<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> <b>Introduction: Last Looks, Last Books</b> <p> <p> There is a custom in Ireland called "taking the last look." When you find yourself bedridden, with death approaching, you rouse yourself with effort and, for the last time, make the rounds of your territory, North, East, South, West, as you contemplate the places and things that have constituted your life. After this last task, you can return to your bed and die. W. B. Yeats recalls in letters how his friend Lady Gregory, dying of breast cancer, performed her version of the last look. Although for months she had remained upstairs in her bedroom, three days before she died she arose from her chair—she had refused to take to her bed—and painfully descended the stairs, making a final circuit of the downstairs rooms before returning upstairs and finally allowing herself to lie down. And Yeats himself, a few years later, took his last look in a sonnet called "Meru," which cast a final glance over all his cultural territory: "Egypt and Greece, good-bye, and good-bye, Rome!" <p> In many lyrics, poets have taken, if not a last look, a very late look at the interface at which death meets life, and my topic is the strange binocular style they must invent to render the reality contemplated in that last look. The poet, still alive but aware of the imminence of death, wishes to enact that deeply shadowed but still vividly alert moment; but how can the manner of a poem do justice to both the looming presence of death and the unabated vitality of spirit? Although death is a frequent theme in European literature, any response to it used to be fortified by the belief in a personal afterlife. Yet as the conviction of the soul's afterlife waned, poets had to invent what Wallace Stevens called "the mythology of modern death." In the pages that follow, I take the theme of death and the genre of elegy as given and focus instead on the problem of style in poems confronting not death in general, nor the death of someone else, but personal extinction. I draw my chief examples of such poetry from the last books of some modern American poets: Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and James Merrill. The last books of other American poets—John Berryman, A. R. Ammons—could equally well have been chosen, but the poems I cite illustrate with particular distinction both the rewards and the hazards of presenting life and death as mutually, and demandingly, real within a single poem's symbolic system. <p> Before I come to describe pre-modern practice in such poems, I want to illustrate very briefly in two poets, Stevens and Merrill, what I mean by "the problem of style" in a poem that wishes to be equally fair to both life and death at once. Both poets show style as powerfully diverted from expected norms by the stress of approaching death. The first of these poems is by Wallace Stevens, and it is called "The Hermitage at the Center." (Even its title is baffling; the poem has no hermitage and no hermit, at least at first glance): <p> THE HERMITAGE AT THE CENTER<br> <br> The leaves on the macadam make a noise—<br> How soft the grass on which the desired<br> Reclines in the temperature of heaven—<br> <br> Like stales that were told the day before yesterday—<br> Sleek in a natural nakedness,<br> She attends the tintinnabula—<br> <br> And the wind sways like a great thing tottering—<br> Of birds called up by more than the sun,<br> Birds of more wit, that substitute—<br> <br> Which suddenly is all dissolved and gone—<br> Their intelligible twittering<br> For unintelligible thought.<br> <br> And yet this end and this beginning are one,<br> And one last look at the ducks is a look<br> At lucent children round her in a ring.<br> <p> <p> Stevens has here presented a poem that seems unintelligible as one reads it line by line. It contains, as we eventually realize, two poems that have been interdigitated—one of death, one of life, converging in a joint coda. The first poem—that of death, of seasonal end, of unintelligible extinction—can be seen by reading in succession the opening lines of the first four tercets: <p> The leaves on the macadam make a noise<br> Like tales that were told the day before yesterday,<br> And the wind sways like a great thing tottering,<br> Which suddenly is all dissolved and gone.<br> <p> <p> The second poem—that of love, of inception, of the intelligibility implicit in song—can be seen by reading in succession the latter two lines of the first four tercets, which describe the ever-recurrent appearance in nature (and in human nature) of spring, sexuality, warmth, birdsong, love, and children: <p> How soft the grass on which the desired<br> Reclines in the temperature of heaven;<br> Sleek in a natural nakedness,<br> She attends the tintinnabula<br> Of birds called up by more than the sun,<br> Birds of more wit, that substitute<br> Their intelligible twittering<br> For unintelligible thought.<br> <p> <p> The coda, declaring the overlap of the two previous poems, memorializes Stevens's daily walk to work through Hartford's Elizabeth Park, with its duck pond. Stevens takes his last look at his favorite place and sees spring: <p> And yet this end and this beginning are one,<br> And one last look at the ducks is a look<br> At lucent children round her in a ring.<br> <p> <p> As the poet wonders how to render not only his own unintelligible physical tottering, creative depletion, and expected dissolution but also the soft grass, the little ducklings, and the intelligible presence of a reposing Primavera, he feels that both are equally true, and must be simultaneously held in a binocular frame in which neither can obliterate or dominate the other. He is the hermit, now without a beloved, meditating in his ascetic hermitage as he slips toward death; but he does not allow himself to deny the beautiful, desirable, erotic, and fertile spring that assuages him even as he loses it. What he decides to reproduce in the style of his poem is the unintelligibility presented to us by death, which forces us to sort out the conflicting but coordinate pieces of our perceptions and thoughts. Yet even the unintelligible-when first-read "Hermitage" reveals, stanza by stanza, a fixed pattern of recursive intelligibility when understood, reinforcing the claim for the ultimately "intelligible twittering" of the poetic mind. <p> A comparably strong distortion of form in the service of a binocular gaze appears in the very late poem by James Merrill called "Christmas Tree." <p> <p> CHRISTMAS TREE<br> <br> To be<br> Brought down at last<br> From the cold sighing mountain<br> Where I and the others<br> Had been fed, looked after, kept still,<br> Meant, I knew—of course I knew—<br> That it would be only a matter of weeks,<br> That there was nothing more to do.<br> Warmly they took me in, made much of me,<br> The point from the start was to keep my spirits up.<br> I could assent to that. For honestly,<br> It did help to be wound in jewels, to send<br> Their colors flashing forth from vents in the deep<br> Fragrant sable that cloaked me head to foot.<br> Over me then they wove a spell of shining—<br> Purple and silver chains, eavesdripping tinsel,<br> Amulets, milagros: software of silver,<br> A heart, a little girl, a Model T,<br> Two staring eyes. The angels, trumpets, BUD and BEA<br> (The children's names) in clownlike capitals,<br> Somewhere a music box whose tiny song<br> Played and replayed I ended before long<br> By loving. And in shadow behind me, a primitive IV<br> To keep the show going. Yes, yes, what lay ahead<br> Was clear: the stripping, the cold street, my chemicals<br> Plowed back into Earth for lives to come—<br> No doubt a blessing, a harvest, but one that doesn't bear,<br> Now or ever, dwelling upon. To have grown so thin.<br> Needles and bone. The little boy's hands meeting<br> About my spine. The mother's voice: <i>Holding up wonderfully!</i><br> No dread. No bitterness. The end beginning. Today's<br> Dusk room aglow<br> For the last time<br> With candlelight.<br> Faces love lit,<br> Gifts underfoot.<br> Still to be so poised, so<br> Receptive. Still to recall, to praise.<br> <p> <p> I will return to "Christmas Tree" in the final chapter of this book, but for now I simply want to describe this as a work in the immemorial tradition of the shaped poem. It is a Christmas tree missing its left half. The forest tree is already dead, because it has previously been cut down. But in the house, it gives every appearance, with its still-green needles, of being alive and even of being more beautiful than before, feeling the warmth brought to its ornamented presence by the pleasure of the children regarding it. Merrill—already fatally ill with AIDS, but still wholly alive in spirit—invents his Christmas tree, half ghost, half evergreen, as a symbolic expression of that late binocular style which is my subject. <p> I hope to give perspective to these modern attempts (and others that I will take up in later chapters) by looking back at how older poets (who still imagined another world beyond this one) found a style adequate to the interface of death and life. Not all the poems I mention were written by poets at the brink of death, but they all confront the difficulty of representing, within the active horizon of life, the onset of death at that moment when, as Coleridge writes, "like strangers shelt'ring from a storm, / Hope and Despair meet in the porch of Death" ("Constancy to an Ideal Object"). How to depict that meeting within a sustained binocular view preoccupies any poet treating the supervening of death on life. We find Emily Dickinson, for instance, situating in a closed carriage the meeting of human Hope (first) and Despair (ultimately) with Death. As the poet enters, she says confidently-with, one might say, a hopeful monocular view-that the carriage contains, besides herself and her gentleman escort Death, an entity that she calls "Immortality": <p> Because I could not stop for Death -<br> He kindly stopped for me -<br> The Carriage held but just Ourselves -<br> And Immortality.<br> <p> <p> But when the carriage ultimately stops at her grave, Dickinson suspects a less certain future for herself than "Immortality," and, turning her view into a binocular one, substitutes for "Immortality" a quite different and impersonal abstract noun, "Eternity": <p> Since then - 'tis Centuries - and yet<br> Feels shorter than the Day<br> I first surmised the Horses' Heads<br> Were toward Eternity -<br> <p> That faceless and nameless "Eternity" is infinitely far from the hopeful personal "Immortality" promised by Dickinson's childhood Christianity; and the two abstract nouns, so similar in form and so different in meaning, face each other in a dark intellectual space, guaranteeing our realization of Dickinson's two proposals: one of individual everlasting life, and the other of featureless and blank "Eternity." <p> In another instance of how a binocular vision may be expressed, George Herbert (1593-1633), in "Death" (a poem to be seen more closely later), presents the riddling interface of life and death by contemplating, like Hamlet, a skull. Because to Herbert the open mouth of the living body signified song, the poet, thinking of his own death, remembers his shudder when he thought the skull mouth a hideous void: <p> Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing<br> Nothing but bones,<br> The sad effect of sadder grones:<br> Thy mouth was open, but thou couldst not sing.<br> <p> By superimposing, as in a double exposure, the open mouth of the death's-head on the open mouth of song, Herbert forces us to see both images simultaneously. <p> Dickinson's and Herbert's lines represent two achievements of binocular style in pre-twentieth-century poets. Before I return to Herbert, I will consider in some detail poems by two other seventeenth-century poets, Edmund Waller (1606-87) and John Donne (1572-1631). Both set themselves the same stylistic problem: how to represent the meeting place of life and death as materially confined but conceptually limitless. Waller envisages not only the limited body, "the soul's dark cottage," but also the cosmic threshold between an old world and a celestial new one. Donne, although meeting Death in the confines of a narrow sickroom, announces that this is the moment of his grand "south-west discovery," his far Magellanic voyage through straits whose currents "yield return to none." Each poet must find a manner by which to enact the fraught nature of this moment, coordinating, in the case of Waller, both the dark cottage and the invisible threshold, and rendering credible, in the case of Donne, both the catastrophe of death and the resurrection to come. <p> <p> I begin with Waller's infinitely touching poem "Of the Last Verses in the Book." The poet tells us that he has become blind and can no longer read or write. But before he drops his pen, he writes out his "last verses," composed less by the mortal body (with its unruly passions) than by the unbodied soul (who is, as <i>anima</i>, female). Weighing his present painful physical blindness against a past mental blindness to heavenly realities, Waller shows stoic resolve: <p> When we for Age could neither read nor write,<br> The Subject made us able to indite.<br> The Soul, with Nobler Resolutions deckt,<br> The Body stooping, does Herself erect:<br> No Mortal Parts are requisite to raise<br> Her, that Unbody'd can her Maker praise.<br> The Seas are quiet, when the Winds give o'er,<br> So calm are we, when Passions are no more:<br> For then we know how vain it was to boast<br> Of fleeting Things, so certain to be lost.<br> Clouds of Affection from our younger Eyes<br> Conceal that emptiness, which Age descries.<br> The Soul's dark Cottage, batter'd and decay'd,<br> Lets in new Light thr chinks that time has made;<br> Stronger by weakness, wiser Men become<br> As they draw near to their Eternal home:<br> Leaving the Old, both Worlds at once they view,<br> That stand upon the Threshold of the New.<br> <br> —<i>Miratur Limen Olympi</i>, Virgil<br> <p> <i>(Continues...)</i> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>Last Looks, Last Books</b> by <b>Helen Vendler</b> Copyright © 2010 by Helen Vendler. 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