Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Solstice and Holly

We got about two feet of what St. Francis called “Brother Snow” last night, just in time to welcome the year's shortest day. When the world turns white everyone is reassured by any color remaining, which must explain why evergreens figure so prominently in homes and churches this time of year. My particular favorite is holly, partly because of the unusual form of the glossy leaves and partly because of the extra of its red berries. The plant was sacred to the Druids and associated with ceremonies for the winter solstice. The property of holly leaves to resist dying in cold weather puts it with other evergreens like ivy and the conifers that offer steadying remembrances in what French poets referred to as “la morte saison.”

Among Henry VIII’s poems is one about holly, focusing once again on its enduring green as a way to suggest the permanence of love in adversity.


Green groweth the holly, so doth the ivy
Though winter blasts blow never so high,
Green groweth the holly.


Clearly the pre-eminent color of the Renaissance in England was green, and we can think of other examples besides the lovely song “My Lady Greensleeves” where it appears. That tune was adapted for a well-known carol, almost as familiar as “The Holly and the Ivy,” a text that sounds as though it could have been written by Henry as well, considering its references to the running deer and the crown. But the origins of this carol are uncertain. In any case, here is a good rendition of it:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7eHtDtZ7hs


At some point after I met Holly Stevens (in New Haven, around 1977, I believe), it occurred to me to wonder why her poet father had given her that name. Its similarity to “holy” is obviously one answer, but I also remember seeing the holly tree planted (shortly after Holly's birth) outside the house on Asylum Avenue in Hartford, where the Stevens family had lived. So the tree itself mattered to the poet, at least enough to give his daughter this name. One of his best-known poems is “The Snow Man,” an austere meditation giving us the concept of the “mind of winter,” the only sort of consciousness equipped with enough fortitude to contemplate the nothingness of bare, unrelieved reality and not be crushed by it. Other operations of consciousness (and other poems) could bring into the wintry mind the green of the imagination (in Stevens, imagination is most often associated with that color) and if green, why not an evergreen? So there is a figurative aspect to the name he gave to his only child, a name epitomizing his own hopes as a human being and as a poet.

As for Holly herself, she was a forthright, likable person, reserved but steady, and a respected member of the literary community in New Haven during the years when I lived there. I recall going out to her house in Guilford, not far from Long Island Sound. On the walls of her sitting room hung several of the 20th-century French paintings her father had collected (bought sight unseen, by transatlantic order placed with an agent), including the still life he took as the point of departure for his poem “Angels Surrounded by Paysans.” The painters were not famous names; the only one I recognized (and only just) was the Breton (later, Paris-based) artist Pierre Tal-Coat. Nevertheless, to see images that had fired Stevens’s desire to write was impressive and even moving.

Holly had had a period of rebellion from her parents, marrying a man they didn’t like and meanwhile working in a wartime factory—her reasons quite defensible, I’d say. But after Stevens’s death, she became the curator of his literary legacy, editing posthumous collections of his works and sorting out his archive, which she placed with the Huntington-Hartford Museum in San Marino, California. The Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale might have seemed a more fitting repository to most observers, but Stevens was a Harvard man, and in those years the Beinecke couldn’t compete with other institutions interested in acquiring poets’ papers. Years ago I gave a reading at the Huntington Museum and had the chance to see a few of the Stevens holdings. It’s easy to laugh at bardolatry, whether the bard in question is Shakespeare or other poets of unusual stature. Still, there’s no getting around the strange sensation stirred by seeing a holograph copy of a poem or letter written by a poet you revere. I felt as much when I saw one of Keats’s letters at the Beinecke. “This living hand…” as he says in a memorable poem.

If readers can absorb a huge shift of literary scale then I will mention the fact that about two decades ago I deposited my own archive at the Beinecke, the transfer negotiated by Patricia Willis, who may be known to you as the Marianne Moore scholar and editor of Moore's works. I no longer had room to store the two dozen boxes accumulated and began to be afraid that things might be lost in the frequent moves that characterized my life, then and continue to do so. The papers will be safer there than any place I can think of. A safe haven in New Haven’s ivied university. That’s my view of a library: as a protective greenhouse where the leaves and folios don’t wither, even if they’re not holly or ivy or spruce or pine. An alternative to the Snow Man's "nothing that is.”

2 comments:

Sarah Sarai said...

What a lovely essay! Thank you!

Susan M. Schultz said...

I seem to recall your meeting Holly S in 1977, yes. Very fine essay, Alfred. I only wish that the phrase "safe haven" did not now seem to demand "for terrorists" to complete it. Ouch.