Analysis of Louise Bogan’s Knowledge
by Louise Bogan
Now that I know
How passion warms little
Of flesh in the mould,
And treasure is brittle,––
I’ll lie here and learn
How, over their ground,
Trees make a long shadow
And a light sound.
Thomas Gray’s poem, “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” ends with the following lines, “Since sorrow never comes too late, / And happiness too swiftly flies. / Thought would destroy their paradise. / No more; where ignorance is bliss, / 'Tis folly to be wise.” If you suffer an obsession, like I do, with Adam and Eve you can easily place the pair in your own narrative where after they have eaten the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge they would lament what they had given up: innocence for knowledge, just as Gray’s poem does. But when one has taken a bite and it dawns on one that the previous state was superior to the present, how does one carry on? In his 1709 poem, An Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope states “A little learning is a dangerous thing / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring / There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, / And drinking largely sobers us again.” Which applied to Gray’s lines suggests an understanding of a previous state does not necessarily mean a complete knowledge of either it or the present. It means that one comes to see certain attributes of a state that one was once blind to, and yet it is difficult for one to know the sum of one's grasp of the circumstance. It suggests that the present, too, carries with it things that we do see or are unable to decipher until it is unraveled to our intellect through the stream of time. Thus to consider Pope’s advice is be led to Gray’s proclamation “’Tis folly to be wise” not just “where ignorance is bliss” but also when knowledge feels like a knife in the heart. Hence foolishness is to take as wisdom the part for the whole: to accept the arrogance of one’s intellect as sufficient. Through what Gray considers folly, and Pope considers dangerous, one situates Eve’s confidence as her concept of wisdom which proved her naivety. But can profound learning help one live wisely even as it leads one to the understanding that to know, is to know you do not know and perhaps ’tis wise to be a mindful fool? It is through this speculative perspective that this analysis of Louise Bogan’s poem “Knowledge,” attempts a swim.
In highlighting the speaker’s present understanding, the first stanza traces also her past. Thus in unmasking its present condition, the first lines also denotes its past circumstance. Hence one interprets the first line, “Now that I know,” as I had not always known and following the same pattern, “How passion warms little / Of flesh in the mould, / And treasure is brittle” translates to expectations or assumptions that have proved false in practice. Revealing a link between the state of unawareness and awareness––a seed that curiosity and imagination waters and allows to shoot out of the earth in search of the sun. Thus one is leashed by one’s desire in search of satisfaction. In “Knowledge,” this seed or desire has instilled within the speaker theories of undying passion and the steadfastness of wealth. Yet from where the speaker narrates her sparsely worded story, the fruits yielded by these desires have proven false. But unlike Gray’s speaker who looks back in regret for having listened to the whispers of his desires, the speaker of Bogan’s poem reflects from that state of sobriety encouraged by Pope. And at the same time it clouds the past in tentative fog, issuing the question, can it truly be blissful, the state where desire follows the beckoning fingers of imagination to awake in distress? Is ignorance, therefore, worth the price that its blind actions accumulate? In this manner one is led to another precipice of contemplation: is bliss possible in the realm of knowledge?
To contemplate the speaker’s present point of view, it is beneficial to define the word knowledge. The American Heritage Dictionary offers four definitions, but in order to not deviate unnecessarily from the thread I am trying to spin here, I choose to consider only two of these definitions: 1) Familiarity, awareness, or understanding gained through experience or study and 2) The sum or range of what has been perceived, discovered or learned. Things get interesting when we pass the first stanza through the first definition: Its “now” is a moment of familiarity and alertness, on the one hand but on the other hand that which the speaker takes for her present is actually an awareness of her past and the lessons drawn from it. So the speaker neither recognizes her present nor can it be said that she understands it. Only if she is able to experience her here and now from the knowledge that she does not know and from the precipice of varied expectation––both the imaginable and unimaginable––is she able to have some glimpse of her present. Hence one may say the speaker is situated on a border of knowledge and ignorance: how much confidence does she have in what she knows and what is her mindset on what is unknown to her? Yet another question throws darts at the first stanza when it is processed through the second dictionary definition: If the speaker’s present knowledge is merely the sum of what she has been able to grasp––be it through study or experience––what significant lessons are left outside this bracket? For surely she has not been able to study or experience everything. Put in another way, has she learned enough to be alerted of the danger which is Pope’s caution?
Some of the important questions that the first stanza raises are answered by the second stanza. Now, supposing Adam-Eve were to become the Tree of Knowledge itself, bearing the weight of the fruits of duality-consciousness in patience, does (s)he become the middle of two extremes? A state where good and bad are the same and in a sense neither good nor bad? For the tree does not consume its fruits. If so, can one imagine Adam-Eve as tree to say: “I’ll lie here and learn / How, over their ground, / Trees make a long shadow / And a light sound.” And if this argument can be made for Adam-Eve-Tree-of-Knowledge, would it not speak of a strength? That is strength to give up the chase of that which never stops running and to rest with that which exudes peace in meditation. In other words the vegetative image of the mindful fool: I do not know, so I must learn. And when one can keep running after the tireless, but chooses to rest, like a tree with roots that draws from below and with leaves that accept from above, does not this life imitate the Tree of Life?
In the second teaching of the Bhagavad-Gītā, Krishna says “Contacts with matter make us feel / heat and cold, pleasure and pain. / Arjuna, you must learn to endure / fleeting things––they come and go!” So too Bogan’s speaker, in her understanding of knowledge divorces the fleeting for the essential.
Jane A. Odartey