BLOGGER TEMPLATES AND TWITTER BACKGROUNDS »

The Poets

May 13, 2011

Sudden Light


As with certain others (philosophers, scientists, artists, etc), I like acknowledging a poet’s date of birth. There’s a certain kind of ‘thank you’ about it, a certain kind of ‘I remember and appreciate what you left behind for us’ being expressed.

Anyhow, a couple days ago (on the 12th) I posted in Facebook an acknowledgement of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's date of birth some 183 years ago. Rossetti belongs to that period in the history of art known as Pre-Raphaelite (my favorite period). In fact, he’s the founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (the rudimentary element of that period of art).

I came to learn that he, along with his sister Christina Rossetti, was also a prolific writer of poetry- incredible poetry! I posted a poem Rossetti wrote that, quite frankly, is one of my favorite of all time: Sudden Light. It’s a great poem about déjà vu and the recollection of love and love’s eternal restoration (at least, that’s my take on it).

Here’s that poem- I’ll try to break down the stanzas individually below, let me know what you think.


Sudden Light

I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.

You have been mine before,--
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow's soar
Your neck turn'd so,
Some veil did fall,--I knew it all of yore.

Has this been thus before?
And shall not thus time's eddying flight
Still with our lives our love restore
In death's despite,
And day and night yield one delight once more?




Of the Poem (Poetic Parameters & Commentary)

Stanza: Quintet (i.e. consisting of five lines)
Meter: Mixed (see side notes)
Rhyme Scheme: ababa (the first, third, and fifth lines being interlinked with the same lines of the following stanzas)


Some Side Notes

The meter of the first stanza, which is mimicked by the ones that follow, is mixed (that is, six syllables in line 1; eight syllables in lines 2 and 3; four in line 4; and ten in line 5). Here’s what it looks like:

I have been here before (trimeter)
But when or how I cannot tell (tetrameter
)
I know the grass beyond the door (tetrameter
)
The sweet keen smell (dimeter
)
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore (pentameter)


I gotta say, I love love love the internal rhymes of the pentameters:

-The sighing sound, the lights around the shore
-Some veil did fall,--I knew it all of yore
-And day and night yield one delight once more


A Brief Commentary

About the Title

Why Sudden Light? Well, when one reads the poem it becomes quite clear that the poet is talking about déjà vu. What’s interesting is that (and I’m relatively certain of this) the French term wasn’t coined until Emile Boirac, a French psychic researcher, published his book in 1883, The Psychology of the Future. It’s highly unlikely that Rossetti, who died the year before, ever came across the technical term or the phrase.

Still, the phenomenon of déjà vu is something that humans have experienced from the get go. For Rossetti to dub it (albeit, poetically) sudden light makes perfect sense to me. (I wonder, however, if the term déjà vu had been in circulation during Rossetti’s time, would he have titled his poem differently?)

Stanza One

I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.


The poet immediately immerses us in the world of sensation: the grass beyond the door (sight and perhaps smell), the sweet keen smell (smell with a reference to taste), the sighing sound (hearing), the lights around the shore (sight, and perhaps hearing and smelling the shore as well). All these very tangible elements pull him directly into an experience he knows he had before, but has difficulty articulating.

Stanza Two

You have been mine before,--
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow's soar
Your neck turn'd so,
Some veil did fall,--I knew it all of yore.


This stanza speaks of the catalyst of the déjà vu. The poet knows just (line 8) when it occurred: at the flight of a bird (that swallow's soar) and the look of his lover’s neck (your neck turn'd); a revelation immediately gives way (some veil did fall) and he suddenly realizes that this moment has occurred before (of yore).

Stanza Three

Has this been thus before?
And shall not thus time's eddying flight
Still with our lives our love restore
In death's despite,
And day and night yield one delight once more?


This is the more philosophical of the stanzas. In it the poet marvels that time, despite its transient nature (its eddying flight) and despite the reality of death (line 14)- that time would restore not only life itself, but also the very love of life once lived! Absolutely beautiful. I find it quite amazing that so much expression can be articulated in so little space (not to mention in poetic meter).

It never ceases to amaze me how utterly gifted we humans can be despite our particular dilapidations. Sometimes I’m so ashamed of the things we do that it makes me sick to my stomach. But then there are those moments, those sublime moments, when we excel and achieve what’s best in us. I promise you, I long for the day when that is the norm.

Every time I read a poem like the one Rossetti wrote here, I’m reminded of one of the most beautiful and truest quotes ever:

“We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering - these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love - these are what we stay alive for.”

Dead Poet’s Society

3 comments:

PJ said...

I have actually just read Christina Rossettis poems, but I will certainly read more of Dantes now!

Kendra Lise said...

Thank you for the information, John - I'm such a fan of how you explicate not only meaning and structure, but also the history.
As for the poem, I like how it tugs slightly on a heart string at the remembrance of such moments. It's another good example of how poetry takes a few words to stir up a storm of memory and emotion.

khalid Laanani said...

very sound explication and analysis. you really could decipher the intricate meaning of the poem. keep up the good work.good luck!

As of April 9th, 2010