Notebook & Circle: Blue Symphony

John Gould Fletcher’s Blue Symphony is a strange little poem, in that no one seems to have read it. It was on the syllabus for my Modern Poetry class, but we never discussed it. When I was researching it for my exam, ScholarsPortal turned up not a single article. Google came up with a handful, but nowhere near as many as usual. Which is strange, seeing as the poem was part of a larger collection of “colour symphonies,”  in the Symphonies section of his Selected Poems, and since Fletcher was one of the original six imagistes, and intimately (in Amy Lowell’s case, very intimately) connected with the other five.

The poem deals with beauty, imagination, and the subconscious, and the poet plays with ideas of reason and desire, with known, unknown, and that which is just out of reach. These are interesting on an intellectual level, but the most spectacular part of his poetry is the imagiste bit: the fantastically vivid dreamscapes he paints from his words. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a clearer image than the clouds rolling up to reveal the sunken landscape, or the dream-palace, replete with travellers and outspread silks that the narrator dreams up for himself. Eliot’s “yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window panes,” or Pound’s “Station of the Metro” come close, but don’t quite hit the mark.

This, of course, goes hand in hand with the theme of beauty, and its many iterations, that run throughout the poem. However, beyond identifying the theme, I’m lost. He seems to be saying that beauty is everywhere; it is in the real, ruined world of the “old gardens sunken” – his description of that scene is, certainly, astoundingly beautiful – and in the tantalizingly treacherous realm of the imagined, in the beauties and “outspread silks” the narrator creates for himself. I have the nagging feeling that there’s more to Fletcher’s understanding of beauty, but I can’t put my finger on it. Any thoughts?

Also remarkably enticing is the tone of sadness that pervades the whole poem. Whichever realm – the real or the imagined – the poet inhabits, there is always the thought of the opposite choice which pulls at him in far more subtle way than Frost’s road not taken. There is a curious mix of fulfilment and emptiness, forward and sideways movement, hope and “crumbled pagodas of the soul”. Can he be saying that he loves, and needs, both? Is that ultimately what the poem speaks to?

I’ve posted the text below. What do you think?

I
THE DARKNESS rolls upward.
The thick darkness carries with it
Rain and a ravel of cloud.
The sun comes forth upon earth.

Palely the dawn
Leaves me facing timidly
Old gardens sunken:
And in the gardens is water.

Sombre wreck-autumnal leaves;
Shadowy roofs
In the blue mist,
And a willow-branch that is broken.

O old pagodas of my soul, how you glittered across green trees!

Blue and cool:
Blue, tremulously,
Blow faint puffs of smoke
Across sombre pools.
The damp green smell of rotted wood;
And a heron that cries from out the water.

II
Through the upland meadows
I go alone.
For I dreamed of someone last night
Who is waiting for me.

Flower and blossom, tell me do you know of her?
Have the rocks hidden her voice?
They are very blue and still.

Long upward road that is leading me,
Light hearted I quit you,
For the long loose ripples of the meadow-grass
Invite me to dance upon them.

Quivering grass,
Daintily poised
For her foot’s tripping.

O blown clouds, could I only race up like you!
Oh, the last slopes that are sun-drenched and steep!

Look, the sky!
Across black valleys
Rise blue-white aloft
Jagged unwrinkled mountains, ranges of death.

Solitude. Silence.

III
One chuckles by the brook for me:
One rages under the stone.
One makes a spout of his mouth,
One whispers—one is gone.

One over there on the water
Spreads cold ripples
For me
Enticingly.

The vast dark trees
Flow like blue veils
Of tears
Into the water.

Sour sprites,
Moaning and chuckling,
What have you hidden from me?

“In the palace of the blue stone she lies forever
Bound hand and foot.”

Was it the wind
That rattled the reeds together?

Dry reeds,
A faint shiver in the grasses.

IV
On the left hand there is a temple:
And a palace on the right-hand side.
Foot-passengers in scarlet
Pass over the glittering tide.

Under the bridge
The old river flows
Low and monotonous
Day after day.

I have heard and have seen
All the news that has been:
Autumn’s gold and Spring’s green!

Now in my palace
I see foot-passengers
Crossing the river,
Pilgrims of autumn
In the afternoons.

Lotus pools;
Petals in the water:
Such are my dreams.

For me silks are outspread.
I take my ease, unthinking.

V
And now the lowest pine-branch
Is drawn across the disk of the sun.
Old friends who will forget me soon,
I must go on
Towards those blue death mountains
I have forgot so long.

In the marsh grasses
There lies forever
My last treasure,
With the hope of my heart.

The ice is glazing over;
Torn lanterns flutter,
On the leaves is snow.

In the frosty evening
Toll the old bell for me
Once, in the sleepy temple.
Perhaps my soul will hear.

Afterglow:
Before the stars peep
I shall creep into the darkness.

I

THE DARKNESS rolls upward.

The thick darkness carries with it
Rain and a ravel of cloud.
The sun comes forth upon earth.
Palely the dawn 5
Leaves me facing timidly
Old gardens sunken:
And in the gardens is water.
Sombre wreck-autumnal leaves;
Shadowy roofs 10
In the blue mist,
And a willow-branch that is broken.
O old pagodas of my soul, how you glittered across green trees!
Blue and cool:
Blue, tremulously, 15
Blow faint puffs of smoke
Across sombre pools.
The damp green smell of rotted wood;
And a heron that cries from out the water.
II

Through the upland meadows

20
I go alone.
For I dreamed of someone last night
Who is waiting for me.
Flower and blossom, tell me do you know of her?
Have the rocks hidden her voice? 25
They are very blue and still.
Long upward road that is leading me,
Light hearted I quit you,
For the long loose ripples of the meadow-grass
Invite me to dance upon them. 30
Quivering grass,
Daintily poised
For her foot’s tripping.
O blown clouds, could I only race up like you!
Oh, the last slopes that are sun-drenched and steep! 35
Look, the sky!
Across black valleys
Rise blue-white aloft
Jagged unwrinkled mountains, ranges of death.
Solitude. Silence. 40
III

One chuckles by the brook for me:

One rages under the stone.
One makes a spout of his mouth,
One whispers—one is gone.
One over there on the water 45
Spreads cold ripples
For me
Enticingly.
The vast dark trees
Flow like blue veils 50
Of tears
Into the water.
Sour sprites,
Moaning and chuckling,
What have you hidden from me? 55
“In the palace of the blue stone she lies forever
Bound hand and foot.”
Was it the wind
That rattled the reeds together?
Dry reeds, 60
A faint shiver in the grasses.
IV

On the left hand there is a temple:

And a palace on the right-hand side.
Foot-passengers in scarlet
Pass over the glittering tide. 65
Under the bridge
The old river flows
Low and monotonous
Day after day.
I have heard and have seen 70
All the news that has been:
Autumn’s gold and Spring’s green!
Now in my palace
I see foot-passengers
Crossing the river, 75
Pilgrims of autumn
In the afternoons.
Lotus pools;
Petals in the water:
Such are my dreams. 80
For me silks are outspread.
I take my ease, unthinking.
V

And now the lowest pine-branch

Is drawn across the disk of the sun.
Old friends who will forget me soon, 85
I must go on
Towards those blue death mountains
I have forgot so long.
In the marsh grasses
There lies forever 90
My last treasure,
With the hope of my heart.
The ice is glazing over;
Torn lanterns flutter,
On the leaves is snow. 95
In the frosty evening
Toll the old bell for me
Once, in the sleepy temple.
Perhaps my soul will hear.
Afterglow: 100
Before the stars peep
I shall creep into the darkness.
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