The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.1 (2003) 235-262
[Access article in PDF]
W. G. Sebald's Romantic Art of Memory
All the new thinking is about loss." So wrote Robert Hass to open his now widely anthologized poem of 1979, "Meditation at Lagunitas." But neither the poem that followed nor the thinking that it engaged proved to be so new. Many commentators have noted this poem's reliance on Romantic models. And when Hass completes his opening idea, "In this it resembles all the old thinking," we are surely invited to recall the extensive poetry of loss that was British Romanticism. 1 If the topic of this issue were afterlives of Romanticism in the 1970s, one might well have centered a discussion on this graceful lyric, written as it was less than two decades after Frederick Pottle's announcement of the death the Romantic sensibility in a famous essay of 1952. 2 It is a poem, like A. R. Ammons "Corson's Inlet" (1965), that seems to mimic the mode, tone, and structure of the sort of verse meditation in a landscape that had come in those days to be called "the Greater Romantic lyric," the poem that conversationally describes a landscape, offers a personal meditation, and then represents the scene in a new light. 3
Hass leaves the initial part of the out-in-out [End Page 235] structure largely implicit. He begins with a reflection that is prompted by the California landscape suggested in the poem's title. And as often happened with the landscape reflections of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Shelley, Hass's reflection is cast in terms of contemporary philosophy, especially skeptical philosophy.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch, is by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world of
undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
Working through his reflection on the idea of words as afterlives, and especially recalling the vividness of certain memories associated with the woman he loves, the speaker of Hass's meditation finds a vivid persistence that is not to be gainsaid by theoretical doubts.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.
I heard Hass read this poem in the late 1970s, and I found it mysterious and moving. I was at that time unable to see its embeddedness in Vietnam War–period Romanticism. Nor could I register its distinctive brand of poetic diction, self-consciously marked: "After a while I understood that, / Talking this way, everything dissolves: justice, / pine, hair, woman, you and I." And I certainly did not grasp how its representation of the bodily might figure as a sign of things to come. Not that this representation is so clear: What do we make, in the end, of that apposition between the moments when the body is as numinous as words and the days that are the good flesh continuing? Just what kind of loss is being compensated here, and how?
Hass's first book of poetry was called Field Guide. One of Seamus Heaney's important early volumes, also of the 1970s, was called Field Work, [End Page 236] and the respective titles mark a difference between these two roughly contemporary poets in the Wordsworthian line. Hass's poetry—"At Stinson Beach" and "Songs to Survive the Summer" would be other examples—is identified with the field of leisure, Heaney's with the field of labor, and especially labor metaphorized as "opening ground" (to draw on the title of his recently issued collected poems). Heaney's poetic transformation of the characteristically...