Sunday, March 23, 2008

What’s A Nice Girl Like You Doing
In an Anthology Like This?

Edith Wharton? Who would have expected to find Edith Wharton in an anthology of erotic verse? Yet here she is on pp 19-21 of The Best American Erotic Poems, edited by David Lehman, just out (2008) from Scribner Poetry. The poem is called Terminus and it’s a short story, really, worthy of the author of, say, Roman Spring. A note says that she wrote it “after a ‘secret night’ of intense lovemaking with Morton Fullerton, the American-born correspondent of the London Times, whom the unhappily married novelist had met two years earlier and with whom she had fallen hopelessly in love.” (278) “The couple,” we are told, “spent the night of June 4 [1909] in Suite 92 of the Charing Cross Hotel in London." I shouldn’t quote the whole thing—go buy the book—but here is the beginning:

Wonderful was the long secret night you gave me, my Love,
Palm to palm, breast to breast in the gloom.
Flushing with magical shadows the common-place room of the inn,
With its dull impersonal furniture, kindled a mystic flame
In the heart of the swinging mirror …

And note something remarkable about the verse: it’s dactylic hexameter, the verse of Homer and Virgil, usually reserved for limericks in English (“A tutor who tootled the flute…”) although Longfellow put it to good use in Evangeline. Lehman recalls that “In her journal, Wharton, then forty-six, wrote, ‘I have drunk the wine of life at last. I have known the thing best worth knowing.’”

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