The poetry of disillusionment


Poetry gives us some excellent examples of disillusionment. Why, one might ask, do we want to read about disillusionment? How can reading about somebody else’s disillusionment help us at all?
How does Coleridge’s sorrow that his wife looks upon him reproachfully when he pours out his heart in “The Aeolian Harp” help us today? What about that episode when Wordsworth and his friend anticipated crossing the Alps only to discover that they had already crossed them—only bugles did not blow, cataracts did not flow, there was no celestial glow.
Good poets provide many apt lessons in disillusionment. Elizabeth Bishop prescribes mastering the art of loss, and I would add that mastering the experience of disillusionment without becoming too bitterly rancid is essential as one stumbles through life. How do you deal with disillusionment? You cannot stand forever clinging to the bitter moment. You must construct a new reality. And the art of coping with disillusionment can be a helpful one. Philip Larkin wrote that “deprivation” was, for him, what “daffodils were for Wordsworth.”
Disillusionment may be the essential counter-balance to a head that is floating in Cloud-Cuckoo-Land; to the pretty dress that ends up being a thorn in the side of the credit card bill—a thorn that will become a gash what will become a hemorrhage.
Few, if any, good poets will try to console us with the treacle of sentimentality. To see Hamlet and King Lear cope with their sense of betrayal and disillusionment is cathartic and Shakespeare’s words are powerful enough to being us to the point of fear, trembling, and a kind of humanizing identification with the “other”–the Prince of Denmark or the elderly king wandering on the stormy heath.
If a poet merely seems to be exercising or exorcising his or her spleen, there still remains the wit, the education, of recognition. We can form a bond—Wallace Stevens is disillusioned by the lack of imagination in his neighborhood where everyone Is wearing plain white nightgowns and going to bed early and having unmemorable dreams.   Tom Disch in “A Concise History of Music” describes the loss of the ability to hear mellifluous music. All is transformed—the “well of song grew foul.”
In “The Feather Bed” Robert Graves writes a line with four exclamation marks:
“Boy, this is fine! Love at first sight!’ True love! This is fine!”
Followed by:But then the disillusionment —by God
She turns the same look of those clear kind eyes
On a bootblack, on some fool behind a counter.
She calls that, Love? But what is Love to me?It’s a good question and it weighs more, question mark and all, than the four-exclamation marked line. Maybe disillusionment makes up in deep, lengthy, depth for all that happiness offers in a staccato burst of height?

I love Ronald Wallace’s descriptions in his fine poem, “Canzone:  Egrets.”  It’s about Ponce de Leon and Florida.  Wallace reflects on all that Ponce de Leon hoped to find and all that he did find:  “swampland, unreclaimable water” or was there consolation:

“Or did all these mythical creatures, cormorants and egrets,

spoonbills and armadillos, great blue herons and water

moccasins, make it all finally worthwhile, his watered-

down dreams and expectations still more than the usual cycle

of disillusionment, that small pulse in the universal cycle

of losses.”

Author: Gubbinal

Bookish, tea-drinking cat-lady who loves great poetry and music and is in the midst of dying

5 thoughts on “The poetry of disillusionment”

  1. Disillusionment is an interesting word. It means the undoing of illusion. I don’t think it’s exactly the same as disappointment. The eastern poets would tell us that the loss of illusion is a good thing…it as an unveiling, a removal of what we wish or imagine, to reveal what is actual, real, true.
    And the notion of illusion often gets mixed up with that of imagination. Is something imagined also illusory? And can we retain something in imagination without being disappointed because it isn’t “real”— simply enjoy it even though we know it is in the imagination? All we humans have imagination, even people who wear white nightgowns.

    I think Coleridge, for example is speaking of imagination, and apologizing to his wife (an apology I don’t think sincere) because she’s convinced what he thinks (worships) is an illusion and not the one true God.
    Wallace Stevens, on the other hand can’t exactly be disillusioned by what he sees as other people’s lack of imagination; there is an arrogance and condescension in his poem that are quite assured in judging other persons as having little imagination, because they seem not to participate in his idea of what imagination is.

    I especially like the Ronald Wallace poem which, for me, deals with disillusion in the sense of losing an illusion and thereby finding joy in actuality. As he suggests, that can turn out to promise greater riches than what we hoped for, or imagined.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. on the other hand (he said), followers of quantum physics, zen, and other speculative disciplines might claim that everything is illusory; that our sensory knowledge is not adequate to give us a verifiable picture of what reality actually is so that illusion is all we have anyway… no?…. the consequence of which is that it’s pointless to fret about it and we’re all free to build our own realities any way we want… which we do anyhow…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for your richly nuanced comment. Your comments certainly complicate my ideas in a good way. “Disillusionment” covers a really broad spectrum of feelings, I think, and I did not parse the word enough. I agree with you about the Wallace Stevens’s attitude in “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock”. One can be a wild character or a broadly imaginative one without advertising it in outer raiment. And I absolutely agree with you that Coleridge is not being sincere when he responds to his wife’s admonition: but that lack of sincerity or the need to outwardly agree with something one does not believe is one aspect of disillusionment. People right now are busily planning on wearing safety pins to signify, or to label, that they are “safe” people.

    There are the small and frequent moments and then the larger panoramic instances of disillusion: I remember as a three year old waiting for an X-ray in a room full of sobbing terrified children. The X-ray woman promised us lollypops for cooperation. I was inspired into still silent acquiescence. One screaming loud boy emerged with four lollypops in rainbow array. Others emerged with the rainbow array. I got one yellow one. With my exquisite cooperation I thought I might receive enough lollypops to treat the entire street of children! Such disillusionment is the toddler’s cure for solipsism.

    It is a broad topic and turning to poetry helps to clarify raw emotion. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. We are kindred souls…in both reticence and the amount/ kind of lollipops it fetches. I have heard a million times the old adage: the squeaky wheel gets the grease….and never been able to pull it off. I’ve often attributed it to being the eldest of a large group of siblings.

      I had not heard of the safety pin thing. Did they run out of colors for lapel ribbons? I imagine it has something to do with the group-think that is so dismayingly pervasive at the moment. As an outsider to that, I have no idea what “safe” people are! 🙂


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