Troubled Joy: Style and Syntax in Glassco's Poetry

By Ed Jewinski

John Glassco is often considered a "consummate stylist"1 and his poetry remarkably "skilful and ingenious."2  His most characteristic stylistic technique is based, Munro Beattie argues, on "the long sentence — intricately involved, with many parenthetical elements and wide separations of verbs and subject — that straddles two stanzas and densely interweaves its rhythms with the rhythm of the verse pattern."3  The more familiar a reader becomes with Glassco's poetry, however, the more obvious it seems that the effect, as well as the subtlety of Glassco's style, does not simply rest on long or complicated sentences masterfully stressed and rhymed.  The main force, rather, derives from Glassco's ability to create speakers who, in the very act of disentangling their thoughts from direct experience, create a sense of "suspended" or "detached" judgment.  In other words, Glassco creates voices which judge and evaluate their world without being caught up by it and without merely being swept along with it.  The final result is a poem which is closed in form, balanced in structure, and aesthetically detached from the natural world and its mutability: artifice shapes, forms and harmonizes the natural world which is, for Glassco, antithetical to art.

     In Glassco's poetic vision, the natural world, the physical world, is always in decay; man "is destined for slaughter in the course of things"4 the only hope of redemption rests in making the moment of speculation into a moment of art for art's sake.  The theme and the stylistic technique to give that theme substance are beautifully brought together in the following section of "A Point of Sky":

— No, there was never a choice
Of a turning towards the hard blue point of sky!
For even the future is only in the present,
Its hopes and terrors are here and now
And our pleasure and our death
Are consummated every day:
We are already happy
We are already dying
In the moment of speculation
Which holds the shape of the beauty and terror of the
The haze and the storm,
In the moment which holds all our knowledge
As the poise and strain of pleasure is held in the
      beloved's mouth,
As her glance in the morning of meeting
Holds the whole history of our passion
Multiplying and making rich the events
That will never arrive.  (pp. 90-91)

Glassco does not, as this quotation suggests, simply emphasize mental states or subjective attitudes.  He prefers to concentrate on "the moment of speculation," the moment when the mind is engaged with itself, the moment when thought is tracing the nuances and shades of mental possibilities, probabilities and inevitabilities.  As the careful, even exacting, grammatical parallelism of "A Point of Sky" (as well as most of Glassco's poems) implies, the possibility of release inherent in the ability to reflect upon "the events / That will never arrive" is Glassco's true subject.

     The mind, suspended in its act of contemplating the ramifications of experience, can free itself, in a sense, from time and place.  Man's thoughts can become a noble pose or gesture in a world indifferent to all human achievements.  Nature, limited by its own course of ruin and decay, becomes subordinate to — if not actually dependent upon — the human sensibility capable of perceiving the inescapable process of destruction, of grasping it, and, thereby, of refining it into a comprehensible chaos.  As the speaker of "Luce's Notch" explains, it at the moment when he realizes that death cannot be escaped: although the scenes of nature outlast man, they are still only a "blink / Between me and the everlasting darkness," and they may only "come to consciousness through me" (p. 43).


To recognize the ability of the mind to detach itself, at least in the abstract, from the horrors of inescapable ruin — in fact, to recognize that man is the only consciousness capable of articulating nature's course of ruin — is to recognize what Glassco calls in "Deserted Buildings Under Shefford Mountain" the "troubled joy that's half despair" (p. 19).  Moreover, Glassco convinces his readers that his poetic vision is a hard-won "troubled joy" by playing theme against poetic form and style.  Although Glassco, in a poem such as "Gentleman's Farm," focuses upon the subject matter of the "wavering line" (p. 18) and the "ragged thing" (p. 18), as if the world were only "conspicuous waste" (p. 18), he, at the same time, carefully resists an all-too-easy depiction of decay by meticulously controlling every stanza, every rhyme, and every line.  His verse forms, usually closed and balanced — even when not rhymed — suggest an ordered permanence beyond the natural ruin.  Paradoxically, while the world is said to be waste and destruction and collapse, each stanza is carefully sculpted, shaped and designed.  In "Deserted Buildings Under Shefford Mountain," (to instance the poem that will now be examined in detail) Glassco artfully counterpoints the rhyme scheme against the sentence structure of the poem, while, simultaneously, keeping the description of the buildings vivid, sharp and clear.  The final result is an extremely exacting harmony of balance, as if a Roman or Greek temple were being described, rather than a ruin.

     The opening stanzas of "Deserted Buildings Under Shefford Mountain" rely upon exact rhyme and end-stopped lines.  The syntactical and the metrical senses of the verses coincide:

These native angles of decay
      In shed and barn whose broken wings
Lie here half fallen in the way
Of headstones amid uncut hay —
       Why do I love you, ragged things?

What grace unknown to any art,
      What beauty frailer than a mood
Awake in me their counterpart?
What correspondence of a heart
     That loves the failing attitude? (p. 19)

By balancing the sense of the lines with the end-rhymes, Glassco so mutes the dash in line four that the reader feels the summary of line five is both necessary and inevitable.  By lines nine and ten, no dash or break is needed.  The third question of the sequence becomes the logical necessity which requires an answer.  The function of balancing syntax and exact rhyme has served its purpose — each element links and relates.

     In the next four stanzas, however, Glassco uses the technique for which he is most well known.  He now links four stanzas by using a single sentence:

Here where I grasp the certain fate
      Of all man's work in wood and stone,
And con the lesson of the straight
That shall be crooked soon or late
      And crumble into forms alone,

Some troubled joy that's half despair
      Ascends within me like a breath:
I see these silent ruins wear
The speaking look, the sleeping air
      Of features newly cast in death,

Dead faces where we strive to see
      The signatures of something tossed
Between design and destiny,
Between God and absurdity,
      Till, harrowing up a new-made ghost,

We half embrace the wavering form,
      And half conceive the wandering sense
Of some imagined part kept warm
And salvaged from the passing storm
      Of time's insulting accidents.  (pp 19-20)

The first two stanzas which make up this sentence follow the expected rhyme scheme based on the opening pattern of abaab: efeef and ghggh.   Despite the end-stopped lines and rhymes, with their suggestion of order and harmony, the subject discussed centers on notions of "the straight / That shall be crooked soon or late."  If the "straight" dominates in the first two stanzas of the sentence, at least in the sense of stanzaic form, the "crooked" certainly dominates in the last two stanzas.  The expected rhyme scheme is now broken.  The third stanza of the sentence begins with "see," and the "e" sound, which receives a full stress, is compelled to seek harmony with the unstressed "e" sound of "destiny" and "absurdity."  The subtle shift in tonal value prepares the reader for the sharper break in form which occurs in the same stanza: "tossed" and "ghost" remain unrhymed.  The result is an aboax pattern.  The eighth stanza, too, breaks the rhyme pattern of the poem.  Now "form," "warm," and "storm" are I linked structurally, but not tonally, and the remaining end-words also lack perfect rhyme: "sense" and "accidents." Although a reader may recognize that the rhyme scheme has been pushed beyond its initial form, and, therefore, may wish to slow down, he is compelled to read on because of the grammatical and syntactical pattern.  In fact, Glassco controls his poem and his reader's response to it by making certain that no sense of carelessness or sloppiness results.  He achieves this by using anaphora in stanza five ("Between design and destiny / Between God and absurdity. . .) and echo-repetition in stanza six ("We half embrace. . . / And half conceive. . .").  Parallelism, in other words, replaces strict end-rhyme so that unity and coherence is retained.

     In the last two stanzas, Glassco gradually reintegrates the syntactical structure and the end-rhyme pattern.  He achieves his purpose by, initially, making the two stanzas a single sentence:

So I, assailed by the blind love
       That meets me in this silent place,
Lift open arms: Is it enough
That restless things can cease to move
       And leave a ruin wreathed in grace,

Or is this wreck of strut and span
       No more than solace for the creed
Of progress and its emmet plan,
Dark houses that are void of man,
       Dull meadows that have gone to seed.  (p. 20)

The four-stanza sentence which precedes this conclusion may be grammatically and syntactically "self-contained," but its broken rhyme scheme at the conclusion introduces disharmony and "incompleteness."  The seventh stanza, however, offers no relief, no resolution; the end-rhyme is still not restored.  Moreover, stanza seven is grammatically and syntactically connected to stanza eight, thereby forcing the reader to move forward, despite the disconcerting structural interruptions.  Stanza seven, put bluntly, is Janus-faced: its syntax urges the reader to look forward; its broken rhyme scheme compels him to look backward.  The tension is partially alleviated by the concluding stanza of the poem, for an exact harmony between syntactical structure and end-rhyme is restored: "span," "plan" and "man" match, as do "creed" and "seed."

     At the very least, the careful ordering of "Deserted Buildings Under Shefford Mountain" suggests a tension between what is being said and the manner of saying it.  The reader has been all-too-obviously deprived of the comfort of relaxing at intermediate stopping places.   The meter-broken end-rhyme of stanza seven, in particular, bids the reader to pause, while, at the same moment, the syntax urges him to read on.  Great emphasis, therefore, is placed on the middle portion of the poem — the extended sentence which not only precedes, but actually initiates, the moment of disruption and discontinuity.  In retrospect, the reader recognizes that the middle four stanzas isolate the act of contemplation, thus suggesting that thought itself is the "some imagined part kept warm / And salvaged from the passing storm / Of time's insulting accidents."   The very process of creating a. sense of defeated expectancy in the reader reinforces the central motif of the poem: the "correspondence of the heart / That loves the failing attitude."

     One conclusion that might be drawn, then, is that consciousness — especially self-conscious awareness, with all its complexity and intricacy — takes dominance in a Glassco poem.  Man, in effect, becomes an objective spectator of ruin, not a mere victim.  Man is transformed into the articulator of the ruin which cannot express itself.  Admittedly, humans in Glassco's poetic world cannot free themselves physically from nature and its decay, but their very ability to comprehend the unalterable terms of existence grants them dignity — even if their hopes, ambitions and desires lock them into a world of death.  Most simply put, a Glassco poem, despite its surface pessimism, is a "troubled joy" because it is a carefully orchestrated syntactic spectacle — an achievement that gives a sense of shape and design to decay.  Of course, the gesture of intricately refined poetic reflection cannot change or redirect nature's course, but it can preserve and record and describe the force which will eventually annihilate the individual.


If Glassco's poetry can be viewed as a syntactic spectacle which celebrates man's ability to forge art for art's sake, even in a world indifferent to man's sensibility, then numerous stylistic features can be seen to be as significant as his images, metaphors and motifs of collapse and decay.  In fact, often the style runs counter to — even contradicts — the seeming subject matter of the poem.  Of particular interest are the following stylistic features, for these function to mitigate the seeming sense of unqualified pessimism or unrelieved despair.  It is the style, not the content, which suggests the compassionate side of Glassco's poetry.  The point can be made more firmly by analyzing some of this poet's most distinctive features: (1) a contrasting use of non-transitive and transitive verbs; (2) a reliance upon abstract nouns; (3) a noticeable use of that to link ideas; (4) a habitual use of pronouns—"he," "him," "his," "who"; and, finally, (5) a dependence on negative or near negative words.  A quick skim over these stylistic preferances clarifies not only the tendency to, but the need for, abstractions in Glassco's poetry.  Abstractions are man made.  They lack corporeality.  They suggest the things which endure, and, therefore, function to counteract the powerful imagery of "graves" and "corpses" which often predominate in his poetry.

     An understanding of Glassco's use of verbs is crucial to his work.  He often concentrates on man's ability to understand, rather than man's ability to do something.  Glassco underscores this distinction by using intransitive and stative verbs to stress the separation between man's sensibility and his environment.  Nature, for example, is often identified with intransitives.  Glassco presents a world where "the field birds cry and contend" (p. 13), a world where a "valley's sun and rain/ Score harshly" (p. 17), a world where an "unwrinkled lake . . . / Shimmered all morning" (p. 28).  For Glassco, the earth is the place where "the landscape owns" (p. 34) while the seasons "speed" (p. 43).  When not relying upon intransitives, Glassco draws liberally on stative verbs like "is" or "has": "a side-road has no purpose" (p. 13); "here is the dry light" (p. 29); "the grass is choked with moss" (p. 37); "The trees beyond are blowing green" (p. 62); "The light is shed" (p. 84).  By using intransitive and stative verbs, Glassco can emphasize that nature has (everything it needs) and is (complete in itself).

     In part, then, Glassco uses verbs to emphasize the enduring and self-contained state of nature; however, Glassco also uses verbs — as any poet must — to describe the actions of man.  For that  purpose, Glassco often selects transitive verbs.  Transitive verbs dominate whenever Glassco wishes to emphasize that the death of human ambition is inevitable and vain, for "we drive into the  trap, / Seeking the mountain, the five worthless farms" (p. 24).  The industrious farmer, too, will come to ruin, despite his "Beating of the ploughshare into an honest dollar / Who living and dying planned to cheat time's night" (p. 14).  And even man, at the very moment of protesting his fate, relies upon transitive verbs:

Strive with both hands against the encroaching dark
Blow with your breath against the eructations
Deny, always deny that you are diminishing
Let your words burst like blisters in the face of the law
Asserting always it was not made for you.  (p. 92)

Man's fraility is revealed in the subject/verb/object sentence structure — the actor is capable of being acted upon, he is corruptible, weak, mutable, mortal.

     Glassco, it must be pointed out here, does not use these verbs in any rigid manner.  His verse is not programmed to meet a scheme or plan.  The pattern is nevertheless consistent enough to conclude that the two kinds of verb patterns highlight the inevitable conflict between man and nature.  Moreover, a third pattern is also typical of Glassco's work, one which reinforces man's ability to release himself from the struggle.  In this pattern, Glassco relies upon abstractions to mute the inevitability of the subject/verb/object structure.  His central reason for modulating the pattern seems to be based on his desire to remind man to use his mind, rather than body.  It is his way of way of stressing that there is no way of living, only a "mode of life" (p. 9).  To emphasize the mental rather than the physical, the "intellectual" rather than the "bodily active" state, Glassco favours abstractions like "design," "destiny," "God," "absurdity," "life," "death," "time," and "infinity." The opening section of the concluding poem of Selected Poems perfectly illustrates the point, for, in Glassco's poetry, even love is, at times, an issue of the mind, not the body:

Now that I have your hand, let me persuade you
The means are more important than the end,
Ends being only an excuse for action,
For adventures sought for their own sake alone,
Pictures along the way, feelings
Released in love: so, acting out our dreams
We justify movement by giving it a purpose
(Who can be still forever?)
This is the rationale of travel
And the formula of lovers. (p. 94)

     The extensive use of abstract words represents only one method Glassco exploits to convey his sense of the importance of the mind.  He also delights in creating long periodic sentences which contain ideas linked by subordinators like that or which While such sentences achieve an onward thrusting movement of language, they also recreate the very power of mind Glassco admires: the power to impose relations.  An extended section from "Luce's Notch" may be used to illustrate how Glassco can keep an issue in suspense over a long stretch of verse:

                . . . I feel
That these green fields, these waterfalls and woods,
These valleys and these winding roads that follow
Always the heights — no matter at what length,
Time being nothing to the men who made them! —
That all these things which now are quite confused
In a beautiful composite of man and nature,
So that even old Foster seems to bless
The farms spread out beneath his weightless shadow,
That they, who are made to outlast my span of vision,
And in whose life the glimpses that I gain
Of the mute, breathing beauty of the world 
Stand as a passing moment only, a blink
Between me and the everlasting darkness
May come to consciousness through me. (p. 43, my emphasis)

     By holding off, by suspending, by delaying — while at the same time extending and augmenting through subordinators like that — Glassco is able to show, rather than tell about, the mind's capacity to give shape and design and significance to experience.  Elegant syntactic variations and the grammatical subordination of physical events are related directly to Glassco's habit of creating a poetic world wherein the linking of things is achieved by the mind, not by the casual forces exterior to it.

     Glassco adds to this impression by often introducing numerous pronouns in his poetry — especially "he," "him," "his."  By using pronouns, this poet is able to put the emphasis upon thought, rather than upon the specific thinker.  Poems like "Thomas Kempis" employ this technique:

His unsubsistent mind, self-moving and
Subject to rerum horror, could observe
— Before its descent into the nightly grave —
Not that the cell expands, but the prisoner
Diminishes himself, not that he's brave
But that, on earth, there's nothing left to fear.
Nobodaddy held him in his hand, . . . (p. 53)

The title of the poem names the main character; in the poem, the reader is responsible for remembering the pronoun's antecedent.  The process of thought — particularly in long balanced sentences full of parallelism — therefore receives emphasis rather than mere identity.  The reader's memory is relied upon, the reader's ability to abstract is called upon, requiring him to participate in — rather than be a mere observer of — the process.

     The last device of importance is Glassco's repeated use of negatives.  The plentitude of Nature is constantly heading toward decay, but the mind is capable of sensing the ultimate negatives to which Nature cannot attain: nothing and nothingness.  In fact, the fullness of man, as suggested by "Brummel at Calais," implies, paradoxically enough, that man succeeds best when he makes no effort to "do" anything.  To act merely diminishes:

An art of being, nothing but being, the grace
Of perfect self-assertion based on nothing,
As in our vanity's cause against the void
He strikes his elegant blow, the solemn report of those
Who have done nothing and will never die. (p. 57)

     The "troubled joy" of marking the disparity between the rich inheritance of literary expression and the meaner natural world is the positive element in the surface bleakness of Glassco's poetry.  The closed poetic form, in particular, indicates the potential for unif'ying the human experience, although nature itself allows no closure.  In fact, it is the tension between the two that often best reveals Glassco's accomplishment.


  1. Frank Davey, From There to Here (Erin: Press Porcepic, 1974), p. 124.[back]

  2. Munro Beattie, "Poetry: 1950-1960," Literary History of Canada, Vol. 2, 3nd ed., ed. Carl. F. Klinck (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976), p. 309.[back]

  3. Beattie, pp. 309-310.[back]

  4. John Glassco, Selected Poems (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 9. All further citations are to this text.[back]