Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Summer's Escape

As imperceptibly as Grief
The Summer lapsed away—
Too imperceptible at last
To seem like Perfidy  -

A Quietness distilled
 As Twilight long begun,
 Or Nature spending with herself
 Sequestered Afternoon—
 The dusk drew earlier in—
 The Morning foreign shone—
 A courteous, yet harrowing Grace,
 As Guest, that would be gone—
 And thus, without a Wing
 Or service of a Keel
 Our Summer made her light escape
 Into the Beautiful.

Writing is in many ways a collaboration with time; a somewhat one-sided interaction, in fact, since whereas endless patience and deferral (and often attendant inaction) characterise the writer's side, time is always insistently chivvying the pen on. Thus Valery's exasperation: "A poem is not finished but abandoned".
   But reading is also contingent on time's ungraspable convolutions. I've never had so overpowering a sense of this magnificent Emily Dickinson poem as this week, when a palpable "downturn" in the weather - seeming to signal a lapsing away of summer sunlight and a premature return of autumnal bronze - coincided with the birthday of my mother, who passed away 18 months ago. The yoking of summer's end and the grief that re-emerged in me made a sort of astonishing epiphany of the poem in a way that lies at the core of why we - as the seasons ebb and flow - keep rereading and reinterpreting certain poems.
   This I think is what earlier critics meant when they called a poem "timeless"; but in fact (to paraphrase Roland Barthes) it's not that the poem means the same thing to thousands of different readers but that thousands of readers each find different things in the poem; and that, furthermore, each of those readers might find different things in the poem throughout the different periods of their lives.