Truth and Beauty share a tomb: reflecting on 6 classic poems by women

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Dickinson


1. “The Author To Her Book” by Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672)

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find.
In this array ‘mongst vulgars may’st thou roam.
In critic’s hands beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known;
If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.

This vulnerable book-child should never have been exposed, subject to critics. The tone is regretful. The author was wounded and her friends were unwise. Or is the tone covertly rebellious? Has the author internalized the prejudice against a woman writing a poetry book, or is she fighting the prejudice? Plenty of poets had written about books other than their own, but had an author ever before written to her own book? It’s such a fresh, brilliant conceit (and the reverse of conceited). She appears to join forces with her critics to attack her book, and yet a phrase like “My rambling brat (in print)” has a touch of fury in its music. I love the thin line of the tone that can be read as either submission or rebellion. This is real subversion in action.

Of course Bradstreet (that brat) wasn’t supposed to be publishing books of her poems, such a radical act for a lady in the 1600s. But is it true that she had no literary ambition, that she passively allowed the book (her own child!) to be “snatched” from her? It seems to me that a prolific, educated writer who finds herself suddenly living in a wilderness in dire circumstances, would feel especially ambitious to have her voice heard beyond her reduced world: “she alas is poor, / Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.” So, not entirely “snatched” but regretfully sent away? She’s ambivalent, the way perhaps Emily Dickinson was ambivalent: wanting to join the literary conversation, but knowing, sadly, too well, that the reception would be painful, humiliating, and full of misunderstanding.

But forget about the critics, the friends, the publishers, and the public. This poem speaks directly to the woman poet in me and gives me courage and inspiration. May I never say to one of my own books: “I cast thee by as one unfit for light” but keep working my way out of the dark, into the light. I’m glad Bradstreet had the poetic genius to slip this poem in particular past her critics.

 

2. “Epitaph” by Katherine Philips (1632-1664)
On her Son H.P. at St. Syth’s Church, where her body also lies Interred

What on Earth deserves our trust;
Youth and Beauty both are dust.
Long we gathering are with pain,
What one moment calls again.
Seven years childless, marriage past,
A Son, a Son is born at last:
So exactly limb’d and fair,
Full of good Spirits, Meen, and Air,
As a long life promised,
Yet, in less than six weeks dead.
Too promising, too great a mind
In so small room to be confin’d:
Therefore, as fit in Heav’n to dwell,
He quickly broke the Prison shell.
So the subtle Alchemist,
Can’t with Hermes Seal resist
The powerful spirit’s subtler flight,
But ‘twill bid him long good night,
And so the Sun if it arise
Half so glorious as his Eyes
Like this Infant, takes a shrowd,
Buried in a morning Cloud.

England, 1655, 360 years ago: “Epitaph” was written in a place and time so different from ours that we will never fully understand the context. Words are obsolete or capitalized or contracted or pronounced differently. Rhyme is anachronistic and irritating to many contemporary poetry readers. How can we find our way to the heart of the poem when there seem to be so many obstacles?

One couplet appears to have fallen out of the rhyme scheme: “As a long life promised / Yet, in less than six weeks dead.” Since all the other couplets have true rhymes (taking into account that the English pronounciation of “again” rhymes with “pain”), and all the other lines are tetrameter, we can assume that this was meant to be a true rhyme and a tetrameter line. When “promised” is pronounced with three syllables, it is a true rhyme with “dead,” and the line becomes tetrameter. Now that we have unlocked this rhyme, it feels promising that we will find more connections, so we look and listen closer.

The poem has a metrical pattern, and scansion is one way to hear it better. Of 22 lines, 8 lines are iambic tetrameter, while 14 lines are either catalectic trochaic tetrameter or headless iambic tetrameter. “Catalectic” means that in a metrical line, the last syllable of the last foot is missing, or chopped off. If a metrical line is missing the first syllable in the first foot, it’s called “acephalous” or “headless.” Whether we consider these 14 lines catalectic trochaic tetrameter or headless iambic tetrameter (a mouthful of jargon), the lines are definitely headless at the beginning or chopped off at the end. This was a deliberate formal decision by the poet. More than half the lines are missing a syllable; a palpable loss, bookends of grief for both her child, whose life was cut short, and for Charles I, whose head was chopped off in 1649.

The shattered, hymnal, trochaic rhythms in “Epitaph” seem to toll with dread and suffering, beating down as if into the grave, with a cloud “mourning.” In contrast, the 8 iambic lines

Seven years childless, marriage past,*
A Son, a Son is born at last:

Too promising, too great a mind
In so small room to be confin’d:
Therefore, as fit in Heav’n to dwell,*
He quickly broke the Prison shell.

The powerful spirit’s subtler flight,

And so the Sun if it arise

are released from the deadly trochaic beat: to be born, to break out, to fly, to arise. (The lines I’ve marked with asterisks begin with a trochaic “substitution” but the lines continue iambically.)

There’s nothing like tremendous grief to drive a poet to write, and write in form. The tetrameter and rhymed couplets draw us into the flow of emotions, which are so intensely felt, it seems that only this tight form could contain them. Even before we begin to understand the meaning of a poem, if we pay attention to the rhyme and meter, we begin to hear the poem’s music. The music conveys feeling, and soon we are able to hear the poet’s voice and be moved by the thoughts and feelings of the poem. This is partly how “Epitaph” continues to be a fresh and immortal poem.

 

3. “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for North America, &c.” by Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)

Hail, happy day, when, smiling like the morn,
Fair Freedom rose New-England to adorn:
The northern clime beneath her genial ray,
Dartmouth, congratulates thy blissful sway:
Elate with hope her race no longer mourns,
Each soul expands, each grateful bosom burns,
While in thine hand with pleasure we behold
The silken reins, and Freedom’s charms unfold.
Long lost to realms beneath the northern skies
She shines supreme, while hated faction dies:
Soon as appear’d the Goddess long desir’d,
Sick at the view, she lanquish’d and expir’d;
Thus from the splendors of the morning light
The owl in sadness seeks the caves of night.

No more, America, in mournful strain
Of wrongs, and grievance unredress’d complain,
No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain,
Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand
Had made, and with it meant t’ enslave the land.

Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labor in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul, and by no misery mov’d,
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

For favours past, great Sir, our thanks are due,
And thee we ask thy favors to renew,
Since in thy pow’r, as in thy will before,
To sooth the griefs, which thou did’st once deplore.
May heav’nly race the sacred sanction give
To all thy works, and thou for ever live
Not only on the wings of fleeting Fame,
Though praise immortal crowns the patriot’s name,
But to conduct to heav’ns refulgent fane,
May fiery coursers sweep th’ ethereal plain,
And bear thee upwards to that blest abode,
Where, like the prophet, thou shalt find thy God.

Rhyme is a fastener of reason. Rhyme seeks to heal hell. Climb your way out of time on rhyme. Rhyme is for the speechless. Rhyme makes good runes, songs, chants, wonder, magic, dance, emotion, company. Because the building blocks of rhyme are sounds, and sounds have no literal meaning, rhyme is apolitical and universal. Rhyme can be charming; it can charm both writer and reader of rhyme into deeper understanding.

Born in Africa, sold into slavery at age seven, and purchased by a Boston family, Phillis Wheatley was “snatch’d” and “seiz’d” from every familiarity: family, land, language, customs, culture. She was forced to begin again, as if her past had never existed. A child alone in her displacement, she had to reach inside herself for something real to hold on to, while she learned to connect to new, strange, frightening places and people. She was taught English, and she was very good at learning how sounds become words, how words become meaningful, and how poetry is made from sounds and words.

Perhaps at first Wheatley was rendered speechless by unspeakable loss, exile, trauma, and violence. Rhyme can be company. “Company is inherent in rhyming, where one word keeps company with another,” Christopher Ricks writes. Rhyme is charming company; it eases your troubles and occupies your mind with paired sounds. End rhymes in a poem may encourage, surprise, and instruct. Unexpected thoughts and feelings are part of the charm of working with rhyme.

In her poem, “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for North America, &c.,” Wheatley begins the second stanza with a break in her form of rhyming couplets. Three lines are rhymed instead of two:

No more, America, in mournful strain
Of wrongs, and grievance unredress’d complain,
No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain

Wheatley admonishes America to stop complaining, and she might as well be reminding herself—she has never before complained in her poems. But the intense repetition of “no” and the rhymed words strain/complain/chain suggest that the poet might have been straining to suppress her own complaints about “the iron chain.” The word “strain” here refers to “the sound of a piece of music as it is played or performed,” and the phrase “strain of wrongs” expresses a mixture of sound, suppression, and injustice. As if these three rhymed lines, instead of two, contain feelings too intense to suppress any longer, she reveals, in the next stanza, some of the cruelty, pain, sorrow, and misery she has endured.

Four sets of rhymes—mourns/burns, song/sprung, fate/seat, abode/God—are not true rhymes, to my ear, like the others. Of course, if these words were pronounced differently in Wheatley’s day, it’s possible they were true rhymes to her ear. But look closely at the words: mourns/burns has “urns,” song/spring has “ng,” fate/seat has “at,” and abode/God has “od.” It’s possible that Wheatley wrote them as eye rhymes, not knowing herself how the words should be pronounced. If so, it reveals something heartbreaking and innocent about Wheatley’s “strain.”

 

4. “How Do I Love Thee?” (Sonnet 43) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and Ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise;
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith;
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
The entry is smooth; there’s no class clash between the form and subject matter. Sonnets are traditional, aristocratic, about love, and the speaker has a kind of upper-class leisure to count her riches. Since writing a sonnet requires counting, the first line has an immediate serendipity of form and feeling.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
It’s as if the speaker is touching the sides of the sonnet form, feeling her way forward. The simplicity and directness of the first two lines is touching: question, then answer, followed by a list: one and two and three.

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight…
The height/sight rhyme of this Petrarchan sonnet brings the two lines close to each other, even while they are expanding to infinity—this is what happens in love. And “soul” adds a spiritual dimension to the measurements of a love that is becoming so immense, it can no longer be seen by the naked eye.

For the ends of Being and Ideal Grace.
The end of the first quatrain travels to the end of time and the end of life, where all existence ends. You just can’t get any larger or lovelier than that.

I love thee to the level of everyday’s…
The alliteration of “l” that began with “love,” “soul,” “feeling,” and “Ideal” reaches a climax with the double “l”s of “level.” This isn’t a leveling off or a plateau; it’s a grand movement from the boundless to the boundary of the quotidian.

Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
The revolutions of day and night, and a revolutionary thought: that a woman writing a love poem would express a “need” to her lover. The depth of feeling in the phrase “Most quiet need” is simply astounding.

I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;…
The poem is moving from outer space, to earth, to inner space, and now to public space, with human volition, which in turn moves toward morality.

I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise;
Pure motivations are an end in themselves, with no need for acknowledgment. Here the second quatrain ends, and the sonnet turns.

I love thee with the passion put to use
And the speaker turns inward to herself.

In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith;
She gives of herself.

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
She loves with a love even beyond what she has to give.

With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,
She loves beyond all loss of her faith, and breathes through it.

Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
And as she breathes, she feels. Then, in another volta, she turns to God.

I shall but love thee better after death.
Her hand has finished writing the sonnet, but the love in her sonnet lives on, fresh, moving, memorable, immortal.

 

5. “When I Am Dead, My Dearest” by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.

Who is the speaker, and why is she singing her way into death and indifference? She wants to be left alone, with no special memorial attention. The only thing she wants from “my dearest” is a kind of mild Mother Nature. She wants to dream in a perpetual twilight, without seeing or feeling or hearing, indifferent to both memory and loss of memory.

The poet wrote this lyric at age 18. She had already been writing steadily, and would continue to write steadily her whole life. What makes a poet prolific? If it isn’t a desire to be cherished and remembered, what is the inspiration? Of course, Christina Rossetti lived in an era in which women were required to be invisible. She must have been ambivalent about being seen and heard too conspicuously. Doing anything with too much mastery, confidence, and freedom could land a woman poet in deep trouble in Victorian England. She might be considered insane and locked away in a “home” for the insane, like being buried alive.

So Rossetti writes a poem that seems to surrender to the prevailing winds. The speaker seems completely selfless, mild, passive. She wants nothing, she needs nothing, she is nothing. But the thing is, she writes a masterful, confident lyric, instantly memorable, about not wishing to be remembered; a lyric full of seeing, feeling, and hearing. Like chiaroscuro, the dark picture she draws makes the light brilliant; she uses negatives to establish an intensely positive poem.

Perhaps the deeper meaning of Rossetti’s song is antithetical to the surface meaning. Wouldn’t a young poet gaining mastery and confidence naturally want her poems to be remembered? Then again, the poet is separate from her poem. Perhaps she’s suggesting that her life should be forgotten but her life’s work should not. Perhaps an unnatural split is taking place by a poet who feels defeated in advance because she’s a woman. This is also a song of consolation for both the speaker and “my dearest,” separated by death, the speaker no longer suffering from “shadows,” “rain,” and “pain.” Death is a comfort, at least, she seems to be saying. You may do what you wish with me when I’m gone; at least you won’t be able to hurt me again.

There seems to be deep pain at the heart of the poem, a pain too unbearable to live with. Certainly Victorian England must have been very painful for most women, and especially for independent, artistic women; the oppression, the repression, must have felt like a death grip. Perhaps this poem marks the beginning of Rossetti’s renunciation of typical Victorian womanhood, even a renunciation of life. Perhaps she had discovered that renunciation was necessary, in her life, to write this lyric, her first major poetic achievement.

 

6. “I Died for Beauty” by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth,—the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

The world is mad. Beauty and truth are dead. They share a tomb and talk to each other peacefully. They understand each other. Eventually they go quiet and still and even their names vanish forever.

It is a kindness that beauty and truth have been adjusted and adjoined. One lived for beauty. One lived for truth. They were both fighters and actually, now they can rest in peace. There’s time and space to have a conversation; there’s room in the tomb.

Time is first measured in minutes: scarce. Then hours pass, night passes, moss grows on still stones, and we stop talking for eternity. There are two rooms in one tomb, but the rooms touch each other. There are two reasons to live, but both reasons have died. The two reasons are one.

Beauty and truth are common nouns, not proper nouns. They are eternal. Beauty is moss; truth is a tomb. Your name doesn’t matter. Don’t expect your fight for truth and beauty to be recognized in the world, to be understood, to have a friend. But when you die, you may meet a kindred spirit, a softly questioning soul mate. Humble, unrecognized, unrewarded, anonymous, this is the tomb of the unknown soldier who after great suffering finds company and consolation in death.

Is all truth beautiful? Yes. Is all beauty truthful? Yes. One can’t die for beauty or truth without living for beauty or truth. To live for beauty or truth is to be devoted to a higher good. What is the opposite of beauty and truth? Corruption, fraud, crime, immorality, decadence, evil, sin, ungodliness.

Brethren sounds like breath and wren. Kinsmen met and talked: men/met, kin/talk. Beauty is said twice, once for each room in the tomb. The opposite of stone is soft. Moss is softer than stone, and stronger. Moss, a green growing plant, turns us into earth, “Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course, / With rocks, and stones, and trees” (Wordsworth).

The world is hard as stone, and rigid. Truth and beauty are soft, though it’s a hard fight to make room for them in the world. This poem is my monument and consolation; it will last forever. This poem is moss covering my lips and name. My name is unknown—but here is my poem anyway.

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About Mary Meriam

Mary Meriam’s newest book is Lady of the Moon. Her first full-length collection, Conjuring My Leafy Muse, was nominated for the Poets’ Prize. Her poems have appeared in twelve anthologies, including, most recently, Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters. She is the editor of the anthology Irresistible Sonnets. She contributes poems and prose to The Gay & Lesbian Review and Ms. Thanks to Eavan Boland’s “Ten Premodern Poems by Women” for inspiring these essays.