In a poem that leaves story behind, Isabel Ecclestone Mackay gives us the immediacy of fear: pervasive, persistent, unnamed or unnameable.
I heard a sound of crying in the lane,
A passionless, low crying,
And I said, ‘It is the tears of the brown rain
On the leaves within the lane!’
I heard a sudden sighing at the door,
A soft, persuasive sighing,
And I said, ‘The summer breeze has sighed before,
Gustily, outside the door!’
Yet from the place I fled, nor came again,
With my heart beating, beating!
For I knew ’twas not the breeze nor the brown rain
At the door and in the lane!
One might argue that the awkward almost stumbling rhythms of the poem are simply poor versification; one might equally argue that the uncommon pattern echoes the lurching of the heart hypervigilant, surprised, repeatedly, by fear. On careful reading, the stanzas work like this: the first and third pentameter lines, rhymed, lead the ear to expect that the fourth line will match the second — but it doesn’t: the second line is a trimeter; the fourth, a tetrameter, rhymes not with the second line, but with the first and third. In fact, in each of the first two stanzas, the last line repeats the rhyming word of the first line. The second lines of the first two stanzas rhyme (crying, sighing) meaning that in eight lines there are only three rhyming sounds. There is hardly room to breathe here. The third stanza compounds the dual effect: it is both suffocating, as the rhyming sound is that of the first stanza, and unsettling, as the scheme we have only just learned to recognize now changes: the first line is not repeated in the fourth. Meanwhile a new sound “beating” is introduced, and repeated: the “beating, beating” of the heart is urgent rather than reassuringly steady.
There is no way to flee such a fear. It will be one of the legacies of this war, whether we call it “cowardice,””shell shock,” “neurasthenia,” or “post-traumatic stress.”
Find more about Isabel Ecclestone Mackay in the Barbara Godard’s article in the Canadian Dictionary of Biography online.