Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Eight O'Clock - Sara Teasdale

Supper comes at five o'clock,
At six, the evening star,
My lover comes at eight o'clock-
But eight o'clock is far.

How could I bear my pain all day
Unless I watched to see
The clock-hands laboring to bring
Eight o'clock to me.

More than a poem, I think of this beautifully rhythmic and metrical Sara Teasdale poem like a song.  And just like a song, its directness is its strength.  Through her use of conventional rhyme and rhythm, the poem falls off the tongue easily.  The repetitions of various "o'clock[s]" build anticipation for eight o'clock, when as she tells us, her lover comes.  The anticipation is such that she can't help but watch the clock, hoping for it to bring her lover with each hand's stroke.

There isn't much to say here, but I like the way Teasdale sets up the schedule of her afternoon and night to us in the first stanza.  It helps cement, to me, at least, our relationship with time, and touches very accurately on how things we desire and anticipate always seem to take a little longer to arrive.  It's a lovely little song of a poem, and I hope you enjoy it, and think fondly of happy times that you couldn't wait to arrive.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

"Although the wind..." - Izumi Shikibu

translated by Jane Hirshfield

Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.

Izumi Shikibu was a Heian era Japanese poet (late 10th century, early 11th century), and her poetry frequently combines romantic, erotic longing with Buddhist contemplation.  This poem comes to us courtesy of Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani's 1990 book, The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Onono Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan.  I do not typically feature poetry in translation, but this gripped me for the way it frames nature and our perception of it through an ephemeral human lens.

Wind and moonlight, in this poem, act like invaders.  The wind blows terribly, and the moonlight leaks through roof planks.  The house is ruined.  That said, the wind and moonlight didn't ruin it.  If anything, the house was the invader.  The framing of familiar poetic elements through the slats of a house falling apart is inherently romantic, and instills a sense of longing into the poem.  It does so with great economy, being only five lines.  It's also an incredibly clear image, despite having so little detail.  I know it certainly got my imagination racing.

I hesitate to go much further in analysis, given that this is in translation, and I have no personal ability to compare it to the source material.  I don't know if there are shades of meaning that are lost to translation, or if I am reading into the text things that aren't there due to Shikibu's biography, but I can also think of this poem as a reaction to a love that has fallen apart.  The house would be the relationship itself, and the wind that blows so terribly through it the falling out of love of the participants.  I don't think that's textually supported, but it's a romantic thought nonetheless.

Monday, May 14, 2018

'Out, Out-' - Robert Frost

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood behind him in her apron
To tell them 'Supper.' At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant.
Leaped out at the boy's hand, or seemed to leap-
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy's first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all-
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man's work, though a child at heart-
He saw all spoiled. 'Don't let him cut my hand off-
The doctor, when he comes. Don't let him, sister!'
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then - the watcher at his pulse took fright.
Little--less--nothing!--and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

From time to time, I like to remind myself that poetry can be truly awful.  Not awful in the sense that it is poorly written, or low quality, but awful in the gut-wrenching, heart-breaking sense, like this Robert Frost poem.  There's little for me to explain.  Frost uses plain English, and starkly little in the way of poetic technique to tell the gruesome, awful tale of a boy who loses his hand, and his life, to a buzz saw.  A boy too young to rightly be called a man, so precisely described as "big boy, /Doing a man's work, though a child at heart."

What stands out, apart from the truly terrible story at the heart of this poem, is the specificity of detail within.  From the number of mountains, to the size and smell of the planks of wood being cut, the account is vivid in the extreme.  Who among us who has seen tragedy has not had the specifics of the scene burned into their minds?  For my parents' generation, everyone remembers where they were when they heard that JFK had been assassinated.  For my generation, everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when they heard of the terror attacks on September 11th, 2001.  So it is with this poem. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Usual Subject - Simon Darragh

One grows used to the loss itself;
it is the details catch, and scourge:
the extra tea-cup on the shelf;
the kitchen table, grown too large.

Not in sorrow for wasted days
of love unspoken,
but by trivia such as these
the heart is broken

I came across this poem courtesy of Conor Kelly, proprietor of the excellent Poem Today Twitter feed, in which he posts tweet sized poems.  It's an excellent daily feed, and a wonderful way to find new poetry.  If you search @poemtoday you will find his Twitter, and he also has a blog, which you can find here.  Conor Kelly is a poet as well, and perhaps with his blessing, I will post some of it here in the future.

This poem from Simon Darragh speaks to the realities of loss in practical terms, much like the excellent Roo Borson poem, "After a Death."  In Darragh's excellent short poem, it is not "sorrow for wasted days" that makes loss so hard.  Rather, it is the details left behind by someone's loss.  As he so expertly puts, it is the "extra tea-cup" or the now too spacious kitchen table.  It is the void left in our practical, material reality that stands out most.  What I appreciate about this poem in comparison with Borson's is that this speaks to a more general sense of loss.  While I do feel that this speaks to death more than anything, it could just as well apply to a traumatic romantic loss.  Reading the poem with both senses in mind causes different images to come to mind.  The "trivia" that breaks the heart is unique to each of us, and that is the power of the poem.  What I picture will be different than what you picture, and I like that Darragh avoided too many specifics, preferring instead to give examples.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Wood - Richard Brautigan

We age in darkness like wood
and watch our phantoms change
     their clothes
of shingles and boards
for a purpose that can only be
     described as wood.

What sort of purpose is wood, exactly?  I can't pretend to know, but I find this short poem from Beat poet Richard Brautigan a fascinating sort of riddle to chew on.  I've been thinking about it for a few days now, and I am happy to report that I am no closer to understanding it than I was when I first read it.  More than any sort of understanding or hidden meaning, I think frustration wrapped in a fascinating image is sort of the point here.  Let's unpack a little and see what we can find.

Being in the first person plural, Brautigan is including us in this poem.  "We" is inclusive, and therefore we ought to think of ourselves as we read and try to make sense of this poem.  The first line, "We wood."  What exactly does that mean?  Well, as wood ages, it can harden, but it can also rot.  It depends on how it's treated.  Nice parallel with people, there, yes? 

What then, are our phantoms?  That's personal, isn't it?  But what's more important is that the wood parallel continues.  Our phantoms, facsimiles of ourselves, perhaps our fears, clothes themselves in shingles and boards, continuously renewing by changing their clothes.  They are like us, but without the full body of substance.  What purpose, then?  Wood.  That's just how we are.  That's my take-away, at least.  I think more than anything, this is just a reflection from Brautigan on our state of being, and how our phantoms take on a form like ours, continually renewing.  There's tantalizingly little solid about this poem, but I hope my brief explication has helped, reader.  If you read it differently, please leave a comment and let me know!  I feel like this is so open a poem that most interpretations are completely valid.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

An Inscription - Ambrose Bierce

     For a statue of Napoleon

A conqueror as provident as brave,
He robbed the cradle to supply the grave.
His reign laid quantities of human dust:
He fell upon the just and the unjust.

While Ambrose Bierce's mysterious disappearance and uncertain fate remain a mystery even today, it is no mystery why he is still held in high regard in the world of American literature.  His short stories are held in esteem nearly to Poe's, and his first-hand accounts of the American Civil War.  While other authors wrote movingly about the American Civil War, Bierce fought on the front lines for the Union for the duration of the war, including some of its bloodiest battles.  From all accounts, he acted heroically, rescuing wounded men despite being under heavy gunfire.  He spent the duration of the war in almost continuous combat, and he said of himself, "When I ask of myself what has become of Ambrose Bierce the youth, who fought at Chickamauga, I am bound to answer that he is dead."  His essays detailing his experiences in the War are essential reading for anyone interested in the subject.

This poem, written in 1910, three years before his disappearance,  shows the world weariness and cynicism that marked much of his writing.  Speaking on Napoleon, he casts harsh indictment upon the strife and violence he brought to the world.  "He robbed the cradle to supply the grave" is as damning a line as I can imagine.  Napoleon is spoken of here almost as a plague, laying down "quantities of human dust" upon the just and unjust alike.  I am not certain, but I imagine that this is in reference to Napoleon Bonaparte, not Napoleon III, though it seems fitting for both men.

I admire short form poetry that manages to have such a strong impact in so few lines.  Bierce may be best known for his essays and short stories, but his poetry remains modern and worthwhile, and I encourage you to look up more of it if you had your interested piqued by this little poem, or the brief biographical information I provided.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3 1802 - William Wordsworth

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Is there anything more magical than a huge city completely silent?  That's what Wordsworth, in his breathlessly excited account of London in early morning, as viewed from Westminster Bridge, captures so perfectly.  I have actually seen this scenario myself, though about 212 years after this poem.  I have to agree, in that early dawn hour, it does seem as though "the very houses seem asleep."  I can only wonder what Wordsworth would think of things like the London Eye if he marvels so at "ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples" that line the river Thames.

There really isn't much to this poem, but given the title, I like to imagine that Wordsworth was passing by and was so taken by the beauty of the scenery that he had no choice but to compose a poem right then and there.  It's a very Romantic idea, and Wordsworth is one of the architects of Romantic poetry.  Read the poem slowly and luxuriate in its illuminating imagery and language.

Monday, May 7, 2018

A Dream - Edgar Allan Poe

In visions of the dark night
I have dreamed of joy departed -
But a waking dream of life and light
Hath left me broken-hearted.

Ah! what is not a dream by day
To him whose eyes are cast
On things around him with a ray
Turned back upon the past?

That holy dream - that holy dream,
While all the world were chiding,
Hath cheered me as a lovely beam
A lonely spirit guiding.

What though that light, thro' storm and night,
So trembled from afar-
What could there be more purely bright
In Truth's day-star?

Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most revered American poets and short story writers, and it occurs to me that I've engaged with very little of his work here.  Let's change that!  His poetry and short stories continue to exert a strong influence on American culture and literature, and is still very much worth reading today.

This poem in particular reminds me of a sonnet from John Milton, his Sonnet 23, specifically.  In that sonnet, Milton, who had gone blind during the course of his life, dreamed that he saw his departed wife, and as she came to embrace him, he woke, "and day brought back [his] night." Upon waking, he was again blind, and alone.  The overall sentiment of Poe's poem is similar, I find.  Indeed, the first stanza contains much of the narrative action of Milton's poem.  In this first stanza, the narrator finds his "joy departed" only "In visions of the dark night."  Waking leaves him broken-hearted.  It is much the same as in Milton's poem.  But whereas Milton stops at his waking, Poe goes on to ponder what such dreams are and what they mean to us, and our relationship with them.

In the second stanza, Poe asks what a dream is.  It is not a general question, but rather, what is a dream to someone "whose eyes are cast / on things around him with a ray / Turned back upon the past?"  Essentially, what is a dream to someone who looks at all things through the lens of the past?  The narrator of this poem is fixated on their "joy departed" which I have trouble not interpreting romantically, given the strong parallels with Milton's poem and the overall content of Poe's poetic work.  It could just mean thinking back to a happier time, but my interpretation is that this is a lover in question, especially given that upon waking from the dream, Poe's narrator is "broken-hearted."

The final two stanzas present Poe's answer to that question.  The dream cheers Poe, like a "lovely beam" that guides his lonely spirit.  He calls it even "a holy dream" and repeats that phrase twice, cementing its importance and impact.  Even though the world chides, the dream, the holy dream of his joy departed guides his spirit.  Poe is aware that he is engaging with a fantasy, however.  In the final stanza, he admits as much, albeit in a roundabout manner. 

Though the "light" of this dream's "lovely beam" can tremble from afar, it is brighter to Poe's narrator than "Truth's day-star."  It is brighter than reality itself, brighter than Truth.  The Truth here is that this joy is in fact departed, is no more.  But through storm and night, Poe clings to it, more purely bright than truth to a man whose eyes are cast on things around him with a ray turned back upon the past.  It's truly amazing how Poe manages to fit such depth of emotional content into a simple four stanza poem made of simple sing-song ABAB rhymes.  It's a testament to his skill and to the power of the content matter that it can resonate so strongly even now.

Friday, May 4, 2018

A Poet's Epitaph - John Black

When comes the last long silence to this lute,
And by its plea no more the calm is broken,
In charity, O world, let it be spoken:
No human sorrow found this player mute!

I came across this small poem by accident.  I had been reading a James Joyce poem, "She Weeps Over Rahoon" which was published in the November 1917 issue of Poetry Magazine.  Since I was reading a scan of that page, I saw the poem that accompanied it, a short ABBA quatrain epitaph by John Black.  It caught my eye, and its straightforward earnestness caught me off guard.  I have been unable to find any biographical info on the poet John Black, and would welcome any readers who know anything more.

What stands out most to me about this short poem is its interpretation of what poetry is.  The narrator, presumably Black himself, as this is "A Poet's Epitaph," wishes to be remembered for a refusal to be silent in the face of human sorrow.  It's a brave role, and aspirational.  Black isn't dead yet, but "When comes the last long silence to this lute" he wishes to be remembered for never being "mute."  The publishing date also stands out to me.  In 1917, the western world was in the midst of World War I, then known as The Great War.  There were countless poet-soldiers, many of whose work I've looked at here.  Is this a war poem?  I'm having difficulty finding concrete info on this poem apart from the actual page on which it was published.  Still, I feel like this epitaph is a reminder of what a poet can be.  Poetry can be an enduring testament to the human spirit and righteousness in the face of evil, and indeed, oftentimes it is.  While Black's lute may be silent, as I can find almost no info about him, his epitaph endures as a reminder of our highest hopes, aspirations, and anxieties about how the world will remember us (if indeed it does) after we're gone.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Of Dying Beauty - Louis Zukofsky

"Spare us of dying beauty," cries out Youth,
"Of marble gods that moulder into dust-
Wide-eyed and pensive with an ancient truth
That even gods will go as old things must."
Where fading splendor grays to powdered earth,
And time's slow movement darkens quiet skies,
Youth weeps the old, yet gives new beauty birth
And molds again, though the old beauty dies.
Time plays an ancient dirge amid old places
Where ruins are a sign of passing strength,
As is the weariness of aged faces
A token of a beauty gone at length.
Yet youth will always come self-willed and gay-
A sun-god in a temple of decay.

This wonderful sonnet comes to us from the 20th century American poet Louis Zukofsky.  Born to Russian Jewish immigrants in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1904, Zukofsky came to literature first through Yiddish, then through English, interweaving multiple literary traditions.  This poem was written when he was only 20 years old, and while it is not so ambitious or well-honed as his later works, I feel it's notable for the way it uses its form to play both with and against its subject matter.

The central conflict of the sonnet is between Youth and entropy.  Entropy is the thermodynamic principle that all things eventually break down towards disorder.  That's a gross oversimplification, but the essence is that things fall apart over time.  It is the gradual movement from order to disorder.  What we see in this poem is the cycle of creation and entropy, in perpetuity.  "Youth weeps the old, yet gives new beauty birth / And molds again, though the old beauty dies."  Youth asks to be spared this cycle in the first quatrain of the poem.  Despite asking to be exempt, to be spared the "marble gods" of the past, it goes on and creates its own doomed monuments, its own ruins that signify passing strength.

For all this, "youth will always come self-willed and gay- / A sun-god in a temple of decay."  No matter how the old gods have "mouldered" Youth will always be there, constant amid the entropy.  This is where I find the formal choices Zukofsky made to be significant.  He wrote a traditional, straightforward sonnet, a form hundreds of years old.  It's as if in doing so, Zukofsky is honoring the traditions that Youth, in the poem, asked to be spared, despite being a young man himself.  I think it elevates the poem from just being a routine sonnet to something a touch more thoughtful, and it is certainly beautiful.  It's easy to imagine a beaming sun-god, standing proud and tall, though all things must eventually come to dust.  Such is power of Youth, and Zukofsky obviously realized that.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Today - Thomas Carlyle

So here hath been dawning
Another blue Day:
Think wilt thou let it
Slip useless away.

Out of Eternity
This new Day is born;
Into Eternity,
At night, will return.

Behold it aforetime
No eye ever did:
So soon it forever
From all eyes is hid.

Here hath been dawning
Another blue Day:
Think wilt thou let it
Slip useless away.

I particularly like this Thomas Carlyle poem for how its intricacies are belied by its simple structure and rhyme scheme.  What at first read seems just a simple, almost childish aphorism about how every day is a new day, upon closer looks, perhaps has more to reveal to us.

The most striking feature of this poem to me, the one that makes me think this is more than just some bumper sticker type maxim, is the lack of  a question mark in that central repeated phrase: "Think wilt thou let it / Slip useless away."  If this were a question, it would be asking the reader directly, "Are you going to let this day slip you by?"  Instead, we are given a statement.  I read it almost as, "If you think too much, this day will pass you by."

Rather than asking the reader, it's more cautionary, in my view.  Carlyle lived an extraordinarily long life, from 1795 to 1881, and was a titan in the Victorian literary scene.  Also inextricable from his work is his Scottish birth, upbringing, and life.  While he eventually moved to Chelsea, his formative years and early adult years were spent in Scotland, and he was very much of the Calvinist persuasion.  Carlyle had an obsession with order, duty, and destiny.  Calvinists were a Christian sect particularly fond of the notion of predestination.  So for Carlyle, when he writes that every day is new, and never before seen, and says, "Think wilt thou let it/ Slip useless away" it takes on a much different tone. 

I get the sense that beneath the sing-song feeling of the poem is an earnest warning to productivity and industry.  It is another blue day, and it will pass you by, and that day will never come again.  It is not a question of whether it should slip useless away or not.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Excerpt from the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales - Geoffrey Chaucer

     Here bygynneth the Book of the tales of Canterbury

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

Bifil that in that seson on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay,
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At nyght were come into that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye
Of sondry folk, by áventure y-falle
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.
The chambres and the stables weren wyde,
And wel we were esed atte beste.
And shortly, whan the sonne was to reste,
So hadde I spoken with hem everychon,
That I was of hir felawshipe anon,
And forward erly for to ryse,
To take oure wey, ther as I yow devyse.

But nathelees, whil I have tyme and space,
Er that I ferther in this tale pace,
Me thynketh it acordaunt to resoun
To telle yow al the condicioun
Of ech of hem, so as it semed me,
And whiche they weren and of what degree,
And eek in what array that they were inne;
And at a Knyght than wol I first bigynne.

As it is a beautiful spring day today, I can't stop thinking of the general prologue to the Canterbury Tales.  I've presented here the first three stanzas of Chaucer's introduction to his magnum opus, and while it is in Middle English, if you take it slowly, it's still fairly easy to understand.  I have posted poems in Middle English before, but if you haven't read one before, here are a few general guidelines:

1)  Pronounce vowels as if they are Latin vowels.  Think of vowels in Spanish, for reference.  A, instead of being our English A, which is a dipthong, is a pure "ah" sound.

2)  Pronounce consonants!  The word "Knyght" rather than being pronounced knight, as we would say today, is closer to kuh-nicht.  Think of the bit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with the French soldier taunting King Arthur and his coterie.  Rather than just being silly, his pronunciation is actually fairly historically authentic.  That's just another layer to a great joke!

3)  If there's a word you don't know, don't worry too much about it.  There are going to be words you don't recognize, but don't let it stop you.  Context can usually help, and in cases where it doesn't, hopefully I either provide you with a little help, or you can look it up.  Don't be afraid to sound things out.  A word like "ye" would be pronounced "ee-uh" which means "eye."  You may feel silly sounding words out, but you shouldn't!  Reading silently was not common practice, and Middle English often makes use of puns that only make sense when audible.

With all that said, let's take a bit of a closer look at the poem itself!

Here begins the Book of the tales of Canterbury!  Chaucer so declares, and so it is!  It's the start of a long journey.  17,000+ lines, in fact.  And Chaucer didn't even finish his tale!  Initially he planned to have each of the thirty pilgrims he introduces tell four tales each, two on the way there, two on the way back, in a story-telling competition while they took their pilgrimage to Canterbury (and the shrine of St. Thomas of Beckett).  This would have been a common pilgrimage, as St. Thomas of Beckett was visited by those who felt themslves to be sinful.

To begin, Chaucer starts setting the scene.  It's April, which is the season of "shoures soote" (sweet breath) that pierces the drought of March.  April is the season in which the countryside comes back to life.  Here in my native Connecticut, it seems to have taken until May for that to really happen, but no matter!  I don't mind posting a poem a day late.  April has "bathed every veyne (vine) in swich licour (sweet liquor)" that has woken every "flour" (flower).

One word that comes up in Middle English is "eek" or "eke."  This simply means "also."  So when Chaucer writes, "Whan Zaphirus eek with his swete breeth" you can simply think "also."  So those lines, loosely translated, can read, "When Zephirus (the Greek god of the west wind) also breatheed his sweet breath, he raised the tender crops (brought life to the fields).  If we go slowly through lines, it's not so hard, right?  "Smale fowles maken melodye, That slepen all the nyght with open ye."  Small birds sing, that sleep all night with open eyes.  Chaucer is just setting the scene here, and painting a vivid image of a lively spring, animated with images that tickle every sense.

But what happens to us people when Spring starts happening like this?  "So priketh hem Nature in his corages, / Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages."  Why, we want to go on pilgrimages, of course, and enter out into the beautiful world!  (Translated, Nature pricks us with its courages, so we long to go on pilgrimages.)  Where do we especially want to go?  "Specially, from every shires ende / Of Engelond, to Canterbury they wende."  Ah, we want to go to Canterbury, from every shire's end, from all corners of England!

Now, many presentations of the General Prologue stop after that first stanza, but I feel a little more context makes it much richer.  Don't worry, we don't have to read all 800 lines of the General Prologue, though I certainly encourage you to do so on your own time!  The second stanza introduces Chaucer as the narrator of this tale.  He is at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, which operated from 1300 until 1873!  Chaucer there was "redy to wenden on my pilgrymage / To Caunterbury wil ful devout corage" when that night another group arrived.  "nyne and twenty in a compaignye" arrived, all going to Canterbury.  Nine and twenty plus Chaucer gives us thirty in total.  Worth noting, the word "wend" means to go.  We sometimes still use that in modern English, though it is somewhat archaic.

In the last stanza that I've included, Chaucer addresses us directly, with an aside.  It's a very straightforward stanza, which translated, effectively says, "Nevertheless, while I have the time, before I go any further, I think I'll tell you about each of the travelers: who they are, their condition, how they were dressed, and I'll begin with the Knight."  I stopped there, because what follows in the prologue is Chaucer going on to describe each character in detail.  They certainly are characters, too, and Chaucer gives us a clear picture of each of them, both in terms of disposition and appearance.  I included that last stanza to give you a glimpse at the more human element of this narration.  Chaucer, through his narrator, speaks to us readers directly.  It's like any storyteller saying, "Oh, while I've got time, let me tell you about these folks."  It really brings to bear the directness of the storytelling, and throughout the whole of the Tales, Chaucer uses that narrator as a character in rich and interesting ways, acting in a shockingly modern, self-deprecating manner.  That's neither here nor there in the General Prologue, but I felt that the third stanza could give you a glimpse of the character of the later work by letting Chaucer speak more frankly.

I hope it hasn't been too hard or boring getting through this Middle English with me.  I dearly love the challenge and sound of Middle English, and feel that it is still accessible without too much ornery scholarship.  And once you get into the rhythm of it, it becomes a true delight.  I've attached for you a reading of the Prologue so that you may hear what I mean about how Middle English sounds.  It's my hope that one day, you will attempt reading Middle English on your own, not in translation, reader, and take great satisfaction from it, much as I do when presenting it to you.

And to further get you in the mood for a pilgrimage, here is a wonderful album of music from the time of Chaucer, specifically, drinking songs!  Start this playlist, read along, and get caught up in the time!  There's something especially buoyant about this music and this poetry, as if it captures the very essence of Spring.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Sonnet 17 - Richard Barnfield

Cherry-lipt Adonis in his snowie shape,
     Might not compare with his pure ivorie white,
     On whose faire front a poet's pen may write,
Whose roseare red excels the crimson grape,
His love-enticing delicate soft limb,
     Are rarely fram'd t'intrap poore gazine eies:
     His cheeks, the lillie and carnation dies,
With lovely tincture which Apollo's dims.
His lips ripe strawberries in nectar wet,
     His mouth a Hive, his tongue a hony-combe,
     Where Muses (like bees) make their mansion.
His teeth pure pearle in blushing correll set.
     Oh how can such a body sinne-procuring,
     Be slow to love, and quicke to hate, enduring?

Richard Barnfield, whose sonnets I have looked at before, is an Elizabethan poet whose work is most notable for its overt homoerotic themes.  He is the only poet, apart from Shakespeare, to address love sonnets to another man, and it's hard not to read them in a sexual, romantic light.  This was controversial for the day, and certainly stands out today when compared with the poems of his contemporaries.

More than the homoeroticism though, Barnfield's sonnets stand up today because of their direct beauty.  They also make great use of Classical myth and characters to relate to the narrator's present situation.  In his Sonnet 16, which I looked at four years ago, the narrator compares himself to Ixion.  Here, the narrator compares the object of his admiration, referred to only by third person pronouns, to Apollo, and shockingly, Apollo comes up short in comparison with this mystery man.  It is worth noting that in Greek mythology, Apollo had many lovers, both male and female.  It makes the comparison to Apollo more apt and grounds the potentially damning (at the time) homosexuality in a learned, Classical tradition, making it safer to express.

While Apollo is "cherry-lipt [lipped]" and is "snowie" in complexion, Barnfield's love object is "pure ivorie white."  The whole poem is a series of comparisons between the features of this lover, and ways in which Nature and even deities (Apollo) fall short of his great beauty.  The comparisons themselves are lush and inventive, and overtly sexual.  One of my favorite lines is, "His love-enticing delicate soft limbs, / Are rarely fram'd t'intrap poore gazine eies."

That line is worth breaking down a bit, due to non-standard spellings and abbreviations that are unfamiliar to the modern eye.  The first line is easy enough.  His delicate, soft limbs, are enticing.  The following line, broken down further, and translated a bit, would read, "are perfectly framed to draw and hold poor gazing eyes."  Taken together, we get a line to the effect of, "His limbs are so delicate and soft, so enticing, that they are uniquely perfectly set to draw in my poor, gazing eyes."  The narrator cannot help but look at his love's perfect shape.  There's almost an element of guilt to it, drawing in his "poore gazine eies." 

I also love the thought of the lover's mouth as a hive to which Muses flock like bees.  It's such perfection that Muses can't help but buzz around him, inspired to write and praise him.  The real turn of the poem comes in the last two lines, however.  "Oh how can such a body sinne-procuring, / Be slow to love, and quicke to hate, enduring?"

Here, procuring means to persuade something.  So, "How can a body, his body, that persuades me so strongly to sin, be slow to love, and quick to hate?"  This last couplet gives us the sense that Barnfield expressed his love, and perhaps was rebuffed.  His love wasn't returned, but his scorn was earned, and the scorn endures, while the love has not started.  I could be reading it incorrectly, but I feel that is the most likely scenario, given the effusive praise earlier in the poem, and the exhortation "Oh" to start the couplet.  It is a frustrated love sonnet, as are so many sonnets.  It sets it apart that the love object is a man, but in all other aspects, it's a wonderful example of a typical Elizabethan love sonnet.

Friday, April 20, 2018

A Riddle on the Letter H - Catherine Maria Fanshawe

'Twas in heaven pronounced - it was mutter'd in hell,
And echo caught faintly the sound as it fell;
On the confines of earth 'twas permitted to rest,
And the depths of the ocean its presence confess'd.
'Twill be found in the sphere when 'tis riven asunder,
Be seen in the lightning and heard in the thunder.
'Twas allotted to man with his earliest breath,
Attends at his birth and awaits him in death:
Presides o'er his happiness, honour, and health,
Is the prop of his house and the end of his wealth.
In the heaps of the miser 'tis hoarded with care,
But is sure to be lost on his prodigal heir.
It begins every hope, every wish it must bound,
With the husbandman toils, and with monarchs is crown'd.
Without it the soldier, the seaman may roam,
But woe to the wretch who expels it from home!
In the whispers of conscience its voice will be found,
Nor e'en in the whirlwind of passion is drown'd.
'Twill not soften the heart; and tho' deaf be the ear,
It will make it acutely and instantly hear.
Yet in shade let it rest like a delicate flower,
Ah, breathe on it softly - it dies in an hour.

It's not often that I post two poems by the same poet in the span of a week, but this riddle on the letter H from Catherine Fanshawe is so delightful that I couldn't not share it.  Simply, it's a poetic explication of the oftentimes mystifying way the letter H works in the English language.  "'Twill be found in the sphere when riven asunder[?]"  Sure enough, if you crack sphere in half, there's the H!  "Attends at...birth, awaits in...death."  Yup, we've got an H there, too.

Any references to it dying or being permitted to rest are words wherein the H is silent, like "hour" or  how it is "seen in lightning" only yet "heard in thunder."  I imagine if you presented this to a friend, but omitted the title, they'd have a great time piecing together just what this riddle is about.  In fact, I fully plan to do that to some of my friends, and see how they do!

Thursday, April 19, 2018

To Flush, My Dog - Elizabeth Barrett Browning

LOVING friend, the gift of one,
Who, her own true faith, hath run,
Through thy lower nature;
Be my benediction said
With my hand upon thy head,
Gentle fellow-creature!

Like a lady's ringlets brown,
Flow thy silken ears adown
Either side demurely,
Of thy silver-suited breast
Shining out from all the rest
Of thy body purely.

Darkly brown thy body is,
Till the sunshine, striking this,
Alchemize its dulness, -
When the sleek curls manifold
Flash all over into gold,
With a burnished fulness.

Underneath my stroking hand,
Startled eyes of hazel bland
Kindling, growing larger, -
Up thou leapest with a spring,
Full of prank and curvetting,
Leaping like a charger.

Leap! thy broad tail waves a light;
Leap! thy slender feet are bright,
Canopied in fringes.
Leap - those tasselled ears of thine
Flicker strangely, fair and fine,
Down their golden inches

Yet, my pretty sportive friend,
Little is 't to such an end
That I praise thy rareness!
Other dags may be thy peers
Haply in these drooping ears,
And this glossy fairness.

But of thee it shall be said,
This dog watched beside a bed
Day and night unweary, -
Watched within a curtained room,
Where no sunbeam brake the gloom
Round the sick and dreary.

Roses, gathered for a vase,
In that chamber died apace,
Beam and breeze resigning -
This dog only, waited on,
Knowing that when light is gone,
Love remains for shining.

Other dogs in thymy dew
Tracked the hares and followed through
Sunny moor or meadow -
This dog only, crept and crept
Next a languid cheek that slept,
Sharing in the shadow.

Other dogs of loyal cheer
Bounded at the whistle clear,
Up the woodside hieing -
This dog only, watched in reach
Of a faintly uttered speech,
Or a louder sighing.

And if one or two quick tears
Dropped upon his glossy ears,
Or a sigh came double, -
Up he spring in eager haste,
Fawning, fondling, breathing fast,
In a tender trouble.

And this dog was satisfied,
If a pale thin hand would glide,
Down his dewlaps sloping, -
Which he pushed his nose within,
After, - platforming his chin
On the palm left open.

This dog, if a friendly voice
Call him now to blyther choice
Than such chamber-keeping,
Come out! ' praying from the door, -
Presseth backward as before,
Up against me leaping.

Therefore to this dog will I,
Tenderly not scornfully,
Render praise and favour!
With my hand upon his head,
Is my benediction said
Therefore, and for ever.

And because he loves me so,
Better than his kind will do,
Often, man or woman,
Give I back more love again
Than dogs often take of men, -
Leaning from my Human.

Blessings on thee, dog of mine,
Pretty collars make thee fine,
Sugared milk make fat thee!
Pleasures wag on in thy tail -
Hands of gentle motion fail
Nevermore, to pat thee!

Downy pillow take thy head,
Silken coverlid bestead,
Sunshine help thy sleeping!
No fly's buzzing wake thee up -
No man break thy purple cup,
Set for drinking deep in.

Whiskered cats anointed flee -
Sturdy stoppers keep from thee
Cologne distillations ;
Nuts lie in thy path for stones,
And thy feast-day macaroons
Turn to daily rations!

Mock I thee, in wishing weal? -
Tears are in my eyes to feel
Thou art made so straightly,
Blessing needs must straighten too, -
Little canst thou joy or do,
Thou who lovest greatly.

Yet be blessed to the height
Of all good and all delight
Pervious to thy nature, -
Only loved beyond that line,
With a love that answers, thine,
Loving fellow-creature!

I hold a special place in my heart for poems that extol the virtues of our canine friends, and this magnificent poem from Elizabeth Barrett Browning captures marvelously those best qualities for which we love our dogs.  I have never heard a better phrase to describe a dog than "gentle fellow-creature" or "loving fellow-creature."  The poem beautifully celebrates Browning's own dog, Flush, in both his physical and higher qualities.

Browning spares no detail in describing Flush to the reader.  He has silken ears that flow down like a lady's ringlets, a silver-suited breast, dark brown fur that catches the sun, which "Alchemize[s] its dulness."  What a phrase!  Exposed to sun, the fur will "flash all over into gold, with a burnished fulness."

Browning goes on to describe how Flush can leap and play, but goes on to say, "Yet, my pretty sportive friend,/ Little is 't to such an end/ That I praise thy rareness!"  It isn't because of the dog's physical qualities alone that she praises Flush.  After all, she goes on to say that other dogs may be Flush's equal when it comes to such physical qualities.  What sets Flush apart comes next, and it is the most perfect description of a dog's capacity for emotional sensitivity towards humans I have ever read.

"This dog watched beside a bed / Day and night unweary."  Browning goes on to describe, in beautiful poetic detail, how Flush stood attentive by the bedside of the sick, attendant to every need.  "This dog only, waited on, / Knowing that when light is gone, / Love remains for shining."  Indeed, when it is dark, both physically and metaphorically, a dog's Love is a light that shines bright.

The poem itself is fairly simple if you read it slowly.  While the writing seems more formal than we are used to today, the sentiment is as fresh and relevant as can be.  We love our dogs because they always see the best in us.  Browning even says, "Tears are in my eyes to feel / Thou art made so straightly."  She tears up just thinking about how good dogs are to us.  How can you not, after having read her account of Flush?

As I'm sure it will for anyone who has known the love of a good dog in their life, this poem brought to mind my childhood dog, Clark, who also shared those noble qualities.  If I was sick, he would lay by my bed, doing everything he could to comfort me.  One stanza struck me as particularly relevant to that experience:
"And this dog was satisfied,
If a pale thin hand would glide,
Down his dewlaps sloping, -
Which he pushed his nose within,
After, - platforming his chin
On the palm left open."

I can remember clearly times that Clark would rest his snout on my hand, happy to be held, because he knew it made me feel better.  Dogs are emotionally intelligent in ways we are not, and Browning captures that perfectly in her poem.  I also find myself becoming emotional thinking about my dog.  Though he's been gone for nearly six years now, I knew him for fifteen years, from my childhood until I graduated college.  I think the memory of a good dog will never fade, in part because of poems like this one, which so beautifully capture that special relationship we as humans have with dogs.

And because I love him very much, here's a picture of my childhood dog, Clark.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

[in Just-] - E. E. Cummings

in Just-
spring       when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles       far       and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it's

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queet
old balloonman whistles
far        and       wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and




ballonMan       whistles

Reproducing the spacing for the visual effect of an E. E. Cummings poem is always a bit of a challenge, so I've done my best for you, reader.  And what an effect!  The irregular spacing in the poem, particularly on the balloonman's "whistles       far       and wee" creates both movement and time.  How much more vividly can you imagine a long whistle, spaced apart, reaching far, calling children from their play to espy some bright balloons.

There's so much vivacity and life in the poem, but my favorite thing about it is the sense of timing.  It is not spring, it is just-spring.  Just barely have we crossed the threshold into spring, and "the world is puddle-wonderful."  I don't know if I can think of a better image to describe spring than that.  Being that it is just-spring, the world isn't yet in full bloom, but it is "mud-lucsious."  There's a wetness about the poem that promises bloom and growth.  Children play throughout the poem, adding to the overall sense of youth and newness that just-spring promises.

Repetition is also a key element of this poem.  So many times, a phrase will trail into or end with "it's spring."  Coupled with the presence of children, and the arrival of a balloonman(!, how exciting!), it creates an overwhelming sense of joy and excitement.  It's finally spring, it's just-spring, and things are happening again.  Eddie and Bill are playing marbles and at pirates, Betty and Isbel are jumping rope and playing hop-scotch and it's spring!

What sticks out most among these images of new life and children and joy is the balloonman.  He is lame footed, ("goat-footed") and presumably has trouble walking.  Someone who has no real choice but to be a peddler, possibly homeless.  He is not, however, treated poorly by Cummings, or by the children.  His whistle is what summons them, summons Just-spring.  He is included, rather than pushed out, and his whistle rings far        and      wee. 

I have often found that Cummings poetry looks more intimidating than it is, and that when you slow yourself down and get out of your head, and read it out loud, it becomes filled with childlike wonder.  There's a sense of joy and admiration at just how marvelous spring is.  He's so excited he says that it's spring three times.  The effect of the spacing, I find, just emphasizes time and space.  It fills the poem, and makes it feel bigger than it is.  I like that about it, and I like that the poem can't exist fully without being both heard and seen.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

When Last We Parted - Catherine Maria Fanshawe

When last we parted, thou wert young and fair,
How beautiful let fond remembrance say!
Alas! since then old time has stolen away
Full thirty years, leaving my temples bare.-
So has it perished like a thing of air,
The dream of love and youth! - now both are grey
Yet still remembering that delightful day,
Though time with his cold touch has blanched my hair,
Though I have suffered many years of pain
Since then, though I did never think to live
To hear that voice or see those eyes again,
I can a sad but cordial greeting give,
And for thy welfare breathe as warm a prayer-
As when I loved thee young and fair.

I often enjoy looking through the works of lesser known poets, not because I am looking for some magnificent poem that needs broader recognition, but because I like to have a more complete picture of what the typical poetry from a given period was.  Oftentimes, the names that dominate our view of a given time period were exemplars, or even exceptions to the styles and norms of the time.  So it is in researching Georgian era poetry (encompassing the earlier part of King George V's reign, starting 1865) that I came across Catherine Maria Fanshawe. 

Fanshawe herself should not strictly be considered a Georgian poet, though 1865 and 1876 are when the bulk of her works saw publication.  She lived from 1765 to 1834, and while a few of her poems were published in 1823, the majority of her works went unpublished until decades after her death.  She was born to one of King George III's courtiers, and her interests in poetry and art were encouraged by her family.  Most of her work was shared only with family and friends, which was not unusual at the time. 

With my interest in seeing what more typical poetry was like, Fanshawe seems like a perfect fit, and indeed, I am delighted with what I have read.  I do not mean to disparage Fanshawe's work at all my calling it typical.  Rather, I would say that her work typifies well the style that was in fashion at the time, much in the way that Haydn typifies the symphony as a musical form.  This poem is illustrative of the sonnet as a form, structured formally, and has a true emotional intimacy to it, while remaining vague enough to allow a reader to fit themselves into the poem.

We are presented with an unrequited love in the poem, one that has been lost for thirty years.  At the narrator and the subject's last meeting, "thou wert young and fair."  It is worth noting that the word "fond" in the second line, which we now think of as having an affectionate, positive connotation, in these times also carried more strongly the notion of foolishness.  So the line, "How beautiful let fond remembrance say!" does mean that it is a happy memory, but that she may feel somewhat foolish for thinking about it all these decades later.  In those decades, "time has stolen away" the color of her hair, and left her "temples bare" indicating a thinning of the hair.  So then her love had "perished like a thing of air."  The "dream of love and youth" are both grey.

Fanshawe goes on though, to say, "Yet still remembering that delightful day" she can "a sad but cordial greeting give."  In between those two ends of the thought, she describes all that changed between then and now.  Her hair has gone grey, she has suffered years of pain, and never thought to hear or see her love ever again, even with all that, she can still greet cordially, though it is tinged with pain.  And lastly, for her love's welfare, she can "breathe as warm a prayer - as when I loved thee young and fair."  Even with decades of heartbreak, her well-wishes are as strong and warm as they were thirty years ago.  It's beautiful and melancholic, and a perfectly executed sonnet. 

Monday, April 16, 2018

April Come She Will - Paul Simon

April come she will
When streams are ripe and swelled with rain
May she will stay
Resting in my arms again
June she'll change her tune
In restless walks she'll prowl the night

July she will fly
And give no warning to her flight
August die she must
The autumn winds blow chilly and cold
September I remember
A love once new has now grown old

Not strictly a poem, but lyrics, this lovely Paul Simon composition, best known as a Simon & Garfunkel tune, uses the changing of the seasons to describe the changing feelings of a lover in a relationship.  It's straightforward, but sounds earnest enough that it's hard not to be taken in by the nursery rhyme like nature of the work.  Tying the changing of the seasons to the arc of a romance is hardly a new notion, but it's elegantly presented here.  I could not find punctuation on any lyrics source I had on hand, so I've left it punctuation free.  I have however, attached the song itself, because it's too pretty to ignore.

In truth, I thought of this today, as we had a terrific rainstorm last night and this morning, which this evening, has given way to a beautiful April day.  The line, "when streams are ripe and swelled with rain" came to mind today.  Indeed, I took a look at one of my favorite places to walk, a local stream, and found that it was swelled, to put it lightly.  I've attached two photos, one taken today, showing this stream violently overflowing its bounds, and one from last winter, where it's entirely more picturesque.  The pictures are taken from similar spots, so you can see just how "ripe and swelled with rain" the stream really is.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Written with a Diamond on her Window at Woodstock - Queen Elizabeth I

Much suspected by me,
Nothing proved can be,
Quoth Elizabeth prisoner.

When you think on Queen Elizabeth I, do you think of a poet?  Most likely, you think of her as the monarch first, and if you think of her in connection to poetry at all, it is as subject, rather than author, such as in The Faerei Queene.  However, Elizabeth was a skilled writer, even if her poetry is not remarkable in its own right.  Her ability as an orator and writer of epistles allowed her to so skillfully wield power in a time when women commanding a throne was not looked upon favorably.

This poem, as its title indicates, was indeed etched into a window while she was kept under house arrest by her half sister, Mary.  Mary, a Catholic, sought to undo her father, Henry VIII's English Reformation.  Suspicious of Protestant plots, she had her half sister, Elizabeth, placed under house arrest.  While Elizabeth is not known to have taken part in any plots against her sister, Elizabeth was well aware of her tenuous position.

That is what this poem shows most clearly: Elizabeth's awareness of, and sly rebuttal of, her position.  This ability to navigate life or death political situations is evident here, and indeed, the poem sound almost triumphant in its self-declaration as being prison literature.  The poem is essentially a big fat, "You can't prove anything" directed at the world.  In her state writings, Elizabeth masterfully plays off of her image, her decisions, and the motives of others to always place herself out of harm's way.  From an early time, it's clear she had mastered this skill. While not a remarkable poem, this gives us a remarkable insight into one of history's most monolithic figures.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

[Ladies, who of my lord would fain be told] - Gaspara Stampa

Ladies, who of my lord would fain be told,
Picture a gentle knight, full sweet to see,
Though young in years, in wisdom passing old,
Model of glory and of valiancy;
Fair-haired, bright colour glowing in his face,
Tall and well-set, broad-shouldered, finally,
In all his parts a paragon of grace
Except in loving wantonly, ah me!
     Who'd know myself, picture a woman wrought
In passions and in presence after pain's
And death's own bitter images, a port
Of safety where untroubled rest remains;
One who with neither tears, no sighs, nor zest
Wakes pity in her cruel lover's breast.

translated by Lorna de Lucchi

Gaspara Stampa was an Italian poet of the Renaissance, and is considered one of the finest female writers of the time.  She only lived to be 31, but wrote over three hundred poems.  I am glad she did, because here, we have a perfect, lovely example of a romantic sonnet, one of the most popular forms of the day.

Despite being over 450 years old, there isn't much foreign about the sentiments of this poem.  At its heart is unrequited love, possibly one of the only subjects that will never go out of style.  Through the first eight lines, Stampa describes her lord, of whom ladies would "fain be told."  Fain is an archaic word, meaning pleased, or gladdened.  Paraphrased, we can think of the first two lines like this, "Ladies, you will be glad to hear about my lord, picture a gentle knight, easy on the eyes." 

Stampa goes on to describe his virtues, both physical and of character.  He is broad-shouldered, fair-haired, tall, well-set.  And though he is a "model of glory and valiancy" he is also wise beyond his years, and "in all parts a paragon of grace."  Except, for one part.  He loves wantonly.  Put simply, he's a playboy.  He isn't faithful to any one woman, maybe he has dalliances and infidelities.  He's a rakish heartbreaker, I take it.

Next comes the volta, or turn, in the sonnet.  This is the feature of a sonnet in which there is a distinct change.  Stampa moves on from describing her love to describing herself.  She says, "picture a woman wrought in passion after pain's and death's own bitter images."  Yikes!  She is shaped by her despair at the wanton ways of her love.  She is "a port of safety" in that she is alone.  She finds herself unable to sway her love at all.  Her "tears" "sighs" and "zest" all fail to "wake[s] pity in her cruel lover's breast."  She cannot tear him from his wanton ways, alas.

It's a classic poetic notion and setting, but unique in its perspective for its day.  While there are many notable female poets of the day, poetry in the Renaissance was, as were most artistic fields, dominated by men.  To have such a candid female perspective on romance from that era is really remarkable.  Stampa often draws comparisons to the ancient Greek poet, Sappho, a great lyric poet whose work is unfortunately lost.  It's an apt comparison, as Stampa's language is beautiful, and she is openly romantic.  I must also commend the wonderful translation by Lorna de Lucchi, which beautifully maintains the iambic pentameter and rhyme scheme typical of the sonnet.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Siller Croun - Susanna Blamire

And ye shall walk in silk attire,
And siller have to spare,
Gin ye'll consent to be his bride,
Nor think o' Donald mair.
O wha wad buy a silken goun
Wi' a poor broken heart!
Or what's to me a siller croun,
Gin frae my love I part!

The mind wha's every wish is pure
Far dearer is to me;
And ere I'm forc'd to break my faith,
I'll lay me down an' dee!
For I hae pledg'd my virgin troth
Brave Donald's fate to share;
And he has gi'en to me his heart,
Wi' a' its virtues rare.

His gentle manners wan my heart,
He gratefu' took the gift;
Could I but think to seek it back,
It wad be waur than theft!
For langest life can ne'er repay
The love he bears to me;
And ere I'm forc'd to break my troth,
I'll lay me doun an' dee.

Susanna Blamire was a Scottish poet who came to reside in the Cumberland region of England.  She lived from 1747-1794, and principally wrote poetry as a hobby to be shared with friends and relatives.  Little of it was published during her lifetime, which is a true shame, as she provides a wonderful perspective on the lives of ordinary people.  She herself was not of high birth, and her poetry is largely concerned with ordinary folk, and their lives.  She wrote in her native Scottish, English, and the Cumberland dialect, and also wrote lyrics.  Today's poem is a song she wrote, which was set to music by none other than Joseph Haydn.  That setting will be embedded towards the end of the post, as I want you to read the lyrics first without hearing the setting.

The lyric itself is a little difficult to read, so I encourage you to read it slowly, and aloud.  If it helps, imagine a Scottish accent.  I know that sounds silly, but this is a Scottish poem, after all.  Let's walk through it.  This is a beautiful poem of a doomed love.  A woman is being asked to leave her dear Donald to marry a wealthy man.  Blamire's narrator goes on to ask what good wealth is if she has to leave her love.  In the end, she'd rather die than break her promise to Donald, who has "gi'en to me his heart, Wi' a' its virtues rare."

I don't feel the Scots is so far from English as to merit translation.  What I do feel, however, is that this should rightly be thought of as among the best of Scottish poetry and lyrics from this time period.  I feel a similar sweet heartbreak reading and listening to this as I do to Loch Lomond, which is a favorite of mine.  Now, enjoy the gorgeous musical setting courtesy of Haydn.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Jew - Isaac Rosenberg

Moses, from whose loins I sprung,
Lit by a lamp in his blood
Ten immutable rules, a moon
For mutable lampless men.

The blonde, the bronze, the ruddy,
With the same heaving blood,
Keep tide to the moon of Moses.
Then why do they sneer at me?

Isaac Rosenberg was a British poet who died in 1918 at age 28, a victim of the first World War.  Prior to the war, he had published two volumes of poetry, which had a somewhat tepid reception.  Critics found his poems beautiful, but not yet mature, still very much in the style of the Romantic poets, particularly Keats.  His highly poetical language detracted from his sentiment, and critics said he had not yet found his voice.

It is impossible to ignore Rosenberg's Jewish heritage.  Born in 1890 in Bristol, England, his family faced terrible discrimination, and ended up in the Jewish ghetto in London.  His Jewish identity is important to his poems, particularly his war poetry, of which this is one example.  The Old Testament informs the relationships between God and man in his poetry, as we can see here.

What we can see in this poem is a clear establishment of Rosenberg's Jewish identity, the acknowledgment that much of the world (particularly Christians) recognize Moses and the Ten Commandments, and an anguish at the historical castigation of the Jewish people.  I particularly like the image of Moses being the lamp that brought light to the world, "immutable rules" for "mutable lampless men."

Rosenberg goes on to note that among men, "The blonde, the bronze, the ruddy" all "keep tide" (live) "to the moon of Moses" (the Ten Commandments, God).  So why then do they sneer at him, the Jew?  It's a question to continue asking, as anti-Semitic thought sees a rise again in the West.  Embracing his Jewish identity during his war poetry, Rosenberg began finding a unique voice, and had he survived the war, may have become a true force in English poetry.  As it stands, his poetry is interesting, and in this example, heart-wrenching. 

Friday, April 6, 2018

"What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why" - Edna St. Vincent Millay

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.

Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

What an absolutely beautiful and devastating love sonnet from Edna St. Vincent Millay this is!  Millay, who had a number of great romances in her life, creates a stark and beautiful image of herself as a winter tree, with bare branches where birds once sang.  She knows that "summer sang in me a little while, that in me sings no more."  Love gone, it is winter, and she is a tree, numb, unaware of what loves she had, only knowing them to be gone.

The line that sings to me most is, "but the rain is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh upon the glass and listen for reply."  The insistence of memories of lovers past, the personification of nature as an outward manifestation of inner struggle, is beautiful and subtle, and ties in with Millay's own envisioning of herself as a "lonely tree" in winter.  Her heart "stirs" with "quiet pain" to think of the "unremembered lads" that no longer share her bed.  There's an intimacy to this detachment.  She cannot remember them (or perhaps cannot bear to remember them) and yet, she can remember that arms have laid under her head until morning, and that her lips have kissed.  Where and why?  Who can say.  She only knows that her birds have "vanished one by one" and that her boughs are "more silent than before."  There's a numbness here, the sort one feels after a heartbreak.  It's put into words so beautifully here, with the image of a solitary, empty tree in winter.

It's a heart-breaking poem, anchored, I feel, by its traditional structure.  This is a perfect example of a sonnet.  Largely in iambic pentameter (five feet, composed of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables), it follows a straightforward rhyme scheme as well, at least in the first stanza.  ABBA, ABBA. The line break can be thought of as the volta, or turn, of the sonnet, where the subject matter shifts.  Here, the rhyme become a little more complicated, and rather than ending on a rhyming couplet, the last stanza follows the pattern CDEDCE.  The lines rhyme, but there's an unease to it.  By playing against the expectation of the structure, the final line, wherein summer, and love, "that in me sings no more" stands out all the more. 

Thursday, April 5, 2018

April - Ezra Pound

Three spirits came to me
And drew me apart
To where the olive boughs
Lay stripped upon the ground:

Pale carnage beneath bright mist.

Ezra Pound's short form poetry is always a delight, because of its clarity of image and expression.  I've covered Pound before, and I have a great admiration for this style of poetry, often referred to as the Imagist style.  Rather than moralizing or telling a story, Imagist poetry creates a snapshot.  It's like examining an intriguing photograph, taking it in, and letting it speak for itself.  In that sense, this poem by Pound is somewhat unique, in that it is hazier than it is clear.

Despite a lack of, let's say, geography, in this poem, its images are clear.  Stripped olive boughs on the ground, bright mist.  It's a supernatural feeling image, bolstered by the first two lines.  "Three spirits came to me/ and drew me apart."  Like Pound's narrator, we are transported to another realm.  What spirits are these?  Why have olive boughs been stripped and tossed to the ground?  What does any of this have to do with April?

And yet for all this, somehow it still conjures a clear image.  The "pale carnage" of discarded plant matter, the bright mist of a spring morning.  I could be mis-reading it totally, but I'm more drawn in than put out by it.  What do you think, reader?

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Predator - Billy Collins

It takes only a minute
to bury a wren.
Two trowels full of dirt
and he's in.

The cat at the threshold
sits longer in doubt
deciding whether
to stay in or go out.

Billy Collins is among my favorite living poems, and this short, humorous poem is a great example of why that is.  From the title, to the dead bird, to the cat, it's like a play told in three short acts.  And as a cat lover, I've been in the position where a cat has proudly brought me a dead animal.

Reading this, I can picture an aloof cat prowling a doorway, proud of what it's done, and trying to decide if it wants to check out the action.  There's not much deeper to this poem, but I don't think there needs to be.  It's a perfectly crystallized snapshot of a moment in time, and it makes me smile.  What more does a poem need to do?

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

As I Ponder'd In Silence - Walt Whitman

As I ponder'd in silence,
Returning upon my poems, considering, lingering long,
A Phantom arose before me with distrustful aspect,
Terrible in beauty, age, and power,
The genius of poets of old lands,
As to me directing like flame its eyes,
With finger pointing to many immortal songs,
And menacing voice, What singest thou? it said,
Know'st thou not there is but one theme for ever-enduring
And this is the theme of War, the fortune of battles,
The making of perfect soldiers.

Be it so, then I answer'd,
I too haughty Shade also sing war, and a longer and greater one
     than any,
Waged in my book with varying fortune, with flight, advance
     and retreat, victory deferr'd and wavering,
(Yet methinks certain, or as good as certain, at the last,) the field
     the world,
For life and death, for the Body and for the eternal Soul.
Lo, I too am come, chanting the chant of battles,
I above all promote brave soldiers.

While I have admitted before to not being a huge fan of Walt Whitman, I, as Ezra Pound did, have decided to make my peace with him.  And fortuitously, I was given a beautiful copy of his seminal collection, Leaves of Grass as a gift.  So I have begun delving fully into Walt Whitman's work, and I happy to find myself changed.  This bold, declaratory poem is the second in the volume, and speaks beautifully to the challenges any artist faces, and answers that challenge with breath-taking confidence.

The poem begins from after having written poetry.  Whitman "ponder'd in silence" his poems, "considering, lingering long"on them.  It is then that he introduces the second character of the poem, the "Phantom" of poets past.  He describes it as "the genius of poets of old lands."  He speaks of the European masters, the looming giants of literature.  This is a feeling that I can relate to, as I'm sure any creative type can.  As an aside, whenever I sing Bach, I wonder how anyone else ever motivated themselves to write music.

Regardless, this Phantom approaches Whitman.  "What singest thou?" it asks him.  Put more plainly, "what poetry do you write?"  It's a challenge, a directive to prove your value.  However, the Phantom goes on.  It asserts that there is only one theme: War, and the making of perfect soldiers.  I can imagine how anything can be framed as war, really.  The making of perfect soldiers could be the cultivation of a cultured person, educated in the works of the great masters. 

Whitman does not shrink from the challenge.  Rather, he stands and answers this Phantom without fear.  If anything, he taunts the Phantom, calling it a "haughty Shade."  He goes on to describe his way of "sing[ing] war."  In his book (Whitman's, Leaves of Grass) is waged life and death, the Body and the eternal Soul.  And it is here that Whitman declares himself arrived among the great poets.  "Lo, I too am come, chanting the chant of battle.  I above all promote brave soldiers."  I find Whitman's confidence in declaring himself arrived intoxicating.  He was not alone in thinking so, either.  At the first publishing of Leaves of Grass, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to him, and said, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career.  I find incomparable things said incomparably well."

Whitman doesn't seek the creation of "perfect soldiers" in his "chant of battle" (poetry) but "brave soldiers."  I feel that is an important distinction, and one reflected in Whitman's life and works.  His politics were radical, as was his homosexuality.  But Whitman was brave, and so was his poetry.  I find it beautiful where once I found it overly saccharine, and I am seeing it with fresh eyes.  It is accessible and I look forward to making my way through the whole book.  I will not take you through the whole book, but do not be surprised if I post more Whitman in the coming months. 

Monday, April 2, 2018

One Art - Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

This poem by Elizabeth Bishop is reassuring and beautiful.  Whatever you may lose, it is not a disaster.  What stands out to me most in this poem is the intentional nature of losing, and its framing as an art.  What this poem seems to be to me, more than anything, is an entreaty to balance, acceptance, and calm.

From a formal standpoint, many of the lines are hendecasyllabic.  That means lines containing eleven syllables each.  It's not dissimilar from iambic pentameter, which features ten syllables of alternating stressed and unstressed "feet" made of two syllables each.  It's quite common for poems written primarily in iambic pentameter to feature a hendecasyllabic line.  Keats made use of it in the opening line of Endymion and it's a natural feeling rhythm.  All stanzas, with the exception of the final one, are tercets, wherein the first and last lines are rhymed, or slant rhymed.  Examples include "last, or/master," "master/disaster" and "fluster/master."  They aren't all perfect, but they have enough common sound to lend a lilting quality to the poem.  I will get back to why this matters when I address the end of the poem.

What is losing, to Elizabeth Bishop?  We can say with certainty, that despite all appearances, it is not a disaster.  You can lose material objects ("the fluster of lost door keys"), time ("the hour badly spent") and people ("you").  What I like best about losing things in this poem is that Bishop never denies the pain of loss in the course of reassuring us, and herself, that it is no disaster.  Losing your keys does fluster you.  An hour can absolutely be badly spent.  There is no denial here, only assurance.  To accept those losses, and to continue, that is mastering the art of losing.  And besides, some things are meant to be lost!  Keys are practically begging to be misplaced, I know mine are.

Mastering the art of losing is hard, too.  Bishop herself needs to force it by the end of the poem.  When the poem turns to love, it's presented in the second person perspective, addressed at "you."  It is obvious that Bishop misses this "you" given her remembrance of "the joking voice, a gesture I love" and speaks of those things in the present tense.  By now in the poem, we've lost both our meter and rhyme scheme, and the final stanza is a quartet rather than a tercet.  Losing is not too hard to master, but Bishop has to (in parenthesis) remind herself, "Write it!"  Committing to paper the loss is part of acceptance, and mastery of said loss.  It's a beautiful, affecting touch at the end of the poem, and it cuts through the poem's texture like a knife.  It brings to mind loss you may have felt, a lover you may have drifted from, and it reminds you, master the art of loss.  "Lose something every day" Bishop tells us.  Accept, internalize, express.  You will miss things, but it will be no disaster.

Speaking of missing things, I've missed you, reader, and this blog.  A good friend of mine saw my blog as the first result when she Googled for a poem to show a friend, and encouraged me to resume blogging.  I am glad she did.  I hope to bring you many more poems in the coming days, months, and years.