Collaborative Close Readings
Sycamore leaves — this is the first year I have ever seen leaves still on the trees at the end of November here. The leaves were scanned on a flat-bed scanner and the color heightened just slightly in GIMP.
In considering “Vespers,” I want to consider a few aspects of form. First, and most obviously, the language is not only formal, but business-like, even legalistic. With a couple of exceptions discussed below, the punctuation is conventional, as it would be in a business letter. As it approaches its climax, the language become passionate — but it is still framed in words such as discriminate and consequences.
Although the poem is free verse, consisting of 23 lines, many of the lines are in iambic feet (said to be the natural rhythm of English) and several lines are iambic pentameter, giving it, at the beginning, and the center, something of the feel of a blank verse sonnet. In the last lines, the lines become shorter. Many lines are enjambed, and many have caesurae (pauses within the line). Like a person breaking from a walk into a run, the poem picks up speed as the speaker argues her case.
A study of the pattern of pronouns is revealing. In the first fifteen lines, the speaker speaks of I, you, your, my. Suddenly, in line 16, she begins to speak for us.
you have a heart, in our understanding of
And further down, “you may not know / how much terror we bear…”
She has moved from speaking for herself, addressing an absentee landlord, to speaking for the human race, addressing God.
“Vespers,” the title of the poem, is not (as someone else noted), a prayer, but a form of worship service. It is communal prayer, the prayer raised by a congregation at the end of day, laying the day and all of its errors to rest, confessing sin and error, and placing trust and hope in God for the long dark night ahead. The “lucernal” psalms (psalms of light) are sung. Like the leader of evening prayer, the speaker of the poem speaks for all of us.
She has moved from concerns for a single crop of tomatoes to a broader view. God, she says, sees us all alike, living and dead, and does not understand our fear, our terror, as we see the dark approach. The “early darkness” takes on a triple meaning: the shortening days at the end of summer, the early winter in a harsh climate, and the approach of our own deaths.
Curiously, at the end, she seems to accept the responsibility for failure. Is this acceptance broad as well? If she is responsible for the tomato vines, is she accepting responsibility for life and death on a larger scale as well? Or, rather than acceptance, she merely recognizing that she feels the weight of it?
Finally, the matter of the colons: Andrea brought this up in a comment on Nadia’s post. I had been puzzling over them myself, and the comment made it clear. She’s right. At least for the first colon, a semicolon would be the conventional choice. Any English teacher would circle this colon with a red pen. Semicolons are used to separate two sentences that are closely related. In this case, the first sentence presents an argument, while the second sentence, introduced by a transition word [“but, however, in consequence, on the other hand,” your English teacher lists on the blackboard] presents a counter-argument.
What is the effect of that colon?
“All this belongs to you” is the argument. “On the other hand” sets up the transition to the counter-argument. Then there is a list: The speaker planted the seeds, she watched them sprout, and it was her heart that was broken.
Can it be that by using a colon, Glück is turning the counter-argument into a list that is introduced by the colon? A colon is often used to introduce a list. You make a general statement, then provide details.
If we read it the colon this way, not only does all “this” (the earth, the rain, the winds, the tomato vines, the twelve weeks of summer granted to better climates) belong to God, but also the speaker, her seeds, her joy in the sprouts, the blight, the black spot, her broken heart. It is all God’s territory.
The second colon seems to turn the conventional use of the colon on its head by providing first the details, then the generalization. At the end of a very long sentence, covering several lines, a sentence that increases in pace and intensity, from foreshadowing to terror, with vivid images of the spotted leaves and the red maple leaves falling (in August!), she bring it to a sudden halt with the colon, then: “I am responsible / for these vines.”
Perhaps the end of the poem is not, after all, acceptance, but an expression of terror or of anguish. I! All of this, this death, this blight, this oncoming darkness, and it is on my shoulders. “I am responsible…”
Sources: Although I mainly relied on my upbringing in the Episcopal Church for my understanding of the Vespers service, I also consulted the Wikepedia article “Vespers” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vespers.