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The Orange Tree -- John Shaw Neilson

Thanks to Ian Baillieu for introducing me to today's poem...
(Poem #1818) The Orange Tree
 The young girl stood beside me. I
 Saw not what her young eyes could see:
 - A light, she said, not of the sky
 Lives somewhere in the Orange Tree.

 - Is it, I said, of east or west?
 The heart beat of a luminous boy
 Who with his faltering flute confessed
 Only the edges of his joy?

 - Was he, I said, home to the blue
 In a mad escapade of Spring
 Ere he could make a fond adieu
 To his love in the blossoming?

 - Listen! The young girl said. There calls
 No voice, no music beats on me;
 But it is almost sound: it falls
 This evening on the Orange Tree.

 - Does he, I said, so fear the Spring
 Ere the white sap too far can climb?
 See in the full gold evening
 All happenings of the olden time?

 Is he so goaded by the green?
 Does the compulsion of the dew
 Make him unknowable but keen
 Asking with beauty of the blue?

 - Listen! The young girl said. For all
 Your hapless talk you fail to see
 There is a light, a step, a call,
 This evening on the Orange Tree.

 - Is it, I said, a waste of love
 Imperishably old in pain,
 Moving as an affrighted dove
 Under the sunlight or the rain?

 Is it a fluttering heart that gave
 Too willingly and was reviled?
 Is it the stammering at a grave,
 The last word of a little child?

 - Silence! The young girl said. Oh why,
 Why will you talk to weary me?
 Plague me no longer now, for I
 Am listening like the Orange Tree.
-- John Shaw Neilson
      (1919)

The eternal conflict between those who 'talk' and those who 'listen'
(perhaps 'analyse' and 'feel' would be better labels, or 'think' and
'feel' in the terminology of the Myers-Briggs classification) is a theme
that has attracted and inspired countless poets. What makes it particularly
interesting is that the popular perception of poetry is that it should be
about feelings - Wordsworth's overquoted "spontaneous overflow of powerful
feelings" - but the very act of writing a (good!) poem, even if it is
inspired by feelings, involves a significantly analytcal process whereby
those feelings are translated into words.

This is not to say that I don't enjoy such poems - today's poem was
beautifully lyrical (as indeed was that most famous example of the genre,
Whitman's "When I Heard the Learned Astronomer") - but I cannot help but
think that the poets mock something that they will not understand.

On another level, though, this was a very satisfying poem in that it speaks
to the related (but subtly different) conflict between evoking and
describing. And here Neilson displays an easy mastery of the form, lines
like

  Listen! The young girl said. There calls
  No voice, no music beats on me;
  But it is almost sound: it falls
  This evening on the Orange Tree.

show an appreciation of the fine line between calling forth a response from
the reader's heart and overwhelming that response with the poet's point of
view.

Poetry along these lines contains an inevitable component of self-reference,
so it is only fair to ask if Neilson's poem lives up to its own standards.
And in this case, I feel it definitely does - the two halves of the poem are
perfectly balanced aspects of a self-contained "a poem should not mean but
be" whole, so that, in the end, the subtle magic of the words takes over,
and the poem *is* the orange tree.

martin

[Links]

Wikipedia page:
 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaw_Neilson
 [Australian poet, 1872-1942]

Brief biography and assessment from the foreword to his Selected Poems:
  http://www.middlemiss.org/lit/authors/neilsonjs/selectedpoems.html

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