Léonie Adams Essay - Critical Essays


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Léonie Adams’s poetic works are known for their almost obsessive formality. One frequent consequence of writing rhymed and formally metrical verse in English in the twentieth century was obscurity, and Adams’s poems are often difficult. This difficulty, along with her lack of the flamboyance or the controversy that characterized many twentieth century poets, resulted in her being referred to in a 1997 review as “the neglected Léonie Adams.” Another disadvantage suffered by the reputation of Adams’s poetry has been the tendency of critics to compliment her in terms that are ultimately disparaging, as when Allen Tate pronounced, “the fusion of her qualities brings her closer to [Thomas] Carew than to any other poet.” This comment, from Tate’s 1926 review of Those Not Elect, set an unfortunate example for future commentators on Adams, some of whom also found it easier to dismiss her with problematic comparisons than to read her difficult poems with an eye to understanding them.

Despite the tendency of critics to explain Léonie Adams by alluding to influences on her or by comparing her to other poets, her work is demonstrably original and often unique in its highly wrought brilliance. Although many of her passages are difficult, she remains one of the finest lyric poets of the twentieth century.

Those Not Elect

The title poem, which is the first poem in Those Not Elect, is a sixteen-line poem in four quatrains of fairly strict form. It begins:

Never, being damned, see Paradise. The heart will sweeten at its look; Nor hell was known, till Paradise Our senses shook.

This and the three succeeding stanzas follow the same pattern. The first line of each of the stanzas lacks a stated subject, unless the subject of each is, as seems likely, the title phrase, “Those Not Elect.” In each stanza, the first and third lines end with the same word, while the other lines rhyme. Each stanza begins with the word “never” and ends with a line having fewer than the four stresses of the first three lines. The title is a phrase contained in John Bunyan’s tract Reprobation Asserted: Or, The Doctrine of Eternal Election and Reprobation Promiscuously Handled (c. 1674), and the phrase refers to those who are reprobate, or damned.

This poem lists pleasures that should be denied to the damned but that evidently are not denied; thus there is a sense of comic futility in the putative assertion of a grim religious doctrine, and the poem’s voice becomes an ironic one. It is also highly musical, particularly the third quatrain:

Never fall dreaming on celestials, Lest, bound in a ruinous place, You turn to wander with celestials Down holy space.

These resonant and mellifluous lines belie their own warning. Surely “to wander with celestials/ Down holy space” does not sound so terrible. As often in Adams’s poetry, the reader must consider the music of the language as an essential component of its meaning. Although the poem at first appears to be in accord with a religious doctrine that has seemed to some cruel and unjust, the irony, the playful musicality and ellipticality, and the tone of the poem make it a gentle mockery of such uncompromising attitudes, and the “Never” that begins each stanza is quietly canceled.

Many of the works in this volume share characteristics illustrated by the first poem. Irony, ellipsis, and a strong reliance on musicality of language are, however, accompanied in several poems by imagery and symbolism that seem calculated to work on a subconscious level. Some poems are personal statements that achieve a certain directness. For example,...

(The entire section is 1655 words.)