Sunday, November 11, 2007


The Sunday Washington Post Book World has long had a poet's corner. Currently occupied by Robert Pinsky, it's sometimes the best thing the section has to offer. Last week, Pinsky offered up two by Reed Whittemore, one of which, "The Mind," is lyrical about the quiet dignity that can accompany old age. Here are excerpts.
The mind wears many hats . . .
It knows not what it knows deep.
. . . one kind of mind whose vision
Is steady as the sphinx's, and whose mold
Is rock against all sea and salt and season.
Such a mind, soul, have the old.
. . .
I know a mind, soul, whose time now leads it
Shoreward to silence.
Not long ago it chattered like half a school,
And bade the desert dance.
On the Sunday before Hallowe'en, Pinsky gave us Robert Bridges' "Low Barometer," pointing out its scary imagry of old terrors loosed when gale-blown clouds cross the moon and ghosts "creep from their caves to life again."

Now I read a letter about this in the Book World section taking Pinsky to task for limiting his comment to the All Hallows Eve connotations. Here's the letter. It's nicely full of restrained jubilation at one-upping the Post's chosen guide to things poetic.
Robert Pinsky's choice of "Low Barometer" by Robert Bridges (Poet's Choice, Book World, Oct. 28) brought a very evocative poem to our attention. Pinsky commented on Bridges's use of archaic language, but did not mention that such a word as "unhouseld" strongly summons up Shakespeare, as in the ghost of Hamlet's father complaining that he was sent to his death "unhouseld, disappointed, unaneld." There are many other Shakespearean references in the poem. "On such a night" is a direct quote from "The Merchant of Venice," and the lines "the pack'd/Pollution and remorse of time" have the swing and cadence of "What see'st thou else In the dark backward and abysm of Time?" from "The Tempest." And the entire fifth stanza rephrases the lines in "Julius Caesar" in which the fearful citizens exchange their dire news about the supernatural events seen in Rome after the death of Caesar.

Altogether Bridges's fine poem is wonderfully resonant of Shakespeare's words, and Shakespeare's frequent use of ghosts and supernatural occurrences. I can only marvel that Pinsky did not comment further on this marvelous entwining.

Arlington, Va.
Christopher Ricks, admirer of allusion and all the tricks of the poetic trade, mentions this not. I don't doubt Judson's findings all the same, nor doubt that the witty Ricks would enjoy the letter she wrote.

It seems sometimes that culture advances more from competition than cooperation. Intellectuals have always taken pleasure in one-upping each other. There's frequently more than a cheap thrill in the conflict itself. Even when there's no clear outcome, positions are often sharped by the process of debate, and besting an adversary can sometimes bring tangible rewards. This goes back at least to medieval times when academic advancement and currying favor with a patron might hinge on taking on an intellectual adversary and besting him in some way (as mathematicians would challenge each other to solve complex problems going back to antiquity).

Mary Beard sums it up in a question: 'Isn't intellectual life about having an argument?'

And here's the poem:
Low Barometer, by Robert Bridges

The south-wind strengthens to a gale,
Across the moon the clouds fly fast,
The house is smitten as with a flail,
The chimney shudders to the blast.

On such a night, when Air has loosed
Its guardian grasp on blood and brain,
Old terrors then of god or ghost
Creep from their caves to life again;

And Reason kens he herits in
A haunted house. Tenants unknown
Assert their squalid lease of sin
With earlier title than his own.

Unbodied presences, the packed
Pollution and remorse of Time,
Slipped from oblivion re-enact
The horrors of unhousehold crime.

Some men would quell the thing with prayer
Whose sightless footsteps pad the floor,
Whose fearful trespass mounts the stair
Or burst the locked forbidden door.

Some have seen corpses long interred
Escape from hallowing control,
Pale charnel forms - nay even have heard
The shrilling of a troubled soul,

That wanders till the dawn has crossed
The dolorous dark, or Earth has wound
Closer her storm-spread cloak, and thrust
The baleful phantoms underground.

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