Academic journal article Antipodes

Christopher Brennan's "What Gems Chill Glitter Yon": An Exegesis and Justification

Academic journal article Antipodes

Christopher Brennan's "What Gems Chill Glitter Yon": An Exegesis and Justification

Article excerpt

Poem 72 ("What gems chill glitter yon")' of Christopher Brennan's magnum opus Poems 1913, a livre composé of 105 individual poems, has drawn especially virulent responses from certain critics of his alleged impenetrability. Brennan's poetry admittedly can be challenging in the extreme. This can be due, in the cases of some poems, to his adherence to the Symboliste principle that the reader should receive no help at all from content adjunct to the bare images and symbols themselves. The name of Stéphane Mallarmé explicitly bookends The Forest of Night, the central and longest movement of Poems 1913, and his spirit infuses it; so, it is no surprise that Brennan should have employed some of his techniques. In other cases the challenge can be in grappling with sophisticated philosophical arguments; in others, in drawing aside the veil of privacy with which Brennan has occulted some intimate aspects of his life; and in yet others, in interpreting peculiarly re-engineered syntax, or in supplying words or phrases that he has elided in the interests of rhythm and concision.

In the case of poem 72, its difficulty inheres in its syntax, which is matched for obscurity by only a handful of others in Brennan's oeuvre, and in the necessity for correctly interpreting the symbolic significance of its key words and phrases. Yet it would be a mistake to suppose that it must remain finally intractable; or worse, that its difficulty may be a smokescreen for inanity. I intend in this paper to use the symbols, correctly interpreted, of poem 72 as keys to unlocking its mystery and to show that the poem is a powerful instance of a momentous theme of Poems 1913, the clear appreciation of which can help elucidate the larger work. Here it is:

What gems chill glitter yon, thrice dipt

in dusky Styx, or tears unshed

the spheres, in icy exile stript,

congeal in midnight's gaze of lead?

O thou crown'd caitiff, o'er our head

whereon thine agelong wounds have dript

the dark arms of thy passion spread

dwarf the vast vault to a hard crypt.

Round thine eternal hour of woe

the abyss urges, a rigid throe,

whose woeful dark sees nought emerge,

save these, their consolation vain

and frozen on the helpless verge,

lonely, ecstatic fires of pain.

A. R. Chisholm's approach to the first quatrain in his study of The Forest of Night typifies that of the kind of critic who at least acknowledges, albeit hesitantly, that it does indeed cohere: "The construction is, I think, 'What gems' chill glitter ... or tears unshed . . . congeal the spheres?"' (87).

However, Axel Clark's criticism of Brennan's obscurity attains its most trenchant depth in his judgment on this poem:

The basic problem for the reader with this [first] quatrain, as with so much of Brennan's verse, is the grammar. "Congeal" is obviously a verb, but are there any others? "glitter" ("gems" may be possessive)? "unshed"? If we cannot even analyse the verse grammatically, what can we comprehend of it? Was Brennan himself, perhaps, so hypnotized by the obscurity of what he wrote that he took it for profundity? Was he taking refuge behind obscurity as a means of concealing from his readers, and from himself, that he was basically unclear about what he had to say? or at least, that he had no idea of how to put it into words? (157)

It would hardly be possible, one would think, to make more damning accusations of a poet of repute. An artist has integrity or (s)he is nothing. Yet Clark's criticism seems restrained beside that of A. L. French:

It is where the poetry is worst [in poem 72] that the French influences are most pronounced [. . .] The English poem that Brennan actually wrote is, to quote Eliot on Swinburne, "effective because it appears to be a tremendous statement, like statements made in our dreams." But on waking up we start asking awkward questions. Is unshed a verb or a participial adjective? …

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