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mountainish inhumanity

More - Autograph & Print (Actual MS) ThumbnailI continue to be deeply offended by the ignorance and stupidity on display by a certain class of Americans. I can’t keep my mouth shut. More than 57,000 children have come to our borders, for whatever reason (some horrific), dodging violence, abduction, rape, torture, extortion, only to be frightened out of their wits by a rabid mob clothed in the ruff of their opinions — politicians among them. I’d call them hyenas but hyenas possess compassion and overall intelligence.

Along with many other Americans, I can say that they don’t represent what’s good, generous or compassionate in this or any country.

But as anyone in every country knows, there’s no state that doesn’t suffer its own fools. On a scrap of paper long thought to contain the only remaining trace of Shakespeare’s hand, Shakespeare puts into the mouth of Sir Thomas More a scathing rebuke of such lynch mobs. The very thing — an anti-immigration crowd hell-bent on ridding their country of the wretched stranger. Here’s how the Oxford Shakespeare sums up the passage (Shakespeare’s contribution to Sir Thomas More):

“Sir Thomas More is based on Holinshed’s Chronicles and Nicholas Harpsfield’s biography of More. Sheriff More peacefully quells the riots of Londoners against resident foreigners  on the ‘Ill May Day* of 1517, and is appointed Lord Chancellor as a reward. In the Shakespearean Sc. 6, More persuades the rebels to surrender to the King, arguing for obedience to authority and challenging the rebels to consider their own plight if, like the strangers, they were to live in exile.” [Underlining is my own.]

* “…a fortnight before the riot an inflammatory xenophobic speech was made on Easter Tuesday by a Dr. Bell at St. Paul’s Cross at the instigation of John Lincoln, a broker. Bell called on all ‘Englishmen to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal’. Over the following two weeks there were sporadic attacks on foreigners and rumours abounded that “on May Day next the city would rebel and slay all aliens”. ~ Wikipedia as of July 28th 2014

As concerns the mob mentality untroubled by selfishness or  cruelty, Shakespeare’s More has little patience:

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to th’ ports and costs for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.

And more to the point, says More:

You’ll put down strangers,
Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,
And lead the majesty of law in line,
To slip him like a hound. Say now the king
(As he is clement, if th’ offender mourn)
Should so much come to short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbor? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
shakespeareNay, any where that not adheres to England,–
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountanish inhumanity.

And what will happen if  these people, these Americans and their children, who call themselves Christian, someday and suddenly find themselves the foreigner or the immigrant?  Who won’t, by their example, spurn them like dogs? Why shouldn’t they suffer the same barbarous temper and hideous violence? — The same refusal of a safe and generous abode on earth? Why should any American, outside the mote of their entitlement, expect to be treated better than dirt?

Shakespeare’s More still asks the same questions and I wonder if another 400 years will pass before history stops repeating itself.

The play, Sir Thomas More, a collaboration between Henry Chettle, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood, and William Shakespeare (and possibly others) was censored by the Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney, and never produced. Apparently, Tilney wanted substantial changes made to the play’s insurrection scenes. The ruling class then was just as timid as the ruling class today.

§

SCENE IV. St. Martin’s Gate.

[Enter Lincoln, Doll, Clown, George Betts, Williamson, others;
and a Sergeant at Arms.]

LINCOLN.
Peace, hear me: he that will not see a red herring at a Harry groat,
butter at elevenpence a pound, meal at nine shillings a bushel, and
beef at four nobles a stone, list to me.

GEORGE.
It will come to that pass, if strangers be suffered. Mark him.

LINCOLN.
Our country is a great eating country; ergo, they eat more in our
country than they do in their own.

CLOWN.
By a halfpenny loaf, a day, troy weight.

LINCOLN.
They bring in strange roots, which is merely to the undoing of poor
prentices; for what’s a sorry parsnip to a good heart?

WILLIAMSON.
Trash, trash; they breed sore eyes, and tis enough to infect the city
with the palsey.

LINCOLN.
Nay, it has infected it with the palsey; for these bastards of dung,
as you know they grow in dung, have infected us, and it is our
infection will make the city shake, which partly comes through the
eating of parsnips.

CLOWN.
True; and pumpkins together.

SERGEANT.
What say ye to the mercy of the king?
Do ye refuse it?

LINCOLN.
You would have us upon this, would you? no, marry, do we not;
we accept of the king’s mercy, but we will show no mercy upon the
strangers.

SERGEANT.
You are the simplest things that ever stood
In such a question.

LINCOLN.
How say ye now, prentices? prentices simple! down with him!

ALL.
Prentices simple! prentices simple!

[Enter the Lord Mayor, Surrey, Shrewsbury, More.]

LORD MAYOR.
Hold! in the king’s name, hold!

SURREY.
Friends, masters, countrymen–

LORD MAYOR.
Peace, how, peace! I charge you, keep the peace!

SHREWSBURY.
My masters, countrymen–

WILLIAMSON.
The noble earl of Shrewsbury, let’s hear him.

GEORGE.
We’ll hear the earl of Surrey.

LINCOLN.
The earl of Shrewsbury.

GEORGE.
We’ll hear both.

ALL.
Both, both, both, both!

LINCOLN.
Peace, I say, peace! are you men of wisdom, or what are you?

SURREY.
What you will have them; but not men of wisdom.

ALL.
We’ll not hear my lord of Surrey; no, no, no, no, no! Shrewsbury,
Shrewsbury!

MORE.
Whiles they are o’er the bank of their obedience,
Thus will they bear down all things.

LINCOLN.
Sheriff More speaks; shall we hear Sheriff More speak?

DOLL.
Let’s hear him: a keeps a plentyful shrievaltry, and a made my
brother Arthur Watchins Seriant Safes yeoman: let’s hear Shrieve
More.

ALL.
Shrieve More, More, More, Shrieve More!

MORE.
Even by the rule you have among yourselves,
Command still audience.

ALL.
Surrey, Surrey! More, More!

LINCOLN:
Peace, peace, silence, peace.

GEORGE.
Peace, peace, silence, peace.

MORE.
You that have voice and credit with the number
Command them to a stillness.

LINCOLN.
A plague on them, they will not hold their peace; the dual cannot
rule them.

MORE.
Then what a rough and riotous charge have you,
To lead those that the dual cannot rule?–
Good masters, hear me speak.

DOLL.
Aye, by th’ mass, will we, More: th’ art a good housekeeper, and I
thank thy good worship for my brother Arthur Watchins.

ALL.
Peace, peace.

MORE.
Look, what you do offend you cry upon,
That is, the peace: not one of you here present,
Had there such fellows lived when you were babes,
That could have topped the peace, as now you would,
The peace wherein you have till now grown up
Had been ta’en from you, and the bloody times
Could not have brought you to the state of men.
Alas, poor things, what is it you have got,
Although we grant you get the thing you seek?

GEORGE.
Marry, the removing of the strangers, which cannot choose but
much advantage the poor handicrafts of the city.

MORE.
Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to th’ ports and costs for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.

DOLL.
Before God, that’s as true as the Gospel.

LINCOLN.
Nay, this is a sound fellow, I tell you: let’s mark him.

MORE.
Let me set up before your thoughts, good friends,
On supposition; which if you will mark,
You shall perceive how horrible a shape
Your innovation bears: first, tis a sin
Which oft the apostle did forewarn us of,
Urging obedience to authority;
And twere no error, if I told you all,
You were in arms against your God himself.

ALL.
Marry, God forbid that!

MORE.
Nay, certainly you are;
For to the king God hath his office lent
Of dread, of justice, power and command,
Hath bid him rule, and willed you to obey;
And, to add ampler majesty to this,
He hath not only lent the king his figure,
His throne and sword, but given him his own name,
Calls him a god on earth. What do you, then,
Rising gainst him that God himself installs,
But rise against God? what do you to your souls
In doing this? O, desperate as you are,
Wash your foul minds with tears, and those same hands,
That you like rebels lift against the peace,
Lift up for peace, and your unreverent knees,
Make them your feet to kneel to be forgiven!
Tell me but this: what rebel captain,
As mutinies are incident, by his name
Can still the rout? who will obey a traitor?
Or how can well that proclamation sound,
When there is no addition but a rebel
To qualify a rebel? You’ll put down strangers,
Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,
And lead the majesty of law in line,
To slip him like a hound. Say now the king
(As he is clement, if th’ offender mourn)
Should so much come to short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbor? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,–
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountanish inhumanity.

ALL.
Faith, a says true: let’s do as we may be done to.

LINCOLN.
We’ll be ruled by you, Master More, if you’ll stand our friend to
procure our pardon.

MORE.
Submit you to these noble gentlemen,
Entreat their mediation to the king,
Give up yourself to form, obey the magistrate,
And there’s no doubt but mercy may be found,
If you so seek.
To persist in it is present death: but, if you
Yield yourselves, no doubt what punishment
You in simplicity have incurred, his highness
In mercy will most graciously pardon.

The Frost Place 2014 Summer Poetry Programs

 

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  • The Frost place, an organization based at one of Frost’s New Hampshire houses, offers an annual series of courses and conferences on poetry.  The following are this years offerings with contact information below.

The Frost Place Poetry Programs

The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching

Dates: June 22 – 26, 2014
Deadline: May 15, 2014

Tuition: $700, plus $120 for meals. Discounts are available.

Description: The Conference on Poetry and Teaching is a unique opportunity for teachers to work closely with both their peers and with a team of illustrious poets who have particular expertise in working with teachers at all levels: K–12, graduate and undergraduate, and nontraditional and community-based instructors. Over the course of 4½ days, faculty poets share specific, hands-on techniques for teaching poetry. The emphasis is on the reading-conversation-writing-revision cycle, and our teaching approach aligns with the Common Core anchor standards for reading and writing. Graduate-level credits are available through Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. Certificate of completion includes 33 hours of Continuing Education credit.

 

The Frost Place Teachers As Writers Workshop

Dates: June 26 – 27, 2014
Deadline: May 15, 2014

Tuition: $170.00, includes dinner and lunch, no lodging.

Description: The Frost Place Teachers As Writers Workshop is an intensive day-and-a-half session for classroom teachers who want to focus on their own writing and revision practices. The workshop is limited to participants who have already attended the Conference on Poetry and Teaching. Continuing education credits are available. See website for more details.

 

The Frost Place Conference on Poetry

Dates: Arrival July 13, Departure July 19, 2014
Deadline: June 10, 2014

Tuition: Full Tuition: $1,475, includes all meals and lodging; Commuter Rate: $1,000, includes lunch and dinner; Auditor Rate: $1,035, includes lunch and dinner, no access to the workshop, Day Rate: $145, conference attendance, lunch and dinner.

Discounts are available.

Description: Spend a week at “intensive poetry camp” with writers who are deeply committed to learning more about the craft of writing poetry. The Frost Place Conference on Poetry offers daily workshops, classes, lectures, writing and revising time in a supportive and dynamic environment.

 

The Frost Place Poetry Seminar

Dates:  August 3-9, 2014
Deadline: July 1, 2014

Tuition: Full Tuition: $1,475, includes all meals and lodging; Commuter Rate: $1,000, includes lunch and dinner; Auditor Rate: $1,035, includes lunch and dinner, no workshop; Day Rate: $145, conference attendance, lunch and dinner. Discounts are available.

Description: The Seminar is a unique opportunity for dedicated poets to delve intensely into the poetic process in a small group setting. Participants will have their poems-in-progress given generous and focused attention in workshops and one-on-one meetings with faculty, and will be invited to think in new ways about what can be accomplished in revision. For an additional fee, the Seminar will offer full-length manuscript review to a limited number of participants.

Contact:
Sarah Audsley
PO Box 74
Franconia, NH  03580
Phone: 603-823-5510

Email: saudsley@frostplace.org   •  Website: http://www.frostplace.org

Vermonted

·
·
You might have had ten miles clear road ahead,
A sunny break of fields along the way
And breathed the scent of daffodils instead—
There’s nothing like a crisp New England day—
But life gives nothing isn’t marred or flawed.
No, certain as a ten inch snow in June
And all the passing lanes gone by, by God
You’ll not be anywhere on time or soon.
The S.O.B. is only hell-bent sure
For just so long as takes to cut you off
Then drives as if he took a Sunday tour
And now’s your luck to watch his tail pipe cough,
····You’d swear, with malice of the kind that’s flaunted.
····You haven’t lived until you’ve been Vermonted.
·
·
Vermonted
February 25 2014 :  by me, Patrick Gillespie

The Prelude – 2014 Version

—Was it for this,
The sun, the fair and golden orb, the fiery
And intermediate visitant between
The dawn and evening star – fair shepherdess
And lithesome light of that uncertain hour,
Fretful demesne, who navigates and steers
The brief, contiguous days and nights – benignant
Shone upon my face? For this, dids’t Thou,
O Moosilauke! surveyor of Vermont –
Though situate within New Hampshire – maintain
Thy place immovable through night and day—
Though nowhere near my beauteous birthplace—
Didst thou, host every season — spring and summer,
Autumn and winter – the days and weeks thereof
And hours—not one skipped—nor minute either
But every second each one antecedent
To that which followed after; didst thou
Compose my thoughts to more than pious poetry,
Bestowing, midst the unsuspecting dwellings
Of men, and seasonable women, thy dim
Implacable knowledge of mankind and Nature,
Of congress midst the hills and valleys,
Uplands and contrastive lowlands. When
Made visible above the slumbrous landscape,
Thy broad, immotive height observable—
A neighbor’s house, not mine, though oft half seen
Behind a cloud or two or sometimes more
Or not at all if rain fell bleakly earthward,
Or if by unintentioned choice I stood
With leafy branches of a Maple, Elm
Or Birch between myself and that same view—
Thou wast a Playmate. Oh! Many a time
Did I, a naked boy—not girl though oft
Accompanied by a naked girl— cavort
In sand, shallows and the swift, uproarious
Descent of waterfalls, made one long day
A lazing summer’s day with girls — plunged
And bask’d and plunged and bask’d again, first one
And then the other alternate all day
In one delightful Rill and then another,
Or cours’d their hillocks and their valleys, leaped
Into the groves of bushy groundsel; or
When visiting the lofty grounds of Dartmouth—
The radiant coeds bronzing on the Green.
Then stood I, hunter, on the Indian Plains
Alert, of stern determination, savage
Who aims his nocked and blading arrow midst
The buffalo. Was it for this?

  • This fragment of a later revision to The Prelude was recently discovered among the papers of a Mrs. M — who wishes to remain anonymous. The inks and papers have undergone rigorous testing and I am assured the fragment is not fraudulent but a heretofore unknown and final revision undertaken by the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth. I am pleased to offer the reading public a first glimpse of the sublime verse enclosed therein.

The Problem with Wordsworth’s Prelude

Amplificatio: The way in which style may elevate or depress the subject at hand… the first means of stylistic ornament, amplification or attenuation… (a) in the actual word employed to describe a thing… (b) by the four principle methods of amplification: incrementum, comparatio, ratiocinatio, and congeries. [Quintilian (VIII, iii, 90) from A Handbook of 16th Century Rhetoric p.28]

Amplification may refer to exaggeration or to stylistic vices such as figures of excess or superfluity (e.g., hyperbole). [Amplification. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved February 17, 2014]

I’ve been hankering for some beautiful blank verse that isn’t Shakespeare, so I thought I’d try reading, once again, Wordsworth’s 865350Prelude. I’ve been reading the Norton Critical Edition with its side by side printing of the 1805 and 1850 Prelude. Most seem to prefer the 1805 edition, but in terms of poetic quality, I occasionally find the 1850 version better — but not by much.

Here’s my problem with Wordsworth’s Prelude. I’m of the mind that Wordsworth is a second rate poet, but reading his Prelude convinces me that Wordsworth isn’t just a second rate poet who writes poorly but a third rate poet who only occasionally writes well.

The website goodreads offers several pages worth of  very interesting comments by readers. They’re mostly favorable, but there’s often this proviso:

I like a lot of Wordsworth’s poetry, and this is my second time reading The Prelude, and it’s still a bit of a slog to get through for me. There are beautiful, lovely passages, but then a lot of trudging through rambly boring ones that make me sleepy. [Comment by Claire]

Right. Exactly. Reading Wordsworth is mostly a slog and I’m going to explain why. First this disclaimer: I don’t read for content, which probably makes me a poor reader of Wordsworth. The poets’s philosophical views hold almost zero interest to me. I read for poetry. All the criticism I’ve read on The Prelude, so far, has focused on the work as exegesis rather than poetry. By contrast, the criticism of Keats’ Hyperion is commonly far more invested in the poetry. Keats’ Hyperion is appreciated as great poetry. I presently can’t think of any critic who would seriously contend that the Prelude stands comparison to Paradise Lost or Hyperion. It has its moments, but they’re few and far between.

So, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to close my eyes. I’m going to slip the pages under my finger and open to a page at random — this so you don’t think I’ve deliberately chosen the dregs. And here we go. I’ve landed on Book Seventh lines 605-644 1805 (on the left side), 630-669 1850 version (on the right side). Pages 260-261 in the Norton Critical Edition. We’ll go with the 1850 version, since I can copy and paste it from here:

          Thus have I looked, nor ceased to look, oppressed          630
          By thoughts of what and whither, when and how,
          Until the shapes before my eyes became
          A second-sight procession, 1.) such as glides
          Over still mountains, 2.) or appears in dreams;
          3.) And once, far-travelled in such mood, a.) beyond
          The reach of common indication, b.) lost
          Amid the moving pageant, I was 4.) smitten
          Abruptly, with the view (a sight not rare)
          Of a blind Beggar, who, with upright face,
          Stood, propped against a wall, upon his chest              640
          Wearing a written paper, to explain
          His story, whence he came, and who he was.
          Caught by the spectacle my mind turned round
          As with the might of waters; and apt type
          This label seemed of the utmost we can know,
          Both of ourselves and of the universe;
          And, on the shape of that unmoving man,
          a.) His steadfast face b.) and sightless eyes, I gazed,
          As if admonished from another world.

            Though reared upon the base of outward things,           650
          Structures like these the excited spirit mainly
          Builds for herself; scenes different there are,
          Full-formed, that take, with small internal help,
          Possession of the faculties,1.) --the peace
          That comes with night; 2.) the deep solemnity
          Of nature's intermediate hours of rest,
          3.) When the great tide of human life stands still:
          4.) The business of the day to come, unborn,
          Of that gone by, locked up, as in the grave;
          5.) The blended calmness of the heavens and earth,             660
          Moonlight and stars, and empty streets, 6.) and sounds
          Unfrequent as in deserts; 7.) at late hours
          Of winter evenings, 8.) when unwholesome rains
          Are falling hard, 9.) with people yet astir,
          10.) The feeble salutation from the voice
          Of some unhappy woman, now and then
          Heard as we pass, a.) when no one looks about,
          b.) Nothing is listened to. But these, I fear,
          Are falsely catalogued; things that are, are not,

Right, so here’s the first thing that gets under my skin, Wordsworth’s pointless elaborating.

          Thus have I looked, nor ceased to look,

Not only has he looked but he has not “ceased to look”.

          By thoughts of what and whither, when and how,

It’s like a nervous tick. You can’t go more than 20 lines without Wordsworth essentially restating the same thing a dozen different ways. Do we really need to know that his thoughts are of what, whither, when,  how? No, we don’t. It’s just pointless babbling. From there, the reader descends into a miasma of convoluted phrasing rife with redundancies.

                        I was 4.) smitten
          Abruptly, with the view ( a sight not rare)
          Of a blind Beggar,

He was smitten. Well, if he was smitten, we don’t need to know that it was “with the view”. This is implied and redundant, but if you’re trying  to turn little ideas into a big epic, it’s apparently a good trick to be as wordy as possible. But even that’s not enough. He also has to tell us it was “a sight”. So now he’s given us the same information three times and then, finally, tells us what the object of the smiting, view, and sight was—”a blind Beggar”. What’s the blind beggar doing?

         Wearing a written paper, to explain
         His story, whence he came, and who he was.

Not a paper but a written paper. Do we really need to know it was a written paper. No, it’s a needless detail but it conveniently fluffs up the meter. And then what? The written paper explains his story. But if it explains the beggar’s story, doesn’t it stand to reason that it would also explain “whence he came, and who he was”? Isn’t that the point of “his story”? Does Wordsworth really need to add that it explains whence and who? No, it’s redundant.

Wordsworth then goes on to tell us, once again, that he is smitten, viewing, caught by, gazing at, the shape of the unmoving man (lest you thought the beggar burst into song). And then, just in case you didn’t get it the first time — the part about the beggar being “blind” — Wordsworth reminds us that the man’s eyes are “sightless”. Round and round we go.

And then he sets up his next several lines by elaborating on scenes differing (a pretentious Miltonic inversion) beginning with:

                            --the peace
          That comes with night;

Good, but Wordsworth can’t leave it at that. Now he’s going to natter on about sleep and peace (see above for the latter):

                             the deep solemnity
          Of nature's intermediate hours of rest,

The word deep is lazy — just a bland adjective Wordsworth threw in to keep the meter. Most of his adjectives are tossed in with the blithe indifference of metrical expediency. Solemnity is a vapid poeticism and “intermediate hours of rest” is a wordy abstraction with little poetic power. But Wordsworth isn’t done:

          When the great tide of human life stands still:

“Great tide of human life” is nothing short of a cliché, and writing that “life stands still” doesn’t improve matters. Next we’re going to get elaboration within elaboration:

          The business of the day to come, unborn,
          Of that gone by, locked up, as in the grave;

The phrase “as in the grave” elaborates on “locked up”, but is such an embarrassingly clichéd  addendum, and so artlessly tacked on, that if I were to read it aloud I could read it for laughs. But Wordsworth is just getting started:

          The blended calmness of the heavens and earth,             660
          Moonlight and stars, and empty streets, and sounds
          Unfrequent as in deserts;

More gratuitous elaboration. Do we really need to know about the “Moonlight and stars”? I thought “heavens” already covered that? (And notice how he uses moonlight instead of moon solely to keep the meter.)  And then, because he just can’t stop himself, he tacks on “as in deserts’, echoing the simple-minded simile “as in the grave”. But what makes it worse is the generic cliché-edness of the verse. And what really sinks the boat is that this kind of writing does nothing to advance the narrative. It makes reading the poem a slog because the reader has to spend two dozen lines listening to Wordsworth state and restate the same information with pseudo-poetic obviousness.

And as if all that uninspired piling on weren’t enough, Wordsworth launches the reader in a whole new direction, further adumbrating scenes different:

                                  7.) at late hours
          Of winter evenings, 8.) when unwholesome rains
          Are falling hard, 9.) with people yet astir,
          10.) The feeble salutation from the voice
          Of some unhappy woman, now and then
          Heard as we pass, a.) when no one looks about,
          b.) Nothing is listened to.

It’s not enough that the rains are “unwholesome”. The unwholesome rains are also “falling hard”.  The phrase “people yet astir” is blandly general. From there we descend into nonsensical stupidity. The phrase from the voice is utterly redundant.  Obviously, if one hears a salutation, then it stands to reason that the salutation is from the voice. Right? Wordsworth then throws in some metrical wordsworthfluffery with unhappy (another vacuous adjective).  It stands to reason that if the salutation is “feeble”, she’s probably not happy. But Wordsworth piles on more redundancies, adding: “now and then/Heard as we pass”. Once again, if the salutation was worth mentioning, then it was obviously heard. We don’t need to be told that he “heard it” (now and then as he passed). Wordsworth then gets so  tangled up in excess that the whole thing collapses into sheer contradiction. When no one looks about, he writes; but then that begs the question. If no one looks about, why the feeble salutation? And the salutations came more than once. They were now and then. Obviously the unhappy woman (and unnamed others who were astir) was looking about. Nothing is listened to, he writes. Well if nothing was listened to, then who did the hearing (now and then as they passed) and why the salutations?

There are just no two ways about it. It’s terrible writing. It’s terrible poetry. Even Wordsworth seems a little embarrassed:

But these, I fear,/ Are falsely catalogued

I can go to every single page of the Prelude and find more examples. It just doesn’t stop. Wordsworth is a veritable font of bad poetry — needless repetition, vacuous adjectives, pointless elaboration, redundancy, pretentious Miltonic inversions, metrical expediency, banal similes, non-sequiturs, double negatives, Latinate verbosity. You name it.

Wordsworth wasn’t entirely blind to his bad writing. The 1850 does make small improvements from time to time. the following is typical:

It hath been told already how my sight
Was dazzled by the novel show, and how
Erelong I did into myself return.
So did it seem, and so in truth it was —
Yet  this was but short-lived.

[The Prelude p. 102 1805Version  204-208]

The portion in italics is pointless. Wordsworth apparently agreed because he weeded out the blather in his 1850 rewrite:

It hath been told, that when the first delight
That flashed upon me from this novel show
Had failed, the mind returned into herself

[The Prelude p. 103 1805Version  204-206]

And that was that, almost, because then Wordsworth launches into another round of “excess and superfluity”:

          In climate, and my nature's outward coat
          Changed also slowly and insensibly.
          Full oft the quiet and exalted thoughts
          Of loneliness gave way to 1.) empty noise
          2.) And superficial pastimes; 3.) now and then
          Forced labour, 4.) and more frequently forced hopes;           210
          5.) And, worst of all, a treasonable growth
          Of indecisive judgments, that impaired
          And shook the mind's simplicity.--And yet
          This was a gladsome time.

This is the stuff of pure comedy. Each clause builds on the last adding more syllables and verbosity until, by the fifth clause, Wordsworth’s excess tumbles forth with an almost breathless panic:

And, worst of all, a treasonable growth
Of indecisive judgments, that impaired
And shook the mind’s simplicity.

Take a deep breath:

…yet/This was a gladsome time.

Indeed. It’s enough to leave a reader “insensible”. I’ve really come to the conclusion that the only reason Wordsworth is remembered for much of anything is due to the sheer volume of his output. If you write enough, if you’re a William Wordsworth (or a John Ashbery for that matter), you will eventually overwhelm your critics. You will also, like the broken clock, get it right twice a day.

The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,
The stationary blasts of water-falls,
And every where  along the hollow rent
Winds thwarting winds, bewildered and forlorn,
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky,
The rocks that muttered close upon our ears,
Black drizzling crags that spake by the way-side
As if a voice were in them, the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds, and region of the heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity,
Of first and last, and midst, and without end.

[The Prelude Book Sixth Lines 624-640]

If only Wordsworth could have sustained more passages like this; and see here for a recently discovered fragment.

This time of year

·

This time of year when I go out
Winter is like an inland sea—
Waves half way up the gutter spout
And ripples lapping at the tree.

You’d think the swelling tide of snow
Claimed memory of an ancient shore
And with a melting undertow
Would turn the stone to shells once more.

But only once when I’d come to
Half-wakened from a fitful dream
Did something like a tide slip through
The bedroom window’s broken seam.

The snow seemed finally come for good,
An icy shore beneath my bed,
And yet I think that if I’d stood
I would have stepped on sand instead.

The taste of salt was in the air
And though the frost had licked the hinge
I saw, at midnight, something there—
Sunlight skirting the doorway’s fringe.

I only had to go outside
To see the ocean at my sill—
I only had to—but that tide
Will come again. Someday I will—

This time of year

February 11, 2013 by me, Patrick Gillespie

Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • Three Books Added

Reviewed and added the following books to Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • A review of Poets & Anthologies:

  • Haiku for Lovers edited by Laura Roberts
  • Erotic Haiku by Oliver Grant
  • erotic poems: E.E. Cummings

You will find them appended to the larger review linked above.

This living hand, now warm and capable

To give myself something to do while the temperatures dip to the teens below zero (Fahrenheit), I thought I might try to understand what it is about this little poem that makes it so famous. If Keats can turn a poem, a little eight line fragment, into a masterpiece, maybe you can too. Here’s the poem, in case you’ve never read it:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood,
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d. See, here it is –
I hold it towards you.

~ the Poems of John Keats, edited by Jack Stillinger (the hardcover) p. 503

Some History and Diversionary Thoughts

Now, curiously, the first thing I notice is that there’s a typo and, as it turns out, the typo is Keats’s. The verb tense in line 5 is incorrect. “Thou would” should read “Thou would’st”. I’m hardly the first to notice this, but it suggests a couple possibilities: that Keats wrote this hastily and/or Keatsthat the use, by then, of archaic thee/thou still wasn’t second nature. I lean more toward the first explanation, since Keats had already written most of his poetry using this poetic convention.

Keats took some heat for his use of archaic diction. When Wordsworth was writing the following:

“There will also be found in these volumes little of what is usually called poetic diction”.

Keats was writing:

“…poetry should surprise by a fine excess, and not by singularity . As one’s environment is bound to mould one’s behaviour so is one’s writing likely to be influenced by what one reads. By this premise, to my mind, words such as “thou” and “thine”, though archaic in nature, would always justify their usage at least in poetic forms so long as the works of Shakespeare and those of the great poets of old remain relevant to the present and the succeeding ages. Therefore, if archaic words pervade my verse it is not out of a hope that taking recourse to such-like seeming affectations by themselves would lift my muse to sublime heights of the past; but, conversely, I poetise them mainly for reasons of effectual rhyming and in recognition of the fact that these discarded words had kept company with the best in literature. Furthermore, I feel secure in the knowledge that Spencer and Chaucer amongst many other of their ilk infused their inimitable writings with usage of archaic words; and therefore, I feel, by using any such words I am by no means committing any grave transgression which contemporary writing may find it difficult to digest.”

The conventional usage of poetic archaisms like thee and thou was still an acceptable one in Keats’ day (according to then prevalent aesthetics — and unlike now). Nevertheless, the first stirrings of a more “modern” poetic language were already to be found in some of his contemporaries.

The Cambridge Companion to Keats offers Keats poem this way:

This living hand, now wa[r]m and capable
Of ea[r]nest grasping, would, if it were cold
and in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
············································heat
That thou would wish thine own dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
and thou be conscience-calm’d — see here it is
I hold it towards you — [Facsimile edition, 258 from p. 116 of The Cambridge Companion]

I’ve looked but haven’t been able to google an image of the orginal MS. If someone else has any luck, comment or send me a link.

According to Stillinger, the poem was “written probably toward the end of 1819″ and were “drafted or copied on the outside recto of a folded sheet on which, after turning it over and around, Keats drafted stanzas 45-51 of The Jealousies; they thus appear upside down…”

So, my own supposition, based on the misspellings and mistakes, is that this was not copied but was a quick draft. Keats apparently, and to judge by his writing of Otho the Great, could quickly and fluidly write competent verse (which by Keats’s standards is far and above the best verse of lesser talents). My hunch is that the lines occurred to him because of another prepossessing thought and quickly jotted them down to prevent them being lost. The idea, tone and imagery must have appealed to him as much as to us. He didn’t have a larger poem in which to place these lines and might have written something later. Perhaps Keats had been turning over these lines in response to another prompt. I’ve always felt that he had Fanny Brawne in mind when he wrote these lines, and I don’t have a clue as to why I think so. Maybe I read it somewhere, but I don’t think so. Did Keats write the lines in premonition of his own death by Tubercolosis? There’s a fascinating article here. Of concern to us is the following paragraph:

“On 3 February 1820, he traveled from town, sitting on the outside of the coach to save money, and, perhaps foolishly, he had left off his coat. He got off the coach at the top of Pond Street and stumbled into Wentworth Place at about 11:00 P.M. Brown did not like the look of him, thought that he might have been drinking, for he looked ill, and advised him to go to bed immediately. Brown went to Keats’s room with a glass of spirits, and, as he was getting into bed, Keats coughed and a small spot of blood appeared on the sheet. Brown heard him say, “That is blood from my mouth, bring me the candle Brown, let me see this blood.” And then, looking up at Brown, he said, “I know the colour of that blood; it is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived in that colour. That drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die.” And, indeed, how accurate he was in diagnosis and prognosis, for he died in Rome just over a year later.”

This tells us that Keats wrote This Living Hand before he knew that he had Tuberculosis (and was going to die from it). That said, he apparently had been suffering bouts of ill health, including sore throats, during 1819. Having been trained as a physician, and living in a time and place where Tuberculosis was rampant and had killed his brother, it’s hardly a stretch to assert that he must have dreaded and feared the disease and was mordantly alert to its symptoms. It’s possible that these lines were written in response to that constant dread.

Interestingly, at around the same time, or possibly a little earlier in 1819, Keats was revising Hyperion, and wrote these lines:

Since every man whose soul is not a clod
Hath visions, and would speak, if he had lov’d
And been well nurtured in his mother tongue,
Whether the dream now purposed to rehearse
Be poet’s or fanatic’s will be known
When this warm scribe my hand is in the grave (I.13-18 The Fall of Hyperion)

The final line bears more than a striking resemblance to “This Living hand…” Is there a connection? If chronologies are correct, then Keats wrote the line in Hyperion before writing “This Living hand…” Death was ever present. When thinking of his own art, he seemed to embody his craft and career in the metaphor of his hand, “this warm scribe”. The ‘I’ of the poem is a poet and I don’t think it’s far-fetched to imagine that Keats was largely projecting himself into the identity of the narrator.

  • In 1818, in a letter to his brother, Keats was to write: “Warm is the nerve of a welcoming hand…”

All this is a round-about leading to a conjecture. Some have suggested that Keats might have been jotting down ideas for a proposed verse drama (with his friend Brown) but if this were true then one would expect to find more ideas and jottings. I doubt he was directing the fragment to Fanny Brawne who was, after all, his fiancé. If only because of Hyperion, and the chronological proximity of the line in Hyperion to the fragment This Living Hand, Id argue that the poem is a reference to himself or more specifically, his art — the phrase “This living hand”, being a reference to his skill as poet. The poem, as I interpret it, is consciously or subconsciously a very personal cry of anger and terror. The you of the poem, addressed as thou, can be interpreted as you, me, fate, God, present and future readers, etc. His poetic art, embodied in his hand — his warm scribe — he holds out toward us and toward God. He writes, this is what you/we have to lose if my life is taken so soon. One could argue that Keats wouldn’t refer to God as wishing his heart “dry of blood”, but if understood metaphorically, then the threat is a way of communicating the magnitude of the injustice (rather than as anything literal).

It’s fair to counter that Keats didn’t write poems this way. Like Mozart, he always seemed to draw a veil between himself and his art. But this poetic fragment is unusual.

The Meter

First, the meter is blank-verse and so regular that I’ll forgo a full-blown scansion:

This liv|ing hand,| now warm| and ca|pable
Of earn|est gras|ping, would,| if it| were cold
And in |the i|cy si|lence of |the tomb,
So haunt |thy days |and chill| thy drea|ming nights
That thou |would wish| thine own |heart dry |of blood,
So in |my veins| red life |might stream| again,
And thou |be con|science-calm’d.| See, here |it is –
I hold |it towards |you.

Or the last line may alternately be read:

I hold| it to|wards you.

All of the feet are Iambic Pentamter. In other words, there are no variant feet. I bolded wish and own to show how the meter emphasizes the content of them. The last line is the most interesting though, and changes everything. Depending on what Keats wrote next, the words towards could have been either disyllabic or monosyllabic. For clues, we would have to see how Keats used the word elsewhere. Here are some examples (from An Electronic Concordance of Keats’ Poetry):

One, loveliest, holding her white hand to|ward Sleep and Poetry, Line 366
Might turn their steps to|wards the sober ring Endymion: A Poetic Romance, Book I, Line 356
And then, to|wards me, like a very maid, Endymion: A Poetic Romance, Book I, Line 634
Over the pathless waves to|wards him bows. Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil, Line 96
Of the garden-terrace, towards or to|wards ? him they bent Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil, Line 179
To spur three leagues to|wards the Apennine; Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil, Line 186
A Cabinet, opening to|wards a Terrace. Otho the Great, Act V, SCENE IV, Setting
And |towards| her stept: she, like a moon in wane,
So saw he panting light, and |towards| it went Endymion: A Poetic Romance, Book II, Line 383
Walk’d |towards| the temple grove with this lament: Endymion: A Poetic Romance, Book IV, Line 926

To judge by these examples (and for the purposes of meter) Keats generally pronounced towards as having two syllables, pronounced to-wards. The last three examples show him opportunistically treating the towards as monosyllabic. What he never does (at least in his poetry) is to treat towards as a two syllable trochaic word, in other words — to|wards you. This would be perfectly acceptable, but based on precedence, he was probably treating towards monosyllabically:

towards| you

This puts the emphasis on towards rather than you. Too bad we don’t know. It would be interesting if he had intended on putting the emphasis on you. This would considerably change the emphasis of the poem, suggesting a much more personal addressee. It would also be the first  time, to my knowledge, that he treated towards as a trochaic word. Such are the subtleties of meter.

What’s also interesting is that he drops the archaic thou. For instance, he could have written:

I hold it towards thee.

Why drop the older address? Is it another sign of haste/hasty composition? — or does it possibly indicate a change of address and a more personal one? — encouraging us, in that case, to read the meter as emphasizing you.

One might be tempted to suggest that the use of thee and thou was a more formal address, but in some contexts it could also be more affectionate. Attempts have been made to discern if thou was normally one or the other but, at least based on studies of Shakespeare and Elizabethan usage, no hard and fast conclusion could be drawn. It all seems to boil down to context, which itself isn’t always reliable. How did Keats use it? That’s also hard to discern because his use, by this time, was a convention. He was imitating its use in poets like Shakespeare, Milton and his contemporaries, and probably was equally free with its connotations. Personally, in This Living Hand, I’m tempted to read the initial use as formal, and the final line, when he holds out his hand, as intentionally more personal. This means I’m also more inclined to put the metrical emphasis on you, (based on this shift of address), but this reading admittedly demands that we read Keats a little differently here than in any of his other preceding poems.

What’s the precedence? I notice that Keats will sometimes mix addresses, using Your when, by rights, he should use Thy. For instance, in King Stephen, Act I, sc. iv, Maud addresses Glouster as thou:

Not for the poor sake
Of regal pomp and a vainglorious hour,
As thou with wary speech…

But then a moment later she will say:

Your pardon, brother,
I would no more of that…

Rather than, more correctly, “Thy pardon, brother”. So, Keats didn’t always keep his forms of address straight, and it’s possible that these decisions were deliberate. Perhaps Maud’s change of address reflects a moment of affectionate politeness when asking for her brother’s “pardon”. This would suggest that Keats treats you and your as a more affectionate form of address and is suggestive when considering This living hand.

On the other hand, Keats makes a complete mess of pronouns in Ode on Melancholy:

NO, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kist
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.

But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globèd peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes…

Why? Your is the possessive form of Ye, but in this case I don’t think Keats intended the plural possessive pronoun of Ye when writing Your.  I would have to say it’s one of two possibilities and I lean toward the latter. The first is sheer sloppiness. Yes, I know he was a genius, but there’s no better way to put it. Keats was using a poetic convention and slipped up because the archaic address just wasn’t something he used in everyday speech.  The latter explanation is that he was more interested in sounds than correct grammar (the sound of your as opposed to thy). He was known to be very cognizant of the musicality of his lines. I lean toward the latter, but that’s speculation.

  • Interestingly,  an original sketch of the poem included these lines:

Though you should build a bark of dead men’s bones,
And rear a phantom gibbet for a mast,
Stitch creeds together for a sail, with groans
To fill it out, bloodstained and aghast;
Although your rudder be a Dragon’s tail,
Long sever’d, yet still hard with agony,
Your cordage large uprootings from the skull
Of bald Medusa; certes you would fail
To find the Melancholy, whether she
Dreameth in any isle of Lethe dull.

As you can see, the form of address is the modern you. What this suggests is that Keats originally used the more modern form then, in the process of finalizing the poem, switched to the archaic thou, but only did so haphazardly or half heartedly (the original sketches of the poem apparently haven’t survived). At any rate, Keats appears never to have been fully satisfied with the Ode, and so it’s possible that the published version (despite being published) is really more of an abandoned sketch — let go because he was fed up with it. It’s known that unlike other poems, Keats continued to edit the fair copy of Ode to Melancholy, settling on the first stanza’s ‘drowsily’ after trying ‘heavily’ and ‘sleepily’.  He changed ‘Then feed thy sorrow on a morning rose / Or on the rainbow of the dashing waves’ to ‘Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose, / Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave’.  By comparison, Keats does not, for example, confuse pronouns in Ode on a Grecian Urn.

What I can’t example (though I haven’t searched exhaustively) is a similar switch between thou and you within the space of a few lines or a single poem. So, in the case of This living hand, the whole matter remains open to conjecture. It also may shed some light on his use of would rather than wouldst. Possibly, his thinking was already two lines ahead when, knowing that he would switch to you, he absent-mindedly wrote would.

All these are questions that, to my knowledge, haven’t been dealt with by other critics or readers, but it does, I think, offer different ways of reading the poem.

What Does it Do?

What makes this poem work? Why do these eight lines stick with us the way ten thousand poems since, just as brief (and some book length) don’t? The answer is in the combination of its simple, concrete imagery and in the way Keats skillfully binds the whole around the central idea of blood as life force.

It works like this (red is life/blood and blue is cold/death):

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,

In the first six lines, Keats contrasts opposites:

living <> tomb
warm <> cold
earnest grasping <> icy silence

He doesn’t just contrast living with the word dead, he evokes death by reference to the tomb — a concrete image rather than the abstraction of death. And characteristic of Keats is the physical sensuousness of his imagery. From a prior post on imagery, the following:

“Psychologists have identified seven kinds of mental images: visual (sight, then brightness, clarity, color, and motion), auditory (hearing), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste) tactile (touch, then temperature, texture), organic (awareness of heartbeat, pulse, breathing, digestion), and kinesthetic (awareness of muscle tension and movement).”

Temperature|tactile “warm” “cold” “icy silence”
Motion|Kinesthetic “earnest grasping”
Auditory “icy silence

Icy silence is a synaesthetic image, my favorite kind, and one that especially suited Keats’ genius – giving a tactile sensation to silence. So, just as the hand feels it’s warmth, so too will it feel the icy silence of the tomb, but be incapable of earnest grasping, incapable of escape. What is especially powerful (and horrific) about this imagery is the subtle implication that there will still be consciousness in death — the consciousness and awareness of the tomb’s icy silence, but the inability to escape, the body having lost its warmth and ability to extricate itself.

So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood,
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d. See, here it is –
I hold it towards you.

Once again, Keats hammers home the horror of the contrasting opposites.

dry of blood <> red life/stream
haunt/dreaming nights <> conscience-calmed

As if speaking from the tomb, he continues to evoke the breath of the tomb through words like haunt, chill and dreaming nights, as if describing the horror of the “living death” within the icy walls of a tomb — its endless “dreaming night” — suggesting that the addressee will be cursed by the same living death (even while still alive). The addressee — he or she — will wish themselves “dry of blood”. However, the astute reader will point out that being “dry of blood”, in the context of this poem, hardly allows one to escape the horror of an icy tomb and the consciousness of being dead (and icily unable to move from the tomb). But Keats suggests there’s a greater horror. What could be worse that a living death? — a tormented conscience. (Right, I know that the rest of you wouldn’t chose door number two, but this is the Romantic era and a guilty conscience was, I suppose, considered a fate worse than death.)

In terms of his use of imagery, Keats’ associative powers are the most like Shakespeare’s of any poet since Shakespeare — it’s little wonder that he’s considered, by most, our second greatest poet. After having written dry of blood, Keats’ imagination, in realizing opposites, quickly makes the association to a stream and streaming, the opposite of dry. The near-synaesthetic “red life” powerfully compresses color, blood, vitality and life into two short words. Compare this to the following concerning the Medieval French poet Villon:

Poetic shorthand was one of Villon’s strengths. Where contemporaries were sincere but long-winded he was sincere but succinct, stripping a thought to its essence. A typical example of this was how contemporaries expressed the idea of laughing through ones tears. Charles, Duke of Orleans, wrote:

Je ris des yeulx, et mon coeur place
I laugh with eyes and my heart cries

Alain Chartier wrote:

le pleure ens, et me ry par dehors
crying within, and laughing outside

Jean Molinet wrote:

Ma bouche rie at mon povre cueur pleure
My mouth laughs and my poor heart cries

Villon wrote:

je rie en pleursI laugh in tears.

[danse Macabre: Francois Villon: Poetry & Murder in Medieval France p. 93-94]

In truth, I think that all great poets share that capacity for brilliant elision. “Red life” is worthy of Villon and Shakespeare. The phrase “so that red life might stream” gives to red life a kinesthetic energy, makes it concrete through the descriptive and living stream. Shelley, by contrast, might have been more apt to leave it as an abstraction.

  • Related to this is the following anecdote concerning the poet George Gordon Lord Byron who wrote that he didn’t understand Keats’  highly compressed metaphor from an An Ode to a Nightingale: “a beaker full of the warm south”. Byron, wrote Keats’ friend and supporter Leigh Hunt, was “not accustomed to these poetical concentrations.”

The fragment finishes as it began. In the first lines Keats suggestively uses the phrase “capable of earnest grasping”, then closes with “I hold it towards you”. Consciously or subconsciously, the reader will already have the image of “earnest grasping” in place, and will apply that image to the later image of Keats holding his hand towards the addressee.

The dramatic air of the poem hinges on its being, up to the last line, a single sentence. It unfolds its subjunctive proposition relentlessly, accusingly, baiting and defying the reader to escape before the final and thou be conscience-calm’d. It is a small tour de force of dramatic utterance and its no wonder some critics have speculated that the poem was intended for the stage — for a later play.

In The Cambridge Companion to Keats, the editor Susan J. Wolfson (when she’s not veering dangerously close to academese) nicely sums up this baiting of the reader:

“…the poem effectively works “for ever”: the poet ‘s hand has to be reanimated by the reader, revived as living and capable of writing “This living hand…,” and fated, in the sequence described, to write istelf back into the silence of the grave, thence to emerge again. The verse breaks off, suspended in mid-line, its last “heated” word, you, asking the reader to surrender to the writer in a charged economy of antagonisms — of friendship turned to haunting.” [p. 116]

Wolfson also suggests that it’s not clear, at the end, which hand the speaker is holding out — the “living hand”, or the cold and icy hand.

“The parting shot, “see here it is/I hold it towards you,” issues an invitation, but to what? Does it refer to a warm living hand or a cold dead one? The reader has to imagine the present as past, the sensation of earnest grasping as the chilling grip of a nightmare, the actual as spectral, and the spectral as actual.” [Ibid]

That all sounds compellingly Poe-ish, but I’m not buying it. Such confusion, in my view, requires, at worst, a willful misreading. Frankly, I think Wolfson has gone a bit overboard. At the outset the speaker makes it clear that his hand is now “warm and capable of earnest grasping”. The poem gives the reader no reason to think — in the course of the poem — that he has died, that his hand has turned cold and icy, and that he now reaches towards the addressee from the tomb. That’s just over-eager analysis. “It” is the earnest grasping of his hand. The speaker starts by saying that his hand is capable of earnest grasping, and closes saying “See, here it is –” In other words, his hand is capable of it and, at the close of the poem, does it. This isn’t as exciting as Wolfson’s phantasmagoria, but it’s what’s supported by the text.

Keats Grave

“This Grave
contains all that was Mortal
of a
Young English Poet
Whoon his Death Bed
in the Bitterness of his Heart
at the Malicious Power of his Enemies
Desired
these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone
Here lies One
Whose Name was writ in Water.”

It’s said that Keats only wanted the final words to appear on his tombstone: Here lies one whose name was writ in Water”. Joseph Severn and Charles Brown, Keats’ close friends, felt that Keats had been badly mistreated by the critics of the day and somewhat implicated them in Keats’ early death. Later, it’s said, both men regretted adding their words to the tombstone.

That said, it’s hardly unreasonable to conjecture that Keats was very unhappy at his critical reception and discussed the matter with both his friends — hence their angry and grief-stricken decision to add the commentary to Keats’ tombstone. Was Keats’ poem related to the sentiments expressed on his tombstone? Was there some truth in their description? — “the bitterness of his heart”? It’s hard to imagine that Severn and Brown entirely fabricated the sentiment expressed on the tombstone. I’m inclined to believe that, at the time, they thought they were — to some degree — expressing the sentiments of their lost friend. They were striking out at the conscience of Keats’ critics; and it’s entirely possible that Keats, in his poem, was striking out (as I described at the outset of the post) at the conscience of all those who denigrated his art or, as he might have symbolized it, his warm and capable hand.

The Imagery

An example to all poets. If you want your poetry to really grip the reader, communicate through all your senses, not just your sense of sight. These days, whole books of poetry are published (by experienced poets who should know better) in which the only sense every utilized is the visual sense. Keats’ poetry, above all, is famed for its physical sensuousness.

Visual (sight, then brightness, clarity, color, and motion)
Auditory (hearing), olfactory (smell)
Gustatory (taste)
Tactile (touch, then temperature, texture)
Organic (awareness of heartbeat, pulse, breathing, digestion)
Kinesthetic (awareness of muscle tension and movement).

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood,
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d. See, here it is –
I hold it towards you.

And that’s that. That’s all I can think to write at the moment.

Poets don’t improve…

“As I tell in the entry for October 22, 1952, he had asked me what I had been doing and I said I had been trying to make my poems better. Disdainfully he asserted that poets don’t improve, they only change. A poem must be written in one impulse, at one sitting, like a piece of ice on a hot stove that rides on its own melting. But a moment later he admitted that it had taken Grey eighteen years to complete his Elegy. I think Frost, if put in a corner, would concede that spontaneity sometimes has to be labored for.” [p. 85]

I laughed because I didn’t originally read this in terms of a poet improving or changing a given poem, but as a sardonic comment on their overall development.  I think there’s something to be said for that misinterpretation. The great poets (along with the mediocre) seem to be born with something that doesn’t improve, but only changes—and that invites a withering debate as to what we mean by change and improve. I won’t go there. Truth gets blurred in generalities, and I think it’s okay to enjoy the truth a little blurred. Certainly, the sly critique could be applied to a whole generation of poets who haven’t so much improved poetry, as changed it. I suspect the ever canny Frost would agree.

Berenice

There used to be a time when Newspaper’s regularly printed poetry. The poetry was of the greeting card variety (by today’s standards) mainly because the editors of the papers preferred to studiously pretend that modernism wasn’t happening. In a 1922 editorial, Harriet Monroe was to write of “newspaper verse”:

 “These syndicated rhymers, like the movie-producers, are learning that it pays to be good, [that one] gets by giving the people the emotions of virtue, simplicity and goodness, with this program paying at the box-office.”

Monroe’s fit of pique resulted in her founding The National Poetry Foundation, where the poet’s of the 2oth century could be liberated from the horrors of an appreciative readership. For the next 80 years (the rest of the 20th Century) Monroe and her coterie of poets, and their descendants, the babyboomers, triumphantly demonstrated to the world that their poetry deserved the same recognition for banal, venal, mediocrity as anything the Victorians had written. Their inaptitude was uniquely their own. They went home satisfied. The newspapers, in the meantime, decided poetry wasn’t worth it.

Up in New England, back in the early 20th century and late 19th century, nothing was wasted. When I remodel an old New England house, I’ll sometimes find old newspapers underneath floorboards or inside walls. It was used as a barrier for sound and air penetration. Whenever I find old papers like these, I always look for the poetry. Just before Christmas, I cut into some old boards (sheathing), in an old barn, underneath an old stairway that led to a dug cellar. There were two layers of boards and sure enough, between the two layers, I found layers of newspaper. Some old builder had put them in there to kill the air – cheaper than felt. The dates? Jan. 10, 1930. So, this stairway had been built in 1930 and hadn’t been touched since then. It just so happened that my skil-saw cut right through a little poem (you’ll see the cut in the scan). I saved it and am bringing this little poem, the kind that sent Monroe into paroxysms of indignation, back (and this time to the world). I hope the author, Francis Fuerst Quick, is smiling somewhere in the afterlife. She too wanted to be a recognized poet, I’m sure. I like to think that I’ve freed her voice, like a genie’s whisper, from the cold press of boards. I’ve searched for her name on the web and haven’t found it. So, it’s possible she appears on the World Wide Web for the first time. She speaks to you, tenderly and sentimentally, after a very long silence.

Berenice

Poems for your Scrap Book
Berenice

By Francis Fuerst Quick, in “Contemporary American Poets,” published by the Stratford Company, Boston

Such silly things my Baby sneaks to bed.
Sometimes a dolly or a crust of bread.
Sometimes a pencil with a blunty trend.
Tonight Dad’s hammer at the hammock’s end.

Such funny thoughts must flit about all night
From busy brain to active fingers tight
Clasping a book of storied fairy ream, —
“Oh mother, leave it—’cause it helps me dream!”

So, sadly, we—between sweet childhood and our Rest—
Clasping our old illusions to our breast,
Just as my Baby’s plea we also seem
To want to keep them—’cause they help us Dream!

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~ Up in Vermont • January 5 2014

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