February 17, 2012

He who knoweth Which and what is Which

On February 17, 1861, the California-based Golden Era published a poem titled "My Soul to Thine" with the subheading "A Transcendental Valentine." The poem's author, Bret Harte, was then more than a year away from his marriage to Anna Griswold (which, it turned out, was not the most pleasant marriage); she later claimed the poem was written for her during their courtship. If that is the case, biographers consider it their only evidence for that period.

Antithesis of Light, which is but gloom,
    Myself in darkness shrouds; I know not why
Thy glances re-illumine — yet of them, One
            Is ever in my eye!

Perchance 'tis why I hold this thought most dear —
    What is, may still be, what is fixed won't change:
The Future and the Past are not as clear
            As things that are less strange.

Who knows what's What, yet says not which is Which
    He is reticent and precise in speech;
The same should tune his thoughts to concert pitch
            By some deep sounding beach.

But he who knoweth Which and what is Which —
    He is not simple nor perchance is dull —
Shall occupy himself a vacant niche
            In some stupendous Whole. 

Whatever his motivations, Harte created a poem that was more humorous than amorous. It may have also been a late-coming satire on Transcendentalism and its confusing aphorisms. If that was his aim, his form caters to it well; the ample indentation of the fourth line of each stanza stands out, as does the odd "One" concluding the third line but serving as the subject of the fourth line.

*I would like to acknowledge Axel Nissen and his book Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper (2000) for much of the information in this post.

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