Week 95: For A Dead Lady, by Edwin Arlington Robinson

The American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935) is probably best remembered today for that fine poem of old age, ‘Mr Flood’s Party’, but I like this one too, for all its datedness. Yes, the diction is dodgy in places: a line like ‘Whereof no language may requite’ creaks now and probably creaked when it was written. And yes, it may seem not quite the thing now to speak of women in that tone of courtly adulation that always carries a hint of patronage. But if you can accept the poem on its own terms, you may find it a moving enough indictment of ‘Time that is intolerant/Of the brave and innocent’.

For a Dead Lady

No more with overflowing light
Shall fill the eyes that now are faded,
Nor shall another’s fringe with night
Their woman-hidden world as they did.
No more shall quiver down the days
The flowing wonder of her ways,
Whereof no language may requite
The shifting and the many-shaded.

The grace, divine, definitive,
Clings only as a faint forestalling;
The laugh that love could not forgive
Is hushed, and answers to no calling;
The forehead and the little ears
Have gone where Saturn keeps the years;
The breast where roses could not live
Has done with rising and with falling.

The beauty, shattered by the laws
That have creation in their keeping,
No longer trembles at applause,
Or over children that are sleeping;
And we who delve in beauty’s lore
Know all that we have known before
Of what inexorable cause
Makes Time so vicious in his reaping.

Edwin Arlington Robinson

7 thoughts on “Week 95: For A Dead Lady, by Edwin Arlington Robinson

  1. ‘Time that is intolerant/Of the brave and innocent’. – In Memory of W. B. Yeats – W. H . Auden. (1939 version. Auden cut three verses (including these lines) in 1966.)

  2. “Saturn keeps the years” – as I understand it, Saturn was associated with Cronus (the Titan), confused with Chronos (the personification of time), and hence Saturn became known as the god of time.

  3. This poem is hard work! Requite [verb] – to make return for. Forestall [verb] – to exclude, hinder, or prevent (something) by prior occupation or measures. “The laugh that love could not forgive” – because of its power over those who heard it? “The breast where roses could not live” – love gifts of roses had no effect on her?

    • ‘The breast where roses could not live’… I think you might have gone a bit astray on this one, Chris – I have always taken it as referring to flawless milky skin that showed no sign of the blood beating beneath. I’m no expert on fashions in female pulchritude, but I have the idea that very white skin used to be greatly esteemed as showing that you were a lady and didn’t have to do manual work, as compared to women brown-skinned from working in the fields.

      • Hi David, you make a good point. In the first verse Robinson certainly describes her eyes and the way she moves extravagantly. She’s a goddess? Here’s a quote describing conventions used by Petrarchan sonneteers: “… the women would be described as in possession of such stunning beauty that their eyes are brighter than the sun; their lips as red as coral; their skin as white as snow; their cheeks like roses; they glide like goddesses as they walk; their voices more melodious than music; and their breath like perfume”.

      • Yes, that’s the sort of hype William S. takes aim at in sonnet 130. I think Robinson gets dangerously near it, but the poem is redeemed by its apparently genuine strength of feeling.

      • There is strength of feeling but I’m not entirely convinced it’s for her. It might be for human beings in general or for his own extravagant uncompromising art (as evidenced in this poem)?

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