Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Preludes by Alice Meynell

Alice Meynell (then Thompson)'s first volume of poetry, Preludes, was published in 1875 when she was twenty-seven years old. The collection is accompanied by illustrations done by her sister, Elizabeth. Meynell didn't end up embarking upon a long career as a poet, however--subsequently, she was more known for her essays. Thompson's Preludes received praise, most notably, from John Ruskin. 

Temporality. Many of the poems in the collection counter notions of conventional temporality. Frequently, Thompson suggests the absence of temporality in the realm of eternity is always superior to the timed one which the poet inhabits; thus, any effort to "undo" conventional temporality is perhaps to get closer to its absence. In "To the Beloved Dead," the beloved has an existence outside of patterns of time:  "Thou silent song, thou ever voiceless rhyme, / Is there no pulse to move thee, / At windy dawn, with a wild heart beating time, / And falling tears above thee, / O music stifled from the ears that love thee?" This language of pulsation signals poetry's connections to the earthly human body. His being outside of time spurs the poet's desire "[f]or some more vast To be." In "A Letter from a Girl to her Own Old Age," the poet suggests that the past and present might be yoked together. One such way of yoking past and present together is through nature: "Oh, Nature brings my straying heart unto thee. / Her winds will join us, with their constant kisses / Upon the evening as the morning tresses / Her summers breathe the same unchanging blisses." Later in the poem, the poet counters the sequence of past and present by referring to herself as "filial" even though she has come before the old woman: "The one that now thy faded features guesses, / With filial fingers thy grey hair caresses, / With morning tears thy mournful twilight blesses." The sonic alignment of morning/mourning does further work in eradication distinctions between past and present. A similar yoking together of past and present is effected in "The Poet to his Childhood" in which the mature poet reflects on how the child s/he once was had been the one to determine the course of the rest of his life. Specifically, the child has chosen to climb the hills instead of walking down the "river'd meadow land," which essentially leads inevitably to the poet's endless ascent towards truth and knowledge for the remainder of life. The ascent is isolating, and so they are "hills of solitude." Nonetheless, the end of the poem reflects an acceptance of what the child has chosen, again, linking past and present: "I rebel not, child gone by, but obey you wonderingly, / For you knew not, young rash speaker, all you spoke, / and now will I, / With the life, and all the loneliness revealed that you / thought fit, / Sing the Amen, knowing it."  "Builders of Ruins" takes an expanded view of time, wherein the poet imagines the ruins that will succeed all of men's greatest edifices. That man's greatest projects will go to ruin is a cause for wonder: "Who shall allot the praise, and guess / What part is yours and what is ours? -- / O years that certainly will bless / Our flowers with fruits, out seeds with flowers, / With ruin all our perfectness." "Ruin" is a blessing because it contextualizes short-lived human creation within a much larger canvas of time. "Souer Monique," referring to a work composed by Couperin about a "silent nun" who lived years before Couperin, also boldly paints a broad canvas of time: through music and poetry, the collapse of ages might be brought about. The poet hears Couperin's melody and then wonders about the connection between this nun and Couperin, and then between herself and the nun, mediated through Couperin and her own poetry. The poet is able, finally, to make the nun her own through the bending of time: "Souer Monique, remember me. / Tis not in the past alone / I am picturing you to be; / But my little friend, my own, / In my moment, pray for me." In these lines, the temporal frames become reversed--the nun comes after the poet in the injunction, "remember me." 

Death and Silence figure repeatedly in Preludes as access points to the timeless, eternal realm of truth which it is the poet's task to seek. In "To a Poet," the greatest praise is accorded to "[s]ilence, the completest / Of thy poems, last, and sweetest." Death is the final and greatest poem, a continuation of the work done in life but more complete because it isn't subject to the limitation of human consciousness, specifically, of not being able to understand all of the "secrets" hidden behind the veil of nature. The rest of the poem sings of this limitation--to nature, the poet "[b]ear[s] the fictions of [his] sadness, / [his] humanity / For their truth (referring to nature's) is not for thee." But once the poet's consciousness has merged with the consciousness of nature in death, there will no longer be such a problem. "To the Beloved" is a poem which compares the "beloved" to silent, negative spaces, and this seems the greatest praise: "silent strays / Amongst the winds, between the voices," "[a] silent sea" that "[l]ies round all shores with long embraces," "[a] secret and a mystery / Between one footfall and the next," "Most dear pause in a mellow lay" and so forth. "To a Lost Melody" refers to Keats's poetry, rather, more specifically, the loss or absence of it. The first line of the poem, "Thou art not dead, O sweet lost melody" affirms the continuance of Keats's melody, but most of the poem actually questions where it has gone. Such unanswered questions as "what soul knows thee now?" or  "And is the June air laden with thee now, / Passing the summer-bough?" form the bulk of the poem. At the very end, the poet asks if Keats's melody then might "leave thy rainbow showers, to bear / A part in human care" and she is met with no answer. The final lines confirm that Keats's melody is "lost" insofar as it is no longer human, but it has joined with the eternal realm of truth where human consciousness isn't separate from nature's: "Ah, not for mine (referring to the poet's own voice), who sit with empty ears, / Dreaming of thee, to tears." 

Memory, nature, and the (male) Romantic tradition. Many of the poems in Preludes clearly draw on the traditional nature poems of the male Romantic poets (though, as Linda H. Peterson has pointed out, Thompson doesn't contend quite as antagonistically to the male Romantic tradition as earlier female poets like Barrett Browning). "In Early Spring" revises the romantic, Wordsworthian notion of memory as highly individual and originating from the "I" of the lyric Subject. In Thompson's conception of memory here, the memory belongs not to the "I" of the poet, but to nature: "But not a flower or song I ponder is / My own, but memory's."  Though the poet can channel the "memory," it ultimately belongs and originates in nature. Like Barrett-Browning's Aurora Leigh, the poet as imagined by Thompson channels meaning that is greater than what s/he intends to mean. In a "Sonnet" accompanied by an epigraph from Lorenzo de Medici, Thompson develops the metaphor that her heart is the addressee's garden, and that the addressee brings the seeds to the garden. However, she also says that the garden has birds which are the thoughts :which though thine eyes hold / mine, Flit to the silent world and other summers / With wings that dip beyond the silver seas." The birds in this metaphor are the meaning which the poet expresses that are greater than what she herself can possibly intend. In another "Sonnet" subtitled "to poet to nature" and with an epigraph from Dante, Thompson revises Shelley's conception, in "Ode to the West Wind" of the poet as a "lyre" through which the west wind (nature) might weave in order to produce song. In Shelley's poem, the lyre metaphor makes the poet's individual structure to be fairly important for the production of music. The poet in Thompson's poem is also a "lyre," but there is also a "lyre sublime" with which the individual "lyre" would not be able to keep up. The power of this greater lyre, a poet may only borrow: "Another bard shall tune / Thee, O my Lyre, to other songs than mine."  

Engaging the tradition of male love poems. Preludes also engages actively with a long tradition of male love poets, most notably in the sonnets, and in her inclusions of epigraphs from Dante and Petrarch. "Song" contains one of Thompson's recurring images of love, in which the lover as a tide which unknowingly fills silent, inland rivulets. This image suggests secret places that a lover cannot conquer by any conscious means, whether by force or persuasion. The "Sonnet" I mentioned above with the Lorenzo de Medici epigraph signals that love doesn't lead to the formation of a complete world that can shut itself out from nature (as many love poems claim, Shakespeare and Donne come to mind). The "birds" (nature) are as much a part of the "garden" (the poet) as the "seeds" (her lover). 

The poet's alienation from own work. Related to all of the above observations, Thompson's poet almost always feels a degree of alienation from his own work (when channeling nature, which is greater than the human, it always means there is something in excess of the poet in the poem). "Pygmalion," subtitled "The Poet to his Poetry," contends directly with this alienation: "Thou art to live; I am watching thee. / I have laid my patient chisel away, / And watch thee somewhat wearily." The poet continues: "I know not what the voice will sing. / I only made the quiet breast, / And white throat with much labouring. / I only wrought and thought my best, / And lo, a new voice shall out-ring." "Sonnet," subtitled "The Love of Narcissus" contends that seeing one's self in nature is a "strange recognition" (presumably because of the excess nature that the poet can't understand about himself/herself). In one of the most moving sonnets subtitled "At a Poet's Grave," Thompson asks us not to praise the poet, but the poet's truth beyond his individual existence. The poet is just a medium.  Finally, her "Sonnet" to a daisy wonders at the secret life of the daisy which can only be viewed from "God's side." The sweet, simple daisy is a "barrier to eternity." The alienation, as I have noted in other poems, goes away only in silence and death. 

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