Joan Murray and the Bats of Wisdom
W.H. Auden spent much of the summer of 1946 in a beach house he shared with his friends James and Tania Stern in Cherry Grove on Fire Island, just south of Long Island. He was at work on his long poem The Age of Anxiety that would be published the following year; he had also recently been appointed editor of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, taking over from Archibald MacLeish, whose multifarious commitments had meant he could devote little time to rigorous perusal of the manuscripts of first volumes of poems sent on to him by Yale University Press. Auden, then at the height of his prestige, was the first choice of the Yale committee that met on May 6 to decide MacLeish’s successor. He accepted in a letter of May 10, characteristically observing: “I am not at all sure that a poet is the best judge of his contemporaries, but I’m willing to have a shot at it if you are.” In any event he would edit the series through 1959, and launch the careers of a number of the most important poets of the post-war era: Adrienne Rich (1951), W.S. Merwin (1952), John Ashbery (1956), James Wright (1957), and John Hollander (1958) all had their first books chosen by Auden for publication in the Yale Series of Younger Poets.
None of the ten manuscripts that Auden took with him to Fire Island in the summer of 1946, however, seemed to him worthy of the accolade. Accordingly he wrote to Eugene Davidson, the Yale University Press editor in charge of the series, with a suggestion of his own: “I have just heard that the poems of Joan Murray which I told you about are available and, in my opinion, they are the best we have. May I have your permission to choose them? She died in 1942 at the age of 23” (she was in fact 24). Auden knew about Murray’s work because she had been a student of his at the New School some six years earlier. Although it must have struck Davidson and his fellow Yale editors as rather odd to make the award, which was intended to promote “such verse as seems to give the fairest promise for the future of American poetry,” to quote from the statement of purpose included in early volumes in the series, to a dead poet born in London of Canadian parents, no one at the press demurred. Poems by Joan Murray, 1917–1942, was duly published in May of 1947, attracting reviews in papers and journals such as Poetry, the Saturday Review, the New York Times Book Review, and the New Yorker. William Meredith, who had himself received the prize in 1944 for his first collection, Love Letter from an Impossible Land, acclaimed Murray’s “powerful and distinctive voice” in Poetry, but reported himself puzzled by her “abrupt transitions from image to image,” transitions “too quick and often too irrational for this reader.” Milton Crane in the New York Times rather more harshly described the poems as giving “the impression of being unborn.”
The volume came with a foreword by Auden and an editor’s note by Grant Code, a writer and lecturer on theatre and dance, and founder and manager of the Brooklyn Museum Dance Center that ran from 1935 to 1938. Code had not known the dead poet personally, but he was a friend of Murray’s mother, who was a diseuse and moved in theatrical circles, and he was an occasional dabbler in verse himself (his work is featured alongside that of Malcolm Cowley and John Brooks Wheelwright in the anthology Eight More Harvard Poets of 1923). In his negotiations with Yale, Auden declared himself uncomfortable with the notion that each book he selected should be introduced by the editor of the series, complaining:
These introductions always sound awful, and the whole idea that a new poet should be introduced by an older one as if he were a debutante or a new face cream, deplorable and false.
In his very brief (it runs to a mere page and a half) foreword to his initial selection he makes exactly this point in his opening paragraph, revealing that his own “personal reaction” to a book of poems with an introduction by an older writer “is a suspicion that the publishers are afraid that the poems are not very good and want reassurance.” Auden, as would become his wont in these introductions, pretty much evades the duty of making a case for Murray’s work, limiting himself to a single sentence that attempts to articulate its distinctive qualities: “in Miss Murray’s poetry,” he observes (and it’s not an observation that gets us very far),
the dominant emotion is, I think, a feeling of isolation, and her characteristic images tactile shapes which reassure her that “Here” and “There” are both real and related to each other.
This could surely be applied to any number of volumes of poetry published since the Romantics.
The editor’s note by Grant Code would have indicated to purchasers of the book back in 1947 a rather stronger sense of the unusual nature of Murray’s poetry; the only other poet mentioned in Code’s note is Emily Dickinson, and his discussion of his task as Murray’s editor inevitably recalls the controversy attending editorial attempts to standardize Dickinson’s work. Murray’s manuscripts, which were handed over to him by Murray’s mother (known as Peggy, her full name being Florence Margaret Toaps Murray) were, he reports, in a state of “confusion, pages of prose mixed with pages of verse and scarcely two pages of anything together that belonged together”: many poems existed in different versions, Murray’s spelling was “capricious,” few of the poems were titled, and fewer properly punctuated. Some words were clearly “makeshift” choices that she intended later to revise, and some downright ungrammatical. He tried to fix most of these, although the book does include the odd verbal peculiarity, such as the last line of “Sleep, Whose Hour Has Come” that makes a verb into an adjective: “And sleep is still retribute.” On occasion Code took the liberty of substituting a choice of his own in place of what Murray had written, as when he altered “connubial” to “convivial” in line seventeen of “Believe Me, My Fears Are Ancient,” on the grounds that the effect of “connubial” is “disturbing.” I rather regret this particular editorial decision, since the poem, like a number of Murray’s, is about what one might call the procreative urge, “the burst into spring,” and the lines in question depict the human mind casting off gloom and doubts, “conglomerate mourners,” and rejoicing in the desire “to slip over and be connubial,” or as Code would have it “convivial.” It surely takes an exceptionally sensitive reader to be disturbed by Murray’s original choice, which hardly plunges us into the territory of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Code’s task in sorting through the material he was given and making from these drafts a publishable book was clearly a formidable one, though we don’t know quite how formidable. The trunk containing all of Murray’s original manuscripts was lost by removal men, or so it was thought, when her mother sold her daughter’s papers, along with her own much more voluminous archives, to Smith College in 1968. (My inquiries to the current Smith archivist about this lost trunk stimulated a search for it, and I am delighted to report that it has now been found.) Code evidently smoothed and regularized; he added the word “Trees” off his own bat to a poem, without telling us which one (my guess is stanza four of “Spring”: “Sap flies high to the head of tall / Trees in a leaping drunk”). He adjusted her syntax and added the occasional “colorless connective” where he felt it was needed. For titles he normally used the first line, in the mode of Auden’s Poems of 1930, but sometimes came up with a descriptive title of his own.
It is easy to deride what John Ashbery has called, in a short piece on Murray published in the Poetry Project Newsletter of October / November 2003, these “ministrations of a well-meaning but somewhat heavy-handed editor.” Code also got increasingly on Auden’s wick as work on the book proceeded, although not as much as Peggy, about whom Auden wrote to Davidson at Yale with a word to the wise: “From what I know of Mama, I would advise you confidentially to deal with her through Mr. Code.” Indeed, Auden also told Davidson that Mrs. Murray had once written him a letter accusing him of having killed her daughter. Possibly Murray mère attributed her daughter’s early death in January of 1942 not to complications deriving from a rheumatic heart condition, but to the compositional fever that her attendance of Auden’s lectures on “Poetry and Culture” at the New School in 1940 had inspired. (Much of her oeuvre, it seems, was written in the sixteen months left to her after she began taking Auden’s course.) Code omitted from the book forty poems that he decided were “incomplete, fragmentary, or immature,” but he refused to grant Auden’s pleas that he cull still further. He also wanted to include as an appendix a biographical sketch he titled “A Faun Surmising,” made up partly of his observations and speculations, and partly of passages from Murray’s letters and diaries. A copy of this survives in the Smith Archives, and I would dearly love to read it. He apparently compiled notes for the poems too. Confronted by this editorial apparatus, Auden firmly drew the line: he instructed Davidson that Code’s notes and “A Faun Surmising” were not to appear in the book “because — entre nous — they make me very sick.” In his foreword he sternly insists on the importance of not being “distracted by sentimental speculation” about the author’s life and early death, or what she might have gone on to write.
Code may well have been “heavy-handed” on occasion, but I would like to speak up briefly on his arrangement of the volume into seven books “grouped,” in his words, “by subject.” Within these books individual pieces are carefully ordered so as to create, where possible, a sense of “sequence and development of thought running through several poems.” Murray’s idiom can seem, as the reviews by William Meredith and Milton Crane testify, so mobile, so resistant to attempts to parse it into prose sense, that one can lose sight of the poem’s “subject.” Code, it strikes me, thought long and hard about the best way to bring to the fore Murray’s thematic concerns, and his arrangements are both effective and helpful in getting a grip on the volume as a whole. This coherence is stronger in some books than in others: many of the poems in book one are urban and verging on the satirical, while those in three deal with nature and rural life (mainly in Vermont); most of those in the short book four approach religious issues, whereas those in six are predominantly concerned with conquest, empire, and exile; and those in seven with mythological figures, from Bast, the Egyptian cat goddess, to Penelope, Ulysses, and Orpheus. Two and five have less distinctive characters, but one gets runs of poems on topics such as art, sleep, and the sea. I wouldn’t deny that many of Murray’s poems veer hither and thither in all manner of competing directions, skipping from image to image with electrical speed and insouciance, but beneath their hectic surfaces one can often discern a shadowy but purposeful progression of thought and argument.
Among the items listed in her section of the Murray archives at Smith is an edition of J.B. Leishman’s 1941 Hogarth Press edition of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Selected Poems. If Auden was evidently the primary and fundamental catalyst for Murray’s sudden and startling poetic “burst into spring,” it was the Rilke-influenced strand of Auden found throughout Poems, and in parts of The Orators (1932) and Look, Stranger! (1936), rather than the political, journalistic, camp, comic, or moralistic aspects of his work, that Murray appropriated and developed into a medium of her own. Auden’s influence, it’s worth stressing at this point, was everywhere in the poetry that was being written in the late thirties and early forties both in Britain and America, from Philip Larkin to John Berryman, from Stephen Spender to Delmore Schwartz, from Nicholas Moore to Elizabeth Bishop and Randall Jarrell. Murray homed in on the cryptic, elliptical idiom that dominates Auden’s first Faber collection, as the first piece in her own Poems rather too graphically demonstrates. It consists of three abab rhyming quatrains:
If, here in the city, lights glare from various source,Look out of the window, thin-faced man.Three portent cities repeat the pattern and the courseThat history ran.Three slender veins, clotted and ambiguous,Are those inlocked hands.Three startled cries now rise incredulous,Where once sprang barren sands.Give back night to receding sky.Let stars (the things that remain)Orbit their quiet to the lieThat is here city and various city pain.— If Here in the City
The noun “portent” in line three has been weirdly wrenched into use as an adjective, as if the course of history were insisting that there wasn’t time for the –ous to be added to it, or for a more meaningful word to be found. A similar kind of radical compression appears to be at work in the omissions of the final line, making the poem feel like a bathysphere that has ventured too deep into the ocean for its hull to withstand the steadily building pressure. From Auden, Murray derives terms and means for communicating in shorthand or code a sense of the panoramic sweep of evolution, which is surely the force exerting the pressure, and she also borrows his cinematic technique of cutting from human distress to the indifference of the universe: “startled cries,” “barren sands,” “various city pain,” “receding sky,” and “stars” in orbit. Auden’s vision of the innate treachery of civilization is activated by her use of the word “lie,” rhyming with its cosmic antithesis “sky,” and as in early Auden, authority of delivery is fused with the opacity of the message: why three cities, three veins, three cries? How can “slender,” “clotted” veins also be “inlocked [another nonce word] hands”? Are these hands meant to suggest that the three cities represent intertwined civilizations rising from the barren sands in some system-based reading, like that propounded by Yeats in A Vision, of human history? How odd to describe “barren sands” as having “sprang”! Might it, one begins to wonder, be as pointless to try to interpret such a poem as it is one by, say, Ern Malley, the fictitious Australian poet created by James McAuley and Harold Stewart in 1944 as a means of satirizing the obscurity of modern verse?
By 1946 of course, when he decided to award Murray’s manuscript the prize, Auden had moved decisively away from the idiom that his pupil sets about reanimating in a poem such as “If Here in the City”; and Auden would in later life often cast a pretty cold eye on the more vatic aspects of his early work, regretting in particular the influence of Rilke, whom he felt had lured him into writing too much “Poetry with a capital P.” Yet it was precisely this poetry with a capital P that Murray, and then, to cite the most obvious example, John Ashbery after her, found at once as invigorating as catnip and, despite its originator’s qualms, an eminently viable way for poetry to happen. It is surely a testimony to Auden’s eye for talent, whatever form that talent took, that he selected for the Yale series first Murray’s Poems and later Ashbery’s Some Trees, for both make extensive use of a poetic mode that, although he had himself invented it, he had since come to mistrust.
“If Here in the City” is, I think, at once too derivative and too baffling to be classed as one of Murray’s stronger efforts, but by placing it at the head of her collection, which contains seventy-six pieces in all, Code allowed her to acknowledge the Audenesque as the portal through which she entered the poetic realms that follow. Most of the volume it inaugurates consists of shortish lyrics, of which about twenty turn the page. Book three and book seven conclude with Murray’s two longest and, in my opinion, two finest works: “An Epithalamium,” which occupies five pages, and “Orpheus. Three Eclogues,” which runs to nine.
While the bleak urgency of the book’s opening salvo subliminally reflects the era in which Murray’s oeuvre was composed, one finds in her work few specific historical references. An exception to this rule is “The Coming of Strange People,” which is subtitled “Written on the day of Holland’s invasion,” allowing us to date it to May 10, 1940. But this poem, like “If Here in the City,” is concerned to view the events of history from a dauntingly wide-angled perspective. Certainly it laments the casualties of the invasion (“So many bodies flat upon the stir of spring,” it begins) and the return of “old war chanting,” and condemns the “hate” fueling the invaders, who, curiously, are never named but simply called “strange people,” as if the speaker were an anthropologist scrupulously adopting the terminology for outsiders of a tribe under scrutiny. But the poem also moves spectacularly beyond the “bewildered age” she inhabits, contrasting the chaos of the present with nature’s powers of recuperation:
From this land we see the valleys and the banners.The hollow places will hold ruins for a time;Then the sides of the mountain will green and flower,Even women shall bear trees and know the leaves for children.
One is reminded of the attempts of Wallace Stevens to create adequate space for the soldier in his conjugations of the relationship between reality and imagination in his poetry of the war years, in particular of the mixture of human carnage and the irrepressible, exotic energies of nature intertwined in the jungle of “Asides on the Oboe” of 1940, with its “jasmine haunted forests” in which the poet hears the central man “chanting for those buried in their blood.” My guess is that Murray closely read Stevens — about the value of whose work, incidentally, Auden was deeply skeptical; and, if I’m right in this, more incidentally still, by fusing these two antithetical influences she again anticipates the processes that shaped the development of Ashbery.
While Stevens tends to reach, in his meditations on the issues raised by war, toward a delicate balance between the ideal and the real, with self-conscious pointers to the paradigmatic role that poetry can play in negotiations between them, Murray’s “The Coming of Strange People” concludes with a resonant delineation of evolutionary harshness and the crisis of the moment:
Earth, there is no gentle shaping of the clay.Time, no building in the hour.Things come and the sea is sea without us.All is brash and shrill, with bone to fallow on,And bitter of mouth are we who taste the green this spring.
The gentle pathos of Wilfred Owen’s “Was it for this the clay grew tall?” is firmly set aside by the unsparing rigor of the historical consciousness these lines purvey. Things come, they don’t even fall apart, and whatever epithet we apply to the sea, from Homer’s “wine-dark” to Stevens’s “tragic-gestured,” affects the sea itself not at all. The only concession to sentiment lies in acknowledging the bitterness of the taste of the spring in May of 1940, with the bones of the dead dispersed like nutrient, lying fallow in its lap.
“The Coming of Strange People” is the opening poem of book six, and a number of other pieces in this section explore, or reflect upon, the will to conquest. In “Ahab the Supermonomaniac” Murray succinctly sums up the corrosive emotions driving Melville’s obsessed hero: “Sought all life damned. / Pain chanted imaginings.” The three poems that follow are all set in England, which is presented by Murray as already in the throes of post-imperial diminishment, as an “island-once-kingdom.” “We were Empire and now we are dead or Mayflower” she observes in the longest of these, a line which might be said to compact into ten words Auden’s compendious diagnoses of his mother country, which culminated in his decision to follow in the footsteps of the pilgrim fathers to America, rather than collapse, as he feared he otherwise would, to what he calls in “Consider” “a classic fatigue.” It can plausibly be argued that Auden is Britain’s first post-imperial poet, and something of the historical guilt and fear of lassitude or failure that drives so much of his thirties poetry infiltrates Murray’s depictions of England too: “Then know what it is to have the sins of the father!” she exclaims in “Empire Now Dead and Mayflower” — Code presumably quarried the poem’s title from the line quoted above. “On Looking at Left Fields” (“left” here meaning “abandoned”) enjoins us to note how in “the old fields the old corn tangles,” and the “sleek weed twists and strangles,” ruining “lands” that once were “green.” In this poem, another set of three quatrains rhyming abab, Murray shifts from a sense of national inertia and inadequacy to an image of herself as a Londoner, one who knows from the inside the symptoms of the national malaise:
Dried leaves like lizard scales over the landAnd the slow blink down to winter.Father of shivering times, crazed by each spring’s demand,Why would you know your daughter?It is this London they will never know —Something of must, stale bread and spring,The fattened dog, the thinning child and Rotten Row.To be born a Londoner, as I, gives meaning to the thing.
Are the “they,” one can’t help wondering, her transatlantic relations? This poem is followed by “London,” a wonderful piece of urban description that I much regret not including in my anthology London: A History in Verse. “London sits with her hands cupped,” it begins. What is the personified city waiting for? Pigeons, sparrows, a “fat-flanked mare,” and “slim weeds of ivy” animate its streets and buildings, along with Easter lilies, only for all to be suddenly obliterated by the capricious spring weather:
a cool breeze speaks out of some darker street,Clouds shuffle up with restless intrepidity, and spillTheir whole river of abundance at her feet,The whole clean wide river, and wrap her in one river of sleet,Her sides in one wet sheet.
As such lines demonstrate, Murray’s poetry is adept, perhaps too relentlessly for some, at making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. Rhyme often plays a distinctive role in her creation of oblique angles and surprising twists, as in the chiming here of street / feet / sleet / sheet. She frequently makes superb use of off-rhyme too, as well as of variable line lengths, whose effect in her work is memorably described by Ashbery as “suggestive of waves washing up on a beach, with every so often an unusually long one, like the wave that surprises you when you’re walking by the ocean, making you run to escape it.”
For all their whimsy and wanderings, Murray’s poems come in carefully structured shapes and sizes; her curious swoops and zigzags develop within elastic but recognizable stanza patterns, often allowing an energizing tension between impulse and rigor to emerge. “What will the wish, what will the dance do?” inquires Auden at the end of his short poem “Orpheus” of 1937, and while not exactly a formalist, Murray shows herself insistently aware of how the dance can liberate the wish. Indeed a number of her poems proffer as an image of the maker not an inspired bard but a toiling architect. The second half of book one consists of six poems in a row that develop architectural themes as a means of foregrounding the relationship between the fluidity of the imagination and the structures that seem in opposition to its freedoms. “It is the action of water that is the nearest thing to man,” exclaim the young in the opening lines of “The Builder,” to which a “sullen cry,” which I take to be that of the builder himself, responds that there is “no time to stop in the work and the job, only time to breathe, / And breathe in your own fine sweat.” A fairly standard antithesis seems set up here, but the poem goes on to complicate it in a range of intriguing ways. Appealing as the indolent young’s resistance to work and order may seem, how far, the poem asks, can one take the romantic ideal of the imagination as formless and insatiable? “I want to wander over the hills” enthuses its Orphic speaker:
and down to the water,And if there is sea I want to pack it up in my arms,And let the blue globe of all the wide water fill my mouthTill my jaw hangs loose, and come piling into me,Fill up my head, my chest, and the sea-filled loins to burst in me.
The builder may be sullen, and his constructions doomed, but as the poem’s last stanza makes clear, he is more aware than the absurdly water-inflated speaker of what he is doing. “We’re building,” he explains:
towers of Babel that will crumble down before dawn,Like the falling of water down and down to the sea,And we’d die making towers of Babel while they tumble down to the sea.
This may not achieve quite the defiant splendor of Yeats’s “All things fall and are built again, / And those that build them again are gay”; nevertheless, the extravagant, almost parodic terms in which Murray stages this dialogue between romantic impulse and classical form indicate a high degree of self-consciousness about her own procedures, and suggest the need to move beyond the high rhetoric of Modernism toward more indeterminate and flexible styles of approach to the relationship between desire and convention.
Murray’s conjugations of the figure of the architect in these poems connect with the overall vision that the book presents of the history of civilization and its culmination in the modern city. In the first in the series the Gothic is celebrated for its power to incorporate into its facades architecture’s seeming opposite, the “passions of night,” in the gargoyle shape of a chuckling “slippery imp” or “a fangy slit-eyed creature of no race.” A “little architect” is rocked to sleep in another that Murray — or Code — called “Lullaby,” which is about a mother and child rather than the fickle lovers presented in Auden’s poem of the same name. As in the last stanza of Auden’s love poem, Murray’s “Lullaby” delicately dreams a happy future for its addressee, imagining the future structures that she will one day build fusing as successfully as Gothic cathedrals the organic and irrational with the “dead” stone of which they are made:
The grass will not be so insignificant, the stone so dead.You will spiral up the mansions we have sown.Drop your lids, little architect. Admit the bats of wisdom into your head.
The looping parabolas made by bats offer a useful way of figuring Murray’s poetic imagination as a whole. No doubt the kinds of wisdom it conveys may seem to some a little skittish or elusive — although she is by no means averse to accumulating series of propositions that appear to be aiming at the lapidary or epigrammatic. The short poem “Men and Women Have Meaning Only As Man and Woman” consists entirely of such propositions, but ones that manage to combine the self-evident and the unfathomable, or at the very least, unverifiable, like a miscellany of mistranslated koans or a set of philosophical exempla that one can’t quite follow:
Men and women have meaning only as man and woman.The moon is itself and it is lost among stars.The days are individual, and in the passageThe nights are each sleep, but the dreams vary.A repeated action is upon its own feet.We who have spoken there speak here.
It is not easy to take issue with such statements; their wisdom lies in the sense they communicate of a kind of false bottom to our uses of language. Like Auden, Murray is not afraid of giving full reign to the urge to define and categorize, yet the seemingly systematic processes of assertion and illustration that inform her poems tend to register as subtly but irretrievably askew, as “makeshift,” to adopt Code’s term, despite the authoritative tones in which they are delivered. “Men and Women ... ” concludes:
The timing of independent objectsPermits them to live and move and admit their spaceAnd entity and various attitudes of life.All things are cool in themselves and complete.
If the “cool” tone reminds one of Wittgenstein’s dispassionate chains of logic in the Tractatus, the lacunae that open up between each of the poem’s sentences suggest a mind pursuing certainties where none exist.
It is lack of completion, however, that drives her two longest pieces, “An Epithalamium” and “Orpheus. Three Eclogues,” which both explore relationships between men and women, or man and woman. “An Epithalamium” is subtitled “Or Marriage Day in a Little-Known Country / A Marriage Poem for an Age,” and is in the form of a dialogue between “The Young Women” and “The Young Men” of this little-known country. The ceremonial aspect of the epithalamium tradition is honored, up to a point, in the poem’s formal properties: the first four alternating speeches are thirteen lines long, as is the sixth, which is spoken by The Young Men; the fifth, and the concluding seventh, both spoken by The Young Women, are seventeen lines long. Perhaps, in this little-known country, this is the form taken by all epithalamiums.
The poem attempts, rather like Auden’s very early charade Paid on Both Sides, which developed out of his reading of Icelandic sagas, to use the archaic and immemorial to delineate a radically modern sensibility. Both are anatomies of late adolescence, of its fantasies and uncertainties and trembling fascination with new kinds of linguistic and empirical possibility, but while Auden’s charade harks back to the japes of a public school Junior Common Room or the rituals of Officer Training Corps, Murray’s young women and young men float free of any particular social context. In numerous passages the influence of Rilke, especially of the Duino Elegies, is strong, but not, I think, overpowering:
On the hill we see a child plucking flowers:The round face of the day is seeded with infinities.In our minds the children stamp, the strict parent frowns, the infant cowersBehind random clusters, the flower-symbol, to smother laughter.Compact and kneeling, we smoothe the wet grass to one side,Learning to touch the earth with consideration,Knowing that we must be less militant and young to stroke the things that hide.Even the bright dew weeps from the stem at our inept and thoughtless touch.
The novelty and the clumsiness of awakening sexual consciousness are beautifully captured in such lines. The pastoral tradition, which dominates book three in Code’s arrangement, is elegantly and boldly reconfigured throughout these seven monologues, which interact with each other in an oblique but effective way, rather in the manner of the speeches by the four characters of Auden’s The Age of Anxiety (a poem subtitled a “A Baroque Eclogue”) on which he was at work during the summer that he selected Murray’s poems for the Yale prize. “An Epithalamium” is Murray’s fullest exploration of what I called in relation to “Believe Me, My Fears Are Ancient” the procreative urge. At many moments the writing turns frankly erotic: “Come, O come to us,” urge The Young Women in the final section, “so that we shall know more of the pine against the hill.” Whatever her health problems, Murray was as capable as, say, the Keats of “The Eve of St. Agnes” of imagining the coming together of lovers and their mutual transformation by this act of blending into new identities that move beyond the scope or reach of the poem: “And they are gone — ay, ages long ago / These lovers fled away into the storm,” observes Keats in his final stanza; “Lovers may touch,” “An Epithalamium” concludes, “but the marriage bond is a link without distraction.”
Except, of course, when one of the lovers dies. In “Orpheus. Three Eclogues,” the volume’s last poem, Murray bravely picks up the myth that Rilke had made spectacularly his own, first in “Orpheus.Eurydice. Hermes,” and then in Sonnets to Orpheus. Murray’s poem has a wider cast list, including Orpheus’s mother Calliope, Charon, who punts him across the Acheron, as well as the Beasts that Orpheus enchants and the Shades of Hades, who are both given a choric role. If “An Epithalamium” recreates the vivid pulse of dawning sexuality that animates Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes,” Murray’s Eurydice comes to resemble the mournful knight of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” hollowed out by the failure of love, stranded, by Orpheus’s sudden change of mind, in the world of the Shades. As they proceed on the path up from Hades, Eurydice gradually recovers her sensuality and humanity, imagining, like a convalescent taking her first tottering steps out of bed, the life she is about to recover:
I will lean myself to the wind and nibble the sensation,Passionately grasp the oval bowls of wine,Taste and tamper, have precise delight in the minutest tilt of inclination.
Much of the poem, with the exception of the choric passages, makes cleverly unobtrusive use of Murray’s favoured abab rhyme scheme, although this breaks down in the two lines that Eurydice utters as Orpheus turns, the most affecting lines, to my mind, in her entire oeuvre:
In my palms lie these two clear efforts of my eyes,The very essence of this tormented moment.
As “An Epithalamium” found a complex but ceremonial language in which to translate The Young Women’s and The Young Men’s approach to sexual union, so this decisive moment of sundering is conveyed in a calm, uplifting, almost metaphysical image. Orpheus’s decision to turn to look at his wife and thus condemn her to return to Pluto is made no more explicable by Murray than the sudden onset of a deadly illness, while the choric summation by the Shades, which brings the poem, and the volume as a whole, to a close, returns us to the remorseless cosmic perspectives of the opening piece, “If Here in the City”:
Birds and beasts, rocks and fish of the sea,Watch how the lidless pools absorb to themselvesThe improbable adventure without a ripple.
Death quietly claims Eurydice, however frantically Orpheus clutches her vanishing image, and then afterward laments her loss. The poem is clear that never again will the border between death and life prove porous: “Leave what may be the absolute of death to us, the proper dead.”
Murray’s book seems to me a startling achievement for a poet who died at an even younger age than Keats, a month short of her twenty- fifth birthday. It is surprising, particularly after John Ashbery’s eloquent praise of her work in 2003, that she has attracted so little critical attention, by which I actually mean none: this essay is, as far as I can tell, the first ever written on her oeuvre. The improbable poetic adventures her Poems offers have slipped into oblivion, like Eurydice, almost without a ripple, although she does make cameo appearances in David Lehman’s The Oxford Book of American Poetry of 2006 and Evan Jones’s and Todd Swift’s Modern Canadian Poets of 2010. Auden ends his short foreword by recommending four pieces to a casual browser of Poems in a bookstore: “You Talk of Art,” “An Epithalamium,” “Even the Gulls of the Cool Atlantic,” and “Orpheus.” “I am confident,” he adds, “that, if he is a true judge and lover of poetry, he will neither leave the store without taking the volume with him, nor ever regret his purchase.” It can take a while to tune in to the “fluctuant,” to borrow one of her favorite adjectives, maneuvers that Murray’s poems perform, but Auden is surely right to suggest that those who make the effort will not regret it. “Admit,” as the mother advises her little architect in “Lullaby,” “the bats of wisdom into your head.”
Mark Ford was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and earned both his BA and DPhil from the University of Oxford. His collections of poetry include Landlocked (1991), Soft Sift (2001), Six Children (2011), Selected Poems (2014), and Enter, Fleeing (2018). He is the author of a biography, Raymond Roussel and the...