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Gold Egg

How a student in search of the Beautiful fell asleep in Dresden
over Herr Professor Doctor Vischer's Wissenschaft des Schönen
[The Science of Beauty] and what came thereof

dreamed 1850s? by James Russell Lowell

This peculiar poem comes from Lowell's collection Under the Willows, ca. 1867. It plays off a myth in which Zeus (in disguise) begs hospitality from a poor couple, Baucis and Philemon, rewarding them with a hen who lays golden eggs. Did Lowell really fall asleep and dream this, or just make it all up? It's not safe to question a poet who'll rhyme you sent with translucent. Such a man is capable of anything.

I SWAM with undulation soft,
    Adrift on Vischer's ocean,
And, from my cockboat up aloft,    [crow's nest]
Sent down my mental plummet oft
    In hope to reach a notion.

But from the metaphysic sea
    No bottom was forthcoming,
Arid all the while (how drearily!)
In one eternal note of B
    My German stove kept humming.

"What's Beauty?" mused I; "is it told
    By synthesis? analysis?
Have you not made us lead of gold?
To feed your crucible, not sold
    Our temple's sacred chalices?

Then o'er my senses came a change;
    My book seemed all traditions,
Old legends of profoundest range,
Diablery, and stories strange    [demonology]
    Of goblins, elves, magicians.

Old gods in modern saints I found,
    Old creeds in strange disguises;
I thought them safely underground,
And here they were, all safe and sound,
    Without a sign of phthisis.    [tuberculosis]

Truth was, my outward eyes were closed,
    Although I did not know it;
Deep into dream-land I had dozed,
And thus was happily transposed
    From proser into poet.

So what I read took flesh and blood,
    And turned to living creatures:
The words were but the dingy bud
That bloomed, like Adam, from the mud,
    To human forms and features.

I saw how Zeus was lodged once more
    By Baucis and Philemon;
The text said, "Not alone of yore,
But every day, at every door
    Knocks still the masking Demon."

DAIMON 'twas printed in the book    [Greek: SOUL]
    And, as I read it slowly,
The letters stirred and changed, and took
Jove's stature, the Olympian look
    Of painless melancholy.

He paused upon the threshold worn;
"With coin I cannot pay you;
Yet would I fain make some return;
The gift for cheapness do not spurn,
    Accept this hen, I pray you.

Plain feathers wears my Hemera,
    And has from ages olden;
She makes her nest in common hay,
And yet, of all the birds that lay,
    Her eggs alone are golden."

He turned, and could no more be seen;
    Old Baucis stared a moment,
Then tossed poor Partlet on the green,    [Partlet: the hen]
And with a tone, half jest, half spleen,
    Thus made her housewife's comment

"The stranger had a queerish face,
    His smile was hardly pleasant,
And, though he meant it for a grace,
Yet this old hen of barnyard race
    Was but a stingy present.

She's quite too old for laying eggs,
    Nay, even to make a soup of;
One only needs to see her legs, --
You might as well boil down the pegs
I made the brood-hen's coop of!

Some eighteen score of such do I
    Raise every year, her sisters;
Go, in the woods your fortunes try,
All day for one poor earthworm pry,
    And scratch your toes to blisters!"

Philemon found the rede was good,    [rede: advice]
    And, turning on the poor hen,
He clapt his hands, and stamped, and shooed,
Hunting the exile toward the wood,
    To house with snipe and moor-hen.

A Poet saw and cried: "Hold! bold!
    What are you doing, madman?
Spurn you more wealth than can he told,
The fowl that lays the eggs of gold,
    Because she 's plainly clad, man?"

To him Philemon: "I'll not balk
    Thy will with any shackle;
Wilt add a burden to thy walk?
There! take her without further talk:
    You 're both but fit to cackle!"

But scarce the poet touched the bird,
    It swelled to stature regal;
And when her cloud-wide wings she stirred,
A whisper as of doom was heard,
    'Twas Jove's bolt-bearing eagle.

As when from far-off cloud-bergs springs
    A crag, and, hurtling under,
From cliff to cliff the rumor flings,    [rumor: echo]
So she from flight-foreboding wings
    Shook out a murmurous thunder.

She gripped the poet to her breast,
    And ever, upward soaring,
Earth seemed a new moon in the west,
And then one light among the rest
    Where squadrons lie at mooring.

How tell to what heaven-hallowed seat
The eagle bent his courses?
The waves that on its bases beat,
The gales that round it weave and fleet,
    Are life's creative forces.

Here was the bird's primeval nest,
    High on a promontory
Star-pharosed, where she takes her rest [pharos: lighthouse]
To brood new eons 'neath her breast,
    The future's unfledged glory.

I know not how, but I was there
    All feeling, hearing, seeing;
It was not wind that stirred my hair
But living breath, the essence rare
    Of unembodied being.

And in the nest an EGG, of gold
    Lay soft in self-made lustre,
Gazing whereon, what depths untold
Within, what marvels manifold,
    Seemed silently to muster!

Daily such splendors to confront
    Is still to me and you sent?
It glowed as when Saint Peter's front,
illumed, forgets its stony wont,
    And seems to throb translucent.

One saw therein the life of man,
    (or so the poet found it,)
The yolk and white, conceive who can,
were the glad earth, that, floating, span    [spun]
    In the glad heaven around it.

I knew this as one knows in dream,
    Where no effects to causes
Are chained as in our work-day scheme,
And then was wakened by a scream
    That seemed to come from Baucis.

"Bless Zeus!" she cried, "I'm safe below!"
    First pale, then red as coral;
And I, still drowsy, pondered slow,
And seemed to find, but hardly know,
    Something like this for moral.

Each day the world is born anew
    For him who takes it rightly;
Not fresher that which Adam knew,
Not sweeter that whose moonlit dew
    Entranced Arcadia nightly.

Rightly? That's simply: 'tis to see
    Some substance casts these shadows
Which we call Life and History,
That aimless seem to chase and flee
    Like wind-gleams over meadows.

Simply? That's nobly: 'tis to know
    That God may still be met with,
Nor groweth old, nor doth bestow
These senses fine, this brain aglow,
    To grovel and forget with.

Beauty, Herr Doctor, trust in me,
    No chemistry will win you;
Charis still rises from the sea:     [Charis: Grace]
If you can't find her, might it be
    Because you seek within you?
--James Russell Lowell--


I included this for three reasons:

  1. Lowell's quite funny. And means to be. The absurd, kitschy contrasts--poor farmers and ugly chickens versus grand abstractions and highfalutin' classical references--and his wonderfully strained rhymes are all quite deliberate, and an example of a whole lost genre much appreciated in its era for just such twists. The rap of its age!
  2. If Blake or Keats had written this we'd see it more readily, but look past Gold Egg's now-despised form to its content. Classically shamanic! Unlike the hard-headed materialists Baucis and Philemon, the dreamer/poet sees an eagle spirit hiding in a scrawny chicken. But it's not a poem simply criticizing a lack of imagination. The eagle carries him up to the spirit realm to find a second golden egg, a cosmic egg, hidden inside the merely monetary golden egg; just as the eagle hid in the hen and Zeus in his beggar's garb.
  3. Who is Hemera, that ugly chicken? Dreaming itself! She comes to us in drab feathers--dull-seeming fragments, anxiety dreams, nightmares--but if you're patient enough to wait and feed her, she lays unexpected treasures. Or transforms, and gives you the ride of your life.
--Chris Wayan--

LISTS AND LINKS: bookish dreams - gods - giving - chickens - oops! - eagles - dreaming personified - eggs - crystal balls and gems - beauty - dream poetry - dream humor, intentional and otherwise - Wayan dreams of the Cosmic Egg too, if more concisely - 60 years later, Lowell's great-niece Amy has seven Dreams in War Time

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