The Word “Dear” on the Upper Verge

Landor reading Homer in Greek for one last time, in his mid-eighties, sketched by his friend William Wetmore Story

Landor reading Homer in Greek for one last time, in his mid-eighties, sketched by his friend William Wetmore Story

 

We who are getting older— everyone is, but the term accumulates force with time— have particular reasons to consider Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864). Note those dates. A memorable sketch of him shows him reading Homer, which he decided, since he had lived so long, to read, in the original Greek, one more time.

Landor kept writing into his nineties. In his late seventies he published a book called Last Fruit Off an Old Tree expecting it to be his last. Five years later he published another book, titled Dry Sticks. As those titles suggest, he could be funny about the subject. One poem begins, “The leaves are falling; so am I.”

Landor’s poem “Memory” was teasing in my own memory when, in this Forum a couple of months ago, I introduced Elise Partridge’s poem “Chemo Side Effects: Memory.” Landor was deeply literary, a writer when that word’s meaning included someone who made marks on paper, by hand. That action of applying ink to paper inspires the memorable, heartbreaking moment in his poem. When he sets out to write a letter to a friend, the word “Dear” “hangs on the upper verge,” waiting for the unremembered name. The conventional word of the salutation (in email, largely supplanted by “Hi”) takes on a great charge of feeling: the attachment to the person and the passion to write, momentarily survive the ability to remember the name.

For some contemporary readers may Landor’s language may seem merely old-fashioned, with its lofty, Latinate “vernal” and “autumnal” for spring and fall; personally, I am all the more moved by the formal, somewhat learned language: the implicitly classically trained mind expressing its attachment to the seasons, as to friends, to writing, to the one beloved he remembers best. For that great love of his life, Jane Swift, he invented the name “Ianthe” in his many poems to and about her.

It’s impressive to me that Landor can put that love-ideal in the context of other relationships, including his ability to write, or to remember. Early friendships and more recent ones, he says, are equally vulnerable to oblivion. For me, this nineteenth-century poem by someone who felt old so long ago, gets sharper as the language itself— along with us all— keeps getting older, and changing.

MEMORY

The mother of the Muses, we are taught,
Is Memory: she has left me; they remain,
And shake my shoulder, urging me to sing
About the summer days, my loves of old.
Alas! alas! is all I can reply.
Memory has left with me that name alone,
Harmonious name, which other bards may sing,
But her bright image in my darkest hour
Comes back, in vain comes back, called or uncalled.
Forgotten are the names of visitors
Ready to press my hand but yesterday;
Forgotten are the names of earlier friends
Whose genial converse and glad countenance
Are fresh as ever to mine ear and eye;
To these, when I have written, and besought
Remembrance of me, the word Dear alone
Hangs on the upper verge, and waits in vain.
A blessing wert thou, O oblivion,
If thy stream carried only weeds away,
But vernal and autumnal flowers alike
It hurries down to wither on the strand.

LISTEN TO ROBERT PINSKY READ WALTER SAVAGE LANDOR’S “MEMORY.”

139 thoughts on “The Word “Dear” on the Upper Verge

  1. Pingback: “CLASSIC POEM” DISCUSSIONS RETURN TO SLATE.com | Robert Pinsky Poetry Forum

  2. Another useful, bright, engaging discussion– again, I have learned some new ways of looking at a work I know and love. Thank you all. In about six weeks, I’ll be trying to come up with another interesting poem and topic. (The somewhat longer interval because I will be concentrating on my MOOC, “The Art of Poetry.” (http://tinyurl.com/mhfhqnk)

  3. I’ve just been reminded that the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar is called “The Day of Remembrance.” It seems that I’ve been flooded in the last few days with observations and anecdotes about memory and forgetting, some in connection with the holiday but others just popping up, like the story on the front page of the New York Times about the base runner who was so thrilled with his shmooze at second with Derek Jeter that he forgot how many outs there were. And then I picked up a New Yorker from last April 21, open to a poem by W. S. Merwin entitled “Forgetting Clouds”:

    The quiet morning has a few cloud friends
    that are gone when I look for them again
    in this one summer to which I have come
    after everything that I remember
    what can I call it before it has gone
    it does not hear me and does not know me
    it passes without seeing I am here
    it is only me going my own way
    there is no one else who can forget it

    I thought I remembered seeing Merwin’s name in this discussion. Yes! Tracked it down to JCOlsthoorn’s post of a lovely short poem addressed to James Wright, and alicjarose’s comment. In this newer poem, forgetfulness seems to be a defining human characteristic (“Man is the animal who forgets”).. or perhaps an individuating one, inverting a commonplace to make identity dependent on forgetting: “Each of us has a unique set of forgottens.” (We have a noun “memories” but not a corresponding noun for things forgotten, apparently.) Or even: “I forget, therefore I am.” Here, there are no social bonds to be weakened by forgetting, just a solitary remembering / forgetting consciousness in an indifferent universe. (Though the clouds at first present as “friends.”) Such a contrast with the Landor poem.

    • Alice, wonderful that you bring together so many strands: the Merwin poem, the meaning of Yom Kippur, the whole subject of forgetting. This is a good example of how discussion can create.

      • Actually, it’s Rosh HaShanah that’s the solemn “Day of Remembrance” (Yom ha-Zikaron). Not to get tangled in details, counternarratives, and counterintuitions, Rosh HaShanah is the day of judgment (Yom ha-Din…yes, it has several names) and Yom Kippur is the day of reconciliation (I thought it was cheesy the first time I saw “atonement” parsed as “at-one-ment,” but, come to find out, that’s really the source). So I’ve learned to view the New Year as the most solemn day, though Yom Kippur may be “the holiest.”

    • But I think too in the W.S. Merwin, there is a certain amount of love that he expresses to a not-indifferent but maybe neutral universe. Indifference is too strong; implies a human lack of caring, which I don’t personally feel in the context of this large & beautiful creation.

  4. Thank you for the beautiful poem/post Mr. Pinsky. I enjoyed the discussion, too. I picture Mr. Landor at his desk ready to write a letter, but to who? A love, Memory, a dear old friend, a new friend? For me, his poem doesn’t fill in the blank, the person remains a beautiful mystery.

    • Yes, the missing name of a living friend and the missing person who is now just a “harmonious name” (and a “bright image”)– two objects of frustrated longing, both mysterious in their different ways.

  5. It’s taken me this long, and this many re-readings, to recognize the name he doesn’t write is Memory, the muse herself..
    Now I meditate on the poem, I’m reminded of a college girlfriend who dumped me. Now all these years later I want to write to her – though while Landor only alludes to his old flames name without addressing, I remember hers;;
    Dear Peggy,
    Why did you leave me?

    And yes, Christina J- , you’re right. Although they did just play the Rolling Stones ‘Dead Flowers’ on the radio..

    • It makes sense, Ken, to think the name as that of Memnosyne, the mother of the Muses. For me, it is more like you “old flame,” one whose “bright image” returns to his mind so often– like the “Ianthe,” Sophia Jane Swift, to whom he addressed many poems.

      • I see that and appreciate the view. Though I’m not as familiar with the muses (I’m not one to read Homer in Greek) I’ve read others in this forum who have commented.so.
        Yet still I hang on the line
        ‘… when I have written, and besought
        Remembrance of me, the word…’
        which to me evokes not so much loving whom he remembers, as him wanting to be remembered.by his love.
        In addition, why has he no addressee now when he has addressed so many to her before?
        I wonder if, in early drafts, he didn’t catch himself in a paradox. If he thought to address his letter to the muse, then how could he write of his senility (her abandonment) and yet spell out her name?
        Remembering and writing ‘Memnosyne’ hardly underscores how bereft he is, now that she (memory) has left him.

        Likely there’s other commentary, Landor’s letters or such, that point to his intention. And I grant you would know them better than I, being introduced to him just recently.

        Sometimes, to me, a good poem is like a coat rack, which offers many hooks on which to hang our coats. .
        Yet I still prefer to wear my own coat.

  6. Not to close down this lively discussion, but I hereby promise to return in about a month, I hope with something different from Landor, but as interesting. For those interested in my related, MOOC project, there are a couple of video snippets in Sneak Preview (I hope this is not an unseemly plug) at the Poetry Foundation’s site: http://tinyurl.com/nbp3xeu.

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