The Villanelle and Conceptual Synthesis: a poem with commentary

The Breeze Beyond the Glass

Though we should never meet, dispel my fear –
Imagine that your shores were also mine;
Regard these words as proof that I was here.

Feel the breeze beyond the glass frontier;
Perceive the real word, not the written sign,
Though we should never meet. Dispel my fear:

See my face, though stories in the ear
Are all that reach you – taste the watered wine:
Regard these words as proof that I was here.

The ocean’s rush may wash us far; though near,
And nearer still, and nearest thoughts combine –
Though we should never meet. Dispel my fear.

No circumnavigation’s coil shall steer
The circles of your eyes to catch my line:
Regard these words as proof that I was here.

I see your face, a crescent moon, appear
Anew; above a world that is not mine.
Though we should never meet, dispel my fear;
Regard these words as proof that I was here.

I would not want it thought that this poem was written purely for analysis, or simply as a vehicle for a generalised commentary. It can, however, serve as an example for the purposes of demonstrating the way that a certain kind of poetic thought operates, and, in particular, how the form of the villanelle has a specific dialectical propensity. Nonetheless, it is true to say that the writing of this poem was kindled by a spark of recognition that there is a way of having a conversation with oneself through poetry, in order to ignite a thought ‘in a single flame’.

I do not know if this is the kind of thinking that encourages writers of villanelles to turn to the form, but even in arguably the most famous example – Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ – the refrains appear to approach a kind of synthesis. The first refrain is an acknowledgement of the circumstances, while the second is an appeal, however hopeless, to attempt their obviation. Even in the earliest example of the villanelle, in the form we have come to know it, the refrains are similarly opposed: ‘I have lost my turtledove / […] I will go and find my love’. This is the poem by Jean Passerat (1534-1602) that did not, historically, establish a tradition such as that of the sonnet – or even of terza rima, to which it is in some sense related. The writing of villanelles in the strict 19-line pattern – rather than as simply any kind of rustic song that the name would otherwise have suggested (in Medieval or Early Modern works) – is a 19th-century phenomenon that looked to Passerat’s false paradigm. Theodore de Banville (1823-1891) is responsible for this in a significant way, as discussed by Amanda French and others. It is not of little consequence that aspects of the form connect with the flowering of German idealism around 1800 (Kant, Hegel and Schelling). Hegelian dialectic (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) is reflected in the trajectory of the villanelle, even though the structure admittedly appeared rather earlier in the late 16th Century.

The proximity of the two refrains at the end of a villanelle is always a drawing together, a formal embrace – but always, too, an abortive resolution. Poetry would have to end if it succeeded, after all.

The first line of my poem ‘The Breeze Beyond the Glass’ is a self-contained contradiction. The fear referred to in the second clause is the anxiety of expectation that is made all the more acute in the light of an acknowledged lack of fulfilment expressed at the very beginning of the poem, innate to all interaction and perhaps even to conscious existence more broadly:

Though we should never meet, dispel my fear –

The choice of the word dispel is very deliberate. In fact, it is intended as a pun – on ‘de-spell’: as if the anxiety alluded to is a kind of enchantment against which there arises an urgent need to be magically cleansed of the terror. As if, in fact, only a form of magic is surely capable of such an action; the terror of awareness being, in essence, indelible and inextricable from a rational perspective. At the heart of the imagined enchantment is the nature of the contradiction that the line attempts to contain.

Such a rupture as is inherent in the first line is carried through into the slowly unfolding argument of the poem, as enacted by the move into the second line, and a more elaborate use of imagery expressing the dilemma of individuality and otherness. A river is an ideal symbol (in every respect), since we are all inevitably and forever on the opposite bank from anyone else – the interposing flow of the river becomes simply an objective emblem of the passing of time, the perception of consciousness as a succession of events, and the continuing ‘currents’ of life. The denial of these conclusions is distilled by the second refrain of the poem – at first, here, separated from its companion line that opens the villanelle. Despite the eternal divide shown in recent philosophical and sociological formulations of subjectivity, the request is simply to acknowledge a ghost of immediacy that words give the illusion of having conjured up. Words can invade the mind space of another; they seem like footprints, too quickly washed away by the fluctuating water levels of a river, which may have been made by a visitor to our shore who has only just left:

Imagine that your shores were also mine;
Regard these words as proof that I was here.

And so the interior pattern of the villanelle commences. The to-ing and fro-ing of the two refrains may set up a kind of dialogue in which, in this instance, the abstract contemplation of language gives way to a succession of images that focus on flow, or water, and ultimately an inwardly coiling transience.

Through a window it is only possible to observe the action of the breeze on a susceptible environment of which one is not a part; we can observe, but are not affected. We cannot therefore participate in that world of the Other. Our senses become as much a boundary as a point of access for our perception: they become very much a frontier, it seems.

Feel the breeze beyond the glass frontier;

Line 5 proposes a solution to the paradox of the opening words: the ‘written sign’ is just a cenotaph that confirms ‘we should never meet’ – a contingency consigned to the grave before any breeze or breath has arisen. The ‘real word’, in contrast, becomes the curative gesture in the face of fear; the incantation that may break the spell, but which, even if uttered, will never be heard – the fear may not in the end be dispelled.

Perceiving – or hearing – the ‘real world’ becomes, a moment later (line 7), translated from the audible to the visible. The complex facial unit is the marker of individuality, and must be ‘seen to be believed’. We believe what we are told verbally if we trust the voice that tells us; if, in fact, it resonates with our own. The word is an echo, the face a reflection. The ‘watered wine’ – a concession to the diluted nature of shared experience – mutates the sense of sight, synaesthetically, into the sense of taste. (The biblical miracle of water becoming wine is not so far behind in the stanza’s language of symbols.) Such compounded ranking of senses falls short of the tactile – since one still has to think of the word only as evidence of presence: a presence that has passed (or is ‘past’).

Perceive the real word, not the written sign,
Though we should never meet. Dispel my fear:

See my face, though stories in the ear
Are all that reach you – taste the watered wine:
Regard these words as proof that I was here.

The passing of immediate experience, out of reach behind us, is emphasised by the analogy of ocean tides. The power of thought, however, can exercise the authority of conceptual synthesis in a way that shows how a progression through time as conceived by formal abstraction (a tool, a tomb, a town – even a villanelle) can heat and hammer the alloy of antithetical notions. In the landscape of the mind, therefore, any features or figures might coincide. This is the concept that is arrived at in line 11 – after the midway point of the poem, edging towards that part of it that could collide with its Golden Mean:

The ocean’s rush may wash us far; though near,
And nearer still, and nearest thoughts combine –

The penultimate stanza attempts to show that the spirals of ever-nearing thoughts are fundamentally earthbound: a journey that takes you as far as you can go will just take you home again.

No circumnavigation’s coil shall steer
The circles of your eyes to catch my line:

There is ultimately perhaps a stoical resignation in the realisation that an idea circling round us, which keeps coming round again and again, may in fact be somewhere else. The only reconciliation remaining unaddressed is whether the crescent moon is waxing or waning:

No circumnavigation’s coil shall steer
The circles of your eyes to catch my line:
Regard these words as proof that I was here.

I see your face, a crescent moon, appear
Anew; above a world that is not mine.
Though we should never meet, dispel my fear;
Regard these words as proof that I was here.

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About davidlewistonsharpe
Composer, poet, harpsichordist and artist.

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