Versecraft

"Send Forth the High Falcon" by Leonie Adams

March 30, 2023 Elijah Perseus Blumov Season 3 Episode 4
"Send Forth the High Falcon" by Leonie Adams
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Versecraft
"Send Forth the High Falcon" by Leonie Adams
Mar 30, 2023 Season 3 Episode 4
Elijah Perseus Blumov

PSA: No Versecraft next week! Sorry :(  Also, the audio is a little crackly in the beginning, but smooths out after a few minutes.  

Topics discussed in this episode include: 

-Why the 1920's be like that

-The Modernist rogues gallery

-Flapper Poet Girl Gang

-The Neo-Romantics

-Contribute to the Make Versecraft A Legitimate Side Hustle Fund

-Hag Pesach Sameach, y'all

-Who knew 1899-1988 was such a tongue twister?

-Jesus Louises! (Bogan and Gluck)

-Crackpot critical savant Harold Bloom

-Cool contempo skalds Annie Finch and Shane McCrae

-Romantic-Metaphysical-Symbolist melange

-Rules are meant to be broken, apparently

-A case for Sam Spade

-"The Clouds" by Aristophanes

-Insert "Second Coming" reference here

-Classic heart vs. mind situash. 

-I'm not philosophically vain, I'm metaphysically conceited! 

-Young millennial nostalgic fav Fantasia 2000 

-The Myth of Phaethon

-I like my air medium rare

-Sympathy for the hapless mind

-The mind takes credit for the heart's work

-A devotional poem? 

-The big homie John "Spank Me Daddy" Donne

-The smaller homie Francis Thompson

-Pros and cons of Romanticism

-Modernism = Wacky Romanticism

-Post-Modernism = Wacky_R0mant1c1sm.jpg

-Aeschylus is never wrong

Text of poem:

Send Forth the High Falcon

Send forth the high falcon flying after the mind   

Till it come toppling down from its cold cloud:   

The beak of the falcon to pierce it till it fall

Where the simple heart is bowed.

O in wild innocence it rides

The rare ungovernable element,

But once it sways to terror and descent,

The marches of the wind are its abyss,

No wind staying it upward of the breast—

Let mind be proud for this,

And ignorant from what fabulous cause it dropt,

Or with how learned a gesture the unschooled heart   

Shall lull both terror and innocence to rest.

Support the Show.

BUY VERSECRAFT MERCH HERE.

Please subscribe, rate, and review! Thanks so much for listening.

You can leave me a tip, support the podcast, or request a commission here!

TikTok: @versecraft
Send me a note at: versecraftpodcast@gmail.com

My favorite poetry podcasts for:
Sharp thoughts and cutting truths (Matthew): Sleerickets
Lovely introspection and sensitive reflection (Alice): Poetry Says
The landscape of Ohioan poetry (Jeremy): Poetry Spotlight

Supported in part by The Ohio Poetry Association
Art by David Anthony Klug

List of the most common metrical feet:
Iamb: weak-STRONG (u /)
Trochee: STRONG-weak (/ u)
Anapest: weak-weak-STRONG (u u /)
Amphibrach: weak-STRONG-weak (u / u)
Dactyl: STRONG-weak-weak (/ u u)
Cretic: STRONG-weak-STRONG (/ u /)
Pyrrhic: weak-weak (u u)
Spondee: STRONG-STRONG (/ /)

Show Notes Transcript

PSA: No Versecraft next week! Sorry :(  Also, the audio is a little crackly in the beginning, but smooths out after a few minutes.  

Topics discussed in this episode include: 

-Why the 1920's be like that

-The Modernist rogues gallery

-Flapper Poet Girl Gang

-The Neo-Romantics

-Contribute to the Make Versecraft A Legitimate Side Hustle Fund

-Hag Pesach Sameach, y'all

-Who knew 1899-1988 was such a tongue twister?

-Jesus Louises! (Bogan and Gluck)

-Crackpot critical savant Harold Bloom

-Cool contempo skalds Annie Finch and Shane McCrae

-Romantic-Metaphysical-Symbolist melange

-Rules are meant to be broken, apparently

-A case for Sam Spade

-"The Clouds" by Aristophanes

-Insert "Second Coming" reference here

-Classic heart vs. mind situash. 

-I'm not philosophically vain, I'm metaphysically conceited! 

-Young millennial nostalgic fav Fantasia 2000 

-The Myth of Phaethon

-I like my air medium rare

-Sympathy for the hapless mind

-The mind takes credit for the heart's work

-A devotional poem? 

-The big homie John "Spank Me Daddy" Donne

-The smaller homie Francis Thompson

-Pros and cons of Romanticism

-Modernism = Wacky Romanticism

-Post-Modernism = Wacky_R0mant1c1sm.jpg

-Aeschylus is never wrong

Text of poem:

Send Forth the High Falcon

Send forth the high falcon flying after the mind   

Till it come toppling down from its cold cloud:   

The beak of the falcon to pierce it till it fall

Where the simple heart is bowed.

O in wild innocence it rides

The rare ungovernable element,

But once it sways to terror and descent,

The marches of the wind are its abyss,

No wind staying it upward of the breast—

Let mind be proud for this,

And ignorant from what fabulous cause it dropt,

Or with how learned a gesture the unschooled heart   

Shall lull both terror and innocence to rest.

Support the Show.

BUY VERSECRAFT MERCH HERE.

Please subscribe, rate, and review! Thanks so much for listening.

You can leave me a tip, support the podcast, or request a commission here!

TikTok: @versecraft
Send me a note at: versecraftpodcast@gmail.com

My favorite poetry podcasts for:
Sharp thoughts and cutting truths (Matthew): Sleerickets
Lovely introspection and sensitive reflection (Alice): Poetry Says
The landscape of Ohioan poetry (Jeremy): Poetry Spotlight

Supported in part by The Ohio Poetry Association
Art by David Anthony Klug

List of the most common metrical feet:
Iamb: weak-STRONG (u /)
Trochee: STRONG-weak (/ u)
Anapest: weak-weak-STRONG (u u /)
Amphibrach: weak-STRONG-weak (u / u)
Dactyl: STRONG-weak-weak (/ u u)
Cretic: STRONG-weak-STRONG (/ u /)
Pyrrhic: weak-weak (u u)
Spondee: STRONG-STRONG (/ /)

Versecraft Episode 3-4: “Send Forth the High Falcon” by Leonie Adams

 

            As has been briefly mentioned elsewhere on this podcast, and as every English professor will tell you, the ideological ferment of the 1920’s was a crucible for many profound and lasting changes in American literature. The advancing development of destabilizing forces carried over from the 19th century, like Darwinism, Marxism, Psychoanalysis, Existentialism, aristocratic decline, and modern industrial technology, had created an atmosphere of profound excitement and uncertainty in the new 20th century. This highly-strung web of tensions was then cacophonously released by the utter horror and trauma of the first World War, a display of human monstrosity that, in addition to literally destroying many long-standing structures and institutions, made people feel profoundly adrift both spiritually and culturally, disillusioned both by the toxic fruits of European civilization and by the shocking sense that reality itself was far less obviously meaningful than previously presumed. This mass scale existential crisis convinced many people that nearly every discipline, especially artistic disciplines, ought to undergo some kind of radical reform in order to better reflect modern life and cater to modern needs. Deep and radical artistic experimentation ensued: in poetry, the once fringe practice of free verse roared to the fore, and in multitudinous fashions: the fragmentary and allusive High Modernism of Eliot and Pound, the playful syllabics of Marianne Moore, the swirling glossolalia of Gertrude Stein, the minimalist Imagism of H.D. and William Carlos Williams.

            As I stressed in the Robinson episode however, the 1920’s, though pervaded by a modern zeitgeist, was far from monolithic in its embrace of extreme modernist experimentation. Interestingly, the socially liberated women of this generation, the so-called Flappers, while often extravagant in their lifestyles, tended to be quite conservative in their poetics: popular, edgy poets like Edna St. Vincent-Millay, Sara Teasdale, Elinor Wylie, and even the more academic Louise Bogan all wrote poems that, were it not for their swaggering air and feminist themes, would appear right at home beside poems written in the previous century. In between these two extremes of the avant-garde and the conventional you had figures like Robinson and Frost, who took traditional poetic practices and tweaked them to accommodate modern subject matter and modern speech. You also however had another very interesting group of poets who took an entirely different, almost contrasting approach. 

These poets, who for lack of a better term I will call Neo-Romantics, sought not to incorporate modern, plain-spoken language into traditional forms, but to use ornate and often obscure, quasi-symbolic language to explore new and more sophisticated ways of expressing traditional Romantic values, often but not always within the framework of traditional forms and meters. For these poets, modernism meant neither a reform in subject matter nor formal arrangement so much as a reform in language itself, and a corresponding rarefication of consciousness. Less naïve than their Regency and Victorian forbears and inspired by the linguistic ground broken by the French Symbolists at the turn of the century, they would continue to carry on the pioneering spirit of Wordsworth, Whitman, Keats, and Hopkins but in terms more nuanced, conceptual, and phenomenological, using language to call attention to itself and thereby hint at the inexpressibility of thought and feeling, the ineffable mysticism that lay behind their words. The modernist poet who perhaps best exemplifies this Neo-Romantic modus operandi is Hart Crane, but it also describes much of the work of Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas, the later W.B. Yeats, and our poet for today, the fascinating and nearly forgotten poet Leonie Adams. 

Before I get to Ms. Adams however, I’d like to take the opportunity to thank you all so much for listening. The podcast has gotten considerable traffic in the last month or so, and it’s all thanks to listeners like yourselves spreading the good word. If you’re enjoying the show, please consider taking a moment to leave me a tip or sign up to be a member of Versecraft, which you can do at my link in the show notes. It takes many hours and considerable labor to put this show together every week, and I appreciate any contributions you might care to make. If you aren’t in a position to give right now, please take a moment this week to share the show with someone you think might enjoy it. Any and all of these efforts are deeply appreciated. 

I’d also like to give everyone a heads up that unfortunately there will be no episode of Versecraft next week, as I’m going down South to visit my family for Passover. They’re opening the door for Elijah, so of course I have to be there. 

Alright, let’s get back to our poet. Leonie Adams, who lived from 1899 to 1988, lived—

apart from a rather stormy affair with literary critic Edmund Wilson— a relatively quiet life ensconced in academia. As a young woman, she was friends and roommates with future sexual revolutionary Margaret Meade, and after graduating befriended the poet H.D., who took her on a tour of the legendary literary salons of 1920’s London and Paris. Once settled back in America, Adams took up a slew of teaching posts and continued to successfully publish poetry, eventually becoming the U.S. Poet Laureate in 1948. In 1954, she won the Bollingen Prize alongside her sometime frenemy Louise Bogan, Bogan, a good sport, commented that her rival possessed a “poetic endowment as deep as it is rare.” Adams continued to teach until her death, and is notable for being a poetic mentor to the now tremendously popular and decorated poet Louise Gluck. 

            Despite her many accolades and prestigious teaching posts however, Adams has lapsed into obscurity in the years since her death. Despite her obvious talent, she possessed none of the three qualities which typically cause a poet to stick in the public consciousness: she did not have an extravagant personality or dramatic life, she did not have a notable influence on other poets, and she did not write poetry that was particularly accessible. In recent years however, critics like Harold Bloom and poets like Annie Finch and Shane McCrae have recognized Adams’s considerable talent and attempted to resurrect her reputation. 

If I haven’t made it apparent already in this podcast, I myself am a poet who prizes the Classical virtues of clarity, restraint, rationality, and faithfulness to reality, and as such tend to be quite suspicious of the excesses of the Neo-Romantic poets, to say nothing of Modernist poets in general. However, I too can recognize a poetic gift when I see it, and I am more than happy to support the resurrection of Leonie Adams’s exquisite lyrics, especially when I can find a poem, like today’s poem, that I am deeply impressed with. Today’s poem, which has the amazingly badass title “Send Forth the High Falcon,” is not only a complex yet elegant study of the relationship between reason and emotion, but perfectly demonstrates the rich fusion of three different poetic styles for which Adams was known: the Romantic, the Metaphysical, and the Symbolist. Examining this poem will give us insight into the nature of all three of these styles, as well as how they can fruitfully interact with one another. The poem goes like this: 

 

Send Forth the High Falcon

 

Send forth the high falcon flying after the mind   

Till it come toppling down from its cold cloud:   

The beak of the falcon to pierce it till it fall

Where the simple heart is bowed.

O in wild innocence it rides

The rare ungovernable element,

But once it sways to terror and descent,

The marches of the wind are its abyss,

No wind staying it upward of the breast—

Let mind be proud for this,

And ignorant from what fabulous cause it dropt,

Or with how learned a gesture the unschooled heart   

Shall lull both terror and innocence to rest.

 

The more I studied this poem, the more amused I became at how recalcitrant it is to rules that it strongly suggests but doesn’t follow. To begin with, it’s a thirteen-line poem, one line shy of a sonnet, and this is a choice that must have been deliberate—a choice to intentionally evoke a sonnet, but to not be one. Why this choice? Perhaps it was mere whim, or perhaps the final word, “rest” is meant to imply a final line of silence, a line of rest. 

If we look at the rhyme scheme, we see that it is hardly a scheme at all, but a motley assortment of correspondences: it runs ABXBADDEFEGGF. Furthermore, some of these rhymes are perfect, like “cloud” and “bowed” and “abyss” and “this,” one is an assonantal slant rhyme, “mind” and “rides,” one is barely a rhyme at all: “dropt” and “heart,” and one line, the third, doesn’t rhyme whatsoever. When we hear the rhymes chime in our ears, we expect that there is some kind of order at work—technically there is, but there is far less order than our ears give credit for. 

If we look at the meter, we find ourselves mostly in iambic pentameter, but confronted with an early example of the sort of loose iambic we saw in Hilbert and Stallings. Anapests abound, giving the lines an unfastened, skipping feel. More radically, the pentameter is abandoned in the fourth line, which is trimeter, the fifth line, which is tetrameter, and the tenth line which is trimeter. Patterns are established, only to be broken. 

If we look more closely at these non-pentameter lines however, we see that they may have a structural purpose. The combination of the chiming rhyme of “cloud” and “bowed” and the shortness of the fourth line, which invites the reader to pause for the two missing beats, gives that fourth line a kind of conclusiveness, setting it and everything that came before it apart, sonically defining a quatrain. The fifth line, a line of tetrameter, eases us back in to pentameter, which takes over once again in the sixth line, and the sixth, seventh, and eight lines give us a perfect string of iambic pentameter unique in the poem, lending that passage a sense of sobriety and solemnity. 

The tenth line gives us trimeter once again, letting us know, in combination with the em dash of line nine, that we have ended the second part of the poem and begun the third, which proves to be the volta of this non-sonnet sonnet. Once we have distinguished that the poem as three parts, we observe that these parts are organized into a symmetrical but highly unconventional stanzaic structure: quatrain, quintain, quatrain. How does this structure affect the flow of thought in the poem? We find that the first quatrain is introductory, and gives us the cause, the falcon’s attack, of what is to be the poem’s subject, the fall of the mind; the slightly longer quintain offers us the principal effect of the attack, the plummeting of the mind, which is the central drama of the poem. Finally, in the concluding quatrain, the speaker offers a moral insight on the fall that has occurred. The form is unconventional, loose, and unpredictable, but the logical flow is as tight as any Renaissance sonnet, and the melody nearly as sweet. The poem is a striking example of having your cake and eating it too: breaking the rules to suit your whims but maintaining the essential strengths of the tradition in which you work. 

            Let’s now go back and read what we have identified as the first quatrain again: 

 

Send forth the high falcon flying after the mind   

Till it come toppling down from its cold cloud:   

The beak of the falcon to pierce it till it fall

Where the simple heart is bowed.

 

            Immediately, and with considerable élan, we are confronted with an image we cannot possibly visualize: a falcon hunting down a mind—not a brain, mind you, but a mind. The mind, a non-physical entity, is treated as if it not only has physicality, but literally dwells in the clouds. In order to make sense of any of this, we must of course read the situation figuratively. The falcon is a powerful symbol—but of what? The answer is not obvious, and the mysteriousness of the falcon becomes part of its power. Here we see Adams making use not only of symbolism as a literary device, but Symbolism with a capital S— a style of writing that uses figurative images less as intelligible metaphors than as evocations of subtle moods, vague concepts, complex and indescribable feelings. The falcon is powerful and sinister, a predator of the mind, but its identity is, so far at least, uncertain. We are left to bask in the grandeur of its suggestiveness. 

The mind in the cloud is, on the other hand, such a common metaphor that it’s almost humorously cliché. As in Aristophanes’ famous comedy, “The Clouds,” we understand the mind in the cloud to be a mind that is cut off from reality: a mind that is daydreaming, lost in fantasy, delusion, or abstraction. The qualification that it is a “cold cloud” sharpens the image: a cold mind suggests a mind cut off from emotion, a mind that seeks to be supremely rational. Such a mind in a cloud would be a mind that entertains dreams of pure rational abstraction, so far removed from the concrete details of life, so loftily pretentious and calculating as to be stratospherically remote. It is this sort of mind that is the prey of the falcon—the falcon being an image which, compared to the celestial psyche, possesses bristling, savage substantiality. This contrast already begins to give us an inkling of what the falcon might be. 

Before we continue that investigation however, there are two more intriguing things to consider here. The first is the question: who is the addressee of this poem? The poem begins with a command, as if from a monarch to her falconer: “send forth the high falcon.” If we consider however that the falcon is not a falcon at all, but a force, a force conceptually powerful enough to hunt down and topple lofty minds from their dreams of pure reason, we must imagine that the wielder of such a force, the “falconer” so to speak, must be a powerful entity indeed. By this light, the command of the speaker reads less like a command than an invocation: a prayer to a deity to bring down wrath upon the hubristic mind. 

Once the falcon strikes the mind, piercing it with its beak, the mind will, according to the speaker, falls downwards until it reaches “where the simple heart is bowed.” Here we have a number of contrasts which are very telling, and confirm suspicions we have already discussed. The figurative heart, the seat of emotions, is an obvious counterpart to the mind, and the fact that the speaker situates the heart at a lower altitude than the mind accords with the placement of the literal heart in relation to the literal brain. More than this however, Adams means to suggest that the heart is more down-to-earth, more concerned with the things of the world. Given that the heart and the mind are placed in juxtaposition, any descriptor applied to one will be a commentary on the other: the heart is described as simple, implying that the mind is complex; the heart is described as “bowing” implying that the heart is humble, yielding, reverential, whereas the mind is arrogant, defiant, self-glorifying. The speaker desires to punish the mind for its hubris, wishes for it to be violently struck off its cloudy pedestal of pretensions, that it may plummet to the level of the heart. 

Let’s now begin again, and this time read through the first nine lines, what I have called the quatrain and the quintain:

 

Send forth the high falcon flying after the mind   

Till it come toppling down from its cold cloud:   

The beak of the falcon to pierce it till it fall

Where the simple heart is bowed.

O in wild innocence it rides

The rare ungovernable element,

But once it sways to terror and descent,

The marches of the wind are its abyss,

No wind staying it upward of the breast—

 

            The first thing to notice here is that Adams is doubling down on the metaphorical framework she established in the first quatrain: the image of the falcon hunting the proud mind, sending it toppling down to join the heart, is not a one-off bit of symbolic rhetoric, but the principal subject of this poem. The quintain elaborates upon and complexifies this image, transforming it from a mere metaphor into an allegorical argument, a metaphysical conceit. Here we see how Adams is combining Symbolist with Metaphysical methods: like the Symbolists, she has concocted an evocative image—a falcon hunting down a mind— which is itself highly abstract, suggestive, and somewhat vague. Like the Metaphysical poets, she has begun to make the case for a particular position based upon a metaphor that becomes more and more extended, more and more pregnant with corresponding meanings and ramifications. This sort of extended metaphor concocted for the sake of argumentation is a technique known as metaphysical conceit. For a great example of a more straightforward metaphysical conceit, please see my George Herbert episode. 

            In the quintain, the speaker fleshes out the details of the abstract image with which we have been presented: the mind in its cold cloud has been riding the “rare, ungovernable element,” that is, the air, in a state of “wild innocence.” Already, there are several interesting things to notice. The first is how whimsical and childlike this supposedly cold mind is: it is not in a state of static, stoic contemplation, but is instead cavorting around its cloud like one of those celestial whales from Fantasia 2000: This is a mind revved up by the possibilities of its own thoughts, bursting with hopes and dreams. Far from unemotional, it is ecstatic in the play of its ideas. 

Furthermore, the mind is described as riding around in “wild innocence.” This is an interesting move by Adams, because it subverts our expectations: typically, if any aspect of ourselves is considered wild and innocent, it is our hearts, which must be domesticated by the sobering logic of our rational minds. Here however, it is the mind that is wild and innocent, the mind that is blissfully ignorant and youthfully out of control. Naively, it rides around in the air, not realizing that the air is an “ungovernable element.” The mind thinks it has tamed and taken ownership of the lofty heights it has reached, but it is in fact outside of its true element, and, like Phaethon with the chariots of the Sun, is messing with hazardous forces beyond its control. 

The air is described as “rare,” in this case meaning thin, and this alerts us to the fact that the mind is playing at a perilous, dizzying height, an incredibly rarified level of abstraction. We could of course also read “rare” to mean precious or uncommon, in which case we have the secondary meaning that the realm of abstraction which the mind has ascended to is, despite its dangers, a valuable place to be, and also that it is an uncommon place to reach, either because most people never scale the heights of such lofty thought, or perhaps because humans are the only animals capable of thinking in this way. 

Two lines into the quintain, and we have already seen incredible development from the previous quatrain: whereas in the quatrain we were probably inclined to think that the cold and arrogant mind living in its own world deserved its come-to-Jesus come-uppance from the falcon, the situation has become more complicated: the fall from hubris has instead become a fall from innocence, a fall from grace, and what once seemed a cut and dry case of cosmic justice has taken on tragic dimensions. The mind, happy and innocent in its fantasy of power, has become an almost sympathetic character, and the falcon, the dispeller of illusions, while an agent of truth and maturity perhaps, is also one of lamentable cruelty. 

Lines 7 through 9 describe what happens once the falcon has knocked the oblivious mind from its cloud and sent it “swaying to terror and descent.” In free fall, “the marches of the wind are its abyss.” We can read “marches of the wind” as a description of movement, the winds moving in a kind of unstoppable, fatalistic procession, but the primary meaning of “marches” here is the geo-political sense of a boundary or contested territory. The mind had established a cold and remote kingdom in the air, but now discovers that the air is a far more hostile place than it had imagined, and that the discrepancy—the untamed, unfathomed borderlands— between the dreams of the mind and the realities of the heart is terrifying. Within the context of the allegory, the sky is an abyss both literally and figuratively: the mind is falling through the empty air, and this literal abyss precipitates an abyss of meaning, an existential crisis for the mind. Those same heights which were once the source of the mind’s happiness have swiftly become the source of its dread. 

“No wind staying it upward of the breast” refers to the fact that the mind is not buoyant enough to float anywhere above the place where the “simple heart is bowed.” As a falcon will take a turtle in its talons and hurl it onto a rock in order to smash its shell, so the falcon here has hurled the mind onto the heart, that it may break forth into a new and better understanding.

Let’s now begin again, and this time, read all the way through: 

 

Send forth the high falcon flying after the mind   

Till it come toppling down from its cold cloud:   

The beak of the falcon to pierce it till it fall

Where the simple heart is bowed.

O in wild innocence it rides

The rare ungovernable element,

But once it sways to terror and descent,

The marches of the wind are its abyss,

No wind staying it upward of the breast—

Let mind be proud for this,

And ignorant from what fabulous cause it dropt,

Or with how learned a gesture the unschooled heart   

Shall lull both terror and innocence to rest.

 

In the beginning of the last quatrain, we have the curious injunction: “let mind be proud for this.” How could the mind possibly be proud of such an utter defeat, such a fall from its previous false pride? The speaker goes on to suggest, in order to support the mind’s pride, that it remain “ignorant from what fabulous cause it dropt.” Like us, the mind is ignorant of the identity of the falcon, the “fabulous cause.” From this we may gather that somehow, through some sort of mental gymnastics, the mind will take credit for its transition from the dreams of cloud cuckoo land to the earthly wisdom of the heart. Beyond this, the speaker urges the mysterious falconer to let the mind remain ignorant not only of the falcon, but the remedial actions of the heart which the mind falls upon. 

The heart is described paradoxically as both “learned,” and “unschooled,” suggesting a wisdom which comes from experience rather than book learning— book learning being what the mind, presumably, had been obsessively occupied with. The heart shall take the mind unto itself, and “lull both terror and innocence to rest.” That is, the heart will teach the mind not only to be calm after its terrifying fall, but to let go of its naïve innocence, and gently embrace the truth of things. The mind of course will take credit for all of this spiritual development. 

What are we to make of this poem? We’ve covered a lot of ground, so let’s go back and see if we can trace the argument: 

The speaker implores a mysterious being, a metaphorical falconer, to send their metaphorical falcon to cast down the mind from its joyful yet unrealistic fantasies of rational abstraction down into the embrace of the heart. This disillusioning fall will be existentially traumatic for the mind, but it will eventually learn both peace and realistic maturity from the heart. The speaker urges however the falconer however to allow the still proud mind one final fantasy: to believe that it is self-sufficiently responsible for its own development. 

Even at the end of this poem, we are left with several identity problems: who is the falconer? What is the falcon? Whose mind is being cast down? We cannot be sure on any of these fronts, but I think we can make some reasonable guesses. As I mentioned earlier, in order to cast down the mind from its illusions, the falcon must be a powerful force, and the falconer an even more powerful one. The speaker presumes to give orders to the falconer, but we can view this order less as an imperious command than as a supplication, a prayer, a simultaneous blessing and curse of tough love. The addressee, the falconer, we can therefore take to be God, and this would track with Adams’ own religiosity. If Adams is in fact addressing God, then the conventions of devotional poetry would suggest that the mind she hopes to be reformed is her own. In the spirit of her Metaphysical predecessor John Donne, who commanded “batter my heart, three-personed God,” Adams implores: “Batter my mind, Oh God, that I might learn humility and wisdom from the heart.” In this scenario, the falcon is the divine revelation of the mind’s inadequacy, a revelation which could take any number of forms: a deep intellectual humiliation, a severely traumatic experience, an experience of overwhelming love, a mystical encounter—anything that will unseat the mind from its arrogant pretensions. God is the hunter of souls, and Adams, imprisoned by her own intellectual pride, begs to be hunted. As well as John Donne, we are reminded of Francis Thompson’s famous devotional poem, “The Hound of Heaven.” 

This interpretation is satisfying enough, but we encounter problems once we get to the final quatrain. Why should she wish her mind to remain proud, ignorant of those things which have brought it wisdom? How could she be ignorant, when she herself recognizes the efficacy of the falcon and the heart in this poem? Perhaps she desires to continue a life of the mind, and worries that if the truth of the mind’s powerlessness were brought home to her too strongly, she would give it up entirely. Perhaps she believes that the mind is so incurably proud that the good work the falcon and heart have done will be more effective if the mind believes it has accomplished everything on its own. Perhaps she’s merely being bitterly ironic. It’s difficult to say. 

What we can say is that this poem is a fascinating and beautiful example of modern Romanticism, and Romanticism at its most moral. On the Romantic view, the heart is the primary authority and the source of truth, while the intellectualizing mind is, when not the servant of the heart, a hindrance to the perception of truth and the exercise of virtuous instincts. There are of course deep problems with this view— emotions unguided by reason are liable to be reckless and selfish, capable of deeply damaging both ourselves and others. Furthermore, to prioritize feeling over thought is to jettison the principal gift that distinguishes human beings from other creatures: our ability to reason, to think through the consequences of hypothetical actions and make logical decisions accordingly. Without this capacity at the helm, we are little better than amoral, instinctual animals. 

That being said, there are considerable limits to our cognitive powers, and the Romantics are some of the fiercest critics of the fallacious tendency many people have to, ironically, romanticize rationality, and thereby have excessive, unreasonable confidence in their mind’s ability to reason. 

I was talking to Matthew once, and when I made the remark that Modernism is just experimental Romanticism, you could almost hear his jaw drop to the floor. I would go even further, however—Post-Modernism is also a form of Romanticism. The same sort of skepticism about humankind’s ability to reason its way through the world is present in all three of these movements. The Post-Modern fixation on self-awareness, meta-fiction, and conscious artificiality is just Romantic irony all over again—it all stems from the same Pyrrhic conviction that the only way to demonstrate wisdom is to demonstrate that a true knowledge and grasp of the world is impossible, at least through rational means. Such a destructive attitude is not ultimately sustainable, but it can be, at times, a valuable corrective to the cold proud minds in the clouds, wallowing in delusions of grandeur. 

I say that this poem is Romanticism at its most moral because what it ultimately seeks is a mind that is more calibrated to the world, in possession of greater truth, even if the journey to that truth is terrifying. It possesses an almost classicist disdain for fantastical daydreams, insisting that we focus on what is real. We may dispute the implication that, of the heart and the mind, the heart is the wiser of the two, but the insight that not only the heart but the mind itself can be guilty of ecstatic excesses and dangerous naivete is a lesson worth remembering. Like the great tragedians, Adams advocates terror in order to destroy terror—advocates the destruction of innocence so that we may, as Aeschylus says, “suffer into truth.” 

            With all that we’ve learned and explored, lets read through this poem one last time, as an old friend: 

 

Send Forth the High Falcon

 

Send forth the high falcon flying after the mind   

Till it come toppling down from its cold cloud:   

The beak of the falcon to pierce it till it fall

Where the simple heart is bowed.

O in wild innocence it rides

The rare ungovernable element,

But once it sways to terror and descent,

The marches of the wind are its abyss,

No wind staying it upward of the breast—

Let mind be proud for this,

And ignorant from what fabulous cause it dropt,

Or with how learned a gesture the unschooled heart   

Shall lull both terror and innocence to rest.