Tag Archives: Robert Frost

Poetry in Fiction

Does poetry have a place in novels? Far from wandering lonely as a cloud, poetry is a great connector, especially among those who have memorised poems. Its concentration works well to make reference to complex shared ideas. Novelists use poetry to heighten a moment, to say something about the characters and to point up a moment in the novel. They use it as they might imagery or flashback. It takes skill. Here are three examples.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I imagine that the Stephens household quoted poetry with their early morning muffins and throughout the day, and that the Bloomsbury Group prided itself on its knowledge of modern poetry.

209 To_the_LighthouseMrs Ramsay is reading to James, her youngest child, who is disappointed that they will not be going to the lighthouse. She reads the story of the Fisherman and his Wife.

‘And when he came to the sea, it was quite dark grey, and the water heaved up from below, and smelt putrid. Then he went and stood by it and said,

“Flounder, flounder, in the sea,

Come, I pray thee, here to me;

For my wife, good Isabil,

Wills not as I’d have her will.”

“Well, what does she want then?”said the Flounder.’ (65-66)

With this snippet of verse from a children’s story Mrs Ramsay’s resistance to her overbearing husband is revealed. Mr Ramsay has declared the trip to the lighthouse will not take place. It has been established that he is prone to quote a single line from Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade

Someone had blundered.

The line sets up resonances of war and campaigns commanded by blunderers. The poem is about the massacre of British troops in the Crimea war, mistakenly sent into the Valley of Death. Mr Ramsay appears to be at war with everything, including the elements and ready to blunder on himself unaware of the currents beneath the surface within his family. War will appear again, scything through the family in the passage called Time Passes.

Selecting these two points in the novel I see that flounder and blunder chime.

Later that evening the family and guests are seated at supper. Virginia Woolf writes the scene through Mrs Ramsay’s eyes.

Her husband spoke. He was repeating something, and she knew it was poetry from the rhythm and the ring of exaltation and melancholy in his voice:

Come out and climb the garden path,

Luriana Lurilee

The China rose is all abloom and buzzing with the yellow bee.

The words (she was looking at the window) sounded as if they were floating like flowers on water out there, shut off from them all, as if no one had said them, but they had come into existence of themselves.

And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be

Are full of trees and changing leaves.

She did not know what they meant, but, like music, the words seemed to be spoken by her own voice, outside herself, saying quite easily and naturally what had been in her mind the whole evening while she had said different things. She knew without looking round that everyone at the table was listening to the voice saying:

I wonder if it seems to you

Luriana Lurilee.

with the same sort of relief and pleasure that she had as if this were, at last the natural thing to say, this were their own voice speaking.

But the voice stopped. She looked round. She made herself get up. Augustus Carmichael had risen and, holding his table napkin so that it looked like a long white robe he stood chanting:

To see the King go riding by

Over lawn and daisy lea

With their palm leaves and cedar

Luriana Lurilee,

and as she passed him he turned slightly towards her repeating the last words

Luriana, Lurilee.

and bowed to her as if he did her homage. (127-8)

This is beautiful passage. Virginia Woolf wants us to hear the lines being quoted, hear ‘the rhythm and the ring of exaltation and melancholy’. The repetition of Luriana Lurilee adds to the intensity.

I notice her observation about the effects of poetry read aloud, how the words ‘were floating like flowers on water out there, shut off from them all’. And how she was responding to the poem as if the words were hers. And when Augustus Carmichael takes over the recitation she reminds us of the pleasures of sharing poetry when it is read aloud.

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Perhaps like me you thought that this poem, called A Garden Song, was well known at the time when Virginia Woolf wrote To the Lighthouse. The novel was published in 1927 but the complete poem was not published until 1945, when it was included in an anthology by Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicholson. It was a poem known within the Bloomsbury group it seems.

A Garden Song (Luriana Lurilee) is by Charles Isaac Elton. You can find the complete text here. You can also finds lines from William Browne, William Cowper and William Shakespeare in To the Lighthouse.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

209 Crossing to S cover This is a beautiful American story about two couples who were friends for decades. The men are both connected to writing, one in the University the other in publishing. Larry Morgan narrates, and he is professor of English Literature and a novelist and frequently quotes lines of poetry. At the start of the novel five lines by Robert Frost appear, the source of the novel’s title.

I could give all to Time except – except

What I myself have held. But why declare

The things forbidden that while the Customs slept

I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There

And what I would not part with I have kept.

As with Virginia Woolf one gets the impression that poetry for Wallace Stegner and his circle was always present. On page 7 we get four lines of Swinburne, followed by Easter Hymn by AE Housman (p42-3). And poetry appears every now and again throughout the novel, along with money problems, tenure issues, marriage, children, arguments, disability, illness, holidays and the rest of life: WB Yeats, Bliss Carman, and several quotations I don’t recognise. Poetry is as everyday as friendship.

I was introduced to this novel by the enthusiasm with which BookSnob referred to it on her blog.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

Mrs Palfrey greyMrs Palfrey is also revealed to have poetry as part of her life. Struggling to keep up her spirits she is going for a short walk.

Must keep going, she thought, as she so often thought. Every day for years she had memorised a few lines of poetry to train her mind against threatening forgetfulness. She now determined to train her limbs against similar uselessness.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste out powers.

Her lips moved gently as she tried to remember her lines for the day. By tomorrow she would have forgotten them. Only the poetry she had learned by heart as a girl remained.

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

She was stuck after the third line. That was the way it went with her these days. (108)

Unlike the first two novels I have considered where poetry connects people, Mrs Palfrey’s failing memory intensifies her separation from the world as she ages.

The poem is by Wordsworth. The first line is the title and the full text can be found here. The unrecovered fourth line is: We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! It is a poem about being out of kilter with the world. A nice touch by Elizabeth Taylor.

A recommended novel – about a poet

209 Great Lover cover The Great Lover by Jill Dawson, published in 2009 by Sceptre about Rupert Brook and his Cambridge days.

Related posts

Andre’s Blog has much information about Virginia Woolf, and in Blog #129: Charles Elton’s “A Garden Song” and to the Lighthouse Brambles explores the use of the poem in To the Lighthouse.

Here is my review of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor And a post about her ageing here.

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Older women in fiction, poetry, Reading, Reviews, Virginia Woolf

Poetry in the garden

I sit in my cottage garden in the sun, for an hour, reading poems. I am looking for poems on the theme of ‘journeys’ to share with the poetry group that meets in our local library next week. Some people write poems on the theme, or find them from within their previous works. I don’t write poetry, but I am enjoying browsing through my shelves, and look forward to reading it aloud. It’s a special pleasure.

97 poetry in gdnThe sun is mild, occasionally obscured by clouds. No mechanical, man-made sounds reach me, just the droning of the bees in the hedge behind me, the arguments of the rooks who live in the trees by the old people’s home, and the clicking of plastic guttering in the sun.

I work through my pile, getting distracted by the pleasure of the task and by poems not about journeys.

I try the anthology called Staying Alive, which has a whole section on journeys and the road, and I note Adrienne Rich’s poem. This is the first line

A wild patience has brought me this far

I had remembered it as a wild impatience, which was more appealing to my ambitions and character when I first encountered the poem in the ‘70s. The rhythm is better in my version I think. But I must slow down and read the poem more closely. A wild patience? The lines of the childhood chant come into my head, which associates patience with good girls in an adult view.

Patience is a virtue

Virtue is a grace.

Grace is a little girl

Who didn’t wash her face.

That puts patience in her place for me. How can patience be wild? The juxtaposition of these words begins to create ripples in my head.

I move on to Robert Frost, Stopping in Woods, and recall walking in Robert Frost’s woods a few years ago on a visit to Amherst (when I also visited Emily Dickinson’s house). It was May, so there was no snow and no ponies. I read this poem to a group of travellers on Stewart Island, on Christmas Day a couple of years later – also no ponies and no snow but miles from home. Stewart Island is about as far south as normal people can travel without being in Antarctica.

97 Poetry booksAnd then I meet again Michael Donaghy’s poem Machines about writing poetry, cycling and harpsichord music. It starts …

Dearest, note how these two are alike:

This harpsichord pavane by Purcell

And the racer’s twelve-speed bike.

Then I loose myself in an anthology of poems by women in the 1930s. I marvel again at the steadfastness, endurance and perceptions of that generation of women who flourished between the wars. I find a poem by Winifred Holtby called Trains in France, the sounds of trains haunting the night, reminding her of wartime trains transporting people to and from the Front.

I move on to Billy Collins who can always be relied upon to write quirky, witty and intelligent poems about everyday things. I find two that I might read to the poetry group: Passengers and Walking across the Atlantic. I always enjoy the last three lines of Walking across the Atlantic.

97 b collins' feet

Drowsiness begins to infect me and I imagine lying on the lounger on the lawn all afternoon, reading, as the bees drone, the rooks caw and all seems well with this corner of England.

In my head, words are singing, like poetry when it is read aloud. In my head my own words become poetic, lyrical and full of intelligent observations. My mood is violently broken by a call on my mobile phone about PPI.

These are the poems I finally chose:

  • Walking across the Atlantic and Passengers by Billy Collins.
  • Trains in France by Winifred Holtby.
  • But I might add Honeymoon Flight by Seamus Heaney for the imagery of sewing that he uses to write about marriage.
  • And Craig Raine’s A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, which presents the world and its people from a fresh, Martian, perspective.

Have you any suggestions of poems connected with journeys?

 

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Filed under Libraries, poetry