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I'm not asking for a literary analysis, I just don't understand the basic literal meaning of one line in this poem (Mnemosyne, by Trumbull Stickney):

It’s autumn in the country I remember.

How warm a wind blew here about the ways!
And shadows on the hillside lay to slumber
During the long sun-sweetened summer-days.

It’s cold abroad the country I remember.

The swallows veering skimmed the golden grain
At midday with a wing aslant and limber;
And yellow cattle browsed upon the plain.

It’s empty down the country I remember.

I had a sister lovely in my sight:
Her hair was dark, her eyes were very sombre;
We sang together in the woods at night.

It’s lonely in the country I remember.

The babble of our children fills my ears,
And on our hearth I stare the perished ember
To flames that show all starry thro’ my tears.

It’s dark about the country I remember.

There are the mountains where I lived. The path
Is slushed with cattle-tracks and fallen timber,
The stumps are twisted by the tempests’ wrath.

But that I knew these places are my own,
I’d ask how came such wretchedness to cumber
The earth, and I to people it alone.

It rains across the country I remember.

"But that [I knew (that) these places are my own]" - this doesn't seem to make sense, and fails to dovetail with the rest of the sentence.

P.S.

Does he mean "If I hadn't known that these places are my own, I would've asked how came such wretchedness to cumber the earth, and I to people it alone"?

Meaning, "these places are so wretched that if I did not already know that they are in fact the places where I spent many years, I would've asked how come they are so wretched".

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    The tenses are odd. I would ask how such wretchedness came to cumber the earth, and (how) I (came) to people it alone, but that [i.e. except] I knew [know?] these places are my own. but that = if it were not for the fact that. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Feb 10 '15 at 16:03
  • @TRomano - do you mean the tenses in my interpretation? I hastily jotted it down. Or the tenses in the original? – CowperKettle Feb 10 '15 at 16:05
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    No, the tenses in that line of the poem. I would expect "know". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Feb 10 '15 at 16:06
  • @TRomano - Ah. I also wondered about "knew" but decided to concentrate on the poem's (literary) meaning for now. (0: – CowperKettle Feb 10 '15 at 16:07
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    @TRomano That is a good point about the tenses. "Knew" may indeed have thrown me off at first, since it sounds like using the past tense to entertain a hypothesis in the present tense—but the author means "knew" to describe reality, not the imagined hypothesis. – Ben Kovitz Feb 10 '15 at 16:12
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But that

But that proposition can mean "If only proposition were true" or "If only proposition were not true."

The word "but" is a conjunction that can introduce a clause, with the connotation that what it introduces is "only" an exception—a small variation on what has come before. So, it's a reasonable stretch to use it to introduce an exception or variation on reality, with no preceding clause or list. Rather confusingly, the small exception can be inside reality, in which case "But that proposition" means you're entertaining the hypothesis that the proposition is false, or outside reality, in which case "But that proposition" means you're entertaining the hypothesis that the proposition is true!

I think the poet is introducing the hypothesis that he doesn't own the land that the poem is about. So, here's how I'd translate that verse into plain English:

If only this land were not my own, then I'd ask how the life that once filled it came to live no more, and how I came to be its last inhabitant. But it is my land, and I know, because I saw it happen. I saw the storms that destroyed it; I can't help but remember.

Knew

As TRomano suggested, the word know fits a lot better here than knew. Because the subjunctive in English has very limited uses and no distinct form in the first person, you often put a verb into the past tense to indicate that it describes a hypothesis about the present (or even the future). So, knew suggests that in reality, the author doesn't know that these places are his own, so the But that construction would entertain the hypothesis that he does. But I'm pretty sure the intended meaning is that in reality, the author does know these places are his own, so know is appropriate. Maybe the author got confused by English grammar! Indeed, I find that replacing knew with know makes the verse stronger and the sentiment clearer.

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  • Thanks for your opinion, Ben! One interpretation has just dawned on me, I've added a P.S. to the question. – CowperKettle Feb 10 '15 at 15:40
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    @CopperKettle I think your interpretation is right, and my first attempt was wrong. I'll rewrite right now… – Ben Kovitz Feb 10 '15 at 15:44
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I was wondering if "knew these places are my own" was a transcription error for "know these places are my own", so I did some googling. Indeed I found "know" in a few versions, including one in a chapter called "Breaking into Song" by John Hollander, in a book titled Lyric Poetry: Beyond New Criticism (ed. Chaviva Hošek and Patricia Parker, 1985). Here's what Prof. Hollander says:

The movement from summer’s remembered “here” to autumn's present “there”; the extended meditative and moralizing moment of the last two tercets and the way in which the interposition of the refrain between them would seem a transgression of some more than structural line; the final avowal of the mythological nature of “these places”—they are the speaker’s “own,” fully possessed, fully, in Wallace Stevens’s sense, “abstract”—this movement is played out against the refrain sequence noted before, which could be said to name autumn and then unpack some of its store of predicates.

That was one sentence! It actually blabbers on like this for three pages.

Here's another sentence that mentions the part of the poem you're asking about:

And so much is going on in those tercets: the introjection of the landscape cumbered by what has come to pass; the realization that “the ruin, or blank,” as Emerson calls it, is in his own eye, which causes the speaker to reject the rhetorical posture of a Noah; and the rain of the rentrement which follows (I shall refrain from calling it, in the manner of my colleague Geoffrey Hartman, a ref-rain, despite its saturated allusiveness, of which more later) portends no new deluge.

I don’t know if Hollander was only joking or if he meant this as serious writing. If it's a joke, it's hilarious—even funnier than the postmodern gibberish generator. (I laughed out loud!) If it's serious, then it's grounds for psychiatric treatment.

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