Monday, June 30, 2014

Lycidas - John Milton

Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forc'd fingers rude
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Bitter constraint and sad occasion dear
Compels me to disturb your season due;
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
He must not float upon his wat'ry bier
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed of some melodious tear.

     Begin then, Sisters of the sacred well
That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring;
Begin, and somewhat loudly sweep the string.
Hence with denial vain and coy excuse!
So may some gentle muse
With lucky words favour my destin'd urn,
And as he passes turn
And bid fair peace be to my sable shroud.

     For we were nurs'd upon the self-same hill,
Fed the same flock, by fountain, shade, and rill;
Together both, ere the high lawns appear'd
Under the opening eyelids of the morn,
We drove afield, and both together heard
What time the gray-fly winds her sultry horn,
Batt'ning our flocks with the fresh dews of night,
Oft till the star that rose at ev'ning bright
Toward heav'n's descent had slop'd his westering wheel.
Meanwhile the rural ditties were not mute,
Temper'd to th'oaten flute;
Rough Satyrs danc'd, and Fauns with clov'n heel,
From the glad sound would not be absent long;
And old Damætas lov'd to hear our song.

     But O the heavy change now thou art gone,
Now thou art gone, and never must return!
Thee, Shepherd, thee the woods and desert caves,
With wild thyme and the gadding vine o'ergrown,
And all their echoes mourn.
The willows and the hazel copses green
Shall now no more be seen
Fanning their joyous leaves to thy soft lays.
As killing as the canker to the rose,
Or taint-worm to the weanling herds the grazes,
Or frost to flowers that their gay wardrobe wear
When first the white thorn blows:
Such, Lycidas, thy loss to shepherd's ear.

     Where were ye, Nymphs, when the remorseless deep
Clos'd o'er the head of your lov'd Lycidas?
For neither were ye playing on the steep
Where your old bards, the famous Druids, lie,
Nor on the shaggy top of Mona high,
Nor yet where Deva spreads her wizard stream.
Ay me! I fondly dream
Had ye bin there' -for what could that have done?
What could the Muse herself that Orpheus bore,
The Muse herself, for her enchanting son,
Whom universal nature did lament,
When by the rout that made the hideous roar
His gory visage down the stream was sent,
Down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore?

     Alas! what boots it with incessant care
To tend the homely, slighted shepherd's trade,
And strictly meditate the thankless Muse?
Were it not better done, as others use,
To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles of Neæra's hair?
Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of noble mind)
To scorn delights and live laborious days;
But the fair guerdon when we hope to find,
And think to burst out into sudden blaze,
Comes to the blind Fury with th'abhorred shears,
And slits the thin-spun life. "But not the priase,"
Phoebus replied, and touch'd my trembling ears;
"Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil,
Nor in the glistening foil
Set off to th'world, nor in broad rumour lies,
But lives and spreads aloft by those pure eyes
And perfect witness of all-judging Jove;
As he pronounces lastly on each deed,
Of so much fame in Heav'n expect they meed."

     O fountain Arethuse, and thou honour'd flood,
Smooth-sliding Mincius, crown'd with vocal reeds,
That strain I heard was of a higher mood.
But now my oat proceeds,
And listens to the Herald of the Sea,
That came in Neptune's plea.
He ask'd the waves, and ask'd the felon winds,
"What hard mishap hath doom'd this gentle swain?"
And question'd every gust of rugged wings
That blows from off each beaked promontory.
They knew not of his story;
And sage Hippotades their answer brings,
That not a blast was from his dungeon stray'd;
The air was calm, and on the level brine
Sleek Panope with all her sisters play'd.
It was that fatal and perfidious bark,
Built in the'eclipse, and rigg'd with curses dark,
That sunk so low that sacred head of thine.

     Next Camus, reverend sire, went footing slow,
His mantle hairy, and his bonnet sedge,
Inwrought with figures dim, and on the edge
Like to that sanguine flower inscrib'd with woe.
"Ah! who hath reft," quoth he, "my dearest pledge?"
Last came, and last did go,
The Pilot of the Galilean lake;
Two massy keys he bore of metals twain
(The golden opes, the iron shuts amain).
He shook his mitred locks, and stern bespake:
"How well could I have spar'd for thee, young swain,
Enow of such as for their bellies' sake
Creep and intrude, and climb into the fold?
Of other care they little reck'ning make
Than how to scramble at the shearer's feast
And shove away the worthy bidden guest.
Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold
A sheep-hook, or have learn'd aught else the least
That to the faithful herdman's art bleongs!
What recks it them? What need they? They are sped;
And when they list their lean and flashy songs
Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw,
The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But, swoll'n with wind and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread;
Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing said,
But that two-handed engine at the door
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more".

     Return, Alpheus: the dread voice is past
That shrunk they streams; return, Sicilian Muse,
And call the vales and bid them hither cast
Their bells and flow'rets of a thousand hues.
Ye valleys low, where the mild whispers use
Of shades and wanton winds, and gushing brooks,
On whose fresh lap the swart star sparely looks,
Throw hither all your quaint enamel'd eyes,
That on the green turf suck the honied showers
And purple all the ground with vernal flowers.
Bring the rathe primrose that forsaken dies,
That tufted crow-toe, and pale jessamine,
The white pink, and the pansy freak'd with jet,
The glowing violet,
The musk-rose, and the well attir'd woodbine,
With cowslips wan that hang the pensive head,
And every flower that sad embroidery wears;
Bid amaranthus all his beauty shed,
And daffadillies fill their cups with tears,
To strew the laureate hearse where Lycid lies.
For so to interpose a little ease,
Let our frail thoughts dally with false surmise.
Ay me! Whilst thee the shores and sounding seas
Wash far away, where'er thy bones are hurl'd;
Whether beyond the stormy Hebrides,
Where thou perhaps the whelming tide
Visit'st the bottom of the monstrous world,
Or whether thou, to our moist vows denied,
Sleep'st by the fable of Bellerus old,
Where the great vision of the guarded mount
Looks towards Namancos a Bayona's hold:
Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth;
And, O ye dolphins, waft the helpless youth.

     Weep no more, woeful sheperds, weep no more,
For Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the wat'ry floor;
So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,
And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
And tricks his beams, and with new spangled ore
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:
So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high
Through the dear might of him that walk'd the waves;
Where, other groves and other streams along,
With nectar pure his oozy locks he laves,
And hears the unexpressive nuptial song,
In the blest kingdoms meek of joy and love.
There entertain him all the Saints above,
In solemn troops, and sweet societies,
That sing, and singing in their glory move,
And wipe the tears for ever from his eyes.
Now, Lycidas, the shepherds weep no more:
Henceforth thou art the Genius of the shore,
In thy large recompense, and shalt be good
To all that wander in the perilous flood.

     Thus sang the uncouth swain to th'oaks and rills,
While the still morn went out with sandals gray;
He touch'd the tender stops of various quills,
With eager thought warbling his Doric lay;
And now the sun had stretch'd out all the hills,
And now was dropp'd into the western bay;
At last he rose, and twitch'd his mantle blue:
To-morrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.

Why do bad things happen to good people, and how can we deal with that?  That is the central question of Milton's great lyric masterpiece.  Before we delve too deeply into the waters of this poem, reader, I feel a bit of background is necessary.

The poem is a memorial to Milton's dearly departed friend, Edward King, who was at Cambridge with him.  He drowned when his ship sank in the Irish Sea off of the west coast of Wales.  King was to enter the clergy, which, as Milton explains in the poem, is diseased, and sorely needed a pure force such as King.  It's always hard to fathom how someone so good can die so young.  I know that myself, I have lost two friends far before their prime, one in high school, and one last year.  Both were the same age as myself, and both times, it was so hard to wrap my brain and heart around it.  It's a heartbreak so unnatural and abhorrent that we all struggle to deal with it, and that is a central part of Milton's struggle here.  To help cope with it, he eulogizes King as a new figure, Lycidas, and writes a pastoral elegy.

To begin with, Milton feels that he is premature in writing these poems.  Famous poetic images, laurels, myrtles, ivy, are not yet ripe, but "with forc'd [forced] fingers rude" Milton must "shatter your leaves before the mellowing year."  It is "sad occasion dear" which "compels me to disturb your season due;  For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime."  Milton cannot let his friend die without proper mourning.  "He must not float upon his wat'ry bier unwept...without the meed [reward] of some melodious tear."

Milton then moves on to invoke a Muse, some Classical guide to shape his poem and to honor Lycidas.  In the third stanza, the speaker, the "uncouth swain" as he is called, recalls their upbringing together.  They grew up together ("we were nurs'd upon the self-same hill, fed by the same flock") and in this pastoral context, would play music and dance, as if with Satyrs.  Their song was loved by all, and was right by nature.  After that though, the terrible change is acted in the poem.

"But O the heavy change now thou art gone, now thou art gone, and never must return!"  It pains Milton so to have his friend taken from him, this Shepherd of men, as he is referred to in the poem.  All of nature mourns his loss.  His loss is "as killing as the canker to the rose, or taint-worm to the weanling herds that graze, or frost to flowers."  His death is poisonous to nature, out of harmony with the rightful way of things.  It's that painful for Milton to bear, as if Lycidas' death was a parasite within him.

Milton then moves to blame Nature, accusing them of being absent in Lycidas' time of need.  He asks the Nymphs where they were when his ship went down, where were the mystic bards and druids to save him?  Milton quickly realizes however that this is a fool's errand, blaming nature.  It's part of the grieving process, lashing out in anger at the world.  "Ay me! I fondly dream."  Fondly, in early modern English, means foolishly.  He reflects that even the Muse herself, in Classical tales, could and did not save Orpheus, when he was murdered on the island of Lesbos, his body carried down the Hebrides to that Lesbian shore.

The comparisons go on and on, with various classical figures meditating on the loss of Lycidas.  The Fury has slit the thread of his life, ensuring his fame in the afterlife.  "Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil."  This is true, as we would likely never have known Edward King were it not for this elegaic remembrance.  "Of so much fame in Heav'n expect thy meed."  Lycidas' fame is to come in heaven, not on earth.  He will be exalted, Milton tells us, I suspect as a comfort to himself for having lost so good a person and so good a friend so early.

At this point, in the stanza beginning with "Next Camus..." our speaker changes from the "uncouth swain," that is, Milton's self-insert shepherd character, to that of St. Peter.  We're told that "The Pilot of the Galilean lake; Two massy keys he bore of metals twain (the golden opes, the iron shuts amain). He shook his mitred locks, and stern bespake:"  This is clearly St. Peter who is about to speak.  At this point, Milton transitions into a discourse on the state of the Church.  This account was so scathing that the Church actually banned this poem up to twenty years after Milton's death.

Milton describes the current clergy as snakes, who "creep and intrude, and climb into the fold?  Of other care they little reckoning make."  They are not shepherds, but spies who care little for the welfare of their flock.  They are so useless as shepherds (remember that Lycidas, in this elegy, was a shepherd, an in life, about to be a member of the clergy) that they "scarce themselves know how to hold a sheep-hook, or have learn'd aught else the least that to the faithful herdman's art belongs!"  They are clueless!  Useless!  Their songs grate like nails on a chalkboard.  The congregation, like "hungry sheep look up, and are not fed."  They cannot nourish spiritually their congregation.  They fill them with "wind and the rank mist they draw" and the people "rot inward and foul contagion spread."  These vipers are poisoning the sheep, the honest people seeking God's love and nourishment.

After this episode, Milton calls the voice of the uncouth swain to return.  He assembles flowers for Lycidas' grave.  The descriptions are most beautiful, and I do not think I need to explain those in much detail.  Just read slowly and imagine vividly.

To end, Milton tells us, "Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more, For Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead, sunk though he be beneath the wat'ry floor."  Lycidas, though he sank with his ship, is not dead.  He lives on in heaven, and he now daily lives "in blest kingdoms meek of joy and love."  He is now in Heaven, living forever, where "there entertain him all the Saints above."

The very last stanza is a pulling back from the scene.  No longer is the uncouth swain speaking to us, but Milton himself, as narrator.  "Thus sang the uncouth swain to th'oaks and rills, while the still morn went out with sandals gray."  He has finished his song, his elegy for Lycidas, and now he is moving on.  The uncouth swain moves on, "to-morrow to fresh woods, and pastures new."  He is moving towards the future, a brighter future, having memorialized Lycidas forever.

To me, this is one of the most beautiful poems in the English language.  Apart from the sentiment, the language and intermittent rhyme interspersed throughout the poem are just lovely.  We watch the mourning process unfold, centered on a theme we're all familiar with; why do bad things happen to good people and how do we deal with it?  Milton, ever the political and theological menace to his age, can't help but poke the establishment in the eye with his strong opinions, but it fits, when the person taken from the world too young may have been the panacea to those awful wrongs.  I know this is a demanding poem, and if you've stuck with me this long, reader, I appreciate it.  I didn't offer a very in-depth analysis, and I left many of the Classical allusions unexplained (more for your sake than mine, I do not want to bore you with constant exegesis that takes away from the overall message), but if you're like me, you stayed because the poem exerts an almost magnetic draw.  Its beauty and power have stuck with me ever since I first read it years ago, and I've long wanted to post it here.  I hope you've enjoyed it!

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Fist - Derek Walcott

The fist clenched round my heart
loosens a little, and I gasp
brightness; but it tightens
again. When have I ever not loved
the pain of love? But this has moved

past love to mania. This has the strong
clench of the madman, this is
gripping the ledge of unreason, before
plunging howling into the abyss.

Hold hard, then, heart. This way at least you live.

"When have I ever not loved the pain of love?"  That's the essence of this poem, right there.  The poem is all about the suffering of the heart, the unbearable pangs of love, so violent and strong that we harden our hearts so that they may not feel.

Love in this poem is a fist that clenches around the heart, strangling it, holding it in thrall and in pain.  When it loosens, even momentarily, Walcott "gasps brightness."  When the heart is free, life is light, it's free.  But are we ever without love's pain?  The pain is so strong that Walcott says it's a madman's grip on his heart, holding onto "unreason."  Love as unreason is very easy to understand.  We hold on to that "unreason" so that we do not go insane, howling into the dark abyss of our own hearts.  The last line, as if spoken directly to the heart, is an instruction to seal itself off, to harden, so that it may not be totally obliterated by the awful pain of love.

It's certainly easy to relate to the fever grip of this poem's picture of love.  I'm sure everyone has felt that "mania" as Walcott puts it, a few times.  "The strong clench of the madman" really communicates that insane strength with which the heart feels constricted by love.  It's the lump in your throat feeling, the sense that you are choking on something inside you so massive that it cannot possibly exist.  I admire the way Walcott achieves this effect while using simple, clear, common language.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Love (I) - George Herbert

Immortal Love, author of this great frame,
Sprung from that beauty which can never fade,
How hath man parcel'd out Thy glorious name,
And thrown it on that dust which Thou hast made,
While mortal love doth all the title gain!
Which siding with Invention, they together
Bear all the sway, possessing heart and brain,
(Thy workmanship) and give Thee share in neither.
Wit fancies beauty, beauty raiseth wit;
The world is theirs, they two play out the game,
Thou standing by: and though Thy glorious name
Wrought our deliverance from th' infernal pit,
Who sings Thy praise? Only a scarf or glove
Doth warm our hands, and make them write of love.

We typically think of love sonnets as being between two people, as with Shakespeare's famous sonnets, or Milton's sonnets of heartbreak and loss.  George Herbert's love sonnets are strictly in relation to the love between God and Man, and this one specifically addresses the way in which he feels the term "love" has been cheapened by the way it is used to describe the relationship between people.

In Herbert's theology, Love, the "Immortal Love" which is the cause of all life ("author of this great frame") is from God and God alone.  He thinks that man has so cheapened the word "love" that it's akin to throwing it on the ground, on the very "dust which Thou [God] has made."  He thinks it's a crime that mortal love gets all the glory and honor in art and poetry while God's love, that which powers the very universe, is discarded and ignored.  People use their brains, which Herbert notes, is God's workmanship, and use it to fancy beauty, which raises wit, and God is denied share in both.

Herbert cannot understand how God, whose "glorious name Wrought our deliverance from th' infernal pit" (Hell) is allowed to stand by, unsung.  "Who sings thy praise?" he asks.  He feels that mankind must be cold in absence of God's love, because he says "Only a scarf or glove Doth warm our hands, and make them write of love."  They are cold, and can only write of love because of man's contrivance, not because of the warmth and impulse of God's divine Love.

While I find the depth of Herbert's faith and devotion moving and touching, I'm somewhat taken aback at his barely restrained anger for the way in which love is expressed in human affairs.  Love of fellow humans is an extension of God's love for Creation, not a perversion of it.  While love can certainly be misplaced and abused (would we even have poetry if it couldn't be?), it's not necessarily an affront to a proper relationship with God as Herbert seems to imply.  Or maybe it is, and I'm on the express train to Hell.  I don't know.  I do think this is an exquisitely crafted, impressive poem, which provides much food for thought on the nature of Faith, Love (divine) and love (vulgar).

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Milton - Alfred, Lord Tennyson


O mighty-mouth'd inventor of harmonies,
O skill'd to sing of Time or Eternity,
God-gifted organ-voice of England,
Milton, a name to resound for ages;
Whose Titan angels, Gabriel, Abdiel,
Starr'd from Jehovah's gorgeous armouries,
Tower, as the deep-domed empyrean
Rings to the roar of an angel onset-
Me rather all that bowery loneliness,
The brooks of Eden mazily murmuring,
And bloom profuse and cedar arches
Charm, as a wanderer out in ocean,
Where some refulgent sunset of India
Streams o'er a rich ambrosial ocean isle,
And crimson-hued the stately palm-woods
Whisper in odorous heights of even.

We all indulge in hero worship now and then, and famous poets are no exception.  Tennyson here heaps adulation upon adulation onto Milton, and not without cause.  Milton is one of the true giants of English verse, alongside Chaucer and Shakespeare.  Tennyson's praise is not slight, either, as he calls Milton the "inventor of harmonies" who was so skilled that he could "sing of Time and Eternity."  His voice was so melodious and powerful, so sublime that Tennyson calls him the "God-gifted organ-voice of England" whose name will (and has!) "resound for ages."

The poem concerns itself with listing the amazing accomplishments of Milton's verse, primarily Paradise Lost.  Tennyson's own verse in tribute to these strives for dense, descriptive beauty, similar to Milton's own gifted descriptions.  However, it's not the "Titan angels" that most interest Tennyson.  Though he glorifies the brilliant attire in which Gabriel and Abdiel are clad ("Starr'd from Jehovah's gorgeous armouries") and the way that they stand tall and speak loud in the heavens ("Tower, as the deep-domed empyrean Rings to the road of an angel onset), these characters are not his main concern.  Rather, he is more interested in the utterly bewitching setting that Milton crafted with his Eden.

Tennyson would rather wander lonely though Milton's Eden, that "bowery loneliness" filled with "brooks mazily murmuring" (mazily, I assume, meaning winding like a maze).  The plant life also enraptures him, for he says the "bloom profuse and cedar arches charm" him.  They charm him in the way that a "wandered out in ocean" may be charmed by the "refulgent (brightly shining) sunset of India" as it "streams o'er a rich ambrosial ocean isle."  He paints the most captivating picture of a heavenly isle in an exotic land, illuminated, shining, by a sunset which stains the "stately palm-woods" crimson.  The whole place whispers with delight.  That is what Tennyson takes from Milton's Eden, a sense of utter awe at heavenly beauty.  That his imagination ran so far as to produce this lush, gorgeous poem should be enough to show the depth of his inspiration and admiration.

So as to not leave you confused, reader, the italicized text at the top of the poem, Alcaics, refers to the poem's structure.  An alcaic stanza is an ancient Greek lyrical meter, and this poem follows that pattern.  I believe Tennyson chose a Classical form to mirror the intent of Milton in writing Paradise Lost.  Milton wanted to write an epic for the English language, to elevate English poetry to the level of art and legitimacy enjoyed by the great Greek and Latin epics.  Tennyson using an antique form seems fitting.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Breakfast - Mary Lamb

A dinner party, coffee, tea,
Sandwich, or supper, all may be
In their way pleasant. But to me
Not one of these deserves the praise
That welcomer of new-born days,
A breakfast, merits; ever giving
Cheerful notice we are living
Another day refreshed by sleep,
When its festval we keep.
Now although I would not slight
Those kindly words we use 'Good night',
Yet parting words are words of sorrow,
And may not vie with sweet 'Good Morrow',
With which again our friends we greet,
When in the breakfast-room we meet,
At the social table round,
Listening to the lively sound
Of those notes which never tire,
Or urn, or kettle on the fire.
Sleepy Robert never hears
Or urn, or kettle; he appears
When all have finished, one by one
Dropping off, and breakfast done.
Yet has he too his own pleasure,
His breakfast hour's his hour of leisure;
And, left along, he reads or muses,
Or else in idle mood he uses
To sit and watch the venturous fly,
Where the sugar's piled high,
Clambering o'er the lumps so white,
Rocky cliffs of sweet delight.

Wow, Mary Lamb really likes breakfast.  Not being in the habit of eating breakfast daily, I can't really relate to her rhapsodic pleasure at her morning victuals, but I can still enjoy the poem.  Pleasant rhymes and rhythm dominate, and I can't help but imagine a pleasant kitchen, flooded with light, as friends enjoy the start of the day together.  Really, the poem is a celebration of beginnings, and how all enjoy them in their own way.  But man, she really likes breakfast.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Fair Phyllis I Saw Sitting All Alone - John Farmer

Fair Phyllis I saw sitting all alone
Feeding her flock near to the mountain side.
The shepherds knew not,
They knew not whither she was gone,
But after her lover Amyntas hied,
Up and down he wandered
Whilst she was missing;
When he found her,
O then they fell a-kissing.

Not strictly a poem, but rather an English madrigal, Fair Phyllis is one of my favorites, a delightfully playful, slightly ribald, and undeniably summer-y text and tune.  To understand the text, you really must hear it, so I present to you the King's Singers singing Farmer's work:

The story of the text is simple:  Amyntas, a shepherd, is looking for his love, Phylis.  He's not sure where she went, nor are the shepherds, but he hurried (hied), wandering all over, until he found her, and they started kissing (all over!).

The clever, bawdy twist in the lyrics comes from "up and down."  In its first instance, it's clear that Amyntas is looking all over.  However, the second time it's repeated, it follows kissing, creating new lines, "they fell a-kissing up and down" and "kissing up and down he wandered."  It's clever and naughty and you can't help but smile at the image of two young lovers having a bit of a roll in the hay near the mountain side.  Really, I just wanted an excuse to post one of my favorite madrigals.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

On the Grasshopper and Cricket - John Keats

The Poetry of earth is never dead:
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a vice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper's - he takes the lead
In summer luxury, - he has never done
With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.
The poetry of earth is ceasing never:
On a lone winter evening, when the frost
Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
The Cricket's song, in warmth increasing ever,
And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,
The Grasshopper's among some grassy hills.

Keats, here, clues us in to the constant music of nature, which he calls "Poetry."  The birds' song is poetry, though in the hot summer, when the birds "hide in cooling trees" we still have Poetry, we still have music.  It becomes the domain of the grasshopper, who never ceases to delight in his own music.

"The poetry of earth is never dead" and "The poetry of earth is ceasing never" are the core image of this poem.  In both day and night, summer and winter, the grasshopper and cricket provide us with poetry.  The poem is filled with images of keen observation of sensation.  Summer has "cooling trees" and the shade of some "pleasant weed."  On a lone "winter evening" we have the Cricket's song, "in warmth increasing ever."  Temperature, as well as mood, is expressed in both of these, and in both, we find comfort and pleasure.  That comfort and pleasure is the poetry of nature represented by the songs of the grasshopper and cricket.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Report from the Subtropics - Billy Collins

For one thing, there's no more snow
to watch from an evening window,
and no armfuls of logs to carry into the house
so cumbersome you have to touch the latch with an elbow,

and once inside, no iron stove waiting like an old woman
for her early dinner of wood.

No hexagrams of frost to study carefully
on the cold glass pages of the bathroom.

And there's no black sweater to pull over my head
while I wait for the coffee to brew.

Instead, I walk around in children's clothes-
shorts and a T-shirt with the name of a band
lettered on the front, announcing me to nobody.

The sun never fails to arrive early
and refuses to leave the party
even after I go from room to room,
turning out all the lights, and making a face.

And the birds with those long white necks?
All they do is swivel their heads
to look at me as I walk past
as if they all knew my password
and the name of the city where I was born.

Billy Collins, with his signature humor, touches on something serious.  For as much as we complain about our situation, when confronted with a new environment, we often miss the old.  Written as a report, presumably to a loved one still in the place the narrator has left behind for the subtropics, the poem takes the form of a long complaint.  For as much as Collins complains about his cold winter clime, and all the work it entails, it's not like he has much positive to say about the tropics.

In fact, I'd say he dislikes the tropics more than he dislikes his cold winter home.  In the tropics, he says he's dressed "in children's clothes."  He's invisible, announced to nobody.  The sun is out all day and lingers, or as Collins puts it, "refuses to leave the party."  Even after he's put out the lights, the sun is still stubbornly up, causing him to "make a face," presumably a grimace or frown.  He complains about the birds, too, who give him a weirdly knowing, invasive look on their swivel heads.

This poem is like a long complaint from a grandparent, and that's part of what makes it so endearing.  It's easy to tell that despite the laundry list of inconveniences the place the narrator left behind, he really does love and miss that place.  Indeed, some of his "complaints" are so delicately worded.  "Hexagrams of frost" on the "cold glass pages of the bathroom" are there for study, and like a patient old woman, the wood stove waits for its supper of wood.  Enchanting images of a somewhat rustic life characterize the first few stanzas, and despite the cold outside, they're described with a real warmth, unlike the sweaty tropics, which sound cold and impersonal.

As always, Collins wraps real sentiment and easily digested truths in humor, making it easy for his message to work its way into your head and heart.  He's probably my favorite contemporary poet (along with much of the world, I imagine) and I hope you enjoy his humor, and find the somewhat more serious morsel at the core of the poem.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

"If no love is, O God, what fele I so?" - Petrarch and Geoffrey Chaucer

If no love is, O God, what fele I so?
And if love is, what thing and which is he?
If love be good, from whennes cometh my woo?
If it be wikke, a wonder thynketh me,
When ever torment and adversite
That cometh of hym, may to me savory thinke,
For ay thurst I, the more that ich it drynke.
And if that at myn owen lust I brenne,
From whennes cometh my waillynge and my pleynte?
If harm agree me, whereto pleyne I thenne?
I noot, ne whi unwery that I feynte.
O quike deth, O swete harm so queynte,
How may of the in me swich quantite,
But if that I consente that it be?
And if that I consente, I wrongfully
Compleyne, iwis.  Thus possed to and fro,
Al stereless withinne a boot am I
Amydde the see, betwixen wyndes two,
That in contrarie stonden evere mo.
Allas! what is this wondre maladie?
For hete of cold, for cold of hete, I dye.

This poem has quite the complicated history, which I feel is worth explaining before I proceed with any real look at the text.  First off, these lines were written by Geoffrey Chaucer.  However, the idea is not his directly.  It's included as a part of one of his long poems, Troilus and Criseyde, which itself was not a new story.  What Chaucer offered was a re-interpretation of Boccaccio's Il Filostrato which tells largely the same story.  Troilus himself is a figure out of the Trojan War legend, and was the son of King Priam.  Chaucer's telling is much more nuanced than Boccaccio's, and has had enduring impact.  However, I also included Petrarch in the title because that poetic extract of Troilus and Criseyde is not his original work, but rather, a translation and expansion of one of Petrarch's sonnets, absent from Il Filostrato.  Chaucer included this passage as a song of Troilus, wherein he falls further in love with Criseyde.  I think it is fairly clear that Chaucer was working the tale even further into the tradition of courtly romance, the genre to which it may be said to belong.

Getting that out of the way, we can now focus on the text itself, which despite many archaic wordings and spellings, remains quite readable and even more relevant.  It's a monologue about the pangs of love, and how it manifests itself so really within us.  Troilus begins by wondering, paraphrased for your convenience, "If there is no love, God, what do I feel?"  Moving on with the assumption that it is love, he wants to know, "what thing and which" is love?  Love is thought of as positive, but Troilus feels pain from it.  "If love is good, then from where comes my woe?  If it's wicked, why do I find its torments savory, why do I thirst for it?"  It's the question we all ask:  "Why does love hurt if it's good, why do I want it so badly, why can I not live without it?"

Further wondering where love comes from, Troilus wonders if it comes from within his own brain.  But if it comes from himself, then why does he wail and feel plaintive?  The whole poem is loaded with images of pleasure and pain in opposition, both caused by love.  It's like an irreconcilable quarrel within, seemingly happening without his permission.  But surely he must be letting himself fall in love, he thinks!  "How may you (love) be in me in such quantity but with my consent?"  Assuming he is allowing himself to fall in love, Troilus then thinks he has no right to complain!  "If I consent, I wrongfully complain, I think!"  He feels passed to and fro, as if a boat caught between two winds.  He feels as if he's dying of cold in the heat, or dying of heat in the cold.

I think the best descriptor of love in the poem is this line, "Allas! what is this wondre maladie?" which translated, reads, "Alas!  What is this wondrous malady?"  Love surely is a wondrous malady.  It afflicts us all with tremendous pain, wonderful pleasures, leaves us constantly thirsting for it, and yet it happens despite our wishes, and we have no choice but to allow it.  It's an ancient sentiment, and one expressed in a refined, clear manner here.  I know Middle English can be difficult to read, but I'd really encourage you to try.  It's a rewarding feeling, working it out.

Sonnet 23 - John Milton

Methought I saw my late espoused saint
Brought to me, like Alcestis, from the grave,
Whom Jove's great song to her glad husband gave,
Rescu'd from death by force, though pale and faint.
Mine, as whom wash'd from spot of child-bed taint
Purification in the old Law did save,
And such as yet once more I trust to have
Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind;
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin'd
So clear as in no face with more delight.
But Oh! as to embrace me she inclin'd,
I wak'd, she fled, and day brought back my night.

A heartbreaking account of loss and dreams, in his Sonnet 23, Milton dreams of his dearly departed wife, who came to him in a dream vision.  Invoking both religious and Classical imagery throughout, Milton constructs his wife as a heavenly figure.

Initially, he refers to her as his "late espoused saint," firmly establishing her grace and divinity, as well as her being dead.  He saw her brought to him like Alcestis, immediately creating a Classical parallel, to lend some sort of gravitas to the poem, and to give the image of her snatched from Death's jaws.  He saw her not as impure, as of the world, but as purified in Heaven, "vested all in white, pure as her mind."  She embodies all the goods of the world, "love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin'd [shined] so clear."

Sadly the vision departs, which Milton communicates in great pain.  "But Oh!  as to embrace me she inclin'd [inclined], I wak'd [I waked, woke up], she fled, and day brought back my night."  The last words, "and day brought back my night" is an image with two levels of meaning.  First, the metaphorical, in that with his light (his heavenly spouse) taken from him, Milton is in the dark, despite it being day time.  The more literal, and sadder image, is that Milton, by this point in his life, had gone blind.  In his dreams, he can see, and what wonders he sees!  His most beloved wife, returned to him.  But when he awakes, it is back into a world of darkness.  Despite the classical allusions and somewhat dense imagery of the poems opening lines, the ending is very direct and emotional.  It's the kind of line, and direct sincerity and devotion, that makes me choke up a bit.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Idea: To The Reader of these Sonnets - Michael Drayton

Into these loves, who but for passion looks,
At this first sight here let him lay them by
And seek elsewhere in turning other books,
Which better may his labour satisfy.
No far-fetch'd sigh shall ever wound my breast;
Love from mine eye a tear shall never wring;
Nor in "Ah me's!" my whining sonnets drest:
A libertine, fantasticly I sing.
My verse is the true image of my mind,
Ever in motion, still desiring change;
And as thus to variety inclin'd,
So in all humours sportively I range:
My Muse is rightly of the English strain,
That cannot long one fashion entertain.

At the beginning of his sonnet, Drayton warns the reader: anyone looking just for passion in his or her love is advised to look elsewhere, because they will not find that in his poems.  Look to other books, "which may better his labour satisfy."  Basically, if you're reading sonnets just for some thrill of love and passion, you're in the wrong place.  Drayton seems proud that he is immune to the slings and arrows of love, that he avoids its piercing dart.  "No far-fetch'd sign shall ever wound by breast" he boasts, and he mocks other sonnets, "drest" (dressed) in "Ah me's!" and other breathy exclamations of love, the likes of which are nowhere to be seen in his work.

Rather, Drayton fancies himself a libertine, someone who seeks out pleasure as his whims take him, always mutable, "ever in motion."  He ranges "sportively" in all humours, as rightly befits an English man.  He cannot stay in one mode, but rather, he feels the need to explore, because his "verse is the image of [his] mind."  I love that image particularly, the verse being the very image of the mind.  While I don't think it's healthy to declare "Love from mine eye a tear shall never wring" I do find the attitude of celebrating radical mental freedom highly appealing.  As with all things poetic, it is surely an exaggeration, as no one is so unfeeling as to never cry.  I think Drayton means to say that his poems will never be weepy stuff, dripping with idle tears of Love and Passion.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Eye - Charles Wright

Insensitive or discreet
In it the passions move

Seeking an entrance
In it the seasons meet

Mosslike with blood
Blended in clouds

The future a certain map
When the lid shuts

It is a reflection
It is a drawplate

The left and the right

In honor of his announcement as the new US Poet Laureate, I've decided to feature a brilliant, insightful (get it?) little poem from Charles Wright.  A thorough examination of the eye, this poem presents to many images and metaphors for the eye, describing its function and its importance.

The first two stanzas deal with the eye as a place in which things happen.  "In" the eye, our passions move.  Our passions can be obvious ("insensitive") or subtle ("discreet"), but no matter how, our eyes are one of the main ways in which our passions are expressed.  After all, how telling can a glance be?  Just the slightest expression, as shown in the eye, can tell us everything about a person and what they are thinking.

In the second stanza, the eyes function as a meeting place for all the images which it takes in.  The seasons, "seeking an entrance" into our minds, enter through the eyes first, there meeting.  It reminds me of a famous line from Joyce's Ulysses, in which Stephen Dedalus says, "Thought through my eyes."  We do often first take in the world visually, images meet thoughts.

The next two stanzas are descriptions of the eye itself.  Criss-crossed with fine capillaries, our eyes are "mosslike with blood" and something of a cloudy aspect.  Those tiny blood pathways spreading like clouds, or moss on a round stone, form an unorthodox yet effective image of the detail of the eyeball's exterior.  Moving now to the first part of the exterior world the eye sees, the eyelid, acts as a reflection of inner thoughts, the future projected upon it.  This is, I think, a clever reference to our "mind's eye," that place we can go where we "see" future events unfolding, with eyes closed.

The metaphors now become more direct.  The eye is a reflection of the outside world and our own inner thoughts, and it is the drawplate upon which we draw conclusions about our surroundings.  Left and right are the same and separate.  To be honest, I'm not sure what function the last stanza serves other than to make sure we all know we're talking about a pair of eyes, and not just one, something which the title neglected to mention.

I really enjoyed this journey around the eyeball and its various functions, both metaphysical and physical, and hope that you did as well.  It's concise and crisp, two qualities that I value highly in poetry, and it makes its point with no more or fewer words than it needs.  It's not a pointed moral or a narrative, but just an exultation and reflection upon those two wondrous jewels in all of our heads.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Football - Suk Chan Park

  Like a hero.

An acrostic written by one of my middle school students, I actually really like how clear the thought is at the core of the poem.  Suk Chan successfully articulates a clear thought about football (soccer).  Focus and dedication will result in victory, making you a hero.  

I really like doing poems with my students.  Many of them assume that poetry is very difficult, even in their native Korean.  I like teaching acrostics, because it means that all students, from low level to high, can participate equally.  As a class, we choose a word to describe.  Then we do a group brainstorm, and then out of those words, we assign them to the vertical axis, slowly teasing out the message we want to convey.  The word I usually steer my classes towards (or outright pick for them) is student.  It's something to which they can all relate, and the responses are usually good and very telling about the Korean education system.  Here's one from one of my high schools:

                              Stressful school studying
              wearing Uniforms
              lunch is Delicious
                              English is our second language
                              Never stop

It's a bit funny, and reflects how tough the day can be for them, but it also has some notes of optimism about it.  I like seeing my students get to be creative, because they so seldom get to do that in their other classes.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Grauballe Man - Seamus Heaney

As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep

the black river of himself.
The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak,
the ball of his heel

like a basalt egg.
His instep has shrunk
cold as a swan's foot
or a wet swamp root.

His hips are the ridge
and purse of a mussel,
his spine an eel arrested
under a glisten of mud.

The head lifts,
the chin is a visor
raised above the vent
of his slashed throat

that has tanned and toughened.
The cured wound
opens inwards to a dark
elderberry place.

Who will say 'corpse'
to his vivid cast?
Who will say 'body'
to his opaque repose?

And his rusted hair,
a mat unlikely
as a foetus's.
I first saw his twisted face

in a photograph,
a head and shoulder
out of the peat,
bruised like a forceps baby,

but now he lies
perfected in my memory,
down to the red horn
of his nails,

hung in the scales
with beauty and atrocity:
with the Dying Gaul
too strictly compassed

on his shield,
with the actual weight
of each hooded victim,
slashed and dumped.

The Grauballe Man is a bog body dating to the 3rd century BC, preserved in remarkable detail.  It was found in a peat bog in Denmark, and the man in question appears to have been a human sacrifice, based on other findings in the bog and research into the body.  As the poem notes, his throat was slit, and he was dumped in a bog.  Heaney's descriptions are raw and vivid, and while I rarely like to do this, I've included images of the body so you can see exactly what I mean.

I think calling it a 'body' is insufficient, as Heaney notes.  It's a "cast," a perfect image, resplendent in its hideous beauty and preservation.  We can feel such a strong human connection to the past on seeing his face, his gaunt form, his gnarled fingernails.  We can even see his hair, still looking soft and alive, though it is undoubtedly coarse and brittle, ready to turn to dust at a touch.  I particularly enjoy the image of his spine, "an eel arrested under a glisten of mud."

Here are the photos.  I apologize that they may be grotesque, but I think they are also captivating, weirdly beautiful, and trigger within us a massive human connection to all of our ancestry.

Let Me Die A Youngman's Death - Roger McGough

Let me die a youngman's death
not a clean and inbetween
the sheets holywater death
not a famous-last-words
peaceful out of breath death

When I'm 73
and in constant good tumour
may I be mown down at dawn
by a bright red sports car
on my way home
from an allnight party

Or when I'm 91
with silver hair
and sitting in a barber's chair
may rival gangsers
with hamfisted tommyguns burst in
and give me a short back and insides

Or when I'm 104
and banned from the Cavern
may my mistress
catching me in bed with her daughter
and fearing for her son
cut me up into little pieces
and throw away every piece but one

Let me die a youngman's death
not a free from sin tiptoe in
candle wax and waning death
not a curtains drawn by angels borne
'what a nice way to go' death

I think this speaks to a lot of us, that desire to go out with a bang, rather than a whimper.  Who wants to go through the pearly gates in a wheelchair with tubes in your nose?  This poem, besides being tremendously humorous, speaks to our deep fears about aging and dying in obscurity, dying infirm.  Who wants to live the last of their life confined to a bed, limping alone?  The desire to go out in a blaze of glory is ancient and worldwide.

I might be paraphrasing a bit here, but on one of my favorite TV programs, Top Gear (UK), one of the hosts, Jeremy Clarkson, has said that when he dies, he wants it to be an anecdote.  I think that sums up this poem pretty well.  McGough wants his death to be a funny story at a party, the kind of thing people remember, not some sanitized, boring, sanctified and dignified passing.  I can understand that, though being young, I think about death far less often than I should.  This poem certainly appeals to that testosterone fueled part of my psyche, that craves adventure and desires hungrily for challenge and notice.  It's certainly appealing.  91 and gunned down by gangsters?  What a badass, right?  That's the allure of this poem, of the youngman's death.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Last Lines - Anne Brontë

I hoped, that with the brave and strong,
My portioned task might lie;
To toil amid the busy throng,
With purpose pure and high.

But God has fixed another part,
And He has fixed it well;
I said so with my bleeding heart,
When first the anguish fell.

A dreadful darkness closes in
On my bewildered mind;
Oh, let me suffer and not sing,
Be tortured, yet resigned.

Shall I wish joy thy blessings share
And not endure their loss?
Or hope the martyr's crown to wear
And cast away the cross?

Thou, God, hast taken our delight,
Our treasured hope away;
Thou bidst us now weep through the night
And sorrow through the day.

These weary hours will not be lost,
These days of misery,
These nights of darkness, anguish-tost,
Can I but turn to Thee.

Weak and weary though I lie,
Crushed with sorrow, worn with pain,
I may lift to Heaven mine eye,
And strive to labour not in vain;

That inward strife against the sins
That ever wait on suffering
To strike whatever first begins:
Each ill that would corruption bring;

That secret labour to sustain
With humble patience every blow;
To gather fortitude from pain,
And hope and holiness from woe.

Thus let me serve Thee from my heart,
Whate'er may be my written fate:
Whether thus early to depart,
Or yet a while to wait.

If thou shouldst bring me back to life,
More humbled I should be;
More wise, more strengthened for the strife,
More apt to lean on Thee.

Should death be standing at the gate,
Thus should I keep my vow;
But, Lord! whatever be my fate,
Oh, let me serve Thee now!

Deeply pious, the youngest Brontë sister, Anne, recounts here her struggles with her faith, and accepting what she perceives as Fate, and God's "portioned task" for her.  The language of the poem is straightforward, and conveys the struggle Brontë feels in accepting her losses and tasks.  She does not know what she is to be in God's plan.  Is she to be a warrior of Faith?  Someone who long bears suffering and yet joyfully shares God's blessing?  Will she cast away her suffering ("cast away the cross") and be martyred instead?

She does not know.  What she does know, is that in "these days of misery, these nights of darkness, anguish-tost, can I but turn to Thee."  Despite all of her pain and uncertainty at her roles, her faith never wavers, and she knows to turn to God to sustain her in troubling times.  She does not want to "labour in vain," she desperately wants to be able to help.

She ends with a plea, "Thus let me serve Thee from my heart."  She is so desperate.  If she is to be resurrected, that is, to find eternal life in God, she would be better the second time around, she promises.  "If thou shouldst bring me back to life, More humbled I should be; more wise, more strengthened for the strife, more apt to lean on Thee."  She wants nothing more than to serve, ending with an anguished "Oh, let me serve Thee now!"  She wants her suffering to end, and whether that suffering be through her uncertainty, or from the pain of life on earth, and not in heaven, she wants it to end.

It is worth noting that this poem was written on Anne's deathbed, essentially.  She was dying of consumption, and it was quite far progressed by the time it was diagnosed.  She knew that she had little time left, but much suffering remaining.  To my mind, she is incredibly brave and of strong faith and mind to be so cogent and so accepting in the face of such knowledge.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

[somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond] - E. E. Cummings

somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence;
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skillfully,mysteriously) her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fraglility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

Open and close.  Fingers like flower-petals, Cummings depicts fragility as a source of great strength, which have the capacity to contain and "unclose" the narrator.  I'd feel fairly comfortable calling this a love poem, but more comfortable calling it a wonder poem.  Everything about it wonders in amazement and deep appreciation, heartfelt admiration of the great power wielded by one so outwardly fragile.

The dominant image of the poem is that of opening and closing.  The narrator has "closed himself as fingers" and it is only through the intercession of the object, the "you" of the poem, can he open and bloom.  Bloom is a fitting word, considering that it is not the fists of a finger being opened, rather, "you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens her first rose."  It's a mystery how, but the touch is skillful.

The "you" of the poem, the love/admiration object, by sense, slowly opens Cummings.  Their "silence" and "frail gesture enclose" the narrator, cradling him softly.  The "look" does not enclose, but "unclose," opening the narrator up to new experience.  So willing is Cummings to bend to this you that if it is their wish, his life will "shut very beautifully."  Continuing the flower simile, Cummings, comparing himself to a flower, at the slightest suggestion that the love object may want him to close will shut "as when the heart of this flower [my heart] imagines the snow carefully everywhere descending."

"Intense fragility" is the most interesting image in the poem for me.  It's like a statement of radical openness.  For something fragile to be intense seems like a contradiction, but I think it's that the delicacy and fragility of this love object are so powerful, so touching, that they are an intense emotional experience.  Prying open a fist flower with nothing but a look is an intense power over man.  Indeed, it "compels" Cummings, and the breath of this love object is life and death itself.  He admits it, too, and confesses that he does not know, but something inside him understands.

What a lovely image that is!  And haven't we all felt that?  Something which we could not know with our minds, could not explain rationally, but on some fundamental emotional level, we understood?  The images all throughout the poem carry that trademark Cummings quality of wispy yet clear images, things that sound strange together and yet make perfect sense.  Imagining that the rain has small hands seems bizarre, but then again, doesn't it touch us like so many small fingers, so many light, cool touches?  "i do not know what it is about you that closes and opens; only something in me understands the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses."  The voice of your eyes!  What an image.  We do speak with our eyes, of course.  You can have a full conversation in nothing but glances, blinks, and glares.  A lovely, refreshing poem.