Forþon biþ eorla gehwam æftercweþendra
lof lifgendra lastworda betst . . .
— The Seafarer, ll. 72-3
Audrey Alexandra Brown is a poet unjustly neglected. I certainly had never heard of her until I found, in a rural Alberta antique store, a first edition of her somewhat surprisingly titled collection A Dryad in Nanaimo. (It is from this 1931 copy from Macmillan that all quotations below come.) When her collection appeared, she had the praise and support of (male) powerhouses of the Canadian poetry scene. The poet Duncan Campbell Scott (today remembered for his work in the civil service rather than for his fine poetry) promoted her work. Pelham Edgar — literary scholar, major force behind the creation of the Canadian Writers’ Foundation, and powerful influence on Northrop Frye — wrote the preface to A Dryad in Nanaimo and in that preface gave particular high praise to her poem “Laodamia”: “one of the most beautiful decorative narrative poems that has come out of America”. What Edgar did not mention is that with “Laodamia” Brown was going toe-to-toe and head-to-head with William Wordsworth, Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom.
Brown won the match by a knockout.
But first a few notes on the first three poems of Brown’s collection. After a longer discussion of “Laodamia”, I’ll leave the rest of Brown’s poems for you to discover on your own.
A Dryad in Naniamo opens with the poem which gives the collection its title. “A Dryad in Nanaimo”, the poem, is an appreciation of the landscape with only the briefest of nods to the history of the landscape. The focus is on a single maple tree and the spirit of that maple, the Dryad of the title. I can’t help but think that the Dryad is the poet’s shy vision of herself, having learned that she was herself reserved and uncomfortable in company. There is such bitter-sweetness in the powerful acknowledgement of both the seasonal mortality of the leaves and the ultimate mortality of the tree, and of the dryad herself. The poem is most definitely a meditation on mutability with all the vivid power of Ovid but far greater gravity than the Roman usually managed to achieve. Although Brown’s classic style would not suit our sadly narrow post-modern attitudes, and the absolute lack of mention of the pre-Contact population of the landscape would offend our modern drive for Acknowledgment, “The Dryad in Nanaimo” remains a moving and powerful expression of a love of place and a love of the spirit of Nature, an expression that is very much relevant to our world today. It is unfortunate that our own prejudices will likely keep “A Dryad in Nanaimo” in obscurity, sadly lost as her maple tree was also doomed to be.
“The Reed” at first seems a bit light and frothy, but it soon becomes a pleasant meditation on inspiration and the muses. And the pastoral land of Arcady is described as “the shepherdess-land” which is an interesting feminization of a land traditionally dominated by shepherds.
“Diana” is a fine classical piece. But “This is not Greece” and “Pan is dead” she writes. A melancholy, elegiac farewell to the lost world of gods and men.
With the opening three pieces, Brown has set an elegiac tone that to my mind sets her work apart from the English Augustans she in some ways so resembles. Brown is not so much celebrating the Classical world of order and duty. Yes, Brown is fond of the richness of that lost world, but she has no illusions that it is a world that is not lost. Brown is clearly looking at the real world around her, the real landscape of Vancouver Island, the real trees outside her window. She is using and remaking old forms and old symbols to talk about the real, modern, everyday world around her. “Laodamia” is the story of a war widow in a land distant from war receiving the messenger carrying her husband’s death notice, the story of so many young women just a decade before Brown wrote her poem. And it is in “Laodamia” that Brown most fully fuses the classical forms and symbols with her everyday reality. And it is in “Laodamia” that Brown writes poetry that transcends literary pigeon-holes such as Augustan, Classical, Romantic, Victorian, Modern, Post-Modern, Keatsian, or “decorative narrative”, and achieves something as timeless as anything human can be.
If you read English, but, like Shakespeare as described by Ben Jonson, have small Latin and less Greek, and yet would like to have a true, visceral understanding of the difference between Virgil and Homer, I have a recommendation for you: find a copy of “Laodamia” by William Wordsworth and (with perhaps more difficulty) find a copy of the poem with the same title by Audrey Brown. Read Wordsworth’s piece. Try to pretend that this treatment of the grief of a war widow by the Father of Romanticism is not pompously Augustan and remarkably, uncomfortably, male. Wordworth’s piece is startlingly impersonal and emotionless, flat and contrived. Lines 13-18 have to be some of the worst verses ever produced in English:
O terror! what hath she perceived?—O joy!
What doth she look on?—whom doth she behold?
Her Hero slain upon the beach of Troy?
His vital presence? his corporeal mould?
It is—if sense deceive her not—’tis He!
And a God leads him, wingèd Mercury!
But the piece constantly echoes Virgil, particularly the Virgil whose hero sails away from the suicidal love of his life because his fate calls him on and never thinks of Dido again until he can’t avoid her in Hell.
In line 90 Wordsworth remarks that Love’s “favourite seat be feeble woman’s breast” and cements his position as the Misogynist Laureate of England. In line 106 he mentions the “fields investead with purpureal gleams” whatever purpureal gleams might be. And, to continue with his denigration of the title character, just before her husband dies (again), Wordsworth has him tell her:
“And Thou, though strong in love, art all too weak
In reason, in self-government too slow;
I counsel thee by fortitude to seek
Our blest re-union in the shades below.
— ll. 139-42
For what is life — or death — without a husband? She hasn’t seen the guy in a few years, and shouldn’t be surprised to have to wait at her loom for two decades, going about the affairs of life, managing a household on her own, being Penelope, for goodness sake!, but, if she gets final, certain word that her old man has caught a spear at Troy, she should off herself? How very noble is this world Wordsworth has given us!
And then there’s Audrey Brown’s “Laodamia”, a far more sensitive and, in short, better piece of art in so many ways than Wordsworth’s (mis)treatment of the mythic title figure. Brown’s treatment is a woman speaking for a woman in a woman’s voice, instead of a bombastic bit of versified mansplaining. And Brown’s poem is distinctly Homeric in tone and image which should perhaps spur us all to reconsider one of Samuel Butler’s less accepted theories.
Brown begins symbolically in media res, with explicit reference to Demeter’s grief for her lost daughter Persephone in her first stanza. Wordsworth, in contrast, does not get around to linking Laodamia’s loss to the mythic macrocosm of grief until lines 79 ff. Instead of getting to the emotional point, as Brown does, Wordsworth rambles on with exposition like Alexander Pope on a drunken tear in stanzas that are one shot short of heroic couplets.
Brown’s stanza’s, feeling more like Sappho’s lyrics than Pope’s couplets, root Laodamia’s grief in the grief of Demeter (stanza one), the tragedy of Acteon (stanza three), of Phaedra (stanza four), of long-suffering Penelope (stanzas six and eight), a Tennysonian hint of the Lady of Shallot (stanza seven). We feel Laodamia’s loss without needing to be told of it directly by a Wordsworthian loudspeaker or billboard. The specifics are not necessary to Brown’s poetic power; she is using the Homeric, perhaps Hesiodic, rustic pastoral mode to root us into a physical and emotional landscape. Wordsworth, on the other hand, is stuck in Virgil’s historic/prophetic/bombastic mode, and the result is an unfortunate emphasis on the dead male in neglect of the living, grieving female. One finds oneself wishing Wordsworth had been rereading Virgil’s Eclogues rather than The Aeneid before composing his “Laodamia” — but even then, he might have given us something like Lycidas singing of Amarylis as a metaphor of Livia, or, worse, Lycidas mourning for Aeneas, forced by manly fate to sail from Carthage.
Audrey Brown has obviously studied her Classics as carefully as she has studied the natural world around her:
. . . the brindled hound that lay
Beside his couch, unmoving, half the day —
The lame old steed it was his will to keep,
That from the stable turned soft eyes of pain
Seeking Protesilaus, even as she, in vain. (p. 17)
the absent master’s waiting hound and horse, of course, parallel Odysseus’ faithful old dog Argos.
A lovely little tragedy provides the prophet Chalcas’ prophecy:
“Then rose King Agamemnon, and he cried
To Calchas sitting silent at the feast
Cold-eyed, among the lowest and the least —
‘Come — that our spirits may be satisfied,
Rise, prophesy with all-divingin lips —
What honeyed fortune waits our southward-seeking ships?”
“Among the many lights a sudden moth
Ventured, and perished in a little smoke:
–Slowly the prophet raised his head, and spoke:
‘Thus do the gods forewarn me, being wroth,
Blood is required. Who leads you to the shore
Shall see these happy fields of blossomed vine no more’. (p. 18-19)
I have been unable to find any classical source for this particular image as an augury; it seems to be Audrey Brown’s own felicitous invention.
Brown’s Laodamia is, not “weak in reason”, as Wordsworth describes his heroine. She is not fooled by any talk of the immortality of memory:
“Have thy comrades wrought
Thy name and deed in all-enduring stone?
Nay, but the jasper shall be overthrown
By the dim years; and thou will lie unsought,
Unhonoured, mingled with that common earth
From which shall spring new nations, ignorant, to birth. (p. 24)
But she has not passed over into some sort of mortal despair:
“Yet while we live, behold us: for our care
Shall keep thy name remembered; we will make
Our sad eyes blind with weeping for they sake,
And sorrow as a garment we will wear. (p. 24)
Everyone, every monument, every memory must crumble to dust, but the best monument to the dead is the memory of the living.
Laodamia wanders the palace in a daze of grief, until . . .
There was a casement looking to the west,
Bound dark with clematis and striped with rain;
There, when her sight returned to her again,
Laodamia found herself. A nest
Hung in the tattered vine, deserted now,
And fallen petals starred the fading jasmine bough. (p. 25)
She sees her own emptiness reflected in the deserted nest on that tattered vine, and at last she weeps the tears she had promised:
All the world like smoke
Wavered before her seeing eyes, and passed,
As with undreamed-of tears her spirit broke at last. (p. 25)
And so she prays to Persephone, and the prayer is effective:
“They prayer is heard in Hades. Of her grace,
And for the love she never knew, with pain
Persphone gives back they dead again,
That though may’st weep with him, and may’st embrace,
And take farewell. One day, no more, is given
From the eternity of Hades and of heaven.
“Sleep; let the drowsy poppies of my hand
Breathe slumber on they heart, and seal thine eyes
With such an aching dream as weary lies
Upon the meadows of the twilight-land:
Sleep take thee, as the uplands take the rain;
Fear not; at daybreak rise, and find thy love again.” (p. 27)
With the “heavy sweetness” of the poppies of Persephone, Laodamia falls into a deep sleep, and there is the possibility that her in-the-end-permanent reunion with her husband ought to be construed as a wonderful opium dream, a dream, in fact, induced by a fatal overdose. Rather than leaving her alone, on the floor with Death, as Wordsworth does, Brown gives Laodamia and her husband Protesileus the permanent brightness and lightness of Love:
“And in that twilight world, whose floodless sea
Washes the margin of a silent land,
We shall not walk alone, but hand in hand,
And Love shall warm our immortality
With an eternal spring; since even death
Cannot dispart our souls, nor chill our mingled breath”.
So at the door they kissed with wordless lips,
And crossed the sill together: nightingales
Made rapturous all the air; the misty sails
And shadowy hulls of unreturning ships
Went by them seaward; but they looked above,
Lost in that dream whose height, whose breadth and depth is Love. (p. 38)