Carmine Starnino notes in the foreword to The Essential John Glassco that this Canadian poet was deeply concerned with decay, and that he coated his acidic, bleak verses in beautiful imagery and daring forms. Indeed, the opening stanza of Glassco’s poem “The White Mansion” starts full of lush pastoral imagery and ends with death. As someone with a background in Classical poetry, there is only one poet I know who shares Glassco’s brilliance at transforming dark subject matter: Ovid.
Ovid is best known for his work the Metamorphoses, in which he details in dactylic hexameter (a meter Glassco also employs) a series of transformation tales. The acts that prompt change in these tales are regularly ones that include violence, death, or assault. These dark acts routinely take place in what is referred to as a locus amoenus, a Latin phrase that means “a pretty place”. Ovid often sets up beautiful pastoral scenes with lush green grass, a lovely water source, and shade or respite from the heat. Having drawn the reader in with this described paradise, he then undercuts his own imagery by using this place as the setting for violence.
Now I would invite you to turn to the pastoral imagery of the opening stanza of “The White Mansion”:
I am a bright thing on my rising ground,
A green hill behind me, a blue brook at my feet.
The dawn reddens my eastern doors,
The whirling sun makes my windows a glory.
The woods around me a hundred years ago
Were felled to raise my naked arms.
Ere I was done the hairy pioneer
Fell dead exulting in his dream.
I am the death of man and of his dream.
(The Essential John Glassco, pg. 29)
Glassco clearly was familiar with the Latin poet’s most famous device. He invokes the same water source, and the same green, lush grounds that provide the setting with tranquility. However, Glassco would not be considered one of the great Canadian poets if he simply imitated a Classical one. In “The White Mansion,” Glassco not only uses the “pretty place” trope, but he also expands upon it, making it his own.
As I moved through the poem, I was struck by how Glassco has embodied both the beauty of the mansion and the violence it enacts into one entity. Contrary to Ovid, who simply sets his violence within the “pretty place,” Glassco has combined them. Beauty and violence become inseparable. We see the change most clearly in how he has personified the mansion. Each of the stanzas start with an “I” statement, as if the mansion tells the reader the story herself. Unlike Ovid, whose poet describes the beauty of the scene to the reader, Glassco’s mansion extolls her own beauty. The mansion is aware she is the “pretty place” and understands the power she has over unsuspecting homeowners.
Further, contrary to Ovid, Glassco does not simply set a violent act at the mansion. Instead, the mansion commits the act herself. The setting is simultaneously and actively both seductive and violent to her victims. This combination of the two factors that define Ovidian locus amoenus shows Glassco’s ability to build upon this archetype and make it unique to his poetry.
I think that the final stanza of “The White Mansion” further exemplifies Glassco’s version of the locus amoenus:
I shall never be done: no man shall see it.
My brightness overtops his dream.
I am the scourge of hope: I bury my servants.
I am the sink of wealth: behold my trees.
I am the tomb of love: the altar is broken.
Swan-white I float among bare crusted maples.
Grey hills behind me, black water at my fee,
I await the stroke from which I shall arise
To announce once more the death of man.
(The Essential John Glassco, pg. 30)
In these closing lines, the characteristic Glassco bleakness is at the forefront. The mansion speaks to the reader in a deliberately direct series of “I” statements that showcase both her beauty (it shines with brightness) and her deadly nature. The mansion has been the death of many men and their families, and anticipates being the death of more in the future. The personification of the locus amoenus as the mansion and her surrounding grounds is complete and she remains waiting for her next victims.
Glassco is an essential Canadian poet for a variety of reasons that are beautifully outlined in Starnino’s foreword. For me, a recent Classics graduate, Glassco is a master for his ability to reinterpret devices used and invented by Classical poets. “The White Mansion” is a perfect study of how to continue a poetic tradition while innovating upon it. Ovid may be a personal touchstone for bleak poetry presented in a beautiful form, but after reading The Essential John Glassco, I can assure you that he has joined the ranks of bleak, yet evocative poets.
* * *
James Bader has a Masters of Arts in Classics from McMaster University.
Many thanks to James for putting together this thought-provoking post on The Essential John Glassco, selected by Carmine Starnino. Copies of this excellent collection of poetry are now available in print and digital formats.