Friday, April 30, 2010

I'll tell you how the Sun rose by Emily Dickinson

After yesterday's post, Shakespeare's "Doubt thou the stars are fire" from Hamlet, I was stumped as to how to end this year's National Poetry Month observance. So stumped, in fact, that I am cheating and backdating this post for the 30th, even though it's being written on May Day. But this morning, you see, it occurred to me to end the month with Emily Dickinson, and one of her many poems referencing the sun. This poem exists in manuscript form in two formats - once in four stanzas of four lines each, and once written all of a piece. I've opted for the second version today.

I'll tell you how the Sun rose
by Emily Dickinson

I’ll tell you how the Sun rose –
A Ribbon at a time –
The steeples swam in Amethyst
The news, like Squirrels, ran –
The Hills untied their Bonnets –
The Bobolinks – begun –
Then I said softly to myself –
“That must have been the Sun”!
But how he set – I know not –
There seemed a purple stile*
That little Yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while –
Till when they reached the other side –
A Dominie** in Gray –
Put gently up the evening Bars*** –
And led the flock away –

*stile: A set of steps for crossing over a pasture fence or wall
**Dominie: A schoolmaster
***Bars: Rails used to close off a gap in a pasture fence

Form: Like most of Dickinson's verse, this is written in common meter (8-6-8-6, a common hymn meter, and what makes it possible to sing her poems to tunes such as Amazing Grace, The Yellow Rose of Texas, and the theme from Gilligan's Island). Every second line rhymes (or near-rhymes - the first pairing is time/ran). Dickinson was well ahead of her time in using slant rhyme or near rhyme, something that, along with her preference for em-dashes, gave her first "editors" fits; as a result, they often "corrected" her punctuation and wording. Foolish, foolish, foolish, for her adventurous use of language, imagery and punctuation is sheer brilliance.

Discussion: The speaker here starts out extremely self-assured. "I'll tell you how the Sun rose," she declares, and proceeds to describe how the day became lighter, lighting steeple tops and hill tops first. The speaker claims to be far less certain about the sunset, stating "I know not". Dickinson then uses a protracted shepherd/schoolchildren metaphor to describe the colors in the evening sky - the way yellow light appears through bars of horizontal cloud, and eventually fall into shadow. She compares the yellow light to schoolchildren, climbing a stile, crossing to the other side of the pasture wall where the gray-clad schoolmaster closes up the pasture for the night and shepherds the students away.

If you aren't certain what a stile is, here's a brief video showing people crossing one:

Tomorrow (actually today, May 1st), I'll put up a directory of this month's National Poetry Month posts, which will form a sort of Table of Contents to this year's "Building a Poetry Collection" series.

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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Doubt thou the stars are fire by William Shakespeare

Yesterday's poem selection was They All Want to Play Hamlet by Carl Sandburg, which I posted in part because of last night's U.S. debut of the 2009 BBC/Royal Shakespeare Company version of Hamlet starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart. (It was magnificent. Also, I was quite giddy about watching it, even though I'd already seen it once before, and I tweeted lines and comments throughout the broadcast.) Today, an entirely lovely poem from Hamlet. In the play, it is read by Polonius, but attributed to Hamlet, who sent it to Ophelia as a token of his love - before she rejected him at her father's urging and then acted as a puppet on behalf of Claudius and Polonius in order to explore whether he was truly mad or not.

Doubt thou the stars are fire
by William Shakespeare

Doubt thou, the stars are fire,
Doubt, that the sun doth move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love.

Form: A single stanza in iambic trimeter (three iambs per line - taDUM taDUM taDUM - although the first two lines could arguably begin with trochees: DUMta taDUM taDUM), which is cross-rhymed, meaning that the first and third lines rhyme, as do the second and forth. Or at least, in Shakespeare's time, "move" and "love" rhymed (with both of them sounding more like the word "clove" at that time).

Discussion: Shakespeare has crafted a lovely little poem here - it is short, but packs a wallop, conveying a sincerity and depth of feeling quickly, so as to move the scene along.

Hamlet tells Ophelia what she may question: she may question scientific things that involved a component of belief (at least at that time): whether the stars are fire, whether the sun moves. (The question as to whether the sun moved around the earth or vice-versa was not a clearly resolved issue in Shakespeare's time; although there was evidence that the solar system was, in fact, heliocentric, that reasoning had not yet been determined incontrovertible. Then again, perhaps he meant whether the sun moved at all, even if he did believe in a heliocentric system.) She may "doubt truth to be a liar" - that is, she may question the existence of truth itself, or suspect that what is told to her as truth is false. But the last line says that she should not doubt that he loves - or does it? Because, of course, the word "doubt" could also be used in Shakespeare's time to mean something like "suspect" - and that is a horse of an entirely different color, if the final line is to be read to mean "but never suspect me of loving [you]."

If Shakespeare was indeed using "doubt" to mean "suspect", he could be telling Ophelia to be willing to consider that the stars ARE fire, that the sun DOES move, that truth can be used to lie . . . and that Hamlet can never love.

Oh the wonderful ambiguity of these lines, which leave us guessing. I would argue, based on Hamlet's sincere grief and remorse over Ophelia's later death and his assertions that he loved her (including a competition with Laertes in which Hamlet asserts that he loved Ophelia far more than her brother ever did) that this poem was intended by Hamlet to be sincere, but that Polonius's reading was done in a way to insinuate that it was not - allowing for the audience to wonder, when Hamlet wigs out on Ophelia just after his "To be or not to be" soliloquy, whether he'd been toying with her all along.

Dear Mr. Shakespeare: You are one brilliant dude.

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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Just look what that wonderful Jama Rattigan did!

She put up a lovely post about me and my writing, including a poem I wrote about my grandfather, Paul Stewart. And my very own recipe for Chocolate-Chip Banana Bread. But of course, being from Jama Rattigan, it's one of the prettiest posts on the internet, and it makes me seem all professional and talented and whatnot. Thank you, lovely Jama!

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Break, Break, Break by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

After yesterday's poem, "Dulce et decorum est" by Wilfred Owen, my thoughts flew to one of the best-known, best-loved poems perhaps ever, "Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas, a villanelle with the recurring lines "Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light." That poem remains under copyright, however, and one of the few limits I've imposed on myself for this "Building a Poetry Collection" series is that the poems featured must be in the public domain here in the U.S. So, no Dylan Thomas today after all, although those of you inclined to read Thomas's exhortations to his dying father are free to follow the above link.

It then occurred to me to post "Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven" by William Butler Yeats, which I've posted twice before (although not as part of this series). But I've already posted at least two Yeats poems this month, and that seemed a bit too Yeats-heavy for me, even though he is one of my favorite poets. I considered going with "O Captain! My Captain!" by Walt Whitman, but then it occurred to me that I recently posted some Whitman, and that I haven't included any Tennyson this year. And thinking we could all use a bit more Tennyson in our lives, I came to today's actual selection, selected largely for its third stanza, although the repetition in this poem and its excellent recite-ability was a factor in the choosing:

Break, Break, Break
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Break, break, break,
  On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
  The thoughts that arise in me.

O, well for the fisherman's boy,
  That he shouts with his sister at play!
O, well for the sailor lad,
  That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
  To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanish'd hand,
  And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break
  At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
  Will never come back to me.

Form: The poem is arranged in three rhyming stanzas, with the even lines in perfect rhyme. The metre is not fixed, but tends to include three or four stressed syllables per line (usually three). It trips off the tongue in what can be an almost sing-song manner, but were you to recite it aloud, you would of course try not to make it sing-songy.

Discussion: The speaker appears to be by the sea, watching the ships and boats as they come and go and the way the waves break on the shore. The second and first half of the third stanzas indicate that life is good for the fisherman's boy and the sailor and the stately ships, but the last two lines of the third stanza bring the speaker around to "the thoughts that arise in [him]": he is in mourning. In the final stanza, the speaker exhorts the sea to continue pounding against the rocks along the shore - or at least observes that the sea continues to pound - whereas the speaker will never again spend time with his lost loved one.

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Monday, April 26, 2010

Dulce et decorum est by Wilfred Owen

After yesterday's poem by Rupert Brooke, "The Soldier", I thought I'd move on to Wilfred Owen's famous war poem, "Dulce et Decorum Est". The title of the poem comes from one of Horace's Odes, written in Lattin (of course): Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, which is quoted in full at the end of the poem. The translation for the Latin is, roughly, "It is sweet and seemly to die for one's country." One of the most famous of the War Poems from WWI and one, is a condemnation of war and its atrocities.

Dulce et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Form: The poem is written in iambic pentameter (five iambs or iambic feet per line: taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), except for the final line, which is in iambic trimeter (three iambs). It uses alternating rhyme throughout. Consisting of 28 lines, it is arranged into four stanzas of varying length, with the arrangement of the rhyme as follows: ABABCDCD EFEFGH GH IJIJKLKLMNMN.

Discussion: This is perhaps the most famous war poem written, and in a 1995 poll conducted by the BBC, this poem came in as number eight. It's the sort of poem that really brings home the horror and desperation of war, the sort of poem that should give thinking men pause before committing troops to a conflict. Too few of the world's decision-makers read poetry, I think, but perhaps I digress.

The poem describes a gas attack during the First World War, as men were already headed away from the battlefield toward the rest area out of reach of the mortars and shell. "Five-Nines" are 5.9 calibre shells, and I've seen this poem written with the phrase "disappointed shells" instead of "tired, outstripped Five Nines" as well. The speaker and most of the men around him manages to get his gas mask (helmet) on in time to avoid harm from the gas, but one man does not, and his agonizing death is described in ghastly, graphic terms, as well as how his body was "flung" into a cart as they continued to make their way through the mud of the battlefield. Owen makes clear that the memory of this gas victim continues to haunt his dreams.

Owen wrote the poem in 1917, while at a military hospital being treated for shell-shock. The earliest draft of the poem was dedicated to Jessie Pope, a poet who had written a lot of gung-ho pro-war poetry including a poem entitled "Who's for the Game?", which concludes "Come along, lads— but you’ll come on all right—/For there’s only one course to pursue,/Your country is up to her neck in a fight,/And she’s looking and calling for you." In fact, some evidence exists to suggest that Owen originally intended to send the poem to Pope. Later drafts removed Pope's name and were dedicated to "a certain Poetess", although the poem was ultimately published after the war with no dedication at all.

The phrase "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" is part of a slightly longer, well-known Latin quote from Horace, which was widely used at the time as a toast. The full quote concluded that while it might be sweet and fitting to die for one's country, it was sweeter still to live, and sweetest of all to drink to that country. The opening snippet, used as the conclusion of the poem, was frequently repeated during the Boer war, and was etched in stone at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst. It is also found carved in Arlington National Cemetery at the entry to the Memorial Amphitheatre.

Owen was killed in combat just a week before the end of WWI. News of his death reached his home town in England as the bells rang out to celebrate the armistice.

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Soldier by Rupert Brooke

Yesterday's poems by Christina Rossetti were both about death, and about remembrance of the deceased after death. Today's poem flows naturally from this, being as it is about a person's request if they should die. This is one of the most famous of war poems, written during the first World War by an Englishman names Rupert Brooke.

The Soldier
by Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:
  That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
  In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
  Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
  Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
  A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
    Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
⋓ And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
    In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Form: This poem is a sonnet, and is a modern sonnet in that Brooke mixes two forms of sonnet to arrive at his own rhyme scheme. The first eight lines are rhymed according to the Shakespearean model (ABABCDCD), and the final six are from the Petrarchan or Italianate model (EFGEFG). The poem is written in iambic pentameter (five iambic feet per line: taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM).

Discussion: The octave (first eight lines) describes the possible fate of Brooke's body - it was raised in England, so it is itself a small piece of England, wherever it may be buried. The sestet talks about Brooke's soul, which is (according to Brooke) eternally English. The poem is exceptionally idealistic and patriotic. It was widely imitated after it was first written and made known, but as the horrors of the war became widely known and the world fell into a general disillusionment in its aftermath, the poem became dismissed in some camps for its idealism. But oh, the aching beauty of it.

Brooke wrote the poem in 1914, and died the following year of blood poisoning. His bit of forever England is indeed in a foreign field, on the island of Skyros. He himself became a symbol of the tragic loss of youth during World War I.

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Saturday, April 24, 2010

When I am dead my dearest and Remember by Christina Rossetti

Yesterday's selection, Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe, was about love surviving death, told from the point of view of the survivor. The bonus poem, Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, contemplates aging and death (in a way), but I opted to go back to Poe before moving on today. And the Poe poem called to mind for me some of the poems of Christina Rossetti, which are from the perspective of the dead or dying person in the relationship.

When I am dead, my dearest
by Christina Rossetti

When I am dead, my dearest,
  Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
  Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
  With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
  And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
  I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
  Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
  That doth not rise nor set,
Haply* I may remember,
  And haply may forget.

* haply: perhaps

Form: It's a form of hymn metre, with alternating longer and shorter lines. The first, fifth and seventh line of each stanza is compose of two iambs and an amphibrach (taDUM taDUM taDUMta, or i-AMB i-AMB am-PHI-brach). The third line of each stanza is in iambic tetrameter (four iambs per line - taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM). The even-numbered lines are all in iambic trimeter (taDUM taDUM taDUM).

Analysis: Rossetti gives her loved one permission to remember or forget her once she's dead, and acknowledges that she will no longer be aware of what transpires in the world once she is buried. She goes on to indicate that she believes in some sort of immortality of the soul with the phrase "And dreaming through the twilight/that doth not rise nor set", but it appears she does not hold out hopes of heaven or belief in hell, and is uncertain what sort of consciousness her own soul will have - maybe it will remember her loved one, maybe not. To me, this is the reading of the poem on its face, which I find fascinating because Rossetti has a reputation as a devout Anglican, who refused to see one of Wagner's operas because it was based in paganism and gave up chess because winning gave her too much pleasure.

In any case, this poem reminds me in many ways of one of Rossetti's sonnets, which I'm posting here as well:

by Christina Rossetti

Remember me when I am gone away,
  Gone far away into the silent land;
  When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
  You tell me of our future that you planned:
  Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
  And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
  For if the darkness and corruption leave
  A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
  Than that you should remember and be sad.

Form: An Italianate sonnet written in iambic pentameter, and rhymed ABBAABBACDDECE.

Discussion: I like this so much better than Mary Frye's "Do not stand at my grave and weep" - I can't even tell you. I like that Rossetti simply wants to be remembered from time to time, but not to give pain to her loved one with that memory: "Better by far your should forget and smile than that you should remember and be sad."

Although, the precursor for that closing sentiment is a bit ambiguous, and I rather suspect that Rossetti was addressing particular thoughts or ideas she held and had expressed to her loved one. It says "If the darkness and corruption leave/ a vestige of the thoughts that once I had,/ better by far you should forget and smile/ than that you should remember and be sad." Where this becomes ambiguous is that we don't know what thoughts Rossetti is referring to. Perhaps her thoughts were troubling to the person left behind - maybe she said she didn't believe in heaven, or thought she was doomed to hell, or something similar, which would cause a person with different beliefs pain when thinking of her being departed and not in heaven, or in being departed and merely being worm food (if she didn't believe in an afterlife at all), or perhaps she's referring to something else entirely that she'd said that had given the loved one pain. Again, given her reputation as a devout Anglican, nonbelief in an afterlife seems unlikely, but I think that a closer reading of this poem indicates that there was a difference of opinion between her and her loved one on a point, the memory of which disagreement would upset the survivor.

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Friday, April 23, 2010

Sonnet 73 by William Shakespeare

In honor of the commemoration of William Shakespeare's birthday, I thought I'd share Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 ("That time of year thou mayst in me behold"), which is set in late fall. The commentary is a reprise from the last time I posted this poem, in February of 2008.

Sonnet 73
by William Shakespeare

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
  This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
  To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Form: It's a Shakespearean sonnet, written in iambic pentameter and rhymed ABABCDCDEFEFGG.

Discussion: Broken down in the crassest of ways, the speaker here spends four lines comparing himself to a tree in winter, another four comparing himself to twilight (with night encroaching), and yet another four in comparing himself to a dying fire, with an overt reference to a death-bed in line 11. The final couplet is, to me, the real volta here, where Shakespeare ceases to speak of "me" and shifts to "thou", and the topic shifts from metaphors for death and aging to a direct address about love and parting. Despite a fairly bleak opening, I find hope in this poem because of its last lines, which speak of love strengthening and which can, I believe, be read in a carpe diem* kind of way.

Many folks read the poem literally as one intended to be "spoken" by an older person to someone much younger, and I have to say I think that's an entirely fair reading. The poem can also be read as being about the speaker's creative life: his work was once compared to the singing of sweet birds, but now is diminished; his star is fading; his creative powers are nearly used up. I have to say that while that second interpretation is one that's very popular with the "write a bullshit essay for school" crowd, I don't believe for moment that Shakespeare intended for the poem to be about his art, even though one can freely analyze it that way and likely get an A on the essay in doing so.

No, my take is that Shakespeare was most likely feeling neglected or a bit unappreciated by a lover and was trying to gain their sympathy (or heap coals upon them) by invoking thoughts of his death. It's all very melodramatic and over the top, and similar to what a lot of teenagers might do (even though Shakespeare was probably in his twenties or thirties when this was written), yet it rings true in a way that making these about Shakespeare's death or dying art do not. First, there's his age to consider - he was not an old man when he wrote this sonnet. Second, there's his art to take into account: he was still growing and writing and succeeding. In either case, personal experience/autobiography seem out of the question. Unless, of course, you believe, as I do, that Will was trying to manipulate someone by preying on their emotions.

Sonnet 73 is part of a quartet of sonnets that deal with aspects of death, and are usually read together. The quarter is composed of sonnets 71-74, and most folks read them as an older man (most believe Shakespeare himself) considering his own mortality, and writing poems for a young male friend he leaves behind him. Why male? Beats me. There's nothing in the poems overtly indicative that such is the case, although references to the other person facing public scrutiny might be taken that way (and many scholars believe that it was Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton and Shakespeare's patron, to whom these poems were addressed). It seems to me far more likely that these lines were written by Shakespeare in order to manipulate a woman he knew, or else written for Southampton so that he could share them with a mistress in order to try to make her feel sorry for him. Or perhaps to try to get Elizabeth I to pardon him for schtupping one of her ladies-in-waiting without her permission or for backing Essex's rebellion against the Queen.

Sonnet 71 takes a pious martyr-like tone and urges the surviving loved one not to mourn overly much, because it's not the dying person's desire to see him/her unhappy, nor does the speaker want the survivor to be "mocked" for their sentimental mourning: "I'm just thinking of you, dear; I would never want you to be unhappy. When I'm dead." Sonnet 72 reads like a dejected, almost petulant, lover, speaking of how unworthy he is of love and undeserving of praise, and exhorting the survivor (after his death), not to heap praise on the speaker because it would be a lie: "I'm a mutt, a mongrel, unworthy even of being kicked". Sonnet 73 you've just read, and Sonnet 74 talks about how the dead speaker's body may decay, but his spirit will live on with the loved one he addresses, as memorialized in the lines of his poem: "Don't be sad. Even when I'm dead and my body is being devoured by worms, probably because I've been knifed, and I'm unworthy of being remembered by you, you'll have this sonnet about me being dead to remember me by." (Sorry for the overly long description of Sonnet 74, but really, the lines about worms and being knifed and how base the writer is were too good not to mention.)

* seize the day

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Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe

Following up on the yesterday's poem, "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes, I'm going with another sad tale of love and loss: "Annabel Lee" by Edgar Allan Poe, which is, like "The Highwayman", a narrative poem and has (besides a sad love story) internal repetition, which is what brought this poem to mind. The lovely image in today's post (of which I own a print) is by Kevin Slattery, who is a friend and a brilliant artist, and who will be only too happy to sell you prints and mugs and the like over at his website - he even has a Mother's Day special going right now. Thanks again, Kevin, for letting me use your lovely work on my blog!

Annabel Lee
by Edgar Allan Poe

It was many and many a year ago,
  In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
  By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
  Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
  In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
  I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven
  Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
  In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
  My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
  And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
  In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
  Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
  In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
  Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
  Of those who were older than we—
  Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
  Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
  Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
  Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
  Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
  Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
  In her sepulchre there by the sea—
  In her tomb by the side of the sea.*

*The last line here is from Poe's original manuscript; it is sometimes printed as "In her tomb by the sounding sea," but I happen to like the original ending better (metrically and sound-wise).

Form: A mish-mash of poetic feet (including a lot of anapests: tadaDUM) that impels the lines along. If you really want a break down on it, let me know and I'll be happy to do a line, stanza or the whole poem. Same goes for the rhyme scheme, which uses a lot of repetition and end-rhyme (particularly things ending in a long E sound: Lee/me/sea). Even with the varying line lengths and rhyme schemes, the story in this poem coupled with its use of metre, rhyme and repetition made it quite popular for recitation.

Discussion: This poem, written in the year of Poe's death (1849), is widely believed to have been written in memory of Poe's wife, Virginia, who died of consumption (tuberculosis) two years earlier. Poe had married his much-younger cousin (um, she was only 13 when they wed) in a love match, and she died when she was only 26 or 27. Poe lived only two years longer, alcoholic and quite ill himself (although the cause of his death has never been determined, and rumors abound that foul play may have been involved).

The poem speaks of an idealized love, but one that cannot be severed by trifling things like mortality. It's a lovely, heartfelt tribute to his deceased wife, if she was its inspiration (there are other women whom Poe had known in younger years who claimed the poem was about them). There is also a legend in Charleston, South Carolina, involving a woman named Annabel Lee and a heartbroken sailor, which may have been his source of inspiration for the poem (especially since he served as in the army in that town). Although it is not, strictly speaking, a ballad (in part because the stanza lengths vary), Poe referred to it as such.

There are some people (I'm looking at you, Harold Bloom, although you're not the only one) who will insist that Poe was a hack as a poet, but I am not one of those people who thinks that only poems that are hard to understand or remember are good ones. I think that any poem that resonates with the reader in some way, that leads to either a recognition or revelation or emotional response, can qualify, and under my personal unfussy rubric, "Annabel Lee" makes the grade. Is it high literature? No. But it packs a wallop, and many folks will remember this poem or "The Highwayman" and their stories of love and loss far more than they will remember the particulars of poems that are harder to parse.

I'll be back later in the day with some Shakespeare, since today is the day that his birth is celebrated. (I won't go so far as to declare it his actual birthday, since that is not actually known for a fact.)

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes

Okay. Kind of apropos of nothing, since I managed to miss all of yesterday and most of today somehow, here's today's selection. It's long, but it's spectacular, and it is paired today with a piece of artwork by Tom Sperling, who was kind enough to give me permission to post his artwork, which he prepared for use by the Cambridge University Press.

This poem, while not having the great literary merit that many of the others in the "Building a Poetry Collection" series have, has a certain magical something - in form, it is a ballad, and it is made to be recited aloud, and it tells a story in a song-like manner (which may explain why it was wildly popular for memorization and recitation and why it's been set to music more than once). Without further ado, today's poem:

The Highwayman
by Alfred Noyes


The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin.
They fitted with never a wrinkle. His boots were up to the thigh.
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
    His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.

Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard.
He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred.
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
    Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked
Where Tim the ostler listened. His face was white and peaked.
His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay,
But he loved the landlord’s daughter,
    The landlord’s red-lipped daughter.
Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say—

“One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I’m after a prize to-night,
But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light;
Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,
Then look for me by moonlight,
    Watch for me by moonlight,
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.”

He rose upright in the stirrups. He scarce could reach her hand,
But she loosened her hair in the casement. His face burnt like a brand
As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast;
And he kissed its waves in the moonlight,
    (O, sweet black waves in the moonlight!)
Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the west.


He did not come in the dawning. He did not come at noon;
And out of the tawny sunset, before the rise of the moon,
When the road was a gypsy’s ribbon, looping the purple moor,
A red-coat troop came marching—
King George’s men came marching, up to the old inn-door.

They said no word to the landlord. They drank his ale instead.
But they gagged his daughter, and bound her, to the foot of her narrow bed.
Two of them knelt at her casement, with muskets at their side!
There was death at every window;
    And hell at one dark window;
For Bess could see, through her casement, the road that he would ride.

They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest.
They had bound a musket beside her, with the muzzle beneath her breast!
“Now, keep good watch!” and they kissed her. She heard the doomed man say—
Look for me by moonlight;
    Watch for me by moonlight;
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way!

She twisted her hands behind her; but all the knots held good!
She writhed her hands till her fingers were wet with sweat or blood!
They stretched and strained in the darkness, and the hours crawled by like years
Till, now, on the stroke of midnight,
    Cold, on the stroke of midnight,
The tip of one finger touched it! The trigger at least was hers!

The tip of one finger touched it. She strove no more for the rest.
Up, she stood up to attention, with the muzzle beneath her breast.
She would not risk their hearing; she would not strive again;
For the road lay bare in the moonlight;
    Blank and bare in the moonlight;
And the blood of her veins, in the moonlight, throbbed to her love’s refrain.

Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horsehoofs ringing clear;
Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot, in the distance? Were they deaf that they did not hear?
Down the ribbon of moonlight, over the brow of the hill,
The highwayman came riding—
The red coats looked to their priming! She stood up, straight and still.

Tlot-tlot, in the frosty silence! Tlot-tlot, in the echoing night!
Nearer he came and nearer. Her face was like a light.
Her eyes grew wide for a moment; she drew one last deep breath,
Then her finger moved in the moonlight,
    Her musket shattered the moonlight,
Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him—with her death.

He turned. He spurred to the west; he did not know who stood
Bowed, with her head o’er the musket, drenched with her own blood!
Not till the dawn he heard it, and his face grew grey to hear
How Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
    The landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Had watched for her love in the moonlight, and died in the darkness there.

Back, he spurred like a madman, shouting a curse to the sky,
With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high.
Blood red were his spurs in the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat;
When they shot him down on the highway,
    Down like a dog on the highway,
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with a bunch of lace at his throat.

. . .

And still of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
A highwayman comes riding—
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard.
He taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred.
He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
    Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

Form: As stated at the start, this poem is a ballad, a song-like form of poem that tells a story. Each stanza contains six lines and is rhymed AABCCB. The metre is a mixture of feet that propel the poem along at a gallop, mimicking the hooves of the highwayman's horse and contributing to the tension within the poem. The second C line is shorter than the first and repeats the idea contained in the first C line.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Break of Day by John Donne

Yesterday's poem, "Death Be Not Proud", was from the thoughtful, more religious side of John Donne. Today, a more earthly love poem in rhymed couplets from Donne, who lived in the late 16th and early 17th century. About two hundred years after his birth, Dr. Samuel Johnson dubbed him a "Metaphysical Poet", part of (and in truth, founder of) a loosely associated group of poets who used art, history and religion as extended metaphor (known as a conceit, a word which here has absolutely nothing to do with being stuck-up. The Metaphysical Poets delighted in using what was considered unusual imagery and syntax in their poems. Expediency caused him to convert from Catholicism to the Anglican church; Donne was eventually forced by King James I to become an Anglican clergyman (by royal decree preventing him from occupying any other job, no less).

Today's poem was, as it turns out, actually written as a song and set to music by three different contemporary (to Donne) composers: John Dowland, Orlando Gibbons and William Corkine.

Break of Day
by John Donne

Tis true, 'tis day; what though it be?
O wilt thou therefore rise from me?
Why should we rise, because 'tis light?
Did we lie down, because 'twas night?
Love, which in spite of darkness brought us hither,
Should in despite of light keep us together.

Light hath no tongue, but is all eye;
If it could speak as well as spy,
This were the worst that it could say,
That being well, I fain* would stay,
And that I loved my heart and honor so,
That I would not from him, that had them, go.

Must business thee from hence remove?
O, that's the worst disease of love.
The poor, the foul, the false, love can
Admit, but not the busied man.
He which hath business, and makes love, doth do
Such wrong, as when a married man doth woo.

*fain: happily

Form: The poem/song is written in three stanzas of six lines each using iambic tetrameter (meaning there are four iambs per line: taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM) for the first four lines, and iambic pentameter (five iambs per line - taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM) for the last two, and in rhymed couplets; as a result, each stanza rhymes AABBCC. The effect of the two longer lines at the end of each stanza is to slow the pace a bit, and also to impart a bit more weight to those closing lines in each stanza than is given to the first four lines.

Discussion: The poem is sometimes considered an aubade, a poem or song about lovers separating at dawn (like his poem, "The Sun Rising"), although as the poem progresses, it becomes clear that this is not truly a love song, but is instead a complaint about the man's priorities. John Donne writes the poem from a female point of view, something that becomes apparent for the first time in the second stanza. The first stanza asks whether the man must get up and go just because it's now daylight, making the point that their decision to lie down together was not based on it being dark. "If we found each other despite it being dark, should we not remain together despite it being daylight?" is a slightly update variant of the final question of the first stanza.

The second stanza features a personification of "light", which is characterized as being all-seeing, but incapable of speech. If light could speak, however, (says the female speaker) the worst it would be able to say is that the speaker would happily stay with her man, based on her own principles of love and honor, both of which are qualities that she attributes to the man as well.

The final stanza makes clear that the people involved in the poem are not nobility, and at leisure, but are working folk: The man must rise in order to attend to his business concerns, and is not at leisure to love. "Love can permit the poor (meaning those who aren't good at it), the foul (those who are unpleasant) and the false (those who are impure of heart), but a busy man doesn't have time for it" is what those middle lines are getting at. Like the commonplace phrase that "the law is a jealous mistress", the notion expressed in the final stanza is that business is so consuming that a man who is dedicated to his work treats his loved ones in the same way that a married man treats his mistress (presumably with less than full and ardent attention).

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Monday, April 19, 2010

Death Be Not Proud by John Donne

After yesterday's poem, "Full Fathom Five" by William Shakespeare, I seriously considered posting about The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot. I even spent hours reading and pondering yesterday, but it's a ridiculous notion - I could spend a week on that poem, and more than one post on any one section of it. My next thought was to post "I started Early - Took my Dog" by Emily Dickinson but I posted that one last year during National Poetry Month as part of this "Building a Poetry Collection" series.

Then I got to thinking about that bell in "Full Fathom Five", which led me to think of this passage from John Donne's Meditation XVII, presented here with modernized spellings:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.
Such a lovely snippet, though the entire Medititation is pretty great. The Meditation comes from Donne's religious persona. Donne lived in the late 16th and early 17th century, and wrote an interesting mix of work - some religious, some quite, um, not-religious.

About two hundred years after his birth, Dr. Samuel Johnson dubbed him a "Metaphysical Poet", part of (and in truth, founder of) a loosely associated group of poets who used art, history and religion as extended metaphor (known as a conceit, a word which here has absolutely nothing to do with being stuck-up. The Metaphysical Poets delighted in using what was considered unusual imagery and syntax in their poems. Expediency caused him to convert from Catholicism to the Anglican church; Donne was eventually forced by King James I to become an Anglican clergyman (by royal decree, preventing him from occupying any other job, no less).

Many of Donne's poems dwell on issues of death and mortality, including one of my favorites of his works, "Death Be Not Proud", which I've been remiss in not posting before. The poem is actually entitled "Holy Sonnet X" or "Divine Sonnet X", but is usually called by its first few words.

Death Be Not Proud
by John Donne

Death, be not proud, though some have callèd thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou'art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy'or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Form: It's a Petrarchan or Italianate sonnet written in iambic pentameter (five iambic feet per line taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM) - that first line is written "death BE not PROUD though SOME have CALL-ed THEE" - when reading it aloud, however, I always go with modern pronunciations, which makes the line read as follows "DEATH BE not PROUD though SOME have CALLED thee". No sense torturing the language just to make the meter fit when the result sounds awkward to modern ears.

The rhyme scheme is ABBAABBACDDCEE (remembering that in Donne's day "eternally" rhymed with "die").

Discussion: The poem uses apostrophe, meaning that the poem is a poem of address directed to an imaginary figure or an abstract idea. Here, the poet speaks directly to death as if death were a person. (Rather like this Monty Python bit from The Meaning of Life, but I digress.)

Based in a Christian belief in the immortality of the soul, the poet chides death - heck, he practically taunts it - saying that death has nothing to be proud of, since it doesn't actually kill anyone.

Man, do I love this poem, which I memorized once upon a time after reading it in high school English class. These days, I only have the first full complete clause committed to memory: "Death, be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so."

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Full Fathom Five by William Shakespeare

Yesterday's post, a selection from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage by George Gordon, Lord Byron, included references to wrecks at sea, immediately calling to mind "Full Fathom Five", one of Ariel's songs from The Tempest by William Shakespeare. I dwell in particular on the line "those are pearls that were his eyes", which often sticks in my brain - not just from this song in The Tempest, but also because it is referenced in "Burial of the Dead" from T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland.

Full Fathom Five
by William Shakespeare

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them — Ding-dong, bell.

Form: This is essentially a cross-rhymed eight-line poem, although the interjection of "Ding-dong" as its own line makes that slightly less than apparent at first glance. It's rhymed ABABCDC(ding-dong)D. Lines two through seven have an identical meter: two trochees followed by an amphimacer (or cretic foot). A trochee (pronounced TRO-key) is a poetic foot consisting of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one, and a cretic or amphimacer is a three-syllable foot consisting of two stressed syllables with an unstressed one in the middle. (E.g., "TROchee TROchee CREtic FOOT" or "THOSE are PEARLS that WERE his EYES.")

Discussion: "Full Fathom Five" is the second song performed by Ariel in Act I, sc. 2 of The Tempest. I say the "second song", even though some people believe it's a second verse to "Come Unto These Yellow Sands" because the rhyme scheme and verse structure are a bit different. Also, a musical setting of "Full Fathom Five" as a separate song has survived from Shakespeare's time to the present, set to music by King James I's lutenist, Robert Johnson, so I rather suspect they had different tunes as originally performed.

Fans of Shakespeare may want to come back in June for Brush Up Your Shakespeare Month, which is shaping up to have lots of discussion, a few guest appearances, and several fabulous prizes. One of the plays on this year's roster is The Tempest; another is Measure by Measure, but I'm getting ahead of myself. As a further digression, fans of The Tempest and young adult literature will want to grab Lisa Mantchev's Eyes Like Stars, now available in paperback, and to keep a lookout for the sequel, Perchance to Dream, since Ariel is a character in both books (and a yummy character he is, too).

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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage by Lord Byron

I spent a lot of time today trying to figure out what poem should follow yesterday's choice, "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" by William Wordsworth. And I kept coming up blank, except for a possible return to some verses from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage of which I am particularly fond. And so it came to pass that Byron is my pick for today, even though most of the rest of this post is a reprise from January, when I spent the entire month studying Persuasion by Jane Austen, in an event I called A Winter's Persuasion. Many consider it the most Romantic of her works, and certainly her references to Romantic poets such as Byron (both explicit and implicit) are part and parcel of why that is so.

Today, two stanzas from Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, the fourth canto (a canto being rather like a chapter, if by chapter one means "a whole lot of stanzas"). I have posted excerpts from Childe Harold before: stanzas 137 and 138 back in 2007, and one of my favorites, stanza 178 back in 2006. Today's selection is once again stanza 178, not only because I love it so, but also because it is the lead-in to stanza 179, which is referenced by Austen in chapter 12 of Persuasion.

from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto the Fourth
by George Gordon, Lord Byron

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar;
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne'er express, yet cannot all conceal.

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean — roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man marks the earth with ruin — his control
Stops with the shore; — upon the watery plain
The wrecks are all thy deed, nor doth remain
A shadow of man's ravage, save his own,
When, for a moment, like a drop of rain,
He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan,
Without a grave, unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown.

Canto IV of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage marks Byron's shift from mere Romanticism to what some call "high romance". Note how he praises nature and condemns man's intrusion - by which he means society, of course, because Childe Harold is the poem wherein Byron creates what is known today as the Byronic hero: a sexy, dark & twisty sort of man who is a bit of an outcast, prone to mood swings, possibly narcissistic and/or self-loathing, with a disdain of society and/or its norms, a strong cynical and arrogant streak, but with a good heart. Rather the way Caroline Lamb once described Byron: "mad, bad, and dangerous to know." Other Byronic heroes of whom you might be fond include Han Solo, the vampire Lestat, Mr. Rochester, and Batman.

The form. You may already have noticed that Byron was using a repeated meter and rhyme scheme here. The form of stanza he's using is Spenserian stanza, which was used by Edmund Spenser in his magnum opus, The Faerie Queen. Each of the stanzas has nine lines. The rhyme scheme of each stanza is ABABBCBCC, with the first eight lines being in iambic pentameter (five iambic feet per line: taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM). The last line of each stanza is what is known as an "alexandrine", being a line in iambic hexameter (six iambic feet per line). The extra foot in an alexandrine has the slowing or swinging effect of dragging a train around a corner (you are free to picture the train of a dress or a railroad train) - the point being that there's a little extra effort to be made on that last line, which alters the pace of the poem as a whole (if you are reading more than one stanza of the poem). Back in Byron's time, it was quite common for people to read out an entire Canto in an evening, since reading was often done aloud, and this poem, like so very many others, is designed for that purpose.

Similarity to Sir Walter Scott?
I cannot help but notice (and I'm certain Austen noticed as well) the similarity between the last line of stanza 179 ("unknelled, uncoffined and unknown") and a line written by Sir Walter Scott's in the narrative poem he published seven years earlier than Byron's Childe Harold, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Canto VI, stanza 1, which speaks of a man dying "unwept, unhonored, and unsung". That portion of The Lay (written in rhymed couplets using iambic tetrameter) is usually excerpted as "Breathes There the Man With Soul So Dead", which is generally perceived as a poem about patriotism:

Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned,
As home his footsteps he hath turned
From wandering on a foreign strand!
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonored, and unsung.
I rather suspect that the similarity was intentional on Byron's part, and that he was engaging in the time-honored tradition of engaging in a dialogue of sorts with another poet through his own work. The similarity of the lines, coupled with the placement of the similar evocative (and memorable) terms speaks of intention, but Byron has specifically replaced Scott's dust with water. Scott has claimed that if there's a man who doesn't take pride in his homeland, then he dies a double death and deserves to die unmarked and unmourned. Thus, where Scott believes man ought to claim dominion, ownership or at least sense of pride in "[his] own, [his] native land", Byron makes clear that while man might exercise some sort of dominion over land, he ruins it as he does so, and then goes further to say that man holds no power whatsoever over the sea, and that his efforts to establish dominion through an exertion of power at sea is fruitless: thus his man is reduced to insignificance: a mere drop of rain in the ocean.

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Friday, April 16, 2010

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by William Wordsworth

Before I even hit "post" on yesterday's poem, "Home-Thoughts from Abroad" by Robert Browning, I knew that this was today's choice. Amazing that it took me until after dinner to get around to posting it, huh? But I spent the morning reading Volume II of Sense and Sensibility, and the afternoon on writing and errands, and the day got away from me. But I digress. The reason that I knew I wanted to post this poem today is because of Robert Browning's description of the yellow buttercups that so reminded him of April in England; today's poem also involves yellow flowers and memory.

Some of you may know this poem as "Daffodils", though that's not its actual name; its real name is "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud", and it's an extremely popular, much-anthologized poem.

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
by William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
&emsp That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
&emsp A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
&#8195 And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
&#8195 Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
&#8195 Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
&#8195 In such a jocund company:
I gazed— and gazed— but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
&#8195 In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
&#8195 Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Form: Each stanza has 6 lines, is written in iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet per line: taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), and has a rhyme scheme of ABABCC; this form, essentially an open form in "sixain" (six lines to a stanza), was first developed by Shakespeare in "Venus and Adonis", and was used by Wordsworth in this poem, written in 1804.

Discussion: If you read this one aloud, it is easy to fall into a "pause-at-the-end-of-each-line" mentality, as a means of emphasizing the rhyme scheme, but this is something you SHOULD NOT DO, because you will be lulled into a false sense of complacency by the rhythm and sing-song rhyme effect you achieve, and you will not truly hear the poem.

Here's the first stanza written out with pauses only where they naturally occur:

I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host,
of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake,
beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

If you go back and read the poem aloud, following the punctuation, you will be able to better hear what Wordsworth is saying. And while references to nature and use of metaphor are common devices in modern poetry, they are used in part because Wordsworth came along and wrote in the way that he did, with a reverence for and appreciation of nature, and with a focus on emotional response to nature and other stimuli. As a result, Wordsworth is widely credited as being one of the first poets in the Romantic era, along with his friend Coleridge, whose poems were included in the 1798 publication Lyrical Ballads, which I referenced in a now-old quoteskimming post.

Today's poem is one of the best-loved and most well-known in the English language, and that is with good reason: its imagery is lovely, its rhyme and metre make it easy to memorize, and the story it tells (of seeing something beautiful and unexpected in nature and reliving it in memory) is one that resonates with a lot of people. Wordsworth also looks at psychological aspects of memory here - he relates the actual story of his walk with his sister, Dorothy, and their happenining upon a large swath of daffodils by a lake. But the point isn't that he took a walk and saw daffodils; it's the emotional journey he took (from loneliness to happiness), and the effect of the memory of the daffodils on his present mood. At the time he wrote the poem, he was breaking new ground, although it may seem tame to some now. But I rather think that those who take the time to read the poem aloud will not think it tame, but will instead take the journey along with Wordsworth from lonely wandering to a happy view of blinding yellow daffodils to an appreciation of the joy the memory must hold.

Speaking of Dorothy Wordsworth, she accompanied her brother most everywhere he went, and she was a poet as well as a diligent diarist. Wordsworth is believed to have relied on her diaries when calling up details to write some of his poems. Here, for instance, is Dorothy's journal entry from the excursion with her brother when they saw daffodils by the lake:

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Truckery Rhymes by Jon Sciezska

From the library, I borrowed a copy of Truckery Rhymes by Jon Scieszka, beloved former Ambassador of Children's Literature, illustrated with characters developed by David Shannon, Loren Long and David Gordon, with a whole illustration team (drawings by Juan Pablo Navas, color by Isabel Nadal and Gabriela Lazbal).

Truckery Rhymes is part of the Trucktown series of books put out by Simon & Schuster and created by Scieszka and others. It features 22 rhymes based on Mother Goose rhymes and nursery songs, with some of the names changed to the names of the various truck characters (which, I am guessing, carry over from book to book within the series). The first rhyme in the book is "Jack Be Nimble."

Jack Be Nimble

Jack be nimble.
Jack be quick.
Jack smash through the wall of brick.

The illustration shows an ambulance watching in astonishment as the cab of a big rig drives off across a field, having driven straight through a brick wall.

The rhymes kept me giggling throughout. How can you not laugh at "Three LOUD Trucks"?

Three LOUD trucks.
Three LOUD trucks.
See how they ZOOM.
See how they ZOOM.
They all jumped over the muck and goo.
They skidded and screeched and their mufflers blew.
Did you ever see such a crazy crew?
As three LOUD trucks.
Three LOUD trucks.

Some of the rhymes scan better than others - there are some, such as "Eenie Meanie Mynie Mo" that add extra syllables beyond what are contained in the original rhymes, making them tough to read "properly" the first time (or, in my case, the second and third times), but the ones that are good are very good indeed.

Highly recommended for parents of young children, especially those who love trucks and tractors and/or who like to laugh and be silly (and really, that's most of them, yes?)

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Home-Thoughts from Abroad by Robert Browning

Yesterday's post was "Pied Beauty" by Gerard Manley Hopkins was a tribute to spotted, speckled things - among them, the finch. Today's poem mentions finches as well, at least in passing - and how could I pass up this lovely poem by Robert Browning, the first two lines of which are often quoted on their own. Browning wrote it while he was living in Italy with his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Home-Thoughts From Abroad
by Robert Browning

O, to be in England
Now that April's there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England — now!

And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossom'd pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops — at the bent spray's edge —
That's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children's dower
— Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

Form: The first stanza is rhymed ABABCCDD; the second is rhymed AABCBCDDEEFF. The meters are all over the place, and if you are interested in a line-by-line breakdown (or any particular line), let me know and I'll be happy to break it down for you. Since I'm not certain anyone but me cares, I'll simply note that there are a number of lines in iambic pentameter in the second stanza, and I'll move on to my next point. Browning's second stanza is an expanded version of the first; that is to say, he wrote an eight-line first stanza and a twelve-line second stanza, something he accomplished by adding a rhymed couplet at each end of that second stanza (if I replace the couplets in question with XX, you can see it: ABABCCDD XXABABCCDDXX).

Discussion: The first stanza sets the emotional tone: "I'm a bit homesick for England" as well as talking in general terms about what people in England see in April. The second stanza becomes far more personal and detailed, as Browning described his images of precise lands within England - his own home, which he left behind when he eloped with his bride and moved to Italy. The phrase "Hark, where my blossom'd pear-tree in the hedge" gives it away.

The description of spring in England are based in his memories and include tremendous sensory detail, which lends to the sense of longing for home in the poem. The final line references a flower not found in England; instead, it's about an Italian flower in Browning's view in Italy, which pale by comparison to his memories of buttercups. It's a rather Romantic view of life in England - the capital R there indicates that the poem fits within the Romantic movement, which put the focus on rural life and on sentimentality.

Still, while Browning obviously misses some aspects of his homeland, the poem doesn't indicate that he wants to return to England. He's just drawing a comparison between his memories of spring in England and the reality of the months of April and May in Italy. Being further south and of a warmer climate, Italy's spring is past, and the melons are already in blossom; it feels more like summer.

(Of course, today one might prefer to be in Italy in April, what with volcanic ash from Iceland filling the skies above the U.K. I'm thinking of all of you in Iceland, the U.K., Scandinavia and any other countries being affected by the ongoing glacial eruption.)

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins

We left off yesterday standing out in the moist evening air looking skyward with Walt Whitman in "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer", which put me in mind of poems praising nature, which led to Gerard Manley Hopkins and "Pied Beauty".

Hopkins converted to Catholicism and became a Jesuit priest, who worked with what he called "sprung rhythm", which was based in early Anglo-Saxon rhythms involving the placement of stressed syllables within a line and relying in part of repetition of words and sounds within a line. Rather than using iambic pentameter or any other fixed metre, his lines vary in length and placement of stressed syllables (akin to accentual verse), giving them a unique, organic feel and foreshadowing the coming of free verse.

If you have a few moments, read this one aloud, and you'll get the feel for what Hopkins was up to with his craft.

Pied Beauty
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things—
  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
  Landscape plotted and pieced— fold, fallow, and plough;
    And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
        Praise him.

Form: This particular poem is a "curtal sonnet". The curtal sonnet was a form invented by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and which he used in at least three poems. The curtal sonnet is composed of 10-1/2 lines, which Hopkins considered to be a Petrarchan sonnet condensed down to 3/4 its usual size. You can read Hopkins's justification for and mathematical explanation of the form at Wikipedia (yes, I just sent you to Wikipedia - it's as good an explanation as you'll find anywhere of what Hopkins was up to with this form). The rhyme scheme employed is ABCABC DBCDC.

The poem is not written in iambic pentameter as so many sonnets are, but uses "sprung rhythm", Manley's "invention" based on Anglo-Saxon poetry that used a lot of alliteration and lines which had a caesura in the middle. Anglo-Saxon poems generally had two stressed syllables per half, as described in more length in my 2008 post about Beowulf and Sir Gawain over at Guys Lit Wire.) In this particular poem, I count five accented syllables in most lines, although I'm hard-pressed to read "With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim" and not end up with six accented syllables. See those accents in the last line of the first stanza? Those were Manley's, and he meant for both "all" and "trades" to be read as accented syllables.

Discussion: The word "pied" in the title means spotted (or, if you prefer, dappled). This entire poem is in praise of things with spots, from trout to cows to the way the skies have spots of cloud or the fields, which are compared to a quilt: "Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow and plough".

The first six lines give examples of the pied things for which Manley is offering thanks; the second stanza (of four and one half lines) expands to thank the Lord for all of the things that might fit within this category. What I like about the second stanza is its ambiguity: is Manley telling all those things that are freckled, fickle, etc. to praise God, or is he praising God for having made them? The stanza reads well both ways, and I rather think that was on purpose. (I also think it was a deliberate echo of the Anglican hymn, "All Things Bright and Beautiful", written by Cecil Frances Alexander in 1848, which lists off the creations of God, and which in turn may have been based on something Coleridge wrote in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner". You can read a bit about Alexander in Sherry's post at semicolonblog. But I digress.)

I appreciate how Hopkins condensed the sonnet form down to a shorter approximation of itself, and how he managed to keep a rhyme scheme intact while varying his line lengths due to his use of sprung rhythm. It's interesting to see him, placed as he was at the end of the 19th century, finding ways to stay within form while breaking it at the same time. Clever, clever man.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer by Walt Whitman

Yesterday's poem, Choose Something Like a Star by Robert Frost, had me thinking of sharing something by T.S. Eliot with you, but I really didn't feel like putting the time and effort into an analysis of The Wasteland today, so instead I've gone a slightly different direction. In the middle of yesterday's poem come these lines:

Say something! And it says "I burn."
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
Those lines put me in mind of a famous short poem by Walt Whitman, "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" from Leaves of Grass, which discusses Whitman's response (or his speaker's response) to having been told just these sorts of details.

When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer
by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Form: Free verse - no particular form or meter, although the last line is quite intentionally in iambic pentameter.

Discussion: This poem is a lovely marriage of form and function, by which I mean that Whitman cleverly uses line lengths and numbers of stressed syllables to organize this poem. He begins with a short line that has three (or, if you like, four) stressed syllables ("when i HEARD the LEARN'D aSTRONomer" or "when I HEARD the LEARN'D aSTRONomer"), and the next few lines continue to add length and stressed syllables, an echo of how the lecturing astronomer piled more and more date and factual information onto his listeners, until you reach line four, which has a minimum of eight stressed syllables (and just look how long it is! in many type-settings, it wraps to a second line). The first four lines, all part of this single-sentence poem, set the stage for us: the speaker has been sitting listening to more and more information about stars and planets. In line five, we join him in being tired and sick of all that piling on, and in lines six through eight, we join the speaker in gliding out to a solitary space away from all those applauding listeners to stand and appreciate the night stars on our own. From the frantic piling on at the start of the poem, the lines start to quiet down again to shorter lines, until the final line settles into the most regular of English meters: iambic pentameter, stable and steady as the ticking of a clock. There's a lovely quiet feeling to the ending, partly because of the speaker's description of being alone and gazing up at the stars, and partly because of that regular iambic pentameter at the ending.

It ties to yesterday's poems in several ways, for me. Although Frost's poem was written much later, Whitman's speaker has literally turned his back on all those degrees Fahrenheit and Centigrade that Frost was demanding, and has chosen a star to gaze on, and be staid.

Does the poem represent the triumph of nature over science, or does it merely indicate a preference, or does it simply indicate that while science is all well and good, there's something to be said for appreciating the universe in silence? How important is the difference between science, as represented by astronomy, and the "mystical" night sky? Is this really a contrast between science and faith? Between the collective and the individual? Frankly, all those positions are readily defensible when reading this poem, but for today, I am choose to think of that mystical evening view and be staid.

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Choose Something Like a Star by Robert Frost

Following yesterday's poem selection, A Man Said to the Universe by Stephen Crane, I considered posting something from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass that begins "A child said 'What is the grass?'", but it turns out I posted that as part of this series already, on April 2nd of last year. I toyed with posting a second Crane poem ("In the Desert"), but opted instead to go with a poem that - at least on its surface - addresses communication by a speaker on earth with a body out in space. It is a partial reprise of a post I did in January of 2009 about the dialogue between poets - in this case, Keats and Frost and, as you'll see, T.S. Eliot as well.

Choose Something Like a Star
by Robert Frost

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud—
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, 'I burn.'
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats' Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

This 25-line poem is written in iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet per line), and uses a complicated nested rhyme scheme (AABAABCBDEDEFGGFGHIIHJKKJ), although one could fairly characterize the final eight lines as stanzas set in envelope rhyme. The starting 17 lines use a nested rhyme technique that is quite similar to what T.S. Eliot used in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", posted here previously, and rest assured, that is no coincidence.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Man Said to the Universe by Stephen Crane

Yesterday's poem involved Shakespeare's statements about the immortality of his verse. Hubris? Maybe, but it seems to have proven true. Today's poem looks, however, at the flip side. Known best for his realistic prose, including The Red Badge of Courage, one of the texts that was (and still is) widely read in U.S. high schools, Stephen Crane also wrote poems (that he referred to as "lines" - think, perhaps, of Wordsworth's "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey", and one can readily see that the use of the word "lines" to discuss poetry isn't his alone).

A Man Said to the Universe
by Stephen Crane

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
“A sense of obligation.”

Form: Free verse. No fixed metrical pattern or rhyme scheme.

Discussion: It's small, but it packs a wallop, does it not? The man goes with a simple declarative sentence, and the universe answers back with a rather more complicated sort of response. What is the point of the man's statement? Is he simply trying to get a bit of attention, or is he trying for something more? Is he trying to establish some sort of authority? And how does he expect the universe to respond? Probably not the way it does.

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Perchance to Dream by Lisa Mantchev

I know, I know. It's National Poetry Month, you say. Why are you blogging about a prose novel? The answer is that I just can't help myself. And! Many of the characters in Perchance to Dream are based on (or pulled out of) Shakespeare's plays (and I did just post Shakespeare's Sonnet 55 yesterday). Also! There is a bit of poetry within the book. Specifically, on page two of the book, Peaseblossom (yes, one of the fairies from A Midsummer Night's Dream) creates her own prologue, which begins as follows*:

A gloaming peace this evening with it brings
In the countryside where we lay our scene
Toad-ballad accompan'd, crickets sing,
and cupcake crumbs make fairy hands unclean.
(Bonus points to those of you who recognize Peaseblossom's prologue as a parody of the opening of Romeo and Juliet:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
But I digress, as this is not a post about poetry, but is instead a post about Perchance to Dream, which draws its title from yet another Shakespeare play, Hamlet - and specifically from the monologue beginning "To be or not to be, that is the question."

Many of you may recall that one of my favorite YA novels published last year was Eyes Like Stars by Lisa Mantchev. In it, readers were introduced to Bertie (Beatrice Shakespeare Smith), a young girl raised by committee within the confines of the Théâtre Illuminata. Bertie's constant companions are Moth, Cottonseed, Mustard and Peaseblossom, four of the fairies from A Midsummer Night's Dream. In Eyes Like Stars, Mantchev's first book, we learn that Bertie has quite a crush on Nate, a pirate from The Little Mermaid, and is entangled – emotionally and otherwise – with Ariel, the air spirit from The Tempest. Through a fantastic series of events (and I mean that in both senses of the word and in the best possible way), we learn the identity of Bertie's mother and that Bertie has quite a magical way with words. The book ends with Bertie, the four fairies and Ariel setting off into the wide world outside the Théâtre to rescue Nate, who has been taken by Sedna, the sea goddess. If you've not read the first book yet, then I assure you that you are in for a treat – and that I haven't managed to completely spoil it for you. There are so many reasons to read (or re-read) the book: Shakespeare! tango! mystery! adventure! (What I've mentioned here is the sketchiest of outlines.) But again, this review is supposed to be about Perchance to Dream. I am as distractable as a fairy in a dessert car, am I not?

In Perchance to Dream, we follow Bertie's adventure in the wide world alongside the dreamy Ariel, off in a caravan pulled by clockwork horses (so cool!), accompanied by the small (but huge-of-heart) fairies as company. Early in their travels they encounter Waschbär, a sneak-thief who keeps company with a pair of ferrets named Pip Pip and Cheerio, and the Scrimshander, an interesting sort of being whom I won't attempt to describe just now. Both of the new men turn out to have far more important roles than one might initially expect, but in the interest of not spoiling the novel, that's all I'll say about that. There is a wedding feast, a circus train, a magical marketplace, a cliff, an undersea kingdom and more. There are two leading men, one extremely determined leading lady who refuses to be anyone's satellite and insists on making her own stage directions, and (as in the first book) a celebration of the magic and power of words.

I can't really tell you anything about the plot of this book except that Bertie remains determined to rescue Nate from Sedna, that the fairies remain determined to eat everyone they meet out of house and home (especially if there's pie to be had), and that many of the characters, Bertie included, are more than they first appear to be – and nearly all of them surprise themselves with the choices they are willing to make, often for the sake of others.

While I can't say much about the plot, what I can tell you is that the story is exceedingly well-written, that the plot is riveting, the characters are engaging (I continue to half-wish that the four fairies were real and could come live with me, although in real life, they'd be pretty mortifying – and hard to keep in cake; I also have the hots for Ariel, even though it could never work out between us – he's an air spirit and I'm an Aries; fire and air is too combustible to last), and that the world inside the book is interesting enough to make me want to revisit it. Both of these books are on my "I wish I'd written that" shelf, to give you some idea how very much I love them.

Perchance to Dream is caravaning its way into stores at the end of May. The paperback version of its predecessor, Eyes Like Stars, is, however, already appearing in some stores in advance of its April 13th release date. Please do not trample anyone on your way to get it, but do move with all deliberate speed to acquire Eyes Like Stars if you haven't already done so. You'll thank me when you're all caught up for this book come May.

Oh. Before I go. Come this year's Summer Blog Blast Tour (which will be in May), I'll be interviewing the lovely and talented Lisa Mantchev. You won't want to miss it.

*The quote from the book is drawn from an Uncorrected Advanced Review Copy and the final text may therefore vary. Many thanks to the good people at Feiwel and Friends for sending the ARC my way.

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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Sonnet 55 by William Shakespeare

Sometimes the mental path between two poems is pretty plain, as with the progression the other day from La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats to Song of the Wandering Aengus by W.B. Yeats, and sometimes it looks like a quantum leap. I thought, therefore, that I'd explain the hop-skip-jump of today's selection by walking through it.

Yesterday's selection, Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats, had me scratching my head this morning. At first, I thought about how I should've engaged in an examination of the ars longa, vita brevis component of it, and I cast about for a poem on that subject - of which there are many, really, but it wasn't the theme I felt like talking about today. Instead, this partial line of the "Ode" leapt at me: "therefore, ye soft pipes, play on[.]"

It called to mind the opening of one of my favorite of Shakespeare's plays, Twelfth Night, which finds a pining Orsino saying "If music be the food of love, play on!" Here, in fact, is his opening speech of 15 lines. Notice how the first three lines establish that there's a lovelorn backstory already in play, and that this is a comedy - since Orsino says, in essence, that if music feeds love, he wants to hear so much of it that he chokes to death, thereby ending his suffering.

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe'er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.

It being in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter), I considered declaring it a poem and calling it good, but that simply wouldn't do. However, I'd arrived at Shakespeare, hadn't I? And that ars longa, vita brevis notion was still tickling my brain, so I have arrived at least at today's poem:

Sonnet 55
by William Shakespeare

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments,
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme,
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils* root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick** fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
'Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
  So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
  You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.

*broils: tumults, battles

**quick: probably intended for its double meaning: 1) fast-burning and 2) the sort that burns something to its quick, or its very heart/center

Form: A Shakespearean sonnet, of course, written in iambic pentameter (5 iambic feet per line, taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), and with a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The first eight lines are grandstanding, in a way: "Monuments shall fall into ruin, but not your reputation" is the gist of it. The next six lines take a slight turn (or volta) when the focus shifts away from monuments falling to wars and the ravages of time and more to the active nature of the poem and its ability to preserve the memory and reputation of the Fair Youth: "My poems about you will keep your memory - and therefore the essence of you - alive until Doomsday".

Discussion: First, let me say how very much I love the line about "unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time", "sluttish" being a word which here means "disgustingly dirty", and not actually something sexual. Second, let me say that this poem conjured for me an image of fallen statues, which naturally called up "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley, which I discussed as part of last year's National Poetry Month posts, with its image of trunkless legs standing in the desert.

Of particular interest are the personification of war through the invocation of Mars, the Roman god of war, and how Shakespeare claims that Mars is no match for poetry. In fact, he claims that poetry will outlast war, while the physical things built by men will not. (A different sort of take on ars longa, vita brevis, which is usually interpreted as meaning that a particular work of art - say, a marble statue - will long outlast a human life. Shakespeare's art is his poetry, which he claims will outlast even those marble statues (and he has been correct in some cases, as with respect to works of art destroyed by war or the ravages of time).

The final couplet is an extremely pithy summary of what he's been saying all along: "So, until judgment day, you live in my poem, and as a result, your spirit is kept alive in that of all lovers."

Pretty bold claim, and yet who am I to argue? Four hundred years or so after it was written, this poem is still around and we're still talking about it and about Shakespeare's obvious love (platonic, romantic, sexual, or otherwise) for the Fair Youth, whose identity can only be guessed at (although many believe it to be Shakespeare's patron, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton). Still, that Fair Youth's spirit is kept alive, is it not, by these poems? And while it would be tempting to dismiss Shakespeare's talk of "powerful rhyme" and his claims of keeping the Youth's reputation and memory alive until Doomsday as hubris - and I'm nearly certain he took crap for it during his lifetime and was undoubtedly accused of puffery, to say the least - it would seem that the Bard might be having the last laugh. For while it is not yet time for the final judgment (best as I can tell), there are plenty of folks still admiring Shakespeare's "powerful rhyme".

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