Friday, February 27, 2015

[the snow is melting] - Kobayashi Issa

Translated by Robert Hass

The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
     with children.

Issa was a haiku master of the late 1700s and early 1800s, who studied in Edo (Tokyo).  I posted this one out of hope, mostly, that the massive piles of snow currently blanketing the northeast will start to melt, and that life will come back into the world.  I like the clever enjambment this excellent translation provides, too.  "The snow is melting and the village is flooded" and "the village is flooded with children."  As the snow melts, the children come out to play, and life quickens back into warmth.  Let's hope that comes soon.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Soliloquy on an Empty Purse - Mary Jones

Alas, my Purse! how lean and low!
My silken Purse! what art thou now!
One I beheld - but stocks will fall -
When both thy ends had wherewithal.
When I within thy slender fence
My fortune placed, and confidence;
A poet's fortune! - not immense:
Yet, mixed with keys, and coins among,
Chinked to the melody of song.

     Canst thou forget, when, high in air,
I saw thee fluttering at a fair?
And took thee, destined to be sold,
My lawful Purse, to have and hold?
Yet used so oft to disembogue,
No prudence could thy fate prorogue.
Like wax they silver melted down,
Touch but the brass, and lo! 'twas gone:
And gold would never with thee stay,
For gold had wings, and flew away.

     Alas, my Purse! yet still be proud,
For see the Virtues round thee crowd!
See, in the room of paltry wealth,
Calm Temperance rise, the nurse of health;
And Self-Denial, slim and spare,
And Fortitude, with look severe;
And Abstinence, to leanness prone,
And Patience, worn to skin and bone:
Prudence and Foresight on thee wait,
And Poverty lies here in state!
Hopeless her spirits to recruit,
For every Virtue is a mute.

     Well then, my Purse, thy Sabbaths keep;
Now thou art empty, I shall sleep.
No silver sounds shall thee molest,
Nor golden dreams disturb my breast.
Safe shall I walk with thee along,
Amidst temptations thick and strong;
Catched by the eye, no more shall stop
At Wildey's toys, or Pinchbeck's shop;
Nor cheapening Payne's ungodly books,
Be drawn aside by pastry-cooks:
But fearless now we both may go
Where Ludgate's mercers bow so low;
Beholding all with equal eye,
Nor moved at - "Madam, what d'ye buy?"

     Away, far hence each worldly care!
Nor dun nor pick-purse shalt thou fear,
Nor flatterer base annoy my ear.
Snug shalt though travel through the mob,
For who a poet's purse will rob?
And softly sweet in garret high

Will I thy virtues magnify;
Outsoaring flatterers' stinking breath,
And gently rhyming rats to death.

Mary Jones, an 18th century English poet, much informed by Alexander Pope, here, with wry humor, extols the virtues of an empty coin purse, and poverty.  My favorite bit of the poem is definitely the line, "For who a poet's purse will rob?"  I laughed aloud at that, having once lived the stereotypical musician's life (Allow a long parenthetical aside for a joke.  How do you improve the aerodynamic properties of a trombone player's car?  You take the pizza sign off the top.  That was true of me for several years.) I can understand the "Who would want to rob me?" mentality.

Of particular delight are the fourth and fifth stanzas, in which Jones can walk past all manner of shopkeepers free from temptation, and from pickpockets, for she is free from money.  While she is humorously praising poverty, I think she does recognize the real virtues of a simple life, as outlined in the third stanza.  The last line, as far as I can tell, is a humorous way of both recognizing her poverty, and stating her intent to continue her poetry anyways.  I think it's meant mostly to be humorous, as is the rest of this poem, with some kernels of truth interspersed.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Author to Her Book - Anne Bradstreet

Thou ill-form'd offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, expos'd to publick view,
Made thee in raggs, halting to th' press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judg).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
Thy Visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could:
I wash'd thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a sport, still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joynts to make thee even fet,
Yet still thou run'st more hobbling then is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save home-spun Cloth, i' th' house I find.
In this array 'mongst Vulgars mayst thou roam.
In Criticks hands, beware thou dost not come;
And take thy way where yet thou art not known,
If for thy Father askt, say, thou hadst known,
If for thy Father askt, say, thou hadst none:
And for thy Mother, she alas is poor,
Which casu'd her thus to send thee out of door.

I am sympathetic to Anne Bradstreet here, as she frets over the book of poetry she has published.  It's like a child to her, and though it is full of flaws, she loves it, but feels that no matter how much she tries to polish or mend it, she cannot make it free from blemish.  It wasn't even her idea to publish, to hear her tell it, but some friends, who brought her verses from Massachusetts (where Bradstreet lived until her death in 1672) to London,  In reality, her poetry was very well received in London, and today, she stands as one of the most important and esteemed poets of the early American poets.  In the end, despite her misgivings, she allowed the book to publish and sell, as she needed money.  I'd say it worked out well for all of us.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

"Why art thou silent! Is thy love a plant" - William Wordsworth

Why are thou silent! Is thy love a plant
Of such weak fibre that the treacherous air
Of absence withers what was once so fair?
Is there no debt to pay, no boon to grant?
Yet have my thoughts for thee been vigilant -
Bound to thy service with unceasing care,
The mind's least generous wish a mendicant
For nought but what thy happiness could spare.
Speak - though this soft warm heart, once free to hold
A thousand tender pleasures, thine and mine,
Be left more desolate, more dreary cold
Than a forsaken bird's-nest filled with snow
'Mid its own bush of leafless eglantine -
Speak, that my torturing doubts their end may know.

This Wordsworth poem deals with love, its strength, and how we come to doubt love's strength over time.  Presumably spoken to a lover, the narrator asks why they are silent.  He doubts their love ("speak, that my torturing doubts their end may know") and the silence of his lover is unbearable to him.  The basic question is, "Did absence make your love grow weak?"  He compares himself to a beggar (mendicant) in need of whatever happiness his lover can spare.  He begs that his lover speak, or his heart, once able to hold "a thousand tender pleasures" grow as cold as an empty bird's nest filled with snow.

The desperation is palpable, and the likening of the heart and love to natural things is effective.  If love is a plant which grows weak with absence, perhaps it means that there was no water, no food, for it to grow, or that love was planted in infertile soil, a match never meant to prosper.  The heart as an empty, cold nest is also an easy image to understand, for when love is freshly ended, it certainly does feel as though we are empty.

The language of the poem is plain and clear for the most part, and I feel like there isn't much I can do for you, reader, other than encourage you to read the poem slowly so that it can unfold easily.

Monday, February 23, 2015

On Donne's Poetry - Samuel Taylor Coleridge

With Donne, whose muse on dromedary trots,
Wreathe iron pokers into true-love knots;
Rhyme's sturdy cripple, fancy's maze and clue,
Wit's forge and fire-blast, meaning's press and screw.

Coleridge was an exception to the rule of his times in many ways, and among those ways is his admiration of John Donne's poetry.  For more of the 18th and 19th centuries, his poetry was scorned as crude and unskilled in execution.  Today, we hold him much higher regard, and Coleridge did as well.  In these scant four lines, he expresses his appreciation of Donne's poetry in a series of fantastical images.

Donne's poetry can take hoot iron pokers and fashion them into "true-love knots."  To me, that means that Donne takes the difficult and makes it artful and elegant with apparent ease.  The images of the poem are largely paradoxical, as well, mimicking the late Renaissance fashion in which Donne wrote.  "Sturdy cripple" in particular stands out as paradox.  The rest of the lines refer to how Donne coaxed meaning out of words.  His wit was a forge, firing ideas into shape, using a press screw to fashion meaning.  We get a real sense of the work that must've gone into Donne's poetry with these images, and Coleridge presents him as an expert craftsmen, something which was contrary to the general consensus at Coleridge's time.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Snow Man - Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Bleak and beautiful.  That is winter, in this Wallace Stevens poem.  Winter empties you, makes you into nothing, removes the framework from which you would see a winter scene and think of misery in the sound of the wind.  To have been "cold a long time" and to adjust oneself to winter allows you to see "nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."  You will no longer imagine or moralize the winter scene, but experience it, see it for what it truly is.

There's beauty in the sparse, precise descriptions of the poem.  "Junipers shagged with ice," "the distant glimmer of the January sun," "pine-trees crusted with snow."  It's the very kind of beauty of winter, and I know right now, I am having trouble appreciating that beauty.  We've had a particularly snowy winter, with more snow predicted for tomorrow, and I am getting sick of it.  Instead, I will think of this poem, and try to make myself "nothing" so that I may appreciate it, and not see the things that aren't there.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

"Though I am young, and cannot tell" - Ben Jonson, Fire and Ice - Robert Frost

Though I am young and cannot tell
Either what Death or Love is well,
Yet I have heard they both bear darts,
And both do aim at human hearts.
And then again, I have been told
Love wounds with heat, as Death with cold;
So that I fear they do but bring
Extremes to touch, and mean one thing.

As in a ruin we it call
One thing to be blown up, or fall;
Or to our end like way may have
By a flash of lightning, or a wave;
So Love's inflamèd shaft or brand
May kill as soon as Death's cold hand;
Except Love's fires the virtue have
To fright the frost out of the grave.

This poem, I feel, is very naturally paired with the Robert Frost poem, Fire and Ice, presented below:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

As I'm sure you can tell, reader, though separated by centuries and an ocean, Jonson and Frost hit upon similar ideas.  In both, Love and Death are presented as opposing forces, with the attributes of heat and cold, respectively.  In both, it's clear that Love and Death are both destructive forces.  Both express a favor (however slight) towards love, while acknowledging how dangerous and destructive it can be.

For Jonson, he believes that "Love's fires the virtue have to fright the frost out of the grave."  Love can conquer death, essentially.  Frost isn't so optimistic, but, from what he has "tasted of desire, [he] hold[s] with those who favor fire."  The conflation of desire and fire here is enough for me to establish the link between fire and Love, and ice and Death, as in Jonson's poem.

One difference that strikes me most of all is that of age and experience.  Jonson begins his poem by saying that he is young, and it's sure what Love or Death really are, but he knows that they can both be destructive.  Frost seems to be speaking from a more experienced position, citing what he has tasted of desire and known of hate.  I wonder then, if in Frost's experience, he finds Love unable to conquer death, unable to turn its fiery passion in a positive direction.  Frost doesn't moralize his lesson much, which I generally appreciate; I think that's our job as readers.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Idea 20: An evil spirit, your beauty, haunts me still - Michael Drayton

An evil spirit, your beauty, haunts me still,
Wherewith, alas, I have been long possess'd,
Which ceaseth not to tempt me to each ill,
Nor gives me once but one poor minute's rest.
In me it speaks, whether I sleep or wake;
And when by means to drive it out I try,
With greater torments then it me doth take,
And tortures me in most extremity.
Before my face it lays down my despairs,
And hastes me on unto a sudden death;
Now tempting me to drown myself in tears,
And then in sighing to give up my breath.
Thus am I still provok'd to every evil
By this good-wicked spirit, sweet angel-devil.

Michael Drayon, about whom I've written twice before, was an English poet, who lived in the Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Caroline periods.  His contemporaries are Edmund Spenser, Sip Philip Sidney, and Ben Jonson, and he is rightly held roughly in equal esteem with them.  His primary poetic output consisted on sonnets, as I've posted before, and historical epics, which aren't really suitable material for this blog.  Personally, I'm quite a fan of his sonnets, as they capture well the English Renaissance and Elizabethan ideals of affected emotion.  This poem rings out with exaggerated, beautiful sadness, which was at the time considered very fashionable.

The images we're dealing with are dramatic to say the least.  The narrator of the poem addresses a second person, a "you," presumably a lover, whose beauty is so terrible and great that it is portrayed here as an evil spirit which haunts the mind constantly.  It's so great that it is always on the mind of the narrator, driving him to madness.  It's so strong it might kill him, or as he puts it, "tempting me to drown myself in tears."  And yet for all this, we know the narrator loves this you, this beauty, and cannot live without it.  It's almost a hurts so good scenario.  "good-wicked spirit" and "sweet angel-devil" are the paradoxical phrases used to describe how sweet that pain is.  Sweet, exquisite pain is on display here, and the language is direct and lovely.

Though not in such extreme language, I'm sure many can relate to this idea of a haunting beauty.  Someone who, by virtue of their beauty, physical or otherwise, never leaves one's thoughts.  I'm sure we've all been "mad" about someone before.  I also get a whiff of the unattainable in this poem, a sense of la douleur exquise, that French phrase for the pain of wanting someone one can never have, but loving them anyways.  The narrator here is certainly powerless to exorcise that beautiful haunting spirit, and I suspect unwilling, as well.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"Gymnopédies No. 2" - Adrian Matejka

In NYC, we stalked fishes
          in filets of sounds: delivery
          engines & ashy doors

clapping shut, vendors
knuckling fin & silhouette -

          shaped words into salty
expectations. My daughter

& I walked down a couple
          of slim-bricked blocks
          that smelled like snapper

& afro sheen with no afros
in sight. On snaggletoothed

streets, we double-took the wet
alleys where things jumped

off the hook like smart seafood
          before lunch. We parted

the perfect & abundantly wintered

streets. My daughter said, I know
these parts like a tired pianist
          resting on her bench.

This is the second time I've posted a poem of Adrian Matejka's, and the second of his poems I've posted to be based on the titular Erik Satie piano piece.  Much like my thoughts on this first poem, I cannot understand a connection between the content of the music and the poetic content.  This isn't to say I don't enjoy the poem; on the contrary, I find the images fascinating, with a real feeling of life in both the city and the fish!  I'm not sold on the final stanza, but I like the way Matejka explores father daughter relationships in his poems, because it treats the child with intellectual respect that adults so seldom give.

Again, I feel that the titular connection to a famous piece of music detracts from the poem itself.  As a result, I keep trying to read things into the poem which are simply not supported by what is on the page.  I can read the poem with that piece on as background music, but I find that it does nothing to enhance my understanding of either work.

Still, it's a lovely piece of music, and an intriguing poem, even if I do not feel I understand it fully.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Cheerios - Billy Collins

One bright morning in a restaurant in Chicago
as I waited for my eggs and toast,
I opened the Tribune only to discover
that I was the same age as Cheerios.

Indeed, I was a few months older than Cheerios
for today, the newspaper announced,
was the seventieth birthday of Cheerios
whereas mine had occurred earlier in the year.

Already I could hear them whispering
behind my stooped and threadbare back,
Why that dude's older than Cheerios
the way they used to say.

Why that's as old as the hills,
only the hills are much older than Cheerios
or any American breakfast cereal,
and more noble and enduring are the hills,

I surmised as a bar of sunlight illuminated my orange juice.

Billy Collins has a real knack for combining seriousness and comedy, here doing it with the seriousness of feeling old, and the silliness of comparing yourself to Cheerios.  Today being my birthday, it just seemed like a natural fit.

I don't think we should take age too seriously, and I certainly don't think Collins does.  For him, no wisdom is conferred with age, just a light humor and good temperament, which I think he communicates well here.  The image of a "stooped and threadbare back" shows how he feels old, but then he just laughs it off with a ridiculous imagined overheard whisper, of "Why that dude's older than Cheerios!"  It's funny, and if Collins made you smile and think about what you're older than, then his poem has succeeded.    For instance, I'm older than MP3s, which seem a fairly normal part of the fabric of our daily lives.  I can just imagine a twelve year old saying now, "You used to use cassette tapes to listen to things?"  It's a funny way to think about your own age, that's for sure.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Scarlatti - James Schuyler

last night
locked in
the castle
of pride and
goes on two
orchestrated a
sky the clouds
move to a
an instrument not
an oboe, gray
on light-gray in
blue and green
goes by
on glass
serenades with
a view through
to where
a girl
body displaced
against the
pull of her
hands head-
high on the
before the night
before last
unlocked the castle
of pride and
clouds stand
and go by

I found in my research that this poem was not published during Schuyler's lifetime.  I don't often like saying this, but I think there's a good reason for that.  The composer referenced by the title, Domenico Scarlatti, was famous for his baroque and early classical music, and was highly influential.  Nowhere in the poem is he reflected except perhaps in the repetition of phrases, such as goes by, go by, and pride and egotism (things which were largely absent in Scarlatti's life and music).

The references to other more modern composers (Webern and Schoenberg) seem wholly unrelated, both to Scarlatti and to the poem's poetic content.  Perhaps I just don't "get it" but I feel like this poem is a failure of expression.  It is not musical, and that seems like a crime against the names used in the poem.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

American Smooth - Rita Dove

We were dancing - it must have
been a foxtrot or a waltz,
something romantic but
requiring restraint,
rise and fall, precise
execution as we moved
into the next song without
stopping, two chests heaving
above a seven-league
stride - such perfect agony,
one learns to smile through,
ecstatic mimicry
being the sine qua non
of American Smooth.
And because I was distracted
by the effort of
keeping my frame
(the leftward lean, head turned
just enough to gaze out
past your ear and always
smiling, smiling),
I didn't notice
how still you'd become until
we had done it
(for two measures?
four?) - achieved flight,
that swift and serene
before the earth
remembered who we were
and brought us down.

American smooth, a category of ballroom dance, is the setting for this poem about losing oneself in an activity and in another person.  Working through pain to find ecstasy, to become detached from the earth, "perfect agony."  Even though I am not a dancer, I know that feeling of perfect agony through rehearsal, and a moment of detachment, from other physical musical pursuits, such as marching band.  The moment when you lose yourself, and the earth, in your pursuit of perfection is truly magical and I feel this poem captures it exactly.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Cutting the Sun - Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

     After Francesco Clemente's Indian Miniature #16

The sun-face looms over me, gigantic-hot, smelling
of iron. Its rays striated,
rasp-red and muscled as the tongues
of iguanas. They are trying to lick away
my name. But I
am not afraid. I hold in my hands
(where did I get them)
enormous blue scissors that are
just the color of sky. I bring
the blades together, like
a song. The rays fall around me
curling a bit, like dried carrot peel. A far sound
in the air - fire
or rain? And when I've cut
all the way to the center of the sun
I see
flowers, flowers, flowers.

Francesco Clemente is a contemporary Italian artist, and this poem is in response to a bit of his art, which sadly, I was unable to find for you to view.  Instead, we will have to make due with Divakaruni's beautiful poem after that painting from which she drew inspiration.

The image is fantastic, someone cutting the sun itself open with massive blue scissors, finding flowers at its heart.  What can we take from this?  I think there are two things at play: the poem is a way out fantastical account of gardening, and on the other hand, it speaks to the generative powers of the sun, and how all life comes from it.  The descriptions of the sun are physically grounded in the senses, the sun is "gigantic-hot, smelling of iron."  The narrator sweats under its rays, almost losing identity against its overwhelming power.  What's really happening on a narrative level?  I'd imagine it's just a gardener cutting flowers, sweating under the sun.

On a more symbolic level?  It's a reminder that the sun, and destruction (culling, clipping, burning) leads to new life.  Flowers, flowers, flowers.  Fire, rain, no matter, it all brings life in the end.  It's a fascinating image, and works well with the image of a sweating gardener.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Donkey - G. K. Chesterton

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil's walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

Here, Chesterton talks about the donkey, the strange, awkward creature that's often the butt of jokes.  Why else would calling someone an ass be an insult?  His ears are like "errant wings" and he is the "devil's walking parody on all four-footed things."  Yet, Chesterton claims a nobility to the humble donkey, for it was a donkey that bore Christ on Palm Sunday.  That's what the final stanza references.  The donkey, being dumb, thinks it his hour, but I think what we can take from this poem is that even the lowliest creature has as much purpose and worth as the highest.

Monday, February 9, 2015

No Second Troy - William Butler Yeats

Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?

It is necessary to know that this poem is about Maud Gonne, with whom Yeats had a turbulent relationship for many years.  She was his muse, and manifests in his poetry under a lot of different guises, here appearing as a Helen of Troy figure.  The poem is also set against the background of Irish nationalism, particularly at a time when Irish oppression under the British crown was harsh and strong.  I am not an expert in this subject, and will try my best to not make sweeping conclusions.  I'd encourage you, reader, to look up both Maud Gonne and Yeats' politics at a later date.

In the poem itself, Yeats asks rhetorical questions, trying to reconcile his hurt with the woman who caused them.  Why should he blame her for his own hurt, when it is in her nature?  Ignorant masses (violent Irish nationalists) follow her due to her beauty and political sentiment, and she has through this "taught to ignorant men most violent ways."  He ultimately concludes, "Why, what could she have done, being what she is?"  It's her nature, and because there is no Troy for this Helen to see burn, it must be Ireland.

If you can help elucidate this for me, reader, please leave a comment.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Tichborne's Elegy - Chidiock Tichborne

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feat of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain.
The day is gone and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

The spring is past, and yet it hath not spring,
The fruit is dead, and yet the leaves are green,
My youth is gone, and yet I am but young,
I saw the world, and yet I was not seen,
My thread is cut, and yet it was not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I lookt for life and saw it was a shade,
I trode the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I am but made.
The glass is full, and now the glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

This poem, concerned with too soon endings and transitory life, is made tragic by the circumstances of its author's life, and as you may have guessed, untimely death.  Born in 1558 (possibly 1562), in England, he was executed in 1586 by Elizabeth I.  He was Catholic, and due to very harsh anti-Catholic measures instituted by the Queen in 1570, he lived much of his life being constantly questioned and treated with suspicion.  He eventually joined the Babington conspirators, who were planning a political coup, but was discovered and imprisoned for treason.  This poem, often called Tichborne's Elegy, was composed before his execution in a letter to his wife, as means of farewell.

Besides the circumstances in which the poem was written, it uses paradox effectively to communicate the plight of Tichborne's situation.  He dies, but is now made.  The fruit is dead, but the leaves are green.  It's easy to hear sorrow here, particularly in the line, "My youth is gone, and yet I am but young."  Tichborne was likely between 23 and 27 at the time of his execution, and surely, his youth was gone (he was to be executed) but he was still young.  This technique is employed constantly throughout, as opposing images are set in paradoxical ways.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

An Apology For Her Poetry - Duchess of Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish

I language want to dress my fancies in,
The hair's uncurled, the garment's loose and thing.
Had they but silver lace to make them gay,
They'd be more courted than in poor array;
Or, had they art, would make a better show;
But they are plain; yet cleanly do they go.
The world in bravery doth take delight,
And glistening shows do more attract the sight:
And every one doth honor a rich hood,
As if the outside made the inside good.
And every one doth bow and give the place,
Not for the man's sake but the silver lace.
Let me intreat in my poor book's behalf,
That all will not adore the golden calf.
Consider, pray, gold hath no life therein,
And life, in nature, is the richest thing.
Be just, let Fancy have the upper place,
And then my verses may perchance find grace.

Duchess of Newcastle on Tyne, Margaret Cavendish, was quite the woman.  She wrote poetry, fiction, dramas, and even dabbled in science.  She was highly educated and her writings remain a very valuable source of information about her times.  Like many during her life, she had to flee England for political reasons, though was able to return with the restoration of the monarchy.  Her works weren't particularly well-received in their time, twice being the source of mockery by other authors, though her reputation today is substantially improved.

In this poem, she claims that her poems are wanting (lacking) of language in which to dress.  Simply put, she's apologizing that she isn't a terribly gifted poet, and would like to ask you to think about what the poems mean, instead of just criticizing their lack of art.  Of course, her verse is actually well-constructed, with rhymes that flow naturally and enhance the meaning of the verse, but I suspect she was being a bit humble, as expected of a woman, noble or not.

My favorite line from the poem must be, "And every one doth honor a rich hood, as if the outside made the inside good."  She's criticizing poets who think that dressing their verse up in beautiful words, in "silver lace" doesn't do much to improve them if they lack message.  It applies to much more than poetry, too.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Lullay, myn lykyng - Anonymous (Sloane Manuscript)


Lullay, myn lykyng, my dere sone,
myn swetyng,
Lullay, my dere herte, myn owyn
dere derlyng.

I saw a fayr maydyn syttyn and
Sche lullyd a lytyl chyld, a swete


That eche lord is that that made alle
Of alle lordis he is lord, of alle
kynges kyng.


Ther was mekyl melody at that
chyldes berthe,
Alle tho wern in hevene blys thei
made mekyl merthe,


Aungelebryth thei song that nyt and
seydyn to that chyld,
"Blyssid be thou, and so be sche
that is bothe mek and myld."


Prey we now to that chyld, and to 
his moder dere,
Grawnt hem his blyssysng that now
makyn chere.


Today's poem isn't a poem at all, but a lyric, written in Middle English, about the birth of Christ.  It had a tune to accompany it at one point, but that has been lost to history, and the author is unknown.  Mostly, it is easy to read (if you can get past the hyper use of the letter y), and a pleasant, light text.  I think reading Middle English is a good mental exercise, even for those who haven't studied it.  Most words can be worked out by pronouncing them out loud.  Just remember, pronounce the vowels like you would the vowels in Latin, or a romance language.  Pure vowels, no dipthongs.  You may need help with the word "Aungelebryt," which is "angels bright" or "bright angels."

Personally, I find Middle English and later early Modern English poetry to be very refreshing, so absent as it is of pathos and self-importance.  It's like a spring breeze, and I hope it can refresh you a bit in these winter days.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Love's Good-Morrow - Thomas Heywood

Pack, clouds away! and welcome day!
With night we banish sorrow;
Sweet air, blow soft, mount larks aloft
To give my love good-morrow!
Wings from me the wind to please her mind,
Notes from the lark I'll borrow;
Bird, prune thy wing, nightingale, sing,
To give my love good-morrow;
To give my love good-morrow;
Notes from them both I'll borrow.

Wake from thy nest, Robin Redbreast,
Sing birds in every furrow;
And from each hill, let music shrill
Give my fair love good-morrow!
Blackbird and thrush in every bush,
Stare, linnet, and cock-sparrow!
You pretty elves, amongst yourselves,
Sing my fair love good-morrow;
To give my love good-morrow,
Sing birds in every furrow.

Thomas Heywood is really enthusiastic about wishing his love a good morning!  He wants to borrow the voice of a meadow lark to sing it to her, and the "sweet air" of the wind to wish her a good morning.  He invokes all of nature to sing in its spring sounding grandeur to his love as a good morning.  It's irresistibly upbeat and cheerful, its cadences sounding like a bird's chirp.

As a bit of biographical information, Heywood was a poet and playwright contemporary of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, and his plays were tremendously popular.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Delia 47: Read in my face a volume of despairs - Samuel Daniel

Read in my face a volume of despairs,
The wailing Iliads of my tragic woe,
Drawn with my blood and printed with my cares
Wrought by her hand, that I have honor'd so.
Who, whilst I burn, she sings at my soul's wrack,
Looking aloft from a turret of her pride;
There my soul's tyrant joys her in the sack
Of her own seat, whereof I made her guide.
There do these smokes that from affliction rise,
Serve as an incense to a cruel Dame;
A sacrifice thrice grateful to her eyes,
Because their power serve to exact the same.
   Thus ruins she, to satisfy her will,
   The Temple where her name was honor'd still.

Though Daniel was most known as a playwright and dramatist, his contributions to poetry in the English Renaissance are significant, particularly his sonnets.  Here, in high fashion, Daniel cultivates an air of despair and sorrow, something I've discussed before.  There was a fashion of melancholy, where expressing your sadness in an elegant way was socially desirable.  While it's certainly highly affected language, it's still got sincerity about it.

Daniel describes his lover, who has presumably spurned his offenses, like a Queen, a tyrant who ruins the "temple where her name was honor'd still."  That temple is Daniel himself, his heart.  He burns in torment and pain, as if cast into hell, but she just sings and laughs.  Still though, he cannot help but worship her, such is his love.  It's somewhat hokey by our modern standards, but I can't help but think these sonnets of his would have greatly pleased his wealthy patron, Mary, Countess of Pembroke.  These seem to be the height of passion and refinement as far as suffering is concerned.