Thursday, February 29, 2024

Poetry Corner

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By Norah Christianson

Miniver Cheevy

By Edwin Arlington Robinson

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
1. And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the days of old
1. When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
1. Would set him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
1. And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
1. And Priam’s neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
1. That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
1. And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
1. Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
1. And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the mediæval grace
1. Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
1. But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
1. And thought about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
1. Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.

 

I was thinking you all could use something whimsical and light right about now, what with the Middle East on the very VERGE, the weather reminding us of our “immense irrelevance” (James Wright), and the Bible instructing us that, “Without shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin.” (New Testament, Hebrews 9:22.)   So…I was leafing through my copy of “The Norton Book of Light Verse” in hopes of finding something, well, light, when I was astounded to see there on the page, in black and white, “Miniver Cheevy.” What? Miniver light?

We think of light verse as a little below-standard, but amusing. We do smile when reading “Miniver Cheevy.” We may even smile-in-recognition of someone we know. I knew someone like Miniver who wore a beret on the side of his head and talked of the better olden days and Shakespeare. He’d never read Shakespeare, but he adored him. (I’d venture to say he believed Shakespeare wore a beret.) This man incessantly bemoaned living in the present, so he declined to take part in ordinary life. He watched tv. I’m undoubtedly being preachy and pompous but, and this is just my opinion, the man wasted his life.

And I know two others who feel their life is crap for different reasons than Miniver, but they, too, mourn their life for daffy reasons. A relative, who shall not be named, and who lives three states away next to a grocery store named “Roche Brothers,” (pronounced “Roach”— I do not make this up), has always felt she missed “…the ripe renown/That made so many a name so fragrant….” She could have been a dancer she says, if only her mother had encouraged her. She could have been a pro-tennis player she insists, if only her mother had encouraged her. (Her parents gave her both dancing lessons and tennis lessons.) She could have been a wife, if someone had loved her, so she, like Miniver, “….mourned Romance, now on the town….”

The other Miniver-person I know feels she had, and has, no life because she had three children in a hurry. (All grown and successful and gone now.) She doesn’t know what she wanted to BE, but she isn’t IT. I’ve shown her a picture of my loving grandmother and grandfather Conlon with their 11 children. (They had a life!) It made no impression on her.

So, yes, “Miniver Cheevy” makes me smile. But I am not amused. And yes, I am judgmental. Yes, I am being moralistic. Yes, I want to give Miniver a smack upside his head. I want to say to him what I say to myself when I’m feeling whiney or ungrateful: “Are there bombs falling on your head?” But what I will do is share with you the last line of Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

Back to the poem. To have aroused such strong feelings in me about Miniver, I have to say that E.A. Robinson has written a wonderful psychological study here of a person who has wreaked his life by wanting it to be otherwise. Light, indeed.

  1. A. Robinson, as he preferred to be called, was born in 1869 in Head Tide, Maine. Robinson began writing as a young man. His father did not encourage him in his writing. (To my relative: Please note.) But he did send Robinson to Harvard for two years.

Robinson was criticized for writing dark, grim poetry. He answered one harsh critic by writing, “I am sorry that I have painted myself in such lugubrious colours. The world is not a prison house, but a kind of spiritual kindergarten, where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks.” Some of Robinson’s most characteristic themes, as Gerald DeWitt Sanders put it in Chief Modern Poets of Britain and America, “…were about what lies behind the social mask of character, and … man’s terrible will to defeat himself.”

Robinson never married, though the artist Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones was in love with him. She was “devoted to him and understood him…,” according to the poet and critic D. H. Tracy. Tracy writes that Robinson called her “Sparhawk” and “was courteous towards her. “ (I should hope.)

Despite the bleak pessimism of his writing, Robinson did win the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded to poetry in 1922, and two subsequent Pulitzers in 1925 and 1928. Robinson died of cancer in 1935 in New York City.

P.S. I am starting a GoFundMe in the event that those folks I’ve disparaged in this article resolve to sue me.

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