The Annotated Country Western Shakespearean Love Sonnet

  • A recently discovered sonnet by Billy Shaksper. An annotation has been included to help English speakers with the Country Western dialect.

Baby, your eyes ain’t nothin’ like the sun;
My coon-dog’s tongue is redder than your lips;
One boob’s still ‘tryin’ but the other’s done;
Ain’t double-wides wreck traffic like your hips.
I seen the kinda’ gal that men call meek,
Well-mannered, mild, but you? Hell no you’re not.
Skunked beer spilled on a lime-green shag don’t reek
Near half so bad. Your breath? — like eau-de-rot.
But sugar-plum I’d sell my gun, I’d kick
The dog and turn my Mama out the door;
I swear, so help me, never drink a lick
‘Cause I got you and don’t need nothin’ more.
···Man never writ nor loved if this ain’t true:
···Ain’t been no man so lucky lovin’ you.

1. Baby dear, honey, lover , a term of endearment. The term was applied to both men and women during the country western era. Much scholarly debate has examined the infantilizing endearment in this highly paternalistic culture. 2. ain’t a contraction for am not, is not, are not, has not, and have not in the country western vernacular. This archaic but very common contraction could indicate both the singular or plural verb form (see ain’t). 3. coon-dog  Coon dogs were bred to hunt raccoons and other small animals. These coon hounds were trained to chase animals up trees to ease hunting while drunk. A favorite companion for men known as “rednecks” (see CoonDawgs.com). 4. boob breast, female mammary gland. Most country western men were noted boob-men (see Dolly Parton). 5. double-wide There is some uncertainty surrounding this passage’s meaning. Some scholars suspect textual corruption. The Shaksperian scholar B. Vickers has offered the most convincing explanation: double-wide being a reference to the twin, “double”, gluteal muscles of a woman’s rear-end, the gluteal muscles being a group of three muscles which make up the buttocks: the gluteus maximus muscle, gluteus medius muscle and gluteus minimus muscle (see Cultural History of ButtocksThe female buttocks have been a symbol of fertility and beauty since early human history…). 6.Hell  Believed by scholars to refer to an absence of beer, barbecued ribs and ESPN. 7. skunked beer spoiled beer having a sulfurous taste. Scholars debate the type of beer country westerners preferred, some finding evidence for Coors Lite, others Bud Lite. 8. lime green shag  a type of thick wall-to-wall carpeting, often  accompanied by faux wood paneling, The lime green color was preferred for its ability to blend well with any possible stain, including vomit and affairs with the neighbor’s wife (see rugstudio.com).  9. eau-de-rot an offensive perfume 10. I’d sell my gun a prized possession and status symbol among country westerners, often associated with the phrase: “my cold, dead fingers” 11. kick the dog the country western male’s love for his dog was second only to his gun 12. Mama mother, third in line after guns and dogs, though some scholars place country western Mamas after pick-up trucks, football and beer. 13. Ain’t been no man so lucky lovin’ you. The double negatives in the concluding couplet have frequently called the meaning of the final couplet into question. If what he says isn’t true, then no man ever ‘wrote’, and yet the assertion is a palpable falsehood. (See, Vendler, Sonnets.)

The authorship question: There are some who assert the Sonnet could not have been by the uneducated Billy Shaksper, but by Eddy Oxfrord, the son of a well-heeled rancher who matriculated from a local community college. Most Shakspereans reject the attribution out of hand, noting that Eddy Oxford died in a freak bowling accident some years before the sonnet was published. Eddy’s defenders claim the sonnet was actually written a decade earlier, and was only published when the risk of embarrassment to the Oxford family was minimal. Few, if any scholars take the Oxfordians seriously. Oxfordians respond by accusing Shaksperians of conspiring to conceal the truth in order to preserve their socio-academic status. Shakspereans respond by calling Oxdordians idiots and morons.  The noted scholar Gary Taylor claims the sonnet is actually by Tommy Middletown and is said to have wept upon reading the poem. Donald W. Foster fed the sonnet to Shaxicon and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.  Other attributions include Franky Bacon, and Lizzy, the era’s most popular, country western stripper and drag-Queen, respectively.

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Quick Read ❧ Sidney’s Sonnet 47

  • As always, any discussion of Elizabethan “love poetry” that isn’t Rated R (and sometimes X) has never been to Elizabethan England. Sidney’s Sonnets are the work of genius. They are verbally brilliant and filled with puns and sexual innuendos and they profoundly influenced dddddddddddddddddddddShakespeare’s sonnets. These aren’t just the sentimental pluckings of the love-lorn. Each sonnet is a brilliant, tour-de-force display of Elizabethan wit, argumentation and wordplay. You’ve been warned.

A while back, I did a quick read of Sidney’s Sonnet 64. This will be similar to that. A reader, Milly, requested that I take a look at this poem. She tells me she has an assignment coming up in a week. So, here goes.

As before, for a brief overview of Sidney’s metrical practice and the types of sonnets he wrote, visit Sir Philip Sidney: His Meter and his Sonnets. The present sonnet, which follows the same pattern as Sonnet 64, is a hybrid between (what would become) the Shakespearean Sonnet (with it’s closing epigrammatic couplet) and the Patrarchan sonnet. I’ve copied 47 from an edition of Sidney’s selected writings by Richard Dutton. First, in plain text:

 
     What, have I thus betrayed my liberty?
         Can those black beams such burning marks engrave
         In my free side? or am I born a slave,
4    Whose neck becomes such yoke of tyranny?
     Or want I sense to feel my misery?
         Or sprite, disdain of such disdain to have?
         Who for long faith, tho' daily help I crave,
8    May get no alms but scorn of beggary.
     Virtue awake, Beauty but beauty is,
     I may, I must, I can, I will, I do
     Leave following that which it is gain to miss.
12   Let her go. Soft, but here she comes. Go to,
        Unkind, I love you not: O me, that eye
        Doth make my heart give to my tongue the lie.

I’ve taken my text from Richard Dutton’s edition of Sidney’s Writings, which are based on the 1598 Folio of Sidney’s works. I notice that most of the versions floating around include various exclamation points (which make sense) but they aren’t in the original. (I always prefer what the poet actually wrote.)

Sindey's Sonnet 47

  • Virtue could be pronounced with the stress on the second syllable, so I’ve read that foot as Iambic (though it’s possible to read it as trochaic).

For some background on the names Astrophil and Stella, Wikipedia is a good source:

“Probably composed in the 1580s, Philip Sidney‘s Astrophil and Stella is an English sonnet sequence containing 108 sonnets and 11 songs. The name derives from the two Greek words, ‘aster’ (star) and ‘phil’ (lover), and the Latin word ‘stella’ meaning star. Thus Astrophil is the star lover, and Stella is his star. Sidney partly nativized the key features of his Italian model Petrarch, including an ongoing but partly obscure narrative, the philosophical trappings of the poet in relation to love and desire, and musings on the art of poetic creation. Sidney also adopts the Petrarchan rhyme scheme, though he uses it with such freedom that fifteen variants are employed.” [Wikipedia ~ October 5th 2014]

Interestingly, the Wikipedia article adds the following (quoting the Oxford University Press edition of Sidney’s works):

“There is no evidence that the title is authorial. It derives from the first printed text, the unauthorized quarto edition published by Thomas Newman (1591). Newman may also have been responsible for the consistent practice in early printings of calling the lover persona ‘Astrophel’. Ringler emended to ‘Astrophil’ on the grounds of etymological correctness, since the name is presumably based on Greek aster philein, and means ‘lover of a star’ (with stella meaning ‘star’); the ‘phil’ element alluding also, no doubt, to Sidney’s Christian name.”

So, some interpreters might make hay out of the names Astrophil & Stella, but they may not even originate with Sidney. Caveat Empor. But, as with Sonnet 64, we’ll just go ahead and call Sidney’s real or imagined mistress Stella.

The Argument

What, have I thus betrayed my liberty?
   Can those black beams such burning marks engrave
   In my free side? or am I born a slave,
Whose neck becomes such yoke of tyranny?

The sonnet begins with a series of rhetorical questions. The Elizabethan poets prized wit, intelligence and rhetorical flair above all. But it’s the wit that the modern day reader can easily and especially miss. If you’re reading an Elizabethan sonnet sequence between lovers, expect obscene (albeit witty) sexual references to slip right under your radar. There are over 400 years that separate our vocabulary from theirs, and a good many words that look just the same today were very different animals back then.

Take the word liberty. Sidney isn’t just talking about freedom to read informative periodicals or to volunteer at the local SPCA. No. Not at all. If you were an Elizabethan, Sidney’s question is much more serious (especially if you were a young man of Sidney’s age and sex was as easy as the housemaid).

  • Liberty – Excessive freedom from restraint or temperance in sexual matters, gaming, drinking. See quotation at drabbing; cf. Othello, III iv 39. [Shakespeare’s Bawdy]

So, the dichotomy or, in plain English, his complaint is that his obsession with Stella has taken him out of circulation. Has he betrayed his “liberty”, his licentious freedom to go chasing other women, gaming and drink, for the sake of a lover who won’t even give him the time of day? Is he mad?

Sidney goes on:

Can those black beams such burning marks engrave
in my free side?

This reference might remind readers of Shakespeare’s “dark lady”. We know from Sidney’s 7th Sonnet that Stella’s eyes are black.

When Nature made her chief work, Stella’s eyes,
In color black why wrapp’d she beams so bright?

  • In the Renaissance, it was believed that the eye saw by emitting (presumably) invisible beams.

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Black was the color of sexuality, danger and mystery. It’s no coincidence that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, The expense of spirit in a waste of shame, was written to the dark lady, and it’s not entirely unreasonable to assert that Shakespeare was well aware of (and influenced by) Sidney’s own “dark lady”. In the case of Sidney, those black, smoldering eyes “engrave” his free side and free side hearkens back to liberty. In other words, not only does she rob him of his ability to chase other women, but her eyes mark him — they make his infatuation with Stella obvious to other women.

Or am I born a slave,
Whose neck becomes the yoke of tyranny?

This gets complicated only because we, in America, associate branding and slavery with African Americans. There was no such slave trade in England. Sidney is referring to something different. The condition (and number) of the poor during Elizabethan times was especially worrisome to the aristocracy. Here’s how the learning site sums up the treatment of the very poor — the itinerant beggars who the government found the most worrisome:

The third group were known as Rogues and Vagabonds. This was the group targeted by the government. These were people who could work but preferred to beg or steal. This group worried the government as it was the one most like to get into trouble. The government made begging illegal and anybody found begging was flogged until “his back was bloody”. If he was found begging outside of his parish, he would be beaten until he brand ironsgot to the parish stones that marked his parish boundary with the next parish. Those who were caught continually begging could be sent to prison and hanged. During the reign of Edward VI, caught vagabonds could have their tongue branded and kept as a slave for two years. [The Learning Site October 5th 2014]

Remember this, because this is what Sidney had in mind and why he will later refer to his being a beggar. And also of interest:

Different types of torture and punishments were used depending on the victim’s crime and social status. There were also different punishments and tortures used according to the customs of each country. The punishment was adopted in the Dark and Middle Ages by the Anglo-Saxons. In 1547 the Statute of Vagabonds ruled that vagabonds, gypsies and brawlers were ordered to be branded, the first two with a large V on the breast. the last with F for fighter (brawler). Slaves too who ran away were branded with S on cheek or forehead. This law was repealed in 1636. [Middle Ages October 5th 2014]

So, when Sidney refers to himself as being branded on his “free side”, this may possibly be a reference to his forehead. Indeed, the high forehead was considered an aristocratic fashion statement:

“High hairline, perfectly arched brows and bright eyes were also standards of Elizabethan beauty. Many plucked their eyebrows and their hairline back at least an inch to give that aristocratic look of the fashionable high forehead.” [Unusual Historicals October 5th 2014]

And it is precisely there that slaves might be branded. It’s also possible that Sidney was referring to his cheek, although that would beg the question: If there’s a free side, what’s the other side? Another possibility is that he’s referring to his tongue (which could also be branded). At first glance, this doesn’t seem to make sense: Why would her eyes brand his tongue? Is she always looking at his tongue? But if Sidney was making this comparison, then he might have been figuratively thinking of his poetry as his tongue. In other words, her eyes brand his tongue (meaning his poetry). This last possibility fits nicely with the idea of “engraving”. She engraves his tongue — his poetry — which is itself engraved in being written. She brands his poetry — his “free side”. At any rate, take your pick. And there may be other possibilities I haven’t thought of.

From there, he asks if he wasn’t “born a slave” whose neck “becomes” [is suited to] a yoke of tyranny.

Or want I sense to feel my misery?
   Or sprite, disdain of such disdain to have?
   Who for long faith, tho' daily help I crave,
May get no alms but scorn of beggary.

Is he so addled that he wants [lacks] the sense to feel his misery? — Does he [lack] the sprite [intelligence, spirit, soul] to disdain her disdain?

  • Sprite • 1.) mood, occasional state of mind 2.) mind, soul 3.) any supernatural being [The Shakespeare Lexicon]

Who [in return for] for long [loyal] faith [fidelity], though daily help [sex] I crave [desire],
May get no [Will never get] alms [sexual favors] but [just] scorn for beggary.

  • Alms • what is given in charity [The Shakespeare Lexicon]

And what is “the scorn of beggary”? During Edward the VI’s reign, that scorn was the branding of the tongue. Remember that “those who were caught continually begging could be sent to prison and hanged [and that] during the reign of Edward VI, caught vagabonds could have their tongue branded and kept as a slave for two years.” Sidney was born the year after Edward’s death. This makes it very likely that he would have seen (or heard of) the branded tongues of beggars and vagabonds. So, given Sidney’s allusion to insistent begging, I’m more convinced that he was referring to his tongue (and by extension his poetry) when referring to his “free side”, a likely reference to himself as a poet (as opposed to a soldier perhaps).

The Volta

Virtue awake, Beauty but beauty is,
I may, I must, I can, I will, I do
Leave following that which it is gain to miss.
Let her go. Soft, but here she comes. Go to,

Virtue is another one of those words that was nicely slippery during Elizabethan times.

  • Virtue • Famale chastity: King John, II i 98 (see at rape); Othello, IV i 8. Ex L. vir, ‘a man’: the L. virtus = manliness, courage [Shakespeare’s Bawdy]
  • Virtue • Chastity in women (p); but, not surprisingly, the opposite for men: potency, virility (L vir, a man) Vertue: manhood, prowess (Cot.) [A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns and their Significance]

So, it’s all too easy to read this line with the complacency of our 21rst century vocabulary. Sidney was not talking about the kind of virtue you think he was. He’s saying that it’s time for him to get back in the game. Remember the first line? — Have I thus betrayed my liberty [to be read as excessive freedom from restraint or temperance in sexual matters, gaming, drinking.] His idea of virtue is the freedom to exercise his “liberty”, understood as masculine prowess in womanizing. gaming and drink. If you’re a girl, Sidney was there for you.

But there’s also the pun on a woman’s chastity. The line may be read two ways:

Virtue [referring to her frigidity] awake [wake up!], Beauty but beauty is, [you’re not going to be beautiful forever]

(Shakespeare picks up on this theme in his own sonnets, urging the young man to make hay while his beauty lasts.) Sidney, by referring to her as “Virtue”, is implying that she’s frigid and stuck up. Alternatively, the punning line is also a reference to himself:

Virtue [referring to his own masculine prowess] awake [wake up!], Beauty but beauty is, [all cat’s are gray at night]

I may, I must, I can, I will, I do
Leave following that which it is gain to miss.

The hard driving Iambics of I may, I must, I can, etc… nicely enact Sidney’s clenched-teeth-determination to free himself from his infatuation. Why this emotional outburst? What exactly is it that’s got Sidney so worked up? The curiously impersonal phrase “Leave following that” answers the question — yet another of Sidney’s bawdy insinuations. He’s not referring to her, but to her vagina, pussy, twat (forgive me) or “that which it is gain to miss”. In Shakespeare’s plays, there are over a hundred different words for a woman’s vagina. The very title of one of his plays is specifically about the subject: “Much Ado about Nothing“. The word Nothing was a well known and well-used pun on a woman’s vagina. Don’t think it’s odd that I refer to Shakespeare’s vocabulary. Shakespeare used words and made puns which he knew the playgoers would understand — Sidney and Shakespeare were both steeped in the same stew.

“Gain to miss” is a beautiful pun. First there’s the obvious meaning: He has much to gain (in more successfully pursuing other women) if he misses [gives up on] Stella’s “sex”. There’s also the suggestion of “missing” as would a marksman — arrow, bow and shaft. That is, by giving up on her, he will have “missed” his “aim”. There is also the pun of gain [as in something – a penis] and miss [as in nothing – a vagina]. If you think this is far fetched, then you might want to try reading Filthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s Most Outrageous Sexual Puns. Even if you end up disagreeing with some of the book’s more outlandish assertions, it will nevertheless open the eyes to a more robust Elizabethan humor. It’s a different kind of wit and brilliance, but witty and brilliant nonetheless.

Let her go. Soft, but here she comes. Go to,

As if recovering from his momentary madness, he corrects himself (and his objectification of her). Let her go, he says. These lines, metrically, are masterful. One might be inclined to read the line as follows:

Let her | go.

But the Iambic patten encourages us to emphasize her as well:

Let her | go. Soft,

So, we have two spondaic feet. He is talking to himself, once again, forcefully, emphasizing each word. The sonnet is written in the spirit of a monologue, a speech in a play — and one wonders whether Sidney might have written plays if he had lived long enough. On the other hand, Donne never wrote a play and his poetry is full of drama. The dramatic voice was in the air during that era.

The Epigrammatic Sting
Or the conclusion of the argument in the final couplet.

“Soft” he says. No sooner does he voice his intention to let her go, but he retreats. Soft [I must speak softly!], “but here she comes”. And then? “Go to!” Come on! Get real!

Go to, [Get real!]
Unkind [unkind woman], I love you not: O me [uh oh], that eye [the one that brands]

And here finally, in the last line, Sidney expressly refers to the tongue, further reinforcing the idea that he is recalling the branding of the itinerant beggar’s tongue.

Doth make my heart give to my tongue the lie.

hart_hind

I’ve read many interpretations of these sonnets that blandly refer to the heart as the heart, but, to quote Frankie Rubinstein, author of A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns, “‘heart’ is no sentimental metaphor”. In a sonnet sequence full of brilliant word play and sexual innuendo, it’s only the naive who don’t or won’t consider that “heart” was among the most punned on words in Elizabethan wordplay — “the hart/hind pun on the male and female deer”. In other words, the hart/heart was synonymous with the penis and the hind was synonymous with the woman’s “hind”, hind-end and vagina. Don’t believe me? It’s no coincidence that the King James translators of the Bible wrote:

“Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and take away the foreskins of your heart.” Jer 4:4

So, read the line literally but don’t miss Sidney’s brilliant bawdiness. On the one hand, the line can be read sentimentally:

Doth make my heart [love] give to my tongue [poetry] the lie [the mark of her branding].

And on the other:

Doth make my heart [my penis’s erection] give to my tongue [his prior words of rejection] the lie.

And that puts into perspective his previous admonition: Soft[possibly a pun on his erection], but here she comes.

It’s all there. If you need this analysis for your high school assignment, I recommend the sentimental interpretation. If you want some time off, being punished for the truth has and will always work.

❧ up in Vermont Oct. 5th 2014

Other Resources:

A Concord River Romance

There’s bound to be poetic tradition, lost or otherwise, in many families. The back cover of a book I recently picked up, called Songs of Ourselves, offers the following:

In the years between 1880 and 1950, Americans recited poetry at family gatherings, school assemblies, church services, and civic affairs. As they did so, they invested poems–and the figure of the poet–with the beliefs, values, and emotions that they experienced in those settings.

Those days are long since passed. Yes, poems are still occasionally read at this or that gathering, but with nothing like the commonality, reverence and meaning of an age prior to Radio, Television, MP3s, YouTube, or the modern pop/music culture. If you want to know what I mean by “reverence and meaning”, then read Joan Rubin’s book. Nowadays, a lover is more likely to pick up a guitar than a quill.

Who knows how many books, over the years, have been inscribed with a poem. The poem below comes by way a General Contractor I work with, Brad Johnston. A recurring discussion—which he never tires of—is his relationship, by marriage, to Nathaniel Hawthorne through Sophia Peabody (at left). (Their fame is his fame.) Ashley Palmer How’s mother was the niece of Sophia Peabody.

A little ribbing aside, his ancestors interest in literature didn’t subside with Peabody or Hawthorne. What interests me about the Concord River Romance is that it was written by a Banker well grounded in the techniques of traditional poetry. His verse is written in open couplets and Iambic Tetrameter. He writes with freedom—headless lines, feminine endings, anapests. Modernism was in full swing, and though he was a rank amateur writing in a tradition readily being abandoned to free verse, his metrical writing is flexible and more modern than the tradition it springs from. He was surely well versed in Robert Frost’s poetry and was probably familiar Edna Vincent Millay.

Beyond that, the poetry is worth reading if only because it speaks to a poetic tradition other than that cultivated in anthologies, collected works or academia. This poem wasn’t written to speak to the world or for all time, but to a friend and lover. It’s a poetic genre that remains largely unknown if not, in many cases, lost. Ahsley’s poem is also a little special and unusual being so full and rich with history, some of which every American is familiar with. I’ve annotated the poem so you can get a little glimpse into the lost world he evokes.

Concord River Romance

To my dear wife Elizabeth for her Birthday August 1rst 1941

From memories of past glory
To the present wondrous story,
Stream of beauty ever flowing,
Renewing life and love ere growing,
Never ceasing in thy mission
Giving strength for life’s fruition;
As by meadows, hemlocks lapping,
While rugged rocks, grim, gray seem napping;
Battle Ground (1), so peaceful sure
Myriads of the clan doth lure,
Egg Rock (2) breathing Indian lore
Where Bartlett merriment (3) in full store
Gave warm welcome to a lad
Full heart warming, making glad.
Thus he met you for approval —
Never from long life’s removal —
By the tribe so stable, strong
Which never ventured toward a wrong.
Thence canoe on smooth stream gliding
Off by shade of trees abiding;
To Fairhaven(4), Conantum(5) too.
Clam Shell Bluff (6) of deep green hue,
To Davis Hill (7)– picnics galore,
Brewster’s (8) too. – to feast the more,
And all along what beauties greet,
Water lilies, scent so sweet;
Birds a carrolling in grass and trees,
Air refreshing, glorious breeze,
Picking berries, blue and black,
Days ever ending alas, alack;
Dear Concord River to you and me
Calls often with life’s ecstacy.
Let memories linger as years do grow
Bringing love’s full measure, heart’s overflow.

With treasured thoughts to strengthen
Each day’s horizon to lengthen,
Making happy days the longer
As our joys grow ever stronger.

Ashley

1.) Battle Ground: A reference to the grounds where the first battles of the American Revolutionary war occurred.

2.) Egg Rock: An inscription carved into a rock at the confluence of the Assabet and Sudbury rivers. The inscription was completed in 1885 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the 1635 founding of Concord.

3.) Bartlett Merriment: Ashley courted and married Elizabeth Bartlett, daughter of George Bradford Bartlett and the granddaughter of Dr. Josiah Bartlett (a practicing Doctor of some 52 years). Elizabeth’s family was well established and well-known in Concord. The following two paragraphs from Recreation on Concord’s rivers in the 19th Century by Leslie Perrin Wilson gives a sense for Elizabeth’s family, her roots in Concord, and the scenic atmosphere from which Ashley’s poem springs.

By the late 18th century, however, Concord people were starting to develop a less utilitarian approach to the landscape. Significantly, in 1895, George Bradford Bartlett—well-known in connection with the Manse boathouse—wrote of the cliffs near Fairhaven Bay on the Sudbury River: “For more than a hundred years these cliffs have been a favorite resort for the nature lover, and the climax of many a Sunday walk or autumnal holiday trip, as no better view can be had of the waving tree-tops and gentle river.”

One favorite summer activity was the “Moonlight Float.” People would gather together in their boats at a designated spot, arrange themselves from one bank of the river to the other several rows deep, tie their boats together, and drift downstream, singing all the way. George Bradford Bartlett frequently organized such floats. He also arranged picnics at the various scenic locations along the rivers. The area around the Leaning Hemlocks on the Assabet was a favorite picnic place, as was Martha’s Point, near Fairhaven Bay on the Sudbury River, which was named for Bartlett’s sister Martha. Egg Rock, at the confluence of the Sudbury and Assabet Rivers, was a preferred spot for summer holiday breakfasts.

Martha’s point was named after Elizabeth’s Bartlett’s Aunt. Ashley might have had such a “Moonlight float” in mind, or in memory, when he mentions a “canoe on smooth stream gliding” and “picnics galore” later in the poem.

Notice in the photo above, the C Bartlett house at the lower right (who was likely to have been a relation of Elizabeth Bartlett). Also, you can find Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house across the brook.

4.) Fairhaven: This refers to Fairhaven Bay, possibly the starting point for such a float.

Fairhaven Bay is just to the south of Concord. To see the entirety of this old Map, click here.

5.) Conantum: The history behind this name actually involves Henry David Thoreau. If you look closely at the map above, drawn in 1852, you will find a house belonging to E. Conant, E for Ebenezer. (Look under the III and you can also expand the image if you click on it.) I am told, by the research librarian at the Concord Library, that the name Conantum was a play on Contant’s last name by Thoreau, being that Conantum sounds both Latin and Indian. The area (including E. Contant’s house) offered cliffs and an overlook of Fairhaven Bay and became known to locals as Conantum.

Round about 1899 Herbert Wendall Gleason photographed the area (photo above right) and drew a map of the area as Henry David Thoreau conceived it. The map reflects local lore. You won’t find Conantum on any official map of Concord. You can match the map below to the one above.

 

6.) Clam Shell Bluff: Here’s a photo of Clamshell Bank which, being by Gleason, could well be another name for Clam Shell Bluff.

Interestingly, I found the following passage in Google Books:

“Now we are rounding Clamshell Bluff, and the children always like to hear of the old days when the Indians lived on the river banks, and left the great heaps of shells after their feasts on the fresh water clams. Clamshell Bluff is a great place for “buried treasure,” too, in the way of arrow-heads, spear-heads, bits of flint, etc., and the boys love to stop there occasionally and hunt for those old Indian relics, often finding prizes in the way of perfect implements. (…)

On, on we go, under the bridge, through the meadows by which Thoreau used to paddle, past the cliff where the harebells crow, and then we round the cool, dark point where we always look for cardinal flowers — scarce enough to make the sight of one a delightful surprise.

Where shall we land? Martha’s Point is voted for, and soon the Nina’s keel is grating on the tiny sandy beach at the foot of the high cliff. Martha’s point is a great picnic place, and we are almost afraid we shall find someone there before us. (…)

Later she writes:

Our dessert is to be berries; shall we pick them first, or start on the chowder? I had peeled and sliced the potatoes on the way up, dropping the peelings overboard to give the fishes a feast; so we decided, as things were ready, to make the berry trip. We have private wild berry patches in Mr. Conant’s field, which we pretend we own and visit each year.”

The snippet comes from an article in Country Life, May 1921! – twenty years before Ashley wrote his poem to Elizabeth. He could easily be remembering just such a trip, an afternoon’s outing that many local Concord residents made and enjoyed. Notice the reference to “Mr. Conant’s field”. Ashley also later mentions “picking berries, blue and black” and I wonder if he wasn’t referring to the same secret spot on Mr. Conant’s field.

7.) Davis Hill: This finds us suddenly quite a ways along the Concord River (and to the North of Concord). Google Map is to the right. You can see Fair Haven Bay at the lower left and you can follow the River upward until Davis Hill is reached. (Walden Pond is not labeled but is just above the word Sandy.) The “mountain”, as it is called by the locals, is still considered a scenic overlook and tourist attraction. I wasn’t able to find any photos of Davis Hill.

8.) Brewster’s: I haven’t found any references to Brewster’s, but it’s possible that Ashley was referring to family friends or to a locally popular restaurant known as Brewster’s (since he writes “to feast all the more”). However, if I were the betting kind, I would say Ashley was referring to Brewster’s Island at the entrance to Boston Harbor. Although the Concord River wouldn’t carry one to Brewster’s Island (rather to Plum Island just south of the New Hampshire state line), one can follow Ashley’s imagination from the smooth waters of the Concord River to the mouth of Boston Harbor, the last stop before the Atlantic Ocean. “Brewster’s too,” Ashley writes. Let’s make the day go on forever, he seems to say to his wife. Let’s not stop until we reach the Atlantic! Their last journey surely took them far beyond the shores of the Atlantic. Let’s hope they’re still in love, the breezes are as beautiful as ever, and that the berries are as black and sweeter. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little colorful glimpse into a distant love and way of life. Be sure to write your lover a poem to remember you by.

The facsimile below is a copy of a copy. It looks as though it was written with a quill.

If you have any old poems written by parents, grandparents or older, poems that would otherwise be lost in a book, send them along and I’ll post them. If it’s written in a language other than English, I’m still interested.

Poets, Poetry & the Perfection of Women

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my other new book…

As promised, my other post about poetry and women (my two favorite subjects). The previous post was about the treachery of women. So, my other summer reading is How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology. The “book” is workbook sized (which means it’s about the size of a college workbook) and I’ve only just begun it.

The history of poetry in China is astounding. For hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years no one with any governmental ambitions could advance to even the most menial position without passing an arduous exam predicated on a thorough knowledge of poetry (and literature in general). Poetry was tremendously valued and esteemed to a degree (in its longevity) unmatched by any other culture. The history of English poetry pales in comparison.

Part of the reason, I think, comes from the continuity of Chinese writing & language. Unlike the Western Alphabet, Chinese script doesn’t reflect pronunciation. Any given symbol (such as the moon) could remain essentially unchanged for hundreds of years. If Elizabethans wanted to read poetry from a thousand years before, they needed to learn the actual languages – Latin, Greek or Anglo-Saxon because western writing reflects pronunciation. A Chinese poet, on the other hand, only needed to be literate.  If we used a similar system in the west then all of us could read and understand classical languages (though we wouldn’t know anything about the original Latin and Greek words). Similarly (and setting aside issues of grammar) any western reader can learn to ‘read’ Chinese without speaking the language. The moon is the moon is the moon.

What got me thinking about this post were some comments in the introductory material:

“Love and Courtship” is a prominent theme in the airs of the Book of Poetry [the earliest extent collection of Chinese poetry]. Many of the airs are bone fide erotic love songs, featuring unabashed accounts of a tryst or an affair. In these songs , women show few signs of inhibition and, indeed, are often the daring and resourceful initiators of a secret affair. Such uninhibited, self-willed women are not seen in later literati compositions, with the exception of Yuan songs. In most literati compositions, women often fall into two rather static types: the beautiful and the abandoned. ¶ “The Beautiful Woman” shows how the literati reconceptualized woman as an abstract, static object of desire—for spiritual fulfillment, sensual pleasure, or both.”

Above · The sign for Woman from 1500 BC to the present. AncientScripts

And that’s interesting because this same abstract idealization of women also occurred (and occurs) in Western Literature (and probably in all cultures with an accumulated history of literature).  Why? I suspect that the early and rambunctious poetry of erotic love is deemed too vulgar as art develops. The earliest poetry all seems to spring from popular lyrics — consider modern rock, country and rap — and as “a literature” begins to establish itself (separate itself) and come into contact with more patrician and aristocratic circles, it’s possible that erotic poetry is considered too gauche and unrefined. In general, all cultures place a premium on the spiritual as a more fit pursuit for philosophy , art, music and literature. How do women fit into such otherworldly pursuits? Uneasily. And usually (or at least historically) it’s because men are doing the defining.

  • The renaissance angel at left could be a  woman or a young man. The book Angels in the Early Modern World has this to say: “Other definitive assumptions about angels also began to crystallise in the early centuries of the Church. Angels were asexual spiritual beings, though they usually took the outward form of young men. An idea only partially attributable to Scripture – that angels appeared as winged creatures – was becoming an almost universal iconographic convention, as angels were increasingly depicted in wall painting, sculpture, and manuscript illumination. The very question of whether these figures could legitimately be represented in art was definitively settled in the affirmative by the second Council of Nicea.” The effect, ironically or perhaps deliberately, is to eroticize spiritual iconography and spirituality itself- not just through the representation of women and girls, but men and boys. In other words, the perfect woman (the angel) is homoerotic as well.

The exclusion of women from the inner sanctum of spiritual and religious practice isn’t isolated – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists (inasmuch as Taoist sects have organized), Hindus, etc… The presence of women among men gives rise to the inevitable: they become objects of lust, they arouse and are desirous, emotions that just don’t jibe with otherworldly detachment and contemplation. It’s no wonder women have been excluded.  Millions of years of evolution seems more than most men can overcome. Easier to hide women away, exclude them or, in the case of literature,  idealize them, than be around them. They become paragons of untouchable virtue and beauty. The literature pretends to ignore the raw, physical and erotic allure of women’s femininity (just as religious iconography asexualizes them). They become the angels of Renaissance painting. They symbolize an archetypal otherworldly beauty acceptable because it is, in theory, detached from physical longing. They are an idealized representation of the spiritual pursuit – it’s detached beauty. I write in theory because the iconography, ironically, transforms the other-world beauty of angels into its own kind of eroticism and homoeroticism.

  • Angel by Abbott Handerson Thayer. The painting at right comes from the end of the 19th century and early 20th . Thayer was known as a painter of Ideal Figures and his paintings of angels are his most popular and  critically recognized. The painting at right is the most famous. No other painting before or since so beautifully captures the ineffable beauty that both eroticizes and denies the erotic. The model was his daughter Mary, but absent that knowledge, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if the model was a boy. Her youth encourages a certain asexuality.

Anyway, this is my stab at some sort of explanation for the idealization of women in art, philosophy and religion. More than this requires a degree in gender studies and sociology. However, I suspect that this impulse to “asexualize” women is all part of the same spectrum (whether in art or religion). It is a desire to transform or redirect physical desire and it’s a hard place for women to inhabit. The result is that women are seen as either/or, either angels or as devils. Everything in between gets lost: girlhood, their own desires, romance, sex, childbirth, motherhood, marriage, housekeeping. That’s why Anne Bradstreet’s poem, Before the birth of one of her children, is so important.

  • The image at left is one that I found on the web. I don’t know whom to credit but clicking on the image will lead you to one possible source. There’s something about this image that appeals to me. It’s as if the conventions – the concealments and misdirections of two thousand years – have been, like clothes, stripped away. The woman behind the iconography is revealed. But even so, a new ambiguity confronts us. What do you feel when you view her? Strength or vulnerability? Eroticism or reticence? We are invited, perhaps, to recreate the angels of our desire and spirituality. Who will she be? Will she be permitted into the inner circle of our theologies – as we have made and make her? – or as she is?

The West’s Book of Poetry

The west’s poetic tradition, unlike China’s, isn’t confined to one language or society. It begins with the Greeks and Romans and from there their influence spread through the various languages of Europe.

The women of Rome, to judge by Ovid’s Amores, had more in common with China’s rambunctious women than anything idealized. Like the Chinese women, they “show few signs of inhibition and, indeed, are often the daring and resourceful initiators of [secret affairs].” One of my favorite poems by Ovid (for it’s eroticism and self-effacing good humour)   was beautifully translated by Christopher Marlowe – the greatest poet and playwright after Shakespeare and the man who was, perhaps, also Shakespeare’s elder friend, collaborator and inspiration.

Ovid’s Sixth Elegy: Book III of his Amores • Christopher Marlowe

All of Marlowe’s translations of Ovid’s Erotic poetry can be found at the Perseus Digital Library.

  • Interestingly, Ovid’s first version of the Amores (now lost) was longer and probably more explicit. Even within an artist’s lifetime, one sees a progression from the more to the less explicit.

The earliest “English” poetry is that of the Anglo-Saxons. (English, in this sense, refers more to the nation than to the language.) The degree to which the Anglo-Saxons were exposed to the great poets of Latin or Greek is debatable. However, the Anglo-Saxons were certainly exposed to Latin itself, both by the Romans and later by missionaries and their establishment of Christianity. Anglo-Saxon poetry doesn’t appear to have been influenced by the meters of Greek or Latin and I don’t know whether that was through ignorance of classical poetry or other reasons. The verse forms of Anglo-Saxon are those of its proto-germanic heritage.

The most popular and well-known understanding of Old English poetry continues to be Sievers’ alliterative verse. The system is based upon accent, alliteration, the quantity of vowels, and patterns of syllabic accentuation. It consists of five permutations on a base verse scheme; any one of the five types can be used in any verse. The system was inherited from and exists in one form or another in all of the older Germanic languages. New World Encycopedia

If Anglo-Saxon is to be considered the earliest poetry of the English language, then the Exeter Book of Riddles is the closest parallel to China’s Book of Poetry. Interestingly, and contrary to expectation, the position of women in Anglo Saxon society was more liberated (or more modern) than the ignorant barbarity of England’s 19th century legal practice. Whereas 19th century woman could expect to be left in poverty and destitution upon divorce (all their properties having become that of their husband). The women of Anglo-Saxon Britain (who were not slaves) were entitled to half their combined worth:

Within marriage, finances belonged to both the husband and the wife. This we know from wills and charters. Æthelbert’s law number 79 from the seventh century says about divorce:

If she wish to go away with her children, let her have half the property.

The greater equality of women is, I think, reflected the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons. There isn’t the same idealization of women that would become the Courtly Convention of  Chaucer’s time (the literati’s equivalent to China’s abstracted “Beautiful Woman” with her loss of self-will) – a convention from which Chaucer worked to liberate himself. The Exeter Book is full of poetic riddles that hint at erotic and sexual relationships between Anglo-Saxon men and women:

The poem/riddle roughly  translates as follows:

I’m the world’s wonder, for I make women happy
–a boon to the neighborhood, a bane to no one,
though I may perhaps prick the one who picks me.

I am set well up, stand in a bed,
have a roughish root. Rarely (though it happens)
a churl’s daughter more daring than the rest
–and lovelier! –lays hold of me,
and lays me in larder.

She learns soon enough,
the curly-haired creature who clamps me so,
of my meeting with her: moist is her eye!

(The answer to the riddle may not be what you think it is.) And here is riddle 54:

The translation comes from Hullweb’s History of Hull (the translation doesn’t follow line by line):

A young man made for the corner
where he knew she was standing;
this strapping youth had come some way –
with his own hands he whipped up her dress,

·

and under her girdle (as she stood there)
thrust something stiff, worked his will;
they both shook. This fellow quickened:
one moment he was forceful, a first rate servant,
so strenuous that the next he was knocked up,

·

quite blown by his exertion. Beneath the girdle
a thing began to grow that upstanding men
often think of, tenderly, and acquire.

To the Anglo-Saxon man, the perfect woman resembles himself

The Elizabethans

The rambunctious celebration of women if not always as sexual equals then at least as gameful erotic partners didn’t reappear until the Elizabethan Era, some six hundred years later. The Elizabethans were probably unaware of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Their models were the classical poets of Rome and as far as they were concerned, they (meaning they themselves) were the beginning of English literature. They were aware of Chaucer and Gower but they generally didn’t treat them as models.

The Elizabethans felt a more compelling link to the Roman poets with their mix of urbane wit, winking licentiousness and generous decorum. This was the poetry of empire and the Elizabethans were nothing if not a budding empire. Wit was the vapor the Elizabethans breathed. Sidney was first among the poets with his double-meaning erotic gamesmanship. That said, the reader of Sidney’s sonnets never gets a sense of Stella’s own desires and personality. She is only a vessel for Sidney’s sparkling wit.

Shakespeare, predictably enough, was the poet to breathe life into women. In his dramas, his female protagonists unabashedly match wits with men. The same liveliness can be found in Shakespeare’s  Dark Lady sonnets 127 through 154. Here is Sonnet 130 (perhaps the most famous among them):

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
….And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
….As any she belied with false compare.

And it is with this sonnet that Shakespeare does something that no poet (with the possible exception of Ovid) did before him. He turns the Patrarchan expectation, that of the perfect and unattainable woman, on its head. The eyes of Shakespeare’s mistress “are nothing like the sun”. Her breasts are dun/dark, not white. Her hair is black and wiry. She has bad breath. And yet he can’t stay away from her. This sonnet isn’t about something as brittle as beauty or spotless virtue. For Shakespeare, a woman’s perfection something else – described in the omission. It is not in her eyes, her lips, her breasts or cheeks; and the same applies for us. We are, to each other, full of flaws and shortcomings; but it’s in imperfection that lovers mysteriously find perfection – and good humor. For all the eroticism, perfection and beauty in Petrarch’s Sonnets, they aren’t funny. (Besides which, the subject isn’t really erotic poetry, but the sense that women are equals in the affairs of men and women.) The Chinese Book of Poetry, Ovid’s Amores, the Anglo-Saxton riddle-poems, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets to the dark lady (all celebrating the imperfect perfection of men and women)  are rich with wry smiles and outright laughter.

And this brings us to another reason for the abstract idealization of women. Western history teaches us that tragedy is high art and comedy is for the common crowd. Writing about women and men as they are seems to become, inescapably, the province of humor. Ipso facto, literati who wanted to be taken seriously wrote serious poetry; and serious poetry about real, imperfect women didn’t cut it. (Perfect women, it seems,  may be beautiful, but they are humorless.)

And what were women writing?

And this is a huge subject.

The post so far hardly merits a starting point. And there are many cultures whose poetic literature I’m unfamiliar with – India for example or Russia. I don’t read all that much foreign language poetry because I don’t like modern translations. Too many modern translators (heavy quotes) think its OK to translate the carefully structured verse of an original into lackluster free verse. Content isn’t enough for me. I like to get a sense for the language as well. That, to me, is what separates poetry from prose. Cervantes wrote that reading a translation was like looking at the back side of a Persian rug.

All of which is to say: If I haven’t mentioned poets I should have, it’s not because of an agenda.

Also, if any readers want to help me out and suggest other poets, please do.

That said, some poetry, I think, translates better than others. Haiku may be the most successfully translated if only because the haiku’s essence doesn’t reside in its language (to the same degree as a Shakespearean Sonnet) but in a kind of poetic outlook or philosophy. This isn’t to say there’s no wordplay in haiku, but my feeling (which could be wrong) is that the brevity of the poetic form is friendlier to annotation where translation fails.

And what interests me about Haiku is what interests me about Japanese literature in general. Of all the cultures with which I’m familiar, the Japanese, historically, seem the most accepting of women poets. In China, by contrast, there were many women poets but, at least according to the book Women Poets of China, much of their poetry went unpublished if not destroyed:

Writing poetry was an essential part of the education and the social life of any educated man in ancient China, but it was not so for a woman. Most of the poems of those who did write were not handed down to posterity. Many women’s poems were shown only to their intimates, but were never published. In some cases, the poet herself (Sun Tao-hsüsm), or the parents of the poet (Chu Shu-chen), destroyed her work so that the reputation of the clan would not be damaged. Love poems usually led to gossip that the author was an unfaithful wife. Not until the Ching Dynasty ( 1644-1911) with the promotion of several leading (male) scholars such as Yüan Mei and Ch’en Wên-shu, did writing poetry become fashionable for ladies of the scholar gentry class. [p. 139]

On a Visit to Ch’ung Chên Taoist Temple
I see in the South Hall the List of
Successful Candidates in the Imperial Examinations
(9th Century)

Cloud capped peaks fill the eyes
In the Spring sunshine.
Their names are written in beautiful characters
And posted in order of merit.
How I hate this silk dress
That conceals a poet.
I lift my head and read their names
In powerless envy.

Yü Hsüan-Chi  [p. 19 Women Poets of China]

Japan, by contrast, seems to have been almost modern in its acceptance women’s poetry (if not women themselves). The world’s first (generally accepted) novel was written in Japan and by a women, Murasaki Shikibu, and is considered by most to be a work of genius. I’ve read it. I’m trying to encourage my wife to read it. But it’s not poetry, and curiously Japan never produced narrative poetry on the scale of an Iliad or Odyssey.

For whatever reason the Japanese aesthetic has always preferred shorter forms. Perhaps because of this, and because of the deliberately impersonal and ephemeral nature of haiku, the influence of gender is hard to pinpoint. Classical Haiku are not meant to be about the poet. The same autobiographical embarrassments that worried Chinese poets didn’t apply to haiku. This, if for no other reason, probably made the haiku of women acceptable (if they were even recognized as being by women).

It meant that the haiku poet Chiyo-ni (1703-1775) could travel the Japanese countryside like the great poet Basho (who died shortly before her birth). Whereas Basho clothed himself like a monk, Chiyo-ni travelled as a Buddhist nun. It’s worth noting also (and which may also have played a part in the acceptability of women poets) that there was no tradition of publications by individual poets. When haiku (or Tanka) were published, they were usually small print runs – anthologies of current poets. I’ve read that at the height of the form (mid 17th century) fully 1 in 20 of Japan’s population regularly wrote haiku. Anthologizing, I think, also made it easier for women poets to see their work in print. The result is that a poet like Chiyo-ni was appreciated, not as a woman poet (or not entirely) but on the merit of her poetry.

  • It seems Chiyo-ni: Woman Haiku Master has become somewhat of a rarity, and that means Amazon resellers are trying to retire on it. The original price is $14.95 (I own it). If you want a copy and can find a copy close to that price, then you’re doing well.

However, the very thing that may have allowed women to participate in the writing of haiku, their aesthetic of the impersonal , also makes it hard to distinguish them from men. Japanese critics are fond of saying Basho’s haiku are like daimonds and Chiyo-ni’s are like pearls.

how terrifying
her rouged fingers
against the white chrysanthemums

woman’s desire
deeply rooted –
the wild violets

butterfly
you also get mad
some days                            [pp. 84-85]

The only woman in the Western tradition (to my knowledge) who wrote with any sort of sexual freedom (prior to the 20th century) wrote in ancient Greece   – Sappho – born sometimes between 630 and 612 BC. Very little of her poetry remains, but her fame as a poet was and is well-recorded.

Of course I love you

Of course I love you
but if you love me,
marry a young woman!

I couldn’t stand it
to live with a young
man, I being older.

One Girl

I

Like the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough,
A-top on the topmost twig–which the pluckers forgot, somehow–
Forget it not, nay, but got it not, for none could get it till now.

II

Like the wild hyacinth flower which on the hills is found,
Which the passing feet of the shepherds for ever tear and wound,
Until the purple blossom is trodden in the ground.

And their feet move

And their feet move
rhythmically, as tender
feet of Cretan girls
danced once around an
altar of love, crushing
a circle in the soft smooth flowering grass

More of Sappho’s poetry can be found at Poemhunter.

Why did so few of Sappho’s poems survive? In a word: Christianity.

History tells us that Christians destroyed her poetry around 380 A.D., prompted by Pope Gregory Nazianzen. To be sure the job was done right, Pope Gregory VII organized another book burning in 1073 A.D.. The reasons for her poetry’s destruction haven’t survived, but it’s not hard to speculate. It was probably a combination of her perceived paganism and her open sexuality (as opposed to her reputed sexual orientation – which didn’t become an issue until much later).

There were other Hellenistic women poets and if you’re interested in pursuing the subject, a (fee based) article can be found at JSTOR: Hellenistic Women Poets.

The women of Rome lived in a more liberated time than the earlier Greek poets. However, the only woman whose poetry survives is Sulpicia. What little survives hints at a woman who, like Sappho, wrote freely about herself and her identity.

At last. It’s come. Love,
the kind that veiling
will give me reputation more
than showing my soul naked to someone.
I prayed to Aphrodite in Latin, in poems;
she brought him, snuggled him
into my bosom.
Venus has kept her promises:
let her tell the story of my happiness,
in case some woman will be said
not to have had her share.
I would not want to trust
anything to tablets, signed and sealed,
so no one reads me
before my love–
but indiscretion has its charms;
it’s boring
to fit one’s face to reputation.
May I be said to be
a worthy lover for a worthy love.

More of Sulpicia’s poetry can be found at Stoa.org.

After the fall of Rome and (probably not coincidentally) the rise of Christianity, women’s poetic voices are increasingly silent and silenced. It takes just over a thousand years before Marie de France appears – an Anglo-Norman poet.  Project Gutenburg, increasingly my all-time favorite literary resource on the net, has made
the French Mediaeval Romances from the Lays of Marie de France by Marie de France available as a free E-Book. Don’t expect anything self-revelatory in Marie de France’s writing. Hers was a new age and a world apart. That is, the poets of Rome and Greece were long gone and unknown. Marie de France was writing in a tradition and convention defined by male poets. It would be another 700 years or so (18th and 19th century) before women began liberating themselves from the convention of the perfect woman – before they began writing about themselves, their lives and defining themselves.

During that time, the writings of Mary Sidney and Emilia Lanier (claimed to be Shakespeare’s Dark Lady by A.L. Rose) are relatively conventional. While Lanier’s Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum is rightfully called our first proto-feminist work, and while Lanier was the first woman in the English language to declare herself a poet, we get no sense of Lanier’s own identity through her poetry. The poem remains a conventionally literary (and characteristically Elizabethan) work that sets forth a forceful argument in defense of women. Of the women poets of the Elizabethan era, Lady Mary Wroth is, to me, the most compelling. You can find her works at Luminariam. The following sonnet, by Wroth, plays a curious game with prevailing Elizabethan gender roles. Many poems were written (Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd to his Love being the most famous) urging women to let down their guard. Wroth knows full well that she shouldn’t, assumes the role convention expects, but also, in the end, surrenders to the same “joyes” to which men are entitled.

Am I thus conquer’d?  have I lost the powers,
….That to withstand which joyes to ruine me? *
….Must I bee still, while it my strength devoures,
….And captive leads me prisoner bound, unfree?

Love first shall leave men’s fant’sies to them free,
….Desire shall quench love’s flames, spring hate sweet showers,
….Love shall loose all his Darts, have sight, and see
….His shame and wishings, hinder happy houres.

Why should we not Love’s purblinde charmes resist?
….Must we be servile, doing what he list?
….No, seeke some host to harbour thee:  I fly

Thy Babish tricks, and freedome doe professe;
….But O, my hurt makes my lost heart confesse:
….I love, and must; so farewell liberty.

* …have I lost the powers [to withstand that] which joyes to ruine me?

One senses a uniquely feminine perspective when reading Mary Wroth’s poems, but she still wrote firmly within expected conventions. And this is why Anne Bradstreet, writing about the same time, is such a rarity. While her initial poems are conventionally literary, her later, highly personal poems are a miracle. She is unique. Her few, later, personal poems assume a woman’s voice with as much passion as anything written by the ancient Greek and Roman poets.

My feeling is that women were defined (or trapped) by the convention of the perfect woman – asexual, virtuous, untouched and untouchable. Since I’ve always felt that the various arts share trends and attitudes (how can they not?) the depiction of the Angel, at least to me, parallels the expectation of women in art and society. After the classical era of Roma and Greece in the West, and the Book of Poetry in the East, thousands of years ebbed and flowed before women were free to define themselves in their writings. Some might argue that they’re still constrained; but if so, those constraints have never been weaker.

One last poet I haven’t mentioned (though there are, no doubt, others I’m unaware of): Al-Khansa (image at left) – an Islamic poet of the 7th century whose work was admired by Muhammad. Her poetry precedes Islam and is later influenced by it (through Muhammad himself). The poetry is beautiful but very different from a Sappho. The reader only very indirectly gets a sense of the poet’s personality and desires.

I look forward to ideas and recommendations from readers.

from up in Vermont

August 5, 2010

 

Millay’s Sonnet 42 • What lips my lips have kissed

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Sonnet 42

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning, but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay, for a great many poets and critics, challenges notions of greatness. What defines a great poet? – What in her person and what in her poetry?  One almost wishes photographs of Millay had never been taken or never survived. In her New York Review of Books review of Millay and Millay’s reviewers,  Lorrie Moore quotes some of Daniel Mark Epstein’s (What Lips My Lips Have Kissed) more lascivious biography:

Epstein Book Cover[Epstein] is a little startling, for example, on the subject of Millay’s naked breasts, about which he exults–photographs of which he has apparently poured over in the files of the Library of Congress (which cannot authorize their release and reproduction until the year 2010).  When he gives us his own feverish descriptions, readers may become a little frightened, but eventually he moves on, and I do believe everyone recovers. Such an instance does not , however, prevent him from other periodic overheatings (“Her coloring, the contrast between her white skin and the red integuments, lips, tongue, and more secret circles and folds her lovers would cherish, had become spectacular after the girl turned twenty.)

On the one had, one might argue that Epstein is writing about Millay’s Loves and Love Poems and so is entitled to this sort of fetishistic “field research”, but one has to wonder whether Epstein would apply the same zeal to the skin color and “secret folds” of Robert Frost or E.E. Cummings were he to write a book about their love poetry.

What a writer like Epstein conveys, wittingly or unwittingly, is the bewitching effect Millay’s self-evident beauty had on both men and women (who were also among her lovers). Would her poetry have received the same attention if she had looked like Tina Fey on one of her comedic bad days? Would estimation and discussion of her poetry’s greatness (which some refute) be any different?

As it is, discussions of her poetry almost always includes discussions of her personality, beauty, and love affairs (including this post). And, to be fair, Millay’s life and poetry are intricately intertwined in a way that is not as evident with other poets. One always gets the sense that her poetry is mischievously auto-biographical. She writes about herself. And the best poets, in my opinion, are frequently the ones with skeletons in their closets. In Millay’s case, the plush carpet between her bed and closet is well worn. If I had been around during Millay’s youth, I probably would have been just as smitten as the rest of them (and hanging in her closet).

Moore, at the start of her NY Review of Books article, writes:

She was petite, in-tense, bright, witty, romantic, freckled, auburn-haired, self-dramatizing and beautiful. (As a poet friend recently remarked to me, “Why has Judy Davis not yet played her in the movie?”) At one time arguably the most famous living poet in the world, her work lauded by Thomas Hardy, Elinor Wylie, Edmund Wilson, Sarah Teasdale, and Louse Bogan, Millay lived stormily and wrote unevenly, so that her place in American letters was in descent even in her lifetime. In her day she was hailed as a feminist, lyric voice of the Jazz Age, yet she went largely unclaimed by the feminism of subsequent decades. She owned, perhaps, too many evening gowns. And her poems may have had an excess of voiceless golden birds (she did not strain her metaphors… Her work could be occasionally modernist, but only occasionally, and so was not taken up by the champions of modernism…

But Millay has her champions and continues to have her admirers. Deservedly so. She lived life large. She was unapologetic about her proclivities and a fiercely independent woman when, in many ways, women were still treated like guileless children.  She was the poet’s poet. She spoke directly and truthfully in her poetry, anticipating the women poets of the later 20th century.

Millay’s Legacy

This is my third go around with this section. I think, like many other readers, poets and critics, I ask myself: Why am I reading her? Is she a great poet who wrote mediocre poems, or was she a mediocre poet who manged to write some great poems?

Now that I’m rewriting this for the third time, I think I’ve got a fix on all of this. Lorrie Moore, in her NY Review of Books article, refers to Millay as a “skilled formalist”. Skilled is  probably a good adjective. Micheal Haydn (the composer and brother of the genius Joseph Haydn) and JC Bach (the son of the great JS Bach) were both skilled composers. They both wrote some incredibly catchy and occasionally, deeply expressive music, but neither was a genius and neither will ever be counted among the greats. Not familiar with classical music? Take REM. REM is a skilled rock band. They may have written one or two great songs, but nobody, fifty years from now, will include them among the great bands. And I’m not the only one who holds that opinion.

Millay with FlowersSo, skilled is a measured way to describe Millay’s formalist abilities.

She could write the perfect sonnet. She was an avowed master, and I do mean master, of the rhyming couplet, most typically in the form of the epigrammatic sting that frequent and succinctly closes her Shakespearean Sonnets.  No other 20th Century poet even distantly approaches the sly and witty ferocity of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s rhymes. But her skill as a formalist only went so far.

She rarely modulates her formalism to suit the subject matter. One gets the feeling that she paid more attention to the prettiness of the line, than to its aptness. Despite the mood, whether it was rage, sorrow, delight, or fear, there is a sameness of voice to all of her poems. By way of comparison, compare Robert Frost’s Mending Wall to Birches. While there is a certain sameness to every poet’s output, some poets are able to master a greater technical range than others. Birches and Mending Wall both sound like Frost, but both show a distinctly different approach in imagery and, more specifically, formal devices. When at his best, Frost modulated his voice to suit the subject matter.

One doesn’t get the same sense from Millay.

And that has a curious effect, at least to me. The skilled and elevated diction of her formalism makes her trivial poems  seem better than they are, and her more profound gestures feel less profound.  So, in my own appraisal of Millay, I would consider her  a major poet, though not great. She was a skilled formalist, but possessed a very limited range.

And it’s in that respect that I disagree with criticism that calls her style anachronistic. Returning to Moore’s NY Review of Books article, she writes:

A gifted formalist and prolific sonneteer, a literary heir to Donne, Wordsworth, Byron, and, well, Christina Rossetti, Millay today has been admired only slightly or reluctantly, if at all, her poetry viewed, sometimes by its detractors as well as its devotees, as anachronistic, unreconstructedly Victorian, sentimental, recycled. Even the critic Colin Falck, who writes in his ardent introduction to her Selected Poems that the “occulting of Millay’s reputation has been one of the literary scandals of the twentieth century,” nonetheless finds only a quarter of her poems worthy enough “to entitle her to consideration as one of the major poets of the country.”

Millay was born in 1892 which means, like other poets of her generation, she grew up with the poetry of the great Victorians ringing in her ears. Tennyson died the same year she was born. Robert Browning had only been dead three years. Christina Rossetti lived until 1894. Their legacy and presence was still profoundly felt. In short, when Millay began writing, the 19th century’s aesthetic was not anachronistic.

Millay’s shortcoming was not that she was writing formal poetry when the vast majority of her generation (and later) had adopted free verse. Her shortcoming was that her formalism defined her voice, rather than her voice defining her formalism. It can be difficult to discern which of Millay’s poems are her mature poems and which are the poems of her youth.

The Scansion

As is my habit, all unmarked feet are Iambic. The color coding is a visual aid, meant to help you quickly see how the poet has varied the given meter (in this case, Iambic Pentameter).

What Lips My Lips Have Kissed by Millay - Scansion

About the Meter and Structure of the Poem

Millay’s sonnet is firmly in the tradition of the Petrarchan Sonnet. The Sonnet is split into the Octave (the first 8 lines) and the Sestet (the last 6), both “halves” of the sonnet characterizing the traditional volta or turn of the Patrarchan Sonnet. The Petrarchan form is well suited to the contemplative subject matter. There is no argument. There is no epigrammatic summing up or sting (such as we find in a Shakespearean Sonnet).

The sestet deliberately avoids close rhymes creating, to my ear, a diffuse music that nicely matches the poems’ tone. The final rhyme more feels like a distant echo of before, like the echoes of her lovers. The more diffuse rhyme scheme also serves to further differentiate the sestet from the octave. The octave speaks to the loss of lovers. The sestet speaks to a deeper loss – her fading memory of them. “I cannot say what loves have come and gone…” she writes. The diffuseness of her memory is nicely echoed by the rhyme scheme (intentioned or otherwise).

The metrical style is characteristic of Millay. There are only three definite variant feet in the entirety of the poem. The first variant foot, which I marked as |I have| could also be read as an Iambic foot |I have|. I’ve searched for a recording of Millay reading this sonnet  but haven’t found any. I have a hunch she would have read that first foot as an iamb. She was very conservative in her metrical daring.

In that respect her temperament is entirely that of a late Victorian, rather than that of an Elizabethan (with whom the sonnet form originated). The Elizabethans were always restlessly stretching and violating forms. They were the great explorers, both at sea and in literature – in just about everything they did. In that respect, Millay’s sonnet has almost nothing in common with them but a rhyme scheme.

And it’s in this respect that some critics wish Millay had stretched herself. I suspect she could have but preferred the contemplation and quiet dignity of an uninterrupted iambic line. Her rhyming is equally conservative, especially in light of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. The eye rhyme pain/again was probably pronounced as a full rhyme when Millay read the poem. (She was nothing if not affected when she read her poetry.) I considered reading this poem myself but I just can’t get beyond the absurdity of a man’s voice behind her words.

Here is Millay reading Sonnet 121:

Oh Sleep forever in the Latmian cave,
Mortal Endymion, darling of the Moon!
Her silver garments by the senseless wave
Shouldered and dropped and on the shingle strewn,
Her fluttering hand against her forehead pressed,
Her scattered looks that trouble all the sky,
Her rapid footsteps running down the west-
Of all her altered state, oblivious lie!
Whom earthen you, by deathless lips adored,
Wild-eyed and stammering to the grasses thrust,
And deep into her crystal body poured
The hot and sorrowful sweetness of the dust:
Whereof she wanders mad, being all unfit
For mortal love, that might not die of it.

[Audio=https://poemshape.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/millays-sonnet-121.mp3]

What does the poem mean?

The poem is beautiful in its simplicity – an effect that is surprisingly difficult to master.

But, having said that, I can’t help but wonder at another meaning. I’m not sure at what point in her career she wrote this sonnet, but I wonder if she’s not also describing her poetry. Think of the lads as poems and kisses as the act of writing the poems. If one reads the poem this way, she writes as poet who feels her powers waning.

Read in this light, the final sestet feels especially poignant. Millay stands as the tree in whom poetry used to flourish, but whose birds have flown, one by one. She can’t even remember what loves have come and gone. The inspiration of her youth fails her. The poems that used to come budding to her lips have all but vanished. She writes: “I only know that summer sang in me / A little while, that in me sings no more.”

The Sonnet Before the Sonnet

And now for some of that unmatched ferocity that Millay could summon up. When reading Sonnet 42 (when lost to its wistful beauty)  it’s best to keep in mind the Sonnet that immediately preceded it. Which is the real Millay? Both, no doubt. In real life, biographers tell us that 41 would have come after 42.

Sonnet 41

I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity, — let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.

An Interesting Video Inspired by the Sonnet


Opening Book: The Green Gate Page 74-76

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Page 74 The Green Gate
Page 75 The Green Gate

Page 76 The Green Gate

Opening Book: Wedding Preamble Page 39

This is a poem I wrote for my own wedding and had only two days to do it. For the fun of it (and to make it easier) I based it on the Elizabethan model for working out ideas – which they called the Topics of Invention and taught in grade school. (So… the poem has that sound to it). My preamble has actually been a very popular poem and if you would like to use it, please feel free. But I have two favors to ask.

Leave a comment. It will make my day.

Second, if anybody asks, remember where you found it. Be sure to send them here.

Page 39 Wedding Preamble