April 4th: "Not Marble Nor the Gilded Monuments"

Did I say “every day”? Obviously I meant “every day unless I forget.” Oops! Anyway, this has been one of my very favorite love poems for a long time, by one of my favorite poets. He was a Librarian of Congress, and quite cute:

It’s funny, though–it’s a beautiful, sexy poem, but it’s more about the poet and his poems than the woman, isn’t it? It seems like a lot of love poems are that way. Flattering to receive because a great poet loves you, not because he’s written anything specific to YOU, really. Of course, that’s almost the point of this one. What do you think?

The title is a reference to Shakespeare’s Sonnet LV.

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“Not Marble Nor the Gilded Monuments”
by Archibald MacLeish

The praisers of women in their proud and beautiful poems,
Naming the grave mouth and the hair and the eyes,
Boasted those they loved should be forever remembered:
These were lies.

The words sound but the face in the Istrian sun is forgotten.
The poet speaks but to her dead ears no more.
The sleek throat is gone — and the breast that was troubled to listen:
Shadow from door.

Therefore I will not praise your knees nor your fine walking
Telling you men shall remember your name as long
As lips move or breath is spent or the iron of English
Rings from a tongue.

I shall say you were young, and your arms straight, and your mouth scarlet:
I shall say you will die and none will remember you:
Your arms change, and none remember the swish of your garments,
Nor the click of your shoe.

Not with my hand’s strength, not with difficult labor
Springing the obstinate words to the bones of your breast
And the stubborn line to your young stride and the breath to your breathing
And the beat to your haste
Shall I prevail on the hearts of unborn men to remember.

(What is a dead girl but a shadowy ghost
Or a dead man’s voice but a distant and vain affirmation
Like dream words most)

Therefore I will not speak of the undying glory of women.
I will say you were young and straight and your skin fair
And you stood in the door and the sun was a shadow of leaves on your shoulders
And a leaf on your hair —

I will not speak of the famous beauty of dead women:
I will say the shape of a leaf lay once on your hair.
Till the world ends and the eyes are out and the mouths broken
Look! It is there!

4 thoughts on “April 4th: "Not Marble Nor the Gilded Monuments"”

  1. I’ve forgotten where I heard it, but in or discussion of poetry, someone mentioned that they didn’t really like poetry because it is always so very much about the author, and only a little about the subject. I still enjoy reading it, but sometimes it is very clear that the author and clever word choice are the most important part.

    1. Exactly! And I don’t really mind self-involved poetry in general. In fact, part of what I love about a lot of poetry is the way it can focus on and capture an emotional experience or feeling. But when it’s a love poem it becomes irritating to me, because that’s a poem that is in fact SUPPOSED to be about something else, yet isn’t. And way too many relationships are actually like that, where it’s more about somebody’s own feelings and needs than it is about the other person.

  2. Mmmmm. I’ve not read a lot of modern love poetry – I wonder whether the self centredness of it compares. Because that’s a very good point, that a lot of the classical oeuvre is reflections from the male gaze, or the impact of the beloved upon the narrator, not about the beloved themselves.
    There’s a reason that my favourite (inasmuch as I have one) piece of verse on love is Khalil Gibran’s on Marriage.

    1. I would hope modern love poetry is better! But I’m way less likely to have read it in high school, which is when most of my poetry reading took place, unfortunately. My friend Ursula made the excellent point that pre-mid-20th-century love poetry was extremely influenced by a poetic tradition modelled after classical (ie Greek and Latin) works, which had certain conventions and tropes that just…are really focused on the narrator and his male gaze, as you say.
      Wow, I hadn’t seen that Khalil Gibran piece before, and it’s beautiful! I do think it’s really important to keep space for yourself and to recognize that you and your significant other can be different people and that that isn’t threatening, it’s something that’s a source of strength. And I’ve hardly ever seen the romance of THAT, of being two separate people who create, not one person, but a relationship, talked about in poetry.

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