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July 11, 2007

I went to Madge McKeithen's One Page Poetry Circle at the St. Agnes Brach of the New York Public Library last month http://www.madgemckeithen.com/. The topic for the night was Travel. I sought a Victorian poem written by a woman on the subject to bring with me. I thought first of Anna Jameson's poetry about Italy as recounted in her autobiographical novel, The Diary of an Ennuyée (1826). I did research on Jameson for the Encyclopedia of Life Writing, edited by Margaretta Jolly and found that she presents an interesting subject in relationship to autobiography because she did not write a traditional autobiography, but her other works all contain elements of the autobiographical. I was also thinking about her novel because my husband and I were planning a trip to Sicily and I had thought The Diary contained a description of her trip to Sicily. When I quickly reread the book I found that she doesn't go to Sicily and that the poetry didn't seem right for the group. The short poems were ordinary, celebrating the beauty of the country, but without any additional meaning. Almost all poetry about travel is metaphorical. Of course all poetry is metaphorical, but travel presents an excellent opportunity for symbolic meanings. Jameson aside, it is not enough for a poem to reflect a place where the poet is traveling. The poem must encompass more.

Continuing my search, I was intrigued by the poem "To a Swallow Building under our Eaves" which is frequently attributed to Jane Carlyle:

Thou too hast traveled, little fluttering thing, -
Hast seen the world, and now thy weary wing
Thou too must rest.
But much, my little bird, could'st thou but tell,
I'd give to know why here thou lik'st so well
To build thy nest.
For thou hast passed fair places in thy flight;
A world lay all beneath thee where to light;
And, strange thy taste,
Of all the varied scenes that met thine eye,
Of all the spots for building 'neath the sky,
To choose this waste!
Did fortune try thee? - was thy little purse
Perchance run low, and thou, afraid of worse,
Felt here secure?
Ah, no! thou need'st not gold, thou happy one!
Thou know'st it not.  Of all God's creatures, man
Alone is poor.
What was it, then? - some mystic turn of thought,
Caught under German eaves, and hither brought,
Marring thine eye
For the world's loveliness, till thou art grown
A sober thing that dost but mope and moan,
Not knowing why?
Nay, if thy mind be sound, I need not ask,
Since here I see thee working at thy task
With wing and beak.
A well-laid scheme doth that small head contain,
At which thou work'st, brave bird, with might and main,
Nor more need'st seek.
In truth, I rather take it thou hast got
By instinct wise much sense about thy lot,
And hast small care
Whether an Eden or a desert be
Thy home, so thou remain'st alive, and free
To skim the air.
God speed thee, pretty  bird!  May thy small nest
With little ones all in good time be blest.
I love thee much;
For well thou managest that life of thine,
While I - oh, ask not what I do with mine!
Would I were such!

In this poem the bird has ceased traveling to stay for a while at the home of the Carlyles. The poet contrasts the life of the bird with that of the human inhabitants (much like the way that fellow Scot Robert Burns compares a mouse to a human in his great poem, "To a Mouse"). It's a beautiful poem, but I believe it was written by Thomas Carlyle and not Jane Carlyle as I discuss in my article on Jane Carlyle's poetry in The Carlyle Encyclopedia, edited by Mark Cumming. In other writings Thomas Carlyle mentioned that his wife, Jane, could make an Eden of wherever she is - like he does here with the bird. She was a remarkable woman. Although Jane Carlyle wrote a few poems, she never mastered the genre. Thomas Carlyle wrote some excellent poems, but his wife's are mostly translations that he had assigned her as exercises. Everyone thought Jane Carlyle could be a great writer and several of her friends even suspected that she had written Jane Eyre. However, she wrote only a few stories, more journals, and thousands of wonderful letters. I continued my search for a poem. I finally settled on a poem by Christina Rossetti, "Uphill."

Does the road wind uphill all the way?
            Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
             From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
            A roof for when the slow, dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
            You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
            Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
            They will not keep you waiting at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
            Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
            Yea, beds for all who come.

The poem is definitely metaphorical, comparing a day to a life and the traveler coming to an inn at the end of the day with the person who has died coming to the real end of the road. There are questions and answers about how one will know when one gets to the end of one's life. I love the way she uses the sing-song verse to discuss important issues. It sounds like a child's catechism, in part because she seems to be so sure of her answers, of her religion. Christina Rossetti was an accomplished poet whose poetry can be simplistic in its form but complicated in its meaning. Her greatest poem, “Goblin Market” has been published in both children's books and in Playboy magazine.

At the One Page Poetry Circle everyone read a short poem (one-page was the assignment) and then said why s/he liked that poem. After that we could each comment on the poem and our impressions. I enjoyed each poem read, although frequently I needed the poem to be read a second time to get any kind of grasp of what it was about. We were about 15 people at the reading and it was exciting to be there and to be involved in a celebration of poetry. I go to many poetry readings, but this is the first time that I have read and discussed someone else's poem except for in the classroom. I really enjoyed it, and I plan to return for the next event on Tuesday, July 24. The topic is Water, but I haven't begun looking for a poem yet.



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