Literature: April 2005 Archives

Rules for Reading Poetry

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1. First, enjoy reading it--laugh, cry, sit for a moment and look out the window.
2. Next, consider what, if anything, it might mean.
3. Then, forget whatever it was you did in step 2.
4. Last, enjoy reading it. See God where He may be seen.

Believe it or not, people once read poetry for the sheer joy of it. With the right poets, it still may be done. For straightforward one goes to Tennyson, Poe, Wordsworth, for convoluted and lovely one strays into Eliot, Hopkins, Browning, Pound, and Arnold. And there are a great many contemporary poets well worth your attention.

But more on that later. First, I'll solicit suggestions from the audience. Yes--you there, in the front row, yes black sweater. . .

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My beloved is mine, and I am his; He feedeth among the lilies
Francis Quarles (1592–1644)

EV’N like two little bank-dividing brooks,
That wash the pebbles with their wanton streams,
And having rang’d and search’d a thousand nooks,
Meet both at length in silver-breasted Thames,
Where in a greater current they conjoin:
So I my best-beloved’s am; so he is mine.

Ev’n so we met; and after long pursuit,
Ev’n so we joyn’d; we both became entire;
No need for either to renew a suit,
For I was flax and he was flames of fire:
Our firm-united souls did more than twine;
So I my best-beloved’s am; so he is mine.

If all those glitt’ring Monarchs that command
The servile quarters of this earthly ball,
Should tender, in exchange, their shares of land,
I would not change my fortunes for them all:
Their wealth is but a counter to my coin:
The world’s but theirs; but my beloved’s mine.

Nay, more; If the fair Thespian Ladies all
Should heap together their diviner treasure:
That treasure should be deem’d a price too small
To buy a minute’s lease of half my pleasure;
’Tis not the sacred wealth of all the nine
Can buy my heart from him, or his, from being mine.

Nor Time, nor Place, nor Chance, nor Death can bow
My least desires unto the least remove;
He’s firmly mine by oath; I his by vow;
He’s mine by faith; and I am his by love;
He’s mine by water; I am his by wine,
Thus I my best-beloved’s am; thus he is mine.

He is my Altar; I, his Holy Place;
I am his guest; and he, my living food;
I’m his by penitence; he mine by grace;
I’m his by purchase; he is mine, by blood;
He’s my supporting elm; and I his vine;
Thus I my best beloved’s am; thus he is mine.

He gives me wealth; I give him all my vows:
I give him songs; he gives me length of dayes;
With wreaths of grace he crowns my conqu’ring brows,
And I his temples with a crown of Praise,
Which he accepts as an everlasting signe,
That I my best-beloved’s am; that he is mine.

I often wonder if there is some way in which poetry and mysticism are linked. I tend to think that there is, as many of the great mystics were pure poets, and many poets show a rather mystical bent. I suspect that it is the strength of language and the usefulness of metaphor. The mystical experience, from all accounts, can barely be talked about at all much less explicated in some elaborate treatise. As the experience is interior and not fully accessible to the merely sensory, it is suggestive rather than demonstrative, and so lends itself to poetic expression more than prose delineation.

I could be wrong about this. But I look at the works of great poets--Blake, Whitman, Keats, Tennyson, Shelley, Arnold, and others--some of them doubters and even atheists, and they show evidence of contact with another world. In this way they are rather like theoretical mathematicians who push the boundaries of our knowledge of math. Perhaps it is working in words--climbing inside and seeing how they tick and HOW they mean and resonate. Perhaps this too is the thing about poetry that tends to discomfit readers of poetry. They are used to the solid, sturdy meanings of words. Poetry is like a glass floor over an aquarium--you begin to see through the words and think that they might fail you and you would fall through them. They begin to mean more than they mean, and so simultaneously they begin to mean less. Our initial encounter with the multiplicity of meanings tends to force us back to strict definition. I remember the awe and wonder I experienced as I began to consider the word "still" in this line from Keats:

"Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness."

The first line of "Ode on a Grecian Urn." At first glance the meaning is solid, there is no question about what it means and yet it sets up its own resonance. What does the word "still" mean? Well, for one thing, it means silent. So the line becomes "Thou silent unravish'd bride of quietness." It also means unmoving. In further stretches of the meaning it become nearly synonymous with eternity, as in "Are you still here?" And another meaning--often urns were made to hold wine and other offerings to the Gods. In this sense the still could be the distillation of the spirits, both alcohol and the communion of the Saints. That is, the urn suggests a connection to all of those for whom the urn was used as vessel or as decoration and with all of those for whom the urn had some special meaning. As such, it also suggests the container itself--the thing within which the distillation is made. We would have to see as we continue exploration of the poem which of these meanings is borne out. I could reasonably argue that most of them are meant and used in the depth of the poem.

This kind of fruitful ambiguity is often very disheartening and very uncomfortable for people who want a word to mean one thing and to mean that thing only. But it is really the gateway to an entirely new way of seeing things. Poetry uses simile and metaphor, in a sense it seeks the connections between all things. And I suppose in this sense it IS mystical, because the ultimate, underlying connection between all things is that God sustains each one of them. There is nothing that is without the constant mindfulness of God with respect to its being. Nothing can exist outside His will and His constant care. In one way poetry seeks to explore this truth even if the poet explicitly denies it. Poetry tends to give us transcendentalists--Emerson and Whitman; but it also gives us the Divine--St. John of the Cross.

Those who deny themselves the pleasures of poetry deny themselves one means of seeing God. Poetry engages the reason even as it engages the heart and it speaks in a way that prose simply cannot speak. The Psalms tell us nothing "new" about God, but they tell us in a way that may bypass resistance and go straight to the heart. "The Song of Songs" while definitely about erotic love is also about the soul's communion with God--it tells us something of the person whose life is utterly dedicated to God.

And the Song of Songs brings us back to Francis Quarles who started our little conversation. First, note the turns on a simple phrase that adorn the last, and sometimes the last two lines. These set up the interconnections within the poem. They set up the resonances, the echoes that draw you into what is being said. They emphasize and reiterate the point of all that occurs before them, and they ring changes on the simple theme, "I am my beloved's and he is mine."

Examine carefully the third stanza and particularly the changes it rings on the line. "The world’s but theirs; but my beloved’s mine." Notice how "beloved's" here has taken on a dual meaning. It means not only the possessive of beloved, but it also reflects the opposite side of the semi-colon and suggests that the mundane world belongs to those who search for wealth, but the world of the beloved belongs to those who cling to him. It's simple, it's subtle, but it opens up the world of possibilities in interpreting and understanding the poem.

Go on then to the fourth stanza where we are told in the final line:

"Can buy my heart from him, or his, from being mine."

This is in answer to the temptation of the nine muses--the entertaining and lively arts of this world. The poet assures us that all these passing pleasures could not lure him away from the beloved. But notice the end of the line--"or his, from being mine." That is that the heart of the beloved becomes the heart of the speaker/poet.

Continue through, examine the changes rung on the theme. See how poetry pierces through the clatter of argumentation and elaborate logical constructs. I sometimes wonder if this is what St. Thomas Aquinas meant about his words being "as straw." That is, they couldn't begin to give an insight into the actual experience he had even though they gave one of the great pictures of what God is like. However, he would have been wrong, because his hymns and poetry do climb to those heights. They get under the weight of the disputations and arguments and reasoning and pull out from them the simple straight contours of what St. Thomas is trying to tell us all in his great work. Obviously the Summa and the other great works are not mere passing fancies--they are not straw, but a powerful means of coming to know about God and thus ultimately to knowing God Himself, if one is properly disposed. I suspect St. Thomas was merely trying to indicate to us the depth and breadth and height that is achieved in the vision of God that comes to one who dedicates his entire life to God's work cannot be expressed in the way he chose to express the reallities of theology. And He chose to tell us in a simile--in a line of poetry, because only poetry is strong enough to contain the meaning he wanted to convey. Poetry is an exceedingly sturdy vessel for both thought and emotion--and because it does not seek to divorce the one from the other, it allows a different angle from which to view the Glory of God.

So, you poetry-shy out there. Get started. Read slowly, read aloud. Listen to the words and explore and play with them. Poetry is a play-date. It is an invitation to joy. Accept and enter this miraculous world in which things are said without being said.

Afterword: This is not at all what I set out to write this morning. And that is one of the joys of writing, you discover new things as you go. I really just wanted to present this wonderful little gem of Quarles's with perhaps a bit of commentary, but as I wrote, I discovered new things to say. I hope this was as pleasant for you to read as it was for me to discover in writing. Oh, and do let me know what you think about Quarles and any new things you may find in the stanzas.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Literature category from April 2005.

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