Saturday, May 30, 2015

Edwin Arlington Robinson / The Sheaves

The Sheaves 

by Edwin Arlington Robinson

The American poet displays uncharacteristic romantic and metaphysical tendencies, while pondering a golden field of wheat and the passing of time

Carol Rumens
Monday 25 May 2015 12.27 BST

The Sheaves

Where long the shadows of the wind had rolled,
Green wheat was yielding to the change assigned;
And as by some vast magic undivined
The world was turning slowly into gold.
Like nothing that was ever bought or sold
It waited there, the body and the mind;
And with a mighty meaning of a kind
That tells the more the more it is not told.
So in a land where all days are not fair,
Fair days went on till on another day
A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay –
As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.

This week’s poem is one of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s later sonnets and is, in some ways, an atypical work. Even in his shorter pieces, Robinson favoured offbeat human characters, the “queer odd sticks of men”, as he described them (and women, too, of course). His wry vignettes and unheroic narratives were executed with the detachment and specificity of a certain kind of fiction writer – Chekhov might not be far off the comparative mark. Robinson’s forms were traditional, his subjects and approach were not.
The Sheaves at first glance, then, looks aberrant, a poem in which Robinson lets down his hair and indulges in suppressed romantic and metaphysical tendencies, entwining them in a final glorious union. Yet the concession to “some vast magic undivined” is moderated by a certain scrupulous realism, almost offstage but clearly audible as the sonnet unfolds. “As by some vast magic”, “As if a thousand girls” – a wariness of metaphor is marked at such points. The speaker who registers the wonderful phenomena also registers the connivance of his imagination.
To associate wheat with the colour “gold” is hardly original: one might find references to golden wheat in a million texts. Yet maybe we ought to respect Robinson for his modesty in picking a near-cliche that is, nonetheless, an acceptably accurate description. Never one to self-advertise through poetic figures, Robinson remains true to ordinary expression, when ordinary expression seems true. More importantly, “gold” has connotations useful to the poem’s ultimately realist framing. In the octet, it’s the “world” that is “turning slowly into gold” – a visual exaggeration that summons the King Midas myth if only to reject it. But by claiming this world as transcendental, “Like nothing that was ever bought and sold”, the poem reminds us of the very thing it resists – the stifling ubiquity of buying and selling.
The image of the glowing wheat gains further veracity from its presentation as a stage in a process. The plants are green in the first line. They have stayed unripened for perhaps a longer season than usual, but at last are “yielding” – a perfect verb that connects to the action of the wind – “to the change assigned”. There is no miracle hovering in the word “assigned”. The moment of vision, placed on pause, still unquestionably belongs to a natural life cycle.
The speaker knows all about this mutability, but tells us, “It waited there, the body and the mind”. In this strange personification of the world of gold, attention may have turned to the human players – the offstage labourers, farmers, dealers who might be said to form the mind that directs the land’s body. But perhaps, in view of the “mighty meaning” that follows, the poet discerns something like “mind” in the natural process itself. Line eight persists with the sense of mystery and unknowability. The deft chiasmus there seems to reach out to a kind of religious paradox. But it’s also close to an expression of Robinson’s own subtle narrative art – which often “tells the more the more it is not told”.
In the sestet’s opening lines, we can hear Robinson’s usual, low-key tone of voice as he alludes to “a land where all days are not fair”. That dry understatement precedes the report that, nevertheless, the “fair days went on” – and this documentary honesty somehow earns the epiphany: “A thousand golden sheaves were lying there, / Shining and still”. The further qualification “but not for long” – an echo with the “long”, so beautifully placed and hopefully charged – in line one prepares us for a later stage of the process. This time, Robinson allows himself the grandest of fanciful notions: the newly made sheaves might be sleeping, golden-haired girls who will rise of their own volition “and go away”. This is depicted so vividly, it almost happens in front of our eyes, but Robinson is merely imagining a scene yet to be realised. The poem holds on to its moment of magnificence inviolate.
Might Robinson verge towards sentimentality with his golden-haired girls? Despite the faint Shakespearean echo, I found myself going back to a lighter, sweeter sonnet in which golden hair and geography coincide, Charles Tennyson Turner’s Letty’s Globe. But the comparison isn’t very fair: Robinson isn’t pursuing charm, and his girls are not winsome children. They are not quite goddesses, although akin to spirits of the corn, but have bodies and minds that ground the poem’s metaphysics. The golden hair humanises and even vulgarises them, so, despite their slow-moving grandeur, they are emblems of the common tragedies. Lovers forsake one another. Youth dreams its time away and wakes to find years have imperceptibly passed. Lives end and leave no trace. What Robinson has almost said in the octet, that wheat is a commodity, to be bought and sold like any other, also lingers in the sestet, with its one-sentence symphony of fulfilment and transience.

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