One year, a while ago, for a Christmas gift, I asked for what was on the wishlist of many: an edition of Bishop Henry King’s poems. I am not sure what it cost, but I received an out of print edition–with the pages mostly uncut. And having learned from previous experience how-not-to-cut-pages, but never learning how to do so, I refrained and the book yielded but a few cursory readings, through the open-envelope ends of the tops of the unsevered pages. If not for the best, it was maybe not as much of a missed opportunity as it might seem (and I still have the book, somewhere, reluctant as I am to throw away an unopened present): upon rereading, King’s anthology poems are perfect as anthology poems; more could be less; the virtues of the poems met with at curated events marred by an acquaintance with the full body of work holding court in its own home.
T.S. Eliot, praising the most-anthologized of the poems, “An Exequy,” says that Poe was an admirer–and maybe Poe liked all of King. But finding that Poe was an admirer, and being told by Eliot that King can strike the same note of terror as Poe, does not at all move my understanding of how King’s poems move me. Maybe because, as I returned to it, it wasn’t in “An Exequy” that I found the lines that I recognized with satisfaction:
We that did nothing study but the way To love each other–with which thoughts the day Rose with delight to us, and with them set– Must learn that hateful art, how to forget. We that did nothing wish that heav’n could give Beyond ourselves, nor did desire to live Beyond that wish, all these now cancel must, As if not writ in faith, but words and dust.
These lines are from “The Surrender,” also on the death of his wife, and friend. The poem opens “My once dear love (hapless that I no more | Must call thee so!)…”
I have no idea as to why I find the lines powerful–not that I am searching for a reason in my history, or psychology, but in the lines themselves–but their power might be sharpened if I bring them into comparison with some lines by Donne, which, for some reason, they recall to my mind:
Oft a flood Have we two wept, and so Drowned the whole world, us two; oft did we grow To be two chaoses, when we did show Care to ought else; and often absences Withdrew our souls, and made us carcases.
Those lines are from “A Nocturnall upon S. Lucy’s Day” and that poem is a sentimental favorite, whatever its merits; perhaps that explains a lot of it. But I think the resemblance is real, also. Donne’s next stanza begins:
But I am by her death (which word wrongs her) Of the first nothing, the elixir grown;
The death that wrongs Donne’s lost love–either because her soul persists or, more likely, because her absence from his life seems a death to him–provokes a bitterness to the world unlike King’s; and Donne’s memory of their tempestuous love is opposed to the love that King describes. But the two passages are impressive in their proud–even prideful–sweep, Donne’s uncoiling from the stanza’s preceding lines, and King’s striding over the endings of lines, rhyming couplets crossing the clamoring (insistent on their pleasure in one another) clause. The qualities that distinguish Donne’s lines are perhaps more obvious for being more extreme: the hyperbole, the boasting (“us two,” a reminder of the number), the insistence that so much happened, “oft…oft…” and then, catching the sound, “ought else,” and again “often”–and all expressed with coolly subdued conceit, as if here too proud even to indulge in the usual wit. King’s inflation of the past is as audacious as Donne’s, more so perhaps–“did nothing wish that heav’n could give| Beyond ourselves”–and resembles it also in its resentment at the world, not, as in Donne’s poem, for harboring other lovers, but for insisting on a separation, even though there is still, for King, a “we” to speak of. Neither the surge of Donne’s lines nor that of King’s could work to start or end a poem (though the lines come near to the start of King’s, four lines in)–it’s a position of falsely, patently falsely, exaggerated dramatization, not of the self, but of the past, imbuing it with a glory that nothing could match–go ahead and try to defy either voice as it speaks these lines. An entire poem in such a voice would be unbearable; the tone would not grate, it would disgust. But the contrast it makes with, for King, the stoic release from worldly cares, and for Donne, the vitriolic wit towards the cares of others, and the self-lacerating pity for himself, is leavening. It is genuinely pathetic because it breaks with the elegiac moan and murmur of absence and emptiness, the I to the Thou that can never hear or be in its presence, and instead it defiantly revels in deluded self-aggrandizement, where the self is not only the poet, but the poet and beloved, standing united against the world, one last time, as they must have, or as the poet would like to imagine they have, many times before.
Not an answer to why King’s poem moves, but maybe a better sense of its movement.
For King’s poem