The Wall

Mark Jarman: From “Happiness: The Aesthetics of Donald Justice”

[F]ormal interest is always present in a poem by Donald Justice, at any stage of his career; part of the pleasure of reading him is in discovering what he is doing and finding out what he has discovered by doing it. For example, "The Wall," the famous sonnet he wrote for John Berryman's class at Iowa, has always seemed to me like an attempt to write Paradise Lost in fourteen lines.

The wall surrounding them they never saw;

The angels, often. Angels were as common

As birds or butterflies, but looked more human.

As long as the wings were furled, they felt no awe.

Yet it is also an Italian sonnet that apparently disguises its turn in the fall itself ("As for the fruit, it had no taste at all."). I have heard that Berryman was impressed by the caesura in line two ("The angels, often."). But among the many happy chances of the poem I would include the way the rhymes tell the story, and the way our original happiness, now lost, is memorialized in angels that were as "common as birds or butterflies" whose awesome wings remain "furled."

Philip Hoy: Interview on Donald Justice's "The Wall"

Amongst the teachers you had at Iowa were John Berryman, Robert Lowell and Karl Shapiro, with each of whom you spent a term. I believe you thought Berryman the best teacher?

I did think he was the best, yes, and a large part of how good he was had to do with his very character, however much a few have maligned him. He was full of a kind of fervour or fire, in class and out. In class he was a master of detail and care; he was in love with the whole business of reading and writing and of talking about it, in love with teaching itself, though he had not done much of it. I wouldn’t call him a model exactly, not an example, as with others. His chief difference from the other teachers I had was that he was truly interested in what you were doing. Berryman, Lowell and Shapiro were all terribly self-involved – as what poet is not? – but Berryman had room in his capacious heart to become involved in what you were doing as well – and to care about it.

You seem to have made as much of an impression on him as he did on you. Dana, Snodgrass and others have all written about his excited reaction to your work. Snodgrass recalls a day on which all of you had handed in your assignments. Berryman ‘sat at his desk idly leafing through them, then stopped, stared, and read one of the sonnets to himself. His face aghast, he then turned to the class and said, “It is simply not right that a person should get a poem like that as a classroom assignment!”’ The poem in question was ‘The Wall’, and another of the students who met him for a beer later that week – unnamed, but quoted by Berryman’s biographer, John Haffenden – recalls how Berryman ‘immediately began to read [the sonnet] and … marvelled at [its] opening and the explosive pause in the second line. He was deliriously excited and to this day I can hear him recite it: “The wall surrounding them they never saw; / The angels often.”’ Did Berryman’s reaction to your poem strike you as forcefully as it struck your fellow students?

Everyone seems to have his own version of that story. My version, which I think is the true one, is less dramatic. It’s just that Berryman had phoned me the night before the class meeting to tell me how much he liked the poem. Such enthusiasm was unexpected, such kindness. What happened in class the next day I really can’t recall, except for a faint memory of comments he made regarding some sound effects in that sonnet which I had not been aware of and in fact doubted the effect of, though I’m sure I refrained from saying anything to soften the praise I was getting. 

On Donald Justice's "The Wall"

There are two remarkable turns in Donald Justice’s Italian sonnet “The Wall.” One could be called rhetorical, that is, built into the Italian sonnet form with its octave-sestet argumentative structure, and one dramatic, provided by the narrative and the way that Justice chooses to tell or dramatize the story. Surely one of the great accomplishments of “The Wall” is that it manages to fit Paradise Lost into 14 lines!

The second turn, or dramatic one, is located in the final line: “As they advanced, the giant wings unfurled.” Those wings have been foreshadowed dramatically in line 4, as the wings of the angels which did not instill awe in Adam and Eve as long as they remained “furled.” In the last line, the awe and awfulness of the revelation of the wings dawns on the fallen pair. The line is also ambiguous. Though grammatically “they” in “they advanced” ought to refer to Adam and Eve ,who are the subjects of the entire sestet, “they” may also refer to the wings themselves and by implication the angels, advancing in all their colossal glory. A state of instability makes the entire poem stand on a shifting base, rather like that cake of ice on a hot stove Robert Frost speaks of, in this case riding not only on its own melting, but its own falling.

But the turn that is a stroke of genius is the first line of the sestet, line 9:  “As for the fruit, it had no taste at all.”  All of Book 9 of Paradise Lost is contained in line 9 of “The Wall.”  Granted, the line does not have the impact of Milton’s “Earth felt the wound,” but I’d put it beside “Forth reaching to the fruit, she pluck’d, she eat” any day.  With line 14 in Justice’s poem, line 9 brackets the four lines of anaphora that make up lines 10-13:  “They had been warned .   .   .  They had been told  .   .  . They saw it now,” etc.  The two turns together rotate the sestet like a wheel of history, like the fallen world itself, and the entire poem rides right into immortality.