The End of the Poem: Oxford Lectures

The End of the Poem: Oxford Lectures

by Paul Muldoon

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In The End of the Poem, Paul Muldoon, "the most significant English-language poet born since the Second World War" (The Times Literary Supplement), presents engaging, rigorous, and insightful explorations of a diverse group of poems, from Yeats's "All Souls' Night" to Stevie Smith's "I Remember" to Fernando Pessoa's "Autopsychography." Here Muldoon


In The End of the Poem, Paul Muldoon, "the most significant English-language poet born since the Second World War" (The Times Literary Supplement), presents engaging, rigorous, and insightful explorations of a diverse group of poems, from Yeats's "All Souls' Night" to Stevie Smith's "I Remember" to Fernando Pessoa's "Autopsychography." Here Muldoon reminds us that the word "poem" comes, via French, from the Latin and Greek: "a thing made or created." He asks: Can a poem ever be a freestanding, discrete structure, or must it always interface with the whole of its author's bibliography—and biography? Muldoon explores the boundlessness, the illimitability, created by influence, what Robert Frost meant when he insisted that "the way to read a poem in prose or verse is in the light of all the other poems ever written." And he writes of the boundaries or borders between writer and reader and the extent to which one determines the role of the other.

At the end, Muldoon returns to the most fruitful, and fraught, aspect of the phrase "the end of the poem": the interpretation that centers on the "aim" or "function" of a poem, and the question of whether or not the end of the poem is the beginning of criticism. Irreverent, deeply learned, often funny, and always stimulating, The End of the Poem is a vigorous and accessible approach to looking at poetry anew.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In his most substantial prose collection to date, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Muldoon (Moy Sand and Gravel) offers 15 characteristically idiosyncratic lectures on individual poems by a host of influential world poets, delivered at Oxford University from 1999 to 2004. Rather than explication and clarification, Muldoon favors association and surprise, as he does in his poems. In discussions of often lesser-known poems by major figures, beginning with W.B. Yeats and moving through Emily Dickinson, Ted Hughes, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Fernando Pessoa and Irish-born Muldoon's own mentor, Seamus Heaney, Muldoon focuses on the recurrence and etymology of particular words as they relate to other poems and poets, quoting the OED almost as often as poetry. He also locates the poems' origins in other unlikely texts, such as a little-known 1851 Harper's article, which Muldoon claims influenced Dickinson. While some of Muldoon's conjectures may seem far-fetched, they are always highly compelling and clever, and this book provides an expansive view of the mind of a major poet, and a fresh, if unorthodox, method for reading literary texts. This volume is released concurrently with Horse Latitudes, a new collection of poems (Reviews, July 31). (Oct.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Muldoon (Princeton Univ.) here presents 15 lectures he gave at Oxford University over a five-year period, "much as they were given." The work is organized into 15 chapters, each focusing on a specific poem. The poem opens the chapter and is followed by a very close reading not only of its rhyme and imagery but also of the poet's historical and biographical context and influences. Muldoon does not discuss why he selected these poems except to relate them all to the title he gave his lectures, which varies in meaning. In one instance, he uses the date at the end of the poem to open his discussion. In another, he uses it as a way of connecting "the poem and the biography of its author." The scholarship is excellent, which makes this work an essential purchase for academic collections; more important, it is interesting and easily accessible as well. Paolina Taglienti, Las Vegas Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

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The End of the Poem

Oxford Lectures

By Paul Muldoon

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2006 Paul Muldoon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-2391-0



    W. B. YEATS

    Midnight has come, and the great Christ Church Bell
    And many a lesser bell sound through the room;
    And it is All Souls' Night,
    And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel
    Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come;
    For it is a ghost's right,
    His element is so fine
    Being sharpened by his death,
    To drink from the wine-breath
    While our gross palates drink from the whole wine.

    I need some mind that, if the cannon sound
    From every quarter of the world, can stay
    Wound in mind's pondering
    As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound;
    Because I have a marvellous thing to say,
    A certain marvellous thing
    None but the living mock,
    Though not for sober ear;
    It may be all that hear
    Should laugh and weep an hour upon the clock.

    Horton's the first I call. He loved strange thought
    And knew that sweet extremity of pride
    That's called platonic love,
    And that to such a pitch of passion wrought
    Nothing could bring him, when his lady died,
    Anodyne for his love.
    Words were but wasted breath;
    One dear hope had he:
    The inclemency
    Of that or the next winter would be death.

    Two thoughts were so mixed up I could not tell
    Whether of her or God he thought the most,
    But think that his mind's eye,
    When upward turned, on one sole image fell;
    And that a slight companionable ghost,
    Wild with divinity,
    Had so lit up the whole
    Immense miraculous house
    The Bible promised us,
    It seemed a gold-fish swimming in a bowl.

    On Florence Emery I call the next,
    Who finding the first wrinkles on a face
    Admired and beautiful,
    And knowing that the future would be vexed
    With 'minished beauty, multiplied commonplace,
    Preferred to teach a school
    Away from neighbour or friend,
    Among dark skins, and there
    Permit foul years to wear
    Hidden from eyesight to the unnoticed end.

    Before that end much had she ravelled out
    From a discourse in figurative speech
    By some learned Indian
    On the soul's journey. How it is whirled about,
    Wherever the orbit of the moon can reach,
    Until it plunge into the sun;
    And there, free and yet fast,
    Being both Chance and Choice,
    Forget its broken toys
    And sink into its own delight at last.

    And I call up MacGregor from the grave,
    For in my first hard springtime we were friends,
    Although of late estranged.
    I thought him half a lunatic, half knave,
    And told him so, but friendship never ends;
    And what if mind seem changed,
    And it seem changed with the mind,
    When thoughts rise up unbid
    On generous things that he did
    And I grow half contented to be blind!

    He had much industry at setting out,
    Much boisterous courage, before loneliness
    Had driven him crazed;
    For meditations upon unknown thought
    Make human intercourse grow less and less;
    They are neither paid nor praised.
    But he'd object to the host,
    The glass because my glass;
    A ghost-lover he was
    And may have grown more arrogant being a ghost.

    But names are nothing. What matter who it be,
    So that his elements have grown so fine
    The fume of muscatel
    Can give his sharpened palate ecstasy
    No living man can drink from the whole wine.
    I have mummy truths to tell
    Whereat the living mock,
    Though not for sober ear,
    For maybe all that hear
    Should laugh and weep an hour upon the clock.
    Such thought — such thought have I that hold it tight
    Till meditation master all its parts,
    Nothing can stay my glance
    Until that glance run in the world's despite
    To where the damned have howled away their hearts,
    And where the blessed dance;
    Such thought, that in it bound
    I need no other thing,
    Wound in mind's wandering
    As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound.

    Oxford, Autumn 1920

I WANT TO SAY A WORD OR TWO about my choice of this somewhat booming, perhaps even slightly bumptious phrase, "the end of the poem," for the general title of this series of lectures. To begin with, the idea of delivering fifteen lectures over five years is an extremely resistible one — matched only in its resistibility, I dare say, by the idea of receiving fifteen lectures over that same period. Who in his or her right mind would commit to a relationship that lasts longer than many marriages, and where one party in the contract, the aforesaid receiver of the lectures, is assigned much more favourable terms than the other? Whereas the receiver of lectures can always come up with some pressing, prior engagement to excuse his or her absence — for ten or twelve of the lectures, say — it's a little more tricky for the deliverer. Not only must the poor deliverer show up — which, despite what Woody Allen says, accounts for about eight rather than eighty per cent of the success of any venture — he must positively shine, maybe even scintillate. And he must scintillate, be there three hundred in the Examination Schools or three. I have to confess that I had this latter figure of three quite firmly in mind when I hit on the idea of the general title, The End of the Poem, for, while I was confident that the three most perspicacious readers in the audience — you know who you are — would continue to find it rich and resonant over the entire five years, I was less confident of being able to persuade anyone else that the phrase might be rich and resonant for more than about five seconds.

When I began to think of where I might find a little toe-hold on the slippery slope of this huge subject, particularly in the context of an inaugural lecture, it struck me that "All Souls' Night" by W. B. Yeats was tailor- made for the occasion. I use the words "context" and "tailor-made" advisedly because, as we'll see, the poem turns out to be in part a shuttling, as it were, between the words "textual" and "textile," words that this notoriously poor speller might well have mistaken one for the other, though neither appears in the poem. (I'm reminded, with regard to the spelling, of the occasion on which Yeats misspelt the word "professor" in his letter of inquiry about a professorship at Trinity College, Dublin.) It's clear that Yeats was very conscious of an appropriateness of the slippage between these two words, "textual" and "textile," conscious that they share the Latin root texere, "to weave," just as he's very conscious of the etymology of the word "line," and that there's an etymological "line" running through the poem that is quite at one with, and mimetic of, its material. I'll also be looking at other invisible threads through the poem, mostly having to do with proper names, including the name of at least one other poet who looms large in "All Souls' Night."

The poem comes to mind most immediately, of course, as being tailor-made by virtue of the occasion and the setting, this being All Souls' Day in Oxford, the city where Yeats wrote the poem in the autumn of 1920 — perhaps, as Richard Ellmann suggests in The Identity of Yeats, beginning it on this very date. That the poem was written in Oxford in the autumn of 1920 might not ordinarily be of any great significance to anyone other than a literary critic, except that Yeats does indeed assign this information a significance, placing it, literally, at the end of the poem. There it is, in small italics: Oxford, Autumn 1920. Now, one of the unlikely, generally overlooked, aspects of reading a poem is that one may begin, as I just have, at the end. One may scan the poem as a shape on the page, taking in aspects of its geometry, well before one embarks on what we think of as a conventional line-by-line reading. Since I've begun at the end, let me continue by taking that piece of information, the dating and placing of the poem, and folding it back into the title "All Souls' Night." At first sight, the information that the poem was written in Oxford in the autumn of 1920 can hardly be seen to extend the meaning of the poem. It's self-evident that All Souls' Night falls in autumn. And, as the poem begins, the setting is also self-evident:

    Midnight has come, and the great Christ Church Bell
    And many a lesser bell sound through the room;
    And it is All Souls' Night.

Now, I suppose that some of the first readers of "All Souls' Night" might have had a momentary sound-picture of the great bell of the twelfth-century Augustinian priory church in Christchurch, Hampshire, or the great bell of the Anglican cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand, when they came upon something along the lines of the poem, either in The London Mercury of March 1921, or in its simultaneous appearance in the United States in The New Republic of March 9, 1921, when they did not have the benefit of the date and place. I speak of "something along the lines of the poem." I should say, "what passed for what we now take to be 'All Souls' Night.'" For, as we know from Allt and Alspach's The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats, the poem began thus in The New Republic:

It is All Souls' night and the great Christ Church bell ...

while in The London Mercury, where a little smidgin of good old-fashioned poetic diction didn't raise an eyebrow, it read

'Tis All Souls' Night and the great Christ Church bell ...

with a version of what is now the opening line, "For it is now midnight," appearing as line 3. It's worth pondering what might have been going on in Yeats's mind when he made these revisions, and to judge what might have been gained, or lost, in the process. One gain would have been the mimesis of the tolling of the bell in the predominantly spondaic metre of what is now the first line:

    Midnight has come, and the great Christ Church Bell
    And many a lesser bell sound through the room;

For what it's worth, one may divine (particularly if one's predisposed to hearing them) twelve stresses or bell-tolls in those first two lines before the release of

And it is All Souls' Night.

Another consideration that Yeats would have weighed, in the revision of the opening lines of the poem, would have been his urge to avoid the stress falling on the wrong foot, resulting in a loss of balance of sound and sense in the iambic "For it is now midnight." "And it is All Souls' Night" is an altogether more effective rounding out of the spondaic pattern, with almost equal stress on each of those five syllables. The word "spondee," if you recall, has at its heart the idea of duration, the duration of the pouring of a drink-offering or libation to the gods or, as it turns out in this poem, the ghosts of the dead.

    And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel
    Bubble upon the table.

The recurrence of the word "and" at the beginning of three consecutive lines results in an extraordinary combination of the incantatory and the carefree, the negligence which in Yeats is often merely apparent, sometimes massively real. (It's always worth remembering that we're dealing here with a man who was ignorant of which side his ancestors had fought on at the Battle of the Boyne, as is evidenced by an early version of the "Introductory Rhymes" to his 1914 volume Responsibilities, when he names James II as the "bad master" of his "old fathers.")

I seem to recall a critical discussion of these present lines centering on whether muscatel is indeed a wine in which we could decently expect to meet a bubble, the implication being that it's introduced here to meet what commentators used to refer to as "the exigencies of rhyme." This question of whether muscatel, not to be confused with muscadet, does indeed "fume" is one on which I propose to do a great deal of research over the next five years, and I'll report back to you when I have a finding, though, as I'm sure you'll realise, the likelihood of my making any finding will depend largely upon funding. For Yeats's purposes, it's vital that this particular bottle of muscatel exhibit a certain sparkle, given that it announces the contiguous spirit-world associated with All Souls' Night.

As the Encyclopaedia Britannica reminds us, this is

the day appointed in the Roman Catholic church for a special commemoration of all the faithful departed, those baptized Christians who are believed to be in a state called purgatory because they have died with the guilt of lesser sins on their souls. Catholic doctrine holds that the prayers of the faithful on earth will help cleanse these souls in order to fit them for the vision of God in Heaven ... The institution of a day for a general intercession on November 2 is due to Odilo, abbot of Cluny (d. 1048). The date, which became practically universal before the end of the thirteenth century, was chosen to follow All Saints' Day, November 1st ... The feast was abolished in the Church of England at the Reformation but has been revived in Anglo-Catholic churches.

In the Britannica entry for "All Saints' Day" we're reminded that "in medieval English usage the festival was known as All Hallows, and its eve is still known as Halloween." It's as "Halloween" that Yeats would have known, as a child, the November 1 festival, though by the turn of the century he's more likely than not to have come to think of it by another term, Samhain, the Celtic New Year. The word "Samhain" means "summer's end" (from the Old Irish sam, summer, and fuin, end), and it was, as James MacKillop reminds us in his very handy Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, "the most important of the four great calendar feasts of Celtic tradition ... The antiquity of Samhain is attested to by the Coligny Calendar [the series of bronze tablets dating from the first century B.C. unearthed in 1897 at Coligny, in eastern France] which cites the feast of Samonios ... Samhain's equivalents on the Christian calendar are All Saints' Day (introduced by Pope Boniface IV in the 7th cent. to supplant the pagan festival of the dead) and Halloween." Samhain was, if you recall, the name of the house magazine of the Irish Literary Theatre, which appeared intermittently between the years 1901 and 1908 and was, of course, edited by Yeats.

Another of the unlikely, generally overlooked aspects of reading a poem has to do with the intermittent quality of our reading, so that having begun it, and proceeded a little into it, one may now leap back to the beginning, now again leap forward. This is particularly true of poems with which we're familiar, as Walter Fenno Dearborn pointed out in The Psychology of Reading (1906):

That which we ordinarily do when we run over in "our mind's eye" the lines of a page which we have just been reading or of a passage which we have committed to memory offers an instance of a movement of attention over a field that is not present in the visual sense, except as a memory image ... As is well known, many can recall during the recitation of a memorized passage a pretty constant image of the general appearance of the page and of an occasional word or group of words.

Now, one group of words that leaps off Dearborn's yellowed page is the phrase "mind's eye," which we also meet in line 33 of "All Souls' Night," an allusion to the best-known usage of the phrase, by Shakespeare, in Hamlet, where the prince sees the ghost of his father — "In my mind's eye, Horatio" — a not inappropriate allusion in the context of this poem about familiar spirits.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me go back to the line

And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel

There's a great deal of data packed into these seven words. To begin with, these "two" glasses take the place of "two" people, two people who have had an intimate dinner, perhaps, and are about to toast each other in a strong, sweet dessert wine. The glasses are "brimmed," about to overflow, just as the line itself flows over, the verse turns, into the next, with the violent enjambment on "muscatel/bubble." The last syllable of "muscatel" most certainly sends us back to "bell" and signals that we have entered what might be described as a restricted area. For it's only now, as we come to where the fourth line ends on "muscatel," that we fully understand that we are in a stanza, or "room," through which "the great Christ Church Bell / And many a lesser bell sound," the internal perfect rhyme now defining the very chamber through which its chime echoes and reechoes. When I say "perfect" in this instance I mean the rhyme of "bell" and "bell," and I'd remind you of Yeats's bold use of perfect rhyme in two consecutive stanzas of "Byzantium," a poem thematically linked to "All Souls' Night," though written ten years later, in 1930:

    Before me floats an image, man or shade,
    Shade more than man, more image than a shade;

    Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
    More miracle than bird or handiwork


Excerpted from The End of the Poem by Paul Muldoon. Copyright © 2006 Paul Muldoon. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Paul Muldoon is the author of nine books of poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Moy Sand and Gravel (FSG, 2002). He teaches at Princeton University and, between 1999 and 2004, was professor of poetry at Oxford University.

Paul Muldoon is the author of eleven books of poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Moy Sand and Gravel (FSG, 2002) and, most recently, Maggot (FSG, 2010). He is the Howard G. B. Clark University Professor at Princeton.

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