‘Song for the Last Act’ by Louise Bogan is a twenty-seven line poem which is separated into three sets of eight lines. The stanzas are followed by one line refrains that are altered to correspond with different elements of the speaker’s emotional state. Additionally the poem follows a structured and consistent rhyme scheme of abbacddc, changing from stanza to stanza as the poet saw fit.
A reader should also note of how the refrain remains almost identical each time it is used. A variation on the line “Now that I have your….by heart, I…” appears at the beginning of and between each stanza. There are simple additions of the words, “heart,” “voice,” and “face” to complicate it. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Song for the Last Act
‘Song for the Last Act’ by Louise Bogan describes the complicated and emotionally confining relationship that exists between a speaker and their listener.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that she knows her partner so well, their face is memorized on her heart. She will go on to say the same about their heart and voice. She has spent a great deal of time with this person, so much so she has neglected the rest of the world. ‘Song for the Last Act’ works as a mental and emotional stopping point for the speaker in this relationship. She is finally looking beyond her partner to everything fading and changing. The season of summer, a pattern of music, and a ship’s voyage all mark the end of something.
The speaker does not give a clear description of whether or not this is a happy or sad ending. One can infer from the description of the anchor in the final stanza and the descriptions of fading warmth and music that the change is painful.
Analysis of Song for the Last Act
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by addressing one particular listener. This listener is someone she has cared deeply about, as will be revealed throughout the twenty-seven lines. The first statement she makes declares that she now knows this person’s “face by heart.” This is not a matter of simply memorizing someone’s features, but truly knowing them, understanding their expressions, moods, and tendencies.
She is now about to spend time examining the world around them. The world that “frame[s]” her listener is darkening. This ties into the title of the poem, adding a feeling of temporality to the setting. These lines are spoken as if they are some kind of conclusion. They could be a final statement ending or closing out a particular period of time. There will be further elaboration on what this ending is as the poem progresses.
Behind the listener, framing their outline, is a field and garden. There are “quince,” an acidic pear-shaped fruit, and “melon” growing in the distance. These items appear as “yellow as a young flame.” They do not seem like they are near death, or any sort of decay. They are new and bright.
These fruits “Lie with quilted dahlias and the shepherd’s crook.” The scene is expanding to include fruit and flowers. There is also the “crook” of a shepherd. The fact that it has been abandoned, at least for the day, adds to the feeling of ending. Further away, but also part of the listener’s aura, is a garden. Here one can see “lead and marble figures.” The speaker describes them as being “insolent” and at “ease.” This line makes sense after reading the next in which the “summer” is spoken of as being “loath to go.”
After these lines one can assume the change approaching is that of summer becoming fall and then eventually winter. The speaker places the fruits and flowers in the scene as delicate objects very much at risk from colder temperature. On the other hand, there are the statues which cannot be impacted, at least in any significant way by the cold. Their “insolence” comes from their lack of concern for the changes consuming the speaker’s mind.
The “scythes” of the field workers have been hung up in the trees. They too are resting, perhaps having completed the majority of their work. After the first stanza there is a single line which acts as a refrain. Here the speaker reiterates that she has this person’s “face by heart.” Now that this task is done, she is able to “look” away from their face and into the world around them. She is taking note of things that did not cross her mind previously.
In the next section the speaker utilizes the same sentence pattern as at the beginning of the second stanza and in the refrain. This time though she has memorized this person’s “voice by heart.” She knows them well enough that she can look away and give her attention to something else. The speaker is beginning to see other elements of life aside from this one person. They were the overwhelming focus of her time.
She is able to “read…the black chords upon a dulling page.” This line refers to music, particularly music notation, which is fading. It is as if she has caught it just in time to know what the world will soon lose. She speaks of the music as something which is not meant for music’s cage. It has become mixed with “words that shake and bleed.” This description is easier to understand when applied to love. Love, is not meant to be in a cage. Even if that cage was made with love in mind. The cage will danged the original feeling until there isn’t very much left.
The musical references continue for the rest of the stanza. She speaks of “The staves,” or staff. The music is quiet, it is being “shuttled over” in a “Unprinted silence.” The following lines return to the speaker’s own situation and how she is attempting to come to terms with a larger world. She wants to increase her connection with the elements she has been ignoring, in favour of this person for so long.
The speaker is having a hard time understanding what she is seeing and must take the time to “spell out” the landscape. Everything seems to be “shift[ing]” making any clear view impossible.
In the final stanza the speaker describes how she now has this person’s heart fully understood. She knows who they are and is now able to see around them. In the metaphorical distance she can see “wharves” with “ships and architraves,” or the tops of buildings. There are also the “slaves” to observe and the “cargo” being loaded onto the ship. All of this plays out “under a broken sky.” The world is still not quite in the right order.
The ships the speaker sees sitting in the harbour are not preparing for a voyage. Their journey is done. Here is another instance of an ending, corresponding with those mentioned previously. While there is not one clear part of the speaker’s life coming to an end one, one certainly understands that things are changing.
In the final lines the speaker does not provide the reader with any illuminating details that might help one gain a fuller understanding of her situation. The poem ends with a thoughtful and meditative description of additional objects on the shore. There are “bales,” a likely reference to paper, hay or cotton, and an anchor. The anchor is an object of strength and permanence. It is marooned on the shore in a depressing state. “Rust” has collected on its surface, a clear sign it has not been used for a long time. She sees the rust as tears. It runs down the surface toward the sand.
The last piece of the scene the speaker takes note of is a “long vine” that is creeping along “Beside the salt herb.” It is reaching out from the sand, further into the sun, as if trying to find a way out of the scene. These final lines show how the speaker relates to her intended listener. Her focus on the anchor and the vine further emphasize the confinement she is trying to escape. It also shows her desire to reach out into the world she has been neglecting.
The poem concludes with a final use of the refrain. This time though it is the listener’s heart she has memorized. This line can be taken in two different ways. First, that they are so close she knows his heart like her own and/or that she now sees him as he really is. It is likely a combination of these two things that makes her long for a change.