Where Modern Poetry Began: a Conjecture
A LAST WORD (by Ernest Dowson, 1899)
Let us go hence: the night is now at hand;
The day is overworn, the birds all flown;
And we have reaped the crops the gods have sown;
Despair and death; deep darkness o'er the land,
Broods like an owl; we cannot understand
Laughter or tears, for we have only known
Surpassing vanity: vain things alone
Have driven our perverse and aimless band.
Let us go hence, somewhither strange and cold,
To Hollow Lands where just men and unjust
Find end of labour, where's rest for the old,
Freedom to all from love and fear and lust.
Twine our torn hands! O pray the earth enfold
Our life-sick hearts and turn them into dust.
Many have linked Dowson's first line here with the start of Eliot's Prufrock: "Let us go then, you and I . . . "
(not to mention Hollow Lands and Hollow Men) . . .
Louis Simpson in his very commendable book, "Three on the Tower," declares that Modern Poetry begins with this simile:
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table . . .
If you enter the Boston Common near the corner of Beacon and Arlington streets, you can easily find the Memorial to Ether: it's a large stele structure, erected in 1909 to honor the medical miracle that led to this alleviation of surgical pains . . .
if you walk around it, you'll see carved on its sides the names and facts attending the merciful invention; also engraved there is a depiction of a patient lying upon the surgical table, masked to his necessary numbness, his unfelt salvation . . .
Now as you stand there looking up at the stone monument, imagine it's 1910 and you're a shy young Philosophy major from Harvard on your way to an arty soiree on nearby Beacon Hill, bashfully headed toward paneled rooms where the women come and go talking of Michelangelo,
only you're early probably (you're a bit of an earlywart), and so, trying to forget how nervous the thought of those lamp-eyed women up there on the Hill makes you, you kill time here in the Park by avidly remembering the dissolute lines of a late Dowson and murmuring the beginning of a poem you yourself are working on, yes you're a poet,
as it happens a very handsome young Tom from St Louis, Missouri—
indeed you're a dude though you doubt it to such a perversely-celibate degree, to an extent of fear and desperate longing, that a Saint might envy the Sebastianated profundity, the repressed prowess of your bit-back passions,
there you are muttering and stuttering the start of your poem, your panicky Love Song, but you're stuck, you can't get past the first couple lines that go (going after Dowson) "Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a . . . like a . . ."
Like a what? Umm, like an enormous purple peony? an enormous purpled penis? an enormous, engorged prepuce?—
and then suddenly, out of nowhere, a cat escaped from a nearby mansion streaks past and drags your glance down or aslant from the sunset you've been studying for inspiration—
and all at once your eye is caught on the tumescent wonder of this newly-erected pillar or Cleopatra's Needle whose obeliskness awaits your transfiguration of its nursed and doctored bas-relief figures into the first trope of Modern Verse . . .
in short, you see this great big thing sticking phallic-ly out of the ground, and hard upon it rears the fresh cuts, hot-off-the-chisel, the castrate-straight edges hacked and honed, so recently-rendered in sharp homage to the genius of Hippocrates etcet,
and in particular a sculpted picture that shows, what else,
a patient etherised upon a table.
. . . It's close to Arlington St, down from the corner of Beacon St about fifty or sixty yards. There is no plaque commemorating the historic event I've envisioned here, but maybe you can stray chance to stand upon the very spot where Modern Poetry began in my imaginary re-enactment, tableau where I fancy the young poet found himself:
only of course there wouldn't have been all the insane traffic noise there is now back in 1910; if you can blank out those honking horns and rush-hour engines, you might be able to return to that briefest encounter:
can you re-T.S. that bewildering juncture, the awful daring of that moment's surrender . . . ?
Just a short walk away from there, moreover, you may also try to find the place where PostModern Poetry perhaps began in the late 1950s—
the sidewalk where Robert Lowell raged in crucifixed witness as the Boston Garden was ripped apart to build a parkinglot. . . . Stop there or stroll there while all around you, all around the Common, a savage servility slides by on grease. Inhale that oil, feel that energy, that power, that source the world is killing itself for.
Stroll there and stand there in our Hollow Land . . .
Where? Somewhither strange and cold. Let us go hence—
Oh do not ask what is it: let us go and make our visit.
[When Louise Bogan met Eliot in the 1940s, she was struck by how blithely he retained or emitted an aura of his handsomeness as a youth . . . I don't have the quote, but as I remember it she went on to say something about how those who were physically beautiful when young will often wear the air or the manner (the grace) of that beauty into their middle or old age . . . a bearing, as it were.]