Trying something new. Again.
And it probably won't get very many comments (of course, that's not unusual these days), but this is the sort of thing I had in mind when I started this blog damn near three years ago. I planned on writing about all sorts of stuff, from politics to poetry to photography and everything in between. Well, the poetry got left behind time and again, and since I'm writing about politics more over at Stephen's place, I want to shift the focus here back to the more liberal arts. So the following is an explication of a poem by one of my old teachers, Miller Williams. I wrote it this afternoon as an example for my students, though I'm now afraid to give it to them in case they freak and think I'll expect this of them. Hope you like it.
In “Love in the Cathedral,” Miller Williams recasts John Donne’s persona from Holy Sonnet XIV as a stalker, a man who is begging for a woman he loves from afar to make him whole by ravishing him, much as Donne begged God to do in the original.
The speaker in the poem is actually unable to speak, he claims, “not because the words wouldn’t come. It was because they might” (2-3). His fear is based on the likelihood of the rejection of his beloved—he knows, at some level, that he has no relationship with this woman, but that doesn’t stop him from fantasizing about the possibilities.
It is in stanza 5 where Williams reveals the creepier nature of this speaker. The speaker has already made contact with this woman, and recognizes there is no true love between them—saying “Love ought to come / in recognizable clothes” (21-22)—but now says “You have bumped into me / by accident, I have bumped into you / on purpose where talk of love / is inappropriate” (25-28). The only way for to bump into someone on purpose is to study their movements beforehand, to know that person’s habits well enough so as to make a planned encounter seem like chance.
In Donne’s poem, which provides Williams’s epigram (“except you ravish me”), the speaker is crying out openly to God to take him away from that which holds him prisoner, his betrothed, God’s enemy, but Williams’s speaker asks for a different release. He says:
give me this: that all this time I stood here
ignored to death and loved you while you let
every chance go; say your glances at me
suggested almost anything but love;
The idea that he might have missed his chance with his beloved is more than he can bear. He can live with his unrequited status, but not with the possibility of hope.
“Love in the Cathedral” is also a fine example of a sestina where the end words work to further a rhetorical argument. In the penultimate stanza, where the speaker is crying out for denial, the end words read “come here let me love you.” This word order works in direct opposition to the rhetoric of the stanza itself, and heightens the tension Williams has slowly built to this point.
This is important because it adds a sinister air to the envoi, a potentially deadly meaning to the words “You know that I am here / to let you loose” (37-8). Loose from what? From the bonds of their one-sided relationship? From her bonds to this life? What will happen the next time he bumps into her “on purpose on the street where talk of love is inappropriate” (28-29)? The closing of the poem offers no answers, no solace, no promise that everything will turn out right, and it’s that unease which makes this such a wonderful poem.