Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Shelley’s “A Summer Evening Churchyard”

The wind has swept from the wide atmosphere
Each vapour that obscured the sunset’s ray;
And pallid Evening twines its beaming hair
In duskier braids around the languid eyes of Day:
Silence and Twilight, unbeloved of men,
Creep hand in hand from yon obscurest glen.
Thus begins Shelley’s “A Summer Evening Churchyard.” My sympathies for this romantic poet have waxed and waned meteorically over the last few days. But I find this poem compatible enough with my way of thinking that I can enjoy the loveliness of the language.

Sound and sense float hand in hand in these first lines as closely as Shelley’s Silence and Twilight. A string of W’s in the first line, for instance, gets the reader virtually blowing away vapours himself. One of them hides in the word “swept,” a fortuitous past-tense form; “sweep” itself carries the swishing sound of the broom, but the short vowel and added T of its past tense add a tinge of finality. Another W begins the word “wide,” whose placement in an inverted foot makes it the first of two consecutive accented syllables and causes the reader to slow down when saying it, as if taking a long, determined sweep at the last stubborn wisp in the air. Shelley begins the sixth line with another word that carries its own sound associations with it. Unlike “swept,” though, “creep” doesn’t seem to have any onomatopoeic connection with its action. But the “cr” blend seems to carry a root of meaning with it since it begins so many related words: “creak,” “crawl,” “crouch,” “cranny.” Whether it’s in our blood or just our common experience, somehow, for English speakers, the sound of those two consonants enhances the inner image of slow or contracted movements.

And what a romantic image these sounds serve! The personified Evening – Shelley calls it pallid, beaming, and dusky all at the same time to convey its mystical glow – braids its hair (why not “her” hair, I wonder?) and covers Day’s eyes. And then, as if not merely caused by the dying of light and sound, the palpable Silence and Twilight make their own entrance, moving up slowly from the shades of depression between the hills. Shelley’s got me. I’m there with him in that churchyard.

After two more stanzas, the poem ends in this way:
The dead are sleeping in their sepulchres:
And, mouldering as they sleep, a thrilling sound,
Half sense, half thought, among the darkness stirs,
Breathed from their wormy beds all living things around,
And mingling with the still night and mute sky
Its awful hush is felt inaudibly.

Thus solemnized and softened, death is mild
And terrorless as this serenest night:
Here could I hope, like some inquiring child
Sporting on graves, that death did hide from human sight
Sweet secrets, or beside its breathless sleep
That loveliest dreams perpetual watch did keep.
Here is romanticism in its full melancholy splendor: nature mirroring and interpreting events, the sublime mystery of death, sounds only half heard with the ears, and truth only half heard with the mind. Like the persistent air that finds its way through the gauntlet of S’s, the solemn, soft, serene, sweet secrets of a land beyond reason and comprehension force their entrance into the romantic heart.

At least, that’s what the Romantics felt and taught. I have such sympathy for their mechanism; I also believe that the ocean waves, the singing lark, the glowing moon, the empty forest, and the craggy peak impart messages. “Day to day pours forth speech.” On the other hand I often strongly disagree with the messages the Romantic poets and artists and musicians believed they heard from these heralds. But that’s a topic for a later post.

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