Thursday, 26 February 2015

The Re-Emergence of the Past

A Twitter discussion led Clive Thompson to take a closer look at Sara Teasdale's poetry:
Teasdale is like a remix of Tennyson and Robert Frost, obsessed with death and what the specter of nonexistence means to our earthly life, yet still slightly carrying the courtly/mawkish airs of Victorian poetry. One of the more intense sections of Flame and Shadow is an eight-poem sequence called “In a Hospital”, which is pretty clearly drawn from Teasdale’s own grim experiences of being serially hospitalized. One of the poems is bluntly called “Pain”; another compares her body to a broken field ploughed by agonies; “The Unseen” describes Death itself corporeal, drifting quietly through the corridors of the hospital, unseen by the nurses.

There are also quite a few poems devoted to war and its ravages, which makes sense when you realize she probably wrote most of these during World War I — the most brutal, horrific opera of death the planet had yet seen, when the new technologies of the tank, the machine gun and poison gas pioneered slaughter on an industrialized scale. Once I’d read and pondered these other influences on her life, “There Will Come Soft Rains” takes on a bunch of new shadings. Teasdale is clearly talking about the War, but she’s also thinking of her own war—her body against itself, the erasure that was coming when disease wore her down and the world went on without her.
Thompson muses on what his discovery of Teasdale says about how the internet has altered his reading habits:
Before the global information highway came along, I didn’t really have any easy way to stumble on Teasdale’s work. Hell, I’d half suspected she was a fiction of Ray Bradbury for decades. Now that I can look things up and scratch any itch of curiosity, I get led down some wonderful rabbit holes. But the deepest rabbit holes, I notice, have been in works of literature that are out of copyright—i.e. published before 1923—because they’re all there, not just in “snippet” format but the whole gorgeous lovely works, waiting to be read the moment I become interested.

So in the last few years, I’ve found my reading list is tilting more and more heavily to pre-1923 works. One night I stumbled across a mention of the 1706 book The Art of Memory, a wonderful description of ancient memory techniques by Marius D’Assigny. I discovered, hey,it was all there on Google Books, so I downloaded and read it. I heard about Wired Love, an awesome 19th-century novel about a woman telegraph operator who falls in love over the wires, and read that too. Last week I noticed a footnote in a book that mentioned a 1916 magazine article that claimed rural women were becoming so besotted with driving their newfangled automobiles that they were neglecting their hens. Whaddya know: That was online in full-text too.

Consider this one of the unanticipated pleasures of our modern age: The re-emergence of the past.

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