Leave Each Other in Poetry"
A report of an Aesthetic Realism
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
O waly waly up the bank,
O waly waly down
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!
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:
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.
"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
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
And I mysel' were dead and gane,
And the green grass
growing over me!
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:
As the poem continues, the Knight answers:
'O What can ail thee Knight at arms
Alone and palely
The sedge has withered from the Lake
And no birds sing!'
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
'I met a Lady in the Meads
a faery's child
Her hair was long, her foot was light
And her eyes were
'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.'
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.
2 of "People Leave Each Other in Poetry" on next page