November 16, 2010

Stanzas on Music: Stedman's high water mark

"Thanks for the volume," Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote to Edmund Clarence Stedman in a letter dated November 16, 1873. The volume that Stedman had sent was his 1873 Poetical Works (which he sent to many other influential literary figures). "The poem of yours that I envy — your high water mark if I know anything about it, and one of the very choicest things in our literature," Higginson continued, "is that exquisite 'Stanzas for Music'... It rises in one delicious swell, and the ending is as perfect as the waves of the sea it describes." Higginson, a fellow poet and editor (later wrapped up in the controversy to publish Emily Dickinson's poems posthumously) compared the poem to Oliver Wendell Holmes's famous "Chambered Nautilus."

Here is the poem that Higginson loved so much, "Stanzas on Music":

Thou art mine, thou hast given thy word;
   Close, close in my arms thou art clinging;
   Alone for my ear thou art singing
A song which no stranger hath heard:
But afar from me yet, like a bird,
Thy soul, in some region unstirred,
   On its mystical circuit is winging.

Thou art mine, I have made thee mine own;
   Henceforth we are mingled forever:
   But in vain, all in vain, I endeavor—
Though round thee my garlands are thrown,
And thou yieldest thy lips and thy zone—
To master the spell that alone
   My hold on thy being can sever.

Thou art mine, thou hast come unto me!
   But thy soul, when I strive to be near it—
   The innermost fold of thy spirit—
Is as far from my grasp, is as free,
As the stars from the mountain-tops be,
As the pearl, in the depths of the sea,
   From the portionless king that would wear it.

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