December 26, 2017

Swinburne on Swinburne [Filed under: General Discussion.Swinburne, Algernon Charles]

Swinburne has long been my favorite poet, and on winter nights like tonight, I love to curl up with a small glass of some choice intoxicating liquor and read some intoxicating Swinburne verse. But I am aware that there are some who do not think, as I do, that Swinburne was the greatest English poet of the 19th century. Swinburne himself was also aware of his critics, and had a singular response to them: he outdid them. His “Poeta Loquitur” is hard to find on the internet (and strangely, it is one of a handful of poems that was omitted from my copy of his “complete” works), so I have had to piece this version together from various snippets—it may well not be entirely accurate. Still, I want to share with the world this lovely bit of Swinburne’s self-criticism, warts and all.

Poeta Loquitur

If a person conceives an opinion
  That my verses are stuff that will wash,
Or my Muse has one plume on her pinion,
  That person’s opinion is bosh.
My philosophy, politics, free-thought!
  Are worth not three skips of a flea,
And the emptiest of thoughts that can be thought
  Are mine on the sea.

In a maze of monotonous murmur
  Where reason roves ruined by rhyme,
In a voice neither graver nor firmer
  Than the bells on a fool’s cap chime,
A partly pretentiously pensive,
  With a Muse that deserves to be skinned,
Makes language and metre offensive
  With rhymes on the wind.

A perennial procession of phrases
  Pranked primly, though pruriently prime,
Precipitates preaching on praises
  In a ruffianly riot of rhyme
Through the pressure of print on my pages:
  But reckless the reader must be
Who imagines me one of the sages
  That steer through Time’s sea.

Mad mixtures of Frenchified offal
  With insults to Christendom’s creed,
Blind blasphemy, schoolboylike scoff, all
  These blazon me blockhead indeed.
I conceive myself obviously some one
  Whose audience will never be thinned,
But the pupil must needs be a rum one
  Whose teacher is wind.

In my poems, with ravishing rapture
  Storm strikes me and strokes me and stings:
But I’m scarcely the bird you might capture
  Out of doors in the thick of such things.
I prefer to be well out of harm’s way
  When tempest makes tremble the tree,
And the wind with armipotent arm-sway
  Makes soap of the sea.

Hanging hard on the rent rags of others,
  Who before me did better, I try
To believe them my sisters and brothers,
  Though I know what a low lot am I.
The mere sight of a church sets me yelping
  Like a boy that at football is shinned!
But the cause must indeed be past helping
  Whose gospel is wind!

All the pale past’s red record of history
  Is dusty with damnable deeds;
But the future’s mild motherly mystery
  Peers pure of all crowns and all creeds.
Truth dawns on time’s resonant ruin,
  Frank, fulminant, fragrant and free
And apparently this is the doing
  Of wind on the sea.

Fame flutters in front of pretension
  Whose flagstaff is flagrantly fine
And it cannot be needful to mention
  That such beyond question is mine.
Some singers indulging in curses,
  Though sinful, have splendidly sinned:
But my would-be maleficent verses
  Are nothing but wind.

Interestingly, I did find one other person who appears to have appreciated Swinburne’s work almost as much as I do: a book reviewer for New Zealand’s Otago Daily Times writing under the name “Constant Reader” (presumably notDorothy Parker). Here is a review of a pocket volume of Swinburne’s verse that this Constant Reader wrote in 1918.

October 14, 2017

My November Guest [Filed under: Frost, Robert]

My November Guest

MY Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
  Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
  She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
  She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted gray
  Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
  The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
  And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
  The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
  And they are better for her praise.

As a treat, here’s a recording of Robert Frost reading My November Guest.

February 5, 2017

The Shot Heard Round the World [Filed under: Emerson, Ralph Waldo]

Concord Hymn

Sung at the Completion of the Battle Monument, July 4, 1837

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
  Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
  And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
  Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
  Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
  We set to-day a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
  When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare,
  To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
  The shaft we raise to them and thee.

A possibly accidental shot, fired without authority or maybe even intent, ignited a powder keg of tension and set off an explosion the reverberations of which are still felt today. How accidental human history is! A cursory review of humankind’s most important events disproves Hegelian dialectics outright. One must hope we have not left too many other powder kegs exposed to the sparks thrown off by everyday affairs, particularly in times (like the present) when we walk swinging swords among people made of flint.

January 12, 2017

Greenough’s Statue of Medora [Filed under: Dana, Richard Henry.Lord Byron, George Gordon]

Greenough’s Statue of Medora

  Medora, wake!—nay, do not wake!
  I would not stir that placid brow,
  Nor lift those lids, though light should break
Warm from the twin blue heavens that lie below.

  Sleep falls on thee, as on the streams
  The summer moon. Touched by its might,
  The soul comes out in loving dreams,
And wraps thy delicate form in living light.

  Thou art not dead!—These flowers say
  That thou, though more thou heed’st them not,
  Didst rear them once for him away,
Then loose them in thy hold like things forgot,

  And lay thee here where thou might’st weep,—
  That Death but hushed thee to repose,
  As mothers tend their infants’ sleep,
And watch their eyelids falter, open, close,—

  That here thy heart hath found release,
  Thy sorrows all are gone away,
  Or touched by something almost peace,
Like night’s last shadows by the gleaming day.

  When he who gave thee form is gone,
  And I within the earth shall lie,
  Thou still shalt slumber softly on,
Too fair to live, too beautiful to die.

Greenough’s Medora has long been one of my favorite sculptures. The piece is based on a character from Byron’s ridiculous verse tale The Corsair, which tells the story of a pirate named Conrad who arrives home to see his love Medora after a long absence, only to depart an hour later, despite Medora’s impassioned entreaties, to lead an attack on the Turkish Pacha Seyd. During the raid, Conrad disguises himself as a Dervish and confronts the Pacha. Seyd sees through the disguise, orders Conrad captured and put to death, and a fight ensues. The pirates have the upper hand for a bit, and decide whimsically to set the city ablaze. Conrad, however, perhaps feeling a pang of conscience, decides that the pirates must attempt to free the Pacha’s harem, who are now threatened by the pirates’ pyre. Conrad rescues the Pacha’s favorite odalisque, Gulnare, but is subsequently captured and again sentenced to death, this time by impalement. Gulnare, now enamored with Conrad, attempts to intercede on his behalf, and provides Conrad an opportunity to kill Seyd and escape—whereupon Conrad commences much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the idea he might stoop to something so low. Gulnare then kills the Pacha herself and frees Conrad, who is horrified at her conduct. Conrad then returns home to find that Medora has died of grief, thinking Conrad dead himself.

Byron’s poem, which is far too long to post here, was a bit of a sensation, selling all 10,000 copies of the first printing on the first day it was offered for sale. It was also soundly criticized for its grossest contradictions, e.g.,:

(Read more…)

January 1, 2017

Reading Poetry [Filed under: General Discussion.Yeats, William Butler]

Excerpt from Adam’s Curse

We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.’

Let us articulate sweet sounds together! It is not now the summer’s end, but come, meet for an old-fashioned talk of poetry. We can talk over brunch, we can talk over mimosas, we can talk over the internet, we can talk over each other. Unstitch a verse with me, then stitch it back together. If you are interested, please send me an email to register for the site.