Reading and Recipes #4

A new post, a new dessert (vanilla cupcakes this time!) and a new story (audio or text!) published on Reading and Recipes ! Give it a look at for sweets and literary treats! 

But even as Reading and Recipes moves on to new subjects (don’t fear–the old stuff is there too, appropriately archived) I’d like to reflect a little further on my last topic–to whom do we write?

I was checking out some poetry from John Milton on a search directory, and the site summary of one of the responses read “So John Milton, one of the great poets of the English language, starts out one of his greatest poems by talking to flowers!” And I laughed and thought–yeah, so? The website was referring to Milton’s great pastoral elegy “Lycidas”–generally regarded as the finest example of that form ever written. The poem starts out: “Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere, I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude, and with forced fingers rude, shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.” Yes, he’s starting out this wonderful poem by addressing laurels and myrtles. Got a problem with that?

And John Keats speaks to a season in “To Autumn” and Yeats to a piece of carved stone in “Lapis Lazuli” and Theodore Roethke to a singing bird in “The Reply” and Robert Lowell to a dry fountain in “The Public Garden.” In all of these examples and countless others, these great writers engaged in this most human of expressions–poetry!–are addressing non-human subjects. Are they really?

I think the answer is yes, with an asterisk. Milton follows his opening with further conversation with non-human subjects, including mythological figures as well as another forty lines or so given over to a parade of flowers. And all the poets cited have other poems that address non-human subjects. (It’s interesting to contrast this with music lyrics–to which poetry is often, and rightly, compared–where the subject of address is almost always human.) I don’t think one can dismiss this practice as simply a poetic device or ruse. I think they are actually speaking to these non-human subjects–in order to find their own humanity. By speaking to, and giving voice to, a flower or a season, delving into a sculpture or a bird’s song, metaphorically diving into a dry fountain, these poets are rediscovering and affirming their, and our, human-ness. Milton is mourning the drowning of his classmate, Keats his failing health, Yeats his aging, Roethke his approaching death, Lowell a failed romance–all of these uniquely human emotions fed through, and remade by, these non-human subjects in a mysterious and wonderful alchemy.

But even if the immediate object of address is non-human, surely the underlying subject of address is human–and finally unknown to us. In each case, we might speculate on who in the poet’s life might be the face in his mind as he’s writing. (There’s been centuries of debate over whether Milton was truly bereaved over the drowning of his classmate, Edward King, or simply using the incident as a means of promoting and exploring his prodigious gifts–we’ll never know for sure.) But in the end, that face–the loved one being written to out of love (if you accept my assertion from the previous post)–will never be known. Unless of course the author steps forward (possible but unlikely for all of the above deceased poets) and tells us–and even then, is that statement a truth or simply another device used to explore our humanity: like talking to some plants at the start of the world’s greatest pastoral elegy.



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