Monday’s Child is Fair of Face

Illustration by Blanche Fisher Wright

  • As of today, Sept. 21 2013 and the first full day of autumn, this post has been viewed over 50,000 times. :-) Also, if you enjoy this post, you might also like the discussion of Mother Goose’s: I had a little nut tree…

I just picked up a used book A Child’s Anthology of Poetry, which I’ll talk more about in a later post. Suffice it to say, I like it very much.

After writing analyses of serious poems by serious poets, I wanted to try something different: a well-known nursery rhyme by Mother Goose, which isn’t to say that a nursery rhyme can’t be taken seriously. One of the most interesting facets to Mother Goose’ nursery rhymes is how amazingly interesting they really are! I suspect that most of us, when we first read them, think of them as nothing more than cute doggerel. (Modern poets have tried to write nursery rhymes with the flavor of the originals but, at least for me, there’s always the feeling that they’ve been contrived.) In fact, almost every one of Mother Goose’s rhymes has a rich history behind it. To demonstrate, I’ve picked out Monday’s Child. As of this sentence, I don’t know anything more about the poem than you do (and probably less). To me, it’s just a cute rhyme. But let’s see what we turn up.

Here’s the rhyme. Most of you know it well.

Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
And the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.

So, being methodical as ever, let’s go from the most to the least. The most being this: Who was “Mother Goose”? Seems that scholars are mostly in agreement: She’s a mythical personage whose name most probably derived from the title of Charles Perrault’s collection of fairy tales, “Contes de ma mère l’oye” or “Tales of Mother Goose”. The collection was published in 1697. Britannica states that “Mother Goose” is derived from a French expression that roughly translates as “old wives’ tales” ["Mother Goose." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Deluxe Edition.  Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010].

Both Britannica and Wikipedia mention the claims made for the true life Bostonian Elizabeth Goose. The claim that Elizabeth Goose was the origination of Mother Goose, though charming, is flatly and sadly dismissed by Britannica.

The persistent legend that Mother Goose was an actual Boston woman, Elizabeth Goose (Vergoose, or Vertigoose), whose grave in Boston’s Old Granary Burying Ground is still a tourist attraction, is false. No evidence of the book of rhymes she supposedly wrote in 1719 has ever been found. The first U.S. edition of Mother Goose rhymes was a reprint of the Newbery edition published by Isaiah Thomas in 1785. [Ibid]

If you’re curious to read more about this “persistent” urban myth, Wikipedia offers a bit more information.

The Poem

The poem, like many if not most nursery rhymes, is accentual. A poem written in meter, like Iambic Pentameter, would be called an accentual syllabic poem. This means that the accents (stressed syllables) are the same (or mostly) in each line and that the number of syllables in each line are the same (or mostly). In the case of Iambic Pentameter, there are mostly 10 syllables per line and of those 10 syllables 5 are almost always accented.

  • What does “fair of face mean“? I’ve seen this query several times in my dashboard. Seems like this is a good place to answer the question. Fair has the meaning: beautiful, but also auspicious and fortunate. So, Monday’s child, in a fortune-telling sense, means that Monday’s child is not only beautiful, but promises good things and a fortunate life.

In accentual poetry, the poet is only counting the number of accents per line, not syllables but only stressed syllables. So, Mother Goose’s little ditty would look like this:

Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
And the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.

Four stressed syllables per line. What does this tell us?  Britannica tells us the following:

The oldest extant copy dates from 1791, but it is thought that an edition appeared, or was planned, as early as 1765, and it is likely that it was edited by Oliver Goldsmith, who may also have composed some of the verses. [Ibid]

First, we know that accentual/syllabic meter (Iambic Pentameter for example) was only firmly established between the 1570’s and 1590’s. Chaucer had written Iambic Pentameter (not blank verse) but his innovations were largely forgotten until the Elizabethan era rediscovered the meter. We also have reason to believe that many of the poems in Mother Goose were probably poems passed from generation to generation by memory. One of the poems, I had a little nut tree, is thought to stem from the visit of Katherine of Aragon to England in 1506 – Katherine was betrothed to Prince Arthur and later married King Henry VIII when Prince Arthur  died.

So, given those two pieces of information, it makes sense that these nursery rhymes would be largely accentual. They reflect an earlier poetic tradition dating as far back, possibly, as Anglo-Saxon song and language. These nursery rhymes are old poems and even if we grant that Goldsmith may have penned some of the verses, he seems to have imitated the accentual language of the originals.

The poem Monday’s Child, interestingly, was not in the original edition but was first recorded in 1838, in A. E. Bray’s Traditions of Devonshire (Volume II, pp.287-288). This doesn’t mean that Monday’s child is a contrivance of 1838. As we’ll find out, the tradition (from which this proverbial poem springs) can be dated back, at least, to the 1570’s.

Fortune Tellers

If the tradition of this poem can be dated back to the 1570’s, then it surely predates the 1570’s. And what was that tradition? Fortune telling. I’ve read some commentary on this poem portraying it as no more than a mnemonic aid to help children remember the days of the week, but I think the poem is much more interesting than that. Turns out, the poem springs from a tradition of fortune telling proverbs. Human beings have always wanted a way to foresee future events and we’ve always been suckers for predictions. In his book, Oral and literate culture in England, 1500-1700, author Adam Fox provides us the following:

The Elizabethan writer Thomas Nashe remembered how, as a boy growing up at Lowestoft, Suffolk, in the 1570s, he had been spellbound by the faiths and fables which the old women had solemnly handed down around the home fire.

I haue heard aged mumping beldams as they stay warming their knees ouer a coale scratch ouer the argument verie curiously, and they would bid yong folks beware on what day they par’d their nayles, tell what luck euerie one should haue by the day of the weeke he was borne on; show how many yeares a man should liue by the number wrinkles on his forhead, and stand descanting not a litle of the difference in fortune when they are turned vpward, and when they are bent downward; him that had a wart on his chin, they would confidently assertaine he should haue no need anie of kin: marry, they would likewise distinguish betweene the standing of the wart on the right side and on the left. When I was a little childe, I was a great auditor of theirs, and had all their witchcrafts at my fingers endes, as perfit as good morrow and good euen. (*)

So it was, according to the old wive’s catechism, that Friday was the unluckiest day. ‘Now Friday came, your old wives say, of all the week’s unluckiest day.’ Despite this, however, every milkmaid knew that a dream on Friday night was sure to come true. [Page 182]

(*) John Melton, Astrologaster, or, The Figure-Caster (London, 1620), 53, and see 45-7, 67,69,71; Thomas Nashe, The Terrors of the Night (1594), in The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. McKerrow and Wilson, i. 369.

Is that a smoking gun or what? There’s ample reason to believe that Monday’s Child is much older than it’s first printed appearance in 1838. And what’s also worth noting is Nashe’s emphasis on old women ( the old wife or Mother Goose as the French might have called her). Women were the culture’s poetic memory and story tellers. In fact, there seems to have been a cottage industry in fortune telling by rhyme. Monday’s Child has some siblings.

Sunday’s child is full of grace
Monday’s child is full in the face
Tuesday’s child is solemn and sad
Wednesday’s child is merry and glad
Thursday’s child is inclined and thieving
Friday’s child is free in giving
Saturday’s child works hard for a living

Born on Monday, fair of face;
Born on Tuesday, full of grace;
Born on Wednesday, merry and glad;
Born on Thursday, wise and sad;
Born on Friday, Godly given;
Born on Saturday, earn a good living;
Born on Sunday, blithe and gay

Sunday’s child is full of grace,
Monday’s child is fair of face;
Tuesday’s child loves to race,
Wednesday’s child is kind of heart;
Thursday’s child is very smart,
Friday’s child will never part;
Saturday’s child is good of heart. [Page 105]

In the book, Baby Lore: Superstitions and Old Wives Tales from the World Over Related to Pregnancy, Birth and Babycare, the author Rosalind Franklin ascribes these variants, respectively, to the West Country of the UK, to Scotland and to the United States. If there was one thing that characterized the early United States it was the sense of optimism and hope typified by its immigrants. I don’t think it’s random that the variant found in the US is the most optimistic and hopeful (although the Scottish variant isn’t far behind  and many American immigrants were Scottish). The most pessimistic of the variants belong to the UK.

But there are more rhymes of the fortune telling kind. G.F. Northall, author of English folk-rhymes; a collection of traditional verses relating to places and persons, customs, superstitions, etc (evidently, collectors of really, really short poems like really, really long titles) found two more variants:

Born of a Monday,
·Fair in face;
Born on a Tuesday,
·Full of God’s grace;
Born of a Wednesday,
·Merry and glad;
Born of a Thursday,
·Sour and sad;
Born of a Friday,
·Godly given;
Born of a Saturday,
·Work for your living;
Born of a Sunday.
·Never shall we want;
·So there ends the week,
·And there’s an end on’t.

Born of a Monday,
·Fair in face;
Born on a Tuesday,
·Full of God’s grace;
Born on Wednesday,
·Sour and sad;
Born on Thursday,
·Merry and glad;
Born on a Friday,
·Worthily given;
Born on Saturday,
·Work hard for your living;
Born on Sunday,
·You will never know want. [Page 161]

But what if you need to know what day of the week to marry? In the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 25, we find the following:

Monday for health, Tuesday for wealth,
Wednesday the best day of all,
Thursday for losses, Friday for crosses,
Saturday no day at all.

Or, if you prefer:

Monday for wealth;
Tuesday for health;
Wednesday the best day of all;
Thursday for crosses;
Friday for losses;
Saturday no luck at all. [Page 160]

What’s the best day to sneeze?

Sneeze on a Monday, you sneeze for danger;
Sneeze on a Tuesday, you kiss a stranger;
Sneeze on a Wednesday, you receive a letter;
Sneeze on a Thursday, you’ll get something better;
Sneeze on a Friday, expect great sorrow;
Sneeze on a Saturday, meet a sweetheart to-morrow;
Sneeze on a Sunday, your safety seek,
·The devil will chase you the whole of the week. [Page 167]

And remember Thomas Nashe? He wrote that the aged mumping beldam “would bid yong folks beware on what day they par’d their nayles”?

Cut your nails Monday, you cut them for news;
Cut them on Tuesday, a pair of new shoes;
Cut them on Wednesday, you cut them for health;
Cut them on Thursday, ’twill add to your wealth;
Cut them on Friday, you cut them for woe;
Cut them on Saturday, a journey you’ll go;
Cut them on Sunday, you cut them for evil,
·All the week long you’ll be ruled by the devil. [Page 167-168]

So, all this is to say the Monday’s Child springs from a rich tradition of prognosticating rhymes and proverbial lore. In fact, our language is full of them.

A red sky in the morning is the sailor’s warning.
A red sky at night is the sailor’s delight.

Or the way I heard the rhyme from my grandmother was:

Red sky at morn, sailors forlorn.
Red sky at night, sailors delight.

Poems like these are a poetic undercurrent deeply imbedded in our language and culture but which, like the beldams, are all too frequently treated with condescension or overlooked. These women, mothers and grandmothers, entertained raised and taught the children of every generation and their music, poetry and stories are the great building blocks of all great literature. Theirs is a realm of literature which even self-professed feminists overlook in their efforts to recognize their more “literary” sisters. Shakespeare would be half the poet if it weren’t for his astounding knowledge and memory for proverbs. His poetry is literally stuffed with proverbial lore. Where Ben Jonson understood human nature through its humors, Shakespeare teased forth human nature from our proverbs.  I personally think it’s no mistake that one of the most realistic characters in all of his plays is the Nurse (the old beldam) in Romeo and Juliet. I don’t doubt that Shakespeare, in his youth, was just as enthralled by his own Mother Goose as Thomas Nashe, his contemporary. Whole books are dedicated to the proverbs he must have remembered from his childhood. Here is just one example:

The proverb fair and foolish, black and proud, long and lazy, little and loud, is at root, predictive, just like Monday’s Child. The proverb becomes a series of stinging jests in the dangerously scheming mind of Iago:

Iago I am bout it, but indeed my invention
Comes from my pate as birdlime does from frieze —
It plucks out brains and all. But my muse labours,
And thus is she delivered:
If she be fair and wise, fairness and wit,
The one’s for use, the other useth it.

Desdemona Well praised! How if she be black and witty?

Iago If she be black and thereto have a wit
She’ll find a white that shall her blackness fit.

Desdomona Worse and worse.

Emelia How if fair and foolish?

Iago She never yet was foolish that was fair,
For even her folly helped her to an heir.

Desdemona These are old fond paradoxes, to make fools laugh i’th’alehouse.
What miserable praise hast thou for her
That’s foul and foolish?

Iago There’s none so foul and foolish thereunto,
But does foul pranks which fair and wise ones do.

  • Note: Black, in Elizabethan times, didn’t have the same connotations as now. Although Iago makes a sexual dig at Desdemona saying that she will find a white (her womb) “that shall her blackness fit” (Othello’s penis), the appellation black generally referred to any European (including the English) who were darker complexioned, like the Italians and some of the Scottish, noted for their dark hair and eyes. The beautiful Emilia Lanier, for example, is sometimes identified as the “dark lady” in Shakespeare’s sonnets, claimed to be his lover, and was known to be a “dark” complexioned Italian. She was a musician, feminist and poet of considerable talent.

The proverb itself is a bit of fortune telling, much like Monday’s Child, and may have arisen from just such a rhyme (each of the lines in Monday’s Child is essentially a bit of proverbial lore).

At this point I can’t help inserting my usual jab at free verse. Ask yourself: Doesn’t a rhyming prophecy lend itself to the memory? I can think of nothing duller than a free verse prophecy. If nothing else, all of these poems bespeak the richness and joy taken in the sounds of our language. Modern poets lost much when they turned away from the music of language (one of which was book sales). Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes still vastly outsell any modern free verse poet (much to their annoyance whenever I mention it).

The Days of the Week

So what’s with the days of the week. Why is Monday characterized one way and Tuesday another?

Is there rhyme or reason?

The likeliest answer is the former. The characterizations probably reflect nothing more than the convenience of rhyme. What rhymes with face but grace? On the other hand, many of Mother Goose’s seemingly nonsensical and innocuous poems refer to real historical events (and frequently events that didn’t end well). Goosey Goosey Gander was a warning not to harbor Catholic Priests. During the Tudor era, when the Protestant religion was on the rise, harboring Catholic priests (who said they’re prayers in Latin) was punishable by death. Did that threat of execution extend to the children of the family? Possibly.

Goosey Goosey Gander is, in a certain way, similar to the political and propagandist poems children chant in North Korea and used to chant in the Soviet Union (though Goosey Goosey is not so ham-fisted or, at least, has been mellowed by age).

Rosalind Franklin’s book, Baby Lore, mentioned above, provides a nice summary of what varying cultures have associated with the days of the week. One is quickly reminded of astrology. No one, if read the personality traits of the different days, could consistently identify their own day. Descriptions frequently contradict each other and, if you’re a fortune teller, this is a good thing. This is what you want. Cover all your bases.

Suffice it to say, Sunday is the Sabbath day and no God-fearing Christian is going to associate negativity with the Sabbath day. The wise (Christian) child will always choose to be born on Sunday. Friday, on the other hand, was the day of Christ’s crucifixion. Children born on Friday are treated well, but  if you sneeze or cut your nails on Friday you will get what you deserve. Friday is for losses and crosses.

Here are some abridged (by me) Proverbs, Sentences and Proverbial Phrases from the book Proverbs, Sentences and Proverbial Phrases: From English Writings mainly Before 1500. These are the kinds of proverbs that would make their way into the rhymes and stories of beldams at whose feet sat the likes of Shakespeare and Nashe.

M618 Black Monday

1359 Gild of St. Nicholas in English gilds, ed. Toulmin Smith: The secunde (mornspeche) shal be onblake monunday. 1435 Chronicles of London Wherefore, unto this day yt ys callyd blak Monday, and wholle be longe tyme here affter. c1443 Chronicles of London Wherfore unto this day manye men callen it the blake Monday.

M619 A Monday’s handsel (gift) is great pain to children. c1475 Rawlinson A monday-ys hansell ys grete pane to chyddryn.

T280 Thursday and Sunday are cousins 1483 Caxton Golden Legende And therefore comenly the proverbe was, that the thursday and the sonday were cosyns. For thene that one was as solemne as that other.

F621 Now Friday shines and now it rains fast c1385 Chaucer: Right as the Friday, soothly for to telle, Now it shyneth, now it reyneth faste.

F622 Sled is the Friday all the week alike c1385 Chaucer: Sele is the Friday all the wowke ylike.

F623 To have fele (many) Fridays in one’s forehead c1475 Prohemy of a Marriage: In the forehed fele fridayes this no fage. (Fage, I think, means flattery.)

S907 He that hangs himself on Sunday shall still hang on Monday. 1546 Heywood: Well, he that hangth him selfe a sondaie (said hee) Shall hang still uncut downe a mondaie for mee.

Here, by contrast, are American proverbs from the Dictionary of American Proverbs.

Monday

  1. Monday is the key of the week.
  2. Monday religion is better than Sunday procession.
  3. So goes Monday, so goes all the week.

Friday

  1. Every day is not Friday; there is also Thursday.
  2. Friday and the week are seldom alike. (Notice how this proverb survived the centuries!)
  3. Friday begun, never done.
  4. a. Friday is the fairest or foulest day. b.Friday is the fairest or foulest day of the week.
  5. Never start anything important on Friday.
  6. a. Thank God it’s Friday. b. Friday night begins the weekend.

Saturday

  1. Saturday begun is never done.
  2. Saturday’s cleaning will not last through Sunday, but Sunday’s will last all week./Saturday’s flitting is short sitting.

Sunday

  1. Sunday oils the wheels of the week.

I find it curious that neither book of proverbs include the proverbial lore of Mother Goose’s Monday’s Child. I think it’s an oversight on the part of the authors, but typical.

Anyway, I could go into the meaning behind the names of the days of the week but that’s getting far afield and I doubt such knowledge was common among the generations who handed down Mother Goose. I doubt there was any thought put into the origin of the word Wednesday and that Wednesday’s child is “full of woe”. In another version of the poem, after all, Wednesday’s child is “merry and glad”.

But there you have it. You know as much as I do and, still, probably more.

WB Yeats ❧ Sailing to Byzantium

  • Updated Nov 8, 2010
  • Updated Dec 2, 2010
  • Updated January 22 2012 TYPO. Changed  “command all summer long” to “commend all summer long”
  • Updated September 29 2013 Updated definition of pern or perne.
  • Updated October 1 2013

I

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
— Those dying generations — at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

II

MS of Sailing to Byzantium

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

III

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

IV

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

[Sometime later today I'll try my hand at reading this poem.]

Two Minds

I’m of two minds when it comes to Yeats. On the one hand, he’s an indisputably great poet, on the other, the universality of his greatness is, in my opinion, sometimes mitigated by his arcane and idiosyncratic spiritual beliefs. There was a time when I tried to grasp them but, frankly, I  find them arcane and unrewarding. Most critics, in my experience, more or less throw up their hands (gloss over) Yeats’ specific beliefs – as, for example, their explanations of Yeat’s gyres. I haven’t found any online resources that makes the subject interesting or straightforwardly comprehensible. The spiritual subject matter of  A Vision, Yeats’ collection of essays on “philosophical, historical, astrological, and poetic topics” (which deeply informed his later and greatest poems) bores me silly. If you want to know what, specifically, Yeats might have been thinking when he wrote his late poems, you can try YeatsVision.Com. However, my opinion is similar to that of John Unterecker’s who wrote in his Readers Guide to W.B. Yeats:

Though almost everything Yeats wrote after 1922 and a good deal that he wrote before that date is linked to A Vision, one can read the poems without knowing the system. “Leda and the Swan” makes a different kind of sense if one sees it as a poem that examines the beginnings of the cycle that preceded ours. Seen in this light it becomes a neat companion poem to “The Second Coming,” which examines the genesis of the cycle that will follow ours. But both it and “The Second Coming” can stand by themselves. [p. 29]

How they “stand by themselves” is how I read them. Would it be interesting to know what Yeats had in mind (when writing this or that poem) as it relates to his philosophy and spirituality? Possibly. Would it be meaningful to the reader? Possibly not.

The First Stanza: Scansion

sailing-to-byzantium-first-stanza

The Form: First to be mentioned: All unmarked feet are Iambic. If these terms, or the terms that follow are unfamiliar to you, check out the post Iambic Pentameter: The Basics. The meter of the poem is Iambic Pentameter. The stanza, based on the rhyme scheme ABABABCC, is called ottava rima. The effect of the rhyme scheme is similar to that which closes the quatrain and couplet of a Shakespearean Sonnet. Interestingly, Yeasts uses the form to the same effect as the closing sestet of the Shakespearean Sonnet.. The first six lines set forth an argument and the closing heroic couplet arrives with an epigrammatic summation:

Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

It’s a very Elizabethan way of writing poetry and connects Yeats’ poetic thought with a much older tradition. It’s also interesting that Yeats is more conservative with this poem, metrically speaking.  By choosing ottava rima and a more conservative technique, Yeats may have wanted to concentrate the power and effectiveness of the poem’s argument through its meter and rhyme. Whether the rhymes are half rhymes or full rhymes doesn’t matter so much. Perhaps (in Yeats’ Irish accent) young and song were a much closer rhyme. Yeats’ style of reading was affected, to say the least. (For a taste, check out my post on Long Legged Fly. You will find a recording of him reciting The Lake Isle of Innesfree.) It could also be that Yeats was perfectly content with off- and  half-rhymes.

What’s it about?

The first thing to be said about Sailing to Byzantium is that it is considered one of Yeats’ greatest poems (and one of the greatest poems of the English language). The second is that few can agree on what Yeats meant by the poem. The poem can seem self-contradictory and many readers would not share Yeats’ desire (if we take him literally) to end up on an emperor’s night stand as a prophetically squawking parrot (bird), be it ever so golden and finely wrought. Reductio ad absurdum, I admit, but this is the symbolism with which Yeats glorifies his vision of the afterlife.

Yeats did not age gracefully. It seems that he idolized youth (and youthful beauty). The older he became, the more bitter he was — possibly aggravated by his marriage, at the age of 51, to Georgie Hyde-Lees, then 24 (Yeats may have suffered  from impotence). In the 1930’s Yeats was asked, on visiting a brothel, what the experience was like. He replied, ““It was terrible, like putting an oyster into a slot machine!”  But even if impotence was at the root of Yeats disgust with aging , he put his despair to the service of a larger spiritual argument.

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
— Those dying generations — at their song,

The poem starts as though in mid-conversation, as though Yeats were in the midst of an argument. No! he says. No, that is no country for old men. The initial trochee effectively emphasizes the vehemence of his refutation. Other close readers will tell you that “that country” is Ireland (Yeats originally wrote this instead of that.) But it doesn’t matter except to those interested in Yeats’ biography. That is, he could have written Ireland but in choosing not to he deliberately left the matter to the reader. So forget I mentioned it and forget anyone else mentioned it. Yeats could be talking about your country. His descriptions are universal.

Birds in the trees” probably stems from the age-old proverb concerning birds and bees – though birds in the trees are also usually associated with spring and fecundity. What’s curious, however, is that Yeats then labels these very symbols of renewal and rebirth those dying generations. On the face of it, the appellation makes little sense. Is the emotion expressed due to bitterness and envy?

The most thorough analysis of this poem (that I know of) is by Helen Vendler, found in her book Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form. She remarks that the comment is that of an impotent man, she calls the phrase “a sour note”. Possibly, but one needn’t be impotent or bitter to observe that the phrase is also true. The seemingly eternal youth celebrated “in one another’s arms” and by the “birds in the trees”  is only an illusion. In the very act of  pro-creativity are the seeds of decay and death. Vendler writes:

Frustrated by not being able to join in the secular choir of the pastoral “country” of the young, he has fled to the “holy city” of Byzantium (concealing his desperation by rendering his progress in stately and orotund iambics…” [p. 31]

That’s certainly one way to interpret the opening stanza (and not without reason). The interpretation threatens to reduce the entirety of the poem to the bitter sandbox-tantrum of an old man. If I can’t play then I’m going to Byzantum! So there! That said, I don’t get the sense (from the poem at least) that Yeats, if offered the opportunity, would return to the sensual abandonment of youthful flesh (which is what Vendler seems to suggest).

“salmon-falls…”

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

The description of salmon and “mackerel-crowded seas” extends the imagery of life, fecundity and fertility. This is the world of “flesh”, of whatever “is begotten, born and dies”. This world, caught in the sensual music of procreation (read sex), will  care little and have little time for “monuments of unaging intellect”, be they literally monuments or, more figuratively, art, music or poetry. And yet…  isn’t that exactly where  poetry and music are most appealing? –  within the realms of passion and love? Vendler takes Yeats’ assertion at face value. Me? I’m not so sure. If, by monuments of unaging intellect, Yeats’ is figuratively referring to art, poetry or music, then (by implication) Yeats considers art (in all its forms) to be dry and lacking sensuality. In other words, it’s not something those generations”at their song” will heed (which makes one wonder what, exactly, Yeats thinks art, poetry or music are good for). Maybe Yeats means something else by “monuments of unaging intellect”? If so, then the phrase sounds dismissive if not outright contemptuous. Monuments aren’t normally meant to appeal to our sensual senses (no matter what their subject matter) and monuments of unaging intellect don’t sound fun at all.

  • The image at the upper right is of Atlantic Salmon. Every year they return from the ocean, swimming upstream to spawn (breed). They make a powerful image and represent nothing if not a “dying generation”. Not long after spawning (some Salmon climb over 7,000 feet, from sea level, to spawn) they will die – never returning to the ocean.)

“mackerel-crowded seas…”

The poem already begins to feel laden with contradiction.

If one reads Yeats’ references to youth as betraying bitterness (read envy), then he seems equally contemptuous of the alternative. In other words, why use the word monument? Among the meanings of monument are burial vault. Monuments don’t age because they are often associated with death.

The Second Stanza: Scansion

A modern (or inexperienced) reader might be tempted to read “aged” as a monosyllabic word. The meter, however, strongly favors a disyllabic reading: agèd. The blue in the final line indicates an anapestic foot – not unusual in Yeats’ practice, but the first in this poem. Notice the effect of the spondaic foot Soul clap. It’s a nice effect and typical of poets able to unite meaning and meter.

What’s it about?

Yeats separates each stanza with a Roman numeral. Why not simply publish the poem without them (separating each of the stanzas with a space instead)? Perhaps we’re not meant to read the poem as a continuous narrative but  as four (sort of) separate poems – different treatments on a common theme. (This is Vendler’s argument.) Nevertheless, the second stanza seems to proceed directly from the first. Having described “that country”, the second stanza describes “old men”.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick…

What does paltry mean? It means “not worth considering” or “contemptibly small in amount”. Since the old man is being compared to the young (who Yeats describes on the basis of their “sensual music” – their pro-creative song)  the implication is that an old man is paltry because he can no longer pro-create – he cannot partake in the “song” of the young. Since an old man may impregnate a young woman as effectively as a young man, impotence is again implied. If Yeats’ judges the value of a man to be a measure of his virility, then an impotent old man would indeed be a paltry thing. He would be a tattered coat upon a stick – the implication being that sticks are barren. (Having been cut or broken from the sap, no stick will leaf, blossom or fruit.) This is the usual way to read the opening of the poem – Yeats feels cast off, useless and paltry because of his age.

Who wouldn’t want to be young again? (Such is the assumed question behind many interpretations.) But maybe Yeats is who. In this sense, an old man is only a paltry thing if he attempts to remain in “that” country – the country of youthful lovers. In this way, the argumentative sound of the poem’s opening isn’t so much bitter as dismissive. Dismissive of the very assertion many interpreters bestow on Yeats.

In other words, try to imagine what Yeats might be responding to. Someone could have said to him: Just because you’re an old man doesn’t mean you can’t love as passionately as the young. ‘Hardly!’ says the imagined Yeats. ‘That is no country for old men and no country for me. Such an old man could only be a tattered coat upon a stick.’

….unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;

The song of the first stanza is illusory – the false song of a dying generation who is too “caught in the sensual music” of its love-making to recognize the ephemeral vanity of its sensual music. The song of the aged man should be the song of the soul. The song of the soul is unique to each soul. Hence, there is no “singing school”. In other words, Yeats’ assertion is a refutation of religion, religion being a “singing school”. (Part of Yeats’ spiritual belief was the notion that there is no single truth or spiritual truth. The soul must create its own truth.)

…the guiding principle unifying Yeat’s spirituality is “the philosophia perennis” which “in all its branches holds that not matter but mind — consciousness — is the ground of reality as we experience it… [Yeats: An Annual of Critical and Textual Studies, Volume XIII, 1995, Volume 13 by Richard J. Finneran p. 69]

In the world of what is begotten, born and dies, the old man can only be a tattered coat upon a stick. Let the old man rightly turn his intellect to “unaging intellect” (the work of eternity later symbolized in the artifice of Byzantium) and he will be transfigured.  The soul must study monuments of its own magnificence. This  modifies the “monuments of unaging intellect” from the previous stanza. The appellation magnificent adds a little more burnish to monument. What are the monuments of its own magnificence? This is less clear but will be suggested by Yeats’ vision of Byzantium – it’s culture, art and literature. The soul’s monuments to its own magnificence are the products of its intellect and artistic creativity. It’s a creativity of a different kind. In Yeats’ mind, it’s eternal, not like the dying procreativity of flesh.

In A Vision, Yeats describes the appeal of Byzantium:

I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia and closed the Academy of Plato. I think I cold find some little wine-shop some philosophical worker in mosaic who could answer all my questions, the supernatural descending nearer to him than to Plotinus even, for the pride of his delicate skill would make what was an instrument of power to princes and clerics, a murderous madness in the mob, show as a lovely flexible presence like that of a perfect human body.

I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic and practical life were one, that architect and artificers — though not, it may be, poets, for language had been the instrument of controversy and must have grown abstract — spoke to the multitude and the few alike. The painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books. were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject matter and that the vision of a whole people. They could copy out of old Gospel books those pictures that seemed as sacred as the text, and yet weave all into a vast design, the work of many that seemed the work of one, that made building, picture, patterns, metal-work of rail and lamp, seem but a single image…

What’s most important in this description is his phrase “show as a lovely flexible presence like that of a perfect human body”. This will be important when judging the final image of Sailing to Byzantium. Yeats was to further write of Sailing to Byzantium that “When Irishmen were illuminating the Book of Kells and making the jewel-led croziers in the national museum Byzantium was the center of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy. I symbolized a search for spiritual life by a journey to that city.” This isn’t bitterness but a desire for a different kind of passion.

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

No longer capable of (or responsive to) the “sensual music” of the world (partaking in its song), he sails to Byzantium for a new kind of life and revelation.

The Third Stanza: Scansion

  • The following is only for the connoisseurs of metrical poetry:

The scansion of the third stanza reveals a 20th century poet writing traditional meter. No poet prior to the 2oth century would have written the second line of the stanza or the sixth line the way Yeats wrote them.

Although I scanned the second line as follows:

As in |the gold| mosa|ic of |a wall,

I only did so because Yeats was probably giving a nod to metrical regularity. One could read mosaic as a trisyllabic word and Yeats possibly did, but most readers (including myself) pronounce it as a  disyllabic word. That would make the line scan as follows:

As in |the gold| mosaic |of a wall

This makes the line Iambic Tatremater rather than Iambic Pentameter (four feet instead of five) and makes the final foot anapestic. This would make the line a variant line and is well within Yeats’ practice, but since mosaic can be pronounced as a three syllable word I’ve opted to scan it as an Iambic Pentameter line (given that Yeats has been fairly conservative in his other lines).

The sixth line:

And fast|ened to |a dy|ing an|imal

Would have been censured by readers and critiques prior to the 20th century. Few poets would have dared end an Iambic Pentameter line with a pyrrhic foot. It would have been considered inept and amateurish. In all of Milton’s Paradise (several thousand lines) there is not a single example (though some “scholars” have failed to take into account the changing pronunciation of words).

What’s it about?

Procession of saints: mosaic in the Basilica of San Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall…

In the first stanza, Yeats defines the country which has rejected him (or he, it) and in the second stanza, Yeats describes the old man (himself or his art). In the third stanza he moves the reader to a new stage – Byzantium. Although he doesn’t tell us specifically, the reader can safely assume that he is standing before a mosaic. Helen Vendler suggests that Yeats drew his inspiration for this passage from mosaics he saw in Ravenna. The iconography of the gold background is meant to suggest God’s holy fire – a symbol of eternity.

Interestingly, and because so much of Vendler’s interpretation is predicated on Yeats’ sexual impotence (which is reasonably suspected but not a certainty) she goes on to make the following observation:

Yeats’ vision of joining the company of the sages is what we might call, in the larger Freudian sense, a homosocial and sublimated resolution to the speaker’s exclusion–by reason of impotence–from the country of heterosexual intercourse. There are no women in the heaven of sages. There is no time in the fiery eternity symbolized by the gold background of the mosaic. [Our Secret Discipline p. 34]

This is a curious assertion given the mosaic on Sant’Apollinare Nuoba’s North Wall.

The bottom row portrays a procession of female Saints. That’s right, women. Clearly, the Byzantine artists beg to differ. There are women in the “heaven of sages”.  Vendler got it wrong. The clerestory (middle row) depicts the prophets which, presumably, Yeats referred to as “sages”. Vendler’s reference to Yeats’ imagery as homosocial  leads me to think she’s much too wedded to the notion of impotence in Yeats’ poem. (Not everything in the poem need be read through the lens of impotence.) At worst, her reading threatens to somewhat diminish the sublimity of the poem – it goes from being the expression of spiritual desire to a reactionary and bitter rant.

However, what nevertheless remains true is that there will be no sex in Yeats’ heaven.

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Yeats’ plea is not for a restoration of his potency, just the opposite. If read literally, he wants to be liberated from the “sickness of desire”. He seeks liberation from the desires of flesh – “consume me heart away”. Liberate him from the dying animal (a phrase that hearkens back to the “dying generations” of the first stanza. Refine him. Let the sages be the singing-masters of his soul. Figuratively, the stanza bespeaks his readiness to turn from the song/poetry of flesh to the song/poetry of the soul – to the clarity of the soul’s intellect.

Perne in a gyre…

The phrase “perne in a gyre” is frequently “explained” but never convincingly.

Sept. 29 2013: Yeats’ own comment on the word pern was recently brought to my attention by an attentive reader. The Norton Critical Edition includes passages from Per Amica Silentia Lunae. In Part XXI of Anima Mundi (a part of Amica Silentia Lunae) begins (by Yeats):

“When I remember that Shelley calls our minds “mirrors of the fire for which all thirst,” I cannot but ask the question all have asked, “What or who has cracked the mirror?” I begin to study the only self that  I can know, myself, and to wind the thread upon the perne again.”

In the footnote to this passage, The Norton Critical Edition makes the following comment:

“Yeats recalled being told as a child that pern “was another name for the spool, as I was accustomed to call it, on which thread was wound.”

And here’s the full quote (from a different book):

“When I was a child at Sligo I could see above my grandfather’s trees a little column of smoke from “the pern mill,” and was told that “pern” was another name for the spool, as I was accustomed to call it, on which thread was wound. One could not see the chimney for the trees, and the smoke looked as if it came from the mountain, and one day a foreign see-captain asked me if that was a burning mountain. — 1919″ [Later Poems]

I wish that Norton (and other sources for that matter) had included this helpful footnote with the poem (page 80) rather than footnoting an essay that maybe three people will read (page 289).

‘Case closed’ say you? Well, here’s the same quote from four other sources:

“What or who has cracked the mirror?” I begin to study the only self that  I can know, myself, and to wind the thread upon the pern again.”

What do these sources all have in common? They all quote Yeats with the spelling pern, not perne – the latter being the spelling of the Norton “Critical” (air quotes) edition. Since I trust the Norton Critical Edition about as far as I can throw its editor, James Pethica, I’m thinking that Norton got the quote wrong. Interestingly, in Norton’s footnote, they quote Yeats as spelling it pern. So, where does this leave us? Read on.

In the poem, the “Shepherd and the Goatherd”, you will find the following lines:

Jaunting, journeying
to his own dayspring,
He unpacks his loaded pern
Of all ’twas pain or joy to learn,
Of all that he had made.

The idea here is of unwinding a spool. Here though, the spelling is also different: pern instead of perne and it’s not clear, in Byzantium, that Yeats is using the word in the same sense.

Caveat Empor: I remain baffled by why this quote from Yeats doesn’t footnote a poem like Byzantium in more collections of poetry and in a book like The Norton Critical Edition (whose editions I don’t hold in high esteem). Why does John Unterecker, author of A Reader’s Guide to Yeats (see immediately below) not even mention this quote as a possible explanation? My best guess is that Yeats spells the word differently in Byzantium than in Shepherd and the Goatherd, his explanatory note, and his essay (according to sources other than Norton), and perhaps this makes scholars think that Yeats intended a different meaning (or an altogether different word). So, I haven’t entirely removed the portion below, much of it may still pertain. Once again, you the reader now know as much as I do (and hopefully a little more).

Vendler writes that “a ‘perne’ is a cone-shaped bobbin”. Really? Says who? She doesn’t tell us. In truth, her off-the-cuff explanation is so uncharacteristically perfunctory (for a “close reader” who never misses a chance to extenuate) that I don’t think she knows. She probably isn’t sure of its meaning and so doesn’t spend any time on it.

Perne could also refer to a pern, another name for a honey-buzzard. This would make considerable, thematic sense. Yeats repeats themes, words and ideas throughout the poem, especially as regards birds and song. Also, consider the opening lines to Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The imagery of the falcon in the gyre isn’t far removed from the imagery of a pern in a gyre. Could Yeats have misspelled pern (spelling it perne)? If one thinks of the pern as a bird of prey, then Yeats’ might be comparing the sages to birds of prey. He is inviting them to descend in an ever-more focused, fiery gyre until they find and consume his heart, the heart of a dying animal. (The idea of the gyre is doubtless a reference to Yeats’ spiritual beliefs concerning the cyclic nature of human evolution – to which he devoted an entire book, A Vision. Feel free to read it.)

On the other hand, here’s another interpretation from the following site:

The phrase “perne in a gyre” refers to a spinning wheel such as those Yeats would have seen during his youth in Sligo. Yeats is referring to the movement of thread through bobbin and spool, a movement that is so fast that it is imperceptible to the naked eye. The point that Yeats is highlighting is that each individual strand of thread is submerged by speed into one continuous piece, similarly each successive human life is a mirror image of a previous one, but that taken together there is a continuation, a permanence.

This is a fabulously compelling interpretation. It sounds knowledgeable. It’s poetic. I love it. I want to believe it. (I notice that this interpretive nugget has been copied and pasted throughout the web.) But, thematically, it doesn’t fit. Logically, it doesn’t make sense. If the interpretation implies reincarnation, “successive human life”, then this is emphatically not what Yeats is proposing in Sailing to Byzantium or, for that matter,  in the later, companion poem Byzantium. If the interpretation is not a reference to reincarnation but, simply, successive human lives, then what do these successive lives have to do with the sages? They live in eternity (in the holy fire). “Come from the holy fire,” writes Yeats, and “perne in a gyre”. Why would he compare the sages (coming from eternity) to the movement of thread through bobbin and spool if, as the author suggests, the imagery is meant to suggest temporal and successive human life?

And if perne is another name for a spinning wheel (like the kind Yeats would have seen in Sligo) why would he write (in effect):  come like a ‘”spinning wheel” in a gyre’? Images of the tornado in the Wizard of Oz spring to mind – a house, a witch and a spinning wheel. It would make more sense if perne referred to the yarn.  At least to me, the author’s analogy falls apart. Lastly, the author doesn’t give us any reason to believe him (or her). A perne is a “spinning wheel”? Says who? Where are the author’s footnotes? What about Vendler? She thinks its a bobbin. Clearly, the two of them don’t agree on what it is.

And did you read to the bottom of the Wikipedia article on Honey Buzzards? As of Nov 6, 2010, you will find the following:

An alternate name for the bird is the pern[1]. It has been argued by some (e.g., Smith[2] or [3]) that the lines “perne in a gyre” in William Butler Yeats poem Sailing to Byzantium have an alternate reading as referring to the circling flight of a honey buzzard. This conjecture is not supported by the Oxford English Dictionary which treats perne as a verb meaning “to spin”.[4]

Really? Here are the notes:

  1. ^Pern, Oxford English Dictionary
  2. ^ Stan Smith, W. B. Yeats, a Critical Introduction, Chapter 3.9, “The Gyres”, p. 205, Palgrave Macmillan, 1990; ISBN 033348066X
  3. ^[1]
  4. ^OED Online, s.v. pern, v. http://dictionary.oed.com/ Accessed 21 Oct 2008

As it happens, I own the Oxford English Dictionary and I’m not seeing it. What’s not supported is the word perne itself (let alone a definition). It doesn’t appear in the dictionary. Not only that, but there’s no reference to pern or perne as a verb meaning to spin. The word pern, as a reference to honey-buzzards, is in the OED. The Wikpideia footnote is either a complete fabrication or the  online edition of the OED is different than the hard copy. But you can verify this for yourself. There are editions of the OED available at Google Books. I searched through two different editions and they also don’t contain the word perne.

  • I can’t find the word perne in any dictionary.

Nevertheless, let’s say one accepts Wikipedia’s claim, then we now have a third definition of perne. 1.) It’s a cone-shaped bobbin (Vendler). 2.) It’s a spinning wheel (author unknown). 3.) It’s a verb meaning to spin,  which makes Yeats’ phrase clumsily tautological: spin in a spin.

Odd. A word with so many meanings and no dictionary knows about it…

Can all the definitions be right? Possibly. But I get the feeling each scholar is repeating variations on the same urban myth (each of them having heard it from each other). None of the scholars tell us where their information comes from and that, to me, doesn’t do them any favors.

For the record, John Unterecker, author of the aforementioned Reader’s Guide to W.B. Yeats, casts his lot with those who (like myself) think Yeats’ perne is actually a pern – a honey-buzzard.

There, flame-wrapped sages can (bird metaphor only modestly disguised) like immortal phoenixes rise from their holy fire, “pern in a gyre,” and — “singing masters” — consume his heart away as, returning to the fire, they gather him into “the artifice of eternity.” [p. 173]

But you be the judge.

If you’re Irish and you know what a perne is (and you know what Yeats meant) explain it to the rest of us and e-mail us a picture of a perne. (I’ll forward it to the editors of the OED for inspection.)

Update: I may have gotten to the root of the matter. This is from The composite voice: the role of W.B. Yeats in James Merrill’s poetry by Mark Bauer. Bauer writes:

Yeats likely chose the variant spelling “perne” for “pirn” to allow the allusion to a kind of hawk as well as the winding motion as of thread into a spool (or “pirn”), but the meaning that Kimon Friar emphasizes in his notes to this poem… is “to change” — “after Dr. Perne, Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, 1554-8-, who changed his opinions adroitly” (Modern Poetry 555)… [p. 217]

We can now add a third possible meaning to perne (which would be spelled correctly). Here are the relevant definitions from the OED.

§

Pirn: Now Sc. and dial. Forms: 5-6 pirne, pyrne, 8 pyrn, 6 – pirn, (9 dial. pirm) 1.) A small cylinder on which thread or yarn is wound, formerly made of a hollow reed or quill, but now usually of turned wood or iron, with axial bore for mounting on a spindle when winding; a waever’s  bobbin, spool, or reel. [Several examples of usage are given, all with an -i rather than -e. 2.) transf. The yarn wound upon the pirn (ready for the shuttle); also, as much as a pirn holds, a pirnful. ? Obs. rare. 3.) Any device or machine resembling a reel, or used for winding; esp. a fishing-reel. 4.) An unevenness or ‘cockle’ in the surface of a piece of cloth, caused by difference in the yarn composing it. Obs. rare. 5.) attrib. and Comb., as pirn-winder, -winding; pirn-cage (see quot.) ; pirn-cap, a wooden bowl used by weavers to hold their quills (Jamieson); pirn-girnel, a box for holding pirns while they are being filled; pirn house, a weaving shed; pirn-stick, a wooden stick or spindle on which the quill (pirn) is placed while the yarn put on it in spinning is reeled off; pirn-wheel, a wheel for winding thread on bobbins; pirn-wife, a woman who fills pirns with yarn.

Pirn: sb. 3 dial. Also purn. A twitch for horses.

Pirn: Found only in ps. pple. and ps. ppl. adj. . Pirned interwoven with threads of different colors; striped; brocaded.

And here are the definitions for pern:

Pern: sb. [ad. mod. l. pernis (Cuvier 1817), an erroneous adaptation of Gr. (…) A bird of the genus Pernis; the Honey-Buzzard.

Pern: Also 6 Pearn. trans. To deal with after the manner of Dr. Perne. Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, 1554-80, who changed his opinions adroitly; to change (a profession, creed, etc.) for some ulterior end.

§

Now you know as much as I do and as much as the next scholar.

First, we know the following: Vendler engaged in some truthiness. A perne is not a cone-shaped bobbin. That’s what a pirn is (and even then there’s no mention that it need be “cone-shaped”). She neglected to mention that the two words are spelled quite differently and didn’t offer us a reason as to why we should adopt pirn as Yeats’ intended meaning. I can see substituting an -i for an -e, but what about the extra -e?

Second, we know that the unknown author who told us that a perne is a ‘spinning wheel’ was wrong. Interestingly, my speculation that his interpretation would have made more sense if ‘perne’ actually referred to yarn turns out to have been prescient. According to OED, one of the meanings of pirn is yarn (see above).

Third, the Wikipedia article which states that ‘perne‘ means to spin isn’t reflected by my hard copy of the OED.

The question remains, why pirn? Why are so many scholars married to the idea that perne might have been a mispelling for pirn.

I don’t have an answer. In fact, their interpretation seems arbitrary (or wishful thinking) but maybe more information will turn up? Why not a twitch for a horse? As it is, Yeats’ spelling is closer to pern than to pirn. The possibility that Yeats was referring to a hawk seems more likely both in its spelling and thematically.  Lastly, the only appearance of perne, with the extra -e, is in reference to the good Dr. Perne, but no scholars (I notice) are rushing to insert Dr. Perne into Sailing to Byzantium.

Again, you be the judge.

Update December 2 2010

The following is thanks to a conversation with Phyllis Katz, a classics professor at Dartmouth College.

Being a Latin scholar (which I am not), Mrs. Katz recognized another possibility for perne. It turns out that perne is the imperative singular of the latin verb perneo, declined: perneo, pernere, pernevi, pernetum; and means — to spin out, to spin to an end. The word was used in reference to the Fates by the Latin poet Marcus Valerius Martialis (known as Martial in English). The definition she provided comes from A Latin Dictionary rev. by T. Lewis 1879 (1996).

The possibility that Yeats was using the Latin imperative of the verb perneo is compelling because it would fit with the imperative tone of the verse.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.

All these verbs are imperatives. However, this fact alone doesn’t clinch the argument. Yeats might also have been using anthimeria to create a verb out of the noun Pern (for Honey-Buzzard). In this sense, it would be the equivalent of saying, for example: He hawks his prey. Hawk is normally a noun, but anthimeria (a favorite rhetorical figure of, among other poets, Shakespeare) transforms it into a verb.

The question that needs to be asked, if Yeats was hauling a Latin verb into English (neologizing), is whether there’s precedent elsewhere in his poetry. The answer is that I don’t know. I’m not a Yeatsian scholar. However, of all the poems I have read, I’ve never noticed such a neologism before. By comparison, the Elizabethan poets and dramatists (Shakespeare especially) were constantly coining new words based on Latin and Greek. We expect that sort of thing from the Elizabethans, but Yeats? It’s possible. Mrs. Katz provided the following in support of her own supposition:

art of the achievement of writers like Yeats and Joyce in their use of English lies in their appropriation of the Greek and Latin… One facet of Yeats’s imperial sway over the English language is to use with abandon words derived from Latin, words that tend to be long, abstract, and supposedly less expressive than their short, concrete Anglo-Saxon counter-parts. Yeats, however, moulds English so that these Latinisms are strong, powerful, imperious, suggesting both the old fact that the Romans ruled England and the new fact that an Irishman, from a country never ruled by the Romans, can reimpose Roman dominion over the language of his conqueror. Consider, for example, the violent Latin verb (which is framed by initial Greek and final Old English nouns) in “News for the Delphic Oracle”: “nymphs and satyrs copulate in the foam.” And so it happens, time and again: “the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity”; “all that lamentation of the leaves”; “Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied”; “The wine-dark of the wood’s intricacies”; “And all complexities of mire or blood.”25 What is happening in Yeats, then, is that the Latin of the Irish hedge schools, of Hugh, Jimmy Jack, and the others, has now entered great poetry…  [The Role of Greek and Latin in Friel's Translations p. 8]

The only point I would make is that these aren’t neologisms – these are recognized English words which are derived from Latin. They are no longer read or spoken as Latin words. This doesn’t mean that Yeats did not (in one poem and in the entirety of his career) take a verb straight from Latin, but it does make the argument less certain

More along these lines can be found in the article “Passionate Syntax: Style in the Poetry of Yeats“. Again, while Yeats’ use of Latin-derived words is pronounced, there’s no mention of Latin or Greek neologisms.

I had one more qualm about Mrs. Katz’s suggestion and that concerns the seeming redundancy of “perne in a gyre” (if Yeats intended the Latin verb). In effect, Yeats is saying: spin in a spin. However, Yeats seemed untroubled by such redundancies. In the opening to the Second Coming, he writes:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre…

So…

Will there be yet more to write about Perne? We’ll see.

…gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

The word artifice is curious. It means (dictionary.com):

  1. a clever trick or stratagem; a cunning, crafty device or expedient; wile.
  2. trickery; guile; craftiness.
  3. cunning; ingenuity; inventiveness: a drawing-room comedy crafted with artifice and elegance.
  4. a skillful or artful contrivance or expedient.

It’s an odd description of the mosaic if Yeats means to glorify it. Yeats was probably referring to the cunning and ingenuity of the artwork. Even so, the other meanings remain. The effect is to both praise the mosaic but to also acknowledge its artificiality. Yeats’ plea to be gathered up by the sages simultaneously acknowledges the impossibility. The sages are not going to be perne(ing) in a gyre; and the holy fire, the gold mosaic-work, is just that, mosaic-work. It’s artifice. It’s artificial. The line reveals something about Yeats that I like. He hasn’t drunk the kool-aide. He’s telling us, with a kind confidentiality, that he’s like us – he’s not portraying the afterlife as though his vision were an unquestioned truth. His plea is that of the suffering and doubting man, and that makes it all the more poignant. ‘Make the artifice true,’ he seems to plead. ‘Gather me into the beautiful illusion of great art, the soul’s intellection. The illusion of “the young in one another’s arms” has made me a paltry thing.’ His is the cry of a man who feels as though he is trapped in illusion but whose only refuge remains illusion.

But there’s another way to interpret his lines and that comes next.

The Fourth Stanza: Scansion

The scansion is fairly straighforward. I chose to slur bodily and natural to read bod’ly and nat’ral. This keeps the meter fairly regular and reflects how most of us would read the line.

What’s it about?

Vendler considers the fourth stanza a refutation of the  third stanza. She writes that Yeats can’t be both absorbed by the golden eternity of the sages (which is timeless) and be the temporal contrivance of a secular Byzantine goldsmith (for a drowsy emperor) singing of the past, present and future. (There is no past, present or future in an eternal now.) But Vendler seems to overlook the word artifice. Yeats, himself, acknowledges the artificiality of his vision. It’s a symbolic, metaphorical, artistic (hence artifice) transfiguration.  So, I see the third and fourth stanza somewhat differently – the third flows smoothly into the fourth, not a contradiction but allowing for the possibility of the fourth stanza. In the third stanza, Yeats is pleading for a kind of symbolic rebirth where he will be freed from the illusory mire of fish, flesh and fowl. (Mire is the word he will later use in the poem Byzantium.)  Once he has been transfigured and transmuted (once the sages, like alchemists, have transmuted his being into the eternal gold of god’s holy fire) he will be ready for the artifice (the art work) of the Byzantine gold smith. The word gold will reappear again and again in the fourth stanza. (To me, the repetition sounds like the repeated hammer blows of the gold smith beating the gold into shape.) Bear in mind that gold is the only metal which does not corrode.

Once out of nature…

“Once my form has been transmuted by the alchemical transfiguration of the sages into the spiritually eternal gold of god’s fire…”

I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing…

Yeats rejects reincarnation. We might expect a sexually impotent man to desire a return to nature (if that’s truly his gripe), but Yeats’ doesn’t or doesn’t believe its possible. And this makes me think that the focus of so many analysts on sexual impotence is overcooked. Yeats impotence can be treated figuratively rather than literally. His impotence is of an artistic, spiritual and temperamental kind. He no longer emotionally responds to the passionate poems of youth, desire and sexuality; but finds himself drawn to a new kind of passion – eternal and spiritual. In this light, the poem can be read as a kind of artistic and poetic transmutation and manifesto. He is turning away from the poetry of his youth and past, having no more feeling for it (his impotence refers to the figurative loss of his interest and emotional response to youthful concerns). He’s not unhappy to see it go. As mentioned before, what many readers interpret as bitterness may be, to Yeats, anything but.   He’s not bitter. Rather, he’s  all too ready to be done with the illusory preoccupations of youth.

…But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Would any of us desire such an afterlife? – to be a mechanical bird?

Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

If Yeats is referring to his art, his poetic passion, then the imagery is easier to swallow. Remember too, Yeats’ comment concerning the skills of Byzantine goldsmiths. Yeats glowingly comments that they can create “a lovely flexible presence like that of a perfect human body”. Yeats, himself, doesn’t think of the goldsmith’s work as mechanical and lifeless, no,  just the opposite. The artifice is not mechanical but “flexible”, not lifeless, but like the “perfect human body”. Yeats is describing a spiritual/alchemical transmutation like a kind of miracle. In the poem Byzantium, he will write:

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the starlit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.

Yeats, in my opinion, is describing a personal, spiritual transformation as manifested through his art – his poetry. He is, in a sense, identifying himself as his poetry – which is all that will remain after he has died. In this guise, the gold bough is like the magnum opus of his poetry (his Collected Poems). His poetry, transfigured by his new found spirituality, will not speak to everyone, but only to those who have themselves been transfigured, who have sailed the seas and come to the holy city of Byzantium. (We will have left  behind that country of “the dying generations”.) We will  be the “lords and ladies of Byzantium”. We will be able to hear and understand his songs/poetry of “what is past. passing, or to come”.

  • The image above right gives an idea of some of the beautiful and extraordinarily wrought Byzantine metalwork that might have inspired Yeats’ imagery.

Vendler interprets the drowsy emperor as symbolically representing Yeats’ desire to return to sensuality. She writes:

Something has indeed been lost to the human speaker in his reincarnation-within-artifice:the golden bird has no mate, and cannot sing “sensual music.” But the bird does have a bodily form (even if artificial) and continues to inhabit a profane heterosexual environment, while he chronicles in song — with an omniscient,, almost divine, view — the broad panoramas of time. As he sings to the Emperor, or to the lords and ladies, he will be Hellenic, not Hebraic. As the poem ends, he is back in a place where there is an imminent sensuality in the drowsy Emperor (there is an Empress as well as the Emperor in the worksheets, and “drowsy” is always, in Yeats, a sign of the sensual).

I’m not buying it, and I certainly don’t accept her contention that “drowsy” is always a sign of the sensual. If she is going to make such a sweeping generalization then she should back it up. She doesn’t. She puts it out there and, presumably, assumes the reader won’t question her. Me? I say, prove it. With that proviso aside, Vendler’s interpretation is interesting, valuable and allows the likes of me to bounce ideas off it.

However, I think she misses the forest for the trees. If one is drowsy, there’s nothing sensual about being kept awake. I interpret the Emperor and empress as being, like the lords and ladies, us. The Emperor of Byzantium is the spiritually transfigured soul/reader who uniquely hears Yeats and can see into the mystery of things. He (and she) is awakened from drowsiness because they recognize in Yeat’s song and poetry a kindred truth. The Emperor (and Empress of the rough draft) will want to be awake. This, I think, is what Yeats means. His new poetry will keep them (and you) awake. This, at least, is how I read the poem. Like Robert Frost’s “For Once Then Something‘, Yeats is characterizing his spiritual identity in his poetry. He is spiritually remaking himself in his poetry. The impotence isn’t sexual but imaginative. No longer aroused by the passions of youth, he renews his passions in the golden city of Byzantium.

The Lords and Ladies of Byzantium are us.

Resources:

(If you want  to learn more about how Yeats arrived at the final version, the New York times has provided an excellent video discussing the poem’s composition – as of writing this the video and article are  still free.)

Yeats’ Two Byzantiums

A nice reading on Youtube, if a little depressing.

Final Thought:

And that’s that there’s much that I didn’t discuss. One could almost write a book on the poem. Please comment and we’ll see what else comes up.

The old man becomes the soul.

á la Maison ❧ un sonnet délicieux

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Want to hear me reading it?

Do better? Read the poem. Send me a recording and I’ll post it here. I’d love to hear how others read it.

Whispering under the floorboards… send out the sun.

In my most recent job, I replaced a rotten sill on an old New England house. Since I’m not the one with claustrophobia, my job was to crawl into the crawlspace, through an opening too small for inhalation. What did the sill look like? It didn’t take long to decide. A very, very bad decking installation under a standing-seam eave meant that all the roof’s water was redirected into the wall and onto the sill. A solid old 6×6 sill had been reduced to mulch.

But while I was under there, I saw some very old fragments of a newspaper still glued to the bottom of the building’s old hemlock or pine floorboards. There was just a slender scrap left. All the rest had fallen off and disintegrated in the dirt of the crawlspace. I carefully pulled off the remaining fragments and brought them, perhaps for the first time in a hundred years, into the light of the sun. We had all wondered how old the building was – when it was built.  Anything that might have identified the paper itself, or the date, was gone. Some other scraps hinted at news from New York or Boston. But here was the fragment of a poem – a little clue.

The fragment praises the sun. How quieting to think that a song like this had been hidden away in a dank darkness for so long.

Send out the sunlight it sings again and again.

So, as a kind of gift to this little fragment, here is some sunlight (and as a gift to the song’s author, surely long since received by a different kind of light).

Send out the sunlight! ’tis needed on earth,
…                                       afar in scintillant mirth
…     more than gold in its wealth-giving worth!

And it’s last words before it vanishes…

…send out the sun…

There will surely be some librarians among my readers. Take a look. If you ever discover the name of the poem or the author, leave a comment. In the meantime, a little fragment for the sun – after so much darkness.

From up in Vermont
June 5, 2010

The world is too much with us ❧ William Wordsworth

This analysis is late in coming and is a request.

Work has picked up a bit. My three daughters each have baseball games. My wife just bought eight chicks. They’re in our claw foot bathtub (in a box), and I have about two or three weeks to build the chicken coop. (Maybe I’ll post some pictures of the coop).

Full Disclosure

William Wordsworth is not one of my favorite poets. In terms of his skills as a poet, his figurative language, descriptive language and meter sometimes feels too unimaginative or expedient. He wrote a tremendous quantity of poetry but  quality didn’t always keep pace. On the other hand, Wordsworth deliberately cultivated what he considered a low or plain style of diction closer to the parlance of everyday speech.

Reading his poetry after a century of free verse, which (in the hands of some poets) makes a concerted effort to sound as ‘mundane’ – as indistinguishable from every day talk – as possible, Wordworth’s poetry may sound as stiff and stilted as any other 19th century poet. But to the ears of his contemporaries, his poetry sounded markedly different. Part of Wordsworth’s frustration with the high style, as it was called, might stem from his unease with forms. His best poetry is found in blank verse, where he didn’t have to force phrase and thought into the constraints of a poetic structure. Milton, for much the same reasons, wrote Paradise Lost in blank verse rather than the, then standard, closed heroic couplets.

In his book Power, Plain English and the Rise of Modern Poetry, David Rosen finds an interesting example of Wordsworth’s struggle with formal demands – one passage from Juvenilia XVIa and another from Juvenilia XVIb. Respectively:

The road extended o’er the heath
Weary and bleak: no cottager had there
Won from the waste a rood of ground, no hearth
Of Traveller’s half-way house with its turf smoke
Scented the air through which the plover wings
His solitary flight.

§

No spade for leagues had won a rood of earth
From that bleak common, of all covert bare;
From traveller’s half-way house no genial hearth
Scented with its turf smoke the desart air,
Through which the plover wings his lonely course

If English isn’t your first language (and I get many non-English speaking readers) these two passages aren’t going to look (or sound) very different. But the first example has a much more colloquial feel to it. For instance: For the sake of rhyme, Wordsworth essentially compresses two lines into one line.

He changes:

The road extended o’er the heath
Weary and bleak: no cottager had there
Won from the waste a rood of ground…

Into

No spade for leagues had won a rood of earth
From that bleak common

The first feels more descriptive and discursive. The second, with its figurative language (the metrically necessary and monosyllabic spade substitutes for cottager) gives the poetry a more heightened and literary feel. Instead of no hearth Wordsworth (in the rewrite) again needs to satisfy both rhyme and meter. He adds the unnecessary adjective genial (unnecessary because it’s already implied by the context). Solitary flight turns into the less evocative but more literary lonely course.

Wordsworth, at his best, is found in blank verse. He found blank verse to be far more congenial in terms of a plain-spoken aesthetic. That said, the requested sonnet is one of his Miscellaneous Sonnets, numbered 33.


The Sonnet

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending; we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. — Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

One among many Interpretations — My own

I’ve noticed a common theme in the interpretation of this sonnet – one which is heavily influenced by modern preoccupations. For instance, the following excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 2 describes Wordsworth as “[contrasting] Nature with the world of materialism and ‘making it.'” Wikipedia, echoes this interpretation by writing that  “Wordsworth wrote several sonnets blasting what he perceived as ‘the decadent material cynicism of the time.’ The world is too much with us is one of those works. It reflects his philosophy that humanity must get in touch with nature in order to progress spiritually.”

The Wikipedia article (as of May 28th 2010) goes on to say that the “poem is a statement about conflict between nature and humanity; the innate romance of the wild, and the spiritually crushing realities of the industrialized world,” and that “Wordsworth longs for a much simpler time when the progress of humanity was tempered by the restrictions nature imposed.”

Sparknote writes that “on the whole, this sonnet offers an angry summation of the familiar Wordsworthian theme of communion with nature, and states precisely how far the early nineteenth century was from living out the Wordsworthian ideal.”

A later analysis at ENotes, apparently written after this post appeared and answering the question “what is the theme?”, seems to continue this trend. The contributor, identifying his or herself as a college teacher, writes:

“Although the poem opens by stressing that humans are involved in the “world,” that word in this context refers to the world that humans have created for themselves – the artificial environment of civilization, especially cities, an environment that cuts us off from nature as God created it. The “world” Wordsworth implicitly condemns is a “world” in which making money and spending money are crucial values.”

All the analyses, almost as though they were borrowed from each other, use eerily similar phrasing to describe what they perceive as Wordsworth’s alienation with 19th Century industrialization and burgeoning materialism. My own reading, however, is very different. I think they miss the point. It seems to me that all the analyses (online at least) gloss over some of the difficulties in the lines, difficulties which, if read literally, seem to assert something very different.

  • The world is too much with us

Take the first line or phrase:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending;

What does he mean by The world is too much with us?  And what does Wordsworth mean by the world? He doesn’t write, for instance, our world. If he had written our world, one might assert that he was making a distinction between the world of man (our world) and nature. But he doesn’t seem to make that distinction. He simply writes The world and  surely this includes nature? Why would Wordsworth (of all poets the most attuned to nature) write that the world (or nature) is too much with us? Starting with this first line, my reading is almost the opposite of every interpretation I’ve read! As I read it, the sonnet isn’t so much a lament for the loss of nature (to the harsh realities of materialism and industrialization), but a lament for the loss of the imagination to the harsh realities of nature itself! That is, Wordsworth’s conception of nature, in this sonnet at least, is very different from our own.

By the start of the 19th century, nature was no longer the place of mystery it always had been, filled with man’s animistic impulses, but increasingly the province of science and physical laws – think Copernicus, Lamarck, Newton, and eventually Darwin. It wasn’t nature that Wordsworth loved (not as we understand it) but what nature symbolized. It was the 19th centuries redefinition of nature that Wordsworth resisted. Contrary to Wikipedia’s assertion that “Wordsworth longs for… the restrictions nature imposed,” my own reading is that  Wordsworth decries the restrictions increasingly imposed by nature (or the world).

  • Late and soon

The world is too much with us” he writes. We have plumbed too deeply into the mysteries of nature and have become enmeshed in its mechanistic laws. What does he mean by “late and soon“? For the non-English speaking readers, the expression is non-standard English (and even gives English speaking readers pause). The compressed figurative language permits Wordsworth to work his thoughts into the tightly knit Sonnet form but makes a precise understanding tricky. Late is probably best understood as “in recent times” or lately. Late also carries the connotation, recently deceased; but it’s hard to square this meaning with anything in the poem. Soon can be understood in two senses. First, in the sense of the near future, which is how all the interpretations (I’ve read online) construe the word. There’s another meaning though: My belovèd Shakespeare Lexicon points out that soon could also be construed as meaning easily, readily, or likely. So, Wordsworth may be suggesting that nature (or the world) is too much with us lately, and will be more so with all too much facility as man’s knowledge continues to unlock nature’s secrets.

  • Nonsensical Punctuation (by modern standards)

One of the most devilish aspects of this poem is the punctuation. I would love to see the original to know whether the punctuation is Wordsworth’s or the meddling of Oxford editors (I’ve copied my own rendition of the sonnet from the Oxford Standard Authors edition of Wordsworth’s complete poems).  No reader of poetry should ever take a poem’s punctuation for granted. In other words, don’t assume the punctuation represents the poet’s intentions. Far too often, the self-appointed (read editors) assume they know better (than you) what the poet intended and give us no indication that they’ve altered the poem. That kind of presumptuousness irritates the hell out of me; and it’s one of the reasons I don’t like Norton’s student editions.

You will find copies of this sonnet elsewhere on the net with differing punctuation. I don’t know which of these  renditions comes closest to the original. I’ve searched online using facsimile as a search term, and the closest I’ve come is here – the Library of the University of Toronto.

Anyway… how to make sense of the punctuation?

Do we read it this way?

The world is too much with us – late and soon,
Getting and spending.

Or do we read it this way?

The world is too much with us.

Late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

So on and so forth. I’m tempted to read the lines as follows (my own punctuation in red)?

The world is too much with us. Late and soon,
Getting and spending,
we lay waste our powers. (or : or )
Little we see in Nature that is ours.
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

As it is, the poem’s punctuation (by modern standards) doesn’t work. According to The Little, Brown Handbook, for example, the semicolon should not be used to link subordinate clauses or phrases to main clauses (or to introduce lists), and yet this is exactly what the poem does. Among other uses, semi-colons separate main clauses. Secondly, the poem’s use of a colon after powers also doesn’t make sense. A colon is used to “introduce summaries, explanations, series, appositive ending sentences, long or formal quotations, and statements introduced by the following or as follows.” A reader could, perhaps, construe Little we see in Nature that is ours as explaining the statement we lay waste our powers (hence the colon or dash), but the fourth line We have given our hearts away sounds more like a summation rather than an explanation.

Anyway, all this is to say that by modern standards the poem’s punctuation is nonsensical. None of my suggestions are offered as improvements, only as interpretive possibilities.

  • Getting and spending.

It’s this phrase that reminds us of Wordsworth’s distaste for materialism or commoditizing. Most interpretations read this as representing society’s (and his own) alienation from nature. My own reading is different. Keeping in mind the first line of the sonnet, The world is too much with us, Wordsworth seems to be saying that nature has betrayed us. That is, this isn’t a poem about Wordsworth yearning for a return to nature, but a  feeling that nature has betrayed him. After all, what *is* the world, if it isn’t nature? In this light the sarcasm and anger (heard by some readers) takes on a very different subtext. The anger is that of the betrayed. Nature is not the thing Wordsworth imagined it, but an indifferent world ruled by hard, fixed laws.

Think of it this way – nature isn’t what he imagined it was. It’s not a magical place imbued with sense and purpose. In this sense, the phrase Little we see in Nature that is ours makes more sense. Everything that we used to see in Nature — purpose, moral design, divinity  — are no longer there. Nature has become  an indifferent force. What the human mind superimposed on nature (that is ours) is gone. Such visions have turned out to be illusions. There is little in nature that has any connection to our humanity: our sense of purpose or destiny. Human beings are alone. Our imaginative lives mean nothing to nature. Our preconceptions and conceptions are irrelevant – and that is death to the poet.

Likewise, we are ourselves, creatures of nature, use nature indifferently. We get and spend. The word spend, having the sense of consuming, wasting, using up and exhausting. We acquire but we also dissipate in doing so. We have given our hearts away, Wordsworth laments. And by hearts, he means the soul and the mind (in general). The Shakespeare Lexicon tells us that the older meaning of the word included “the mind as the power of thinking”.

  • The Painting above and left is by Jean Neely. She hosts a blog called Faint Whisper: A Record of my Art. The painting is titled Fall Grasslands but could just as easily have been titled The Pleasant Lea –  lea refers to open land or grasslands. Neely’s paintings are beautiful. Take a look.

Wordsworth is warning us that by becoming too much like nature, we lose the very thing that makes us human – our capacity to moralize, find purpose, to imagine and imbue nature with more than is there. A reader at Helium writes:”They are not as close to nature as they should be.” I read just the opposite. Wordsworth is warning us that we are too close to Nature (or rather, what Nature has become). Nature (or the world), as the 19th century was beginning to unravel it, was robbing humanity of its poetry.

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.

Pay attention to how Wordsworth describes the Sea. She is a woman her bares her bosom to the moon. This is the poet’s Sea. This is what he means by seeing in Nature what is ours. The metaphor of the Sea as a woman baring her bosom, gives to the Sea a purpose, a vision, and moral that is human and ours. And this has nothing to do with Nature. It is uniquely ours. Likewise, the winds don’t blow but howl, and they are up-gathered — a verb that bestows a humanly imagined purpose and intent.

The Sea, the moon, and the winds are like magical beings, filled with intelligence.

“I’d rather be a pagan…”

But we are out of tune. The hard fact of Nature has robbed us of what makes us human – our imaginative faculties. We are out of tune. Nature instructs us to be coldly indifferent. The world/Nature is too much with us. Humanity needs to return to its imaginative/visionary realm. That is our humanity.

— Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Wordsworth’s cry, that he’d prefer to be a Pagan, is sometimes read as religious commentary (a critique of Christianity perhaps) but within the confines of the sonnet (as I read it at least) such a reading doesn’t make sense. Christianity was no friend of the burgeoning sciences – having nearly burned Galileo at the stake.  The materialism of science, if nothing else, relentlessly undermined the Christian worldview. At first glance, Wordsworth would have more reasons to prefer Christianity.

But as I read it, his cry is the extreme. He cries to God that he would rather surrender his soul, risk the eternal damnation of a heathen, than surrender his poet’s (and human) vision of Nature.

“Proteus rising from the sea…”

And it’s in this sense, to me, that the last lines make the most sense. The sight of Proteus rising from the sea is the vision of a poet and, by extension, symbolic of humankind’s ability (and need) to imbue Nature with what is ours. There’s another sense of the Pagan that might pertain. The Pagan’s view of the world was thought to be simple and naïve – an animistic view of the world that modern science was thoroughly and finally demolishing. In this wise, Wordsworth is asserting that he prefers a Nature that is ours, informed by the poet’s imagination, to Nature as it is (or as recognized by science and modernity). The vision of Proteus and Triton thus carries the sense of the poetic imagination and antiquity (ancient knowledge and ways of knowing).

The anthropomorphic/animistic/symbolic/archetypal universe of the poet/heathen makes Wordsworth feel less forlorn. To me, that this sonnet might not be an anti-industrial screed, but a cry to preserve the mystery of poetry within our world, makes the poem all the more tender.

All in all, it’s a recurring theme in Wordsworth’s poetry. Consider his Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. The ode begins:

I

There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

“old triton…”

II

The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

In the fifth canto the ode continues:

…The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

I think it’s in this sense that we are meant to understand the sonnet. Wordsworth is not calling for a return to Nature, but for a return to a visionary Nature that is distinct from the world and Nature. And that, I know, is very different from the usual interpretation of this sonnet.

The Scansion

  • All unmarked feet or Iambic. In the seventh line, I failed to mark are in |And are| as unstressed (though the pyrrhic color scheme – yellow – is correct).

Wordsworth’s metrical skills are more utilitarian than imaginative. He in no way compares to such Elizabethan masters as Donne, Jonson or Shakespeare. By the 19th century meter was simply the recognized scaffolding on which a line was fitted. Meter, as a living and developing facet of the poem’s art, was increasingly stultified (to be freed by the modernists at the start of the 20th century – poets like Frost and Stevens).

The world | is too | much with | us; late |and soon,
Getting |and spen|ding, we |lay waste |our powers;

The word powers can be pronounced disyllabically or as a monosyllable. The first foot of the second line is Trochaic. What is of more interest, perhaps, is how Wordsworth sometimes stretched (or chaffed against) the constraints of meter with his more colloquial diction.

Little |we see |in Na|ture that |is ours;
We have given |our hearts |away, |a sor|did boon!

That fourth line is tricky and could be read as an alexandrine (a 6 foot line):

We have |given |our hearts |away, |a sor|did boon!

This is probably not how Wordsworth would have scanned this line within  the space of an Iambic Pentameter Sonnet. Here is what he probably had in mind:

We’ve giv’n |our hearts |away, |a sor|did boon!

Such elision was a commonplace in metrical poetry (or call it a trick). But this is what Wordsworth probably intended. (As a general rule of thumb, if one can read a line as Iambic, then one probably should. Poets generally took pride in their ability to write metrical poetry, even while stretching the form.) This form of elision is called synaloepha in the first instance We’ve (despite the aspirated ‘h’), and syncope (giv’n) in the second instance. Both techniques go back to the Elizabethans and, while some purists may have (and still do) frown on such metrical cheats, they were recognized ways to fit extra-syllabic words into an Iambic Pentameter line. The line, in fact, is typical of Wordsworth’s flexible approach to meter and actually puts him closer to Robert Frost (who was born just 24 years after Wordsworth’s death) than to Keats or the later Victorians (who were much stricter metrists).

This Sea |that bares| her bo|som to |the moon,
The winds |that will|be how|ling at |all hours,
And are |up-ga|thered now |like slee|ping flowers,
For this, |for e|verything,| we are out |of tune;

Speakers naturally elide every to read ev’ry – another example of syncope.  The third foot |we are strong| could be considered either an anapestic foot (probably less likely), or an Iambic foot if the reader uses synaloepha to read we are as we’re. Once again, Wordsworth lets the language bend the metrical pattern without, necessarily, breaking it.

It moves |us not.|–Great God!| I’d ra|ther be
A Pa|gan suc|kled in| a creed |outworn;
So might |I, stan|ding on |this plea|sant lea,
Have glimp|ses that |would make |me less |forlorn;

Have sight |of Pro|teus ri|sing from |the sea;
Or hear |old Tri|ton blow |his wrea|thed horn.

The wreathed should be pronounced as a disyllabic word: wreathèd.

The Sonnet is Petrarchan in form – an Octave and Sestet separated, in this case, by a volta (a kind of thematic ‘turn’ or change in course). The Petrarchan form feels less like the working out of a argument or thesis than a Shakespearean Sonnet and lends Wordsworth’s sonnet a more contemplative closing (as opposed to the epigrammatic sting that characterizes the closing Shakespearean couplet). Where the Shakespearean Sonnet can be thought of as a argumentative tour de force , the Petrarchan Sonnet always feels more philosophical and contemplative – and certainly Wordsworth was more philosophical minded than Shakespeare – whose mind was agile and swift.

Wordsworth at his best

In the course of writing this post, I pulled out Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets just to reacquaint myself with Wordsworth’s life and reception. On page 373 Schmidt relays a passage from the Prelude, of which there are three versions and which many consider to be Wordsworth’s finest piece of sustained writing (generally the second version). The brief sample is truly Wordsworth at his finest.  He is remembering is youthful traversal of the Austrian and Italian Alps.

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.

Boys at PLAY (poetic wit and whimsy) • Austin, Cohen, Moffa, Mui

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on humble submissions

About a month ago (an unforgivably long delay on my part) I received a little purple paperback with a handwritten letter enclosed.

This timely book, in the words of Artie Moffa, was humbly submitted. Future poets take note: When submitting books to me, remember to submit humbly. My importance to the world of poetry (let’s just call it The World) could not possibly be underestimated.

The letter was written in cursive.

Which brings me to my next invaluable observation: Who the heck writes cursive in 2010?

I used to think Richard Wilbur was quaint for corresponding with me on an Underwood (I presume), but Wilbur (are you reading this ?) has been outdone. A clean little introductory note written in cursive. Now that is class (of the poetic kind).

The opening pages of the Boys at PLAY do two things.

1.) It tells us that for every copy of the book sold, $1 will be donated to Amherst College (their alma mater). They write:

Amherst College is a small, private liberal arts college in western Massachusetts. It has as knack for producing more than its fair share of poets, including the authors and editor of this humble volume. Amherst provides generous financial aid to students of modest circumstances, and it rejects the rigid curricular requirements which prevail at many of its peer institutions.

Note the word humble again (one begins to sense a trap).

2.) After so much generous praise of Amherst College, one final word (before the poetry begins): Be it known that the Trustees of Amherst College have not endorsed this book, are not to be associated with this book, and will not be seen in its company.

So, lest there be any doubt, readers are given to know where the Trustees stand on the matter.

And I quote, “Ahem”.

flarf

The first poem, called N.D. Austin, begins rather curiously:

5 On Carrying Up Tea To the Terrace
5 Sorry, I Didn’t Recognize You with Your Clothes On
14 To All Of the People I Have Ever Made Out With Who Wanted To Move Further Faster Than I Did, and In My Experience That Has Been Most Of You:
15 Dear Son
15 Said Mrs. Robinson to Benjamin
20 A Conversation I Had In My Head Last Week With An Old Friend Who I Have Had A Crush On For Forever

etc…

The next poem (which, oddly, they name after themselves), is called Joshua Cohen, and continues to display their curious system of line numbering:

2 Smart
13 What Else Rhymes With Love
13 Dealing in Metaphors
18 Anything You Want
24 Maggie’s Song
28 Finale: The Fall of the Tower of Babel

etc…

The third poem, continuing their not-so-humble habit of naming poems after themselves, is called, Artie Moffa.

1 Avoid Again in Poetry
6 Stereo Sub
12 On Poetry and Publishing
12 What my Sister Would Probably Say About my Text Message Limericks
16 The Graduate
23 Pirate Apology
26 Sonnets for Daylight-Saving Time

etc…

So far, my impression is that the authors are engaged in some kind of Flarf experiment – avant-garde experimentalism.

Last comes a curiously title poem, Comics by Wing L. Mui

4 Seventh Draft!: Circumflex
17 Seventh Draft!: Poetry
22 Seventh Draft!: Web Comic
27 Meh: For the Ladies
40 Meh: Best Idea Ever!
49 Seventh Draft!: Adventure

etc….

after the introductory flarf
(or the rest of the book)

I should at least mention the rest of the book.

Artie Moffa opens the book with a stern remonstrance against the use of the word again. The essay is entitled Avoid Again in Poetry.

Avoid “again” in poetry.
It’s altogether much too hard
To use, for the unwary bard
Who hopes to try his hand at rhyme
Might choose it has a mate for “ten.”
But from the mouths of Southern men,
It comes out with a hint of “gin.”(….)

The beginning poet is urged to earnestly study and reread this cogent, hard-hitting poem. (It’s also a nice example of Rhyming Iambic Tetrameter — not much seen these days). But what truly impresses is the informative (and evidently well-researched) tone.

Some Appalachians I have heard
Put extra A’s inside the word.
“A-gay-an” is the sound they use.

One only wishes that the authors had provided more extensive footnotes describing their considerable field work.

Joshua Cohen follows this instructive essay with a heart-wrenching confessional poem with the elusive title Smart:

Infantile self-expression modalities never appealed to me.
I was employing the subjunctive mood before the age of three.
To read a book by Gide or Cooke was my idea of playing.
Which is all an obfuscating way of saying:

I’m smart.
Off the chart.
I debate over Plato
And disprove Descartes.

The reader can’t help but be swept into emotional complexities. Expect to be wrung dry. More sensitive readers may be disturbed by the poet’s repeatedly end-stopped lines. However, my reading is that the abrupt, isolated lines represent the isolated cries of a poet in pain – isolated by his intelligence, brilliance and, in a word, genius. Notice how the long lines are reduced to short, sobbing, ejaculations. The effect is heart breaking. No reader will walk away from this poem without experiencing the loneliness of intelligence – the unenviably smart. Let us be grateful that so few continue to suffer from this affliction and that, as with so many diseases which have afflicted human kind, America leads the world in eradicating this insidious illness. The poem is cathartic.

Perhaps the most lyrical poem is N.D. Austin’s simply titled: To All Of the People I Have Ever Made Out With Who Wanted To Move Further Faster Than I Did, and In My Experience That Has Been Most Of You: No poem has been so shunned, has gone so unspoken, or has been so needed as this poem. Finally, we can dispel the cliché that oppresses all men, from the characterization of the sex addled adolescent to the dirty old man. This is the poem that speaks to the objectification of men.

Yes, I enjoyed getting hot and heavy with you, but why can’t we have more of the hot and less of the heavy?
Thinking about the possibility of doing something kinky is in my experience often more enjoyable than actually performing the act,
As in, yes, some sex is sexy, but have you tried whispering sweet nothings while awkwardly trying to position yourself between where the armrest and seatbelt buckle are digging[?](….)

What man hasn’t wished there was “more hot” and less “heavy”? What man hasn’t preferred the possibility of doing something rather than “actually performing? What man hasn’t wished they could whisper sweet nothings in comfort and safety? N.D. Austin has written what might well be the bravest poem of the new century.

Despite Austin’s taxing autobiography, the poet can nevertheless express a forgiving generosity. Consider the exquisitely balanced haiku, The Two-party System:

I’m democratic!
I let my girls choose between
Basement or attic.

Such heart-rending generosity stands testament to the healing power of art and poetry.

But there is so much more:

If you can find someone to accompany you on the piano, you can look forward to such tenderly reminiscent lines as: “I hate June. The only seat on the C train faced a girl in a tube top made of chamois, Making out with a stud with a stud in his ear. And it can’t help remind me That you ran off to Miami” or the inspiringly hopeful “I pray for a break in the weather, Or at least for air condition to filter out other people’s pheromones…”

No poem reveals the writers’ roots in Amherst, or their love of academia, more than the lovely Sonnet Oblivio – a near perfect Shakespearean Sonnet (but for the second Italian quatrain). The inexperienced reader can be forgiven for thinking that this is nothing more than a love poem. But it’s more than that. This is a love poem to Rome.

The doctors who have made senility
Their subject say we pave a neural path
Anew when we recall a memory.
If this and genes are true, the awful wrath

Of plaques and proteins gathers in the gloam
And bides its time. Someday, should doctors care
To analyze my brain, they’ll notice where
You kissed me in my youth, and founded Rome.

When other memories are tattered cloths,
I’ll fold and keep the flag of that first kiss,
Defend it from old age, as Visigoths
Besiege my brain. All pathways lead to this

Physicians of my final days, note well:
She kissed me on the Seventh Hill.
·     Rome fell.

Where a less experienced poet might have end-stopped his or her lines, the enjambment in both quatrains reveals a skill and broader conception sorely missing in modern poetry. The rhymes have the feeling of inevitability. The form feels organic. The volta, the turn between the octave and sestet, is elegantly unforced.

All roads lead to Rome.

This is a sonnet for every scholar who has ever fallen in love with the great city.

coda

In an age of clueless critics and clueless poetry reviews, I can only hope that Poemshape sets a new standard.

I’m certain that these bright young poets, these young women of America’s most prestigious girl’s school, have a bright future ahead of them.

If you’ve lost your sense humor, this new one will only cost you $10.00.

My thanks to Miss Artie Moffa for submitting her collaborative nonpareil, Boys at PLAY.


lawrence ferlinghetti & free verse done right

in my opinion


Here’s a poem I’ve been meaning to write about.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the gems, one of the masterpieces of the latter 20th century. There’s not a word out of place. I’m sure there are more but (because I spend more time writing than reading) I don’t know about them (unless other readers tell me).

First, to the poem itself, then I’ll take a closer look at it. The poem is number 20 in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s book A Coney Island of the Mind, a book considered by many to be his finest.

rhyme in free verse

The expressive power of rhyme is something many free verse poets either don’t get, don’t want to get, or lack the talent to realize (in my opinion). But there are poets writing in this genre who do get it and Ferlinghetti is one of them. The poem above is rich in end-rhyme and internal rhyme, and the rhyming isn’t gratuitous.

It adds expressive power and underscores the meaning of the poem. It makes the poem more memorable. Here is the same poem. I’ve highlighted the end rhymes and internal rhymes that strike me as the most important. There’s no significance to the colors except that like rhymes are similarly colored.

The first thing to know about good rhyme is that it doesn’t have to end-rhyme – especially in free verse. Metrical poetry can use internal rhyme as well, but the advantage that free verse offers is the freedom of its line lengths. The freedom allows a poet like Ferlinghetti to place the rhyme exactly where he wants them.

The words among and gum are assonant rhymes, meaning that only the vowel sounds rhyme.

In a metrical poem, if Ferlinghetti had wanted to keep these rhymes as end rhymes, he probably would have had to drop some syllables. And that brings to mind another little secret (which I’ll let you in on). This “free verse” poem has a metrical poem hidden inside it.

If I move some lines around, watch what happens. Watch this:

20

1.) The pen|nycan|dystore| beyond |the El
is where | I first fell |in love |with un|real|ity

Jelly|beans glowed |in the se|mi-gloom
of that| septem|ber af|ternoon

5.) A cat |upon |the coun|ter moved |among
the li|corice sticks |and toot|sie rolls |and Oh |Boy Gum

Outside |the leaves |were fal|ling as |they died

A wind| had blown |away |the sun
A girl |ran in |Her hair |was rainy

10.) Her breasts |were breath|less in |the lit|tle room
Outside |the leaves |were fal|ling and |they cried

Too soon! |Too soon!

In terms of Iambic Rhythm, this poem is more regular than Keats!  I read lines 1,5,7,10 & 11 as Iambic Pentameter. And I read lines 3,4, 8 & 9 as Iambic Tetrameter. Lines 2 & 6 are alexandrines (6 foot lines rather than 5 foot lines). The red represents a trochaic foot. The blue represents an anapestic variant foot and the green would be a feminine ending (just as with all my scansions). I chose to scan the final line as Iambic Dimeter. (This isn’t the only way to scan these lines but reflects what makes sense – to me.)

All in all, this poem could easily be a regular stanza in a larger traditional poem. Many, though not all, of Ferlinghetti’s poems in A Coney Island of the Mind are “subversively” metrical. And many younger poets would do well to learn by it. The techniques of traditional poetry are still available to all poets, even those who write free verse. They’re not exclusionary – though one might quibble as to whether Ferlinghetti’s poem is truly “free verse”.

What’s truly sweet about Ferlinghetti’s rhymes is how he withholds the rhyme suggested by gloom and noon to the very end of the poem.The other rhymes find their companions either within two or three lines, El & fell, that & cat, among, gum & sun, glowed, oh & blown; or the rhymes occur within the same lines, outside & died, breasts and breathless.  The internal rhymes breasts and breathless are a masterful touch. (The alliteration underscores that moment when the boy sees something besides candy, better than candy, and like candy.)

Only gloom and noon remain unrhymed, but the ear has been primed.

And it’s when the poem closes that gloom and noon are rhymed. The effect is one of framing and also of completion. The rhymes subliminally reinforce the poem’s closure, especially the repeated soon. In a sense, Ferlinghetti has created a pattern that seeks closure both in subject matter and form.

This is what rhyme can add to a poem.

And this is what is missing in so much free verse – the subtle parallelism of rhyme, meter and meaning.

imagery and meaning
or the other reasons the poem is a masterpiece

The pennycandystore beyond the El

From the very first line we’re reminded of innocence and simplicity. What could be more benign than the pennycandystore? And what is the El? It probably refers to one of the elevated subway lines of New York City’s transit, but it could also refer to the “L” of Chicago, also called the “El” (by some Chicagoans). If I were the betting kind, I would put my money on New York. Lawrence Ferlinghetti  was born in Yonkers (just north of New York City) and so (one would expect) would have been familiar with New York City subway system as a child, (although this assumes that the poem as autobiographical.)

On the other hand, though the title of the book would seem to locate the poetry in New York City, some of the opening poems locate the speaker in California. Additionally, Ferlinghetti tells us that the book’s title is taken from Henry Miller’s Into the Night Life, making the title more an idea than a place. I’ve noticed that readers from Chicago assume that Ferlinghetti is describing the “L” in Chicago while readers from New York assume it’s New York.

To make matters worse, there has been more than one “El” in New York. There’s the Ninth  Avenue “El”, there’s the “El” station which was demolished in 1940 (but which Ferlinghetti must have known), and then there’s the “El” of Jamaica Avenue in Richmond Hill, Queens. To me,  the demolished El station seems a likely candidate; but it doesn’t matter. If Ferlinghetti wanted us to know, he could tell us. As of writing this, he’s still around.

is where I first

fell in love

with unreality

What does the poem mean by unreality? The poem gives us some clues:

Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom
of that september afternoon
A cat upon the counter moved among

the licorice sticks

and tootsie rolls

and Oh Boy Gum

Was it the jellybeans glowing in the semi-gloom? But there’s little else “unreal” in the description. Here’s how I read it: The poet is a boy when he walks into the pennycandystore. Reality, to him, are the glowing jellybeans, the licorice sticks, the tootsie rolls and the Oh Boy Gum.  The jellybeans glow, like beacons. But another kind of reality (and unreality to the boy) begins to swirl around him. It’s in the semi-gloom of that septemeber afternoon. It’s the cat upon the counter, moving like a huntress through the boy’s “reality”, through the beckoning jellybeans, licorice sticks and “Oh Boy Gum”.  Oh Boy… Ferlinghetti’s choice of candy is no mistake. This is candy for a boy. This the stuff that makes a boy say, oh boy…

Outside the leaves were falling as they died
A wind had blown away the sun

But unreality will not be delayed; and there is more dying than just the leaves. The boy’s reality, his pennycandystore, is also dying. The sun, and all that it has represented to the boy, is being blown away by a wind – and that wind is more than just a literal wind. Something else is about to dissolve the boy’s reality – and unreality:

A girl ran in

Her hair was rainy

Her breasts were breathless in the little room

Need I say more? Ferlinghetti says it best, and I can’t think of any boy who hasn’t had that same experience, that same breath-stopping, heart stopping, unreal instance when we see “a girl” for the first time. She has run in and she carries, into the little room, all of the unreality the boy had, until this moment, been unaware of. Her hair, the rain that sheds the leaves and has blown away the sun, and her breasts. And what is breathless in the little room? Her breasts? Him? The little room? Where are the jellybeans? – the licorice, tootsie rolls or “Oh Boy” gun? They are gone, like so much else. Gone.

Outside the leaves were falling

and they cried

Too soon! Too soon!

The poem moves us out of the pennycandystore. There’s no need to tell more. Where a lesser poet might have remained inside the store, telling us more than needs description, Ferlinghetti’s touch is masterful – genius. We know. The boy is gone, in love with an unreality, the sudden unfathomable and breathlessly indefinable beauty of a girl. The pennycandystore, with all its little childish realties, is gone. Outside, the falling leaves cry: Too soon! Too soon!

afterthought

Having written Let Poetry Die and posts like Hey, David Orr!, I can’t help but add this extract from Ferlinghetti’s poetry:

From Ferlinghetti’s Populist Manifesto Number 1

Where are Whitman’s wild children,
where the great voices speaking out
with a sense of sweetness and sublimity,
where the great new vision,
the great world-view,
the high prophetic song
of the immense earth
and all that sings in it
And our relations to it -
Poets, descend
to the street of the world once more
And open your minds & eyes
with the old visual delight…

❧ Another god-damn Villanelle

Audio:

Guess what! This was translated into French (unbenownst to me). How apropos. Now this vile poem can afflict the selfsame nation that afflicted us with the Villanelle. You can see the original here. Or click below:

Continue reading

Ben Jonson ❧ Drinke to me, onely, with thine eyes

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Jonson’s Ambition

No other Elizabethan poet was more cognizant of his legacy than Ben Jonson. Jonson’s rivals were not just his peers – Shakespeare, John Marston, Tho. Dekker, or Tho. Middleton –  but the great poets of ancient Rome – Seneca (4 BC-65 AD), Catullus (c. 84–c. 54 BC) and Martial (AD 40–103). In writing poetry and drama, Jonson adopted many of the tenets and poetic forms of these great classical poets.

After all, the English language of Jonson & Shakespeare had no literary past. With the exception of Chaucer and Gower (who few poets emulated), the great literature of the past was the great literature of the Romans and the Greeks. So it was that when other Elizabethan poets were enthusiastically adopting the new-fangled sonnet form – Spencer, Shakespeare, Sidney, and Daniel – Jonson adopted the epigram (the form that Catallus and Martial had developed and established over a thousand years before). What better way to establish yourself as the inheritor of a great tradition than to write within that tradition?

Jonson was the scholar among Elizabethan playwrights.

He was also a bricklayer’s son and because of it he was more sensitive to questions of class and status. In 1598, Jonson killed another actor, Gabriel Spencer, who (according to Jonson) had insulted both him and his dramaturgy. Jonson only saved his neck by pleading Benefit of Clergy (meaning he could read). Shakespeare's ShieldThe episode was a sign of things to come.

His rivalries, both literal and personal, became the stuff of legend. To my knowledge, The Poet’s War refers to only one thing: The rivalry between Jonson, on the one side, Marston, Dekker and eventually Shakespeare on the other. In fact, in one form or another, the rivalry eventually netted just about every poet and dramatist writing during the day. The rivalry appears to have been mostly good natured but, as with all such rivalries, there must have been some bloody noses too.

The theatergoers took tremendous pleasure in the jibes and taunts, and the plays of the time are full of references to the rivalry. Whole books have been devoted to it and it makes for very entertaining reading. No surprise, for instance, that Jonson endlessly ribbed Shakespeare for the latter’s gentlemanly pretensions. When Shakespeare finally obtained a coat of arms(the only extent sketch being above right 1), Jonson was quick to pull the rug out from under his rival – satirizing Shakespeare’s motto.

Here is how Katherine Duncan-Jones sums it up in her book Ungentle Shakespeare [p. 96]:

Ungentle Shakespeare

Duncan-Jones explanation of Jonson’s jibe, the joke behind mustard, is as convincing as any I’ve read. (No one really knows and there are different explanations). James Bednarz, in his book Shakespeare & The Poet’s War, (which I’m just reading) explains Shakespeare’s response in the following paragraph.

Shakespeare & The Poet's WarIndeed, this quip might have sparked Touchstone’s jest about a knight who did not lie when he swore that “pancakes” were “good” and “the mustard was naught,” although the pancakes were bad and the mustard good, because he swore “by his honor,” and “if you swear by that that is not, you are not forsworn” (1.2.63-77). Shakespeare’s joke about honor and mustard turns Jonson’s critique on its head and mocks the social pretension Shakespeare had been accused of exhibiting. [p. 113 ]

Not only that, but Bednarz goes on to detail his case for just how and when Shakespeare “purged” Jonson (which was apparently the beginning of the end of  the whole imbroglio). Shakespeare’s portrayal of Jonson as the slow-witted  Ajax in his play Troilus and Cressida (the name Ajax in Elizabethan times was a pun on latrine) must have brought the house down.  Many scholars consider Troilus and Cressida to be a “problem play”, but if it is read and understood as, perhaps, the final salvo in the poet’s war, the play makes a good deal more sense.

Anyway, this is going far afield.

There’s lots to say about Jonson. He was one of the most irascible, ambitious and colorful personalities in Elizabethan drama. And possibly because of his literary ambitions, Jonson’s love poems are few and far between. It’s likely that he didn’t consider them to be worthy of great poetry. So, instead of writing sonnets to real or imagined lovers, he resurrected the epigram. Encyclopedia Britannica writes that the epigram was…

…originally an inscription suitable for carving on a monument, but since the time of the Greek Anthology (q.v.) applied to any brief and pithy verse, particularly if astringent and purporting to point a moral. By extension the term is also applied to any striking sentence in a novel, play, poem, or conversation that appears to express a succinct truth, usually in the form of a generalization. Catullus (c. 84–c. 54 BC) originated the Latin epigram…

Jonson’s epigrams are full of pithy one liners, wicked satire, scathing quips and  pointed praise. The enjoyment of them  takes a certain kind of reader – one who enjoys the finely chiseled line for the sake of it and someone who has some knowledge of the Elizabethan period. Jonson is rarely rapturous or “romantic”. He’s Elizabethan through and through: intellectual, ambitious, and always ready to deploy reason, rhetoric and a stinging jest.

But when he lets his guard down, one senses tremendous tenderness and vulnerability. It’s in this light that I like to read his most famous poem – Drink to me, onely, with thine eyes… The poem has the feeling of a genuineness and immediacy that characterizes Elizabethan poetry at its very best. (To me, the later Romantic poets frequently fall short of the honesty and directness of which Elizabethans were capable.)

Of Fonts, Handwriting & Secretary Hand

The lines are simple and straightforward. For the fun of it (and since I’ve already gone so far afield) I’ve printed the poem using a brand new font – P22 Elizabethan. The font was created for a historical novel and reproduces a kind of script that was called Secretary Hand. All Elizabethans who could write, could write Secretary Hand. It was the formal hand of record keeping, the scribal book and court documents. Jonson would have been capable of Secretary Hand but, like most other Elizabethans, wrote a more italic style when writing informally. If this poem had appeared in a scribally published book, however, this is how it might have looked.

  • And what follows below is another poem by Ben Jonson as it appeared in a scribally published book, in actual Secretary Hand (but not Jonson’s handwriting). The image comes from the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Digital Collection [MS V.b.43] and the entire page can be viewed in Christopher Ivic’s Essay: Ben Jonson & Manuscript Culture.

If it looks like I’m having fun with fonts, it’s because I am. The Folio Font can be found for free and is intended to mimic the typeset used in Shakespeare’s Folio, which was probably the same as that used in Jonson’s. Before I move on to Jonson’s Drinke to me, I want to have just a little more fun. Below is the handwriting of Shakespeare, John Donne, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson.

  • The first image is of Shakespeare’s Sir Thomas More, or rather, his contribution to the play. The writing is believed to be the only extent sample of Shakespeare’s handwriting. His handwriting is considered to be old-fashioned (Tudor) and idiosyncratic – like his spelling. This undoubtedly reflects his schooling which, for one reason or another, was conservative and somewhat behind the times. It may also reflect the possibility that he  was privately tutored  or self-taught, but that is sheer speculation. If you want a closer look, you will have to do two things: First, click on the image, then enlarge it using the zoom feature in your browser (Firefox is CTRL + to enlarge CTRL- to diminish). Clicking on the image may also suffice.

  • Next is an example of Ben Jonson’s handwriting. Compared to Shakespeare’s, it’s almost legible. Notice also the italic style – which gradually all but replaced Secretary Hand.  The sample comes from an Epistle to his Masque of Queens. The image is one that I found on-line and mildy colorized. Here is what he wrote:

By the most true Admirer of your Highness’s virtues
And most hearty celebrator of them.   Ben Jonson

And if you want to see more from Jonson’s Epistle, click on the image and enlarge.

  • The next example is from Christopher Marlowe’s Massacre at Paris. It looks as though the foul paper (Marlowe’s handwritten text) doesn’t match the printed example I found on-line. It’s possible that the final version of the play is different – or I simply can’t read Marlowe’s handwriting. The sample comes by way of Wikimedia Commons – which itself comes from the Folger Shakespeare Library [MS. J.b.8].

  • The final sample is of John Donne. Donne’s handwriting is legible enough to not need a parallel text. Donne’s handwriting is thoroughly modern as compared to Shakespeare’s, reflecting a very different education. Not only did spelling vary from writer to writer, but handwriting as well. The English Lanaguage, in every conceivable way, was in flux.

This image also comes form the Folger Shakespeare Library [MSS L b 1712].

Drinke to me, onely, with thine eyes

As I wrote earlier, Ben Jonson’s poem is a study in simplicity. It reminds me of Robert Frost’s best poems – simple and yet profoundly effective and affective. The poem is split into two octaves (eight lines each), and the octave are themselves, divided into two quatrains.

The lines alternate between Iambic Tetramater and Iambic Trimeter – a ballad meter known as Common Meter Double – though I’m not sure the form would have been known as such in Jonson’s day. (Jonson’s poem To Celiasee below – was made into a song by Alfonso Ferrabosco.) There are three trochaic feet and none of them are wasted. They nicely and appropriately stress words in a way that adds to the meaning of the poem – the mark of an experienced  and skilled poet.

Where the dilettante might let a variant metrical foot slip by without regard to its context, the great poets seem more concerned that the disruption of the meter coincide with the emotional and intellectual content of the poem – not always, but more so.

Why is this poem so famous? It appeals to our sensibility both by its simplicity and through the subliminal pattern of its rhyme and meter. The poem appeals to us for the same reason nursery rhymes appeal to children. But more so, consider the straightforwardness of the imagery – how original and evocative it is:

“leave a kiss in the cup”
“the soul doth rise, /Doth aske a drinke divine “
“I sent thee, late, a rosie wreath… But thou thereon did’st onely breath”

More so, consider that this little poem is really a narrative poem. It tells a story in a few quick, simple lines – and tells us all we need to know. (The poem, incidentally, exemplifies what Jonson prized in classical poetry – balance and unity of thought.)

There’s a lesson in this poem for the modern poet. A great poem can be the simplest poem, like Jonson’s Drinke to me or Robert Frost’s The Pasture. There’s a place and readership for the modern poem, but the supremely simple and masterfully written short poem of traditional poetry has been all but forgotten.

  • In the scansion below, all unmarked feet are Iambic.

Wines in Elizabethan England

The Elizabethans didn’t drink water the way we do. It was poison, in large part, unless you lived far from an urban center. The sewage system was above ground and every last drop of it flowed into the sludge of the Thames. A useful website containing, among other things, Elizabethan recipes (when British food could still be called food) had this to say about the wine Jonson might have been drinking:

Honey was used to make a sweet alcoholic drink called mead which was drunk by all classes. Wine was generally imported although some fruit wines were produced in England. A form of cider referred to as ‘Apple-wine’ was also produced. Ales were brewed with malt and water, while beer contained hops that held a bitter flavor.

Another site called simply, Elizabethan Recipes, offers among things: Fartes of Portingale – Spicy Muttonball Soup. (I wonder if they meant Tartes?)

And here’s a modern brew that claims to be as stout as the original Elizabethan ales. (If the link doesn’t work, let me know. They’ve been changing it around.) They write:

It is comparable in strength to the beer produced by Tudor brewers during the reign of Elizabeth I. It has won many prizes and, at the International Brewers’ Exhibition 1968, was awarded the Championship Gold Medal. Regular drinkers simply asked for a ‘Lizzie’.

The website Life in Elizabethan England, offers a description of the bread that might have accompanied Jonson’s wine. Of the wines, they write:

Most wines are sweet and rather heavy. They probably have to be strained before you want to drink them, and may still have solid matter floating in them.

What was Jove’s Nectar? The drink of the gods, by implication, unmatched by anything produced or consumed by mortals and yet, says Jonson, her prefers Celia’s mortal kiss to an immortal drink of Jove’s nectar. There may also be the hint of Ichor of which,  Wikipedia writes:

In Greek mythology, ichor (pronounced /ˈaɪkər/ or /ˈɪkər/; Greek ἰχώρ) is the ethereal fluid that is the Greek gods’ blood, sometimes said to have been present in ambrosia or nectar.

It’s worth mentioning that ichor was considered poisonous to mortals.

Jonson seems to say:

The soul thirsts for immortality, but I would change that immortality for a different kind of eternal joy – a kiss from Celia.

Roses were a symbol of love and Jonson sent not just a rose, but a wreath. Roses were also a symbol of a woman’s virginity (or maidenhead). I think it might be reading too much to read ribald connotations and double-entendres into the latter octave of the  poem (though one could easily do so). That said, Jonson’s intentions (in sending the wreath) involved far more than innocent love.

The poem strikes a nice balance between the romance of love and the desires of the lover.

It’s a small masterpiece.

Useful Links

More Poems by Rare Ben Jonson

  • To Celia

Come my Celia, let us prove,
While we may, the sports of love;
Time will not be ours, for ever:
He, at length, our good will sever.
Spend not then his guifts in vaine.
Sunnes, that set, may rise againe:
But if once we loose this light,
‘Tis, with us, perpetuall night.
Why should we deferre our joyes?
Fame, and rumor are but toyes.
Cannot we delude our eyes
Of a few poore household spyes?
Or his easier eares beguile,
So removed by our wile?
‘TIs no sinne, loves fruit to steale,
But the sweet theft to reveale:
To be taken, to be seene,
These have crimes accounted beene.

  • And lastly, Jonson’s translation of the Roman Poet Gaius Petronius. (The Elizabethans. Always delighting in both sides of the coin.)

“Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short”

by Gaius Petronius

Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short;
And done, we straight repent us of the sport:
Let us not then rush blindly on unto it,
Like lustful beasts, that only know to do it:
For lust will languish, and that heat decay.
But thus, thus, keeping endless holiday,
Let us together closely lie and kiss,
There is no labour, nor no shame in this;
This hath pleased, doth please, and long will please; never
Can this decay, but is beginning ever.

1 Best, Michael. Shakespeare’s Life and Times. Internet Shakespeare Editions, University of Victoria: Victoria, BC, 2001-2005. Visited November 15 2009. (The image of Shakespeare’s Shield came with instructions on how to cite the page, so I couldn’t resist doing so officially.)

If you have enjoyed this post, be sure and let me know. :-)

❧ up in Vermont, November 17 2009

Doe but consider this small dust
that runneth in the glasse
by Autumnes mov’d
would you beleeve that it the body ere was
of one that lov’d
who in his M[ist]r[i]s flame playing like a Fly
burnt to Cinders by her eye,
Yes and in death as life vnblest
to have it exprest
Even ashes of lovers finde no rest.

Horsegod: Collected Poems by Robert Bagg

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  • In exchange for a complimentary copy, I expressed interest in reviewing poetry by poets “in exile” – the self-published. Specifically, I was looking for poets who trade in meter or rhyme, the disciplines of traditional poetry. This book, Horsegod, by Robert Bragg, was the first book I received. What a great way to start.

Me? A reviewer?

And in addition to this book, I have two more books to review. I ask myself: What if it were my own poetry? No poet wants a comment that discourages readers from reading their work.

I favor criticism that analyzes poetry on its own terms rather than according to the tastes of the reviewer. For an idea of what I mean, check out my post on Marjorie Perloff’s criticism. (What poet wants to read that his or her rhymes are too simplistic when that is precisely the kind of rhymes they are pursuing.) Poets make aesthetic choices, and my own philosophy is not to criticize them for that – but to observe.

Let’s see how I do.

About Robert Bagg

Just a couple words, because there’s a perfectly good biography of Bagg at his own website. The thing worth noting (and to my profound envy) is that he met and studied with Robert Frost.

At Amherst he had the good fortune to study with Walker Gibson and James Merrill and to alarm Robert Frost, who chided him for writing about sex, noting that Yeats waited until old age to broach that aspect of experience.

I don’t know to what extent he studied with Frost or the others, but just to have met the great poet sends me into a tailspin of jealousy. Also worth noting is the experience Bagg brings to his poetry.

After a semester at Harvard he earned a Ph.D. in English at the University of Connecticut, taught briefly at the University of Washington (1963-65), and then for the rest of his career at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst where he served as Department Chair from 1986 to 1992. His teaching specialties were English Romantic Poetry, Modern Poetry, and Great Books from Homer to Hemingway.

A Limber Lope

Horsegod by Robert BaggTo give you an idea of the kind of poetry you can expect to find, here are the final lines of a Sonnet called Caption for a Wire Photo:

(…)machine gun slugs
seek out his jacket and rip up her dress;

exposed while sprinting for a house safe
from this blood-starved cancerous regime—
enraged by a remission all too brief—
their drab lives shed like debris from a dream

they click a neutral camera and point-blank rifle,
feel a shrill heaviness, and are forever still.

The rhyme scheme is that of a Shakespearean Sonnet but Bagg dispenses with an accentual/syllabic meter – normally Iambic Pentameter. He opts for a syllabic line (counting the number of syllables per line). His rhymes combine true rhymes, slant rhymes and wrenched rhymes – reminding one of Emily Dickinson’s approach.

For this reason, his verse will read as rough, muscular, and knotted. But there is maturity in his choices – he’s  an experienced poet whose stylistic choices are controlled and deliberate. He avoids an overly end-stopped verse, doubtlessly made easier by the use of a syllabic line and a variety of half-rhymes. The overall effect is of a poet who blends free verse and traditional poetry. A visit Bagg’s homepage confirms as much:

Bagg also often takes advantage of the freer practice of the twentieth-century, since the “freedom” it encourages allows for plunging ahead when necessary with little heed for decorum.

It does grant the poet greater latitude, but also surrenders some of the effects unique to meter (accentual syllabic) and true rhyme. Nevertheless, Bagg is a model for the younger poet. There is a middle ground between the traditional and free verse aesthetic.

I suspect Bagg is commenting on his own poetics in this seemingly whimsical poem Girl with Her Pigtails Crooked.

Her left leg lagged behind the right,
a firm step followed by a limp.
Her pigtails haggled down her neck
like lines of tangled hemp.

I watched the shameless way she lamed,
She needn’t limp so lumpily,
I thought, so I called down to her,
“Hey, you don’t need to limp!”

She let her hair have its head —
it went its separate ways—like rope
let out to trim a coming storm
She stepped into a limber lope.

Think of the pigtailed girl as this little poem and Bagg as the boy who calls down to her: “Hey, you don’t need to limp!”  He lets his rhyme and meter, like the girl’s hair, go its separate ways, like “rope let out to trim a coming storm”. His little poem steps into a limber lope, a characterization that could apply to all of his poems.

Some Brief Narration

One of the showpieces in Bagg’s book is a narrative poem called The Tandem Ride. You can read the poem in its entirety by visiting Bagg’s webpage: Robert Bagg: Poems, Greek Plays, Essays, Novels, Memoir. The narrative poem is a genre almost altogether forgotten and, though I may be wrong, I suspect that poetry journals are largely to blame. While the great variety of journals provide a venue to an equally great variety of poets, their interest in poetry is a very limited kind: short; something that will fit politely fit the page.

Some journals limit poems to as little as 25 lines, at most, two pages, but reluctantly. Many of my own poems are eliminated simply by virtue of their length.

The results are obvious. The birth of the poetry journal, of which there are hundreds, coincides with the POETRY Anthologyubiquity of the short lyric. The long, sturdy narratives of the romantics and Victorians gave way to short lyrics and confessionals that neatly fit the pages of the poetry journal. Poetry Magazine recently issued a collection of poems been published in their pages since their founding in the early 20th Century – The POETRY Anthology, 1912-2002. All but a handful of the poems fit neatly on the page.

Nearly all the poems hum along in the first person or first person plural.

Reading POETRY’s anthology reminds me of the dusty old anthologies from the Victorian Era, proudly full of competent period pieces and timely poets – all of which and all of whom are forgotten by the next generation. They’re easy to find. Just look in any used bookstore. You can almost smell them.

Although I haven’t searched exhaustively, I’ve only found one or two stories in nearly five hundred pages of poetry (all among the very first poems published by the periodical) and they are also among the few not written in the first person. These are the better known poems. One is by Robert Frost – his The Code – Heroics. The other is by T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. As the 20th Century progressed, poetic ambition seems to have grown smaller and ever more forgettable.

Bagg’s effort is a welcome departure. His Keatsian or Spencerian stanzas (depending on how they’re appraised) nicely carry the narration forward. They’re enjambment, made easier through the use of off-rhymes, helps the poem succeed where others fail.

She pushes a glass door open a crack,
emerges from a tropical greenhouse,
shoes squishing, then pauses – almost goes back-
aware her sweat-drenched translucent blouse
would amuse us, or might even arouse
us more than her breasts did normally.
She’d never say, Come on to me, guys, now’s
the right time!
— but I sensed viscerally
she wasn’t the same girl we had chased up that tree.

This is  a stanza of almost perfect rhyme (greenhouse and blouse is a wrenched rhyme), but the content and language are thoroughly modern. So many modern poets who write with meter and rhyme seem unable to combine the disciplines with a modern vernacular. Once again, the lack of meter (I don’t normally consider syllabics a meter) and off-rhymes give the poem an almost free verse feel. In some cases, the combined effects buries the rhymes. It’s a deliberate effect. Robert Bagg Some will like it, some won’t. Don’t come to his poetry looking for soaring melody. His voice is modern and rigorous.

In this book, at least, it’s not until the very last pages that this narrative impulse reappears and then on a much smaller scale. That’s somewhat of a disappointment to me, but may not be to other readers. Another disappointment is that the subsequent poems are primarily first person. Some address a “you”, but they all have the feel of a poet discussing himself. I wouldn’t call them confessional, though that term can be broad. There’s an element of confessionalism in all of his poems – but never self-pity.

The Heart of Bagg’s Poetry: His Imagery

And now we really get into the meat of Bagg’s poetry.

Bagg’s imagery is  full of physicality and motion, is full of the body. As in his imagery, so too in his poems. He his not a poet, like Keats, at ease with ease, contemplation or sensuality (all qualities that later poets during the Victorian era considered effeminate). Bagg’s physicality won’t be restrained.

In Be Good, the child “hugs the intolerable boulder/has muscled uphill since birth”.

The world he prefers to observe is also full of kinetic energy.

My iron is wide; you use your blessed driver
and hit it with your fullest strength,
skimming the club heads so close to the earth
I hardly hear your shot, but see it fly
over everything toward the green… (My Father Plays The 17th)

In describing a couple’s decision to marriage, his analogy is full of athleticism:

Ashley and Melissa, you have circled
marriage like a distant challenge–
a mountain ripe for climbing–plotting,
perhaps, a night approach across
a secret valley… (A Toast for Ashley and Melissa)

Bagg’s eye is drawn to sport and action (as in this translation from Sophocles Elektra):

Reacting quickly, the skittish
Athenian pulled his horses off
to one side and slowed, allowing
the surge of chariots tot pass him.

Orestes too had laid off the pace,
in last place, trusting his stretch run.
But when he saw the Athenian,
his only rival, still upright, he whistled
shrilly in the ears of his quick fillies
to give chase. The teams drew even,
first one man’s head edging in front,
then the others, as they raced on. (Chariot Race at Delphi)

In the powerful and substantial lines of his poem An Ancient Quarrel, Bagg turns an appraisal of Yeats into a titanic wrestling match:

You might be stirring forces hard to quell–
that thrill exploding in your abdomen
when a trapped quarry turns his fear on you.
You go in flailing hand to hand, frenzied

because your own survival’s now at risk.
His barbarous thrusting voice impales you
deep in the place from which your war-cry soars.
Now its the pure joy of battle driving…

Notice words like exploding, trapped, flailing, thrusting, impaling. One might object that words like these are only to be expected given the subject matter. I don’t argue the point, except to say that Bagg is also in control of the subject matter, and gravitates toward the physical, the muscular, the strain of motion. He has an eye for it.

It’s no wonder, as with the very first poem cited in this review, that Bagg, more than once, is drawn to the topic of war. He doesn’t valorize or glorify war (very much the opposite) but his sensibility is drawn to the physicality of war, and its horrors.

And it’s also no wonder that Bagg shocked Frost with the sheer physicality of his poetry’s sexual content. The poem Cello Suite , the closest Bagg comes to pure lyricism, is nothing if not a celebration of the sensual physicality of sex and procreation:

Cheek to her cello’s gnarled scroll,
impulsive
irretrievable love,
once wildly made, crests,
then calmly overflows
the cello rosewood curves.

As she lifts her bow to the skies
her lover’s hand slides
under her shoulder,
her breasts lift
to his passing forearm.

(Unfortunately, WordPress doesn’t allow me to reproduce the layout of the poem.)

In the lovely lines of his poem Twelfth Night:

If music be love’s food, disguise
must be love’s speech, each wanton thrust
engendering a gentle parry–
a playfulness that implicates
interested parties wearing tights.

At the start of this poem Bagg praises Viola’s masculine pluck, and one gets the feeling that this is no idle praise – that this is precisely the thing that has drawn the poet’s eye to this character – her masculinity, her insinuated physicality. There is nothing Keatsian or feminine about her (though there is and he knows it). In this poem, at least, there is an unmistakable homeroticism that Bagg clearly enjoys and with which he is beguiled.

But Bagg’s eye for physicality carries a price. In the entirety of Twelfth Night and Cello Suite, for example, the reader never once smells. There’s no taste and, oddly enough, there’s no sensation (touch).  Bagg prefers motion, sometimes repetitively, where he might have evoked a different sense:

“her sliding tears/reflect her mother’s”
“her lover’s hand slides/under her shoulder”

This isn’t to say that Bagg never evokes the more effeminate senses (as Victorians called them) but never with the same eye for the physicality of the body and the world.

Now he’ll go.
His body hardens with still-clenching muscle.
I edge my right heel back along his side,
tuck my head to his neck, feel his ears poke
out straight, and out of rotting earth we churn-
reanimated halves of the one beast
both off us want mightily to be: the Horegod.

We pound through reeking sludge and angry bush
that claws at our face, snags our thrusting legs.
We are joy pulsing through a line of verse!

Even in these lines, the word reeking has more the feel of a physical assault than an appeal to our sense of smell. In what way does it  reek? What does it reek of? Bagg doesn’t tell us.

As with Bagg’s revelry in sexuality, it should come as no surprise that the physical decline of age is an experience that Bagg feels keenly – it’s slowing and diminishing vigor.

…age so
intensifies what’s left
of our skills and passions,
we linger over them
with apprehensive
appreciation–
as over a single malt’s
evanescent bouquet.

We fear the softening
of our golf swing
will put even the easy
carries beyond our reach;
that lovemaking’s
strife will become
affectionate peace… (Bittersweetness)

Bagg is not at ease with an affectionate peace, her fears it. Lovemaking, to Bagg, is strife, of both body and mind. His poetry, a lovemaking of its own order, is full of strife and motion. These are qualities the reader can expect in Bagg’s work. There is more than a touch of Hemingway in Bagg’s vigorous verse and he draws out the comparison himself:

Now that your honed survival skills assert
themselves, ask fellow Hemingwayfarers
this: When the powers in your loins and mind

wane, should you punish both with a twelve gauge?
Or keep on brining dark bulletins back
from our last war zone–as Phillip Roth does
(who holds the title Hemingway renounced),
determined to die ringside to himself
matched with an unbeaten serial killer. (Heavyweights)

Younger poets and readers looking for a model – for a poet who makes vigorous and muscular use of rhyme and sometimes meter – couldn’t do better than read Bagg’s verse. His language and poetry is modern, forceful, and uncompromising.

Bagg on the Internet

Robert Bagg Homepage

  • Visit Bagg’s Homepage for links to other books, opinions and more poems.

Gently Read Literature

  • Bagg takes exception to David Orr’s opinions on Political Poetry.

Bagg at Brockton

  • Three of Bagg’s Poems brought to you by the Brockton Public Library

Oedipus Plays

  • The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Kolonos, and Antigone – Translated by Robert Bagg

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