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Transforming Nature with James Schuyler

This week, as the third in a five-part series of blog posts on poems that approach nature, Carl Phillips explores a poem by James Schuyler.

The Bluet (1974)

And is it stamina
that unseasonably freaks
forth a bluet, a
Quaker lady, by
the lake? So small,                             5
a drop of sky that
splashed and held,
four-petaled, creamy
in its throat. The woods
around were brown,                          10
the air crisp as a
Carr’s table water
biscuit and smelt of
cider. There were frost
apples on the trees in                        15
the field below the house.
The pond was still, then
broke into a ripple.
The hills, the leaves that
have not yet fallen                             20
are deep and oriental
rug colors. Brown leaves
in the woods set off
gray trunks of trees.
But that bluet was                             25
the focus of it all: last
spring, next spring, what
does it matter? Unexpected
as a tear when someone
reads a poem you wrote                   30
for him: “It’s this line
here.” That bluet breaks
me up, tiny spring flower
late, late in dour October.

—James Schuyler
Selected Poems, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988

James Schuyler’s poem suggests an alternative, more potentially rescuing aspect to our human impulse to impose humanness on the natural world. While this impulse—or curse, as Charlotte Smith would have it in her “Sonnet, On being Cautioned against Walking on a Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It was Frequented by a Lunatic”—can be a reminder of our estrangement from wilderness, its transformative power can make of wilderness a comfort, a stay against the metaphysical fears that Smith’s lunatic can never know, and that John Clare hints at in his reference to melancholy moods in “To the Fox Fern.” “The Bluet” is a poem straight from the Transcendental school of thinking, wherein the natural world was believed to be shot through with divine meaning. “The Bluet” offers a kind of secular Transcendentalism, in which the speaker is cheered up in a gloomy season (“dour October”) by a flower whose unseasonable appearance suggests a stamina that the speaker (by implication) seems to have despaired of finding for himself.

Structurally, I note four movements to this poem, marked primarily by figurative language. The first is in the fourth line, when via metaphor the bluet becomes a “Quaker lady,” human companionship for the speaker. (Quaker lady is also a common term for the bluet, but that term originates of course in metaphor.) At line 12, the ordinary scene of a brown woods and crisp air is changed through simile, “the air crisp as a/Carr’s table water/biscuit”—here, the simile brings wilderness into the human world of food and (again implied) the sharing of it, the communion that dining can be. A third movement occurs at lines 21-22, in what feels like simile, but is actually literal language, as the leaves’ colors get described as “deep and oriental/rug colors.” This can literally be true, but the image of oriental rugs again brings us to the human world, the domestic interior of a home. Finally, the unexpectedness of the flower’s appearance is compared (via simile) to the unexpectedness of “a tear when someone/reads a poem you wrote/for him”—that moment when the reader is shown the place where he appears in his friend’s poem. To include a friend in a poem we’ve written is an act of intimacy, a way of holding someone fast within a world we’ve made, and keeping him there. And looking back through the earlier movements I’ve isolated, I find that each has to do with communion, community, at least potentially so. I’ve noted the communal aspects of the rugs and the water biscuits, but it’s also interesting that the Quaker lady, though she appears alone, is part of a community—the Quakers, who of course also refer to themselves as Friends. The moments of figurative or reminiscent-of-figurative language give physical structure to Schuyler’s poem, but also thematic structure, so that the poem reads as a thanksgiving of sorts, for friendship itself, for human company.

Far from estrangement, Schuyler shows how our engagement with the natural world—precisely because of the anthropomorphizing aspect of that engagement—can remind us that a defining part of being human is to be social. October may be dour, we may lack for stamina, yes. But we’re not alone.

This blog post is based on Foliage & Pattern, a talk Phillips gave at Poets House in the (6 x 5 = 30) series, where six poets each provided close readings of five seminal poems as part of Poets House’s 30th Anniversary season.

Carl Phillips is the author of 14 books of poetry, most recently Wild Is the Wind (2018). Other books include The Tether, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and Double Shadow, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His prose books are The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination (2014) and Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry (2004), and he has translated Sophocles’s Philoctetes (2004). He is a professor in the English department at Washington University in St. Louis.

Posted In: Close Readings