We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Women's poetry: "Away melancholy let it go" · 25 July 05

My dear Miss Vane,

I told the people on WWTTA how Nuala O’Faolain’s three volumes thus far, My Dream of You, Are You Somebody? and Almost There comforted me because I like their truth and candour about women’s sexuality.

Today I thought I would put on this blog an aggressive plangent set of verses by Adrienne Rich that O’Faolain cited in Are You Somebody?; a strengthening sonnet by Elinor Wylie; and verses by Stevie Smith I’ll keep in mind as we pack to go deep into the dreamed-of green of Somerset:

First by Adrienne Rich:

You sleep in a room with bluegreen curtains
posters a pile of animals on the bed
A woman and a man who love you
and each other slip the door ajar
you are almost asleep they crouch in turn
to stroke your hair you never wake

This happens every night for years
This never happened . . .

What if I told you your home
is this continent of the homeless
of children sold taken by force
driven from their mothers’ land
killed by their mothers to save from capture
this continent of changed names and mixed-up blood
of languages tabooed
diasporas unrecorded
undocumented refugees
underground railroads trails of tears
What if I tell you your home
is this planet of warworn children
women and children standing oin line or milling
endlessly calling each others’ names
What if I tell you, you are not different
it’s the family albums that lie
will any of this comfort you
and how should this comfort you?


Puritan Sonnet

Down to the Puritan marrow of my bones
There’s something in this richness that I hate.
I love the look, austere, immaculate,
Of landscapes drawn in pearly monotones.
There’s something in my very blood that owns
Bare hills, cold silver on a sky of slate,
A thread of water, churned to milky spate
Streaming through slanted pastures fenced with stones.

I love those skies, thin blue or snowy gray,
Those fields sparse-planted, rendering meager sheaves;
That spring, briefer than apple-blossom’s breath,
Summer, so much too beautiful to stay,
Swift autumn, like a bonfire of leaves,
And sleepy winter, like the sleep of death.
——Elinor Wylie


Away, melancholy,
Away with it, let it go.

Are not the trees green,
The earth as green?
Does not the wind blow,
Fire leap and the rivers flow?
Away melancholy.

The ant is busy
He carrieth his meat,
All things hurry
To be eaten or eat.
Away, melancholy.

Man, too, hurries,
Eats, couples, buries,
He is an animal also
With a hey ho melancholy,
Away with it, let it go.

Man of all creatures
Is superlative
(Away melancholy)
He of all creatures alone
Raiseth a stone
(Away melancholy)
Into the stone
Pours what he knows of good . . .
Away melancholy, let it go.

Speak not to me of tears,
Tyranny, pox, wars . . .

Say rather it is enough
That the stuffed
Stone of man’s good, growing . . .
Away melancholy, let it go.

Man aspires
To good,
To love

Beaten, corrupted, dying
In his own blood lying
Yet heaves up an eye above
Cries, Love, love.
It is his virtue needs explaining,
Not his failing.

Away, melancholy,
Away with it, let it go.
—- Stevie Smith


I’ve posted poems by Rich and Smith and talked about them before (click on the category "poetry"), so say no more about them.

On Rich’s poem she asks how can this comfort you? It can. It does. Because she bears witness to the truth that when the bell tolls it tolls for all of us. If only more people understood this.

Of Wylie (1885-1928), I’d like to add this: I loved her poetry when I read it in my early 20s. It was the best thing we read in a class in 20th century literature. These be the verses that counted then:

I was, being human, born alone;
I am, being woman, hard beset . . .
In masks outrageous and austere
The years go by in single file . . .

[She could assert strength too:]

But none has merited my fear,
And none has quite escaped my smile.

Make that smile bitter, sour, saturnine.

As I recall in that course in so-called 20th century literature, we read not one prose work and hardly any verse by women. Wylie likes wintry scenes (& so do I) and she celebrates beauty through words:

I love bright words, words up and singing early;
Words that are luminous in the dark, and sing;
Warm lazy words . . .
I love words opalescent, cool . . .

I have read her biography by Stanley Olson: Elinor Wylie: A Life Apart. As the subtitle suggests, she lived in a world apart, preferred retreat from social interaction except for a very few friends once she was able to escape from a restricted continually social life. Olson says she went to an all girls’ school she loathed (Baldwin). On the Net we are told she was "renowned" for "beauty" and skilful conversation." Just the sort of clichés I distrust.

Smith hits that old Elizabethan ring. I’ll remember Madox going deep into Somerset when he leaves the war in Ondaatje’s English Patient as played so movingly by Julian Wadham. Smith’s stone in this context is Stonehenge, Avebury, Wells, Bath in that white sunlight.


Posted by: Ellen

* * *


commenting closed for this article