Friday, November 20, 2015

Youth and Calm - Matthew Arnold

'Tis death! and peace, indeed, is here,
And ease from shame, and rest from fear.
There's nothing can dismarble now
The smoothness of that limpid brow.
But is a calm like this, in truth,
The crowning end of life and youth,
And when this boon rewards the dead,
Are all debts paid, has all been said?
And is the heart of youth so light,
Its step so firm, its eye so bright,
Because on its hot brow there blows
A wind of promise and repose
From the far grave, to which it goes;
Because it hath the hope to come,
One day, to harbour in the tomb?
Ah no, the bliss youth dreams is one
For daylight, for the cheerful sun,
For feeling nerves and living breath -
Youth dreams a bliss on this side death.
It dreams a rest, if not more deep,
More grateful than this marble sleep;
It hears a voice within it tell:
Calm's not life's crown, though calm is well.
'Tis all perhaps which man acquires,
But 'tis not what our youth desires.

How do death and youth intersect?  At the start of the poem, Arnold sets up the image of death as peace.  That's a pretty conventional image.  Ease from shame, rest from fear, no more worries to crease a face.  Is that it, though?  As he asks, "Is a calm like this...the crowning end of life and youth?"  In essence, is the height of youth, in all its grandeur, to be reduced to the calm of death?

Youth itself promises repose from the grave with its "hot brow" and firm step and light heart.  Arnold asks if for all of that, its only destination and final repose can be the grave.  Youth makes us feel as though we can fly high forever, even if this is not true.  The poem, too, brings us down from our flight to reality.  "Ah no, " Arnold writes, wistfully, "the bliss youth dreams is one for daylight, for the cheerful sun, for feeling nerves and living breath."  Youth is the dream for the living, from which we wake only to find death, and a final repose.

Still though, the dream of youth is noble and beautiful, and "dreams a rest, if not more deep, more grateful" than the "marble sleep" of death.  I like how Arnold brings the word "marble" back into the poem after he so beautifully used the word "dismarble" to describe how nothing can disturb the calm face of the dead.  As the last two lines perfectly note, calm is the only thing we end up with at our end, though it isn't what our youth desires.

What I like most about this poem is how knowingly Arnold accepts that death is our final destination, and he describes its calm as beautiful, clear, and deep.  And despite that knowledge, despite the certainty of it, the hot blooded dream of youth is more gratifying and satisfying to us, even though, maybe because, we know it is fleeting.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Lonely Death - Adelaide Crapsey

In the cold I will rise, I will bathe
In waters of ice; myself
Will shiver, and shrive myself,
Alone in the dawn, and anoint
Forehead and feet and hands;
I will shutter the windows from light,
I will place in their sockets the four
Tall candles and set them a-flame
In the grey of the dawn; and myself
Will lay myself straight in my bed,
And draw the sheet under my chin.

What does it mean to be really, truly alone?  Adelaide Crapsey gives us an account of a lonely death, in which the narrator readies herself for death, from bathing, to confession, to preparation of the funeral bed, before finally laying down to die.  It's a bleak picture, but it is in no way pitiful, as I expected it to be.  Rather, I'm overwhelmed by the narrator's tremendous force of will.  Someone so alone could just lay down and die unwashed, without any sort of dignity, and no one would know.  That's not for this narrator, though.

This narrator is determined to face death head on, unbending, even in solitude.  They will rise, they will bathe.  Will is repeated so many times that's it's certainly no accident that the force of will was impressed upon me.  The repetition of the word "myself" contributes to this as well, best exemplified in the line "myself will lay myself straight in my bed."  No one else but "myself" will do it.  Myself is the actor and myself is the object of action.  It's a solitary figure of solitary strength.

There is dignity in every line of this poem, a constant railing against the knowledge that death finds us all alone.  Yes, death will take me, but on my terms, this poem seems to say.  Loneliness in this poem also means independence.  No one is there to take care of the narrator but no one is needed, because the strength of self is sufficient to conquer death, if only for a moment.  Even though there is no one to discover the passing and none to mourn, the effort is everything.

As a personal aside, I apologize, readers, for being dormant so long.  I've had a number of changes in my role at work which require much more of my time than before.  I work so much that it's difficult for me to find the time or mental effort to devote to writing about poetry.  Given though, how good this return to writing has made me feel, I will strive to make the time as best I can, and I hope you continue, reader, to make the time for poetry and art in your daily life.

Monday, September 7, 2015

September (from 'The Months') - Linda Pastan

Their summer romance
over, the lovers
still cling
to each other

the way the green
leaves cling
to their trees
in the strange heat

of September, as if
this time
there will be
no autumn.

I've taken this poem directly from my colleague in poetry blogging, and her excellent blog to which I highly recommend subscribing.  I thank her for showing me this wonderful poem and apologize for so blatantly copying her idea in posting it!

Summer itself in this poem is like a summer lover.  There's a "strange heat" and a reluctance to separate.  The poem feels especially appropriate today, a hot September day.  It was nearly 95 F today (35 F for my non-American friends) and still, the leaves are mostly full and green, as if no one has told them summer is coming to a close soon.

My favorite line is the hope you can feel in the last stanza.  The leaves hold on "as if this time there will be no autumn" and they will not have to part.  Anyone who has ever had a summer romance, or any other sort of relationship limited by external time factors will feel those lines deeply.  That desperate cling, knowing you must separate, is sweet and painful all at the same time.  What a marvelous comparison.

Monday, August 31, 2015

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud - William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in a sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; by they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be bay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed - and gazed- but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Imagination, memory, day-dream, and solitary walks.  Wordsworth hits at the heart of poetry here.  It is the joyful impulse of creation, of motion and beauty so wonderful that it never really goes away.  Wordsworth's lonely wandering was hardly sad, for what cloud (he wandered "as a cloud" after all) is sad?  Clouds are lofty, majestic, changing constantly.  He blew onto this marvelous scene of daffodils ringing the coastline, dancing in the wind, outdoing even the sea itself for motion and joy.  He couldn't help but be jovial in such company as that.

The real gift though, is the memory of it.  The lovely image that comes to him in his daydreams, that perfect remembrance, more perfect than any reality.  It is the "inward eye which is the bliss of solitude."  That must be the single best way to describe a daydream, the inward eye which is the bliss of solitude.  Upon reading the poem, I leaned back in my chair, and let my mind wander to moments and images which now on recollection feel as magical to me as Wordsworth's daffodils.  The poem is at once personal, descriptive, and immediately applicable to anyone.  Who among us doesn't take joy in their sweetest remembered daydreams?  Those beautiful places our minds go are the reason one who is alone needn't be lonely.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Season of Phantasmal Peace - Derek Walcott

Then all the nations of birds lifted together
the huge net of the shadows of this earth
in multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues,
stitching and crossing it. They lifted up
the shadows of long pines down trackless slopes,
the shadows of glass-faced towers down evening streets,
the shadow of a frail plant on a city sill-
the net rising soundless at night, the birds' cries soundless, until
there was no longer dusk, or season, decline, or weather,
only this passage of phantasmal light
that not the narrowest shadow dared to sever.

And men could not see, looking up, what the wild geese drew,
what the ospreys trailed behind them in silvery ropes
that flashed in the icy sunlight; they could not hear
battalions of starlings waging peaceful cries,
bearing the net higher, covering this world
like the vines of an orchard, or a mother drawing
the trembling gauze over the trembling eyes
of a child fluttering to sleep;
                                              it was the light
that you will see at evening on the side of a hill
in yellow October, and no one hearing knew
what change had brought into the raven's cawing,
the killdeer's screech, the ember-circling chough
such an immense, soundless, and high concern
for the fields and cities where the birds belong,
except it was their seasonal passing, Love,
made seasonless, or, from the high privilege of their birth,
something brighter than pity for the wingless ones
below them who shared dark holes in windows and in houses,
and higher they lifted the net with soundless voices
above all change, betrayals of falling suns,
and this season lasted one moment, like the pause
between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace,
but, for such as our earth is now, it lasted long.

What a magnificent thing this poem is.  The birds, ever lifting higher, get to experience a season of phantasmal peace and light that is undiminished by the passing of shadows.  This poem puts me in mind of those perfect moments, when the light is just so, and you feel as though you could inhabit that moment forever.  As Walcott says, "it was the light / that you will see at evening on the side of a hill / in yellow October."  I don't think I've ever heard a more concise or evocative way to describe a month as "yellow October" which to me, brings to mind the essential nature of autumn.

Just imagining how "the birds lifted together / the huge net of the shadows of this earth" is enthralling.  I have to imagine all the shadows disappearing for one brief moment, and must try to imagine, though I cannot fully, a moment with light, "phantasmal light that not the narrowest shadow dared to sever."  The light is the peace of nature, highlighted by its constant connection to the birds in this poem.  We, the people, are the ones who share "dark holes in windows and in houses."

There's a great sense of serenity about this poem, even though the moment it describes is incredibly brief.  It's a reminder that there is beauty in the world, though we may have to rethink where we find it and why.  It's inevitable that time moves on, but in these moments of "phantasmal light" and peace, we need to try to live on that fine line.  As Walcott puts it so sublimely, it is the "pause between dusk and darkness."  The briefest instant: may it last forever.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Nightfall - Linda Dyer

The wood begins to gather darkness,
stuffing it in holes
and spreading it in hollows,
tucking it among the tree roots,
piling it against the sapling's trunk.
At first the upper branches stay aloof
preferring not to watch
the hoarding going on below,
but darkness stacks on darkness
stacks on darkness, up and up,
until the glutton woodland
vanishes from sight,
itself consumed in blackest night.

I don't think I've ever heard a sunset described in quite as interesting a way as this before.  Rather than darkness being a result of the passing of the light, it is an active element, building up and up, swallowing the trees and absorbing them into the night.  It's a ground up, one layer of abstraction sort of sunset description, and I can picture it perfectly.  A treeline, becoming dark from the group up, until the last vestiges of light on the highest branches are swallowed too by the vertical growing darkness.

I found this enchanting poem in a volume of poetry I received as a gift, The Blueline Anthology.  The poems in that collection are all inspired by, in some way, the Adirondack region.  All through my life, my family would vacation for a week or two in Lake George in the Adirondacks, so the region holds a very special place in my heart.  I cannot read something like this without imagining the pristine blue waters glinting as the sun comes down over the lake.  Now, thanks to this poem, I have another image to add to my recollection: the darkness moving its way up the tree, as "darkness stacks on darkness stacks on darkness."

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

["Hope" is the thing with feathers] - Emily Dickinson

"Hope" is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I've heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.

Hope can never be wiped out, and no matter how extreme the circumstance, it "sings the tune without the words - and never stops at all."  It is the endless optimism that cannot be knocked down by even the fiercest Gale.  Best of all, it never asks a thing of you, just giving tirelessly.  That is the nature of Hope, that tiny bird inside your soul.  I think I would do well to memorize this one.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Bob - Alfred Corn

     For Mimi Khalvati

Why go? Partly because we had no reason
To, though, granted, Hastings's on the Channel-
Which meant salt air and, that day, winter sun.
A zigzag wing from station down to shingle

To take in the cold light and arrowy
Jeers shrilled by veering scavengers overhead,
Who flirted, razzed, then flapped and rowed away,
Our tentative footsteps fumbling pebbles, dead

Shellfish, kelp, plastic bits. A backtrack trek
To lunch should keep mild melancholy at
Bay, even if the loose-ends, fifties-flick
Ambience was was we'd come for. Or part of what.

Later, our huff-puff climb uphill for the ruins'
Majestic overviews, in guidebook blather.
One silver path across the waves to France,
And the long, incoming roar of faith from farther

East. (Or west: fanaticism's viral.
Numbing to think about the human cost.)
Sunset. Time to unwind a dawdling spiral
Down to the mall - where it dawns on us we're lost.

Suppose we ask this sporty adolescent.
"The station? Oh, no problem. Bang a right
Up there, then left, and on along the Crescent
About two minutes, and Bob's your uncle, mate."

You smiled, interpreted - but then you would,
Having yourself once been an "alien."
(The conditional of ironic likelihood
Is hackneyed. Stop me if I use it again.)

Transit to London as night falls. First star.
Abrupt flashes of interrupting light
Light up your eyes, your lips, your shimmering hair.
Friend. Nothing more. And Bob's your uncle, mate.

A rambling internal monologue of a date that isn't a "date," is probably the best way to describe this Alfred Corn poem.  There's an air of defeat about the whole thing, starting with the season, location, and finally the narrator himself.  A trip to the shore in winter can be lovely, but it's not exactly what one associates with romance.  Secondly, the trip described is to the ruins of Hastings castle, where the Normans won a decisive victory against the Anglo-Saxon rulers of the area.  Lastly, the narrator himself describes everything with a twinge of pathos, of things faded.

His descriptions are beautiful, but they never highlight the generative nature of anything.  When he describes shellfish, it's in fragments, detritus, "fumbling pebbles, dead shellfish, kelp, plastic bits."  He is a man who has defeated himself, from his descriptions.  Clearly not from the UK himself, as evidenced by the phrase, "Bob's your uncle" (often said at the end of simple instructions) sticking in his head, the narrator is displaced as he follows his female companion, who once was alien herself, but not has presumably assimilated into the idioms of every day life in a foreign place.  The last stanza of the poem is when he reveals his total admiration of her, but only to himself.  Her lips, eyes, and shimmering hair lit by the "interrupting light" reveal that to him, she is "Friend. Nothing more."  It's impossible not to feel his sense of defeat there.  Whether there was once something there or not, we can never really know.  As an internal monologue of frustrated love, I think this poem does a great job creating that atmosphere through its setting and tiny details.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Second Fig - Edna St. Vincent Millay

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

What fun and beauty is there in a sure thing?  This theme was touched on in the context of love last week in the Yeats poem I posted.  Here, Edna St. Vincent Millay puts in in very simple and enticing terms.  Do you want an ugly house, or a shining palace?  Never mind the stability, the question is beauty, which can be a flighty, unstable thing indeed.  Beautifully, succinctly put.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Lighthouse Keeping - Kay Ryan

Seas pleat
winds keen
fogs deepen
ships lean no
doubt, and
the lighthouse
keeper keeps
a light for
those left out.
It is intimate
and remote both
for the keeper
and those afloat.

Kay Ryan has a gift for making short leans feel so much.  The way the line breaks contribute to both larger sentences, taken individually, they offer contrast and alternate meanings.  The best example of that here is "ships lean no / doubt" and "doubt, and."  Of course, the ships out at sea lean, no doubt there, but for the sailors, and the lighthouse keeper, there is "doubt, and" so many more feelings.  The lighthouse keeper and the sailor out at sea have an intimate, long-distance, anonymous relationship, which I feel is captured wonderfully in this short jewel of a poem.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Sonnet 139: O, call not me to justify the wrong - William Shakespeare

O, call me not to justify the wrong
That thy unkindness lays upon my heart;
Wound me not with thine eyes but with thy tongue;
Use power with power, and slay me not by art.
Tell me thou lov'st elsewhere; but in my sight,
Dear heart, forbear to glance thine eye aside;
What need'st thou wound with cunning when thy might
Is more than my o'erpressed defense can bide?
Let me excuse thee: ah, my love well knows
Her pretty looks have been mine enemies;
And therefore from my face she turns my foes,
That they elsewhere might dart their injuries -
     Yet do not so; but since I am near slain,
     Kill me outright with looks and rid my pain.

Many of Shakespeare's sonnets deal with the frustrations of unrequited love, and among those, this is one of the most poignant.  Throughout, he begs for the release from not knowing whether or not he is loved.  "Kill me outright with looks and rid my pain" he pleads, unable to bear a tempestuous relationship any longer.  Nearly every line of this poem is a jewel of melancholic brilliance.  "Her pretty looks have been mine enemies" is a particular favorite of mine.

It's worth remembering that at the time Shakespeare was writing, the affectation of melancholy and suffering was considered fashionable and was in high demand at courts.  While a lot of the emotion present here does feel raw and heartfelt, it was also fashionable to be able to beautifully express sorrow in dramatic terms.  The comparisons to death are a classic example of that trend.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Chorus - Rachel Hadas

A Greek I worked for once would always say
that tragedies which still appall and thrill
happen daily on a village scale.
Except that he put it the other way:
dark doings in the sleepiest small town
loom dire and histrionic as a play.
Cosmic? Perhaps. Unprecedented? Not
to the old women sitting in the sun,
the old men planted in cafes till noon
or midnight taking in the human scene,
connoisseurs of past-passing-and-to-come.
These watchers locate in their repertory
mythic fragments of some kindred story
and draw them dripping out of memory's well.
Incest and adultery; exile
and murder; divine punishment; disgrace:
the trick is to locate the right-sized piece
of the vast puzzle-patterned tapestry
from which one ripped-out patch makes tragedy.

This highly skilled and patient process - find
a larger context, match and patch and mend -
is what the chorus in Greek tragedy
has always done. And to this very day
spectators comb the tangles of a tale,
compare, remember, comment - not ideal,
but middle-aged or older, and later.
Beyond the hero's rashness or the hurt
heart of the heroine, they've reached the age
when only stars still lust for center stage.
The chorus, at a point midway between
the limelight and the audience, is seen
and unseen. Lady chaperones at balls
once sat on brittle chairs against the walls.
"My dancing days are over," they'd both sigh
and smile. Or take the case of poetry.
Mine used to play the heroine  - me me me -
but lately, having had its fill of "I,"
tries to discern, despite its vision's flaws,
a shape. A piece of myth. A pattern. Laws.

This magnificent poem from Rachel Hadas covers a grand sense of scale of human experience, from the personal, first person, to the near cosmic sense, and we find that it all weaves into one large pattern.  The very first sentence sets this scale contrast up wonderfully, with a Greek talking about how the sort of tragedies that "appall and thrill" us when presented on stage, as in a play, still do occur on "a village scale."  The world is so vast, and so full of people, that at every single moment of the day, somewhere, a great drama plays out.  It's incredible to think about the range of human experience occurring at every moment of the day.  Hadas goes on to talk about some of that range, and who sees it.  Old men and women see youth playing out these tragedies, these things that are "not unprecedented" to the elderly, who can relate to these tragedies.

Hadas then goes on to talk about the role that those who have stepped out of the limelight play.  They are like the chorus of Greek drama, hence the title of the poem.  Hadas herself sees her role as poet these days to be more like that of the chorus than that of the heroine.  She said she had quite enough of the "me me me" of being in the limelight.  She would have to have stepped out of the limelight and into the chorus to write such an observational poem as this.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Factory Windows Are Always Broken - Vachel Lindsay

Factory windows are always broken.
Somebody's always throwing bricks,
Somebody's always heaving cinders,
Playing ugly Yahoo tricks.

Factory windows are always broken.
Other windows are let alone.
No one throws through the chapel-window
The bitter, snarling, derisive stone.

Factory windows are always broken.
Something or other is going wrong.
Something is rotten - I think, in Denmark.
End of the factory-window song.

Vachel Lindsay was a poet most famous for inventing what he referred to as "singing poetry" where the poem is meant to be chanted or sung.  He traveled, giving rousing readings of his poems, becoming known as the "Prairie Troubadour."  I feel that keeping that in mind while you read this, so you can give it a bit of a dramatic reading in your head.  The poem has a strong rhythm that makes it easy to recite.

The poem itself doesn't have too much meat or substance to it, but I think it shows a good deal about our attitude towards the working class.  I know I've certainly seen factory windows smashed up, and that's in today's day and age.  In the time when Lindsay was writing (early 20th century), working conditions were much worse, and his choice of the word "derisive" to describe the rock that smashes those windows is perfect.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Never give all the Heart - William Butler Yeats

Never give all the heart, for love
Will hardly seem worth thinking of
To passionate women if it seem
Certain, and they never dream
That it fades out from kiss to kiss;
For everything that's lovely is
But a brief, dreamy, kind delight.
O never give the heart outright,
For they, for all smooth lips can say,
Have given their hearts up to the play.
And who could play it well enough
If deaf and dumb and blind with love?
He that made this knows all the cost,
For he gave all his heart and lost.

A heartbreaking sonnet from a heartbroken Yeats.  It's appropriate to call this a love sonnet, but more correct to called it a frustrated love sonnet.  Yeats essentially argues here that a love which is given wholly will ultimately be rejected because there is no chance in it.  Something certain quickly grows boring, and boring is seldom a byword for passionate romance.  If you give your whole heart, Yeats says, it will be taken for granted, and the receiver of that heart will never once think that love "fades out from kiss to kiss."  For the heartbroken lover who has given all of their heart, only to find it taken for granted, "everything that's lovely is / but a brief, dreamy, kind delight."

Initially, I reacted with distaste to Yeats' assessment of both love and women, but as I read and pondered it, I became more sympathetic.  Love is not fair, and Yeats knows this.  That much is implicit in the poem being written at all.  But what made that stand out for me are the last two lines, the volta.  "He that made this knows all the cost, / For he gave all his heart and lost."  Yeats, who wrote it, gave his whole heart, made himself entirely vulnerable, and lost his love.  This is a poem from a place of heartbreak, and I think I would be a fool if I expected a heartbroken person to ever be fair in their treatment of love.  To anyone who has ever made themselves vulnerable, only to have their heart, their very self, rejected, this poem calls upon that pain.  Swapping genders would change very little because the raw pain of this sonnet works in any way.  A passionate man rejecting an earnest woman who gave all her heart and lost, or a man walking away from another man's love because of its certainty would result in the same heartbreak.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Lessons - Sara Teasdale

Unless I learn to ask no help
   From any other soul but mine,
To seek no strength in waving reeds
   Nor shade beneath a straggling pine;
Unless I learn to look at Grief
   Unshrinking from her tear-blind eyes,
And take from Pleasure fearlessly
   Whatever gifts will make me wise -
Unless I learn these things on earth
Why was I ever given birth?

These are some hard lessons that Sara Teasdale seeks to learn.  Independence, fearlessness, gratitude, bravery.  All are on display here.  This poem is about confronting all of the good and the bad that lives around us every day.  Teasdale want to recognize the very heights of Grief and Pleasure, and to encounter them both "unshrinkingly" and "fearlessly."  Taking Pleasure without fear or guilt is as hard as facing naked Grief without shrinking from it.  Teasdale will not hide in the tall grass or shelter herself beneath shade, instead she will ask "no help from any other soul but mine."  It's an intoxicating self-reliance and strength of will on display.

If I can't do these things, asks Teasdale, why was I even born?  That's a good question, indeed.  Are these "Lessons" necessary?  Teasdale's narrator in this poem certainly craves these lessons, as she feels they will give her meaning and validate her existence.  I'm not convinced those lessons are necessary, because I feel that the capacity to ask them is enough.  Still, these questions are essentially the directed formation of the Self from within, and it speaks directly to each of our sense of ourselves as individual.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

To Asra - Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Are there two things, of all which men possess,
That are so like each other and so near,
As mutual Love seems like to Happiness?
Dear Asra, woman beyond utterance dear!
This love which every welling at my heart,
Now in its living fount doth heave and fall,
Now overflowing pours thro' every part
Of all my frame, and fills and changes all,
Like vernal waters springing up through snow,
This Love that seeming great beyond the power
Of growth, yet seemeth ever more to grow,
Could I transmute the whole to one rich Dower
Of Happy Life, and give it all to Three,
Thy lot, methinks, were Heaven, thy age, Eternity!

Coleridge's rapturous love poem "To Asra" is probably best known for its last line: "Thy lot, methinks, were Heaven, thy age, Eternity!" It speaks of a timeless love beyond all comparison, which has lived forever in a Heavenly state.  There are so many other wondrous lines in this poem which overflows with love, though, and I'd like to point a few out to you, reader.

"This Love that seeming great beyond the power / Of growth, yet seemeth ever more to grow" is a favorite of mine.  His Love for Asra, the love she inspires, seems to be so great as to be beyond the point of growth, still grows constantly, always outpacing itself.  The love is "overflowing" and "pours thro' every part" of his frame, filling him, changing him.  The love is so transformative that it is like spring waters breaking through the snows of winter.  I hope you can all feel love so wonderful as this, reader.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Day You Are Reading This - William Stafford

The planet of Nothing fills the sky, and
a philosopher goes out and admires that
greatest of all discoveries in the heavens.

Even the rest of us, now and then we
fall outward and on into that glorious
hole where all of us really are.

But mostly we look steadily at the
stars, and when we meet someone
we say, "Have a good day."

There is nothing greater than Nothing.  I get a strong sense of peace from this Nothing that Stafford writes about.  The core of this poem is realization that everything is together.  That "Nothing" is a realization.  As he puts it, "now and then we / fall outward and on into that glorious / hole where all of us really are."  That Nothing is absence of ego and of any worldly connection.  It reminds me of a great many spiritual concepts across cultural traditions of becoming at peace with oneself and the world.

Mostly, when we look up, we "look steadily at the stars" and miss the great Nothing enveloping them, that "planet of Nothing" which fills the sky.  We make small talk with one another instead of sharing the world's beauty and wisdom.  We say "How are you?" without ever meaning it and "Have a good day" without caring if the recipient does.  I think Stafford wants us to see and notice that "Nothing" all around us and embrace it.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Insomniac Perdition - Chris Hart

Guide me, Virgil!
What stratum is this,
That deprives me of
Energy and sleep both.

A wearied mind,
Running Sisyphean
Circles around rings
Downward into my pillow

Sinking deeper and
Deeper drowning
But no breath comes

Just choking awake
Wakeful with worry
About awake
Why why why

Abyssian architect,
Who gave you the right
To deprive my mind
Of clearest sight?

Why do I wait and awake
Again awake cannot form
Firm the hate awake hate
Self world you hate awake

Let me sleep slip away from
This awful nightmare
By lapsing finally
Into sleep deep sleep.

So, reader, this is an unusual poem, even for me.  I sometimes suffer from insomnia, or at the very least, symptoms of insomnia.  For the past week or so, I've had real trouble falling asleep.  I typically get into bed between 12am and 1am, and lay awake for at least four hours, sometimes up to six hours.  Laying awake in such a state, exhausted, but unable to find the sweet respite of sleep, is a special sort of hell.  Earlier this week, as I grappled with these demons, I wrote this in a stream of consciousness at 5:00 am.  I had been lying awake for nearly five hours at that point, unable to shut my brain up, or to shut my body down.

It felt like I was drowning in wakefulness, choking on air, and unable to sleep (and find wakefulness and clarity in my dreams, ironically) no matter what I did.  I invoked Virgil, as if I was on my own journey into the Inferno.  What hell can there be apart from utter denial of respite?  In the third to last stanza, I deliberately wrote clearly, to underscore the difficulty I had creating cogent thought in that torturous state.  I think when contrasted to the rest of the poem, its clear rhyme and meter form an effective "breath of fresh air" amidst the confusion and struggle of the rest of the poem.

I deliberately did not edit this poem in order to make it more authentic.  I'm unsure how many of you can relate to this form of mental torture, but I felt compelled to write the poem anyways.  I assure you, this was genuinely written under duress in the wee hours of the morning, after an unbearably sleepless night.  If you, reader, like me, occasionally suffer from insomnia, I hope that you find rest soon, and sleep well.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Obsoletion of a Language - Kay Ryan

We knew it
would happen,
one of the laws.
And that it
would be this
sudden. Words
become a chewing
action of the jaws
and mouth, unheard
by the only other
citizen there was
on earth.

Kay Ryan's ability to present a complex and provocative topic, with ruthless economy of word, and peerless craft, is a true gift, and I am unashamedly envious.  I hope to learn from her example in my own work, and someday learn to place words as carefully as she does.  My adoration is already longer than her whole poem, though, so maybe I'm just making a "chewing" motion with my jaws, and I am unheard.

What happens who two people are fundamentally unable to understand one another?  Is it an accident that this happens?  No, that's too innocent an assessment.  Obsoletion is active, systematic.  It's the eradication of indigenous tongues by political process ("one of the laws") and the erosion of meaning.   It is planned.  "We knew it / would happen,"  It was not an accident that this language was obsolesced.  It is sudden.  A few lifetimes, and that's it.  One speaker left, mouthing meaningless words at an uncomprehending world.  The short lines and terse breaks contribute to the sudden aspect of the poem, to its chopped up feeling.  How can one speak when no one is there to understand?

Mutual isolation is how I frame the image of two people with no means to communicate.  They may as well not be on the same planet if they cannot communicate meaningfully.  For a language to be made obsolete is a hate crime against the richness of human experience.  There's a heartbreaking list of languages that have gone extinct in recent years.  Most, with the death of one person, "the only other / citizen there was / on earth."  There are language conservation efforts, but for most languages that go extinct, there is no revival.  It's hard to imagine your whole method of framing your experience and life being made impossible to communicate by outside forces, and it's terrifying.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Lay for the Troubled Golfer - Edgar Albert Guest

His eye was wild and his face was taut with anger and hate and rage,
And the things he muttered were much too strong for the ink of the printed page.
I found him there when the dusk came down, in his golf clothes still was he,
And his clubs were strewn around his feet as he told his grief to me:
"I'd an easy five for a seventy-nine - in sight of the golden goal -
And easy five and I took an eight - an eight on the eighteenth hole!

"I've dreamed my dreams of the 'seventy men,' and I've worked year after year,
I have vowed I would stand with the chosen few ere the end of my golf career;
I've cherished the thought of a seventy score, and the days have come and gone
And I've never been close to the golden goal my heart was set upon.
But today I stood on the eighteenth tee and counted that score of mine,
And my pulses raced with the thrill of joy - I'd a five for a seventy-nine!

"I can kick the ball from the eighteenth tee and get this hole in five,
But I took the wood and I tried to cross that ditch with a mighty drive-"
Let us end the quotes, it is best for all to imagine his language rich,
But he topped that ball, as we often do, and the pill stopped in the ditch.
His third was short and his fourth was bad and his fifth was off the line,
And he took an eight on the eighteenth hole with a five for a seventy-nine.

I gathered his clubs and I took his arm and alone in the locker room
I left him sitting upon the bench, a picture of grief and gloom;
And the last man came and took his shower and hurried upon his way,
But still he sat with his head bowed down like one with a mind astray,
And he counted his score card o'er and o'er and muttered this doleful whine:
"I took an eight on the eighteenth hole, with a five for a seventy-nine!"

Anyone who has ever golfed, or been similarly myopically focused on one challenging goal, can understand the somewhat comical pain of the golfer, or of the man who failed (thankfully at something largely inconsequential, no offense, golfers).  The poem is entirely written in heptametric (seven beats per line) couplets.  I only mention that because you may have been wondering why the poem has such a charming meter, and is so naturally suited to telling a story.  There's little else to explain here, as the poem explains itself just fine.  Enjoy!

Monday, July 13, 2015

A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General - Jonathan Swift

His Grace! impossible! what dead!
Of old age too, and in his bed!
And could that mighty warrior fall?
And so inglorious, after all!
Well, since he's gone, no matter how,
The last loud trump must wake him now:
And, trust me, as the noise grows stronger,
He'd wish to sleep a little longer.
And could he be indeed so old
As by the newspapers we're told?
Threescore, I think, is pretty high;
'Twas time in conscience he should die
This world he cumbered long enough;
He burnt his candle to the snuff;
And that's the reason, some folks think,
He left behind so great a stink.
Behold his funeral appears,
Nor widow's sighs, nor orphan's tears,
Wont at such times each heart to pierce,
Attend the progress of his hearse.
But what of that, his friends may say,
He had those honours in his day.
True to his profit and his pride,
He made them weep before he died.

   Come hither, all ye empty thing,
Ye bubbles raised by breath of kings;
Who float upon the tide of state,
Come hither, and behold your fate.
Let pride by taught by this rebuke,
How very mean a thing's a Duke;
From all his ill-got honours flung,
Turned to that dirt from whence he sprung.

Jonathan Swift certainly pulled no punches here.  The famous satirist held little love for the military of his day, and in this mock elegy, does so with humor.  The first few lines are shocked exclamations.  What's that?!  And old person died!?  How could it be!  I like how he pretty immediately moves on from his mock concern to, "Well, since he's gone" and just goes on with it.  "'Twas time in conscience he should die / This world he cumbered long enough" is an excellent line.  The warring general is not missed by Swift.  When his candle snuffed out, it made an awful stink.  It's almost like a celebrity roast, and even though he's ostensibly talking about the deceased, you can't help but smirk.

Swift points out that typically when one dies, there are crying widows and orphans: those left behind by the death of a loved one.  For this general?  None.  In his lifetime though, he left, "true to his profit" (profession) a great number of weeping children and orphans behind: the victims of those he killed in war.  No one mourns his death and he caused immense heartbreak.

In the last stanza, Swift directly addresses other generals, "bubbles raised by breath of kings."  People who are hollow shells, raised by someone's power other than their own, "who float upon the tide of state."  The dead general's funeral procession is their lesson:  "Let pride be taught by this rebuke, / How very mean a thing's a Duke."  Mean here means low, lowly.  No matter what "ill-got" honours this general attained, he now is "turned to that dirt from whence he sprung."  No matter how exulted in life, he's just dirt now, and good riddance, one thinks Swift would have added.  Swift's humor is biting and pointed: critical of oppressive power structures, especially in a time when the common person had none of their own.  None but words, at least.

Monday, July 6, 2015

White Head - Sophie Jewett

Prone on the northern water,
   That laps him about the breast,
Like the Sphinx in the sand, forever
   The giant lies in rest.

The sails drive swift before him,
   And the surf beats at his lip,
But the gray eyes look out seaward
   Noting nor wave nor ship.

The centuries drift over,
   He marks not with smile nor frown,
Drift over him cloud and sea-gull,
   Swallow and thistledown.

I, of the race that passes,
   Quick with its hope and its fear,
Lean on his brow and question,
   Plead at his senseless ear:

"What of thy past unmeasured?
   And what of the peoples gone?
What of the sea's first singing?
   What of the primal dawn?

"What was the weird that bowed thee?
   How did the struggle cease?
Out of what Titan anguish
   Issued thy hopeless peace?"

Nothing the pale lips utter,
   What hath been, nor what shall be;
Under the brow's stern shadow,
   The gray eyes look to sea.

The blue grows round and over,
   Thin-veiled, as it were God's face;
I feel the breath, the spirit,
   That knows nor time nor space.

And my heart grieves for the giant
   In his pitiful repose,
Mocked by the vagrant gladness
   Of a laggard brier-rose;

Mocked to his face from seaward
   By the flash and whirl of wings;
Mocked from the grass above him,
   By life that creeps and sings.

I care not for his wisdom,
   His secret unconfessed;
I yearn toward rose and cricket,
   Ephemeral and blest.

Ah! if he might, how would he
   Quicken to love and to tears;
For my immortal minute
   Barter his endless years!

He rests on the restless water,
   And I on the grasses brown,
Drift over us cloud and sea-gull,
   Swallow and thistledown.

After posting early 20th century poet Sophie Jewett last week, I knew I had to revisit her and post more of her poetry, because to me, it is absolutely wonderful in both its craft and content.  The natural feeling of her lines and their rhyme is enchanting, and it reads easily without ever sounding preachy.  The subject of her poem also reminds me my native New England coastline.

Here, Jewett describes and talks to an ancient rock, presumably one just off the coast, surrounded by the foaming waves.  The rock may perhaps be on shore as well, but regardless, is by the coast.  The rock itself is immortal, immovable, endlessly gazing out to sea, as "cloud and sea-gull / Swallow and thistledown" drift overhead.  Jewett asks of this rock many questions that I've wondered myself when I look at some ancient natural feature.  What was the past of this place?  People who used to live here?  "What of the sea's first singing? / What of the primal dawn?"

Of course, the rock never answers; it's a rock.  What really sets this poem apart for me, and what makes it magical, is that Jewett does not envy the rock its permanence and knowledge of eons untold.  She embraces the human condition of transience and impermanence.  "I care not for his wisdom, / His secret unconfessed; / I yearn toward rose and cricket, / Ephemeral and blest."  Moreover, she supposes that the rock would "barter his endless years" for just one of Jewett's "immortal minutes" full of feeling, and love, and tears.  It's a wonderful affirmation of human existence, of our brief, beautiful time here on earth, beneath the "cloud and sea-gull, / Swallow and thistledown."

This poem's moving past envy of the rock's knowledge, of nature's untold eternal secrets, is almost like a revelation for me.  I've asked similar questions myself, in poetry, but was never fully satisfied with the asking.   I was concerned with transience, but of people in general, not of myself or of beauty.  I wondered what a place looked like rather than what it experienced, though the two questions are closely linked.  My own poem looks quite amateurish next to this masterstroke, and I've never been happier to say that.

Friday, July 3, 2015

To the Poet Before Battle - Ivor Gurney

Now, youth, the hour of thy dread passion comes;
Thy lovely things must all be laid away;
And thou, as others, must face the riven day
Unstirred by rattle of the rolling drums,
Or bugles' strident cry. When mere noise numbs
The sense of being, the sick soul doth sway,
Remember thy great craft's honour, that they may say
Nothing in shame of poets. Then the crumbs
Of praise the little versemen joyed to take
Shall be forgotten; then they must know we are,
For all our skill in words, equal in might
And strong of mettle as those we honoured; make
The name of poet terrible in just war,
And like a crown of honour upon the fight.

Ivor Gurney is known best today as a composer rather than a poet, but his poetic output was significant all throughout his life.  This is a poem of the Great War, the first world war, of which Gurney was a participant.  There were many poet soldiers in that war, and he seemed very concerned with the reputation of the poet not suffering from any sort of cowardice.  This is addressed to all poets before they fight, that they "Remember they great craft's honour, that they may say / Nothing in shame of poets."  Fight with bravery he says, and let your might and mettle be equal to those you honor in poetry.

Poets and poetry of the first world war run such a wide range of attitudes, styles, and goals.  Gurney seems to revel in the poetic glory of mass conflict.  There's very little of the grim description of battle that one might find in Sassoon's poetry or the misty eyed optimism of Rupert Brooke.  Rather, Gurney seems to acknowledge that war is indeed a terrible time, and yet for all that, he presents war in dramatic poetic terms.  Rolling drums, bugles' strident cries, these all stir the blood.  That's the point, I suppose.  I feel as though Gurney knew full well how terrible war was (he fought it, after all) but he did not want anyone to think of poet soldiers as anything less than heroes in their own right.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

To a Child - Sophie Jewett

The leaves talked in the twilight, dear;
   Hearken the tale they told:
How in some far-off place and year,
   Before the world grew old,

I was a dreaming forest tree,
   You were a wild, sweet bird
Who sheltered at the heart of me
   Because the north wind stirred;

How, when the chiding gale was still,
   When peace fell soft on fear,
You stayed one golden hour to fill
   My dream with singing, dear.

To-night the self-same songs are sung
   The first green forest heard;
My heart and the gray world grow young -
   To shelter you, my bird.

A lovely flight of imagination, published posthumously a year after Sophie Jewett's passing, this poem contains a wonderful tenderness expressed from an adult to a child, though not necessarily that adult's child.  Jewett never had children of her own, but she was a professor at Wellesley College, where she had lots of children (young adults) to take under her wing.  The real takeaway of the poem comes in the last two lines:  "My heart and the gray world grow young / To shelter you, my bird."  Harboring and protecting a child brings youth, strength, and vitality back to the narrator of the poem, who is represented as a "dreaming forest tree."  The tree loves nothing more than to protect the bird from all the winds and dangers of the world, and in return, gets a "golden hour" of singing.

For Jewett, who taught writing, that hour of golden singing must have been reading the work of her students, about whom I am sure she cared deeply.  Having taught, if only briefly, I can recall few prouder moments than reading poems composed by my students.  Even though I am not a parent, I feel like this must be a familiar feeling to parents: a feeling of strength and youth when sheltering a child.  Regardless, it's a lovely and touching poem.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

"Soldier from the wars returning" - A. E. Housman

Soldier from the wars returning,
Spoiler of the taken town,
Here is ease that asks not earning;
Turn you in and sit you down.

Peace is come and wars are over,
Welcome you and welcome all,
While the charger crops the clover
And his bridle hangs in stall.

Now no more of winters biting,
Filth in trench from tall to spring,
Summers full of sweat and fighting
For the Kesar or the King.

Rest you, charger, rust you, bridle;
Kings and kesars, keep your pay;
Soldier, sit you down and idle
At the inn of night for aye.

If only such a day as this would come, when soldiers turn down from the fight and there is peace.  While the imagery of this poem is dated, and soldiers no longer have horses (charger), the sentiment is the same.  It's an almost fatigued sounding poem, as if the author, Housman, has just seen enough of war.  That would make sense, given that this poem was written in 1922, after Europe had been devastated by unimaginable war and hardship.  If only Kings and Kesars (kaisers, ceasers) would keep their pay, and not finance wars.

While there is a persistent fatigued tone to the poem, I feel that it also extends an invitation for healing.  In the first two lines, Housman acknowledges that soldiers who return from war (as opposed to those who do not) are not blameless themselves.  The returning soldier is the "spoiler of the taken town."  His war deeds were earned in blood.  Despite this, comfort is offered.  I wouldn't say forgiveness, because that's not mentioned again.  Peace is the offer.  "Here is ease that asks not earning."  Housman wants nothing in return for peace.  There are no demands, no vengeance, no grudges.  "Turn you in and sit you down."  Just stop war and take peace, since it's right there, he's saying.

Housman wants to see the bridle rust and the horse rest, and the soldier nevermore return to war.  To him, peace can be that simple.  The last line, "at the inn of night for aye" contains a bit of an archaic phrasing.  "For aye" means forever.  An alternate reading of the poem can assert that the soldier returning from war is dead.  The inn of night is eternity, where there will be peace forever.  The charger no longer carries the man and the bridle will rust from disuse.  Even if there is war in the world, there is peace for this soldier who no longer fights, and no longer has to endure the inhumanity of trench warfare.  I still think the poem is a larger call for peace rather than an individual mourning, but both opinions are valid.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Lame Beggar - John Donne

I am unable, yonder beggar cries,
To stand, or move; if he say true, he lies.

English is a great punning language, as John Donne skillfully shows here.  This is the type of poem where you laugh despite yourself.  You don't really expect to laugh in a poem about a lame (invalid) beggar.  Who laughs at a beggar?  Still, if the beggar is telling the truth, he lies.  Lies on the ground, that is.  It's the sort of pun that takes you by surprise and which must be rather disorienting for non-native speakers.

Monday, June 29, 2015

To Cupid - Joanna Baillie

Child, with many a childish wile,
Timid look, and blushing smile,
Downy wings to steal thy way,
Gilded bow, and quiver gay,
Who in thy simple mien would trace
The tyrant of the human race?

Who is he whose flinty heart
Hath not felt the flying dart?
Who is he that from the wound
Hath not pain and pleasure found?
Who is he that hath not shed
Curse and blessing on thy head?

"The tyrant of the human race."  What a fitting title for Cupid.  Cupid, the most obvious stand in for love, is the subject of this poem.  Described as an innocent child int eh first stanza, he is, in reality, cruel, inflicting wonderful, terrible hurt upon the whole human race.  As the poet asks, "Who is he that from the wound / Hath not pain and pleasure found?"  Just about everyone has experienced love, and knows well both its pain and pleasure.  There's really not much more to explain, but the poem is a sentiment that I'm sure most have felt, put simply and elegantly.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Dipper - Kathleen Jamie

It was winter, near freezing,
I'd walked through a forest of firs
when I saw issue out of the waterfall
a solitary bird.

It lit on a damp rock,
and, as water swept stupidly on,
wrung from its own throat
supple, undammable song.

It isn't mine to give.
I can't coax this birth to my hand
that knows the depth of the river
yet sings of it on land.

Beauty often strikes us unexpectedly, and sometimes oddly.  The titular dipper is a bird which is odd in its ability to swim and dive underwater.  It must be a strange sight to see a bird burst forth from a cold waterfall and sing, but it clearly caught the poet, Kathleen Jamie, off guard.  She cannot give you this beauty, but she can tell you about it.  "It isn't mine to give" she says.  That bird's song is its own, and even if we imagine it when we read, it's just a shadow of the real item.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Watercoloring - Billy Collins

The sky began to tilt,
a shift of light toward the higher clouds,
so I seized my brush
and dipped my little cup in the stream,

but once I streaked the paper gray
with a hint of green,
water began to slide down the page,
rivulets looking for a river.

And again, I was too late -
then the sky made another turn,
this time as if to face a mirror
held in the outstretched arm of a god.

Billy Collins is likely my favorite contemporary poet, and this poem is a good example of why that is.  In it, a painted tries to capture a moment in time with his painting.  The paint streaks, and he looks up to discover that he is no longer painting the same sky.  It's a beautiful image, and where he couldn't capture the sunset in painting, Collins gives it to us on the page, and now in your mind's eye you envision that one moment of the sky you wish you could save forever.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Storm Ending - Jean Toomer

Thunder blossoms gorgeously above our heads,
Great, hollow, bell-like flowers,
Rumbling in the wind,
Stretching clappers to strike our ears...
Full-lipped flowers
Bitten by the sun
Bleeding rain
Dripping rain like golden honey -
And the sweet earth flying from the thunder.

My hometown just had an absolutely incredible thunderstorm, with another seemingly starting now.  It was quite devastating from what I have seen thus far (downed trees, damaged houses, fallen power lines) but despite that, in the moments leading up to it, captivating in its bizarre stillness.  It is thrilling seeing the world illuminated by a lightning bolt against an otherwise dark sky, something I think captured magnificently in this Jean Toomer poem.  Stay safe, any of you readers who live with stormy weather routinely.

Monday, June 22, 2015

I Find No Peace - Sir Thomas Wyatt

I find no peace, and all my war is done.
I fear and hope. I burn and freeze like ice.
I fly above the wind, yet can I not arise;
And nought I have, and all the world I season.
That loseth nor locketh holdeth me in prison
And holdeth me not - yet I can scape no wise -
Nor letteth me live nor die at my device,
And yet of death it giveth me occasion.
Without eyen I see, and without tongue I plain.
I desire to perish, and yet I ask health.
I love another, and thus I hate myself.
I feed me in sorrow and laugh in all my pain;
Likewise displeaseth me both life and death,
And my delight is causer of this strife.

Sir Thomas Wyatt was an ambassador to Italy from England under King Henry VIII, and today is widely believed to have been the lover of Anne Boleyn.  Wyatt's ride travels meant he was widely read, and he was one of the first to adapt the sonnet to English from Italian.  While the English he uses is somewhat archaic here, it's still largely understandable to our modern "eyen" and its sense of self-imprisonment and conflict due to love are as relevant as ever.

Wyatt expresses his great frustration at love through paradox, which I imagine is how many of us experience love.  He sees without eyes, he speaks without tongues, he burns and freezes.  He soars high without rising with the wind and is held captive by all and no chains and fetters all at once.  All of this because "my delight is causer of this strife."  That which brings him joy, his love, also causes him this pain, and so paradox is the only vehicle through which he can express it.

"I love another and thus I hate myself" might be among the most perfect descriptions I've yet heard for being in love.  Loving another is the knowledge that you are not whole.  It is allowing yourself to be hurt as deeply as you can imagine, and knowing that another is entrusting you with that same power.  If it is a frustrated love, as it seems to be in this poem, it would indeed rob you of all peace.  That line cuts through the rest of the poem like a knife, and I think it will stick with me a long time.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

There Was A Young Lady Whose Chin - Edward Lear

There was a Young Lady whose chin,
Resembled the point of a pin;
So she made it sharp,
And purchased a harp,
And played several tunes with her chin.

What a silly image!  Limericks are just plain fun, and while they're often ribald or bawdy, they can be good, clean, ridiculous fun.  This is from Lear's "Book of Nonsense."  We don't always have to think hard, or at all, to enjoy poetry.  There's no point here; apart from the point of the Young Lady's chin, that is.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Blood and Lead - James Fenton

Listen to what they did.
Don't listen to what they said.
What was written in blood
Has been set up in lead.

Lead tears the heart.
Lead tears the brain.
What was written in blood
Has been set up again.

The heart is a drum.
The drum has a snare.
The snare is in the blood.
The blood is in the air.

Listen to what they did.
Listen to what's to come.
Listen to the blood.
Listen to the drum.

Actions speak louder than words.  Maybe we ought to listen.  But as we never seem to, wars continue, and lead continues to tear our hearts and brains apart.  What happened once will happen again, and it is always what's to come, it seems.  The lead.  The war drums.  The way our blood quickens in conflict and flows, and then we eulogize it with words and promise to be better but never are.  What a magnificent poem.  Hopefully one day we learn to listen.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Lullaby - W. H. Auden

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit's carnal ecstasy.

Certainly, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

Hardly a traditional lullaby, but comforting in its own way nonetheless.  Reading this, I picture a new mother or father holding their baby, and that this is their internal monologue, rather than a spoken or sung lullaby.  They hold their baby, the "entirely beautiful" in their life.  The whole poem is about savoring every moment of love because every moment, "on the stroke of the midnight pass" death inches closer, and "every farthing of the cost / all the dreaded cards foretell."  Of course we all know that we will someday die.

Where the poem pivots, where the comfort always re-enters, is in the endless almost stream of consciousness flow of love.  "But from this night, not a whisper, not a thought, not a kiss nor look be lost."  Every single second together with this baby is remembered, savored, sacred.  The third stanza wishes all good fortunes upon this child.  "Noons of dryness find you fed" and "nights of insult let you pass."  At all times, the narrator wishes their child to be "watched by every human love."  The constant outpouring of love more than offsets the grim fate that awaits us all, and of which Auden does remind us.

As a new uncle, I cannot help but wish that my new niece is "watched by every human love" as she grows, and I can't imagine how wondrous and special each and every noise and movement are to my brother and his wife, the new parents.  I do know that my niece will hear many a lullaby in the years to come, and that she is surrounded on every side by love.  Perhaps though, for her, this lullaby from Auden can wait.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A Complaint - William Wordsworth

There is a change - and I am poor;
Your love hath been, nor long ago,
A fountain at my fond heart's door,
Whose only business was to flow;
And flow it did; not taking heed
Of its own bounty, or my need.

What happy moments did I count!
Blest was I then all bliss above!
Now, for that consecrated fount
Of murmuring, sparkling, living love,
What have I? shall I dare to tell?
A comfortless and hidden well.

A well of love - it may be deep -
I trust it is, - and never dry:
What matter? if the waters sleep
In silence and obscurity.
- Such change, and at the very door
Of my fond heart, hath made me poor.

The moment when someone no longer loves you is confusing and disorienting, and that's at the heart of the Wordsworth poem.  While it may be easy to read this poem as whiny, given its title, I think it's best to consider it from the angle of a hurt lover, who now finds no love where once a flood of it flowed.  Only in absence does Wordsworth realize the love he once had.

I do have a gripe with this poem though, and that is that it's inconsiderate of the feelings of the one whose love has stopped flowing.  While that certainly doesn't negate the pain Wordsworth's narrator feels, I can't help but feel it's somehow unfair to complain in such a self-focused manner.  In matters of the heart, fairness seldom applies, however.  Whether there is a good reason for the cessation of that flow of love or not hardly seems to help ease the pain.  Even when your mind can rationalize, the heart often cannot cope.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Aliens - Amy Lowell

The chatter of little people
Breaks on my purpose
Like the water-drops which slowly wear the rocks to powder.
And while I laugh
My spirit crumbles at their teasing touch.

This poem, to me, perfectly encapsulates how emotionally draining it can be to deal with others, sometimes.  To be surrounded by the foreign, no matter how much you smile and laugh, does wear on you, crumbling your spirit slowly "like the water drops which...wear the rocks to powder."  Even if we don't take the title, "Aliens" to mean foreign peoples in terms of culture, it can simply be strangers.  I think we've all had a day where every interaction takes something out of you.  We are all alien to one another on some level, and our selves are our sanctum and shield.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Ancient Song - Chris Hart

Clear eyes
Clear voice
His song twinkles
As he sings the sunburst
On the crest of the wave

Wandering five-fold steps
As she climbs the mountain path
Melody and trail
Go where they will
In uneven leaps
But natural

He has never spoken
She knows he loves her
Voices joined
In accord
In a chord

She looks up at the stars
Wind, song, they are the same
When they blow through the trees

Nothing ever spoken
Nothing left unsaid

This is one I've been working on for a while, readers.  I remember reading a while ago that researchers think that before speech ever developed, primitive human ancestors communicated by something more resembling song.  Like how we babble to infants, or hum absent-mindedly.  I've taken that idea and perhaps too strongly romanticized it.  I imagine a couple falling in love with one another's voices, expressing everything they see musically.  I allude to the pentatonic scale because it's probably the most intrinsic musical scale researchers have yet identified, and common to most world cultures.

I do wonder about the last two lines, as I think they come on too strong, and are perhaps even a bit preachy or heavy-handed.  I included them because I'd like feedback.  I like the idea of this poem, but I'm unsure of its execution.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Spring, the sweet spring - Thomas Nashe

Spring, the sweet spring, is the year's pleasant king,
Then blooms each thing, then maids dance in a ring,
Cold doth not sting, the pretty birds do sing:
     Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!

The palm and may make country horses gay,
Lambs frisk and play, the shepherds pipe all day,
And we hear aye birds tune this merry lay:
     Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!

The fields breathe sweet, the daisies kiss our feet,
Young lovers meet, old wives a-sunning sit,
In every street these tunes our ears do greet:
     Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!
          Spring, the sweet spring!

What an outpouring of love for spring Thomas Nashe had!  The birds are singing their cuckoos and to-wiita-woos and the world seems sunny and pleasant for a time.  It's the season of love for young and old, and everywhere you go, the sound of birds.  I seem to have unintentionally made a theme of spring this week, readers, and with how pleasant the weather has been, I think I can see why!  Enjoy it, and this incredibly sunny, springy, joyful poem.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Spring - Thomas Carew

Now that the winter's gone, the earth hath lost
Her snow-white robe's, and now no more the frost
Candies the grass, or casts an icy cream
Upon the silver lake or crystal stream;
But the warm sun thaws the benumbed earth,
And makes it tender; gives a sacred birth
To the dead swallow; wakes in hollow tree
The drowsy cuckoo, and the humble-bee.
Now do a choir of chirping minstrels bring
In triumph to the world the youthful Spring.
The valleys, hills, and woods in rich array
Welcome the coming of the long'd-for May.
Now all things smile, only my love doth lour;
Nor hath the scalding noonday sun the power
To melt that marble ice, which still doth hold
Her heart congeal'd, and makes her pity cold.
The ox, which lately did for shelter fly
Into the stall, doth now securely lie
In open fields; and love no more is made
By the fireside, but in the cooler shade
Amyntas now doth with his Chloris sleep
Under a sycamore, and all things keep
Time with the season; only she doth carry
June in her eyes, in her heart January.

It is spring, but Thomas Carew's lover's heart has not thawed along with the rest of the world.  Oxen which once sought shelter that now frolic in the sun, pastoral lovers (Amyntas and Chloris) lounge under a sycamore tree, and "a choir of chirping minstrels bring in triumph to the world the youthful Spring."  For all that, his lover carries "June in her eyes, in her heart January."  What a line.  I feel there's little left for me to explain.  Just read slowly and enjoy the lovely images.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Walking - Thomas Traherne

To walk abroad is, not with eyes,
But thoughts, the fields to see and prize;
          Else may the silent feet,
               Like logs of wood,
Move up and down, and see no good
          Nor joy nor glory meet.

Ev'n carts and wheels their place do change,
But cannot see, though very strange
          The glory that is by;
               Dead puppets may
Move in the bright and glorious day,
          Yet not behold the sky.

And are not men than they more blind,
Who having eyes yet never find
          The bliss in which they move;
                Like statues dead
They up and down are carried
          Yet never see nor love.

To walk is by a thought to go;
To move in spirit to and fro;
          To mind the good we see;
                To taste the sweet;
Observing all the things we meet
           How choice and rich they be.

To note the beauty of the day,
And golden fields of corn survey;
          Admire each pretty flow'r
               With its sweet smell;
To praise their Maker, and to tell
          The marks of his great pow'r.

To fly abroad like active bees,
Among the hedges and the trees,
          To cull the dew that lies
               On ev'ry blade,
From ev'ry blossom; till we lade
          Our minds, as they their thighs.

Observe those rich and glorious things.
The rivers, meadows, woods, and springs,
           The fructifying sun;
                 To note from far
The rising of each twinkling star
          For us his race to run.

A little child these well perceives,
Who, tumbling in green grass and leaves,
           May rich as kings be thought,
               But there's a sight
Which perfect manhood may delight,
          To which we shall be brought.

While in those pleasant paths we talk,
'Tis that tow'rds which at last we walk;
          For we may by degrees
                Wisely proceed
Pleasures of love and praise to heed,
          From viewing herbs and trees.

Take a walk, reader.  Don't merely move yourself about through nature, but as Thomas Traherne instructs us, walk with your full mindfulness on just how amazing and full of beauty the world around you is.  For Traherne, a priest, it was all a sign of God's glory.  It doesn't have to be so for you, but I think you'd be as blind as the cart and dead puppets Traherne mentions to not see some sort of beauty when you really look about you.

Two lines in this poem in particular stand out to me as especially noteworthy.  First, "To walk is by a thought to go."  It couldn't be truer.  Walking, and indeed, all movement, is the manifestation of thought into action in the world.  We think and so we go.  Second is the short phrase, "the fructifying sun."  To fructify is to make something productive, or fruitful.  The sun does this for the whole world, and it just stuck out to me as such a nice phrase.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A Broken Appointment - Thomas Hardy

     You did not come,
And marching Time drew on, and wore me numb, -
Yet less for loss of your dear presence there
Than that I thus found lacking in your make
That high compassion which can overbear
Reluctance for pure lovingkindness' sake
Grieved I, when, as the hope-hour stroked its sum,
     You did not come.

     You love not me,
And love alone can lend you loyalty;
-I know and knew it. But, unto the store
Of human deeds divine in all but name,
Was it not worth a little hour or more
To add yet this: Once you, a woman, came
To soothe a time-torn man; even though it be
     You love not me?

Who among us hasn't felt the sting of rejection without a word of forewarning?  Whether romantic, platonic, or business, this kind of rejection is painful and makes one feel worthless, as if your own basic existence isn't worth someone else's attention.  The poem begins without ambiguity: "You did not come."  Hardy is unflinching in laying on not just the accusation, but goes on to talk about what that broken appointment does to one's hopes, particularly when the arena is love.  He grieves not just for the loss of the woman's presence, but that she lacks the "high compassion" to even reject someone else in person.

The only conclusion he can draw?  "You love not me."  The part that gets me most are the last four lines of the second stanza.  He asks if it just wasn't worth her time, "worth a little hour more" to tell him to his face that she loves him not.  "To soothe a time-torn man" even though you do not love him would be a mark of "that high compassion which can overbear reluctance" that is mentioned in the first stanza, and which this woman evidently lacked.

The modern equivalent of this poem is breaking up with one's partner by text message.  It dehumanizes them and sends the fundamental message of "You are not worth my time."  If only compassion always did overbear our reluctance, maybe we'd all be better to one another.  Many of us have probably been on both sides of this coin.  Whether through malice, ignorance, forgetfulness, or whatever else, who hasn't broken an appointment?  It hurts deeply, as this poem shows.  Let's all strive together to be compassionate, even when we do not love one another.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Cleanliness - Charles Lamb

Come my little Robert near -
Fie! what filthy hands are here!
Who that e'er could understand
The rare structure of a hand,
With its branching fingers fine,
Work itself of hands divine,
Strong, yet delicately knit,
For ten thousand uses fit,
Overlaid with so clear skin
You may see the blood within,
And the curious palm, disposed
In such lines, some have supposed
You may read the fortunes there
By the figures that appear -
Who this hand would choose to cover
With a crust of dirt all over,
Till it look'd in hue and shape
Like the fore-foot of an Ape?
Man or boy that works or plays
In the fields or the highways
May, without offence or hurt,
From the soil contract a dirtm
Which the next clear spring or river
Washes out and out for ever -
But to cherish stains impure,
Soil deliberate to endure,
On the skin to fix a stain
Till it works into the grain,
Argues a degenerate mind,
Sordid, slothful, ill inclin'd,
Wanting in that self-respect
Which does virtue best protect.

     All-endearing Cleanliness,
Virtue next to Godliness,
Easiest, cheapest, needful'st duty,
To the body health and beauty,
Who that's human would refuse it,
When a little water does it?

This is a reminder from Charles Lamb to wash your hands, readers.  From the detailed description of the intricacies of the hand to the crusty dirt descriptions, this poem is packed full of imagery.  The whole poem is framed as talking to a child who has presumably entered the house with dirty hands, and who now receives a stern lecture on the importance of hand-washing.  It's a charming poem, and one can imagine it being read to a child with dirt-encrusted fingers quite easily.

Friday, May 22, 2015

A Song - Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea

Love, thou art best of Human Joys,
   Our chiefest Happiness below;
All other Pleasures are but Toys,
Musick without Thee is but Noise,
   And Beauty but an empty show.

Heav'n, who knew best what Man wou'd move,
   And raise his Thoughts above the Brute;
Said, Let him Be, and Let him Love;
That must alone his Soul improve,
   Howe'er Philosophers dispute.

Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, lived and wrote in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  Her work is still read widely today and lived a fascinating life.  Her verse was influential in its own time and beyond, inspiring in particular William Wordsworth.  She balanced the prevailing Augustan formalities and structures with emotional content, as she herself thought that Love and Verse were inseparable, one useless without the other, much as this particular poem explains.

Love is what separates us from lesser beasts, from the "Brute" according to Finch.  When creating man, "Heav'n" said, rather beautifully, "Let him Be, and Let him Love."  It's clear in Finch's poem the purpose of our being; to love, to let our thoughts be moved towards Love.  Love is the "best of Human Joys" and without it, music is just noise, pleasures are toys, and beauty is hollow.  It's the fuel that runs our world, and given its divine origin in this poem, I think it's clear that it has a divine context as well.  Loving brings us closer to Heaven, for Finch, and I think that's a beautiful image.  No matter what philosophers and thinkers say about Love, Finch has made up her mind that it improves the human soul.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Fair Singer - Andrew Marvell

To make a final conquest of all me,
Love did compose so sweet an enemy,
In whom both beauties to my death agree,
Joining themselves in fatal harmony;
That while she with her eyes my heart does bind,
She with her voice might captivate my mind.

I could have fled from one but singly fair,
My disentangled soul itself might save,
Breaking the curled trammels of her hair.
But how should I avoid to be her slave,
Whose subtle art invisibly can wreath
My fetters of the very air I breathe?

It had been easy fighting in some plain,
Where victory might hang in equal choice,
But all resistance against her is vain,
Who has th'advantage both of eyes and voice,
And all my forces needs must be undone,
She having gained both the wind and sun.

The narrator in this Andrew Marvell poem seems proud to not have succumbed to love.  He hadn't at least, until he met the woman in this poem.  He caught the narrator's eyes with her own, and her voice captivated him.  The poem is full of the most flowery language of falling in love. and outlandish comparisons.  To the narrator, even fighting in open warfare is easier, because at least there there is a chance of victory.  But with a woman who is a fair singer?  She has gained "both the wind and sun."  What an image for voice and eye!  His fetters (chains) are woven out of the very air he himself breathes when she shapes it into song.  It's a beautiful account of infatuation, and I like very much that the poem focuses on the voice rather than just physical features.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Time I've Lost in Wooing - Thomas Moore

The time I've lost in wooing,
In watching and pursuing
The light, that lies
In woman's eyes,
Has been my heart's undoing.
Though Wisdom oft has sought me,
I scorn'd the lore she brought me,
My only books
Were woman's looks,
And folly's all they've taught me.

Her smile when Beauty granted,
I hung with gaze enchanted,
Like him the Sprite,
Whom maids by night
Oft meet in glen that's haunted.
Like him, too, Beauty won me,
But while her eyes were on me,
If once their ray
Was turn'd away,
Oh! winds could not outrun me.

And are those follies going?
And is my proud heart growing
Too cold or wise
For brilliant eyes
Again to set it glowing?
No, vain, alas! th' endeavour
From bonds so sweet to sever;
Poor Wisdom's chance
Against a glance
Is now as weak as ever.

Thomas Moore, among the Romantic poets, was one of the most prolific and sometimes regarded as among the less talented.  Moore himself knew that he was not a genius, though he was talented, and as a result he was more in tune with the sensibilities of the reading public than many others.  He was exceedingly popular in his day and he remains widely-read today, and I think for good reason.  Even if he isn't Keats, his poetry is worthy of praise and reading.

It's hard not to be charmed by the hopeless romantic affliction from which the narrator of this poem suffers.  He knows full well that his chasing of romance "has been my heart's undoing" and that he has scorned wisdom.  He only learned folly, and yet, knowing that, he just can't help himself.  He wants that romantic feeling, craves it, much like the reader of this poem would seek it (hence buying these poems!).  The last stanza is my favorite part.  It's essentially, "I know that I've been a fool, but Wisdom doesn't stand a chance against a glance from a pretty lady."

Friday, May 15, 2015

Gifts - Juliana Horatia Ewing

You ask me what since we must part
You shall bring back to me.
Bring back a pure and faithful heart
As true as mine to thee.

You talk of gems from foreign lands,
Of treasure, spoil, and prize.
Ah love! I shall not search your hands
But look into your eyes.

The only treasure this narrator's lover could bring back after a long journey is himself.  It's easy to forget that in our modern day of convenience, even a small trip meant days or weeks of no contact.  A world-wide voyage during Juliana Horatia Ewing's lifetime (1841-1885) would have meant months, perhaps years.  There was peril involved, and in this case, it sounds like a woman wishing her soldier lover farewell on his way to war.  No greater treasure would there be than the safe reunion of the two.  Direct, simple, and sincere.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

A Catch For Singing - Wilfrid Wilson Gibson

Said the Old Young Man to the Young Old Man:
"Alack and well-a-day!"
Said the Young Old Man to the Old Young Man:
"The cherry tree's in flourish!"

Said the Old Young Man to the Young Old Man:
"The world is growing gray."
Said the Young Old Man to the Old Young Man:
"The cherry three's in flourish!"

Said the Old Young Man to the Young Old Man:
"Both flower and fruit decay."
Said the Young Old Man to the Old Young Man:
"The cherry three's in flourish!"

Said the Old Young Man to the Young Old Man:
"Alack and well-a-day!
The world is growing gray:
And flower and fruit decay.
Beware, Old Man - beware, Old Man!
For the end of life is nearing;
And the grave yawns by the way..."

Said the Young Old Man to the Old Young Man:
"I'm a trifle hard of hearing;
And can't catch a word you say...
But the cherry-tree's in flourish!"

The two characters of this poem, the Old Young Man, and the Young Old Man, show that youth and age are not just physical states, but states of mental being.  The Old Young Man is a youth, fiery, filled with the doom of the world, and as Gibson characterizes him, a real nuisance.  He can't see the good or renewal of life implicit in the flourishing of the cherry-tree, only the eventual rot and decay.  He's all the crotchety old man in the world stuffed into a young man's body.

The Young Old Man, on the other hand, completely ignores him (or is simply hard of hearing as he said) and delights in the flourishing of the cherry tree.  He sees the beauty in the world and revels therein.  He's all the carefree delight and dalliance of youth in an old man's body.  I certainly know I'd rather spend an afternoon with the Young Old Man than with the Old Young Man.  The Old Young Man comes across as childish in his doom and gloom blustering, and I think Gibson intended as such.
I know that personally, I can sometimes come across as the Old Young Man, though I try my best not to.  It's good to step back and see the flowers in bloom, to feel carefree when confronted with beauty.  I think the constant connectedness of us all to bad news has turned us societally into Old Young Men (and Women).  Let's take some time to work on seeing beauty together.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Waiting for the Barbarians - C. P. Cavafy

translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

     The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn't anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?

     Because the barbarians are coming today.
     What's the point of senators making laws now?
     Once the barbarians are here, they'll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city's man gate,
in state, wearing the crown?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and the emperor's waiting to receive their leader.
     He's even got a scroll to give him,
     loaded with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don't out distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and they're bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people's faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying to rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?

     Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven't come.
     And some of our men just in from the border say
     there are no barbarians any longer.

Now what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

What do we do when we're out of excuses?  When the scapegoat doesn't show up, when there is no one left onto whom we can foist our responsibilities?  That's the final question of this poem by Greek poet C. P. Cavafy.  He even says, "those people were a kind of solution."  You could see how eager all the members of society in the poem were to abdicate their responsibilities.  The emperor himself, in full state attire, ready to hand over leadership with a "loaded with titles, with imposing names."

The senate has ceased legislation because why bother if the barbarians are coming?  That sounds just a bit too familiar, honestly.  The city state (or nation) seems to not care about functioning if there is a foreign presence at the door.  The narrator wonders incredulously at the lethargy of his fellow people, and this leads me to a more reaching conclusion.  How can you wait for the barbarians when you've already become them?

"And some of our men just in from the border say / there are no barbarians any longer."  Why could that be?  Well, let's see.  Why are the statesmen robed in opulent array?  "because...things like that dazzle the barbarians,"  So too do the praetors and consuls, but anyways, let's move on.  The orators haven't shown up to speak?  It's because the barbarians are bored by "rhetoric and public speaking."  So the orators who couldn't be bothered to show up and speak aren't bored by their own craft?  It seems clear to me from every stanza of the poem and its response which pushes attributes onto imaginary barbarians that the transition happened much more seamlessly than anyone ever expected.

This indeed is borne out by history if we think of Rome.  Sure, we can point to a "fall of Rome" in our textbooks, but Rome continued to function as a city state under its foreign emperors, its citizens never once stopping to think themselves fallen or anything but Roman.  That seems to be the realization of this poem, and it reminds me all too much of real life.  On personal levels, too, we might all have our own convenient "barbarians" for whom we refrain from operating at our full capacity.