Alice Oswald’s Universals

There are poems in Falling Awake (2016) that use capitalized words like Light, Joy, Patience. For a poet who often refers to “classical” themes — see her poem “about” Orpheus in this book — this should not surprise us. What’s surprising is the tone; however subtle, it does not seem to be ironic.

“Sunday Ballad” begins:

A questioner called Light appeared,
with probe and beam
began to search the room
where two lay twined in bed.

The poem moves nimbly through four more stanzas. There are memorable phrases: the couple awakes “as weak as eggs”; their bodies “felt less like age than air.” Their dreamy state provokes a response from “two trees” which “made less of leaves than sound // as if to prove them wrong.” The poem ends: “and as they dressed the dust / flew white and silent through the house.”

The touch is light but firm. The questioner called Light is a questioner, and this “Sunday Ballad” depends not on the dualism of right and wrong but on the relativism anchored in the “universal” signaled by the capital “L” in Light. In this sense, Alice Oswald has touched on the world of Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” without indulging Stevens’s self-circling ironies. The world of lyric is always double (always aware of an original), and this poem, like Stevens’s, has a conversational subtlety.

Oswald’s “original” is not a result of book-reading, or at least it is more than that. The long tradition going back to Greek metaphysics allows for the “universal” beyond the relative, finite world. In the hands of a master, the “universals” signaled by capitalization do not arbitrarily lend their weight to DECIDING struggles of conscience and passion, though they do shed light on conscience and passion. The tree’s commentary is in the world of “as if”: Oswald’s world is the “real world” in which aging lovers, however pleased with themselves, rise in a commotion of dust of which they are momentarily unaware. The long tradition includes the “as if” of fiction and myth. There are true myths: myths that continue to respond to our questions. The capitalized universals of Light –and Joy and Patience– continue to help us write about the equivocities of human experience.

Sunday Ballad

A questioner called Light appeared,
with probe and beam
began to search the room
where two lay twined in bed.

whose intellect surpassing theirs
with no regard
for things half-dressed
accused them of old age

as weak as eggs they woke.
they thought their bodies
gleaming in the window-square
felt less like age than air

oh no not quite
in blue pedantic Light
two doors away two trees
made less of leaves than sound

as if to prove them wrong
described the wind
and as they dressed the dust
flew white and silent through the house