September

 

I’ve gone to market
And danced in the square.
I’ve picked the grape
And drunk the wine without a care;

But I know too
The howl of the night
When the trees
Recoil in the moon’s cold light

I’ve gone out
With nowhere to go
But to lose
My footfall in a field of snow.

September comes
As though to stay awhile
But in the leaves
Are the colors of her guile.

Don’t be fooled.
Whatever else you do
Love and be loved
Before her last good-night beguiles you too.

~ September

September 16 2014 by me, Patrick Gillespie

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Donne: His Sonnet V · Spank me, ô Lord

My New Favorite ‘Complete’

This post was requested by Melissa. She asked me to provide a scansion, but I can’t just scan a poem and not talk about.

I’m sure a few upper lips in academe will be horrified by the title of my post but, let’s not kid ourselves, when we boil down Donne’s fifth Shawcross DonneHoly Sonnet, we get the anguished guilt-trip of a penitent. Such is the power of a great poet, and such was the power of King James English, that Donne could turn an ostensibly confessional poem into, if not a masterpiece, a compelling work of literature.

Anyway, I think this post was meant to be. While I was noodling around on Christmas Eve’s Eve at a Montpelier used book store, I discovered another complete collection of Donne’s poetry. Now I have three. This one comes from The Anchor Seventeenth-Century Series and is edited by John T. Shawcross. This particular edition, printed in 1967 (and in a becoming shade of pink) is now my favorite. It may be out of print. The reason it’s my favorite is because Shawcross  ‘gets’ the importance of spelling and punctuation in Elizabethan poetics.  H.J.C. Grierson, the editor of the two volume gold-gilt Oxford edition glosses over the punctuation in crucial places. Even my former favorite, the Everyman edition edited by C.A. Partrides, doesn’t quite get it right. The Norton “Critical” Edition (air quotes), is useless. Don’t get me started. Donne’s metrical practice isn’t all that difficult if we preserve the spelling and punctuation. Donne did not intend his poetry to be difficult. He gave us all sorts of clues. Here’s how Shawcross sums up his editorial practices in relation to the crucial question of Donne’s orthography.

[T]he danger of a plethora of so-called scholarly texts is present, but a revision of Grierson’s, eschewing certain misreadings which often seem to have arisen from delicacy and certain modernizations which obscure subtleties, has long been needed. (…) ¶ The practice of inserting an apostrophe to indicate elision has generally been followed. It is consistently followed in preterits and participles where “e” would create another syllable. 9e.g. “deliver’d,” (…) , in combinations of “the” and “to” where the vowel is not pronounced (e.g. “the’seaven,” (…), and to’advance,” (…), and in the coalescing of two contiguous vowels from two different words (e.g. “Vertue’attired,” (…), which is given three metrical beats.) In the latter case the vowels are really pronounced but within one beat, as in Italian. Where syncope is necessary for meter (e.g. in “discoverers,” (…) no elision is inidicated unless an apostrophe appears in the copy text. (The Complete Poetry of John Donne: Edited with an Introduction, Notes and Variants by John T. Shawcross p. xxii)

If Donne’s orthographic intentions matter to you, look no further. Without further ado, here is Donne’s Sonnet V as edited by Shawcross:

I am a little world made cunningly
Of Elements, and an Angelike spright,
But black sinne hath betraid to endlesse night
My worlds both parts, and (oh) both parts must die.
You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new sphears, and of new lands can write,
Powre new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drowne my world with my weeping earnestly,
Or wash it if it must be drown’d no more:
But oh it must be burnt; alas the fire
Of lust and enviehave burnt it heretofore,
And made it fouler; Let their flames retire,
And burn me ô Lord, with a fiery zeale
Of theeand thy house, which doth in eating heale.

the Scansion (& my high horse)

Back on my post discussing Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14, I covered the same issues that are relevant to this poem. So I’ll try not to repeat too much. As with Sonnet 14, Donne spells ‘er’ words, ‘re’, when he wants you to treat them monosyllabically. He spells power as powre, for example. When he doesn’t want you to pronounce the ‘e’ in ‘ed’ words, he apostrophizes them, e.g. drown’d. Most importantly, when Elizabethan poets wanted you to elide vowels, they used the apostrophe to show you which ones:

enviehave
theeand

These days, by contrast, we write you’ve instead of ‘youhave’ and Ive instead of ‘Ihave’. It’s the same thing. Contractions weren’t normalized and besides that, Donne (like other poets) was willing to take liberties where necessary. In every on-line posting of this sonnet (admittedly not by professional editors) these little niceties are left out. A little more unforgivably, the circumflex above the o (ô) is also left out. If reading the poem the way Donne wrote it matters then, well, it matters. As for sonnets in print (and edited by the experts) all but one leave out the apostrophes between the words above. Goes to show that professionals are just amateurs with degrees.

None of this is really a problem until your instructor gives you this poem as a homework assignment. They probably recommended a book like the Norton “Critical” Edition (air-quotes) or provided a photocopy that entirely omits the original cues that would make scanning the work so much easier. If you had the edition by Shawcross, then you might come up with something like this:

Scansion of Sonnet V

So, the first thing to be said is that once historical concerns are out of the way, scansion isn’t an exact science. Where one person might read a pyrrhic foot, another might read an iamb, spondaic or trochaic foot (depending on the words and phrase). My own practice is not to scan it the way we would read it in the 21rst century, but how Donne might have imagined it or read it himself. With that in mind, I find Donne to be the most metrically inventive and resourceful poet in the English Language (and including Shakespeare) and the most enjoyable to scan. The way Donne plays meter against phrase and line is beautifully flexible and allows for a wide variety of shade and inflection. My own scansion reflects that. I made some choices that others are welcome to disagree with (offer your own). We’ll go by quatrains just to illustrate how important meter can be to a poem’s meaning.

I am a little world made cunningly
Of Elements, and an Angelike spright,
But black |sinne hath| betraid to endlesse night
4. My worlds both parts, and (oh) both parts must die.

Line 1. I love this first line.
Line 2.
Angelike is read is angelic.
Line 3. Most modern readers would probably read the second foot as strictly trochaic. The meter, however, makes a spondaic reading possible. I decided to go for it because (according to my rule of thumb) if a foot can be read as an iamb (or more simply if we can emphasize the second syllable) then we probably should (at least to see what effect it has on the line). In this case, emphasizing hath emphasizes the betrayal, sort of like: “Oh no! What have you done?” or “O no! What hast thou wrought?” Remember, Donne was living in the midst of dramatists like Jonson, Shakespeare and Marlowe. One Sir Richard Baker said of Donne that he was “not dissolute, but very neat; a great visiter of Ladies, a great frequenter of Playes, a great writer of conceited Verse.” The playgoing rubbed off on him. The Elizabethan era was dramatic and Donne’s poems are like little speeches — little dramatic set pieces.

You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new sphears, and of new lands can write,
Powre new | seas in mine eyes, that so I might
8. Drowne my | world with my weeping earnestly,

Line 5. Heaven was pronounced as a two syllable or one syllable word by various poets. The reasons seem to have involved dialect or bald poetic expediency. Shakespeare, for instance, seems to have pronounced it disyllabically. Donne, to judge by his poems, may have pronounced it quickly and as a monosyllabic word, heav’n (or at least that’s how he treated the word in his poems).
Line 7.  Once again, I opted to emphasize the second syllable. A trochaic first foot would hardly be unheard of in Donne’s day (though used conservatively). I think he would have expected his readers to keep the meter where such a thing is possible. In this case, it makes sense. In Life 6 both instances of “new” are in an unstressed position. In line seven, it makes dramatic sense that Donne would be asking God to make new seas.
Line 8. For the same reasons, I emphasized ‘my’ in the first foot of the eighth line. Donne, in the first line, calls himself a little world. It makes sense, to me, that Donne is emphasizing his world as opposed to God’s e.g. You have your world, and I have my world. Also, this pattern of emphasizing normally unstressed words  is a technique that one finds throughout Donne’s poetry. The trick is what makes Donne’s poetry so speech-like and declamatory (he was, after all, famed for his oratories at the pulpit).

Or wash |it if| it must be drown’d no more:
But oh it must be burnt; alas the fire
Of lust and enviehave burnt it heretofore,
12. And made it fouler; Let their flames retire,

Line 9. Again, rather than read the second foot of this line as pyrrhic, I made it iambic. If one reads Donne the way I do, one can’t help detect a sense of humor. “Alright already,” he seems to say, “if you can’t drown the word again, then wash it. Fine.”

And burn |me ô| Lord, with a fiery zeale
Of theeand thy house, which doth in eating heale.

Line 13. If there was any doubt as to Donne’s predilection for shifting stress in ways a modern reader might miss and dismiss, the second foot of this clearly puts that to rest. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the circumflex above ‘o’.

The circumflex has its origins in the polytonic orthography of Ancient Greek, where it marked long vowels that were pronounced with high and then falling pitch. In a similar vein, the circumflex is today used to mark tone contour in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

All educated Elizabethans were schooled in classical Greek and Latin (even if they didn’t remember it all). Donne, with the circumflex John Donneabove the expostulation ‘ô’, makes clear that ‘ô’ receives the stress, not ‘Lord’. One can read that ‘ô’ in a variety of ways. I personally read the ‘ô’ with, perhaps, grim humor instead of exhausted despair. Some scholars seem to think Donne lost his sense of humor with his later divine poems. I’m not so sure. A quirky sense of humor runs through almost all of Donne’s poetry. I’m not convinced his old age was as sour or strict as some scholars might have us think.

Here’s how I read (and hear) it — the humor. It took me about 20 times to get the tone roughly where I wanted it. See what you think. (I’ve had a bad cough, from whooping cough, for about three months now. Can you tell?):

As I’ve written before, a masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. To me, the meter suggests a touch of wry humor that knocks the academic dust right out of it.

Spank me, ô Lord, for I’have been bad.

Unlike some of Donne’s other sonnets, the meaning, I think, is fairly straightforward. The point of the sonnet, in my opinion, is not to display metaphysical cunning (as in many of his other poems), but to create a mood, much like a small soliloquy. In my reading, I’ve chosen to interpret that mood as wry humor.

So, once again, let’s go quatrain by quatrain:

I am a little world made cunningly
Of Elements, and an Angelike spright,
But black sinne hath betraid to endlesse night
4. My worlds both parts, and (oh) both parts must die.

1. Donne sets the stage by dividing himself into his corporeal body and his incorporeal soul. C.A. Partrides observes that “man was habitually said to be the microcosm or ‘abridgement’ of the universe’. (John Donne The Complete English Poems p. 437)2. The elements (the body) and an angelic sprite (the soul).
3. The overstatement (even for Donne I think) of this line and next partly invite me to read the sonnet with some humor.
4. The assertion that the soul “must die” was unorthodox (C.A. Partrides calls it “a potentially dangerous notion”) and, at the wrong place and time, flirted with heresy. If the sonnet was interpreted as an exercise in wry humor, the assertion probably felt less heretical if it was even an issue.

You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new sphears, and of new lands can write,
Powre new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
8. Drowne my world with my weeping earnestly,

5. You refers to Christ. 7. Powre can be read in the sense of create.
7-8. Donne asks Christ to create oceans out of Donne’s tears so that he may drown himself in his “earnest weeping”.

Or wash it if it must be drown’d no more:
But oh it must be burnt; alas the fire
Of lust and enviehave burnt it heretofore,
12. And made it fouler; Let their flames retire,

9. “be drown’d no more” This refers to God’s promise after Noah’s flood, symbolized by the rainbow, to never flood the world again. “neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.” Genesis 9.11
11. heretofore – hitherto
12. “let  their flames retire,” That is, let the fires of lust and envy retreat. Lust presumably refers to his youth and envy to Donne’s involvement on Church and Court politics. Lust and envy are among the seven deadly sins.

And burn me ô Lord, with a fiery zeale
Of theeand thy house, which doth in eating heale.

14. The last line is a reference to Psalm 69.9.For the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up… When I wept, and chastened my soul with fasting, that was to my reproach.” Shawcross, in his notes to this sonnet, also sees a reference to the Eucharist. The blood and body of Christ constitutes his house and the eating of the wafer, Christ’s body, removes the sin of partaker. The final image is a compelling one. The image is that of God burning away (consuming), in a fiery conflagration, at least one part of Donne’s world — the part composed of the “Elements”. What will remain, presumably, is the Angelike spright.  However, this interpretation threatens to contradict Donne’s earlier assertion that both parts of his house must die. The question then pertains to what, exactly, will remain once God is done ‘consuming’ Donne with his purifying conflagration. What, exactly, will be “healed”? It’s a riddle unless we treat Donne’s first utterance as wry overstatement, and Donne’s conclusion as an implied admission that his soul is eternal and cannot be destroyed, only purified or healed.

And that’s that. I hope you enjoyed the post. Let me know. (Guess I’m making up for lost time.)

When We Two Parted • George Gordon Lord Byron

Analyzing this poem is a request.

I’ve never been an ardent fan of Byron, even though my great grandfather, one generation removed from the Irish and Scotts, was apparently so moved by poetry and Byron in particular, that he named his son (my grandfather) Byron; and my grandfather, in his turn, named his son (my father) Gordon.

One of the reasons I don’t read more Byron is that I think of him as more of a novelist who happened to be expeditiously good at rhyme and meter, rather than as a poet. That’s absurd, of course, but you will rarely find in Byron the stunning imagery that makes you pause and linger. His imagery is, almost entirely, perfunctory and rudimentary. He uses stock phrases and poeticisms (whatever it takes to keep the narrative moving). You might as well read Jane Eyre if you’re looking for evocative imagery.

What Byron possessed was an unerring sense of phrasing, rhythm and rhyme. He was capable of using phrase and rhyme with a skewering and deadly precision. One never gets the sense that he was at a loss words. He almost never resorts to anything like metrical filler. His lines are (if there was ever a time to use the adjectives) rugged and masculine. There’s no prettiness to his poetry, but the lean, no nonsense, muscularity makes his poetry memorable and powerful. Byron is an object lesson in the sheer power of meter and rhyme, as distinct from the lineated prose of free verse or just plain prose. Great and memorable poetry doesn’t always need the unsurpassed imagery of a Wallace Stevens, Keats or Shakespeare.

When we two parted
In silence and tears,
Half broken-hearted
To sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek and cold,
Colder thy kiss;
Truly that hour foretold
Sorrow to this.

The dew of the morning
Sunk chill on my brow–
It felt like the warning
Of what I feel now.
Thy vows are all broken,
And light is thy fame:
I hear thy name spoken,
And share in its shame.

They name thee before me,
A knell to mine ear;
A shudder comes o’er me–
Why wert thou so dear?
They know not I knew thee,
Who knew thee too well: —
Long, long shall I rue thee,
Too deeply to tell.

In secret we met–
In silence I grieve,
That thy heart could forget,
Thy spirit deceive.
If I should meet thee
After long years,
How should I greet thee?
With silence and tears.

The Scansion: No really, it gets interesting.

The “scansion” that follows departs from my usual method. Rather than use the standard accent marks, I’ve simply bolded the accented syllables. I thought this better represented what Byron was doing. The poem, as a whole, is accentual, meaning that Byron’s primary concern is with the number of accented syllables per line. The number of unaccented syllables varies from stanza to stanza. Interestingly though, if we go stanza by stanza, then one could call Byron’s verse “accentual syllabic”. (Iambic Pentameter is accentual syllabic meter because boththe number of accents and syllables is regular.) With the exception of the last stanza, Bryon maintains a regular number of accented and unaccented syllables.

The way I divided the feet isn’t cast in stone. There are different ways to do it. When I read the poem, I hear anapests, so that’s the way I scanned it. In this sense, the second foot of the first line |we two parted would be an anapestic foot with a feminine ending. The first foot with the word When would be a headless Iambic Foot, meaning that the first unaccented syllable is missing. So, but for two lines, the underlying accentual/syllabic meter of the poem is an Iambic foot followed by an anapestic foot, as follows:

  • The spiral is a high level metrical symbol. I would have to shoot you if I revealed its meaning.

Some of the anapestic feet are followed by an extra unstressed syllable, so I’m calling those feet anapestic feminine endings – something that doesn’t appear in Iambic Pentameter until Robert Frost (anapestic feminine foot in green):

One could | do worse | than be |a swing|er of birches

None of this is information you really need to know, but some of us enjoy these little niceties. There is one line in which knowing the meter helps us know how Byron probably imagined the poem. Knowing that each stanza is internally consistent and that the first stanza maintains two stressed syllables per line and an anapest, we won’t be tempted to read the third line as follows:

Half brok|enhearted

Or:

Half brok|enhearted

Most modern readers would probably be tempted to read the line in either of these two fashions and move on. The first reading changes the line into an iambic one, with an iambic feminine ending. We can eliminate this reading because it breaks the metrical pattern in the rest of the stanza. The second reading introduces three stressed syllables. We can eliminate that because it breaks the accentual pattern of the stanza. If we honor the pattern set by the rest of the poem, we put the emphasis on half.

Half |broken hearted

This is a very curious emphasis and, if it were to be acted, suggests a wee bit of a sneer. In other words, they weren’t broken-hearted. They were only, half broken-hearted.  As I like to say, a masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. In this case, the meter is telling us this isn’t just another poem about heart break. There’s a touch of sarcasm, if not contempt and cynicism, that turns the meaning of the rest of the poem flatly on its head. I’ve seen readings of this poem on Youtube that play it straight, as a kind of self-pitying poem by the rejected lover, but when Byron was self-pitying, it was usually heavily seasoned with self-righteousness. The meter hints at something else. Once we learn some of the history behind the poem, we might find the opposite of what we expected.

So… what’s going on?

I’ve got two sources for the story behind this poem. They don’t agree. Sort of. The first thing to know is that the word scandalous is never far from Byron’s name. In Famous Poems and the Little Known Stories Behind Them, Ralph L Woods gets right down to business. He writes:

Admittedly Byron was arrogantly seflish and impulsively generous, aware of his rank and quick to abuse its priviledges. He bore the marks of his dissolute, unstable and spenthrift ancestry, and of a mother who alternated between tantrums and penitential calms. Given the restless age in which he lived, it is not suprising that the brilliant, undisciplined and strikingly handsome poet  with a clubfoot had numerous amours, some of the backstairs kind. [Famous Poems and the Little Known Stories Behind Them p. 21]

By backstairs, Woods is presumably referring to Byron’s alleged affair with his sister. According to Woods, the poem is about Lady Frances Annesley, the wife of James Wedderburn Webster. When Byron first met the newly wedded couple, he remarked that Lady Frances “is very pretty” but that she was already treating her husband with “conjugal contempt” and predicted she would betray him within three years. Woods goes on to write that Byron visited the couple two years later and wrote, initially at least, that he “behaved very well”. Later, though, when writing Lady Melbourne, he confessed that “I have made love [flirted amorously], and it is returned”. The expression “making love” didn’t mean sexual intercourse until early in the 20th century. Before then, it essentially meant flirtation and courtship. Byron also wrote that “he spared her.” “Poor thing–she is either the most artful of artless of her age I ever encountered.” Woods writes that Byron lost interest but that when, several years later, he heard of her affair with the Duke of Wellington, he recalled his former emotions in the, as Woods puts it, “tender yet cynical” poem When We Two Parted.

In another book, though, Byron and the Websters: The Letters and Entangled Lives of the Poet, Sir James Webster and Lady Frances Webster, John Stewart tells a fuller and slightly different story. He begins by quoting a letter Byron wrote on June 10, 1823:

As to yr. chevalier W Wne *** to be sure I learnt from himself all about his [?] surprise — but there is some little doubt of his accuracy. — At least it is very strange that he could never prove so public a voyage of discovery. — She– poor thing — has made a sad affair of it altogether. — I had the meloncholy task of prophesying as much many many years ago in some lines — of which the three or four stanzas only were printed — and of course without names — or allusions — and with a false date — I send you on the concluding stanza — which never was printed with the others. —

Then – fare thee well — Fanny —
Now doubly undone —
To prove false unto many —
As faithless to One —
Thou art past all recalling
Even would I recall —
For the woman once falling
Forever must fall. —

There’s morality and sintiment [sic] — for you in a [?] — but I was very tender hearted in those days. — If you want to know where the lines to which this stanza belongs –are — they are in I know not what volume — but somewhere (for I have no copy) but they begin with

When we two parted
In silence and tears
&c.&c.&c.

So here is a treasure for you in honour of our relationship — rhymes unpublished — and a secret into the bargain — which you wont keep –.

[Byron and the Websters p. 173]

As you can see, the final stanza, never included with the anthologized poem (and probably for the best) keeps the meter and rhyme of the others. With this scathing final stanza, the cynical emphasis on half-broken hearted begins to make more sense, while the line With silence and tears sounds more sarcastic and a little less tragic. There’s undoubtedly some tenderness in the lines, but also contempt. Stewart closes his brief two pages on Byron’s poem with a letter from Miss Frances Williams Wynn in her Diaries of a Lady of Quality (1864):

In England we are apt to exclaim with Byron, in his suppressed lines

Then, fare thee well, Fanny, thus doubly undone,
Thou frail to the many, and false to one.
Thou art past all recalling, e’en would I recall,
For the woman once fallen for ever must fall.

These lines about which frequent enquiry has been made, were given me by Scrope Davies. They originally formed the conclusion of a copy of verses addressed by Lord Byron to Lady Frances W W to whom he was devotedly attached until she threw him over for the Duke of Wellington, then in the full blaze of his Peninsular glory. ‘Byron,’ said Davies, ‘Came one morning to my lodgings in St James Street, in a towering passion, and standing by the fire, broke out, ‘D— all women, and d— that woman in particular.’ He tore from his watch-ribbon a seal she had given him, and dashed it into the grate. As soon as I left the room, I picked it up, and here it is.’ He showed it to me, and allowed me to take an impression of it, which I have still. It was a large seal, representing a ship in full sail, a star in the distance, with the motto, “Si je la perds, je suis perdu.” Two or three days afterwards his Lordship presented himself again with a copy of verses addressed to his fickle fair one, from which Davies with some difficulty induced him to omit the four concluding lines. [Byron and the Websters p. 174]

So, armed with this information, we can conclude that Byron didn’t write this poem in a fit of self-pitying dejection, but self-pitying rage; about a married woman who dared to dump him, not for her husband, but for another cad and aristocrat who was not Byron! Now that takes a very special kind of delusional self-righteousness. That and the fact that Miss Wynn, a quote-unquote “Lady of Quality”, was busily gossiping about the whole affair tells you just about everything you need to know about the era. If I were to sum up the tone of the poem, it would be the hypocritical rage of righteous self-pity. When Byron writes about “tears”, don’t be fooled. It’s one thing for Byron to gad about, but if a woman falls, she falls forever.

Well, maybe I’ve ruined the poem for some, but somehow I think the squalid truth makes it so much better, keener and cutting. When you see youtube videos characterizing the poem as one of “loss and longing”, you know they’ve missed the point. They haven’t read the poem all that carefully. This is the poem lovers write and read to one another when they should have known better but bear a grudge anyway.

Thy vows are all broken,
And light is thy fame:
I hear thy name spoken,
And share in its shame.

For the philandering Byron to write that her “vows are all broken” is the pot calling the kettle black. And what is he crying about?  — Her? — Or is it all about him — that he must “share in its shame”?

They know not I knew thee,
Who knew thee too well: —
Long, long shall I rue thee,
Too deeply to tell.

Does he rue because he longs for her? — because of his loss? — or does he rue that he met her in the first place, and now shares in her shame?

In secret we met–
In silence I grieve,
That thy heart could forget,
Thy spirit deceive.
If I should meet thee
After long years,
How should I greet thee?
With silence and tears.

These last lines, and a line like Thy spirit deceive, are written in anger, not sorrow. The cutting rhymes and driving anapestic meter add to the poem’s succinctness, momentum and memorability in a way that free verse just can’t match, and in way that Byron mastered. (The line Long, long shall I rue thee is a master stroke of metrical gamesmanship. If not for the meter, we might be tempted to read the line Long, long shall I rue thee , but we know that Byron’s means us to only read two strong accents in the  line. Strongly emphasizing the second long, if done right, gives the line a little touch of disdain.) Fortunately, Byron was convinced to leave off the final stanza (the final twist of the knife) and so, to a certain degree, it remains just possible to read the poem as a heartrending expression of loss, longing and sorrow.

Here’s a good video that subtly hints at the petty anger behind the lines:

  • Note: For some reason, there appears to be a WordPress bug that insists on linking to Erlkonig. If you don’t see the right video, click here.

When things turn out badly, after having your affair with another man’s wife or another wife’s man, this is your go to  poem. If you manage to avoid that scandal, then enjoy the poem however you will.

from Up in Vermont on the Last Day of 2011

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.

The Poetry of Dana Gioia

interrogationsDana Gioia published Interrogations at Noon in 2001.

He is primarily known as an essayist and critic and is especially known for his defense of Formal Poetry. In his Notes on the New Formalism, he wrote: “the real issues presented by American poetry in the Eighties will become clearer: the debasement of poetic language; the prolixity of the lyric; the bankruptcy of the confessional mode; the inability to establish a meaningful aesthetic for new poetic narrative and the denial of a musical texture in the contemporary poem. The revival of traditional forms will be seen then as only one response to this troubling situation.”

He was a contributing poet to the anthology “Rebel Angels”, which I hope to review at some later date.

Selections of his poetry can be found at his web site.

With Interrogations at Noon, Gioia is true to his preference for meter and rhyme and offers a variety of verse forms and rhyme schemes. The first poem, Words, appears to be an accentual poem. Whereas the number of syllables per line vary, one could read each line as having 5 stressed syllables. I think, to most readers, the poem would feel and read like a free verse poem. (Accentual verse is frequent in nursery rhymes, where the accentual rhythm is more easily discerned in the shorter line lengths.)

The world does not need words. It art-ic-ulates it-self
in sun-light, leaves, and sha-dows. The stones on the path
are no less real for ly-ing un-cat-alogued and un-count-ed…

The artfulness of writing accentual verse is not so demanding as accentual/syllabic, accentual verse being closer to free verse. So the poem succeeds or fails in its use of imagery, phrase and content.

And in this first poem we are greeted by many of the traits that typify the poems that follow. Gioia does not possess the same gift for imagery & language as his contemporary, A.E. Stallings. His imagery, such as it is, is generally abstracted and literary, lacking sensuality, texture, smell, feeling. One very seldom wants to linger over a given image or combination of words. His imagery and language tends to be on average, pedestrian, sometimes verging on cliche.

Even calling it a kiss betrays the fluster of hands
glancing the skin or gripping the shoulder, the slow
arching of the neck or knee, the silent touching of tongues.

There is the abstraction of “articulates itself/ in the sunlight”.

Such phrases as “glancing the skin”, “gripping the shoulder”, “slow/arching of the neck or knee” are the stuff of every day prose. The phrase “silent touching of tongues” flirts with cliché. The poem concludes:

The sunlight needs no praise piercing the rainclouds
painting the rocks and leaves with light, then dissolving
each lucent droplet back into the clouds that engendered it.
The daylight needs no praise, and so we praise it always —
greater than ourselves and all the airy words we summon.

The sun “piercing” anything is a stock image. We have some poetic language in “painting the rocks… then dissolving each lucent droplet..” but there is no color, sense of touch, motion, sound or even sensation in any of it. Neither does one see the world in new ways as when Frost writes: “But I had the cottages in a row/ Up to their shining eyes in snow.”  Such moments of transcendent imagery are a pale rarity in Gioia’s palette. Gioia’s imagery is straightforwardly visual and the language conceptual and intellectual: as in: “The daylight needs no praise, and so we praise it always…” which has an elevated, antique ring to it, though not so archly archaic as A.E. Stallings’ excesses. Gioia generally avoids the archaisms favored by Stallings.

Reading Gioia, one hears the voice of a skillful essayist writing poetry. What do I mean by that? Read Robert Frost’s essays and you will hear the voice of a poet writing essays. Frost’s essays are like his poems – indirect, playful, coy. He would write lines like the following: “”Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” Gioia’s poetry is like his essays – direct, intellectual and explanatory. (When I was dating, I once played the piano for a girl I was trying to impress. Her friend sniffed: “He plays the piano like a typewriter.”)

Gioia, in a nutshell, frequently writes poetically, but does not write poetry.

~

The verse form I am most passionate about is blank verse. Gioia offers us a sampling of his skills in the poem Juno Plots her Revenge.  The poems first lines are as follows:

Call me sister of the thunder god.
That is the only title I have left.
Once I was wife and queen to Jupiter,
But now, abandoned by his love and shamed
By his perpetual adultery,
I leave my palace to this mistresses.
Why not choose earth when heaven is a whorehouse?

Even the Zodiac has now become
A pantheon of prostitutes and bastards.
Look at Callisto shining in the north,
That glittering slut now guides the Grecian fleet.
Or see how Taurus rises in the south,
Not only messenger of spring’s warm nights
But the gross trophy of Europe’s rape!
Or count the stormy Pleiades — those nymphs
Who terrorize the waves, once warmed Jove’s bed.
Watch young Orion swaggering with his sword,
A vulgar upstart challenging the gods,
While gaudy Perseus flaunts his golden star.

My first reaction is to find Gioia’s blank verse very conservative. For instance, most of his lines are end-stopped, 16 out of these first 19 lines, (meaning that the end of the lines are either marked by punctuation or reflect a normal pause in speech patterns or phrase). And this is a pattern which is representative. Not even pre-Shakespearean writers of blank verse were as conservative with enjambment. The attribute marks a poet who is either an inexperienced writer of blank verse or one who is simply very conservative. It marks a poet who isn’t at ease with the form. His thoughts don’t move freely through the lines, but instead march line by line, each thought fitted therein. His skills have not transcended the verse form.

In the first seven lines there is only one line, the first line, that disrupts the iambic rhythm, the first two feet being trochaic. Some might read the first foot of the seventh line as being trochaic, but it could as comfortably be iambic. The line ends with a feminine ending – one of the few variations. The next twelve lines, like the first seven, posses only one line which varies the iambic beat. All in all, when one also considers the end-stopped lines, the effect produced is stodgy and wooden. The natural rhythms of the language which skillful poets use to counterpoint the iambic rhythm, are missing in Gioia’s conception of the form. Too much efficiency.

Lastly, one meets with the same sort of imagery as in the first poem of the book. There is an over-reliance on adjectives and, inasmuch as he uses adjectives, they are repetitive (as in the 4 line proximity of “warm nights” and “warmed Jove’s bed” and they are unimaginative – gross trophy, stormy Pleiades, young Orion, vulgar upstart, gaudy Perseus, golden star. These adjectives all serve their purpose, but they are stale and overused. They evoke nothing. One feels, after a point, that they are more for metrical padding (making sure there are enough syllables in a given line). One hopes that if Gioia writes more blank verse, he eschews such adjectives. The effect might be to add more flexibility to his line, favoring enjambment.

A more successfully attempt at blank verse can be found in Descent to the Underworld. The Iambic Pentameter shows greater flexibility in its flow of thought – which more freely overlaps from one line to the next.

At first the way is not
Entirely dark. Some daylight filters down
And gives the cave that same bleak iridescence
The sun shows in eclipse. But gradually
The path descends into undending twilight.

The iambic pentameter is till relatively conservative (perhaps too much so) but by Gioia’s standards, even here, there is some loosening.

There are no grassy meadows bright with flowers,
No fields of tassled corn swaying in the wind,
No soft green vistas for the eye…

Goya probably means to elide the word swaying so that it is read as one syllable, but a trochaic fourth foot is a daring departure for Gioia.

~

Gioia’s rhyming poems give a similar impression – of the poet who writes line by line. In the two poems considered, The End of the World and The End of Time, all the lines in both poems are end-stopped.The former poem begins:

“We’re going,” they said, “to the end of the world.”
So they stopped the car where the river curled,
And we scrambled down beneath the bridge
On the gravel track of a narrow ridge.

This first poem is written in heroic couplets – though some prefer to reserve that term for longer, narrative poems. (It is written in rhyming couplets.) The latter poem follows an ABAB rhyming pattern. Because each phrase and grammatical unit ends neatly with the end of each line, the flow of the poems wants to pause with each line, as though each line were its own independent accomplishment. The natural ebb and flow of the language is overrulled by the demands of the form – the very sort of writing that prompts scorn from poets who prefer free verse.

Gioia is at his best in shorter, pithier poems. And he is at his best when writing in that indistinct syllabic poetry or accentual poetry that exists somewhere between free verse and formal verse. He is at his best when he doesn’t have to hew to a meter or rhyme scheme. Pentecost is just such a poem.

Neither the sorrows of afternoon, waiting in the silent house,
Nor the night no sleep relieves, when memory
Repeats its prosecution.

Nor the morning’s ache for dream’s illusion, nor any prayers
Improvised to an unknowable god
Can extinguish the flame.

We are not as we were. Death has been our pentecost,
And our innocence consumed by these implacable
Tongues of fire.

Comfort me with stones. Quench my thirst with sand,
I offer you this scarred and guilty hand
Until others mix our ashes.

This is the poetry of a direct and unpretentious voice. Freed from the constraints he imposes on himself in other poems, he speaks directly and simply. His thoughts move freely from one line to the next. The poem, written on the death of his son, is poignant in its directness. This is Gioia at his best. Other poems like this: After a Line by Cavafy, Accomplice, (and my favorite) Homage to Valerio Magrelli – a series of verses, each short, written in free verse, unpretentious, direct and well-turned. While his imagery is not transcendent, while there’s nothing that makes one want to pause with admiration, he can nevertheless be sensitive to just the right description:

…stranded in thought,
on the lonely delta of the spirit
as entangled as a woman’s sex.

Or

..in the equilibrium of their design
untouched and overlaid like the wooden pieces
in a game of pick-up sticks.

Gioia’s ability to hew phrase and thought to any given structure is skillful but not surpassing.

He is a poet able to shape his thoughts to the demands of whatever form he undertakes, but he fails to create the illusion that the form has grown organically from the unforced working-out of ideas. Writing formal poems successfully requires a flexible and creative mind able to both follow and lead the demands of the chosen form.

Gioia is at his best when writing just a little outside the constraints of formal verse.