It’s autumn in the country I remember.

How warm a wind blew here about the ways!
And shadows on the hillside lay to slumber
During the long sun-sweetened summer-days.

It’s cold abroad the country I remember.

The swallows veering skimmed the golden grain
At midday with a wing aslant and limber;
And yellow cattle browsed upon the plain.

It’s empty down the country I remember.

I had a sister lovely in my sight:
Her hair was dark, her eyes were very sombre;
We sang together in the woods at night.

It’s lonely in the country I remember.

The babble of our children fills my ears,
And on our hearth I stare the perished ember
To flames that show all starry thro’ my tears.

It’s dark about the country I remember.

There are the mountains where I lived. The path
Is slushed with cattle-tracks and fallen timber,
The stumps are twisted by the tempests’ wrath.

But that I knew these places are my own,
I’d ask how came such wretchedness to cumber
The earth, and I to people it alone.

It rains across the country I remember.

I haven’t been posting poems regularly for several reasons, but looming large among them is that I haven’t been reading much new poetry. For some time now, my interests have been seated roundly in the past. I read poetry now, not to learn or to experience the new or unfamiliar, but to remember, to recapture a bit of what I’ve loved before. The whole of the reason I posted the Masefield poem was that beautiful couplet: “Only stay quiet while my mind remembers / The beauty of fire from the beauty of embers.” And, in truth, many of my old favorites are favorites precisely because they evoke strong memories, and many more address directly the importance of memory itself. Sometimes, they do both:

To F——

BELOVED! amid the earnest woes
  That crowd around my earthly path—
(Drear path, alas! where grows
Not even one lonely rose)—
  My soul at least a solace hath
In dreams of thee, and therein knows
An Eden of bland repose.

And thus thy memory is to me
  Like some enchanted far-off isle
In some tumultuous sea—
Some ocean throbbing far and free
  With storms—but where meanwhile
Serenest skies continually
  Just o’er that one bright island smile.

I’m not sure I can explain why I have come to take pleasure in poetry only so far as it helps me to remember pleasure, and it certainly strikes me as odd. After all, though Mnemosyne gave birth to the muses, the muses who brought us poetry did so to give us distraction and forgetfulness. As Hesiod says, “their nature is forgetfulness of evil and rest from cares.” And later, he writes:

If someone has sorrow and is sick at heart and stunned with fresh trouble on his mind, and if a servant of the Muses sings of the glorious deeds of men in former times or of the blessed gods whose home is Olympus, he quickly forgets his bad thoughts and no longer remembers his troubles: the gifts of these godesses instantly divert the mind.

[Hesiod, Theogony, Tr. Norman O. Brown]

For some reason, though, I cannot now find forgetfulness in poetry. A few of Brian’s recent posts have brought this contradiction starkly into view. I have within me no sympathetic string that resonates with the Livesay poem, and hence take no enjoyment from it; similarly for Bogan, since I have no experience of cold remote islands or blue estuaries, or anything moving but the blood.

I came to law school to put an end to my passions, to quell my desires ( “…rather as a violent man kills his horse, because he cannot control it,” says Chamfort). I wonder if I have been overstrong? Have I been a bit too successful? And what shall I do when the memories have been forgotten?

Epilogue to Through the Looking Glass

A boat, beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July—

Children three that nestle near.
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear—

Long has paled that sunny sky :
Echoes fade and memories die.
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die :

Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream ?

3 responses to “Mnemosyne”

  1. “Our reason sometimes renders us more unhappy than our passions, and when this happens to a man, one can say of him that he is a patient poisoned by his doctor.”

  2. On another note, I don’t think I ever find forgetfulness in poetry. Unless you mean something like forgetting the present by memories conjured up by reading a poem I love, or else being momentarily distracted by a new poem. I guess I’m not sure what you mean–what it is you think you’re missing. Is that the right way to describe it?

  3. “Nothing paralyzes the imagination like an appeal to memory.” –Stendhal

    It seems it’s not so much forgetfulness that I’m missing as it is an editor… What I was trying to suggest was something very much like the converse of what Stendhal drew out in his treatise on that most fatal disease, Love. There’s a fundamental tension between engaging the imagination through poetry and commanding the sentiments of remembrance. The two operations are at odds. One does violence to one’s memories to the extent that one imagines them. Often good poems (and here, I generalize with customary hesitation) will combine careful phrasing and deliberate structure with imagery that is strong or subtle or surprising. It may be an unusual metaphor, or a particular emotion painted in new textures and hues, or a clever turn of phrase that at once produces a striking image and a pleasant aural sympathy. Often, poetry invites first the participation of the imagination. It is the power of imagination that I am losing—or, perhaps, the desire to imagine.

    Laura says:
    Unless you mean something like forgetting the present by memories conjured up by reading a poem I love, or else being momentarily distracted by a new poem.

    If you had said “images” rather than “memories” then I think you would have been spot on. I think that’s precisely what Hesiod was suggesting poetry is for.

    As a side note, I really like the Stickney poem—particularly the consonance: remember, slumber, limber, sombre, ember, timber, cumber. It’s a common device, but the only other poem I can think of where it was used so well is “Strange Meeting” by Wilfred Owen.

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