While looking up a poem for Shelley the other day in Brooks and Warren’s Understanding Poetry, I coincidentally ran into an Ezra Pound poem that I had just finished reading. The comments in the book reminded me of what is paradoxically one of Pounds greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses. In short, the authors pointed out that there was a direct connection between Pound’s “Envoi” and Edmund Waller’s “Go Lovely Rose,” a connection specifically pointed out in the poem for those that were aware that “Go, Lovely Rose” was set to music by Henry Lawes, a 17th century musician and friend of Milton.
Here’s Pound’s poem:
Go, dumb-born book,
Tell her that sang me once that song of Lawes:
Hadst thou but song
As thou hast subjects known,
Then were there cause in thee that should condone
Even my faults that heavy upon me lie,
And build her glories their longevity.
Tell her that sheds
Such treasure in the air,
Recking naught else but that her graces give
Life to the moment,
I would bid them live
As roses might, in magic amber laid,
Red overwrought with orange and all made
One substance and one color
Tell her that goes
With song upon her lips
But sings not out the song, nor knows
The maker of it, some other mouth,
May be as fair as hers,
Might, in new ages, gain her worshippers,
When our two dusts with Waller’s shall be laid,
Siftings on siftings in oblivion,
Till change hath broken down
All things save Beauty alone.
and here’s Waller’s poem:
GO, LOVELY ROSE
Edmund Waller [1606-1687]
Go, lovely Rose,
Tell her that wastes her time and me,
That now she knows,
When I resemble her to thee,
How sweet and fair she seems to be.
Tell her that’s young,
And shuns to have her graces spied,
That hadst thou sprung
In deserts where no men abide,
Thou must have uncommended died.
Small is the worth
Of beauty from the light retir’d:
Bid her come forth,
Suffer herself to be desir’d,
And not blush so to be admir’d.
Then die, that she
The common fate of all things rare
May read in thee,
How small a part of time they share,
That are so wondrous sweet and fair.
The connection suggested by Brooks and Warren simultaneously enlightened me to the meaning of the poem and irritated the hell out of me.
Although I had originally been puzzled by the reference in the second line, I did not have enough background to make the connection, particularly the connection to the poem “Go, Lovely Rose.”; It’s obviously an “aha” moment when a poet’s audience makes a connection like this. For at least one moment, the reader can feel a direct connection to the past; we share our humanity with others. More importantly, Pound seems to use the past to leap frog to new insights, contrasting the transience of mere mortal beauty to the transcendence of artistic beauty.
When Pound says, “I would bid them live/ As roses might, in magic amber laid,/ Red overwrought with orange and all made/ One substance and one color/ Braving time” he suggests that the beauty of the rose, and of a woman’s loveliness, can only become eternal when captured and transmitted by art. Art, in this case poetry, is the “magic amber” that both preserves and transmits the original beauty. A carpe diem poem is transmuted into a statement of how art provides a means of transcending time. The two poems, when seen together, do reflect on each other, both poems mean more when taken together. And that’s certainly a good thing.
My complaint about Pound’s poem, though, is that parts of it seem nearly incomprehensible without realizing that the poem is linked to Waller’s poem and it’s conversion to a song by Henry Lawes. The poem would seem to appeal to an artistic literati, not to the average reader who would be unaware of the poem’s heritage. Unfortunately, this poem merely foreshadows Pound’s increasing tendency to imbed literary allusions into his poetry, to the point where the poems become to most readers, as Louis Untermeyer states in Modern American Poetry, “a masterpiece of obfuscation, a jig saw puzzle with the important pieces missing.”