September 21, 2010

Bierce: Sweet-spiced with aromatic death!

The first published poem by Ohio-born Ambrose Bierce was printed in the September 21, 1867 edition of Californian. The 46-line "Basilica" follows a narrator who wanders "with aimless feet" by the ocean. Overwhelmed by the bright sunshine reflected from the "wind-smitten white" sea, he has to avert his eyes:

From bloody death of stricken day,
And ocean's leprous agony,
My weary eyes I drew away.

"Ocean's leprous agony"? The poem does hint at the wit which would become Bierce's legacy. In fact, the title of the poem, "Basilica," implies a religious mood. Most of the poem stays true to that, treating a sunny day at the beach like a spiritual experience. "My soul grew drunken with its ray" from the "glinting sun," he writes, like "liquid April filling May."

But it's all a smokescreen. As the romantic narrator offers his ode to the beautiful day, he encounters the true source of the poem's title: a basilisk (or "cockatrice"). The creature can kill him with one look, but the narrator describes him with the same poetic sentiment he used to describe the beautiful day:

With jeweled teeth, alas! and breath
Whose touch to passion ministreth —
Sweet-spiced with aromatic death!

The reader can only assume the narrator does not survive this run-in. After "Basilica," the Californian printed another of his poems before Bierce turned to essay-writing and short stories. He later recalled, "when I was in my twenties, I concluded one day that I was not a poet. It was the bitterest moment in my life." In his Devil's Dictionary, he defined poetry as "a form of expression peculiar to the Land beyond the Magazines."

*Some information from this post comes from Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company (1999) by Roy Morris, Jr. The full poem is collected in Poems of Ambrose Bierce (1995) edited by M. E. Grenander (it has never been published in any other collection, so far as I know).

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