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Herman Melville

When I was 4 or 5, my grandmother loved to ask me where I was from: “Pittsfield, Massachewits” I’d say. Like a sneeze. She took a special delight in my inability to grasp and order all the necessary phonemes. We moved from Massachusetts before I turned 10, before I really appreciated the important literary contributions that state had made to American literature. I do remember visiting Herman Melville’s estate and finding, appropriately enough, an arrowhead half-buried in the ground. Presumably another child lost it after buying it from the gift shop, but that object must’ve buried itself deeply in my psyche because I’ve felt compelled to recover my heritage. There’s Frost and Dickinson, of course; Moby-Dick is becoming a psychic and artistic anchor for me. And more recently, I am growing into deeper relationship with the “small triumphs” of Robert Francis.

It’s part of this Massachusetts ressourcement, I suppose, that I have discovered Anne Bradstreet for myself–a poet with few advocates these days. In my cursory and rather sloppy overview of critical opinion about her, I discovered that she’s read by different critics as proto-Romantic yet also derivative bibliophile, as subversive proto-feminist yet also conformist American Puritan. The contradictory interpretations are to be expected since Bradstreet is an outlier of most received literary groupings. I suspect this is also a reason why–perhaps Berryman aside–she has few advocates. I’m sure all these debates are important in their own ways. But there is one literary grouping–a personal one–of which Bradstreet is definitely a member: she’s a Massachusetts poet.

There’s an ‘essentialist’ definition we can use: the presence of themes and qualities that she shares with other notable Massachusetts writers. Consider the opening stanza of her long poem “Contemplations,” which most critics consider her finest work:

Some time now past in the autumnal tide
When Phoebus wanted but one hour to bed
The trees all richly clad, yet void of pride,
Were gilded o’er by his rich golden head.
Their leaves and fruits seemed painted, but was true,
Of green, of red, of yellow, mixed hue;
Rapt were my senses at this delectable view.

Yes, she loves and writes nature in a Romantic manner parallel to Wordsworth, but she also demonstrates a penchant for naturalistic observation more akin to Francis or Frost: meditating on nature as an emblem of the mystery of being. Nature is not romanticized as a means of insight; rather, in the moment of perception, nature is caught up, as it were, in the larger schema of what is. The human eye becomes the means of transfiguration. Bradstreet fuses this tendency with the extended metaphysical conceits–similar to Donne, of course, but also similar those Dickinson was so fond of using. For example,

Silent alone, where none or saw, or heard,
In pathless paths I led my wand’ring feet,
My humble eyes to lofty skies I reared
To sing some song, my mazed Muse thought meet.

Like Dickinson’s, Bradstreet’s psyche becomes a space in which the author roams and encounters thinking as a series of events along the journey.

There’s also a less essentialist definition to this term: “Massachusetts poet” can loosely gesture toward the in-betweenness of Bradstreet, in the same way that Massachusetts was at the intersection of two empires. Bradstreet was steeped in classical education, yet she lived on the frontier–almost beyond the reaches of the civilization that shaped classical sensibility. In this space, readers can recognize that Bradstreet works with themes and images that come to fruition in later American literature.

In this series of posts, I want to do a reading of Bradstreet’s poem “Contemplations” and trace these two aspects of Bradstreet’s “Massachusetts”-ness in order to achieve a few broad goals:

1. Interpret Bradstreet as an intersection point between a more classical and modern poetics, between old and new world. Doing this may help modern readers appreciate where we are in contemporary poetics as well as where we’ve been.
2. Help readers appreciate how Bradstreet foresaw many future American literary impulses.

THE FORM & ITS FUNCTION

I think one hurdle for modern readers is that Bradstreet’s thematic interests and method of exploring those interests has more in common with pre-modern sensibilities. This is a really broad statement, but it’s mostly accurate if you squint your eyes right. The way we moderns conceive of the self is entirely different. Read Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self if you’re interested in more of this. I’m more interested in how this understanding of self affects contemporary poetics. Here’s how I see these shifts affecting contemporary readers: modern readers prefer speakers with highly individualized voices, because moderns have a more privatized sense of inner life, of the irreproducability of individual experience; we associate highly individualized voices with “genuine” feeling. 

Not so much for the pre-moderns. I’d argue that this sensibility is still evident in folk music. The speaker could easily be you or me; the singer may inhabit a voice and the performance makes it individualized, but a different performance is a different individual. The words and themes are a bit like generalized grooves into which singers pour the real individualized feeling. This isn’t to say that Bradstreet’s poem is “pre-modern” in the sense I describe above, only that it shares some of those sensibilities. One area where this understanding is important is when exploring the form of Bradstreet’s “Contemplations” because it helps readers see the poem on its own expectations.

“Contemplations” is composed of 33 individually numbered seven-line stanzas, each a sort of self-contained half-sonnet or modified rime royal. The stanza is composed of a quatrain of alternating rhyme pattern (ABAB) followed by a fully-rhymed tercet (CCC). Generally, the quatrain seems to pose an emblematic idea or image to ponder, and the tercet, with its triadic finality, deepens one’s perception of the image by drawing some conclusion or responding to it. In this pattern the form is indeed similar to the sonnet, yet this stanza simply does not have the room to sustain the intellectual acrobatics (read: the stamp of individualism) of traditional sonnets. Moreover, the sense of conclusion is more final and mysterious than, say, the standard Shakespearean couplet, which often feels provisional at best (that’s a feature, not a weakness). Also notable is that while the first six lines are iambic pentameter, the 7th line is alexandrine.

The lines are incredibly well-wrought in places, her voice working within but also freely moving across her form. The language is so formally satisfying at times that one can float right by the wonderful strangeness of some lines: “All mortals here the feeling knowledge hath.” That line, in addition to its strong intimations of Dickinson, suggests perhaps that Bradstreet’s feelings have yet to dissociate from sensibility, a rupture that Eliot pins on Milton, an almost contemporary of Bradstreet. There are, indeed, moments when Bradstreet, like the metaphysical poets, feels her thinking.

But unlike the Metaphysicals, Bradstreet’s “feeling knowledge” is not focused on the almost sensual pleasures of thought–and it is here here we must temper our modern expectations. I would argue that the goal of this form is geared less toward solving problems and more toward contemplation (surprise!): of an emblem, an icon, a mystery. That is to say, each individual poem-stanza does not achieve resolution, does not try to rectify infinite paradoxes within the vanishing point of the individual. The form extends beyond the insight-inducing koan, but is less focused on the act of thought than a sonnet: thus a critic could rightly call this form “contemplation.” I’ll use this name for it, since I haven’t been able to find any name for the form itself. If Bradstreet did not coin this form, its name seems obscured by time. The only other use of this exact form I’ve been able to locate (and only then after consulting some of the most knowledgeable poets I know on Facebook) is “The Purple Island” by Phineas Fletcher (an obscure find if there ever was one, Joe Weil!). I suppose there is a chance Bradstreet would have known this poem, since she was deeply read and seems to share Fletcher’s affection for didactic poetry. Moreover, the two poems are also works of natural theology, both attempting to come to understanding of the divine through nature and life experience.

The mention of theology brings us to another hurdle for modern appreciation of Bradstreet, but it gives us a chance to see how understanding the form helps overcome this hurdle. Despite her fondness for the natural world, Bradstreet seems to privilege divine revelation. Because of this privileging, critics accuse Bradstreet of a restrictive piety: that her religious convictions bind her to fall back on and rehash the establishment line when the paradoxes of the world become fraught. But I suspect such critics fail to appreciate, on some level, the sense of devotion that Bradstreet was likely to possess. Here an appreciation of the classical influences helps. In this sense, dogma is not merely a code for following, but itself an object worth contemplating, something to be entered into, to have written on one’s heart. If my read on the form of the poem is correct, then we should not approach these as similar to Milton’s attempts to “justify the ways of God to men.” Instead, the end of each stanza is a lot more like the “selah” of the Psalms, a pause inviting reflection rather than demanding an intellectual choice.

Let’s take a specific example and see how this works out. In stanza 31 Bradstreet describes how a sailor that fancies himself himself lord of the seas is forced by a sudden storm to tuck tail between legs and make for port. It’s an image of the sudden and ugly turn of nature. To most readers today, the stanza that follows lands with a pious thud, a theocratic spike in the end zone:

So he that saileth in this world of pleasure,
Feeding on sweets, that never bit of th’ sour,
That’s full of friends, of honour, and of treasure,
Fond fool, he takes this earth ev’n for heav’n’s bower.
But sad affliction comes and makes him see
Here’s neither honour, wealth, nor safety;
Only above is found all with security.

It would be easier to forgive Bradstreet that last bit if were the result of an lyrically compelling passage in which mere force of will somehow wrestled this insight from the nihilistic abyss (as Herbert does in “The Collar,” for example). This preference is a modern bias because of our latent preference for the logical (or at least lyrical) virtuosity of individuals. I think this desire is related to the importance of (what Charles Taylor terms)  ‘moral sentiments’ for modern individuals. In short, an account of reality (in this case a poetic one) must appeal to and satisfy our sense of, say, inner religious longing.

This is not to say that pre-moderns didn’t feel inner longing in the sense that we term it today (in fact, this sensibility is probably found in embryonic form in Augustine, that first modern). But they understood it differently. The source of those sentiments arose from a direct ontological connection. For moderns, this connection is impossible, so the source of sentiments is completely subjective. This is a crucial point because it should change even our subjective expectations of what is poetically ‘satisfying’ in a sympathetic reading of poetry.

Given the icon-like nature of Bradstreet’s poem, it seems then that she should not be judged by how well she navigates these images or marshals them toward a conclusion that satisfies our moral sentiments.  Now we may realize that this stanza is an invocation of a well-tread theme, one she does not try to overcome or even lyrically transcend: it’s about the opposition of the law of nature, with its chthonic demands of ritual sacrifice, to the law of grace and its ability to bestow a peace that passes understanding. We must also note that this poem is not a rejection of life’s pleasures. These pleasures receive a powerful treatment in the poem. We know without a doubt that Bradstreet loved to feast on the “sweet” of life as much as the next poet–if not more (“Rapt were my senses at this delectable view”). If we moderns insist on a glimpse into the world of the writer, we can imagine how bittersweet the final statement is for Bradstreet to affirm: indeed, readers must imagine because that is what the form asks of us: contemplation of that mystery. The force of truth does not come from within but exists in an objective order. One does not believe in that order; one can only recognize it.

In this series, each “contemplation” gathers, one on top of another, like a pile of inscrutable stones. Bradstreet, of course, threads themes and stories across the contemplations; once or twice she even puts the stanzas into direct conversation with one another. But moving through “Contemplations” is more akin to strolling through an ancient church that is full of mosaics or gazing upon an iconostasis. This is the classical bent manifesting itself in Bradstreet. This is not to say the stanza-poem remains in stasis. In fact, the movement of a narrative does emerge: it is the story of the soul’s ascesis (ascent to the divine) through the deepening perception of each stanza.

I was fortunate enough to have a American Literature professor who blew off the typical survey class BS and just gave us some of the best literature of the 19th century: Hawthorne, Dickinson, Melville, among others… In that class, I read Moby-Dick for the first time. I believe I read most of it over the course of a few days. The rhythms of Melville’s language carried me through.

I’ve felt the old beast calling to me again lately. I found a free audiobook copy online. So far, the reader has been fantastic. Librivox probably has the book ,as well, but their (volunteer) readers can be hit or miss.

I have also been digging through PBS and CBC video archives (soon I’ll hit C-SPAN) to fill my time with whatever goodies are stuck in there. I came across this most recent episode of The American Experience on the American whaling industry. It includes many beautiful and meditative passages from Melville, and also shows how the dependence of America on the whaling industry (and the extremes to which it was driven to meet those demands) prefigured much of the modern era of oil. Perhaps it is ironic then that our most recent oil crisis involves millions of oil being spewed into the deeps of the gulf.

My wife and I visited Melville’s home in Pittsfield (where I grew up) over our honeymoon. Earlier that day, we had climbed Mt. Greylock. While sitting on the porch of Melville’s home (I love Melville, but I am not paying 12 bucks to do a 20 minute tour of his house), we could see Greylock just over the tops of the trees. Apparently, Melville looked to the mountain during the winter (when it was white) as inspiration for his whale.

One more program worth checking out is from Studio360 on Moby-Dick. The interview with Stanley Crouch is very much worth a listen.

I. What Do People Do?

I’d caught glimpses of them before.  Maybe I’d been up very late and into the morning, taking the Brooklyn-bound train from Manhattan and had seen them standing with briefcases on platforms waiting for trains.  Maybe I woke bright and early for my hangover, craving Naked Juice and sparkling water from the corner bodega.  Maybe I had wild notions of pretending I had a nine-to-five writing schedule so that there would be an end to the thankless work.

They all walked in the same direction with a bounce in their step and cups of coffee in their hands.  Because of them, the A.M. New York and Metro New York dispensers that had been magically filled sometime during the night were depleted by noon.  Because of them, the trains in the evening were as crowded as summer hives.

Turns out, there’s this whole community of human beings who wake up in the morning, go to work, eat lunch and return home at around five o’clock.  Midday, they people-watch while they lunch, they shop and they make transactions at ATMs.  Late afternoon, they retreat to the fluorescent cocoons of their offices, and in the evening, like migratory creatures in early spring, they emerge and travel back where they came from, for a run, a shower, dinner and maybe a walk with the dog.

II. When Will It End?

My first week of full-time work, afflicted with existential motion sickness, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, and lunchtime was designated solely for weeping, as was the brief window before work, as were the hours following, until, exhausted I dropped off into an uneasy half-sleep.  On the third morning before work, caught in the murmurous haunt of commuters, I sat almost doubled over in a chair in Starbucks waiting for the barista to call out my $4 drink when a man rested his briefcase down on the bench beside mine.  I was always slightly in the way of these people who moved through space and daylight with the certainty of lethal wasps.  I made a motion to shift my tenuously held together waif of a body so as to avoid crowding the man’s hefty briefcase.  The man had on a neat tie and a friendly face and motioned to me that I was fine where I was, saying, “You just look so comfortable.”

My stomach turned and my vision blurred as my most recent anxiety attack subsided.  How I could have looked at all comfortable, I have no idea, though I suppose mild catatonia could be mistaken for deep repose.

In the window overlooking 17th Street, a mix of cold rain and sleet fell.  The wasps, who had covered themselves with parkas and umbrellas and husk-like hoods, zipped furiously by.

“When will it end?”  I heard.  The businessman was looking at me.

He was continuing the interaction we had tentatively established.  This is what people do, I thought, in the mornings before work while waiting in latte lines.  When will it end?…When will it end?…Which thing?

I looked at him.  “Which thing?”  I said.

The businessman laughed.  I made the businessman laugh.  He replied, with a shrug, “The weather, the economy, everything….”

Then I laughed.

There was a pause.  The rain and sleet had turned to only rain and was still falling.  He continued, “But we have offices on the square, so when we get depressed, we can go for a walk.”

III. Is it really that simple?

I get coffee.  I go to work.  In the afternoon, I go for a walk.

IV. But What Would Herman Melville Say?

“Again, I always go to sea as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of.  On the contrary, passengers themselves must pay.  And there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid.  The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us.  But being paid,–what will compare with it?  The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven.  Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!”

V. Why Write?

MFA programs create a set of circumstances that one does not find anywhere else.  You have money (lent or granted, most of which you give away to the institution who accepted you), you have a place to live, you have people to talk to who supposedly care about what you care about.  This cushy existence might make you think, “How can anyone write—or even exist—without these circumstances granted?”  This anomalistic life can cause a web of if-then theorizing about living:  If I have a job, I won’t be able to write.  If something is expected of me, I won’t do be able to do what isn’t—and only in graduate school will writing be truly expected of you specifically (and maybe not even then).  Some programs even go so far as to hold events with titles like “Life After the MFA,” during which a panel of survivors either perpetuate or crush delusions of grandeur.

“The world is ugly, / And the people are sad,” Wallace Stevens writes.  It is ugly.  The people are sad.  How clarifying, then, to remember what the world is and then go from there, because, isn’t the condition of the world and our condition in the world why (if there is a why) any of us are trying to write in the first place?