Friday, February 20, 2009

Memory by Thomas Bailey Aldrich

Thomas Bailey Aldrich was born in New Hampshire in 1836, and died in Boston in 1907 after a life of journalism and other writing, including at turn as editor of The Atlantic Monthly. He was friends with William Dean Howell and Walt Whitman, among others. He is possibly best-known for his short stories, although he wrote quite a bit of verse as well. His semi-autobiographical novel Story of a Bad Boy is said to have been admired by Mark Twain, who later used it as a jumping-off point for Tom Sawyer. His last words were "In spite of it all, I'm going to sleep."

by Thomas Bailey Aldrich

My mind lets go a thousand things,
Like dates of wars and deaths of kings,
And yet recalls the very hour—
'Twas noon by yonder village tower,
And on the last blue noon in May—
The wind came briskly up this way,
Crisping the brook beside the road;
Then, pausing here, set down its load
Of pine-scents, and shook listlessly
Two petals from that wild-rose tree.

This short poem is written in rhymed couplets (AABBCCDDEE) using iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet per line: ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM), which makes the formal elements of it very simple indeed. Aldrich's lines all break naturally at the end of the line until you reach the end of the eighth line, when everything shifts. Based on punctuation and natural line breaks, the more natural (or, if you prefer, less forced) way to read the last three lines of this poem would be:

Then, pausing here, set down its load of pine-scents,
and shook listlessly two petals from that wild-rose tree.

What I like about this poem is its attention to detail, and its comments on the vagaries of memory. Names and dates — even some that are important — can fade, but the mind will hold on to seemingly smaller things quite handily. One of the details that evokes memory in this poem is that of scent, which is of course one of the strongest triggers of memory. Aldrich does a good job of using more than just his visual sense in this poem, incorporating movement (brisk wind that crisps the brook), smell (pine-scents) and touch (crisping the brook, "shook listlessly two petals"). The poem is rooted in the details of a single, small moment in time involving nothing more than a bit of wind and two rose petals.

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