Edwin H. Arberry: Oddity and Enigma

(Three poems by Edwin Arberry, introduced by Sam Buntz)

Idling away an October evening in Harvard’s Widener Library, I was searching through some of the older first editions of late 19th and early 20th Century American literature, focusing particularly on poetry, when I stumbled upon something that actually commanded my attention.  This period was an odd time for verse in America, coming at the tail end of the Gilded Age, which was, strictly speaking, not the most poetic of ages (insofar as an age even can be poetic) – yet many interesting minor poets were writing, and almost no major ones.  It was the waning days of the “Pre-Raphaelite” movement, and imitators of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne were legion – perhaps, in England or America, the only truly major poet writing in this time was William Butler Yeats.  In America, one could mention the striking yet relatively minor work of E. A. Robinson and Trumbull Stickney.  Nonetheless, one frequently hears little to nothing of Edwin H. Arberry, a young, Harvard-educated poet, who died at age 29, but another fatality on the Western Front.  Yet his hopes for his future remained high to the end, suffice it to say that in his notebooks—also published, though out of print, and available at the more thoroughly stacked university libraries—he predicted, for apparently occult/quasi-religious reasons, that if he had lived to 33, he would’ve written the major poem of his era.

It was, of course, Arberry’s collected poems that I found that evening — and, despite his avowedly minor status, perhaps Arberry has something to offer us still – his somewhat watery and effete Aestheticism/belated-Romanticism and occult obsessions may strike us as quaint, yet they undoubtedly possess a certain antiquarian value — but I believe there’s something more.  Since his poems are, at this point, very much in the public domain, I’ve decided to put some of them up on this blog, taking full advantage of my long-term loan of his collected poems and notebooks.

A further brief biographical note might be in order: Arberry was born in Akron, Ohio, in 1888.  As a child, he evidently suffered from recurrent bouts of sickness, which made him into a voracious reader.  Inspired by the still-popular Victorian poets of the time—primarily Tennyson, Swinburne, Fitzgerald, Rossetti, and, to a lesser degree, Browning—he began writing poetry around the age of 12.  As a high school student, his facility with Greek and Latin proved remarkable, leading to a Harvard scholarship.  The years in Cambridge—he, in fact, attended at the same time as T.S. Eliot and Conrad Aiken (though poetically they were of a later generation)—resulted in much literary conversation and society, and the publication of a fairly impressive first book of poetry at age 20, in 1909.  Around the same time, he experienced what he, with characteristic self-conscious melodrama, refers to as a “doomed passion” for a young woman attending Radcliffe, Cecilia Thorpe.  For the next decade, he was to write steadily and habitually, until he was drafted to fight in the First World War, and perished in the summer of 1918, during The Second Battle of the Marne. If he or she can find it, the reader is directed to his Collected Poems, edited by W. Randall Patterson.

The three poems presented on this occasion represent Arberry in his most typical, lyrical mode—assured in his lack of assurance, pushing on through vales of mystery in a twilight haze.  They’re from the first book of poems, Fountain Pennies:

“In a Violet Hour”

I hold on to my fortunes in a white-knuckled dusk
Though stars creep up to assert their claim,
And all the gray curtains are drawn down at once
In a prelude of dream—set before the game.

That big brown bird who cries in the woods,
Tonight cries on the city’s silver steeple,
Crying for reasons of vague articulation—
With no bearing on the mass of sleeping people.

Short drawn breaths and long drawn sighs
Punctuate all the precincts of night—
Disconsolate, beneath pale sheets,
In accents of terror or tones of delight.

And I sleep too, hearing only murmurs
That drizzle down the wall at a slow, thick pace
And hear too a siren’s dying whirr
Rebounding up to the moon’s scarred face.

And midnight hefts no fidelity
As all lovers are misaligned
In the commingling adulteries of dream
Which flow as blackened rivers wind…

And a pale crab crawls backwards in her mind
And hides within a sunken cave,
As the moonlight spreads a covetous beam
On the crest of a jeweled wave.

“Vagrant”

Why ask me that question, when it’s clear
That only the frost-burnt roses know,
And the dried-out bird baths when the moon hangs near,
Before, with a silver giggle, she moves to go?

Why ask me, standing with my pockets out-turned,
Drinking only from metal fountains, eating crust—
Do my ears seem attentive and my eyes seem learned?
They aren’t.  I am what I am.  I do what I must.

I, vagrant, marshal my impressions with a smile
And throw them haphazard wherever they’ll stick—
I stagger down the cobblestones of the Royal Mile,
Glutted with memory, clutch my sides and feel sick.

It’s left to you to add the Midrash, Hadith, and lore—
I gather up the catch, spill it out, and then snore.

“A Castle in the Air”

Say,
‘Go wishes—fetch, and bring
Bricks of ethereal nothing
So with your matter I can build
Castles I dreamed—but never willed.

‘Each brick is formed and packed
By turning where you sit
From the stubborn fact
To whim, caprice, and wit.

‘Tower them one by one
And mortar them with care,
Then leave them in the sun
Till they stand in the air.’

And to this fortress you can climb
Out from the frozen depths of time
And look on the ground surrounding
Where time is still abounding:

Gaze through the hazy distance far,
And through the past that you’d forgot,
At the desert where you are
From the castle where you are not.

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