This book is a good idea, executed with verve: by joining two arts, it invites fresh consideration of art itself. What has an art made of breath to do with an art made of matter? These lines by William Shakespeare suggest an answer, by concentrating on Time:
O how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of batt’ring days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays?
Time registers movement as well as decay, sweetness as well as battering. In the dimension of time the unfolding vocal breath of a poem transpires; and also in the dimension of time the presence of a sculpture can appear in the round.
Variety rules here. Murray Dewart’s choices range beyond any duality of rock and steel on one side, ‘‘honey breath’’ on the other. Rhythms of confirmation and surprise, classic expectation and eccentric surprise, enliven this variously populated book. The context of sculpture gives a renewed sense to Yeats’s audacious vision of his soul’s embodiment in “Sailing to Byzantium”:
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
He not only imagines himself inhabiting an artifact, but also the vision is made the more peculiar by the object’s nature: small, ornamental, mechanical rather than natural. The bird, a piece of representational, kinetic sculpture, is also expressive. In the concluding line, the imagined work of art encompasses a sweeping, possibly enduring vision of past, present and future: Time comprehended.
By contrast, Sharon Olds’s “The Urn” offers a different account of an artifact – personal rather than heroic, actual rather than visionary – and is bold in something like an opposite way to “Sailing to Byzantium.” Here the poet alertly considers an actual, contemporary container for funerary ashes:
I had thought it would be tapered, with a small
waist and a pair of handles, silver-
plated, like a loving cup
or tennis trophy, but there on the table
was a smooth, square box, with a military
look, the stainless steel corners
soldered up, a container that could bury
The object she does not see, but expected, is described in a little more detail than the “smooth, square box” itself. In art, vision engages presence, but is not bound by it. Like Yeats’s bird, Olds’s poem exemplifies what might be called sculptural imagination. Both poems – and Shakespeare’s sonnet 65 too – consider shaped metal (or more precisely, the idea of shaped metal) in relation to death and afterlife.
Shelley’s “Ozymandias” is an inevitable choice for this book, being possibly the best-known poem in English about a statue. The sonnet indelibly presents the ruined statue’s “vast and trunkless legs of stone” separated in the desert sand from the head’s “shatter’d visage” with its “wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command.” But it is here further illuminated by the inclusion of another poem on that same statue of Ozymandias: Horace Smith’s sonnet written as part of a friendly competition with his friend Shelley in 1818. Smith’s poem is good, and its comic sense – with a singular Leg and its initial capital – sharpens our sense of the sardonic in Shelley’s poem. Smith’s first eight lines make a point similar to Shelley’s, Time’s mockery of boastful grandeur:
In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws,
The only shadow that the desert knows: –
‘‘I am the great Ozymandias,’’ saith the stone.
‘‘The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
The wonders of my hand. – The City’s gone, –
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
But Smith’s final six lines extend the temporal imagination in an innovative way, almost in the spirit of science fiction:
We wonder, – and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
The two friends based their parallel poems on a Greek historian’s description: imagining the statue of Ozymandias, reading about the statue in that passage as part of their game, but not observing it. Admirably inventive, Smith’s poem extends the annihilation to a remote future in which London is covered by wilderness, an explicit obliteration that is implicit in Shelley’s image of dissolution – “the lone and level sands stretch far away.”
These few examples are intended to suggest the large, gloriously idiosyncratic scope of wonder to be found in this anthology. The editor gives the last word to Yeats and the tireless artistry he attributes to the smithies of Byzantium where images are forged that continually proliferate and extend. Time is regenerative as well as destructive, and in a single process, violently creative,
. . . The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.
Copyright © 2016 by Edited by Murray Dewart; Foreword by Robert Pinsky. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.