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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‘Revelation’ and Rilke’s Tenth Elegy

The heavenly entities that constitute a key recurring motif in Rilke’s Duino Elegies are conjured, and amplified, as a somehow very tangible absence. The amplification of an angelic ‘presence’ is a crescendo that leads to the expansive imagery of the Tenth Elegy: a worldly poem that nonetheless reaches for the stars. In fact, stellar constellations are an important ‘retrospective’ element in this last of the sequence. The poet describes a partial zodiac of figures that supposedly appears in the sky and which comprises a series of symbols drawn from across the sequence of elegies. The youth, the central protagonist of the poem, is shown them by the personification of Die Klage (‘Lament’, in Martyn Crucefix’s translation) near the climax of the journey that the poem traces. It is as if Rilke is responding to the idea of a revealed vision in the manner of the author of the biblical Revelation. We seem, however, to be in a strangely opposed realm from the context where the messages of the seven churches in Asia are dictated, from Chapter 2 of Saint John’s mysterious and harrowing text.

The realm in which Rilke’s elegies are constituted is characterised by psychical entropy; not for the poet’s Weltanschauung is the post-millennial vignette sketched at the conclusion of the biblical apocalypse. In fact, Rilke’s universe seems to be coterminous with fairly recent models of the ‘real’ one, formulated by cosmologists – a trillion-year decline and decay from the spark of the primeval atom. The vast, open silence of the future, ancient, universe becomes an estuary to the entire process of the cosmos, and finally an infinitely deep ocean into which literally all history inevitably flows. Rilke, again, intimates a similar notion. The notes to Martyn Crucefix’s translation of the Duino Elegies suggest that we remain in ignorance of the true source of joy with which the Tenth Elegy’s protagonist becomes acquainted. Certainly its name appears to be withheld. At the base of a precipice, the true source of joy ‘flows’, shining in the light of the moon. Life, therefore, seems to be defined as the Heracleitian flux that often generates the discomfort of change; nowhere more eloquently illustrated than by the fear implied in Revelation, and the hope invested in its time-less vision of heaven.

Rilke does not name the river, because in some sense the nomenclature is obvious: ‘the river of the water of life’, crystal clear – but not as the Bible envisions those waters. For the poet, it is the spring rain, falling – not the rising springs of a renewed Edenic, ‘post-apocalyptic’, paradise – that rings true. The joy of falling towards the next state is the promise at the end of his elegy cycle. Is it at that stage, too, that we might hear an echo of the cry uttered at the beginning of the First Elegy? The tree on an incline (the first ‘place’ described or imagined in the sequence, near the beginning of the first poem) is the budding tree at whose roots we may believe ourselves to have arrived in the last lines of the Tenth Elegy. Perhaps that tree in the first poem is the Hazel tree, where the catkins droop and fall in parallel with the slope where it grows, that makes a promise to eternal cosmic winter in the eight-line ballad that closes Rilke’s funeral song.

Perhaps the change that Revelation seems to fear, and that Rilke embraces, is the change to which Rowan Williams refers when he discusses Rilke in his Hulsean Sermon (‘Seeing the Question: Revelation and Self-Knowledge’, 25 January 2009). Change as a result of the realisation of an objective-subjective reversal – the outside looking in, or, in Dr Williams’s words, ‘you thought you were doing and you find you are being done to’. The universe of the Duino Elegies is one that knows us, not that we come to know: in the diminuendo of the universal song, we are being sung, and can no longer regard ourselves being in the flow of praising the angels.

from ‘Odes – The Architecture of Thought’

This is an extract from the extended essay that forms an introduction to the forthcoming book The Scroll of Lost Songs – a set of Pindaric and Sapphic odes by David Lewiston Sharpe. Some of the information in this section of the essay relies on a number of secondary sources, among them Matthew Santirocco‘s book Unity and Design in Horace’s Odes, and Martin Heidegger’s 1942 lectures on Friedrich Hölderlin’s poem ‘Der Ister’.

“The compilation of poems in books, or sets of scrolls, was not a concept that earlier Greeks would have recognised. Initially, such an exercise seems to have been driven by editorial and scholarly concerns. We find ourselves, in fact, in the halls of the great Library of Alexandria for the beginnings of the book of verse.

Poems were classified by meter, form or purpose – collections to which were added commentaries by the scholars at Alexandria. In one sense, my aim in The Scroll of Lost Songs is to offer a set of poems organised according to their form and metre; but the arrangement becomes imbued automatically with meaning as a result of all the associations which the shape and rhythm of the poems possess. At the back of my mind a quiet question is voiced as to which of the ten halls of learning at Alexandria may have spared a space on its shelves for the double-sided roll of which my ‘book’ would have comprised. (This question assumes my efforts would have been worthy of a place.) Accounts of how the Library was organised seem to suggest that there may have been a room for history, a room for geography, a room for lyric poetry, and so on; a room alone seems to have been set aside for ‘editions’ of, and commentaries on, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Before such exhaustive assemblages and study, poets just wrote poems – with no thought of putting them together as collections in the way later civilisation conceives of them. But then, books were not books as such in any case. Aristotle’s surviving works show how written scrolls often served effectively as lecture notes: writing that in those days was read aloud.

The first three books of odes by Horace were from a later time, when the concerns of collecting works together by means of taxonomy were giving way to thematic and, broadly speaking, artistic, concerns as guiding principles of construction. By then, the works of Pindar and Sappho had been put together as books and offered themselves as monolithic totems of artistic principle.

After an unsuccessful first performance, Sophocles’ play Antigone was revised by its author in antiquity – but its written revision was never performed, although it is the version which came to be copied and re-copied as it made its way to us across the centuries. The play becomes something dependent on a culture of reading rather than performance – it is impossible to know whether poems in ‘collections’ were ever read out or ‘performed’ from their scrolls. A drama for several actors and chorus existing primarily as a written work invites the idea that its literary worth was prized early on, even while its dramatic status was demoted as a result of a still-born initiation. It is, of course, a play that has rewarded 2,500 years of study – a timeless, vital story that is more than worth performing, in which Antigone defies convention, established by her uncle the tyrant Kreon, to wish for and carry out the burial of her brother after a battle. Kreon has denied him this fundamental honour, and a tragedy takes shape which ends in Antigone’s suicide. Along the way, a sequence of six choral odes offer the usual commentary one expects from a Greek chorus – but they are far from usual examples. These six odes, and one in particular, are among the most important in the history of literature.

The ‘Ode on Man’, as it has become known, comprises the typical sequence of strophes and antistrophes one comes to expect from Greek odes (without epodes in this case). If odes are by their nature intended to vaunt the worth of their object, and as a result hold up a mirror to an aspect of ourselves, then the ‘Ode on Man’ is the great archetype.

Man’s perceived dominion over the world around him is the thread of the poem’s theme – the animal kingdom, the birds of the air, the soil, even the harnessing of the sea-winds are seen to possess powers over which human beings have command. The ode journeys from the ability to seize the world by means of a global grasp, as if the Earth were the tiller of a boat, via the teaching of himself speech and the possessing of thought ‘swift as the winds’ elsewhere controlled (a theme introduced at the half-way point of the poem), to the contemplation of cities in the closing lines. Humanity has become, in total, the votive subject of poetry: an ode par excellence. Heidegger’s preoccupation with the connections that he saw this ode as having with the hymns of Hölderlin is significant; he raises questions in the early part of his lecture series on ‘Der Ister’ concerning what the poet’s writing of ‘hymns’ meant as such. The question can remain unanswered, since the important point is that the genealogy which leads back from poetry of this period to the earliest origin of Western literature shows us a commonality undergoing ceaseless regeneration and re-invention.

Heidegger himself makes much of a word in the first line of Sophocles ‘Ode on Man’, used to define ‘man’; the word is deinon, meaning at once ‘full of wonder and terror’ – one might use the word ‘awe’ to translate it, gathering darker associations to leaven the wonder. In the translation presented by Heidegger of Sophocles’s Antigone ode, the word deinon in Greek is translated as ‘unheimlich’ – literally ‘un-homely’, although this is most conventionally translated in English as ‘uncanny’. Man is identified in these terms as an ‘uncanny’ creature; but Heidegger is concerned with investigating how Hölderlin’s ‘Der Ister’ looks at time and space, ‘locality’ and ‘journeying’, and how rivers enshrine the historicising principle of human experience of existence, in which the (shall we say) transience inherent in the entity of its flow goes some way to show how we can be ‘homeless at home’,[1] as the restless soul of the contemporaneous English poet John Clare was to have characterised his life, and perhaps ours too.

Other odes since Sophocles – Hölderlin’s included – might be seen as mere footnotes, points of clarification and magnification, to this ‘fear-full’ apotheosis of humanity – which is an elevation not without warning.”


[1] John Clare, ‘Journey out of Essex’, Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. M. & R. Williams (London: Methuen, 1986), 183. See also: Hugh Haughton and Adam Phillips, Chapter 1 ‘Introduction: relocating John Clare’, in: Haughton, Phillips, Summerfield (eds), John Clare in Context (Cambridge: CUP, 1994), 1-27.

First Thoughts

You may, perhaps, expect the salutatory statement concerning a poet to be expressed in verse. General communication is best conveyed in a less elevated style it seems; and so the poetry will be reserved for the poems. And in any case, the poetry does not appear first in the intentions of establishing this ’emporium’. But then, nor does the music: the term ‘poetico-musical’ could also be applied just as well as ‘musico-poetic’. The name David Lewiston Sharpe should, ultimately, bring both music and poetry, poetry and music, to mind with equal association. More thoughts concerning what this music means, and on what this poetry meditates, will follow for the inquisitive reader… Read on.