123. (Henry King)

Henry King (1592-1669), Bishop of Chichester, lived through one of the most turbulent eras of British history, sustained friendships with leading figures in politics and letters, and wrote some of the finest elegies of his age. He is not much read nowadays, but his elegy for his wife, “An Exequy to His Matchless Never to be Forgotten Friend,” is often anthologized, and his other poems often reward serious reading. “The Surrender” is one of these:

My once dear love (hapless that I no more

Must call thee so!), the rich affection’s store

That fed our hopes lies now exhaust and spent,

Like sums of treasure unto bankrupts lent.

 

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 the 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.

Yet witness those clear vows which loves make!

Witness the caste desires the never brake

Into unruly hearts; witness that breast

Which in thy bosom anchored his whole rest,

‘Tis no default in us. I dare acquite

Thy maiden faith, thy purpose fair and white

As thy pure self. Cross planets did envy

Us to each other, and heaven did untie

Faster than vows could bind. Oh that the stars,

When lovers meet, should stand opposed in wars!

 

Since then some higher destinies command,

Let us not strive nor labour to withstand

What is past help. The longest date of grief

Can never yield a hope of our relief;

And though we waste ourselves in moist laments,

Tears may drown us, but not our discontents.

 

Fold back our arms, take home our fruitless loves,

That must new fortunes try, like turtle doves

Dislodged from their haunts. We must in tears

Unwind a love knit up in many years.

In this last kiss I here surrender thee

Back to thyself. Lo, thou again art free.

Thou in another, sad as that, resend

The truest heart that lover e’er did lend.

 

Now turn from each. So fare our severed hearts

As the divorced soul from her body parts.

It is a poem about the loss of love, about the weakness of lovers’ vows when set against the world and the ‘stars,’ and the departure of one lover from another. The seventeenth-century fashion for witty conceit would seem to be in abeyance here; metaphors and similes are launched, but they are not sustained on extended flights of fancy. Instead, it feels decorously plain; the poem aims to surprise neither by the choice of metaphor nor by the logic with which the metaphor is developed. That is not to say that it does not surprise. The moments of surprise come in small felicities of phrasing: “Must learn the hateful art, how to forget” (Elizabeth Bishop surely knew this poem); “As if not writ in faith, but words and dust”; “Unwind a love knit up in many years.”

But the poem’s wit is profound. T.S. Eliot, in a remark that has often perplexed, has approached the concept of wit, and the wit of Henry King’s contemporary Andrew Marvell in particular, by speculating that “it involves, probably, a recognition, implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kids of experience which are possible.” King’s “The Surrender” provides an excellent case study for understanding what Eliot means.

When we read lines like “take home our fruitless loves|that must new fortunes try” and “resend the truest heart that lover e’er did lend,” and when we read that “the rich affection’s store” “lies now exhaust and spent,” we are led to conclude that he and his lover have parted ways–and have done so amicably, his giving her a “last kiss.” But we may also wonder: did they part because their affections were exhausted or because the universe forced them apart, owing to circumstances (war and religion the most likely candidates) beyond their control? It would be strange for anyone to blame the universe for the former.

And most striking through the poem is the unwavering commitment the poet maintains to them, both of them, together, without casting blame anywhere at all, at her or at the universe: “Let us not strive nor labour to withstand/What is past help.” The poem is utterly resigned in its attitude. And this makes a sharp contrast with its syntax and rhetoric, which is forceful and unyielding both in its determination to move on, and in its determination to speak for and of both of them, even after their severance. Both impulses manifest in the poem’s penultimate declaration: “Thou in another, sad as that, resend| The truest heart that lover e’er did lend.” It might be a stoic witnessing, a present tense statement of fact; but it also might be an imperative, his still (paternalistically or sympathetically, or both) feeling that he can and should tell her what she must do, which is to let go.

And here, in the mystery of his attitude towards his situation, Eliot’s definition of wit is relevant: for we are impelled, though not compelled, to suspect that the woman of the poem, beloved for so many years, is dead, and that “The Surrender,” like several of King’s other finest poems, is an elegy. The poem’s syntax and rhetoric of will and agency, “Fold back our arms, take back our fruitless arms,” speaking of what they must do, and commanding it, is made, in the context of death, to feel belated, hollow, and impotent: commands that cannot command, but that will not surrender (and the irony of the poem’s title is evident) the reality that has passed. The poem is, after all, an extended conceit: the conceit that her death is in fact a divorce, and one impelled by fate as if in their old age, King and his wife might be compared to star-crossed lovers, young hearts torn apart by wayward faiths or political allegiances, or else by a benign and generously mutual recognition that they have lost the love that they had.

(And true to Eliot’s characterization of wit, we might notice here that the poem suggests divorce may be a process of mutual mourning, without blame or recrimination, owing, like death, to forces beyond either partner).

The word “divorced” appears, of course, in the last line, where it refers to the divorce of body and soul. It is the old conceit, found often in Donne: their union was as natural and necessary as that of body and soul; their love elevated them both to a platonic unity of spirit, surpassing corporeal love (their minds, we know, were neither unruly, and she was chaste). But it more pointedly takes hold of the terrible departure of her soul from her body, her death–while providing the reader with the one word, “divorce,” that would make sense of the possibility that she still lives, that their sacred love had persisted for “many years” before finally, by its nature, coming to an end.

But here some history is necessary: if that is the fiction that King is setting before us, then he is entertaining as a form of consolation an act (“divorce”) approved of by extremists and radicals beyond the institutional fold of his Anglican church. It would be an astonishing openness of mind.

Whether or not the poem is as open as all that, it insists that we not decide on easy closure it is neither the case that we must settle on one interpretation or another, or that it does not matter which we settle on. It matters that the possibility of the one or the other be recognized whichever we hold in mind at any given time as we read. So when King writes

In this last kiss I here surrender thee

Back to thyself. Lo, thou again art free.

We should think both of her death and her independence (“till death do us part”–beyond that, the marriage dissolves?)–and we should find in the intersection his calm magnanimity, his love, and his remarkable faith in the solidity and self-sufficiency of her self.

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