(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Asa Bascomb is an eighty-two-year-old American poet living in a villa near the Italian town of Monte Carbone. Except for the fact that he is an expatriate, he resembles the American poet Robert Frost in several ways: He is from Vermont, he has unruly white hair, and he has received many international honors, though not the Nobel Prize. The story opens with him swatting hornets in his study and wondering why this greatest of all literary honors has been denied him.

The only other person living in his villa is Maria, his maid. His wife Amelia has been dead for ten years. Though one of his reasons for living in Italy is to avoid the publicity that would burden him in the United States, fans of his most popular book of poetry, The World of Apples, seek him out. Generally, though, his routine is simple and uninterrupted. He writes poetry in the morning; in the afternoon he takes a nap and walks to town to get his mail, which he then goes over at home. Several evenings a week, he plays backgammon with one of the locals.

Bascomb’s poetry is as simple and clear-cut as is his life. It has even been compared to Paul Cezanne’s paintings. Based exclusively on nostalgia, though, his poetry lacks vision and the impulsiveness that characterized the work of several American poets with whom he is often linked and who committed suicide (one drank himself to death).

The idyllic tenor of Bascomb’s life begins to crumble when his memory, the chief source of his poetry, begins to fail him in small ways. He cannot remember, for example, Lord Byron’s first name, and he cannot rest until he looks it up. A major difficulty soon presents itself. While on a sight-seeing tour with a Scandinavian admirer, he accidentally discovers a couple copulating in the woods. His memory of this event haunts him, and he is unable to rid his mind of the obscene thoughts that subsequently crowd into it. He goes to bed with his maid, Maria, but though this relieves his urges, it does not drive sex from his mind. Critically interrupting his desire for vision and the Nobel Prize, obscenity becomes the pivot and bane of his work and life. He starts writing obscene poems with literary titles and based on classical models, but he burns them at...

(The entire section is 918 words.)