Agee: Description of Elysium

ageeI first came across James Agee’s work through the lyrics of the song “Sure on this shining night”, third of Four songs Op. 13, by Samuel Barber. Eventually I found Agee’s poems and they’re wonderful – though some are a not an easy read. Here’s the complete poem from which the song comes. It’s imagery reminds me of an Ansel Adams photograph.

Description of Elysium. There: far, friend our dear dominion:

Whole health resides with peace,
Gladness and never harm,
There not time turning,
Nor fear of flower of snow

Where marbling water slides
No charm may halt of chill,
Air aisling the open acres,
And all the gracious trees

Spout up their standing fountains
Of wind-beloved green
And the blue conclaved mountains
Are grave guards

Stone and springing field
Wide one tenderness,
The unalterable hour
Smiles deathlessnes

No thing is there think
Mind the witherer
Withers on the outward air:
We can not come there.

Sure on this shining night
Of starmade shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.

The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.

Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wandering far alone
Of shadows on the stars.
Now thorn bone bare
Silenced with iron the branch’s gullet:
Rattling merely on the air
Of hornleaved holly:

The stony mark where sand was by
The water of a nailèd foot:
The berry harder than the beak:
The hole beneath the dead oak root:

All now brought quiet
Through the latest throe
Quieted and ready and quiet:
Still not snow:

Still thorn bone hare
Iron in the silenced gully
Rattling only of the air
Through hornleaved holly.

“Description of Elysium” in The collected poems of James Agee, edited and with an introduction by Robert Fitzgerald (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968) pp. 5-7; first published in Permit me voyage by James Agee (Yale University Press, 1934). The picture is by Helen Levitt, from the dust cover of this book.