An Impossible Ideal

A Game of Chess by Gwen Harwood

To John Brodie


Nightfall: the town’s chromatic nocturne wakes

dark brilliance on the river; colours drift

and tremble as enormous shadows lift

Orion to his place. The heart remakes

that peace torn in the blaze of day. Inside

your room are music, warmth and wine, the board

with chessmen set for play. The harpsichord

begins a fugue; delight is multiplied.


A game: the heart’s impossible ideal –

to choose among a host of paths, and know

that if the kingdom crumbles one can yield

and have the choice again. Abstract and real

joined in their trance of thought, two players show

the calm of gods above a trouble field.



While perusing this week’s reading of The Making of a Poem by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland, I found myself drawn into this particular poem. Usually, despite my glorification of William Shakespeare, I’m not disposed to read sonnets. The same feelings applied to the earlier sonnets in this section of the anthology. However, coming across this one was different. It’s probably due to my connection of the first line to one of my favorite classical pieces. “Chromatic nocturne” takes me back to “Nocturne” by Claude Debussy, with which I associate a Monet painting from the cover of the CD.  The “colours drift/and tremble” with a “dark brilliance on the river.” It really is the same image.

At first glance, I assumed that it was written in the Spenserian style. But the rhyme scheme of the first stanza is actually abbacddc whereas the style is ababcdcd. I thought this interesting, but I like how it becomes less “sing-song” than it would have been otherwise.

The first stanza sets up the atmosphere for the chess game and the second explores it. Do we play chess in order to see the outcome of different scenarios, so that we can choose the one that will prove more favorable? In this way, “if the kingdom crumbles one can yield/ and have the choice again.” It is a bit unsettling, and gives us the power to look at our lives from a bird’s-eye view, as though we and everyone connected to us is merely a pawn in the “game” of life (a great board-game, as well, but I don’t mean to advertise). Can humans be so objective, so careless, as to look at their lives and the turbulence within them without feeling anything? I suppose having the option to stop the clocks and try again allows for that. But that isn’t real; as Harwood says, it’s “the heart’s impossible ideal.” If we could truly sit like gods in our rooms with “music, warmth and wine” and not have to worry about dealing with the consequences of each of our choices, then the life would just be a hodge-podge of millions of Choose Your Own Adventure books. How could we learn from our mistakes? How could we grow as people? While it might be a dream for the chance to relive the crucial moments and choose differently, it behooves us to face the “trouble field” we have set up for ourselves.

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