Week 428: The Ballet of the Fifth Year, by Delmore Schwartz

I was reminded of this poem when I caught the end of a TV documentary last week about the ice-dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, that showed the pair skating on a frozen lake in Alaska. ‘Such grace, so self-contained’ indeed. The poem is by the American poet Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966). I think that unlike our ice-skating pair it stumbles a bit early on but does weave its way towards a beautiful conclusion. The meaning of the poem is a little hard to unravel, but I think it turns on the contrast between the angst-ridden intensity of the metropolitan intellectual, whose life is full of problems that must be solved by an effort of thought and will, and the effortless unthinking grace of the gulls, who inhabit ‘a place of different traffic’, a place that was known to the child the poet once was, but is now lost to him.

The Ballet of the Fifth Year

Where the sea gulls sleep or indeed where they fly
Is a place of different traffic. Although I
Consider the fishing bay (where I see them dip and curve
And purely glide) a place that weakens the nerve
Of will, and closes my eyes, as they should not be
(They should burn like the street-light all night quietly,
So that whatever is present will be known to me),
Nevertheless the gulls and the imagination
Of where they sleep, which comes to creation
In strict shape and color, from their dallying
Their wings slowly, and suddenly rallying
Over, up, down the arabesque of descent,
Is an old act enacted, my fabulous intent
When I skated, afraid of policemen, five years old,
In the winter sunset, sorrowful and cold,
Hardly attained to thought, but old enough to know
Such grace, so self-contained, was the best escape to know.

Delmore Schwartz

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