Context and Textile
The poem on a page presents to the reader the effects arising from a series
of causes in form and content. The causes lie outside the poem and make up
the poem's content. The form reflects the content by its sound and rhythm
as well as the lines visually on the page. The word "context" derives from
Latin (contextus) weaving together and is related to the word "textile"
(textilis) woven cloth. Another word is "texture" essential part: substance;
overall structure: body. Thus poetry
is a weaving of thoughts, ideas, memories, emotions, and sense data as well as
sound and rhythm that make up the form. It's interesting that later (p. 118),
Dobyns discussed Rilke's fifth poem
"The Island of the Sirens"
from his New Poems (1908). As Odysseus was weaving his story-telling
at the court of King Alcinous, his wife Penelope had been weaving for 20 years
back home in Ithaca while he was away.
Weaving Images in Dante's Commedia
Dobyns doesn't discuss Dante in this chapter. But Dante used the weaving image continuously
as he wove his epic Commedia, citing Penelope
and Aragne (Arachne) "nor had Arachne ever loomed such webs" (Inferno 17.18).
Arachne was the Lydian maiden who excelled in weaving. She challenged Minerva to a weaving contest.
After losing, Minerva changed her into a spider. Dante weaves more myths
"but since she who spins night and day had not / yet spun the spool that Clotho sets upon / the distaff and adjusts for everyone"
"The reference is to Lachesis, the second of
the Three Fates, on to whose distaff Clotho, the first of the Fates, was supposed
to place a certain quantity of wool at the birth of every mortal, the length of time
it took to spin being the duration of the individual's life." (Charles Singleton, Commentary to Purgatorio, 1973, p. 505).
Finally, Dante connects weaving to his writing "but since all the pages that were laid upon /
the loom for this second cantica have been / filled, the curb of art lets me go no farther"
(W.S. Merwin translation, Dante,
Purgatorio, 33.139-141, 2000, p. 331).
(Note: The web links to Dante translations are by Allen Mandelbaum)
Geographical Locale of Poems
John Berryman's "Dream Song 18: A Strut for Roethke" (1963)
was his elegy for Theodore Roethke who died on August 1, 1963. Roethke taught at University
of Washington and died of a heart attack in a friend's swimming pool in Puget Sound.
Bremerton is the largest city in Kitsap County, Washington. Since Washington state
is western United States, the poem begins with "Westward". Also the sun sets in the west,
a metaphor for dying. A New Orleans jazz funeral is suggested by "hit a low note"
and "a roarer lost" is Roethke the musician/poet.
In Anna Akhmatova's untitled poem (1911)
"Memories of the sun fade as my heart grows numb" (translated by Lyn Coffin),
Dobyns tells us that the town in question is St. Petersburg, Russia, city of many
canals often referred to as "Venice of the North". It also has a near-arctic climate,
with snow cover and below-zero temperatures six months of the year. With this information,
we understand the bleak lines "In narrow canals, there's already nothing that flows
Water stands still. / Nothing happens here, nothing grows" But this "skeletal life"
and "Darkness in town" is a metaphor for the poet's inner life and anguish/anger when she
says "Maybe it's better that I'm not your wife, / After all."
Leda and the Swan
Dobyns cites three poems with the theme of
"Leda and the Swan".
Yeat's sonnet "Leda and the Swan" (1928),
Rilke's "Leda" (1908),
and H.D.'s "Leda" (1921).
Dobyns provides historical and personal details of each poet's background that add richness to the poem's understanding.
Since Dobyns does not recount the myth, I consulted my books Leda was a daughter of King Thespius and Eurythemis, who married King Tyndarus of Sparta. She was seen
bathing in the river Eurotas by Jupiter (Zeus), when she was some few days advanced in her pregnacy,
and the god, struck with her beauty, resolved to deceive her. He persuaded Venus to change herself
into an eagle, while he assumed the form of a swan. After this metamorphosis, Jupiter, as if fearful
of the tyrannical eagle, fled through the air into the arms of Leda, who willingly sheltered the trembling
swan from the eagle's assault. The caresses with which the naked Leda received the swan, enabled Jupiter
to avail himself of his situation, and nine months after this adventure, the wife of Tyndarus brought forth
two eggs, from one of which sprang Pollux and Helen, and from the other Castor and Clytemnestra. The two
former were deemed the offspring of Jupiter, and the others claimed Tyndarus for their father.
(Lempière's Classical Dictionary, 3rd edition, 1984, pp. 323-324).
Leda is not a Greek name. Among the Lycians in Asia Minor, lada meant "woman".
Perhaps Zeus celebrated the swan-marriage with a goddess who except for Mother Earth
was the world's first femal being, and could therefore be called simply Leda, "the woman".
(C. Kerényi, The Gods of the Greeks, 1951, p. 107)
(Image: Francesco Melzi,
Leda and the Swan 1515, after a lost painting by Leonardo da Vinci, Uffizi, Florence)
A symbol of great complexity. The dedication of the swan to Apollo, as the god of music,
arose out of the mythic belief that it would sing sweetly when on the point of death
(Plato, Phaedo, 85b). The red swan is a symbol of the sun. But almost all meanings
are concerned with the white swan, sacred to Venus, which is why Gaston Bachelard suggests that
in poetry it is an image of naked woman, of chaste nudity and immaculate whiteness. But
Bachelard finds an even deeper significance: hermaphroditism, since in its movement and
certainly in its long phallic neck it is masculine yet in its rounded, silky body it is
feminine. In sum, then, the swan always points to the complete satisfaction of desire
which brings about its own death. This ambivalent significance of the swan was also well
known to the alchemists, who compared it with 'philosophical Mercury', the mystic Centre
and the union of opposites, an interpretation entirely in accord with its archetypal
implications. In Marius Schneider's view, the swan, by virtue of its relationship with
the harp and the sacrificial serpent, also pertains to the funeral pyre, because the
essential symbols of the mystic journey to the other world are the swan and the harp.
This would afford another explanation of the mysterious song of the dying swan.
(J.E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, 1962, p. 306)
(Image: Leda and the Swan,
a 16th century copy after a lost painting by Michelangelo, 1530, National Gallery, London))