Thursday, November 18, 2021

Poem of the week / An Autumn Sunset by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton
by Edward Harrison May

Poem of the week

An Autumn Sunset by Edith Wharton

Best known for her fiction, the novelist was also an occasionally glorious poet, as this reflection on a fiery sky shows 

Carol Rumens
Mon 1 Sep 2014 11.16 BST

There's a faint Keatsian flavour to this week's poem, An Autumn Sunset, by the multi-talented American novelist Edith Wharton. "Some ancient land forlorn" echoes the Ode to a Nightingale's "faery lands forlorn", and the rich colouration and sturdy construction might seem Keatsian, too. But Wharton's vision, technique and range of vocabulary are clearly her own. Overall, the structure is more classically Ode-like than Keats's studies in the form, and the effect suggests a "back to basics" invigoration. It was first published in 1894, in Scribner's Magazine, and perhaps some spirit of the fin de siècle looms over it, too.

Wharton's variation of two-, three- and five-stress lines is melodically effective, and underlined by a fine ear for sonorities. The opening lines of her two stanzas chime alliteratively, while rhythmically setting up contrasted moods. "Leagured in fire," with a dactyl's heavy first stress, heralds the martial advance in the first stanza and "Lagooned in gold," gently iambic, introduces the more elegiac tone of the second. Adjectives cluster thickly, but there's no unplanned-for stasis. In the first stanza, the poet's camera pans over the sky, relishing the paradoxical movement of the storm-clouds "halting higher" (a distant but audible rhyme with "fire"), massing their forces only to be penned in. There's a telling pause when the long opening sentence itself "stands at bay" in line eight, and a further long sentence begins with a uniquely memorable personification, "Mid-zenith hangs the fascinated day … " That word choice, "fascinated", illustrates the novelist's gift for highlighting, by a word or phrase, a character's innermost response. The day, later a "wan valkyrie", is the character in this instance, and, like the speaker, like the reader, she is intently watching the elemental battle. The use of Norse rather than Greek mythology heightens this elemental quality. It's the valkyrie who, like a primitive Statue of Liberty, shines her torch in the penultimate line. But this creature's grimmer purpose is to "search the faces of the dead". Wharton's polysyllabic words – "fascinated", "wind-lustrated", "ensanguined" – extend the reach of her valkyrie's-eye view: they're almost visual effects.

In the gentler lighting of the next stanza, the "jetty promontories" seem to be symbols of mourning. Perhaps they resemble architectural "jetties" but they are also "jetty" in an allusion to jet, the black beads worn in Wharton's day to express grief. The ensuing Keatsian echo is lessened by the rhyme of "ancient land forlorn" with "uncomforted of morn". (Keats, of course, repeated "forlorn" in his following stanza, and who could follow that stroke of genius?) Perhaps Wharton is also remembering Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach when she writes: "The melancholy unconsoling fold / Of all things that go utterly to death … " But the flow of those two iambic pentameters could hardly be bettered, and "unconsoling fold" is an inspired, ambiguous pairing. As in stanza one, movement and stillness interact; note for instance the contrast between Time's ferrying and the "sailless sea" – a sea suggesting the terrible "painted ocean" of Coleridge's stranded Ancient Mariner.

The eight-line opening sentence parallels that of stanza one: this time, though, it will form a question, as will all the ensuing sentences, and the stanza's anguished rhetoric is allowed an extra seven lines. The caesura in line 12, after "miserable marriage", is an eloquent pause, alerting us to what might be personal in the metaphor. Imagination can't be cancelled, though: there are still "the sea's golden barrier and the black / Close-crouching promontories" and the speaker remains enticingly visible as "a shadow's shade". The plural lends the abstract nouns, "shames" and "glories", a private resonance, undisclosed and paining; then, in a new narrative twist, the speaker is revealed as one of a couple ("we") and the second person specifically addressed ("the coming of your feet".). Reunion with this person (husband? lover?) in the afterlife is proffered imaginatively as it's refuted. But framed by a question ("Nay, shall not / All things be there forgot … ") the refutation leaves a tiny opening. Despite – or because of – the violent and visceral imagery of dissolution ("So purged of all remembrance and sucked back / Into the primal void … "), it seems that post-mortem consciousness may be the real threat, and oblivion the more desirable alternative.

This ambivalence is just one sinew in the poem's intelligence. Wharton's most significant work was as a novelist, but she was clearly a gifted poet who had read widely and thoughtfully, and understood that a raid or two on the past is no shame, and may lead to moments of original glory.

An Autumn Sunset

Leaguered in fire
The wild black promontories of the coast extend
Their savage silhouettes;
The sun in universal carnage sets,
And, halting higher,
The motionless storm-clouds mass their sullen threats,
Like an advancing mob in sword-points penned,
That, balked, yet stands at bay.
Mid-zenith hangs the fascinated day
In wind-lustrated hollows crystalline,
A wan valkyrie whose wide pinions shine
Across the ensanguined ruins of the fray,
And in her hand swings high o'erhead,
Above the waste of war,
The silver torch-light of the evening star
Wherewith to search the faces of the dead.

Lagooned in gold,
Seem not those jetty promontories rather
The outposts of some ancient land forlorn,
Uncomforted of morn,
Where old oblivions gather,
The melancholy unconsoling fold
Of all things that go utterly to death
And mix no more, no more
With life's perpetually awakening breath?
Shall Time not ferry me to such a shore,
Over such sailless seas,
To walk with hope's slain importunities
In miserable marriage? Nay, shall not
All things be there forgot,
Save the sea's golden barrier and the black
Close-crouching promontories?
Dead to all shames, forgotten of all glories,
Shall I not wander there, a shadow's shade,
A spectre self-destroyed,
So purged of all remembrance and sucked back
Into the primal void,
That should we on that shore phantasmal meet
I should not know the coming of your feet?


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