Amy Lowell on Legends as a Lens on the Poetic Truth of Our Powers, Limitations, and Endurances

“Legends… are bits of fact, or guesses at fact, pressed into the form of a story and flung out into the world as markers of how much ground has been travelled.”

Amy Lowell on Legends as a Lens on the Poetic Truth of Our Powers, Limitations, and Endurances

In 1921, D.H. Lawrence was staggered by a “strange and wonderful” book bursting with “primary, elemental forces, kinetic, dynamic — prismatic, tonic, the great, massive, active inorganic world, elemental, never softened by life, that hard universe of Matter and Force where life is not yet known, come to pass again.”

The book was Legends by his cigar-smoking, visionary friend.| free ebook) by his passionate, visionary, cigar-smoking friend Amy Lowell (February 9, 1874–May 12, 1925), who changed the face of literature with her sharp-edged, kaleidoscopic imagist poems and her fierce patronage of other poets, Lawrence among them.

Amy Lowell, as a child

Lowell observed that legends on the scales of species and individuals give us the same tools as fairy tales on the scales of individual. These are useful tools to help us figure out who we really are and what our goals.

She observed how they deal with human issues at their most basic, moving us in the same manner as they moved our ancestors. It helped us see things that are of perpetual importance and that exist beneath our surface worries.

She saw how, in recurring across wildly different cultures and epochs only slightly altered in guise, they hold up a mirror to the childish vanity of our exceptionalism, reminding us that the human being “is a strangely alike animal.”

Her preface is:

The legend can be something nobody has ever written or everyone has written. It is something anyone is free to alter and rewrite. It may be altered, it may be viewed from any angle, it may assume what dress the author pleases, yet it remains essentially the same because it is attached to the very fibres of the heart of man*. Civilization is the learning of about man’s capabilities, limits, and endurances. It is how one can be the best human being on Earth. Man learns and becomes aware of his curiosity and understanding. Then he feels a need to communicate both these feelings. allegory.

Legends are bits or guesses of facts that have been compressed into a story to show how far the ground has been covered. Legends can be either speculative and apprehended truth, if science proves truth.

Dorothy Lathrop’s art from the 1922 Walter de la Mare book of fairy-poems. Available as a printed copy.

In each of the book’s eleven epic poems, she varies the scales of geography and time to take on a different legend of a different culture — from China to Peru to New England — invoking the vivid natural landscape, climate, and wildlife of that region alongside its human stories.

A century before science illuminated just how shaped by place the human animal is — and how much, therefore, our cosmogonies are shaped by our native landscapes — Amy Lowell devoured dozens of anthropology, ethnography, geography, and natural history books to achieve maximum fidelity to the authentic habitats of the myths that became her poetic matter.

Arthur Rackham’s art for the 1920 Irish fairy tales book. This book is available as both a printed copy and as stationery cards.

She fuses an ancient Chinese myth about a porcelain god with an 18th-century Chinese governor’s treatise on the production of pottery with the first scientific investigation of porcelain; she draws on the pioneering work of anthropologist Franz Boas and enthnomusicologist Frances Densmore to celebrate the authentic myths of Native Americans (then called “North American Indians”), in the authentic idioms of their native tongues, at a time when the American government was doing its best at erasure and assimilation; she reanimates a Roman legend about a garden statue, which she had first encountered on the pages of Robert Burton’s classic The Anatomy of Melancholy, published exactly three hundred years earlier. Legends are the best way to see how seeds germinate and migrate across continents, countries, and coteries centuries later.

What emerges from her poems is something “neither new, nor old” but “perennial,” coursing through which is “that curious substratum of reality, speculative or apprehended.”

Her touching reflections reflect on the limitations even of rigorous scholarship.

It is possible that inaccuracies based on folklore may have crept into my poems. I don’t doubt it. Poetry is not literal. I have written and conceived my book as an imaginative poet.

Art by Virginia Frances Sterrett, Old French Fairy Tales, 1920
Virginia Frances Sterrett, a teenage artist, created this illustration from an old 1920 French book about fairy tales. This print is also available as stationery cards and a printed copy.

She adds, “With an eye for the poetic truth beyond the practical fact,” bridging legends’ art with her own work.

The poet is one of the most paradoxical creatures you can imagine. He doesn’t respect or revere anything, but he takes what he likes and makes it his own. The true legend is a touchstone that can be changed in any image. But it remains the original.

Complement with the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska on fairy tales and the importance of being scared, then revisit Michael Pollan on the surprising science behind the flying-witch legend

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