Souvenir by Edwin Arlington Robinson
A vanished house that for an hour I knew
By some forgotten chance when I was young
Had once a glimmering window overhung
With honeysuckle wet with evening dew,
Along the path tall dusky dahlias grew,
And shadowy hydrangeas reached and swung
Ferociously; and over me, among
The moths and mysteries, a blurred bat flew.
Somewhere within there were dim presences,
Of days that hovered and of years gone by.
I waited, and between their silences
There was an evanescent faded noise;
And though a child, I knew it was the voice
Of one whose occupation was to die.
As a boy I often went with my mother when she visited the elderly. There was a window of time when my older siblings were in school and my younger sister had yet to be born. I suppose this period of time was quite short, a couple of years at most, but in my memories it seems like a whole era of my life. This poem resonates with that time. I remember the faint smell of urine, the old furniture (was it a yellowed couch on the southern wall, not plush, but more like an extended chair? As I sat, the kitchen was off to the left, but I didn't go there. I remember the narrow staircase up to the bathroom; I remember the treats that were laid out that were well-intended, but somehow off the mark. I didn't really understand it. I didn't really like it.
Here we have an adult who looks back at a memory. There is much to the memory that is blurred: the house is vanished, the chance is forgotten, the presences were dim, and the voice was evanescent. At the same time, the memory is concrete: in the glimmering window there is wet honeysuckle, and it is wet from evening dew. There are tall dusky dahlias along the pathway. The hydrangeas were aggressive and ferocious. And there was a particular bat who flew overhead. Granted, the bat was blurry, but perhaps from motion, not memory.
Outside, there is much that captures the child's interest. The description in the first section suggests that his imagination was running as he accompanied his parents (?) to this house. The child knew nothing of death and wasn't concerned with it. What mattered was the garden, the plants. He wasn't brought in, but left outside to occupy himself. It was already late, late enough for dew to be forming, for a bat to be flying. Perhaps it's a little strange that a child would be left outside past twilight.
The visit inside with the adults goes on. The child ceases to play and imagine and begins to wait. There is silence inside, punctuated by a voice. And this voice, the child understands, is not like other voices. It is evanescent - weak, vanishing, frail. It is not the voice of one who will go on living, but the voice of one whose concern it is to die.
The life of this other, whether grandparent or some other, signifies so very little in the experience of the child. How can the child know that this voice belongs to one who was once young? That this voice belonged to one who had had other occupations - even wandering in twilight gardens perhaps.
It is a wistful poem, about a child from the eyes of an adult whose view has expanded. No doubt the voice that was only peripheral is now understood as the point of the whole experience. The child had been brought there not to take in the garden, but because the person, whose frail voice was heard through the window, was important. This person had dignity. And this child, now an adult, recognizes this dignity in remembering.