The Blue Estuaries Essay - Critical Essays

Louise Bogan


Bogan’s earlier poems are obsessed with efforts to renounce romantic love because of the pain that it causes her as a woman and the restrictions that its subject matter imposed on her as a woman poet. A ringing anger and demonic intensity animate these brief lyrics. Sometimes Bogan adopts the persona or mask of female figures from myth and legend to augment her already powerful voice. Grief and rage against the tyranny of sexual passion resound in the voices of prophet (“Cassandra”), magician (“The Alchemist”), and sorceress, invoking spells to exorcise the demons. In the ironic “Ad Castitatem” (“I invoke you, Chastity”) and in “Second Song,” the speaker rejects love’s spell, attempting to disenchant herself by casting a spell of her own in the poet’s magical language of incantation.

In “Women,” Bogan criticizes her gender for not being adventurous (“Women have no wilderness in them”), for being overly sensitive and caring too much about others (“They hear in every whisper that speaks to them/ A shout and a cry./ As like as not, when they take life over their door-sills/ They should let it go by”). Although in later years Bogan remarked that she had changed her mind about the nature of women, but this early poem testifies to the frustrations of an ambitious young woman poet feeling keenly the restrictions of her gender in the early 1920’s.

By part 2 of The Blue Estuaries, the poet’s successful efforts at self-projection begin to give way to paranoid expressions of madness in an eerie, menacing universe whose duplicity is reflected in images of mirrors that hang in empty rooms and whose tragic inscrutability Bogan conveys in her virtuosic use of such universal female images as the “shell” and the “apple.” The duplicity in the outside world is matched by the double nature of human beings. In several of these poems, notably “Division,” “The Mark,” and “Summer Wish,” the demonic self is represented by masks that disfigure and by shadows that threaten to engulf and obliterate the individual. Later, Bogan captured this perception of the divided self in a prose passage in her journal as “the men and women in masks, halved queerly in their natures.” Throughout her poems, masks represent the dark self, overtaken by obsession.

The dark or demonic self (the “fiend”) is objectified in several of these earlier poems. In “Fiend’s Weather,” it is apostrophized as “embittered joy,” a “fiend in fair weather.” It is the fire out of control in “Feuer Nacht.” It is the voice of the murderous lover in “Song for a Slight Voice,” promising to give back the heart of the loved one as a bloody sacrifice bound with the strings of the viol. It is the suave voice of the witch urging Snow White to take the apple in “The Crossed Apple,” and it is the angry voice that mocks seventeenth century poet Henry Vaughan’s ecstatic vision of heaven in “I Saw Eternity.”

It is in the long dialogue poem “Summer Wish” that Bogan fully explores the pathological division of the self. To the autobiographical First Voice she assigns a detailed summary of the obsessions that have dominated the poems of the first two parts of The Blue Estuaries; namely, the agony of sexual betrayal, the...

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