The Frisson of Rightness

Let us consider two sonnets. First, Shakespeare’s seventy-third:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

A poem, a painting, a piece of music, a prayer — if it’s done right, it can make you gasp, make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, even make you weep a little. That little thrill of rightness, of horror, of joy, that takes you by surprise. “Oh,” you think. “Oh, thank you!” It’s the best you can expect from a work of art.

Different cases do it differently for different people; people find le mot juste in places they may not expect. That sonnet of Shakepeare’s does it for me. Partly it’s because I recognize how hard it is, how difficult to force the ideas and the words into the form the poet wants. Fourteen lines. Iambic pentameter. Rhyming at ABAB, etc., until the last two lines. That’s where the gasp comes: a quick inhale, and then a sigh. “Oh, thank you!” It’s an intellectual appreciation, until the very end, at those last two lines, when it all folds in upon itself, a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.

Edna St. Vincent Millay in Mamaroneck, by Arnold Genthe.

Edna St. Vincent Millay takes a different tack. The rhyme scheme is a little different, ABBA, etc., throughout, and the content is easier to grasp. The whole business is less mysterious than it is in Shakespeare’s sonnet, especially to those of us who may have found ourselves at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. (Full disclosure: I didn’t go! And I continue to have very mixed feelings about that.)

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

It is a remembrance of things past, a memory of summer’s songs, the present inhabited by the silent, lonely tree, empty of birds in winter.

Many works of art awaken that frisson in me — and the bell is struck not just once, but every time I hear it or read it or see it. Here are two, randomly conjured from memory: Mozart’s little motet Ave Verum Corpus. There are no wrong notes here. You don’t need to know what the words mean. Nothing is left out, nothing is extraneous. It is perfect, pure and holy. And, for some reason, obscure even to me, I gasp at The Isle of the Dead, a painting by the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin that hangs in The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

And finally, here’s a timely sonnet by Emma Lazarus, a sonnet dedicated to the Statue of Liberty. The poem was written in 1883; in 1903, it was cast onto a bronze plaque and mounted inside the statue’s pedestal.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

—The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus

Be of good cheer, my friends, and most important, stay safe and healthy. We’ll meet again soon!

—Mary Fairchild, April 19, 2020

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