The morbid poetry of Djuna Barnes

Posted by Matt Foley on May 01, 2009 in Blog tagged with

The morbid poetry of Djuna Barnes


After the heavy theory of Derrida in the last post I wrote, I thought I would provide some relief, by focusing on a few primary texts. What follows is some of the published morbid poetry of Djuna Barnes (1892-1982) whose novella, Nightwood (1936), was taught on the Mlitt in The Gothic Imagination last year and has been subject of scholarly attention in Gothic Modernisms (2001). It is quite clear that Nightwood is a crucial point of reference for where the Gothic and modernism collide, but her poetry, somewhat overlooked even by modernist academia as much of the work is not in the traditional modernist style, stakes a claim for being primarily of interest to Gothic academics.
The published poems, which feature in various magazines, were written when Barnes was young – in fact she was first published at nineteen – with her output becoming more regular in her twenties and thirties. There is a distinctly Gothic imagination at work in her first ever published work. This short piece appeared in Harper’s Weekly on June 24th, 1911. I am reproducing the text from her Collected Poems that were compiled posthumously by Phillip Herring and Osias Stutman in 2005.
The Dreamer
The night comes down, in ever-darkening shapes that
            seem –
To grope, with eerie fingers for the window – then –
To rest to sleep, enfolding me, as in a dream
            Faith – might I awaken!
And drips the rain with seeming sad, insistent
Shivering across the pane, drooping tear-wise,
And softly patters by, like little fearing feet.
            Faith – this weather!
The feathery ash is fluttered; there upon the
            pane, –
The dying fire casts a flickering ghostly beam,-
Then closes in the night and gently falling rain.
            Faith-what darkness!
It seems redundant to point out the Gothic imagery and to say that this is the work of a young poet trying to find her voice; however, I do I think it is important to note that this is not a modernist style as such and that Barnes’ early poetry seems more Romantic in the way it is fashioned. The dense prose of Nightwood seems to classify the work as modernist due to its oblique difficulty. The book is existential in the extreme and also received a foreword and endorsement by T.S. Eliot. The editors of her collected poems claim that she shifted her style to that of Symbolism as her age advanced and perhaps the later poem “Suicide” (1915) shows the beginnings of a more modernist approach in the layout of the poem.


Corpse A
                        They brought her in, a shattered small
            With a little bruised body like
            A startled moon;
            And all the subtle symphonies of her
            A twilight tune.
Corpse B        
                        They gave her hurried shoves this way
            And that.
            Her body shock-abbreviated
            As a city cat.
            She lay out listlessly like some small mug
            Of beer gone flat.
This alleged formal ‘progression’, however, does not continue in a linear fashion and the ‘Flowering Corpse’ (1923) is written in a more recognisably traditional format:


The Flowering Corpse

So still she lies in this closed place apart,
Her feet grown fragile for the ghostly tryst;
Her pulse no longer striking in her wrist,
Nor does its echo wander through her heart.
Over the body and the quiet head
Like stately ferns above an austere tomb,
Soft hairs blow; and beneath her armpits bloom
The drowsy passion flowers of the dead.
This poem appeared just after Barnes’ darkly sexual ‘Six Songs of Khalidine’ (1923) and seems to be intimately linked to that work. Khalidine means “immortal ones” in Arabic and ‘Six Songs…’ is an articulation of how Barnes merges Gothic imagery of the undead with the tribulations of lesbian love affairs. This yoking together recurs throughout her fiction – poetry and prose alike.


Six Songs of Khalidine


The flame of your red hair does crawl and creep
Upon your body that denies the gloom
And feeds upon your flesh as ‘twould consume
The cold precision of your austere sleep –
And all night long I beat it back, and weep.
It is not gentleness but mad despair
That sets us kissing mouths, O Khalidine,
Your mouth and mine, and one sweet mouth
We call our soul. Yet thick within our hair
The dusty ashes that our days prepare.
The dark comes up, my little love, and dyes
Your fallen lids with stain of ebony,
And draws a thread of fear ‘tween you and me
Pulling thin blindness down across your eyes –
And far within the vale a lost bird cries.
Does not the wind moan round your painted
Like rats within an empty granary?
The clapper lost, and long blown out to sea
Your windy doves. And here the black bat
Against your clock that never strikes the hours.
And now I say, has not the mountain’s base
Here trembled long ago unto the cry
“I love you, ah, I love you!” Now we die
And lay, all silent, to the earth our face.
Shall that cast out the echo of this place?
Has not one in the dark funereal
Heard foot-fall fearful, born of no man’s tread,
And felt the wings of death, though no wing
And on his cheek a tear, though no tear fell –
And a voice saying without breath “Farewell!”
I think this is one of the finest examples of Barnes’ poetry and more in the Gothic tradition than of the modernist canon. Now a very general question, but one that is yet to be fully answered, is it possible to begin to draw a line of argument towards articulating how and why Barnes employs Gothic imagery in these early poems?




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