Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Man Who Died Twice

A Tribute

Ron Penner headshot by Ron Penner

E. A. Robinson

"The Man Who Died Twice" by Edwin Arlington Robinson is the most unforgettable poem I have ever read; the kind of poem which once read, remains with you for the rest of ones life. Nor, apparently, is this opinion unique to me, for it received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1925, his "Collected Works" —which in the book I have in front of me runs to 1488 pages — won the same prize in 1922.

The poem attempts what must be almost impossible, to make a character with the most improbable name of Fernando Nash come alive and be believable in a very long poem. For he was "meant" to be one of the Immortals of musical composition, to rank along with Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, yet he never achieved this — his daimon. He destroyed his first two symphonies, and he died unknown, save for the narrator of the poem.

Robinson presaged this poem in three other poems that I am aware of. In "George Crabbe" a sonnet in honor of the 17th and 18th century English metaphysical poet he had written in the sestet:

From time to time the vigor of his name
Against us like a finger for the shame
And emptiness of what our souls reveal
In books that are as altars were we kneel
To consecrate the flicker, not the flame."

E. A. Robinson
A younger E. A. Robinson

And in "Flammonde", the man who came to play the Prince of Castaways, he wrote these lines:

"Rarely at once will nature give
The power to be Flammonde and live."
And in "The Man Against the Sky" he catalogues all of the ways a man may meet an inevitable fate.
"Rarely at once will nature give
The power to be Flammonde and live."

What did Robinson mean by these lines and how do they provide a window into this poem. "The Man Who Died Twice," first to all died to the vast creative powers that were within him, and then died physically. When I was sixteen, a man whom I shall never forget came to direct the play "McBeth" and act as the character McDuff in the play for a private school I attended on Vancouver Island. The headmaster, in my opinion, used this man to publicize the school. He had taught there previously as a rest cure from alcoholism for two or three years, although I did not attend then. He would regularly scandalize much of the staff by his unorthodox behavior. I remember that I felt like shouting to them, 'Stop criticizing this man! What right have you to do so? Do you not have a conception of how difficult it is for Ian Thorne simply to be Ian Thorne?' But I must say that I never had the temerity to utter those words. For I sensed someone in whom searing fires of creativity were burning either to destruction or remarkable creativity. And although, thereafter, he wrote, directed and acted in major productions for the CBC and the BBC, the world barely knows of him, and I cannot but believe that for all of his attainments he ultimately failed to achieve his potential. And this is echoed in this poem in these lines:

"But there he shook his head
In hopeless pity — not for the doomed, I saw,
But rather for the sanguine ordinary
That has no devil and so controls itself,
Having nothing in especial to control."
How could Robinson possibly have made this character come alive and become believable, a being so remote from all the rest of humanity? Could he have faced a greater challenge? The answer is complex and various. First there is Robinson's almost flawless use of poetic diction and symbolic imagery and rhythm, although in this poem he creates a strange poetic imagery, all his own, of which you should only ask that it all coheres and attains to an integrated whole, which it does. (Robinson was never one to believe that the simplest word is best; he utilized the full diapason of the English language to remarkable effect.) To give but one tiny example:
"And he was too far sundered from his faith
And his ambition, buried somewhere together
Behind him to go stumbling back for them,
Only to find a shadowy grave that held
So little and so much."
"sundered", "stumbling back", "a shadowy grave". I would have to quote much more to really indicate why these are just the right words in the right place. Then in the middle of the poem there are a series a terrible maledictions which Fernando Nash hurls at himself until prevented from going further by sheer exhaustion. And as he lies dying, having not eaten in three weeks and barely able to move, a whole series of hallucinations and visions come over him in a titanic effort to perceive his final fate. There is no thought there, only experience from the depths of the Unconscious. And if there are hallucinations, it matters not, for they are milestones on a spiritual journey that knows the heights of ecstasy alternating with the depths of despair, the sublime and utter degradation. And they are holistic with their own internal logic. As when Mozart composed "Don Giovanni" or his "Requiem" did he pause at various stages to ask 'Now what comes next?' No! For such works would never have been written if he had not, somehow, seen them in their entirety from the beginning. Just so, Fernando Nash experiences his final hours as though a great work of Art were unfolding before him. He experiences a series of mystic visions of terrible intensity which seem natural to him but which are denied to all but the very few. Thus Robinson somehow makes this extraordinary character come alive. And I recall a televised review of the life and oeuvre of Ezra Pound in which the literary critic remarked that it was not enough to have arresting and glittering lines and phrases sparkle through his Cantos, but that he had to sustain it from the beginning to the very end, not to deviate or wander to any length from a sure path that he had set but to continually maintain the continuity of the whole. This Robinson also achieves in this poem.

MacDougal Alley, Greenwich Village
MacDougal Alley, Greenwich Village where Robinson lived

And there is another element of his life that transcends ordinary human experience. He "knew" from boyhood that he was destined to write his Symphony Number Three, that would come down like 'choral fire from heaven to still those drums of death' and 'that thereafter all would be a toil of joy for Immortality' and the floodgates of his vast creative abilities would open and he would realize his daimon, if only he would wait. And, of course, not merely wait, but wait in a state akin to that of creative Grace. But he did not wait and the choral fire of that symphony never came until it was too late, and thus he failed himself and all Mankind for countless generations and the God who had given him this gift, for there is a religious element to this poem, but it never intrudes but only proceeds naturally from the narrative. But he does at last hear strains of that symphony in one of his last days and this is enough to reconcile himself to his fate, to know real peace, probably for the first time in his life and to die in peace after the destructive fires of his arrogance and disdain and greed for life had burnt away everything that was gross in him. For it has often been inferred that renunciation must always accompany true genius, and this he lacked or had an insufficiency of. Robinson describes that moment in only eight lines, thus:

"With blinding tears of praise and of exhaustion
Pouring out of his eyes and over his cheeks,
He groped and tottered into the dark hall,
Crying aloud to God, or man, or devil,
For paper — not for food. It may have been
The devil who heard him first and made of him.
For sport, the large and sprawling obstacle
They found there at the bottom of the stairs."

So the poem begins with Fernando Nash discovered after years of absence by the narrator:

"beating a bass drum
And shouting Hallelujah with a fervor
At which, as I remember, no man smiled."
He is, from the beginning, a ruined hulk of a man, or of a personality, seeming to be a maniac or megalomaniac, shouting "Glory to God, I had it — once!" But slowly the poem begins to surround you and to envelop you, and slowly you begin to see the vastness of the man and of the poem, and finally it overwhelms you. And a whole cathedral of images and symbols emerge — the drums of life, the drums of death, the daimon and the demon of genius, 'the grapes of heaven' which are golden grapes, 'and golden dregs which are the worst dregs of all' the choral fire, the messengers who came again and again and always found him absent, the leering symphony that seventy rats dressed in coat and tails performed for his unwilling ears, images of ruin and decay and self-immolation and finally a sublime clarity and peace.

Robinson upon Fernando Nash's demise has the narrator attempt to sum up his experience of him with these closing words:

"There was in the man,
With all his frailties and extravagances.
The caste of an inviolable distinction
That was to break and vanish only in fire
When other fires that had so long consumed him
Could find no more to burn; and there was in him
A giant's privacy of lone communion
With other giants who made a music
Whereof the world has not impossibly heard
Not the last note; and there was in him always,
Unqualified by guile and unsubdued
By failure and remorse, or by redemption,
The grim nostalgic passion of the great
For glory all but theirs. And more than these,
There was the nameless and authentic seal
Of power and of ordained accomplishment —
Which may not be infallibly forthcoming,
Yet in this instance came. So I believe,
And shall, till admonition more disastrous
Than any has yet imperiled it
Invalidates conviction. …
To be the giant of his acknowledgment.
Crippled and cursed and crucified, the giant
Was always there, and always will be there.
For reasons less concealed and more sufficient
Than words will ever make them, I believe him
Today as I believed him while he died,
And while I sank his ashes in the sea."

E. A. Robinson portrait

By now it should be clear that I have set myself an impossible task in attempting to render for you the essence of this poem. This poem may seem from what I have written, apart from being very confused, which it assuredly is not, dark and grim almost beyond endurance, yet it is a tragedy until the very end, and like all true tragedies, as Aristotle has assured us, purges with catharsis. This is a parable of the Talents told in strange and unfamiliar dress and with a terrible intensity. I fail to see how anyone who reads this poem slowly and meditatively, savoring every line, as one must, cannot fail to ask themselves, 'What was my daimon and how far have I wandered from it amidst the quotidian demands of life.

1 comment:

Surprising but true said...

On of my collecting passions, begun nearly 40 years ago, is to obtain reading copies of all the Pulitzer winners, of which one category is poetry. Now a member of a very small poetry appreciation meetup group, I have taken on the role of Pulitzer Poetry Prize Expositor. At our next meeting I was already planning to speak on "The Man Who Died Twice". Now it will be with a reading copy and your notes close at hand.

Thank You!