"What's an envoy?" asks my non-native English speaker husband, busy reading.
"Oh, it's a poem, that in the old days poets used to put at the end of their book, sending it off and hoping people would like it."
Me, getting suspicious: "Why, what does it say?"
"That the new Italian ambassador was one."
"Oh, that envoy!"
I am not actually so bookish as to think that a now-rare poetic device is more likely to be referred to in today's newspaper than a diplomatic title. But the "Go, little book" type of envoy (from the French envoyer, "to send", same root as the envoy sent by a government) has been on my mind recently, ever since I came across the exhilirating envoy by Russell Banks which I used as the title for this post, and it started me thinking, what better way to follow a post on the art of the dedication than with one on the art of the envoy?
The envoy dates back to classic Roman literature, meaning that it has been around for over 2000 years. Ovid, the greatest poet of the Augustan Age, affixed a touching envoy to his book Tristia (Sorrows), written from exile in what we now call Romania, but the Romans referred to as "beyond the Danube", by which they meant, at the outskirts of the civilised world, where the emperor had sent him for "a poem and a misunderstanding" (said Ovid).
The envoy opens like this (I include the Latin because English translations of Latin poetry always sound too chatty - so just before you read the English, say stirringly aloud "Ibis in urbem!"):
Parue—nec inuideo—sine me, liber, ibis in urbem:
ei mihi, quod domino non licet ire tuo!
"Little book -- I won't resent it -- go without me to the city
Where alas, your master is not allowed to go..."
But of course he resented it. A man of culture and refined habits, witty and urbane, Ovid found banishment among the (semi) barbarians -- who didn't even know Latin -- a cruel punishment. Cruellest of all, he never got to follow his book back to Rome, dying in exile.
By the nineteenth century, the envoy had become a trope, its more unexceptional manifestations ripe for mockery, as Lord Byron did with the efforts of the rather paltry poet laureate of his time, Robert Southey.
From Don Juan (1819):
"Go, little book, from this my solitude!
I cast thee on the waters – go thy ways!
And if, as I believe, thy vein be good,
The world will find thee after many days.
Southey's read, and Wordsworth understood,
I can't help putting in my claim to praise—
The four first rhymes are Southey's every line:
For God's sake, reader! take them not for mine."
The twentieth century! War, carnage, decay, disillusion, experimentation, modernism! If anyone was in the thick of that it was Ezra Pound, and he got it all, and Art too, into his revisitation of Edmund Waller's famous 17th century envoy "Go, Lovely Rose" (set to music by Henry Lawes), a poem firmly in the carpe diem tradition, which began:
Go, lovely Rose—
Tell her that wastes her time and me,
That now she knows,
When I resemble her to thee,
How sweet and fair she seems to be...
Here's Pound's "Envoi" from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1919):
Go, dumb-born book,
Tell her that sang me once that song of Lawes:
Hadst thou but song
As thou hast subjects known,
Then were there cause in thee that should condone
Even my faults that heavy upon me lie
And build her glories their longevity.
Tell her that sheds
Such treasure in the air,
Recking naught else but that her graces give
Life to the moment,
I would bid them live
As roses might, in magic amber laid,
Red overwrought with orange and all made
One substance and one colour
Tell her that goes
With song upon her lips
But sings not out the song, nor knows
The maker of it, some other mouth,
May be as fair as hers,
Might, in new ages, gain her worshippers,
When our two dusts with Waller's shall be laid,
Siftings on siftings in oblivion,
Till change hath broken down
All things save Beauty alone.
Where could one possibly go after that, you might find yourself asking. Well, that's what I'm here for! Here, closing the circle and leading us back to Russell Banks, are two dazzling envoys from the second half of the twentieth century:
William Meredith, "Envoy":
Go, little book. If anybody asks
Why I add poems to a time like this,
Tell how the comeliness I can’t take in
Of ships and other figures of content
Compels me still until I give them names;
And how I give them names impatiently,
As who should pull up roses by the roots
That keep him turning on his empty bed,
The smell intolerable and thick with loss.
Robert Creeley, “Envoi”:
fucking well will
get, love. For openers,
earth revolves about,
the galaxies their in-
struments neglect. I
walk down a road
you make ahead, not
(no negative) there ex-
cept my body finds
it. Love, love,
insects hum, the
air softens, the night
is here. So empty
these days with-
out you, a box
with nothing in it. I
am waiting, you
are coming, so what’s
the world but
all of it.
And here we are back at Russell Banks. I don't know if anyone else out there has written an envoy in prose, but this is one it would be tough to compete with. It comes at the end of Banks's novel Continental Drift, a tale of our times which mixes "low comedy and high seriousness" (as someone said about Flannery O'Connor's novel Wise Blood, which it reminded me of), sardonic descriptions of domestic dissatisfaction, low-end jobs, moral corners being cut, and suddenly, apocalypse.
"The world as it is goes on being itself. Books get written -- novels, stories and poems stuffed with particulars that try to tell us what the world is, as if our knowledge of people like Bob Dubois and Vanise and Claude Dorsinville will set people like them free. It will not. Knowledge of the facts of Bob's life and death changes nothing in the world. Our celebrating his life and grieving over his death, however, will. Good cheer and mournfulness over lives other than our own, even wholly invented lives -- no, especially wholly invented lives -- deprive the world as it is of some of the greed it needs to continue to be itself. Sabotage and subversion, then, are this book's objectives. Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is.”
The American poet Robert Creeley (of Pound-Olson-Zukofsky-Black Mountain lineage), sojourned in New Zealand in the 1970s (a trip organised by Alistair Paterson), and Auckland Libraries' Sir George Grey Special Collections has a number of books of his poetry relating to that time, including The Dogs of Auckland, a limited edition artist's book by the Holloway Press, which has this note in the catalogue, a poem by itself: "The binding is cloth spine with Canson Mi Teintes paper-covered boards, & the case & casing in are by Bound to Last, Auckland."
I realise that Canson Mi Teintes is just a mezzo-tinto, half-tint, but what it said to me when I first saw it, and what it still wants to say to me, is "Song, you tempt me!"