Poem – Trumbull Stickney’s “Mnemosyne”

Mnemosyne

It’s autumn in the country I remember.

How warm a wind blew here about the ways!
And shadows on the hillside lay to slumber
During the long sun-sweetened summer-days.

It’s cold abroad the country I remember.

The swallows veering skimmed the golden grain
At midday with a wing aslant and limber;
And yellow cattle browsed upon the plain.

It’s empty down the country I remember.

I had a sister lovely in my sight:
Her hair was dark, her eyes were very sombre;
We sang together in the woods at night.

It’s lonely in the country I remember.

The babble of our children fills my ears,
And on our hearth I stare the perished ember
To flames that show all starry thro’ my tears.

It’s dark about the country I remember.

There are the mountains where I lived. The path
Is slushed with cattle-tracks and fallen timber,
The stumps are twisted by the tempests’ wrath.

But that I knew these places are my own,
I’d ask how came such wretchedness to cumber
The earth, and I to people it alone.

It rains across the country I remember.

– Trumbull Stickney
(1874 – 1904)

Mnemosyne DAMSince my previous Stickney offering met with such favour, I decided to try you all with another one. For those of you who have (very ironically) forgotten, Mnemosyne was the Greek personification of Memory, and the mother of the Nine Muses. Technically she was a giantess, rather than a goddess (these distinctions are important in god-society).

What I love about this poem is not just its bleakness (although that does have a certain appeal), but the way that semi-refrain plays out: it’s autumn; it’s cold; it’s empty; it’s lonely; it’s dark; and then that slight twist to end it rains. The other refrains all give us an emotional response – it’s autumn, it used to be warm, now it’s cold; there used to be swallows and harvests and cattle, now it’s empty; I loved, now it’s lonely; we had children and a hearth, now it’s dark; everything is ruined and wretched and if it wasn’t for the fact that I these places are my own (ah! these places could be metaphorical or psychological, not just geographical) I would badger god/the man/anyone to take responsibility for what has happened here, but it’s me, it’s mine, I’m alone in a world of my own making so let the rain draw its curtain across it all.

Without that turn at the end, this would be a very sorry-for-myself-boo-hoo-hoo-cue-the-world’s-smallest-violin poem. But that admission of culpability disarms you, and the fact that the ending doesn’t launch itself towards greater and greater loss, gives it a kind of integrity. (In The Poetry Home Repair Manual, American poet Ted Kooser refers to the alternative as (I think) the One – Two – Three – HEAVE! ending.) And how intelligent to start it with It’s autumn in the country I remember, setting you up with all those echoes of harvest and reward. The contrast between expectation and delivery is the whole point. If he’d started with winter it would have been too obvious, and spring too big a contrast. And no other season so readily summons the ghost of Keats. Or so perfectly trembles on the border between fulfillment and loss.

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5 thoughts on “Poem – Trumbull Stickney’s “Mnemosyne”

  1. Ha! Joanna, you are either an agent of Fishpond or the best poetry ‘resourcer’ I know. I’ve ordered three books directly from reading your posts – glad it’s free shipping!

    • Hi Liana,

      possibly both – I do get a 5% commission from them for books people buy by clicking on the links. But I mainly get a kick out of being able to nudge people towards books I really enjoy. The internet is such a fantastic tool for book buying and book searching, but first of all you have to know the book exists …

  2. Dear Joanna – just want to stop by on our Tuesday Poem birthday to thank you for all the poets and poems and insights into poetry you’re brought to the blog community over the past two years. It’s been great having you along. I am so sad I didn’t get to your reading in Wellington last night – it was just impossible. I hope to hear you one day, and get you to sign my book. Mary (& Claire)

    • Thank you! I loved being a part of it, but now I can watch from the sidelines without feeling any guilt. You’ve started something pretty special, and I’m going to enjoy seeing it flourish.

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