Sunday, November 11, 2012

Stevens Textplication #27: Cortège for Rosenbloom

This essay would not be possible without the generous help of Robert Arnquist

We discussed last time the gay and convivial funeral poem “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” A darker and more solemn funeral poem is “Cortège for Rosenbloom” from 1921.
Now, the wry Rosenbloom is dead
And his finical carriers tread
On a hundred legs, the tread
Of the dead.
Rosenbloom is dead.
They carry the wizened one
Of the color of horn
To the sullen hill,
Treading a tread
In unison for the dead. 
Rosenbloom is dead.
The tread of the carriers does not halt
On the hill, but turns
Up the sky.
They are bearing his body into the sky.
It is the infants of misanthropes
And the infants of nothingness
That tread
The wooden ascents
Of the ascending of the dead.
It is turbans they wear
And boots of fur
As they tread the boards
In a region of frost,
Viewing the frost,
To a chirr of gongs
And a chitter of cries
And the heavy thrum
Of the endless tread
That they tread;
To a jangle of doom
And a jumble of words
Of the intense poem
Of the strictest prose
Of Rosenbloom.  
And they bury him there,
Body and soul,
In a place in the sky.
The lamentable tread!
Rosenbloom is dead.
The first thing I notice in reading this poem is the obvious and poetic nom-de-plume of the central character: rose in bloom. This presents immediate difficulties for me because my mind immediately goes to the most famous nom-de-plume in all of literature, Shakes-peare, and all the blooming roses that lie therein: the Tudor roses, the rose that lives on in the poem (the central theme of the sonnets), the dizzying number of rose references, like, for example, “What's in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet: II,ii), even the similar-sounding Rosencrantz character, the courtier "false friend" of Hamlet who is also, famously "dead". And this presents even more immediate difficulties because I am forced in some way to come to terms in a particularly telling Stevens poem with the vast enormity of the Edward De Vere authorship tragedy. De Vere was a man whose works literally form our mother tongue, but whose role in creating them has been completely excised from conventional history, leading to horrible deformations in our understanding not only of his deeply autobiographical works but of history, literary and otherwise. Take the Shakes-peare sonnets, for example, where 400 years of the best and brightest scholarship has totally failed to extract any tangible meaning from them, simply because they got it wrong about who wrote them. The meaning of the sonnets becomes crystal clear – and so much more poignant than they would otherwise be - once one realizes that they were written by De Vere, the Lord of Oxford, to his illegitimate son Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southhampton and potential heir to the throne (to whom they were dedicated) after De Vere had given up his name and works to his patron (and one-time lover) Queen Elizabeth in return for her pardon of Southhampton, who was to be executed for his part in the Essex rebellion (she ultimately and surprisingly did spare his head even though he had openly fought against her rule). The sonnets are first and foremost the expressions of a father to the son, full of love and life instruction as father’s words are always apt towards, but three typically bizarre De Vere life circumstances lift this beyond the familiar: one is that the son doesn't know he is the father (so the bond can only go one way); two, the father believes his life work (the writings of Shakespeare) will be unknown or at least anonymous because of his compromise with the Queen, so he must accept that his own immortality comes through his son; and three, there is a special urgency in the poems because his son may still actually be executed or alternatively become king to replace the (legitimately) child-less Elizabeth. All of this brings out a pure and particularly artful version of that great De Verean conflict and contradiction; he sometimes convinces himself and us of his belief in his son’s immortality, sometimes not. Therein lies the beauty.

This sort of surface scratching can be done throughout the Shakes-peare canon, but my point is not to re-inter Caesar but to praise Stevens. Suffice it to say the burial of Shakespeare figures prominently in “Cortège for Rosenbloom,” just as the immortal words of De Vere echo over the proceedings...

“Cortège for Rosenbloom”…
“For nothing this wide universe I call,
Save thou, my rose; in it thou art my all.” (Sonnet 104)
Cortège, from the Latin word court, connotes a ceremonial funeral procession for a distinguished person. It carries with it the magnificent display appropriate to nobility, just as the name Rosenbloom implies an actual personage to be buried. But the twist here is that the pallbearers distort their roles and responsibilities behind a show of pomp to perversely dishonor the dead, while the dead person has assumed a punning name barely disguising his real identity. A rose in full bloom can be dead, or it can live forever. That is the conflict and contradiction within this poem.

“Now the wry Rosenbloom is dead…” 
“And the vile squeaking of the wry-necked fife.” (Merchant of Venice: II.v)
The only term used to describe Rosenbloom in the entire poem is “wry.” Given that this is his funeral, a term connoting dry humor with a touch of irony is itself wry, and a touch macabre. Interestingly, there is no better adjective for Edward de Vere as a writer than “wry” – wry asides, wry humor in the face of tragedy, wry word-play, wry metaphor at the center of all his works. And of course there’s the implication of “awry” as well, where all the plots and his own life plans went.

“And his finical carriers tread…”
“Go, tread the path that thou shalt ne'er return. Simple, plain Clarence! I do love thee so, that I will shortly send thy soul to heaven, if heaven will take the present at our hands.” (Richard III: I, i)
Finical means finicky, fastidious, overly precise or delicate, an apt description of the awkward yet somber carriage of pallbearers. (Contrast with “glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue” (King Lear: II.ii), a typical against-the-grain combination of words by De Vere that brings you right there but opens it up at the same time to the madness and mystery of being). The heavy iambs and particularly overwrought repetitions throughout the poem emphasize the solemnity and awkwardness of the carriers (a word that connotes more than just carrying from place to place). When Stevens wants to get really heavy, he does the repetition to death, so to speak, and this poem is understandably no exception. The awkwardness of the stresses and repetition in this poem though is particularly striking (“finical carriers tread” for example has the rhythm of the pallbearers dancing too quickly and tripping). It's a signal that there’s something fishy-rotten in this state of Denmark…

"On a hundred legs, the tread
Of the dead…” 
“'Tis very pregnant, the jewel that we find, we stoop and take't because we see it; but what we do not see we tread upon, and never think of it.” (Measure for Measure: II, i)
This line pulled away from the whole reveals its own pointed ambiguity: the pallbearers are carrying the dead, but they themselves may also be dead (or alternatively, only the pallbearers are dead - perhaps because they are "playing" that role). It’s ominous either way, with the implication that for all its scale there is nothing honoring about this funeral. Its mob-like size in fact makes it more terrifying.

“Rosenbloom is dead…”
“Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn,
When beauty lived and died as flowers do now,
Before the bastard signs of fair were born,
Or durst inhabit on a living brow;
Before the golden tresses of the dead,
The right of sepulchres, were shorn away,
To live a second life on second head;
Ere beauty's dead fleece made another gay:
In him those holy antique hours are seen,
Without all ornament, itself and true,
Making no summer of another's green,
Robbing no old to dress his beauty new;
  And him as for a map doth Nature store,
  To show false Art what beauty was of yore.” (Sonnet 68) 
“They carry the wizened one
Of the color of horn…”
“The horn, I say. Farewell.” (Merry Wives of Windsor: II, i) 
 “Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven” (Hamlet: I, iii)
"Wizened" is another note of ambiguity; was the corpse wise before death, or made wise when prepared for burial? The "color of horn" maintains the same multi-valence; are the horns golden brass, red with jealousy, yellow like bone or white like stars? The context would suggest the “trumpeting” of someone mourned in gold, but then there’s those protruding “horny feet” of the corpse in “The Emperor of Ice Cream” to remind us that there’s also the cold, white shock of death’s appearance, as well as the uncertainty whether it’s the corpse that’s horn-colored or the cortège. The ceremony of death is removed from but inextricably linked to the actual dead. Just as every rose has its thorn, every “good angel [is written on] the devil’s horn” (Measure for Measure: II, iv).

“To the sullen hill
Treading a tread
In unison for the dead…”
“Lo! in the orient when the gracious light
Lifts up his burning head, each under eye
Doth homage to his new-appearing sight,
Serving with looks his sacred majesty;
And having climb'd the steep-up heavenly hill,
Resembling strong youth in his middle age,
yet mortal looks adore his beauty still,
Attending on his golden pilgrimage;
But when from highmost pitch, with weary car,
Like feeble age, he reeleth from the day,
The eyes, 'fore duteous, now converted are
From his low tract and look another way:
  So thou, thyself out-going in thy noon,
  Unlook'd on diest, unless thou get a son.” (Sonnet 7)
The funeral party in this sonnet looks beyond the state of death to heaven, as the son condemned in the Tower could be immortalized in the loving gaze of the father (barring the son achieving the immortality of having his own - nobly born - son). In a similar way, the Rosenbloom cortège as one “unison” beating (calling in a heartbeat as well as the aforementioned trumpets) carries the body to its Golgothan resting grounds, but it is looking beyond its role to something more immortalizing…

“Rosenbloom is dead…”
“But be contented: when that fell arrest
Without all bail shall carry me away,
My life hath in this line some interest,
Which for memorial still with thee shall stay.
When thou reviewest this, thou dost review
The very part was consecrate to thee:
The earth can have but earth, which is his due;
My spirit is thine, the better part of me:
So then thou hast but lost the dregs of life,
The prey of worms, my body being dead,
The coward conquest of a wretch's knife,
Too base of thee to be remembered.
  The worth of that is that which it contains,
  And that is this, and this with thee remains.” (Sonnet 74)
“The tread of the carriers does not halt
On the hill, but turns
Up the sky.
They are bearing his body into the sky.”
“The dust should have ascended to the roof of heaven, raised by your populous troops” (Antony and Cleopatra: III, vi)
Here, the body is actually carried beyond the gravesite into the sky. The courtiers are not burying him, they are making him disappear, so that he will be lost to us. Stevens has this to say about the poem, in a letter sent in response to what was apparently a particularly dim-witted interpretation by an college English teacher:
“From time immemorial the philosophers and other scene painters have daubed the sky with dazzle paint. But it all comes down to the proverbial six feet of earth in the end. This is as true of Rosenbloom as of Alcibiades. It cannot be possible that they have never munched this chestnut at Tufts. The ceremonies are amusing. Why not fill the sky with scaffolds and stairs, and go about like genuine realists?” (Letter 226)
Stevens suggests that what seems most fantastic in the poem, the moving of the heavy cortège up the sky, is actually the most realistic. Since we pretend we know what we clearly don’t about things heavenly, why not complete the pretense by staging the play/execution (scaffolds and stairs) in the sky, he seems to ask. It is interesting he explicitly compares his Rosenbloom to Alcibiades, who bears more than passing resemblance to De Vere (albeit he was Greek not English and of a military not literary bent): an aristocrat from one of the oldest and most powerful families who through a life of controversy, disgrace, and overwhelming ambition managed to unify the country, but ended up in exile and uncertain death. It can’t be lost on Stevens that there is no “six feet of earth” for Alcibiades (as there wasn’t for De Vere) because no one knows where or if he is buried. He may as well be buried in the sky, Stevens slyly alludes.

“It is the infants of misanthropes
And the infants of nothingness
That tread…”
“To bed, to bed: sleep kill those pretty eyes,
And give as soft attachment to thy senses
As infants' empty of all thought!” (Toilus and Cressida: IV, ii)
The people in the cortège are finally identified, but in a shocking way, as “infants.” To counterpoise the newly dead with the newly living and attribute in the tributes to the dead only the remembrance of a new-born baby calls to mind Jesus' words when he was being executed "bless them, they know not what they do." These infants are further identified as “misanthropes” (haters of man), a particularly damning qualifier for those who would be honoring a man after death. I read the combination of misanthropy and nothingness to connote that these infants know everything (misanthropes are typically world-weary and cynical) and nothing about him. They might be conspirators, they might be English professors, they might be rival poets, but they are well rid of him just the same. They bury him in the sky - create an artificial monument to make the real spirit - the eternal rose in bloom - disappear behind a marble masked tomb. That, need I point out, is exactly what happened to De Vere – his immortality was shrouded by a false mask that keeps us still from seeing the full portion of light his genius emitted. “The tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (The Scottish Play: V,v) is what happens when the mourners co-opt the mourned. It is an image of toil, deceit and duplicity. The true meanings of life and death are lost.

“The wooden ascents
Of the ascending of the dead…”
“Making dead wood more blest than living lips.” (Sonnet 128)
Ascents (meaning platforms) can lead to ascension (placement in heaven). They are wooden (awkward and stiff) but also organic (made of sky-reaching trees). There is in death both the final falling back to nothingness and the transcendence of life. All of these ambiguities, however, give way to who is doing the ascending: the pallbearers or the dead? Wooden ascents (what Stevens called "scaffolds") are more typically used in executions than funerals. There is an implicit comparison here that by being promoted to the lofty death of martyr he is climbing the raised wooden platform of the executioner, with the same imminent sense of beheading that is always hanging over the hero's head. The rose in bloom is always eminently aware of impending death. Perhaps that's why De Vere identified with roses so strongly, for they suggest the noose of oblivion hanging over his whole creative life, the queen (of the roses) who gives support (assent) but also takes (the literal and figurative scaffold).

"It is turbans they wear
And boots of fur…”
“This gate instructs you how to adore the heavens and bows you t a morning's holy office: the gates of monarchs are arch'd so high that giants may jet through and keep their impious turbans on, without good morrow to the sun. Hail, thou fair heaven!” (Cymbeline: III, iii)
Here is another shocking combination: turbans and boots of fur. Turbans worn around the head (to cover the spiritual gate, the tenth chakra) are a sign of nobility in India, telling everyone that the wearer is an aristocrat, and entitling him to carry a gun or sword (the Sikh custom of wearing turbans is a variation of this, giving the enlightened the same nobility). Boots of fur calls to mind Orpheus' journey to the underworld, where the wild animals turned from loving their noble lord to devouring him. Fur boots would not only be inappropriate climate-wise in places where turbans are worn, they would be forbidden, since the Brahman classes practice strict vegetarianism (fake fur is a relatively recent concept). This strange combination of details suggests that the funeral bearers are being “impious” or disrespectful, assuming the sacred attire of other cultures because it looks cool (like the Boumi's or other fraternal organizations), as well as showcasing themselves (using the pelts of animals killed for their ostentation) instead of displaying proper self-abnegation for the dead.

“As they tread the boards
In a region of frost,
Viewing the frost…”
“To-morrow blossoms, and bears his blushing honours thick upon him; the third day comes a frost, a killing frost, and, when he thinks, good easy man, full surely his greatness is a-ripening, nips his root, and then he falls, as I do.” (Henry VIII: III,ii)
The fur boots do come in handy when one is "walking the plank" into the upper atmosphere. The stark repetition of "frost" here reminds us that for all their elevation into the worlds of purest heaven, all the casket bearers can see and know around them is frost, the ice kingdom of death.

“To a chirr of gongs
And a chitter of cries
And the heavy thrum
Of the endless tread
That they tread…”
“Approach, ye Furies fell!
O Fates, come, come,
Cut thread and thrum;
Quail, crush, conclude, and quell” (A Midsummer’s Night Dream: V, i)
When you see exotic onomatopoeia like this you know you are in a Stevens poem. “Chirr” means “a prolonged low trilling sound,” “chitter” means “a twittering or chattering sound”, and “thrum” means “a continuous rhythmic humming sound.” Each one is precise – one may even say finical – in both sense and sound regarding the gongs, cries and tread respectively of this procession. Such a recognizable euphony should cause joy in the ears/mind of the reader, but instead it enhances and reinforces the overall sick and ominous feeling of the poem. The soundmakers are covering up the truth with empty pomp and circumstance, a cacophony of noise (again those idiots with their tales). All that is left is a cover story, like the mindless duck-man from Stratford we are left to converse with, who merely quacks when we inquire about all the richness and ambiguity of Shakespeare’s poetry.

“To a jangle of doom
And a jumble of words
Of the intense poem
Of the strictest prose
Of Rosenbloom” 
“O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword;
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck'd the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatch'd form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy: O, woe is me,
To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!
(Hamlet: III, I - Ophelia’s response to Hamlet’s “get thee to a nunnery” speech) 
The mindless cacophony of the blood-thirsty mob resolves to a rhyme of “doom” and “bloom.” The “intense poem of the strictest prose” is reduced to “a jumble of words” (just as De Vere’s incomparable achievement was reduced to the cryptographic puzzles and awkward repetitions on the Stratford memorial and dedications - both written by court spy Ben Jonson – a way of saying “pay attention” to the Elizabethans who were obsessed with clues in numbers and words). The funeral procession is a parade of centipedes devouring the corpus (body/text), "munching on that chestnut" in tiny and continuous bites until there's nothing left of the original beauty of the poems and the (p)rose. They are obsessed with the details of carriage and comportment, but too finical to eat it whole. They pretend to do the deceased honor but really they will send him to the sky - make him disappear - for they have no stomach, no appetite, for his true self.

“And they bury his there,
Body and soul,
In a place in the sky.
The lamentable tread!”
“All hid, all hid; an old infant play. Like a demigod here sit I in the sky.” (Love’s Labour Lost: IV, iii)
They consume him without knowing who he is, but he is nevertheless buried – in the pantheon of demigods watching over humanity from "a place in the sky" but having no influence on our earthly doings. Give him a lofty and noisy send off, devour his corpse and his works, strip him of all his petals.

“Rosenbloom is dead.”
"Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.
The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured
And the sad augurs mock their own presage;
Incertainties now crown themselves assured
And peace proclaims olives of endless age.
Now with the drops of this most balmy time
My love looks fresh, and death to me subscribes,
Since, spite of him, I'll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o'er dull and speechless tribes:
  And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
  When tyrants' crests and tombs of brass are spent." (Sonnet 107)
In closing, I probably don’t need to point out that I am interested in this poem because I am interested in the fact that the greatest poet in the English language is by and large anonymous. This lends special glaze to Stevens’ poem, which is clearly about the gap in those we immortalize between the actual person and the imagined personage. A great real-life example of this (if not the actual prompt for the poem) is De Vere, immortalized and made invisible at the same time. The uncharacteristically dark portrayal of the arrogance, callousness, stupidity and group-think of those who would immortalize makes the poem sit uneasily with this reader for quite a while. 
“Traitors, away! he rests not in this tomb:
This monument five hundred years hath stood,
Which I have sumptuously re-edified:
Here none but soldiers and Rome's servitors
Repose in fame; none basely slain in brawls:
Bury him where you can; he comes not here.” (Titus Andronicus: I, i)

1 comment:

Jack said...

Firstly, I was excited to finally sit down and read this.

Secondly, in addition to the wealth of education that builds each of these, I'm also gaining a different "eye" for reading poetry, which I attribute to the delving you present here.