Monday, September 1, 2014

The Quaker Graveyard In Nantucket

Robert Lowell


Let man have dominion over the fishes of the sea and the fowls of the air and the beasts of the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth.


A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket - 
The sea was still breaking violently and night
Had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet,
When the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net. Light
Flashed from his matted head and marble feet,
He grappled at the net
With the coiled, hurdling muscles of his thighs:
The corpse was bloodless, a botch of reds and whites,
Its open, staring eyes
Were lustreless dead-lights
Or cabin-windows on a stranded hulk
Heavy with sand. We weight the body, close
Its eyes and heave it seaward whence it came,
Where the heel-headed dogfish barks its nose
On Ahab’s void and forehead; and the name
Is blocked in yellow chalk.
Sailors, who pitch this portent at the sea
Where dreadnaughts shall confess
Its hell-bent deity,
When you are powerless
To sand-bag this Atlantic bulwark, faced
By the earth-shaker, green, unwearied, chaste
In his steel scales: ask for no Orphean lute
To pluck life back. The guns of the steeled fleet
Recoil and then repeat
The hoarse salute.


Whenever winds are moving and their breath
Heaves at the roped-in bulwarks of this pier,
The terns and sea-gulls tremble at your death
In these home waters. Sailor, can you hear
The Pequod’s sea wings, beating landward, fall
Headlong and break on our Atlantic wall
Off ’Sconset, where the yawing S-boats splash
The bellbuoy, with ballooning spinnakers,
As the entangled, screeching mainsheet clears
The blocks: off Madaket, where lubbers lash
The heavy surf and throw their long lead squids
For blue-fish? Sea-gulls blink their heavy lids
Seaward. The winds’ wings beat upon the stones,
Cousin, and scream for you and the claws rush
At the sea’s throat and wring it in the slush
Of this old Quaker graveyard where the bones
Cry out in the long night for the hurt beast
Bobbing by Ahab’s whaleboats in the East.


All you recovered from Poseidon died
With you, my cousin, and the harrowed brine
Is fruitless on the blue beard of the god,
Stretching beyond us to the castles in Spain,
Nantucket’s westward haven. To Cape Cod
Guns, cradled on the tide,
Blast the eelgrass about a waterclock
Of bilge and backwash, roil the salt and sand
Lashing earth’s scaffold, rock
Our warships in the hand
Of the great God, where time’s contrition blues
Whatever it was these Quaker sailors lost
In the mad scramble of their lives. They died
When time was open-eyed,
Wooden and childish; only bones abide
There, in the nowhere, where their boats were tossed
Sky-high, where mariners had fabled news
Of IS, the whited monster. What it cost
Them is their secret. In the sperm-whale’s slick
I see the Quakers drown and hear their cry:
“If God himself had not been on our side,
If God himself had not been on our side,
When the Atlantic rose against us, why,
Then it had swallowed us up quick.”


This is the end of the whaleroad and the whale
Who spewed Nantucket bones on the thrashed swell
And stirred the troubled waters to whirlpools
To send the Pequod packing off to hell:
This is the end of them, three-quarters fools,
Snatching at straws to sail
Seaward and seaward on the turntail whale,
Spouting out blood and water as it rolls,
Sick as a dog to these Atlantic shoals:
Clamavimus, O depths. Let the sea-gulls wail

For water, for the deep where the high tide
Mutters to its hurt self, mutters and ebbs.
Waves wallow in their wash, go out and out,
Leave only the death-rattle of the crabs,
The beach increasing, its enormous snout
Sucking the ocean’s side.
This is the end of running on the waves;
We are poured out like water. Who will dance
The mast-lashed master of Leviathans
Up from this field of Quakers in their unstoned graves?


When the whale’s viscera go and the roll
Of its corruption overruns this world
Beyond tree-swept Nantucket and Woods Hole
And Martha’s Vineyard, Sailor, will your sword
Whistle and fall and sink into the fat?
In the great ash-pit of Jehoshaphat
The bones cry for the blood of the white whale,
The fat flukes arch and whack about its ears
The death-lance churns into the sanctuary, tears
The gun-blue swingle, heaving like a flail,
And hacks the coiling life out: it works and drags
And rips the sperm-whale’s midriff into rags,
Gobbets of blubber spill to wind and weather,
Sailor, and gulls go round the stoven timbers
Where the morning stars sing out together
And thunder shakes the white surf and dismembers
The red flag hammered in the mast-head. Hide
Our steel, Jonas Messias, in Thy side.



There once the penitents took off their shoes
And then walked barefoot the remaining mile;
And the small trees, a stream and hedgerows file
Slowly along the munching English lane,
Like cows to the old shrine, until you lose
Track of your dragging pain.
The stream flows down under the druid tree,
Shiloah’s whirlpools gurgle and make glad
The castle of God. Sailor, you were glad
And whistled Sion by that stream. But see:

Our Lady, too small for her canopy,
Sits near the altar. There’s no comeliness
At all or charm in that expressionless
Face with its heavy eyelids. As before,
This face, for centuries a memory,
Non est species, neque decor,
Expressionless, expresses God: it goes
Past castled Sion. She knows what God knows,
Not Calvary’s Cross nor crib at Bethlehem
Now, and the world shall come to Walsingham.


The empty winds are creaking and the oak
Splatters and splatters on the cenotaph,
The boughs are trembling and a gaff
Bobs on the untimely stroke
Of the greased wash exploding on a shoal-bell
In the old mouth of the Atlantic. It’s well;
Atlantic, you are fouled with the blue sailors,
Sea-monsters, upward angel, downward fish:
Unmarried and corroding, spare of flesh
Mart once of supercilious, wing’d clippers,
Atlantic, where your bell-trap guts its spoil
You could cut the brackish winds with a knife
Here in Nantucket, and cast up the time
When the Lord God formed man from the sea’s slime
And breathed into his face the breath of life,
And blue-lung’d combers lumbered to the kill.
The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.

I cannot read this poem without immediately being reminded of Wilfred Owen’s "Anthem For Doomed Youth", the desolate, wretched deaths of a myriad anonymous soldiers, so lonely, so abject, so utterly abandoned:

        No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells;
                    Nor any voice of mourning…

This, one feels, this naval ritual, this sombre, solemn burial at sea, is what each of Owen's unnamed heroes also merited, yet never received – unless the Generals, of course, and most of them did not deserve it. 

Lowell's dead sailor is anonymous too, and as grisly and as putrid as any of Owen's corps turned corpses; but he is also dignified, and above all it was individual dignity whose loss Owen was lamenting. Indeed, in the light that "flashed from his matted head", and in the "marble feet", it might have been the Statue to the Unknown Sailor itself that had been trawled up by the drag-net, and then raised onto the deck for a brief moment as a monument. The simple act of closing his eyes further dignifies, reprieving the dead soul from oblivion, and at the same time allowing those who live an instant's pause for reflection upon their own privileged state. Human beings need these rituals, and not for the sake of the dead alone, but to ratify the living covenant. So the body is weighted down and buried in Davey Jones' locker; so "the guns of the steeled fleet recoil and then repeat the hoarse salute". Larkin in his "Church-Going" would have removed his hat and cycle-clips and stood with his agnosticism between his closed palms in approving silence, for it is precisely these instances of reverent, civilised behaviour that ennoble us and give our lives and deaths such meaning as there can be.

I like, especially, Lowell's unshackled approach to rhyme and metre. Without doubt it is he who is the master, unlike so many of us for whom the need to accept the dictates of a pattern formed arbitrarily in the initial moment of inspiration become a slave's collar. So the opening line happens to be an iambic pentameter – does this compel the poet to constrain his impetus and force every line against its will into scanning just the same? And yet the poem does scan, most precisely in fact, and most of all emotionally. The metre, the rhyme, is subservient to the poet's needs, enabling him to control its flow, allowing him to strike the appropriate balance between the formal and the informal, a classical and a free verse form combined: unfettered and yet disciplined. Too often a meek submission to formal demands lends artificiality to a poem; too often we do not say what we mean, simply because our lucidity is in opposition to our structure. How absurd! I wish to use this word, precisely this word, in precisely this way, in this place; but I cannot, because two lines on I will need a rhyme for it and do not have one; but I cannot, because it has the wrong number of syllables. How utterly absurd!

But there are other shackles, the ones imposed by history and culture, and even Lowell cannot escape from these. Simply to pronounce the name "Nantucket" is enough to snap the lock closed, for an American poet especially. Nantucket is Moby-Dick's domain, Herman Melville's kingdom, and willingly or unwillingly Ishmael and Ahab and the Pequod are evoked. 

But to evoke Melville is also to evoke what Melville evoked: Biblical allusions, Jonah and Leviathan in particular. All art is inevitably shackled in this way; while freedom, like the sea, defines its own prison. Lowell is driven to plumb the fathoms deeper than the sea-graves of Warren Winslow and the unknown sailor; but this does not present a problem, for it is his intention to do so anyway. What is inexorably evoked thus becomes the very channel through which he navigates ever deeper, through the Quaker Graveyard into the metaphorical ocean – the "whale-road" one might say, citing Beowulf – where Moby-Dick himself becomes Leviathan, where the swallowed Jonah becomes the Sacrificial Son, and any single death, while always remaining personal and individual, becomes at the same time universal, crucifixional. It is this harnessing of past and present, this yoking of the personal and individual, this combining of the ordinary with the mythological – and what I have said about rhyme and metre is a part of this careful synthesis – which is the real achievement of this poem.

In the end this is a poem about the killing of the whale, not the human; however gruesome the cadaver dragged up in the first movement of the sonata, it is as nothing when compared with the crucifixion of Leviathan in the third; and the twenty-one gun salute has taken on truly apocalyptic proportions. Lowell’s "Sailor" has been transformed into Coleridge's "Mariner"; Moby-Dick has metamorphosed into an albatross. Perhaps this is the "rough beast" which Yeats imagined, passing through Nantucket en route to Bethlehem?

I travelled through New England with my family in 1970, when I was just fifteen. It seemed a green and pleasant enough land, and I presumed these epithets explained its sobriquet. In those days I knew nothing of Melville or of Lowell, had only vague notions about the great souchong incident that led to the War of Independence, and was interested above all else in identifying the spot where Teddy Kennedy had driven over the water's edge of minor scandal. I remember well the fishing trawls of Hyannis port, and the soup bowls of clam chowder, and the volumes of Henry James on sale in every bookstore. But I saw, then, only the visible landscape, the blue littoral and the Devon-coloured hills, the lush opulence of middle-class America. I am grateful to Lowell, and to Melville, for revealing the hidden landscape of the region, its metaphoric hinterland, carved not out of rock, but human souls.

No comments:

Post a Comment