Further Analysis of Rebecca Henry Lowndes' Poem "Song for a Seeker"
by Tina Blue
March 18, 2001
In my article "Analysis of Poetic Strategies in a Free Verse Poem by Rebecca Henry Lowndes" I did a partial analysis of some of the poetic devices Rebecca Lowndes uses in a free verse poem, "Song for a Seeker" as a demonstration of what makes good free verse poetry rather than just funny looking prose.
I have a lot more to say about that poem, and at the end of that article I made promises about what other points I would take up. This article is a partial fulfillment of those promises. I will, however, need two more articles beyond this one to complete my explanation of the points I wish to make concerning Lowndes' poem. I hope you are in this for the long haul.
Another device that Lowndes uses to raise "Song for a Seeker" to the level of poetry is allusion. I doubt that most of her allusions were even consciously employed. But any avid reader's mind is well-stocked with the archetypal patterns and images of her culture's literary tradition, and serious poets are also serious readers.
The most obvious motifs in "Song for a Seeker" are the analogous images of the quest, the hunt, and the search for treasure (also implied in the image of the mine).
These images are lent a sacred aura by reference to the "fretted Grail" (the object of the Arthurian quest) and to the "sunny garret" as being "shrine-remote." Lowndes herself may or may not know that the image of illicit lovers tucked away in their "lover's grotto," essentially a shrine to love conceived as a sort of religious devotion, is an integral part of the courtly love tradition, which was itself subsumed into the Arthurian cycle.
But the elements of that tradition are so pervasive in our culture that we find them everywhere--in movies, television shows, popular romance novels, and even cartoons. You can draw on that tradition without even being aware that is what you are doing.
The major manifestation of the courtly love tradition in the Arthurian cycle is the tale of Tristan and Yseult (Isolde), which many of you probably know from opera, The forbidden love between Lancelot and Guinevere is also a part of that tradition, as are a number of minor versions of the pattern in the Arthurian materials.
The sense of inevitability, of fated love, also belongs to the courtly love tradition, of course, and Lowndes' poem makes full use of this aspect of the motif.
The "seeker" in the poem, the persona, has abandoned her quest for love ("left off seeking") and, probably from frustration and disappointment, has convinced herself that she is better off without a mate: "How glad I'd been, that year, to be alone."
The unlooked-for, apparently happenstance, nature of the meeting is captured in the diction of the first stanza: random smile, guileless gift, thoughtless stray remark. But this is no chance meeting. The divine power that operates the universe is overseeing this connection:
as though a slackened
string somewhere went snap,
pulled taut and singing,
and wary look we shared,
for here it was, the fretted Grail
no toll could ransom out of time:
a tandem soul.
As in the courtly love tradition, the love is not only fated, but miraculous and even sacred.
Despite the persona's claim that she has "left off seeking, / eschewed involvement, / disparaged adventure," she perhaps unwittingly confesses that she really has done no such thing:
. . . in this memory of how
the love I'd sought to raise
ere I had even -- thrilling --
the taste of ore at hand . . .
Another allusion in the poem, glancing and perhaps not at all conscious, is to Artemis, the virgin huntress of Greek mythology. In the second stanza the persona establishes the idea that she has been alone, and glad of it, and refers to herself as "the proud and seasoned hunter." In the next stanza, her "deep / green robe" further associates her with the imagery of the goddess of the wood and the hunt.
The image of the hunt, though it runs through the poem, does not by itself evoke images of Artemis. It is the virgin isolation, the proud disdain, and the green robe of the "huntress" that does so.
The language of the poem is also subtly allusive to archaic patterns of meaning. Both the sentence structure and the diction, though they do not aggressively announce their difference from colloquial speech, are clearly out of the ordinary.
I beg your patience here, for in order to prove my point I must cite quite a few phrases, because when you experience them all at once, then you really begin to understand how they impact you throughout the poem:
eschewed involvement, disparaged adventure
one wet unheralded Friday I descried intact a trove, a lode untapped, of mettlesome rare cut
set upon my cheek a veil
pulled taut and singing
the fretted Grail no toll could ransom out of time: a tandem soul
me everywhere did stalk
the proud and seasoned hunter snared, undone
I flew the stairs
unnerved, heart-plundered so, as to declare me fetching!
kindle-snug and shrine remote
refined this mined, this treasured pairing
he was bound away from me
his hewn disguise
all was ruin: a marriage cleft
tucked and stretched the raveled edges of our lives together
the searing trek across self-immolation land
herein lies the becoming of my life, my history
Do you see what I mean about the archaic flavor of the language, how it transports us to another realm of meaning far beyond the mundane--a never-never land of legendary, fated love. Even the formalism of the opening line announces the poem's "once upon a time" quality: "This is a memory . . ." That is not how we introduce a real reminiscence. In real life we say, " I remember, . . ." or "Let me tell you how . . ."
Another striking element of the poem is that it has so many memorable lines. If you have read it several times (as I hope you have--poems are not for skimming, but for wallowing in), then you probably have been taken hold of by certain lines.
Some of the ones that I keep hearing are
This is a memory: . . .
I'd left off seeking, eschewed involvement, disparaged adventure
a slackened string somewhere went snap, pulled taut and singing
here it was, the fretted Grail
herein lies the becoming of my life, my history
But two in particular stand out in my mind: one unnerved, heart-plundered so, as to declare me fetching!; and I'd never trusted the idea of being loved before the chase.
One reason such lines stick with us is that they are rhythmically powerful. Poetic rhythm is, after all, a mnemonic device. It's a large part of why oral literature is able to survive through hundreds of years of retelling. Another reason these lines follow us is that the images they embody are so precise, so effective and evocative. They captivate our imagination and our emotions, not just our ears.
Believe me, it is quite extraordinary for one poem to chalk up so many memorable lines. Lowndes' phrasing and her imagery are fresh, the rhythm of her lines is unforgettable, her descriptions are precise and charming.
The allusions in the poem are natural and unforced--many of them almost certainly not even conscious. And yet they are powerfully evocative, so that behind what is, after all, a familiar, ordinary story, we catch the enchanting glimmer of legend.
If you have read and reread this poem, I am pretty sure that you have been captivated by it. It really does cast a spell, don't you think?
But now it's time for another break. I do have some other things to say about "Song for a Seeker," as I promised in the first part of this article, but I don't want my wearying pedantry to undermine your delight in the poem.
*The next two articles in this series about "Song for a Seeker" are "Why an Autobiographical Poem Is NOT Autobiography" and "Literary Criticism Is About Analyzing and Understanding Literature, NOT About Criticizing It." If you would like to return to the first article in this series, "Analysis of Poetic Strategies in a Free Verse Poem by Rebecca Henry Lowndes, click here.