Poetry Friday: Amy Lowell

June 9, 2006 @ 11:16 am | Filed under:

Today’s Poetry Friday contribution was easy. Easy to think of, that is, not easy to get written; we are doing our annual end-of-year standardized tests here today, and, well, blech. A tedious necessity (since I choose not to take the portfolio-evaluation option), and more annoying to me than to the children, I daresay. Jane thinks the tests are quaint. My orderly Rose enjoys filling in the dots on the answer sheets. When you only encounter multiple choice tests once a year, I suppose they can be a source of amusement.

But enough of that. Scan-tron, the antithesis of poetry! (Sounds like the beginning of an ode, hmm.) I was saying that my choice of poem this week was a gimme. What with all the talk over at Jen’s place about the fictional girls we admire, and my naming Vicky Austin from various Madeleine L’Engle books as one of my favorites, I’ve had Vicky in my head all week. The first time I read The Moon by Night (the sequel to Meet the Austins), I was eleven or twelve, and I was mightily impressed by Vicky’s habit of putting herself to sleep by mentally reciting poems she had memorized, choosing one for every letter of the alphabet. In one scene she makes it as far as a certain Amy Lowell poem—starting with the letter P! Vicky knew poems by heart to carry her all the way to P!—and naturally I went right to the library and looked it up. And memorized it myself, but I have since forgotten it.

I love what Amy does here with internal rhyme. As poetry goes, this is somewhat (forgive me, Amy) heavy-handed and reads a bit like a Harlequin romance: that business with the waistcoat buttons bruising her body, for example. But this—

And the plashing of waterdrops
In the marble fountain
Comes down the garden-paths.
The dripping never stops.

—has always haunted me, and I honestly don’t know if that’s because of the language (plashing!) and imagery, or because those are the lines we hear Vicky quoting in the book. It is hard, sometimes, to sort out what one thinks is fine because it is hailed as such by a beloved character in a book (I cannot be objective about “The Lady of Shalott,” for the same reason: Anne loves it, therefore I do), or because of the work’s own merits.

(Another poem introduced to me by Vicky is Sir Thomas Brown’s “If Thou Could’st Empty All Thyself of Self,” also called “Indwelling,” which I have probably quoted a hundred times in my life. I am, far too often, “all replete with very me.”)

by Amy Lowell

I walk down the garden paths,
And all the daffodils
Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.
I walk down the patterned garden-paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
With my powdered hair and jewelled fan,
I too am a rare
Pattern. As I wander down
The garden paths.

My dress is richly figured,
And the train
Makes a pink and silver stain
On the gravel, and the thrift
Of the borders.
Just a plate of current fashion,
Tripping by in high-heeled, ribboned shoes.
Not a softness anywhere about me,
Only whalebone and brocade.
And I sink on a seat in the shade
Of a lime tree. For my passion
Wars against the stiff brocade.
The daffodils and squills
Flutter in the breeze
As they please.
And I weep;
For the lime-tree is in blossom
And one small flower has dropped upon my bosom.

And the plashing of waterdrops
In the marble fountain
Comes down the garden-paths.
The dripping never stops.
Underneath my stiffened gown
Is the softness of a woman bathing in a marble basin,
A basin in the midst of hedges grown
So thick, she cannot see her lover hiding,
But she guesses he is near,
And the sliding of the water
Seems the stroking of a dear
Hand upon her.
What is Summer in a fine brocaded gown!
I should like to see it lying in a heap upon the ground.
All the pink and silver crumpled up on the ground.

I would be the pink and silver as I ran along the paths,
And he would stumble after,
Bewildered by my laughter.
I should see the sun flashing from his sword-hilt and the buckles on his shoes.
I would choose
To lead him in a maze along the patterned paths,
A bright and laughing maze for my heavy-booted lover,
Till he caught me in the shade,
And the buttons of his waistcoat bruised my body as he clasped me,
Aching, melting, unafraid.
With the shadows of the leaves and the sundrops,
And the plopping of the waterdrops,
All about us in the open afternoon —
I am very like to swoon
With the weight of this brocade,
For the sun sifts through the shade.

Underneath the fallen blossom
In my bosom,
Is a letter I have hid.
It was brought to me this morning by a rider from the Duke.
“Madam, we regret to inform you that Lord Hartwell
Died in action Thursday se’nnight.”
As I read it in the white, morning sunlight,
The letters squirmed like snakes.
“Any answer, Madam,” said my footman.
“No,” I told him.
“See that the messenger takes some refreshment.
No, no answer.”
And I walked into the garden,
Up and down the patterned paths,
In my stiff, correct brocade.
The blue and yellow flowers stood up proudly in the sun,
Each one.
I stood upright too,
Held rigid to the pattern
By the stiffness of my gown.
Up and down I walked,
Up and down.

In a month he would have been my husband.
In a month, here, underneath this lime,
We would have broke the pattern;
He for me, and I for him,
He as Colonel, I as Lady,
On this shady seat.
He had a whim
That sunlight carried blessing.
And I answered, “It shall be as you have said.”
Now he is dead.

In Summer and in Winter I shall walk
Up and down
The patterned garden-paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
The squills and daffodils
Will give place to pillared roses, and to asters, and to snow.
I shall go
Up and down,
In my gown.
Gorgeously arrayed,
Boned and stayed.
And the softness of my body will be guarded from embrace
By each button, hook, and lace.
For the man who should loose me is dead,
Fighting with the Duke in Flanders,
In a pattern called a war.
Christ! What are patterns for?

—from Men, Women and Ghosts by Amy Lowell

I fear I shall not have time to round up the other Poetry Friday links this week…but I suspect Kelly will have the whole collection. I did see that Elizabeth has one up today. And the poems by young Agnes at the Cottage Garden ought certainly to count!

UPDATE: Liz has the links! And I love love love the poem she chose. Mrs. Bradstreet, I know exactly how you feel.

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2 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Liz B says:

    I read all the L’engle, of course, but for some reason that poem is brand new to me. It’s perfect.

  2. Jen Robinson says:

    Very cool! How can you not love a poem that Vicky Austin recited. I have to admit that I didn’t remember this one either, but I like it!