Thursday, April 30, 2009

Table of Contents for National Poetry Month Posts

All the links here are (thus far) to my LiveJournal blog. I'll try to sort them out over the next few days so the TOC is for here at Blogger, 'kay? Also? That Kiva link at the bottom allows you - yes, you - to become a microfinancier and make dreams come true for people living far, far, far below the poverty level. I hope you'll consider spreading a little wealth.

1. The Oven Bird by Robert Frost
2. A Child Said, What Is the Grass? from Song of Myself by Walt Whitman
3. The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats
4. Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley
5. Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare (Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?)
6. To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time by Robert Herrick
7. Crossing the Bar by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
8. Sea-Fever by John Masefield
9. I Started Early, Took My Dog by Emily Dickinson
10. The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls by Henry Wadworth Longfellow
11. The Sea Has Its Pearls by Heinrich Heine
12. It's All I Have to Bring Today by Emily Dickinson
13. The World Is Too Much With Us by William Wordsworth
14. To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell
15. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot
16. The Lobster Quadrille by Lewis Carroll
17. O Mistress Mine by William Shakespeare
18. The Passionate Shepherd to His Love by Christopher Marlowe and The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd by Sir Walter Raleigh
19. Porphyria's Lover by Robert Browning
20. The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe
21. In Flanders Fields by John McCrae
22. Rondeau by James Henry Leigh Hunt
23. The Look by Sarah Teasdale
24. Song: To Celia by Ben Jonson
25. O, My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns
26. The Rose Family by Robert Frost
27. The First Violet by Karl Egon Ebert, translated by Kelly R. Fineman
28. Nothing Gold Can Stay by Robert Frost
29. To Autumn by John Keats
30. The Gentian weaves her fringes by Emily Dickinson

Bonus poems:

1. Who Has Seen the Wind? by Christina Rossetti
2. Trees by Joyce Kilmer
3. Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds")

I hope you've enjoyed this month's selections as much as I have. I'm thinking of doing this again sometime. Probably before next April. Probably not this May, however.

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The Gentian Weaves Her Fringes by Emily Dickinson

Today's post contains the last poem for this year's celebration of National Poetry Month. The next post will contain a complete Table of Contents for the posts, which you can also access through my tags by clicking on "building a poetry collection". I contemplated going with something that sounded like a definite ending. Specifically, I contemplated going with "The Hollow Men" by T.S. Eliot, which I love in general for its bleakness and specifically for its ending:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang, but a whimper.

But alas, it's still under copyright protection, and also, it would be breaking faith with you, since I promised from day one that the poems would be somehow interrelated either by theme or form or poet or, well, something. And so it is that we come to the real start of today's post.

Yesterday's selection was Keats's Ode "To Autumn", with its lovely words and images and turns of phrase. I confess to having thought of moving on to Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind", in particular because it starts in autumn and ends the seasonal discussion with "O Wind!/If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?" And I have a kickass analysis of that poem already written (as you'll see if you followed the link). But the part of Keats's poem that really sang to me today was the mention of the bees in the first stanza (perhaps because I always notice references to bees in light of my friend Loree Griffin Burns () has a forthcoming book called The Hive Detectives, and, well, bees make me think of Loree, and Loree first made me take notice of bees . . . but I digress.) I first read this poem by Emily Dickinson about a year and a half ago, and I keep going back to it (or perhaps it keeps coming back to me). In my copy of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas Johnson, it's number 18:

The Gentian weaves her fringes
by Emily Dickinson

The Gentian weaves her fringes—
The Maple’s loom is red—
My departing blossoms
&emsp &emsp Obviate parade.

A brief, but patient illness—
An hour to prepare,
And one below this morning
Is where the angles are—
It was a short procession,
The Bobolink was there—
An aged Bee addressed us—
And then we knelt in prayer—
We trust that she was willing—
We ask that we may be.
Let us go with thee!

In the name of the Bee—
And of the Butterfly—
And of the Breeze— Amen!

As with many Dickinson poems, this one follows hymn metre until the final three-line benedictory stanza, with each line containing three stressed syllables. There's also a rhyme-scheme in play in the first two stanzas. Were you to number the lines one through sixteen (no sense numbering those last three lines), you'd find rhymes - or slant-rhymes (also called near rhymes) in the even-numbered lines: red/parade, prepare/are, there/prayer, be/thee. It was quite a bold move on her part, considering when she was writing, even though it was one of the things that her correspondent, Thomas Wentworth Higginson (a literary critic), didn't "get."

There are a few things to know, I think, when parsing this poem. One is that Gentian is a fall-blooming flower that is usually found in a bright-blue form in the United States, and which was used in a number of poems during the Victorian era. In the language of flowers, fringed Gentian means "I look to heaven." One famous poem referencing Gentian specifically referred to the Fringed Gentian, and was called (appropriately) "To the Fringed Gentian." It was first published in 1832 by William Cullen Bryant, a fellow Massachusetts resident, and it is likely that Emily Dickinson would have been familiar with this earlier poem. You can read Bryant's poem in full over at Bartleby, among other places, but I'll include the middle stanza here:

From "To the Fringed Gentian"
by William Cullen Bryant

Thou waitest late and com’st alone,
When woods are bare and birds are flown,
And frost and shortening days portend
The aged year is near his end.

Bees in Dickinson tend to be, well, bees. They are free to come and go, sometimes irresponsible, and sometimes rascals. Butterflies are similar, free to flit and go.

And the Bobolink? Well, what d'you know? William Cullen Bryant had a famous poem about that bird called "Robert of Lincoln", which you can read on Bartleby and elsewhere, only it seems to have not seen publication until after the date ascribed to Dickinson's poem. I'd love to say that they had a secret relationship (particularly since they both used a lot of four-line hymn stanzas and wrote a lot of nature poetry), but of course I cannot. And in any event, I digress.

About the Bobolink: An old farm story holds that the bobolink says "Dig a hole, dig a hole, put it in, put it in, cover't up, cover't up, stamp on't, step along". His presence at a funeral therefore makes sense, right?

Because the poem really is discussing a death. Some say it's the death of a person, but I think not. I think it's Dickinson observing the end of summer, and little more, although it seems as if she's buried something, while the Bobolink says "dig a hole" and the gentian looks to heaven. Whatever it was had a very brief illness, and seems not to have suffered, nor does Dickinson seem overwrought, as one would expect her to be if it were a close friend or relative. We are left there near the woods, where the Gentian is blooming (an autumn flower), the Maple is turning colors, and the Bobolink has not yet flown south for the winter. Summer has flown, and a benediction is offered, not in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, but in the name of the Bee, and the Butterfly, and the Breeze. I love the pairing of the spirit and the breeze, of course, and so much more about this language.

In the name of the Bee—
And of the Butterfly—
And of the Breeze— Amen!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

To Autumn by John Keats

Yesterday's post was "Nothing Gold Can Stay" by Robert Frost, which, while written to evoke spring, works in many ways as an Autumn poem as well. Autumn seemed like the obvious next choice, and what better poem to represent Autumn than this lovely piece by Keats:

To Autumn
by John Keats


Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
  Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
  With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
  And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
    To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
  And still more, later flowers for the bees,
  Until they think warm days will never cease,
    For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cells.


Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
  Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
  Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
  Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
    Spares the next swath and all its twinèd flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
  Steady thy laden head across a brook;
  Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
    Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.


Where are the songs of Spring? Aye, where are they?
  Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
  And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
  Among the river sallows, borne aloft
    Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
  Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
  The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
    And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

As Hugh Grant's character said in Bridget Jones's Diary, "F*ck me, I love Keats."

Keats's Ode "To Autumn" features three stanzas of eleven lines each. All three have the same rhyme scheme for the first seven lines (ABABCDE), but stanza one (DCCE) ends a wee bit differently than two and three (CDDE). Such is the malleability of the Ode. What makes this poem special is not, however, the rhyme scheme; it is Keats's use of language and imagery, beginning with his decision to address the poem to Autumn itself, and to speak about it as a living, present thing.

This poem is lovely as is, but reading it aloud will give you further appreciation for the images and the sounds within it. I wish I could find Alan Rickman reading it, because his voice can turn me into a pile of mushy goo (don't believe me? Have a listen as he reads Shakespeare's Sonnet 130. But I digress.) If you feel funny reading this aloud to yourself, then you can listen to Nicholas Shaw read it for the BBC.

How much do I love some of Keats's descriptions here? So very much that I'm thinking hyphenations should be used far more in everyday life. The evocative nature of "the mossed cottage-trees" alone is enough to stop me in my tracks. The entire second stanza is staggeringly gorgeous, speaking of the autumn hay. "[O]n a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,/Drowsed with the fume of poppies . . ." is better imagery and poetry than many can muster in the whole of their poems, and it's only part of one sentence here (and a fragment, at that).

Keats wrote the poem after spending some time out of doors on a fine autumn day. How do I know? Well, he wrote to a friend of his named Reynolds, and said so: "How beautiful the season is now—How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather—Dian skies—I never lik'd stubble fields so much as now—Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm—in the same way that some pictures look warm—this struck me so much in my Sunday's walk that I composed upon it."

I believe that today, I'll take a walk and see what spring in New Hampshire has to offer. I sha'n't be gone long.—You come too.*

*Yes, that last italicized bit was Robert Frost, from one of my favorites of his poems, "The Pasture". You can read the full text of that poem in a long-prior post. (Well-spotted, if you already knew where the quote came from.)

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Nothing Gold Can Stay by Robert Frost

Yesterday's post was "The First Violet" by Karl Egon Ebert, which was completely evocative of Spring. And here in the mountains of New Hampshire, Spring is just now starting to spring: the forsythia, tulips and daffodils are out, the trees are in bud, the snowmelt is racing in the stream outside my window. And so it was that I came to today's poem choice:

Nothing Gold Can Stay
by Robert Frost

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

On the surface, this is a poem about spring, and early growth of plants and leaves, when the first yellow greens appear on the trees. In the fifth line, the leaves are just leaves, but use of the word "subsides" shows a settling or falling sort of motion. And then the sixth line is the "turn," where Frost gets to his real topic. The subsidance of leaves reminds him of the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. Dawn is lost, but day remains. And then that last, killer line with a fatalistic ring to it, decrees that "Nothing gold can stay."

It can be taken to mean that nothing can stay gold, but I think it means that nothing can stay young. For me, the poem is about the transient nature of youth, with a hint of loss. And in my mind today, remembering this poem (I don't yet have it committed to memory, but I sure remembered the leaf references), I thought that "Nothing gold can stay" suited the brilliant-gold of the autumn leaves quite well. And so, evidently, did Robert Frost. Here are the last three lines of this poem from an earlier draft, at a time when the poem was called "Nothing Golden Stays":

In autumn she achieves
A still more golden blaze
But nothing golden stays.

Today's poem, "Nothing Gold Can Stay," was first published in 1923, in The Yale Review. But Frost played around with it for several years, and several earlier versions of it exist. The earliest of these other versions was sent to a friend in 1920, and ended as you see above.

Frost's initial focus was on the evanescent quality of new growth. Buds are golden before green. Leaves appear to be flowers before they unfold and "subside" to be leaves. Trees burst forth in color again in the fall, then the leaves subside once and for all to earth. In later revisions, he decided to universalize the poem more. By introducing the idea of Eden, Frost injects a human element into the poem without spelling it out. The sinking of Eden is a reference to the "fall of man," but it echoes the idea of transience: Eden was short-lived, but the rest of man's time on earth has been much longer. Dawn, usually the time when the sun rises, is describes in falling terms as well, but dawn "goes down" to the bright light of day. Is that really a decline, or an improvement? Again, dawn is transient and over quickly, but day lasts far longer. Perhaps, then, Eden was transient, and the longer time spent after the fall is to be preferred? Is our preference for "gold" really such a good thing? Is not the long day better than the short dawn? Is not the summer longer and more durable than the budding spring? Is it not worth our while to recognize that youth's a stuff will not endure* and to appreciate our adulthood?

The poem concludes strongly, for a number of reasons:

"Nothing gold can stay."

Why does that line pack such a wallop?

Well, first, looking at metre, it is different than all the rest. The first seven lines are essentially iambic (a two-syllable poetic foot in which an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable, ta-TUM), although the first line has an oddball because "nature" is usually read NAture, not naTURE. The first seven lines each have six syllables to them. That last line has only five. And it's trochaic, with a truncated ending. (Don't panic - it means that it has two-syllable feet that are trochees, in which a stressed syllable is followed by an unstressed syllable, TUM-ta, but that the last foot only has one syllable, which is accented, so the line reads TUM-ta TUM ta TUM.)

It's written in rhymed couplets. Not just any rhymed couplets, either: but end-stopped rhymed couplets (which is to say that each line logically pauses at the end, where the commas and periods and semicolon can be found). This could easily become sing-songy in the wrong hands, yet Frost manages his images well enough that I find myself not truly noticing the rhyminess of it on a conscious level. Particularly if I read it aloud (as one should), where the pause after a comma is not as long as that created by a semicolon or a period. Especially since the lines "So Eden sank to grief,/So dawn goes down to day" form a single sentence, and don't rhyme with one another. Instead, they create a break before that last line, which stands alone.

Second, looking at word choice, the line begins with a negative: "Nothing." While there have been hints at loss and falling and evanescence throughout the poem, creating a vaguely melancholy tone, this word is aggressively negative. Also, as written that last line can be read as a command, rather than as a commentary on loss. It is a far broader statement than any that comes before it, generalized as it is to all things (in the negative). Gold cannot stay.

A possible stretch: While folks don't usually interpret the poem this way, one could stretch so far as to say that gold in that last line might not refer to the "just-Spring" qualities in the poem (with a nod to e.e. cummings), but could refer as well to money, which one cannot, after all, take with them.

For some other commentaries on the poem, check out these essays over at Modern American Poetry. The second one, analyzing it from a linguistic point of view, is fascinating to me, although I'm sure most people don't have the patience for it.

I should note that this poem is well-known to a lot of readers of the S.E. Hinton novel, The Outsiders, which both M and S read in middle school.

"That's a sad poem," said S. "It was used in The Outsiders. Have you ever read that book?"

The answer is that I haven't. In the time and town where I grew up, once you were done with children's books, you moved on to grown-up titles. S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, first published in 1967 (when I was three), was clearly around when I was a teen, but I never heard of it until S read it in middle school. But the poem plays a key role in the book in the relationship between the characters Ponyboy and Johnny. Johnny says that the poem's about the importance of appreciating the things you loved in youth, and about staying "golden", or young. And because S so strongly associates the poem with the characters in the book, she finds it sad. And really, it is sad, or at least fatalistic.

What think you?

* The quote "Youth's a stuff will not endure" is the closing line of "O Mistress Mine" by William Shakespeare. It was a song sung by the character Feste in Twelfth Night.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The First Violet by Karl Egon Ebert, translated by Kelly R. Fineman

Yesterday's poem was decidedly floral in nature: The Rose Family by Robert Frost. I confess that I thought about following it up with daffodils, in the form of Wordsworth's "I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud", particularly since it's Angela's favorite poem. But instead of recycling a post from last year, I figured I'd give you something new:

The First Violet
by Karl Egon Ebert, translated by Kelly R. Fineman

When I saw the first violet,
I was delighted with its color and scent!
I lustfully embraced Spring's messenger
To my swelling, hopeful breast.

The Spring time is over, the violet is dead;
Rings full of blue and red flowers surround me -
Standing within them, I barely see them.
The violet shines in my dream of Spring.

The original German text:

Das erste Veilchen
by Karl Egon Ebert

Als ich das erste Veilchen erblickt,
Wie war ich von Farben und Duft entzückt!
Die Botin des Lenzes drückt' ich voll Lust
An meine schwellende, hoffende Brust.

Der Lenz ist vorüber, das Veilchen ist tot;
Rings steh'n viel Blumen blau und rot,
Ich stehe inmitten, und sehe sie kaum,
Das Veilchen erscheint mir im Frühlingstraum.

The original German poem is written in two stanzas using rhymed couplets (AABB CCDD), with each line containing four stressed syllables. My translation was based on a desire to give you a decent translation of the meaning of the poem. Alas, the meter and rhyme did not carry over.

The poet, Karl Egon Ebert, was of Czech-German descent, and was born in Bohemia in 1801 (back when it was still an actual place, and not a sort of state of mind). He spent most of his life in service to the royal house of Fürstenberg, and evidently had a romance with one of the princesses (alas, their love was not allowed to flourish). He died in Prague at the age of 81, having written a number of poems and librettos for operas, as well as political tracts arguing for Czech-German cooperation.

If you guessed that I'm aware of this poem because it was set to music, and was one of the lieder that I sang when I was a voice major in college, you're absolutely correct. Here's a video of a talented young man named Stephen Richardson singing Ebert's words to music by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (note: some lines or parts of lines are repeated in the song setting):

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Rose Family by Robert Frost

Yesterday's poem was "O My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose" by Robert Burns. Where to go next when the talk is of roses? To Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet? "What's in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet." (Act II, sc. 2.) To Gertrude Stein's "Sacred Emily", which contains the line "a rose is a rose is a rose"?

No, I opted to go with Frost:

The Rose Family
by Robert Frost

The rose is a rose,
And was always a rose.
But the theory now goes
That the apple 's a rose,
And the pear is, and so's
The plum, I suppose.
The dear only knows
What will next prove a rose.
You, of course, are a rose-
But were always a rose.

This 10-line poem is written primarily in trisyllabic feet known as anapests (an-a-PEST or ta-da-DUM), although the first, sixth and seventh lines have only 5 syllables (an iamb followed by an anapest (ta-DUM ta-da-DUM). Unlike most rhyming poems, this one has one end-rhyme only. Every single word rhymes with "rose", a word which appears at the end of six of the ten lines.

I'm nearly positive that Frost started by thinking of Gertrude Stein's "A rose is a rose is a rose", a phrase from her poem "Sacred Emily", written in 1913 and published in a book in 1922. It is most likely a dig at Stein (and by extension, other "modern" poets), since he didn't like folks who thumbed their nose at classical form to such a wild extent, and didn't go in for gibberish (oops - did I say that? My bias is showing). Frost's poem was first published in his collection, West-Running Brook, published in 1928 (of which I own a first edition, which I scored in a used book store for a mere $10 – SQUEE!) It is possible as well that Frost was simply utilizing a known parlour-game form, since as far back as the early 19th-century, Jane Austen, her mother, sister, and sister-in-law entertained themselves of an evening by writing verses to rhyme with "rose", and I rather suspect it wasn't entirely a game of their own making.

Getting back to the idea that Frost was tweaking Stein, "a rose is a rose is a rose" uses an iamb plus two anapests, so the anapests then naturally follow. Frost's cleverness is very interesting to me. On the one hand, this is a metaphor poem; on the other hand, the take-home message is "only you, dear, are genuinely a rose". And assessing it as a dig against Stein, I suppose the conclusion would be that only Frost is actually a poet. That's a lot of clever punch packed in what appears at first to be a simple, simple rhyme.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

O My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns

Yesterday's poem choice was a song by Ben Jonson. Thinking of songs put me in mind of a song by Robert Burns:

O, My Love is Like A Red, Red Rose
by Robert Burns

O, my luve is like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June.
O, my luve is like a melodie,
That's sweetly play'd in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I,
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.

Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi the sun!
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only luve!
And fare thee weel, a while!
And I will come again, my luve,
Tho it were ten thousand mile!

Burns is noteworthy for two things, if you ask me. First is the use of Scots dialect in the written word. Second is his remarkable use of simile.

Today's poem was written as a song, and set to music by Pietro Urbani. It's written in four stanzas, rhymed XAXA XBXB CDCD EFEF. It's written in a form of song meter that alternates lines of four stressed syllables with lines containing only three stressed syllables.

Burns was from Scotland. He was raised in poverty, but his father made sure that young "Rabbie" and his siblings learned to read, write, and do math. Burns learned English as well as the local dialect, and later learned Latin and French as well. Burns lived in revolutionary times (the French revolution was a key event during his lifetime), and was a highly patriotic Scotsman.

Why am I giving you so much biography? Because many folks assume (wrongly) that Burns wrote the way he did because he "didn't know any better." Nae, lasses and laddies, tha's not it. He made conscious choices about what language to write in (Scots, Scots dialect mixed into English, or English) based on his intended audience and the particular subject matter. Many of his political pieces were in English; many of his lyric poems were in English with Scots dialect mixed in, thereby garnering them a wider readership -- even without extensive knowledge of Scots dialect, they are still comprehensible to readers of English.

Poets throughout history borrow from local dialects and/or other languages to convey their points. T.S. Eliot did it (The Waste Land uses Greek, German, Latin, French, Hindi); so did Wilfred Owen (Dulce et Decorum Est). Perhaps it's just a bit of street language or something borrowed from the local patois, but using dialect can be a good thing. It establishes place and provides color (or, if you prefer, flavor) to your lines, and that can be a very good thing. However, as the musicologist David St. Hubbins once noted, there is a fine line between clever and stupid. If you completely overdo the use of dialect, you might end up turning your poem into more of a novelty. If that's what you intend, fine; if not, borrow a page from Burns and use only a judicious sprinkle.

In addition to the use of local dialect, Burns was excellent at simile. Refresher: a simile is "a figure of speech in which two unlike things are compared, often in a phrase introduced by 'like' or 'as'." Webster's Dictionary.

Let's look more closely at Burns's poem: His love is like a newly sprung June rose. Is he referring to the beauty or quality of the woman he loves, or to the nature and quality of the love he feels for her? Either way, it's a spectacular simile, although I like to think he's referring to the quality of his own emotion in this line.

Next, his love is like a melody – not just any tune, either, but one that is played well, and in tune, and sweetly. I have the same questions as before – is he talking about another person or about his own emotion? Still, a great comparison.

Then there's the final simile: As fair art thou, my bonie lass,/ So deep in luve am I
I honestly can't figure out how to rephrase this one to capture it's essence, since he's comparing the quality of her beauty to the depth of his own emotion. I tried putting this into "plain English" for about ten minutes and gave up, because it's imposterous. It's lines like these by Burns that stick in your head because of their language and their imagery, which are irrevocably intertwined.

I'm not saying that we can all be Rabbie Burns, but we can all try to make conscious choices in our use of language, we can all incorporate a bit of modern dialect (or foreign languages, or street talk) into our writing, and we can all spend a few minutes to come up with a kick-ass simile from time to time. And it will help our writing. Or at least, that's what I'm thinking.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Song: To Celia by Ben Jonson

Where can one go from Sara Teasdale's poem, "The Look", with its mention of so many men by name? Well, I chose to focus on the last two lines of Teasdale's poem:

But the kiss in Colin's eyes
  Haunts me night and day.

Where to focus - on the kiss, or on the eyes? No need to choose when you go with Ben Jonson's lovely "Song: To Celia", a poem later set to music by an unknown composer:

Song: To Celia
by Ben Jonson

Drink to me, only, with thine eyes,
  And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
  And I'll not look for wine.
The thirst, that from the soul doth rise,
  Doth ask a drink divine:
But might I of Jove's Nectar sup,
  I would not change for thine.

I sent thee, late, a rosy wreath,
  Not so much honoring thee,
As giving it a hope, that there
  It could not withered be.
But thou thereon did'st only breath,
  And sent'st it back to me:
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,
  Not of it self, but thee.

Analysis of the poem:
The poem is written in two eight-line stanzas, each rhymed ABCBABCB DEFEDEFE, with alternating lines of iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet, taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM) and iambic trimeter (three iambic feet, taDUM taDUM taDUM). It's easy to hear how all the short lines of each stanza rhyme with one another; the cross-rhyming of the longer lines is more subtle, but adds an extra coherence to the poem without feeling quite as formulaic as it might have had he used an ABABCBCB rhyme or something similar.


The poem was written by Ben Jonson, who lived from 1572 to 1637. Jonson was a well-educated man who wrote poetry and plays beginning in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, rather like one of the young actors in his 1598 play Every Man in His Humour: William Shakespeare, the author of yesterday's bonus poem. See how well everything is tying together for my National Poetry Month festival?

Jonson led a rather dramatic life. He was a soldier with Francis Verre in the Netherlands for a while, then a (bad) actor and (good) playwright. He married a woman whom he described as "a shrew, but honest". After cowriting a play called The Isle of Dogs with Thomas Nashe, Jonson was put in prison for "lewd and mutinous behavior" (the Elizabethan spellings are more fun: "leude and mutynous"). A year later he was back in jail for having killed an actor in a duel. He pleaded guilty, but was later released under "benefit of clergy", for which he gave up all his goods and chattels, was branded on his left thumb and had to recite a short Bible verse in Latin. All of this was before he began to achieve success with Every Man in His Humour. Jonson became more successful still under James I.

A recording of this song:
When I first posted this poem in February of this year, I included a video of a young voice major. Today, I offer you a recording of Richard Tauber. Although the audio is a little scratchy, the tempo and feel is much more what I like in a performance of this song, which is why it's here for you today:

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare

Today is the anniversary of Shakespeare's death (and quite possibly of his birth as well - he was baptised on April 26th, but his date of birth is unknown). In honor of the 393rd anniversary of his death on April 23, 1616, a bonus poem - one of my favorite of his sonnets:

Sonnet 116
by William Shakespeare

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
  If this be error and upon me proved,
  I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Analysis and discussion

This particular Shakespearian sonnet shows Shakespeare at his finest. While it's written in iambic pentameter like the others, and the rhyme scheme is the same as other Shakespearian sonnets: ABABCDCDEFEFGG, this one makes quite a lot of use of enjambment, a technique where one is expected not to pause or stop at the end of each line, but only where punctuation exists. Thus, the first part of the poem when recited aloud would read as follows:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.
Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no!
It is an ever-fixèd mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken;

The entire poem, start to finish, is keen on making the point that love is constant as the North Star (the star by which "wandering barks" or boats guide themselves), and that it withstands time and testing. True to Shakespearian sonnet form, the first eight lines set the situation: love is constant. The turn comes in the ninth line, when Shakespeare starts to discuss the fact that love is not affected by time in particular. And the final couplet turns the poem again, becoming personal: I love you, it says, and will love you always.

Fans of the Emma Thompson movie version of Sense and Sensibility will recognize this as the poem recited by Marianne and Willoughby when he first visits her after rescuing her from a twisted ankle in the rain, and which is later quoted again by Marianne as she looks at Combe Magna in later rain, just before a dishy Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon carries her soggy self back to the house. The poem is not specifically incorporated in the novel. As screenwriter, Emma Thompson could be making the point that love is not an ever-fixèd mark that can withstand tempests, or she could be making the point that what Marianne and Willoughby had was not true love. I rather favor the former interpretation, jaded though it may be.

The Look by Sara Teasdale

Yesterday's "official" poem selection was Rondeau by James Henry Leigh Hunt, sometimes called by its first (and last) three words, "Jenny kissed me." Today's poem picks up on the kissing from a woman's point of view:

The Look
by Sara Teasdale

Strephon kissed me in the spring,
  Robin in the fall,
But Colin only looked at me
  And never kissed at all.
Strephon's kiss was lost in jest,
  Robin's lost in play,
But the kiss in Colin's eyes
  Haunts me night and day.

I know she didn't mean Colin Firth, since she died before he was born. And possibly before his father was born. But still.

Like Leigh Hunt's "Rondeau", this poem uses trochaic metre (DUMta DUMta DUMta DUM(ta)), alternating lines with four feet and lines with three (and favoring strong or "masculine" endings, as opposed to Leigh Hunt, who alternated feminine and masculine endings). The second line of the poem rhymes with the fourth, and the sixth with the eighth: XAXAXBXB (where X doesn't rhyme).

Sara Teasdale was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1884. In 1913, she fell in love with the poet Vachel Lindsay, who wrote her daily love letters. However, the following year she married someone else, with whom she had an unhappy marriage. In 1929, she got a divorce. In 1931, Lindsay, with whom she had remained friends, died. Two years later, in 1933, she killed herself with an overdose. Not a happy tale (and on top of it, she was in poor health for pretty much her entire life).

In 1918, her poetry collection called Love Songs, in which "The Look" appeared, won awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (then called the Columbia Poetry Prize). Teasdale was very popular with critics and the public during her lifetime, but she has not been counted a "great poet".

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Trees by Joyce Kilmer

In honor of Earth Day, a "bonus" poem for this month's ongoing celebration of National Poetry Month, and one that many folks I know can recite in whole or in part from memory, particularly the first two lines:

by Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Analysis of the poem: The poem is written in iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet per line, taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM) in rhymed couplets. Its apparent simplicity has led to quite a number of parodies over the year, including one by Ogden Nash bemoaning the abundance of billboards along the road. Despite its simple form and somewhat sentimental nature, I cannot help but love this poem, so here it is.

About Joyce Kilmer: He was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1886. He taught Latin for a while, then worked for Funk and Wagnalls defining words for their dictionary (5 cents per word defined). He published his first book of verse in 1911, and in 1913, his poem "Trees" appeared in Poetry Magazine, leading to nearly immediate popularity as a poet. In 1917, Kilmer enlisted in the military and headed off to war. He died in 1918 on a scouting mission to locate a German machine gun. He's buried in France, with a memorial and a Turnpike rest area dedicated to him in New Jersey, along with a number of schools in New Jersey and elsewhere, a park in the Bronx, and a forest in North Carolina.

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Rondeau by James Henry Leigh Hunt

Yesterday's poem was the most famous rondeau of the English language, In Flanders Fields by John McCrae. Today's poem was selected because of its title:

by James Henry Leigh Hunt

Jenny kissed me when we met,
  Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
  Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad,
  Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I'm growing old, but add,
  Jenny kissed me.

The official title of the poem is "Rondeau", although it is often called "Jenny Kissed Me" as well. Unlike an actual rondeau, this poem is a single stanza of eight lines, with a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCD. It is written using trochaic feet (DUMta DUMta DUMta) in a form of hymn meter, with the following syllable counts: 7-8-7-8-7-8-7-4. What it shares with yesterday's rondeau (in addition to calling itself by that form's name) is the use of the first three words (or first four syllables, if you prefer) as its "refrain", with the poem beginning and ending with those same three words.

The poem is semi-autobiographical. Leigh Hunt had been seriously ill with influenza; upon visiting his friends Thomas Carlyle and his wife, Jane Welsh Carlyle (nicknamed "Jenny"), she jumped up and kissed him. Leigh Hunt wrote the poem as a tribute.

Although I think this poem reads like something from the first half of the 20th century, it was in fact written nearly a century earlier, during early Victorian times. James Henry Leigh Hunt was born in England in 1784, and lived until 1859. He was a good friend of both Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats, and introduced Keats to Italian poetry as well as personally introducing Keats to Shelley. Leigh Hunt was also an essayist and newspaper writer. He was also the person on whom Charles Dickens based the character of Skimpole in Bleak House.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

In Flanders Fields by John McCrae

How on earth to follow a poem like The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe, particularly after providing you with performances by Christopher Walken and Vincent Price? Well, certainly not with something in the same vein. Rather than focusing on the words or themes of the poem, I decided to focus on a little something in its form: the repetition of a shorter ending line in all the stanzas, all of which end with the word "more", the most famous iteration being, of course, "nevermore."

And so it was that I got to thinking about a form called the rondeau, which involves a short, chorus-like line from time to time. And that is how I came to share with you the best-known rondeau in the English language:

In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Discussion of the poem:
As mentioned at the start of the poem, it's a rondeau. The "chorus" line of the poem is, in this case, derived from the first three words of the poem: "In Flanders fields". Apart from that line, the poem is written in iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet per line, taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), with end-rhyme options of "I" or "O". The first stanza has five lines, the second four, and the last stanza has six lines. The rhyme scheme is: AABBA AABX AABBAX (with X representing the shorter refrain "In Flanders fields", which is not rhymed to any other line).

This is one of the most famous of the War Poems from the First World War. It is frequently misprinted (including at The Academy of American Poets) using "grow" in the first line, but "blow" is actually correct. Flanders is, for those who aren't aware, an older name for what is now called Belgium.

About John McCrae: McCrae was a Canadian who trained as a doctor. He trained two of the first female doctors in Canada prior to enlisting in the military. He served in battle, and was none-too-happy when he was diverted from the field and sent to organize a medical unit. In fact, he is quoted as having said, "[A]ll the goddamn doctors in the world will not win this bloody war: what we need is more and more fighting men." His poem, "In Flanders Field", became internationally famous during his lifetime, and he regarded its success with detached amusement, although he was pleased that it was used to remind young men "where their duty lay". The first stanza of the poem is on the reverse side of the Canadian $10 bill. Because so many folks substitute "grow" for "blow" in the first line (in error), rumors abounded that the Bank of Canada got it wrong and was recalling the $10 bills. As pointed out, the first stanza of the poem is, in fact, correct, and any rumors of a recall are false.

McCrae died of pneumonia while working at a war hospital in Boulogne, and is buried in France. Below is an image of the poem in his own writing after it was published in Punch in 1915. (McCrae initially threw it out, but a fellow soldier named Edward Morrison salvaged it and submit it to Punch magazine. It initially appeared anonymously, but was rapidly identified as McCrae's work.)

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe

Yesterday, I spent about an hour and a half considering what poem to select to follow Porphyria's Lover by Robert Browning, and I couldn't pick - in part because I was trying to select something linked to a line or theme of the poem. But when I woke up this morning, it was to hear lines from Poe ringing through my head, which works quite well in light of the Gothic quality of the poem I posted yesterday, and works thematically by discussing the sort of deep, almost obsessive, love in "Porphyria's Lover," but from the point of view of a speaker who is mourning the loss of his loved one (whom he did not kill, for the record). The portrait of Edgar Allen Poe you see here is by my friend Kevin Slattery, known here on LiveJournal as .

The Raven
by Edgar Allen Poe

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
" 'Tis some visiter," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door —
                Only this, and nothing more."

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; — vainly I had tried to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow — sorrow for the lost Lenore —
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore —
            Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me — filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
" 'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door —
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; —
                This it is, and nothing more."

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you" — here I opened wide the door; ——
                Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore!"
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!"
                Merely this, and nothing more.

Then into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon I heard again a tapping somewhat louder than before.
"Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore —
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
                'Tis the wind, and nothing more!"

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not an instant stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door —
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door —
                Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
"Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore —
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!"
                Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning — little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no sublunary being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door —
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
                With such name as "Nevermore."

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered — not a feather then he fluttered —
Till I scarcely more than muttered, "Other friends have flown before —
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before."
                Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

Wondering at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
"Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster — so, when Hope he would adjure,
Stern Despair returned, instead of the sweet Hope he dared adjure —
                That sad answer, "Nevermore!"

But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore —
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
                Meant in croaking "Nevermore."

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamplight gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamplight gloating o'er,
                She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by angels whose faint foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee — by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite — respite and Nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Let me quaff this kind Nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!"
                Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! — prophet still, if bird or devil! —
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate, yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted —
On this home by Horror haunted — tell me truly, I implore —
Is there — is there balm in Gilead? — tell me — tell me, I implore!"
                Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! — prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us — by that God we both adore —
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore —
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore."
                Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

"Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!" I shrieked, upstarting —
"Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! — quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!"
                Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
                Shall be lifted — nevermore!


Poe did not invent the form of this poem, which has been called "trochaic octameter" by some. (Trochaic comes from trochee, a poetic foot consisting of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one: TRO-key, octameter means there are 8 feet per line.) I happen to believe this is not trochaic octameter, really, but alternates lines of 16 syllables and 15 syllables, each containing 8 stressed syllables, sometimes involving rushed syllables to keep the beat, which is what Poe asserted. (Want to blow your mind? He claimed it was a combination of octameter, heptameter and tetrameter cataletic.) Each stanza consists of four lines, alternating between 16 and 15 beats, plus a short line with seven syllables that forms a sort of eerie refrain.

When I say Poe didn't invent it, I mean it: He was inspired by a poem called "Lady Geraldine's Courtship: A Romance of the Age" by Elizabeth Barrett (who later married Robert Browning), which Poe had read and reviewed in 1845, saying "I have never read a poem combining so much of the fiercest passion with so much of the most delicate imagination."

Poe's poem takes the metre and the notion of fierce passion from Barrett's poem, and overlays it with Poe's more macabre imagination and a healthy dose of alliteration and internal rhyme, plus adds the short refrain lines at the end of each stanza. The result is a poem that many folks cannot get out of their heads after a single hearing, and one to which many have returned time and again for its eeriness and the magic of its wordplay.

Discussion of Poe's history:

Edgar Allen Poe was born January 19, 1809. Poe was an editor, literary critic, poet and author of short stories, Poe is largely credited with the creation of the detective novel (hence the Edgar Awards given by the Mystery Writers of America), and with major contributions to the fields of science fiction.

He was a major hit in Europe (and particularly in France, where his works had been translated by Baudelaire) long before he caught on in his native America. Born in Boston, he lived and worked at times in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Richmond as well, all of whom are only too happy to lay claim to him.

If you live near Charlottesville, Virginia or Austin, Texas, you will have a chance to visit an exhibit dedicated to Poe and his works this year. The exhibit, entitled "From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe," will open March 7 at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Later this year, it moves to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. The exhibit "will feature manuscripts of 'The Raven' and other works, books, letters and his writing desk . . . and will explore Poe's romantic relationships, the decline and resurrection of his literary reputation, and his influence on the genre of mystery literature."

For your listening pleasure, Christopher Walken (with the text of the poem displayed):

Or, if you prefer, you may watch and listen to Vincent Price's wonderful performance, which may take an occasional liberty with the text but is marvelous nonetheless:

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Porphyria's Lover by Robert Browning

So, yesterday's poetry post gave you a two-for-the-price-of-one sort of deal, with "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" by Christopher Marlowe and "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" by Sir Walter Raleigh. Rather than seizing on the idea of poetic conversation, I decided to go back to the poems and look at what they're talking about: passionate love, and whether or not it can be trusted. And that notion of theme put me in mind of a dark, dark tale in the form of a poetic monologue penned by Robert Browning.

Porphyria's Lover
by Robert Browning

The rain set early in tonight,
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did its worst to vex the lake:
I listened with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
Which done, she rose, and from her form
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
And laid her soiled gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
And, last, she sat down by my side
And called me. When no voice replied,
She put my arm about her waist,
And made her smooth white shoulder bare,
And all her yellow hair displaced,
And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
And spread, o'er all, her yellow hair,
Murmuring how she loved me — she
Too weak, for all her heart's endeavor,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me forever.
But passion sometimes would prevail,
Nor could tonight's gay feast restrain
A sudden thought of one so pale
For love of her, and all in vain:
So, she was come through wind and rain.
Be sure I looked up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshiped me: surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
I am quite sure she felt no pain.
As a shut bud that holds a bee,
I warily oped her lids: again
Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.
And I untightened next the tress
About her neck; her cheek once more
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss:
I propped her head up as before,
Only, this time my shoulder bore
Her head, which droops upon it still:
The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,
That all it scorned at once is fled,
And I, its love, am gained instead!
Porphyria's love: she guessed not how
Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
And all night long we have not stirred,
And yet God has not said a word!

Analysis: The poem is 60 lines long, and is written as a single, long stanza although it is, in fact, 12 5-line stanzas if one judges by the rhyme scheme: ABABB CDCDD (etc.) The poem is written in iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet per line: taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), and it is a first-person narrative sharing a horrific story, indeed.

The speaker, who is madly in love with Porphyria, tells the tale of a rainy night, when his lady love came to his cottage, kindled his fire (actual and otherwise), then told him she loved him. Realizing that he does not actually deserve her (due to financial inequities - she comes from money, you see, and he lives in a cottage, and therefore does not), and perhaps concerned that the world will intervene, the speaker throttles Porphyria with her own hair, then sits there, embracing her, for quite some time later.

This poem was written just before the start of Queen Victoria's rule, as societal standards were shifting towards repressiveness (and particularly towards repression with respect to female sexuality) but not in the heydey of Victorian principles, which didn't occur until much later in the century. Porphyria is the disease which is believed to have caused the madness of King George III and of Vincent Van Gogh — symptoms include hallucination, paranoia, depression and more — and yet, Browning would have known none of that when he crafted his poem about a man in love with with a woman named Porphyria, which manages to equate love and madness.

As with Browning's later poem, "My Last Duchess", about which I put up a pretty great post once, if I do say so myself, one might question where Browning's thoughts lay on the matter of sexual repression in general, and fear of feminine sexuality in particular. I don't know the answer, but it's pretty clear that this poem, like "My Last Duchess", is intensely psychological. Where "My Last Duchess" depicts the Duke's efforts to control his wife and what can be viewed as her sexual conduct (or, if the Duke is to be believed — and it seems as if he is not — her sexual misconduct), even if only smiles and blushes are mentioned, "Porphyria's Lover" tackles similar themes of feeling threatened by a woman and trying to control her. The speaker in this poem is threatened by her position in society, perhaps, or maybe he's just operating out of a place of personal insecurity; his strangulation of his beloved to ensure her "eternal love" is decidedly controlling (in a crazy-ass way, but still).

I should note that some folks hold the theory that Porphyria is not actually dead, but has merely participated in erotic asphyxiation; that particular interpretation makes the poem kinky instead of creepy, but my money's on creepy, particularly in light of the later poem, "My Last Duchess", which definitely involved craziness and murder.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love and the Nymph's Reply

Yesterday's song/poem, "O Mistress Mine" by William Shakespeare, probably falls within the carpe diem sensibilities of last week's "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell or the other week's "To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time" by Robert Herrick. It's also a bit romantic, I think, albeit in a light-hearted vein. The idea of music and making the most of love put me in mind of a different poem from Elizabethan times, written by an alleged rival of Shakespeare's, Christopher Marlowe.

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love
by Christopher Marlowe

Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.

There will we sit upon the rocks
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

There will I make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroider'd all with leaves of myrtle.

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull,
Fair linèd slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold.

A belt of straw and ivy buds
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my Love.

Thy silver dishes for thy meat
As precious as the gods do eat,
Shall on an ivory table be
Prepared each day for thee and me.

The shepherd swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my Love.

The skinny on Marlowe and this poem

Christopher Marlowe was a famous poet and playwright in the time of Shakespeare. He was also a drunkard with an anger management issue, a homosexual, and quite possibly a spy.

Christened in early 1564, Marlowe was presumably born in late 1563 or early 1564 to a tradesman and a clergyman's daughter. Marlowe was one of the first (if not the first) playwright's to use blank verse in his work. He led a life shrouded in mystery, including some sort of secret "services to the Queen" which may have included spying on the House of Stuart. Based on an analysis of his works and widespread consensus in the writings of his contemporaries at the time, Marlowe is believed to have been gay. He was killed in a tavern by means of a dagger through the eye, allegedly over a dispute involving the tab, although the men with him at the time were all secret service (and in some cases, loan sharks as well). To say nothing of his murder occurring within a few days of his arrest for heresy. But perhaps I digress.

Analysis of the poem: Based on Marlowe's knowledge of much older Greek poems in which older men wrote in this sort of fashion to seduce younger men, this one can be read (if one chooses) as a love poem to a male, although it's usually read as a love poem from a man to a woman. The poem is constructed in four-line stanzas written in rhymed couplets, and using iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet per line: taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM). In some cases, there are nine syllables in a line owing to Marlowe's decision to conclude with a "feminine" ending (taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUMta), but that does not alter the analysis of the metre employed. Savvy?

Now, sometimes poets engage in dialogue. One could argue, for instance, that T.S. Eliot's incorporation within The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock of specific references to Marvell's To His Coy Mistress is a form of dialogue. But sometimes, the dialogue is far more direct. And far more personal.

And so it was that Sir Walter Raleigh (founder of Roanoke, courtier to the Queen, played by Clive Owen (yum!) in Elizabeth: The Golden Age) felt the need to mock or one-up or put down (hard to know for certain) Marlowe for his poem, crafting a poem in direct response that borrows both the rhyme and metre and the conceit of the poem, and adding a title that made clear what he was up to for good measure:

The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd
by Sir Walter Raleigh

If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherd's tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee and be thy Love.

But Time drives flocks from field to fold;
When rivers rage and rocks grow cold;
And Philomel becometh dumb;
The rest complains of cares to come.

The flowers do fade, and wanton fields
To wayward Winter reckoning yields:
A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy's spring, but sorrow's fall.

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies,
Soon break, soon wither—soon forgotten,
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

Thy belt of straw and ivy-buds,
Thy coral clasps and amber studs,—
All these in me no means can move
To come to thee and be thy Love.

But could youth last, and love still breed,
Had joys no date, nor age no need,
Then these delights my mind might move
To live with thee and be thy Love.

More on Raleigh and his writing

Raleigh was about 12 years older than Marlowe, inasmuch as he is believed to have been born in 1552. He engaged in Court-sanctioned piracy (known as "privateering") against Spain on England's behalf, and was richly rewarded for it. He not only planted English settlers in what is now Virginia, but also in parts of Ireland. He became a particular favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. He also struck up a romance with one of the Queen's ladies in waiting, whom he married on the sly when she was already pregnant. Upon the Queen's dicovery of the "unauthorized" marriage, she threw Raleigh in jail and dismissed his wife, Bess, from her service. He eventually came back into the Queen's good graces, but upon her death was thrown into the Tower of London for 13 years because he'd (allegedly) plotted to overthrow King James. Released from prison to lead an expedition to South America, he returned to England only to be beheaded at the request of a Spanish ambassador. But again, I digress.

Raleigh, an older and, to his own mind, wiser poet than Marlowe, wrote a response to Marlowe's Passionate Shepherd poem which can only be read as a put-down. On the surface, the response is based on the "love's" belief in the transience of life, but really, it was intended as a criticism of Marlowe's youth and naiveté. Although it would appear that Raleigh (apparently) gave Marlowe credit for intending the poem for a female, not that that's dispositive.

Interestingly, both of these poems come from the 1590s. I use the word "interestingly" because it seems to me that the first one, while a bit courtly, reads extremely well in the present day and because, moreover, it seems to me that Raleigh's reply reads as if it could have been written now (apart from the "thees" and "thous").

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Friday, April 17, 2009

O Mistress Mine by Shakespeare

What to pick on the heels of yesterday's poem, "The Lobster Quadrille" by Lewis Carroll? Were it not still under copyright, I'd go with "Bagpipe Music" by Louis MacNeice, a poem that fairly dances across the page and off the tongue. Seeing the words England and France in the poem, I considered going with that old poem by Anonymous:

I see London, I see France
I see (your name)'s underpants.

But that seems an awfully short selection for the day, and I thought perhaps something other than nonsense verse would better suit my mood. I thought "O body swayed to music, o brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?" but, alas, Yeats's "Among School Children" is still under copyright. And thus it was that I looked past the dance to the music, and came to William Shakespeare and one of the songs from Twelfth Night of which I am enamored.

O Mistress Mine
by William Shakespeare
from Twelfth Night, Act I, sc. 3

O mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O, stay and hear; your true love's coming,
That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man's son doth know.

What is love? 'Tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What's to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty;
Youth's a stuff will not endure.

Discussion and analysis:

The structure of the song is as follows: It is rhymed AABCCB DDEFFE, and it uses a mix of meters. The first two lines of each stanza are in iambic tetrameter (although in the first stanza, there's an extra "feminine" ending resulting in nine syllables in a line that has 4 iambic feet: taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM(ta)). The third and sixth lines of each stanza are trochaic trimeter (with an extra stressed syllable at the end of the line: DUMta DUMta DUMta DUM), for a total of seven syllables per line. And the fourth and fifth lines of each stanza are in trochaic tetramter (four trochaic feet per line: DUMta DUMta DUMta DUMta).

Of course, when I sing this to myself (which is far more often than most of you would guess), I sing the alto part to a choral setting that I cannot find on YouTube. Alas. I can share with you this clip from the 1996 movie version of Twelfth Night, with Sir Ben Kingsley as Feste, which includes a nice performance (interrupted by some dialogue between Viola and Orsino):

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Lobster Quadrille by Lewis Carroll

I promised you, when I began my month of poetry posts, that I'd be moving from poem to poem, and that the poems would somehow be interrelated. And I grant you that the relationship between T.S. Eliot and Lewis Carroll is tenuous, and that the connection between "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "The Lobster Quadrille" is not immediately apparent. But allow me to explain myself. See, when I was looking at "Prufrock" again, trying to sort out what lines or themes really spoke to me, a few things popped out. Not the usual favorites ("the mermaids singing, each to each", the yellow fog in its cat-like state, or "I grow old . . . I grow old . . . /I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled"), but the oft-repeated line, "Let us go then, you and I". And I got to thinking about that line, and suddenly, in my head, popped the chorus of "The Lobster Quadrille", which sums up much of what poor Prufrock is going on about: "Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, will you join the dance?" Et voilà.

The Lobster Quadrille
by Lewis Carroll

"Will you walk a little faster?" said a whiting to a snail.
"There's a porpoise close behind us, and he's treading on my tail.
See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance!
They are waiting on the shingle - will you come and join the dance?
    Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, will you join the dance?
    Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, won't you join the dance?

"You can really have no notion how delightful it will be
When they take us up and throw us, with the lobsters, out to sea!"
But the snail replied "Too far, too far!" and gave a look askance -
Said he thanked the whiting kindly, but he would not join the dance.
  Would not, could not, would not, could not, would not join the dance.
  Would not, could not, would not, could not, could not join the dance.

"What matters it how far we go?" his scaly friend replied.
"There is another shore, you know, upon the other side.
The further off from England the nearer is to France -
Then turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the dance.
  Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, will you join the dance?
  Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, won't you join the dance?"

I promise you faithfully that I did not re-read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland all that many times, yet the poems and songs from it (and from Through the Looking Glass) turn up again and again. I am convinced that this is because Carroll is such a master when it comes to wordplay and to metre. His poems tend to stick the way music sticks, in part because of his clever use of repetition, rhythm and rhyme.

As for "The Lobster Quadrille", some say it's a parody of "The Spider and the Fly" by Mary Howitt, which begins "'Will you come into my parlor?' said the spider to the fly." It's not actually a parody, although it borrows the metre, and the first lines are related. Why? There was a well-known tune at the time for "The Spider and the Fly", and it was a cue to folks who knew the tune to sing "The Lobster Quadrille" to the same tune, which would have made the Quadrille catchier still. (You can find a version of "The Spider and the Fly" sung by Robin Hendrix at various internet sources, and can hear snippets of what that song sounded like.)

The lines of the stanzas for the verse are written in fourteeners (although in the first stanza, there's an additional beat in the first two lines), each line having four stressed syllables (which would fall on the beat in 4/4 or "common" time, and each line beginning with a pickup of either an 8th note (1 beat) or 2 16th notes (2 syllables)). The poem is exceptionally musical, and is written in rhymed couplets. Each verse includes a chorus, with a variant of the chorus for the middle stanza.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot

So yesterday, I posted Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress", in which I noted that the point of the poem was, well, "let's get it on." And in the "history of the poet" portion of the analysis, I noted that Marvell was a "poet's poet." In particular, he was a favorite of T.S. Eliot's, and that Eliot wrote an essay about Marvell, in which he specifically praised the structure of Marvell's "Coy Mistress", and, indeed, specific lines, including "Had we but world enough, and time" and "Let us roll all our strength and all/Our sweetness up into one ball". And those lines find an echo in one of my favorite of Eliot's poems, which I featured as recently as January of this year. But as a selection of my favorite poetry could not be complete without Eliot and, indeed, without this particular poem, here it is again, with bonus content in the discussion. Because, y'know, full-service blogger.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
by T.S. Eliot

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
[They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!"]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
[They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!"]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all: —
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
It is perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?

. . . . .

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? . . .

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

. . . . .

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep . . . tired . . . or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here's no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: "That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all."

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
"That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all."

. . . . .

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

*If I thought my answer were given
to anyone who would ever return to the world,
this flame would stand still without moving any further.
But since never from this abyss
has anyone ever returned alive, if what I hear is true,
without fear of infamy I answer you.
from Inferno by Dante

The short-form explanation of this poem is that the speaker, Mr. J. Alfred Prufrock, who lives in a London of the early 20th century polluted with sulfurous smog, is getting dressed to go to a party, where he will see a lady to whom he would like to declare his love. He talks to his reflection as he gets ready to go, projecting what his evening will be like in the rooms where "women come and go,/talking of Michelangelo." And he worries. What if the woman turns him down, or, worse yet, mocks him? Rather than face the possibility of rejection, he opts not to venture out at all. He stays in his rooms, facing a future full of regret wondering whether he dares to eat a peach, growing old and rolling his trousers at the bottoms. Poor guy.

Prufrock misses his chance to declare his feelings, and perhaps find real love, because he cannot bring himself to put himself out there. As one of my dearest friends once said, he's worried about both his emotional and perhaps also his literal impotence, as when he asks, "will I have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?" He's a very careful man. You can tell this from the line, "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons." A coffee spoon, for those of you who do not carefully pay attention to silverware, is significantly smaller than a teaspoon. He is a man who worries. What will people think of his appearance? The insect metaphor - that if he declares himself, he will be an insect, formulated (anesthetized) and pinned to the wall on display - is brilliant. How clinical, how horrible, to think of being a specimen pinned up for all to see and discuss, particularly these rooms full of women.

The poem specifically echoes some of the lines from Andrew Marvell's poem, "To His Coy Mistress". For instance, Eliot's use of "there will be time" is an echo of the opening of Marvell's poem: "Had we but world enough, and time". And these lines: "To have squeezed the universe into a ball/To roll it toward some overwhelming question," are an echo of Marvell's "Let us roll all our strength and all/Our sweetness up into one ball." Only Prufrock is not seizing his day, in the manner of Marvell's speaker, but is questioning whether it would have been worth venturing.

In addition to including a bit of homage to Marvell, this poem pays its due to another of Eliot's poetic "crushes" (if you will), the French poet Jules LaForgue. The repeated chorus in Prufrock ("In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo") is based on a line by LaForgue: "Dans la piece les femmes vont et viennent / En parlant des maîtres de Sienne."
("In the room the women come and go/Talking of the Siennese [painting] masters.") The poem refers as well to two separate Shakespeare plays, Twelfth Night and Hamlet.

The poem is beautifully unified by quite a lot of end rhyme. It doesn't follow any obvious, fixed pattern, yet it is there, and by being there, the poem feels much like music when read aloud. In the end, I find myself feeling sorry for Prufrock and his missed opportunities. As I said in 2006, "the pity one feels for Prufrock is tempered by disdain for his decision not to act. Because it becomes clear that when we don't act, it's not just inertia (an object at rest remaining at rest). Because we are not objects, we are subjects -- we act (or choose not to). And so, for today, I will not measure out my day with a coffee spoon. I will not roll my trousers. I will go out into the day, and greet it. And I will hope it greets me back."

Today I add that I will dare to eat a peach, and hope to disturb the universe, at least a little bit. And you?

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