Louise Bogan has long been one of my favorite poets, and it's a shame (actually, a travesty) that she isn't better known than she is today. But
on the brighter side, we have published some of her very best poems, including
the hard-to-find "After the Persian," followed by an essay by Jeffrey Woodward on Bogan's poem "The Mark." Woodward's essay
appears immediately below the poem. — Michael R. Burch, editor, The HyperTexts
After the Persian
I do not wish to know
The depths of your terrible jungle:
From what nest your leopard leaps
Or what sterile lianas are at once your serpents' disguise
I am the dweller on the temperate threshold,
The strip of corn and vine,
Where all is translucence (the light!)
Liquidity, and the sound of water.
Here the days pass under shade
And the nights have the waxing and the waning moon.
Here the moths take flight at evening;
Here at morning the dove whistles and the pigeons coo.
Here, as night comes on, the fireflies wink and snap
Close to the cool ground,
Shining in a profusion
Celestial or marine.
Here it is never wholly dark but always wholly green,
And the day stains with what seems to be more than the
What may be more than my flesh.
I have wept with the spring storm;
Burned with the brutal summer.
Now, hearing the wind and the twanging bow-strings,
I know what winter brings.
The hunt sweeps out upon the plain
And the garden darkens.
They will bring the trophies home
To bleed and perish
Beside the trellis and the lattices,
Beside the fountain, still flinging diamond water,
Beside the pool
(Which is eight-sided, like my heart).
All has been translated into treasure:
Weightless as amber,
Translucent as the currant on the branch,
Dark as the rose's thorn.
Where is the shimmer of evil?
This is the shell's iridescence
And the wild bird's wing.
Ignorant, I took up my burden in the wilderness.
Wise with great wisdom, I shall lay it down upon
There was so much to love, I could not love it all;
I could not love it enough.
Some things I overlooked, and some I could not find.
Let the crystal clasp them
When you drink your wine, in autumn.
Song For The Last Act
Now that I have your face by heart, I look
Less at its features than its darkening frame
Where quince and melon, yellow as young flame,
Lie with quilled dahlias and the shepherd's crook.
Beyond, a garden. There, in insolent ease
The lead and marble figures watch the show
Of yet another summer loath to go
Although the scythes hang in the apple trees.
Now that I have your face by heart, I look.
Now that I have your voice by heart, I read
In the black chords upon a dulling page
Music that is not meant for music's cage,
Whose emblems mix with words that shake and bleed.
The staves are shuttled over with a stark
Unprinted silence. In a double dream
I must spell out the storm, the running stream.
The beat's too swift. The notes shift in the dark.
Now that I have your voice by heart, I read.
Now that I have your heart by heart, I see
The wharves with their great ships and architraves;
The rigging and the cargo and the slaves
On a strange beach under a broken sky.
O not departure, but a voyage done!
The bales stand on the stone; the anchor weeps
Its red rust downward, and the long vine creeps
Beside the salt herb, in the lengthening sun.
Now that I have your heart by heart, I see.
Up from the bronze, I saw
Water without a flaw
Rush to its rest in air,
Reach to its rest, and fall.
Bronze of the blackest shade,
An element man-made,
Shaping upright the bare
Clear gouts of water in air.
O, as with arm and hammer,
Still it is good to strive
To beat out the image whole,
To echo the shout and stammer
When full-gushed waters, alive,
Strike on the fountain's bowl
After the air of summer.
When beauty breaks and falls asunder
I feel no grief for it, but wonder.
When love, like a frail shell, lies broken,
I keep no chip of it for token.
I never had a man for friend
Who did not know that love must end.
I never had a girl for lover
Who could discern when love was over.
What the wise doubt, the fool believes
Who is it, then, that love deceives?
Where should he seek, to go away
That shadow will not point him down?
The spear of dark in the strong day
Beyond the upright body thrown,
Marking no epoch but its own.
Loosed only when, at noon and night,
The body is the shadow's prison.
The pivot swings into the light;
The center left, the shadow risen
To range out into time's long treason.
Stand pinned to sight, while now, unbidden,
The apple loosens, not at call,
Falls to the field, and lies there hidden,
Another and another fall
And lie there hidden, in spite of all
The diagram of whirling shade,
The visible, that thinks to spin
Forever webs that time has made
Though momently time wears them thin
And all at length are gathered in.
On Louise Bogan’s The Mark
by Jeffrey Woodward
Certain chief ornaments of the history of our poetry are figures whose
very great achievements in the art were neither appreciated in their lifetimes
nor popularly received posthumously. One remembers, for example, Henry Vaughn
or Frederick Goddard Tuckerman whose excellences have escaped the broader
audience their work deserves but whose respective geniuses find persistent
champions among many of the most distinguished poets and critics of our century.
Louise Bogan (1897-1970), critic for The New Yorker, winner of
the Bollingen Prize and member of the American Academy for Arts and Letters, is
just such a figure. For fifty years or so, Bogan patiently and quietly
perfected her craft, writing little, but writing well. Her final collection,
The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923-1968, presents just in excess of one hundred
poems. Few of the collected titles fail, a high percentage lay claim to the
status of exceptional minor poems and a handful, perhaps a dozen, are arguably
among the most profound and moving short poems of our time. Furthermore, her
very best efforts, such as Medusa, Exhortation, Henceforth from
the Mind, Simple Autumnal and The Alchemist, beg comparison
with the greatest poems of any period and do not suffer thereby. Bogan guarded
her private life jealously, lacked the drive for self-promotion of a Whitman,
and scorned the bardic posturing necessary to the creation of a Romantic myth,
preferring to place her trust in fine, hard composition. Poets as diverse in
talent and outlook as W. H. Auden, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke
and Yvor Winters rewarded her labor with large claims for the great import of
her art. That success aside, however, one discovers, especially among younger
students of poetry, discouragingly little or no acquaintance with her work.
Such neglect alone, perhaps, would justify the modest effort of this paper to
bring Bogan to the attention of a wider public. Another motive, however, is
available in the poem chosen for discussion, for The Mark, despite the
passing praise it has received from sympathetic critics, has inspired only
cursory comment. Little effort has been expended in an attempt to acquire a
greater understanding of the poem and of its place in the Bogan canon. Consequently,
this poem is rarely anthologized and not well-known, even to the
The Mark, first published in The New Republic of January
9, 1929, appeared during the period of the Anglo-American revival of the
Metaphysical poets; its few commentators have associated the poem with that
style. It lacks the outlandish Metaphysical conceit, a hallmark of that style,
however, and while the tone is contemplative and restrained, the elliptical
syntax, the stark and thrifty phrasing that rejects every ornament, and the
emblematic landscape join to promote a lively tension whose general effect shows
greater affinity with the Renaissance plain style of Wyatt, Gascoigne and
Greville. The question of probable influence is secondary, nevertheless.
The Mark achieves a certain quality that is decidedly modern and nowhere
evident in a Greville or a Donne. It is this quality which situates the poem
wholly in the modern period that I will attempt to define below.
While a paraphrase and a poem are not one, and while the emotive, rhythmic
and symbolic dimensions of a poem may resist precise paraphrase (assuming, that
is, a poem that contains a minimum amount of paraphraseable content), such rough
“translation” into prose, where possible, is an instrument of great utility to
understanding. In the interest of such economy, I beg the reader’s indulgence
and offer the explication that follows.
The rhetorical question that opens The Mark poses an anonymous
seeker — anonymous, perhaps, as that
abstraction, the universal man writ large —
who is confronted by his shadow, that phenomenal replica of his proportions and
motions. The shadow’s definition as a “spear of dark” accents the impending, if
subdued, violence of the poem, a quality implicit in the statement that the
shadow directs the man “down.” That the spear measures “no epoch but its own”
may seem, at first, strange, if one recalls the apparent indivisibility of body
and shadow. But Bogan’s assertion is clarified by what follows.
The second quintet informs the reader that the man is liberated from
his shadow at noon and night — noon,
that sharp division in the day’s progress (or in man’s mortal journey) when the
sun’s ascent (or man’s maturation) attains its highest and ideal mark and when,
of course, the decline toward night (or oblivion) commences. Thus, the shadow’s
lengthening, from noon to night, signals the “treason” of time and of the
seeker’s mortality, whether he stand firm or “go away.”
Bogan’s gentleman, having stepped into the light, is discovered
“pinned to sight” in the third quintet, a captive of the spectacle of an apple
tree and its slant and dark duplicate, of fleshy apples and their shadowy
doubles falling in concert to the earth where both body and shadow are obscured,
and falling, it should be noted, without sanction of the human will (“unbidden,”
“not at call”). The scene is acted out “in spite of” understanding —
with spite, one surmises, for the intellect that organizes a “diagram of
whirling shade” of what it perceives. Though the “web that time has made” must
be taken to refer to the shadowy image of the branches, though Bogan is
describing, literally, the progress of the shadows from noon to dusk, the bitter
and unflinching observation of the poet is that “momently” (i.e., slowly and
inexorably), not only the shadows, but the very bodies that cast them as well,
are worn “thin” until both body and shadow are “gathered” into night and
oblivion. This precise and factual description of a common natural phenomenon,
abetted by Bogan’s quiet understatement, establishes the emblematic character of
her landscape and lends the poem, in its gradual wedding of body and shadow, the
very lucid terror of its vision. This much may be offered as tentative
I would like to return, briefly, to the apple tree, for it possesses a
significance in-and-of-itself. Any tree, it would seem, might have served
Bogan’s purpose, but she chose the apple. The apple, in Occidental poetry and
art, is an ancient and venerable symbol of death, due to its popular association
with the temptation of Eve and the Edenic Tree of Knowledge. Beyond the broader
theme of human frailty in temporal terms, Bogan introduces a secondary theme or
sub-plot, if you will, on the limits of human perception and knowledge, for
wherever our gentleman “seeks,” not only the apple of knowledge but even its
rather Platonic shadow must fall to obscurity.
I alluded earlier to a certain elusive quality in The Mark that
distinguished Bogan’s poem from her possible Renaissance models, a distinctively
modern quality. For while Bogan employs language with a concern for exactitude
and a scorn of ornament worthy of a Jonson or Greville, she also achieves
something more. Her controlled association of images, where the progression of
sensory perceptions bears a relationship to the conceptual content that is
roughly analogous to the relations of vehicle and tenor in metaphor, is a
relatively new technique. This method of composition has been christened
post-symbolist by Yvor Winters who first identified and defined its origins and
development (see the fifth chapter of his critical volume, Forms of Discovery,
Chicago: Swallow Press, 1967). The treatment of sensory data in this style
differs from its treatment by the Imagists who held sway in Bogan’s youth, for
the phanopoeia of the Imagists (to echo Pound) is commonly
impressionistic vignette offered for its own sake or is a discrete series of
enigmatic epiphanies for the illumination of the initiate. Bogan’s practice is
infinitely richer in promise and achievement, for she employs images as crisp
and sharp as any found in H. D., Pound or Williams, while possessing an orderly
intellectual content and the terms of a public speech that are absent, in large
part, from the writings of her more esteemed contemporaries.
Certain metrical features of The Mark reward study. Bogan’s
quintets, rhymed ABABB, adopt an iambic tetrameter norm, a measure with an
annoying tendency in English to admit pauses in a medial position with deadening
frequency. Bogan avoids the risk of monotony by varying the position of the
pause or, in verses where a medial pause is present, by varying her rhythm from
the iambic norm by foot-substitution
/ / / /
The spear of dark │ in the strong day
or by a judicious placement of long and heavy syllables in unaccented positions
/ / /
Loosed only when, │ at noon and night ….
/ / / /
time wears them thin
Also, the relation of sentence structure to verse and stanza is varied subtly, as
a close reading will show. Throughout the final two quintets, the repetition of
plosive stops (the /t/, /d/, /p/, and /b/ consonants of “hidden,” “unbidden,”
“pinned,” “time,” “diagram,” “stand,” etc.), of nasals (the /n/ and /m/
consonants of many words in the same passage), and of the high front vowel /i/
(the “i” of “pinned” and “hidden”) serves to underscore the dull thud of the
apples against the earth.
In closing, it may be deemed worthy of comment to observe that Bogan’s
quintets retain their integrity as stanzas by strict closure on a period in
every case, save one, where the third and fourth quintets are enjambed to hasten
the rhythm and where, quite typical of Bogan’s exceptional ear, the one
extrametrical syllable of the entire poem
And lie there hidden,
│ in spite of all
is admitted just before mid-verse, as though to allow poet and reader to gather
the breath and pause, prior to the final articulation of Bogan’s unique vision.