Since the age of the great Victorians ended, it has come to be taken for granted, in English, that narratives, particularly if they are of any length and complexity, will be in prose. By now the assumption seems to us to be part of a deepening condition, something that has become obvious, ineradicable, the manifestation of an unnamed emergent desire, like the development of language itself. Even so, it has not been quite the whole story. From the end of the nineteenth through the first half of the twentieth century, each generation, from Hardy and Masefield and Edgar Arlington Robinson to Stephen Benet and Archibald MacLeish and Robinson Jeffers, produced stories told in verse.
Some of Frost’s narrative poems are among his most typical and memorable. In recent years Louis Simpson has turned—quite “naturally,” as he makes it seem—to narrative in his poems. Robert McDowell, besides writing narrative poems himself, has run Story Line Press, a publishing company dedicated to narrative poetry by talented poets, among them David Mason and Frederick Morgan, whose Hudson Review has made a point of encouraging poems that tell stories. And in recent years we have been given the comic brilliance of Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate and James Merrill’s uncanny, iridescent saga The Changing Light at Sandover, which calls into question assumptions of one kind after another.
Yet narrative in verse (some would be happy to go so far as to say verse itself) by now seems like something marginal rather than mainstream, and it is somewhat startling to be reminded that this situation has not prevailed for long, and that through much of literary history verse was accepted as the proper medium for stories that were meant to seize attention and be repeated and remembered. Obviously our expectations of how a story is supposed to unfold and be relayed have altered radically in a relatively short time. It is not hard to trace some of the main social and technological shifts, in the last two centuries, that have effected the changes, and brought us to a literary age in which a prospective reader is likely to think of a narrative in verse as something of an anomaly—still more so if the work is called “a novel in verse.” Why in verse? one is almost bound to ask now. And why a novel in verse? Is not the novel (if indeed we can be said to agree about what a novel is) a form conceived as prose, made by prose, for prose?
If a story, above all a book-length narrative, is written in verse now, the inevitable question that hangs over it from the start is what can be gained by telling it in a medium less commonly accessible than good old prose? Each narrative poet, I hope, would want to answer the question differently, and the answer would depend upon the story in question. I cannot be sure what prompted Mr. Leithauser, who has written novels in prose, to tell the story of Darlington’s Fall in rhymed ten-line stanzas instead of something plainer and less elaborated, but he explains in a prefatory note why he wanted his poem to be a novel. “I looked for dailiness and rootedness…,” he writes, “firm calendars and solid place names, the ingrained habits and incremental passions and erosions, which the novel has typically found congenial. I wanted specificity. Although all characters within these pages—including the narrator—are fictions, in nearly every case I’ve tried to get the science right. (If the people are fabrications, I’d like to think the insects are genuine.)” We may continue to ponder—perhaps he intended us to—what Mr. Leithauser means by “fiction” as we follow his story.
The narrative begins in the Midwest, in a small Indiana town called Storey, late in the nineteenth century, with a small boy trying to catch a big frog in a swamp: “The hand hungers: the jewel of the world.” And in the first line of the story Mr. Leithauser reveals several of the capacities that might make verse—in general, or his own in particular—a desirable medium for a narrative. In eight words his line has set us in the heart of the story and of the poem, in all its dimensions as a chronicle and a metaphor. The pace of his pentameter moves so lightly that it retains the virtues and surface of prose while conveying or suggesting the numberless layers of the central image, which is a life, the protagonist’s life, and life itself. A great deal to establish when the poem has scarcely begun.
The hand belongs to Russel Darlington,
Customarily known as Russ, although the name
He himself secretly prefers is one
Provided by Mr. Hauser, the town pharmacist,
Who calls him Little Mister Naturalist.
Russ is seven, this summer of 1895.
The reader who has got this far—nine stanzas into the main poem—will be aware that Mr. Leithauser’s verse is clear, readable, and inviting (readers accustomed to a diet of pure prose sometimes seem dubious of their own ability to take in anything arranged differently on the page) and that it is able to convey not only the dimensions of metaphor but what he calls “specificity” simply, appropriately, and without abandoning or compromising the form or the mode of his poem. He sketches in the circumstances of his young protagonist with sure economy:
Quite a small boy still, yet even so
An object of large and labored supposition
To his neighbors. For one thing, his father, John,
May well be the county’s wealthiest man; for another,
The boy’s clearly in need of female supervision,
His mother having died three years ago
Giving birth to a stillborn son
(It being a truth universally understood
That a young male heir to a good
Fortune is in want of a mother).
This is exposition of a kind we are familiar with in novels, and it is not surprising that Mr. Leithauser is also a novelist in the more ordinary sense. What is more remarkable in this account is his virtuoso handling of the stanza he has chosen for his story: the authority and grace with which he fulfills and varies it, the apparent ease and tact of the rhymes, and not only the pace but the underlying awareness of how that pace can be used to draw the reader’s attention forward into the narrative, letting it pause regularly but then moving on, not at a pedestrian’s but at a dancer’s step. His account becomes a page-turner not in spite of the verse but because of it (something that was well understood, I expect, by the authors and reciters of the great narrative poems of other ages—of the Poem of the Cid, the Song of Roland, the Odyssey). And the pace, and the leaps and turns of the stanzas, are made possible by the tone that sustains the poem as a whole, and is essential to the life of it.
That tone, like Mr. Leithauser’s story, is distinctly his own, but they both evolved from ancestral sources. In his prefatory note he speaks with gratitude of “just how lucky I was to encounter, as friends and guides at the outset, a number of gifted poets whose lives happened to cross mine before they passed away: William Alfred, Elizabeth Bishop, Amy Clampitt, Robert Fitzgerald, James Merrill….” Of them all, it is from Merrill’s high artistry, his elegant command of prosody and tone, the swiftness and sure lightness of touch from Water Street through A Scattering of Salts, that Mr. Leithauser seems to have learned most obviously. Behind that heritage there is an earlier precursor, a poet whom Merrill too, and Auden before him, loved, admired, and learned from: Byron. In Mr. Leithauser’s dexterity with his stanza, its rapid flow, and something of its tone, I am reminded of Byron’s narratives, although Mr. Leithauser’s stanza is longer than that of Don Juan or Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and a step closer to the sonnet—the form he has said recently that he loves best. The greater length of the stanza makes it seem more pliable and adaptable. Mr. Leithauser’s style is less posed and oratorical than Byron’s. Yet the tone of Darlington’s Fall is heir to a lineage that leads back from Byron’s narrative poems to Spenser, and the poets of the Renaissance who measured their tales in stanzas, most obviously Chaucer and Ariosto.
Even if his poem were not called a novel, the subject and the setting draw the reader’s attention to the portrayal of character in the “fictions” of the story. Mr. Leithauser’s desire for “specificity” settles that from the start. Then, late in the poem (page 247), the narrator—even if he too is a “fiction”—tells us:
Well, project’s probably
As good a word as any for my cross-bred enterprise,
Whose roundabout design should be plain
To you at last. Is my tale’s genesis, the rise
Of Darlington’s Fall, finally clear?
Russel was my great-great-uncle. What you have here,
Reader, is a remote family history,
Homage to an ancestor I never met, yet one
Whose buried hurt (even a child could feel the pain…)
In time made its own enduring claims on me.
The passage may afford another clue to what made Mr. Leithauser decide to recount this life as a poem. Among possible advantages of the more formal mode is a certain essential perspective, a deliberate distance, and at the same time the chance to make that distance seem to disappear entirely or to shift in time and place. The persistent, never quite healed or quite comprehended, “buried hurt” of some inherited family catastrophe, after several generations, might be a subject that would benefit from such a freedom to play with distance, move it back and forth like the images of a stereopticon.
The form also evokes at every turn the metaphoric aspect of the account, and part of the metaphor—a development of the “hand’s hunger” of the first line—is the “fall” of the title, with all its echoes in the culture to which Darlington and Leithauser are heir. One of the most intimate and persistent of those echoes in this poem is the recurrent, underplayed allusion to Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole, with its reminders of childhood, of a wonderland more seductive and frightening than the “real” world, and of the physical distortions and handicaps that came of it. The allusion is furthered by the full-page drawings by Mark Leithauser which illuminate the numbers of the chapter headings: they might be descendants of Tenniel’s indelible illustrations of Alice’s discoveries. I suspect that Lewis Carroll is another of Mr. Leithauser’s mentors (and behind Carroll are the poems of Winthrop Mackworth Praed, and then Byron again).
In Darlington’s story, the gifted seven-year-old in a swamp in Indiana at the end of the nineteenth century catches the frog that, for a moment, is “the jewel of the world,” in midair, and bears it home in triumph, an emblem of his obsession with the natural world as an object to be acquired in the form of symbolic specimens, abstracted knowledge, and as a trophy—dead, of course, but adding glory to his name. As he grows up, the boy’s well-to-do father (the money came, a generation earlier, from an undertaker’s business, still significant in the local landscape), who is already well known and courted as a philanthropist, uses his influence at “Old U,” the state university, to introduce Russel, aged ten, to “one of the best butterfly men/In the country,” an old, disfigured, eccentric, generally unappealing, and inconsiderate Austrian named Schrock, and to have him look at a beautiful, unidentifiable butterfly that Russ has caught and mounted. The butterfly turns out to be, indeed, a somewhat puzzling rarity. The unpleasant professor berates the child for not having properly recorded all the relevant information about the circumstances in which he had found the butterfly. And instead of being utterly disheartened, the child returns to his pursuits with renewed purpose, and becomes a regular visitor, then a private advanced student of the old professor’s: “…The troll who knew the path/Into the mountain’s core where the jewels/Of the world are plucked from a fiery bath,” and who becomes a kind of adopted member of Russel’s family, an inescapable presence for the rest of the man’s life.
The child grows into a recognizable nerd, a biology freak, who in time goes to college (not Harvard or Cornell, both of which would have been possible, but “Old U,” because of Schrock). He attains recognition for his discovery, as an undergraduate, of a new species of butterfly. He falls in love with “the reigning beauty of the junior class,” who is portrayed like a heroine of popular romance fiction of the Gibson Girl era, and odd as it may seem, he eventually marries her. Clouds hang over the couple from the start. Something running in her family: depression, alcoholism, some other “buried hurt.” No children, and no prospect of any. And of course Russ’s obsession, which distracts him from being able to recognize that she has nothing to do.
Off he goes to the jungle, and his odyssey in the steps of his great guide Darwin, in pursuit of life through discovery and systematic analysis of its evolving forms. Disappointment and resentment, much of it barely examined, is already poisoning the marriage. Russ, who has always shied away from literature, regarding it as a waste of time because it is all made up, comes to find a measure of solace in Wordsworth. And as he prepares to leave for the Pacific, the tropics, and his quest, his father makes the couple a present of train tickets as far as San Francisco, and accommodations there for both of them, and the westward train journey provides a fleeting moment of happiness in the paired lives, and a felicitous passage in the poem:
Arrives a day, then, or a night, an occasion
To which repeatedly—over every
Broken decade until the end of Russ’s life—
His thoughts will home, thousands of times
Reverting to this: two young lovers, man and wife,
Locked in a train car that huffs and sways and climbs
Into open, thin-aired terrain (the lovers, too,
Locked in a swaying passage through
A breathless land), slips and spills eventually
Over the living spine of an unrolling nation,
In darkness, as a curtained moon lights the snow
(A crippled man will naturally go back
To such things: sensations of large-scale
Motions in a small space, your every nerve
Installed in the womb for just this interdependency
Of warmth with warmth, curve with curve,
Even while the ongoing embrace of train and track—
A hurtling spark racing along an icy rail—
Strikes up its own clamorous affinity),
And the snow returns a lunar glow.
As the simultaneous backward-and-forward projection of the stanzas suggests, the trajectory of Russel Darlington’s life story was generally down-hill from there—including the vertical “fall”—even though it included the fulfillment of some of the aspirations that had impelled him ever since childhood. He was twenty-four when he embarked upon the Pacific, bound for the Caroline Islands and the jungles of Ponape, where he planned “a sort of test run” of a few weeks, trying his hand at collecting tropical butterflies, on his way to Malaysia. It is to Ponape that the narrator follows Darlington’s footsteps nearly eighty years later, and for a while the narrator’s visit takes the foreground as a kind of scrim, providing an interlude before the continuation of the protagonist’s story.
Despite the knot in his stomach that is Darlington’s response to the jungle once he has had a glimpse of it, he forces himself to
…push farther into the wild:
New hills, new islands…
The whole of his life has guided him to this lost
Island that nobody he knows knows… The child
Is father of the man, who reaches his final instar
Only in the jungle, far from everyone, far
From everything but the eyes of heaven,
Where he molts a final time, into manhood at last.
Russ, with a guide, climbs into the steep, dripping forest, up beside a series of waterfalls,
…hard work: steep
And slippery perches, with plenty
Of chances for a spectacular misstep.
He spots a blue butterfly, one that he believes is “impossible” on Ponape. The hand hungers again, but something gives way, and he falls, flailing, to lie “broken on the forest floor,” and then to wake on a ship bound for San Francisco, and to medical treatment for a broken back, and an afterlife as a cripple, in his mid-twenties, back in his home town. There he sends his wife away, convinced that living with him would be no life for her, and settles down with his father, and with eccentric old Schrock.
The years that follow include his father’s losing fight with cancer, while arranging and supervising the endowment of a natural history museum with a series of murals by another doomed obsessive, a romantic artist figure who becomes a kind of reflection of Russel. Darlington tries to put his own entire vision of biology, of life, which had lured and driven him, into a book, Life’s Kingdoms. He must endure the death of his father, and life with the increasingly grotesque Schrock, in a household that comes more and more to resemble a taxidermist’s workshop. Then there is a retrospective fancy, a love of Cole Porter, and in time falling in love with an eighteen-year-old redhead working as a maid in the house, and his proposal to her.
Mr. Leithauser follows Darlington’s story, and his narrator’s pursuit of it, with the focused deftness of a skilled lepidopterist, devoting rapt attention to each step of it, maintaining the interest in his quirky, uncoordinated hero through the whole “fiction.” His formal ordering of the story, as it unfolds, presents his understanding of it.
That includes his portrayal of the narrator’s encounter with the “jungle,” as he follows Darlington’s trail into the “wild,” into tropical, original “nature” (a word which some scholars believe may have come to us, via Latin, from the Egyptian neter, referring to a primal essence, a god, the world of the gods), and with everything that meeting may be taken to represent, psychologically and as a metaphor. The literature of geographical and biological exploration is full of glimpses of this encounter in one form or another, recognized or not. The consideration of it in this story is one of the daring offerings of the poem. Mr. Leithauser’s account of his hero’s need to grasp the raw nature of life and its origins leads him to some of his most ambitious and eloquent passages:
This is as close as he will ever come
To viewing whole the whole, to escaping place
And time—feeling the dark weight lifting from
The reconfigured bone mass of his face:
A painter’s dream….
His account of the latter-day narrator’s quest for the trail of Darlington provides occasion for a running display of “specificity,” which includes a sakau-drinking assembly in the rain forest of Ponape:
…I close my eyes on a gray
Broth that resembles a generous scoop
Of swamp water, only thicker, and that feels,
Well, swampy on the tongue, and viscous, warm,
And lively…a bit like a soup
Lightly threaded with baby eels
Mistakenly presumed dead.
Mr. Leithauser has made, through his earlier books, and in the course of this one, a style and tone of great versatility, and his command of it is such that his occasional lapses of tone and vocabulary are startling, as though they were simply mistakes. They occur most often in the earlier parts of the poem, suggesting that the poet’s sureness of his subject and of his means grew with the writing. It is odd that, in a poem conceived as an exploration of feelings as well as of events, such lapses intrude sometimes at moments of intensity and intimacy, which might have suggested the writing of the story as a poem in the first place. At times portrayals of childhood descend to cuteness:
One blue day, he laced up his shoes, and, all bright eyes
And laughter-leaking grin, went bounding
Out-of-doors, a little man-in-motion:
Prising up stones for grubs and beetles, rooting
Other moments echo the sugared style of the Horatio Alger school of fiction from an earlier period:
The only one, evidently, to get the job done;
He has no doubt it’s the weightiest task
The world ever assigned Russel Darlington.
Occasionally descriptions are no fresher in verse than they would have been in prose:
Some meant to fade into the field, others bold as brass;
And damselflies fine as the line of a pen,
Torsos that are nothing but a wing and a song,
Just a pair of angel-wings, dancing on a pin…
But it should be said again that such passages are exceptional, and by no means characterize what the main current of the story is made of. It is perhaps worth remembering, too, that the narrative poems of Mr. Leithauser’s precursor, Byron, are littered, here and there, with blemishes, some not very different from these. I am thinking of some of the winks and wisecracks in Don Juan, and melodramatic or emotionally inflated phrases and lines which may strike us (as some of them may have struck contemporaries) as unfortunate, but which do not vitiate the works as a whole, or ruin our pleasure in them. And the odd occasional shortcomings should not blur recognition of the daring and achievement of Darlington’s Fall, its range of language and imagery, its moments of gliding beauty, and the gift for storytelling that unfolds in it, as the narrator follows the hunger of the child’s hand, searching not only for
…the butterfly on his wrist
But the import in its coming…
Grounds of the Garden, pattern of the Park
Where death lacks all purchase.
For the jewel of the world, indeed—the elusive goal of language itself. Mr. Leithauser’s protagonist, and his narrator, have led him on a great chase.
May 9, 2002