are approaching them endwise, they look like white tents of Indians under the edge ofthe wood. The birch is thus remarkable, perhaps, because from the feathery form of the tree, whose numerous small branches sustain so great a weight, bending it to the ground, and moreover because, from the color of the bark, the core is less observable. The oaks not only are less pliant in the trunk, but have fewer and stiffer twigs and branches. The birches droop over in all directions, like ostrich-feathers. [440]

Thoreau's description anticipates Frost's handling of imagery. But Thoreau's entry the next day offers an interesting variation on Frost's poem. He begins by recording that day's response to the observable beauty which can be attributed to nature's transforming and creative powers and then speculates on the comparative merits of man and nature. The first paragraph is largely descriptive of this "finest show of ice" (444): "Nothing dark met the eye, but a silvery sheen, precisely as if the whole tree—trunk, boughs, and twigs—were converted into burnished silver. You exclaimed at every hedgerow. Sometimes a clump of birches £ell over every way in graceful ostrich-plumes, all raying from one centre. . . . Suddenly all is converted to crystal. The world is a crystal palace" (445).

The next paragraph, however, moves into a new key. Stimulated by his last attempt at describing ice-laden birches, Thoreau ruminates:

I love Nature partly because she is not man, but a retreat from him. None of his institutions control or pervade her. There a different kind of right prevails. In her midst I can be glad with an entire gladness. If this world were all man, I could not stretch myself, I should lose all hope. He is constraint, she is freedom to me. He makes me wish for another world. She makes me content with this. . . .

Man, man is the devil,

The source of evil . . . .

I have a room all to myself; it is nature. It is a place beyond the jurisdiction of human governments. . . . There are two worlds, the post-office and nature. I know them both. I continually forget mankind and their institutions, as I do a bank. [445-46]

The conjunction of Thoreau's celebration of winter birches and his buoyant homily on man's inferiority to nature may be compared with Frost's similar conjunction of themes in "Birches." If man makes Thoreau "wish for another world " but nature makes him "content with this," to Frost it is when life most resembles nature—when "life is too much like a pathless wood"—that the poet would "like to get away from earth awhile." Frost would "climb black branches up a snow-white trunk / Toward heaven," but he would come back, he quickly decides, for "Earth's the right place for love." Thoreau would undoubtedly endorse Frost's aphorism. But their initial agreement would evaporate, I suspect, if each were to explain precisely what he took the statement to mean. While Thoreau would most characteristically focus on love of nature, Frost would just as readily assert the claim of man's fundamental love for man. The distinction is notable.

In the Journal passages that I have quoted above, Thoreau (for the moment read "man") appears almost exclusively as an observer, never as a participant beyond the act of perception. It is as if in nature's pure realm man's existence were suspended. Whenever Thoreau does tell in these entries what men are doing, or what they have done, he invariably does so to admonish them. Consequently, when he "climb[s] the bank at Stow's wood-lot and come[s] upon the piles of freshly split white pine wood," he does not compliment the worker for his labor, as one might expect, but decides, rather, that the owner of the woodlot is "ruthlessly laying it waste" (441). And in the same entry, a page or so later, he comments on the ringing of bells: "The bells are particularly sweet this morning. I hear more, methinks, than ever before. How much more religion in their sound, than they ever call men together to! Men obey their call and go to the stove-warmed church, though God exhibits himself to the walker in a frosted bush today as much as in a burning one to Moses of old" (443). Even when man does something well (after all, bells are a human invention), he is singularly capable of misinterpreting his own message and betraying his most noble purposes. For Thoreau the beauty and divinity which exist at this moment are in the glazed birch and the frosted bush. They are most certainly not in men. Nature and nature's workings are at the center of creation. In these pages Thoreau reserves his approval for the landscape transformed by ice and snow and the few men who make an appearance intrude momentarily along nature's periphery.

In Frost's poem, however, values are weighted somewhat differently. Its first twenty lines are largely devoted to a description of the effect ice-storms have on birches:

[quotes ll. 1-20]

The details in these lines are precise and deceptively neutral. The entire passage contains nothing to suggest that nature is superior (or inferior) to man, nor are we to infer that the two are equal. As description these lines exemplify what Frost calls the "matter-of-fact" of "Truth." But Frost does not stop with the conclusion that ice storms, and not swinging boys, are the cause of birches bent "down to stay." He approaches, finally the idea that man's acts upon nature have their own meaning and beauty: approvingly Frost decides that, given a choice, he "should prefer to have some boy bend" birches. In the midst of swinging, boys are not observers of nature; they actually collaborate with nature by taking the "stiffness" out of birches. Frost would have a bent tree signify that some boy swinging from earth, has gone beyond that "pathless wood / Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs / Broken across it." "Birches" suggests that nature's beauty is somehow enhanced when man has worked an effect upon nature. In this sense Frost's poem may stand as a qualified reply to Thoreau's recurrent strain of illimitable nature worship.

Of course there is another side to Thoreau with which "Birches" does not conflict. A Thoreau more congenial to Frost appears in a Journal entry six months before the notable ice storm of December 31, 1852. He writes: "Nature must be viewed humanly to be viewed at all; that is, her scenes must be associated with humane affections, such as are associated with one's native place, for instance. She is most significant to a lover. A lover of Nature is preeminently a lover of man. If I have no friend, what is Nature to me? She ceases to be morally significant" (163). For Thoreau this kind of bravely humanistic sentiment welled forth most clearly on an early summer's day. The dead of winter, we have seen, could evoke other feelings. But Frost's humanism became a harder, more durable thing in its midwinter setting of ice and snow.

As late as August 1919, in a list of poems that his friend John T Bartlett might like to read, Frost recommended "Swinging Birches." In some ways it is unfortunate that Frost stopped calling the poem by this title. I say unfortunate because the activity at the heart of the poem—the activity that generates whatever cohesion the poem has—is the boy's swinging of birches and the poet's ruminations on the possibility that the birches he sees have been bent by boys at play. He would like to think that such is the case. But since liking to think does not make it so, the poet turns to the more likely reason, the permanent bending of birches by ice storms.

You may see their trunks arching in the woods

Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground

Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair

Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

Then, interrupting this train of thought—this "matter-of-fact" "Truth"—he returns to a consideration of the notion that by "swinging" them boys also bend trees (though not permanently, as ice storms do).

I should prefer to have some boy bend them

As he went out and in to fetch the cows—

Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,

Whose only play was what he found himself,

Summer or winter, and could play alone.

Here the poem shifts into a generalized description, a semi-dramatic account of the way such a boy proceeds:

[quotes ll. 28-40]

At this point the poet acknowledges that he, too, was once "a swinger of birches," and he admits that even now he dreams of being one again. When does he have such dreams?

It's when I'm weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face bums and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig's having lashed across it open.

To what sort of boyhood pleasure would the adult poet like to return? Quite simply; it is the pleasure of onanism. We do not need either Erica Jong or John Updike to remind us that "flying" is often a dream or linguistic substitute for sexual activity. But we do need to be reminded that "early orgasms at puberty induced by friction against a tree trunk" are "not an uncommon experience," to quote from a writer commenting on the following passage from the early diaries of James Boswell: "Already (age 12-13) in climbing trees, pleasure. Could not conceive what it was. Thought of heaven. Returned often, climbed, felt, allowed myself to fall from high branches in ecstasy—all natural. Spoke of it to the gardener. He, rigid, did not explain."

If physiologically there is some sort of pubescent sexuality taking place in the "swinging" of "birches," it is not surprising, then, that the boy has "subdued his father's trees" by "riding them down over and over again" until "not one was left for him to conquer" and that the orgasmic activity should be likened to "riding," which despite the "conquering" can be done time and again. One need only note that the notion of "riding," already figurative in "Birches," reappears metaphorically in Frost's conception of "Education by Poetry," wherein he writes: "Unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don't know . . . how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you." And what is true for metaphor and poetry is true for love. Frost insisted that a poem "run . . . from delight to wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting." Then it is totally appropriate within the metaphor of "swinging birches" that even the storm-bent trees should look to the adult male like "girls on hands and knees that throw their hair / Before them over their heads to dry in the sun." No wonder, then, and fully appropriate it is, that when the poet thinks that his wish to get away from earth might by some fate be misunderstood such that he be snatched away never to return, his thought is that "Earth's the right place vor love." At some level of his consciousness the pleasurable activity of "swinging birches" has transformed itself into the more encompassing term "love." One might say, within the logic of this reading of the poem, that "Earth's the right place for [sexual] love," including onanistic love. The same sexual metaphor runs through the final lines of the poem as the mature poet thinks of how he would like to go but only to come back.

[quotes ll. 54-59]

From Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by the UP of Kentucky.