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Amy Lowell's "Penumbra"

Updated on April 19, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Amy Lowell

Source

Introduction and Text of "Penumbra"

Unlike the nostalgic looking back into the past of Whittier, Riley, or Dylan Thomas, Amy Lowell's poem, "Penumbra," looks into the future after the speaker's death.

Amy Lowell's "Penumbra" consists of five versagraphs in uneven lines. The poem completes a difficult but nearly successful task of convincing the speaker's partner that after the speaker's death, the partner will remain linked to her through her writings and the household items they share. The success of the speaker's intent is marred by the last line of the poem; otherwise the concept is an interesting and unique one.

Penumbra

As I sit here in the quiet Summer night,
Suddenly, from the distant road, there comes
The grind and rush of an electric car.
And, from still farther off,
An engine puffs sharply,
Followed by the drawn-out shunting scrape of a freight train.
These are the sounds that men make
In the long business of living.
They will always make such sounds,
Years after I am dead and cannot hear them.

Sitting here in the Summer night,
I think of my death.
What will it be like for you then?
You will see my chair
With its bright chintz covering
Standing in the afternoon sunshine,
As now.
You will see my narrow table
At which I have written so many hours.
My dogs will push their noses into your hand,
And ask—ask—
Clinging to you with puzzled eyes.

The old house will still be here,
The old house which has known me since the beginning.
The walls which have watched me while I played:
Soldiers, marbles, paper-dolls,
Which have protected me and my books.
The front-door will gaze down among the old trees
Where, as a child, I hunted ghosts and Indians;
It will look out on the wide gravel sweep
Where I rolled my hoop,
And at the rhododendron bushes
Where I caught black-spotted butterflies.

The old house will guard you,
As I have done.
Its walls and rooms will hold you,
And I shall whisper my thoughts and fancies
As always,
From the pages of my books.

You will sit here, some quiet Summer night,
Listening to the puffing trains,
But you will not be lonely,
For these things are a part of me.
And my love will go on speaking to you
Through the chairs, and the tables, and the pictures,
As it does now through my voice,
And the quick, necessary touch of my hand.

Reading of "Penumbra"

Commentary

Unlike the nostalgic looking back into the past of Whittier and Riley, Amy Lowell's poem, "Penumbra," looks into the future after the speaker's death.

First Versagraph: The Sounds of Men Working

As I sit here in the quiet Summer night,
Suddenly, from the distant road, there comes
The grind and rush of an electric car.
And, from still farther off,
An engine puffs sharply,
Followed by the drawn-out shunting scrape of a freight train.
These are the sounds that men make
In the long business of living.
They will always make such sounds,
Years after I am dead and cannot hear them.

The speaker is sitting quietly on a summer night listening to "the sounds that men make / In the long business of living." She has heard a street car and a railroad engine. The lines sound very prose-like, as if she had merely broken the lines of a diary or journal entry.

The first eight lines feature the sound of men working. The speaker then makes a bizarre remark, and that remark immediately turns the prosy sounding lines into a more poetic sound: "They will always make such sounds, / Years after I am dead and cannot hear them." These lines encourage the audience to ponder the next move, wondering why the speaker is contemplating her death.

Second Versagraph: Musing on a Summer Night

Sitting here in the Summer night,
I think of my death.
What will it be like for you then?
You will see my chair
With its bright chintz covering
Standing in the afternoon sunshine,
As now.
You will see my narrow table
At which I have written so many hours.
My dogs will push their noses into your hand,
And ask—ask—
Clinging to you with puzzled eyes.

In the second versagraph, the speaker reiterates the setting, "Sitting here in the Summer night," and the fact that she is thinking about her death, "I think of my death." Then she asserts, "You will see my chair / With its bright chintz covering / Standing in the afternoon sunshine, / As now." She is suddenly addressing someone, who apparently shares her residence.

The speaker continues to report what the housemate will see after the speaker's death: "You will see my narrow table / At which I have written so many hours." The speaker then tells her partner, "My dogs will push their noses into your hand, / And ask— ask— / Clinging to you with puzzled eyes." Her dogs will be asking the speaker's partners where the speaker is, when is she retuning?

Third Versagraph: Musing About the House

The old house will still be here,
The old house which has known me since the beginning.
The walls which have watched me while I played:
Soldiers, marbles, paper-dolls,
Which have protected me and my books.
The front-door will gaze down among the old trees
Where, as a child, I hunted ghosts and Indians;
It will look out on the wide gravel sweep
Where I rolled my hoop,
And at the rhododendron bushes
Where I caught black-spotted butterflies.

Then the speaker muses about the house itself: the house will continue to sit where it is. It is the house the speaker grew up in; it has watched her play with dolls and marbles, and it has "protected [her] and [her] books."

Continuing her musing about the house, the speaker asserts that the house will still be looking at the same places it did while she was growing up, "Where, as a child, I hunted ghosts and Indians." It will continue to look as it did when she "rolled [her] hoop," and "caught black-spotted butterflies."

Fourth Versagraph: Safe in the House

The old house will guard you,
As I have done.
Its walls and rooms will hold you,
And I shall whisper my thoughts and fancies
As always,
From the pages of my books.

The speaker's purpose becomes clear in the fifth versagraph: she is comforting herself that her partner will be safe in this house: "The old house will guard you, / As I have done."

She has protected her partner, and since she feels certain that the house will continue to protect that partner, she can take comfort in that fact. The speaker then tries to comfort the partner with the assurance that the speaker's presence will still be palpable: "And I shall whisper my thoughts and fancies / As always, / From the pages of my book."

Fifth Versagraph: A Penumbric Essence

You will sit here, some quiet Summer night,
Listening to the puffing trains,
But you will not be lonely,
For these things are a part of me.
And my love will go on speaking to you
Through the chairs, and the tables, and the pictures,
As it does now through my voice,
And the quick, necessary touch of my hand.

In the final versagraph, the speaker further assures the partner that the speaker's presence, though only a penumbric essence, will be palpable and strong; therefore it will keep the partner from settling into loneliness.

The speaker claims that her love will "go on speaking to you / Through the chairs, and the tables, and the pictures, / As it does now through my voice." The house will protect the partner and the speaker's things will continue to remind that partner of the speaker's love.

The Unnecessary Final Line

This poem should have left off the last line, "And the quick, necessary touch of my hand." The speaker's entire discourse has been to make strong her spirit's presence for the partner after the speaker's death. But the last line undoes that task. If the "quick . . . touch of [her] hand" is "necessary" for the partner to still be in touch with the speaker, that touch is clearly impossible after the speaker's death.

All of the other links are possible: through the speaker's writing and the household items that the two share. Possibly leaving out the word "necessary" would help, but leaving off the entire last line would have kept in tact the work done of spiritualizing her presence for the partner.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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