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  • The Islands of Poetry; the Poetry of Islands
  • Rajeev S. Patke

An island, let it be, say, three or four hundred to a thousand miles or so from the nearest habitations of humanity and well out of the usual sea trade routes, preferably uncharted, fairly commodious, say thirteen miles by four, of a climate whose extremes are not of a pitiless severity, an island which nature's bounty has endowed with shade, fresh water, shelter and food fit for human consumption. And there —our recluse.

Every seaman, every wanderer on the deep, has hearkened to the decoy of that ideal island.

(de la Mare 16)

Islands as Gardens

Islands, like poetry, may be described in Marianne Moore's words as "imaginary gardens" with "real toads" in them (Moore 74). They have long served writers as pretext for a unique spectrum of conjurations, ranging from the exhortatory humanism of John Donne's Devotions, which supports the notion that "No man is an island, entire of itself" (Donne 538) to the melancholic eschatalogy of Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning," which wonders if the entire planet we live on is not an "island solitude, unsponsored, free" (Stevens 70).1 In poetic —no less than ordinary —geography, land and water define themselves in relational terms as either that which surrounds, or that which is surrounded by, its Other. Islands are to oceans the converse of what [End Page 177] land is to lakes. W. H. Auden once remarked that if it took longer than an afternoon to circumvent a body of water —for instance Lake Michigan or Lake Baikal —he would rather call it "an estranging Sea." As for islands, he found it easier to think of them as lakes "turned inside out" (Auden 208). Poetry that uses islands as pretext raises a host of questions about their role in the psychic economy of human experience and writing: not simply the question of what it means to travel to an island, or to live on one, or to leave one behind, or to return to one, but of what it means to be turned inside out by one. This last question has exercised a special fascination for poets and novelists.

The Islander as Crusoe

One of the most familiar analogies that links land to peoples is that an island is to the mainland what the individual is to the community. One way of illustrating this parallel is to conduct a quick roll call of the community of Robinson Crusoes with which the literary imagination peoples islands. This figuration is a way of naming, and knowing, an island as the castaway does, one who is a type of the self not only undone by an island but learning to regard himself as one. This may be illustrated through the differences refracted by islands between the historically authentic Alexander Selkirk, who got stranded on one for four years and four months, Daniel Defoe's fictive Robinson Crusoe, who could leave his island only after "four and twenty years, two months and 19 days" (Defoe 302), J. M. Coetzee's variation, which takes the form of a Mr. Cruso who would rather die than cease "losing himself in the contemplation of the wastes of water and sky" on his island (Coetzee 38), and "Crusoe in England" as imagined by Elizabeth Bishop.2

Bishop's bored old creature finds, on getting back to England, that he has only exchanged one island for another, and made himself poorer into the bargain. This morose islander will not fail to remind us of yet another difficult homecoming, in which a transformed Lemuel Gulliver is compelled "to behold [his] figure often in a glass, and thus, if possible, habituate [him] self, by time, to tolerate the sight of a human [End Page 178] creature" (Swift 316). Bishop's Crusoe begins by providing all the reasons why his island leaves him miserable. Its many little volcanoes and waterspouts offer a variegated monotony which is "not much company" (1977: 11). He is full of self-pity for being marooned on an island that he does not remember choosing. But gradually the poem turns this moroseness into a positive feeling: "I felt a deep affection...


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