‘Reserve‘ by Louise Imogen Guiney is a traditional fourteen-line sonnet that follows the rhyme scheme of, abba abba cdecfe. The poem can be divided into one octave, or set of eight lines, and one sestet, or set of six lines. For the purpose of clarity, the octave has been further divided into two sets of four lines, or quatrains.
The speaker begins by stating her love and appreciation for an unknown listener. This listener has started to sever ties with someone that they both know. It does not become clear until the end of the poem, but the male figure in this piece (who is in need of forgiveness) is in a relationship with the listener. He has done something undefined to the intended listener and he/she has not been able to forgive him.
The speaker takes on the role of mediator and asks that the listener recall his/her memories of the times they had in the past and find some way to forgive him for what he has done. She also reminds the listener of the love that he holds for her/him and the “plainness” of his feelings.
Analysis of Reserve
You that are dear, O you above the rest!
Forgive him his evasive moods and cold;
The absence that belied him oft of old,
The war upon sad speech, the desperate jest,
The narrator of this poem begins by speaking directly to one particular listener. This poem, in it’s entirety, is a speech made to someone on another’s behalf. There are many elements of ‘Reserve‘ that, even by the end, are not fully revealed or made clear. It is not know to whom the speaker is directing her words, or who exactly she is.
In the first lines, while speaking to her listener, the narrator primes the conversation with two complementary phrases. She tells her listener that he or she is “dear” and “above the rest!” From just these two phrases the reader already understands the dynamic between the two people. The listener is incredibly important to the speaker, and she needs her listener to know that. In the following lines, the reason for her compliments is made clear, she is hoping that her listener will do something for her, and for another.
She wishes that he/she will “forgive him his evasive moods and cold.” The poet has once again added an element to this poem that does not contribute to clearing up its meaning and context. Who is “he?” And what has he done that needs to be forgiven? The reader will not have a clear answer to the first question, but the second will be discussed fully.
The narrator desires that her listener forgive this person for the way he has been acting lately. He has been “absent” in his speech and unsteady in his “jest[s].” He has not been himself.
And pity’s wildest gush but half-confessed,
Forgive him! Let your gentle memories hold
Some written word once tender and once bold,
Or service done shamefacedly at best,
In an effort to forgive this unknown person, the listener of the poem is asked to remember his/her “gentle memories” and the times that he/she spent with this person. Just because the dynamic between the two is currently not as stable as it was, does not mean that “he” cannot be forgiven. There is always value in the past.
The speaker is hoping that her listener’s “gentle memories” will “hold / Some written word” through which she/he will be better able to judge him. All the narrator wants is that her listener gets some perspective on the situation rather than condemning this person for a change in demeanor.
Whereby to judge him. All his days he spent,
Like one who with an angel wrestled well,
O’ermastering Love with show of light disdain;
And whatso’er your spirits underwent,
He, wounded for you, worked no miracle
To make his heart’s allegiance wholly plain.
In the final sestet of ‘Reserve‘ the narrator comes to the conclusion of her request. She is looking back on this unknown person’s life and the relationship that he has had with her listener. It has taken until the very last lines for that relationship to be at all elucidated.
It is likely that the intended listener of this piece, and the person to whom the speaker is referring, are a couple, in one way or another. There has been some argument between them, a result of the man’s change in demeanor and downcast outlook. The speaker feels as if it is her duty to reconcile the two.
In the last lines, the speaker is describing the difficult life that the man has lived. He has spent much of his time wrestling “well” with “an angel.” It has been his struggle to maintain his way of being, as it was often in peril. The final lines are used to convey the depth of love that this man has for the listener. He has been “wounded” for the listener’s benefit and his “heart’s allegiance” was not some “miracle” up for interpretation, it was “wholly plain.”
One is left with many questions following the conclusion of this piece and there are no solid answers that completely satisfy them. One of the great strengths of this poem is the way in which it is relatable to a large number of readers, due to the fact that the details are so sparse. It might make one think about a relationship in their own life that ended, and whether that was the right choice.
About Louise Imogen Guiney
Louise Imogen Guiney was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1861. She was the daughter of an Irish-Catholic immigrant who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Her father is now considered as an important part of her development as a poet, installing in her an appreciation for heroism.
Guiney graduated from Elmhurst Academy in Providence, Rhode Island in 1879. She had spent her time there pursing a liberal arts education. For many of the years that followed she lived in Boston and Auburndale with her mother and aunt.
Her first noteworthy work was produced in the early 1880s. These pieces were published in various New England periodicals and were followed in 1884 by her first volume, Songs at the Start and her first book of essays, Goose-Quill Papers. For the remaining years of the decade she produced a second volume of poetry, The White Sail, and Other Poems, as well as a number of short stories. Then, in the early 1890s, wrote her first biography detailing the life of Henri du Vergier, a French military figure.
The volume of poetry for which she is best known, A Roadside Harp, was released in 1893 to rave reviews. In 1901, after moving to England, she spent the majority of her time writing essays and works of criticism. Over the next 20 plus years, she wrote a number of other biographies as well as worked as an editor for other authors.
Her final collection published just over ten years before her death, Happy Endings: The Collected Lyrics of Louise Imogen Guiney, was released in 1909. She would suffer from varied health problems for the rest of her life until she died of arteriosclerosis, (or a thickening of the arteries brought on by old age) in 1920.