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Renée Vivien, born Pauline Mary Tarn (11 June 1877 – 18 November 1909

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Told by Gesa Karoly

I promised you, my curious little girl, to tell you the true story of Sarolta Andrassy. You knew her,  didn’t you? You remember her black hair with blue and red highlights, and her eyes like a lover’s begging and melancholy.

Sarolta Andrassy lived in the country with her old mother. For neighbours she had the Szecheny family, who had just left Budapest forever. Really, they were a bizarre family! It was easy to mistake Bela Szecheny for a little girl, and his sister, Terka, for a little boy. Curiously enough, Bela possessed all the feminine virtues and Terka, all the masculine faults. Bela’s hair was a copper blond; Terka’s was a livelier, rather reddish blond. The brother and sister strangely resembled each other – and that’s very rare among members of the same family, no matter what they say.

Bela’s mother was not yet resigned to cutting off the beautiful blond curls of the little boy or to exchanging his graceful muslin or velvet skirts for vulgar pants. She coddled him like a little girl. As for Terka, she kept shooting up, like a wild weed . . . She lived outdoors, climbing on the trees, marauding, robbing the kitchen gardens. She was unbearable and at war with the world. She was a child who was neither tender not communicative. Bela, on the other hand, was gentleness itself. He showed his adoration for his mother by making much of her and by caressing her. Terka loved no on€, and no one loved her.

Sarolta came one day to visit the Szecheny family. Her loving eyes in her thin, pale face seemed to be begging. Bela greatly pleased her, and they played together  great deal. Looking wild, Terka prowled around them.When Sarolta spoke to her, she fled.

She could have been pretty, this incomprehensible Terka . . . But she was too tall for her age, too thin, too awkward, too ungainly, whereas Bela was so dainty and so sweet! . . . Several months later, the Szecheny family left Hungary. Bela had an excessively delicate chest, being in general rather frail. On the advice of the doctor, his mother took him to Nice, along with his recalcitrant little sister. Sarolta cried bitterly over losing her playmate.

In her dreams, Sarolta always evoked the too frail and too pretty little boy whom she remembered constantly. And she would say to herself, smiling at the blond fantasy: ‘If I must get married when I’m older, I would like to marry Bela.’

Several years passed – oh, how slowly for the impatient Sarolta! Bela must have reached the age of twenty, and Terka, seventeen. They were still on the Riviera. And Sarolta grieved through the joyless, long years, which were lit up only by the illusion of a dream.

One violet evening, she was dreaming by her window when her mother came to tell her that Bela had returned . . . Sarolta’s heart sang as if it would break. And, the next day, Bela came to see her.

He was the same, and even more charming than before. Sarolta was happy that he had kept this feminine and gentle manner which had so pleased her. He was still the fragile child . . . But now this child possessed an inexpressible grace. Sarolta searched in vain for the cause of this transformation which made him so alluring. His voice was musical and faraway like the echo of the mountains. She admired everything about him, even his stone-grey English suit. And she even admired his
mauve necktie.

Bela contemplated the young woman with different eyes, with eyes strangely beautiful, with eyes that did not resemble the eyes of other men . . . ‘How thin he is!’ observed Sarolta’s mother after he had left. ‘Poor thing, he must still be in delicate health.’ Sarolta did not answer. She closed her eyes in order to again see Bela under her closed eyelids . . . How handsome, handsome, handsome he was! . . .

He returned the next day, and every day after that. He was the Prince Charming who is seen only in the childish pages of fairy tales. She could not look him in the face without feeling ardently and languishingly faint . . . Her face changed according to the expression of the face she loved. Her heart beat according to the rhythm of that other heart. Her unconscious and childish tenderness had become love.

Bela would turn pale as soon as she appeared, diaphanous in her white summer dress. Sometimes he looked at her without speaking, like someone communing with himself in front of a faultless Statue. Sometimes he took her hand . . . His palm was so burning and dry that she thought she was touching the hand of an invalid. Indeed, at those times a little fever would show in Bela’s cheeks.

One day she asked him for some news of the undisciplined Terka.
‘She is still in Nice,’ he answered indifferently. And then they spoke of something else. Sarolta understood that Bela did not love his sister at all. This was not surprising, what is more –  a girl who was so taciturn and wild!

What should come next, came next. A few months later Bela asked to marry her. He had just turned twenty-one.  Sarolta’s mother had no objections to the union

Their betrothal was unreal, as delicate as the white roses that Bela brought each day. Their vows were more fervent than poems: their very souls trembled on their lips. The nuptial dream came to be in the deepest silence.

‘Why,’ Sarolta would ask her fiancé€, ‘are you worthier of being loved than other young men? Why do you have gentle ways that they do not? Where did you learn the divine words that they never say?’

The wedding ceremony took place in absolute privacy. The candles brightened the red highlights in Bela’s blond hair. The incense curled towards him, and the thunder of the organs exalted and glorified him. For the first time since the beginning of the world, the Groom was as beautiful as the Bride.

They left for those blue shores where the desire of lovers runs out of patience. They were seen, a Divine Couple, with the eyelashes of one stroking the eyelids of the other. They were seen, lovingly and chastely intertwined, with her black hair spread over his blond hair . . .

Oh, my curious little girl! Here the story becomes a little  difficult to relate . . . Several months later, the teal Bela Szecheny appeared . . . He was not Prince Charming, alas! He was only a handsome boy, nothing more.

He furiously sought the identity of the young usurper . . . And he learned that the usurper in question was his own sister, Terka.

….Sarolta and Prince Charming have never returned to Hungary. They are hiding in the depths of a Venetian castle or of a Florentine mansion. And sometimes they are seen, as one sees a vision of ideal tenderness, lovingly and chastely intertwined.

 

Translated by Karla Jay and
Yvonne M. Klein

 

 

Who, we wonder, was Gesa Karoly, and who was the curious little girl to whom this little gem of a story was related? The writer would have us believe that legend of Sarolta and her lover went on being retold, and the little girl, who remembered Sarolta, we may fondly imagine, may have been influenced by its hearing, to form her own views and ideas about the possibilities of love, and so not simply accept at face-value the norms embraced and upheld by society at large.

Renée Vivien’s charming tale of lesbian love and marriage is one in a long string going all the way back to Ovid – Iphys and Ianthes, in Metamorphosis,  and Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem  Orlando Furioso, which has the a brother and sister fall in love with the same woman. Though both narratives disappoint (Ariosto’s narrative, degenerates into a heterosexual romance, even though the two women marry each other, and in Ovid’s tale Iphys is transformed into a man) Vivien gives her readers every satisfaction.

Hers is a story told by a lesbian, for lesbians, and happily for us she does not succumb to trite and banal heterosexual anticlimaxes resorted to by precedent (even Shakespeare is guilty here), but sends her lovers off to live in Italy, where we are free to imagine that they in true fairy-tale fashion, revel in each others’ company for the rest of their lives.

I hear a pianissimo echo in Vivien’s language of Oscar Wilde but without his excesses, of Baudelaire, without his decadence and also of Virginia Woolf, without her usual ornately satirical social embellishments; but above all  I hear in Vivien’s writing the sweetness and magic, as well as the dark glimmer of falling in love.

No doubt an argument can be made that the romantic ethereality of her language and its high-art aesthetic confers on it the gloss of dated unreality, but I think that beneath the cultured patina lies the solid core of a complex analysis of gender and sexual orientation, albeit sans the associated component of sexuality. Prince Charming is in fact a stylish fable – a myth –  chronicling a stylised adaptation of gender to fulfil the imperatives of personal individuation.

Though the traits of the opposite sex predominate in the characters of Bela and Terka, Terka’s maleness bears the imprint of  divine virginity, whereas Bela’s femaleness is mere passivity. Terka is in fact a young Diana, withholding herself from trivial social interaction, and purely dedicated to her own wild self.

What sets the sequence of this story in motion? Sarolta loves Bela (meaning ‘white’ in Hungarian, and here perhaps implying ‘pure’) for his girlish nature, and she is aware that a liaison is one which is still within the ambit of what is considered socially sanctioned as a basis for marriage. But this is her first step on the lesbian continuum, when her heart’s intimations reveal to her that it is a certain quality –  a particular nature – a singular constellation of characteristics that draw her, and this attachment, though nascent and diffuse, forms the basis of her enduing romantic dream.

But I question if  Bela’s muslin skirts, delicate health and a general tendency to be ‘sweet’, though they may suffice to inspire Sarolta’s  childish love, go beyond being merely social traits? For in this case they do not seem to me to sink their taproot into the substratum of human nature itself. Not so in the case of Terka. Her wild coltishness, and her vital intensity –  the active reality of her nature –  does not permit the trivial and social interactions which convention approves. Why does she run away when addressed by Sarolta? Could it be that she cannot bear the intensity of her feelings for Sarolta? She is untouchable and most of all untouched. For her the potency of touch is not something to be squandered in idle caresses.  Neither is she sullied by any prior loves, not even the maternal, and certainly not the fraternal – and this is the purity Vivien so values, in her emphasis on ‘chasteness’. It is this chasteness, this virginal quality and its underlying power is what makes Terka’s love pure and exclusive. She is after all, the one who initiates the relationship with Sarolta, while valetudinarian Bela lacks the acumen to take the next logical step in Sarolta’s direction.

Vivien makes it undeniably clear that it was what was female in Bela that inspired Sarolta’s early affection. Bela was effete and epicene and these were the qualities that appealed to Sarolta. His nerveless languor and passive nature devoid of masculine traits – in fact his effeminacy  –  is what makes Bela acceptable to her. Vivien relates a myth of gender ambivalence, describing a subtle process which begins with the unreal and concludes with the real. It is a sacrament in which separate and disparate splinters of gender components coalesce in Terka and transform to comprise a whole, which then concludes in the Hierosgamos  – the sacred marriage.

Bela himself is hidden behind the veil of the personality he projectes, and which Sarolta percieves.  When she again sees  Terka in the guise of Bela, after the long separation in all his travested beauty, she falls truly in love. She knows intuitively this is a ‘different’ kind of love. She senses the difference, though she finds it inexplicable, but the shift of her affections from childish love to ardour and from Bela to ‘Terka as Bela’ and from girlish boy to boyish girl, is accomplished in one swift gliding movement. It resembles a bloodless revolution, when a usurper displaces a former monarch and seizes the throne without the least evidence of conflict. Neither do we sense in Sarolta any trace of an emotional disconnect.

The alchemical progression in Sarolta’s mind of a dawning realisation from languid to intense, from Bela to Terka seems almost imperceptible. The process is so smooth, so deftly accomplished, it is almost invisible as a progression in the object of  Sarolta’s affections. Sarolta’s attachment begins with a male, Bela, in whom feminine traits predominate –  Terka, in whom the masculine traits predominate remains, present, but in the distance, unapproachable and unapproaching.

Then comes the vital hiatus  – the quiescence in which Terka enters the cocoon of her metamorphosis. When she reappears she has achieved the perfect balance of integrated feminine and masculine traits – a fusion of the requisite romantic and social qualities which form the fabric of Sarolta’s Prince Charming.  And so, one wonders if for Terka, early gender ambivalence was transformed into a mature personality largely in relation to Sarolta, and if Terka’s motivation in creating her adult self was in order to be desired by Sarolta…. and to go even a step further, if Terka’s transformation into ‘Prince Charming was in fact a wrought by  the alchemy of Sarolta’s desire…

But it is shimmering awareness that makes the wedding secret, and silent, and the love sacrosanct. The mere touching of hands is fevered, and  between Terka and Sarolta there is none of the casualness in it of Bela’s maternal caresses. Farouche Terka is transformed in young adulthood into a Prince Charming of hidden depths. Bela remains a feeble, social creature, prodded to action only when concerns about his social identity compel him.

Vivien’s story boldly celebrates the strange and ineffable nature of lesbian love when it is first felt, as a force that surfaces mysteriously, asserts itself and makes itself felt in ways that cannot be explained or understood: as something which demands to be acknowledged and honoured, to the extent that it subverts and usurps and adapts to its own necessity the heterosexual prerogative of marriage.

The appearance of  femininity and masculinity – even maleness and femaleness –  is shown to be deceptive and misleading; a mere mask and masquerade, which makes  impersonation of the opposite sex (and not mere transvestism)  a valid and genuine act. It is not merely a use of sartorial deception, but something undertaken in order to accomplish a serious end. With her ‘Prince Charming’ Vivien creates a space where same-sex love can be conceived of as something which can – and should –  flourish undisturbed and unhindered. This idea seems particularly valuable at a time when the self-knowledge of a woman’s sexual and affectional orientation was not a simple given – not an external endowment as perhaps it is in our own time  –  but something to be arrived at intuitively, empirically and with conviction, in contravention of accepted  social norms.

In Vivien’s charmingly extravagant myth, the stock trope of ‘Prince Charming’ is stood on its head. It is appropriated and made to serve a subversive purpose. It validates same-sex relationships between women, and recognises  the importance of personal as well as social imperatives for lesbians, and the claim to a socially recognised pair bond such as marriage, is something that women might wish to claim for themselves and their female partners.

And so we are given an unambiguously happy ending to a thoroughly romantic escapade – a lesbian fairy-tale in which girl gets girl.

Vivien lived most of her adult life in the Paris of the ‘Belle Époque’, in the company many brilliant literary lesbians – she was  the lover of Natalie Clifford Barney, the neighbour of Collette and she knew Djuna Barnes and many other brilliant women who frequented Barney’s salon. She chose for herself a life far removed from the rigid and limiting confines of domesticity, heterosexual marriage, and the burden of childbearing and child-raising, and had several intense love affairs, relationships and liaisons with women. Fortunately for her, she lived in a time which pre-dated, and was therefore unpolluted by Freud’s malignant and pernicious theorising. She was free to think for herself in ways that most of her female contemporaries outside of her charmed circle could not.

Although Vivien became the heiress of a very large fortune at a very early age, wealth did not bring much happiness with it. Vivien’s mother attempted – unsuccessfully –  to claim a share of the inheritance by having her daughter declared insane. Vivien’s personal difficulties – anorexia, drug, and alcohol abuse exacerbated by a weak constitution, did not detract from her awareness and intense exploration of  the possibilities of passionate love between women, something she expressed much more explicitly and emphatically in her poetry than her prose.

Permanently bereft by the death of her first love, Violet Shillitoe, (in 1901 at the age of 24) Vivien slipped into a steep physical and emotional decline. Her grief was probably exacerbated by guilt, since she had begun an affair with Natalie Clifford Barney shortly before Violet’s death. Violet’s body, which had been buried in France, was exhumed by her father and shipped back to England for reburial in 1904, leaving behind an empty grave in the cemetery of Saint Germain en Laye in Passey. It is  interesting to speculate what impact this morbid event may have had on Vivien, who was already obsessed with death. With the windows of  her apartment nailed shut, and living a reclusive life in her dark, incense-scented rooms, she continued to compose feverishly impassioned poetry, writing obsessively to the very end of her life in November of 1909.

Not very much of Vivien’s original work (written in French,) has been translated into English, which seems to be the reason it is not well-known to English readers. Her poetry, defiantly and uncompromisingly Sapphic, did not catch on in France, though the French could hardly have found its content to be more shocking than the decadent poetry of the second half of the nineteenth century (consider Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Louys). Perhaps the fact that it was written by a woman may have been more than bourgeois sensibilities of the notoriously sexist French of that era could tolerate.

Despite her short and tragic life, (there was at least one attempt at suicide) and the fact that her poetry was never really ‘in style’ the mere fact that Vivien wrote more openly and unapologetically about lesbian love than would be attempted for another seventy years and more, makes her an important figure to us. I am certain that had she written and been published in English and had those publications survived unscathed by censorship, our history as lesbians would have unfolded along a very different trajectory.  A voice in the wilderness is still a voice, and had hers been heard it might have reached the ears of those who most needed to hear its affirmation. Instead there was only the occasional murmur until Radclyffe Hall published  her 1928  novel The Well of Loneliness  –  which was in in fact more of a reasoned plea for understanding and acceptance for ‘inverts’ rather than any confident claim.

So are left, as is usual in such cases when brilliance and bad luck collide, with a sense of  satisfaction tinged with regret, wishing that Vivien’s life could have been as happy, and had as happy an ending as that of Sarolta and Terka in this story.

A week ago, this June 11th was the 135th anniversary of her birth, so Happy Birthday, Renée Vivien – we still remember you, fondly and well.

 

 

Le Prince Charmant

Conté par Gesa Karoly.

Je vous ai promis, ô petite curieuse, de vous conter l’histoire véritable de Saroltâ Andrassy. Vous l’avez connue, n’est-ce pas?  Vous vous souvenez de ses cheveux noirs, aux reflets bleus et roux, et de ses yeux d’amoureuse, suppliants et mélancoliques.

Saroltâ Andrassy vivait à la campagne avec sa vieille mère. Elles avaient pour voisins les Szécheny, qui venaient de quitter définitivement Buda-Pesth. Une bizarre famille, en vérité ! On aurait pu prendre Bêla Szécheny pour une petite fille, et sa sœur Terka pour un jeune garçon. Chose curieuse, Bêla possédait toutes les vertus féminines et Terka tous les défauts masculins. Les cheveux de Bêla étaient d’un blond vert, ceux de Terka, plus vivants, d’un blond rose. Le frère et la sœur se ressemblaient étrangement, — cela est très rare entre gens de la même famille, quoi qu’on en dise.

La mère de Bêla ne se résignait pas encore à couper les belles boucles blondes du petit garçon et à échanger ses gracieuses jupes de mousseline ou de velours contre une vulgaire culotte. Elle le choyait comme une fillette. Quant à Terka, elle poussait à sa guise, pareille à une herbe sauvage… Elle vivait au grand air, grimpant sur les arbres, maraudant, pillant les jardins potagers, insupportable et en guerre avec tout le monde. C’était une enfant sans tendresse et sans expansion. Bêla, au contraire, était la douceur même. Son adoration pour sa mère se manifestait par des câlineries et des caresses incessantes. Terka n’aimait personne et personne ne l’aimait.

Saroltâ vint un jour chez les Szécheny. Ses yeux d’amoureuse imploraient, dans son mince visage pâle. Béla lui plut beaucoup et ils jouèrent longtemps ensemble. Terka rôdait autour d’eux, d’un air farouche. Lorsque Saroltâ lui adressa la parole, elle s’enfuit.

Elle aurait été jolie, cette incompréhensible Terka… Mais elle était trop longue pour son âge, trop maigre, trop gauche, trop dégingandée. Tandis que Béla était si mignon et si doux !…

Les Szécheny quittèrent la Hongrie quelques mois plus tard. Saroltâ pleura amèrement son compagnon de jeux. Sur l’avis du médecin, sa mère l’avait emmené à Nice, ainsi que sa récalcitrante petite sœur. Béla avait la poitrine délicate à l’excès. Il était, d’ailleurs, peu robuste.

À travers ses rêves, Saroltâ évoquait toujours l’enfant trop frêle et trop joli dont le souvenir persistait en elle. Et elle se disait, en souriant à l’image blonde :

« Si je dois me marier plus tard, je voudrais épouser Béla. »

Plusieurs années se passèrent, — oh ! combien lentement pour l’impatiente Saroltâ ! Béla devait avoir atteint vingt ans, et Terka dix-sept. Ils étaient toujours sur la Riviera. Et Saroltâ se désolait de ces années sans joie, éclairées seulement par l’illusion d’un songe.

Elle rêvait à sa fenêtre, par un soir violet, lorsque sa mère vint lui dire que Béla était revenu…

Le cœur de Saroltâ chantait à se briser. Et, le lendemain, Béla vint vers elle.

Il était le même, et pourtant bien plus charmant qu’autrefois. Saroltâ fut heureuse qu’il eût gardé cet air efféminé et doux qui lui avait tant plu. C’était toujours l’enfant fragile… Mais cet enfant possédait aujourd’hui une grâce inexprimable. Saroltâ chercha en vain la cause de cette transformation qui le rendait si attirant. Sa voix était musicale et lointaine, ainsi qu’un écho des montagnes. Elle admira tout de lui, jusqu’à son complet anglais, d’un gris de pierres, et jusqu’à sa cravate mauve.

Béla contemplait la jeune fille de ses yeux changés, de ses yeux étrangement beaux, de ses yeux qui ne ressemblaient pas aux yeux des autres hommes…

« Qu’il est donc mince ! » observa la mère de Saroltâ, après son départ. « Il doit être encore d’une santé bien délicate, ce pauvre petit. »

Saroltâ ne répondit point. Elle ferma les yeux afin de revoir Béla sous ses paupières closes… Comme il était joli, joli, joli !…

Il revint le lendemain, et tous les jours. C’était le Prince Charmant qui ne se révèle qu’à travers les pages enfantines des contes de fées. Elle ne pouvait le regarder en face sans défaillir ardemment, languissamment… Son visage variait selon l’expression du visage désiré. Son cœur battait selon le rythme de cet autre cœur. L’inconsciente et puérile tendresse était devenue de l’amour.

Béla pâlissait dès qu’elle entrait, diaphane en sa blanche robe d’été. Il la regardait parfois, sans parler, comme quelqu’un qui se recueille devant une Statue sans défaut. Parfois il lui prenait la main… Elle croyait toucher une main de malade, tant la paume en était brûlante et sèche. Un peu de fièvre montait alors jusqu’aux pommettes de Béla.

Elle lui demanda un jour des nouvelles de Terka l’indisciplinée.

« Elle est toujours à Nice, » répondit-il négligemment. Et l’on parla d’autre chose. Saroltâ comprit que Béla n’aimait point sa sœur. Ce n’était pas étonnant, au surplus. Une enfant si taciturne et si farouche !

Ce qui devait arriver arriva. Béla la demanda en mariage quelques mois plus tard. Il entrait dans sa vingt et unième année. La mère de Saroltâ ne s’opposa point à l’union.

Ce furent d’irréelles fiançailles, délicates à l’égal des roses blanches que Béla apportait chaque jour. Ce furent des aveux plus fervents que des poèmes, et des frissons d’âme sur les lèvres. Au profond des silences, passait le rêve nuptial.

« Pourquoi, » disait Saroltâ à son fiancé, « es-tu plus digne d’être aimé que les autres jeunes hommes ? Pourquoi as-tu des douceurs qu’ils ignorent ? Où donc as-tu appris les parôles divines qu’ils ne prononcent jamais ? »

La cérémonie eut lieu dans une intimité absolue. Les cierges avivaient les lueurs roses de la blonde chevelure de Béla. L’encens fumait vers lui, et le tonnerre des orgues l’exaltait et le glorifiait. Pour la première fois, depuis le commencement du monde, l’Époux fut aussi beau que l’Épouse.

Ils partirent vers les rives bleues où s’exaspère le désir des amants. On les vit, Couple Divin, les cils de l’un frôlant les paupières de l’autre. On les vit, amoureusement et chastement enlacés, les cheveux noirs de l’Amante répandus sur les blonds cheveux de l’Amant…

Mais voici, ô petite curieuse ! où l’histoire devient un peu difficile a raconter… Quelques mois plus tard, le véritable Béla Szécheny apparut… Ce n’était pas le Prince Charmant. Hélas ! Ce n’était qu’un joli garçon, sans plus.

Il rechercha furieusement la personnalité du jeune usurpateur… Et il apprit que l’usurpateur en question était sa sœur Terka.

… Saroltâ et le Prince Charmant ne sont plus revenus en Hongrie. Ils se cachent au fond d’un palais vénitien ou d’une maison florentine. Et parfois on les rencontre, tels qu’une vision de tendresse idéale, amoureusement et chastement enlacés.

 

 

 

 

http://www.valkyria.ca/renee_vivien_page.html

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H.D. (born Hilda Doolittle; September 10, 1886 – September 27, 1961)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Little, but all roses’ is the dictate of the Alexandrine poet, yet I am inclined to disagree. I would not bring roses, nor yet the great shaft of scarlet lilies. I would bring orange blossoms, implacable flowerings made to seduce the sense when every other means has failed, poignard that glints, fresh sharpened steel: after the red heart, red lilies, impassioned roses are dead.

‘Little, but all roses’  –  true there is a tint of rich colour (invariably we find it), violets, purple woof of cloth, scarlet garments, dyed fastening of a sandal, the lurid, crushed and perished hyacinth, stains on cloth and flesh and parchment.

There is gold too. Was it a gold rose the poet meant? But the gold of a girl-child’s head, the gold of an embroidered garment hem, the rare gold of sea-grass or meadow-pulse does not seem to evoke in our thought the vision of roses, heavy in a scented garden.

‘Little, but all roses.’ I think, though the stains are deep on the red and scarlet cushions, on the flaming cloak of love, it is not warmth we look for in these poems, not fire nor sunlight, not heat in the ordinary sense, diffused, and comforting (nor is it light, day or dawn or light of sun-setting), but another element containing all these, magnetic, vibrant; not the lightning as it falls from the thunder cloud, yet lightning in a sense: white, unhuman element, containing fire and light and warmth, yet in its essence differing from all these, as if the brittle crescent-moon gave heat to us, or some splendid scintillating star turned warm suddenly in our hand like a jewel, sent by the beloved.

I think of the words of Sappho as these colours, or states rather, transcending colour yet containing (as great heat the compass of the spectrum) all colour. And perhaps the most obvious is this rose colour, merging to richer shades of scarlet, purple or Phoenician purple. To the superficial lover – truly -roses!

Yet not all roses – not roses at all, not orange blossoms even, but reading deeper we are inclined to visualize these broken sentences and unfinished rhythms as rocks – perfect rock shelves and layers of rock between which flowers by some chance may grow but which endure when the staunch blossoms have perished.

Not flowers at all, but an island with innumerable, tiny, irregular bays and fiords and little straits between which the sun lies clear (fragments cut from a perfect mirror of iridescent polished silver or of the bronze reflecting richer tints) or breaks, wave upon destructive passionate wave.

Not roses, but an island, a country, a continent, a planet, a world of emotion, differing entirely from any present-day imaginable world of emotion; a world of emotion that could only be imagined by the greatest of her own countrymen in the greatest period of that country’s glamour, who themselves confessed her
beyond their reach, beyond their song, not a woman, not a goddess even, but a song or the spirit of a song. A song, a spirit, a white star that moves across the heaven to mark the end of a world epoch or to presage some coming glory.

Yet she is embodied – terribly a human being, a woman, a personality as the most impersonal become when they confront their fellow beings.

The under-lip curls out in the white face, she has twisted her two eyes unevenly, the brows break the perfect line of the white forehead, her expression is not exactly sinister (sinister and dead), the spark of mockery beneath the half-closed lids is, rather, living, destructive irony.

‘What country girl bewitches your heart who knows not how to draw her skirt about her ankles?’

Aristocratic – indifferent – full of caprice – full of imperfection – intolerant.

High in the mountains, the wind may break the trees, as love the lover, but this was before the days of Theocritus, before the destructive Athenian satyric drama – we girls hear no praise of country girls nor mountain goats. This woman has still the flawless tradition to maintain.

Her bitterness was on the whole the bitterness of the sweat of Eros. Had she burned to destroy she had spent her flawless talent to destroy custom and mob-thought with serpent-tongue before the great Athenian era.

Black and burnt are the cheeks of the girl of the late Sicilian Theocritus, for, says he, black is the hyacinth and the myrtle-berry.

But Sappho has no praise for mountain girls. She protrudes a little her under-lip, twists her eyes, screws her face out of proportion as she searches for the most telling phrase; this girl who bewitches you, my friend, does not even know how to draw her skirts about her feet.

Sophisticated, ironical, bitter jeer. Not her hands, her feet, her hair, or her features resemble in any way those of the country- bred among the thickets; not her garments even, are ill-fitting or ill-cut, but her manners, her gestures are crude, the bitterest of all destructive gibes of one sensitive woman at the favourite of another, sensitive, high-strung, autocratic as herself.

The gods, it is true, Aphrodite, Hermes, Ares, Hephaistos, Adonis, beloved of the mother of loves, the Graces, Zeus himself, Eros in all his attributes, great, potent, the Muses, mythical being and half-god, the Kyprian again and again are mentioned in these poems but at the end, it is for the strange almost petulant little phrases that we value this woman, this cry (against some simple unknown girl) of skirts and ankles we might think unnecessarily pretty, yet are pleased in the thinking of it, or else the outbreak against her own intimate companions brings her nearer our own over-sophisticated, nerve-wracked era: ‘The people I help most are the most unkind,’ ‘O you forget me’ or  ‘You love someone better,’ You are nothing to me,’  nervous, trivial tirades. Or we have in sweetened mood so simple a phrase ‘I sing’ – not to please any god, goddess, creed or votary of religious rite – I sing not even in abstract contemplation, trance-like, remote from life, to please myself, but says this most delightful and friendly woman, ‘I sing and I sing beautifully like this, in order to please my friends – my girl-friends.’

We have no definite portraits from her hands of these young women of Mitylene. They are left to our imagination, though only the most ardent heart, the most intense spirit and the most wary and subtle intellect can hope even in moments of ardent imagination to fill in these broken couplets. One reads simply this ‘My darling,’ or again ‘You burn me.’ To a bride’s lover she says, ‘Ah there never was a girl like her.’ She speaks of the light spread across a lovely face, of the garment wrapped about a lovely body; she addresses by name two of these young women comparing one to another’s disadvantage (though even here she temporizes her judgement with an endearing adjective), ‘Mnasidika is more shapely than tender Gyrinno.’ We hear of Eranna too. ‘Eranna, there never was a girl more spiteful than you.’

Another girl she praises, not for beauty. Though they stand among tall spotted lilies and the cup of jacynth and the Lesbian iris, she yet extolls beyond Kypris and the feet of Eros, wisdom. ‘Ah,’ she says of this one, beloved for another beauty than that of perfect waist and throat and close-bound cap of hair and level brows, ‘I think no girl can ever stand beneath the sun or ever will again and be as wise as you are.’

Wisdom –  this is all we know of the girl: that though she stood in the heavy Graeco-Asiatic sunlight, the wind from Asia, heavy with ardent myrrh and Persian spices, was yet tempered with a Western gale, bearing in its strength and its salt sting, the image of another, tall, with eyes shadowed by the helmet rim, the goddess, indomitable.

This is her strength – Sappho of Mitylene was a Greek. And in all her ecstasies, her burnings, her Asiatic riot of colour, her cry to that Phoenician deity, ‘Adonis, Adonis  – ‘her phrases, so simple yet in any but her hands in danger of overpowering sensuousness, her touches of Oriental realism, ‘purple napkins’ and ‘soft cushions’ are yet tempered, moderated by a craft never surpassed in literature. The beauty of Aphrodite it is true is the constant, reiterated subject of her singing. But she is called by a late scholiast who knew more of her than we can hope to learn from these brief fragments,’The Wise Sappho’.

We need the testimony of no Alexandrian or late Roman scholiast to assure us of the artistic wisdom, the scientific precision of metre and musical notation, the finely tempered intellect of this woman. Yet for all her artistic moderation, what is the personal, the emotional quality of her wisdom? This woman whom love paralysed till she seemed to herself a dead body, yet burnt, as the desert grass is burnt, white by the desert heat; she who trembled and was sick and sweated at the mere presence of another, a person, doubtless of charm, of grace, but of no extraordinary gifts perhaps of mind or feature – was she moderate, was she wise? Savonarola standing in the courtyard of the Medici (some two thousand years later) proclaimed her openly to the assembled youthful laity and priests of Florence –  a devil.

If moderation is wisdom, if constancy in love is wisdom, was she wise? We read even in these few existing fragments, name upon curious, exotic, fragrant name: Atthis – Andromeda – Mnasidika – Eranna – Gyrinno –  more, many more than these tradition tells were praised in the lost fragments. The name of muse and goddess and of human woman merge, interspersed among these verses. ‘Niobe and Leda were friends – ‘ it is a simple statement –  for the moment, Niobe and Leda are nearer, more human, than the Atthis, the Eranna who strike and burn and break like Love himself.

The wise Sappho! She was wise, emotionally wise, we suspect with wisdom of simplicity, the blindness of genius. She constructed from the simple gesture of a half-grown awkward girl, a being, a companion, an equal. She imagined, for a moment, as the white bird wrinkled a pink foot, clutching to obtain balance at the too smooth ivory of the wrist of the same Atthis, that Atthis had a mind, that Atthis was a goddess. Because the sun made a momentary circlet of strange rust-coloured hair, she saw in all her fragrance, Aphrodite, violet-crowned, or better still a sister, a muse, one of the violet wreathing. She imagined because the girl’s shoulders seemed almost too fragile, too frail, to support the vestment, dragging a little heavily because of the gold-binding, that the same shoulders were the shoulders of a being, an almost disembodied spirit. She constructed perfect and flawless (as in her verse, she carved from current Aeolic dialect, immortal phrases) the whole, the perfection, the undying spirit of goddess, muse or sacred being from the simple grace of some tall, half-developed girl. The very skies open, were opened by these light fingers, fluffing out the under-feathers of the pigeon’s throat. Then the wise Sappho clamours aloud against that bitter, bitter creature, Eros, who has once more betrayed her. ‘Ah, Atthis, you hate even to think of me – you have gone to Andromeda.’

I love to think of Atthis and Andromeda curled on a sun-baked marble bench like the familiar Tanagra group, talking it over. What did they say? What did they think? Doubtless, they thought little or nothing and said much.

There is another girl, a little girl. Her name is Cleis. It is reported that the mother of Sappho was named Cleis. It is said that Sappho had a daughter whom she called Cleis.

Cleis was golden. No doubt Cleis was perfect. Cleis was a beautiful baby, looking exactly like a yellow flower (so her mother tells us). She was so extraordinarily beautiful, Lydia had nothing so sweet, so spiced; greatness, wealth, power, nothing in all Lydia could be exchanged for Cleis.

So in the realm of the living, we know there was a Cleis. I see her heaping shells, purple and rose-edged, stained here and there with saffron colours, shells from Adriatic waters heaped in her own little painted bowl and poured out again and gathered up only to be spilt once more across the sands. We have seen Atthis of yester-year; Andromeda of ‘fair requital’, Mnasidika with provoking length of over-shapely limbs; Gyrinno, loved for some appealing gesture or strange resonance of voice or skill of finger-tips, though failing in the essential and more obvious qualities of beauty; Eranna with lips curved contemptuously over slightly irregular though white and perfect teeth; angry Eranna who refused everyone and bound white violets only for the straight hair she herself braided with precision and cruel self-torturing neatness about her own head. We know of Gorgo, over-riotous, too heavy, with special intoxicating sweetness, but exhausting, a girl to weary of, no companion, her over- soft curves presaging early development of heavy womanhood.

Among the living there are these and others. Timas, dead among the living, lying with lily wreath and funeral torch, a golden little bride, lives though sleeping more poignantly even than the famous Graeco-Egyptian beauty the poet’s brother married at Naucratis. Rhodope, a name redolent (even though we may no longer read the tribute of the bridegroom’s sister) of the heavy out-curling, over-lapping petals of the peerless flower.

Little –  not little  – but all, all roses! So at the last, we are forced to accept the often quoted tribute of Meleager, late Alexandrian, half  Jew, half Grecian poet. Little but all roses!

True, Sappho has become for us a name, an abstraction as well as a pseudonym for poignant human feeling, she is indeed rocks set in a blue sea, she is the sea itself, breaking and tortured and torturing, but never broken. She is the island of artistic perfection where the lover of ancient beauty (shipwrecked in the modern world) may yet find foothold and take breath and gain courage for new adventures and dream of yet unexplored continents and realms of future artistic achievement. She is the wise Sappho.

Plato, poet and philosopher in the most formidable period of Athenian culture, looking back some centuries toward Mitylene, having perspective and a rare standard of comparison, too, speaks of this woman as among the wise.

You were the morning star among the living (the young Plato, poet and Athenian, wrote of a friend he had lost), you were the morning star before you died; now you are ‘as Hesperus, giving new splendour to the dead’. Plato lives as a poet, as a lover, though the Republic seems but a ponderous tome and the mysteries of the Dialogues verge often on the didactic and artificial. So Sappho must live, roses, but many roses, for tradition has set flower upon flower about her name and would continue to do so though her last line were lost.

Perhaps to Meleager, having access to the numberless scrolls of Alexandria, there seemed ‘but little’ though to us, in a cheerless and more barren age, there seems much. Legend upon legend has grown up, adding curious documents to each precious fragment; the history of the preservation of each line is in itself a most fascinating and bewildering romance.

Courtesan and woman of fashion were rebuked at one time for not knowing ‘even the works of Sappho’. Sophocles cried out in despair before some inimitable couplet, ‘gods  – what impassioned heart and longing made this rhythm’. The Roman Emperor, weary to death, left his wreathed drinking cup and said, ‘It is worth living yet to hear another of this woman’s songs.’ Catullus, impassioned lyrist, left off recounting the imperfections of his Lesbia to enter a fair paradisal world, to forge silver Latin from imperishable Greek, to marvel at the praises of this perfect lover who needed no interim of hatred to repossess the loved one. Monk and scholar, grey recluse of Byzantium or Roman or medieval monastery, flamed to new birth of intellectual passion at discovery of some fatal relic until the Vatican itself was moved and deemed this woman fit rival to the seductions of another Poet and destroyed her verses.

The roses Meleager saw as ‘little’ have become in the history not only of literature but of nations (Greece and Rome and medieval town and Tuscan city) a great power, roses, but many, many roses, each fragment witness to the love of some scholar or hectic antiquary searching to find a precious inch of palimpsest among the funereal glories of the sand-strewn Pharaohs.

 

 

 

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Sarah Trevor Teasdale (August 8, 1884 – January 29, 1933)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is clear from her writing that Sarah Teasdale did not find that life lived up to her expectations. She seems always to be reaching for something that eludes her grasp. She did not find the kind of love she sought, and though she was convinced it should, the beauty of the world which so transported her was not enough to fill her heart and soothe her soul.

The consistent lyrical quality of her poetry cannot disguise a ceaseless, restless searching and yearning after the love she dreams of having – a love which is strong and satisfying, and a lover who can enter and share her inner world.

Teasdale’s poetry has a flowing quality to it. It is clear and unpretentious, and completely without artifice. But despite her poems’ simple beauty, they express a complex inner-struggle – a ceaseless striving to come to terms with life and to find a resolution for the sense of unease that underlies the seeming tranquility of her world. The quality of lightness which allows us to read poem after poem without sense of surfeit or tiredness, leads us into an inner world where the legitimate themes of Poetry, love, death, and the changing of the seasons, carry us inward into an atmosphere of uncertainty and doubt.

Nature seems to be a mask which covers a sense of unease and dissatisfaction –  and whenever a poem occasionally settles itself into an apparently pleasing conclusion, one feels that it cannot be trusted  or relied upon to either endure or to satisfy.

The poems I have included here are deceptive in their straightforwardness, because just below the surface is a complicated and nuanced ambiguity about the sensual and sexual nature of love and desire. Genteel and dated though they may seem, and therefore dismissible to readers who have a taste for sophisticated poetical constructions,  a closer examination of these poems shows that they meet all the criteria of genuine lyrical poetry, in theme, content and purpose. They are a serious commentary on the human condition as it pertains to  the mysterious conflicts inherent in love. They are not trivial in the least; they are serious delvings into the  workings of the human heart.

Whether the root of Teasdale’s problems was social or personal or physical we cannot know for certain, but the psychological pain which bleeds through almost all these poem–at least in the final twist–cannot be denied, and it confers a sense of authenticity and dignity to her predicament.

These poems are anything but light, and woven in them we find a riddle and a puzzle which resists a simple solution. They have to be read and understood in the light of the same ambivalence which led Teasdale to love life, and yet, in the end, at the early age of 48, to reject it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Do I Care

 

What do I care, in the dreams and the languor of spring,
That my songs do not show me at all?
For they are a fragrance, and I am a flint and a fire,
I am an answer, they are only a call.

 

But what do I care, for love will be over so soon,
Let my heart have its say and my mind stand idly by,
For my mind is proud and strong enough to be silent,
It is my heart that makes my songs, not I.

 

 

Alone

I am alone, in spite of love,                                 
In spite of all I take and give –
In spite of all your tenderness,
Sometimes I am not glad to live.

I am alone, as though I stood
On the highest peak of the tired gray world,
About me only swirling snow,
Above me, endless space unfurled;

With earth hidden and heaven hidden,
And only my own spirit’s pride
To keep me from the peace of those
Who are not lonely, having died

Change

Remember me as I was then;                             
Turn from me now, but always see
The laughing shadowy girl who stood
At midnight by the flowering tree,
With eyes that love had made as bright
As the trembling stars of the summer night.

Turn from me now, but always hear
The muted laughter in the dew
Of that one year of youth we had,
The only youth we ever knew –
Turn from me now, or you will see
What other years have done to me.

Come     

                                                       

Come, when the pale moon like a petal
Floats in the pearly dusk of spring,
Come with arms outstretched to take me,
Come with lips pursed up to cling.

Come, for life is a frail moth flying,
Caught in the web of the years that pass,
And soon we two, so warm and eager,
Will be as the gray stones in the grass.

 

 

 

 

Dew

As dew leaves the cobweb lightly       
Threaded with stars,
Scattering jewels on the fence
And the pasture bars;
As dawn leaves the dry grass bright
And the tangled weeds
Bearing a rainbow gem
On each of their seeds;
So has your love, my lover,
Fresh as the dawn,
Made me a shining road
To travel on,
Set every common sight
Of tree or stone
Delicately alight
For me alone.

 

 

Driftwood                                              

My forefathers gave me
My spirit’s shaken flame,
The shape of hands, the beat of heart,
The letters of my name.

But it was my lovers,
And not my sleeping sires,
Who gave the flame its changeful
And iridescent fires;

As the driftwood burning
Learned its jeweled blaze
From the sea’s blue splendor
Of colored nights and days.

 

 

Dust                                                                               

When I went to look at what had long been hidden,
A jewel laid long ago in a secret place,
I trembled, for I thought to see its dark deep fire –
But only a pinch of dust blew up in my face.

 

 

I almost gave my life long ago for a thing
That has gone to dust now, stinging my eyes –
It is strange how often a heart must be broken
Before the years can make it wise.

 

 

Ebb Tide

When the long day goes by                     
And I do not see your face,
The old wild, restless sorrow
Steals from its hiding place.

My day is barren and broken,
Bereft of light and song,
A sea beach bleak and windy
That moans the whole day long.

To the empty beach at ebb tide,
Bare with its rocks and scars,
Come back like the sea with singing,
And light of a million stars.

 

Embers

I said, “My youth is gone               
Like a fire beaten out by the rain,
That will never sway and sing
Or play with the wind again.”

I said, “It is no great sorrow
That quenched my youth in me,
But only little sorrows
Beating ceaselessly.”

I thought my youth was gone,
But you returned —
Like a flame at the call of the wind
It leaped and burned;

Threw off its ashen cloak,
And gowned anew
Gave itself like a bride
Once more to you.

 

Faces

People that I meet and pass                     
In the city’s broken roar,
Faces that I lose so soon
And have never found before,

Do you know how much you tell
In the meeting of our eyes,
How ashamed I am, and sad
To have pierced your poor disguise?

Secrets rushing without sound
Crying from your hiding places –
Let me go, I cannot bear
The sorrow of the passing faces.

–  People in the restless street,
Can it be, oh can it be
In the meeting of our eyes
That you know as much of me?

 

Gifts                                       

 

I gave my first love laughter,
I gave my second tears,
I gave my third love silence
Through all the years.

 

My first love gave me singing,
My second eyes to see,
But oh, it was my third love
Who gave my soul to me.

 

Gray Eyes                                  

It was April when you came
The first time to me,
And my first look in your eyes
Was like my first look at the sea.

We have been together
Four Aprils now
Watching for the green
On the swaying willow bough;

Yet whenever I turn
To your gray eyes over me,
It is as though I looked
For the first time at the sea.

 

Houses of Dreams

You took my empty dreams                        
And filled them every one
With tenderness and nobleness,
April and the sun.

The old empty dreams
Where my thoughts would throng
Are far too full of happiness
To even hold a song.

Oh, the empty dreams were dim
And the empty dreams were wide,
They were sweet and shadowy houses
Where my thoughts could hide.

But you took my dreams away
And you made them all come true –
My thoughts have no place now to play,
And nothing now to do.

I Shall Not Care                                         

When I am dead and over me bright April
Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,
Though you should lean above me broken-hearted,
I shall not care.

I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful
When rain bends down the bough,
And I shall be more silent and cold-hearted
Than you are now.

 

 

 

 

I Would Live in Your Love                                              

 

 

I would live in your love as the sea-grasses live in the sea,
Borne up by each wave as it passes, drawn down by each wave that recedes;
I would empty my soul of the dreams that have gathered in me,
I would beat with your heart as it beats, I would follow your soul
as it leads.

 

 

 

 

 

If Death Is Kind                                                                       

Perhaps if Death is kind, and there can be returning,
We will come back to earth some fragrant night,
And take these lanes to find the sea, and bending
Breathe the same honeysuckle, low and white.

We will come down at night to these resounding beaches
And the long gentle thunder of the sea,
Here for a single hour in the wide starlight
We shall be happy, for the dead are free.

 

 

Jewels                                                    

If I should see your eyes again,
I know how far their look would go –
Back to a morning in the park
With sapphire shadows on the snow.

Or back to oak trees in the spring
When you unloosed my hair and kissed
The head that lay against your knees
In the leaf shadow’s amethyst.

And still another shining place
We would remember — how the dun
Wild mountain held us on its crest
One diamond morning white with sun.

But I will turn my eyes from you
As women turn to put away
The jewels they have worn at night
And cannot wear in sober day.

 

Message

I heard a cry in the night,            
A thousand miles it came,
Sharp as a flash of light,
My name, my name!

 

 

It was your voice I heard,
You waked and loved me so –
I send you back this word,
I know, I know!

 

 

 

 

Spring Rain                                                  

I thought I had forgotten,
But it all came back again
To-night with the first spring thunder
In a rush of rain.

I remembered a darkened doorway
Where we stood while the storm swept by,
Thunder gripping the earth
And lightning scrawled on the sky.

The passing motor buses swayed,
For the street was a river of rain,
Lashed into little golden waves
In the lamp light’s stain.

 

With the wild spring rain and thunder 
My heart was wild and gay;
Your eyes said more to me that night
Than your lips would ever say. . . .

I thought I had forgotten,
But it all came back again
To-night with the first spring thunder
In a rush of rain.

 

 

 

 

Swans                                                                        

Night is over the park, and a few brave stars
Look on the lights that link it with chains of gold,
The lake bears up their reflection in broken bars
That seem too heavy for tremulous water to hold.

We watch the swans that sleep in a shadowy place,
And now and again one wakes and uplifts its head;
How still you are — your gaze is on my face –
We watch the swans and never a word is said.

 

 

The Crystal Gazer                                                      

I shall gather myself into my self again,
I shall take my scattered selves and make them one.
I shall fuse them into a polished crystal ball
Where I can see the moon and the flashing sun.

 

I Shall sit like a sibyl, hour after hour intent.
Watching the future come and the present go –
And the little shifting pictures of people rushing
In tiny self-importance to and fro.

 

 

The Ghost                                                          

I went back to the clanging city,
I went back where my old loves stayed,
But my heart was full of my new love’s glory,
My eyes were laughing and unafraid.

 

 

I met one who had loved me madly
And told his love for all to hear —
But we talked of a thousand things together,
The past was buried too deep to fear.

 

 

I met the other, whose love was given               
With never a kiss and scarcely a word —
Oh, it was then the terror took me
Of words unuttered that breathed and stirred.

 

Oh, love that lives its life with laughter
Or love that lives its life with tears
Can die — but love that is never spoken
Goes like a ghost through the winding years. . . .

 

I went back to the clanging city,
I went back where my old loves stayed,
My heart was full of my new love’s glory, –
But my eyes were suddenly afraid.

 

The Tree

Oh to be free of myself,
With nothing left to remember, 
To have my heart as bare
As a tree in December;

Resting, as a tree rests
After its leaves are gone,
Waiting no more for a rain at night
Nor for the red at dawn;

But still, oh so still
While the winds come and go,
With no more fear of the hard frost
Or the bright burden of snow;

And heedless, heedless
If anyone pass and see
On the white page of the sky
Its thin black tracery.

 

The Unchanging                                                    

Sun-swept beaches with a light wind blowing
From the immense blue circle of the sea,
And the soft thunder where long waves whiten –
These were the same for Sappho as for me.

Two thousand years –  much has gone by forever,
Change takes the gods and ships and speech of men –
But here on the beaches that time passes over
The heart aches now as then.
The unchanging

 

 

 

The Wind in the Hemlock                           

Steely stars and moon of brass,
How mockingly you watch me pass!
You know as well as I how soon
I shall be blind to stars and moon,
Deaf to the wind in the hemlock tree,
Dumb when the brown earth weighs on me.

With envious dark rage I bear,
Stars, your cold complacent stare;
Heart-broken in my hate look up,
Moon, at your clear immortal cup,
Changing to gold from dusky red –
Age after age when I am dead
To be filled up with light, and then
Emptied, to be refilled again.

What has man done that only he     
Is slave to death – so brutally
Beaten back into the earth
Impatient for him since his birth?

Oh let me shut my eyes, close out
The sight of stars and earth and be
Sheltered a minute by this tree.
Hemlock, through your fragrant boughs
There moves no anger and no doubt,
No envy of immortal things.
The night-wind murmurs of the sea
With veiled music ceaselessly,
That to my shaken spirit sings.
From their frail nest the robins rouse,
In your pungent darkness stirred,
Twittering a low drowsy word –
And me you shelter, even me.                  
In your quietness you house
The wind, the woman and the bird.
You speak to me and I have heard:

“If I am peaceful, I shall see
Beauty’s face continually;
Feeding on her wine and bread
I shall be wholly comforted,
For she can make one day for me
Rich as my lost eternity.”

 

The Years

To-night I close my eyes and see                                
A strange procession passing me –
The years before I saw your face
Go by me with a wistful grace;
They pass, the sensitive, shy years,
As one who strives to dance, half blind with tears.

The years went by and never knew
That each one brought me nearer you;
Their path was narrow and apart
And yet it led me to your heart –
Oh, sensitive, shy years, oh, lonely years,
That strove to sing with voices drowned in tears.

 

 

 

To E

I have remembered beauty in the night,               
Against black silences I waked to see
A shower of sunlight over Italy
And green Ravello dreaming on her height;
I have remembered music in the dark,
The clean swift brightness of a fugue of Bach’s,
And running water singing on the rocks
When once in English woods I heard a lark.

But all remembered beauty is no more
Than a vague prelude to the thought of you –
You are the rarest soul I ever knew,
Lover of beauty, knightliest and best;
My thoughts seek you as waves that seek the shore,
And when I think of you, I am at rest.

 

 

Twilight                                       

Dreamily over the roofs
The cold spring rain is falling;
Out in the lonely tree
A bird is calling, calling.

 

Slowly over the earth
The wings of night are falling;
My heart like the bird in the tree
Is calling, calling, calling.

 

Water Lilies                                              

If you have forgotten water lilies floating
On a dark lake among mountains in the afternoon shade,
If you have forgotten their wet, sleepy fragrance,
Then you can return and not be afraid.

But if you remember, then turn away forever
To the plains and the prairies where pools are far apart,
There you will not come at dusk on closing water lilies,
And the shadow of mountains will not fall on your heart.

 

 

 

Did You Never Know                                                         

Did you never know, long ago, how much you loved me –
That your love would never lessen and never go?
You were young then, proud and fresh-hearted,
You were too young to know.

Fate is a wind, and red leaves fly before it
Far apart, far away in the gusty time of year –
Seldom we meet now, but when I hear you speaking,
I know your secret, my dear, my dear.

 

I am Not Yours

I am not yours, not lost in you,                
Not lost, although I long to be
Lost as a candle lit at noon,
Lost as a snowflake in the sea.

You love me, and I find you still
A spirit beautiful and bright,
Yet I am I, who long to be
Lost as a light is lost in light.

Oh plunge me deep in love – put out
My senses, leave me deaf and blind,
Swept by the tempest of your love,
A taper in a rushing wind.

 

I Have Loved Hours at Sea

I have loved hours at sea, gray cities,            
The fragile secret of a flower,
Music, the making of a poem
That gave me heaven for an hour;

First stars above a snowy hill,
Voices of people kindly and wise,
And the great look of love, long hidden,
Found at last in meeting eyes.

I have loved much and been loved deeply –
Oh when my spirit’s fire burns low,
Leave me the darkness and the stillness,
I shall be tired and glad to go.

 

Only In Sleep                                                                        

Only in sleep I see their faces,
Children I played with when I was a child,
Louise comes back with her brown hair braided,
Annie with ringlets warm and wild.

Only in sleep Time is forgotten –
What may have come to them, who can know?
Yet we played last night as long ago,
And the doll-house stood at the turn of the stair.

The years had not sharpened their smooth round faces,
I met their eyes and found them mild –
Do they, too, dream of me, I wonder,
And for them am I too a child?

 

 

A Prayer                                             

When I am dying, let me know
That I loved the blowing snow
Although it stung like whips;
That I loved all lovely things
And I tried to take their stings
With gay unembittered lips;
That I loved with all my strength,
To my soul’s full depth and length,
Careless if my heart must break,
That I sang as children sing
Fitting tunes to everything,
Loving life for its own sake.

 

 

 

A Little While                                  

A little while when I am gone
My life will live in music after me,
As spun foam lifted and borne on
After the wave is lost in the full sea.

 

 

A while these nights and days will burn
In song with the bright frailty of foam,
Living in light before they turn
Back to the nothingness that is their home

 

The Wine                                                 

I cannot die, who drank delight
From the cup of the crescent moon,
And hungrily as men eat bread
Loved the scented nights of June.

The rest may die – but is there not
Some shining strange escape for me
Who sought in Beauty the bright wine
Of immortality

 

 

 

 

 

Since There Is No Escape                               

Since there is no escape, since at the end
My body will be utterly destroyed,
This hand I love as I have loved a friend,
This body I tended, wept with and enjoyed
Since there is no escape even for me
Who love life with a love too sharp to bear:
The scent of orchards in the rain, the sea
And hours alone too still and sure for prayer –
Since darkness waits for me, then all the more
Let me go down as waves sweep to the shore
In pride; and let me sing with my last breath;
In these few hours of light I lift my head;
Life is my lover – I shall leave the dead
If there is any way to baffle death.

 

 

 

There Will Come Soft Rains                                       

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum-trees in tremulous light;
Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As reflected in her poetry, the strongest emotional relationships in Sara Teasdale’s life were with women.

Teasdale might be viewed as a casualty of the struggle between propriety and passion that marked late Victorian social mores. Born in St. Louis into a genteel middle-class family, she was overprotected by her mother, who instilled in her young daughter an anxiety about her own body–its physical inadequacy and its ailments–that was to affect both her work and her personal relationships for most of her brief life. Because of her mother’s fears, Teasdale was educated at home until she was nine, and, left to herself, she retreated into her own dreamy world; she spent hours fantasizing about the romantic possibilities of her own life. Keeping reality at a tasteful distance became a habit of her life and of her art.

Although she cultivated romantic obsessions about men, the strongest relationships in her life were with women. After completing her college education at Hosmer Hall in St. Louis, she and several other young women formed a literary association called The Potters, which published a monthly magazine, The Potter’s Wheel, in which Teasdale’s early poems appeared.

Many of her early works were addressed to particular women, whose identities were disguised. Her first major work was a set of effusive sonnets in praise of Eleonora Duse, which was included in her first collection, Sonnets to Duse and Other Poems (1907).

In 1908, Teasdale formed an intense friendship with Marion Cummings Stanley, with whom she was able for the first time to discuss matters such as her own ill health and her curiosity about sex. Their friendship temporarily released Teasdale from the constrictions of her rigid upbringing, and she commemorated it in a poem entitled “Song,” which concludes “For all my world is in your arms, / My sun and stars are you” (from Helen of Troy and Other Poems, 1911).

At the same time, Teasdale was also carrying on a correspondence that mixed flirtation and serious poetic debate with John Myers O’Hara, a young poet living in New York. This was the first of a series of passionate relationships with men that were conducted by Teasdale almost entirely from afar. They corresponded for over three years before they finally met face to face, and the meeting was a disappointment for both of them.

Teasdale traveled widely although while abroad she spent much of her time abed with one illness or another. When she settled in New York, she formed friendships with Jessie Rittenhouse (a founder of the Poetry Society) and John Hall Wheelock, another young poet, with whom she fell seriously in love. His unwillingness to commit himself to her seems to have been part of the attraction, and despite that handicap, they remained friends for the remainder of her life.

Her poetry was becoming more widely known, and generally praised, and with the publication of Rivers to the Sea (1915), she was acknowledged as a significant American writer.

Teasdale’s physical and emotional health, however, remained frail. As she approached the age of thirty, she became almost frantic to be married, and indeed at one point, she had several suitors to choose from. The poet Vachel Lindsay pursued her with passion and ardent verse, but he was too wild for her, and she settled for the businessman Ernst Filsinger, a fellow St. Louisan.

She was full of hope about this union, but in the end, she was unable to reconcile her romantic fantasies with the realities of married life. “I am not yours, not lost in you,” she wrote in a poem composed just before their wedding in 1914. And afterward, “why . . . alone for me / is there no ecstasy?” (“Midnight Rain,” 1915). She sued Filsinger for divorce in 1929.

Teasdale’s emotional life became more and more unstable, and she fell into deep depressions from which she gradually lost the will to extract herself. The poems in Flame and Shadow (1920) and Dark of the Moon (1926) are darker than her earlier, simpler lyrics, and many of them deal with her lifelong preoccupation with death.

The last great friendship of her life was with Margaret Conklin, a young student who came into Teasdale’s life in 1926 and wooed her almost like a lover. Teasdale saw in Conklin the reincarnation of herself as a child, and their relationship was profound and complex. If there was a lesbian component to it, however, it was probably unacknowledged.

In January 1933, at the age of forty-eight, weighed down by despair, Teasdale ingested a large number of sedatives and was found dead in her bathtub the following morning. Strange Victory, including a poem to Conklin, was published later that year.

Ann Wadsworth*

*Ann Wadsworth is the author of the beautifully written lesbian love story Light Coming Back  – which I think is her first and only book so far.  I keep hoping she will write another, but I am afraid I may be hoping against hope.

 

 

 

A thoughtful essay  on Sarah Teasdale

http://www.wvup.edu/rphillips/marya-z.htm

 

 

 

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Katharine Lee Bates (August 12 1859 – March 28 1929)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“There’s something in his soul
O’er which his melancholy sits on brood.”

–Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

It was a beautiful morning, whose beauty could only hurt, of the first June since Joy-of-Life went away. All green paths were desolate for lack of her glad step. And the stately kennel that had been known from the first as “Sigurd’s House” stood silent, its green door closed on bare floor and cobwebbed walls. Stray cats passed it unconcerned and hoptoads took their ease on the edges of “Sigurd’s Drinking-cup” hollowed out in the adjacent rock. In an hour when the pain of living seemed wellnigh unbearable, the Angel of Healing called me up by telephone. His voice was gruff, but kindly.

“Say, you miss that old dog of yours a sight, don’t you?”

I could feel the confidential pressure of Sigurd’s golden head against my knee as I briefly assented, recognizing the speaker as the proprietor of certain collie kennels not far distant.

“He had a right good home, that dog had, and you must have got pretty well used to collie ways.”

“If you were going to ask me to buy another collie, please don’t. Sigurd is my dog–forever.”

“Well! Since you put it that way–but I’m at my wit’s end to get rid of a collie pup–a pretty little fellow, rough Scotch, sable and white, like yours–that’s scairt at his own shadow.”

“What scared him?”

“Blest if I know! His sire, Commander, and his dam, Whisper, are as nice, normal, easy-tempered dogs as you could find anywhere, and their litters take after ’em–‘cept this youngster, who sulks all day long off in some dark hole by himself and shakes if we speak to him. Nobody has mishandled the little chap so far’s I’ve ever seen or heard, but the least thing–a shout or a rattle of tools or any fool noise–throws him into such a funk that all the rest of the puppies are getting panicky and the whole caboodle is running wild. There’s no two ways about it. I’ve got to clear that born ninny out. I sold him a month ago to a lady for fifty dollars, but she brought him back in a week and said he was about as cheerful company as a tombstone. Now see here! You can have him for twenty, or for nothing, just as you feel after you’ve given him a try.”

“But I don’t want him. I shouldn’t want him if he were the best dog in the country.”

“Then I reckon I’ll have to shoot him. I could give him away, but he’s such a wretched, shivery little rascal that most any sort of folks would be too rough for him. ‘Twould be kinder to put him out of the world and done with it. He’s had seven months of it now and pretty well made up his mind that he don’t like it. I did think maybe you might be willing to give him a chance.”

I was surprised to hear my own voice saying into the telephone: “I’ll try him for a few days, if you care to bring him over.”

Yet I dreaded his coming. The friend who gave us Sigurd had offered us the past winter a very prince of puppies, the daintiest, most spirited, most winsome little collie that a free affection could ask, but Joy-of-Life and I could not make him ours. We could regard him only as a visitor in Sigurd’s haunts, and the Lady of Cedar Hill, resenting the name of Guest which we had given him, re-named him Eric and took him to her own home. Here she soon won the utter devotion of his dog-heart, which, though now no longer beating, through that ardent and faithful love “tastes of immortality.”

I was in the veranda off the study, trying to busy myself with my old toys of books and pen and paper, when the young collie was led in by a small girl, the only person at the kennels whose call he obeyed or whose companionship he welcomed. Deposited beside my chair, he promptly retreated to the utmost distance the narrow limits of his prison-house allowed, panting and quaking.

“Be good, Blazey,” the child admonished him, stroking his head with a sunburned hand from whose light caress he at once shuddered away. “I’ll come to see you by and by.”

“By and by is easily said,” the puppy made answer with incredulous eyes that first watched her out of sight and then rolled in anguish of despair from the wire screening of the porch to roof and wall.

“Is your name Blazey?” I asked him gently, but his fit of ague only grew worse as he turned his ghastly stare on me
“with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors.”
“I made further efforts at conversation while the day wore on, but that little yellow image of throbbing terror, upright in the remotest corner, would not even turn its head toward my voice. In vain I remonstrated:
“Alas, how is’t with you,
That you do bend your eye on vacancy
And with the incorporal air do hold discourse?
Forth at your eyes your spirits wildly peep.”
The constant tremble of the poor, scared, pitiful puppy was intensified by every train whistle and motor horn to a violent shaking. I could not flutter a leaf nor drop a pencil without causing a nervous twitch of the brown ears. Suddenly the crack of an early Fourth of July torpedo electrified him into a frenzy of fright. If it had been the fatal shot in reserve for Blazey he could not have made a madder leap nor wheeled about in more distracted circles. In one of these lunatic reels he struck against me and, gathering him close, I crooned such comfort as I had into that dizzy, quivering, pathetic face; but he tore himself loose and fled gasping back to his corner beseeching a perilous and cruel universe to let him alone. I, for one, declined:
“Angels and ministers of grace, defend us!–
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn’d,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee; I’ll call thee Hamlet.”
The puppy accepted his new name, as he accepted his dinner, with lugubrious resignation and the air of saying to himself:
“Heaven hath pleas’d it so,
To punish me with this, and this with me.”
His misery was more appealing than a thousand funny gambols could have been, and the household, those of us who were left, conspired in various friendly devices to make him feel at home. The child at the kennels had taught him one sole accomplishment, that of giving his paw, and Sister Jane, in a fine spirit of sacrifice, made a point of shaking hands with him long and politely at least a dozen times a day, rushing to a faucet as soon as this hospitable rite was accomplished for a fierce scouring of her own polluted palms. Housewife Honeyvoice tempted his appetite with the most savory of puppy menus and kept up such a flow of tuneful comment while he ate that, even in his days of deepest gloom, he rarely failed to polish his dish and then thump it all about in an unscientific effort to extract gravy from tinware. Esther’s arms were now as strong as her feet were lively and, after the first week or so, he would let her pick him up like a baby and carry him about and would even be surprised, at times, into a game of romps. He needed play as much as he needed food, but he was curiously awkward at it, not merely with the usual charming clumsiness of puppies but with a blundering uncertainty in all his movements, miscalculating his jumps, lighting in a sprawling heap and often hurting himself by a lop-sided tumble.

Yet apart from these brief lapses he maintained his pose of hopeless melancholy, varied by frantic perturbations, until his new name fitted him like his new collar.
“How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!”
He was not, to be sure,

“The glass of fashion and the mold of form,”

for his nose, from the bench point of view, was nearly half an inch too long. But his “dejected haviour” and deep-rooted suspicion of his surroundings were Hamlet’s own. He felt himself “be-netted round with villanies” and apprehensively watched the simple ways of our family in profound despondency and distrust. The fears that haunted him kept him so hushed that we grew to believe he was actually dumb,–a defect in physical endowment that might account for many abnormalities. Now and then the rigid little figure beside me on the veranda–for gradually, day by day, he edged an inch or two nearer–would give a stir of weariness or even drop, exhausted, for a nap, but in the main
“as patient as the female dove
When that her golden couplets are disclos’d,
His silence” would “sit drooping.”
Through all the hot summer days I had to see him,
“A dull and muddy mettled rascal, peak
Like John-a-dreams,”
but as soon as we reached the cool cover of dusk, I would lift the now crouching, anxious puppy to his four feet and snap on his new leash.

His troubled eyes would well over with expostulatory questions:

“Say, why is this? wherefore? what should we do?”

“We’re going to walk, Little Stick-in-the-Mud. Come on!”

And thus Hamlet, “with much forcing of his disposition,” would undergo the daily constitutional, which he converted into a genuine gymnastic exercise for us both by pulling back on the leash with all his considerable strength, protesting:
“It is not, nor it cannot come to good;
But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue.”
In this ignoble fashion I would drag him along for a mile or so of the least frequented road, until he would suddenly fix his slender legs and refuse to be budged:
“Where wilt thou lead me? speak;
I’ll go no further.”
“Very well! If you insist on turning back here, you know what will happen. It will be your turn to drag me.”

To this he had always the same rejoinder:
“‘Tis true ’tis pity,
And pity ’tis ’tis true.”
So Hamlet, all his soul set on getting back to the comparative security of that veranda, would fall to tugging like an infant Hercules, scrabbling me along, regardless of sidewalks, by the nearest route to safety, till I felt myself, on reaching home, more than ever a “quintessence of dust.”

When I tried him off the leash, he would, even into the autumn, run back to the kennels, though he would let no one there touch him but the gypsy-tanned child. Later, he would slip back to the Scarab, usually after dark, but be afraid to come near or ask admittance, sweeping around the house in wide, wistful circles. It took our softest coaxings to bring that palpitating puppy across the threshold and, once in, we all had to shake paws with him many times before he would believe himself welcome and sink down at my feet to sleep away his tiredness and terror. It was midsummer before I dared loose him on the campus for a free scamper, from which, hesitant, with many tremors and recoils, he came back to me in answer to my call. I thought then that the battle was won, but the next time I ventured it, and the next, he ran away. Yet before the leaves fell we had made such progress that when I fastened on his leash and invited him to go to walk,
“there did seem in him a kind of joy
To hear of it.”
For weeks the rooms of the house were to this kennel-bred puppy no better than torture-chambers, being full of strange, sinister objects, for to Hamlet, even yet, the unknown is a menace and a dread. Brought into study or dining-room, he would “wax desperate with imagination,” throwing wild looks at ceiling and walls and then spinning about and about like an agonized top. “Upon the heat and flame” of those excitements it was hard to persuade him to “sprinkle cool patience,” but in process of time he became accustomed to rugs and furniture and even, after repeated assurances, grew to understand that Sigurd’s chair was at his service.

By mid-winter he had come to realize, with a touching relief and responsive fervor of affection, that the members of the family were his friends, but he was still thrown into a panic by the door-bell and the murderous monsters whose entrance he believed it to announce. Every arrival he regarded as an agent of Hamlet’s doom and fled precipitately to chosen places of concealment on the upper floors. Yet curiosity was strong in the little fellow, too. As I sat chatting with a caller, I would presently be aware of an excessively unobtrusive collie stealing down the stairs. Quivering all over, in awe of his own daring, he would place himself erect on the threshold with his face to the hall and very slowly, inch by inch, would “like a crab” back into the room, edging along on his haunches, steering his blind course for the further side of my chair. Still keeping his back to the stranger, he would reach up a pleading paw for me to clasp and then, regarding himself as both invisible and protected, listen keenly to learn if the conversation were by any chance about Hamlet.

He was as timorous out of doors as in, having little to do with other dogs, save with a benignant collie neighbor, old Betty, and yielding up his choicest bones without remonstrance to any impudent marauder. If I reproached him for his pacifist bearing, he would touch my hand with an apologetic tongue and look up with shamefaced eyes that admitted:
“it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver’d, and lack gall
To make oppression bitter.”
It was his habit to take legs, rather than arms, “against a sea of troubles,” and when enemies loomed on the horizon he would precipitately make for home. He was by this time dog enough to be overjoyed if one of us summoned him for a walk.

“What noise? who calls on Hamlet?”

And all his belated frolic of puppyhood came out in impatient collie capers while, with our intolerable human tardiness, wraps were donned and doors thrown open. And then the leaps of ecstasy!

“Go on; I’ll follow thee.”

But he hated, and still hates, to be out in the great, dangerous world of noises, people, motors, alone by daylight. “Nay, come, let’s go together,” is his constant plea. But if no one of the household is at liberty to companion him, he prefers to wait for his exercise till “the very witching time of night,” when he plunges into the mystery of the woods or runs by moonlight along deserted roads. During his first winter, on returning from one of his nocturnal rambles, he would stand, snow-coated, without a whine or scratch, shivering at the outside door, silent even under the beating of an icy storm, until some anxious watcher caught sight of him and let him in. He had been with us over a year before he found his voice. Then, one noon, a brisk step coming up to the south porch along our private path took Hamlet by surprise. His quick, shrill protest astonished him as much as it did us and he promptly rushed to refuge under the table. But having shattered our psychopathic theories and confessed that he was no mute, he took to barking with immoderate enthusiasm that has already more than made up for lost time. Yet as with his movements, so his barking is odd,–discordant, off the pitch, “jangled out of tune.”

These tremendous bouts of barking, combined with his excitable and suspicious temperament, have given our timid collie a preposterous reputation for ferocity. Callers wise in dogs observe that even as he roars he runs away, wagging his tail, and come boldly on to the north door, while Hamlet announces and denounces them at the south:
“O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!”
“A guilty thing.”
“A puff’d and reckless libertine.”
“A pestilence on him for a mad rogue!”
“What, ho! help, help, help!”
But when he has torn his “passion to tatters, to very rags,” he slips in shyly to greet the accepted caller, usually seating himself, according to his own peculiar code of etiquette, with his back to the guest, but sometimes, especially if it is a college girl “in the morn and liquid dew of youth,” he will, instead of taking his accustomed place by me, lie down at Ophelia’s feet, explaining:

“Here’s metal more attractive.”

Hamlet is a delicate subject for discipline as any sign of displeasure on the part of the few he trusts will fling him back to his puppy state of quivering misery. But for his inhospitable clamors he is occasionally shut up in the telephone closet, a custom which he considers

“More honour’d in the breach than the observance.”

Released, he bounds toward us beseeching caresses and every assurance that we have forgiven him and love him still. But he is just as ready to bark at the next arrival, though the dread word CLOSET will sometimes arrest a roar in mid-career. His sense of duty, as the guardian of the house, is inextricably intertwisted with his desire to be good.

Hamlet has, indeed, an uncharacteristic conviction of the preciousness of property. He did not learn it from me. I resent the metal that outlasts flesh and bone and am careless about locking doors since against grief and death no bolts avail; but Hamlet, had destiny put him in his proper place, would have ridden through life on top of an express wagon, zealously guarding its packages from every thievish touch. As it is, he keeps an embarrassing watch and ward on my desk and bookcases. Often a seminar student, reaching for a volume that promises to throw light on the discussion, is amazed by the leap of what had seemed to be a slumbering collie, now all alert and vigilant, gently nipping her sleeve to hold that arm of robbery back. Or in the midst of committee toils, a guileless colleague may move toward my desk to make a note. From the hall Hamlet dashes in with gleaming eyes and, as she turns in astonishment, squeezes his yellow bulk between her and that mysterious altar of my midnight devotion and firmly shoves her back. These policeman ways of his are not universally endearing and, in return, he has no faith whatever in the honesty of my associates, “arrant knaves all.” He has never put aside his dark suspicions of one who is not only generosity itself, but a socialist to boot, because on his first Christmas Eve in the Scarab she had been so kind as to act as her own Santa Claus and take away her labeled packet from the pile of tissue-papered and gay-ribboned gifts in a corner of the study. Although I had noticed that the puppy made a point of lying down before that heap, I did not realize that he, terrified and bashful as he then was, had constituted himself its custodian, till this action of hers left his soul “full of discord and dismay.” Even yet he heralds her approach with consternation:
“O shame! where is thy blush?”
“A most pernicious woman!”
“Marry, this is miching mallecho; it means mischief.”
So our dog has few friends outside his home. It is difficult to maintain with the children on the hill the pleasant fiction that their Christmas playthings come from Hamlet when it so obviously “harrows” him “with fear and wonder” to see the little recipients allowed to bear these objects away. Laddie’s mistress, ever gracious, pets and praises him, and hers is the only home in the village at which, sure of a happy welcome and delectable bits of bread and butter, he consents to call, but Jack’s mistress, catholic as her sympathies are, remembers an unlucky encounter from which her famous comrade retired, blinking queerly, the loser of a tooth. It is, of course, her theory that Hamlet feloniously reached into Jack’s mouth to snap out that treasure, while to me it seems crystal clear that Jack uprooted the venerable fang himself in an unholy effort to bite Hamlet; but now the collie is shut up whenever the terrier comes, though they manage to exchange through the windows a vituperative language not taught in our curriculum.

Hoping to extend this too limited circle of Hamlet’s friendships, we have accepted as a summer guest a cynical old parrot, who has already, in a lifetime cruelly long for a captive, known a variety of vanishing households. The tones that Poor Pol echoes, the names that he calls, insistently and vainly, in his lonesome hours, the scraps of family talk dating perhaps from five, ten, twenty years ago that his strange voice, a mockery of the human, still repeats, make him, even to us, an awesome personage, a Wandering Jew of the caged-pet generations. What does he miss, what does he remember, as he sits sweetly crooning to himself “Peek-a-boo, Pol,” and then rasps crossly out, “Wal! what is it?” and then falls to a direful groaning “Oh!” and “Ah!” over and over, more and more feebly, as if in mimicry of a death-bed, and suddenly spreads his wings, hurrahs like a boy on the Glorious Fourth and storms our ears with a whole barn-yard of cackles and cocka-doodledoos?

For the first few minutes after the arrival of Polonius, Hamlet regarded the great cage, set on top of a tall revolving bookcase, and its motionless perching inmate, whose plumage of sheeny green was diversified by under-glints of red and the pride of a golden nape, as new ornaments committed to his guardianship. Erect on his haunches, he gazed up at them with an air of earnest responsibility, but when Polonius, cocking his head and peering down on the collie with one round orange eye, crisply remarked:

“Hello! What’s that? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!” Hamlet went wild with amazement. After making from every side vain leaps and scrambles toward the unperturbed parrot, he tore from one of us to another, with whines and imploring gaze striving to learn what this apparition might mean
“So horridly to shake” his “disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches” of his soul.
A week has passed and I begin to fear that Hamlet’s antipathy to Polonius, “a foolish prating knave,” a “wretched, rash, intruding fool,” is too deeply rooted in drama for life to eradicate. The fault does not lie with the parrot. Though with him, as a rule, “brevity is the soul of wit,” he accosts Hamlet quite as cordially as any other member of the family, with “Hello” when the dog trots into the room and “Good-by” when he trots out. He is, indeed, so far in sympathy with Hamlet that, well-nigh to our despair, he seconds the collie’s uncivil clamor when the doorbell rings by stentorian shouts of “Fire! Fire!! FIRE!!!” We do not admit that, in general, Polonius talks only “words, words, words.” If he does, the coincidences are uncanny, for he warns “Look out” as we lift his heavy cage and pronounces “All right” as we set it safely down. I was adding a column of figures yesterday and, as I named the total, Polonius said in an approving tone: “That’s right; that’s it.” He has a mild curiosity about our doings and occasionally responds to our overtures by offering to an outstretched finger the chilly grip of his clay-colored claws,–invariably, like a well-bred bird, presenting the right foot. If Housewife Honeyvoice undertakes to scratch the parrot’s green head, Hamlet rears up against her and insists that the same ceremony be performed on his yellow one. Polonius, for his part, though too blase for jealousy, has a proper self-respect, and when he overhears us comforting our troubled collie with murmurs of “Good Hamlet! Dear Hamlet!” promptly interjects “Pretty Pol.”

But Hamlet, who is so sensitive to suffering that he will go of his own impulse to any visitor in trouble and press close, lavishing all his shy caresses in the effort to console, need not fear that Polonius will usurp his place in my affection. It is all I have to give him and I shall not fail him there. I cannot give that fearful, only half-quieted heart the security it craves from
“the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to.”
There is no security on this whirring planet where pain is pain, and loss is loss, but where, for our deepest of consolation, though it involves our keenest of grief, love is always love.

“Keep me close,” pleads Hamlet, and I promise: “While I can.

 

 

 

 

 

Katharine Lee Bates was an ardent feminist and the author of the song “America the Beautiful.”

She attended Wellesley college and later returned to join the faculty. While on staff she met Katharine Coman and began a relationship that lasted for 25 years.
Bates and Coman’s relationship might be best described as a romantic friendship. It is not clear whether their relationship was sexual, but it was intensely loving; Bates referred to Coman as her “Joy of Life” and wrote many poems about their love.
Both women had successful careers at Wellesley college–Bates became chair of the English department, while Coman became chair of the Economics Department and Dean of the college. They kept contact with other educated women who lived in couples as they did, but they did not assume roles as lesbian activists.
In 1912, Coman was diagnosed with cancer, and Bates nursed her until Coman died in 1915. In 1922, Bates published a limited volume of poetry entitled, “Yellow Clover,” where she wrote of their relationship.
Bates remained at Wellesley until she retired in 1925. She died four years later, at the age of 70. Only a few years before her death, she wrote to a friend, “So much of me died with Katharine Coman that I’m sometimes not quite sure whether I’m alive or not.
Biography by Alix North

 

 

 

 

 

Two Poems by Katharine Lee Bates

 

If You Could Come

My love, my love, if you could come once more
From your high place,
I would not question you for heavenly lore,
But, silent, take the comfort of your face.

I would not ask you if those golden spheres
In love rejoice,
If only our stained star hath sin and tears,
But fill my famished hearing with your voice.

One touch of you were worth a thousand creeds.
My wound is numb
Through toil-pressed, but all night long it bleeds
In aching dreams, and still you cannot come.

Katherine Coman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yellow Clover

Must I, who walk alone,
Come on it still,
This Puck of plants
The wise would do away with,
The sunshine slants
To play with,
Our wee, gold-dusty flower, the yellow clover,
Which once in parting for a time
That then seemed long,
Ere time for you was over,
We sealed our own?
Do you remember yet,
O Soul beyond the stars,
Beyond the uttermost dim bars
Of space,
Dear Soul who found the earth sweet,
Remember by love’s grace,
In dreamy hushes of heavenly song,
How suddenly we halted in our climb,
Lingering, reluctant, up that farthest hill,
Stooped for the blossoms closest to our feet,
And gave them as a token
Each to each,
In lieu of speech,
In lieu of words too grievous to be spoken,
Those little, gypsy, wondering blossoms wet
With a strange dew of tears?
So it began,
This vagabond, unvalued yellow clover,
To be our tenderest language. All the years
It lent a new zest to the summer hours,
As each of us went scheming to surprise
The other with our homely, laureate flowers,
Sonnets and odes,
Fringing our daily roads.
Can amaranth and asphodel
Bring merrier laughter to your eyes?
Oh, if the Blest, in their serene abodes,
Keep any wistful consciousness of earth,
Not grandeurs, but the childish ways of love,
Simplicities of mirth,
Must follow them above
With touches of vague homesickness that pass
Like shadows of swift birds across the grass.
How oft, beneath some foreign arch of sky,
The rover,
You or I,
For life oft sundered look from look,
And voice from voice, the transient dearth
Schooling my soul to brook
This distance that no messages may span
Would chance
Upon our wilding by a lonely well,
Or drowsy watermill,
Or swaying to the chime of convent bell,
Or where the nightingales of old romance
With tragical contraltos fill
Dim solitudes of infinite desire;
And once I joyed to meet
Our peasant gadabout
A trespasser on trim, seigniorial seat,
Twinkling a sauce eye
As potentates paced by.
Our golden cord! our soft, pursuing flame
From friendship’s altar fire!
How proudly we would pluck and tame
The dimpling clusters, mutinously gay!
How swiftly they were sent
Far, far away
On journeys wide
By sea and continent,
Green miles and blue leagues over,
From each of us to each,
That so our hearts might reach
And touch within the yellow clover,
Love’s letter to be glad about
Like sunshine when it came!
My sorrow asks no healing; it is love;
Let love then make me brave
To bear the keen hurts of
This careless summertide,
Ay, of our own poor flower,
Changed with our fatal hour,
For all its sunshine vanished when you died.
Only white cover blossoms on your grave.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bates was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts. The daughter of a Congregational pastor, she graduated from Wellesley College in 1880 and for many years was a professor of English literature at Wellesley. She lived there with her partner Katharine Coman, who herself was a history and political economy teacher and founder of the Wellesley College Economics department. The same-sex pair lived together for twenty-five years until Coman’s death in 1915.
The first draft of America the Beautiful was hastily jotted in a notebook during the summer of 1893, which Miss Bates spent teaching English at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Later she remembered,
“One day some of the other teachers and I decided to go on a trip to 14,000-foot Pikes Peak. We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse.”
The words to her one famous poem first appeared in print in The Congregationalist, a weekly journal, for Independence Day, 1895. The poem reached a wider audience when her revised version was printed in the Boston Evening Transcript, November 19, 1904. Her final expanded version was written in 1913.
The hymn has been sung to other music, but the familiar tune that Ray Charles delivered is by Samuel A. Ward (1847-1903), written for his hymn Materna (1882).
Miss Bates was a prolific author of many volumes of poetry, travel books and children’s books. Her family home on Falmouth’s Main Street is preserved by the Falmouth Historical Society.
Katharine Lee Bates died in Wellesley, Massachusetts, on March 26, 1929.
Wikipedia.

Katharine B. and Katharine C.
While on the faculty at Wellesley College, Bates met Katharine Coman with whom she formed a “romantic friendship.” Coman served on the faculty as the chair of the Economics Department and Dean of the college.
Bates and Coman lived as a couple for 25 years in what is sometimes referred to as a “Boston marriage.” In 1912, Coman was diagnosed with cancer. Bates nursed Coman through three painful years of physical decline. Katherine Coman died in 1915.
“So much of me died with Katharine Coman that I’m sometimes not quite sure whether I’m alive or not.” – K. L. Bates Lambda.net

http://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/poets/bates.php

http://saberpoint.blogspot.com/2008/07/photos-of-katharine-coman-colleague-of.html

http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Katharine_Lee_Bates.aspx

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Juana Inés de la Cruz (November 12 1651 – April 17 1695)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It has been claimed that to surrender one’s heart is to be enslaved, by which it could be meant that when the heart is owned by another, all the abject shamefulness of slavery devolves to one’s lot, such as lack of autonomy, enforced obedience, servility, victimhood, humiliation and more. This claim asserts that to give one’s heart is to cease to be free.

To what extent can this be true? Do we have any choice in the matter? That is, do we fall in love volitionally? Is being in love the equivalent of slavery? Does one indeed become a slave to another when one surrenders one’s heart? Does the one to whom the heart is given become a slave owner? If love is requited and a heart is given in return, do both parties become slaves of each other?

If the one to whom the heart has been given, becomes a master – then it follows by an inescapable logic, she is a debased human being. But is this so? Is the slave a mere possession, and the master a moral reprobate? Can giving and receiving of core affections be reduced to such an abject level as this?

It is true that some people  – and they tend mostly to be women – become the chattels of others under the auspices of contracts and conventions which are widely approved of and accepted by social and religious institutions alike, and marriage was, for women at least, just such an institution, and frequently is. Economic conditions too have their power to enslave, and most of the world’s population have no other choice than to exchange their labour in return for remuneration under the terms dictated by employers. Imprisoned people are slaves of sorts, as are the old, the severely ill, and the incapacitated. But these are not matters of the heart. All these many varieties of slavery have in common that they are, for the most part, without real reward, and that they are all essentially heartless.

When does a person who has given his or her heart to another become a slave? I suppose it could be when the heart (which signifies the love and devotion given to another) is not valued, or not returned, or not respected. Heartbreak is indeed a kind of enslavement, when pain and misery become the master, and a kind of all-pervasive negation becomes the element we find ourselves swimming in. The dismantling of one’s very self in an ensuing process of undoing and demoralisation more than resembles, and is perhaps worse than, slavery. But this is the result of losing one’s heart rather than giving it – by which I mean, it fails to be the ‘possession’ of either the giver or the recipient.  Such misadventures are the lot of many of us humans, and considering how painful and damaging they are, we fervently wish to escape them. We might wish to remain safe from the vicissitudes and dangers of love by avoiding the occasions of love, but what may be gained from such a resolve?

We may consider one woman’s thoughts on the subject – and one who was intimately familiar with the heart’s surrender, and with a more mundane form of enslavement as well – that of being the property of the Convent, and the Catholic Church. It would appear that Juana Inés Asbaje gave serious thought – and more – to the subject of love, and to love in the context of slavery and slave ownership. It was with grave sorrow and misgiving that she chose to become a nun, and bind herself in an indissoluble bond to the church and convent, thereby enslaving herself for life, with not the slightest hope of an eventual manumission.

 
Encarece de animosidad la elección de estado durable hasta la muerte.

Si los riesgos del mar considerara
ninguno se embarcara, si antes viera
bien su peligro, nadie se atreviera,
ni al bravo toro osado provocara.

Si del fogoso bruto ponderara
la furia desbocada en la carrera,
el jinete prudente, nunca hubiera,
quien con discreta mano le enfrenara.

Pero si hubiera algo tan osado,
que, no obstante el peligro, al mismo Apolo
quisiera gobernar con atrevida

mano, el rápido carro en luz bañado
todo lo hiciera, y no tomara sólo
estado, que ha de ser toda la vida.

 

 

She ponders the animosity inherent in choosing a way of life binding until death.

If the dangers of the sea were to be considered,
None would dare embark, upon once having viewed them.
Neither would one risk the peril of confronting
The fearsome bull within the fraught arena.

If the ardent and fiery brute-force of the race
Should go unchecked, surely the furious bolting   
Of the steed would not be dared by any rider,
Rather it would be bridled and discreetly handled.

But should there be another so daring, so undaunted,
That despite the self-same dangers, facing an Apollo,
She would seek to control and govern with fearless hand

The breakneck progress of that dazzling chariot,
She would dare all, and not elect to choose
An estate demanding lifelong possession of her very being.

 

 

In this poem, Juana Inés appears to mean the very opposite of what she is saying. If one considered the dangers inherent in certain choices, one would not choose them. If one considers the dangers, and still chooses, one is an equal of the gods.  As in the case of many of Juana Inés’s poems, her reasoning and the sense can be applied to many other situations as well. The conclusions are apt and applicable to a multiplicity of serious situations.

To which category then can we assign Juana Inés? She considered the perils of a lifelong commitment to convent life, and in eternal servitude of the church. She made this terrible choice, even though a freer spirit probably never drew breath. She did so after full consideration, which makes her daring all the more remarkable. But if we consider her statement that had she possessed sufficient daring she would not have made the choice she did (to be a nun) we have to see it as a self-deprecating sleight-of-hand. She did see, she did dare, and she did choose – even though the she had to choose between two different but equally  restrictive futures. She rejected the conventional roles available to women, all of them as the property of individual men. She became instead the property of a male institution, the church, but only because she aspired to write and study, to love, and to pursue learning. She was no mere nun, but a true and genuine poet.  Love and poetry were her true vocations. Exigency alone dictated her choice, and it was one which demanded the highest degree of courage and fortitude on her part.

But it was the choice to love unstintingly which gave Juana Inés her chief joy, and highest degree of freedom. It did not matter to her that she loved under nearly impossible conditions and enormous constraints. The fact was that she loved with her all, and surrendered her all to love. It appears to me that her experiences in loving unleashed a remarkable creativity, and drew deeply of her soul’s potential. It heightened and refined her humanity, and made of her an illumined being.

 

Expresa su respeto amoroso: dice el sentido en que llama suya a la señora virreina marquesa de la Laguna.

 

Divina Lysi mía:
perdona si me atrevo
a llamarte así, cuando
aun de ser tuya el nombre no merezco.

A esto, no osadía
es llamarte así, puesto
que a ti te sobran rayos,
si en mí pudiera haber atrevimientos.

Error es de la lengua,
que lo que dice imperio
del dueño, en el dominio,
parezcan posesiones en el siervo.

Mi rey, dice el vasallo;
mi cárcel, dice el preso;
y el más humilde esclavo,
sin agraviarlo, llama suyo al dueño.

Así, cuando yo mía
te llamo, no pretendo
que juzguen que eres mía,
sino sólo que yo ser tuya quiero.

Yo te vi; pero basta:
que a publicar incendios
basta apuntar la causa,
sin añadir la culpa del efecto.

Que mirarte tan alta,
no impide a mi denuedo;
que no hay deidad segura
al altivo volar del pensamiento.

Y aunque otras más merezcan,
en distancia del cielo
lo mismo dista el valle
más humilde que el monte más soberbio,

En fin, yo de adorarte
el delito confieso;
si quieres castigarme,
este mismo castigo será premio.

 

She expresses her loving respect, explaining what she means when she says Her Ladyship the Vicereine, Marquise de la Laguna, belongs to her.

 

My divine Lysis
pardon me if I dare
then to address you thus,
since to be called yours exceeds my merit

and to this I cannot presume.
To call you mine I would be placed
at the mercy of your sovereign darting rays
if in my boldness I have overreached, and dared.

It is an error of the tongue
when that which is called imperial
and mastered, and of the dominion
appear to be the slave’s possessions.

“My king” declares the vassal,
“My prison” claims the prisoner,
and the most humble slave
without the slightest offense can claim her master as her own.

Thus when I call you mine
I am not in the least pretending
that you will be adjudged to belong to me,
but solely that I wish to be yours.

I saw you – but just stop there:
in order to say there is a fire
it is sufficient to show the cause
there is no need to affix blame on anyone for the result.

To see you so elevated
does not impede my audacity,
for there is no deity who can remain beyond
the reach of  lofty flights of cogitation.

And yet there are those, more deserving –
in their proximity to heaven –
equally placed is the humble valley
as the superbly high mountain.

Finally, I must be confessed
of this sin, which is my adoration –
and if you wish to chastise me,
your chastening will be my reward.

 

 

 

This poem, which appears to be of the utmost humility, is actually making a cosmic claim. Even as she calls herself a slave, she places her claim in a position superior to all dominion. How could this be? This playful equivocation with the first person possessive pronoun appears to be the object of a simple game – a play on words – and that is the usual interpretation of this poem. But when one takes the words of Juana Inés at face value, a whole hidden universe of deeper meaning tends to be missed.  This poem is really about the paradox of the ‘enslaved’ heart. The deepest truths are to found in paradox, and Juana Inés’s life was a master-class on the subject of paradoxical truth.

A heart that is given can never be enslaved. If it is refused, it may be freed by default. If it is taken, it becomes the possessor of its recipient. The one possessing it is engaged in a relation to the core of another, and this connection is one which binds both. The master is only a master if he or she possesses the slave. Therefore the status of ownership devolves on what is owned.  That which is owned becomes the definer. This is the subtle logic of relationships – call it metaphysical if you like, but it cannot be avoided.

In her servile situation as a nun, Juana Inés always had an eye on freedom. Her internal identity was  fixed neither by status nor by role,  both of which were in the end mere compromises and expediencies.  Though she may just as well as have been called a slave as a nun, neither was ever her true identity. She was in fact a lover and a poet.

But a master on the other hand depends on his or her possession of the slave, and the riches  the slave produces. As far as human relationships go, there is not much difference between a slave, or an employee, or an ordinary citizen living under the control of the state, for they exist in a contractual relationship with those they enrich. Though we may recoil in horror at this statement, it is one of of extreme banality.

The person whose own heart is her possession, ungiven and unsurrendered, owns an artifact of questionable worth. All joys accruing to such a person must be self-generated. Never could there be the joy of being possessed by love – which is as far from slavery as one can get, because such possession can truthfully be thought to be the highest  form of union. This is the central truth to which which all mystics fervently attest.

Juana Inés knew this profound truth. In giving herself away entirely she found the core of her genuine self. She loved with an astute recklessness, free of all self- serving evasions. She found the greatest wisdom in loving unwisely, and the greatest freedom in letting her heart be captured.

Death comes to all of us in the end and the claim made over us by oblivion is the final enslavement. It may be a matter of pride to us that we die free and unenslaved by love – masters of our own life and fate, and unbeholden to anyone. To be self-sufficient and not dependent on another for our personal happiness may be a worthy goal to strive for, and a safer one than rolling the dice on love – but what would the world be like if this was the choice made by people like Sappho and Petrarch and Catullus and Juana Inés, who found the greatest wisdom and beauty in loving unwisely, and never counting the cost?

I think it would be a much dimmer and darker place, and one I would not at all prefer to the one they left us as a result of their profligate choices.

 

*Translations Dia Tsung.

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Juana Inés Asbaje, The Phoenix of Mexico, was no ordinary woman. She was a poet of extraordinary depth and brilliance, but she was also a Muse, and furthermore a Muse who used her voice exactly as such. Both voices, those of poet and Muse, were true and authentic.  As a poet she wrote gallantly and nakedly, as only true poets can, with elegance and high Baroque style, but never substituting style for substance, and when she wrote as a Muse, her poems were addressed to men of the viceregal court, chiding them, teasing, ridiculing or indulging as the fancy took her, but never opening or exposing her heart. As a poet all her poems were addressed to a personal muse, and these astounding works are saturated with her ink, her tears, and her heart’s-blood.  Their structure is beautiful and elegant, and they are so skilfully and remarkably  compressed as to defy translation.  Such a woman comes along but once or so in a thousand years, and according to Robert Graves, himself one of the handful of  genuine poets to ever exist, the hallmarks of such extraordinary women are are beauty, learning, and loneliness. Juana possessed the latter two it is certain, but that she also possessed the first can be inferred from the words of her contemporaries, and even to some degree from her existing portraits.

Juana, like that other Catholic poet St. John of the Cross, lived in the menacing shadow of the church, which at that time owned the greater part of Mexico. She was a nun, and as such lived under the baneful curse of ecclesiastical authourity.  Although she was a much better poet than St John, and much more learned than either  St. John or St. Teresa, she loved women, and her genuine concern was humanistic rather than religious or mystical. Nevertheless, in her hands, the distinction between human and divine shimmered and blurred, as she endowed her human loves with attributes which  serve to show them in a light which even to us seems gloriously divine.

Even as she wrote plenty of material to amuse the viceregal court,which was doubtless enlivened by her presence, and later to appease and placate the church, she never ever fell prey to the paradigm resorted to by John and Teresa: she never wrote any swooning love poems addressed to a male muse. The poems that she did address to men are wry and ironic and indulgent or instructive:  They are never written in passionate surrender.

When speaking of Juana Inés de la Cruz, whom I prefer to think of as Juana Inés Asbaje, the name she possessed at birth,  it is easy and natural to slip into superlatives. ‘Highest’, ‘loftiest’, ‘most brilliant’, ‘most profound’, ‘nonpareil’ – these are the  terms, which come to mind. They  aptly describe both the writer and her writing. She was also a classicist, Latinist, intellectual, philosopher, dialectician, feminist, philologist, logician – and a Poet.

Most of us today know poetry only in its most debased form, so to come across this genuine exponent of resplendent and authentic Muse poetry can be an almost disorienting experience.  To read  the poetry of Juana Inés Asbaje in the original Spanish is an unparalleled experience, as rewarding as it is difficult. She has been made and remade in the hands of many translators, who have focused her through their individual lenses, some pure, and others full of unforgivable distortions, but even in the worst of these, her light is never occluded.

Juana Inés Asbaje appears to have burst upon the stage of history fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus, and though there no poets among infant prodigies, (or vice versa)  Juana’s precocious genius made her a poet at a very young age, perhaps in her mid teens.

During the sixteen seventies, around the time when Juana was writing her most passionate poetry, Spanish literary practices lagged about a century behind those of Europe, and this might account for the Shakespearean echo in some of her writing. She was no mean dramatist, but her poetry is sharply distinguished from her dramatic and other works because of its stinging, piercing quality. Each line possesses both a sharpened edge and a point, as did the rapiers of Toledo steel, which subjugated Mexico and made it a Spanish colony. Her poems are intended to draw blood: they too are devastatingly effective weapons of conquest.

Juana was a sui generis, and an autodidact and a woman of antinomian wit. She rejected the roles imposed by society on the women of her time – matrimony, domesticity and motherhood – and chose instead her own vocation as a nun, preferring to live in the company of books over the company of men. She even rejected the definition of ‘woman’ with all its demeaning connotations, identifying herself instead with the sexual neutrality of her soul.

True poets share an essential quality of the quantum universe, that of non-locality, which makes them seem to be at once a part of the physical world and of its invisible counterpart, and so they are able to genuinely evoke and invoke and manifest the rare phenomena which creation places between these two positions. Poetry can only issue from a deeply divided soul which is acutely aware of its duality; true poetry reveals the core of its being at the bottom of the chasm. Since nothing divides a soul as effectively as love, all true poets are subject to this law – the law of  a love divided  soul – from which true poetry emerges in its authentic splendour.

Poetry must spring out of an unending effort to reconcile the irreconcilable parts of the human heart: the part which one may attempt to claim as one’s own, and the part which has been claimed by another. Juana’s poems dance across this rift between the two in an exhalation of beauty. They resolve scores of opposites: they articulate the language of a woman’s soul together with a virility reminiscent of Catullus but with none of his harshness.  I think Juana’s poem “Yo no puede tenerte ni dejarte” echoes Catullus’ famous “Odi et amo quare faciam fortuit requiris – Nescio sed fieri, sentio et excrucior” Indeed she shares with Catullus an abiding concern with the personal and the personal muse, and the contents of her heart spill out into her poems with an aching grace.

Her poems bridge the profound and uneasy divide between the fiery sparks of an adamantine intellect, and the liquid, hidden beauty known only to accomplished mystics. She writes as a soul encased in flesh, loving both and rejecting neither. Therefore she was compelled to love with all her heart and all her soul, in complete surrender and obedience to the Muse, in a powerful amalgam of agony and grace.

It is easy to be sidetracked by Juana’s glittering intellect, but one is drawn irresistibly to her love poetry. Because we so seldom find the deepest truths to be one-sided, the greatest of them tend to be more expressible in terms of paradox. The great felicity of Muse poetry is that it encases paradox, (which after all is but a mental and cognitive construct), and transforms it into a form and language that the psyche immediately apprehends.

The love spoken of in these poems is a wounded love which digs into its own flesh in order to find words and language: it is a love which is reckless, acute, defiant and surrendered. But we know very little of the character of the women on whom Juana lavished – or perhaps squandered – her devotion, other than that they were both married to members of the viceregal court.

One thinks that if these mannered noble women, the denizens of high society who were the object of Juana’s ardour, were to have departed so far from the dictates of courtly propriety as to have hurled a wine-cup at her (as did the mistress of Propertius, at him), she would have responded with the same wry sparking grace and amplitude of temperament which inspired his “ Odi ego quas numquam pungent sospira somnos – Semper in irrata pallidus esse velim”. – Which has been translated to mean “Detestable to me ever is a night un-pierced by sighs – May I ever the be the pale lover of an angry mistress”.

One could conclude that some of Juana Inés Asbaje’s poems suggest a wry and cynical perspective on love, – but the kernel of truth these poems enclose is undeniable. I am thinking now of the poem about Jealousy and Absence…. In the estimation of a Muse-dedicated poet, absence is a more unbearable burden than jealousy. In the dynamic of the Muse mythos, She is free to confer her favours when and wheresoever she pleases. The lover/poet must in good grace accept these apparent caprices because the process into which a poet is drawn as a contender is a triad and not a dyad, but more importantly it is, like everything else in the universe, cyclical, and rejection and acceptance each take their appointed turn in this poetic cycle. In such situations ambivalences of thought may prevail, but never an ambivalence of devotion.

There is never any depth of emotion expressed or evinced in the ‘romantic’ poems that involve male subjects. Asbaje only ‘loves’ the man who hates her, as she ‘hates’ the man who ‘loves’ her. Neither circumstance permits any romantic fulfillment, and neither of these hates and loves, when compared to her Muse directed poems, are to be taken at all seriously.

Juana Inés Asbaje’s  poems of ‘Love in Absence’ clearly assert that the worth  of one is not diminished by the other. Asbaje lived in an environment – the cloistered life of convent – which she had chosen in part of a devil’s bargain. Neither the court where she spent her adolescence nor the convent where she spent her adulthood was free of pernicious politics or the foetid breath of the Spanish Inquisition. She would have to tread carefully in either place, but the convent offered the greater stability, and it was a place – at least for a time, where she could keep her books and scientific instruments, and where she had a place to write.

This meant that contact with her two beloveds the two vicereins. Her first love was the vicereine, the Marquise of Mancera (Leonor Carreto addressed  in Asbaje’s poems as ‘Laura’, perhaps as a nod to Francesco Petrarch).Her second love Asbaje revealed only after the woman’s death:  the vicereine, Marquise de la Laguna, Maria Luisa, Countess of Paredes (addressed in Asbaje’s poems as ‘Lysis’ or ‘Phyllis’). Both these intense loves were, in the end hopeless, not in the sense that they were without hope, but in the sense that they were blighted –‘Laura’ by separation when the vicereine later returned to Spain, and ‘Lysis’ by death. This was love with no expectation of winning, and borne in full acknowledgement of that fact. It was as if Asbaje had slit her purse and let its treasure escape, or like the Roman notables who, when condemned in a different fashion, matter- of- factly opened their veins and drained themselves of life. This was a nun, who nevertheless experienced mature and intense passion of the sort that dissolves the self.

Asbaje never complained that love always comes with a price. Unlike Sir Tomas Wyatt (They Flee from Me Who Sometime Did Me Seek), she never whimpered,  whined or complained. She knew well that the Muse cannot offer constant love, because in a very deep sense she is nature itself, and like the moon which symbolises her, she is constantly changing, and bringing change and movement in her wake.

Whether these high-born  beloveds, the vicereines, who elicited such avid unquenchable longing and on whom these poems and sentiments were pinned, were trivial and unworthy, we cannot know. They were beautiful certainly, and accomplished, and they must have offered some form of encouragement, but accompanying that encouragement was deception and coquetry, and the awareness of the power that women gain, who are the beloveds of dedicated lovers. Asbaje was both an open book and an enigma; a nun and a lover, a women of sumptuous intellect in a time when even most men were illiterate. She was both humble and audacious, acquiescing to the narrow- minded strictures of the church while actively rebelling against it.

Asbaje was capable of a of a brilliant sleight- of hand which permitted her to enlarge on a secular – and personal – subject while appearing to discuss a spiritual one. It is clear that a poem such as “Traigo commigo un cuidado” on the difficulty of loving an invisible God was not by any means à propos solely to its nominal subject, but it served, for it was too subtle for the vaunted clerical intellects to detect her trinity of feminist, humanist and sapphic heresy.

Even as she deferred to the authority of the men who ruled her society, she was outspokenly and deeply critical of their hypocrisy and misogyny as is evidenced in her devastating satire “Hombres necios que acusáis a la mujer sin razon”. – ‘You foolish men who accuse women without justification’ This satirical tour de force is a true reflection of her mordant wit, and great temerity: wit wherewith she excoriated ignorant men, it was unequaled for centuries both before and after her.

If ever an instance was required to reveal the sheer ignorance, vileness and misogynism of the Catholic Church, it may be found in the manner in which the voice of Asbaje was silenced. When her noble protectors were recalled to Spain, the draconian archbishop of Pueblo swooped down upon her with all the zeal of a predator which has singled out its chosen prey. She was not subjected to the sadistic torments of the rack or the strappado, but she may as well have been. When I think of this monster, Goya’s Los Caprichos  comes  to mind. “The Devout Profession”, “O What a Golden Beak”, “Swallow it Dog!” and “Nothing Could be Done About It” – The church of that time, with all its diabolical minions. This  precious miracle of humanity, was forced to sell all the books in her library, her scientific instruments, and give the proceeds to charity. She was compelled to cease writing, and so her vocation as a writer, thinker and poet were brought to an asphyxiated end.

I cannot help in myself an impulse to compare Asbaje’s disillusionment with that of the famous Italian ‘Poet of Disillusionment’ Giacomo Leopardi. Leopardi, despite his famous poetic offerings to women, was not a Muse Poet. Both Asbaje and Leopardi were dedicated to ‘La Donna Non Si Trova’ – Leopardi’s term for his Muse, meaning’ The woman who cannot be found (attained)’ – but what an unbridegable difference in attitude separates the virile Asbaje from the effete Leopardi!

When it came to love Juana Inés Asbaje spared herself nothing, and made no attempt to defend herself. She went on cutting and re-cutting her heart open, never seeking to assuage its pain. She was aware of her divided soul, and her contradictions, but at the same time she possessed a species of wholeness that few people can hope to attain. She had the literary equivalent of perfect pitch, and speaks to us still, by means of the most eloquent use of her silence.

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Juana Inés de la Cruz (November 12 1651 – April 17 1695)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Only with acute and ingenious effort could the proposition

be verified  that absence could be a worse ill than jealousy.

 

Version 1

 

The absent one provokes her jealous lover
to indulge by turn in sentiment and rage
To here suspect her of unseen offenses
And disregard the evidence of the senses.

Here furious madness finds its moderation
Discoursing even as delirium raves
And when she with ceaseless sighing is afflicted
No earthly force this sorrow can assuage.

 

 

 

 

Unquiet doubts whereby patience is resisted
Offer weak opposition to these woes
And agonies by which sleep is disrupted.

Disconsolate, then you here repine without her,
And in the final damage her absence on you imposes
Is much finer torment than jealousy could devise.

 

 

 

 

Juana Inés de la Cruz.

Translation Dia Tsung

 

 

 
Version 2

 

By her absence is one’s jealousy provoked
There to sentiment, and here to helpless rage
Here it presumes hidden and unseen offenses
And relives the reality of distant senses

Though perhaps one’s furious madness can be tempered
When its delirium is moderated by discourse
And without relief sigh the unrelenting sighs
That puissant sorrow nothing can oppose

 

 

 

Here by doubts is patience oft afflicted
There by certain pain it will arouse
Here to you grief offers its sole resistance.

And without her, inconsolable and bearing
In the end the damage wrought by absence
Will  be eclipsed by  the torment caused by jealousy.

 

 

 

 

Juana Inés de la Cruz.

Translation Dia Tsung.

 

 

 

 
SÓLO CON AGUDA INGENIOSIDAD ESFUERZA EL DICTAMEN

DE QUE SEA LA AUSENCIA MAYOR MAL QUE LOS CELOS.

 

 

El ausente, el celoso, se provoca,
aquél con sentimiento, éste con ira;
presume éste la ofensa que no mira,
y siente aquél la realidad que toca.

Éste templa, tal vez, su furia loca,
cuando el discurso en su favor delira,
y sin intermisión aquél suspira
pues nada a su dolor la fuerza apoca

 

 

Éste aflige dudoso su paciencia,
y aquél padece ciertos sus desvelos:
éste al dolor opone resistencia,

aquél, sin ella, sufre desconsuelos;
y si es pena de daño, al fin, la ausencia,
luego es mayor tormento que los celos.

 

 

 

 

Juana Inés de la Cruz.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Translating the work of a genuine poet such as  Juana Inés Asbaje is always a tremendous challenge, because of the  tightly wrought perfection of her work. Her intense play of words and ideas, and the games of disputation and logic which find their way into her poems  can at times make  the translator’s job very nearly impossible.

I chose this poem because I could not find an English translation of it anywhere, and I loved it so much that I couldn’t resist the fool-hardy temptation to attempt take a stab at it.  Even after working on two different versions I still am not entirely convinced I have done a creditable job.

I took one revisionist liberty here, in the manner of the pronouns, which the original Spanish with its gendered nouns permits me to do. I know that with this poem of  Juana Inés, both Muse and poet are female, so that, to my mind made both the jealous one and the absent one female as well. Therefore I saw no need for engaging in the practice of pronoun dissimulation which many lesbians in the past have been forced to adopt.

Juana Inés  sometimes treats playful subjects seriously, and serious subjects playfully, but one thing is always true of her poems – form and substance are both brilliantly in evidence.

Since the late ’50’s a kind of rot began to find its way into the manner in which poetry was read and written and appreciated. A kind of empty technicality came to be admired and exemplified, and a certain heartlessness as well.

The ego of the poet came to take centre stage but in a way that was indirect and  horrible to contemplate. One of the greatest anti-poets of the last century, Sylvia Plath, was a masterful exponent of this genre.  While there are few personal pronouns in her poems, the Huge ‘I’ hovers over the hopeless grandeur of bleak  and ugly landscapes  of her poems.  I sometimes wonder if her suicidal impulses  were not the result of a lifetime given to offending the Muse.

While I am obviously not an admirer of Plath – I can see the essence of her poetic predicament. Heterosexual women do not have either a natural or a genuine Muse. The male muse is poetic distortion, and very few poets are able benefit from his inspiration. If they do, they are usually homosexual males like  Jacques Prévert and  Constantine Cavafy, or  poor Gerard Manley Hopkins with his clattering rhythms and his crucified saviour – the Muse’s midsummer sacrifice.

Even the male muse of St.John of the Cross has his origins in the old Caananite songs of the sacred marriage, so ancient and well established that the Hebrew compilers of the old testament could not bring themselves to exclude  even such a purely humanistic chapter of their cultural history.

True and genuine poets are exponents of an ancient art. Their work can stand up to the most rigorous scrutiny and withstand the abrasive inquiry of the touchstone, and the corrosive kiss of Acqua regia.  While meaning may be encoded – even hidden – in their poems, diligent effort can extract it whole. The sense in a true poem is unassailable, and  it contains no false logic, no lies, or mistakes of language. The etymology of all words found in true poems is apt and apposite, and  as for its emotional content, the presence of the Muse will always be felt.

Even a poem of the intellect – which has Apollo as its patron finds Juana Inés paying tribute to the Muse by stating clearly one or another of the themes which are part of the poetic cycle. Absence – when the Muse leaves the poet in order to perform her sinister offices, and the jealously which comes in its wake  – is a genuine poetic theme.

Juana Inés is free of all the detriments and defects of false poets. Her poetic technique is impeccable, and her  brilliant intellect is always placed exactly where it belongs, at the feet, and in the service of her Muse. She is a rarity; and someone like her comes along only about once in a thousand years.

When she bends her constellation of poetic talents towards elucidating a philosophical proposition, she does so not in the dry and emotionless way of a logical proof, but with images and words and phrases which show a deep insight into matters of the heart, and of its secret ways.

Her logic here in which she weighs jealousy and absence in the balance and  concludes that absence is worse, is enormously convincing. It is better, she seems to say, to endure the pangs of jealousy – to see it for what it is  – a fabrication of the mind when the heart is troubled, rather than risk a total estrangement, when,  with the beloved’s  absence, the poet’s  heart mind and senses are painfully separated from their chosen object.

Absence then, is  hererin asserted to be the more onerous of the two evils, and the more difficult to endure.

 

 
http://myhero.com/go/hero.asp?hero=CRUZ_Fredericksburg_Academy

http://www.latin-american.cam.ac.uk/culture/SorJuana/

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