“Live like the velvet mole”

A name from the poetic anthology mentioned in this post of mine has surfaced in a comment to a post at Language Hat: Elinor Wylie.

Velvet Shoes was the only poem by Wylie I could recall. In the comment linked above, Jonathan Morse quoted the first stanza of The Eagle and the Mole.

It seemed well composed but not particularly original: the poet as a proud, lonely bird is an ancient trope. The last six lines of the poem, however, turned out different — striking:

Live like the velvet mole:
Go burrow underground.

And there hold intercourse
With roots of trees and stones,
With rivers at their source,
And disembodied bones.

I am tempted to quote Edna St. Vincent Millay’s opinion of another poem, Beauty, the opening piece of Wylie’s first collection, Nets to Catch the Wind (1921):

Nets to Catch the Wind begins badly. The opening poem is perhaps the worst poem in the book. It is called “Beauty.” Of its twelve lines the first two are commonplace, the entire second stanza is awkward and dull, and the beginning of the last stanza is commonplace. Then, like a sword from ambush, into the sleepy consciousness of the strolling reader bites the sharp, cold wonder of the final phrase,

Enshrine her and she dies, who had
The hard heart of a child….

It is with beating heart, as the old chronicles have it, that the reader, shaken by this first encounter, fares onward into the book, prepared for anything….

Going back to The Eagle and the Mole, the first thing I thought of after reading its last stanza was Wordsworth’s “With rocks, and stones, and trees” from A slumber did my spirit seal… It is said that Wylie drew extensively on Shelley’s poetry – a different kind of Romantic verse – but here, the Wordsworth connection is unmistakable and hardly accidental.

Wylie’s “disembodied bones” also made me think of Yeats’ Sixteen Dead Men, where the last line is “That converse bone to bone.” This link is tenuous but Yeats did appreciate The Eagle and the Mole.

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