The University recently produced a special printing of Percy’s work entitled Sewanee. The piece was first written for the Sewanee Review and was later incorporated as a chapter in the poet’s autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee, published in 1941. The work became a best seller.
Contained within is a beautiful description of Sewanee and all her beauty through the seasons. I share it with you below:
“In winter there is a powder of snow; the pines sag like ladies in ermine, and the other trees are glassy and given to creaking. Later, arbutus is under the dead leaves where they have drifted, but unless you look for it betimes, you’ll find instead puffs of ghost caught under the higher trees, and that’s dogwood, and puffs of the saddest color in the world that’s tender, too, and that’s redbud, which some say is pink and some purple and some give up but simply must write a poem about. The rest of the flowers you shouldn’t believe in if I told you, so I’ll tell you: anemones and hepaticas and blood-root that troop under the cliffs, always together, too ethereal to mix with reds and yellow or even pinks, and violets everywhere, in armies. The gray and purple and blue sort you’ll credit, but not the tiny yellow ones with the bronze throats, nor the jack-rabbit ones with royal purple ears and faces of pale lavender that stare without a bit of violet modesty. If you’ve seen azalea – and miscalled it wild honeysuckle, probably – you still don’t know what it is unless you’ve seen it here, with its incredible range of color from white through shell pink to deep coral (and now and then a tuft of orange that doesn’t match anything else in the whole woods), and its perfume actually dangerous, so pagan it is. After it you’d better hunt for a calacanthus with brown petals (what else likes its petal brown?) and a little melancholy in its scent, to sober you. We call our bluets “innocence,” for that’s what they are. They troop near the iris, which when coarsened by gardens some call fleur-de-lis, and others, who care nothing about names, flags. Our orchids we try to make respectable by christening them “lady-slippers,” but they still look as if they had been designed by D.H. Lawrence – only rose and canary colored.
After Orion has set – in other words, when the most fragile and delicate and wistful things have abandoned loveliness for fructifying – the laurel, rank and magnificent for all its tender pink, starts hanging bouquets as big as hydrangeas on its innumerable bushes. But on moonlight nights there’s no use trying to say it isn’t a glory and a madness! And so the summer starts – summer, when we’re not seraph-eyed enough to see flowers even if there were any. In the fall, when our souls return, a little worse off, a little snivelly, there are foggy wisps of asters whose quality only a spider would hint at aloud, and in the streams where the iris forgathered there are parnassia, the snowdrop’s only kin. Mountain-folk alone have seen their virginal processions, ankle-deep in water, among scarlet leaves, each holding a round green shield and carrying at the end of a spear, no thicker than a broomstraw, a single pale green star. Last, chilly and inaccessible and sorrowful, in the damp of the woods, come the gentians, sea-blue and hushed."
So is the beauty and procession of colors and seasons here on the mountain. Is it any wonder Percy’s book was a best seller? So lovely are his choice of words, and they leave me longing for spring and its fine display…for the fields of daffodils, tiny crocus, the scent of honeysuckle and fresh, soft earth as I walk through Abbo’s Alley. Today, I am content with the dark silhouettes of bare trees vaguely visible through the haunting fog, but in my heart is a longing for the time when the mountain comes alive again after its long winter sleep.
If you are interested in reading more of Percy’s work, the LSU press reprinted Lanterns on the Levee in 2006, ISBN-13: 978-8071-0072-1. Percy also published five books of poetry, listed below:
- Sappho in Levkas, and Other Poems. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1915
- In April Once, and Other Poems. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1920
- Enzio’s Kingdom, and Other Poems. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1930
- Selected Poems. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1930
- Collected Poems. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1943
May you stay warm this cool January day, and may your dreams of spring soon come true!