In this poem, the American poet, Louis Simpson talks about how modern culture lacks the basic spirit of harmony and compassion. ‘Lines Written Near San Francisco’ is a postmodern poem. Here, the poet presents an ironic representation of the modern age. Most importantly, being an American poem, the poet mainly focuses on American culture. Moreover, the rise of towering buildings along with the presence of the military grip the country in a manner that it loses the essence of humanity, simplicity.
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The poet, Simpson sets the mood of the poem from the very first stanza. In the first section, the poet refers to the opera singers who once mesmerized the people with their unique voices. Thereafter, in the next section of the poem, the poet describes how the brick-and-mortar dots the city. The city lacks the free lands where once poets like Simpson, Walt Whitman wandered and composed poems. In the last section of the poem, Simpson presents dark imagery. Here, the speaker laments the loss of innocence for the rise of harsh modernity.
You can read the full poem here.
The poet divides this poem into three sections. Each section consists of 9 stanzas and each stanza contains 3 lines. A reader can sense the movement of the poet’s thoughts across the sections and one can understand why the poet did so. The poet for marking the shift of his ideas divided the poem into those sections. However, this lyric poem does not have a set rhyming pattern or metrical scheme. Hence it is a free verse poem. However, in a few instances, Simpson uses slant rhymes. The overall poem is composed of iambic, anapestic, and a few trochaic feet.
There are several literary devices in Simpson’s ‘Lines Written Near San Francisco’. The poem begins with a personification. In the first section of the poem, Simpson uses allusion to opera singers such as Caruso, Otello, Don Giovanni, Figaro, and Lucia. There is an anaphora in the third stanza of this section. In the second section, the poet uses irony to comment on the rise of capitalism and modernization. There is a rhetorical question in the line, “Where are the aboriginal American devils?” There are several repetitions in this section. In the last section, the poet uses paradox, metaphor, and onomatopoeia as well.
I wake and feel the city trembling.
Yes, there is something unsettled in the air
And the floor moved. He ran into the street.
Never had Naples given him such a reception!
In the first section of the poem, the poetic persona wakes and feels the city trembling. The city is not trembling but the air is. Hence, the speaker remarks, “there is something unsettled in the air/ And the earth is uncertain.” With such uncertainty, the poet moves to the next stanza.
The second stanza contains a reference to the tenor Caruso. The poet imagines he could not sleep for the ovation that he got after a concert. The cheer and applause of the audience still ring in his ears and he sings his part again. It seems as if he is in a trance and cannot get out of the mood he was in while singing.
As the world has been progressing more toward modernization, people stopped going to such shows. However, one day, the ceiling of the opera house trembled and the floor moved. It seems that the applause of the audience rang throughout the hall. For this reason, the poet thinks the floor and the roof of the hall trembled for the audience’s excitement. In excitement, Caruso also ran into the street and the city of Naples gave him a warm reception.
The air was darker than Vesuvius.
“O mamma mia,”
Otello and Don Giovanni
And Figaro strode on the midmost stage.
In the fourth stanza of ‘Lines Written Near San Francisco’, the poet presents an image of the air above Vesuvius, a volcano in Italy. He compares the black smoke over the mountain to that of the city air. Thereafter, Caruso exclaims that he has lost his voice. It seems here the poet is referring to the decline of Caruso’s popularity.
In the next stanza, the poet says the “hideous voice of culture”, a hysterical woman is shrieking from the ruins of culture thrashing her arms and legs. This ironic reference deals with the decline of American culture. Moreover, the poet says, with the rise of modernity, the essence of art lost its significance. Everyone became a performer. Whereas the great opera singers such as Otello, Don Giovanni, and Figaro strode on the midmost stage.
In the high window of a burning castle
Lucia raved. Black horses
And sank in the Pacific. The tremors
Passed under the waves. And Death rested.
In this section, the speaker says in the high window of a burning castle, the heroine of a tragic opera, Lucia wandered. Black horses plunged through the fire, dragging the wild bells. It seems while the poet was thinking about modern culture, suddenly this scene from the tragedy appeared in his mind. This scheme of placing a fragment of thought in a body of work is called the stream-of-consciousness technique.
Thereafter the speaker remarks the curtains of the castle were wrapped in smoke. Tin swords were melting and masks and ruffs burned. The fire burnt the costumes of the peasants’ chorus. In this stanza, the imagery used by the poet reflects a sense of loss.
However, when the night fell the white moon rose. It sank in the Pacific. The tremors passed under the waves. And death rested. This stanza reflects how death wipes the spontaneity of life away and brings a monotonous silence.
Now, as we stand idle,
Watching the silent, bowler-hatted man,
Wait! Before you start
(Already the wheels are rattling on the stones)
In the second section of ‘Lines Written Near San Francisco’, Simpson says that they stand idle and watch the silent bowler-hatted engineer writing in the smoking field. He hands the paper to a boy who takes it and runs to a group of waiting men. They take the paper having the instructions from the engineer and disperse from there. Thereafter they move towards their wagons.
Here, the poet presents the image of the moving wagon and the mules braying. In the phrase, “Mules bray”, the poet uses onomatopoeia. The speaker of the poem asks them to wait before they start. But, the wheels are already moving and making rattling sounds on the stones. In the next stanza, the poet makes it clear why he requests them to halt for a moment.
Say, did your fathers cross the dry Sierras
To build another London?
Falling across the bright Pacific bay …
(Already they have nailed rough boards together)
He wants to ask them whether their forefathers crossed the dry Sierras to build another London, here in San Francisco. Moreover, he enquires whether Americans always have to be “second-rate”. In this section, the poet criticizes the American sentiment of imitating English culture. This attitude prevailed after the English Puritans settled in America in the past.
The speaker poses another question in this section. According to him, there are spirits in the earth, air, and the sea. It is a reference to the indigenous culture of a country. Moreover, he refers to the aboriginals of America as “devils” and asks where they are now. Modernization has engulfed their culture too.
Thereafter, the poet presents another image of the cloud shadows and pine shadows “falling across the bright Pacific bay.” Those men mentioned previously have already nailed rough boards together for construction purposes. It seems nature is sighing for the loss of another patch of land.
Wait only for the wind
That rustles in the eucalyptus tree.
Cold lemonade. “San Francisco
Is a city second only to Paris.”
In this section, the speaker requests them to wait only for the wind that rustles in the eucalyptus tree. Moreover, they should wait for the light that trembles on the petals of a rose. Here, the poet uses enjambment to internally connect the lines. In the meanwhile, the mortar sets and banks are the first to stand in the city. The speaker again requests them to wait for a rose and they may wait forever. In this way, the poet highlights how nature is getting destroyed at the hands of those who have forgotten to cherish the beauty in nature.
In the last stanza of this section, the poet refers to a man silently standing by him. He mops his head and drinks cold lemonade. By seeing the changing landscape of San Francisco the man remarks, “San Francisco/ Is a city second only to Paris.” The identity of the person is not clear. He can be a Frenchman or an American. However, according to him, Paris is way better than San Francisco.
Every night, at the end of America
We taste our wine, looking at the Pacific.
But the banks thrive and the realtors
Rejoice—they have their America.
In the third section of the poem, ‘Lines Written Near San Francisco’, the poet remarks how his dream about America is about to end. Every night, when he tastes his wine and looks at the Pacific sadly. The Pacific and the city standing by it reminds the poet that the “end of America” is not far away.
While the poet and others like him were waiting for the land, they had finished their work. They built gas drums on the hilltops and cheap housing in the valley. In this way, the hill and the valleys of America were lost.
According to the poet, modernization has made the lives of American people mean and wretched. But the banks thrive and the realtors rejoice. As they have created their lifeless America. Here the poet uses alliteration in “realtors rejoice”.
Still, there is something unsettled in the air.
Out there on the Pacific
Into the sea, we cannot follow.
We must remain, to serve the returning sun,
According to the poet, something is unsettled in the air. By the Pacific, no America but the marines are guarding the shores. Thereafter, the poet negates the viewpoint of Walt Whitman. He says Whitman was wrong about the people but right about himself. Here, the poet uses a metaphor in this line, “The land is within.” “The land” is a metaphor for the soul. The poet says, at the end of the open road people come to themselves. It means a person resorts to the calling of his soul at the end of the worldly journey.
Thereafter, the poet refers to Columbus and how he followed the sun to wander on the sea. But, the path shown by free-spirited Columbus cannot be followed nowadays. So, the poet says that they must remain to serve the “returning sun”, a symbol for death.
And to set tables for death.
For we are the colonists of Death—
The pioneers looked for, shading their eyes
Against the sun—a murmur of serious life.
In the last three stanzas of the poem, the poet says they must wait for their death. The reason is they are “the colonists of Death” unlike the English colonizers. Here, through this metaphor, “the colonists of Death,” the poet wants to say that for the lack of humanity and the loss of nature, now they are living in a land of the dead.
They are preparing the metaphorical throne for “Death” to sit. The poet reads poems and prepares beds in which it may rest. Thereafter, the poet refers to America and says, “This is the land/ The pioneers looked for, shading their eyes/ Against the sun.” But now the poet can only hear the hopeless “murmur of serious life.”
The Jamaican born American poet, Louis Aston Marantz Simpson wrote this poem, ‘Lines Written Near San Francisco’. It is a lyric about the changing landscape of America. During the late 20th century, urbanization, industrialization, and last but not least capitalism were at their heights. In the meanwhile, people forgot once the beautiful nature nourished the Americans. In this poem, the poet laments this loss as well as the living condition in America. The poem was published in Simpson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection, “At the End of the Open Road” (1963). It is the concluding poem of this book.
Here is a list of a few poems that are similar to the themes present in Simpson’s ‘Lines Written Near San Francisco’.
- I Hear America Singing by Walt Whitman – In this one of the best Walt Whitman poems, the poet sees a thriving American society from an optimistic perspective.
- Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes – It’s one of the best-known Langston Hughes poems. This poem talks about the nature of the “American Dream”.
- America by Claude Mckay – This poem explores the horrors and brilliance of America, beginning with what is bad about the country.
- America by Allen Ginsberg – In this poem, the poet expresses his disappointment and indifference to the social and political situation that prevailed during the time of unsetting.
You can also read about 10 of the Best 20th Century American Poets and 10 of the Most Important Poets of the 21st Century.