Robert Penn Warren once said that he had started Audubon: A Vision, about the American naturalist and painter of native birds John James Audubon, in 1946-1947, when he was reading Audubon’s and other subhistories of early nineteenth century America. He was dissatisfied with it then and threw away what he had written. Twenty years later he suddenly remembered one line of his poem and immediately knew what he must do with it. The line he remembered is the only remnant of the original poem: “Was not the lost dauphin,” which begins the first poem in this seven-part meditation on the mystery of identity.
This odd disclaimer derives from a legend which arose after Audubon’s death that he was the lost Dauphin of France, son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. He was, in fact, the son of a sea captain and his mistress. The obvious contrast between the fantasized origin and his humble beginnings provides the first irony in the question of his identity.
That the poem is called a vision suggests that the insight it provides is only partly derived from the known facts of Audubon’s life. The first stanza ends with the assertion that he (Audubon) was only himself “and his passion—what/ Is man but his passion?” This suggests that the poem will inquire into the nature of Audubon’s obsession with wild nature, which was the wellspring of his art.
The rest of this first poem imagines the painter’s rapt attention to color, form, and the effects of light: how the great white heron looks black against a blood-red sunset, how the overflowing juice of blueberries that drool from a bear’s yawn highlights the surprising whiteness of its teeth, and how the bee’s wings glint like mica in the sunlight.
The second poem, entitled “The Dream He Never Knew the End Of,” is a narrative about Audubon asking for shelter in an isolated forest cabin and then being rescued, at the last moment, from the old...
(The entire section is 797 words.)