October 12, 2012

Lowell: we bring the shroud

James Russell Lowell had been ousted from the editorship of the Atlantic Monthly for a few months when he apparently had writer's block. His friend Charles Eliot Norton suggested that reading poetry could inspire the writing of some. However, as Lowell reported to Norton on October 12, 1861, the assistance was no longer required: "Well, I haven't been reading any, but I have written something." The subject, he said, "had been in my head for some time" but needed a push from new Atlantic editor James T. Fields in the form of a reminder about his approaching deadline. "Wholly absorbed" in his writing, he nevertheless admitted he wasn't sure if it qualified as poetry. He was particularly self-conscious about the meter and "almost glacier-slow measure." The 105 line poem is called "The Washers of the Shroud" and is partially inspired by Legends of Brittany by Émile Souvestre:

Along a river-side, I know not where,
I walked one night in mystery of dream;
A chill creeps curdling yet beneath my hair,
To think what chanced me by the pallid gleam
Of a moon-wraith that waned through haunted air.

Pale fireflies pulsed within the meadow-mist
Their halos, wavering thistledowns of light;
The loon, that seemed to mock some goblin tryst,
Laughed; and the echoes, huddling in affright,
Like Odin's hounds, fled baying down the night.

The narrator then comes across a stream which "is of Death" a shroud is being washed in it bythree sisters "known to the Greek's and to the Northman's creed." As they wash, the fair sisters sing, "Time was, Time is, and Time shall be."

"Still men and nations reap as they have strawn,"
So sang they, working at their task the while;
"The fatal raiment must be cleansed ere dawn:
For Austria? Italy? the Sea-Queen's isle?
O'er what quenched grandeur must our shroud be drawn?

"What make we, murmur'st thou? and what are we?
When empires must be wound, we bring the shroud,
The time-old web of the implacable Three:
Is it too coarse for him, the young and proud?
Earth's mightiest deigned to wear it,—why not he?"

The narrator moans in despair, "Is there no hope?" Apparently, he worries that the shroud is being prepared for his own nation. "But not for him," cries the narrator, "Not yet for him!" Lowell admitted the poem was "about present times" (specifically the Civil War), though he hoped it was "abstract enough" too. The poem concludes:

So cried I with clenched hands and passionate pain,
Thinking of dear ones by Potomac's side;
Again the loon laughed mocking, and again
The echoes bayed far down the night and died,
While waking I recalled my wandering brain.

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