06 July 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/27

On Reading Dryden's Virgil

Now cease these tears, lay gentle Virgil by,
Let recent sorrows dim the pausing eye:
Shall Aeneas for lost Creusa mourn,
And tears be wanting on Abella's urn?
Like him I lost my fair one in my flight
From cruel foes – and in the dead of night.
Shall he lament the fall of Illian's tow'rs,
And we not mourn the sudden ruin of our's?
See York on fire – while borne by winds each flame
Projects its glowing sheet o'er half the main:
Th' affrighted savage, yelling with amaze,
From Allegany sees the rolling blaze.
Far from these scenes of horror, in the shade
I saw my aged parent safe convey'd;
Then sadly follow'd to the friendly land,
With my surviving infant by the hand.
No cumb'rous houshold gods I had indeed
To load my shoulders, and my flight impede;
The hero's idols sav'd by him remain;
My gods took care of me – not I of them!
The Trojan saw Anchises breathe his last,
When all domestic dangers he had pass'd.
So my lov'd parent, after she had fled,
Lamented, perish'd on a stranger's bed.
He held his way o'er the Cerulian Main,
But I return'd to hostile fields again.

Ann Eliza Bleecker

As previously noted, the first local performance in almost half a century of Berlioz's epic opera Les Troyens has been a big thing around here and has left us in an Aeneid mood. In addition, as I type this I'm surrounded by a barrage of explosions from illegal fireworks for the Fourth of July (an especially irritating way to celebrate it this year because the lengthy and severe drought has made the whole landscape kindling). So it seemed like serendipity when the anthology I picked up while searching for a poem for this week opened to this Revolutionary War-era reflection on reading The Aeneid.

Since this poem is autobiographical, you will need some information on Bleecker. (And since she compares her life with Aeneas's, you will need some information on him as well: Creusa is his wife, who died during the fall of Troy (referred to here as Illian's/Ilium's towers), and Anchises is his father, whom he carried out of the burning city.) Back to Bleecker: born in 1752 and descended from prosperous Dutch merchants, she and her husband were living near Albany, New York, when the Revolutionary War began. After General Burgoyne invaded from Canada, her husband joined the state militia. While he was off fighting, Bleecker had to flee her home with the other women in her family: her mother, her sister, and her two young daughters, Abella and Margaretta. The infant Abella died of dysentery during their flight. Her mother died while they were still refugees. Her sister died as they were returning to their home, and her husband was captured by Loyalist troops, a series of tragedies and troubles that led Bleecker to a miscarriage and a breakdown. She survived the war but for the remainder of her life was subject to fits of intense depression, and she died, still a young woman, in 1783. Her surviving daughter, Margaretta, collected and published her mother's works in 1793. In addition to her poems, Bleecker wrote novels, including The History of Maria Kittle, one of the earliest examples of the Indian Captivity narrative (in which a white settler, often a woman, is kidnapped by Indians). Like many white settlers, she had troubled relations with and negative views of the local native peoples, as reflected here in her lines about the frightened savages.

Dryden's translation of the great epic of Augustan Rome was less than a century old when Bleecker read it, though it was already seen as a classic version. In her poem, Bleecker's tears over Aeneas's losses lead her to reflect on their strange similarity to her own wartime losses, despite their differences in time, place, and personality (the imaginative sympathy with which she makes the connection might be seen as a possible response to Hamlet's question, "What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her?"). She reinforces the link by using the same form as Dryden, the heroic couplet (that is, two rhyming lines in iambic pentameter, usually forming self-contained grammatical units). The life of this young American refugee wife finds an echo in the ancient Trojan hero's struggles.

She draws parallels between their plights: both lost a beloved family member during a night-time flight from a burning city. Both saw their homes destroyed by invaders. But she also draws distinctions: the famously dutiful Aeneas fled Troy while carrying his household gods, which Bleecker contemptuously refers to as "cumb'rous" (that is, cumbersome, clumsy and unwieldy) idols that could only weigh him down, whereas instead of having to save her gods, the Christian Bleecker was saved by them (though I assume she refers to "her gods" for symmetry, and means her God, or possibly she's referring to the Trinity, or borrowing Milton's usage gods to refer to angels). Furthermore, Aeneas was able to see his father die in some degree of peace and comfort, while her mother died among strangers, still separated from her family. And finally, after his escape from his devastated home the Trojan hero has a firm purpose (he "held his way"), crossing "the Cerulian [cerulean] Main" (that is, the deep blue sea) towards glory and the foundation of a great empire – whereas she, the victim of a different empire's turmoil, sees no escape from her wanderings among potential war zones.

I took this poem from American Poetry: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, an anthology edited by David S. Shields for the Library of America.

No comments: