Monday, July 6, 2015

White Head - Sophie Jewett

Prone on the northern water,
   That laps him about the breast,
Like the Sphinx in the sand, forever
   The giant lies in rest.

The sails drive swift before him,
   And the surf beats at his lip,
But the gray eyes look out seaward
   Noting nor wave nor ship.

The centuries drift over,
   He marks not with smile nor frown,
Drift over him cloud and sea-gull,
   Swallow and thistledown.

I, of the race that passes,
   Quick with its hope and its fear,
Lean on his brow and question,
   Plead at his senseless ear:

"What of thy past unmeasured?
   And what of the peoples gone?
What of the sea's first singing?
   What of the primal dawn?

"What was the weird that bowed thee?
   How did the struggle cease?
Out of what Titan anguish
   Issued thy hopeless peace?"

Nothing the pale lips utter,
   What hath been, nor what shall be;
Under the brow's stern shadow,
   The gray eyes look to sea.

The blue grows round and over,
   Thin-veiled, as it were God's face;
I feel the breath, the spirit,
   That knows nor time nor space.

And my heart grieves for the giant
   In his pitiful repose,
Mocked by the vagrant gladness
   Of a laggard brier-rose;

Mocked to his face from seaward
   By the flash and whirl of wings;
Mocked from the grass above him,
   By life that creeps and sings.

I care not for his wisdom,
   His secret unconfessed;
I yearn toward rose and cricket,
   Ephemeral and blest.

Ah! if he might, how would he
   Quicken to love and to tears;
For my immortal minute
   Barter his endless years!

He rests on the restless water,
   And I on the grasses brown,
Drift over us cloud and sea-gull,
   Swallow and thistledown.

After posting early 20th century poet Sophie Jewett last week, I knew I had to revisit her and post more of her poetry, because to me, it is absolutely wonderful in both its craft and content.  The natural feeling of her lines and their rhyme is enchanting, and it reads easily without ever sounding preachy.  The subject of her poem also reminds me my native New England coastline.

Here, Jewett describes and talks to an ancient rock, presumably one just off the coast, surrounded by the foaming waves.  The rock may perhaps be on shore as well, but regardless, is by the coast.  The rock itself is immortal, immovable, endlessly gazing out to sea, as "cloud and sea-gull / Swallow and thistledown" drift overhead.  Jewett asks of this rock many questions that I've wondered myself when I look at some ancient natural feature.  What was the past of this place?  People who used to live here?  "What of the sea's first singing? / What of the primal dawn?"

Of course, the rock never answers; it's a rock.  What really sets this poem apart for me, and what makes it magical, is that Jewett does not envy the rock its permanence and knowledge of eons untold.  She embraces the human condition of transience and impermanence.  "I care not for his wisdom, / His secret unconfessed; / I yearn toward rose and cricket, / Ephemeral and blest."  Moreover, she supposes that the rock would "barter his endless years" for just one of Jewett's "immortal minutes" full of feeling, and love, and tears.  It's a wonderful affirmation of human existence, of our brief, beautiful time here on earth, beneath the "cloud and sea-gull, / Swallow and thistledown."

This poem's moving past envy of the rock's knowledge, of nature's untold eternal secrets, is almost like a revelation for me.  I've asked similar questions myself, in poetry, but was never fully satisfied with the asking.   I was concerned with transience, but of people in general, not of myself or of beauty.  I wondered what a place looked like rather than what it experienced, though the two questions are closely linked.  My own poem looks quite amateurish next to this masterstroke, and I've never been happier to say that.

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