»  Villanelle:  "It Is the Pain …"

 

Villanelle:  "It Is the Pain …"

by William Empson, 1906-1984

 

•  Background

William Empson got a double first at Cambridge in Mathematics and English, and could have gone on to further academic distinction in either subject. He chose English, and became a literary critic of note. I have often wondered what he might have done as a mathematician. His poetry is almost forgotten now, though the 1972 New Oxford Book of English Verse has two of his pieces. Neither of them is this one, and I don't know its date of composition — some time in the 1930s, presumably.

Louis Untermeyer has the following to say about the villanelle in his 1926 handbook The Forms of Poetry:

The villanelle, in its early form, was a sort of shepherd's song and ever since its origin has been used almost entirely for pastoral subjects or idyllic effects. Though it seems simple, its simplicity is highly artificial, as may be seen from the structure. The villanelle is written in five three-line stanzas and ends with a stanza of four lines, the refrain forming eight of the nineteen lines. This repetition is an alternating double refrain, being taken from the first and third lines of the first stanza; the two lines forming alternately the last lines of all the stanzas except the final one. In the last, both lines appear together, concluding the couplet. Only two rhymes are permitted throughout the verses.

It is a surprising thing (well, I find it so) that such an elaborate verse form should have proved so successful in English, which on the whole prefers plain speaking, in verse as in prose. There are numerous lovely villanelles in English, by no means all of them pastoral, and some of them deviating from the precise form Untermeyer prescribes — by, for example, taking the refrain around again (i.e. adding another six lines before the envoi). The best-known villanelle from a British poet is I think the one Dylan Thomas wrote about his father — "Do not go gentle into that good night …" Among modern American poems, Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art" is probably the best-known villanelle:  "The art of losing isn't hard to master …"

Accounts of Empson's character leave the impression of a cheerful and rather promiscuous person. This powerful villanelle suggests that something much deeper was present.

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•  Text of the poem

It is the pain, it is the pain endures.
Your chemic beauty burned my muscles through.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

What later purge from this deep toxin cures?
What kindness now could the old salve renew?
It is the pain, it is the pain endures.

The infection slept (custom or change inures);
And when pain's secondary phase was due,
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

How safe I felt, whom memory assures —
Rich that your grace safely by heart I knew.
It is the pain, it is the pain endures.

My stare drank deep beauty that still allures.
My heart pumps yet the poison draught of you.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

You are still kind whom the same shape immures.
Kind and beyond adieu. We miss our cue.
It is the pain, it is the pain endures.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.