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Variations: XII

by Conrad Aiken

Wind, wind, wind in the old trees,
Whispering prophecies all night long ...
What do the grey leaves sing to the wind,
What do they say in their whispered song?

We were all young once, and green as the sea,
We all loved beauty, the maiden of white.
But now we are old, O wind, have mercy
And let us remember our youth this night!

The wind is persuasive, it turns through the trees
And sighs of a miracle under its breath...
Beauty the dream will die with the dreamer,
None shall have mercy, but all shall have death.

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How Conrad Aiken's "Variations: XII" works its magic on us, and why that matters:

by Ken Sanes

Conrad Aiken's "Variations: XII" is about one of the most important themes in poetry -- our effort to come to terms with our mortality and the passage of time.

In the poem, dying leaves are pleading for mercy from the wind to not blow them down, just as all of us, especially in old age, would like to ask death not to take us. In their youth, the personified leaves "loved beauty, the maiden of white." Even in age, the leaves still embody the love of beauty since they sing their plea to the wind, which means they don't only represent us in a general way, but they also represent poets and artists (including the poet himself), creating works of literature and art to hold off death and dwell in dreams of youth.

This then is the basic symbolism of the poem, in which the leaves are us and the wind that would blow them down is death. The conflict between the two comes to a head in the last stanza, as we read on to see how the wind will respond to the plea of the leaves. It begins with a deeply ironic understatement: "The wind (namely death) is persuasive…." Then it evokes a sense of foreboding as the wind "turns through the trees." Then there is an intimation of hope and mystery as the wind "sighs of a miracle under its breath…"

But Aiken's poem tells us there isn't hope in the face of death, and the only miracle is that "beauty the dream will die with the dreamer." Not even beauty or beautiful poems like this one can offer us the hope that we can transcend death. Finally, in the last line, comes the cold-hearted and definitive answer to the leaves' collective plea for mercy, which is ironically stated as if something is being bestowed on all of us: "None shall have mercy, but all shall have death." So the leaves, like everything that is alive, will die, and nothing they do will stop it.

Like many works that are elegiac in tone, Variations: XII fills our contemplation of mortality with beauty, and makes it something sad and evocative. And it evokes a sense of awe and irony at the profound mystery of death.

In fact, Variations: XII is part of a long tradition of works that evoke a sense of what I refer to as the fateful sublime -- which is the experience of awe, irony and loss that we have when we contemplate mortality and the passage of time. It accomplishes this through something that really is a miracle -- the evocative qualities of language. Along the way, it conveys a hushed tone, which is appropriate to its subject, by using the words, "whispered", "sighs", and "under its breath". And as "the grey leaves sing to the wind," we can almost hear them rustling.

Aiken's poem also offers a depiction of poetry and storytelling, and more generally, of all aesthetic creation, one that he perhaps derived from his readings in psychology. It isn't something that is unambiguously stated and so, as a tentative suggestion, I would say it goes something like this:

First, the poem depicts the love of beauty as an expression of youth and fresh life since the leaves say that, when they were young, "We all loved beauty, the maiden of white." But then it suggests that, when we are older, we create art as a form of wish fulfillment to symbolically hold off death, and dwell in dreams of youth and beauty, since the leaves create a form of art -- a whispered song -- that says, "O wind, have mercy / And let us remember our youth this night!"

But, Aiken tells us, death has its way in the end and, in every instance, "beauty the dream will die with the dreamer". Since beauty is a dream, the poem suggests that even the love of beauty is an illusion – or at least something unreal -- in the face of death. But the poem doesn't tell us whether it is referring to the love of beauty in youth or (more likely) the memory of youthful beauty in age that is expressed as a form of wish fulfillment and yearning in the song of the leaves, which is to say, in many forms of art.

All of which suggests that good poetry and, more generally, literary language, goes well beyond wish fulfillment. It can speak to something deep inside us that is beyond reason, and put us in touch with profound perceptions of existence.

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