The Seven Ages Summary
Louise Glück is one of the best-known American poets writing today; her work has received numerous awards, and she has also received several honorary degrees, has been selected as judge for numerous national and international contests, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and PEN. She is an essayist as well as a poet and has written a provocative series of essays on the nature of poetry, Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry (1994).
A native New Yorker, Glück was educated at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College and has held a number of prestigious teaching posts at Williams College, the University of California at Berkeley, Harvard, Brandeis, and elsewhere. She has been an important voice in American poetry since her first book, Firstborn, was published in 1968. Her style is a distinctive mingling of the personal and the mythic, presented in free verse or experimental patterns. Her spare language and careful attention to sound, combined with her falling rhythms, provide a sense of closure and give weight to her words.
Glück’s poetry resists easy analysis but rewards careful reading, and her latest book, The Seven Ages, is no exception. A poet who has resisted the current vogue of metrically exact formalism as well as the postmodern flatness of effect and difficult wordplay, Glück is not classifiable—her work is not like anyone else’s, not even enough for critics to assign her tentatively to a shelf. Her work is based on her life, but her newer work is not confessional or even, in a sense, personal. Rather, it is myth-haunted and even abstract. Her style is sparse, though not quite minimalist; rather, its distant feminine voice is archaic and oracular. As her work has developed over the decades, her voice has become more disembodied and impersonal. Her first poems (in Firstborn) were criticized by some for being confessional in the manner of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, but even these had a reserve that has become more and more distinct. Glück’s poetry from the onset makes a claim for the visionary as an essential element of poetic statement, and therefore, the personal tends to dissolve into the mythic. No one would be likely to suggest that the poems of The Seven Ages are confessional; they hide as they reveal.
The Seven Ages, Glück’s eleventh book of poems, is filled with summer poems, but they are not light reading. Earlier books were more self-consciously mythic, taking subjects and figures from Greek mythology and from the Bible and grafting elements of contemporary life onto them. These poems use the old stories, particularly the family myth, more indirectly. They have an intense stillness, are deep rather than broad, and take the reader on a spiritual search at the height of summer. Although they focus on women at various ages, they give the perspective of a woman of fifty looking at her life from middle age, remembering earlier experiences and interpreting them in the light of what she now knows. They are an analysis of her history and a coming to terms with what inevitably follows. In many ways they may remind the reader of Wallace Stevens’s work, not only for their reimagining of the seasonal imagery but also for the intensity of their concentration and for their tone that combines celebration and elegy.
The seasons have always been a major commanding presence in Glück’s work, as have times of day; her collection The Wild Iris, which won the Pulitzer prize, uses morning and evening as its organizing principle but is filled with seasonal imagery. The Seven Ages is inhabited by two main figures, the speaker and her sister, whom she watches grow up. The summer of the book has all the suggestions of the season, ripening, progress toward decay, idleness, sensuousness, heat, stillness, and a sense of summer vision. The center of summer, fully aware of itself, prepares for the coming, less hospitable seasons. “The Sensual World” begins
I call to you across a monstrous river or chasm
to caution you, to prepare you.
Earth will seduce you, slowly, imperceptibly,
subtly, not to say with connivance.
I was not prepared: I stood in my grandmother’s kitchen,
holding out my glass. Stewed plums, stewed apricots—
the juice poured off into the glass of ice.
And the water added, patiently, in small increments,
the various cousins discriminating, tasting
with each addition—
aroma of summer fruit, intensity of concentration:
the colored liquid turning gradually lighter, more radiant,
more light passing through it.
Delight, then solace. . . .
The speaker warns an unnamed addressee of the illusion of the sensual world, its addictive power and its ultimate abandonment. The world, the lover, nourishes and feeds on the beloved, and ultimately “. . . it will feed you, it will ravish you/ it will not keep you alive.” The indeterminate “you” that dominates some of these poems adds authority—you the reader, you the figure in the speaker’s life, you who are all of us.
I caution you as I was never cautioned:/ you will never let go, you will never be satiated./ You will be damaged and scarred, you will continue to hunger.
The child of the poem, tasting the distilled essence of summer, grows to the older woman who remembers it, without losing the desire for the physical world. This is a secular sacrament, the tasting of the fruit, and the longing it engenders is never to be surpassed or lost, despite the limits life imposes. In fact, these poems are filled with secular sacraments, ritual ways of marking a harmony or unity with the physical world. Often these attempts to bridge the abyss between body and soul show only the impenetrability of that boundary and the intensity of the longing to cross it. They also show the earth as the grounding of the sacred: Whatever there is of deity must be read and understood through the earth.
The Seven Ages is filled with fruit—peach, quince, apricot, plum—suggesting the delights of the senses and their inevitable decline. Flowers fulfill a similar function, and Glück is known for her lush floral imagery; the garden image is predominant in many of her most frequently anthologized poems. (Characteristically, she uses well-known fruit but lesser-known plants and flowers with many-syllabled, redolent names: lisanthus, mertensia, chionodoxa, penstemon.) The flowers take such life in the poems that the reader wants to research them. Again, the work of Wallace Stevens comes to mind, particularly in the poems ofHarmonium (1923) in which the physical world is both mourned and celebrated, and in which the fruit and flowers are evoked as a kind of compensation for death.
Glück’s metaphysics are always read through the physical world, in this book and others, but God ghosts the poems. The situations in the narratives are open-endedly allegorical, so that their meanings are arguable but nevertheless suggestive of immanence. The language often suggests the sacred, though it is applied to the natural. “Quince Tree” begins
We had, in the end, only the weather for a subject.
Luckily, we lived in a world with seasons—
we felt, still, access to variety:
darkness, euphoria, various kinds of waiting.
The speaker ponders the separation of the past, “lost to us as referent,/ lost as image, as narrative.” She asks what the past was, what it contained, then continues
In the end, we didn’t need to ask. Because
we felt the past; it was, somehow,
in these things, the front lawn and the back lawn,
suffusing them, giving the little quince tree
a weight and meaning almost beyond enduring.
Utterly lost and yet strangely alive, the whole of our human existence—
The past revitalizing the presence, and the invisible, unnameable force by which this occurs, are celebrated: “In its grandeur and splendor, the world/ was finally present.” It is the constant awareness of death that brings the world’s beauty close.
This collection more than any of Glück’s others seems to be about desire, about longing. The desire is physical and metaphysical; the speaker looks to the natural world for truths that will be satisfying. If she never finds true closure, if she only finds temporary satisfactions that contain in them the stimulus for deeper longings, these lesser epiphanies are persuasive and point toward greater ones. In “Screened Porch” the speaker looks to the natural world for enlightenment, and in a sense she finds it:
We sat on our terraces, our screened porches,
as though we expected to gather, even now,
fresh information or sympathy. The stars
glittered a bit above the landscape, the hills
suffused still with a faint retroactive light.
Darkness. Luminous earth. We stared out, starved for knowledge,
and we felt, in its place, a substitute:
indifference that appeared benign.
The watchers merely projected “onto the glowing hills/ qualities we needed” but the results were the same as if the gift had come from God:
And our intense need was absorbed by the night
and returned as sustenance.
Glück’s work does not answer the question of where longing and its satisfaction ultimately come from, but simply describes this very human desire, expressed as experienced by a middle-aged woman, and shows her attempts to find her world sufficient. However, the metaphysical is present, evasive but luminous, throughout the poem. Indeed the last dreamlike, open poem suggests its mystery. “Fable” is the shortest poem in the book, and it does not explain itself.
Then I looked down and saw
the world I was entering, that would be my home.
And I turned to my companion, and I said Where are we?
And he replied Nirvana.
And I said again But the light will give us no peace.
Nirvana is the other world, the opposite of the sensual one—but its offerings are obscure and perhaps frightening. This book is full of opposites which the poet longs to reconcile: mind and body, summer and winter, youth and age, life and death. Since the opposites can never be reconciled, the poet seems to be looking for some larger container in which they may coexist. This search sets fire to the poet’s life and gives a metaphysical edge to poems steeped in the natural world.
Glück’s poetry is unusual in contemporary work for her consistent voice, visionary, mythic, and personal at once, and for the layers which allow even the casual reader a glimpse of her world, but repay rereading and study. She presents a feminine world, yet much of its content is relevant to men also—the femininity is in the angle of her vision, the kinds of nature images that convey her experience. She uses the myths partly as Jungian archetypes and partly as an idiosyncratic binary symbol system that evokes a wide spectrum of responses. The authority of the clear, distinctive voice commands attention as it speaks for the importance of the life journey it chronicles as well as for the significance of poetry itself as guide and balm.
Sources for Further Study
The American Poetry Review 30 (January/February, 2001): 28.
The Christian Science Monitor, April 26, 2001, p. 17.
The New York Times Book Review 106 (May 13 2001): 24.