Poetry and Poets: August 2002 Archives

Return to Medieval England


Return to Medieval England
But not courtesy of me, this time, I'm sure you're thankful. Ms. Knapp of From the Anchor Hold has posted a wonderful excerpt of that great blossom of Medieval English Poetry--Geoffrey Chaucer. Said excerpt highlights the qualties of a good shepherd. Hie thee there and partake of it!

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Another Pope


(Titter) Couldn't resist the pun. Oh well. Many don't care for the poetry of Alexander Pope, they find it too rigidly regular, too uncannily metrical, stiff and inelastic, poems as chunks of concrete. To which I reply, Gustibus non est disputandem. I really like all of those aspects of Pope and his flair for finding just the right chink in the armor, just the right thing to say, as in this excerpt from the somewhat shorter Essay on Criticism

from Essay on Criticism Alexander Pope

Of all the Causes which conspire to blind
Man's erring Judgment, and misguide the Mind,
What the weak Head with strongest Byass rules,
Is Pride, the never-failing Vice of Fools.
Whatever Nature has in Worth deny'd,
She gives in large Recruits of needful Pride;
For as in Bodies, thus in Souls, we find
What wants in Blood and Spirits, swell'd with Wind;
Pride, where Wit fails, steps in to our Defence,
And fills up all the mighty Void of Sense!
If once right Reason drives that Cloud away,
Truth breaks upon us with resistless Day;
Trust not your self; but your Defects to know,
Make use of ev'ry Friend—and ev'ry Foe.

A little Learning is a dang'rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

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Thou Art Peter III Viva Il Papa!


From the poetry of His Holiness John Paul II. (Find more poetry here.)

from Space Which Remains in You
John Paul II

(spoken by the apostle John)

Your arms now remember His space, the little head
snuggling to your shoulder,
for the space has remained in You,
for it was taken from You.

And shining never empty. So very present in You.
When with my trembling hands I broke the bread
to give it to you, Mother,
I stood for a moment amazed as I saw
the whole truth through one single tear
in your eye.

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Dylan's Poetry Review


Dylan's Poetry Review
Yes, once again La Vita Nuova hosts a lovely couplet. In this case a pair of poems. One by 16th century poet Thomas Campion, the other by Countee Culllen. These kinds of reasonable comparison completely defy those who wish for a rigid and largely exclusive canon. (Although, are there really any such unreasonable beasts, or are they straw men? I don't know sufficiently the shape of the academic terrain to say. But considering that in all books about the Western Canon I hear not a single word about the poets of the Harlem Renaissance, Vachel Lindsay, or Paul Lawrence Dunbar, one must begin to wonder.) The Canon can take in an enormous amount and never bloat, and I would guess that Countee Cullen is more likely to speak to modern young people than Leo Tolstoy, Henry James, or several others commonly in the canon (although, in reality, given our current trends in education, most modern young people may emerge from school unable to read or apprehend any of them).

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Continuing on the Previous


Another poem by Countee Cullen--this one relates some of the feelings a person of color might have had at the time that he wrote his poetry. Once again, what an advantage it would have been to have been able to read something like this in a high-school literature course. Yes, I know there are innumerable wonderful things in literature, but I can recall a few things that made no sense of impression on me at all and could have been dispensed with. But here a cri de coeur which, like Rap Music, can be taken up by all who feel alienated from those around them. And heaven knows, youth knows enough about alienation.

from "The Shroud of Color"
Countee Cullen
(for Llewellyn Ransom)

"Lord, being dark," I said, "I cannot bear
The further touch of earth, the scented air;
Lord being dark, forewilled to that despair
My color shrouds me in, I am as dirt
Beneath my brother's heel; there is a hurt
In all the simple joys which to a child
Are sweet; they are contaminate, defiled
By truths of wrongs the childish vision fails
To see; too great a cost this birth entrails.
I strangle in this yoke drawn tighter than
The worth of beaing it, just to be man
I am not brave enough to pay the price
In full; I lack the strength to sacrifice.
I who have burned my hands upon a star
And climbed high hills at dawn to view the far
Illimitable wonderments of earth,
For whom all cups have dripped the wine of mirth,
For whom the sea has strained her honeyed throat
Till all the world was sea, and I a boat
Unmoored on what strange quest I willed to float. . .

Do yourself a favor and go and find the rest, it is worth your time, as will be any of the other poems you may find in a volume dedicated to his writings--"Christus Natus Est", "Judas Iscariot," and the wonderful narrative poem "The Black Christ." I think Dylan mentioned Countee Cullen as his favorite neglected poet--I owe him a great debt of thanks to the (re)-introduction.

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I dedicate these to Dylan and Ono between the two of them I was moved to dig up a book and pull out these particular poems. The first consists of two of four short epitaphs by Countee Cullen. The second a magnificent sonnet that at one time was much more popular than presently; originally an outcry against racism in the inner cities, it was carried by a great many soldiers in World War II. Both are works by great, but largely neglected African American poets. Proponents of true multiculturalism seek to redress the gross injustice of the exclusion of such great work from the common heritage. We are all diminished when we choose to exclude such luminous voices from our cultural vocabulary.

from "Four Epitaphs"
Countee Cullen

For John Keats, Apostle of Beauty
Not writ in water nor in mist,
Sweet lyric throat, thy name;
Thy singing lips that cold death kissed
Have seared his own with flame.

For Paul Lawrence Dunbar
Born of the sorrowful heart,
Mirth was a crown upon his head;
Pride kept his twisted lips apart
In jest, to hide a heart that bled.

Only short samples, but I'm sure you can agree that they are quite lovely and to the point. I particularly like the poignancy of the image of Keats's kiss searing Death's lips.

If We Must Die
Claude McKay

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accurséd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

Some decry multiculturalism. I decry its excesses, but I also decry the blindness that did not allow me to encounter poems such as these until well into my adulthood. I am glad that children educated today are getting a broader sense of the contributions made to literature by all peoples. My only wish is that we would choose works of quality, not merely works that are representative. There is no need to abandon the works of the Western Canon. Shakespeare can be taught alongside works like these, as can Keats and others. However, when left to the mulitculturalists, works chosen do not necessarily represent great works of literature, but agenda-supporting works of literary propagandists. Literature should be chosen for its quality, not for the political agenda it supports. In fact, it should be chosen IN SPITE OF political agenda, as I am sure I could not agree with the politics of Pablo Neruda, but I still admire On the Heights of Macchu Picchu.

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This from the progenitor of the melancholy Graveyard poets, Thomas Gray. It was unfinished at the time of his death and completed (more or less) by another. Still given two hands, this isn't at all a bad little poem.

Ode on the Pleasure Arising from Vicissitude
Thomas Gray (1716-1771)

Now the golden Morn aloft
Waves her dew-bespangled wing,
With vermeil cheek, and whisper soft
She woos the tardy Spring:
Till April starts, and calls around
The sleeping fragrance from the ground;
And lightly o'er the living scene
Scatters his freshest, tenderest green.

New-born flocks, in rustic dance,
Frisking ply their feeble feet;
Forgetful of their wintry trance
The birds his presence greet:
But chief, the skylark warbles high
His trembling thrilling ecstasy;
And, lessening from the dazzled sight,
Melts into air and liquid light.

Rise, my soul! on wings of fire,
Rise the rapt'rous choir among;
Hark! 'tis Nature strikes the lyre,
And leads the general song:

Yesterday the sullen year
Saw the snowy whirlwind fly;
Mute was the music of the air,
The herd stood drooping by:
Their raptures now that wildly flow,
No yesterday, nor morrow know;
'Tis man alone that joy descries
With forward, and reverted eyes.
Smiles on past Misfortune's brow
Soft Reflection's hand can trace;
And o'er the cheek of Sorrow throw
A melancholy grace;
While Hope prolongs our happier hour
Or deepest shades, that dimly lower
And blacken round our weary way,
Gilds with a gleam of distant day.
Still, where rosy Pleasure leads,
See a kindred Grief pursue;
Behind the steps that Misery treads,
Approaching Comfort view:
The hues of bliss more brightly glow,
Chastis'd by sabler tints of woe;
And blended form, with artful strife,
The strength and harmony of life.
See the wretch, that long has tost
On the thorny bed of pain,
At length repair his vigour lost,
And breathe, and walk again:
The meanest flow'ret of the vale,
The simplest note that swells the gale,
The common sun, the air, the skies,
To him are opening Paradise.

Humble Quiet builds her cell,
Near the source whence Pleasure flows;
She eyes the clear crystalline well,
And tastes it as it goes.

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This poem is such a typical, lovely evocation of the graces of Our Lady that i couldn't resist a brief excerpt. This time I'll provide a few explanatory notes, althought you can pick them up at the Teams site if need be. (Take heart, read it aloud, phonetically, and you'll be surprised at how easy it comes).

from "The Joys of Mary"


Heyle be thou, ladye so bryght:
Gabriel that seyde so ryght,
"Cryst ys wyth thee."
Swettyst and swotyst in syght, (sweetest and most fragrant)
Modyr and mayde of myght,
Have mercy on mee.

Hayle be thou, fynest to fonde: (fonde=to seek)
Jesu thy sone, y undyrstonde,
Of thee borne he was.
Glad were thou, lef in londe, (loved in the land--on earth)
Tho thou haddyst in honde (tho=when)
The prynce of oure pees.

Heyle, ladye, flower of alle thynges:
Ryally three ryche kynges,
Derely dyght, (Richly clothed)
Comely wyth knelynges, (beautiful in kneeling)
Broughten thi sone three thynges;
The sterre was lyght.

Hayle, gladdyst of alle wyve: (wyve=women)
Aryse fro deth to lyve
Thy sone, tho thou syghe.(tho= while)
Blyssyd be thoo woundys fyve
That made mannys soule to thryve
In heven so hyghe.

Heyle, joye in hert and in yghe: (yghe=eye)
Wyth yghe thy sylf thoo thou syghe (with your own eyes, though you sighed)
On Holy Thursdaye,
Jesu thi sone all upstyghe (upstyghe=ascended)
Hoom into heven so hyghe,
The apostles to paye. (paye=reward)

Heyle, ladye, full of all blys,
Tho that thou wentyst wysse (tho= when; wysse=directly)
To blys soo bryght,
That blys God lete us never mysse,
Marye; thou us wysely wysse (wysse=guide)
Be daye and be nyght. Amen. (be=by)

I'm half sorry, half overjoyed to burden you all with this because I find the language so beautiful and the sentiment so true. The richness of the imagery and the strength of the devotion of the poet are such that they cannot be doubted or questioned. I hope you've enjoyed the brief excursions, and I promise that other than a link in the side column, you will not be further burdened by my enthusiasm.

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Food for Thought


This Post over at Video M... provided some fodder for rumination. I join the ruminants. It says in part:

If one uses a journal to vent or complain, perhaps that only serves to reinforce the sense of injustice that you feel in being wronged, rather than in forgiving that person and "moving on".

I have kept a journal for 30 or more years and I discover that in keeping the journal I pray more often and more deeply. I pray with pen in hand, waiting to hear what may be spoken.

Yes, I have used the same journals to rake people over the coals, but what I have discovered is that writing out my "complaint" gives me the ability to let go of it. I remember of one particularly unfortunate victim of my pique I wrote,

When you die no worms
will open the windows of your corpse.
You would melt the plastic violets
in an old lady's hat.

It went on from there, but vitriol is best contained in small vials and the continuation was simply bleeding out the rest of the wound. As a result of writing that poem I was able to forgive the person whatever unimaginable harm they had done me.

I use the journal to write "unsent letters" that spell out my grievances in atrocious detail. When I am finished, there is no need to send the letters and all has been forgiven.

But the plus side of a journal far outweighs the minus side. When I reflect on the Bible I can find truths that sometimes I am surprised to stumble over in later years, providentially at a time when I need to remember that aspect of God's Mercy.

However, I can see that a journal can be used to work yourself up from merely made into violent fury--to concentrate venom from a very minor infraction into virulent poison--to turn a mosquito bite into dengue fever. If you do not write as a normal thing, then a journal may serve as a repository of cherished feelings, and among the most cherished are the nursing of some grievous wound dealt you by some callous fraud. I'll be most interested in seeing how Mr. O'Rama plays this out.

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Blogging in the early morning is tough. It seems few bloggers have been active enough between the time I go to bed and the time I get up for me to comment on much of anything. Only Dylan at Error 503 seems to rise and blog before I do on a regular basis. Of course, that's good, because it is the one page on which I read every single word, and occasionally, words that are not there. This morning some excellent information on prose works by prominent poets. Dylan may eventually work his way around to convincing me that Dylan Thomas and e.e.cummings are actually work my time--he's made significant inroads (Moreover, I'm sure it's what he lives for.:-). Others I am significantly more dubious about. I'm afraid my taste in modern poetry is probably rather deplorable--I judge less well when it comes to modern times. My favorites are Roethke, Maxine Kumin, Linda Pastan, and Dana Gioia. I really like parts of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, but I have personal reservations about reading poets who spend so much of their time forecasting their own suicides. (Add John Berryman to that group). Dylan always gives me a chance to see something in a new light, and therefore proves a most delightful read. He seems to have read every major modern poet and a great many of those who have written in the past. If you don't read poetry (poor you!) you might want to skip over there right now and start your education. You'll find that when you don't have a fiercely autocratic teacher leaning over your shoulder asking you what it means, poetry can be a very enjoyable diversion.

Also, speaking of Dana Gioia, a must read for all people who have not already done so AND who are interested in the modern poetry world (note the boolean logic there) is Dana Gioia's remarkalbe excursion in criticism, "Can Poetry Matter?" Quite controversial in its time, I think much of what Gioia has to say is right on the mark. But perhaps Dylan would be so kind as to disabuse me of these prejudices as time continues.

Okay, now your turn--Aubade or Raga?

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For Chesterton Fans


It may be that this is available elsewhere on the web, but this is the first full version I've come across of "Lepanto."

I must immediately say that usually I'm not overwhelmed by Chesterton's verse, mostly workmanlike stuff. But this piece is nice for those of us taught in American schools where we really haven't an inkling of some of the important things have have gone on in the world before our naissance. It also has some sumptuous imagery and works as narrative (often a very difficult trick to pull off in poetry).

from "Lepanto"
G. K. Chesterton

Mahound is in his paradise above the evening star,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
He moves a mighty turban on the timeless houri's knees,
His turban that is woven of the sunsets and the seas.
He shakes the peacock gardens as he rises from his ease,
And he strides among the tree-tops and is taller than the trees;
And his voice through all the garden is a thunder sent to bring
Black Azrael and Ariel and Ammon on the wing.
Giants and the Genii,
Multiplex of wing and eye,
Whose strong obedience broke the sky
When Solomon was king.

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Other Important Trifles


Other Important Trifles

In case you couldn't tell by now I truly love books, literature, poetry, prose, reading. As a child I was the one who read the cereal boxes and whatever else didn't move fast enough. Thus, this prayer:

Bibliomaniac's Prayer
Eugene Field

Keep me, I pray, in wisdom's way
That I may truths eternal seek;
I need protecting care to-day,--
My purse is light, my flesh is weak.
So banish from my erring heart
All baleful appetites and hints
Of Satan's fascinating art,
Of first editions, and of prints.
Direct me in some godly walk
Which leads away from bookish strife,
That I with pious deed and talk
May extra-illustrate my life.

But if, O Lord, it pleaseth Thee
To keep me in temptation's way,
I humbly ask that I may be
Most notably beset to-day;
Let my temptation be a book,
Which I shall purchase, hold, and keep,
Whereon when other men shall look,
They 'll wail to know I got it cheap.
Oh, let it such a volume be
As in rare copperplates abounds,
Large paper, clean, and fair to see,
Uncut, unique, unknown to Lowndes.

Okay, not great poetry--but, certainly apropos. Oh, and the Lowndes, referred to in the last line in a famous bibliographer just prior to Field's time. Eugene Field is most famous for a couple of pieces of poetry often associated with children: "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod," and "Little Boy Blue," both unabashedly sentimental--the popular poetry of a prior era.

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The Ever-Present Problems of Doubt


We've talked in various blogs a good deal about doubt. I thought I would present a classic example of what doubt really looks like when spilled out upon a page. In this case it is a brief, beautiful, and classic poem by Matthew Arnold--his best know poetic work.

Dover Beach
Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits;--on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch'd land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

The rhyme scheme is irregular, erratic, deliberately so. It becomes disoriented and chaotic like the shifting sea and the emotions and thoughts of the speaker. The whole poem is constructed to artfully represent the chaos of all of these thoughts. "The Sea of Faith," once full now withdraws from the world with a melancholy roar. There is no blanket, no shield of protection. What we are left with is the solace of other people(and we all know how fragile that is)--"Ah love let us be true. . . for the world [and by extension God] Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,/ Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain. . ." Yes, the world is a fallen place and there is nothing certain or trustworthy in it, and it is made an even more uncertain place when the soothing blanket of faith is removed and we face the prospects of this place without the loving presence of God.

Here is doubt. Beautifully portrayed, wonderfully dissected and represented, but it shows doubt clearly and without question. If one were to say to me that Matthew Arnold doubted the existence of God, I could probably find no better evidence than here (although truth to tell, there is evidence all over).

So, when we speak of doubt, we find broken meter, chaotic rhyme, and language that leaves no doubt in the mind that the speaker is uncertain of the world and his place in it. He is uncertain of the existence of God, and the world has become a place much colder and much more unfriendly.

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Yes, here he is again folks--I trot out one of my favorite seventeenth century poets for the day:

On the Glorious Assumption of Our Blessed Lady

Richard Crashaw

Hark! She is call'd. The parting hour is come.
Take thy farewell, poor world! Heav'n must go home
A piece of heav'nly earth, purer and brighter
Than the chaste stars, whose choice lamps come to light her
While through the crystal orbs, clearer than they,
She climbs and makes a fair more milky way.
She's called. Hark how the dear immortal dove
Sighs to his silver mate, 'Rise up, my love!
'Rise up, my fair, my spotless one!
'The winter's past, the rain is gone.

'The spring is come, the flowers appear.
'No sweets but thou are wanting here.
'Come away, my love!
'Come away, my dove! Cast off delay.
'The court of Heav'n is come
'To wait upon thee home. Come, come away!
'The flowers appear,
'Our quickly would, wert thou once here.
'The spring is come, or, if it stay,
'Tis to keep time with thy delay.
'The rain is gone, except so much as we
'Detain in needful tears to weep the want of thee.
'The winter's past.
'Or, if he make less haste,
'His answer is, Why, she does so.
'If summer come not, how can winter go?

On the golden wings
Of the bright youth of Heav'n, that sings
Under so sweet a burthen. Go,
Since thy dread son will have it so.
And while thou goest our song and we
Will, as we may, reach after thee.
Hail, holy queen of humble hearts!
We in thy praise will have our parts.
Thy precious name shall be
Thy self to us, and we
With holy care will keep it by us.
We to the last
Will hold it fast
And no Assumption shall deny us.
All the sweetest showers
Of our fairest flowers
Will we strow upon it.
Though our sweets cannot make
It sweeter, they can take
Themselves new sweetness from it.

Maria, men and angels sing,
Maria, mother of our King.
Live, rosy princess, live. And may the bright
Crown of a most incomparable light
Embrace thy radiant brows. O may the best
Of everlasting joys bath thy white breast.
Live, our chaste love, the holy mirth
Of Heav'n, the humble pride of earth.
Live, crown of women, queen of men.
Live mistress of our song. And when
Our weak desires have done their best,
Sweet angels, come and sing the rest.

For more poetry about the Assumption, visit here. Yes, I will note the webmaster there had the same notion I did, but then, it is a rather fine poem on the topic. (Take a look at the poem by Joachim Smet, if you decide to take a visit!)

May the Holy Mother of God, Most Pure Mary, through her intercession to her son bless your day and make it fruitful and holy.

Mary, Queen of Apostles, Queen of Heaven, Pray for us!

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The Seventeenth Century:Redux


The seventeenth century seemed to be a wonderful time for incredible devotional poetry. Richard Crashaw was only 36 when he died in 1649, and yet he left behind a wealth of profound poetry. Crashaw converted to Catholicism in about 1645 (not a particularly safe thing to do in and around England) and found his way to the Continent. The passage below is an excerpt from a poem about St. Teresa of Avila, in it he refers to an event known to Carmelites as the Transverberation of St. Teresa of Avila. A statue sculpted by Bernini depicts this event.

How kindly will thy gentle heart
Kiss the sweetly-killing dart!
And close in his embraces keep
Those delicious wounds, that weep
Balsam to heal themselves with. Thus
When these thy deaths, so numerous,
Shall all at last die into one,
And melt thy soul's sweet mansion
Like a soft lump of incense, hasted
By too hot a fire, and wasted
Into perfuming clouds, so fast
Shalt thou exhale to Heav'n at last
In a resolving sigh; and then,
O what? Ask not the tongues of men;
Angels cannot tell; suffice,
Thyself shall feel thine own full joys
And hold them fast forever. There
So soon as thou shalt first appear,
The moon of maiden stars, thy white
Mistress, attended by such bright
Souls as thy shining self, shall come
And in her first ranks make thee room;
Where 'mongst her snowy family
Immortal welcomes wait for thee.

Not, perhaps, the very finest poetry, but nevertheless an admirable depiction in words of what Bernini managed in sculpture. Some have claimed that Crashaw was influenced by Bernini's sculpture, but the sources I read note the date of the sculpture as 1652, three years after Crashaw's death. Unless he saw sketches or rough models, which is possible, this postulate seems unlikely.

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Christina Rossetti


Dylan at Error 503: La Vita Nuova promised to blog some poetry from Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a talented painter and poet who was one of the founders and chief proponents of something called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They produced paintings like this and this. Ultimately the movement seemed to degenerate into kitsch and transmigrate into the Art Nouveau and its sister Art Deco Movements.

All that aside, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's sister, Christina was also an accomplished poet. Some consider her the most important female poet of her time. For more information about her life and times, look here. For our purposes, it is sufficient to say that in addition to the eerie, frightening, and altogether delightful "Goblin's Market" Christina Rossetti produced some of the finest religious poetry of the age. She is rivaled only by Francis Thompson (when he's on) and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Below is an example.

A Better Resurrection
Christina Rossetti

I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numb'd too much for hopes or fears;
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimm'd with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.

My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall--the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.

My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perish'd thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.

What I particularly like about the poem is the oblique references back to John Donne's "Holy Sonnet 14" and a number of the poems of George Herbert, all within well-crafted, relatively light verse. The other thing I like is the very strong lines and stripped down piety of the poem. It is not adorned with what we have come to think of as the trappings of classic Victorian piety.

Anyway, I eagerly await Mr. Dylan's insight into her brother's poetry.

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This is a short excerpt from Book II of John Gay's immortal walking guide: Trivia or the Art of Walking the Streets of London. Before we had Sting on Broadway, before Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht had thought of it, John Gay gave us one of the great satires/comedies of all time along with the immortal characters of Polly Peachum and Macheath or "Mack the Knife." This poem is one of the other productions of that playwright, and is acknowledged along with several other short pieces to be among his best work.

from Trivia or the Art of Walking the Streets of London
John Gay

Thus far the Muse has trac'd in useful lays
The proper implements for wintry ways;
Has taught the walker, with judicious eyes,
To read the various warnings of the skies.
Now venture, Muse, from home to range the town,
And for the public safety risk thy own.

For ease and for dispatch, the morning's best;
No tides of passengers the street molest.
You'll see a draggled damsel, here and there,
From Billingsgate her fishy traffic bear;
On doors the sallow milk-maid chalks her gains;
Ah! how unlike the milk-maid of the plains!
Before proud gates attending asses bray,
Or arrogate with solemn pace the way;
These grave physicians with their milky cheer,
The love-sick maid and dwindling beau repair;
Here rows of drummers stand in martial file,
And with their vellum thunder shake the pile,
To greet the new-made bride. Are sounds like these
The proper prelude to a state of peace?
Now industry awakes her busy sons,
Full charg'd with news the breathless hawker runs:
Shops open, coaches roll, carts shake the ground,
And all the streets with passing cries resound.

If cloth'd in black, you tread the busy town
Or if distinguish'd by the rev'rend gown,
Three trades avoid; oft in the mingling press,
The barber's apron soils the sable dress;
Shun the perfumer's touch with cautious eye,
Nor let the baker's step advance too nigh;
Ye walkers too that youthful colours wear,
Three sullying trades avoid with equal care;
The little chimney-sweeper skulks along,
And marks with sooty stains the heedless throng;
When small-coal murmurs in the hoarser throat,
From smutty dangers guard thy threaten'd coat:
The dust-man's cart offends thy clothes and eyes,
When through the street a cloud of ashes flies;
But whether black or lighter dyes are worn,
The chandler's basket, on his shoulder borne,
With tallow spots thy coat; resign the way,
To shun the surly butcher's greasy tray,
Butcher's, whose hands are dy'd with blood's foul stain,
And always foremost in the hangman's train.

As you can see immortal poetry in the true service of humankind--cautioning how to avoid a haute couture disaster on a simple promenade. Advice that I wish poets would provide us today!

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Another in the Essay Series


Okay, after this 'nough said. But I've gotten a great deal of pleasure from reading these very short essays. Not only are they filled with delightful barbs, they invite the reader into a new way of looking at poetry. Obviously the person writing them loves the art and wants it to be as fine as it possibly can be. Hear now her words from and essay entitled "The Argument for Silence: Defining the Poet Peter Principle."

For example, poets James Tate, Philip Levine and Mary Oliver have each produced more than 16 books of poetry. Whatever has driven this production, it is clear from the trajectory of all three poets that something must stop it. In all three cases, a windiness, a wordiness, a kind of poetic logorrhea can be found in their latest work in contrast to the fire and compression in their early work. Flatlined, barely pulsing, their latest work is being kept alive by extraordinary means: the artificial resuscitation of continuous publication.

Sorry to belabor your patient kindness, but these have been a pleasure to read.

Note: I just read Error 503--La Vita Nuova and found that by some strange synchronicity of thought we chose the same passage--but I swear I hadn't seen it before. Well you know that they say about great minds. . . that doesn't apply to me.

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Some Comments on Poetry


This piece, from Joan Houlihan, should be of interest to those who enjoy poetry. By the way, I don't agree at all with some of her evaluations, but I do find them amusing.

On the other hand, the Billy Collins poem, though distinguished by its humor (an unusual, and welcome, attribute of contemporary poetry), is also a Mary Oliver poem, a Rita Dove poem, a David Lehman poem, and a Maya Angelou poem, among many other contemporary poets, because it is a poem we can understand. Immediately. We feel no drive to delve. It is not a poem we need to analyze. There are no pesky layers of meaning. What you see is what you get.

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From Andrew Marvell. I promise "To His Coy Mistress" later. But I remember upon first reading this poem being very amused by the obvious elements of propaganca involved.

Andrew Marvell

Where the remote Bermudas ride
In th' ocean's bosom unespy'd,
From a small boat, that row'd along,
The list'ning winds receiv'd this song.

What should we do but sing his praise
That led us through the wat'ry maze
Unto an isle so long unknown,
And yet far kinder than our own?
Where he the huge sea-monsters wracks,
That lift the deep upon their backs,
He lands us on a grassy stage,
Safe from the storm's and prelates' rage.
He gave us this eternal spring
Which here enamels everything,
And sends the fowls to us in care,
On daily visits through the air.
He hangs in shades the orange bright,
Like golden lamps in a green night;
And does in the pomegranates close
Jewels more rich than Ormus shows.
He makes the figs our mouths to meet
And throws the melons at our feet,
But apples plants of such a price,
No tree could ever bear them twice.
With cedars, chosen by his hand,
From Lebanon, he stores the land,
And makes the hollow seas that roar
Proclaim the ambergris on shore.
He cast (of which we rather boast)
The Gospel's pearl upon our coast,
And in these rocks for us did frame
A temple, where to sound his name.
Oh let our voice his praise exalt,
Till it arrive at heaven's vault;
Which thence (perhaps) rebounding, may
Echo beyond the Mexic Bay.

Thus sung they in the English boat
An holy and a cheerful note,
And all the way, to guide their chime,
With falling oars they kept the time.

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A Favorite from Shakespeare


A Favorite from Shakespeare

This may be one of my favorite songs from any of Shakespeare's plays. But then the play itself may well be one of my very favorites. "O Brave new world that has such people in 't."

Full Fadom Five from The Tempest

Full fadom five thy Father lies,
Of his bones are Corrall made:
Those are pearles that were his eies,
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a Sea-change
Into something rich, & strange:
Sea-Nimphs hourly ring his knell.
Harke now I heare them, ding-dong, bell.

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Surrealism Works--sometimes


Surrealism Works--sometimes

Dylan at Error 503 comments that sometimes surrealism works. I couldn't possibly agree more--in fact, separated from the original surrealist manifesto and some of the excesses of the artists, I would say that it works most of the time. My favorite poet to prove it is James Merril, here's a very short sample of "Procession."

Think what the demotic droplet felt, Translated by a polar wand to keen Six-pointed Mandarin—

The rest becomes somewhat more surreal.

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Wallace Stevens Conversion?


A document entitled Wallace Stevens's alleged deathbed conversion presents a letter from Father Arthur Hanley to Professor Janet McCann, dated July 24, 1977, with line breaks, punctuation, spelling, etc. exactly as in the typescript. This transcript gives details about his conversion. I don't know the circumstances and can't testify to the veracity. But given Stevens's poetry it does not seem unlikely. After all, "Sunday Morning" suggests this end, as do a number of other poems. On the other hand, reading with a Christian perspective does tend to distort the record.

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A Bit of Marlowe


From Tamburlaine The Great, Part I
Christopher Marlowe [1564-1593]

Nature That Framed Us of Four Elements

Nature that framed us of four elements,
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds:
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world,
And measure every wandering planet's course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite,
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Will us to wear ourselves, and never rest,
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.

Marlowe, for all his vast intelligence, seems never to be able to get over the Faustian belief that knowledge is the key to paradise. Perhaps he wrote his Faustus to exorcise that demon. Nevertheless, regardless of the cause, we did get some nice poetry from it.

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Addressing the Lady of Shalott


At All But Dissertation the Lady of Shalott has given those of us who are interested in the arts a lot to think about. So much so, that I'm reprinting much of the post and will try to comment line-by-line. There was no other way, structurally, to say all that needed to be said, both in agreement and disagreement, and indeed, this exceedingly long post could well be the start of an entire book.

This little exchange came to mind when I nabbed a few copies of Crisis yesterday. Stevens' allegiance, if I remember correctly, was to aesthetics above all.

Just a note here, Stevens is one of my favorite poets also, and while the stated aesthetic may have been art for the sake of art, the end accomplishment vastly exceeds the poet's intent. In fact, it is apparent from a casual reading of most of the oeuvre that despite a stated aesthetic stance, the poet's concerns were far reaching. I note not in contradiction to the Lady, but in support of my ultimate argument.

Ruminating on this, I recalled a quote by Keats: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know." As a Christian I don't quite agree with the latter portion of that statement, . . .

Agreed, and this quote is part of the trend that we see building throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. Knowingly or unknowingly Keats collapsed the classic platonic triad of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty into Truth and Beauty. Now, it may be in his aesthetic theory goodness could be classed under either beauty or truth, but it fact, this collapse caused a major collapse in aesthetic theory and resulted eventually in Art for Art's Sake, the Pre-Raphaelites (not such a bad thing) and such monstrosities as Huysman's A Rebours and La-Bas.

On a side note, I have the feeling that Keats very deliberately chose to collapse this triad. After all the quote does occur in "Ode on a Grecian Urn." It seems more than coincidence that such an aesthetic theory should make its debut in this poem. I believe Keats very deliberately used the Urn and its associations to forge his aesthetic theory and give it a solid grounding.

but let's think about the former portion for a minute and relate it to Joyce and Tolstoy and how each author handles, for example, the issue of adultery. Both Joyce and Tolstoy write truthfully about adultery, Joyce most famously from the perspective of Molly Bloom, who is quite clearly in favor of the act and says something like "if that's the worst people do, they're not doing too badly." I'm not saying that I agree with this sentiment, only that it's true that many people believe it. Tolstoy, on the other hand, portrays the terrible cost of adultery in agonizing detail. Both are true characterizations of the deed; both are stunningly written in their own very different ways, and so both are beautiful. That much I'm sure about. But I'm still struggling with the idea of ultimate truth, and whether that need be present for a piece of literature to be considered truly good, and not just aesthetically so.

Now this presents a good case study and an interesting example. Because there is another way of thinking about the two works. In Anna Karenina the end result is ultimately immoral (Anna's suicide), whereas in Joyce the end result is the exultant reaffirmation of the commitment to marriage, (Molly's "Yes, Yes. Yes). So looked at from this perspective, one might view Tolstoy's work as an example of "Crime and Punishment," but with no real hope of redemption and Joyce as offering us a redemptive reaffirmation. In addition, one must keep in mind that there are agendas outside the literary in operation here. Joyce was very probably profoundly conflicted about the life he found himself living with Nora (to whom he was not married). All assertions to the contrary could be read simply as an immature attempt to further flout the rules of the Church. Obviously, he must support a view that says "Adultery isn't the worst thing," because he would otherwise be convicted by his own words. And even Dante supports that view. Though adulterers find themselves in Hell, it is only in the second or third circle and it seems to me that he makes the point that "Love gone wrong" is, in some mysterious way less bad that a total lack of love.

T. S. O'Rama in the comments below gives some really interesting but rather disturbing quotes from Shelby Foote addressed to Walker Percy:

"..The best novelists have all been doubters; their only firm conviction, the only one never shaken, is that absolute devotion and belief in the sanctity of art which results in further seeking, not a sense of having found."

Against all modern evidence to the contrary, I want to disbelieve that "a sense of having found" kills good art.

Here is as close as I come to disagreement with the fair lady. The first portion is a quote from other sources and I would revise it
before I could affirm it. I would say that all the best novelists have been searchers. By that I mean, they may stand fully aware and accepting of the presence of God, but with St. Paul, they are "working out their salvation in fear and trembling." They haven't stopped in their growth toward God. Poor novelists (search the ranks of the fiction in most "Christian Bookstores" and you'll find them by the drove) already have all the answers laid out nicely on a platter. Anyone who disagrees is very simply damned, and growth toward God isn't nearly as important as bashing a few heads with some biblical truth. Now, I admit, the last statement is a gross oversimplification and does not represent my view of every "Christian" novelist, but reading these works you get the sense of a completely "settled" universe. Great art is the result of struggle and friction. Being completely settled would not be conducive to such a struggle and is likely to result in the Helen Steiner Rice and Rod McKuen school of writing.

One point further on the quotes. Foote goes on to say that O'Connor is a minor minor novelist because she hadn't the time to develop. This is chronological arrogance at its height. Neither Foote, nor Vidal, nor Updike, nor Wolfe, nor any person alive today can accurately predict what will be read and how it will be read 200 years from now. Such assertions are simply personal preferences disguised in a critical framework.

The point on which I find myself disagreeing with the fair Lady is her own statement regarding, "Despite all evidence to the contrary." Indeed, there is a plethora of abhorrent writing, of half-baked plots, ideas, characters, and even structures. No argument there. I would point out, however, that time has a winnowing effect; and it is my contention that such evidence has existed in abundance as long as there has been public writing and reading for pleasure. I am reminded of the Executioner's Song from The Mikado in which one of the lines listing those who should be summarily executed includes something like, "And all the lady novelists... not one of them'll be missed, not one of them will be missed." So dreck has always been more abundant than quality work. So, I guess my demurral is one of degree and it amounts to me saying simply, "Yes, you are right, there is abundant evidence in the form of putrid art. But how many artists who "have doubted" (to quote Foote) have also produced works that reek to heaven? "

Past masters belie this opinion. Augustine, having been ravished by God, writes prose that ravishes his readers: "beauty ever ancient, ever new ..." Dante's Divine Comedy is the supreme example of "finding," ending as it does with the beatific vision, "the Love that moves the sun and other stars."

As I said before, the winnowing of time has left us with the past masters and with very few of the past dilettantes and dabblers. The chronological sense is that much more good work existed in the past than is present now; however, that is a distortion of the lens of time.

I'm not yet willing to give up hope that our times and our God can inspire good that is beautiful and true in every sense.

I concur, and believe this to be the wisest course, and I have waited until now to spell out why. God created the world and it was all good. The innate talent or creative faculty is good--what makes a work less than good is its effect upon the reader. The effect is controlled by how much an artist allows his or her fallenness to interfere with talent. In the case of a Huysman or a Crowley, the ultimate effect is that the creation is bad or seems bad, flawed, and ugly., However, in the case of a Joyce, the talent is prodigious, some of the things exposed are bad, but ultimately the effect of the book is reaffirming and reaffirming in the right sort of way. A great artist can talk about less-than-moral things and God can use that to overshadow even the intent of the artist.

We are ultimately co-creators with God. Every creation in which we allow His will to predominate will shine out in that goodness and light; every creation that we subject to ourselves, will ultimately hide in our shadow. Truth, beauty, and goodness still exist, there is still writing and art that bring them forward and there will continue to be because God ultimately informs all of creation with His being. This is where those confusing statements Jesus made come in. In one place He says, "He who is not for me is against me." This is at the realm of conscious thought and choice. In another He said, "He who is not against me is for me." That is, an artist, whether an acknowledging Christian or not, if he does not purposefully stand against goodness will ultimately allow that goodness to play through--sometimes brighter, sometimes darker.

One last note on the effects of modernism. Modernism and its horrid mutant step-child Postmodernism have so infected the culture, taste, and ideas of every one of us that we are hard pressed any more to truly see what is good and beautiful. Our notions of beauty have grown so outré and so distorted, and we have been told by many voices that we cannot communicate any more, that we are no longer able to see clearly when something truly magnificent comes along. We must first deconstruct it, analyze it, tear it apart, and see what happens when we put it back together. Modern critical method is less about the work being examined than it is about the opinions of the persons examining the work. Truth, beauty, and goodness have a hard time fighting through that deliberate obstacle.

One last note, much of this is thinking on the fly, and probably needs some careful consideration and revision. I welcome all comments toward that goal. I've already been through twice, and I see places where the thought needs much better fleshing out--but that will undoubtedly emerge in subsequent discussion. Thanks to all.

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Robert Hugh Benson


Looking for other texts by Benson, I stumbled upon this poem and thought it quite beautiful.

The Teresian Contemplative By Robert Hugh Benson

SHE moves in tumult; round her lies
The silence of the world of grace;
The twilight of our mysteries
Shines like high noonday on her face;
Our piteous guesses, dim with fears,
She touches, handles, sees, and hears.

In her all longings mix and meet;
Dumb souls through her are eloquent;
She feels the world beneath her feet
Thrill in a passionate intent;
Through her our tides of feeling roll
And find their God within her soul.

Her faith the awful Face of God
Brightens and blinds with utter light;
Her footsteps fall where late He trod;
She sinks in roaring voids of night;
Cries to her Lord in black despair,
And knows, yet knows not, He is there.

A willing sacrifice she takes
The burden of our fall within;
Holy she stands; while on her breaks
The lightning of the wrath of sin;
She drinks her Saviour’s cup of pain,
And, one with Jesus, thirsts again.

It seems so exactly to describe the contemplative experience and the work of the contemplative within the body of the Church. St. Therese of Lisieux never left her little convent, and yet she is Patroness of the Missions because of her ardent prayer for those who went on mission work.The contemplative labors in the darkness of God which is far brighter than the light of humanity. And she seeks to draw all souls to God through Prayer. Once again, Therese of Lisieux promises that all who she has met and prayed for are drawn with her like objects through a whitewater torrent into the mercy and love of God.

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Thomas Gray is known chiefly as the font of the "Graveyard poets" having penned "Elegy in a Country Churchyard." Alas, this so-much-more important work is too often missed in our hurry to praise his better known work!

Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes
Thomas Gray

'Twas on a lofty vase's side,
Where China's gayest art had dy'd
The azure flow'rs that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima, reclin'd,
Gazed on the lake below.

Her conscious tail her joy declar'd;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
She saw: and purr'd applause.

Still had she gaz'd; but 'midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
The Genii of the stream;
Their scaly armour's Tyrian hue
Thro' richest purple to the view
Betray'd a golden gleam.

The hapless Nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretch'd in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What cat's averse to fish?

Presumptuous Maid! with looks intent
Again she stretch'd, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulf between.
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smil'd)
The slipp'ry verge her feet beguil'd,
She tumbled headlong in.

Eight times emerging from the flood
She mew'd to ev'ry wat'ry god,
Some speedy aid to send.
No Dolphin came, no Nereid stirr'd;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard.
A Fav'rite has no friend!

From hence, ye Beauties, undeceiv'd,
Know, one false step is ne'er retriev'd,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wand'ring eyes
And heedless hearts is lawful prize,
Nor all, that glisters, gold.

Truly an epic to sit alongside "The Dunciad" and "Rape of the Lock!"

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More French Poetry


Dylan mentioned a poem by Paul Verlaine that has always been a favorite of mine. It also demonstrates a contention I have made regarding some of the less likable qualities of the prose of St. Therese. Isn't it wonderful the way God arranges these juxtapositions?

"Il pleut doucement sur la ville" - Arthur Rimbaud
Paul Verlaine.
Romances Sans Paroles (1874).

Il pleure dans mon coeur
Comme il pleut sur la ville,
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui penetre mon coeur?

O bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits!
Pour un coeur qui s'ennuie,
O le chant de la pluie!

Il pleure sans raison
Dans ce coeur qui s'ecoeure.
Quoi! nulle trahison?
Ce deuil est sans raison.

C'est bien la pire peine
De ne savoir pourquoi,
Sans amour et sans haine,
Mon coeur a tant de peine!

And once again an attempt at translation. This being symboliste is a bit more difficult and variable than Jacques Prevert, but I'll try to make it serviceable, if not great verse.

"It rains softly (sweetly) on the city" Arthur Rimbaud [another French Symboliste]
Paul Verlaine
from Love Songs without Words (1874)

My heart weeps*
As it rains on the city,
What is this languor
That penetrates my heart?

O sweet sound** of the rain
On the ground and on the roofs!
For a bored heart,
O the song of the rain!

There is senseless crying
in this heart which is disheartened.
What? No breach of faith?
This sorrow is without reason.

Truly*** the worst pain [is]
Not knowing why
Without love and without hate
My heart has so much pain.

*Literally-It cries in my heart or There is crying in my heart
**or gentle noise
***literally--That's right

Yes, it doesn't make it into English very well, largely because it builds on a sort of punning twin of pleure (cry)and pleut (rains) probably stemming from a common Latin root and a conceit that the rain are the tears of the sky. There is also the neat verbal trick of coupling coeur (heart) twice with a reflexive verb "s'ennuie" and "s'ecoeure." All of this verbal play in French that sounds good and makes a sort of sense. In addition, it plays on a phrase of Blaise Pascal--"The heart has its reasons, which reason cannot know." In fact the whole poem is a sort of variation on Pascal's phrase (odd considering Verlaine himself).

The main point I wanted to make with this poem however is that it predates Therese only by about 20 years. It is considered highly respectable, not sentimental poetry. But such maundering on and on about bored hearts and pained hearts just doesn't go over well in English. In fact, it is nearly painful to American ears and doubt that it does a whole lot for other native English speakers. There is no way to bring the poem into English that doesn't sound over-the-top melodramatic. Many complain of a similar quality in Therese's writing and attribute it, I think wrongly, to the sentimental piety of Victorian Era French. I think rather it is a matter of the two languages at odds in taste in sensibility. Nevertheless, the end result is that Therese winds up sounding saccharine in our ears. That's a shame, as when this is filtered out, as it seems to be in Clarke's translation, even the most eccentric verbal tropes come out not sounding so bad as they might in lesser translations. For example, the whole bit about being Jesus' toy is not nearly so awful in Clarke's translation as it is in Beevers and others.

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Happy Saint Dominic's Day


Happy Saint Dominic's Day
To all Dominicans--a most blessed feast day!

And that he might be construed as he was,
A spirit from this place went forth to name him
With His possessive whose he wholly was.

Dominic was he called; and him I speak of
Even as of the husbandman whom Christ
Elected to his garden to assist him.

Envoy and servant sooth he seemed of Christ,
For the first love made manifest in him
Was the first counsel that was given by Christ.

Silent and wakeful many a time was he
Discovered by his nurse upon the ground,
As if he would have said, 'For this I came.'

O thou his father, Felix verily!
O thou his mother, verily Joanna,
If this, interpreted, means as is said!

Not for the world which people toil for now
In following Ostiense and Taddeo,
But through his longing after the true manna,

He in short time became so great a teacher,
That he began to go about the vineyard,
Which fadeth soon, if faithless be the dresser;

And of the See, (that once was more benignant
Unto the righteous poor, not through itself,
But him who sits there and degenerates,)

Not to dispense or two or three for six,
Not any fortune of first vacancy,
'Non decimas quae sunt pauperum Dei,'

He asked for, but against the errant world
Permission to do battle for the seed,
Of which these four and twenty plants surround thee.

Then with the doctrine and the will together,
With office apostolical he moved,
Like torrent which some lofty vein out-presses;

And in among the shoots heretical
His impetus with greater fury smote,
Wherever the resistance was the greatest.

Of him were made thereafter divers runnels,
Whereby the garden catholic is watered,
So that more living its plantations stand.

From Paradiso Canto XII

My apologies for the translation (Longfellow) but needed to find something that was without question public domain.

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Jacques Prevert


Jacques Prevert is a kind of minimalist poet that normally I don't care for. Perhaps because it is in French, or perhaps for other reasons, I find Prevert quite, quite different and quite beautiful. I've appended a rough translation to the following poem.

Déjeuner du matin

Il a mis le café
Dans la tasse
Il a mis le lait
Dans la tasse de café
Il a mis le sucre
Dans le café au lait
Avec la petite cuiller
Il a tourné
Il a bu le café au lait
Et il a reposé la tasse
Sans me parler
Il a allumé
Une cigarette
Il a fait des ronds
Avec la fumée
Il a mis les cendres
Dans le cendrier
Sans me parler
Sans me regarder
Il s'est levé
Il a mis
Son chapeau sur sa tête
Il a mis
Son manteau de pluie
Parce qu'il pleuvait
Et il est parti
Sous la pluie
Sans une parole
Sans me regarder
Et moi j'ai pris
Ma tête dans ma main
Et j'ai pleuré.

My poor translation:

He put the coffee
in the cup
He put milk
in the cup of coffee
He put sugar
in the cafe au lait
With a small spoon
he stirred
He drank the cafe au lait
and he replaced the cup
without speaking to me
He lit
a cigarette
He made rings
with the smoke
He put the ashes
into the ashtray
Without speaking to me
Without looking at me
He got up
He put
his hat on his head
He put on
his raincoat
because it was raining
And he left
Under the rain
Without a word
Without looking at me
And me I put
my head on my hand
and I cried.

I love the very short lines, the gray repetition of phrase. Particularly I love the fact that in French pleuvait (it was raining) and pleure (past participle of "to cry") are such similar words. This poem reminds me very much of the work of such French cineastes as Francois Truffaut. When I read Prevert's work I see Fahrenheit 451 or L'enfant Sauvage or Le Quartre Cent Coups. I see Parisian gray, and I also see the despair of a life not centered in God, but centered and isolated completely within the self. We don't know the cause of the silence we observe, but we seem to know that it is quotidian, and this scene probably has few variations in its playing. I think this is the art of quiet desperation and of conventionality.

Please, once again, excuse my poor translation, but I tried to convey as literally as possible what was being said and still remain true to the strangely formal and yet colloquial French. Too many translations change words. For example to construct a sort of formal poetic parallelism, "sans me parler" and "sans une parole" are often both translated to--"Without a word." I don't think that is true to the spirit or intent of Prevert's poem. But then, I probably should be a little cautious about such statements, as I am by no means an expert in poetic French.

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Surprise! Not a Metaphysical


No, he's not a metaphysical poet. He may not even have been a Christian. But his poetry is among the greatest in the English language. One of his poems ("To Autumn")has been typified by one critic as "imperfect because of it's perfection." And his vibrant poetry tends to remind one of the God's vibrant poetry in creating such an artist.

On first looking into Chapman's Homer
John Keats

MUCH have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne:
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

"I felt like some watcher of the skies/When a new planet swims into his ken. . ." certainly describes my reaction to reading this poem the first time. Certainly one of the finest sonnets of the 19th century, if not the very best of Keats himself. And I suspect that he may have his history a little off--Cortez probably should be Balboa--but hey! he didn't claim to be a historian.

For those interested in looking into Chapman's Homer (as well as the remarkable and lovely Pope translations) you can do so at t this site. Simply look up "Homer" or "Chapman" or go to the "Elizabethans" page. Enjoy.

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Richard Crashaw


Richard Crashaw

From the first time I read this poem, the imagery of the "purple wardrobe" stuck with me.

Upon the Body of Our Blessed Lord, Naked and Bloody
Richard Crashaw

They have left thee naked, Lord, O that they had!
This garment too I wish they had deny’d.
Thee with thy self they have too richly clad;
Opening the purple wardrobe in thy side.
O never could there be garment too good
For thee to wear, but this of thine own Blood.

I have seen this typified by some would-be critics as a "macabre epigram." Perhaps. But I think a moment's attention would show it for what it really is--a passionate poem about the passion. The imagery is stark and startling, and the truth of it undeniable to anyone who has spent any time meditating on the meaning of Good Friday. But, in a post-Christian world, what can one expect of those who refuse to absorb even the slightest hint of their own culture?

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Another metaphysical poet with a very disturbing and lovely poem:

by Henry Vaughan

I SAW Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright ;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years
Driv'n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov'd ; in which the world
And all her train were hurl'd.
The doting lover in his quaintest strain
Did there complain ;
Near him, his lute, his fancy, and his flights,
Wit's sour delights ;
With gloves, and knots, the silly snares of pleasure,
Yet his dear treasure,
All scatter'd lay, while he his eyes did pour
Upon a flow'r.

The darksome statesman, hung with weights and woe,
Like a thick midnight-fog, mov'd there so slow,
He did nor stay, nor go ;
Condemning thoughts—like sad eclipses—scowl
Upon his soul,
And clouds of crying witnesses without
Pursued him with one shout.
Yet digg'd the mole, and lest his ways be found,
Work'd under ground,
Where he did clutch his prey ; but one did see
That policy :
Churches and altars fed him ; perjuries
Were gnats and flies ;
It rain'd about him blood and tears, but he
Drank them as free.

The fearful miser on a heap of rust
Sate pining all his life there, did scarce trust
His own hands with the dust,
Yet would not place one piece above, but lives
In fear of thieves.
Thousands there were as frantic as himself,
And hugg'd each one his pelf ;*
The downright epicure plac'd heav'n in sense,
And scorn'd pretence ;
While others, slipp'd into a wide excess
Said little less ;
The weaker sort slight, trivial wares enslave,
Who think them brave ;
And poor, despisèd Truth sate counting by
Their victory.

Yet some, who all this while did weep and sing,
And sing, and weep, soar'd up into the ring ;
But most would use no wing.
O fools—said I—thus to prefer dark night
Before true light !
To live in grots and caves, and hate the day
Because it shows the way ;
The way, which from this dead and dark abode
Leads up to God ;
A way where you might tread the sun, and be
More bright than he !
But as I did their madness so discuss,
One whisper'd thus,
“This ring the Bridegroom did for none provide,
But for His bride.”

JOHN, CAP. 2. VER. 16, 17.

All that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the
lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the
Father, but is of the world.
And the world passeth away, and the lusts thereof ;
but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.

source: Luminarium

What I like particularly about this poem is both the rhyme scheme with couplets and the eccentric end-stopped half-lines that cause the rhythm to stumble along unnaturally, mimicking in verse the fallen nature of the world discussed in the details of the poem. Overall, a poem that speaks both in its subject matter and its structure--a very neat trick to accomplish.

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The early part of Robert Herrick's life is contemporary with Shakespeare. The latter with John Dryden. He truly spans several literary eras.

Upon Julia's Clothes
Robert Herrick

Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes, and see
That brave vibration each way free,
O how that glittering taketh me!

I've always been surprised at how effective this short piece is. It is one of a series of poems written to Julia, all of which are quite beautiful. This poem achieves part of its punch through the complete rhyming of each of its stanzas. But more of the effect simply comes through the image that is being recounted and the obvious affection of the poet for the subject. The idea of "liquefaction" of clothes is a powerful suggestion. This is one of those tropes that appeals to the mind's eye and leaves you to bring associations to the poem.

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We are rapidly approaching 9 August, the anniversary of the Death of St. Edith Stein, one of the most fiercely intellectual of the Carmelite Saints, and one of the great lovers of the Lord. The following prayer is from a Pentecost Novena that she composed. It is among the loveliest prayers I have read.

6.Are you the one who created the unclouded mirror
Next to the Almighty's throne,
Like a crystal sea,
In which Divinity lovingly looks at itself?
You bend over the fairest work of your creation,
And radiantly your own gaze
Is illumined in return.
And of all creatures the pure beauty
Is joined in one in the dear form
Of the Virgin, your immaculate bride:
Holy Spirit Creator of all!

The anniversary of St. Edith Stein reminds us of the potential for evil and cruelty locked up inside every one of us. How many stood by to allow the evil that engulfed her and 8,000,000 or more sisters and brothers? As it is said, all that it takes for evil to succeed is for good people to stand by and do nothing. Let us remember that in ever interaction of every day. Evil starts in little ways--a word here, a gesture there, a statement, nothing much at all. Such little things escalate into great harm in no time if left unchecked. We can do much to undermine the culture of evil that sprouts like weeds around us. We may speak against it in word or action. We can take up spiritual arms and prayer for God's intervention. What we cannot do is stand by. As Christians we must take action against the evil we see rise up--we have no choice. More, we cannot call evil good and think that it changes for all that. We must not abandon our belief to relativists. An evil can never be a good regardless of the circumstances. And when we resort to evil to fight evil, then Evil has won.

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A New England Poet


Anne Bradstreet was one of the first "imported" poets of New England and while some of her poetry is very naive, and does not really compare well with what was being composed in England at the time, it has its own vigor. The sound of it echoes in poets and writers who were to follow. This poem from "Representative Poetry On-line"

Anne Bradstreet
By Night when Others Soundly Slept

By night when others soundly slept
And hath at once both ease and Rest,
My waking eyes were open kept
And so to lie I found it best.
I sought him whom my Soul did Love,
With tears I sought him earnestly.
He bow'd his ear down from Above.
In vain I did not seek or cry.
My hungry Soul he fill'd with Good;
He in his Bottle put my tears,
My smarting wounds washt in his blood,
And banisht thence my Doubts and fears.
What to my Saviour shall I give
Who freely hath done this for me?
I'll serve him here whilst I shall live
And Loue him to Eternity.

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Memento Mori


Memento Mori

Long called Venerable, St. Bede offers this brief reflection on the four last things:

Bede's Death Song
from The Venerable Bede (673-735)

Fore there neidfaerae naenig uuiurthit
thoncsnotturra than him tharf sie
to ymbhycggannae aer his hiniongae
huaet his gastae godaes aeththa yflaes
aefter deothdaege doemid uueorthae.

[Loose Translation:
Before the inevitable journey there is no one
wiser than him who, knowing his need,
ponders, before his journey,
what good and evil within his soul,
after his death, will be judged.]

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A Personal Favorite One


One last poem before I'm off to teach a class of Carmelites. Today we are studying the diagram of the Ascent as drawn and labelled by St. John of the Cross. This is all preliminary to a year or more study of the Ascent. Many regard it as a daunting work. I find it not-so-difficult at all to read, simply very difficult to implement.

The Silver Swan Orlando Gibbons

The silver swan, who living had no note.
When death approach'd, unlock'd her silent throat;
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
Thus sung her first and last, and sung no more.
Farewell, all joys; O Death, come close mine eyes;
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.

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Technically a morning song, I offer this, a wonderful counterpoint to yesterday's (which none could read).

from Idea by Michael Drayton


SINCE here's no help, come, let us kiss and part,
Nay, I have done, you get no more of me,
And I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart,
That thus so cleanly I myself can free.
Shake hands for ever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of Love's latest breath,
When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And Innocence is closing up his eyes.
Now, if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
From death to life thou might'st him yet recover.

Idea is a remarkable cycle of sonnets from a contemporary of William Shakespeare. Perhaps not so accomplished as Shakespeare's sonnets, or perhaps simply less well known, Drayton's sonnets run the gamut of possibilities. Drayton was also know for his "Ode To the Virginian Voyage" one of the first English celebrations of the Age of Discovery. (Camoens The Lusiads is one of the earliest such celebrations). This sonnet is a delightfully on-target exposition of the undying nature of love. Even when we want it to go away we cannot make it simply leave. We say love draws its last breath, and yet, and yet, if there were only a chance, a possibility. Drayton's sonnet captures that moment that so many of us have experienced. It is a poem that often dances in my head as God speaking to me. Too often I seem to reduce everything to its bare bones, leaving my supposed love and fidelity to God gasping on its deathbed. But God, ever desiring my undesirable company, always enacts those last two lines, fanning to life again the failing spark and providing a new way to see and to love Him.

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Even later at the computer today than yesterday, so I'm confined to a single poem and comment. Here we go:

To My Dear and Loving Husband
Anne Bradstreet

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov'd by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole Mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that Rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompetence.
Thy love is such I can no way repay.
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let's so persever
That when we live no more, we may live ever.

Some poems speak from beauty of language. Some speak from the beauty of the thought. I love this poem because it surely captures what the Sacrament of Matrimony is about in the Earthly realm, and even provides a glimpse of its continuation. It also is very adept at quoting scripture without quoting. Finally, it certainly puts the lie to what many of us have misconstrued as the Puritan view of life.

But I am fortunate enough to say with Anne Bradstreet about my own lovely wife, 'If ever two were one, then surely we. If ever man were lov'd by wife, then me." It is my hope that I can make the rest of the poem true for her!

Good morning all, and God Bless.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Poetry and Poets category from August 2002.

Poetry and Poets: July 2002 is the previous archive.

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