Melissa Girard

Melissa Girard: On "A Mona Lisa"

"A Mona Lisa" is one of Grimké’s most distinctive love poems, questioning the relationship between lesbian desire and aesthetics. The poem is divided into two sections. The first section is an erotic fantasy that envisions the speaker’s seduction of the figurative Mona Lisa. The second section, in some ways more ambiguous than the first, functions to question the work of the fantasy that has just been constructed. Rather than figuring sexuality as loss, the poem moves toward an embodied or corporealized aesthetics that figures both sexuality and art as sites of material presence.

The first section opens:


I should like to creep

Through the long brown grasses

That are your lashes (lines 1-3)


The speaker’s desire remains conditional, tentative, filling the poem with careful expressions of "I would" and "I should." The poem imagines an erotic meeting that transforms the iconic object of Western art into a desiring female body. Yet, at the same time, the poem leaves open the possibility that the speaker desires the woman as art, is imagining not a transformation of canvas into body, but the radical possibility of an erotic encounter with art, the possibility that she could "creep," "cleave," and "sink" into the body of the painting. The fantastic encounter shows the way that desire blurs the line between art and the body, the material representation and the material body. The poem uses traditional metaphors of artistic representation and juxtaposes them against a body, leaving the reader to wonder which scene exactly the speaker desires:


I should like to poise

On the very brink

Of the leaf-brown pools

That are your shadowed eyes (4-7)


The "leaf-brown pools" could be meant as a traditionally poetic metaphor for the body, or a more literal description of the surface of the painting. The paint itself may be creating the leaf-brown pool of eyes, or, the poem may have already embodied the woman, and be abstracting the body in a poetic tradition of lyrical praise. What is meant as material reality in this poem, and what is meant as poetic imagination is radically uncertain. Does the poetic subject desire the materiality of paint, or the transformation of paint into the female body? Desire does not fragment here, or break the body apart, but force the presence of the material, calling attention to the materiality of the body and art. Desire between women is a very material desire, a desire that figures writing as a site of potential meeting between the lesbian body and aesthetics. The first section of the poem ends with an erotic loss of self, an abandonment of the self to pleasure:


I should like to sink down

And down

And down…..

And deeply drown. (12-15)


Some critics have read this drowning at the end of the poem as a moment indicative of Grimké’s chronic despair, and read into this loss the psychic and artistic constraints of being a black lesbian writer—the inevitable loss accompanying these identities. The moment in the poem undoubtedly points toward self-abandonment. However, its attention to the corporeal body and to aesthetics codes the poem as much more complex than self-abnegating despair. The self-abandonment at the end of the poem is an abandonment to bliss, the jouissance that Leo Bersani has termed "self-shattering," a moment that "disrupts the ego’s coherence and dissolves its boundaries" (Homos 101). The poem disrupts traditional representation, fantasizing a communion with art, and through that fantasy reconceives the relationship between the lesbian body and aesthetics. The poem ends in orgasm, the elipses of a desire so intense that it rearticulates the bounds of the self. The poem’s realization is not one of despair, but one of the radical possibilities for the desiring lesbian poetic subject. The social coding of lesbianism as an irrecoverable loss is questioned through Grimké’s linguistic fantasy, and her attention to the corporeal presence of the lesbian body in art.

In the second section, the poem appears to shift outward, as if it is reading the first section and writing questions in response:


Would I be more than a bubble breaking?

Or an ever widening circle

Ceasing at the marge?

Would my white bones

Be the only white bones

Wavering back and forth, back and forth

In their depths? (16-22)


The section leaves the reader unsure where exactly the questions issue from. The section may represent a type of "awakening" out of the fantasy structure. As if she were questioning the ramifications of seducing a woman out of art, of embodying a woman and eroticizing art itself: "Would I be more than a bubble breaking?" Are the questions in response to lesbian desire itself? Or, are they in response to writing itself? To art? In addition to these fundamental ambiguities, the questions themselves are less than clear. The first two questions seem to point toward the tentative nature of erotic subjectivity, as if the speaker is aware that the pleasure she has located exists only in a moment. The "bubble breaking" would be the pleasure dissipating. Similarly, the "ever widening circle / Ceasing at the marge" seems to suggest a fear that the work of pleasure leads only to a wider expanse of power, a new relationship to art and the body, perhaps, but not the ultimate transgression that the poem desires. The transgression that the poem seems to envision is not a transcendence of the self, but a self-shattering that resituates a non-identitarian, desiring body in relation to art. The final question, with its suggestive "white bones" remains even more ambiguous, possibly, than the first two. The "my white bones" evokes a difference between surface and interior, as with the poem’s questioning of the painting surface and the woman inside. Grimké has here reduced personal identity to "white bones" leaving race, gender, and any real personal distinctions impossible or irrelevant. She has, in a sense, flattened the surface of the body to correspond to the two-dimensional surface of a painting, removing any distinction between interior and exterior, personal and public, or self and other.

Gloria Hull writes that in many of Grimké’s love lyrics, "the loved one is wreathed in whiteness" (Color, Sex, and Poetry 141). Here, however, it is not the loved one who is shrouded in whiteness (though the Mona Lisa was not black), but the speaker, her racial difference, or any surface personality traits and characteristics rendered obsolete, all people reduced to "white bones." The question suggests that Grimké desires knowing if other women (or men) have attempted what she is attempting, have desired what she has desired. The poem ends with this question, highlighting the already present ambiguity. What remains certain in the poem is this deep longing, the fantastic desire that the poet has envisioned. That this desire will have deep and lasting implications for the speaker and for society seems clear: what does this desire mean? What does writing this desire mean? Is this desire incompatible with identity—with racial identity? The poem leaves these questions unanswered, and possibly unanswerable, pointing toward the difficulties of negotiating race, sexuality, and aesthetics as a scene of writing.


Copyright © 2001 by Melissa Girard

Melissa Girard: On "Tenebris"

Like many of Grimké’s short, intense poems, "Tenebris" ends with a question: "Is it a black hand, / Or is it a shadow?" (lines 12-13). Ultimately unanswerable, the question destabilizes Grimké’s already tentative politics and poetics. The question highlights the poem’s shadow play, leaving the reader unsure whether "Tenebris" is an urgent social warning or a critique of reading racial politics at face value. Grimké’s speaker in "Tenebris" is compelled to speak, compelled to disrupt the preceding representation through a pointed question and internal critique. The speech act proliferates the poem’s representational and interpretive possibilities, marking and asserting the always ambivalent relationship between representation and interpretation. Always shifting and unlocatable, "Tenebris" will never divulge its "secret": the real and the unreal are equally marked by desire and equally invested with political possibility.

The speaker in "Tenebris" carries the reader into her own fantasy, a world to be read, after Lacan, as never only personal or private, but always blurring individual boundaries into the public.

The poem’s imaginative desire counters the omnipresent white fear of "darkness," demanding a politics that recognizes the specificity and sensuality of the black body. "Tenebris" contextualizes the black body, robbing white society of its homogeneous fear of miscegenation, a foundational fear that Grimké reads as the unspoken social imaginary. By blurring representation and fantasy, by constructing a vision of racial politics grounded in fantasy, "Tenebris" searches for a new form of political resistance. The poem’s fantasy, its imaginative wandering into the world of shadows, is built and maintained only for a moment, but its radical potential will continue to haunt racial politics beyond the boundaries of the page.

"Tenebris" is an ominous poem, playing upon images of dark and light, and the subsequent association of darkness with all that is evil and unknown. Grimké’s imaginative exercise leads the reader into this darkness, into a racial economy.


There is a tree by day

That at night

Has a shadow,

A hand huge and black,

With fingers long and black. (lines 1-5)


Here, the trope of a tree can never be just a tree. Gesturing toward a history of slavery and its legacy of continuing violence to black bodies, Grimké manipulates the image of the tree, evoking its grotesque combination of beauty and death. The tree’s "shadow" is a shadow of slavery, of lynched bodies dangling from trees. More than sixty years after Grimké, Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved will struggle with this traditional image of poetic beauty in a similar way, remembering, "Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world…remembering the wonderful soughing trees rather than the boys. Try as she might to make it otherwise, the sycamores beat out the children every time and she could not forgive her memory for that (6)." Grimké binds the tree to a history of violence against black bodies, leaving the reader to wonder if the welcome shade and protection the tree offers during the day can even then really be safe.

When a black hand emerges from the tree, then, during the night, the association carries with it this history of violence. Of course the tree’s shadow is a black hand, evidence of the inseparability of the body from poetics, of slavery from poetry, of history from representation, of imagination from reality.

The sensualized corporeality of a huge black hand is at once specific and highly depersonalized. The "fingers long and black" are visible "All through the dark, / Against the white man’s house" (lines 6-7). The hand is always on the brink of penetrating the white man’s sanctity, his house. The tree’s shadow, taking the form of a specific black hand, though one not tied to an individual person, points toward white fears of miscegenation at one of their most susceptible points. The white man’s house serves as a trope for his safety, his purity, his protection, and, ultimately, his subjectivity. The poem points toward the black domestic labor that fuels a substantial part of the economy and, particularly, sustains a white standard of living. Such exploitation necessitates a literal proximity between the races, so that the white man’s power, his domination over black workers, is also the germ of his paranoia. The poem plays on a history of the plantation house, the source of white power and white fear. At night, the exploitation of black labor transforms into a source of fear, a fear that white comfort is reliant upon black labor, and even further, that whiteness itself is reliant upon "darkness" to derive its meaning. In the white imagination, black bodies, de-particularized into a homogeneous mass of "darkness" take on hyper-real shapes and fantastic forms. Grimké forces the reader to ask, is it a shadow or is it a black hand? Is the fear "real" or only "imagined"? Grimké’s insight is that white fears are located both on the material and the immaterial, forcing black bodies into a double oppression, at once rooted in the real and the always possible threat.

As the poem continues, Grimké further reinforces the way that white safety is literally built upon the blood of black hands, black bodies:


Against the white man’s house,

        In the little wind,

The black hand plucks and plucks

At the bricks.

The bricks are the color of blood and very small. (lines 7-11)


The poem maintains a delicate tension between the homogenized darkness of white fears and the specific smallness of one black hand, plucking at tiny bricks, one at a time. This tension particularizes the black body, and re-focuses a politics of resistance, literally, on the ground level. As in much of her poetry, Grimké appears to find both aesthetic and political value in that which is small and specific. The poem suggests a number of historic and political readings in this brief moment. The black hand that plucks brick by brick evokes the massive political project of dismantling white power, slow and painful work, but, ultimately, destabilizing. The "blood" mentioned in line 7 moves the poem between its contemporary moment and the past, symbolizing the black bodies by which and upon which white power has been built. At once corporeal and symbolic, the jolting mention of blood further complicates the poem’s play between the corporeal and the figurative, reality and fantasy, race and representation.

Perhaps Grimké’s most incisive comment on race relations can be found within the poem’s insistence upon ambiguity. The "darkness" that troubles the poem makes the distinction between the real and the unreal impossible. Grimké recognizes that white fear and racism are founded upon an always possible threat more than they are on any necessary correlation to reality. In this sense, "actual" danger is irrelevant. Even more radically, the poem suggests that white security itself is manufactured through the threat of an impending encroachment by a mass of darkness. The sanctity of the white man’s house only exists through the structural and literal exclusion of the racialized other. It is the very "darkness" that the white man fears that enables the construction and maintenance of his subjectivity. So, too, is the threat of miscegenation necessary for Anglo-Saxon purity to derive its meaning. Grimké’s fantastic rendering does not throw light on this homogenized darkness, does not dispel its existence. Rather, she attempts to recuperate the specificity of a sensualized black body, a more productive site for her to ground a politics of resistance. Grimké’s challenge to a racial economy in which subjectivity is derived through racial abjection is not to pretend the abject does not exist, but to de-homogenize the abject, to invest it with a specific corporeality.

The final lines, then, take on an ironic play:


Is it a black hand,

Or is it a shadow? (lines 12-13)


The poem plays with the imagination, exposing the paranoia of turning shadows into bodies, and reminding the reader that the poem’s metaphor was always just a possibility. Yet, by this point, the danger that fills the poem will not so easily dissipate. We return to the beginning of the poem, and remember that the black hand is a fantastic act, a fanciful rendering of the tree’s shadow. The poem even critiques the speaker’s own shadow play, mocking her indulgence in turning shadows into bodies. By asking whether a black hand is ever really a black hand, the final lines ask whether the line between "shadow" and "body" can ever be stabilized. What remains despite (because of) the poem’s radical uncertainty, is a more clear understanding of the speaker’s own desire to enter a world of fantasy. The poem’s shadow play ruptures a world in which individual desire is not recognized as a social desire. The reader may never know whether the "threat of darkness" is real or imaginative, and whether one possibility is less frightening than the other. However, the poem makes clear that fantasy structures are political, and may even be the site within which to locate political resistance. Grimké tropes white society’s fears of miscegenation, reinvests these fears with a specific corporeality, and in so doing, founds political resistance within the racial body itself.

Melissa Girard: on "There will Come Soft Rains"

Since 1913, Teasdale had been an avid student of Charles Darwin. Following America’s declaration of war, she returned again to his foundational work. She writes to her mother-in-law in August 1918, from Nahant,

Tell Father Filsinger that I am reading with real delight Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species.’ I wonder if he has read it? I have always imagined it a dry deep book, far too learned for me, but to my surprise it is immensely entertaining and opens up vast vistas to me. (Letters, 9 August 1918).


The poem “There Will Come Soft Rains” shows the subtlety and sensitivity of these Darwinian meditations:


            There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,

            And swallows calling with their shimmering sound;


            And frogs in the pools singing at night,

            And wild-plum trees in tremulous white;


            Robins will wear their feathery fire

            Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire


            And not one will know of the war, not one

            Will care at last when it is done.


            Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,

            If mankind perished utterly;


            And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,

            Would scarcely know that we were gone.


Unlike the majority of Teasdale’s war poems, “There Will Come Soft Rains” has not been entirely forgotten. Three decades after its initial publication, in the wake of World War II, Ray Bradbury featured the poem as the foundation of a similarly post-apocalyptic short story, also titled “There Will Come Soft Rains,” in his 1950 novel The Martian Chronicles. In his re-appropriation, Bradbury portrays a future world that has been destroyed by mankind’s heedless progress: mechanical mice scurry energetically around a house while a dog, covered in radioactive sores, lies down and dies. His story shares with Teasdale’s poem the terrifying insight that mankind is no longer connected, organically, to the natural world. The only species capable of mass, mechanized, self-destruction, humans are utterly alone, detached from a natural world that no longer even notices we are there. Imported into the futuristic world of 2057, Teasdale’s words become bitterly ironic. As early as WWI, Bradbury implies, mankind had been warned.

The poem awakens that old sentimental longing to return to a state of deep connectedness with nature. It even deploys a set of familiar stylistic markers that seem to have been borrowed directly from a nineteenth-century aesthetic economy. The poem’s alliteration, for instance—“whistling their whims,” “feathery fire”—and the sing-song rhymes—“ground/sound,” “night/white,” “fire/wire,” all evoke a sense of comforting gentility. But this veneer of conventional sentimentality merely heightens the profound impact of nature’s heartlessness. The poem’s cloying, saccharine quality and its tranquil, pastoral descriptors are deceiving. Ultimately, all of our sentimental feelings about “frogs” and “wild-plum trees,” as well as the language through which we have constructed those myths of a deep and abiding connection to nature, are tossed, mockingly, back at us—we, who naively believe that the “soft rains” will signal our own renewal and that the birds will sing to celebrate our salvation. The poem undercuts those pastoral fantasies with the reality of a natural world dominated by indifference, motivated only by its own survival, and oblivious to the existence or extinction of man. Ironically, however, Teasdale locates a kernel of hope in this harsh vision. Devoted exclusively to its own survival, nature, in Teasdale’s conception, proffers no comfort to mankind, but can, nonetheless, provide the key to our own preservation. Rather than a retreat into an irrecoverable, idyllic past, Teasdale’s Darwinian pastoral presents a cold, cautionary tale: urging her modernist audience to adopt the ways of nature—to focus more whole-heartedly on their own survival.

“There Will Come Soft Rains” first appeared in Harper’s Monthly Magazine in July 1918—less than two months after the passage of the Sedition Act. Meant to strengthen the provisions of the already-repressive Espionage Act, the Sedition Act of May 16, 1918 was designed to quash American opposition to the war, outlawing “virtually all criticism of the war or the government” (Goldstein 108). Following its passage, anthologies and magazines continued to publish a small number of anti-war poems, but only if these poems were strategically “nonspecific” in their critique and refrained from offering any “substantive political alternative” to the war (Van Wienen 27). This climate of censorship casts a different light on the apparent obliqueness of Teasdale’s anti-war pastorals. Rather than a limitation, their rhetorical vagaries and historical imprecision might be precisely what enabled their circulation at the height of WWI. It is possible, in fact, that Teasdale’s cultivation of a demure, “poetess” persona might have, contradictorily, enabled her to publish anti-war poetry with impunity.


Work Cited


Van Wienen, Mark. Rendezvous with Death: American Poems of the Great War. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2002.


Girard, Melissa. “‘How autocratic our country is becoming’: The Sentimental Poetess at War.” JML 32.2 (Winter 2009): 41-64.

Melissa Girard: on "Spring in the Naugatuck Valley"

Less than three weeks after completing “Dusk in War Time,” on February 18, 1915, Teasdale produced another, far more subversive response to WWI, “Spring in the Naugatuck Valley.” Although the poem appeared in the progressive periodical The Survey in April 1915, it was subsequently omitted from all of her popular books of poetry. As a result, this radical and incisive poem has been completely forgotten. In stark contrast to “Dusk in War Time,” which casts WWI as comfortably remote and foreign, “Spring in the Naugatuck Valley” brings the violence home:

News item: “Brass, copper and wire mills in the Naugatuck Valley are shipping nearly a thousand tons of war material daily. One mill is turning out 200 tons a day of shrapnel ‘fillers’ of lead and other metals.”


Spring comes back to the winding valley,

The dogwood over the hill is white,

The meadow-lark from the ground is piping

His notes like tinkling bells of light;

Peace, clear peace in the pearly evening,

Peace on field and sheltered town—

But why is the sky so wild and lurid

Long, long after the sun goes down?


They are making ammunition,

Blow on blow and spark on spark,

With their blasting and their casting

In the holy April dark.

They have fed their hungry furnaces

Again and yet again,

They are shaping brass and bullets

That will kill their fellow-men;

Forging in the April midnight

Shrapnel fillers, shot and shell,

And the murderers go scathless

            Though they do the work of Hell. With its emphasis upon domestic arms manufacturing, the poem exposes the hypocrisy of America’s official, isolationist stance. It is profit—not peace—that reigns in this valley. The poem thus provides an ironic counterpoint to “Dusk in War Time.” Both poems are concerned with America’s national boundaries, but “Spring in the Naugatuck Valley” dispels the sentimental illusion that Americans are as yet uninvolved in WWI. Even within this “sheltered town,” tucked away in the heart of New England, blood is being spilled.

“Spring in the Naugatuck Valley” thus marks a significant departure from the genteel style of poetry Teasdale purportedly favored. If Love Songs was dominated, as virtually all critics believed, by a single-minded pursuit of “loveliness,” then “Spring in the Naugatuck Valley” serves as the antithesis of its cloistered aestheticism. The genteel tropes scattered throughout the poem’s first stanza—“tinkling bells of light” and “pearly evening”—are undercut sharply by the clandestine operations that occur “long, long after the sun goes down.” These genteel epithets are ultimately exposed as a kind of idyllic front masking the mills’ murderous business. Rather than a genteel poem, “Spring in the Naugatuck Valley” belongs to a vital tradition of popular anti-war poetry, which collectively radicalized the conventions of the so-called “genteel” lyric in response to WWI.

In this early war-time response, Teasdale begins to realize the new aesthetic and political possibilities nascent within the genteel form. The poem’s newspaper epigraph, for instance, lends a concrete urgency to Teasdale’s outrage. “Spring in the Naugatuck Valley” exposes—rather than imagines—the mechanisms of modern warfare. At the height of America’s involvement in the war, in 1918, Teasdale would admit that the war had significantly altered her reading habits: “You know, I never used to read a newspaper, but for the past year and a half, I have been a regular newspaper fiend” (Letters, 1 March 1918). “Spring in the Naugatuck Valley” confirms this new form of political engagement, and inaugurates a powerful transformation in her poetry and poetic method.

Drake, who provides what is perhaps the only critical reference to “Spring in the Naugatuck Valley” since its publication, concludes that Teasdale withheld the poem from publication because “she disliked poems that suggested a message” (Sara Teasdale 147). This explanation belies the prolific and persistent nature of Teasdale’s response to the war. In his brief survey of Teasdale’s war poetry, Drake implies not only that it is a limited and limiting corpus, but also that Teasdale’s interest in the war peaked in its early years. This is a crucial misrepresentation on Drake’s part. The anti-military, anti-war sentiments expressed within “Spring in the Naugatuck Valley” are no aberration; the poem is merely the first in an ongoing political project that intensified significantly in subsequent years. Indeed, Teasdale’s letters and notebooks suggest that 1917 and 1918 represented her most productive period for political poetry. Her letters and notebooks from this time are dominated by a growing preoccupation with the war. The aesthetic and political themes Teasdale explored in early anti-war experiments like “Spring in the Naugatuck Valley” ultimately transform into a powerful critique of American nationalism and a scathing indictment of America’s growing militarization.


Work Cited


Drake, William. Sara Teasdale: Woman and Poet. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979.


Girard, Melissa “‘How autocratic our country is becoming’: The Sentimental  Poetess at War.” JML 32.2 (Winter 2009): 41-64.

On Bogan’s “The Alchemist”

Bogan’s essay “The Springs of Poetry” appeared in the December 5, 1923, issue of New Republic, alongside Amy Lowell and Elinor Wylie, as well as Vachel Lindsay, Alfred Kreymborg, Witter Bynner, Joseph Auslander, and Archibald MacLeish, all of whom contributed to this landmark modernist issue. In “The Springs of Poetry,” Bogan criticized the “synthetic” poetry being produced by some of her contemporaries (9). A “synthetic” poem, according to Bogan, is a chemically induced objectivity, an artificial method for creating (or destroying) emotion within the poem. Her description resonates with Eliot’s famously chemical metaphor in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: “The mind of the mature poet differs from that of the immature one not precisely in any valuation of ‘personality,’ not being necessarily more interesting, or having ‘more to say,’ but rather by being a more finely perfected medium into which special, or very varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations” (40-41). Indeed, Bogan both conversed with and critiqued Eliot’s influential doctrine of Impersonality throughout her career. Like Eliot, Bogan acknowledges that direct, unmediated expression is neither desirable nor possible—poetry, she says, must always “be the mask, not the incredible face.” However, she also worries that too many of her contemporaries had begun producing emotionally sterile poetry—poetry like “a veil dropped before a void” (9). She cites, as a cautionary tale, the example of the contemporary poet

Determined to take a holiday from any emotion at all, being certain that to hear, see,

smell and touch, merely, is enough. His hand has become chilled, from being held too long against the ground to feel how it is cold; his mind flinches at cutting down once again into the dark with the knife of irony or analysis.

This “synthetic” poetry, she writes, “may sound…in ears uninitiate to the festival, but never to those, who, having once heard, can recognize again, the maenad cry.”

Against “synthetic” poetry, Bogan posits an organic solution, a formal poetic strategy she terms “reticence.” Reticence, she says, is modeled on the silence of the Old Testament prophets, who spoke infrequently, but when they did, spoke with tongues of fire. This is a poetics, she explains, “in which passion is made to achieve its own form, definite and singular,” “as though the very mind had a tongue,” and “in which the hazy adverbial quality has no place, built of sentences reduced to the bones of nouns, verb, and preposition” (9). “This is the further, the test simplicity,” Bogan concludes, “the passion of which every poet will always be afraid, but to which he should vow himself forever” (9). Years later, it was this distinctively organic formalism that Marianne Moore hailed in Bogan’s poetry: “Emotion with [Bogan], as she has said of certain fiction, is ‘itself form, the kernel which builds outward form from inward intensity’” (Moore 61).

Bogan’s poem, “The Alchemist,” which appeared in her 1923 collection, Body of This Death, illustrates the sophistication of her thinking regarding emotion and poetic form. Although Bogan’s theories are not entirely in line with her high modernist contemporaries, they are certainly not “sentimental” either:

            [“The Alchemist” quoted]

Bogan is not the first modern poet to have dabbled in the magical science of emotional alchemy. As Diane Middlebrook observes, “The Alchemist” tropes a long line of poetic speakers who embarked on similar quests for spiritual and aesthetic purity, including Shelley’s Alastor, Byron’s Manfred, Arnold’s Scholar Gypsy, and, in a modernist context, William Butler Yeats’ speaker in “Sailing to Byzantium” (Middlebrook 176). “Sick with desire,” Yeats’ speaker craves the purifying influence of “God’s holy fire.” “Consume my heart away,” he begs, “and gather me / into the artifice of eternity” (lines 17-24). Byzantium thus serves as a metaphor for the spirit’s transcendence of the body—that “dying animal” which impedes the speaker’s communion with eternity (line 22).

Yeats’ spiritual yearning—to transcend a decaying body and a heart that refuses to die—finds its aesthetic complement in Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Here, as in “Sailing to Byzantium,” the “bodily form” is tempered or purified through an alchemic process; for Yeats, it is the spirit that transcends, and, for Eliot, the mind that “transmutes” a baser, bodily substance. In Eliot’s quasi-scientific language, the poet’s mind functions as a catalyst, digesting and transmuting the raw stuff of emotion into a new, more “perfect” compound. “The more perfect the artist,” Eliot writes, “the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material” (41). Eliot’s Impersonality is not, as it is sometimes mistakenly thought to be, a method for creating an “unemotional” form of poetry. It is, however, a method for intellectualizing the emotions or “passions”—managing them, consciously, through poetic form.

At the outset of “The Alchemist,” Bogan’s poetic speaker seems to have taken Eliot’s advice to heart. “I burned my life,” she begins, proudly documenting the lengths to which she was willing to go in pursuit of an Impersonal poetics, “a passion wholly of the mind.” Yet, rather than a new compound—“the mind’s avid substance”— Bogan’s alchemy has produced only “unmysterious flesh.” By attempting to separate her intellect from her body, to transmute the base material of emotion into a finer substance, the speaker has not only destroyed her life, but, ironically, discovered that emotion is fundamentally more pure than intellect: “still / Passionate beyond the will.”

There is no transcendence to be found in Bogan’s poem, only the keen insight that emotions and the body cannot be managed fully by the conscious mind. Notice, for instance, the rhythmic breaks that disrupt the poem’s meter in the second stanza. From the heavily stressed tetrameter of lines 7 and 8—a “mounting beat” created by the use of iambs and trochees—the poem moves into the less regular rhythms of “unmysterious” and “passionate,” both of which contain dactyls that fundamentally alter the meter of those lines. In this rhythmic shift, Bogan models the unruliness of emotion—a trace of affective or bodily agency that has exceeded the subject’s best attempts at formal discipline. In contrast to both Eliot and Yeats, Bogan’s alchemy eschews a Western, masculine ideal of the mind, in favor of an embodied formalism. “Expression is molded by feeling,” Bogan writes, “as the liquid in a glass is shaped by the glass itself” (Achievement 25).