Talking about poems just for the pleasure of it

Saturday, April 16, 2011

W.H. Auden, "The Fall of Rome"-- CORRECTED

(for Cyril Connolly)

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar's double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

There's so much to be said about this one, some of which I hope you will supply.  This is Auden at his sardonic best, wouldn't you say?  One part of his greatness was that he provided for us the human spirit's necessary response to much of the twentieth century's evil:  the alienation, the banal violence.  Elsewhere his voice, though still ironic, comes out in a cry of outrage; here the tone is more detached.      

The Wondering Minstrels (well worth browsing) give an excellent analysis, including observations about the effects of the rhyme scheme, and of the line-breaks in mid sentence.  (For more about line breaks, and how to read poetry out loud, here's a real live poet.)

Instead of meditating on a single scene, this poem constantly switches scenes, with juxtaposed images that build up a sense of absurdity and corruption.  There is a pattern to the scene changes, though:  we begin on the city's outskirts, zoom in towards the bowels, then pan out again; finally we are taken "altogether elsewhere."  What is the relationship of this completely-other place to the city?  That seems crucial to the poem's meaning.

One of the themes here is the fragmentation of the city's life.  Each segment of society is isolated, oblivious to the others.  The "temple prostitutes" and the "literati" each seek their own mode of distraction.  Religion, sex,  poetry-- they have all been debased.  The city's military protectors,  forgotten by a decadent society, have no use for classical traditions of virtue.  The ruler's bed is warm-- probably not so much from sensual passion as from mere sloth; while he sleeps late, the office worker labors on, trapped in an impotence only bureaucracy can inflict.

But what about those reindeer?  Are they, like the scarlet-legged birds, a threat to the city?  Or are they in some way the city's hope?  They have an elemental power and beauty.

NOTE:  I apologize to Auden and to all of you.  In the sixth stanza, "flu-infested" has been corrected to read "flu-infected."


Friday, March 25, 2011

Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Spring"

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring--
    When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
    Thrush's eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
     The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
     The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
     A strain of the earth's sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.--Have, get, before it cloy,

     Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and mayday in girl and boy,
     Most, O maid's child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

The first statement here, just as in "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge," is a sweeping superlative-- there is nothing more beautiful than what I see in front of me at this moment, the speaker declares.  This is how it is when we see beauty-- we feel a sudden urge to give it top prize.

The two quatrains reveal what the particular beauty of sping is---  a kind of free, loose, unrestrained life.  This life flings itself out without care:  the lush weeds grow so fast they form wheels-- they can't support themselves upright but keep growing nonetheless.  The beauty here is of a dizzying, dazzling kind-- dynamic, potent, concentrated, "all in a rush/ with richness."  The thrush's song saturates the ear and then wrings it out, with an energy so overpowering it's like lightning.

As in "The Starlight Night," earth and sky are mingled in the speaker's perception-- "Thrush's eggs look little low heavens"; the peartree seems actually to touch the sky; the sky, in turn-- or its blue, its light--  seems to rush down to be brushed by the tree.  

When the speaker steps back from this experience-- "all this juice and all this joy"--  to ask what it is, the answer is ready.  It's a remnant of the earth's unfallen state, before sin came to "cloy," "cloud," and "sour" it.      The lines that follow connect this innocence with that of virginity; the sweetness of Eden still exists in the "innocent mind" of children and is the preference of Christ-- which is natural to him, since he himself  is a "maid's child."  So what we've been given is an image of virginity not as something prim and proper, but as something  lush and wild.  I think that's just wonderful.  This, we are told, is what God loves best in us.

What I don't fully understand is the speaker's urgent advice-- "Have, get, before it cloy"-- which is similar to the plea of "Buy then! Bid then!"  in "The Starlight Night," but the meaning is less clear here.  What would it mean to "have" and "get" this juice and joy?  How can spring, something inherently transitory, be preserved and possessed?  Would it mean to live in a kind of purity or wild generosity?  What would that mean?  Can anyone shed some light on this?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ezra Pound, "The Garden"

En robe de parade

Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens.
And she is dying piecemeal
              of a sort of emotional anemia.

And round about there is a rabble 
Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth.

In her is the end of breeding.
Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.
She would like some one to speak to her,
And is almost afraid that I
              will commit that indiscretion.  

Although I haven't researched it, I feel sure that Pound based this poem on a real  woman he must have seen in London, surrounded by poor children-- the scene just rings true.  As he does for those famous "faces in the crowd," he finds the perfect image for the way she looks:  "like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall."  She is delicate, out of her element, and the more beautiful for that vulnerable state.  Alongside this admiration, though, he expresses contempt when he diagnoses her condition:  "a sort of emotional anemia."

He feels ambivalent, too, about the children playing around her.  Their sturdiness commands respect, but when he quotes scripture and prophesies that "they shall inherit the earth," we are not sure he finds the prospect a happy one.  They are not beautiful, but "filthy."  This "rabble" represents the future.

"In her is the end of breeding"-- there's a nice double meaning here.  "The end of breeding" because she lacks the vitality to produce another generation, and so her class of people will die out--  but also because she shows the result of over-refinement.  Good breeding, fine manners, the very best in education, have gone too far in her.  Finishing school, shall we say, has finished her.  She is a virginal figure, shrinking from a possible encounter with a man-- but she remains virginal through "boredom," not devotion.

It's hard not to see the implicit observation, and maybe even warning, about the possibilities for civilization here-- but what's especially beautiful about this poem is the way it keeps that warning implicit.  It does not allow commentary to take over, but stays faithful to its image.  In the last lines Pound is still wrapped up in his gaze at this woman.  For all the decadence she represents, he still finds her powerfully attractive.


Friday, February 18, 2011

William Wordsworth, "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802"

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty;
This city now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theaters, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still.

This poem  makes a nice counterpart to another famous sonnet by Wordsworth, "The World Is Too Much With Us," in which the speaker grieves bitterly to find himself unmoved by nature, alienated from the earth.  In contrast, the speaker here is deeply moved by the scene in front of him, a scene not of nature but of the city.  With surprise, he discovers that London has its own beauty, unexcelled by nature:  "Earth has not anything to show more fair."

It is so early in the morning that the factories have not yet begun pouring out smoke, and the streets are silent.  For this brief moment, London, a center of industrial, political, and financial power, strangely evokes a feeling of tenderness. It is not that the city is not majestic, but now it is "touching in its majesty."  The speaker's tenderness grows as he personifies London in terms that might describe a beloved woman:  "This city now doth, like a garment, wear/ The beauty of the morning."  The words "silent" and "bare" and the phrase "lie/ open" suggest a peaceful vulnerability.  Instead of opposing the influences of nature, the city is receptive to them-- "Open unto the fields and to the sky."  Man-made structures, just for this moment, receive the sun's light as gently and naturally as the countryside would do.

As he suddenly perceives this tranquility and harmony, the speaker feels the "calm" carried instantly into his own psyche:  "Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!"  The two verbs in the sentence are joined together in their action; seeing and feeling have flowed together into a single motion.  After observing his own feelings, the speaker turns outward again to gaze at the peaceful movement of the river, the sleeping houses, the entire 'heart" of the city, and its strange, beautiful stillness.  Aren't we lucky that Wordsworth could describe this moment?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

William Blake, "A Divine Image"

Cruelty has a Human heart
And Jealousy a Human Face,
Terror, the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy, the Human Dress.

The Human Dress is a forg├Ęd Iron,
The Human Form, a fiery Forge,
The Human Face, a Furnace seal'd,
The Human Heart, its hungry Gorge.

Blake has a way of making his statements seem inarguable. The repetition here has an incantatory power that almost compels us to agree, at least for the time we are inside the little world made by this poem.  It speaks of an evil so deeply entrenched in our nature that it is inescapable. Freedom from this evil is impossible for us, since it is created by our very nature-- the "Forge" is our "Form."  This image of a fiery forge, a kind of eternal, infernal smithy, appears in other poems from Blake's Songs of Experience:  the furnace and anvil of "The Tyger," the "mind-forg'd manacles" of "London."   Blake seems haunted by the clanging of this timeless industry, which he finds behind not only man-made constructions, but the natural world as well.

The circular structure of the poem creates its feeling of inevitability.  The first stanza presents these four aspects of human nature, its heart, face, form, and dress; then the second stanza reverses and mirrors the order-- landing us back where we started, at "The Human Heart," which is now revealed to be a "hungry Gorge."  The rhyme of "Forge" and "Gorge" is so perfect, it seems fated.  The heart is forever hungry, insatiable.  The circle can never end.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Langston Hughes, "Harlem Sweeties"

Have you dug the spill
Of Sugar Hill?
Cast your gims
On this sepia thrill:
Brown sugar lassie,
Caramel treat,
Honey-gold baby
Sweet enough to eat.
Peach-skinned girlie,
Coffee and cream,
Chocolate darling
Out of a dream.
Walnut tinted
Or cocoa brown,
Pride of the town.
Rich cream-colored
To plum-tinted black,
Feminine sweetness
In Harlem's no lack.
Glow of the quince
To blush of the rose.
Persimmon bronze
To  cinnamon toes.
Blackberry cordial,
Virginia Dare wine--
All those sweet colors
Flavor Harlem of mine!
Walnut or cocoa,
Let me repeat:
Caramel, brown sugar,
A chocolate treat.
Molasses taffy,
Coffee and cream,
Licorice, clove cinnamon
To a honey-brown dream.
Ginger, wine-gold,
Persimmon, blackberry,
All through the spectrum
Harlem girls vary--
So if you want to know beauty's
Rainbow-sweet thrill,
Stroll down luscious,
Delicious, fine Sugar Hill.

Isn't praise one of the important traditional tasks taken up by poets?  Poets praise the natural world, the deeds of heroes, and the beauty of women.  Praising-- using words to delineate, celebrate, and enjoy whatever is good-- makes us more human; it shows that we are not defined by the struggles of life-- the struggle to survive, the struggle to get ahead.  We can recognize what is praiseworthy, and can stop now and then to contemplate it.

I would say that with this poem Hughes is taking a strain of the Western poetic tradition and claiming it for his own.  The glories of whiteness have often been a theme in praise of women, and here we have the glories of brownness, in all their delicious variety.  The pace is leisurely, and consciously so.  I like the way the speaker circles back to the same comparisons-- "Let me repeat:/ Caramel, brown sugar,/ A chocolate treat."  He won't be hurried or constrained in his praise; there's a sense of joyous, unstinting celebration here, continuing through the last line, with its extra stress added in for good measure.  We can hear the speaker's warm affection for the subject of his praise, which is not only the girls of Sugar Hill, but the neighborhood, the community, itself:  "All these sweet colors/ Flavor Harlem of mine!"

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Gerard Manley Hopkins, "The Starlight Night"

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves!  The elves'-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
Wind-beat whitebeam! Airy abeles set on a flare!
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!--
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.
Buy then! bid then!--What?--Prayer, patience, alms, vows.
Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!
Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks.  This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

Well, the first thing that strikes me is that the speaker here doesn't feel the way we do about the sky.  Instead of an infinite expanse of space, it's more like the upper storey of the world.  The stars, "the fire-folk," are not separated from us by an abyss-- they're almost our upstairs neighbors.  We're in an older cosmos, where nature is peopled through and through.

In harmony with this homier feeling about the universe are the earthy images used for the stars.  I can't decide whether lines 4 and 5 are describing starlight shining on the ground-- making woods and lawns look like diamond and gold mines-- or whether the sky itself looks like glimmering woods and lawns.  But either way, there's  a mingling of earth, air, and sky.  And then in line 7, the metaphor is even more earthy:  the shimmering of starlight is the motion of doves startled out of a farmyard.  The repeated "f" sounds even give us the fluttering sound they make.

The next line is a puzzling summary, one that seems obvious to the speaker but maybe not to us-- all this wealth of delight is a "purchase" and a "prize."  He doesn't stop to explain, but goes on to the next logical step:  who wouldn't give anything to possess this prize?  A life of austerity would not be too high a price. The argument has become more complex, but the imagery continues the same mingling of earth and sky:  now the stars look like cherry branches covered with blossoms-- "a May-mess," the meal produced by May.  For the next line I needed the dictionary; I think "mealed-with-yellow sallows" means willow trees whose bark is speckled as if sprinkled with yellow grain or flour.  Both lines suggest food-- connecting us back to the farmyard of the earlier line, and leading to the next strange image:  "These are indeed the barn; withindoors house/ the shocks."  With the dictionary's help I translated this as "Inside are housed the bundles of grain."

As the images become earthier, the meaning they carry becomes higher:  the barn is heaven where Christ dwells eternally.  When we see the beauty of the stars (which seems to contain all the earth's beauty as well) we are only seeing the outside of this barn.  On the other side of this "piece-bright paling"-- this shining fence or wall-- is the real wealth.  And of course to get to the other side would be to die, or die to self with "prayer, patience, alms, vows."  Hopkins seems to have parables of the kingdom in mind-- the pearl of great price, the wheat separated from weeds and gathered into the barn.  To lose everything is finally to gain eveything; if we are cut down and bundled up like wheat, we will also be gaining the harvest, which is Christ himself-- Christ joined together with all the saints.  Together with Christ we will both be the harvest and gain the harvest. 

It's quite a leap, isn't it?  From star-gazing to the entire Christian vision.  But all held together by this moment of insight, this sudden burst of metaphor.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Why bother reading poems?

I like Coleridge's definition of a poem--  "that species of composition which is opposed to works of science by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth."  Is truth of secondary importance?  Not at all.  But there's a kind of pleasure that's a door into truth-- the pleasure that takes us off guard, that we weren't planning on, and that we don't fully understand.  When we feel this pleasure, something in us is recognizing a good independent of our own aims, our own agenda (no matter how noble that agenda might be.)  Without this pleasure, we are in danger of never meeting any truth bigger than ourselves. 

So poems don't give us News We Can Use.  But don't we get enough of that already?  Aren't we surrounded with instructions for manipulating our world?  When I email my husband, a Google ad pops up:  "How to keep a man in love."   An ad for etiquette lessons in our suburban parents' magazine says:  "Give your child an advantage over their peers."  I'd rather raise children who love what's good with a generous, disinterested spirit.  And I'd rather raise myself that way too.  The nice thing is, learning to love the good isn't always arduous.  Sometimes it can be downright pleasurable.  As in the case of reading poems.  

I'll be looking at one poem in each post, pointing out things about it that I enjoyed, and hoping that you'll enjoy them too.  Maybe you'll point out things I missed-- or disagree with me.  It will be fun to talk about.   I'll start with some of my favorites and later move on to some that are new to me.  I'd welcome suggestions of poems or poets to look at.  Tomorrow we'll get started with some Hopkins.