||The Sonnet as Toy Broom
by Robyn Sarah
I cannot remember when or where I first came across "Cathleen Sweeping" (probably in an anthology, in the 1970s), but when I read it again in 1990, in Johnston's collected poems, Endeared By Dark, it was with the shock of recognition that comes of having subconsciously retained a poem in memory over many years¨a poem read perhaps once only, that has left its imprint without one's realizing it. The small frisson one feels on re-encountering such a poem is, to my mind, one of the litmus tests of true poetry: a single reading has proved enough to lodge it in memory, and one recalls its particular features, recognizing it even years later, as one would a remembered face. Here is the poem:
The wind blows, and with a little broom
She sweeps against the cold clumsy sky.
Shes three years old. What an enormous room
The world is that she sweeps, making fly
A little busy dust! And here am I
Watching her through the window in the gloom
Of this disconsolate spring morning, my
Thoughts as small and busy as her broom.
Do I believe in her? I cannot quite.
Beauty is more than my belief will bear.
I've had to borrow what I think is true.
Nothing stays put until I think it through.
Yet, watching her with her broom in the dark air,
I give it up. Why should I doubt delight?
The quality of individual "memorability" is not all that common in poetry of any age, and may be even less common in an era of free verse. I have little doubt that part of what made "Cathleen Sweeping" stick with me was the grace of its rhythm and rhyme¨though on first reading I probably did not focus on these, or even register that the poem was a sonnet. (I believe that if the first thing one notices about a sonnet is its form, it is probably not a very good sonnet. It took me years to notice that Shelley's "Ozymandias" was a sonnet, that Frost's "Acquainted with the Night" was one.)
What I recognized instantly on re-encountering "Cathleen Sweeping" was the image¨the tot with the tiny broom, sweeping the great outdoors¨and the emotional epiphany of the conclusion, "Why should I doubt delight?" But would the image have imprinted itself so powerfully, had it been delivered to me in free-verse lines? And would the question have resonated in my inner ear in the same way, had not the final word "delight" picked up and echoed a sound that had been left hanging, a sound waiting for a rhyme? I think not.
What do I love about this poem? It is like its subject: compact, graceful, slightly enigmatic, a delight. The three-year-old is Johnston's daughter¨something the poem does not tell us but that we sense, not just from the familiarity of the first name in the title but from the heightened awareness we feel directed towards the child by her bemused watcher. The poet's declining to spell this out is felicitous, I think, because it takes the poem beyond the level of the personal and banal, beyond risk of the sentimental. Johnston here contemplates Cathleen not as his daughter but as a phenomenon, universally recognizable, the figure of a child at play. This could be anybody's child. Instead of claiming her for himself, he gives her to us. His perspective on her is inclusive of us.
Where to begin talking about a poem so simple in its language and imagery, so profound in what it has to say, so formally perfect¨and so pleasurable to read aloud, so readily understood? Like a prism, "Cathleen Sweeping" is transparent in itself, but it refracts rainbows of meaning.
Johnston starts by painting a picture: a tiny girl outdoors with a child-sized broom, backdropped by sky. No, not just sky but "cold, clumsy" sky. These aren't your usual words for sky; the alliteration pleases the ear, but the sky they paint isn't an inviting one. The child sweeps "against" this sky. That word might prompt us to explore opposites: if the sky is cold and clumsy, is the child¨seen "against" it¨by implication warm and graceful? Warm as in warm-blooded, a bit of warm life in a cold landscape? Graceful in both senses, maybe¨pleasing in her movements, and a vessel for grace? Is that not what a child is¨warm with new life, filled with the gift of it?
This child is undaunted either by the weather (windy and gloomy) or by the enormity of the task she has set herself: to sweep the world with a toy broom. Gamely, she stirs up "a little busy dust"¨the phrase on which the poem hinges¨while the poet watches her "through the window" that is at once the physical pane of glass and the perspective of an adult looking upon a child. (The image of a window always carries a metaphoric weight: it is an opening between one realm and another, affording a view of one from the other.)
In this poem, a delicious ambiguity of syntax is created by the line-break at "gloom". The syntactical sense cuts across the line: watching her through the window is one unit of sense, followed by in the gloom of this disconsolate spring morning. But the line-break momentarily spotlights a different phrasing, creating the evocative window in the gloom. To a parent, a child is this too, a "window in the gloom"¨an opening, a bit of light against the gloom that is the knowledge of one's own mortality. But Johnston is also watching his child through a poet's lens¨another kind of window, a redemptive angle of vision¨in the "gloom" of an otherwise "disconsolate" morning, a sunless moment both outdoors and in his sceptical soul.
"Do I believe in her?" the poet-father asks. (What an odd question! What can he mean? Believe that the child is real? Believe in the Mission Impossible she has set herself? Believe that she believes in it? Probably all three.) For a moment, the answer is No¨even if qualified: "I cannot quite." Why the qualifier, why "quite"? It implies a wish to believe, an effort that just missed. But, "Beauty is more than my belief will bear."
What is the beauty referred to here? It is the loveliness of a child's brave and hopeful endeavor, even in the eyes of one who knows she cannot succeed¨and who has just likened his own thoughts to her "small and busy" broom. Suddenly, by extension, the poem seems to be saying: We too, we adults with our sweeping notions and borrowed truths, can only hope to play at tidying the "enormous room the world is."
In the end the poet abandons his efforts to "think it through," and decides to let beauty suffice: "Yet watching her with her broom in the dark air/ I give it up. Why should I doubt delight?" A marvelous image, that "broom in the dark air." The child doesn't stop at the ground; she sweeps at the air as well¨made "dark", perhaps, by the very dust she has stirred up. Her "broom in the dark air" stands for all of human enterprise in the face of what cannot be known¨and the poet's "delight" rings as a declaration of faith in the value of human striving, regardless of what it accomplishes. Though all we can do, generation to generation, is to make a little dust fly, why should we not delight in the beauty of hopeful endeavor for its own sake¨embodied, here, in Cathleen sweeping?
The poem, a miracle of compression, nudges us towards a further intimation: In the span of this life on earth, what is Cathleen herself, what are any of us, but "a little busy dust"¨stirred up by our Maker in the primary act of creation? And God formed man out of the dust of the earth...these words from the Book of Genesis, with their evocation ("dust to dust") in the funeral service, are central to our cultural consciousness. Busy dust! What a wondrous phrase for Man, alive. And is someone watching us, unseen, through a window? Does this someone believe in us, or at least delight in us¨in our tiny gestures against infinity, our various busy little brooms, the undauntedness with which we act upon the world?
In choosing to voice his thoughts in a sonnet, Johnston has availed himself of one particularly elegant species of toy broom: a patterned meditation in fourteen lines, the first eight (the octet) depicting a situation, the subsequent six (the sestet) reflecting upon it. This is the Petrarchan variant. Johnston has modified the standard rhyme scheme: instead of the usual abbaabba, his octet rhymes ababbaba; instead of the usual cdecde, his sestet rhymes cdeedc. So both stanzas rhyme in mirror-inversion¨just as the child's sweeping is mirrored by the man's thinking.
One does not have to notice the beauty of these formal elements (nor believe in them) to delight in the poem. But for me, such unobtrusive and seemingly effortless fusion of form and meaning is the mark of poetry at its greatest. ˛