I’m putting these two short poems together, one from 2017, the other 1859, because their subject is similar, but also for the way both use a kind of openness to usher in a shock of grief.
The first is by John Levett, a Norfolk poet, from his sixth collection A Song About You (2017), the second by William Barnes, from nineteenth-century rural Dorset, written in his representation of his dialect. At the end I’ve written a few sparse notes to help you past the strangeness of the words. Please stick with it despite the obstacles of age and dialect because the impact comes at the end. One way through is to read it slowly aloud and try to copy the sounds.
I rediscovered my copy of the Levett book, unopened since 2017, hanging up in a canvas bag in the cupboard under the stairs, and was casually turning the pages when suddenly this poem reminded me of the feeling in Barnes’ ‘Turnstile’. It was startling to find how alive a connection an absence can make.
A Death in the Family
Behind our daughter’s back you catch my eye to let me know the worst but glass haphazardly reflects your mouth, your hands waved in reverse as, laughing at our game, she starts to gesture, mimicking your sense. It’s joy not grief that stops our hearts then breaks them with its accidents.
Ah! sad wer we as we did peäce The wold church road, wi’ downcast feäce, The while the bells, that mwoaned so deep Above our child a-left asleep, Wer now a-zingen all alive Wi’ t’other bells to meäke the vive. But up at woone pleäce we come by, T’wer hard to keep woone’s two eyes dry On Steän-cliff road, ’ithin the drong, Up where as v’ok do pass along, The turnen stile, a-painted white, Do sheen by day an’ show by night. Vor always there, as we did goo To church, thik stile did let us drough, Wi’ spreaden earms that wheel’d to guide Us each in turn to tother zide. An’ vu’st ov all the train he took My wife, wi’ winsome gait an’ look; An’ then zent on my little maid, A-skippen onward, overjaÿ’d To reach ageän the pleäce o’pride, Her comely mother’s left han’ zide. An’ then, a-wheelen roun’, he took On me, ’ithin his third white nook. An’ in the fourth, a sheäken wild, He zent us on our giddy child. But eesterday he guided slow My downcast Jenny, full o’ woe, An’ then my little maid in black, A-walken softly on her track; An’ after he’d a turn’d ageän, To let me goo along the leäne, He had noo little bwoy to vill His last white eärms, an they stood still.
Barnes’ son John had died in 1839. ‘Wold’ is old; ‘vive’ is five; ‘drong’ is a Dorset word for a narrow alleyway; ‘v’ok’ is folk; ‘drough’ is through’; ‘eesterday’ is yesterday. This youtube reading may help: https://youtu.be/oXMoGJJW76Y
She dwelt among th’ untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise,
And very few to love;
A violet by a mossy stone
Half-hidden from the eye! –
Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be,
But she is in her grave, and, oh!
The difference to me!
(William Wordsworth, She dwelt among th’ untrodden ways)
When I am most alive I can read this poem, which means that I often can’t read it at all. All that is left then is the memory of what it was like to understand it, a memory with no sense of what the poem really was. Then the ‘blank misgivings’ come and the poem seems to have nothing in it. This poem is representative of something that I have often come across in my own reading and in other readers of literature too, and that is the difficulty of reading what seems a simple poem. The obvious, particularly when given in a regular rhythm and rhyme, is often insurmountable. You either get it, or you don’t. And if you don’t get it, the apparent simplicity of the poems convinces you that there is nothing there. You stop reading and move on in search of more immediate complexity.
This is what I do remember of the poem.
At the heart of it (beginning in the second stanza but more strongly in the third) there is a big upheaval of meaning. It comes as the poet suddenly understands what it is that he is saying or where his meaning has brought him. It is the unpremeditated nature of this discovery of feeling for Wordsworth which gives the poem its centre and pivot. Of course when he started, he knew he was writing about Lucy and her death, but in the process of writing something else happened. He began with the relative importance of Lucy to him and other men; he ends with the absolute importance of Lucy for him, and this banishes all thought of comparison. The very status of the words changes so that at the end they are no longer collected or relative, instead they work unguardedly and plainly, in trust.
It is something to do with margins, a moment of transformation like that which happens in Magic Eye pictures when the eye just begins to catch the picture behind the surface patterns. A fracturing line, always a little out of view, starts before the wholesale visualisation, at a time when the attempt could go either way – at the point when you could see (say) an eagle driving from the sky, or else fall back into the patterns of wallpaper. There is no critical method because the parts will not lead to the whole. You have to get the whole, wholly, first of all, or there will be nothing.
This is what happens in stanza 2: ‘A violet by a mossy stone / Half-hidden from the eye!’ At first you read ‘A violet by a mossy stone’ and see the flower in contrast, over-weighted by the larger stone. The stone is a marker, a mnemonic. So the poet looking for the violet on another day might find it sooner if he looks first for the stone. But the next line pulls away this sense of locating (‘by’) and turns it into concealment: ‘By a mossy stone / Half-hidden from the eye’. The stone is both evidence and concealment. And it gets worse. You read the stone as concealing the violet and this is the stronger meaning, but maybe it is the stone itself which is half-hidden from the eye, so the mnemonic itself is partially occluded.
The impulse here belongs not with the separate elements or the distinct phases of their arrangement, but rather with the reorientations of view: this is the Magic Eye effect. The internal rhyme of ‘by’ – ‘Half-hidden from the eye’ gives an odd feeling of purpose, as if the inward act of recognition were being performed by the elements depicted as external.
I can’t say if I’ve said what I mean, and even now it looks at once too complicated and yet not agile enough to say what has happened. The lines momentarily draw to a depth beyond the immediate, and in so doing they involve the reader in the mechanism of the poetic effect. This is the odd thing, that the poem which is markedly static (to do with place and memory) has most effect in movement, an effect that happens, unanticipated, suggesting a liveliness, a quality of change and force where none had been expected. This makes it poignant when we later find that ‘she is in her grave’. Then the marker stone gains a more sombre bearing, bringing to mind a headstone.
The first stanza is the hardest to read because it offers so little difficulty. It opens like a ballad, telling the tale of a lost love. ‘She dwelt among th’ untrodden ways / Beside the springs of Dove’. ‘She’ is familiar, as if it could be no other she, despite the disuse of ‘untrodden ways’. ‘Ways’ too is a deeply familiar word, speaking of habit. This shows up clearly through thinking of the alternatives. He could have written ‘untrodden wastes’ and kept the rhyme nearly intact, or ‘untrodden hills’ or ‘paths’. ‘Paths’ would indeed be the closest semantic replacement, but had he written ‘paths’ something would have been lost. A path has physical presence (it is the track across the hill), but a ‘way’ is less than that physically – a possible or remembered route, a trace of the going. ‘Untrodden ways’ is a phrase which describes the poet’s memory as much as an actual landscape. Another word that is odd is ‘among’: ‘She dwelt among th’ untrodden ways’. It is striking in the midst of these untrodden ways. The paths are falling into neglect, and out of thought, so that it is deft and disturbing that Wordsworth seeks to clarify the ground between them. ‘Between’ would have had a different effect again, would make the reader more aware of the paths as defining lines. But ‘among’ is more than a situating word – it places her at the same time as admitting she could be busy or idle anywhere round here. This is where the first faintest flash of the poem comes, as the poet makes us realise the integrity and intimacy of a life beyond trace.
Nevertheless it is the isolation of the girl that dominates the next lines. ‘A Maid whom there were none to praise / And very few to love.’ That he puts it this way around is strange. Love, the greater and the deeper state is surprisingly more often achieved than the lesser ‘praise’. Remoteness has deprived the girl of all but a few admirers but tacitly Wordsworth approves the priorities of isolation, its seriousness and its slowness. The distance between ‘none to praise’ and ‘very few to love’ opens up like the momentary flash of ‘among’ to suggest the nature of life for Lucy.
The second stanza is confident: ‘A violet by a mossy stone / Half-hidden from the eye! – / Fair as a star when only one / Is shining in the sky’. It focuses on single elements, ‘a violet’, ‘a mossy stone’, ‘the eye’, ‘a star’, offering a crisp sense of definition and place. It is striking that in this brief poem there is so much topographical detail suggesting that a primary purpose of the poem is to guide. (Who? Where?) The violet by the stone and the star are signals set in a context of vacancy or hiddenness, so that the deprivation of view is part of their impact.
Wordsworth risks misinterpretation. In each case the fragile, fleeting quality that the markers represent (beauty, shyness, isolation) is rivalled by the bare persistence of the signal. The apparent backhandedness of the compliment, ‘fair as a star when only one / Is shining in the sky’ does not mean that the star could not survive comparison. Rather the poet says ‘one / Is shining’; it shines like a beacon when all the others have failed to appear. Even though it is the only one, it is the finest of them all. This indomitability is evident too in the way that the whole scene inverts and shifts in stanza 2, moving from ground to sky, and from night to day while concentrating on the one individuality. The whole scene rotates about the point in an upheaval that the poem conveys with an extraordinary calm. The particularity of the terms within each context is thus thrown across a wider canvas, where the arrangements of violet and stone, or the chance of timing (‘when only one / Is shining…’) are correspondingly minute. Yet together they span a vast swirl of the horizon. The simple words and the offered sense of guidance are thus oddly queasy in effect. It is as if the poetry were naming the price of such security and the price is recklessly great. The price of security is turmoil.
So there is a brief glimpse of the poem’s significance in the second stanza but it is in the third that it comes most strongly. The tone is more sober, more thoughtful, as if the poet is trying to make something plain to himself, ‘She lived unknown, and few could know…’ with a wondering cumbersomeness that contrasts with the stark chaos-daring confidence of the second stanza. But it is what comes next that changes everything:
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be,
But she is in her grave, and, oh!
The difference to me!
It is a fundamental transformation. At first the poet concerned himself with external things (the violet, the star, the girl), but finally he is only aware of his own being. Suddenly, the poem gets an inward shock as though the death of Lucy (the poet’s sudden sharp sense of it) shocks him into presence. In stanza 1 he was there by implication only, in ‘untrodden’, ‘few’. He was barely more evident in the second stanza, glimpsed through his perceptions: ‘Half-hidden from the eye’. It is only in the final lines that he turns up in person. All the others fall away leaving only Lucy (named for the first time) and ‘me’.
The balance of perspective, the pivot of the poem, is suddenly changed. ‘Oh’ becomes like the violet or the star before a new steady point at the centre of the universe, the absorbing, unshiftable idea around which all else will turn. It is more than the shift between day and night, ground and sky; between those two phases the sense of upheaval was left unremarked. Here the sense of disturbance is rife. Look at the word ‘difference’. How are we to compare that with the earlier words that gave expression to Lucy’s influence on those around her: to ‘know’, to ‘praise’, to ‘love’? Difference is too new perhaps to have a better name.
What, if pressed to be explicit, would Wordsworth have said he meant by ‘difference’ – grief, loss, anguish, confusion, blankness, shock…? Yes, probably it would be a selection of these with a few additions. And when in time the emotion had grown older the varying states and waves of feeling would become more clear. But now, whatever it is, he can only call it (strongly, inadequately) ‘difference’. The word is as unwritten as ‘oh!’ and barely more developed. The thing that it is important to grasp here is that ‘difference’ does not describe a new balance or status quo established in the place of the old certainty. Rather it describes the active effect of change, the wholesale reorientation. The early sprig-like prettiness of the poem gives way to an absolute usurpation of idea, as the poem of sentiment turns to the issue of a man’s soul and his place in the universe.
It troubles me when I can’t read this poem or persuade anyone to agree that there is greatness in it. But why should it matter? If it presents a simple face and nothing more, what is lost? In part the answer for me is personal. If there appears to be nothing in it then I have forgotten what I cannot recall. But the question is connected as well to the general question of how we read. An event must take place in the reader if the reading is to have effect. Without this event there is only the effort to untangle words and meanings, wondering all the time ‘why bother?’ If the event does take place then the poem starts to give itself. This is true (in the ideal) of all books and poems but it is most true of Wordsworth’s poetry, it seems to me, where the wholesale effect of recognition is vital, to convert words on the page from relative importance to full idea or feeling.
On the face of it this is bleak. If a poem remains blank before your attention, then there is no arguing your way into it. You cannot by any effort of your own make that recognition happen. But I want to argue (plead) that it is possible to instil the mood or prepare the conditions in which that recognition is more likely to come. In proportion as they are great, poets write in trust, and this too is the way to read – with an open mind, vulnerably. In the Lucy poem, when the thought of her death breaks on him for real, that moment has the strongest effect: ‘But she is in her grave, and oh! / The difference to me!’ The tender and small word ‘her grave’ is the one that betrays him. This is ‘her’ place now. She no longer dwells among th’ untrodden ways.
This is the Dog-eared Blog for a number of reasons:
It’s a doggily bookish pun, and that corners two main areas of interest
I feel fairly dog-eared myself these days
Dog-eared pages have something in them a reader did not want to lose
I like the near-homonyn and undertow of ‘dogged’ in the phrase
But most of all it’s for the haphazard and accosting way little bits of books or poem surface in my mind in the midst of doing other things entirely, usually while walking the dogs. I like overhearing my subconscious mind’s selection of words—oh, you think that, do you?—and, as a lazy person, I value the seemingly involuntary mode of thinking.
I don’t know if anyone will ever read this but if you do, please use the Comments to tell me some of the recurring quotations that grab you. Do they feel significant or are they earworms? Why is it that phrases come running after you when you’ve turned your back on the book?
This is one I often find myself reciting (or is it hearing?) from Anne Michaels’ long poem, ‘Miner’s Pond’:
When my brothers told me I’d never seen the stars, that light’s too slow, That looking up is looking back, There was no holding on.
In the poem, Anne Michaels is very young and her brothers are older, a decade between her and the oldest, and they are fascinated by science and the natural world, half teasing her with insights she’s too young to understand, half just pouring this stuff out in excitement. But I love the physicality of the way her mind (then or now?) feels the meaning as it happens. She thought she was looking at space; she finds she is looking at incalculable time. It’s a huge adjustment framed in the here and now so that the simple act of looking up makes a kind of vertigo, ‘There was no holding on’.
Isn’t this exactly what poetry is for? The phrasing of moments where a new awareness enters and transforms our sense of reality. And it is all so clean and visible here, built on prepositions rather than adjectives or effort, like a magician showing you there’s nothing up his sleeve.
It’s all one sentence stretching over four lines and dependent on the opening occasion, ‘When my brothers told me’, and yet the essential experience is not one of stretching and continuousness but instead one of rupture as the sense of the familiar world is broken apart—and continues.
This is why stories and poetry seem to me central to our ability to change to meet the demands of ecology. They rest upon an openness to imaginative overthrow, a readiness to see things entirely differently, which is what we need to grasp hold of in order to survive. We’ve got to go back to fundamentals and change things.
This is the whole poem. It’s a beautiful entwining of family memory and science in the raw.
in memory of Elie David Michaels
A caver under stalactites, the moon searches the stars.
In the low field, pools turn to stone. Starlight scratches the pond, penetrates in white threads; in a quick breath, it fogs into ice. A lava of fish murmurs the tightening film.
The crow is darkness’s calculation; all absence in that black moment’s ragged span.
Above Miner’s Pond, geese break out of the sky’s pale shell. They speak non-stop, amazed they’ve returned from the stars, hundreds of miles to describe.
It’s not that they’re wild, but their will is the same as desire. The sky peels back under their blade.
Like a train trestle, something in us rattles. All November, under their passing.
Necks stiff as compass needles, skeletons filled with air; osmosis of emptiness, the space in them equals space.
Their flight is a stria, a certainty; sexual, one prolonged reflex.
Cold lacquering speed, feathers oiled by wind, surface of complete transfluency. The sky rides with tremors in the night’s milky grain.
Windows freeze over like shallow ponds, hexagonally blooming. The last syrup of light boils out from under the lid of clouds; sky the colour of tarnish. Like paperweights, cows hold down the horizon.
Even in a place you know intimately, each night’s darkness is different.
They aren’t calling down to us. We’re nothing to them, unfortunates in our heaviness. We watch at the edge of words.
At Miner’s Pond we use the past to pull ourselves forward; rowing.
It was the tambourine that pushed my father over the edge in 1962. His patience a unit of time we never learned to measure. The threat to “drive into a post” was a landmark we recognized and raced towards with delirious intent, challenging the sound barrier of the car roof.
We were wild with stories we were living. The front seat was another time zone in which my parents were imprisoned, and from which we offered to rescue them, again and again.
That day we went too far. They left us at the side of the road above St. Mary’s quarry. My mother insists it was my father’s idea, she never wanted to drive away, but in retrospect, I don’t believe her.
This was no penalty; drilled in wilderness protocol, happy as scouts, my brothers planned food and shelter. The youngest, I knew they’d come back for us, but wasn’t sure.
Hot August, trees above the quarry like green flames, dry grass sharpened by the heat, and dusty yellow soil “dry as mummy skin,” a description meant to torment me.
They were rockhounds howling in the plastic light melting over fossil hills; at home among eras.
It was fifteen minutes, maybe less, and as punishment, useless. But the afternoon of the quarry lives on, a geological glimpse; my first grasp of time, not continuous present.
Their language took apart landscapes, stories of sastrugi and sandstreams, shelves and rain shadow. Atoms vibrating to solids, waves into colours. Everything stone began to swirl. Did the land sink or the sea rise? When my brothers told me I’d never seen the stars, that light’s too slow, that looking up is looking back, there was no holding on. Beyond my tilting room night swarmed with forest eyes and flying rats, insects that look like branches, reptiles like rocks. Words like solfatara, solfatara, slipping me down like terraced water, into sleep.
Full of worlds they couldn’t keep to themselves, my brothers were deviant programmers of nightmares. Descriptions of families just like ours, with tongues petrified and forks welded to their teeth, who’d sat down to Sunday dinner and were flooded by molten rock; explorers gnawing on boots in the world’s dark attic; Stadacona’s sons, lured onto Cartier’s ship and held hostage, never to see home again.
When the lights were out my free will disappeared. Eyes dry with terror, I plummeted to the limbo of tormented sisters, that global sorority with chapters in every quiet neighbourhood, linked by fear of volcanic explosions and frostbite, polar darkness, and kidnapping by Frenchmen.
The ritual walk to the bakery, Fridays before supper. Guided by my eldest brother through streets made unfamiliar by twilight, a decade between us. I learned about invisibility: the sudden disappearance of Röntgen’s skin— his hand gone to bones—and the discovery of X-rays. Pasteur’s germs, milk souring on the doorsteps of Arbois, and microbe-laden wine — “what kind of wine?”— the word “microbe” rolling in my brother’s fourteen-year-old mouth like an outstanding beaujolais. On these walks, frogs came back to life with electricity. Sheep were cured of sheep-sickness. Father Time, Einstein, never wore a watch. Galileo saw the smooth face of the moon
instantly grow old, more beautiful for being the truth. The Curies found what they’d been looking for only after giving up; they opened the lab and saw the glow, incorruptible residue, radiant stain!
In winter, Glenholme Avenue was already dark, with glass trees, elms shivering in their ice-sleeves. As we walked, the essence of fresh bread whirled into the secular air, the street hungry for its pure smell.
Even now, I wrap what’s most fragile in the long gauze of science. The more elusive the truth, the more carefully it must be carried.
Remembering those walks, I think of Darwin— “no object in nature could avoid his loving recognition”— on the bunk of the Beagle, green with sea-sickness and the vertigo of time. He was away five years but the earth aged by millions. Greeting him at Falmouth dock, his father cried: “Why the shape of his head has changed!” Stepping from cold night into the bright house, I knew I’d been given privileged information, because the excitement in my brother’s voice was exclusive to the street, temporary, a spell.
Brother love, like the old family boat we call the tin can: dented, awkward, but still able to slice the lake’s pink skin.
A family is a study in plate-tectonics, flow-folding. Something inside shifts; suddenly we’re closer or apart.
There are things brothers and sisters know— the kind of details a spy uses to prove his identity— fears that slide through childhood’s long grass, things that dart out later; and pleasures like toucans, their brightness weighing down the boughs.
Who but a brother calls from another hemisphere to read a passage describing the strange blip in evolution, when reptiles looked like “alligator-covered coffee tables,” evolution’s teenagers, with a “severe case of the jimjams during the therapsid heyday”— remembering those were the creatures we loved best, with bulky limbs and backs like sails.
Memory is cumulative selection. It’s an undersea cable connecting one continent to another, electric in the black brine of distance.
Migrating underground, miles below the path of the geese, currents and pale gases stray like ghosts through walls of rock. Above and below, the way is known; but here, we’re blind.
The earth means something different now. It never heals, upturned constantly.
Now stones have different names.
Now there’s a darkness like the lakes of the moon; you don’t have to be close to see it.
My brother’s son lived one fall, one spring.
We’re pushed outside, towards open fields, by the feeling he’s trying to find us.
Overhead the geese are a line, a moving scar. Wavering like a strand of pollen on the surface of a pond. Like them, we carry each year in our bodies. Our blood is time.
From Miner’s Pond (1991) published in a single volume with Weight of Oranges in 1997.