A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Poem of the Day: Gerard Manley Hopkins

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief, 
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring. 
Comforter, where, where is your comforting? 
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief? 
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief  
Woe, world-sorrow, on an age-old anvil wince and sing -- 
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked "No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief."

    O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall 
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap 
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small 
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep, 
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all 
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep. 
--Gerard Manley Hopkins

As I said before about Hopkins: "Even if you don't believe what he's saying (I don't), you believe that he believed it." But here I believe what he's saying in the sense that I believe he underwent deep personal torment, call it spiritual or call it psychological. His solution -- becoming a Jesuit priest -- is not one I'd prescribe, especially to a man struggling to repress his homosexual desires, and was also not one that seemed to alleviate his emotional suffering. Nowhere in his verse is that suffering more powerfully expressed than in this, one of his "terrible sonnets." (The first word ought to be amended to "terrifying" or "terrified" -- they are both.) And nowhere is it clearer that his faith, however earnestly and tenaciously he clung to it, failed to give him comfort for very long.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Poem of the Day: William Shakespeare

When that I was and a little tiny boy, 
     With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, 
A foolish thing was but a toy, 
     For the rain it raineth every day. 

But when I came to man's estate, 
     With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, 
'Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate, 
     For the rain it raineth every day. 

But when I came alas! to wive, 
     With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, 
By swaggering could I never thrive, 
     For the rain it raineth every day. 

But when I came unto my beds, 
     With hey, ho, the wind and the rainn, 
With toss-pots still had drunken heads, 
     For the rain it raineth every day. 

A great while ago the world begun, 
     With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, 
But that's all one, our play is done, 
     And we'll strive to please you every day. 
--William Shakespeare

It's just a little lyric, casually tossed off, I suspect, and maybe just tacked on to the end of Twelfth Night to give the cast something to dance to. It doesn't even make a whole lot of sense if you're trying to follow the logic of the verses. But on the other hand it's perfect, the only fitting coda to this great melancholy comedy. 

In the 1996 Tevor Nunn film of the play, the clown, Feste, is played by, of all people, Ben Kingsley -- not the most antic of actors. But then Feste is the soberest and wisest of Shakespeare's clowns. 



This is Trevor Peacock's Feste from a 1980 BBC TV version: 



And last, but ... well, least: Tommy Steele's Feste from a 1969 BBC version. This clip includes a bit of Alec Guinness's Malvolio, but not Ralph Richardson's Sir Toby Belch. The whole thing is on YouTube.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Poem of the Day: Thomas Hardy

The Darkling Thrush 

I leant upon a coppice gate 
     When Frost was spectre-gray, 
And Winter's dregs made desolate 
     The weakening eye of day. 
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky 
     Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh 
     Had sought their household fires. 

The land's sharp features seemed to be 
     The Century's corpse outleant, 
His crypt the cloudy canopy, 
     The wind his death-lament. 
The ancient pulse of germ and birth 
     Was shrunken hard and dry, 
And every spirit upon earth 
     Seemed fervorless as I. 

At once a voice arose among 
     The bleak twigs overhead 
In a full-hearted evensong 
     Of joy illimited; 
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small, 
     In blast-beruffled plume, 
Had chosen thus to fling his soul 
     Upon the growing gloom. 

So little cause for carolings 
     Of such ecstatic sound 
Was written on terrestrial things 
     Afar or nigh around, 
That I could think there trembled through 
     His happy good-night air 
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew 
     And I was unaware. 
--Thomas Hardy 

In general, I prefer Hardy the poet to Hardy the novelist. In his fiction, he's so eager to prove that the Universe has it in for Humankind that he stacks the deck. Thus, Tess goes to her doom because of a letter that slips under the carpet when it's slid under the door. But at least in "The Darkling Thrush" there's some cold comfort: a bird's song arousing Hope. 

Of course, old Hardy knows that things are going to remain "desolate," "weakening" and "fervorless." The poem, famously, was published in the Times of London on January 1, 1901, the first day of a new century, and was originally given the perhaps more Hardyesque title "By the Century's Deathbed." Given that the century a-borning would see two World Wars and all manner of atrocity besides, that hopeful thrush turned out to be a birdbrain.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Poem of the Day: Philip Sidney

Strephon:
Ye goatherd gods, that love the grassy mountains, 
Ye nymphs which haunt the springs in pleasant valleys, 
Ye satyrs joyed with free and quiet forests, 
Vouchsafe your silent ears to plaining music, 
Which to my woes gives still an early morning, 
And draws the dolor on till weary evening. 

Klaius: 
O Mercury, foregoer to the evening, 
O heavenly huntress of the savage mountains, 
O lovely star, entitled of the morning, 
While that my voice doth fill these woeful valleys, 
Vouchsafe your silent ears to plaining music, 
Which oft hath Echo tired in secret forests. 

Strephon: 
I, that once was free burgess of the forests, 
Where shade from sun, and sport I sought in evening, 
I, that was once esteemed for pleasant music, 
Am banished now among the monstrous mountains 
Of huge despire, and foul affliction's valleys, 
Am grown a screech owl to myself each morning. 

Klaius: 
I, that was once delighted every morning, 
Hunting the wild inhabiters of forests, 
I, that was once the music of these valleys, 
So darkened am that all my day is evening, 
Heartbroken so, that molehills seem high mountains 
And fill the vales with cries instead of music. 

Strephon: 
Long since, alas, my deadly swannish music 
Hath made itself a crier of the morning, 
And hath with wailing strength climbed highest mountains; 
Long since my thoughts more desert be than forests, 
Long since I see my joys come to their evening, 
And state thrown down to overtrodden valleys. 

Klaius: 
Long since the happy dwellers of these valleys 
Have prayed me leave my strange exclaiming music, 
Which troubles their day's work and joys of evening; 
Long since I hate the night, more hate the morning; 
Long since my thoughts chase me like beasts in forests 
And make me wish myself laid under mountains. 

Strephon: 
Meseems I see the high and stately mountains 
Transform themselves to low dejected valleyus; 
Meseems I hear in these ill-changéd forests 
The nightingales to learn of owls their music; 
Meseems I feel the comfort of the morning 
Turned to the mortal serene of an evening. 

Klaius: 
Meseems I see a filthy cloudy evening 
As soon as sun begins to climb the mountains; 
Meseems I feel a noisome scent, the morning 
When I do smell the flowers of these valleys; 
Meseems I hear, when I do hear sweet music, 
The dreadful cries of murdered men in forests. 

Strephon: 
I wish to fire the trees of all these forests; 
I give the sun a last farewell each evening; 
I curse the fiddling finders-out of music; 
With envy I do hate the lofty mountains 
And with despite despise the humble valleys; 
I do detest night, evening, day, and morning. 

Klaius:  
Curse to myself my prayer is, the morning; 
My fire is more than can be made with forests, 
My state more base than are the basest valleys. 
I wish no evenings more to see, each evening; 
Shaméd, I hate myself in sight of mountains 
And stop mine ears, lest I grow mad with music. 

Strephon: 
For she whose parts maintained a perfect music, 
Whose beauties shined more than the blushing morning, 
Who much did pass in state the stately mountains, 
In straightness passed the cedars of the forests, 
Hath cast me, wretch, into eternal evening 
By taking her two suns from these dark valleys. 

Klaius: 
For she, with whom compared, the Alps are valleys, 
She, whose least word brings from the spheres their music, 
At whose approach the sun rose in the evening, 
Who where she went bare in her forehead morning, 
Is gone, is gone, from these our spoiléd forests, 
Turning to deserts our best pastured mountains. 

Strephon and Klaius:
These mountains witness shall, so shall these valleys, 
These forests eke, made wretched by our music, 
Our morning hymn this is, and song at evening. 
--Philip Sidney 

When I count my blessings, one of them ought to be that I'll never have to read Sidney's Arcadia again, as once I did in grad school. Let's just say that Elizabethan pastoral romance is not my thing. But square in the midst of it comes this gorgeous double sestina, with its hypnotic repetition of the end-words mountains, valleys, forests, music, morning, evening, in kaleidoscopic rotation. I guess I'm a sucker for fixed verse forms. They're a little like word puzzles to me. But Sidney manages to make this one as beautiful as it is clever.                        

  

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Poem of the Day: Emily Dickinson

Tell the Truth but tell it slant -- 
Success in Circuit lies 
Too bright for our infirm Delight 
The Truth's superb surprise 
As Lightning to the Children eased 
With explanation kind 
The Truth must dazzle gradually 
Or every man be blind --
--Emily Dickinson

"The truth is rarely pure and never simple," as Oscar Wilde observed, and as anyone who has ever given a deposition or served as a witness or on a jury is likely to agree. But I think this is also a case of Emily Dickinson anticipating Paul Verlaine, who proclaimed (remember?) in "Art Poétique": Il faut aussi que tu n'ailles point / Choisir tes mots sans quelque méprise (You must never set out to choose your words without some imprecision). Maybe that's why so many people dislike poetry: If it's any good, it never takes the easy way. I won't go so far as Plato to call poets liars, but maybe this puts a different spin on Shelley's claim that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind. We know how everybody feels about legislators and their tenuous connection to the truth these days. Still, maybe the real explication of Dickinson's lyric belongs to Jack Nicholson:

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Poem of the Day: Thomas Wyatt

They flee from me, that sometime did me seek, 
With naked foot stalking in my chamber. 
I have seen them, gentle, tame, and meek, 
That now are wild, and do not remember 
That sometime they put themselves in danger 
To take bread at my hand; and now they range, 
Busily seeking with a continual change. 

Thanked be Fortune it hath been otherwise, 
Twenty times better; but once in special, 
In thin array, after a pleasant guise, 
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall, 
And she me caught in her arms long and small, 
And therewith all sweetly did me kiss 
And softly said, "Dear heart, how like you this?" 
It was no dream, I lay broad waking. 
But all is turned, thorough my gentleness, 
Into a strange fashion of forsaking; 
And I have leave to go, of her goodness, 
And she also to use newfangleness. 
But since that I so kindely am served, 
I fain would know what she hath deserved. 
--Thomas Wyatt

A paranoid love poem, just what you'd expect from someone in Henry VIII's court. I'll leave it to the scholars to determine whether the poem is about Anne Boleyn, with whom Wyatt is supposed to have had an affair. The thing I like about this poem is the blend of sex and danger, along with the bittersweet note of self-reproach.                      

Monday, February 22, 2010

Poem of the Day: Walt Whitman

To a Locomotive in Winter 

Thee for my recitative, 
Thee in the driving storm even as now, the snow, the winter-day declining, 
Thee in thy panoply, thy measur'd dual throbbing and thy beat convulsive, 
Thy black cylindrical body, golden brass and silvery steel, 
Thy ponderous side-bars, parallel and connecting rods, gyrating, shuttling at thy sides, 
Thy metrical, now swelling pant and roar, now tapering in the distance, 
Thy great protruding head-light fix'd in front, 
Thy long, pale, floating vapor-pennants, tinged with delicate purple, 
The dense and murky clouds out-belching from thy smoke-stack, 
Thy knotted frame, thy springs and valves, the tremulous twinkle of thy wheels, 
Thy train of cars behind, obedient, merrily following, 
Through gale or calm, now swift, now slack, yet steadily careering; 
Type of the modern -- emblem of motion and power -- pulse of the continent, 
For once come serve the Muse and merge in verse, even as here I see tee, 
With storm and buffeting gusts of wind and falling snow, 
By day thy warning ringing bell to sound its notes, 
By night thy silent signal lamps to swing. 

Fierce-throated beauty! 
Roll through my chant with all thy lawless music, thy swinging lamps at night, 
Thy madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like an earthquake, rousing all, 
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding, 
(No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine,) 
Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return'd, 
Launch'd o'er the prairies wide, across the lakes, 
To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.
--Walt Whitman 

In the American literature section of the written exam at the end of my first year of graduate school, I was given a choice of essay topics, one of which was to defend or refute the premise, "All modern American poets are followers of either Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson." That's one of those "well, duh" premises that turn out to be harder to defend or attack than they look at first glance. Whitman is to Allen Ginsberg as Dickinson is to Elizabeth Bishop, except.... 

But it's true that superficially, Whitman and Dickinson seem poles apart. Here's her poem about a locomotive to contrast with Whitman's: 
I like to see it lap the miles --
And lick the valleys up --
And stop to feed itself at Tanks --
And then -- prodigious step

Around a Pile of Mountains --
And supercilious peer
In Shanties -- by the sides of Roads --
And then a Quarry pare

To fit its Ribs
And crawl between
Complaining all the while
In horrid -- hooting stanza --
Then chase itself down Hill --

And neigh like Boanerges --
Then -- punctual as a Star
Stop -- docile and omnipotent
At its own stable door --
Both poems are about motion and power and noise, and yet Dickinson's is about something familiar and tamable, like a horse, docile but still omnipotent. Whitman's locomotive is some alien monster, lawless and fierce, and yet Whitman hopes to tame it, to make it serve as his Muse. Both trains are also whimsical: Whitman's cars merrily following, Dickinson's chasing itself downhill. 

Whitman's is the darker poem, perhaps because it was written some 20 years later than Dickinson's, the "dense and murky clouds out-belching from thy smoke-stack" suggesting the encroachment of industrial pollution. Dickinson, though herself reclusive, sees the train as an emblem of freedom, of the ability to reduce mountains to molehills, and yet there's something arrogant about the train's peering into shanties. 

Myself, I prefer Dickinson, but I have to give Whitman his due. As original as she was, there's still something Old World about her. Whitman is the echt American, loudmouthed and expansive, while secretly filled with doubts and evasions.  

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Poem of the Day: William Butler Yeats

Lapis lazuli carving given to Yeats by Henry Talbot De Vere ("Harry") Clifton
(For Harry Clifton)

I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow,
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out,
Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That's Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.

On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,
Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus,
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;
His long lamp-chimney shaped like the stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in lapis lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.

Every discoloration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.
--William Butler Yeats





Oh, how glad I am that I don't have to teach this great poem today and deal with the elephant in the room: Gay. We know that Yeats didn't mean it in the currently dominant sense of the word. Well, not entirely. Even in his day, the word "gay" could be used in a sexual sense, meaning "licentious." In the Punch cartoon above, from 1857, the joke hinges on a recognition that the women are prostitutes, and obviously not very joyful ones. And there is perhaps a buried sense lurking even in Yeats's poem that artists are sexually loose, perhaps effeminate. But it's also likely that Yeats, who knew a lot of odds and ends of stuff, had in mind the Provençal gai saber, the "joyous wisdom" alluded to by Nietzsche in Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, a title that was first translated into English as The Joyous Wisdom but is now known by Walter Kaufmann's title, The Gay Science.

Yeats's late poems, of which this is one, are among the great artistic treasures given us by people in their later years, like Beethoven's late quartets, or Verdi's Otello, Falstaff and Requiem. We like to celebrate people who died young -- Byron, Shelley, Keats, Mozart -- but we should also be thankful for the ones who matured into wisdom and poured that wisdom into their art. It was a point I stressed in a review for the Mercury News of the second volume of R.F. Foster's magnificent biography of Yeats:


Was William Butler Yeats the last great poet to write in English? The last, that is, who could stand comfortably with Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth and Keats?

Of the poets from the generations that followed Yeats (who was born in 1865), only a few -- perhaps T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens -- would even be considered for that pantheon, but they seem somehow frail and spidery in the company of Milton and Wordsworth. And as for contemporary poets, how many English or American poets under the age of 50 can you name?

It may be that the great age of poetry in English is over, and that 1939, the year in which Yeats died, can serve as the terminal date on its tombstone. So it seems appropriate to ask, when faced with the second volume of a 1,500-page biography of Yeats that has taken its author, R.F. Foster, 17 years to write: Is Yeats -- is any poet -- worth such an effort?

The first volume of Foster's biography was published in 1997. His second volume begins when Yeats was 50. Offhand, I can't think of any other writer whose greatest work was ahead of him at that age, but these were the years when Yeats produced such poems as ''The Second Coming,'' ''A Prayer for My Daughter,'' ''Leda and the Swan,'' ''The Tower,'' ''Sailing to Byzantium,'' ''Among School Children,'' ''Lapis Lazuli,'' ''Long-Legged Fly'' and -- in the last year of his life -- ''The Circus Animals' Desertion.''

He also married, fathered two children, served as a senator (a non-elective position) for the Irish Free State, continued his involvement with the Abbey Theatre, founded an Irish Academy of Letters, fought against censorship and for the separation of church and state, toured the United States, won the Nobel Prize and even took a leading role in designing the new Irish coinage.

And he indulged in several extramarital flings, had a vasectomy as part of a ''rejuvenation'' treatment, used a blue rinse on his whitening hair, flirted with fascism and grew more deeply involved with the occult, which resulted in his near-unreadable mystico-mythical theory of history, ''A Vision.'' There were times while reading Foster's fascinatingly detailed account of Yeats' life when I marveled that so much nonsense could coexist with so much wisdom. How did a man who could have been an obscure crank, devoted to astrology and communicating with spirit guides, become a great poet?

But it's to Foster's credit that he never stops to wrestle with such possibly unanswerable questions. Foster -- who is a professor of history at Oxford, not a literary biographer -- simply has a wonderful story to tell, and he tells it with a novelistic mastery, careful to put Yeats in his time and place and to delineate that time and place skillfully. As Foster told an interviewer for the Guardian, Yeats was ''not a loony misplaced southern Californian, but a quintessential Irish Protestant looking for his own kind of magic. As a Protestant, your relationship with the Irish land was extremely complicated and compromised.''

And it's Yeats' struggle to make sense of the complications and compromises that constitutes both the drama of his life and the essence of his poetry. Yeats once famously wrote, ''We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.'' But in fact he blurred that distinction more often than not, and the strength and sinew of much of his greatest verse comes from the tension between Yeats and his country, a readiness to quarrel with those whose vision of Ireland differed from his. And some of his best earlier verse had come out of the lovers' quarrels with the beautiful revolutionary Maud Gonne.

By the time this second volume opens, Gonne was separated from her husband, John MacBride, and was living in France. For his participation in the Easter Rebellion of 1916, MacBride was executed, earning his place in Yeats' ambivalent tribute to the rebels, ''Easter 1916,'' as the ''man I had dreamed/A drunken, vain-glorious lout'' who ''had done most bitter wrong/To some who are near my heart'' but had been ''Transformed utterly'' by his participation in the rebellion.

MacBride's death opened the way for Yeats to make yet another play for Gonne. Thwarted once again, he turned his attentions to her 22-year-old daughter, Iseult. Rebuffed by her, he married 24-year-old Georgie Hyde Lees, whose fascination with the occult matched his own. The marriage didn't begin well -- the groom had a psychosomatic breakdown, perhaps not unexpected from a 52-year-old man getting married for the first time, and to a woman less than half his age.

But George -- as she came to be known after Ezra Pound started calling her that -- had a special talent that cemented the marriage: She was adept at ''automatic writing,'' serving as a conduit to the spirit world with which her husband was so eager to communicate. Foster gives us a droll, sly account of the way George manipulated Yeats with the messages she related from the spirits -- she even managed their sex life, and carefully steered him away from his obsession with Maud and Iseult.

Given that Yeats was capable -- as his poetry often demonstrates -- of good sense, I sometimes wonder if his apparent credulity was not in part a pose. A game, after all, is more fun if you pretend that it's real. But Foster also helps us keep in mind that Yeats' pursuit of the esoteric was a way of looking for certainties in a world that seemed more terrible with each year -- the World War, the Bolshevik revolution, the rise of fascism and Nazism, and the outbreak of another World War whose inevitability was apparent in the last months of his life. And always in the foreground there was the violent struggle of his own country for independence.

Yeats may have dabbled in fog-brained mysticism and been tempted by narrow-minded politics, but he neither charged into the one nor retreated into the other. A distaste for democracy betrayed him into an early admiration of Mussolini, and of the Blueshirts in his own country, but while Foster finds Yeats ''elitist and oligarchic,'' he's inclined to downplay Yeats' enthusiasm for fascism. Unlike many of his contemporaries, including Gonne, he never expressed anti-Semitic views, and his friendship with Pound was strained by Pound's increasing fanaticism.

Which is not to say that Yeats would pass even one of our more lenient tests for political correctness, but rather that he lived in uncertain times and reacted to them without the benefit of our hindsight. And more to the point, he managed in his poetry to find a central humanity unfettered by ideology. This is what makes it possible for generation after generation to return to a poem like ''The Second Coming'' and find truth in lines so often quoted that they come to us unbidden: ''The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.''

''The Second Coming'' is larded with esoteric references to ''Spiritus Mundi'' and underpinned by his cyclical theory of history, and it was written in the aftermath of World War I, when the ''blood-dimmed tide'' of revolution had been loosed into his own country. But these are just the specifics that underlie the universal in the poem, as the specifics of Yeats' literary career underlie the universality of aging in ''The Circus Animals' Desertion.''

The brilliant achievement of Foster's biography is that it acquaints us intimately with the specifics, and thereby brings home more clearly how invaluable Yeats' poetry is. No one, I submit, except possibly Shakespeare in ''King Lear,'' has written more powerfully and persuasively on aging than Yeats did in ''The Circus Animals' Desertion.'' To read it, and the other poems that Foster cites in his biography, is to be reminded that poetry does some things that can't be done by the dominant literary genre of our day, the novel, or the dominant media -- film, television, popular music.

In ''Coole Park and Ballylee,'' memorializing his patron, collaborator and friend Lady Augusta Gregory, Yeats wrote:

We were the last romantics, chose for theme
Traditional sanctity and loveliness,
All that is written in what poets name
The book of the people, whatever most can bless
The mind of man or elevate a rhyme;
But fashion's changed. . . .

When they're read today, these lines could be an epitaph for poetry itself.


W.B. YEATS: A Life, Vol. II -- The Arch-Poet
By R.F. Foster
Oxford University Press

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Poem of the Day: William Wordsworth

The world is too much with us; late and soon, 
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: 
Little we see in Nature that is ours; 
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! 
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon; 
The winds that will be howling at all hours, 
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for every thing, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. -- Great God! I'd rather be 
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, 
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; 
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; 
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn. 
--William Wordsworth

I made a discovery last night. I wanted to use a Wordsworth poem because, back when I was a young and foolish graduate student, I rather liked his poetry. But then I started combing through the anthology for something appropriate and found myself nodding off. I think if I ever suffer from insomnia (these days I suffer gladly from the opposite), I'll sit down with a copy of The Prelude. It won't take five minutes before a slumber does my spirit seal. 

Of course, The Prelude's many thousands of lines disqualify it from anything but excerpting here. But I remembered some passages -- the boy rowing out onto the lake at night, the crossing of the Alps, the "spots of time" section that links Wordsworth with Joyce's epiphanies and Proust's moments of involuntary memory -- that stood out for me. But I found even those buried so deep in the blankest of blank verse that I couldn't pluck them forth. And even some of the shorter poems, like "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey" and "Ode: Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood" seem to smother their best parts under lines that thud and blunder. 

But then I rediscovered this sonnet, which binds up an emotional state as concisely as any of Shakespeare's, and I remembered why Wordsworth is, after all, a great poet.  

Friday, February 19, 2010

Poem of the Day: Richard Wilbur

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World 

    The eyes open to a cry of pulleys, 
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul 
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple 
As false dawn. 
                            Outside the open window 
The morning air is all awash with angels. 

    Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses, 
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are. 
Now they are rising together in calm swells 
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear 
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing; 

    Now they are flying in place, conveying 
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving 
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden 
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet 
That nobody seems to be there. 
                                                     The soul shrinks 

    From all that it is about to remember, 
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day, 
And cries, 
    'Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry, 
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam 
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.'

    Yes, as the sun acknowledges 
With a warm look the world's hunks and colors, 
The soul descends once more in bitter love 
To accept the waking body, saying now 
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises, 

    'Bring them down from their ruddy gallows; 
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves; 
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone, 
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating 
Of dark habits,   
                           keeping their difficult balance.'
--Richard Wilbur

Richard Wilbur is one of two famous poets (if that's not an oxymoron) who have sat on my couch. (The other, whom I won't identify, hit on my wife. She and I thought it was very funny.) This was back when I was an academic, and we used to entertain visiting writers after their readings. Wilbur was a perfect gentleman, a little shy and also I fear a little bored at having to answer questions from undergraduates. He brightened when I asked him about his work on Leonard Bernstein's Candide, for which he wrote many of the lyrics. I think he was prouder of that than of much of his "serious" verse. 

This poem is from his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Things of This World, as you might guess from its title. And actually, "things of this world" pretty much sums up Wilbur's subject matter. He likes to write about particularities, things in their "haecciety": laundry hanging on a clothesline, a toad dying after being run over by a lawnmower, a sparrow chiding a vulture, driftwood, potatoes, poplar and sycamore trees. It is gentlemanly verse, quiet, thoughtful, observant, sometimes playful and always meticulous. Kind of the way I wish I was.                 

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Poem of the Day: Alfred, Lord Tennyson

From The Princess 

    Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white; 
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk; 
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font: 
The fire-fly wakens: waken thou with me. 

    Now droops the milkwhite peacock like a ghost, 
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me. 

    Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars, 
And all thy heart lies open unto me. 

    Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves 
A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me. 

    Now folds the lily all her sweetness up, 
And slips into the bosom of the lake: 
So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip 
Into my bosom and be lost in me. 
--Alfred, Lord Tennyson

T.S. Eliot once said that Tennyson had the finest ear of any poet in English since Milton, to which W.H. Auden replied that "he was also undoubtedly the stupidest; there was little about melancholia that he didn't know; there was little else that he did." Thus the Modern dumps on the Victorian, and disillusioned crankiness will always win out over hopeful optimism, which was Tennyson's primary intellectual stance. 

But back to that fine ear, which even Auden was willing to grant him. The silken sounds of this lovely little lyric certainly prove the point. And its interpolation into the plodding tedium of The Princess maybe also proves Auden's other point. A professor of mine once called the line "Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars" a "sterile conceit," which crushed me, because it was a favorite of mine. I see what he means:  The allusion to the myth of Danaë's impregnation by Zeus in the form of a shower of gold (she gave birth to Perseus) doesn't really add anything of substance to the poem. Another professor of mine thinks the image may have been inspired by this painting of Danaë by Titian:
Tennyson's friend Arthur Hallam -- the one he wrote In Memoriam about -- referred to the painting in one of his last letters. 

Some think that Tennyson was aiming for the poetic effect of the Persian verse form known as ghazal; it doesn't strictly follow that structure, but the images of lilies and peacocks and the repeated line endings "with me ... on to me ... unto me ... in me ... in me" give it the flavor of a ghazal, which typically has a refrain.               

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Poem of the Day: Algernon Charles Swinburne

From Atalanta in Calydon 

When the hounds of spring are on winter's traces, 
     The mother of months in meadow or plain 
Fills the shadows and windy places 
    With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain; 
And the brown bright nightingale amorous 
Is half assuaged for Itylus
For the Thracian ships and the foreign faces, 
    The tongueless vigil, and all the pain. 

Come with bows bent and with emptying of quivers, 
    Maiden most perfect, lady of light, 
With a noise of winds and many rivers, 
    With a clamour of waters, and with might; 
Bind on thy sandals, O thou most fleet; 
Over the splendour and speed of thy feet; 
For the faint east quickens, the wan west shivers, 
    Round the feet of the day, and the feet of the night. 

Where shall we find her, how shall we sing to her, 
    Fold our hands round her knees, and cling? 
O that man's heart were as fire and could spring to her, 
    Fire, or the strength of the streams that spring! 
For the stars and the winds are unto her 
As raiment, as songs of the harp-player; 
For the risen stars and the fallen cling to her, 
    And the southwest-wind and the west-wind sing. 

For winter's rains and ruins are over, 
    And all the season of snows and sins; 
The days dividing lover and lover,
    The light that loses, the night that wins; 

And time remembered is grief forgotten, 
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten, 
And in green underwood and cover 
    Blossom by blossom the spring begins. 


The full streams feed on flower of rushes, 
    Ripe grasses trammel a travelling foot, 
The faint fresh flame of the young year flushes  
    From lear to flower and flower to fruit; 
And fruit and leaf are as gold and fire, 
And the oat is heard above the lyre, 
And the hoofèd heel of a satyr crushes 
    The chestnut-husk at the chestnut-root. 


And Pan by noon and Bacchus by night, 
    Fleeter of foot than the fleet-foot kid, 
Follows with dancing and fills with delight 
    The Maenad and the Bassarid
And soft as lips that laugh and hide 
The laughing leaves of the trees divide, 
And screen from seeing and leave in sight 
    The god pursuing, the maiden hid. 


The ivy falls with the Bacchanal's hair 
    Over her eyebrows hiding her eyes; 
The wild vine slipping down leaves bare 
    Her bright breast shortening into sighs; 
The wild vine slips with the weight of its leaves, 
But the berried ivy catches and cleaves 
To the limbs that glitter, the feet that scare 
    The wolf that follows, the fawn that flies. 
--Algernon Charles Swinburne


I never read this opening chorus from Swinburne's play Atalanta in Calydon without thinking of this: 

Winterstürme wichen 
Wintry storms have vanished
dem Wonnemond,
before Maytime;
im mildem Lichte leuchtet der Lenz;
in a gentle light springtime shines out.
auf linden Lüften leicht und lieblich,
On balmy breezes light and lovely
Wunder weben er sich wiegt; 
it weaves miracles as it wafts.
durch Wald und Auen weht sein Atem, 
Through woods and meadows its breath blows,
weit geöffnet lacht sein Aug'. 
wide open its eyes are smiling.
Aus sel'ger Vöglein Sange süss er tönt,
Lovely birdsong sweetly proclaims it,
holde Düfte haucht er aus: 
blissful scents exhale its presence.
seinem warmen Blut entbluhen wonniger Blumen,
Marvelous flowers sprout from its hot blood,
Keim und Spross entspringt seinter Kraft. 
buds and shoots grow from its strength.
Mit zarter Waffen Zier bewingt er die Welt;
With an armory of delicate charm it conquers the world.
Winter und Sturm wichen der starken Wehr: 
Winter and storms vanish before their stout defense.
wohl musste den tapfern Streichen 
At these bold blows, of course, 
die strenge Türe auch weichen, 
the stout doors yielded too,
die trotzig und starr uns trennte von ihm.
for stubborn and hard they kept us from the spring.
Zu seiner Schwester schwang er sich her;
To its sister here it flew.
die Liebe lockte den Lenz: 
Love decoyed the spring.
in unsrem Busen barg er sich tief;
In our hearts it was hidden deep;
nun lacht sie selig dem Licht.
now it smiles joyfully at the light.
Die bräutliche Schwester befreite der Brüder;
The sister as bride is freed by her brother.
zertrummert liegt, was je sie getrennt;
In ruins lies all that kept them apart.
jauchzend grüsst sich das junge Paar:
Joyfully the young couple greet one another.
vereint sind Liebe und Lenz!
Love and Spring are united!
--Richard Wagner, Die Walküre, Act I, scene III
(translator unknown)
Well, okay, advantage Wagner. After all, he had his music to plump up his verse. But I think a case can be made for Swinburne as an underrated poet. The rest of Atalanta in Calydon, like most English closet dramas, is fairly dull stuff. But this opening chorus, despite some heavy-footedness in its alliteration and imagery ("lisp of leaves and ripple of rain"), has some lovely moments. And its evocation of the arrival of spring anticipates Wagner's by five years.   

Swinburne's tragedy was to be born British in the age of Victoria. He wanted to be a poète maudit like Baudelaire or Rimbaud, but they do things differently in France, and at his baddest he resembles nothing more than a naughty schoolboy. His alcoholism and masochism led to a nervous breakdown, and when he recovered he became a respectable citizen and even got nominated for the Nobel Prize. Given that the Nobel people managed to overlook Joyce, Proust, Kafka, Borges, et al., we can be grateful that they didn't bite this time.