Poems personal and universal
In 1603 Ben Jonson and his wife lost their son Benjamin, who died of the plague at the age of seven. Child mortality, as we all know, was much greater at that time, as it continued to be right through to the twentieth century. The Jonsons had already lost their firstborn, Mary, at the age of six months. A second Benjamin was born some years later, and died also in childhood. This is the poem Jonson wrote for the first Benjamin:
On my First Sonne
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sinne was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy;
Seven yeeres tho'wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I loose all father, now. For why
Will man lament the state he should envie?
To have so soone scap'd worlds, and fleshes rage,
And, if no other miserie, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask'd, say, here doth lye
Ben. Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake, hence-forth all his vowes be such
As what he loves may never like too much.
My aim in this article is to make a very simple point: that when poets have written about the most intimate things in their lives, they have time and again produced work of the most astonishing breadth of appeal. They crystallise in verse experiences and feelings which can call up a response, a nod of recognition and solidarity, from almost anyone, anywhere. What is most personal is at the same time most universal.
I don’t want to add lengthy commentaries to any of the poems. They speak for themselves. So let this article be a sort of exhibition of poems, and let the exhibition guidebook be appropriately slim - or at least, not so heavy as to tire the visitor.
On Jonson’s poem, I would remark only on the tension I find in it between the rhyming couplet form, which lends itself to epigrammatic wit - as in the conceit about early death being an escape from the miseries of long life - and the poet’s palpable grief and despair which underlie the wit, and the formality of the verse, like a great tidal surge.
Probably most poets have one or more signature inspirational themes - particular kinds of experience, or particular kinds of thoughts that often seem to come out of nowhere. Most daily happenings light no lamp in the imagination, but one special sort of event, observation, or passing thought, will light that lamp. ‘This will make a poem,’ says the inner voice. For Wordsworth, it was what he called his ‘two consciousnesses’ - the deep awareness he had of the distance - the chasm, even - between his present self and his former self. He is a poet of recollection, of remembrance of things past. But as it happened, Wordsworth’s most mind-blowing life experiences happened in his youth, especially during the French Revolution; by the time he was forty (around 1810), he had settled into the life of a country gentleman. To put it simply, he seemed to have exhausted his recollections of inspirational moments, and his work declined.
But this poem is an exception.
Surprised By Joy
Surprised by joy - impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport - Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind--
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss? - That thought's return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart's best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.
Two centuries after Jonson, again it is that irreparable grief over the death of a child. But the poem is very much in keeping with the Wordsworthian double consciousness. Note the dates: Wordsworth’s daughter Catherine died in 1812, and the poem was written in 1815. This is not the first access of mourning, but a recurrence. Walking in the countryside near Rydal Mount, he is suddenly ‘Surprised by joy’ - the source of this joy isn’t described, but can easily be guessed at - and, forgetting that Catherine has been dead for three years, instinctively turns to share his pleasure with her. That moment was ‘the worst pang that sorrow ever bore’, next only to the grief he felt on the funeral day. This later poem, written at a time when Wordsworth’s imagination was increasingly fallow, captures the moment with a sharpness equal to anything he had written in his youth.
But notice something else: if we were to read this poem without any background knowledge, without knowing it is about the poet’s young daughter, we would see that it need not be an elegy for a child. It could be any loved one who has died, and was later fleetingly forgotten in a moment of joy at being alive. In the way he wrote the poem, Wordsworth unconsciously made it less particular and more universal. Or else, perhaps recalling the ‘still, sad music of humanity’ which he had once celebrated, did he consciously generalise?
We should turn to a happier personal poem. Edwin Muir, born in Orkney in 1887, moved with his family to Glasgow when he was 14. The move to the city was traumatic enough in itself, but within a few years his father, mother and two brothers all died. His life for most of the next twenty years was full of struggle and depression, and this is reflected in much of his work. But in 1919 he met Willa Anderson, and married her.
This is his tribute to her.
Yes, yours, my love, is the right human face.
I in my mind had waited for this long,
Seeing the false and searching for the true,
Then found you as a traveller finds a place
Of welcome suddenly amid the wrong
Valleys and rocks and twisting roads. But you,
What shall I call you? A fountain in a waste,
A well of water in a country dry,
Or anything that’s honest and good, an eye
That makes the whole world bright. Your open heart,
Simple with giving, gives the primal deed,
The first good world, the blossom, the blowing seed,
The hearth, the steadfast land, the wandering sea,
Not beautiful or rare in every part,
But like yourself, as they were meant to be.
It would hardly be too much to say that Muir’s life began with his marriage. He wrote: ‘I must live over again the years which I had lived wrongly … everyone should live his life twice, for the first attempt is always blind.’ All his early life, his Orkney childhood and unhappy young adulthood, fed into his poetry. Willa and Edwin worked together on what were to become celebrated translations of German authors including Heinrich Mann and Franz Kafka. Knowing a little about the poet’s life, we can see in ‘The Confirmation’ a half-submerged, unstated theme: my second life, that I have waited for so long, is beginning now.
Again, however, as in the Wordsworth poem we should note that without any background knowledge of Muir’s life, ‘The Confirmation’ becomes a one-poem-fits-all expression of love.
Adrienne Rich (born 1929) has been a very public writer, an activist in the civil rights, feminist and peace movements. Perhaps the best known fact about her personal life is that having been married for a number of years and having borne three sons, she came out as a lesbian. It was a liberation for her, both as a woman and as an artist. During the years as wife and mother, she had felt very keenly that her life was increasingly false and that she was struggling to discover her identity. Her writing satisfied her less and less. But as a lesbian and campaigning feminist, she was able to write far more fluently and with much greater inventiveness in language and form. In an odd, oblique sort of way, Edwin Muir’s words about living life twice, ‘for the first attempt is always blind’, apply also to Rich.
In ‘Transcendental Etude’, she describes
...the homesickness for a woman, for ourselves,
for that acute joy at the shadow her head and arms
cast on a wall, her heavy or slender
thighs on which we lay, flesh against flesh,
eyes steady on the face of love; smell of her milk, her sweat,
terror of her disappearance, all fused in this hunger
for the element they have called most dangerous, to be
lifted breathtaken on her breast, to rock within her...
...homesick as the fluted vault of desire
articulates itself: I am the lover and the loved,
home and wanderer, she who splits
firewood and she who knocks, a stranger
in the storm, two women eye to eye
measuring each other’s spirit, each other’s
a whole new poetry beginning here.
As she was fully aware, ‘a whole new poetry’ was possible for her in her lesbian identity. She felt able to realise, and live out, a sense of perfect equality that had not been attainable for her in a patriarchal marriage or society - a sense of being ‘the lover and the loved’, of being at one and the same time - interchangeably - the one who keeps house and the one who comes knocking.
Returning to my theme of the personal and universal, sadly there has to be a qualification here. Rich’s lesbian and feminist poetry doesn’t evoke universal empathy. Goodly numbers of the religious right in America and elsewhere would certainly - if Rich’s work ever found its way through the tiniest of cracks in their closed minds - fall victim to the apoplexy which is the common disease of the neurotically devout. What we have to say about Rich’s personal poetry is that if it isn’t entirely universal now, then it ought to be, and may be at some time in the future when our humanity has grown wider and deeper.
I leave you with two more exhibits, one very sad and the other joyful. These really do need no commentary, except to note the great span of time and differences in culture that are swept away by both of these poems. In them, the poet’s personal life-event becomes a shared event, a gift to all of us.
Returning to his old home
The empty house
With no-one there
Is harder even
Than when I journeyed,
Grass for my pillow.
With my wife,
Together we made it -
Our garden with its streams.
Now the trees grow tall and rank.
My wife planted
This plum tree.
When I look on it
My heart chokes,
And the tears well up.
Otomo Tabito (Japanese, 665-731)
Motetto als der erste Zahn durch war
Der kleine weisse Zahn ist da.
Du Mutter! komm, und Gross und Klein
im Hause! kommt, und kuckt hinein,
und seht den hellen weissen Schein.
Der Zahn soll Alexander heissen.
Du liebes Kind! Gott halt’ ihn dir gesund,
und geb dir Zähne mehr in deinen kleinen Mund,
und immer was dafür zu beissen!
Matthias Claudius (German, 1740-1815)
Motet, when the First Tooth was Through
The little white tooth is there.
Mother! come, and all the grown-ups and children
in the house! Come, look inside,
and see the bright white gleam.
The tooth shall be named Alexander the Great.
Dear child, God preserve it for you,
and give you more teeth in your little mouth,
and always something for them to chew!
More about Adrienne Rich:
Books by Adrienne Rich:
Books by Edwin Muir: