Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Wild Oats - Philip Larkin

About twenty years ago
Two girls came in where I worked -
A bosomy English rose
And her friend in specs I could talk to.
Faces in those days sparked
The whole shooting-match off, and I doubt
If ever one had like hers:
But it was the friend I took out,

And in seven years after that
Wrote over four hundred letters,
Gave a ten-guinea ring
I got back in the end, and met
At numerous cathedral cities
Unknown to the clergy. I believe
I met beautiful twice. She was trying
Both times (so I thought) not to laugh.

Parting, after about five
Rehearsals, was an agreement
That I was too selfish, withdrawn,
And easily bored to love.
Well, useful to get that learnt.
In my wallet are still two snaps
Of bosomy rose with fur gloves on.
Unlucky charms, perhaps.

Love doesn't always work out, and when it doesn't work out, often one is left wondering how to respond.  Larkin responds with a somewhat bitter, at times rose-tinted, and always self-deprecating poem.  It's clear that he has fond memories of these girls, and his time with them, but that he also feels somewhat spurned, unhappy with how things turned out in the end.  The language of the poem is simple and humorous, and focuses its barbs at Larkin, rather than at the loves which got away.

That part that best exemplifies this nature is the last stanza, in which Larkin recounts the parting between him and that woman.  He calls their dates, or meetings, rehearsals, as if they were not real things, not real lived experiences.  He says they "agreed" that "I was too selfish, withdrawn, and easily bored to love."  It doesn't sound like much of an agreement to me, but that Larkin capitulated and gave in to those emotional accusations because that would be easier.  He humorously quips afterward, "Well, useful to get that learnt."  It's funny, but you can hear the bitter edge to it.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Universal Prayer - Alexander Pope

Father of all! in every age,
   In every clime adored,
By saint, by savage, and by sage,
   Jehovah, Jove, or Lord!

Thou Great First Cause, least understood:
   Who all my sense confined
To know but this - that thou art goood,
   And that myself am blind:

Yet gave me, in this dark estate,
   To see the good from ill;
And binding Nature fast in fate,
   Left free the human will.

What conscience dictates to be done,
   Or warns me not to do,
This, teach me more than Hell to shun,
   That, more than Heaven pursue.

What blessings they free bounty gives,
   Let me not cast away;
For God is paid when man receives,
   To enjoy is to obey.

Yet not to earth's contracted span,
   Thy goodness let me bound,
Or think thee Lord alone of man,
   When thousand worlds are round:

Let not this weak, unknowing hand
   Presume thy bolts to throw,
And deal damnation round the land,
   On each I judge thy foe.

If I am right, thy grace impart,
   Still in the right to stay;
If I am wrong, of teach my heart
   To find a better way.

Save me alike from foolish pride,
   Or impious discontent,
At aught they wisdom has denied,
   Or aught thy goodness lent.

Teach me to feel another's woe,
   To hide the fault I see;
That mercy I to others show,
   That mercy show to me.

Mean though I am, not wholly so
   Since quickened by thy breath;
Oh lead me whereso'er I go,
   Though this day's life or death.

This day, be bread and peace my lot:
   All else beneath the sun,
Thou know'st if best bestowed or not,
   And let thy will be done.

To thee, whose temple is all space,
   Whose altar, earth, sea, skies!
One chorus let all being raise!
   All Nature's incense rise!

A prayer to remain vigilant in all things.  Pope reminds himself of his own blindness, his own ignorance, and that happiness can only be found in God's word.  It's a religious text with simple meaning and application.  The calls for compassion are clear and relevant to people of all walks of life, regardless of religious belief.  "Teach me to feel another's woe, to hide the fault I see; That mercy I to others show, That mercy show to me."

While the messages are very much couched in traditional Christian guise and language, I feel that the message, the desires for mutual compassion and understanding, for mercy and wisdom, transcend the religious context.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

On the Morning of Christ's Nativity - John Milton

This is the month, and this the happy morn,
Wherein the Son of Heav'ns Eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,
     That he our deadly forfeit should release,
And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.

That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty,
Wherewith he wont at Heav'ns high council-table,
To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
He laid aside; and here with us to be,
     Forsook the courts of everlasting day,
And chose with us a darksom house of mortal clay.

Say Heavn'ly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein
Afford a present to the Infant God?
Hast thou no vers, no hymn, or solemn strein,
To welcom him to this his new abode,
Now while the Heav'n by the Suns team untrod,
     Hath took no print of the approaching light,
And all the spangled host keep watch in squadrons bright?

See how from far upon the Eastern rode
The Star-led Wisards haste with odours sweet:
O run, prevent them with thy humble ode,
And lay it lowly at his blessed feet;
Have thou the honour first, thy Lord to greet,
     And joyn thy voice unto the Angel Quire,
From out his secret Altar toucht with hallow'd fire.

                         The Hymn

It was the Winter wild,
While the Heav'n-born-child,
     All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;
Nature in aw to him
Had doff't her gawdy trim,
     With her great Master so to sympathize:
It was no season then for her
To wanton with the Sun, her lusty paramour.

Onely with speeches fair
She woos the gentle Air
     To hide her guilty front with innocent Snow,
And on her naked shame,
Pollute with sinfull blame,
     The Saintly Vail of Maiden white to throw,
Confounded, that her Makers eyes
Should look so neer upon her foul deformities.

But he her fears to cease,
Sent down the meek-ey'd Peace;
     She crown'd with Olive green, came softly sliding
Down through the turning sphear
His ready Harbinger,
     With turtle wing the amorous clouds dividing,
And waving wide her mirtle wand,
She strikes a universall Peace through Sea and Land.

No War, or Battails sounds
Was heard the World around:
     The idle spear and shield were high up hung;
The hooked Chariot stood
Unstain'd with hostile blood,
     The Trumpet spake not to the armed throng,
And Kings sate still with awfull eye,
As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by.

But peacefull was the night
Wherein the Prince of light
     His raign of peace upon the earth began:
The Winds with wonder whist,
Smoothly the waters kist,
     Whispering new joyes to the mild OCean,
Who now hath quite forgot to rave,
While Birds of Calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.

The Stars with deep amaze
Stand fixt in stedfast gaze,
     Bending one way their pretious influence,
And will not take their flight,
For all the morning light,
     Or Lucifer that often warn'd them thence;
But in their glimmering Orbs did glow,
Untill their Lord himself bespake, and bid them go.

And though the shady gloom
Had given day her room,
     The Sun himself with-held his wonted speed,
And his head for shame,
As his infeiour flame,
     The new-englight'n'd world no more shoould need;
He saw a greater Sun appear
Then his bright Throne, or burning Axletree could bear.

The Shepherds on the Lawn,
Or ere the point of dawn,
     Sate simply chatting in a rustick row;
Full little thought they than,
That the mighty Pan
     Was kindly com to live with them below;
Perhaps their loves, or els their sheep,
Was all that did their silly thoughts so busie keep.

When such musick sweet
Their hearts and ears did greet,
     As never was by mortall singer strook,
Divinely-warbled voice
Answering the stringed noise,
     As all their souls in blisfull rapture took:
The Air such pleasure loth to lose,
With thousand echoes still prolongs each heav'nly close.

Nature that heard such sound
Beneath the hollow round
     Of Cynthia's seat, the Airy region thrilling,
Now was almost won
To think her part was don,
     And that her raign had here its last fulfilling;
She knew such harmony alone
Could hold all Heav'n and Earth in happier union.

At last surrounds their sight
A Globe of circular light,
     That with long beams the shame-fac't night array'd,
The helm'd Cherubim
And sworded Seraphim
     Are seen in glittering ranks with wings displaid,
Harping in loud and solemn quire,
With unexpressive notes to Heav'ns new-born Heir.

Such Musick (as 'tis said)
Before was never made,
     But when of old the sons of morning sun,
While the Creator Great
His constellations set,
     And the well-ballanc't world on hinges hung,
And cast the dark foundations deep,
And bid the weltring waves their oozy channel keep.

Ring out ye Crystall spheres,
Once bless our human ears,
     (If ye have power to touch our senses so)
And let your silver chime
Move in melodious time;
     And let the Base of Heav'ns deep Organ blow,
And with your ninefold harmony
Make up full consort to th' Angelick symphony.

For if such holy Song
Enwrap our fancy long,
     Time will run back, and fetch the age of gold,
And speckl'd vanity
Will sicken soon and die,
     And leprous sin will melt from earthly mould,
And Hell it self will pass away,
And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day.

Yea Truth, and Justice then
Will down return to men,
     Orb'd in a Rain-bow; and like glories wearing
Mercy will sit between,
Thron'd in Celestiall sheen,
     With radiant feet the tissued clouds down stearing,
And Heav'n as at some festivall,
Will open wide the Gates of her high Palace Hall.

But wisest Fate sayes no,
This must not yet be so,
     The Babe lies yet in smiling Infancy,
That on the bitter cross
Must redeem our loss;
    So both himself and us to glorifie:
Yet first to those ychain'd in sleep,
The wakefull trump of doom must thunder through the deep.

With such a horrid clang
As on mount Sinai rang
     While the rred fire, and smouldring clouds out brake:
The aged Earth agast
With terrour of that blast,
     Shall from the surface to the center shake,
When at the dreadfull Judge in middle Air shall spread his throne.

And then at last our bliss
Full and perfect is,
     But now begins; for from this happy day
Th' old Dragon under ground
In straiter limits bound,
     Not half so far casts his usurped sway,
And wroth to see his Kingdom fail,
Swindges the scaly Horrour of his foulded tail.

The Oracles are dumm,
No voice or hideous humm
     Runs through the arched roof in words deceiving.
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine,
     With hollow shreik the sttep of Delphos leaving.
No nightly trance, or breathed spell,
Inspires the pale-ey'd Priest from the prophetic cell.

The lonely mountains o're,
And the resounding shore,
     A voice of weeping heard, and loud lament;
From haunted spring, and dale
Edg'd with poplar pale,
     The parting Genius is with sighing sent;
With flowr-inwov'n tresses torn
The Nimphs in twilight shade of tangled thicket mourn.

In consecrated Earth,
And on the holy Hearth,
     The Lars, and Lemures moan with midnight plaint;
In Urns, and Altars round,
A drear, and dying sound
     Affrights the Flamins at their service quaint;
And the chill Marble seems to sweat,
While each peculiar forgoes his wonted seat.

Peor, and Baalim,
Forsake their Temples dim,
     With that twise batter'd god of Palestine,
And mooned Ashtaroth,
Heav'ns Queen and Mother both,
     Now sits not girt with Tapers holy shine,
The Libyc Hammon shrinks his horn,
In vain the Tyrian Maids their wounded Thamuz mourn.

And sullen Moloch fled,
Hath left in shadows dred
     His burning Idol all of blackest hue;
In vain with Cymbals ring,
They call the grisly king,
     In dismall dance about the furnace blue;
The brutish gods of Nile as fast,
Isis and Orus, and the Dog Anubis hast.

Nor is Orisis seen
In Memphian Grove, or Green,
     Trampling th' unshowr'd Grass with lowings loud:
Nor can he be at rest
Within his sacred chest,
     Naught but profoundest Hell can be his shroud;
In vain with Timbrel'd Anthems dark
The sable-stoled Sorcerers bear his worshipt Ark.

He feels from Juda's Land
The dredded Infants hand,
     The rayes of Bethlehem blind his dusky eyn;
Nor all the gods beside,
Longer dare abide,
     Not Typhon huge ending in snaky twine:
Our Babe to shew his Godhead true,
Can in his swadling bands controul the damned crew.

So when the Sun in bed,
Curtain'd with cloudy red,
     Pillows his chin upon and Orient wave,
The flocking shadows pale
Troop to th' infernall jail,
     Each fetter'd Ghost slips to his severall grave,
And the yellow-skirted Fayes
Fly after the Night-steeds, leaving their Moon-lov'd maze.

But see the Virgin blest,
Hath laid her Babe to rest.
     Time is our tedious Song should here have ending:
Heavn's youngest teemed Star
Hath fixt her polisht Car,
     Her sleeping Lord with Handmaid Lamp attending,
And all about the Courtly Stable,
Bright-harnest Angels sit in order serviceable.

Congratulations, reader!  You have just made it through a very long and challenging poem about Christ's birth.  The references to classical myth, antiquity, and pagan deities are many, and the spellings are somewhat odd to our modern eyes.  But you've made it!  I will not keep you long here, since despite the poem's length, I feel its overall message must be fairly clear:

Christ is born.  At his birth, all of these wondrous things have happened (all life has come into order, pagan gods have been banished and hold no power, mankind will be redeemed, light has won over darkness) and yet, he is but a Babe and must sleep,  Milton was only twenty one when he wrote this poem, and it's widely considered his first truly great poem.

I leave you as the poem does, with an image of a new star in the sky, keeping watch over her "sleeping Lord."  The manger is now the court of the Lord, and all around it, "Bright-harnest Angels sit in order serviceable."  It's a beautiful image, a babe in swaddling clothes, a spot of light in a dark night sky, mankind's redemption and hope, surrounded by Angels, glorifying the music of the spheres and the natural order of the world.  Merry Christmas.

[little tree] - E. E. Cummings

little tree
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower

who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see        i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly

i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don't be afraid

look        the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,

put up your little arms
and i'll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its rings
and there won't be a single place dark or unhappy

then when you're quite dressed
you'll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they'll stare!
oh but you'll be very proud

and my little sister and i will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree
we'll dance and sing
"Noel Noel"

I feel like there is not much for me to explain here.  It's certainly an odd poem, off-beat in the way all Cummings poems are, but it's not especially difficult.  It sounds like a young boy or girl whispering to a tiny Christmas tree, filled with child's imagination, about how beautiful it will be on Christmas.  The personification throughout, of both the tree and the trees ornaments, are lovely.  I particularly like the idea of ornaments like rings for every finger the tree has.  "there won't be a single place dark or unhappy."  After all, it's Christmas, and we're celebrating the light that has come into the world.  Noel Noel.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Carol - Sara Teasdale

The kings they came from out the south,
   All dressed in ermine fine;
They bore Him gold and chrysoprase,
   And gifts of precious wine.

The shepherds came from out the north,
   Their coats were brown and old;
They brought Him little new-born lambs -
   They had not any gold.

The wise men came from out the east,
   And they were wrapped in white;
The star that led them all the way
   Did glorify the night.

The angels came from heaven high,
   And they were clad with wings;
And lo, they brought a joyful song
   The host of heaven sings.

The kings they knocked upon the door,
   The wise men entered in,
The shepherds followed after them
   To hear the song begin.

The angels sang through all the night
   Until the rising sun,
But little Jesus fell asleep
   Before the song was done.

This Nativity poem from Sara Teasdale emphasizes the human nature of Jesus and sets it against the pomp associated with his birth.  There's a procession of kings, wise men, shepherds, all bearing gifts and glorifying the birth of Jesus, angels singing, a grand occasion.  "But little Jesus fell asleep before the song was done."  He's just a baby, after all.  He doesn't know how important He is.  He falls asleep before the singing and celebrating is over.

It's a humorous image, and a cute one, but it serves as an important reminder of the fully human nature of Christ, that goes hand in hand with his divinity.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Oxen - Thomas Hardy

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In those years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel,

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

As we grow older, we know that the Christmas story as it is presented to us as children is probably not true fact in all its minutia.  Did oxen really bend down and kneel at the birth of Christ?  Probably not.  They're oxen, they were probably busy enough just being oxen.  As a child though, as Hardy puts it, "nor did it occur to use there to doubt they were kneeling then."  Doubt and wonderment are at the heart of this poem.  It was a "fair fancy," the Christmas story.

Today though, if someone came to Hardy and told him, "Look, the oxen have knelt down!" on Christmas Eve, he would go with them into the gloomy night, with that hope in his heart.  Despite our doubt, we are often overcome with wonder.  That's a big part of Christmas for many people who grew up Christian, I imagine.  We know that our Nativity scene and story are not founded in reality, but we feel that wonder so associated with the season regardless.

Friday, December 19, 2014

In the bleak midwinter - Christina Rossetti

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

Scenes of Christ's Nativity, apart from being popular subjects in art and music, are common topics for Christmas poems.  This famous one by Christina Rossetti gains its strength through the contrast of the setting (bleak midwinter) and the joyousness of the event (Christ's arrival) and the lowliness of his arrival, a quiet miracle.  It is supposed to render us incredulous that "a stable place sufficed The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ."

The poem is also concerned with our own reaction to the Nativity.  "What can I give him, poor as I am?"  How are we to worship this newly come Lord into our lives, this manifestation of the Divine on earth?  Each of us gives what we can, from shepherds, to Wise men, to the lowliest, giving our heart, which like the stable place, suffices.  We give what we can, and it's just as valuable as any other gift the child Christ could receive.  There's a real warmth and beauty in those lines.

This is a popular piece to set for choir, and I leave you with one of my favorite settings.  While it omits one verse, I think it captures the beauty of the text well, and communicates it much better than I just have.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas Trees - Robert Frost

     (A Christmas Circular Letter)

The city had withdrawn into itself
And left at last the country to the country;
When between whirls of snow not come to lie
And whirls of foliage not yet laid, there drove
A stranger to our yard, who looked the city,
Yet did in country fashion in that there
He sat and waited till he drew us out
A-buttoning coats to ask him who he was.
He proved to be the city come again
To look for something it had left behind
And could not without and keep its Christmas.
He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees;
My woods - the young fir balsams like a place
Where houses all are churches and have spires.
I hadn't thought of them as Christmas Trees.
I doubt if I was tempted for a moment
To sell them off their feet to go in cars
And leave the slope behind the house all bare,
Where the sun shines now no warmer than the moon.
I'd hate to have them know it if I was.
Yet more I'd hate to hold my trees except
As others hold theirs or refuse for them,
Beyond the time of profitable growth,
The trial by market everything must come to.
I dallied so much with the thought of selling.
Then whether from mistaken courtesy
And fear of seeming short of speech, or whether
From hope of hearing good of what was mine, I said,
"There aren't enough to be worth while."
"I could soon tell how many they would cut,
You let me look them over."

                                                "You could look.
But don't expect I'm going to let you have them."
Pasture they spring in, some clumps too close
That lop each other of boughs, but not a few
Quite solitary and having equal boughs
All round and round. The latter he nodded "Yes" to,
Or paused to say beneath some lovelier one,
With a buyer's moderation, "That would do."
I thought so too, but wasn't there to say so.
We climbed the pasture on the south, crossed over,
And came down on the north. He said, "A thousand."

"A thousand Christmas trees! - at what apiece?"

He felt some need of softening that to me:
"A thousand trees would come to thirty dollars."

Then I was certain I had never meant
To let him have them. Never show surprise!
But thirty dollars seemed so small beside
The extent of pasture I should strip, three cents
(For that was all they figured out apiece),
Three cents so small beside the dollar friends
I should be writing to with the hour
Would pay in cities for good trees like those,
Regular vestry-trees whole Sunday Schools
Could hang enough on to pick off enough.
A thousand Christmas trees I didn't know I had!
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,
As may be shown by a simple calculation.
Too bad I couldn't lay one in a letter.
I can't help wishing I could send you one,
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.

In this classic Robert Frost poem, we can see the clash of the city and country way system of values, and the way in which they interact.  A farmer, our narrator, is glad that the city "has withdrawn into itself and left at last the country to the country."  He's glad that their spheres aren't intersecting.  That peace is broken however, when a stranger form the city approaches asking to buy the farmer's Christmas trees.

The farmer had never thought of his trees as Christmas trees.  To him, they are part of his land, part of its beauty, almost sacred.  "My woods - the young fir balsams like a place where houses all are churches."  He imagines them, his woods, riding off in cars, leaving the slope behind his house all bare.  The farmer doubts himself, wondering if he should be open to the offer, not wanting to seem rude or short of speech.

In the end, the offer of $30 for 1000 of his trees bothers the farmer.  Besides being a poor market evaluation of their worth in monetary terms, the farmer values these trees are more than just dollars.  He almost has a revelation.  "A thousand Christmas trees I didn't know I had!"  This poem, being a letter sent out with all of Frost's Christmas cards, remarks, "Too bad I couldn't lay one [tree] in a letter.  I can't help wishing I could send you one, In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas."

The core of this poem is the intersection of two walks of life, and seeing their values contrasted face to face.  Frost, clearly favoring the farmer, has a certain degree of disdain for the city, for its people, its market force approach to value.  Still, I don't think he has total dislike of the city or its people, because even the people in the city come to "look for something it had left behind and could not do without" that something being the Christmas tree, that reminder of the countryside.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Mistletoe - Walter de La Mare

Sitting under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
One last candle burning low,
All the sleepy dancers gone,
Just one candle burning on,
Shadows lurking everywhere:
Some one came, and kissed me there.

Tired I was; my head would go
Nodding under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
No footsteps came, no voice, but only,
Just as I sat there, sleepy, lonely,
Stooped in the still and shadowy air
Lips unseen - and kissed me there.

In this Walter de La Mere poem, a sleepy, sing song-y atmosphere is cultivated throughout, making us feel that drowsiness of which narrator speaks.  The image is hazy yet clear to the mind's eye.  We imagine a comfortable seat under "mistletoe (pale-green, fairy mistletoe)."  There's but one candle left, the shadows are all about, and as if out of nowhere, we are kissed.

The kiss comes as an antidote for de La Mere's maladies.  He's lonely, sleepy, in a room dim with only one candle's light, and suddenly, as if by magic, an affirmation that he is loved.  I think that's the real takeaway of this poem.  At Christmas-time (I am assuming it's Christmas time, given the mistletoe), there is love for everyone, even if we cannot see it.  We can feel it, even if it is not visible.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

[Oh could I raise the darken'd veil] - Nathaniel Hawthorne

Oh could I raise the darken'd veil,
Which hides my future life from me,
Could unborn ages slowly sail,
Before my view - and could I see
My every action painted there,
To cast one look I would not dare.
There poverty and grief might stand,
And dark Despair's corroding hand,
Would make me seek the lonely tomb
To slumber in its endless gloom.
Then let me never cast a look,
Within Fate's fix'd mysterious book.

Would you want to know the future if you could?  If you could "raise the darken'd veil?"  Hawthorne wouldn't want to know.  What if he sees "poverty and grief" there?  He'd take his own life, it seems, "dark Despair's corroding hand would make me seek the lonely tomb."  Yet, even though the knowledge of the future could be enough to make him want to seek slumber in endless gloom, he doesn't think he could change that future from grim to glad.  He calls the future "Fate's fix'd mysterious book."  It's a very pre-determined, fatalistic outlook, which makes sense, as Hawthorne was a Puritan.  Predestination is a common feature of their faith.

Personally, I have no desire to know my future.  Not because I think it is some immutable thing, I don't believe in predestination.  Rather, I feel that it's unimportant, merely one possibility out of many.  Even if I am not the master of my own fate by some cosmic design, why not let myself think that I am if I cannot change things?  It's a difficult question.  If you could know the future, would you?

Monday, December 15, 2014

By Dark - W. S. Merwin

When it is time I follow the black dog
into the darkness that is the mind of day

I can see nothing there but the black dog
the dog I know going ahead of me

not looking back oh it is the black dog
I trust now in my turn after the years

when I had all the trust of the black dog
through an age of brightness and through shadow

on into the blindness of the black dog
where the rooms of the dark were already known

and had no fear in them for the black dog
leading me carefully up the blind stairs

The most striking part of this Merwin poem to me is its constant real time narration.  We're being told at all times what the narrator sees, what he thinks, what he fears, and in what he trusts.  The black dog is omnipresent.  A black dog is a classic symbol of death, and in this case, the black dog seems to lead the man peacefully, without fear or alarm, into the afterlife, "up the blind stairs."

He goes by dark, "into the darkness that is the mind of day."  That's a confusing sentence, because we seldom associate daytime with darkness.  Given the context of the poem, I think this is a direct reference to death.  All that the narrator can see is the black dog.  The black dog, too, is blind, so we get the sense here that death is not enlightenment, but an end.  It's not a frightening end though, because there's no fear hear.  Calmness, almost a sense of peace.  "...the rooms of the dark were already known and had no fear in them for the black dog leading me carefully up the blind stairs."

The thing that gives this poem its most distinct stylistic feature is its lack of punctuation, sentence distinction, or indeed and formal structure whatsoever.  Thoughts flow freely from one to another, sometimes even with a surprised quality ("oh it is the black dog" being a prime example).

Do you find the poem reassuring as I do?  I feel like there can be many valid readings of this poem.  Let me know in the comments!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Epitaph on a Hare - William Cowper

Here lies, whom hound did ne'er pursue,
   Nor swifter greyhound follow,
Whose foot ne'er tainted morning dew,
   Nor ear heard hunstman's hallo',

Old Tiney, surliest of his kind,
   Who, nursed with tender care,
And to domesticate bounds confined,
   Was still a wild jack-hare.

Though duly from my hand he took
   His pittance every night,
He did it with a jealous look,
   And, when he could, would bite.

His diet was of wheaten bread,
   And milk, and oats, and straw,
Thistles, or lettuces instead,
   With sand to scour his maw.

On twigs of hawthorn he regaled,
   On pippins' russet peel;
And, when his juicy salads failed,
   Sliced carrot pleased him well.

A Turkey carpet was his lawn,
   Whereon he loved to bound,
To skip and gambol like a fawn,
   And wind his rump around.

His frisking was at evening hours,
   For then he lost his fear;
But most before approaching showers,
   Or when a storm drew near.

Eight years and five round-rolling moons
   He thus saw steal away,
Dozing out all his idle noons,
   And every night at play.

I kept him for his humor's sake,
   For he would oft beguile
My heart of thoughts that made it ache,
   And force me to a smile.

But now, beneath this walnut-shade
   He finds his long, last home,
And waits in snug concealment laid,
   Till gentler Puss shall come.

He, still more aged, feels the shocks
   From which no care can save,
And, partner once of Tiney's box,
   Must soon partake his grave.

While mostly a humorous account of his dearly departed pet hare, Tiney, William Cowper nonetheless injects some of the sentimentality to which all pet owners can relate.  Mostly, we hear what the little gone hare used to like to eat, and the way he would play and scamper about, raising Cowper's spirits.  At the end of the poem, Cowper feels sad for the pet left alive, older than Tiney, who will join him eventually.  While the tone of the poem is light and playful, that Cowper even bothered to eulogize over his pet shows that he really did love and appreciate its presence.  While there is an element of the ridiculous in writing an elegy for a pet rabbit, it's something I can completely understand, and I'm sure any pet owner reading this will understand as well.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

First Love - Jan Owen

     Titian's Young Englishman with a Glove, circa 1530

It happened in Physics,
reading a Library art book under the desk,
(the lesson was Archimedes in the bath)
I turned a page and fell
for an older man, and anonymous at that,
hardly ideal -
he was four hundred and forty-five,
I was fourteen.
'Eureka!' streaked each thought
(I prayed no-one would hear)
and Paradise all term
was page 179
(I prayed no one would guess).
Of course
my fingers, sticky with toffee and bliss,
failed to entice him from his century;
his cool grey stare
fastened me firmly in mine.
I got six overdues,
suspension of borrowing rights
and a D in Physics.
But had by heart what Archimedes proves.
Ten years later I married:
a European with cool grey eyes,
a moustache,
pigskin gloves.

A humorous first love story, against the background of a Physics lesson, with a real life revelation at the end.  You really feel the fervency and immediacy of young love in the lines of the poem, the desperation and frantic energy.  "I got six overdues" is a great example.  So focused on one thing that all the other cares of the world disappear.  Her thoughts were so loud and immediate she worried that others would hear them.  Even though she knew her love could never come true, that never diminished its hold on her heart and imagination.

Owen's eventual marriage to someone who sounds suspiciously like the man in the portrait is a funny revelation.  We can't assume that she sought this man out because of those features and that painting, but it seems likely that she found him so attractive because of the strong impression the painting left on her as a young woman.

Here is the portrait in question:

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Oh, For a Bowl of Fat Canary - John Lyly

Oh, for a bowl of fat Canary,
Rich Palermo, sparkling Sherry,
Some nectar else, from Juno's dairy;
Oh, these draughts would make us merry!

Oh, for a wench (I deal in faces,
And in other daintier things);
Tickled am I with her embraces,
Fine dancing in such fairy rings.

Oh, for a plump fat leg of mutton,
Veal, lamb, capon, pig, and coney;
None is happy but a glutton,
None an ass but who want money.

Wines indeed and girls are good,
But brave victuals feast the blood;
For wenches, wine, and lusty cheer,
Jove would leap down to surfeit here.

As a starting note, Canary here does not mean the birds.  It refers to a type of sack (an old term for a fortified white wine) that came from the Canary Islands.  So fear not, John Lyly doesn't want to munch on a bowl of fat little songbirds (though that wouldn't really shock me), he just wants to get drunk on strong wine.

The whole poem is about excess and indulgence.  Wine, women, food.  Those are the things glorified here, to such an extent that Jove himself would consider it excessive.  It's hard not be charmed a bit by the naked enthusiasm Lyly has for these things, though.  It reads like a list of great fun friends will have, particularly in the food list.  I'd be lying if I said it didn't make me a tad hungry.

The poem is simple minded, mildly humorous, and celebrates the robust spirit of good cheer.  While it does endorse gluttony, we're hardly strangers to that ourselves today.  I feel like Lyly would rather like the wide selection of wines available pretty much everywhere wine is sold nowadays.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

I Looked Up from My Writing - Thomas Hardy

I looked up from my writing,
   And gave a start to see,
As if rapt in my inditing,
   The moon's full gaze on me.

Her meditative misty head
   Was spectral in its air,
And I involuntarily said,
   'What are you doing there?'

'Oh, I've been scanning pond and hole
   And waterway hereabout
For the body of one with a sunken soul
   Who has put his life-light out.

'Did you hear his frenzied tattle?
   It was sorrow for his son
Who is slain in brutish battle,
   Though he has injured none.

'And now I am curious to look
   Into the blinkered mind
Of one who wants to write a book
   In a world of such a kind.'

Her temper overwrought me,
   And I edged to shun her view,
For I felt assured she thought me
   One who should drown him too.

Upon viewing the moon by chance while writing at night, Hardy imagines a conversation in which he wonders about why he writes.  He struggles to reconcile the bleak, depressingly unjust nature of the world at war with the act of writing.

A bit of context.  Hardy wrote this in 1917, at the height of the Great War (World War 1).  It comes at the end of a volume in which he wrote a wide variety of war poetry, some patriotic and joyful, some despairing, but none as self-aware and self-condemning as this.  The title alone, "I Looked Up from My Writing" seems to speak directly to the reader.  Hardy reflects on why he has been writing in the first place.

In terms of events of the poem, the moon is "searching" for a man who has killed himself in the depths of his despair, having lost his son in the poem.  Hardy, in his shame, tries to get out of the moon's view, believing the moon, his accuser, his conscience.  "For I felt assured she thought me one who should drown him too."  He feels as if he should drown, or as if he is the one who drowned the despondent suicidal man.  Hardy feels a degree of responsibility for the death and conflict, for his writing, in an indirect way, contributes to the war effort.

I have to wonder, though, if Hardy is not the one who gets the last laugh, so to speak.  Despite his guilt, he has seized it, recorded it, vilified himself, and ended up with a poem.  The poem is beautiful, and if we are to believe Hardy, that can only make him more culpable.  While I personally don't think Hardy has much cause to feel this incredible guilt, I think it's always important to "look up" from our writing.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Early Sunday Morning - Edward Hirsch

I used to mock my father and his chums
for getting up early on Sunday morning
and drinking coffee at a local spot
but now I'm one of those chumps.

No one cares about my old humiliations
but they go on dragging through my sleep
like a string of empty tin cans rattling
behind an abandoned car.

It's like this: just when you think
you have forgotten that red-haired girl
who left you stranded in a parking lot
forty years ago, you wake up

early enough to see her disappearing
around the corner of your dream
on someone else's motorcycle
roaring onto the highway at sunrise.

And so now I'm sitting in a dimly lit
cafe full of early morning risers
where the windows are covered with soot
and the coffee is warm and bitter.

The narrator of this poem is plagued by bitter memories of his youth, his "old humiliations" which revisit him in dreams, making noise, dogging him into rising early every Sunday.  In his youth, he mocked his father and his father's friend for this same thing, rising early for Sunday coffee, and now, in his own words, Hirsch is one of those chumps.

The resigned attitude Hirsch has towards this new Sunday ritual is interesting to me.  He knows that "no one cares" about his old humiliations, that girl who stood him up forty years ago, but he seems to now instinctively seek out the company of other people in similar situations.  I particularly like the image of Hirsch himself as "an abandoned car" with a string of empty tin cans rattling behind him.  The tin cans are empty, because they are memories of dreams unfulfilled, and they rattle, because these old humiliations still bother him greatly.  

The cafe itself sounds like a dismal place of small comfort.  Grimy, full of old chumps who can't sleep because of their pitiful dreams (at least Hirsch depicts himself as pitiful, not pitiable), it doesn't sound like the most pleasant place.  The crumb of comfort is the coffee.  While the memories may be bitter, thinking of "warm and bitter" coffee warms my bones a bit.  Bitter is a good thing in coffee, so far as I'm concerned.  Sure, the place may have sooty windows, and be full of old people dragging about their old humiliations, but at least the coffee is warm.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Birds of America - James Broughton

Said the Birds of America
   quak quek quark quark, hoo hoo
   rarrp rarrp, gogogogock
   feebee, cheep cheep, kakakaaa
   coo ahh, choo eee, coo coo!

And what is the meaning of that?
said the solemn Birdcage Maker.

O nothing at all, said the Old Turkey,
we just enjoy the noise.

Why not do something that makes some sense?
said the serious Birdcage Man.

  We do, we do, all there is to do,
said the Eagle, the Lark, and the others:
  We eat and sleep and move about
  and watch what's going on.
  We mate and nest and sit and hatch
  and watch the young get on.
  We hunt and preen and sing and wash,
  we take long journeys and local jaunts
  or simply sit about and scratch
  and watch what's going on.

But that's quite pointless! said the Birdcage Man,
You'll never get anywhere that way.

Maybe, said the Magpie. Yet when this continent began
we birds were the only two-legged creatures
and we're still very much around.

What's more, the Woodpecker added,
everything man knows he learned from us birds
but he's never enjoyed it as much.

The Cagemaker scoffed: What could I learn from you?

  To do, to do, all there is to do,
said the Heron, the Crow, and the others:
  To eat and sleep and move about
  and watch what's going on.
  To mate and nest and sit and hatch
  and watch the young get on.
  To hunt and preen and sing and wash,
  to take long journeys and local jaunts
  or simply sit about and scratch
  and watch what's going on.

O that's absurd! said the Birdcage Maker,
Don't you know the real meaning of life?

Of course we do, said the Birds of America:
   quak quek quark quark, hoo hoo
   rarrp rarrp, gogogogock
   feebee, cheep cheep, kakakaaa
   coo ahh, choo eee, coo coo!

I hope you had a bit of a laugh by the end of the poem, reader, because so far as I can tell, that's certainly the point.  James Broughton demonstrates quite well how ridiculously seriously we take ourselves at times.  As far as the birds in the poem are concerned, the "real meaning of life" is experience.  In their case, song, pretty noise.  The Birdcage Maker, the poem's stand in for modern humanity, continually makes an ass of himself, scoffing at the birds' knowledge.  The birds' knowledge is older than the man's, and really, do we do much more than what the birds do?  As the Woodpecker in the poem said, "everything man knows he learned from us birds but he's never enjoyed it as much."

Since the birds represent pure experience, it's appropriate that the human analogue in the poem is a cage maker.  So often we seek to limit or contain our lived experiences.  We want them compartmentalized in a neat and clean way.  The birds?  They want "to do, to do."  The act itself is justification for acting for the birds.  Broughton clearly thinks that the act is justified by the acting of it, else why write the poem and make such a ridiculous farce of the Birdcage Man?

The poem has three great styles of voice in it.  There's the birdsong, italicized, and the nonsense syllables do a good job conjuring the cries an attentive ear might hear anywhere on the American continent.  Having not even a cursory knowledge of ornithology, I can't attempt to identify their cries, but I certainly enjoyed reading them out loud, and I hope you do too!  The second style of voice is that of the Birdcage Maker.  He comes across as dour and unpleasant, a real pill.  Lastly, there are the birds of America themselves, and not in their songs, but in plain English.  The cadence of their speech still has something of the birdsong to it, with great repetition like "to do, to do, all there is to do."

I think this poem is a good reminder for us to not take ourselves too seriously.  We don't want to sound like the Birdcage Maker, do we?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Windhover - Gerard Manley Hopkins

   To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
   dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
   Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
   As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
   Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, - the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

   No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion
Shine, a blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
   Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

Hopkins, a Jesuit, whose poems remained unpublished in his lifetime, is one of my favorite poets, and I think The Windhover is a good example of why.  His characteristic compound words and alliterations shine through, and help contribute to an air of flight in line with the subject matter.

A windhover is a kestrel, a bird of prey, just for reference.  Hopkins describes the way he saw this prince of morning ("daylight's dauphin") and its flight.  His "heart in hiding stirred for a bird" and he was overcome by its "brute beauty."  He's blown away by its flight, not just by "the achieve of" [flight, presumably] but by "the mastery of the thing!"  The windhover is the prince, the "chevalier" or the skies, riding the wind in total control.

In the last stanza, Hopkins comes down from his rapturous flight, and finds "no wonder of it."  It is not wondrous, what he witnessed.  Even the soil shines after hard work.  "Sheer plod makes plough down sillion shine."  He's reminded that with work, toil, and possibly suffering, beauty can be achieved.  This brings us back to the first line.  "To Christ our Lord."  It should go without saying that as a Jesuit, Hopkins was devout.  In Hopkins' poetry, all beauty comes from the Lord, and acts of beauty in Nature, like the flight of the windhover, are fundamentally acts of praise.  Whether or not you agree with this, the images in Hopkins' poetry exude a real sense of ecstasy and flight, and one cannot help but feel, like the windhover, gliding through the brilliant day.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Silence - Billy Collins

There is the sudden silence of the crowd
above a player not moving on the field,
and the silence of the orchid.

The silence of the falling vase
before it strikes the floor,
the silence of the belt when it is not striking the child.

The stillness of the cup and the water in it,
the silence of the moon
and the quiet of the day far from the roar of the sun.

The silence when I hold you to my chest,
the silence of the window above us,
and the silence when you rise and turn away.

And there is the silence of this morning
which I have broken with my pen,
a silence that had piled up all night

like snow falling in the darkness of the house-
the silence before I wrote a word
and the poorer silence now.

Silences, even if equivalent in decibel level, are not equivalent in the weight we assign them.  Some silences are tense, worried silences, like the silence at a sporting event after an injury.  Some are serene, like the silence of the moon.  Collins exercises his great gift here, of making something we all experience clear in plain, uncomplicated language.  The poem is poignant without being sappy, and contains hints of emotions like fear, joy, and heartbreak.  I feel like breaking the silence much further would ruin the effect, and create afterwards, "a poorer silence."

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Of Mere Being - Wallace Stevens

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without humming meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

The imaginative and the real mix here, in the state "of mere being" at the mind's end.  To Stevens, the end of the mind, the furthest reaches of our collective imaginations, are populated by things that do not make sense to us, and I believe, are not made to make sense.

Why is there a palm tree?  Why is there a bird in it?  Why is all the decor bronze?  I do not think that matters at all, and furthermore, I don't think Stevens thinks it matters.  The bird is "humming without meaning, without human feeling, a foreign song."  At the edge of our mind, all becomes foreign.  It's a fact that in real life, bird songs are indeed foreign.  They only have what meaning we give them, in terms of emotional content.  Stevens is making statements of fact, not feeling.  "The bird sings. Its feathers shine."  The sentences are short, clipped things, mere statements, mere being.

I like particularly the way in which Stevens characterizes the wind as moving slowly in the branches, rather than the branches moving slowly in the wind.  It's a nice turn of phrase and gives interest to a poem otherwise filled with distinct yet meaningless images.  Sometimes things just are, and I think that's the point of this poem.  Being is enough, and existence doesn't need to be justified by anything other than itself.

Monday, December 1, 2014

["This poem is not addressed to you"] - Donald Justice

This poem is not addressed to you.
You may come into it briefly,
But no one will find you here, no one.
You will have changed before the poem will.

Even while you sit there, unmovable,
You have begun to vanish. And it does not matter.
The poem will go on without you.
It has the spurious glamor or certain voids.

It is not sad, really, only empty.
Once perhaps it was sad, no one knows why.
It prefers to remember nothing.
Nostalgias were peeled from it long ago.

Your type of beauty has no place here.
Night is the sky over this poem.
It is too black for stars.
And do not look for any illumination.

You neither can nor should understand what it means.
Listen, it comes without guitar,
Neither in rags nor any purple fashion.
And there is nothing in it to comfort you.

Close your eyes, yawn. It will be over soon.
You will forget the poem, but not before
It has forgotten you. And it does not matter.
It has been most beautiful in its erasures.

O bleached mirrors! Oceans of the drowned!
Nor is one silence equal to another.
And it does not matter what you think.
This poem is not addressed to you.

This poem is addressed to you, reader, despite what Donald Justice tells us.  It rather explicitly talks to us about how the poem is not meant to speak to us.  The poem is about how regardless of poetic intent, the "you" of a poem doesn't necessarily matter.  The poem is immovable, intransient, it remains long after its subject has gone.  Justice reflects this by removing the subject from the poem in every possible way.  There are no stars, no "illumination" (both literal, in a lack of stars, and figurative in a lack of understanding) or meaning.

The great strength of this poem is that by deliberately removing any sort of address, it becomes universally relevant.  This is almost certainly the point, because as Justice says, "Nor is one silence equal to another."  In removing subjects, we give poems unequal weight in the strength of their absences.  I find the poem touching in ways that are difficult to articulate.  It's almost comforting to know that long after any person about whom a poem could have been written is gone, the poems are still there, and even without the stars in their skies, they retain a beauty captured well by Justice's deliberate removal of the poetic "you."