A little over two years ago, I published an essay called “Property of Tennessee Williams” in Humanities, the journal of the National Endowment of the Humanities. My friend, the author M. K. Hammond, sent me her thoughts on the poem, which I append below. Her new book, The Rabbi of Worms, is available on Amazon; there are great interviews here and here. Her thoughts on Williams are well worth reading:
Turnings with Tennessee Williams:
An Analysis of the Poem “Testa dell’ Efebo”
M. K. Hammond
Testa dell’ Efebo
Of Flora did his luster spring
and gushing waters bathed him so
that trembling shells were struck and held
until his turning let them go.
Then gold he was when summer was,
unchangeable this turning seemed
and the repose of sculpture told
how thinly gold his shoulders gleamed.
A cloud of birds awoke in him
when Virgo murmured half awake.
Then higher lifted birds and clouds
to break in fire as glasses break.
A lunatic with tranquil eyes
he must have been when he had dimmed
and that town burned wherein was turned
this slender copper cast of him.
Twenty-seven years after the poem Testa dell’ Efebo was first published in Harper’s Bazaar, its author Tennessee Williams described it as his “only fully-realized work.”1 Why did he say this? What makes the poem “fully-realized”?
Williams presumably thought the work was complete in some sense, expressing an idea or depicting an image as accurately and artistically as he thought possible. Its completeness hinges on the multiple layers of meaning revealed in metaphors, allusions, and word-plays packed into the verses.
The most obvious reading of the poem emerges from references to the bronze figure that inspired it. The original statue of a young man had been found in the ruins of Pompeii and was subsequently displayed in a Naples museum. Many copies were made and sold to tourists. Williams bought one while visiting Naples in 1948 and thereafter kept it in his possession.2 The bronze youth stands in a relaxed pose, unclothed except for clusters of grapes around his head, a goatskin draped over his left shoulder, and an ornate pair of sandals tied onto his feet and lower legs. His left leg extends forward, his left hand rests on his hip, and his right forearm is raised. Perhaps he once held something (now lost) in his right hand, while his pointer finger extends off to the side. The most unusual feature is the head, tilted downward, facing slightly leftward, his intense eyes focused on some unknown object. There must be something about the youth’s head that provides a key to understanding the poem, since the title can be translated “Head of the Young Man.” Most noticeably, his head is turned, and the word “turning” or “turned” appears in three of the four stanzas. This significant word has multiple meanings that will perhaps elucidate the author’s intentions. What follows are several possible explications of the poem, all related to the concept of “turning.” Williams may not have thought through all of these interpretations; nevertheless, imaginative work can sometimes carry more meaning than the author intended.
In the most literal interpretation, the four stanzas of Testa dell’ Efebo give a poetic description of the sculptor’s art and the fate of this particular statue. Earthen elements used by an artist are formed over centuries from organic matter and minerals, washed over by rain and ocean water. The “trembling shells” refer to an ancient method of casting bronze statues, completed by removal of the outer molds.3 The sculptor “turns” the elements into a beautiful form by releasing extraneous matter and revealing the luster beneath. The statue appears golden at first. It gleams with seeming permanence. Yet as time passes a patina develops and the golden shine fades. The third stanza might depict the workings of nature as Vesuvius erupts around the silent, motionless figure. One could imagine his heart fluttering as the mountain rumbles and birds take flight. Clouds of ash are spewed heavenward and fire consumes all within its reach. After the eruption ceases, ash settles on the town and the statue’s luster is further dimmed. Illuminated at night only by the moon, he stands calmly surveying the harsh destruction of a place where delicate art work had once been turned, as on a potter’s wheel.
A second reading of the four stanzas makes a connection with the four seasons of the year, which turn one into another. In the first line the word “spring” appears, surrounded by references to plant life and fast-flowing water. Perhaps melting snows feed a rushing stream that picks up shell fossils and deposits them at turnings in the watercourse. The second stanza contains the words “summer” and “gold.” The verses suggest brightness and inactivity associated with hot weather. The zodiac sign Virgo, mentioned in the next stanza, falls mostly in September, when autumn begins. Also at this time large flocks of birds lift high for their annual migration to the south. The last stanza has a vague suggestion of winter in the dimness and tranquility of a desolate town.
On another level, the poem might represent the four stages in a man’s life. Gushing waters accompany the birth process. Trembling shells could refer to a family’s habits and values superimposed on a boy until he turns away and goes out on his own. Golden youth is the second stage, seeming solid and permanent at the height of a young person’s vigor, health, and beauty. Yet the gleam of youth derives from thin gold, and that turning is soon worn away. In manhood Virgo comes to life, perhaps indicating the development of sexuality or a sense of vocation. The man is lifted heavenward into the clouds of bliss or accomplishment until he flies too close to the sun, like Icarus, and comes crashing down. Finally as an old man he loses his inner fire, his mental sharpness, and perhaps his vision as well. He may be disillusioned by life and the world that promised so much when he was young.
A more obscure, and perhaps deeper, reading of the poem is related to a human being’s search for meaning in life, especially in a religious context. Williams left the entirety of his literary estate to University of the South, also called Sewanee, a school affiliated with the Episcopal Church. He apparently wanted people to be aware of the Christian context of his work.4 To follow this line it will be helpful to know the identity of the youth represented by the statue. The first two words of the poem give us a clue.
One of Tennessee Williams’ favorite poems was Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale. The second stanza of this work expresses desire for “a draught of vintage . . .Tasting of Flora” (emphasis added). The verses continue, “O for a beaker full of the warm South! . . .With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, And purple-stained mouth,” clear references to alcoholic drink. The poet thinks of strong drink as one way of escaping the world’s troubles. In the same stanza, multiple references to nature, dance, and song suggest an invocation of Bacchus, the god of wine. The connection is cemented in a later stanza when Keats mentions Bacchus by name (as an option not taken).
By quoting the words “Of Flora” at the very beginning of his poem, Williams establishes an immediate association with the “vintage” stanza of Ode to a Nightingale. The grape clusters around the youth’s head and the goatskin he carries also indicate that the statue portrays the figure of Bacchus.
In classical mythology, the god Bacchus is associated with revelry and ecstatic joy, and also with savage brutality, conditions which may be induced by consuming alcohol. Williams might have been thinking of something else, however. Bacchus is the only god born of a human mother and a divine father. As the god of wine, he is both outside and inside mortal beings, transforming in some way those who partake of his fruits (perhaps reminding us of the Eucharist). The vine representing Bacchus is severely pruned and appears dead in winter, only to come alive again in spring. He defies the power of death by rescuing his mother from the underworld and taking her to live on Mt. Olympus with the gods. The associations with Christianity are unmistakable.
If Williams was thinking in religious terms, the work “turn” would carry still more meaning. Old Testament poets and prophets exhorted their listeners over and over again to turn away from evil and turn back to the Lord. Williams had sometimes gone astray in life and may have wanted to turn back (in the biblical sense). He apparently found it difficult, though, to break away from self-destructive behaviors.
Considered from this standpoint, the first stanza of Testa dell’ Efebo might refer to the creation story. Flora, gushing waters, and trembling shells represent the gifts bestowed on mankind by the Creator. Almost immediately Adam, representing all men, turns to sin and is ejected from Eden. The second stanza depicts a golden age in history, when human accomplishments in art and science hold great promise for the future. Yet the passage of time reveals the deeply ingrained nature of sin. New hope comes in the third stanza when a virgin gives her assent and the Holy Spirit (often represented by a bird) lifts men and women to new heights. But these efforts, too, seem to bear little fruit, as the world embraces violence, culminating in the terrible destructiveness of twentieth century warfare. Despite this gloomy conclusion, the poem does not leave a reader in total despair. The young man, while disillusioned and driven half mad from what he sees, still has tranquil eyes. He looks back with humility at human frailty but also with respect for human accomplishments. His head might be turned in dejection or resignation, or simply in thoughtfulness. The statue survives destruction, as do the aspirations of mankind for a better “turning.”
Thus the poem elicits many possible interpretations of the word “turn.” Most of them have to do with transformation.5 The cyclical nature of the calendar year and of a human life, as well as a person’s ability to turn back and survey history, suggest completeness. These various turnings may have inspired Williams’ description of Testa dell’ Efebo as “fully realized.” Furthermore, the poem’s songlike meter and rhyme scheme and its internal rhyme, alliteration, imagery, and beautiful turn of phrase appeal to the ear. While Tennessee Williams may not have been able to turn his life around, his poem on turning succeeds magnificently as a work of art.
1 Williams is quoted in an article in People magazine (May 26, 1975) called “A Playwright Lives his Greatest Drama: The Resurrection of Tennessee Williams,” by Jed Horne, based on an interview conducted by Horne at Williams’ home.
2 The statue now resides in the archives of University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. It was among the items that came to Sewanee in connection with the bequest of Tennessee Williams’ literary estate to the university. Professor Christopher McDonough, chairman of the Classical Languages department, has written a fascinating article about the statue and what he has learned about it. See Humanities: The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, September/October 2011.
3 A more complete description of the process is given in McDonough’s article mentioned above.
4 Talk given by Christopher McDonough at Sewanee Summer Seminar, June 2013.
5 There may be further meanings as well, related to distinctive characteristics of the poet himself. Such a personal reading would depend on a more thorough knowledge than this reviewer has of Tennessee Williams’ life and writings.