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The Earrings: The Poem as Prediction

Written by

Albert Goldbarth
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In her bravura dramatic monologue "The Triumph of Life: Mary Shelley" Lisel Mueller has her eponymous speaker say to the future—that is, to us—"I was not your Cassandra."

The claim of course is about the nineteen-year-old's famously wunderkind novel Frankenstein, and the idea is that (despite its seeming prescience of our own hot-button topics: cloning, test-tube babies, the promise and peril of science) Mary had no intention to prophesy. Instead, "I only wanted to write / a tale to tremble by," and any predictory accuracy was "[b]y accident." Mueller sees the novel more as a working out of its author's personal hauntedness—and surely Mary had deaths enough accumulate around her even before the sea tore Percy's body out of this world.

I like it that way. I mean I like how writing sometimes resonates with the future through a kind of implicit empathy, and not through the conscious effort that H. G. Wells invested in The Shape of Things to Come (amazing though it is), or through the kind of foreboding that knowingly powers George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (although they've both "come true" with a version of [very depressing] precision).

But I'm thinking more of the way the Rubik's-cube twists of the bodies of ancient Egyptian gods on tomb walls establish a kinship with the early cubist explorations of Braque and Picasso: it's not so much an arrow directed unerringly into the future as it is a two-way seam of community running along the lining of time. The way that John Donne's poetry suddenly sounds out as contemporary, centuries after its original languishment. The way that Tristram Shandy calls over two hundred years to James Joyce's Ulysses (and then to the work of Kenneth Koch). "During Melville's childhood," Andrew Delblanco says in a recent chunky biography, "the rhythm of American life was closer to medieval than to modern"; and yet, as a review of that book puts it, "Though Melville had been born and died in the nineteenth century, Moby Dick was the work of a twentieth-century imagination."

Charles Dickens started work on Bleak House in 1851. If you're like me and don't spend all of your free time romping through the fields of etymology, you too may startle at suddenly stumbling on "ganglion" in those 900-plus pages. Like, what?—did he make a quick trip in his time chaise, and return with a shiny copy of this month's Scientific American, set on appropriating its language? "Refrigerator" is here too: not in the sense of a kitchen appliance, but still...a frisson volts across my spine. (For a thousand more reasons than this, it's a glorious book. Bill Matthews says, in "Le Quarte Saisons, Montreal, 1979," "I read Bleak House / a third time, slowly, fondly.")

Dickens, Meville, Mary Shelley...something in the nineteenth century seems to set a tiny crystal ball in the heads of certain writers. When Wordsworth stares out dolefully at London's silhouette and frets at its burgeoning changes—the rise of the factory system and market economy; the end of cyclical time; the degradation of child labor; the first industrial pollution; and the rest—it's almost as if his gaze is so intense, he can see it all unfold like gritted, sooty origami into the centuries ahead, until it is 2006 for him. No wonder he's so despondent.

I like to teach his daffodils poem, "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud." For one thing, it's a terrific simple example of connotation at work: we only understand the poem if we understand the difference between the negative "lonel[iness]" (line 1) and the positive "solitude" (line 22). The intervening daffodils, of course, are what alchemize one state into the other. Or rather, his recollection of the daffodils. And so it's a terrific poem, too, for teaching the distinction between a subject (here, the joyous encounter with nature) and a theme (the healing use we can make of a memory).

What's more astounding, though, is the way the structure embodies time. We see immediately the equal weight of all four stanzas: each, six lines; each, having the same clear rhyme scheme; each, composed in iambic tetrameter. They're like four solid units—like bricks, let's say, stacked one upon another, and of exactly equal weight. Except...the first three stanzas occur in the past (when the flowers were first encountered); then there's a break (a day? a decade?) and the final stanza, now in the present, contentedly remembers—contentedly holds in itself—the fullness of that encounter.

How deft! Through its structure alone, the poem is savvily showing us how a single unit of memory used well can be the equivalent of three units of original experience. That's not only lovely and sturdy, but it's a premonition of twenty-first-century research into the link between immediate perception and its storage and retrieval. Still submicrotweezering neural patterns inside the brain, we're busily attempting to explain this model that Wordsworth provided 180 years ago.

And then there's Margaret Cavendish. In a book of mine called Pieces of Payne, I mention Ray Cummings' science-fantasy bonbon-of-a-novelette, The Girl in the Golden Atom. Its stalwart scientist-hero shrinks himself to such ethereal size, he can enter an atom (a "golden atom"—in his mother's wedding ring), and there he finds an entire cosmos, and a beautiful maiden in need of rescue, and ne'er-do-well villains, etc. This was heady stuff in 1919: Niels Bohr wouldn't win his Nobel Prize for describing the orbiting of electrons around the nucleus until 1922. And even so, Cummings isn't quite a seer. His divinations follow Einstein's published paper of 1905: it offered "proof that atoms do indeed exist." And Cummings (who once worked as an assistant to Thomas Edison) "kept up" with the science buzz of the times.

But Margaret Cavendish! In her poem "Of Many Worlds in This World," she conjectures for us that "atoms four, a world can make," and that "Millions of those atoms may be in / The head of one small, little, single pin." This is her language, this is her vision—in 1668. (If only my local weatherman had forecasts so spot-on.)

There I was, age seventeen, aquiver with buying a pair of thrift shop earrings for Phyllis—whose six-month wan affection I would describe with words like "sublime" and "eternal"—and there was Margaret Cavendish, four hundred years before me, and yet vibrating within my cells, in harmonic resonance, as I floated the size of a speck through the wheels of love, as I drifted from crazy world to world, as I put down my cash on the counter and fell through the elements, fell headlong through the opening dots of the universe.