Friday, June 11, 2010

Sidney Lanier: The Marshes of Glynn

I just wrote here, in reference to poetry: I don't care about form: I care about the musical properties of rhythm, pattern, and silence. Those concerns can lead to generating form. But form is musical, generative, organic. It comes out of the poem itself, rather than being imposed upon the form beforehand.

In saying this, I realize that I have now come full circle, across decades of involvement with poetry, to one of the original reasons I was drawn to poetry. I have also come full circle to one of the poets who spoke most to me of poetry's music, when I was still in my teens, still discovering all this: Sidney Lanier.

Sidney Lanier was born in Georgia in 1842. During the Civil War, he was captured and interred, during which he contracted tuberculosis, which he suffered from until his death in 1881. (Those of us who suffer from chronic illnesses can perhaps imagine what this must have been like, if only to some small extent.) After the War, he became a professional musician. He had a native talent for playing the concert flute, which he developed with practice and learning to read music. He became famous as a concert flutist, and also as a composer/performer of show pieces for his instrument.

(To a composer, in case you didn't know, a "show piece" is a piece of technically challenging music designed to show off a performer's high level of skill, and also what the instrument is capable of doing in the right hands. Most of Franz Liszt's famous pieces for piano and orchestra are show pieces. Many composers don't take show pieces very seriously, because while they're technically challenging they're not always very heartfelt; but they serve their purpose. For my own music, I do have a history of pushing the performers past their technical comfort zones, into more challenging material; I've written a four-movement suite for solo flute that pushes the technical challenges rather far, while I hope still being musical rather than merely showy.)

In 1876, Lanier was commissioned and wrote The Centennial Meditation of Columbia, an oratorio for the nation's centennial celebrations.

In order to support his family, Lanier wrote poetry, mostly for magazine publication. He also wrote versions of the myths and legends of English history, such as The Boy's King Arthur, which were immensely popular well into the early 20th C.

His poetry was strongly influenced by Anglo-Saxon forms of poetry, and his particular style is intensely musical, lyrical, rhythmic, and sensual. It is rather different from most other Victorian poetry in that was no slave to either poetic form or to the common metric straightjacket of iambic pentameter.

Lanier wrote out his poetic theories—which are musical theories of poetics—in critical volumes such as The Science of English Verse. For me, his most important literary-critical work was: Music and poetry: essays upon some aspects and inter-relations of the two arts. I first read this volume in my twenties, and I was very much interested in it as a composer as well as a writer. I found that his ideas about musical melody and harmony were very much of his time, and not directly relevant to my more contemporary musical language. But the book nonetheless strongly influence my thinking, especially with regards to thinking musically about poetry.

Essentially, and this is very much a musician's view, Lanier opines that poetry is an art subservient to music. That's a composer's viewpoint. I find it congenial because I share it. I am not A Poet as those are who when life's experience urges them to respond artistically, immediately think in words. Words are not my first, most basic response; in fact, I know well how words can limit or even betray the evocation of experience. Words are often inadequate containers for emotion and experience, and fall far short of being able to contain or describe life. The artfulness of words comes in the ways poetry can be made to transcend ordinary words alone. Words come after sounds and images for me. A lot of my poems are soundtracks; a lot of my poems are recordings of images seen on the mind's inner eye. I care little for the manipulation of words as an artform purely made up of words. I care even less for poetic formalism. But I do care about poetry's musical possibilities. A lot of my poems use non-normative syntax and grammar in musical ways.

So I have come full circle with the admission that I don't care about form in poetry: I care about poetry's music. Its musicality, the musical way it works, the musical shapes and gestures and forms it can assume. Poetry must work equally well for me when read aloud as when read on the page; both are essential aspects of the poem, its sound as well as its look and its component typography and orthography.

Here's an image-collage of the first two pages of The Marshes of Glynn, from an edition of Lanier's Hymns to the Marshes.

And here is the poem, in all its music. Look for the musical line, the repetition, the rhythm and melody, all of which follow Lanier's own theories of musical composition in poetry. And do yourself a favor, and read at least the beginning of the poem out loud.

The Marshes of Glynn

Glooms of the live-oaks, beautiful-braided and woven
With intricate shades of the vines that myriad-cloven
Clamber the forks of the multiform boughs,--
    Emerald twilights,--
    Virginal shy lights,
Wrought of the leaves to allure to the whisper of vows,
When lovers pace timidly down through the green colonnades
Of the dim sweet woods, of the dear dark woods,
Of the heavenly woods and glades,
That run to the radiant marginal sand-beach within
The wide sea-marshes of Glynn;--

Beautiful glooms, soft dusks in the noon-day fire,--
Wildwood privacies, closets of lone desire,
Chamber from chamber parted with wavering arras of leaves,--
Cells for the passionate pleasure of prayer to the soul that grieves,
Pure with a sense of the passing of saints through the wood,
Cool for the dutiful weighing of ill with good;--

O braided dusks of the oak and woven shades of the vine,
While the riotous noon-day sun of the June-day long did shine
Ye held me fast in your heart and I held you fast in mine;

But now when the noon is no more, and riot is rest,
And the sun is a-wait at the ponderous gate of the West,
And the slant yellow beam down the wood-aisle doth seem
Like a lane into heaven that leads from a dream,--
Ay, now, when my soul all day hath drunken the soul of the oak,
And my heart is at ease from men, and the wearisome sound of the stroke
Of the scythe of time and the trowel of trade is low,
And belief overmasters doubt, and I know that I know,
And my spirit is grown to a lordly great compass within,
That the length and the breadth and the sweep of the marshes of Glynn
Will work me no fear like the fear they have wrought me of yore
When length was fatigue, and when breadth was but bitterness sore,
And when terror and shrinking and dreary unnamable pain
Drew over me out of the merciless miles of the plain,--

Oh, now, unafraid, I am fain to face
The vast sweet visage of space.
To the edge of the wood I am drawn, I am drawn,
Where the gray beach glimmering runs, as a belt of the dawn,
For a mete and a mark
To the forest-dark:--
Affable live-oak, leaning low,--
Thus--with your favor--soft, with a reverent hand,
(Not lightly touching your person, Lord of the land!)
Bending your beauty aside, with a step I stand
On the firm-packed sand,
By a world of marsh that borders a world of sea.

Sinuous southward and sinuous northward the shimmering band
Of the sand-beach fastens the fringe of the marsh to the folds of the land.
Inward and outward to northward and southward the beachlines linger and curl
As a silver-wrought garment that clings to and follows the firm sweet limbs of a girl.
Vanishing, swerving, evermore curving again into sight,
Softly the sand-beach wavers away to a dim gray looping of light
And what if behind me to westward the wall of the woods stands high?
The world lies east: how ample, the marsh and the sea and the sky!
A league and a league of marsh-grass, waist-high, broad in the blade,
Green, and all of a height, and unflecked with a light or a shade,
Stretch leisurely off, in a pleasant plain,
To the terminal blue of the main.

Oh, what is abroad in the marsh and the terminal sea?
Somehow my soul seems suddenly free.
From the weighing of fate and the sad discussion of sin,
By the length and the breadth and the sweep of the marshes of Glynn.

Ye marshes, how candid and simple and nothing-withholding and free
Ye publish yourselves to the sky and offer yourselves to the sea!
Tolerant plains, that suffer the sea and the rains and the sun,
Ye spread and span like the catholic man who hath mightily won
God out of knowledge and good out of infinite pain
And sight out of blindness and purity out of a stain.

As the marsh-hen secretly builds on the watery sod,
Behold I will build me a nest on the greatness of God:
I will fly in the greatness of God as the marsh-hen flies
In the freedom that fills all the space 'twixt the marsh and the skies:
By so many roots as the marsh-grass sends in the sod
I will heartily lay me a-hold on the greatness of God:
Oh, like to the greatness of God is the greatness within
The range of the marshes, the liberal marshes of Glynn.

And the sea lends large, as the marsh: lo, out of his plenty the sea
Pours fast: full soon the time of the flood-tide must be:
Look how the grace of the sea doth go
About and about through the intricate channels that flow
Here and there,
Till his waters have flooded the uttermost creeks and the low-lying lanes,
And the marsh is meshed with a million veins,
That like as with rosy and silvery essences flow
In the rose-and-silver evening glow.
    Farewell, my lord Sun!
The creeks overflow: a thousand rivulets run
'Twixt the roots of the sod; the blades of the marsh-grass stir;
Passeth a hurrying sound of wings that westward whirr;
Passeth, and all is still; and the currents cease to run;
And the sea and the marsh are one.

How still the plains of the waters be!
The tide is in his ecstasy.
The tide is at his highest height:
    And it is night.

And now from the Vast of the Lord will the waters of sleep
Roll in on the souls of men,
But who will reveal to our waking ken
The forms that swim and the shapes that creep
    Under the waters of sleep?
And I would I could know what swimmeth below when the tide comes in
On the length and the breadth of the marvellous marshes of Glynn.

(Baltimore, 1878)

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Blogger Elisabeth said...

Lanier's poem is as you suggest musical. i read it out loud and the words roll on like ripples in a stream sometimes brisk, sometimes slow.

Reading more about form here, I also remembered a favorite quote from Flaubert which I read in Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot. I'm not sure I agree with all that Flaubert had to say, but I love the way in which he said it. This quote seems to accord with your views and I'm inclined to agree as well.

' Flaubert…believed in style; more than anyone. He worked doggedly for beauty, sonority, exactness; perfection- but never the monogrammed perfection of a writer like Wilde.

'Style is a function of theme. Style is not imposed on subject matter, but arises from it. Style is truth to thought. The correct word, the true phrase, the perfect sentence are always ‘out there’ somewhere; the writer’s task is to locate them by whatever means he can…'

Thanks again, Art.

10:41 PM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Although I don’t write poetry to be read aloud I do often read it aloud to make sure it flows. We’ve talked about this before. I believe that poetry has a form but that the form is unique to each poem. Some of my poems seem quite rigorously structured but all that happens after the fact. Words first, shape later. That the words can be so easily shaped proves my point. It’s finding the balance between style and substance that’s the tricky bit. Music naturally inclines towards form, a 4/4 beat or a 6/8 beat or some such regular rhythm to which a melody is added. I would say that in music’s case it’s easier and better results can be obtained from starting with a form be that sonata form or rondo or some such thing than by trying to fit words into an artificial structure like a sonnet. Meaning is the bugbear. If poetry consisted of just sounds, which I know people like Kurt Schwitters have had a go at, I think it would get on a lot better with set forms.

7:13 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Elisabeth, thanks for the quote about Flaubert from Barnes. (I always read Barnes with a bit of a skeptic's eye.) The meat of this, as I see it, is that Flaubert was also looking for organic style and form, arising from the material itself.

But Flaubert also took ten years to write an encyclopedic novel, a novel that tried to at least hint at the vast array of human knowledge and experience. It's Bouvard et Pecuchet. ". . . the pathetic and exhilarating voyage through the seas of universal knowledge taken by these two Don Quixotes of nineteenth-century scientism turns out to be a series of shipwrecks. For these two self-taught innocents, each book throws open a new world, but the worlds are mutually exclusive or at least are so contradictory as to destroy any hope of certainty. However much effort they put into it, the two scriveners are lacking in the kind of subjective gift that enables one to adapt ideas to the use one wishes to put them to, or to the gratuitous pleasure that one wishes to derive from them, a gift that cannot be learned from books." (Italo Calvino) In the end, the two amateur scholars give up their idea of being able to totally understand the world, and resign themselves to their fates as scriveners copying the books in the universal library, without being able to form them into a unified whole of overall understanding. That's an ending that opens more questions than answers: Is the task just too large? Is it possible at all? Is the truth that there are so many different truths, different forms of knowledge, that we can never encompass them all?

I think it's possible to say that Flaubert definitely went looking for the exact phrase, the write word, the true phrase, the perfect sentence. It's also possible he carried his search too far, and overdid it. And knew it.

While I completely agree about the style and form of the writing arising from within the writing, and while I've said myself that the form is the vessel for what it contains, I wonder if Flaubert didn't become a bit obsessive about style. I do like it when style (and form) arise from the writing itself, and take the shape organically like that. Not having read much Flaubert in the original, I don't have a sense of his music in my ear at the moment; yet I wonder if perhaps he overdid his search for perfect style, and lost a little spontaneity. I don't really know. It's an open question.

A lot of Lanier's poetry is of his times, and to our Modern ears can seem like fairly conventional 19th C. poetry. But even his lesser poems have music in them, often an unpredictable meter or form that's a bit different than what one otherwise hears at the time. (Remember, Longfellow was this period's most famous, best-selling poet.) At Lanier's peak, with poems like "The Marshes of Glynn," there really is something musical going on that's quite beyond anything else written at the time.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Jim, that poetry has a form, but that the form is unique to each poem, fits right in with what I'm talking about here. I agree. Where I might differ slightly is that for me the shape of the poem emerges during the writing, too; as part of the form. I usually don't reshape later, or at least not radically.

In terms of poetry consisting of just sounds, I'm familiar with Schwitters, and some others, who have explored that. I think you're right that that does lead to more facility with musical form. Although I see no need to shape poetry-sounds into a sonata or a rondo. Those are inherited, fixed forms like the sonnet, and as such, do not interest me, either as a composer or a poet. Again, I'm more interested in emergent form. I've attempted some experiments along those lines with text-sound poetry, making tape music, shaped into forms, wherein the only sonic element is a voice reading poems. It's easier with some kinds of poems than others.

The other aspect of poetry-as-sound is that I sometimes think the experimental "post-avant" poetry movement these days, proud of the fact that their poems mean nothing, but are experiments with "pure" language, sometimes do approach the sounds-as-poetry idea. But there are still words in use there, and words still carry symbolic meanings as referents, as much as one tries to strip them of such. So it's an uneasy balance between meaning and "pure" language, or pure sound. Not entirely convincing, either, as most of those poets are purely page-oriented and do not consider the poems to be read aloud, if at all, till much later. Or so it often seems.

10:34 AM  
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2:11 PM  

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