Before I Scream!

Poet and Psychiatrist

Piazza Piece

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.

Again The Native Hour

alan tate
Alan Tate

More Sonnets At Christmas

by Allen Tate

I

Again the native hour lets down the locks
Uncombed and black, but gray the bobbing beard;
Ten years ago His eyes, fierce shuttlecocks,
Pierced the close net of what I failed: I feared
The belly-cold, the grave-clout, that betrayed
Me dithering in the drift of cordial seas;
Ten years are time enough to be dismayed
By mummy Christ, head crammed between his knees.

Suppose I take an arrogant bomber, stroke
By stroke, up to the frazzled sun to hear
Sun-ghostlings whisper: Yes, the capital yoke—

Remove it and there’s not a ghost to fear
This crucial day, whose decapitate joke
Languidly winds into the inner ear.

II

The day’s at end and there’s nowhere to go,
Draw to the fire, even this fire is dying;
Get up and once again politely lying
Invite the ladies toward the mistletoe
With greedy eyes that stare like an old crow.
How pleasantly the holly wreaths did hang
And how stuffed Santa did his reindeer clang
Above the golden oaken mantel, years ago!

Then hang this picture for a calendar,
As sheep for goat, and pray most fixedly
For the cold martial progress of your star,
With thoughts of commerce and society,
Well-milked Chinese, Negroes who cannot sing,
The Huns gelded and feeding in a ring.

III

Give me this day a faith not personal
As follows: The American people fully armed
With assurance policies, righteous and harmed,
Battle the world of which they’re not at all.
That lying boy of ten who stood in the hall,
His hat in hand (thus by his father charmed:
“You may be President”), was not alarmed
Nor even left uneasy by his fall.

Nobody said that he could be a plumber,
Carpenter, clerk, bus-driver, bombardier;
Let little boys go into violent slumber,
Aegean squall and squalor where their fear
Is of an enemy in remote oceans
Unstalked by Christ: these are the better notions.

IV

Gay citizen, myself, and thoughtful friend,
Your ghosts are Plato’s Christians in the cave.
Unfix your necks, turn to the door; the nave
Gives back the cheated and light dividend
So long sequestered; now, new-rich, you’ll spend
Flesh for reality inside a stone
Whose light obstruction, like a gossamer bone,
Dead or still living, will not break or bend.

Thus light, your flesh made pale and sinister
And put off like a dog that’s had his day,
You will be Plato’s kept philosopher,
Albino man bleached from the mortal clay,
Mild-mannered, gifted in your master’s ease
While the sun squats upon the waveless seas.


Allen Tate, “More Sonnets at Christmas (I-IV)” from The Collected Poems 1919-1976.
Copyright © 1960, 1965 by Allen Tate. All rights reserved.

Source: Selected Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1932)