Still-Life

Through the open French window the warm sun
lights up the polished breakfast-table, laid
round a bowl of crimson roses, for one—
a service of Worcester porcelain, arrayed
near it a melon, peaches, figs, small hot
rolls in a napkin, fairy rack of toast,
butter in ice, high silver coffee-pot,
and, heaped on a salver, the morning’s post.

She comes over the lawn, the young heiress,
from her early walk in her garden-wood,
feeling that life’s a table set to bless
her delicate desires with all that’s good,

that even the unopened future lies
like a love-letter, full of sweet surprise.

—Elizabeth Daryush

This poem has the most intense sense of foreboding, of impending disaster, of any I know. It reminds me of those photographs of people taken seconds before they are vaporized by bombs or tanks. Yet this feeling is conveyed almost entirely by the shift in rhythm in the ninth and tenth lines. Sound in poetry does not merely emphasize sense; sometimes, as here, it undercuts it.

Aaron Haspel | Posted January 5, 2003 @ 10:39 PM | General

10 Responses to “Poetry Corner”

  1. 1 1. Stephen Rittenberg

    Yes. An exquisitely rendered poem. Thanks for posting it.


  2. 2 2. Timothy Murphy

    Good for you, lad! Daryush is someone almost forgotten we should all be reading.


  3. 3 3. Jim Valliant

    Neat sound effect.


  4. 4 4. Alexis

    Yes, a very nice poem. Thanks for posting it.

    When I’m reading it, I have the feeling that the shift to rhyme does not introduce but rather emphasizes the sense of foreboding, which was created by the ominous exaggeration of "life’s a table set to bless/ her delicate desires with all that’s good." Hard to say.

    It’s intriguing how prosody can be both powerful and ambiguous, and how hard it is to assign a particular feeling to a particular "sound effect" (nicely put, Jim). I remember an example which I think comes from "Poetic Form & Poetic Meter," a great book on this topic — it points out how the meter & rhyme scheme of the limerick, which can sound "intrinsically" comic to anglophone ears, is used for funeral laments in Russian poetry. Who knew?


  5. 5 5. Timothy Murphy

    There is no shift to rhyme; this is a conventionally rhymed English sonnet. What is experimental about it is that it’s not in iambic pentameter. Rather it is in decasyllables, only one line of which could be conventionally scanned as IP. Its rhythms are those of prose, not those of accentual-syllabic verse. It’s really quite a tour de force. Daryush’s father, Robert Bridges, was Poet Laureate of England, and I’m boggled that so classically trained a poet could write decasyllablics and NOT have them be drawn inevitably into IP.


  6. 6 6. Aaron Haspel

    Tim is right that the poem is in syllabics. But Bridges wrote syllabic verse himself and indulged in many metrical experiments; if anyone could bring off this sort of thing successfully it would be his daughter. The last four lines are in nearly perfect iambic pentameter, with the exception of two inversions in the first foot, a common variant. Daryush was a superbly skilled metrist and did this on purpose, but it’s still an exaggeration to say that only one line can be scanned that way.

    I agree with Alexis that limericks somehow sound comic in English. Yet it does not surprise me at all that the same form is a dirge in Russian; it only points up how subtle these effects are and how intimately bound up with a particular language.


  7. 7 7. Timothy Murphy

    You’re right, Aaron. Poems make a footprint, early on. And I was ignoring the regularity of the last four lines. OK, I was in a rush. For Daryush, it behooves one to slow down.


  8. 8 8. Gregory Khasin

    It is strange that with all the the talk about the foreboding nobody’s noticed the morning’s post in the still life. She has obviously not yet read it and it may well contain the disaster.


  9. 9 9. Alison

    AAAAHHHHH somebody help-im reciting this poem sonnet for a speech and drama exam tomorrow, ive been trying to find info on Lizzy for ages but cant find anything im so frustrated!! anyway id just thought id let you all know-some of your comments were helpful though! Bye


  10. 10 10. Barb Surgeon

    It’s a stunning poem. To my mind the sense of forboding lies partly in the tension between the stasis implied by the title and the precariousness of "heaped", and partly in the subjectivity of "feeling" and the pun on "lies."


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