Thomas Wolfe: A Stone, a Leaf, a Door


. . . A stone, a leaf, an unfound door;
Of a stone, a leaf, a door.
And of all the forgotten faces.

Naked and alone we came into exile.
In her dark womb
We did not know our mother’s face;
From the prison of her flesh have we come
Into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison
Of this earth.

Which of us has known his brother?
Which of us has looked into his father’s heart?
Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent?
Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?

O waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost,
Among bright stars
On this most weary unbright cinder, lost!
Remembering speechlessly
We seek the great forgotten language,
The lost lane-end into heaven,
A stone, a leaf, an unfound door.

–Thomas Wolfe, from Look Homeward, Angel.
Arranged in verse by John S. Barnes.

Thomas Wolfe: Flower of Love

Thomas Wolfe–the one from North Carolina, author of great novels such as Look Homeward, Angel and You Can’t Go Home Again, not to be confused with the Tom Wolfe who wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test–was born on this day, October 3, 1900. I’ve posted excerpts from Wolfe’s work before. I consider him not only one of the great American writers of all time, but also one of the greatest poets who never published poetry. Luckily, many others have noticed how lyrical and, well, poetic, Wolfe’s prose is, and I am the happy owner of a slim volume of Wolfe’s words lined out as poems. Here is a taste.

O flower of love
Whose strong lips drink us downward into death,
In all things far and fleeting,
Enchantress of our twenty thousand days,
The brain will madden
And the heart be twisted, broken by her kiss,
But glory, glory, glory, she remains:
Immortal love,
Alone and aching in the wilderness,
We cried to you:
You were not absent from our loneliness.

–Thomas Wolfe, selected and arranged in verse
    by John S. Barnes in A Stone, A Leaf, A Door

Thomas Wolfe, Prose Poet

(Credit: Carl Van Vechten, p.d.)

Not many readers feel the need make their way through Thomas Wolfe’s 700 page doorstop, You Can’t Go Home Again. Wolfe’s writing is, shall we say, splayed out–for readers who appreciate regular plot sequence and terse sentences, Wolfe will not satisfy. But I like it a lot. One thing I like most about his writing is its poetic feel. He wrote prose paragraphs in the most enjoyable poetic feel of any novelist I have read. Others have noticed this long before I have, and one editor has gone so far as to take some of Wolfe’s prose and line it out. In his Forward to the book I am about to quote, Louis Untermeyer wrote, “It has often been suggested that Thomas Wolfe was a poet who elected to write in prose.” I agree. The following paragraphs from You Can’t Go Home Again are arranged by John S. Barnes in his book A Stone, A Leaf, A Door

Going Home Again
All through the night
He lay in his dark berth
And watched the old earth of Virginia
As it stroked past him
In the dream-haunted silence of the moon.
Field and hill and gulch
And stream and wood again,
The huge illimitable earth of America,
Kept stroking past him
In the steep silence of the moon.
All through the ghostly stillness of the land,
The train made on forever its tremendous noise,
Fused of a thousand sounds,
And they called back to him
Forgotten memories:
Old songs, old faces, old memories,
And all strange, wordless, and unspoken things
Men know and live and feel,
And never find a language for—
The legend of dark time,
The sad brevity of their days,
The unknowable but haunting miracle
Of life itself.
He heard again,
As he had heard throughout his childhood,
The pounding wheel, the tolling bell, the whistle-wail,
And he remembered how these sounds,
Coming to him from the river’s edge
In the little town of his boyhood,
Had always evoked for him
Their tongueless prophecy
Of wild and secret joy,
Their glorious promises
Of new lands, morning, and a shining city.
But now the lonely cry of the great train
Was speaking to him,
With an equal strangeness, of return.
For he was going home again.
But why had he always felt so strongly
The magnetic pull of home,
Why had he thought so much about it
And remembered it with such blazing accuracy,
If it did not matter,
And if this little town
And the immortal hills around it
Were not the only home he had on earth?
He did not know.
All that he knew
Was that the years flow by like water,
And that one day
Men come home again.
The train rushed onward through the moonlit land.

More Thomas Wolfe

Whatever one may think about Thomas Wolfe’s overall quality as a writer, his descriptive ability is extraordinary. This depiction of the wicked Judge Rumford Bland from his novel You Can’t Go Home Again is chilling, vivid–a word painting if I’ve ever seen one. I give the passage here in its versified form, as found in A Stone, A Leaf, A Door.

But he was stained with evil.

There was something genuinely old and corrupt

At the sources of his life and spirit.

It had got into his blood,

His bone, his flesh.

It was palpable in the touch

Of his thin, frail hand when he greeted you,

It was present in the deadly weariness

Of his tone of voice,

In the dead-white texture

Of his emaciated face,

In his lank and lusterless auburn hair,

And, most of all,

In his sunken mouth,

Around which there hovered constantly

The ghost of a smile.

It could only be called the ghost of a smile,

And yet, really, it was no smile at all.

It was, if anything, only a shadow

At the corners of the mouth.

When one looked closely,

It was gone.

But one knew

That it was always there–

Lewd, evil, mocking,

Horribly corrupt,

And suggesting a limitless vitality

Akin to the humor of death,

Which welled up from some secret spring

In his dark soul.

Like the First Day of the World

by Thomas Wolfe, from A Stone, a Leaf, a Door

And he cried, “Glory! Glory!”
And we rode all through the night,
And round and round the park,
And then dawn came,
And all of the birds began to sing.

And now the bird-song broke in the first light,
And suddenly I heard each sound the bird-song made.
It came to me like music I had always heard,
It came to me like music I had always known,
The sounds of which I never yet had spoken,
And now I heard the music of each sound
As clear and bright as gold,
And the music of each sound was this:

At first it rose above me like a flight of shot,
And then I heard the sharp, fast skaps of sound the bird-song made.
And now with chittering bicker and fast-fluttering skirrs of sound
The palmy, honied bird-cries came.
And now the bird-tree sang,
All filled with lutings in bright air;
The thrum, the lark’s wing, and tongue-trilling chirrs arose.
With liquorous, liquefied lutings,
WIth lirruping chirp, plumbellied smoothness, sweet lucidity.
And now I heard the rapid
Kweet-kweet-kweet-kweet-kweet of homely birds,
And then their pwee-pwee-pwee:
Others had thin metallic tongues,
A sharp cricketing stitch, and high shrews’ caws,
With eery rasp, with harsh, far calls–
These were the sounds the bird-cries made.

All the birds that are
Awoke in the park’s woodland tangles;
And above them passed the whirr of hidden wings,
The strange lost cry of the unknown birds
In full light now in the park,
The sweet confusion of their cries was mingled.

“Sweet is the breath of morn,
Her rising sweet with charm of earliest birds,”
And it was just like that.
And the sun came up,
And it was like the first day of the world.