Tag Archives: Spenser

Poems cut short by death

I recently read this Telegraph article about a study of the effects of poetry on the brain, which quoted the last quatrain of “She dwelt among the untrodden ways,” one of Wordsworth’s Lucy poems.

Volunteers brains have been scanned while reading four lines by Wordsworth: “She lived unknown and few could know, when Lucy ceased to be. But she is in her grave and oh, the difference to me.”

As I read this, I was expecting “the difference to me” to be the subject of a full clause, and it was a bit jarring when the verse suddenly stopped short of the anticipated predicate, forcing me to go back and reparse it as an exclamatory fragment. How appropriate, I thought, what a perfect marriage of form and meaning. What a powerful way of evoking the suddenness of death, the sense of an expected dénouement canceled without notice, the abrupt transition to nothingness which the mind misses at first and must circle back on to process fully.

I quote a quote of Wordsworth rather than the original because I find that the effect is stronger when the lines are embedded in an ordinary paragraph. Reading the original, one can see at a glance, in advance, that “The difference to me!” is the end, and there is no expectation of more to come. Also, Wordsworth’s exclamation point, replaced by the Telegraph‘s Julie Henry with a more discreet period, subtly undermines the effect.


Attempting to duplicate Wordsworth’s effect in the simplest way possible, I came up with this:

Roses are red,
And blue the sky.
Lucy is dead.

Going beyond the vague expectation of more to come, this little suicide-note of a poem should (if it works as I expect) generate a ghost-line of an ending, whispered subaudibly in the reader’s mind, unwritten because if written it would be a lie. The conventions of the roses-are-red genre leaves no doubt as to what the omitted ending should be. The strong expectation of some specific ending makes it unlike Wordsworth’s poem, and also unlike death. It is also structurally incomplete as a poem, leaving the second line hanging rhymeless, whereas Wordsworth’s is, once you realize it, structurally complete as it stands.


The following poem uses something like the reverse of Wordsworth’s technique, but the purpose is the same — to draw the reader’s attention to the contrasting possibilities of the poem’s continuing and its being cut short.

I worry so for dear old Bill,
So long abed, so very ill.
For if old Bill does not get well,
Then he will die and go too soon
To tell the tale he came to tell
And sing out his appointed tune.

If this works as expected, the mental echoes of the unwritten word hell should leave the last two lines in a limbo of ghostly half-existence; the reader reads them but knows that in a parallel universe the poem ended without them.


A larger-scale example of a poem which ends abruptly with death, leaving the reader expecting more and not immediately assimilating the fact that the poem is over, is the Aeneid. It’s not clear whether or not Virgil intended to end the poem that way. We know that he left it unfinished when he died, demanding on his deathbed that it be destroyed, but opinions differ as to whether he had just wanted to do a bit of editing or had planned to double the length of the poem, bringing the number of books up to the Homeric 24. But whether intentionally or not, the poem ends as abruptly as the life of Turnus — or as that of Virgil himself.


The unfinished Faerie Queene was also cut off at a very appropriate point by the death of its author.

When I bethinke me on that speech whyleare,
Of Mutability, and well it way:
Me seemes, that though she all vnworthy were
Of Heav’ns Rule; yet very sooth to say,
In all things else she beares the greatest sway.
Which makes me loath this state of life so tickle,
And loue of things so vaine to cast away;
Whose flowring pride, so fading and so fickle,
Short Time shall soon cut down with his consuming sickle.

Then gin I thinke on that which Nature sayd,
Of that same time when no more Change shall be,
But stedfast rest of all things firmely stayd
Vpon the pillours of Eternity,
That is contrayr to Mutabilitie:
For, all that moueth, doth in Change delight:
But thence-forth all shall rest eternally
With Him that is the God of Sabbaoth hight:
O that great Sabbaoth God, graunt me that Sabaoths sight.

And with that the poem became fixed forever, no more to change, and the poet went on to his eternal rest.

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Idealizing the real, realizing the ideal

Just some notes from recent reading.

From James Joyce’s Stephen Hero:

The artist who could disentangle the subtle soul of the image from its mesh of defining circumstances most exactly and ‘re-embody’ it in artistic circumstances chosen as the most exact for it in its new office, he was the supreme artist.

From Ernest de Selincourt’s introduction to Spenser: Poetical Works:

The idealist, starting from the actual world of which he has experience, distils from it what seems to be its essence, and creates another world of spiritual and moral conceptions which becomes as real for him as that from which he created it. This other world is not peopled with dead abstractions. The prosaic analyst may ‘murder to dissect’: the artist does not merely extract and isolate, he recreates. To him ideas depend for their reality upon the vividness with which they kindle his imagination. His mind has, as it were, a centre in two worlds, and it may work with equal freedom upon material drawn from either. That imaginative vision, which gives to the world of fact a higher reality by expressing the soul that informs it, gives to the world of ideas a sensuous incarnation which utters its voice in song.

In the allegory of the Faerie Queene these two worlds meet and fuse. But the fusion is not complete, and the children of each world bear upon their forms traces of their origin. Hence, two types of allegory may often be distinguished. At times the poet starts from the idea, and the process of incarnation follows. Human qualities are then abstracted into the rarefied atmosphere of thought and presented to his imagination for conscious artistic handling. The result is somewhat formal personification, cast in the traditional mould of mediaeval allegory, and executed in the manner of a pageant or a Morality. At its worst it is mechanical in structure and somewhat arbitrary in its symbolism; but it is seldom unrelieved by vivid detail that gives it an independent life, and at its best it turns an abstract conception with triumphant success into concrete living form. The Masque of Cupid (III. 12) embraces the quaintly emblematic figures of Dissemblance twisting her two clewes of silk, and Suspect peeping through his lattis, and along with them the haunting picture of Fear, ‘all armed from top to toe,’ yet taking fright even at the clash and the glitter of his own coat of mail. Of this kind is much of the incidental allegory in the Faerie Queene, and Spenser has used to the full the opportunities it offers to his rich power over colour and form, and his genius for imaginative description. But when his mind is turned rather upon the warm realities of life itself, the process is different. Human qualities, justice, temperance, and the rest, are still realized in their essence, but they are seen to be present in living human beings. Hence he does not present an abstract conception by a human symbol, but accepts under his idealizing vision a human being as the symbol of his conception. Britomart is not the abstract conception of Chastity, but a real woman who expresses in her personality and her conduct, along with many other powers and some human weakness, the essential quality of chastity. Una may be Truth, but she is far more. She is a woman with sufficient individuality to be ‘pre-eminently dear’ to that poet who of all others delighted to find his happiness ‘in this world, which is the world of all of us.’ And such in the main is the structural allegory of the Faerie Queene. The characters, indeed, are seldom presented with the subtle and complex detail of a realist. Spenser’s whole artistic method is that of idealization, and of emphasis on the essential. But for all that he bases it on life. Sometimes, indeed, it is impossible to determine whether the ideal conception or the character which expresses it was his initial inspiration, whether in Sir Calidore he thought first of Courtesy or of Sir Philip Sidney, whether he drew Timias from Ralegh or found himself in his delineation of reckless honour falling back unconsciously upon his knowledge of his daring and impetuous friend. Allegory of this kind can easily be distinguished from the more obvious personification, however vivid; it has all the character of myth, which, apart from its symbolism, has complete artistic life.

Thus Spenser idealizes real persons, and he breathes life into abstractions. He sees Hope not merely as a symbolic figure leaning upon an anchor, but as a living woman, whose face bears signs of the anguish hidden at her heart. He sees Lord Grey not simply as a sagacious and just-minded man, but as the faery knight of Justice. By his side he sets Talus, the iron man, that most powerful embodiment of Justice in the abstract. In Sir Artegal and his remorseless squire the different types of allegory are seen at once in their boldest contrast and in perfect harmony. . . . The real meets the ideal in faery land, and its kinship is acknowledged.

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