May 21, 2009

Time Fulfilled

I hereby nominate this week's poem as a great poem, meaning that it stands among the 200 or 300 all-time best in our language. I have mentioned it before, but I haven't placed it before my readers yet. I know of no critic, poet, or scholar who has judged this poem to be great, though, as I will discuss in a moment, Helen Pinkerton, drew particular attention to it nearly 30 years ago. (The photo is a shot of a greenhouse worker discarding lily blossoms, the significance of which you will see in a moment.)

It was written by Janet Lewis, wife of Yvor Winters. Mrs. Lewis was an accomplished poet who put out relatively little poetry. She did, however write several great or near-great poems, as well as many other very fine pieces. I rate most of her work at 3 or 4 stars by my rating system. Her novels are also excellent, perhaps as fine as near-great (perhaps 4 stars by my system). She has mostly been forgotten, except among Wintersians and those with some interest in Winters. Here is the poem, from later in her career, that I judge to be one of the greats of the English language:

For the Father of Sandro Gulotta

When I called the children from play
Where the westering sun
Fell level between the leaves

. of olive and bay,
There where the day lilies stand,
I paused
. to touch with a curious hand
The single blossom, furled,
That with morning had opened wide,
The long bud tinged
. with gold of an evening sky.

All day, and only one day,
It drank the sunlit air.
In one long day
All that it needed to do in this world
It did, and at evening precisely curled
The tender petals to shield
From wind, from dew,
The pollen-laden heart.
Sweet treasure, gathered apart
From our grief, from our longing view,
Who shall say if the day was too brief
For the flower, if time lacked?
Had it not, like the children, all Time
In their long, immortal day?

(Mrs. Lewis's note: "written for Vicenzo Gulotta of Milano whose son was dying of leukemia.")

(By the way, the lines beginning with periods are actually set over to the first tab, but Lord help me if I can discover how to set a tab in this blogger software. I wanted to indicate the original typography in some way.)

As I have discussed briefly a couple years back, Janet Lewis did not appear to share the bracing, brave, yet sorrowful stoicism of her husband. This poem offers no explicitly religious theme, though we might not have to dig far into Lewis's writings and biography to reach the conclusion that in this poem she was expressing some kind of Christian hope. But on its face, the poem does not give us a hope that is specifically, explicitly Christian. Indeed, the final lines are so indefinite as to leave us rather bewildered. We can interpret them, or assent to them, in myriad ways as assertions about "the world to come" (or "worlds" to come, I might add). But is that the central purpose of the poem, to express some view of an afterlife? Religious pluralist as she seems to have been, Lewis appears in this poem not to have wanted to hold out some kind of hope in an afterlife, but to explore the meaning of "Time" in our lives and deaths, even in very short lives, such as that of day lilies. This poem offers no identifiable hope in a separate supernatural existence, though it is probably true that Lewis believed that there is one. But the poem as it stands only expresses a vague, uncertain feeling of hope -- and as a poem, not as a set of philosophical propositions. But as such, the poem is a beautiful explication of its themes.

By the way, I have spent too much time writing the paragraphs below to offer much now on the structure and language of the poem. Let me quickly say that the diction is flawless and the lines are wonderfully made. In particular, I would like you to note the movement in and out of rhyme, which I consider a superb model for future work in contemplative verse. It reminds me of another old device that has found few poets to give it to a try, Shakespeare's use of a couplet to end a section of blank verse. Lewis herself offers several couplets here and there with expert control. The meter, too, is skillfully managed throughout the poem and deserves close study.

Turning back to themes, the great modern classical poet Helen Pinkerton, who is still living, wrote some years back that this poem expresses a belief that Time (with that capital "T") is "fulfilled" through living, however short the life is as measured by time (with the small "t"). As much I respect Ms. Pinkerton's work, she does not elaborate on this idea in a way that makes more sense than the poem itself, I must confess. I don't see how "Time" is fulfilled in living within time as a measure. I cannot see what such a concept would mean for my life if it were true, nor what it might mean for anyone else's life as a whole, ended in death, to be a fulfillment of Time. The concept sounds like blather, as much as I have pondered it. Sometimes, I get the sense that it is a Buddhist idea of some sort -- one of those supremely vague notions of a person's life being like a drop of water that falls into an eternal ocean of pure and exalted being. Pinkerton's is an interesting, though brief, meditation on the poem, though I will leave it for you to discover yourself. It can be found in the "Introduction" to Lewis's Poems Old and New, 1918-1978 (Swallow Press, 1982).

"For the Father of Sandro Gulotta" expresses ideas that are similar to Yvor Winters's in some ways, but it holds out something different. As is clear from her body of work, Lewis wrestled with some of the same notions of time and Time as her husband (though let me be clear that he never wrote of a difference between small-t-time and captital-t-Time). There are at least a dozen poems in Lewis's oeuvre that directly address the matter. One of the most interesting for our purposes here is an earlier and fine sonnet entitled "Time and Music." This poem, which I will not quote in full, was adressed to Winters, who had written a poem about that mentioned being "trapped in time." In reply, Lewis expressed the idea in "Time and Music" that just as a piece of music is experienced in and through time passing but has a wholeness beyond time, so human beings live life within time but can see their lives whole as part of Time. This appears to be vaguely related to Lewis's notion in "For the Father" that one day is immortal. As a melody rides time in a piece of music, wrote Lewis in "Time and Music," so we "from life as well as death are freed...." As I say, I cannot fathom how it could be that the passing of our lives inside time, like the passing of a piece of music, has a more complete and even immortal existence (or something like that) outside or above or beyond Time. That string of words I just laid out sounds perilously close to nonsense when I think about them for long, though they might summarize what Pinkerton was talking about in her comments about Time's being fulfilled in living, however short the life.

This leads us to the question whether Lewis's indefinite ideas about immortal days and lives, whether true in any sense, provide any comfort, as they appear to have been intended to do? Though I consider the poem a great one, a classical one, I find the idea of an immortal day, as well as I can understand it, rather cold, like Greek warriors giving their lives to violent death for longlasting fame. Nonetheless, I remain open to conceptions of time and Time that can help us and comfort us at the prospect of death.

Another point to make is that many poems in the Winters Canon are deeply concerned with time, especially with the sorrows of its relentless, unstoppable passing. I have done no systematic study of the diction in the 185 poems of Quest for Reality, but a rough run-through showed me that the word "time" is probably the most oft-used word in the anthology. If you are one of those who look to word counts for insight into ideas, this is surely an important finding. One ringing example is Shakespeare's Sonnet 77, especially these lines:

Thou by thy dial's shady stealth mayst know
Time's thievish progress to eternity.

This is something very different from what Janet Lewis had in mind, as you no doubt see (she knew this sonnet well). Time as a thief does not mesh well with the idea of death fulfilling time. My general point, though, is that there is much to study, many differing views of time, across the Winters Canon. Someone really should take up a study of the matter.

And this leads us, at the last, to a reconsideration of the poem's achievement. Is it possible for a great poem to be rationally obscure -- or rather significantly obscure -- at the point that it reaches its fullest evaluation of its material? For, as I have said, I find the idea of fulfilled Time to be obscure to a great degree. Yet I am holding out hope that I will someday see that this concept of Time is rational, or at least not significantly, ruinously obscure. Perhaps I will see the matter otherwise in the years ahead, one way or another. For now, I judge "For the Father Sandro Gulotta" one of our greatest poems.

Your sundry reflections, as always, are welcome.

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