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A Likeness -- Willa Sibert Cather

Chiming in on Vikram's Roman theme...
(Poem #705) A Likeness
Portrait Bust of an Unknown, Capitol, Rome

 In every line a supple beauty --
   The restless head a little bent --
 Disgust of pleasure, scorn of duty,
   The unseeing eyes of discontent.
 I often come to sit beside him,
   This youth who passed and left no trace
 Of good or ill that did betide him,
   Save the disdain upon his face.

 The hope of all his House, the brother
   Adored, the golden-hearted son,
 Whom Fortune pampered like a mother;
   And then, -- a shadow on the sun.
 Whether he followed Cæsar's trumpet,
   Or chanced the riskier game at home
 To find how favor played the strumpet
   In fickle politics at Rome;

 Whether he dreamed a dream in Asia
   He never could forget by day,
 Or gave his youth to some Aspasia,
   Or gamed his heritage away;
 Once lost, across the Empire's border
   This man would seek his peace in vain;
 His look arraigns a social order
   Somehow entrammelled with his pain.

 "The dice of gods are always loaded";
   One gambler, arrogant as they,
 Fierce, and by fierce injustice goaded,
   Left both his hazard and the play.
 Incapable of compromises,
   Unable to forgive or spare,
 The strange awarding of the prizes
   He had not fortitude to bear.

 Tricked by the forms of things material --
   The solid-seeming arch and stone,
 The noise of war, the pomp imperial,
   The heights and depths about a throne --
 He missed, among the shapes diurnal,
   The old, deep-travelled road from pain,
 The thoughts of men which are eternal,
   In which, eternal, men remain.

 Ritratto d'ignoto; defying
   Things unsubstantial as a dream --
 An Empire, long in ashes lying --
   His face still set against the stream.
 Yes, so he looked, that gifted brother
   I loved, who passed and left no trace,
 Not even -- luckier than this other --
   His sorrow in a marble face.
-- Willa Sibert Cather
If the dominant note of the previous Roman theme was the wars that swept
in great waves across the Roman empire, this time's seems to be the more
tangible remnants of that empire, the ineradicable (or, at any rate,
uneradicated) pieces of sea-worn glass it left in its wake.

And one of the more intriguing forms of immortality is surely the anonymous
portrait or statue, the
         youth who passed and left no trace
      Of good or ill that did betide him,
      Save the disdain upon his face.

Cather handles the topic wonderfully, using the bust both as a starting
point and as a lens through which to take a remarkably sweeping look at the
Life and Times of the unknown youth. Cather weaves the various skeins
together with enviable skill (this is one of those poems I really wish I
could've written), treading the well-worn territory of Ancient Roman imagery
with grace and assurance, while never losing sight of her central character,
and segueing smoothly into an unexpected but nonetheless perfectly
harmonious last verse.

Notes:

  Aspasia: Famous teacher of rhetoric. See
  http://members.home.net/cheree/aspasia.html

  Ritratto d'ignoto: Probably a reference to Antonello da Messina's famous
  masterpiece "Ritratto d'Ignoto" (Portrait of an unknown man)
  http://www.sicily.cres.it/uk/localita/PA/cefalu/fotografie/dipinti/ritratto.html

Biography:

  Willa Sibert Cather was born in Back Creek Valley, Virginia., on December.
  7, 1873. She died on April. 24, 1947. Cather's work made her one of the
  most important American novelists of the first half of the 20th century.
  When Cather was nine, her family homesteaded in pioneer Nebraska. She was
  a tomboy at home in the saddle. enjoyed distinguished careers as
  journalist, editor, and fiction writer. Cather is most often thought of as
  a chronicler of the pioneer American West. Critics note that the themes of
  her work are intertwined with the universal story of the rise of
  civilizations in history, the drama of the immigrant in a new world, and
  views of personal involvements with art. Cather's fiction is characterized
  by a strong sense of place, the subtle presentation of human
  relationships, an often unconventional narrative structure, and a style of
  clarity and beauty.

        -- http://www.uic.edu/depts/quic/history/willa_cather.html

  [follow the link to the whole review - I've just included an excerpt]

  Some interesting snippets:

    Cather never wrote openly about lesbian or gay themes. Much her work,
    however, can be interpreted with a lesbian or gay subtext if one knows
    to look for the clues. Nothing overt would have been tolerated by the
    publishers (and probably by the reading public as well).

        -- http://www.uic.edu/depts/quic/history/willa_cather.html

    Cather did not really take herself serious as a poet - she believed that
    women should not write poetry at all - but during her Pittsburgh years,
    she nevertheless wrote rather steadily and April Twilights were her
    first collected published work. She, however, later regretted the
    publication.

        -- [broken link] http://fp.image.dk/fpemarxlind/fiction.htm

Links:

  [broken link] http://fp.image.dk/fpemarxlind/ is a well written and informative Cather
  site

  Comparisons to Kipling are inevitable (or, at least, I'm incapable of
  avoiding them <g>) - see, for instance, "If", and large portions of "Puck
  of Pook's Hill"
    poem #271
    [broken link] http://www.cs.cmu.edu/People/rgs/puck-table.html

  Go back and read the rest of the Roman theme:
    Poem #702 John Masefield, 'Night Is On The Downland'
    Poem #703 A. E. Housman, 'On Wenlock Edge'
    Poem #704 Christopher Isherwood, 'On His Queerness'

    The links from Poem #703 also summarise the first Roman theme.

Afterword:

  Thanks to Vikram Doctor for the guest theme - I enjoyed the opportunity to
  revisit one of my favourite historical periods.

-martin

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