by Algernon Charles Swinburne
Remembrance may recover
And time bring back to time
The name of your first lover,
The ring of my first rhyme;
But rose-leaves of December
The frosts of June shall fret,
The day that you remember,
The day that I forget.
Some weeks ago Alan posted a pair of poems pertaining to obliscence. I meant to say something about these when they were first posted, but I *ahem* forgot. Just over a month ago I turned old, so the workings and the failings of memory have featured prominently in my recent ruminations. I have also been somewhat more casually contemplating the operation of memory and the rôle of forgetfulness for some time, so I certainly appreciated his posting these two poems.
I’m really starting to like Billy Collins, despite my visceral aversion to free verse. His poem on forgetfulness is particularly nice. It is a simple poem, almost an ode to the process of forgetting, and it is beautiful in its simplicity. It also presents several images I find intriguing, though for reasons that are by no means catholic. In my darker moments, I often dream of retiring to a small fishing village with no phones (but I have always imagined that village to lie somewhere on the coast of Norway, rather than in the southern hemisphere), for the simple reason that my most pleasant memories might regain some vigour and strength if allowed, undisturbed by the formation of new memories, to breathe freely the crisp, salty air. I first learned of the river Lethe from the first love poem I ever committed to memory: Keats’ “Fill for Me a Brimming Bowl.” For some time, I used to claim that the seat of my consciousness was in my spleen rather than my brain, whenever I was confronted with a bit of ridiculous dualism. And, though I never could recite the names of all the Muses, the quadratic equation holds a special place in my heart. Should I ever forget it, I hope I forget to wake up shorly thereafter. One semester in grad school when I was working as a teaching assistant, about the time I was realizing that I would not finish my dissertation, I was having difficulty motivating myself to wake and to go to class. Most of my students were horrible; an alarming share of them regularly cheated on their homework, and almost none of them had any interest in the course material. There was one, however, whose bright smile, orangish-reddish-purple tousled hair and innocent earnestness in attacking the coursework was very much like a breath of crisp Norwegian air, so even as I dreaded walking into that classroom, I couldn’t help but to anticipate with eagerness and a flutter of the pulse seeing her. She had many charms, but the one I think I most enjoyed was her inability to solve a simple quadratic. Amid the darling doodles that decorated her homework, I regularly found a note apologizing that she just couldn’t remember the formula. She would work the problems perfectly up to the point where it had to be applied, she would give her regrets, and then tell me precisely what was to be done once the solution to the quadratic was obtained, should one be fortunate enough to know how to obtain it. I wrote the equation on each assignment I handed back; she steadfastly refused to apply it in later exercises. “Sorry, I can’t remember the quadratic equation.” Dearest Ingrid, wherever you are, I love you.
from Le Léthé
by Charles Baudelaire
L’oubli puissant habite sur ta bouche
Et le Léthé coule dans tes baisers.
The Bishop poem is also very nice. I think Lee is spot on with his comment about the odd parenthetical at the end. Also, the structure is a pleasant relaxation of the stricter, more repetitive villanelle. With the non-rhymes “fluster”, “last, or” and “gesture” mixing things up, the poem is slightly less formal than Auden’s otherwise similar loose take on the villanelle, “Alone.”
from An Interlude
by Algernon Charles Swinburne
As the glimpse of a burnt-out ember
Recalls a regret of the sun,
I remember, forget, and remember
What Love saw done and undone.
I spent the past weekend with my parents exploring Massachusetts a bit. My father went to Amherst College in western Mass, my parents were married a week after his graduation, and they spent a year in Cambridge before moving to Colorado, where they have lived for the past 35-odd years. This was the first time they had returned to the area since they lived here. On Saturday we drove west to Chicopee and up through South Hadley to Amherst. We made a brief stop at Hampshire College, where my dad had given tours before the campus was built. He remembered that only a white farm house and a red barn had been there at the time, and we were able to locate them amid the now-present mod-ish arts building, the dodecagonal (I think) housing units, the yurt, the go-kart track and the roller-hockey field. While in Amherst, my dad walked us around the campus, showing us his freshman dorm, and the balcony from which his roommate launched the fateful snowball at the dean, the hill overlooking Asparagus Valley where he learned to ski, and the spot on the sidewalk where the student landed when, tripped out on LSD, he took a swan-dive out the window. My father says the police chalk mark was visible most of the year. He puzzled over the location of the geology building, and which social dorm he lived in which year, and where the fraternity houses were located, but he remembered where his friend had collapsed from drunkeness, and a few choice maxims that were popular in his college days, such as “Smith to bed, Holyoke to wed.” On the way back into Boston, we passed a place where my mother thought she might have worked. She and my father questioned each other rather hesitantly: “Could this be the place?” “There was a trolley stop on the corner…” “Wasn’t it on Water St.?” “Mightn’t it have been further up the hill?” Their vague and uncertain impressions of prior times warred with the changed landscape and the desire for certainty as they tried to determine whether they had, indeed, found the spot. On Sunday, we drove through Gloucester and Salem and Marblehead—places my parents had visited either once or twice before, depending on which of them you ask. They remembered the restaurant where my mother had wished they had eaten when they were there so many years ago, and they remembered having visited the fishermen’s memorial, but they were both confused as to where they lay in relation to each other. They couldn’t remember the gentleman’s name whose house they visited, nor entirely why they had visited, but they could still see in their minds’ eyes the interior of the house, and cliffs upon which it stood. It was fascinating to observe them in the process of trying to recall, reconstruct and preserve their memories from a brief period more than half their lives ago. I could not help but wonder which of my memories will survive, and how I will misconstrue them down the road. I have had many impressions I hoped never to lose, but have lost already; I have promised myself I would not forget, but while I remember the promises, I have not kept them.
by Christina Rossetti
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.