1. Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady? What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone: Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied, For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral! When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
This scene continues with the exposition: the purpose of this second scene is set in motion the primary conflict of the play. The Duke has left and put Angelo, the seemingly untemptable paragon of perfect virtue over the city. That understanding of Angelo will undergo revision during the play.
Having looked at the situation from the highest level of society, Shakespeare now turns to lowest. Their conversation will perform certain functions. The first then it does is let us know that the something is up with the Duke. It also tells the audience that Lucio speaks confidently about things he knows nothing about. Shakespeare does not belabor the point, it is only a few lines but it does paint some of this character.
 If the Duke, with the other dukes, come not to
 composition with the King of Hungary, why then all
 the dukes fall upon the King.
 Heaven grant us its peace, but not
 the King of Hungary’s!
The conversation moves quickly from politics generally to a moral observation, based upon their political position. It seems that these men would be comfortable with their being a war. However, a war would arguably violate the Sixth of Ten Commandments, namely, “Thou shalt not kill.” They are happy to keep the commandments which do not interfere with their mode of life.
The make this observation by means of a joke about a pirate:
 Thou conclud’st like the sanctimonious pirate
 that went to sea with the ten commandments but
 scraped one out of the table.
 “Thou shalt not steal”?
(FTLN 0101)  Ay, that he razed.
Razed: removed. The pirate would keep the rest, but lose this commandment. This joke actually underscores one of the moral arguments of the play. We are very certain of the importance, and are willing to sharply enforce those commandments which we ourselves do not experience temptation to violate. The pirate was not worried about idolatry, as long as he could steal.
 Why, ’twas a commandment to command
 the Captain and all the rest from their functions!
 They put forth to steal. There’s not a soldier of
 us all that in the thanksgiving before meat do relish
 the petition well that prays for peace.
This character has the insight to realize that he is like the pirate: he would be pleased with a war, presumably because it would provide him employment.
 I never heard any soldier dislike it.
This next jibe lets us know more about Lucio. The two men have engaged in honest introspection. But Lucio can only make a crass insult. This moves us into another phase of the scene.
 I believe thee, for I think thou never wast where
 grace was said.
 No? A dozen times at least.
The Second Gentleman rolls with the insult.
 What? In meter?
 In any proportion or in any language.
 I think, or in any religion.
Lucio continues advance this conversation in a degrading direction. He is the one who is moving this conversation in continually more insulting directions.
 Ay, why not? Grace is grace, despite of all
 controversy; as, for example, thou thyself art a
 wicked villain, despite of all grace.
At the time Shakespeare’s plays, the controversy between Roman Catholics and Protestants, and among various groups outside of both and within both led to extremely sharp conflict and even war where the religious conflicts could also command a political hearing. Lucio finds the religious distinctions unimportant. “Grace is grace.” This makes his insult that the other man is a “wicked villian” ironic. Lucio would be wicked under any Christian variant.
 Well, there went but a pair of shears
 between us.
There is no difference between us.
 I grant, as there may between the lists and the
 velvet. Thou art the list.
 And thou the velvet. Thou art good
 velvet; thou ’rt a three-piled piece, I warrant thee. I
 had as lief be a list of an English kersey as be piled,
 as thou art piled, for a French velvet. Do I speak
 feelingly now?
The First Gentleman has now finally responded with a very sharp retort. Without unpacking every element of the insult, he has accused Lucio of having syphilis, which would be the result of sexual indiscretion. The insults have now found their way to razed commandment of the play: how do we think of sexual immorality? A great irony, which is underscored by the way in which Shakespeare here introduces the main conflict is that these profane sexually immoral men will not be the ones who face the criminal sanctions for out of wedlock sexual contact.
The “crime” which jolts the conflict into motion is a man who impregnates a woman he is going to marry. They were merely waiting for her dowry before they made the match official. This violation of the law is nothing like the prostitution marks the world of Lucio and his companions. But there will be no actual prosecution of anyone for prostitution, only post engagement, before formal ceremony pregnancy.
 I think thou dost, and indeed with most painful
 feeling of thy speech. I will, out of thine own
 confession, learn to begin thy health, but, whilst I
 live, forget to drink after thee.
Lucio jokes about the pain resulting from chancres on the man’s mouth: that is why he won’t use a cup after him.
 I think I have done myself wrong,
 have I not?
The insults have moved beyond jokes and jibes to actual descriptions. This man has outed himself as being infected.
 Yes, that thou hast, whether thou
 art tainted or free.
Tainted by disease or without disease, the conversation has turned vicious.
What then does this do: First, it comic, but it is not a light comedy. This creates a distinction between the very formal movement of the first scene and the fearful, desperate tone of the remainder of this scene. This allows the play to change its tone and give is some alteration.
Second, raises the questions of sexual immorality three ways. (1) It raises as a razed commandment. We are willing to obey all the Commandments, except for the one which crosses our personal desires.
(2) It raises the issue in a serious, though weirdly comic manner. Everyone knew that venereal disease was spread by sexual contact and that the disease was deadly serious. Laws prohibiting sexual immorality would have the effect of lessening the spread of disease. While such laws (and any other related public health law) are famously inefficient, they do have some good effect in limiting some dangerous behavior.
(3) It creates a level of irony that the most egregious violations will go unpunished while the technical violation will result in a death sentence (which will then be raised to torture and execution).
(4) It creates a great contrast with the seriousness which other characters will take chastity .
Daniel Patterson assumes shackeroon to be a variant on “shackerell,” an obsolete word for vagabond.
Swash is to be worthless.
A rangel must obviously be something of a similar sort. Rangle is gravel fed to hawks to help with digestion, so perhaps this is an alternative spelling.
Summary: Should I be a fine thing in name and yet a wretched thing in actuality? This idea chills my heart.
He gives a series of six images in contrast: grape vine, olive tree, heir, spouse, dressed with angel-feathers in his cap.
With the exception of the final image, the images are all important pictures of the way the Christian is said to relate to God.
The Grape Vine
This image comes from John 15, and has particular poignancy here. The nature of the image is that the believer is said to abide as a branch in the grape vine of Christ. Christ provides growth and fruitfulness. If one lacks fruitfulness, it is a dead vine to be pruned.
The passage reads:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”
John 15:1–8 (ESV)
The Olive Stand
This image comes from the 11th Chapter of Romans, and concerns the complicated issue about the relationship of the Covenant People of Israel from before the coming of Christ with the current church. The details of that theological dispute are not critical for this poem. What is important is that God broke off branches and then grafted in branches onto the olive tree. Someone like Taylor would be a wild branch grafted into the tree. But that grafting again comes with a warning (which I have highlighted):
17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. 19 Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. 23 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.
Romans 11:17–24 (ESV).
Thus, the first two images do not convey merely the idea that he is not living up to the ideal; they also convey that he may be an imposter. Although not explicitly alluded two in this stanza, there is an idea from the Sermon on the Mount which may be lurking in the choice of these allusions:
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
Matthew 7:21–23 (ESV)
This is a substantially more encouraging image. In the 8th Chapter of Romans, Paul refers to believers as “joint heirs with Christ”; and this is made as a matter of comfort and assurance:
15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
Romans 8:15–17 (ESV)
While the language of heir includes a conditional (“if we suffer with him”), the language of the spouse, found in both Ephesians and Hosea is even more encouraging. The spouse will not be lost:
The first example comes the prophet Hosea, who refers to Israel as the Bride of God. Israel’s sin will be put away and she will be reconciled and not lost to God:
16 “And in that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal.’ 17 For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be remembered by name no more. 18 And I will make for them a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land, and I will make you lie down in safety. 19 And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy.
Hosea 2:16–19 (ESV). There is a pun here which makes little sense in English. The words “Baal-i” mean “my Lord, master”. This can be used as a reference to the god “Baal” or can be used of a husband. But it does create a subservient position for the wife. In place of that word, God says you will call me “husband.” Here is the more technical and detailed explanation:
The second level is that of vocabulary at home with Hosea and his audience but not so with modern readers. In classical Hebrew the familiar terms ʾîš (“man”) and ʾiššâ (“woman”) also express what modern readers understand by husband and wife. Thus in 2:2 one could translate quite literally: “She is not my woman and I am not her man.” The noun baʿal means “owner, master, lord,” and in certain contexts “husband.”12 Both senses of the word are presupposed here in 2:16. In the patriarchal, non-Western societies of ancient Canaan, a husband was the owner and master of his household, which included his wife. In a few instances in the OT the related verb bāʿal is used with the meaning “to marry, to take a wife.” A wife, furthermore, could be described as bĕʿûlâ, a feminine passive form, meaning “possessed [by a husband],” i.e., married. And as a noun, baʿal also is used for Canaanite deities. They were masters of certain powers and possessors/owners of property and people. “Baal” is not a proper name, even though in reference to deities it often functions like one. A Canaanite god called upon as Baal would additionally have one or more names and perhaps some epithets. The same thing can be said for a goddess, if called upon as baʿălâ/baʿălat. A modern parallel is the invocation of a deity as “Lord.”
The declaration in 2:16 that Israel will no longer call YHWH ba‘al presupposes that some in Israel had called upon YHWH with this common noun, a term completely at home in the eastern Mediterranean, especially in the Phoenician-influenced areas. To call YHWH ba‘al carried with it, at least in Hosea’s eyes, an unacceptable form of syncretism with the broader Canaanite culture of which Israel was nevertheless a constituent part. YHWH was worshiped as a deity in the land of Canaan, but for Hosea not all attributes of the Canaanite deities could be applied to the one Lord of Israel.
YHWH should no longer be called ba‘al, but it would be a sign of covenant intimacy to call him husband (ʾîš). It is a metaphor, signifying intimacy as well as indicating more mutuality between God and people than was found in the hierarchy and role specificity of a Canaanite pantheon. As the gracious giver of a covenant to Israel, YHWH is the father, husband, and owner of the people. These are his identities in his relationship to Israel, reflecting modes of his self-revelation. And in his household he can be known by the simplest relational term, ʾîš. Nevertheless, YHWH is no more essentially male than collective Israel or Samaria are female. In the comprehensiveness of his being, YHWH had attributes that belonged to various deities in the Canaanite world. These attributes were not uncritically assimilated to him, and as the comprehensive Lord for Israel, YHWH transcends a defining by gender.
J. Andrew Dearman, The Book of Hosea, The New International Commentary on the Old and New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 123–124.
The second example would be from Ephesians, where Paul speaks of human marriage and the image of the marriage between Christ and the Church. What is of primary importance for our allusion is not merely the fact that spouse is appropriate, but further that the husband is love and give himself up for the wife:
28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
Ephesians 5:28–31 (ESV)
The love of the spouse is overwhelming, unchanging, and thus should be transformative. As Paul writes in another place, “For the love of Christ controls us.” 2 Cor. 4:14
An Angel Feather
This last image has no parallel in Scripture, but would be an image following upon the first stanza’s references to “livery.” If I graced with an Angel Feather, I am a courtier of the heavenly court, then why?
Understanding the images we can easily see the failures:
Shall I thy vine branch be, yet grapes none bear?
A grape vine should grow grapes. If it does not, is it a grape vine?
Graft in thy olive stand; and fatness lack?
Fat would be the oil: If I am an “olive tree” and don’t bear olives, then what am I?
A shackeroon, a rangel, yet an heir?
A joint heir with Christ would own all things. This is underscored by the passage upon which the poem is based, “All things are yours … Christ is yours.” If I have an heirship in all things, then how could I be dressed a homeless vagrant?
Thy spouse, yet, oh! My wedding ring thus slack?
If I am a true spouse, why have I lost my wedding ring?
Should angel-feathers plume my cap, I should
If I am a courtier of heaven, then why am I worthless?
But oh! My heart hereat grows cold.
The first two images came with startling warnings (You will be burned). The third image came as a conditional. The fourth image came with a promise (but does not that promise apply to me?). The final image comes as a confession by a traitor.
As he contemplates this, it freezes him: am I being judged?
(I know I have not completed the poem by Taylor, but I am easily distracted)
In the year 1799, [Setting] Captain Amasa Delano, of Duxbury, in Massachusetts, commanding a large sealer and general trader, lay at anchor with a valuable cargo, in the harbor of St. Maria–a small, desert, uninhabited island toward the southern extremity of the long coast of Chili. [Setting] There he had touched for water.
On the second day, not long after dawn, while lying in his berth, his mate came below, informing him that a strange sail was coming into the bay. Ships were then not so plenty in those waters as now. [We have (1) some historical context: sails were not common; (2) an important scene: here comes the antagonist; that would make Delano the protagonist; (3) a symbol, a “strange sail.” I know it is a symbol because there is no need to call it “strange.” Something from outside is now intruding into reality.] He rose, dressed, and went on deck.
The morning was one peculiar to that coast. Everything was mute and calm; everything gray. The sea, though undulated into long roods of swells, seemed fixed, and was sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter’s mould. The sky seemed a gray mantle. Flights of troubled gray fowl, kith and kin with flights of troubled gray vapors among which they were mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over meadows before storms.
[Symbol here: this is literally foreshadowing! There is a storm coming, another symbol]
Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.
[This is an important fact, which Delano does not understand. The ship is supposed to show its colors, that is where it is from. Chile was part of Spain at the time, so it would be perfectly appropriate in this place. We are now entering into something strange – like the sail]
To Captain Delano’s surprise, the stranger, viewed through the glass, showed no colors; though to do so upon entering a haven, however uninhabited in its shores, where but a single other ship might be lying, was the custom among peaceful seamen of all nations.
[Those who don’t fly flags are pirates. Why wasn’t he frightened?]
Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the spot, and the sort of stories, at that day, associated with those seas, Captain Delano’s surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good-nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms, any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man. Whether, in view of what humanity is capable, such a trait implies, along with a benevolent heart, more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of intellectualperception, may be left to the wise to determine.
[This is key to the movement of the story: He doesn’t (and won’t) understand what is happening]
But whatever misgivings might have obtruded on first seeing the stranger, would almost, in any seaman’s mind, have been dissipated by observing that, the ship, in navigating into the harbor, was drawing too near the land; a sunken reef making out off her bow. This seemed to prove her a stranger, indeed, not only to the sealer, but the island; consequently, she could be no wonted freebooter on that ocean.
[It couldn’t be a pirate, because this was not a good sailor]
With no small interest, Captain Delano continued to watch her–a proceeding not much facilitated by the vapors partly mantling the hull, through which the far matin light from her cabin streamed equivocally enough; much like the sun–by this time hemisphered on the rim of the horizon, and, apparently, in company with the strange ship entering the harbor–which, wimpled by the same low, creeping clouds, showed not unlike a Lima intriguante’s one sinister eye peering across the Plaza from the Indian loop-hole of her dusk saya-y-manta.
It might have been but a deception of the vapors,
[This is how Melville enters a symbol or something to think about: maybe our senses were wrong, but] but, the longer the stranger was watched the more singular appeared her manoeuvres. Ere long it seemed hard to decide whether she meant to come in or no–what she wanted, or what she was about. [This ship that they will encounter will be completely ambiguous.]
[The first big plot point was the entry of the ship. Here is the next plot point, based upon the first. They decide to go to the mystery ship. I can’t help thinking about the Ancient Mariner, where the ship when it had rounded the southern most point of south America headed up and became a ghost ship. Melville would have known the poem. Chapter 52 of Moby Dick is titled, “The Albatross” and is an allusion Coleridge’s The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.
[That ship moved in a zig-zag. The ship Life in Death is described advancing like this:
A speck, a mist, a shape, I wist!
And still it neared and neared:
As if it dodged a water-sprite,
It plunged and tacked and veered.]
The wind, which had breezed up a little during the night, was now extremely light and baffling, [great word here: the captain will be baffled] which the more increased the apparent uncertainty [again] of her movements.
Surmising, at last, that it might be a ship in distress, Captain Delano ordered his whale-boat to be dropped, and, much to the wary opposition of his mate, prepared to board her, and, at the least, pilot her in. On the night previous, a fishing-party of the seamen had gone a long distance to some detached rocks out of sight from the sealer, and, an hour or two before daybreak, had returned, having met with no small success. Presuming that the stranger might have been long off soundings, the good captain put several baskets of the fish, for presents, into his boat, and so pulled away.
From her continuing too near the sunken reef, deeming her in danger, calling to his men, he made all haste to apprise those on board of their situation. But, some time ere the boat came up, the wind, light though it was, having shifted, had headed the vessel off, as well as partly broken the vapors from about her.
Upon gaining a less remote view, the ship, when made signally visible on the verge of the leaden-hued swells, with the shreds of fog here and there raggedly furring her, appeared like a white-washed monastery after a thunder-storm, seen perched upon some dun cliff among the Pyrenees.
[He is making a point here: The ship is 10,000 miles from Spain and it looks like it is a washed out monastery in Spain. I’m not sure what the point is.]
But it was no purely fanciful resemblance which now, for a moment, almost led Captain Delano to think that nothing less than a ship-load of monks was before him. Peering over the bulwarks were what really seemed, in the hazy distance, throngs of dark cowls; while, fitfully revealed through the open port-holes, other dark moving figures were dimly descried, as of Black Friars pacing the cloisters. [Black Friars were Dominicans: they were sent to preach. So this ship is going to be a sermon to somone.]
Upon a still nigher approach, this appearance was modified, and the true character of the vessel was plain— He is resolving the symbol into something real a Spanish merchantman of the first class, carrying negro slaves, amongst other valuable freight, from one colonial port to another.
A very large, and, in its time, a very fine vessel, such as in those days were at intervals encountered along that main; sometimes superseded Acapulco treasure-ships, or retired frigates of the Spanish king’s navy, which, like superannuated Italian palaces, still, under a decline of masters, preserved signs of former state. [Spain was a declining empire by this time]
As the whale-boat drew more and more nigh, the cause of the peculiar pipe-clayed aspect of the stranger was seen in the slovenly neglect pervading her. The spars, ropes, and great part of the bulwarks, looked woolly, from long unacquaintance with the scraper, tar, and the brush. Her keel seemed laid, her ribs put together, and she launched, from Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones.
[Melville often raises a vivid description to a symbol. This again reminds me of the ship in The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.
When that strange shape drove suddenly
Betwixt us and the Sun.
And straight the Sun was flecked with bars,
(Heaven’s Mother send us grace!)
As if through a dungeon-grate he peered
With broad and burning face.
Alas! (thought I, and my heart beat loud)
How fast she nears and nears!
Are those her sails that glance in the Sun,
Like restless gossameres?
Are those her ribs through which the Sun
Did peer, as through a grate?
And is that Woman all her crew?
Is that a DEATH? and are there two?
Is DEATH that woman’s mate?
Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.
The approaching slave ship is the ship of Life-in-Death. At least that certainly seems to be the allusion.]
In the present business in which she was engaged, the ship’s general model and rig appeared to have undergone no material change from their original warlike and Froissart pattern. However, no guns were seen.
The tops were large, and were railed about with what had once been octagonal net-work, all now in sad disrepair. These tops hung overhead like three ruinous aviaries, in one of which was seen, perched, on a ratlin, a white noddy, a strange fowl, so called from its lethargic, somnambulistic character, being frequently caught by hand at sea. Battered and mouldy, the castellated forecastle seemed some ancient turret, long ago taken by assault, and then left to decay. Toward the stern, two high-raised quarter galleries–the balustrades here and there covered with dry, tindery sea-moss–opening out from the unoccupied state-cabin, whose dead-lights, for all the mild weather, were hermetically closed and calked–these tenantless balconies hung over the sea as if it were the grand Venetian canal. But the principal relic of faded grandeur was the ample oval of the shield-like stern-piece, intricately carved with the arms of Castile and Leon, medallioned about by groups of mythological or symbolical devices; uppermost and central of which was a dark satyr in a mask, holding his foot on the prostrate neck of a writhing figure, likewise masked.
[Another symbol: a dangerous mythical beast is crushing another figure: both are masked. You cannot tell who they are. When the captain gets on the slave ship he assumes one group is oppressing the other, but in reality (at least or a time) the roles are reversed. The figures are masked because the captain does not know the truth. Melville even says this is a symbol.]
Whether the ship had a figure-head, or only a plain beak, was not quite certain, owing to canvas wrapped about that part, either to protect it while undergoing a re-furbishing, or else decently to hide its decay. Rudely painted or chalked, as in a sailor freak, along the forward side of a sort of pedestal below the canvas, was the sentence, “_Seguid vuestro jefe_” (follow your leader);
[This is ironic: the slaves are not following the captain of the ship as a leader – but they are following their own leader.]
while upon the tarnished headboards, near by, appeared, in stately capitals, once gilt, the ship’s name, “SAN DOMINICK,” each letter streakingly corroded with tricklings of copper-spike rust; while, like mourning weeds, dark festoons of sea-grass slimily swept to and fro over the name, with every hearse-like roll of the hull.
[Another symbolic use: the ship sounds like a hearse, a vehicle delivering dead bodies.]
As, at last, the boat was hooked from the bow along toward the gangway amidship, its keel, while yet some inches separated from the hull, harshly grated as on a sunken coral reef. It proved a huge bunch of conglobated barnacles adhering below the water to the side like a wen—a token of baffling airs and long calms passed somewhere in those seas.
Climbing the side, the visitor was at once surrounded by a clamorous throng of whites and blacks, but the latter outnumbering the former more than could have been expected, negro transportation-ship as the stranger in port was.
[There is another hint that something is wrong the proportions of the crew to slaves is wrong.]
[Here is exposition: the backstory. Hearing this information is a new plot point: A strange ship appears, then the ship tells a harrowing story of death.]
But, in one language, and as with one voice, all poured out a common tale of suffering; in which the negresses, of whom there were not a few, exceeded the others in their dolorous vehemence. The scurvy, together with the fever, had swept off a great part of their number, more especially the Spaniards. Off Cape Horn they had narrowly escaped shipwreck; then, for days together, they had lain tranced without wind; their provisions were low; their water next to none; their lips that moment were baked.
While Captain Delano was thus made the mark of all eager tongues, his one eager glance took in all faces, with every other object about him.
[Melville keeps underscoring the strangeness of this event. To enter into the ship is to enter into an enchantment.]
Always upon first boarding a large and populous ship at sea, especially a foreign one, with a nondescript crew such as Lascars or Manilla men, the impression varies in a peculiar way from that produced by first entering a strange house with strange inmates in a strange land. Both house and ship–the one by its walls and blinds, the other by its high bulwarks like ramparts–hoard from view their interiors till the last moment: but in the case of the ship there is this addition; that the living spectacle it contains, upon its sudden and complete disclosure, has, in contrast with the blank ocean which zones it, something of the effect of enchantment. The ship seems unreal; these strange costumes, gestures, and faces, but a shadowy tableau just emerged from the deep, which directly must receive back what it gave.
Perhaps it was some such influence, as above is attempted to be described, which, in Captain Delano’s mind, heightened whatever, upon a staid scrutiny, might have seemed unusual; especially the conspicuous figures of four elderly grizzled negroes, their heads like black, doddered willow tops, who, in venerable contrast to the tumult below them, were couched, sphynx-like, one on the starboard cat-head, another on the larboard, and the remaining pair face to face on the opposite bulwarks above the main-chains. They each had bits of unstranded old junk in their hands, and, with a sort of stoical self-content, were picking the junk into oakum, a small heap of which lay by their sides. They accompanied the task with a continuous, low, monotonous, chant; droning and drilling away like so many gray-headed bag-pipers playing a funeral march.
[Again the ship is Life-in-Death. There living beings, but it is a ship filled with death.]
The quarter-deck rose into an ample elevated poop, upon the forward verge of which, lifted, like the oakum-pickers, some eight feet above the general throng, sat along in a row, separated by regular spaces, the cross-legged figures of six other blacks; each with a rusty hatchet in his hand, [Here is another missed clue: the slave is holding a hatchet. Who would let someone who has nothing to lose by fighting you to the death a weapon?] which, with a bit of brick and a rag, he was engaged like a scullion in scouring; while between each two was a small stack of hatchets, their rusted edges turned forward awaiting a like operation.
Though occasionally the four oakum-pickers would briefly address some person or persons in the crowd below, yet the six hatchet-polishers neither spoke to others, nor breathed a whisper among themselves, but sat intent upon their task, except at intervals, when, with the peculiar love in negroes of uniting industry with pastime, two and two they sideways clashed their hatchets together,’ like cymbals, with a barbarous din. All six, unlike the generality, had the raw aspect of unsophisticated Africans.
But that first comprehensive glance which took in those ten figures, with scores less conspicuous, rested but an instant upon them, as, impatient of the hubbub of voices, the visitor turned in quest of whomsoever it might be that commanded the ship.
[Here we are going to meet the antagonist. Delano is going to be confused as to who is the real antagonist in this story (remember the Satyr with the mask). Delano thinks the Spanish captain matters, but really he has an adversary in the short man near the Spanish captain.]
But as if not unwilling to let nature make known her own case among his suffering charge, or else in despair of restraining it for the time, the Spanish captain, a gentlemanly, reserved-looking, and rather young man to a stranger’s eye, dressed with singular richness, but bearing plain traces of recent sleepless cares and disquietudes, stood passively by, leaning against the main-mast, at one moment casting a dreary, spiritless look upon his excited people, at the next an unhappy glance toward his visitor. By his side stood a black of small stature, in whose rude face, as occasionally, like a shepherd’s dog, he mutely turned it up into the Spaniard’s, sorrow and affection were equally blended.
[Delano seeks to do good to the Spanish ship.]
Struggling through the throng, the American advanced to the Spaniard, assuring him of his sympathies, and offering to render whatever assistance might be in his power. To which the Spaniard returned for the present but grave and ceremonious acknowledgments, his national formality dusked by the saturnine mood of ill-health.
But losing no time in mere compliments, Captain Delano, returning to the gangway, had his basket of fish brought up; and as the wind still continued light, so that some hours at least must elapse ere the ship could be brought to the anchorage, he bade his men return to the sealer, and fetch back as much water as the whale-boat could carry, with whatever soft bread the steward might have, all the remaining pumpkins on board, with a box of sugar, and a dozen of his private bottles of cider.
Not many minutes after the boat’s pushing off, to the vexation of all, the wind entirely died away, and the tide turning, began drifting back the ship helplessly seaward. But trusting this would not long last, Captain Delano sought, with good hopes, to cheer up the strangers, feeling no small satisfaction that, with persons in their condition, he could–thanks to his frequent voyages along the Spanish main—converse with some freedom in their native tongue.
While left alone with them, he was not long in observing some things tending to heighten his first impressions; but surprise was lost in pity, both for the Spaniards and blacks, alike evidently reduced from scarcity of water and provisions; while long-continued suffering seemed to have brought out the less good-natured qualities of the negroes, besides, at the same time, impairing the Spaniard’s authority over them.
But, under the circumstances, precisely this condition of things was to have been anticipated. In armies, navies, cities, or families, in nature herself, nothing more relaxes good order than misery. Still, Captain Delano was not without the idea, that had Benito Cereno been a man of greater energy, misrule would hardly have come to the present pass. But the debility, constitutional or induced by hardships, bodily and mental, of the Spanish captain, was too obvious to be overlooked. A prey to settled dejection, as if long mocked with hope he would not now indulge it, even when it had ceased to be a mock, the prospect of that day, or evening at furthest, lying at anchor, with plenty of water for his people, and a brother captain to counsel and befriend, seemed in no perceptible degree to encourage him.
[A ship of death in life, an enchantment, a problem upon the ship which Delano cannot understand and now apparent madness; these are all elements which Poe uses to much effect. Poe is ten years younger than Melville. I don’t know if Melville read Poe, but this idea was something “in the air.”]
His mind appeared unstrung, if not still more seriously affected. Shut up in these oaken walls, chained to one dull round of command, whose unconditionality cloyed him, like some hypochondriac abbot [There is a lot of imagery around monks.] he moved slowly about, at times suddenly pausing, starting, or staring, biting his lip, biting his finger-nail, flushing, paling, twitching his beard, with other symptoms of an absent or moody mind. This distempered spirit was lodged, as before hinted, in as distempered a frame. He was rather tall, but seemed never to have been robust, and now with nervous suffering was almost worn to a skeleton. A tendency to some pulmonary complaint appeared to have been lately confirmed. His voice was like that of one with lungs half gone—hoarsely suppressed, a husky whisper. No wonder that, as in this state he tottered about, his private servant apprehensively followed him.
[Again, Melville writes an extremely ironic description. Delano apparently can only think of the Africans as subservient, even though this is not true.]
Sometimes the negro gave his master his arm, or took his handkerchief out of his pocket for him; performing these and similar offices with that affectionate zeal which transmutes into something filial or fraternal acts in themselves but menial; and which has gained for the negro the repute of making the most pleasing body-servant in the world; one, too, whom a master need be on no stiffly superior terms with, but may treat with familiar trust; less a servant than a devoted companion.
[The true antagonist is Babo – he has been introduced as subservient and is introduced only in connection with the Spanish captain. Delano’s inability to understand Babo is one of the keys to the plot.]
Marking the noisy indocility of the blacks in general, as well as what seemed the sullen inefficiency of the whites it was not without humane satisfaction that Captain Delano witnessed the steady good conduct of Babo.
But the good conduct of Babo, hardly more than the ill-behavior of others, seemed to withdraw the half-lunatic Don Benito from his cloudy languor. Not that such precisely was the impression made by the Spaniardon the mind of his visitor. The Spaniard’s individual unrest was, for the present, but noted as a conspicuous feature in the ship’s general affliction.
[This is like the Fall of the House of Usher, where the a place is associated with the mental disturbance of the character who inhabits the space.]
Still, Captain Delano was not a little concerned at what he could not help taking for the time to be Don Benito’s unfriendly indifference towards himself. The Spaniard’s manner, too, conveyed a sort of sour and gloomy disdain, which he seemed at no pains to disguise.
But this the American in charity ascribed to the harassing effects of sickness, since, in former instances, he had noted that there are peculiar natures on whom prolonged physical suffering seems to cancel every social instinct of kindness; as if, forced to black bread themselves, they deemed it but equity that each person coming nigh them should, indirectly, by some slight or affront, be made to partake of their fare.
But ere long Captain Delano bethought him that, indulgent as he was at the first, in judging the Spaniard, he might not, after all, have exercised charity enough. At bottom it was Don Benito’s reserve which displeased him; but the same reserve was shown towards all but his faithful personal attendant. Even the formal reports which, according to sea-usage, were, at stated times, made to him by some petty underling, either a white, mulatto or black, he hardly had patience enough to listen to, without betraying contemptuous aversion. His manner upon such occasions was, in its degree, not unlike that which might be supposed to have been his imperial countryman’s, Charles V., just previous to the anchoritish retirement of that monarch from the throne. [Charles V retired to a monastery. An anchorite is a monk]
When fail they, yet kiss [?] thy love’s white hand
I scarce know what t’make of myself. Wherefore
I crave pardon, Lord, for thou hast store.
Textual note: Stafford reads, “Yet kiss thy love’s white hand.” Patterson marks “kiss” as uncertain and confirms only the “is”. I’m not certain what could be correct not having access to the original manuscript and not knowing exactly what Taylor intends.
At this stanza, the poem takes a new turn. The poet has resolved the question of the presence of sin, but restating his understanding as a wonder that he has not more sin. Rather than concluding, grace must be insufficient or he is not redeemed based upon the presence of sin; Taylor concludes that grace is present, because there is not more sin.
This leads to a second problem: If God has shown such patience and spent such grace on me, then why don’t I love him more?
This question of affections is perhaps more critical than the question of indwelling sin. Puritan Richard Sibbes, from two generations earlier than Taylor writes:
Affections therefore are lawful, yea, necessary in God’s children. All actions in God’s worship are esteemed according to the affections that they are done with. We are as we love, not as we know. What is the life of a Christian but the performance of things with courage, delight, and joy? And therefore the strongest Christians have strongest affections. For religion doth not harden the heart, but mollifies it; and regeneration doth not take affections away, but restores them sanctified and pure.
Richard Sibbes, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 5 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson, 1863), 125–126. Closer to Taylor’s poem is this passage from Puritan Thomas Doolittle:
That prayer be managed to the spiritual profit of those in the family, the master of the family should get his own heart in good frame, and get his own affections warmed in the duty.—Do you come to prayer with a lively heart, and quickened affections yourselves; your heat might warm them, and your earnest importunity might stir them up unto the same. Let them see you are in good earnest by your fervent praying, as becomes men that are begging for such things as the life of their souls, the pardon of their sin, the favour of God, deliverance from hell, and for everlasting happiness. Whereas if you come to the duty with flat, dull, and cold affections, this will make them so too. As you find it with yourselves when you are under a dull and lukewarm preacher,—you have little workings of affections; so your family will find it under your prayers, if they be such. For as a minister should get lively workings in his own breast of those affections which he would raise in the people,* so should you, in family-duties, get those workings of love, joy, and sorrow for sin, which you would desire should be in those that join with you; for what a minister is in the church, that you are, proportionably, in your house.†
James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, Publishers, 1981), 239–240.
Jonathan Edwards, the son of Taylor’s fellow pastor, will work out a substantial theology around the matter of love. (While his sermon on sin appears in high school anthologies, the question of love and desire seem to be the key to his theology. I have not undertaken a thorough study of all his work, but a passing glance shows the importance of affections to his understanding of human conduct.)
Edwards will write:
True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.
Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, ed. John E. Smith and Harry S. Stout, Revised edition., vol. 2, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 95.
If love and affection are so critical to true spiritual life, then why is it missing in the life of Taylor? He would certainly assent to these quotations of those before and after him in this religious tradition. Thus, his quandary:
For now I wonder t’feel how I thus feel.
He looks at his love(s) and sees them disordered. First, he loves the wrong things too much:
My love leaps into creature’s bosoms;
The phrase “love leaps” is quite good. And the image of love leaping into the heart of any creature that happens by is remarkably vivid. I am in love with some many things that capture my sense, but they are all mere creatures.
This trouble is set forth in Paul and John. In Romans 1, Paul writes of worshipping and serving the creature rather than the Creator. In 1 John 2, John warns against loving the “world.” This snare, in parallel to Paul’s observation, runs counter to our duty toward God. “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”
Our love is easily drawn to sensible objects. And while the contention might be that these are “real” things, tangible things; the quickly becomes problematic when you begin to consider what you actually behold with your senses. The difficulties here are far more profound than you may imagine, so for now merely consider that the world may be quite different than what you imagine it to be.
Cold sorrows fall into my soul as steel,
When fail they,
The sounds and pictures are excellent. I’ve marked the end “l” col[d], fall, soul, steel, fail. Also the “O” cold, sorrows, soul. The “f” fall, fail.
A cold sorrow is something: we think of sorrow as tears. Anger may be cold, but sorrow is hot. A cold sorrow however fails. The sorrow comes which should have had an effect, but it “falls” – and from where does it fall? – into the soul and there being cold, it fails.
And so his love is quick, but set on the wrong objects. His sorrow is cold and fails.
Moreover, the idea of steel falling into the soul has more than a hint of murder: it missing word is “sword”.
yet kiss [?] thy love’s white hand
If the text is obscure here, then kiss may be questioned. Indeed, I wonder if this poem not quite finished in other respects. The ideas were in place, but in the first stanzas it works better as argument than poetry.
Does he mean that he does receive God’s love? Or that the sorrows kiss the hand? I’m not sure what to do here.
I scarce know what t’make of myself.
This is a driving theme in the poem: What a strange strange am I and here he does not know what to think of himself.
We are riddle to ourselves in many ways. The Christian has the riddle of the desires which, as Peter says “war against our soul”. How can these conflicting things be present in one life?
I crave pardon, Lord, for thou hast store.
I do not know what is so very wrong with me. What I do know is that I am utterly dependent the grace of God: I cannot even make sense of my own heart. All I can be certain of is the extraordinary grace of God.
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.
This last section makes a sort of argument:
To be conscious is not to be in time. Where is a space which is not in time? It is not the present. As the poem says in section I, “All time is eternally present.”
It could be time past or time future: the poet states these all “a little consciousness.”
But it is not the place of remembrance. The rose-garden, the arbour, the church, are all remembered and thus are all “in time.” That cannot be the place of consciousness.
There was the story about the rose-garden in section I, but that event does not seem real: at least it was not in time. Perhaps that is why it is both “conscious” (because it is not in time) and reality “human kind/Cannot bear very much reality.”
Perhaps this consciousness can take place “at the still point of the turning world.” This would match the case. Of this still point, he writes,
I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
Perhaps both the imaginary space and the “still point” are available for consciousness. They do not seem to be the same place, and they are both outside of time.
What then do we do this final line, “Only through time time is conquered.”
What must be conquered in time? And why must time be conquered? Is it to let us escape and enter into the garden with the thrush or to enter the still point?
This seems to bring up an issue early in the poem
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What is this redemption? From where to what? At this point, the question is tantalizing, but the answer is certainly not clear. Fortunately, there are three more sections in the poem.
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
This strikes as quite similar to Parmenides’ denial of motion. In his poem, at fragment 8, beginning at line 26 we read:
But motionless within the limits of great bonds, it is without a beginning and without an end, since the birth and death were rejected very far, a real certainty expelled them.
It would be possible to translate the language a bit differently. For instance, it could be “birth and destruction.” The language of “real certainty” is a combination of “truth” and “trust” (or faith or belief). A fundamental difference between Parmenides is that the philosopher seems to hold that all things are without motion. Eliot, on the other hand, seems to be describing a particular place:
At the still point of the turning world.
The world turns, but in the midst of that moving world is a place without motion. This space seems to answer a question which arises with the consideration of the world of the forest floor somehow being replicated in the sky, Where is the place of connection. How does one world touch the other?
Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.
Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance
This center point is a place where opposites have come together: it not movement from or towards. It is not a place of past or future. There is no “way up” or “way down” (to use the language of motto for the poem).
It is a place without place:
I cannot say where.
It is a place without time
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
Notice the opposites which do not exist here:
There is no being:
Neither flesh nor fleshless;
There is physical distance:
Neither from nor towards;
Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline.
There is no movement or stillness:
But neither arrest nor movement.
There is no time:
And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
Having come through the door we meet the “them” promised by the thrush. Here is what was lurking in the poet’s “first world”
There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.
There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
The inhabitants are described as follows:
Dignified. That is a curious word to begin. We could just dismiss this as Eliot being proper. But something more seems here. Something which is unreal could easily be ridiculous: but there is an honor here of sorts.
Invisible: How then are known? Imagination. They cannot be remembered, because this is the world which has never been. And so we enter into the imaginary world somehow shared (whether Eliot with someone else, or perhaps with us the reader is unclear).
Moving: The idea of moving is coupled with the “unheard music” compels me to think of a dance. These phantoms (I don’t think “ghost” or “spirit” is right) are dancing over “dead leaves” but they break nothing. They “mov[e] without pressure.”
I’m not sure what to do with the “autumn heat” beyond notice that the whole has the feel of being stifling. There are phantoms, but nothing is stirring. It is hot, but there is no breeze. When this is coupled with the language from earlier about unstirred dust on rose leaves, there is a feeling of an utterly closed-up world.
This was a choice Eliot has made: while this old, closed up world is one way to imagine the never-has-been past, it is also the case that he could have produced a chaotic and vibrant never-have-been. This was a choice.
Notice the environment: the air is “vibrant” but like the dancers without pressure, the vibration is of a music which is not heard. Everything is it seems potential: this is what could have been: dancing, music. But not there.
The bird is here: it is the guide into this imaginary space. The bird calls to the unheard music: it is in the shrubbery, it is off-camera, coming from some place ou cannot see.
The eyebeam crossed: This is an idea as far back as Plato in Timeaus who explained that the fire made within us can cross through the eye and shine upon things to give sight:
“And of the organs they first contrived the eyes to give light, and the principle according to which they were inserted was as follows: So much of fire as would not burn, but gave a gentle light, they formed into a substance akin to the light of every-day life; and the pure fire which is within us and related thereto they made to flow through the eyes in a stream smooth and dense, compressing the whole eye, and especially the centre part, so that it kept out everything of a coarser nature, and allowed to pass only this pure element. When the light of day surrounds the stream of vision, then like falls upon like, and they coalesce, and one body is formed by natural affinity in the line of vision, wherever the light that falls from within meets with an external object. And the whole stream of vision, being similarly affected in virtue of similarity, diffuses the motions of what it touches or what touches it over the whole body, until they reach the soul, causing that perception which we call sight.”
The idea had various uses in science and art thereafter. Eliot certainly was not proposing this as a real effect (no one believed such in the 20th century). So why then this reference here?
If there is allusion to regret and love in the poem, then the reference to Donne would be appropriate and ironic.
Next comes a line which has always delighted me:
for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.
This speculative space of what has never been is inhabited and it effects and affects. The eyebeams of the phantoms (?) have seen the roses – which calls back to rose leaves above. The roses disclose the presence of the lovers seeing one-another. The roses evidence the crossed gazed. The reality of this love played out in the unseen world.
There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
This raises a question: Is this imaginary space the poet’s own life? Are these true third parties. Or is this some alternative to himself: this is me if the world had been different?
And how then are they here as guests? They are not recriminating: accepted and accepting.
He never quite defines these phantoms. I think they must be poet and someone else (again a lover, the reader, is this written to a particular person and we are overhearing?) are the ones at issue. The “they” is not someone else but rather a who Eliot could have been.
The reference to the “eyebeams crossed” makes this intimacy a moment of lovers. And the prove of their presence is shown in the roses.
And for a moment, there is peace. We are permitted in; and we are at peace with this other self.
In the next movement, this equipoise will be dissolved.
Having raised the question of “what might have been” (from line 6), Eliot takes us into that “might have been”. In these lines he traces out how we get from “the present.”
Since we are traveling there, his description of this place here takes on a new depth of meaning. In line 7, it is an “abstraction”; thus it has some substance as an idea. In line 8, it is remaining and “a perpetual possibility.” At first read, it is easy to take “remaining a perpetual possibility” to be
Thus, there is a reality to the “might have been.”
Here, beginning in line 11, there is a movement from the present to this “abstraction” which is remaining perpetually.
We can confirm this is the event which did not happen in verse 12, “Down the passage which we did not take.” This is the thing which did not happen.
The passage creates a hurried movement: It begins with “footfalls echo”. There is a sense of someone walking, but only as heard. That would intimate the walking is taking place nearby but out of sight.
That place is then defined as “Down the passage”. Next comes “towards the door”. The use of “towards” rather than near, creates the sense of movement.
The door opens onto a rose-garden.
The speed is created by the inability to ever see who is walking. We hear the sound and move to the passage. But when we get to the passage, the sound is now moving toward the door. And as soon as we recognize the door, it has opened onto a rose garden. The effect is mesmerizing.
The place of all of this is the memory: There was a place we did not go, a door we did not open, a garden we had not visited.
This then makes for a bit of a paradox: If it is a memory it is something which did happen. But, this never happened. Memory could be, “I remember seeing a passage I did not take.” But the memory cannot hear footfalls which never echoed.
This would then, (1) this is a memory of a constructed event. There is a place which he has returned more than once: he thought of what would have happened had he opened the door to the rose garden. He is now remembering his “speculation.” (2) “Memory” is a trick: he is experiencing this construction as if it were a memory. By constructing what never happened, he is pretending that it did happen in fact.
My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
The plot becomes stranger: The footfalls which echoed are now the words which echo – not in my memory, but your mind. We have now entered into an extraordinarily intimate space: His memory of this door never opened are words – were these words never spoken? Are these words now being spoken? Was there an event which did not happen and of which they both spoke?
Does this mean, “You remember our conversation, when I told you of how I did not go into the rose garden?” For the poet, the memory is of the walking through the door. For “you” (whoever that might be), it is my words about that.
It is unclear what words are issue: Is the poems the words which now echo in memory, but stirring up memory?
Whatever is happening, the rather abstraction discussion of time in the first lines has moved the most intimate of spaces, a shared memory of what did not happen.
Since this memory of not happening is being rehearsed, it seems to anticipate a regret.
It appears he is structuring the lines around beat and alliteration. I may be off here, but there is not a regular meter like iambs. The basic line seems to be built off the Old English alliterative four beat line.
TIME PREsent and TIME PAST
Four beats, the T and P repeated
are both PERhaps PREsent in TIME FUTure
The T and F from the first line as well as the P.
This scheme is not cared with perfect fidelity to the alliteration. For instance line 8:
ONly in WORLD of SPECulAtion.
We can get four accents but no alliteration in the line. It would be possible to read this instead as a third beat line.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
“What might have been” is the item under consideration. He then defines it by three characteristics:
First, it is an “abstraction”. It is an abstraction in both senses: It is abstracted,that is set apart from all else It has no connection with the tangible world. Second, it is an idea without tangible substance.
Second, it remains always and only a “possibility.” It had an opportunity to have come into existence, but it did not. It never matures from that place.
Third, it remains in “a world of speculation.” Access to this “might have been” is available only through speculative thought. It has a real existence, but only as a speculation. I can gain access to this “might have been” by thinking it; but it never moves from that space.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
This takes some consideration: Why the addition of “might have been” to what has been? Here he says that might have been and what has been point together to this one point: the present.
The actual past makes sense as pushing a direction to the present. But how does the might of have been participate in this?
Since there is an abstract, speculative existence for might have been, we can’t say that it has no existence; only, no tangible existence.
He is going to develop this “might have been” more as the poem develops, but let’s consider here what it could be. The “might have been” while not have a historical effect outside of my thinking has a profound effect upon me.
Might have been can be the source of enormous regret and loss. But it can also be a ground for thankfulness on tragedy avoided. The might have been is “remaining a perpetual possibility”. When we think of how a might have been actually effects us, that line “remaining a perpetual possibility” grows larger. I am constantly being affected by this perpetual possibility. It is always there.
And this potential acting upon me, and all that has actually occurred have conspired and I am here at this one point, in the present.