“Life, like a marble block, is given to all. . .” (Edith Wharton)

The erotic moment

The erotic moment

Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1921 for her novel The Age of Innocence (the first woman to be so honored). If you want to see the single most erotic moment in all of filmdom, watch Martin Scorsese’s 1993 film of the novel with Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer taking off their gloves in the back of a carriage. Yep. Their gloves. You don’t have to get naked to be erotic.

Edith Wharton wrote poetry for which she is not well-known. One has to be careful not to try to find more in a poem than is there. For example, in her poem, “Life,” Wharton speaks of a sculptor working with a marble block who “shatters it in bits to mend a wall.” Wharton and Robert Frost were contemporaries living in the same part of the country and publishing poetry in the same journals and magazines (“Life” was published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1894). Frost’s “Mending Wall” was published in his collection North of Boston in 1914. So it’s obvious that Wharton’s “shatter[ing] it in bits to mend a wall” is not an allusion to Frost’s poem—likely as that might seem upon first reading.

By the way, the point of my writing this is not eroticism. That was just my “hook” to get you interested (that’s what many teachers of composition in universities call an irrelevant but interesting beginning to an essay). But you might as well fantasize about Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer. . . No, you’ll be irretrievably distracted.

So on with the point of my writing.

When I first stumbled upon Wharton’s poem, I thought I understood all of the allusions. “Mending Wall,” by Robert Frost. Parian, the finest Greek marble, so white and flawless that it’s almost translucent. And Lesbia’s gaze. We all know what that means. Well, no, most of us don’t, I think.

I gave up a long time ago trying to piece together the meanings and origins of the poetry by Catullus which is the basis of all its ideas about romantic love we carry around in our heads. You know, Lesbians, daughters of Sappho. I’ve intended for years to read the scholarship on the matter. As nearly as I can tell, Catullus was a man who used the pseudonym Lesbia to write poetry to the woman he loved, so it seems as if the poetry is one woman writing to another. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I do know that Edith Wharton was not a lesbian. She didn’t like lesbians, according to the New York Review of Books.

Oh, dear. Perhaps my “hook” about eroticism was more to the point of what I want to say than I thought. Never mind. I’ll get there. So the allusion to mending a wall was not to Robert Frost, and I don’t have any idea what Wharton’s allusion to Lesbia means.

The poem.

“Life,” by Edith Wharton
Life, like a marble block, is given to all,
A blank, inchoate mass of years and days,
Whence one with ardent chisel swift essays
Some shape of strength or symmetry to call;
One shatters it in bits to mend a wall;
One in a craftier hand the chisel lays,
And one, to wake the mirth in Lesbia’s gaze,
Carves it apace in toys fantastical.

But least is he who, with enchanted eyes
Filled with high visions of fair shapes to be,
Muses which god he shall immortalize
In the proud Parian’s perpetuity,
Till twilight warns him from the punctual skies
That the night cometh wherein none shall see.

The first observation should be that this writing borders on the sentimental, from which Wharton’s language began almost immediately to evolve. The Age of Innocence, for example, has not one sentimental sentence. It is unadorned storytelling, whose style encompasses satire and unflinching critique of the upper-class society in which Wharton grew up. (See below for a sample of the writing, in case you’ve forgotten.)

She lost her innocence in Paris

She lost her innocence in Paris

I don’t mean “Life” is sentimental except that it follows conventions of 19th-century romanticism with its dependence on Greek literary allusions and the like. The language seems stilted compared with the voice Wharton developed for her fiction. But that’s not what I meant to write about either.

So on with the point of my writing now that I’ve done my best imitation of the literature professor I never was.

“The night cometh wherein none shall see.” Death, almost certainly.

The professor in my undergraduate Shakespeare class said all poetry is about “kissin’ or killin’.” He said that could be “lovin’ or dyin’,” but it’s not nearly so poetic.

That is, however, the version I’m using. “Life” could be seen (obviously) as a poem about figuring out one’s life before it’s too late, before one is dyin‘. Wharton was only 32 when she wrote it, so some frustrated old man might ask, “What could she have known about such things at her age?”

Exactly. That’s why the poem sounds so sentimental, doesn’t have the clarity of Wharton’s mature writing.

However, even in Wharton’s youthful (that is, trying too hard to create a poetic image) language, the lines “with enchanted eyes / Filled with high visions of fair shapes to be, / Muses which god he shall immortalize” give me pause. I rather expect I’m one of those who has spent enough time musing about what god I might immortalize that I’ve frittered away my time. It’s most likely too late for me to learn to be a poet.

On the other hand, when a young man whom I have known for 20 years (since he was 10) needed an “adult” in whom to confide the secret of his life, he came to me. Perhaps we could do little better than to muse on immortalizing Ἔλεος, Eleos, the goddess of pity, mercy, and compassion. One ancient Greek source says that she “among all the gods [is] the most useful to human life in all its vicissitudes.”

Eleos, goddess of mercy

Eleos, goddess of mercy

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From The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton.
Book 2, Chapter XXV.
The day, according to any current valuation, had been a rather ridiculous failure; he had not so much as touched Madame Olenska’s hand with his lips, or extracted one word from her that gave promise of farther opportunities. Nevertheless, for a man sick with unsatisfied love, and parting for an indefinite period from the object of his passion, he felt himself almost humiliatingly calm and comforted. It was the perfect balance she had held between their loyalty to others and their honesty to themselves that had so stirred and yet tranquillized him; a balance not artfully calculated, as her tears and her falterings showed, but resulting naturally from her unabashed sincerity. It filled him with a tender awe, now the danger was over, and made him thank the fates that no personal vanity, no sense of playing a part before sophisticated witnesses, had tempted him to tempt her. Even after they had clasped hands for good-bye at the Fall River station, and he had turned away alone, the conviction remained with him of having saved out of their meeting much more than he had sacrificed.