What Does It Mean?

IMG_8378
Peter and Navarana Freuchen (1915)

Sonnet

by Edward Arlington Robinson

Oh for a poet—for a beacon bright
To rift this changless glimmer of dead gray;
To spirit back the Muses, long astray,
And flush Parnassus with a newer light;
To put these little sonnet-men to flight
Who fashion, in a shrewd mechanic way,
Songs without souls, that flicker for a day,
To vanish in irrevocable night.
What does it mean, this barren age of ours?
Here are the men, the women, and the flowers,
The seasons, and the sunset, as before.
What does it mean? Shall there not one arise
To wrench one banner from the western skies,
And mark it with his name forevermore?


I have written about the poet Edward Arlington Robinson in an earlier blog post; https://fourteenlines.blog/2018/10/18/trust-busting-not-exactly-at-its-word/ so I won’t recount his history again.   Robinson, though largely forgotten, is interesting to revisit as a poet that was writing during the last great pandemic the 1918 Spanish Flu.  I like his image of little sonnet-men hanging banners to mark the names forevermore of those lost in “this barren age of ours?”

One of the most poignant and simple narratives about the Spanish flu pandemic and about how quickly a life, a marriage and family can be changed by illness during this period was written by an unlikely source – Peter Freuchen, a renowned Danish explorer who alongside Knud Rasmussen completed many first ascents on Greenland and the polar Arctic in Canada.  Freuchen’s wife Navarana, with which he had two children, went from the peak of health to death, in a week in 1919. Navarana was an an accomplished explorer alongside her husband Freuchen on many journey’s.  She was his partner at his home and trading post in Thule, injecting his life with happiness and joy in a harsh environment. The story of their love affair and partnership is told poignantly in his book Arctic Adventure, along with the prolonged depression that followed her death.  You  have to read the book to understand the level of physical fitness that both of them had to tackle the adventures they did together, traveling by dog sled with no support, in the open and how shocking her death is in the book. Freuchen is so stricken with grief even many years later recounting it in his memoir, he writes very little about her death, words inadequate.  It is inconceivable as you read her life story in her husband’s words, that a woman as lovely, athletic and healthy can be stricken with an illness and die in so short a time.  This kind of death is like an accident, a shock wave to loved one’s senses, just like the shock wave being felt around the world again today by too many.

I worry what our neighborhoods and communities are going to be like when this is all done, when we come out of our homes and some level of normalcy is restored.   I fear that after social distancing will come a great social scattering.  I fear small businesses and shop keepers, restaurants and their staff we have taken for granted as part of the fabric of our lives, will suddenly be out of business, and disappear, scattered out of our lives.  Many others with unpaid bills will be forced to relocate, start again.  There will be too many houses on the hill that are shuddered where once we waved to friends and neighbors.   Let us hope for brighter days ahead and to rally around our families, friends and communities.


The House On The Hill

by Edwin Arlington Robinson

They are all gone away,
The House is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.

Through broken walls and gray
The winds blow bleak and shrill:
They are all gone away.

Nor is there one to-day
To speak them good or ill:
There is nothing more to say.

Why is it then we stray
Around the sunken sill?
They are all gone away,

And our poor fancy-play
For them is wasted skill:
There is nothing more to say.

There is ruin and decay
In the House on the Hill:
They are all gone away,
There is nothing more to say.

Published by

A Sonnet Obsession

I am a life-long Minnesotan who resides in Minneapolis. I hope you enjoy my curated selection of sonnets, short poems and nerdy ruminations.

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