Hearts Aligned, Worlds Apart
This week, I’m sharing a poem by one of my favorite contemporary female poets, April Bernard, from her book Romanticism. You see, April is straight out of the romantic tradition (and owes a great debt to her literary foremother, Elizabeth Barrett Browning). That doesn’t mean she writes for Hallmark on the side; rather, that her work is evocative of the Romantic aesthetic (one that I identify with as well).
The Poetry Foundation defines Romanticism thusly: “A poetic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries that turned toward nature and the interior world of feeling, in opposition to the mannered formalism and disciplined scientific inquiry of the Enlightenment era that preceded it.”
See if you can catch the Romantic elements in the following poem by Bernard:
Beagle or Something
By April Bernard
The composer’s name was Beagle or something,
one of those Brits who make the world wistful
with chorales and canticles and this piece,
a tone poem or what-have-you,
chimes and strings aswirl, dangerous for one
whose eyelids and sockets have been rashing from tears.
The music occupied the car where
I had parked and then sat, staring at
a tree, a smallish maple,
fire-gold and half-undone by the wind,
shaking in itself,
shocking blue morning sky behind, and also
the trucks and telephone wires and dogs
and children late to school along Orange Street, but
it was the tree that caused an uproar,
it was the tree that shook and shed,
aureate as a shaken soul, I remembered
I was supposed to have one—for convenience
I placed it in my chest, the heart being away,
and now it seems the soul has lodged there, shaking,
golden-orange, half-spent but clanging
truer than Beagle music or my forehead pressed
hard on the steering wheel in petition for release.
What first strikes me is the lavish and sumptuous use of the idea of music as messenger—which hearkens back to Barrett Browning’s sonnet, “My poem, though canst touch on all the notes”:
My poet, thou canst touch on all the notes
God set between His After and Before,
And strike up and strike off the general roar
Of the rushing worlds a melody that floats
In a serene air purely. Antidotes
Of medicated music…
Like her predecessor Barrett Browning, Bernard is playful with her passion and generous with the musicality of her words, unafraid to coin new words or use existing words in daring ways: “aswirl,” “rashing.” The use of musical terminology in phrases such as “chorales and canticles,” “tone poem,” and “chimes and strings aswirl,” place the poem solidly within the Romantic tradition. One can almost hear the lutes and lyres of the grand troubadours in the lyrical cadence of her words. The elements of sound: slant rhyme , assonance and consonance, render the piece a delicate “tone poem” in its own right.
Bernard then turns from narrative of music to the metaphor of nature in the heart of the poem. She, like Barrett Browning, anchors the turmoil of her inner emotional world in the studied tranquility of nature. The speaker of the poem focuses on the tree when the music becomes too “dangerous,” and the tree becomes a mirror for her own “shaken soul.” Bernard’s use of color in these lines is particularly evocative: “fire-gold,” “blue morning sky,” “aureate as a shaken soul” – the blue and gold of her words, carried on the back of sound: shaking/shocking, sky/behind, shook/shed/shaken anchor the poem in the realm of Romanticism—almost a sort of natural mysticism.
The concluding lines function as a sort of summary: bringing the composer Beagle back into the poem, continuing with the use of color to inform the Romantic sensibility, and completes the metaphor of the tree by moving directly to the idea of the speaker’s soul with a color all its own and a sound: “clanging / truer than Beagle music.” The aesthetic of the final lines of the poem remind me strongly of Barrett Browning’s sonnet, “I have been in the meadows all day”—particularly the lines:
My heart is very tired, my strength is low,
My hands are full of blossoms plucked before,
Held dead within them till myself shall die.
So what is contemporary Romanticism in poetry? I’d argue that, as illustrated by these poems, it’s a lush and lusty aesthetic, unafraid of emotion, rooted in the symbolism of nature and humanity’s search for meaning. Both Bernard and Barrett Browning are deeply spiritual poets and unapologetically female—women who write unflinchingly of the soul, of longing, and of the yearning to love and be loved.
Want more? Check out https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/brief-guide-romanticism for a deeper dive into Romanticism.