Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill

Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill

Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill

Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill

Synopsis

In Last Looks, Last Books, the eminent critic Helen Vendler examines the ways in which five great modern American poets, writing their final books, try to find a style that does justice to life and death alike. With traditional religious consolations no longer available to them, these poets must invent new ways to express the crisis of death, as well as the paradoxical coexistence of a declining body and an undiminished consciousness. In The Rock, Wallace Stevens writes simultaneous narratives of winter and spring; in Ariel, Sylvia Plath sustains melodrama in cool formality; and in Day by Day, Robert Lowell subtracts from plenitude. In Geography III, Elizabeth Bishop is both caught and freed, while James Merrill, in A Scattering of Salts, creates a series of self-portraits as he dies, representing himself by such things as a Christmas tree, human tissue on a laboratory slide, and the evening/morning star. The solution for one poet will not serve for another; each must invent a bridge from an old style to a new one. Casting a last look at life as they contemplate death, these modern writers enrich the resources of lyric poetry.

Excerpt

There is a custom in Ireland called “taking the last look.” When you find yourself bedridden, with death approaching, you rouse yourself with effort and, for the last time, make the rounds of your territory, North, East, South, West, as you contemplate the places and things that have constituted your life. After this last task, you can return to your bed and die. W B. Yeats recalls in letters how his friend Lady Gregory, dying of breast cancer, performed her version of the last look. Although for months she had remained upstairs in her bedroom, three days before she died she arose from her chair—she had refused to take to her bed—and painfully descended the stairs, making a final circuit of the downstairs rooms before returning upstairs and finally allowing herself to lie down. And Yeats himself, a few years later, took his last look in a sonnet called “Meru,” which cast a final glance over all his cultural territory: “Egypt and Greece, good-bye, and good-bye, Rome!”

In many lyrics, poets have taken, if not a last look, a very late look at the interface at which death meets life, and my topic is the strange binocular style they must invent to render the reality contemplated in that last look. The poet, still alive but aware of the imminence of death, wishes to enact that deeply shadowed but still vividly alert moment; but how can the manner of a poem do justice to both the looming presence of death and the unabated vitality of spirit? Although death is a frequent theme in European literature, any response to it used to be for-

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.