Poetry Lecture Given by Eli Siegel

"People Leave Each Other in Poetry"
A report of an Aesthetic Realism class 
by Lynette Abel

The lecture I report on was given originally by Eli Siegel in two parts, on February 14th and 21st, 1968.  Titled, "People Leave Each Other in Poetry," it was a stirring example of the Aesthetic Realism idea that poetry shows what it means to like the world on an honest basis, and that even the most painful, unlikable things can be given honest form in poems.  "A sign that the world is cared for when one is suffering," Mr. Siegel once said, "is that the exact expression of it can still be musical." 

     And as he began this talk he said, "The two most popular subjects in poetry are death and love. While persons wonder about death, they also wonder why love changes.  And there are many poems having to do with the difficulty of love, the leaving of one person by another, the feeling love was changed from what one hoped for." 

     Using The English Poets, an anthology edited by Thomas Humphrey Ward, Mr. Siegel read the anonymous Scottish ballad, "Waly, Waly," which appeared around 1727, and which he said is great.  It is a girl's lament: she is going to have a child, and her lover has left her.  "This man was like a tree that I trusted," she says, "but when I leaned against it, it broke." The poem begins: 

O waly waly up the bank, 
     O waly waly down the brae, 
And waly, waly, yon burn-side,
     Where I and my love were wont to gae! 
I lean'd my back unto an aik, 
     I thocht it was a trustie tree; 
But first it bow'd and syne it brak',-- 
     Sae my true love did lichtlie me.
     Love is only pleasant, "bonnie" when it's new, the girl says: why should I comb my hair or care how I look now? My love has forsaken me and says he'll never love me more! 
O waly waly, but love be bonnie 
     A little time while it is new; 
But when it's auld it waxeth cauld, 
     And fadeth awa' like the morning dew. 
O wherefore should I busk my heid, 
     Or wherefore should I kame my hair? 
For my true love has me forsook, 
     And says he'll never lo'e me mair.
      Mr. Siegel then spoke about why this poem is great as art.  "The melody of the words is poignant and bitter," he said.  In the first line, "O waly, waly, up the bank," there is, he explained, "a wandering that is thoughtless or careless because a girl is in grief."  The line is poetic because "the sound...goes along with what is said or the meaning."  And he continued: "The music here helps the knowledge of the world."  In the last stanza, the girl says if she had known that love could be so bad, she wouldn't have gone for it. She longs for the child to be born so she can die with more ease: 
But had I wist before I kiss'd 
     That love had been so ill to win, 
I'd lock'd my heart in a case o' goud, 
     And pinn'd it wi' a siller pin. 
Oh, oh! if my young babe were born, 
     And set upon the nurse's knee; 
And I mysel' were dead and gane, 
     And the green grass growing over me!
     "This is an example," said Mr. Siegel, "of intensity and passion equalled by metrical, artistic control." This girl has her grief, but whoever wrote this ballad gave it beautiful form. 

     The next poem Mr. Siegel read tells of a man being left by a woman.  "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" by the 19th century English poet John Keats belongs, Mr. Siegel said, "with the undoubted heights" of poetry.  It is, he continued "the greatest single poem" on the subject of people leaving each other, and is "about a man's suffering. It begins: 

'O What can ail thee Knight at arms 
     Alone and palely loitering? 
The sedge has withered from the Lake 
     And no birds sing!' 
As the poem continues, the Knight answers: 
'I met a Lady in the Meads 
     Full beautiful, a faery's child 
Her hair was long, her foot was light 
     And her eyes were wild. 

'I made a garland for her head, 
     And bracelets too, and fragrant zone; 
She look'd at me as she did love, 
     And made sweet moan.'

     There is passionate feeling here--this lady seems to be giving herself utterly, but there is also a strange foreboding, a sense of some deception going on.  The lady lulls the knight to sleep and he dreams of "pale kings, and princes," and "Warriors, death pale," who warn him that he has been enthralled by the beautiful lady without mercy: "La belle Dame sans mercy / Hath thee in thrall!" 

     Mr. Siegel discussed each of Keats' 12 stanzas, describing why this poem  is beautiful--how it puts together opposites.   He explained: 

Two kinds of sound correspond to the two ways reality shows itself.  [There is] the lingering, enveloping, permeating sound, and then the sound that is sudden, the staccato, crackling sound....These two things are of life itself, like the flow of blood and the heart beat. 
Part 2 of "People Leave Each Other in Poetry" on next page

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