30 June 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/27

A Decade

When you came, you were like red wine and honey,
And the taste of you burnt my mouth with its sweetness.
Now you are like morning bread,
Smooth and pleasant.
I hardly taste you at all for I know your savour,
But I am completely nourished.

Amy Lowell

Despite the repressed or perhaps just reticent society of her time, circumstances, and place (late-nineteenth/early twentieth-century upper-crust Boston), I think it's fairly safe to assume that Lowell, a wealthy and worldly individual who chafed under the standard-issue limitations her era attempted to impose on women of her class, meant us to read an erotic pun in her opening words, since come as a term for sexual climax has a long-established history in English (my Shakespeare professor at Cal, Janet Adelman, pointed out to us its frequent use by Antony and Cleopatra during their liebestod).

As an adherent of the new Imagist movement in poetry, Lowell was interested in expressing herself through vivid, concrete details. Her comparisons are with basic food items: honey, wine, and bread. Bread and wine, though mentioned separately, are still brought together closely enough to bring up an echo, however faint, of the Christian eucharist, so perhaps in this poem there is a subtle turn-about on the long tradition of using erotic love as a metaphor for a mystic experience of the divine: here the elements of communion are used to cast a sacred glow around an earthly love. Wine and honey frequently appear in classical Greek as well as Biblical verse: Lowell connects her love song with the elemental sources of English-language poetry, giving her lyric a stripped-down, essential feel. But though all three foods are linked together as images of her love, she does differentiate the red wine and honey (sweet, intoxicating, sensuous) from the more necessary and perhaps more homely daily bread.

Unlike most love poems, this one celebrates not the first intense flame (it is not ignored or dismissed; the first two lines are too alive for that) but the deeper pleasure of a long-lasting love. The ten years of the title have passed, and there is an implication that perhaps things have cooled off, physically at least ("I hardly taste you at all for I know your savour"), but they have been replaced by a deeper sense of contentment -- and here the food images reach their fulfillment as the speaker declares that she is completely nourished.

In the repressed/reticent style of her time, Lowell was rumored to be linked to several women, but it is likely that this poem was written for Ada Dwyer Russell. Of course, from our point of view, approaching a century after Lowell's death, it is irrelevant if she wrote this poem to a particular woman or indeed to any actual person at all. Still, if you have a glass of red wine with your dinner, you may as well toast Russell with it.

I took this from the Selected Poems of Amy Lowell, edited by Honor Moore, in the Library of America's American Poets Project series.

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