“Hello, Archie,” James Dickey says with sly familiarity. Archibald MacLeish, a quizzical expression on his face, looks up at him as Dickey closes in and grasps his hand.
In April 1975, when my wife and I were 21-year-old undergraduate sweethearts, we played host at the University of South Carolina to MacLeish, who was there to receive a literary award we students had created. For his part, at the ceremony, this octogenarian poet played ancient Mariner to us students’ Wedding Guest. “My best to James Dickey,” MacLeish had concluded when accepting the invitation. Dickey was the poet-in-residence and our teacher. Ashley Mace and I were both aspiring writers, and I at least was trying out voices and stances, brands of cigarettes and Scotch, and even headwear. “I hope he can be there,” and Dickey was; and Allen Tate was there in name: “Columbia rings with his name and fame,” MacLeish later observed.
In the Dickeys’ living room, with its floor-to-ceiling book shelves, there is a stack of MacLeish’s books for the poet to sign. “To James Dickey,” he writes, “man and poet.” Now when I reflect on that inscription, I hear MacLeish in an interview with Studs Terkel exalting Thomas Jefferson at Benjamin Franklin’s expense. Franklin, a Renaissance man? A “wonderfully wise old codger” for sure, but Franklin was a “dumpy little fellow,” while Jefferson at six-feet-two was a “magnificent physical specimen … a straight-up man.” Dickey played football for Clemson as MacLeish did for Yale. As MacLeish is a combat veteran of World War One, Dickey is of World War Two. Doubtless, MacLeish finds in Dickey’s person no less than in his poetry a masculine, athletic physicality that he relates to, that impresses him.
“I thought he’d be a lot taller,” Dickey later says. He had not previously met Archie. He recalls the photographs of MacLeish outdoors in The Dialogues of Archibald MacLeish and Mark Van Doren in which MacLeish is wearing a short-sleeved knit shirt that shows off his athlete’s chest and arms. “Because of his long face,” I suggest—the long upper lip and chin, high forehead, Roman nose.
Only in his temples, when he removes his navy blue beret, where there are crinkly veins and freckles, does MacLeish look at all his age, and then only amid the fluorescent lighting of the elevator at the motel where we lodged him in the reddest room he’d ever seen. With its red satin drapes and billowy valence and quilted bedspread, it looked, I said, like a bordello in a Western; and he—he wasn’t himself going to say so. One month shy of 83, MacLeish looks fit. He swims, MacLeish later explains to Ashley.
Despite that stack of books, Dickey doesn’t know “exactly what to think about MacLeish.” So he says in an in-class lecture posthumously edited by his colleague Donald Greiner: “He has a slender but very genuine lyric talent, but he also has, or has had, a right-wing rhetorical stance, which makes him less and less popular.” Whatever his rhetorical stance may be, MacLeish’s politics are New Deal liberal. In fact, when appointed librarian of Congress by President Roosevelt in 1939, MacLeish became, thanks to his condemnation by a Republican congressman, the first “fellow traveler”i —someone who associated with Communists even if he didn’t himself belong to the party. In that lecture Dickey refers derisively to some “Hallmark spectacular” or other “on television about the meaning of America” that MacLeish will “likely” have authored; he must have in mind, if only vaguely, The Eleanor Roosevelt Story, which MacLeish did write and which won the 1965 Academy Award for Best Documentary. Be this as it may, Dickey is echoing leftwing attacks by Edmund Wilson and Dwight Macdonald, among others, on MacLeish as the author of “The Irresponsibles” (1940), a “controversial pamphlet,” as the editors of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry describe it, that “charged the great writers of his generation with weakening the moral fiber of their readers and leaving them prey to Fascism.” Using that anthology, published in 1973 and still new in 1975, to prepare my introduction of MacLeish at the award ceremony, I confide beforehand that I won’t be mentioning “The Irresponsibles.” Why ever not? he asks—he’s very proud of “The Irresponsibles.” Not to belittle the magnitude of the slaughter—after all, it took the life of his younger brother—but World War One, MacLeish insists, was a “commercial war”; World War Two was “Armageddon.”
Even so, however lamentable Dickey finds MacLeish’s rhetorical stance to be, in that lecture he commends to his class “You, Andrew Marvell”—“one of the most beautiful poems that the English tongue has ever conceived of”—and when introducing “Epistle to Be Left in the Earth” attributes to MacLeish a distinctive and genuinely “haunting cadence.” (Apart from “Ars Poetica”—“A poem should not mean / But be”—“You, Andrew Marvell” is the poem that represents MacLeish in anthologies.) “MacLeish is one of the few American poets who ever really had a voice,” Dickey observes many years later, in 1992, when I am reviewing Archibald MacLeish: An American Life by Scott Donaldson for the Virginia Quarterly Review.ii “His is a kind of Anglo-Saxon elegiac Americanized voice, very sad and nostalgic and very masculine: the kind of poetry Hemingway might have written if Hemingway had been able to write poetry.” Compare Dickey’s gesture at Hemingway to Allen Tate’s observation in 1932 about “the clarity of sensuous reminiscence that suffuses the entire poem,” Conquistador, MacLeish’s long poem about the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs: “it has appeared in this age only in the prose of Ernest Hemingway, chiefly in the opening pages of A Farewell to Arms.”
“You, Andrew Marvell” and “Epistle to Be Left in the Earth” are both in New Found Land, a collection of fourteen poems published in 1930, two years after MacLeish returned to America from France, where he had moved with his wife and their two small children in 1923. Few though the poems are, New Found Land represents the culmination of MacLeish’s intentional “education as a poet.”iii “I thought MacLeish’s new book very good. Well, even better than that,” writes John Peale Bishop to Allen Tate. “He has at last shaken off the sand of the Waste Land from his feet and written at least three poems that are about as good as one gets.” Regarding that debt to The Waste Land, no doubt Bishop has in mind The Pot of Gold (1925), its mythopoeic framework and verbal echoes. Which three poems those are that “are about as good as one gets” Bishop neglects to specify: let’s say in addition to “You, Andrew Marvell” and “Epistle to Be Left in the Earth” “‘Not Marble Nor the Gilded Monuments.’” “I think he is without any doubt writing the best poetry written in America,” Ernest Hemingway asserts, pitching MacLeish to Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s, “and that he has the biggest future … Some of the poetry that he’s written all ready [sic] will be good a couple hundred years from now as it is.”
But in 1923, when MacLeish quit the practice of law in Boston to practice the art of poetry in Paris, he was by his own admission “totally ignorant of the new challenge to the poetic tradition that had been opened largely by Pound and Eliot.” In Paris MacLeish learned Italian and so read Dante’s Commedia. Later in Conquistador, MacLeish’s innovative accentual meter and use of assonance in place of rhyme in its three-line stanzas resulted in a “fluent rapidity and ease” that rivaled, in Tate’s judgment, those qualities in “the best Italian terza rima. It is the first successful example of this stanza in a long English poem,” Tate asserted. Learning French, MacLeish read in 1926, four years ahead of Eliot’s translation, Anabase by his contemporary St.-John Perse and immediately recognized it as one of those “three or four books in a writer’s life which are like the changes of direction in a long valley” and its author as a “blood brother.”iv And in Arthur Waley’s translations, he read, among other Chinese poets, Po Chü-i (Bai Juyi), to whom he refers in “American Letter,” the longest of the fourteen poems in New Found Land, that “touchstone text on questions of place,” as the poet and scholar H. R. Stoneback describes it, “a benchmark of expatriate meditation.” I’ve never read Chinese poetry, I tell MacLeish in conversation. “You must!” he insists. “Read Waley; he’s better than Pound”—the Pound, that is, of Cathay.
Nevertheless, while in law school at Harvard, newly married and needing money, MacLeish had tutored Yale men on Shakespeare and Milton, and Milton it was that inspired the mysterious, puzzling final line of “Epistle to Be Left in the Earth”: “Voices are crying an unknown name in the sky.” In Book 4 of Paradise Lost Adam explains to Eve that there are unseen millions of angels on earth and they “with ceaseless praise … behold” God’s new creation: “how often … have we heard / Celestial voices to the midnight air … Singing thir great Creator” (lines 679-684). In MacLeish’s poem the “name” is “unknown” because “none among us have seen God”: “We have thought often / The flaws of sun in the late and driving weather / Pointed to one tree but it was not so.” And as for those voices in the sky, “They are not words at all,” the epistle insists, “but the wind rising.” Are they then merely crying or wordlessly beseeching that unknown name?
In a 1932 letter to Tate, MacLeish ponders why “generation after generation of poets” should “record such facts as the fact that tilled earth has a certain smell, that dark comes late in summer, that men at midnight think of such and such things” and concludes that this question, the subject of “Epistle to Be Left in the Earth,” has “no answer.” However “strange” may be the “compulsion,” its aim, as MacLeish comes to see and insists twenty years later to his student the novelist Ilona Karmel, is not only to “testify” that “we are here” but also to “praise.” “Epistle to Be Left in the Earth,” early poem though it is and ending ambiguously as it does with maybe a plea but not a psalm, accomplishes this aim. Here the poet speaks collectively for us descendents of Cain, whose loss of God is complemented by our own laborious discovery of things of the earth as worthy of praise—praiseworthy because of their elemental materiality, and praiseworthy despite our apprehension of doom and rumors, numinous or not, that haunt us when night is “very cold.”
Years later, reminiscing with Dickey about MacLeish’s visit, I marvel at a phrase in an earlier poem, “Memorial Rain”: “the thin grating / Of ants under the grass,” which conveys the point of view of the buried soldier, MacLeish’s younger brother Kenneth. About MacLeish’s trip in 1924 from Paris to Flanders Field for the official dedication of the cemetery, “Memorial Rain” displays MacLeish’s mastery of form and rhetoric. The poem cuts back and forth from the ceremony, which MacLeish satirizes by indirectly quoting the ambassador’s vapid, formulaic testimonial, and the poet’s private, emotionally controlled response, which tracks the changing weather. The terza rima ought to hasten the event, but those cinematic cuts from the ambassador’s remarks in present time to the poet’s retrospective description of his journey create suspense—until the last line brings relief: “And suddenly, and all at once, the rain!” Dickey’s mind is elsewhere: “‘Epistle to Be Left in the Earth,’” he says, “is one of the greatest poems written in any language.”
From that book-walled living room, Mrs. Dickey, Maxine, herds us—MacLeish and Dickey, James Mann, the graduate student whose brainchild was this literary award, and Ashley and me—into the adjacent den. You can see out the picture window the pine-treed backyard, where an archery target leans against a tree, and beyond this Lake Katherine. There’s a dock, and when I’m out at the Dickeys’ some time later, I will find Dickey sitting there and nursing a 16-ounce can of Miller High Life with sextants and other to-me-mysterious instruments beside him on the wooden bench and at his feet, his bare feet with their diseased toenails. I remember then my first time with Dickey outside of class, at a hotdog restaurant near the university. Dickey recited from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (lines 25-28):
The sun came up upon the left,
Out of the sea came he!
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea …
then pointedly asked in which direction the Mariner was sailing. “South,” I said and felt as though I’d passed a crucial test. With that image in mind of Dickey on the dock amid those nautical, navigational instruments, I ask him many years later why he hadn’t made the protagonist of The Zodiac, his disappointing long poem about a drunken poet’s desperate attempt “to relate himself, by means of the stars, to the universe,” a southern suburbanite instead of a Dutchman and set it beside a manmade lake instead of amid the canals of Amsterdam. “Next time!” he says. We situate ourselves—MacLeish and Dickey, Jim Mann and Ashley and I—in steel-and-black-leather Wassily-style chairs around a huge glass-topped knee-high table. Maxine serves bloody marys.
Dickey has only recently completed The Zodiac, which is based on a poem by the Dutch poet Hendrik Marsman. With some enthusiasm Dickey describes The Zodiac for MacLeish much as I’ve done above by quoting from the prefatory note to the 1976 Doubleday edition. If MacLeish could know that The Zodiac in its limited edition would feature this epigraph by Neil Armstrong: “The earth is travelling … in the direction of the constellation Hercules to some unknown destination in the cosmos”—he might appear even more enthralled. “There are many stars,” he wrote in “Epistle to Be Left in the Earth,” “we are drifting / North by the Great Bear.” But when Dickey informs us that The Zodiac will be coming out in Playboy, MacLeish, as he later confides, is appalled. In fact, the poem appears nowhere in print until a local publisher of reference books issues that limited edition in September 1976.
Among MacLeish’s poems “The Reef Fisher” is one of Dickey’s personal favorites. Won’t MacLeish read it, Dickey asks. He explains that for a long time his younger son, now in high school and a basketball star, was sea-obsessed. (Dickey, who seems to have wanted to stay a 19-year-old jock forever, according to his older son, Christopher, has begun feeling very competitive toward Kevin.) Dickey even addressed a poem to the boy: “Giving a Son to the Sea.” “Gentle blondness and the moray eel go at the same time / On in my mind as you grow … Your room is full / Of flippers and snorkels and books / On spearfishing.” Dickey’s poem has an ecological theme: the need for human beings, due to a population explosion, to adapt to life undersea. It also offers a parable of a parent’s letting go as the child matures toward a darkly unfamiliar life apart. MacLeish’s poem “The Reef Fisher,” Dickey implies, is a special favorite of his because it’s also a favorite poem of Kevin’s. And, as Dickey points out in that in-class lecture, “it’s in that exquisite MacLeishian cadence.”
“The Reef Fisher” is also one of maybe a dozen later poems whose imagery connects them to MacLeish’s winters on Antigua. Some of these, notably “Calypso’s Island,” appear in the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1952 Collected Poems ; others, notably “Dr. Sigmund Freud Discovers the Sea Shell,” in Songs for Eve (1954), MacLeish’s best book of all new poems after New Found Land. There on that island in the West Indies, MacLeish played croquet and drank rum punch with wealthy fellow members of the Mill Reef Club while honing anew, after a decade in Washington that “silenced” him “as a poet,” the craft of poetry, an enterprise that must have mystified those corporate executives much as it did my father. v It pleased my father to meet MacLeish since here was a poet who’d had a career in government service such as he, an attorney with the Veterans Administration, could envision for his would-be poet son.
Obviously moved by Dickey’s request, MacLeish obliges in an accent of cultivated lyricism. He observes by the way that “The Reef Fisher” is dedicated and spoken to his own son Kenneth, who is a SCUBA-diver. (This, the poet’s older son, the eldest of his three children, is named, of course, for MacLeish’s younger brother, the naval aviator shot down and killed in World War One.) The poem’s scenario is archetypal, its symbolism fusing elements from two mythological narratives: the quest of Jason for the Golden Fleece and of Perseus for the head of Medusa. In the poem the son is spearfishing—the object of his quest is “the fabulous / Fish of fishes” (the poem’s Golden Fleece, signifying such masculine attributes as wealth and regal authority)—while the poet-father addresses to him a series of encouraging imperatives and then this warning: to “fear that weed, as though alive, / That lifts and follows with the wave”—
The Moray lurks for all who dive
Too deep within the coral cave.
Once tooth of his has touched the bone
Men turn among those stones to stone.
The last two lines, in which the moray eel becomes a tress of the Gorgon as well as the wakeful dragon with its martial teeth guarding the Golden Fleece—those lines, MacLeish reveals, have now for him a painful poignancy: this son, a senior editor of National Geographic, suffers from bone cancer.
Two years later, a letter from MacLeish (5 Sept. 1977) in reply to one of mine begins: “Thank you for the vivid account of your Grand Tour which reached me a little before our world fell apart.” (That Grand Tour of Ashley’s and mine had taken us in five weeks from England, through France, to Italy.) A follow-up note explains: “My son Kenneth died on August 5 after five years of agony. Bone Cancer. I think you told me once you knew my poem called the Reef Fisher [sic].” To MacLeish the warning that concludes the poem seems to have been uncannily prophetic, maybe even indicative of blame—as if that prophetic warning, while expressive of paternal care, masked the father’s competitive stance toward the son.
Such a Freudian interpretation is encouraged by MacLeish’s younger son William’s description of the sometimes fractious relationship between the father and his older son. To Bill, the baby in the family, the friction derived from the soldier father’s absence from home during World War One when Kenneth was an infant. When he returned, the boy was “a talking toddler”: “When Captain MacLeish came back, Kenny took one look at the stranger with the uniform and the mustache and said, ‘It is not a doggie.’ The son had had his mother all to himself for months, while the father had nothing but letters to ease his yearnings. The two males, small and tall, looked at each other and growled.”
If James Dickey was there for MacLeish’s visit, Allen Tate was too—if only in name. “I am writing Tate to tell him Columbia rings with his name and fame,” MacLeish writes me after his visit. “‘When Tate was here!’” he marvels. My contribution to Tate’s fame was to quote Robert Lowell, who asks of Tate in one of his Notebook sonnets, “Who else would sire twins at sixty-eight”; or rather to misquote Lowell, substituting “could” for “would.” “Any man could,” MacLeish snapped. I’d meant to be amusingly salacious, remembering as I was what George Garrett confessed after Tate’s reading at the university in 1973: he couldn’t keep from thinking that there was the “satyr of the age.”
Quite apart from Garrett’s quip, that reading of Tate’s had been a revelation to me, introducing me as it did to his “harshly formed, powerful poems,” as Randall Jarrell describes them, with “their tone of somewhat forbidding authority,” several of which lodged in my memory—not only scenarios but also images and even phrases from “The Mediterranean,” “Aeneas at Washington,” “The Wolves,” and “The Swimmers.” I had studied and fallen in love with John Crowe Ransom’s poems in my first English course at the university, and there Tate’s name had arisen in such a reverential way that when I came on the poster taped to the west entrance of my dormitory, announcing that “America’s most distinguished man of letters” would receive the university’s Award for Distinction in Literature and read from his work, I retrieved a suit (navy blue with a red-and-white windowpane) from home and became the only student suitably attired for the occasion. “Allen would have appreciated that,” Peter Taylor later told me—my dressing up, that is; for Tate had been rather a dandy. My impression of the man himself had not gibed with Taylor’s characterization, perhaps because Tate, with his “enormous brow,” as Lowell depicts it, “cannonball head of a snowman,” was skin and bones and his left sock, when he crossed his legs at the reception, drooped around a hairless, white ankle. I held out my program for him to sign, then crouched beside him and, wanting to connect with the man, asked how “Mr. Ransom” was. “Well,” Tate said in a reedy smoker’s voice, “John’s 85.” I knew that, yes. “And he’s revising his poems.” At least he couldn’t “expunge” them, Tate had told him, from the anthologies. “I can’t help believing it’s some senile compunction driving John to reject his early work.”
Tate fished from the right side-pocket of his jacket a pack of Winstons, shook one out, and lit it, whereupon I switched from Kent 100s, the brand of that favorite professor who’d taught me Ransom, to Winston—as later, when MacLeish orders Scotch before his dinner of lamb chops at The Market Restaurant (“Famous for Food” and “featuring Maine lobsters and U.S. prime Western steaks”), I resolve that stomach Scotch I will and it will be Johnny Walker … “Red or Black,” the waitress asks MacLeish: “Black,” he says, and “You thought otherwise?” his tone implies. Of course I can’t afford it. (Less unaffordable, the Dickeys’ Scotch is Cutty Sark.)
“ Poor devil,” MacLeish continues in that letter. “I can’t bear to think of the anguish he has to face.” Tate is bedridden with emphysema and losing his sight to macular degeneration. “You used the phrase ‘man of letters’ when you introduced me. It belongs to him. He is the last real American ‘man of letters.’ A beautiful and, when objective, just and honorable mind—a beautiful instrument. The rest are scholars which is a grand thing to be but different.” (Though Tate’s reviews of MacLeish’s early verse were encouraging and, on balance, admiring, his “critical vocabulary,” in particular “success” and “failure,” rankled MacLeish.vi) “I think of him constantly—and the months ahead. God I wish I could do something for him!”
Why, MacLeish wonders aloud (the silver medal, which I’ve presented him, hanging from a ribbon around his neck)—why are we students here listening to this old man whom we’ll surely never see again? And he proceeds to draw an analogy between himself as the ancient Mariner and us as the Wedding Guest in Coleridge’s famous ballad—an analogy that threads through his recitation of his poems while the question itself goes unanswered.
How deeply he’d have been willing to explore the analogy and how he’d have answered the question who can say for sure? Here’s a guess. Late in the poem by Coleridge, as the Mariner concludes his account of the voyage and the doomed ship’s return to port in England, where it sinks in the harbor, he tells the mesmerized Wedding Guest about his encounter with a Hermit, how he entreated this Hermit to “shrieve” him—to hear his confession and to impose appropriate penance—whereupon the Hermit bluntly asked, “What manner of man art thou?” It was then, as Coleridge notes in the margin, that “the penance of life [fell] on him.” That penance is, when comes a sudden pain, to tell his tale—a pain such as the Hermit’s question caused. As the Mariner explains (lines 578-581),
Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woeful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale;
And then it left me free
— free, that is, from agony. My guess is that MacLeish read the Hermit’s question not only as an urgent invitation to the Mariner to account for himself as a man but also as an imperative that implies a philosophical question: as MacLeish’s sphinx puts it in “What Riddle Asked the Sphinx,” a later poem, “What riddle is it has for answer, Man?” If the Mariner’s tale presents an account of himself as an individual man, perhaps the telling of the tale—this seeking to account—offers in a dramatic way a response to that ontological question about the human being: “Man is creature to whom meaning matters,” MacLeish asserts in “The Infinite Reason,” another later poem.
My guess is also that MacLeish might have read Coleridge’s marginal gloss—“the penance of life falls on him”—to mean that the Mariner’s “life sentence” is a life lived through the telling of a tale whose inciting incident—“I shot the Albatross”—expresses a nihilistic willfulness that is uniquely human and mysterious: a life lived through the telling and retelling of that tale because the mystery of the psyche persists. In “Dr. Sigmund Freud Discovers the Sea Shell,” MacLeish asks about the oceanic sound that issues from that shell, a symbol of the fathomless psyche, “what surf / Of what far sea upon what unknown ground / Troubles forever with that asking sound? / What surge is this whose question never ceases?” Life lived in such a way as responds to the question “What manner of man art thou?” is penance for being “man.”
MacLeish, I’m guessing, regarded not only his own recitation of his poems but also the making of them as “penance”: “Man I am: poet must be,” he asserts in “Reasons for Music,” yet another later poem, and he draws an analogy between his labor, the task of man-as-poet, and the activity of coral:
Why do we labor at the poem?
Out of the turbulence of the sea
Flower by brittle flower, rises
The coral reef that calms the water.
As the reef “calms the water” (although it does not still the surge of surf), the Mariner’s tale, in the process of its telling, calms his turbulent psyche. Time and again, it frees him from the “woeful agony” aroused by the Hermit’s question—does so by testifying to the conversion of that unfathomable nihilistic willfulness to a love that imitates God’s love of “man and bird and beast … All things both great and small” (lines 613-615), thereby establishing order as only the “obdurate” human mind can do: “Tell me,” the water asks the wind in the last of MacLeish’s Songs for Eve, “what is man / That immortal order can?”
Fundamentally, of course, that question about himself as man is as pertinent to the Wedding Guest as to the Mariner—and to us mesmerized students as to MacLeish, whose triumph is “the old man’s triumph, to pursue / Impossibility”—the impossibility of accounting definitively for himself as man—“and take it, too.” (Here I pull out of context lines from “‘The Wild Old Wicked Man,’” a still later poem.)
Made of “solid silver,” according to a note in the program, that medal which I hung around MacLeish’s neck had been designed and cast by a sculptor in Camden. A non-traditional student at the university, Lewis T. Chapman had made a career in the Air Force and retired at the rank of colonel. Irregularly shaped—not at all a conventional round medallion—the medal bore on one side a bas-relief portrait of MacLeish, as the previous year’s medal did of Robert Lowell. “I look like Beethoven,” Lowell mumbled. MacLeish remarked that he looked like Eisenhower. Engraved on the back there was “MacLeish” misspelled: “McLeish.”
Some weeks after MacLeish’s visit, the medal has been engraved anew or else recast—I don’t know which—and so I drive with Ashley the 40 minutes east from Columbia to historic Camden, historic because it was the site of the worst defeat of the Continental Army by the British, under Lord Cornwallis, in the Revolutionary War.
For lunch the Colonel recommends DeBruhl’s Café, a typical small-town diner (which is still, 40 years later, in business). At least one of us, Ashley or I, must have eaten fish: in the poem of mine that emerges from the occasion, “lunchtime’s fishbone, splintered near / an eyetooth, had begun to throb.” Anyway, there in the parking lot, as it troubles us to find, is a dead crow hanging by its feet from the rear bumper of a pick-up truck, its wings outspread.
In that poem, which Daryl Hine publishes in Poetry in 1976, I am trying out authorial stances if not also voices. The accentual measures I take from Yeats and Dickey; the central metaphor of original sin as a dark garment derives from a phrase, “the human fabric,” of Robert Penn Warren’s; another phrase, “grain-tinctured,” which describes the dawn, I steal from The Prelude; and the stance I owe to Tate, whose poems I’ve been avidly reading, at least the ones in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, where a footnote on the concluding lines of “Last Days of Alice” quotes Martin Luther’s directive: “Sin boldly”—which delights me, growing up Lutheran.
To “sin boldly”—this is the speaker’s implicit directive to “you” in “Outside DeBruhl’s Café.” For the speaker of the poem the dead crow symbolizes the “certain dark” that opposes the order of things that daylight renders visible—or to put the opposition in a theological way, the nothingness that opposes being, which proceeds from God. Whoever has killed the crow and hung it upside down from the bumper has made a prideful display of self-righteousness, or so the speaker of the poem interprets his motive. At the sight of the crow you feel yourself to be in the grip of a darkness that only Christ, like a hound with the “terrible grace of his nails,” can undo. The concluding lines of “Last Days of Alice” read in part: “O God of our flesh, return us to Your wrath, / Let us be evil could we enter in / Your grace”—lines that fairly well summarize my speaker’s stance.
In another poem, “Winter Mask,” Tate poses this question: “why it is man hates / His own salvation.” Perhaps it is an obscure revulsion of being with God that impels the Mariner to shoot the albatross; perhaps it is his captivation by nothingness that the dead albatross then comes to symbolize when it hangs like a crucifix from the Mariner’s neck. This is, in any case, what my poem’s crow, upside down like Peter crucified, embodies. What “Outside DeBruhl’s Café” owes to MacLeish, it owes to his Mariner.
Along with two other poems of mine, “Outside DeBruhl’s Café” appears in an issue of Poetry that features early poems by Ezra Pound. If MacLeish reads Poetry, surely these will have caught his eye. Whether in fact they have—whether he’s read my poems—I never know; nor do I know whether Dickey ever reads them. One of them, “Midnight Oil,” pays such an obvious stylistic homage to Robert Lowell that I hesitate to show the poems to Dickey, who described Lowell as “My oldest friend”—portentous pause—“and rival” when Lowell accepted the invitation of us students to receive the university’s Award for Distinction in Literature in 1974. Years later, when I do tell Dickey about the crow outside DeBruhl’s Café, he relates an incident: when he was serving as poetry consultant at the Library of Congress and living in Leesburg, Virginia, he was driving home across Key Bridge and a seagull flashed in front of the car. Once home, he found it “crucified,” lodged between the grill bars of that maroon, 1966 Corvette Stingray. He pondered a poem about it, but never came to write it.
“Crucified seagull. Shades of ‘The Ancient Mariner,’ one of his favorite poems,” Dickey’s son Christopher observes when I report the conversation. Surely Dickey also made the connection! When I quote to Chris that quiz of a stanza about the course of the ship as it relates to the sun, he responds, “For reasons that probably had to do with WWII and the real carnage he saw and imagined, the lines I think that most affected him were ‘The many men so beautiful! / And they all dead did lie’” (lines 236-237). Now I am pondering the poem as I conceive it that Dickey never wrote—in which not a sailor but rather an Air Corps veteran and amateur archer crucifies by accident a seagull on the grill of his sports car, and this act, because it triggers the memory of the Mariner’s “many men,” indicts him, who survived his own comrades-in-arms, for their deaths: “The dead against the dead and on the silent ground / The silent slain,” as MacLeish famously depicts the dead in France whom he survived.
Why is it that for 40 years MacLeish has traveled with me? There is that haunting cadence, yes. There are some two dozen poems I love, maybe especially “Eleven,” “‘Not Marble Nor the Gilded Monuments,’” “You, Andrew Marvell,” “Epistle to Be Left in the Earth,” “Cook County,” “Calypso’s Island,” “The Old Man to the Lizard,” “What Riddle Asked the Sphinx,” “Captivity of the Fly,” “Rainbow at Evening.”
There is also that couple, those two sweethearts whom MacLeish invited to have breakfast with him the morning of his flight home. In a letter two years later, right as Ashley and I were embarking on our Grand Tour, MacLeish wrote, “I can see you both at that table,” and since he could, I see us there as well; and because, this morning after his reading, he’s still to me the ancient Mariner and we are his mesmerized guests, I picture that breakfast—I ordered a western omelet and feel embarrassed by my extravagance when the bill arrives and he takes it for granted that he is treating us—I see it as a feast, a wedding feast of course, that binds us aspiring writers to a life of writing, which becomes a marriage of continuous critique-as-courtship as I make my poems and Ashley Mace Havird makes hers, her poetry and her fiction.
No doubt that invitation to breakfast was MacLeish’s cordial way of ensuring that his ride got him to the airport with time to spare.
Forty years later, and for the first time since 1977, we’re in Paris, Ashley and I; it’s rained and now a diaphanous shimmer suffuses the air—we’re on the Quai de Montebello, right about to cross the bridge, the Pont au Double, to Notre-Dame when we sight it, a rainbow, two rainbows in fact, the one above the other scarcely visible, spanning the quai and descending somewhere behind the cathedral … and I find myself reciting from memory:
Rainbow over evening, my
Iris of the after-sky,
show me, now the gales are by,
where the gold is.
…………………………When the rain
crazed the whirling weather vane
I never wondered. I knew then.
Gold was where the heart could find.
Now the heart is out of mind
in this late hour your seal has signed,
show me, arc-en-ciel, bright bow,
where the gold is hidden now.
A late poem, appearing in “The Wild Old Wicked Man” and Other Poems (1968), MacLeish’s last book of all new poems, “Rainbow at Evening” is an old man’s poem, depicting as it does the speaker at sundown after a lifetime’s day of rain and wind from every quarter, depicting perhaps (impersonal though the poem is) the poet himself, MacLeish, whose mind was never quiet—“I cannot remember a quiet period in the life of my mind … It was either anguish at the sense of sin, or it was intellectual doubt, or it was … rage at [social] injustice”—whom chance took after those five years in Paris as a poet to one career after another: to Fortune magazine as a journalist in 1929, to the Library of Congress as librarian in 1939, to the State Department as assistant secretary of state for cultural and public affairs in 1944, to Harvard University as Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory in 1949; who knew in his heart that a poet was “what I really wanted to be and was”; who found fame as he desired (“I suppose you start out … with that lust for fame to which Keats confessed and to which, I guess, we should all confess—all of us who practice an art, certainly,”) but who came in old age to “wonder on occasion why that poem [Conquistador],” whose 1933 Pulitzer affirmed that the journalist at Fortune was a poet, “has slipped so completely out of sight”; who asks now that the “gales are by,” “show me, arc-en-ciel, bright bow, / where the gold is hidden now”—where indeed, that off-rhyme seems to add.vii
“Your plans for France are exciting even at 85! I envy you,” MacLeish wrote in April of 1977 before Ashley and I set out on our Grand Tour. Later, in September, he observed: “Paris has indeed changed since our day but the fundamental underlying city is still there in spite of the irrelevant and altogether ridiculous sky-scraper.” No doubt MacLeish was referring contemptuously to the recently constructed (1969-1973) Tour Montparnasse, then the tallest skyscraper in France. As for the city that’s still there, the building at 85, boulevard Saint-Michel “up opposite the École des Mines with the Luxembourg out in front” where MacLeish settled in 1923 with Ada, his wife, and their little boy, Kenneth, and infant daughter, Mimi, “in a cold-water flat on the fourth floor” is thereviii, and in the stone wall of the École Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Paris, which fronts on the Boule’Mich’, there are shell-holes from its bombardment during World War One, in January 1918, and during the liberation of Paris in August 1944; and there is the building at 44, rue du Bac where the MacLeishes rented a pied-à-terre in 1925 and which a plaque identifies as the house where André Malraux wrote La Condition Humaine (1933).
La Samaritaine, however, that enormous Art Deco department store on the Right Bank, near the eastern tip of the Ile de Cité, which opened on the site in 1900, closed for business in 2005. When Ashley and I were here in 1977 and the weather was, while not bone-numbing and wet as it had been in London, still chilly and damp and I was coming down with a cold, I had—yes, I was on a quest—to buy a beret, but not just any beret: one like MacLeish had worn, unselfconsciously, no matter his attire, sports coat or the three-piece suit he donned for the reading. (Dickey favored wide-brimmed hats, but while I’d coveted that black felt hat of his with “The Shadow” incised on the sweatband and even tried it on, I never could have sported it for real.) So there we were, Ashley and I, on which of La Samaritaine’s eleven floors who can remember where there were bins of berets, as you won’t find anywhere at all forty years later in Paris. But the sizes! There were two numbers stamped on the sweatband. As the elderly clerk explained, who spoke no English and chuckled whenever I spoke French, the first number gave the head-size, the other the “plateau”—he positioned his hands as best as he could around that part of the beret, the excess fabric, which folds. Mine had to be a snug beret—a peasant’s beret was what MacLeish had worn and not a floppy artist’s. The clerk rummaged the bins, even the drawers beneath the bins. Time and again—until the one sat on my head above my own long face in the mirror—he’d point: “Pure laine,” pronouncing slowly the words on the label, “imperméable.”
i Donaldson is this essay’s principal source for biographical information.
ii “Bestrider of the Earth,” Virginia Quarterly Review, vol. 69, summer 1993, pp. 556-562.
iii Direct quotations from MacLeish on matters autobiographical derive, unless otherwise noted, from Drabeck and Ellis.
iv Letter to Princess Bassiano (Marguerite Caetani) (1 Jan. 1927) in Winnick.
v For MacLeish’s description of the effect of his career in government on his life in poetry, see Drabeck and Ellis.
vi Letter to Allen Tate (c. 16 Feb. 1927) in Winnick.
vii “I cannot remember …” (MacLeish as quoted by William H. MacLeish); “what I really wanted …” (Drabeck and Ellis); “I suppose …” (DeMott); “has slipped so …” (Drabeck and Ellis).
viii For MacLeish’s description of the flat, see Drabeck and Ellis, where “École des Mines” is mistranscribed as “Accordimine.”
“Archibald MacLeish talks with Studs Terkel on WFMT; 1960/11/21.” Pop Up Archive, www.popuparchive.com/collections/938/items/40909. Accessed 21 Jan. 2017.
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