A haiku, of sorts, for today

April 13, 2020 at 12:58 pm (Current affairs, Poetry)

It is hard for us to know
How to do battle with
This incorporeal foe.

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‘Gilgamesh, who saw the wellspring, the foundations of the land….’

April 10, 2020 at 8:43 pm (History, Poetry)

First, let me say:

I am deeply grateful to Osher Life Long Learning (affiliated with Johns Hopkins University) for making our classes available by means of Zoom technology.

The subject of one of my classes is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Numerous translations of this work are extant; for our class, our instructor, Dr. Lederman, uses this one:

Herewith are the opening lines from Tablet I:

He who saw the wellspring, the foundations of the land,
Who knew the world’s ways, was wise in all things,
Gilgamesh, who saw the wellspring, the foundations of the land,
Who knew the world’s ways, was wise in all things,
He it was who studied seats of power everywhere,
Full knowledge of it all he  gained,
He saw what was secret and revealed what was hidden,
He brought back tidings from before the Flood,
From a distant journey came home, weary, but at peace,
Set out all his hardships on a monument of stone,
He built the walls of ramparted Uruk,
The lustrous treasure of hallowed Eanna!

Gilgamesh, supposedly

This passage continues to limn the glories of Uruk; then we return to the subject of Gilgamesh the praiseworthy. Except that he actually isn’t very praiseworthy. He is, at least at the story’s  beginning not much more than an arrogant brute. He is cruel and rough with the young men of Uruk; worse, he exercises his “right of the first night” ( known also as jus prima noctis, or droit du seigneur) with every new bride, on her wedding night.

The people of Uruk cry out to the gods about Gilgamesh’s abuses, and they realize that a way must be found to inculcate civility into the wild ruler. The god Anu summons another god, Aruru, and more or less kicks the ball into her court. These are Aruru’s orders:

Let her create a match for Gilgamesh, mighty in strength,
Let them contend with each other, that Uruk may have peace.

So Aruru gets to work, and this is the result:

She created valiant Enkidu in the steppe,
Offspring of silence*, with the force of the valiant Ninurta.
He was made lush with head hair, like a woman,
The locks of his hair grew think as a grain field.
He knew neither people nor inhabited land,
He dressed as animals do.
He ate grass with gazelles,
With beasts he jostled at the water hole,
With wildlife he drank his fill of water.

*The footnote says of the phrase “Offspring of silence” that it may refer to the fact that Enkidu, having been formed of clay, did not enter into the world with “the tumult that normally accompanies childbirth.”

Is all of this starting to seem weird? Trust me, we’re just beginning.

Chief agent in charge of “civilizing” Enkidu is a harlot named Shamhat. She knows just how to proceed:

Shamhat loosened her garments,
She opened her loins, he took her charms.
She was not bashful, she took his vitality.
She tossed aside her clothing and he lay upon her,
She treated him, a  human, to woman’s work,
As in his ardor he caressed her.
Six days, seven nights was Enkidu aroused, flowing into Shamhat.

Well golly! You could have knocked me over with a proverbial feather when I first read that. Pornography in an ancient Mesopotamian epic??!! And depending on the translation, this episode is rendered in even more explicit language. Click here for an example. And no, I’m not going to place the actual text here. This is, after all, a family friendly blog!

Now, as a topic of study, this epic is hugely complex and many-faceted. I don’t mean to be flippant and/or dismissive. People give their entire professional lives to the explication, translation, and study of the epic of Gilgamesh and its place in Mesopotamian civilization. And our lecturer, Dr. Richard Lederman, is himself a marvel of scholarship. In a recent class, he came out with a throwaway line which I will cherish: “My Akkadian is a bit rusty.” Oh and he is fluent in Hebrew and a scholar of the Old Testament as well.

So I have to say that for myself, from a purely esthetic standpoint, the Epic of Gilgamesh is a bit lacking. Here’s why I’m of that opinion:

1. Repetition. There’s too much of it. The first four lines of the first passage quoted above are typical. This may be due to the fact that at times, the story may have been presented orally.

2. The plot disjointed, not especially compelling, and sometimes just too strange to summon forth any empathy.

3. The same is true for the characters. I had a lot of trouble caring about what happened to them.

4. The writing, for the most part, is flat and uninspired. Admittedly, the exact language is dependent on the translation you’re reading. Nevertheless, I was hoping to encounter some of the literary devices that occur in the Homeric epics – you know, epithets such as “rosy-fingered Dawn,” “wine-dark Sea,”” bright-eyed Athena,” and the amazingly vivid extended similes and metaphors. They simply were not there.

Dr. Lederman recommended this video to us. I found it both enlightening and engaging:

 

 

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Readings, in challenging times

April 8, 2020 at 8:49 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction, Poetry)

I’ve read that at the moment, some people are having trouble concentrating on the printed word. Perfectly understandable. Speaking only for myself,  books, magazines, and newspapers have been Heaven sent. As long as I’ve got something immersive to read, I figure I’ll get through this.

I admit that when the library closed, I had a moment of panic. I rely on that worthy institution to provide me with hardbacks and paperbacks. But needs must, as they say. So I’ve been downloading books like crazy.

Kwei Quartey’s Darko Dawson novels are keeping me sane. With their exotic setting – one that is sometimes cruel rather than exotic – they’re providing a great escape. And Darko himself is a wonderful character, quick to anger yet always compassionate, and with a very engaging family life to boot. I’m currently reading the third title in the series, Murder at Cape Three Points. There are two more in the series.

Kwei Quartey has already begun a new series with The Missing American. I really enjoyed  that book but please, Mr. Quartey, do not abandon Darko!

NPR had an interesting feature on Kwei Quartey several years ago.
******************

I’m almost half way  through The Mirror & the Light. It’s very good, Possibly I’m not quite as  entranced with it as I was with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, but  it’s the fault of the current health crisis, I think. Certainly Hilary Mantel is a wonderful writer with an uncanny ability to bring the past to life.
*****************

These Fevered Days, on the other hand, was the perfect for this troubles time. It is subtitled, Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, and brings the poet near to the reader in a way that is almost uncanny. For the first time, I feel as though I really know Emily Dickinson – know what moved her, why she made certain decisions, why she lived her life the way she did, and finally, and most vitally, how she came to her write her brilliant verse.

Thank you, Martha Ackmann! More on this very special book at a later time.

Here are two poems by Dickinson that have long haunted me:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
—————–
Not one of all the Purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory
——————-
As he defeated – dying –
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear.
**************************

After great pain a formal feeling comes–
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions–was it He that bore?
And yesterday–or centuries before?

The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow–
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

(Emily Dickinson did not give her poems titles. They are usually referred to by their first lines.)

 

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A Sultry Month by Alethea Hayter

August 12, 2019 at 7:48 pm (Anglophilia, Art, London, Poetry)

  One of my favorite books from the past few years is a nonfiction work entitled: A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846.

To begin with, Alethea Hayter’s powers of description are  formidable. They are shown in full spate in this passage, in which she brings the Duke of Wellington’s annual Waterloo Banquet to vivid life:

The low sunset light of that fiercely hot day came in through the six westward-facing windows of the Waterloo Gallery, competing with the light of the serried candles in the candelabra of the huge silver-gilt Portuguese Service, crowded with dancing nymphs, allegorical  figures of the Continents, camels, horses, scorpions, which stretched the whole length of the table. The colors were all fierce and bright–scarlet uniforms, shining white tablecloth, harsh yellow damask on the walls staring out between the crowded frames of the pictures captured in Joseph Bonaparte’s carriage at the Battle of Vittoria.

There was gold and sheen everywhere–gilding on the doors and ceiling, shutters lines with looking-glass, epaulettes, decanters, medals, picture frames, chandeliers, everything glared and glittered….

A Sultry Month has a wonderful cast of characters: Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, poets who against all odds made their love triumphant; John Keats, whose brief stay on Earth left us with much memorable verse; the Carlyles, Jane and Thomas, William Wordsworth, Charles Lamb and Mary Lamb – the list goes on. But perhaps the most memorable among them is a painter of whom I had not previously heard. His name is Benjamin Robert Haydon.

There is a genre of painting  called history painting. The term refers not only to depictions of historical events but also to scenes from mythology and religion.  The works were usually large, colorful, and action-packed. The Abduction of the Sabine Women (1635-1640) by Peter Paul Rubens is a good example:

By the nineteenth century, this type of subject matter was increasingly deemed outmoded, especially in England, where it had never really taken hold to begin with. But Benjamin Robert Haydon believed passionately in its relevance and its rightness. He worked steadily and, some would say, stubbornly to embody the best aspects of history painting in his own art.

In 1817, Haydon gave a dinner party which, over the years has achieved a unique sort of fame. In attendance at this gathering were all of the luminaries mentioned above: Keats, Wordsworth, the Lambs brother and sister, the Carlyles, and others. Haydon had two purposes in presenting this entertainment. He wanted to introduce young Keats to the venerable Wordsworth, and he wanted all the guests to see his rather fabulous, if somewhat bizarre, canvas entitled Christ Entering Jerusalem.

The bizarre aspect stems from the fact that Haydon has included small portraits of his present day friends in this work. If you look closely at the three men at the extreme right, you can see Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, and Keats. (I’m pretty sure that the figure with the slightly bowed head is Wordsworth.) Apparently other of Haydon’s friends and acquaintances are also represented therein. Few of these individuals were particularly religious.

The occasion was a great success, at least in the eyes of the host. This is what he wrote about it later in his autobiography:

It was indeed an immortal evening. Wordsworth’s fine intonation as he quoted Milton and Virgil, Keats’ eager inspired look, Lamb’s quaint sparkle of lambent humour, so speeded the stream of conversation, that in my life I never passed a more delightful time. All our fun was within bounds. Not a word passed that an apostle might not have listened to. It was a night worthy of the Elizabethan age, and my solemn Jerusalem flashing up by the flame of the fire, with Christ hanging over us like a vision, all made up a picture which will long glow upon

“that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude.”

Haydon began writing his autobiography in 1839. He was still working on it at the time of his death in 1846. I think it quite marvelous that he quotes from “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” also known as “Daffodils,” a poem written by his  friend Wordsworth in 1804.

Portrait of Wordsworth by Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1842

 

Manuscript copy of “Daffodils,” held at the British Museum

There are at least two other books about Haydon’s “Immortal Dinner:” The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb by Stanley Plumly (2014), and The Immortal Dinner: A Famous Evening of Genius and Laughter in Literary London, 1817, by Penelope Hughes-Hallett (2002).

[A footnote, but an interesting one: Charles Lamb was a distinguished essayist. He is probably best remembered today for Tales of Shakespeare, on which he collaborated with his sister Mary. Mary was mentally unstable; in 1796, while experiencing a severe breakdown – what today we would probably call a psychotic break – she stabbed her mother to death with a kitchen knife. Charles remained devoted to his sister until his death in 1834. Peter Ackroyd’s novel The Lambs of London vividly recreates the turbulent events surrounding this calamity.]

I was completely spellbound by A Sultry Month; I look forward to reading it again.

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“How do you like to go up in a swing, / Up in the air so blue?”

July 3, 2019 at 8:05 pm (Family, Poetry)

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
Rivers and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside—

Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown—
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!

“The Swing,” poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, from A Child’s Garden of Verses

Robert Louis ‘Stevenson 1850-1894

*************************
Swinging by Welles, age 5!!!

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A day at Washington’s National Gallery, Part One: The Little Dyer and his Outsized Genius

May 12, 2019 at 4:20 pm (Art, Poetry)

Summer 1555

 

The Creation of the Animals 1551-52

 

The Marriage of Bacchus and Ariadne 1576/1577

Tintoretto’s father was named Battista Comin. Because of his fearlessness in battle, he earned the nickname ‘Robusti’ – the Robust One. Upon completing his military service, he took up the profession of cloth dyer – tintore di panni. His son Jacopo thus became known by the diminutive, Tiintoretto.

Okay, so having gotten that out of the way….

The above art works are among my favorites from the National Gallery’s spectacular exhibit. I was in the process of determining the date(s) of The Marriage of Bacchus and Ariadne when I chanced on a poem written about the painting by one Michael Field. Here it is:

Tintoretto

The Ducal Palace at Venice

Dark sea-water round a shape
Hung about the loins with grape,
Hair the vine itself, in braids
On the brow—thus Bacchus wades
Through the water to the shore.
Strange to deck with hill-side store
Limbs that push against the tide ;
Strange to gird a wave-washed side
Foam should spring at and entwine—
Strange to burthen it with vine.

He has left the trellised isle,
Left the harvest vat awhile,
Left the Maenads of his troop,
Left his Fauns’ midsummer group
And his leopards far behind,
By lone Dia’s coast to find
Her whom Theseus dared to mock.
Queenly on the samphire rock
Ariadne sits, one hand
Stretching forth at Love’s command.

Love is poised above the twain,
Zealous to assuage the pain
In that stately woman’s breast ;
Love has set a starry crest
On the once dishonoured head ;
Love entreats the hand to wed,
Gently loosening out the cold
Fingers toward that hoop of gold
Bacchus, tremblingly content
To be patient, doth present.

In his eyes there is the pain
Shy, dumb passions can attain
In the valley, on the skirt
Of lone mountains, pine-begirt ;
Yearning pleasure such as pleads
In dark wine that no one heeds
Till the feast is ranged and lit.
But his mouth—what gifts in it !
Though the round lips do not dare
Aught to proffer, save a prayer.

Is he not a mendicant
Who has almost died of want ?
Through far countries he has roved,
Blessing, blessing, unbeloved ;
Therefore is he come in weed
Of a mortal bowed by need,
With the bunches of the grape
As sole glory round his shape :
For there is no god that can
Taste of pleasure save as man.

I had not heard of this particular poet and so set about doing further research. The facts came to light quite readily.

This is Michael Field:

Under this pseudonym, Katherine Harris Bradley (1846-1914), left, and her niece and ward Edith Emma Cooper (1862-1913) published numerous works of poetry and drama and kept a lengthy journal entitled Works and Days. More information on these two can be found on Wikipedia and on the Poetry Foundation site.

For me, one of the chief joys of the internet consists in discovering unexpected linkages like this.

And never fear – There’s more Tintoretto to come…

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Best of 2018, Four: Nonfiction, part two

December 27, 2018 at 2:03 pm (Art, Best of 2018, Book review, books, Poetry)

So I’m getting ready to divide my 2018 nonfiction reading into neat categories, and I run into trouble right away. Some of these books are hard to pigeonhole: they’re sort-of biographies, sort-of true crime – was there actually a crime? – and, well, you get the idea.

  The only more or less conventional biography I read this year was Gainsborough: A Portrait, by James Hamilton. As is the case with the most engaging biographies, the life of this distinguished  artist was set vividly within the context of his times.

Almost exactly ten years later, a well-dressed, brisk and persistent gentleman called on a friend of his in London. There was nobody at home, just the servant. On the table was a small landscape painting which caught the man’s attention. He picked it up, looked at it closely, turned it over. ‘Ruisdael improved,’ he thought to himself. ‘Warmer colouring, as truly drawn and painted as Ruisdael, but more spirited.’ It was quite clear from the back of the canvas that this was a new, modern picture, not Dutch seventeenth century. The following conversation was published in 1772:

‘James, where did your master get this picture?’

‘At the auctioneers Langford’s, sir, I have just brought it home.’

‘Do you know whose it is?’ ‘My master’s, sir.’

‘Fool! I mean the painter.’ There was a knock at the door. James let his master in.

‘Who painted that picture?’ demanded the visitor. ‘Who do you think?’ replied his friend. ‘Don’t know, tell me instantly!’ ‘Come, come – you are a judge of pictures, and a bit of a painter yourself. It’s a gem, isn’t it?’

The visitor was even more intrigued.

‘You will like it so much more when I tell you it is painted by an artist who is unknown, unfollowed, and unencouraged.’

‘What’s his name?’

‘Gainsborough.’

 

Mary Little, later Lady Carr

 

Portrait of the Composer Carl Friedrich Abel with his Viola da Gamba (c. 1765)

 

Road from Market

Oh, those trees!

*********************

Three fascinating women figure in this narrative: Emily Dickinson, Mabel Loomis Todd, the lover of Emily’s brother Austin, and Millicent Todd Bingham, daughter of Mabel and her husband David Todd.

After Emily begins with Emily Dickinson’s funeral.

“And in the spring, also rare Emily Dickinson died & went back into a little deeper mystery than that she has always lived in. The sweet spring days have something in all their tender beauty when she was carried through the daisies and buttercups across the summer fields to be in her flowered couch,” Mabel later reflected in her journal. “It was a very great sorrow to Austin, but I have lived through greater with him, when little Gib [Austin’s son] died. He and I are so one that we comfort each other for everything, perfectly.”

There follows a furious nonstop battle over who owns the rights to her works. The story of the love affair of her brother and Mabel Loomis Todd is unexpected and remarkable. The fallout from it is significant, even profound. If you’re wondering whether Emily knew, she did – and did and said nothing, apparently.

But over and above the events of the narrative hovers the restless spirit of  that reclusive, brilliant poet:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.
——-
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
————-
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –
————–
Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –
————
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –
————
Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –
—————-

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After Emily, by Julie Dobrow

November 25, 2018 at 4:29 pm (Book review, books, Poetry)

    After Emily is subtitled: Two Remarkable Women and the Legacy of America’s Greatest Poet. The two women were Mabel Loomis Todd and her daughter Millicent Todd Bingham.

Yes, they were both remarkable. Although they strove relentlessly for the same goal – the publication in full of Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters – their temperaments could not have been more unlike. Mabel Loomis Todd was ambitious, outspoken, and gifted in many areas of endeavor: art, writing, and music among them. In an era of almost Victorian restraint, she was unabashedly sensual. Finally, into the bargain, she was beautiful. 

Author Julie Dobrow describes trips to far flung locales where Mabel’s astronomer husband David Peck Todd made fruitless attempts to observe a total eclipse. (The skies invariably clouded over at the crucial moment.). But this is really an Amherst story. In 1881, David secured a position as astronomy professor at Amherst College. David and Mabel began socializing with the Dickinson family, who were prominent members of the community.

Emily Dickinson and her sister Lavinia lived at the Homestead, where they cared for their elderly, ailing mother until her death in 1882. Their brother Austin, his wife Susan, and their three children lived close  by. When Mabel Loomis Todd and her husband David moved to Amherst, they rented a house not far  from the Dickinson domiciles. Indeed, Amherst was a relatively small village; no one lived very far from anyone else.

This fact greatly facilitated the relationship between Mabel Loomis Todd and William Austin Dickinson. That relationship swiftly moved from friendship to love affair – a fervent bond only lightly concealed by Mabel and Austin. It continued, only growing in intensity for nearly thirteen years, up until Austin’s death in 1895.

Mabel’s husband David was among those who knew about the affair. He was the epitome of the complaisant spouse, allowing his wife and her lover plenty of space in which to pursue their desires. Not so Austin’s wife. Susan Dickinson was the very epitome of the Woman Scorned. Her fury extended well beyond Austin’s death. It had a perverse and lasting effect on efforts to make the poetry and letters of Emily Dickinson available to the reading public.

In fact it is the story of those efforts, doggedly pursued by Mabel and then taken up by her daughter Millicent, that takes up the bulk of this narrative, particularly its latter half. It is a very complex tale, involving copyright and other legal issues. At times, it was hard not to get bogged down. Yet I was held, especially by the depiction of the strange complexity of the relationship between Mabel and Millicent, a rapport not helped by the fact that the latter was left in the care of her distant grandparents for long stretches of time. Like her mother, Millicent had a restless, brilliant intellect; among her many achievements, she was the first woman to obtain a doctorate in geology and geography from Harvard University. Unlike her mother, she was of a conservative bent. It took her a long time to fully come to terms with Mabel’s and Austin’s connection to each other. But eventually she became reconciled to its truth, even its legitimacy.

On the surface, Millicent Todd Bingham would seem less interesting than her colorful, flamboyant, and strong willed mother. Yet in a way, Millicent is the more admirable of the two, seeing the value of Mabel’s quest, adopting as her own, and ultimately seeing through to completion.

Finally, one comes  full circle, returning to the wellspring of this somewhat tortured narrative, to the elusive, reclusive genius that was Emily Dickinson. Of the many poems that I am familiar with, this is the one that haunts me the most:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?
**************
The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –
*************
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

The first edition of poems by Emily Dickinson, published in 1890

 

 

 

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The eclipse at our house, with a poetical digression

August 23, 2017 at 4:22 pm (Art, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Poetry)

We were forewarned that in central Maryland, the eclipse would not be total. We weren’t expecting much, and frankly we didn’t get much. That’s not to say we didn’t try. And the sun was, in fact, shining – a happenstance not at all dependable here in the Old Line State.

We didn’t have  the special glasses and so did not gaze directly at the phenomenon. We were able to see this indicator, though, as the light penetrating through the leaves of the tree in our  front yard provided a sort of pin hole camera effect:

You will no doubt be impressed by the delicately calibrated scientific instrument that we also made use of:

At any rate, here was the sun once again, yesterday morning, being normal in our backyard:

Being of a literary turn of mind (and an incorrigible English major from way back),, I wish to cite three poetical allusions. The first is famous:

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

Oh, thanks to thee, Shakespeare, for having words of beauty and meaning for every occasion.

And  then there’s John Donne, who in his poem “The Sun Rising”, is not praising the sun but chastising it. (Imagine scolding the sun! But then, lovers can  be a pretty cheeky lot):

Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams, so reverend and strong
Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.

She’s all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus.
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.

Finally there is W.H. Auden’s meditation on the sad fate of the too-audacious Icarus (and by implication the rest of us, sooner or later). This poem, titled “Musee des Beaux Arts,” was inspired by Auden’s viewing of Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

 

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas) by Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (c.1525-69) [Click to enlarge]

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“‘What species of utterance is this?'”

August 30, 2016 at 11:43 pm (Anglophilia, Poetry)

On Saturday August 27, this letter appeared in the Washington Post:

While reading the first paragraph of Michael Dirda’s review of Edwin Greenwood’s “The Deadly Dowager” [“The largely forgotten mystery that should be in your beach bag,” Style, Aug. 18], I slipped the sordid and mundane bonds of the present. The distant life of ideas, which brings solace and meaning to a brutish world, peeked for a moment over the dark horizon like an unannounced sunrise.

Most of us leave that life behind when we leave school. We forget about poetry and literature and lofty thoughts; we forget how much they lighten the load of being and bring order to chaos; we become poorer.

For a few moments, I felt rich and young again. “What species of utterance is this?” Ode or elegy, it is the only one that lasts.

Thanks go to Dirda for that tiny glance back to the ivory tower, a relic of which I still carry near my heart.

Lynn Peterson Mobley, Great Falls

My first thought was that the phrase “the sordid and mundane bonds of the present” had a familiar ring. It put me in mind of Ronald Reagan. Research took me to Reagan’s address to the nation on the occasion of the Challenger tragedy. The President concluded that speech with the following words:

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”

Those phrases are taken from a poem entitled “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee June 9, 1922 – December 11, 1941

John Gillespie Magee June 9, 1922 – December 11, 1941

Reagan’s address on that terrible occasion was a model of grace and clarity. The story of how it came to be written – under pressure and at a moment of extreme urgency – is quite interesting. It made a star out of the (young and inexperienced) woman from whose pen it issued.

As for Lynn Peterson Mobley’s letter, I am in awe of the beauty of expression that she summoned therein. I could not agree with her more about “poetry and literature and lofty thoughts.” I too had a college experience in which those values were paramount. At Goucher College, I was fortunate enough as an English major to have world class professors to teach and inspire me:

Professor William Hedges on American Literature
Professor William Mueller on Existentialism
Professor Brooke Peirce on Shakespeare and poetry of the English Enlightenment

Decades later, I remain deeply thankful for this experience.

The poetry  that resonates most deeply with me right now (as I seek  for ways to return to Great Britain) is A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad.

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

I’ve read two novels entitled An Air That Kills. One is the first entry in Andrew Taylor’s fine Lydmouth series; the other is by Margaret Millar.

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Having traveled to Shropshire and the incredibly beautiful Welsh border country in 2011, I gained a vivid appreciation of how much A Shropshire Lad means to the British people. While in a bookshop in one of the towns we passed through, I bought a beautiful new edition of the poem.

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Is My Team Ploughing

By A. E. Housman

“Is my team ploughing,
That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
When I was man alive?”

Ay, the horses trample,
The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
The land you used to plough.

“Is football playing
Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather,
Now I stand up no more?”

Ay the ball is flying,
The lads play heart and soul;
The goal stands up, the keeper
Stands up to keep the goal.

“Is my girl happy,
That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
As she lies down at eve?”

Ay, she lies down lightly,
She lies not down to weep:
Your girl is well contented.
Be still, my lad, and sleep.

“Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?”

Yes, lad, I lie easy,
I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,
Never ask me whose.

The Poetry Foundation site has an excellent biography of Housman.

Alfred Edward Housman 1859-1936

Alfred Edward Housman 1859-1936

This edition of A Shropshire Lad was published by Merlin Unwin Books in 2009 on the occasion of 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth.

I like the short commentary on the Naxos Audiobook site:

In A Shropshire Lad, A.E. Housman recreates a nostalgic world of lost love, lost youth, thwarted friendships, unfaithful girls, male bonding, untimely death and the uncertain glories of being a soldier. The poems deal with the exuberance of youth – its aspirations and disappointments, its naïve certainties and tragic mistakes. Though written in 1895, it struck a chord with the generation of young men who fought in World War I. It was said that every ‘Tommy’ had a copy in his knapsack. It has never been out of print.

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