Sunday, May 10, 2015

On an Apparition



A couple days ago, I encountered a ghost. The revenant was a word, an expression returning from the dead to recapture a significance long lost.

The word-ghost appears in the center of the 10th line of a poem by John Donne, "The Apparition." The poem was written between 1603 and 1614 and is part of a series of intricate lyrics on the subject of love. In "The Apparition," the poet imagines himself as a ghost. He has returned to haunt his faithless lover whom he finds in the arms of another. His apparition is contrived, it seems, to extinguish the sexual ardor between his former mistress and her lover. The poem’s tone is rueful, but sardonic, an exercise in irony playfully feigning bitterness. Seeing his "feigned vestal, in worse arms" – that is, embraced by her new lover – the poet’s ghost tinkers with the bedside candle so that "thy sick taper will begin to wink". ("The sick taper" is a metonym for the lover’s phallus.) Worn out by his amorous exertions, the woman’s paramour remains asleep and, although his mistress "pinches" to wake him, he remains in a "false sleep." The poor fellow is also "feigning" – he is afraid that the woman will make more demands on his exhausted "taper":

(he will)...think

Thou call’st for more,

And in a false sleep will from thee shrink;
"Shrink"? Donne’s meaning here is obvious.

Forced to confront the vengeful spook alone, the faithless lover is described in these terms:

And, then, poor aspen wretch, neglected thou

Bath’d in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie.
A verier ghost than I.

Donne ends the 17-line poem with a threat. I no longer love you, the poet proclaims, and so I won’t commit to this verse the imprecations that I will visit upon you when I am dead. The poet asserts that his vengeance will be better, and more complete, if the faithless woman must "painfully repent, / Than by my threat’nings rest still innocent."

On reading this poem, the word that puzzled me was the adjective "aspen". Confronted by the embittered ghost, the poet’s mistress lies helpless, a "poor, aspen wretch" weltering in a "quicksilver sweat."

It is the fate of modern people to know the world through our enterprises and things that we have built and not through the natural world. Therefore, to me, Aspen is primarily a town, a ski-resort in the center of Colorado beneath a high and barren mountain pass. Aspen is a place where everything is expensive and where you might glimpse a movie star hidden behind sunglasses holding a cup of coffee at a sidewalk café. In Aspen, the people are all hip and beautiful; the movie stars are not the most beautiful inhabitants of the colony – after all, they still must labor for a living; the most beautiful are their consorts and mistresses, those who live on their beauty alone. Aspen is the site of a famous conference and, I think, the idea of the annoyingly zealous and self-important TED talk originated there. In the fifties, Malcolm Adler sought to repel Communism from our shores by sponsoring a series of conclaves between management and labor, those meetings quixotically devoted to the study of the Great Books – that is, Plato and Aristotle. Aspen lies along the Roaring Fork River and, when I have been there, I recall mostly the rocky heights of the mountain passes standing sentinel over the town, the condominiums in the pine trees, and the big vertical meadows cleared for skiing on Aspen Mountain. Of course, the place has an even more elite character in the winter-time when the wealthy swarm to the mountain and, nearby, Snowmass for the powder snow. But I have never been there in that season.

I know of other Aspens – there is Aspen Lodge near Grand Marais, Aspen Waste Management, a company that hauls garbage, Aspen realty, and Aspen Dental. And, then, there is a kind of tree native to cold climates, several related species of the genus "Poplarus" or poplar. Aspen trees have pale bark and small leaves that tremble in the wind. The trees grow in stands originating in a single seed – that is, aspen groves are "clonal." This means that each individual specimen is connected underground, that all the plants share a common root system. Fire is the aspen’s friend, obliterating competitor trees. When a forest fire burns and makes the pitch in adjacent pines flare like torches, the aspens also burn. But below ground, the clonal root system preserves the colony. When the fire is past, and life returns, the aspens return as well. Because of this system of growth, some groves of aspen trees are thought to be very ancient. The so-called "Pando" grove in Utah is said to be over 60,000 years old.

Robert Graves, a poet himself, thought that all original knowledge revolves around an understanding of trees. In northern Europe, at least, people once worshiped trees. The varieties of trees in our environment provided the categories of thought. Each tree signified a different relationship to the world and, therefore, a different poetic understanding of reality. Trees provided the primordial structuring principle in the world – the trees were gods, different kinds of women, varying systems for survival, imposing, even, different meters on the verse that poets made. A book is a beech – in Germanic languages, Buch means "beech." Everything that we know is written in the language of the trees.

A thousand years ago, "aspen" trees were also known as "quaking poplars". This appellation derives from the tremulous leaves of the aspen, the bright flickering that the trees make when the wind blows among them. Thus, "aspen" came to mean "trembling," or "quaking." In Old English, the aspen tree was also called the Cwikbeam ("Quick-baum) or "living and shivering tree." By the fifteenth century, the word "aspen" is attested as an adjective meaning "trembling." Thus, Donne’s faithless lover, described as a "poor aspen wretch" is a "poor trembling wretch." She is "aspen" because shaking with fear at the apparition of her dead lover. Note, also that Donne captures the ancient Old English concept of the aspen as the "quick" tree in next line of the poem. The cruel lady is bathed in a "quicksilver sweat" – thus, Donne explicitly links aspen as an adjective to the word’s original source: the "quicksilver" oscillation of an aspen’s leaves in the wind remains as a mark or trace in the poem’s diction. The woman herself is not only "aspen" or trembling, but also covered in a quicksilver film that imitates the tree’s appearance when stirred by the wind. (Lurking in the poem’s diction, as well, is another word descriptive of a tree: "ashen" – in other words "grey" and here grey with fear. The fickle lover may be imagined as not only "aspen" but, also, perhaps "ashen" – great poets invite misreadings productive of meaning. When I first read the line with the word "aspen," I saw instead the adjective "ashen" – it was only a closer reading that disclosed to me my error.)

In light of these meanings, I would suggest "Aspen Dental" rethink its corporate name – do you really want to go to a dentist who promises to make you shiver and tremble in terror?

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