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Amy Lowell on Legends as a Lens on Our Elemental Limitations and Powers – The Marginalian

Myths, Facts, and Poetic Truth: Amy Lowell on Legends as a Lens on Our Elemental Limitations and Powers

In 1921, D.H. Lawrence was staggered by a “unusual and great” e book bursting with “major, elemental forces, kinetic, dynamic — prismatic, tonic, the good, huge, lively inorganic world, elemental, by no means softened by life, that arduous universe of Matter and Pressure the place life shouldn’t be but recognized, come to move once more.”

That e book was Legends (public library | free e-book) by his passionate, visionary, cigar-smoking pal Amy Lowell (February 9, 1874–Could 12, 1925), who modified the face of literature along with her sharp-edged, kaleidoscopic imagist poems and her fierce patronage of different poets, Lawrence amongst them.

Amy Lowell as a baby

Lowell noticed how, on the dimensions of the species, legends give us what fairy tales give us on the dimensions of the person: instruments for understanding what we’re and what we would like.

She noticed how, in coping with essentially the most elemental human issues, they transfer us in the identical methods they moved our ancestors, serving to us see these issues of perennial significance that hum beneath the floor urgencies of our time, of any time.

She noticed how, in recurring throughout wildly completely different cultures and epochs solely barely altered in guise, they maintain up a mirror to the infantile self-importance of our exceptionalism, reminding us that the human being “is a unusually alike animal.”

She writes within the preface:

A legend is one thing which no person has written and everyone has written, and which anyone is at liberty to rewrite. It might be altered, it might be considered from any angle, it might assume what costume the writer pleases, but it stays primarily the identical as a result of it’s connected to the very fibres of the center of man*. Civilization is the examine of man about himself, his powers, limitations, and endurances; it’s the slowly acquired data of how he can finest exist in firm together with his fellows on the planet known as Earth. As man learns, he turns into acutely aware, first of an immense curiosity, after which of a measure of understanding, and, instantly after, of a need to precise each; and the best type of expression is by the use of the story or (hateful phrase!) allegory.

Therefore legends; they’re bits of reality, or guesses at reality, pressed into the type of a narrative and flung out into the world as markers of how a lot floor has been travelled. If science be confirmed fact (and I imagine it’s), legends is likely to be described as speculative or apprehended fact.

Artwork by Dorothy Lathrop from a 1922 e book of fairy-poems by Walter de la Mare. (Obtainable as a print.)

In every of the e book’s eleven epic poems, she varies the scales of geography and time to tackle a distinct legend of a distinct tradition — from China to Peru to New England — invoking the vivid pure panorama, local weather, and wildlife of that area alongside its human tales.

A century earlier than science illuminated simply how formed by place the human animal is — and the way a lot, due to this fact, our cosmogonies are formed by our native landscapes — Amy Lowell devoured dozens of anthropology, ethnography, geography, and pure historical past books to attain most constancy to the genuine habitats of the myths that grew to become her poetic matter.

Artwork by Arthur Rackham for a 1920 e book of Irish fairy tales. (Obtainable as a print and as stationery playing cards.)

She fuses an historical Chinese language delusion a couple of porcelain god with an 18th-century Chinese language governor’s treatise on the manufacturing of pottery with the primary scientific investigation of porcelain; she attracts on the pioneering work of anthropologist Franz Boas and enthnomusicologist Frances Densmore to have fun the genuine myths of Native Individuals (then known as “North American Indians”), within the genuine idioms of their native tongues, at a time when the American authorities was doing its finest at erasure and assimilation; she reanimates a Roman legend a couple of backyard statue, which she had first encountered on the pages of Robert Burton’s traditional The Anatomy of Melancholy, printed precisely 300 years earlier. (Legends could be the supreme proof of how seeds are planted and are available abloom generations, centuries, civilizations later, migrating throughout coteries and international locations and continents.)

What emerges from her poems is one thing “neither new, nor outdated” however “perennial,” coursing by way of which is “that curious substratum of actuality, speculative or apprehended.”

With touching recognition of the constraints of even essentially the most rigorous scholarship, she displays:

That inaccuracies from the standpoint of the scholar of folk-lore have crept into the poems, I’ve little doubt, nor does it make any distinction to me. The reality of poetry is imaginative, not literal, and it’s as a poet that I’ve conceived and written my e book.

Art by Virginia Frances Sterrett, Old French Fairy Tales, 1920
Artwork by the teenage artist Virginia Frances Sterrett from a 1920 e book of outdated French fairy tales. (Obtainable as a print and stationery playing cards.)

With an eye fixed to the poetic fact past this sensible reality, bridging the artwork of legends along with her personal artwork, she provides:

A poet is essentially the most contradictory creature conceivable, he respects nothing and reveres every part, however what he loves he makes his personal. And this then is simply the touchstone of the true legend, it may be revamped in any picture, however all the time stays itself.

Complement with the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska on fairy tales and the significance of being scared, then revisit Michael Pollan on the stunning science behind the flying-witch legend


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