By John Crowe Ransom
—I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying
To make you hear. Your ears are soft and small
And listen to an old man not at all,
They want the young men’s whispering and sighing.
But see the roses on your trellis dying
And hear the spectral singing of the moon;
For I must have my lovely lady soon,
I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying.
—I am a lady young in beauty waiting
Until my truelove comes, and then we kiss.
But what grey man among the vines is this
Whose words are dry and faint as in a dream?
Back from my trellis, Sir, before I scream!
I am a lady young in beauty waiting.
Robert Lowell had many influences in his lifetime, but three men stand out in their intellectual guidance that helped shaped Lowell’s early literary accomplishments; Merrill Moore, Alan Tate and John Ransom. Moore was a fellow Bostonian, ran in the same social circle as his parents and was Lowell’s psychiatrist for decades. Alan Tate and John Ransom were both celebrated professors of literature at Vanderbilt, founding members of The Fugitives along with Robert Penn Warren, Donald Davidson, Walter Clyde Curry and several notable others.
Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV had all the weight of expectations of a successful Harvard ascendency placed upon him at birth. So when his first year at Harvard did not go well and his mental health suffered for it, Moore concocted a plan to bring him to Vanderbilt and introduce him to Alan Tate, being so bold as to ask Tate if Lowell could spend the spring and summer at his home. The plan was for Lowell to take a bit of a break from the pressure of Harvard and instead attend some poetry classes under Alan Tate and Ransom to gain what he called a bit of “Southern” perspective to counterbalance his Northern, puritan upbringing. His time at Vanderbilt proved short lived, but it was hugely impactful in terms of the friends he met (Randall Jarrell) and the connection with Ransom and Tate that would be critical in his development as a writer.
It may have been inevitable Lowell would work primarily in a structure of fourteen lines. Merrill Moore wrote thousands of sonnets in his lifetime, and John Ransom published several volumes of sonnets as well. For a man searching for a new voice anchored in history and with the force of a greater moral authority, it makes sense Lowell would keep a connection to a weighty poetic legacy. I am not sure exactly why Lowell used a sonnet structure in the majority of the poems he published, as he pushed forward his ideas and innovations on confessional poetry. Though Lowell wrote poems in many different styles and structure, including successful long form poetry, he published more fourteen line poems than any other single length of poem. It takes a stubbornness to stay so true to that form. It goes beyond common sense or even commitment to a literary style, for sometimes a poem’s plot and rhyme will naturally lead to an ending in 12 or carry on to 15, but not Lowell. Lowell was not fixated on traditional sonnet rhyming schemes, as many of his sonnets are largely unrhymed, but more often than not, he closed the deal at 14 lines.
Why have so many writers over the past 500 years been fascinated if not right bewitched by the sonnet length? Is it because for the most part men have short attention spans as poets and as readers? I resemble that remark, so its not a criticism, its a reality. If a poem can’t hook me in the first 8 lines, I am not likely to finish it. So when I see a poem that is 50 or 100 lines long, I am instantly wary on whether I should even attempt it. Sad but true. I think it is because 14 lines forces the writer to compromise, shorten, cut to the chase. There is no room for run on sentences in a sonnet. Its go big or go home in the opening couplet, something even Wordsworth appreciated in the form.
I was taken with both of these sonnets, particularly Moore’s Leave The Telling Of Jokes. It reminds me a bit of Wallace Stevens in his use of words, especially the opening line. It is a reminder how small and interconnected the world of poetry was in the 1920’s and 1930’s and how quickly they closed ranks around their own to maintain their hand on the tiller of the artform they all dearly loved and dearly loved to control.
Leave The Telling Of Jokes
by Merrill Moore
Leave the telling of jokes to the teller of jokes,
And tales of seduction to men whose lechery
Has granted them more of virtue than yours has;
And leave the lonely club-room and the smoke
Of idle cigars to those who love to smell
The sulphur fumes that blow from out their hell.
And come (I can show you the rock whereoff one fell
Whose strong attractions made the masses weak,
Masses who were strong, too strong to break
Apart at the tread of a god’s advancing foot,
Too strong to relinquish grasp upon the root
Of evil in their cities) – come with me
To where a sermon has becalmed the sea
And listen with me to the dark emphatic rain.