Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Idea 14: [If he from heaven that filched that living fire] - Michael Drayton

If he from heaven that filched that living fire
Condemned by Jove to endless torment be,
I greatly marvel how you still go free,
That far beyond Prometheus did aspire.
The fire he stole, although of heavenly kind,
Which from above he craftily did take,
Of liveless clods, us living men to make,
He did bestow in temper of the mind.
But you broke into heaven's immortal store,
Where virtue, honor, wit, and beauty lay;
Which taking thence you have escaped away,
Yet stand as free as ere you did before;
Yet old Prometheus punished for his rape.
Thus poor thieves suffer when the greater 'scape.

It has been some time, friends.  I do regret not having posted any poetry whatsoever for the past eight months.  I hope some of you see a message in your inbox and remember reading my blog fondly.  I can no longer let the busy-ness of my daily life prevent me from reading and sharing the poetry that I love with you, reader.  It is my sincere hope that you take five or ten minutes out of your day to slow down, relax, and read a poem a day.  If you let me, I would love to help.

Today's selection is a sonnet from Michael Drayton, whose poetry I have long enjoyed.  His work captures that odd mix of jealousy and admiration that constitute affection.  Here, the narrator expresses his wonderment at the perfection that is the target of his affections.  The person in question has stolen heaven's own "virtue, honor, wit, and beauty" for their own.  The comparisons are all couched in the language of classical myth, which are effective for two reasons.

Firstly, the myth of Prometheus would have been familiar to any of Drayton's readers.  Any educated person in the Elizabethan era would have been well versed in classical literature and myth.  Prometheus, for those of us who didn't receive an Elizabethan schooling, was a titan in Greek myth, who stole fire from Mount Olympus to give to mankind, raising us from towards Enlightenment.  Prometheus was then punished eternally by Zeus, chained and tortured, immortal and unable to escape by means of death.

Drayton's love object did Prometheus one better.  Not only did they steal all the wonders and virtues of heaven, they escaped without bearing punishment, and stand free, Titanic (quite literally, given the comparison with Prometheus) among mere humans, who can only admire.  For all that however, Drayton's tone is not purely admiration.  While he assuredly is in awe of the graces his love possesses, he still calls them a thief.  A great thief, to be sure, but it's hard to not hear, to my ears, at least, a hint of jealousy.  You steal all these things, and yet you go unpunished?  Prometheus, who stole for our benefit, is punished eternally, and you are rewarded with freedom for your theft? 

Still, Drayton cannot help but bitterly admire this thief.  While love is not a central theme of this poem, given the overall arc of Drayton's "Ideas" (sonnets) it is impossible to read it as anything else.  This poem captures that strange mix of jealousy, inferiority, and pure admiration that one smitten by (potentially one sided) love may feel. 

I'm not certain I've read this poem entirely correctly, but I'm nonetheless fascinated by it.  The comparison with mythic figures elevates the master thief, whom I imagine stole Drayton's heart along with virtue, beauty, wit, and honor.  It's a frustrated, almost exasperated feeling poem, and it reminds me of some wonderfully confusing feelings I myself have had when wondering how someone so clearly more wonderful than me could possibly love me.  Of course, no one is perfect.  Drayton acknowledges this in his other poems extensively.  But sometimes, reader, we can't help but wonder how someone can possibly be so perfect, and that's what I got from this poem.

Thank you for being loyal readers, friends.  I hope to bring you many more poems in the coming months and years.  I must say it felt very good to write about poetry again.


  1. Sometimes it’s good to take a break from the things we most love. If the love is strong and abiding, it doesn’t leave. It waits instead with a kind of quiet confidence made by patience. And it always welcomes our return.

    You felt that way about poetry, its absence inviting you back. All to the good, as your recent postings and analysis of the poetry show.

  2. Just wanted to say how glad I am that you are picking this up again. You are right in that case poem a day helps us find calm in otherwise rushing lives. But to keep this up is not easy, and your blog is essential for many out there in taking a time out and remembering to enjoy a poem. Many thanks!

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words, Mikey! I hope that these poems offer as much respite to read as they do for me to post. It truly is like a moment of calm in my day, and I hope it is in yours as well.