Come Away, Death

Come Away, Death

Willy-nilly, he comes or goes, with the clown's logic,
Comic in epitaph, tragic in epithalamium,
And unseduced by any mused rhyme.                    
However blow the winds over the pollen,
Whatever the course of the garden variables,
He remains the constant,
Ever flowering from the poppy seeds.

There was a time he came in formal dress,
Announced by Silence tapping at the panels
In deep apology.
A touch of chivalry in his approach,
He offered sacramental wine,
And with acanthus leaf
And petals of the hyacinth
He took the fever from the temples
And closed the eyelids,
Then led the way to his cool longitudes
In the dignity of the candles.

His mediaeval grace is gone --
Gone with the flame of the capitals
And the leisured turn of the thumb
Leafing the manuscripts,
Gone with the marbles
And the Venetian mosaics,
With the bend of the knee
Before the rose-strewn feet of the Virgin.
The paternosters of his priests,
Committing clay to clay,
Have rattled in their throats
Under the gride of his traction tread.

One night we heard his footfall -- one September night --
In the outskirts of a village near the sea.
There was a moment when the storm
Delayed its fist, when the surf fell
Like velvet on the rocks -- a moment only;
The strangest lull we ever knew!
A sudden truce among the oaks
Released their fratricidal arms;
The poplars straightened to attention
As the winds stopped to listen
To the sound of a motor drone --
And then the drone was still.
We heard the tick-tock on the shelf,
And the leak of valves in our hearts.
A calm condensed and lidded
As at the core of a cyclone ended breathing.
This was the monologue of Silence
Grave and unequivocal.

What followed was a bolt
Outside the range and target of the thunder,
And human speech curved back upon itself
Through Druid runways and the Piltdown scarps,
Beyond the stammers of the Java caves,
To find its origins in hieroglyphs
On mouths and eyes and cheeks
Etched by a foreign stylus never used
On the outmoded page of the Apocalypse.
The function of irony and its relation to voice is more complex in "Come Away, Death."  Allusiveness here combines with Pratt's ironic deflating of expectations to create an ambiguity that carries no hint of hopeful resolution but is made more disturbing by the progression (or regression) from medieval death to modern annihilation as experienced by a specific community.  The title brings to mind the song the clown sings in Twelfth Night, a song about death chosen because of love denied,12 an appropriate song for the romantic, self-indulgent Duke lost in admiration of his own love for Olivia, but the phrase "willy-nilly" comes from the gravedigger in Hamlet digging Ophelia's grave.  Her death too was chosen because of love denied but the mood is grim. Death then comes in comedy and in tragedy, its logic as irrational and arbitrary as the clown's, though not yet as irrational and arbitrary as that chosen for others through the bombing raids described in the latter part of the poem.  Such a contrast between the romanticized "literary" deaths (given ritualistic status and dignity in the second stanza) and the sordid slaughter of war evokes the same incredulous shock created in "Still Life."  The transition between the two views of death is provided by the subtle irony of the third stanza by which illusions are destroyed and ritual's failure to prevent or even mask man's atavistic impulses is exposed. Pratt initially describes death as a formal visitor who "led the way to his cool longitudes / In the dignity of the candles," but now death's "medieval grace is gone. . . / Under the gride of his traction tread."  Actually, the irony is operative from the beginning of the stanza.  Death did not always have grace, even in medieval times:   "the flame of the capitals," while referring to the heavily illuminated capital letters of ancient manuscripts, refers with equal accuracy to the burning of capital cities and/or the heretics within them, and "the leisured turn of the thumb" (notice how the end of the line emphasizes that thumb) may well be thumbscrews (Evolutionary Vision 75).  The final lines of the fourth stanza are worth noting here:
A calm condensed and lidded
As at the core of a cyclone ended breathing.
This was the monologue of Silence
Grave and unequivocal.
The equivocal meaning of "grave" is reminiscent of the techniques Pratt used in "Still Life;" the contradictory "monologue of Silence" echoes "Silences" in which Pratt most clearly presents his thesis that speech is what sets human beings apart from brutes and mitigates their hatred.   In such a silence Gethsemane cannot be mentioned.  By focusing on silence or absence Pratt evokes what should ideally be there, giving emotional force to the blankness of "hieroglyphs / On mouths and eyes and cheeks."
     The notion of absence, a more appropriate term for Pratt even than understatement, is what transforms the ironic voice in Pratt's poetry into one that is not at all emotionally detached but whose engagement with the problem or event is stoically controlled, as though the speaker would like to affirm Stoicism's view of life as providentially determined ("Nothing is harmful to the part which is advantageous to the whole.  For the whole contains nothing which is not advantageous to itself. . . . As long as I remember that I am a part of such a whole I shall be well content with all that happens" {Marcus Aurelius quoted in Long 165}), but is unable to achieve such contentment in the face of suffering that defies rational explanation.   Emotion is implied, not openly articulated; silence becomes as eloquent as speech. "Erosion" is perhaps the best example, though poems already discussed would serve as well.  The implied narrative is that of a ship lost at sea.  We are not told how many men drowned, or how long and anxiously their wives awaited news of them.   Not a word is said of fear, of tears, of anger, of God for that matter and what view of Him can be accepted when tragedy strikes.  The very word "tragedy" is not mentioned, nor is any spoken word recorded.  Erosion occurs in silence.  The image of the thousand-year-old granite seams being placed on a woman's face is enough to indicate the unknown persona's sympathy and the woman's unspoken pain.   Pratt has related the experience out of which this poem was born, that of accompanying his father "to break the news."  He has also said:   "[poetry] came best out of the imagination working upon the material of actual experience.  My aim was to get the emotional effect out of the image or the symbol operating on the facts of sense perception" (On His Life and Poetry 33).   Could any specific description of a named woman's sorrow convey emotion more effectively than the symbol of silent erosion?  Similarly, in "Newfoundland" the image of crags like mastiffs guarding too well, or of "doors held ajar in storms" (surely the record of an irrational distracted action), or in "Silences" the image of the "unvocal sea . ., where the lids never close upon the eyes," the emotional effect is created more by what is implied, or indeed, repressed, than by what is actually said.
     To label Pratt's shorter poetry as "stoic lyricism" might then be an appropriate way of acknowledging both the impersonality of Pratt's tight control of imagery and technique, and the intense emotional effects that result.  Certainly poems such as "Erosion" and "Newfoundland" with their emphasis on the order of nature and the implied unity between humanity and nature would fit into such a sub-genre.  I have already noted some echoes in "Newfoundland" of Stoic belief, and Pratt's poem, "The Stoics," further indicates a familiarity with and interest in Stoicism.  In fact, several lines from that poem — "Their gravitas had seized a geologic centre / And triumphed over subcutaneous pain," "What are the Stoic answers?"   "We have tried but failed to make / That cool unflawed retreat" — suggest a basic agreement with the Stoic belief in the need to suppress passions in order to allow reason to guide the individual into right moral choices (Urmson 308).  On the other hand, the familiar Prattian irony at work in "The Stoics" (what appears initially to be an appeal to Stoic values becomes a "fools' mistake for gold;" Stoic answers are ultimately useless in the face of "screaming comets in the skies"), as well as in other poems such as "Come Away Death" and "Still Life," expresses outrage and despair at the whole-sale suffering humanity brings upon itself.  The "ferments ratting underneath our skin" cannot be disciplined, nor can the Stoic notion of an ordered, unified universe be maintained when even "civilian flesh" is entangled in the "traction of the panzers."  Paradoxically, the effort and subsequent failure of the persona to maintain Stoic calm testifies both to great passion and the moral necessity of that passion.  To make a "cool unflawed retreat" would be as reprehensible as to flee to "pools where little breezes dusk and shiver" when a hundred thousand have died in war ("Still Life").  The tension within the designation of "stoic lyricism" resembles the tension within Pratt's shorter poems: emotion is expressed through the very intensity of the effort needed to suppress it.
     In summary then, if lyric poetry is defined as subjective, personal poetry with a focus on the feeling "I," especially as that "I" functions within a specific human relationship, Pratt is not a lyricist.  His shorter poems do not contain intimate relationships, except as obliquely suggested.  What happens between men and women is either occasion for gentle wit as in "Like Mother Like Daughter"13 or follows the folk-tale pattern of wife waiting stoically at home for a husband who never returns ("Erosion," "The Lee-Shore").  David Pitt, in Pratt's biography (2. 131-32) does mention two poems in which Pratt, rather indirectly, deals with the physical passion of man and woman.  One, "The Inexpressible," was never published and the other was eventually published under the title of "To Any Astronomer."  Without Pitt's gloss on the poems no one would recognize them as having anything to do with human bodies!  Other relationships, such as parent-child (except in "Rachel," an early longer narrative, or "Myth and Fact"), or friendship, are also largely missing. Louis Dudek has explained this absence of intimate emotional relationships by defining Pratt as a poet of the Machine Age:
Pratt . . . has expressed through his very metrics and his personality the beat of pistons, the metallic clangour of wheels, and the apparently unreflective energy of matter.
     If this poetic quality, the apparent materialism and the reductive zoological outlook, should sometimes seem truncated and strangely circumscribed to the seasoned philosophical reader or critic, he might consider that the reason for this may lie, not in the poet, but in the mechanical culture and the science for which he is a responsive voice. (94)
Like Frye, Dudek sees Pratt as an oral poet, a public poet who expresses the thoughts, feelings, and philosophy of his age, an age in which human relationships are increasingly devalued.
     That Pratt is such a responsive voice for his community and culture rather than a personal voice exploring individual experience is clear enough, I think, (though we need to remember that "responsive" does not mean only uncritical echo) but such an evaluation does not go far enough, nor is it sufficient grounds for denying Pratt the emotional depth and complexity usually expected of lyrical poetry.  As I have argued, it is through his prosodic ability to create evocative ambivalent symbols, his persistent irony which frequently depends upon unsettling shifts between the evolutionary and Christian paradigms or between romantic and contemporary frameworks of poetic expression, and his management of absences as well as minimal presences, that Pratt creates a unique lyrical voice fully capable of emotional intensity that ranges from playful wit to deepest mourning.  That the emotion wears the garment of anonymity and the mask of stoic control does not diminish its validity.

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