A New Book of Verse
I’ve done what I could to find texts that are reasonably easy on the eye. Below is a list of the principal online poetry sites that I've visited.
Blessings on their creators. Especial blessings on Representative Poetry Online, both for the generous selections and for the clarity of its pages. If one’s purpose is to get a poem read, the easiest route is black on white, or at least dark on light. If there are print anthologies in which the texts are shell-pink on mauve I have yet to see them. But there are websites like that.
The links to online texts are via the bracketed numbers after the titles. These are the only links. Googling for unlinked poems, particularly less familiar ones, will bring you back to Voices, but only because the title is in the Table of Contents.
On some scrolled pages, the poem in question may be near the top. But doing a Find by first line is likely to be the easiest route. A poem may have more than one title.
At times I’ve provided more than one link when it was hard to choose between formats or when the versions supplemented one another. Some links are to texts in Voices. This isn’t vanity. A number of texts are available only here, and I offer translations of several poems. I hope to find others on the Web.
Unless you have eyes like a hawk’s, you will need to use Text Zoom or your own equivalent at times. Should my own text not be as crisp as you would like, try reducing it by 10%. I do so myself.
Creating A New Book of Verse has been a collaborative enterprise, as witness its origins and the acknowledgments at the end of “Unflown Flights.” There are still a number of poems in the Table of Contents for which I was unable to find any online texts. Help in plugging those gaps, or in finding better links than those that I’ve provided, will be welcome.
My webmaster, as I have said before, is Rob Stevenson. The site address is email@example.com
Here are the poetry sites:
- Ben Kilpela
- British Poetry 1780–1910
- Chadwyck-Healey English Poetry Database
- Everypoet.com www.everypoet.com
- English Poetry Database http://dlib.stanford.edu:6520/text/engpo.html
- EnglishVerse.com www.englishverse.com
- Famous poets and poems http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/
- French Poems http://colecizj.easyvserver.com/pwpfre.htm
- International Poetry Archive http://home.pacific.net.sg/~makhdoom/poet.html
- Les grands classiques http://www.poesie.webnet.fr/lesgrandsclassiques/poemes/liste_auteurs_a.html
- Lied and Art Song www.recmusic.org/lieder/
- Literature Network www.online-literature.com/
- 19th Century French Literature http://globegate.utm.edu/french/globegate_mirror/19.html
- Modern American Poetry.com www.ModernAmericanPoetry.com/
- Old Poetry http://oldpoetry.com/oauthor/list
- Oxford Book of English Verse (1919) http://users.compaqnet.be/cn127848/obev/index.html
- Poem Tree: an Anthology of Metered Poetry http://www.poemtree.com/
- Poems for all occasions http://www.gourmetgiftbaskets.com/Poems-For-All-Occasions.asp
- Poets’ Corner http://www.theotherpages.org/poems/poem-ab.html
- Poetry.com www.poetry.com.au/
- Poetry Archive http://smiley00.tripod.com/archive.html
- Poésie francaise http://poesie.webnet.fr/
- PoemHunter www.poemhunter.com/
- Plagiarist.com http://plagiarist.com/poetry/poets/
- Poems, Quotes, Readings www-personal.umich.edu/~pfa/poemquot/#poems
- Poetry X: Poetry Archive http://poetry.poetryx.com/ http://poetry.poetryx.com/poets/list/a/
- Representative Poetry Online http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/display/
- A Small Anthology of Poems, Western Michigan University English Dept. (Seamus Cooney)http://homepages.wmich.edu/~cooneys/poems/
- Sonnet Central www.sonnets.org/index.htm
- Vers Libre http://poetry.nanvaent.org/vl/
- Voices in the Cave of Being www.jottings.ca/john/voices/per_poems.html www.jottings.ca/john/voices/reservoir.html
I’ve skimmed or scanned the following anthologies, among others, plus more individual volumes of verse than I care to remember.
Apollinaire • Aragon • Askew • Auden • Balladry • Ballads • “Balow” • Brecht • Bruant • Burns • Cavendish • Churchill • Clare • Cory • Country • Desbordes-Valmore • Durry • Elliot • Falkner • Fergusson and Johnson • “Frankie” • Goethe • Goose • Gray • Gregory • Green-Gowne • Gwynn • Heine • Henryson • Herbert, W.N. • Herrick • Hogg • Hopkins • Hugo • Jennings • “John Henry” • “Johnny” • Knight • Laforgue • Levertov • MacNamara • Mallarmé • Marigold • Medley • Michel • Middleton • Montagu • More • Nerval • New Medley • “Of all wemen” • Phillida • Pinkerton • Pound • “Prognostication” • Raleigh • Ramsay • “Rauleigh” • Rilke • Rimbaud • Ronsard • Scott • F. Sempill • R. Sempill • Skelton • Bessie Smith • Stephens • Swift • Symson • Tennyson • Verlaine • Waley • “Whanne mine eyen” • Wild & Shaggy Witch •
Anonymous, “Whanne mine eyen misten”:
I’ve omitted a briefer and inferior second stanza which, to judge from a note by Carleton Brown, editor of English Lyrics of the XIII Century, didn’t originally belong with the poem.
I’ve resisted the temptation to modernize the spelling at all. Even changing –et to –eth (slacket/slaketh) weakens the bite of the lines.
Gordon Harvey found this one.
Anonymous, “Of all wemen that ever were borne”: pronunciation
I’ve taken the text from R.T. Davies, ed., Medieval English Lyrics (1964). The online version is less user-friendly. I’ve limited the glosses, most of them Davies’s, to words whose meanings it’s difficult or impossible for the non-specialist to guess. By and large, given the concreteness of the situation and the primal feelings being voiced, what a word looks as if it ought to mean is most likely what it does mean. “Childis” and “sonis,” for example, are obviously “child’s” and “son’s.”
The spelling is more or less phonetic, but with “e” on the end of a word (“make”) mostly sounded slightly, like the “e” in “Rilke,” when the next word begins with a consonant, but unvoiced when the next word begins with a vowel. The movement of the verse is lilting, so if a line seems jerky and too short, it’s probably because one’s mispronouncing something. In a line like “Thus to be bored with nailes sere,” all the “e’s” need to be sounded. With “And pulle it out sore bledand,” there has to be a slight pause after “out,” and the “e” of “sore” needs sounding slightly. The second syllable of “bledand,” Ian Robinson informs me, is simply a regional variant of “-ing,” and it was acceptable then to rhyme a stressed syllable with an unstressed one. Each line contains a slight pause (caesura) somewhere, with two stressed syllables on either side of it.
The term “stress” as used here does not imply any dramatic departure from normal speech. In the sentence just completed, the first syllable of “normal” and the second syllables of “imply,” “dramatic,” and “departure” are stressed (i.e., receive more emphasis), relative to the other syllables in those words.
Robert Henryson, “The Complaint of Cresseid”:
This magnificent seven-stanza poem comes from Robert Henryson’s The Testament of Cresseid, in which faithless Cresseid (Chaucer’s Creseyde, Shakespeare’s Cressida) is smitten with leprosy by the gods. When you click onto the scrollable page, search with “Cresseid’s Complaint” or “O sop of sorrow”. “Lament” seems a better (modern) characterization of it than “complaint.”
The poem is a poem and not a linguistic obstacle-course, the lines are essentially ten-syllable ones, and a number of unglossed words become more familiar when one reads the poem out loud and endeavours to feel and sound Scottish.
I’ve opted for what is virtually the same text of “Upon a Dead Man’s Head” as the one in J.V. Cunningham’s anthology The Renaissance in England (1966), its texts modernized throughout, presumably in keeping with the opening sentence of the Preface: “This is a book designed to be read through with pleasure and profit.” The authority of that distinguished scholar-poet here is good enough for me. My eye has too often slid over Skelton because of a feeling that the shortness of his lines makes the difficulty of his diction preponderate. I was unable to find a comparable online version of “Elinor Rumming” and lacked the will to type out the whole thing in Cunningham’s version.
Thomas More’s “Lamentation of Queen Elizabeth.”
The Elizabeth here is the first queen of Henry VII, who died in childbirth in 1502.
The text is from Emrys Jones’ New Oxford Book of Sixteenth-Century Verse (1991). The spelling is modernized there, so you lose the distinction between “ask’d” (one syllable) and “asked” (two), which functions a bit like the mute terminal “e” in French poetry, which is sounded or has a sounded value when followed by a consonant, with benefit to the flexibility and heft of a line. But the gain in non-“period” immediacy more than compensates for it, and I’ve simply added a few stress marks.
The metre is of the same flexible kind that one has in various poems by Wyatt. One needs to adjust to get the feel of speech as one reads. In the first line of stanza 2, ”old” and the first syllable of “worthy” would have about equal weight. “Marriage,” coming from the French, probably would not have collapsed yet into “marridge,” and would be three syllables. Probably too, “ prince,” the first syllable of “Arthur,” and “mine” would be about equal, with less emphasis on “own.”
It’s a lovely poem, about loving as much as about dying.
Alexander Scott, “Lament of the Maister of Erskyn”: lineation
In Forms of Discovery, Yvor Winters remarks that though “Lament of the Maister of Erskyn”
is primitive and is less compact than most of Wyatt, … it has the plain honesty of the early school, and the two final stanzas are moving … [It[ should never have been allowed to sink from sight.
I’ve done my bit to help keep it afloat.
However, he quotes the poem (from an 1821 edition) in what seems to me an unappealing form—long-line quatrains with strong caesuras, plus internal rhymes that the mind’s eye and ear keep hunting for, at the expense of the sentiments expressed. E.g.,
Departe, departe, depart / allace! I must departe
From hir that has my hart,/ with hairt ful soir,
Agains my will in deid, / and can find no remeid,
I wait, the panis of deid / can do no moir
Since the printed text is a score for aural performance and no good purpose seems served by tucking away the rhymes, I’ve reformatted the poem. The original is on pages 12–13 of Forms.
The reverse practice on the Web of printing stanzaic poems without breaks between the stanzas lacks any excuse that I can think of.
Center-aligning lines so that normal stanzaic poems look like miniature odes presumably results from a mistaken notion of what looks nice to the eye, regardless of resulting interferences with the ear.
Imperfect computer skills may be responsible for the left-aligning of poems like Donne’s “The Sun Rising” and Yeats’ “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” in which the indents are necessary indicators of the rhetorical structures of the stanzas.
So too with the stepped effect that Hölderlin favoured in a number of poems, where each stanza progresses from left to right as well as downwards, so that as we move from stanza to stanza, there’s an effect of advance and return, advance and return.
However, I’ve now (2009) discovered that on my own screen Safari, which earlier had performed as it was supposed to, is left-aligning. With Firefox there’s no problem.
I’ve made no attempt to adjust Scott’s spelling. If one wants to dwell rather than skim, one can take heart (hart, hairt) and recognize that almost all the words are familiar ones spelt and presumably pronounced somewhat differently—master, alas, hear, remedy, deed, pains, sight, what, ground, merry, shall, should, she, weep, sigh, earthly, and so on.
In the third stanza, I’ve changed “wilderness” to “wild,” which fits syntactically and eliminates an anomaly that feels like an error in transcribing, like the inconsistencies in spelling.
Ann Askew: the ballad which she made
The Tudor period was, as Thom Gunn puts it in “A Mirror for Poets, a time of “Wheels, racks, and fires,” as well as of poetic conventions and dramatic fictions. Writers of poems died at the hands of government—Walter Raleigh, Henry Howard, Robert Southwell, Chiddiock Tichborne, and heroic Anne Askew among them. In a later century, Edgar Bowers would try in “From William Tyndale to John Frith” to think his way into the consciousnesses of a couple of other Tudor figures facing the prospect of terrible deaths. In another poem from the Renaissance, an anonymous writer is pleased by the fact that the powerful, in politics, can be brought low and made to suffer extreme penalties.
A New Ballade of the Marigold
This poem comes from Vivian de Sola Pinto and Allan Rodway’s The Common Muse; an Anthology of British Ballad Poetry, 15th–20th Century.
Lines like “Make her to reigne over Englande” or “That all may be to his pleasure” aren’t examples of metrical uncertainty. Words were pronounced differently. “Englande” rhymes straightforward with “understande,” “hande,” and “bande”; “pleasure” with “endure”. The lines are all accentual-syllabic iambic pentameters, with normal substitutions. One simply has to listen to how the lines are going, as one does with French verse, where mute-E’s on the ends of words—sottise, chante, bête—,when they come in front of consonants, count as syllables and make up a line to the required number of syllables, regular French verse being syllabic in the sense that the number of syllables are fixed but not the number of stresses.
Called simply “The Marigold,” and without the information about the occasion of its writing, or the name of its author, an almost identical version is in Robert Jamieson, ed., Popular Ballads and Songs from Trdition, Manuscripts, and Scarce Editions; with Translations of Similar Pieces from the Ancient Danish Language and a Few Originals by the Editor, 2.vols. (Edinburgh 1806), vol. II, pp.215–220; facsimile reprint, two volumes in one.
Jamieson remarks drily that, “This Ballad is preserved on account of the subject; as the time may come, when a Panegyric of any kind upon poor Mary, will be as great a curiosity as a Panegyric upon Nero or Caligula would be.”
But the poem isn’t the equivalent of some Communist flack hailing the wisdom, learning, and warm common humanity of Comrade Stalin. In G.J. Meyer’s refreshingly revisionist The Tudors; the Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty (2010) one reads:
When the first woman ever to rule England took the throne in 1553, she was already a tragic figure. For a quarter of a century she had been immersed in betrayal, loss, and grief. Her life had been blighted first by the egotism of a father who was quite prepared to destroy her, then by a young half-brother who regarded it as his sacred duty to save her from her own deepest beliefs and, when that could not be arranged, to save England from her.
It was all doubly sad because Mary’s life had begun so brilliantly. From earliest childhood she had been an ornament of the English court, a pretty little golden-haired princess doted on by her parents and by every noble, churchman, soldier, and diplomat eager for her parents’ favor. …
She was tutored not only by leading English scholars but by respected humanists from the continent, and she wrote and spoke Latin fluently by age nine. She was equally proficient in French, shared her father’s love of music and dance and learned to play several instruments, and under her mother’s watchful eye was given a solid grounding in the classics and theology. … In England as in all of Europe’s greatest royal houses, conventional Catholic piety was taken for granted as integral to being female and royal.
William Forrest, one of her chaplains, wasn’t eulogizing a monster. He was hailing a devout Catholic and the prospect of a return to the Faith from which, far more bloodily than Mary would ever become, it had been ripped by her father, to the puzzlement and dismay of a lot of the populace, and with the creation, through the looting of the monasteries, of indecent wealth at the top and grinding poverty at the bottom.
The torturing and burning of Anne Askew as a Protestant heretic had occurred during Henry’s reign.
But of course, what with the Marian persecutions during those four terrible years, the Inquisition horrors, the rebellious Irish, expansionist Spain under Philip II, and Foxe’s Book of Martyres, Catholicism then was as charged with political energy and, as seen through Protestant eyes, as dangerous as Islam is now.
A poem like this, as it seems to me, lovely ballade is another reminder of the strength of religious beliefs during the Renaissance. Histories-of-Ideas don’t burn people; theologies do. A century later, the author of “A History of Insipids” voices a common anger with Charles II’s religious toleration after the Restoration, and the troublesome Catholic Irish figure for him as treacherous “Teague.” In my own London youth in the Thirties and Forties, English Catholics were considerably odder and more alien for me than Jews, and the claim of papal infallibility a monstrous absurdity.
“A Prognostication” and Archbishop Laud
The anonymous “A Prognostication” is a reminder of the intensity of the religio-political passions that resulted in the British Civil War and are notably absent from the writings of clerics like Herrick and Herbert.
The poem was evidently written after the learned William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was one of the most powerful men in the England of Charles 1, and a brilliant Chancellor of Oxford University, had been accused of treason by Parliament in 1641 and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
During his thirteen years as the head of the Church, he had been rigorously imposing uniformity in church practices and putting down dissent. Among the things that had outraged persons of a Puritan persuasion, especially Scottish Presbyterians, were the imposition of church canons (laws), the compulsory use of the Book of Common Prayer, the wearing of loose-fitting and big-sleeved white surplices over the customary black cassocks, an increased power for bishops, and a shift in emphasis from the pulpit (and preaching) to the communion table. In 1637 three Puritans had had their ears cut off and their faces branded for having engaged in “seditious” publication.
As a principal advisor to the King, Laud had encouraged Charles’ own authoritarianism, and was perceived as looking favourably on Catholicism. In 1639-40, an army of outraged Presbyterians crossed the border into northern England, in the so-called Bishops’ War. In 1640, too (Google), “Five hundred London apprentices marched to Lambeth Palace to seize him; but the Archbishop, being apprised of their design, effected his escape. One of the ringleaders, a tailor, was hung for this attempt.”
Persons accused of treason were brought into the Tower through the so-called Traitors’ Gate, opening onto the river and guarded by a portcullis. The normal punishment for high treason was hanging, drawing, and quartering—hanging almost to the point of death, disemboweling, and dismembering.
Finch was a high government official who fled the country to save his life and didn’t return until the Restoration. Sir Francis Windebanke, Secretary of State, was a close associate of Laud’s. Matthew Wren, Bishop of Norwich, who had been zealous in the persecution of Puritans, was another.
In 1644, after what was evidently a flagrantly unfair trial by Parliament, Laud was beheaded on Tower Hill.
All of this comes courtesy of Google.
Pierre de Ronsard: the body
In the poems here, and in various others by Ronsard, we have love poems in which the context of ordinary ongoing daily life is present without strain—an adolescent lying in bed late, women sitting beside the fire spinning. Ronsard’s discourse could accommodate at times culs, cons, even—for the length of a whole sonnet—a nombril (navel). He could talk in sonnets about gaydom at the court of the libidinous Henri II, and the fact that Henri didn’t fancy him when he was a page because he was too hairy.
Among the handful of other sexually frank poems is (notoriously, it would appear) the following:
Amour, je ne me plains de l’orgueil endurcy,
Ny de la cruauté de ma jeune Lucresse,
Ny comme sans secours languir elle me laisse:
Je me plains de sa main et de son godmicy.
C’est un gros instrument qui se fait pres d’icy,
Dont chaste elle corrompt toute nuict sa jeunesse.
Voilà contre l’Amour sa prudente finesse,
Voilà comme elle trompe un amoureux soucy.
Aussi pour recompense une haleine puante,
Une glaire espessie entre les draps gluante,
Un oeil have et battu, un teint palle et desfait
Monstrent qu’un faux plaisir toute nuict la possede.
Il vaut mieux estre Phryne et Laïs tout à fait,
Que se feindre Lucresse avec un tel remede.
Pierre de Ronsard (1524–1584)
O Love, I’m not complaining about the arrogance,
Or the cruelty of my young Lucrece,
Nor about how she lets me languish without relief;
I’m complaining about her hand and her dildo.
It’s a great big thing, fashioned near here,
With which she chastely corrupts her youth all night.
That’s her prudence about Love,
That’s how she cheats on a loving concern for her.
And in return, a stinky breath,
Goo like egg-white between sticky sheets,
A sunken eye, a pale and wan complexion
Show what a base pleasure grips her all night.
It would be better to be Phryne or Laïs up front
Than pretend she’s chaste Lucretia and do that.
The standard text has “Portia” in the last line. In Le Cabinet Secret du Parnasse: Pierre de Ronsard et la Pleiade (Paris 1928), Louis Perceau lists a repeated “Lucresse” as an alternate reading, and I’ve opted for that, slightly modified, to avoid the too-strong pull of Shakespeare’s Portia, not yet in existence at the time.
I’d be surprised if there were an equivalent to this poem in the English Renaissance, and not just because it’s indecorous, but because of the straightforward acknowledgment of the beloved (or lusted-after) as an individual character with her own physical being and desires. What kind of profile could we construct even of Donne’s partner in “Going to Bed”?
The consciousness here, as in Villon’s “Ballade of Big Margot” where they fart while love-making, of the everyday shared corporeality of the Other probably permits more in the way of substantial psychological interactions. Lazy, lie-abed young Marie feels more realistically “there” for me than Herricks’ gorgeously theatrical Corinna. And the awareness of the body, even when unverbalized, may still be there in the relatively abstract classical tragedies of Corneille and Racine. Racine’s famous “C’est Vénus tout entière/ À sa proie attachée” doesn’t come out of nowhere.
But much was lost when the robust French classicism of the Renaissance was chastened into neo-classical propriety, and an important aspect of French Romanticism was the restoration of corporeality.
In the same anthology, Le Cabinet Secret, is a six-hundred-line poem in decasyllabic couplets, “La Vieille Courtisanne,” by Ronsard’s fellow-poet Joachim du Bellay, in which a retired and nominally repentant old courtesan describes her guilt-free and largely successful career, starting with her losing her virginity to a mere “serf” (sic) when she was twelve or thirteen—three years with a priest during which she acquired social skills; setting up in business in Rome behind a façade of respectability; having a conversion which didn’t take; opening a “boutique” (sic); etc. And a free spirit.
La liberté de pouvoir deviser,
D’aller en masque, et de se déguiser,
Siffler de nuict par une jalousie,
Faire l’amour, vivre à sa fantasie,
Sans esprouver la facheuse prison
De ne pouvoir sortir de la maison
Sans un valet, et, sans conger du maistre,
N’oser monstrer le nez à la fenestre;
Ce seul desire mon esprit chatouilloit …
The freedom to have casual conversations,
To wear a mask and go out in disguise,
To whistle through a shutter in the night,
Make love, live out one’s fantasies
Without the exasperating restrictions
Of being unable to leave the house
Without a footman or, without permission,
Dare to show one’s nose at the window—
That above all was what my soul desired…
There’s no cruelty in the narrative, or obscenity, but she was surely an ancestress of Sade’s Juliette.
As to Ronsard’s “glaire espessie,” literally, thickened egg-white, a google almost at random the other day (May 2009) brought up the following on an advice site:
“When I use a dildo and I cum, my cum is almost like a guy's cum, not as thick though. Whenever I pull out the dildo, the end is covered in my cum. It's not that much, maybe a teaspoon full, but I’m worried I might have a health problem.”
Walter Raleigh, “Three things there be that prosper up apace”: the gallows-tree
I forget where I acquired the Voices version of the poem, but it seems to me superior to the one that is generally printed. I mean, who needs a tacked-on moralizing couplet when the three stanzas have spoken so powerfully for themselves? (Voices>Personals>Comments II)
Since writing the foregoing, I’ve gone to the library, and, eureka!, there we have the poem ending the way “my” version does, in The Poems of Sir Walter Raleigh: a Historical Edition, edited by Michael Rudeck , Tempe, Arizona, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1999. I’ve corrected a few words in my own text, but have indulged myself (and the poem) and kept the divisions between the quatrains, which aren’t there in the Rudeck text.
Rudeck glosses “frets” as “tightens, cinches,” and that may indeed have been one of the meanings, but limiting it to that would miss the fact that when the three things meet “they one another mar.” I see that in my excellent Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed., 2004), the first of the principal definitions of “mar” is “to eat away; gnaw.”
“Phillida Flouts Me”
The text of this delightful poem comes from Pinto and Rodway’s The Common Muse, where they speak of it as Elizabethan. It helps fill that gap that appears when one wonders what ordinary people back in that time were really like, given their heightened theatricality in the plays. Mutatis mutandis, practically every complaint, ploy, frustration that we see here could have been encountered in the twentieth-century (I won’t risk speaking about the twenty-first). A later poem like Dibdin’t “The Lady’s Diary” fills the same need for me.
There were of course large differences in social structures and the behaviours that they required. But some of the intensities, particularly where questions of power, social order, marriages as adjuncts to politics, and religion were concerned, were probably confined to a fairly small minority. And in a number of the broadsides, the relationships between men and women at the level here was not one of masters and slaves.
Has Margery, or whatever her non-classical name might be, simply written him off as a hopeless nerd? Or is she engaged in the game of testing him out and establishing (like Shakespeare’s Beatrice and others.) her own power, given what will be demanded of her in marriage, at least when pregnancies start. The kinds of things that go on in traditional ballads, which mostly turn out tragically, are another matter, of course, another side of the sex coin.
A lot of defining of realworld relationships, as later in the Blues, obviously went on in broadside poetry, in contrast to all those highfalutin’ sonnets, skewed by the need to demonstrate, under the much-flattered Queen, one’s awareness that adoration was the proper stance in a relationship between Woman and mere men.
By the sound of it, Phillida, if of a practical turn of mind, could go further and fare worse. He’s an adorer, prosperous enough to have a maid and maybe other servants, and with open-purse ideas as to what might please a young bride. He might be a nuisance for awhile with his attentiveness, and have little spurts of rebelliousness, as in, “I am not half so bad as she would paint me.” But this isn’t poor Charlotte Lucas and the unspeakable Mr. Collins.
I love his taking pride in Doll splashing milk on him and Winifred playing with his nose, making him feel like one of the lads.
It’s all practically a short story miniaturized.
Sir Walter Rauleigh’s Lamentation
This is number 15 in A Pepysian Garland: Black-Letter Broadside Ballads of the Years 1595–1639, chiefly from the collection of Samuel Pepys, ed. Hyder E. Rollins (Cambridge U.P., 1922).
In his prefatory note to the poem, Rollins comments:
The ballad is correct enough in dates and places, but misrepresents Raleigh’s words and actions on the scaffold. For this misrepresentation, censorship of the press rather than personal animosity of the author is, no doubt, responsible. For although in 1601 Raleigh’s supposed responsibility in the execution of the Earl of Essex aroused much hostile feeling against him, by 1618 this feeling had largely changed to sympathy for his own misfortunes. (89)
The poem, regardless of its accuracy, seems to me a moving piece of political writing displaying a good deal of sympathy for the sixty-six-year-old Raleigh. It had obviously been a major case. Rollins quotes someone in November of that year as saying that “We are so full still of Sir Walter Raleigh …,” about whom there had been a number of “ballets” (i.e., ballads).
It can be interesting, as with Mary Montagu on Swift, to have the self-definings of poets (in this connection, especially, Raleigh’s “The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage”) supplemented by poets gazing from the outside at their social selves.
An Excellent New Medley
This curiosity is in volume 1 of The Roxburghe Ballads, ed. Charles Hindley (1873), the introduction to which begins:
The Collection of Ancient Songs and Ballads, written on various subjects, and printed between the years MDLX and MDCC, and now known as the Roxburghe Ballads, consists of three volumes in folio, and embraces some thirteen hundred broadsides mostly in Black Letter, and are, with but few exceptions, all in a very good state of preservation.
So, between 1560 and 1700. The costumes in the woodcut illustrations seem Elizabethan or early Stuart.
Apart from removing the capitalization of all but obvious proper names, and tweaking the spelling of a few words that would otherwise be mispronounced (e.g. sprit>sprite), I’ve left the text as I found it.
Among the online definitions of “medley” is “a piece composed from parts of existing pieces played one after another, sometimes overlapping.”
To judge from the final stanza, the kind of medley that we have here is what a street-singer might offer, maybe as an aid to advertizing his wares or skills. It’s obviously a medley of allusions, some to past historical figures, such as Margery Kempe, some to type-figures, such as the simpleton John-a-Nokes, some to current events, some to proverbs, and much more. Some of the material may come from other broadsides.
Tray-trip was a form of hopscotch.
In another medley, “Ione” is clearly Joan, with “I” generally doing typographical duty for “J”. But could it, with a typo, be Jove here?
The butcher’s “masty” dog might be a mastiff.
Connie-skins are coney skins, i.e., rabbit skins.
Apparently no water was involved with the cuck-stool. Googling gives:
The offender would merely be forced to sit in a strong chair (the "cucking-stool") outside their house and would sometimes be carried around the town on it for people to stare and otherwise frown upon them.
“Maw” was a card game.
“Gelt” may mean gelded.
I have followed the order in which the poems appear in Herrick’s collected poems, published during his lifetime—Hesperides: or The Works both Humane & Divine of Robert Herrick Esq. (1648), which is the principal text of the 1965 Oxford University Press edition. The editor, L.C. Martin, reports that:
Herrick often assured himself that his work would bring him great fame, though perhaps with slow returns at first.
I make no haste to have my Numbers read.
Seldom comes Glorie till a man be dead.
In fact after the publication of his poems in 1648 he had no glory and very little attention for over 150 years (viii).
There are over fourteen-hundred poems there, including over eight-hundred epigrams, all mixed together within the two general categories of secular and (much smaller) religious. Over and above changing taste, an unusual amount of work would have been required of readers trying to get their bearings there and taking, perhaps, the more or less classical epigrams as the true voicings of the poet, with a resultant lessening of attention to other kinds of poems.
Nor, given the variousness even among the religious poems, is there any obvious Herrick Story, any straightforward progression from, say, hedonism to austerity.
He seems to have quit poetry for good after the collected poems. He was not an intellectual or a political writer, and his sympathies were with the losing side in the escalating struggle between King and Parliament. The year before the book appeared, he was shut out from employment as a cleric for refusing to take the equivalent of a loyalty oath to the new government. The culture of the Commonwealth was not hospitable to the writing of epigrams like his, dependent as they were on the at times amused enjoyment of sophisticated readers and auditors. (“Have you heard the one about…?”)
As to the paths discernible in his more “personal” poems, he may have simply lacked the will or desire, having done this or that kind of thing once, to keep going.
He was an exemplary craftsman, even when the results are not especially interesting. I doubt that there’s a single bad poem in his oeuvre.
Winters plucked the following out of obscurity for his and Field’s Quest for Reality (1969)
His Poetry his Pillar
Only a little more
I have to write,
Then I’ll give o’er.
And bid the world goodnight.
’Tis but a flying minute,
That I must stay,
Or linger in it;
And then I must away.
O time that cut’st down all!
And scarce leav’st here
Of any men that were.
How many lie forgot
In vaults beneath?
And piece-meal rot
Without a fame in death?
Behold this living stone,
I rear for me,
Ne’er to be thrown
Down, envious Time, by thee.
Pillars let some set up,
(If so they please)
Here is my hope,
And my Pyramides.
Robert Herrick (1591–1674)
Lady Anne Bothwell’s lullaby
In The Simpsons there’s an episode in which the characters have heroically made their way up a wooded hillside at night until exhaustion overtakes them. Next morning, when they take the remaining few steps up to the top, they find that there’s a shopping mall down on the highway on the other side.
Enabled to access it electronically, in facsimile, I made my way through the 1706 edition of James Watson, A Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems both Ancient and Modern (Edinburgh, 1706), and came across a poem of which I’d never heard, “Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament,” which while a bit rough in places, was moving and interesting. So I copied it out for inclusion in A New Book.
I have now taken the few remaining steps and googled for Lady Anne Bothwell.
Well, to pick a few main items in sequence:
A shorter, neater, and emotionally simpler rewrite of the poem (done when and by whom?) is on the Web, with instrumental accompaniment, at www.contemplator.com/scotland/bothwell.html
It’s a good poem in its own right, but lost are the resentment, the anger, the conflicted feelings that make the earlier and technically rougher version distinctive. And the biographical information about an actual Lady Anne Bothwell is a distracting and intrusive irrelevance for my purposes. The poem is Anywoman speaking.
Another Web page contains the first four stanzas, slightly tweaked, of the Watson version. The opening reads:
Baloo, my babe, lie still and sleep;
It grieves me sore to see thee weep.
When thou art merry, I am glad;,
Thy weeping makes my heart full sad.
Baloo my boy, thy mother’s joy,
Thy father breeds thee much annoy,
Baloo, my babe, Baloo, my boy, thy mother’s joy,
Baloo my babe, lie still and sleep.
A musical setting of it was attributed to William Lawes (1602–1645).
Another version, shortened from thirteen stanzas to seven, and with tweaks to the phrasing, is at http://www.exclassics.com/percy/perc84.htma
A thirteen-stanza version is in Francis James Child, ed., English and Scottish Ballads (1857–58) in which some of the stanzas are identical, others tweaked here and there, and the sequence made more expositorily tidier. A bit of texture is lost here and there. E.g., “And in thy Bravery thou did’st vaunt/That I no Maintenance should want” has gone, and stanza 11, beginning, “Now Peace, my Comfort, curse not him,” becomes
But curse not him; perhaps now he,
Stung with remorse, is blessing thee:
Perhaps at death; for who can tell
Whether the judge of heaven or hell,
By some proud foe has struck the blow,
And laid the dear deceiver low.
What is reportedly Allan Ramsay’s version is at www.glasgowguide.co.uk/wjmc/balowmyb.shtml.
Some of the stanzas are identical with Watson, but there are changes in the sequence and some tweaks.
It’s probably a good thing I haven’t moved in on Tin Pan Alley, otherwise I might be “discovering” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
“Lady Anne’s Lullaby,” in any version, isn’t in The Oxford Book of Scottish Verse or the Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, nor is it in Representative Poetry Online.
But in a neat demonstration of Auden’s “When have we not preferred some going round/ To going straight to where we are?” I see, after a nudge from the Web, that a neatened seven-stanza version is buried among some early Anonyouses in the copy of Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse which I have owned since the 1940s, where it’s labeled 16th century.
Robert Sempill (1595?–1665?)
“The Life and Death of the Piper of Kilbarchan” is in The Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse, chosen by H.J.C. Grierson and G. Bullough (1938), with no glossary. It isn’t in Alastair Fowler’s New Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse (1991).
The editor and publishers may have decided that too big a glossary would have been required, though I see that twenty-six words or phrases are glossed at the foot of two pages of Joshua Sylvester’s “The Zodiac.” But there’s also, for me, a whiff of gentrification here, Bunyan’s “Little Bird,” Suckling’s “plebean” ballad about a wedding, and the anonymous “An Old Souldier of the Queen” having also been discarded. The greater inclusiveness of which Fowler speaks in his introduction seems in places to consist of finding marginal figures who are doing the same kind of art-respectable thing as better-known ones, but less distinctively.
Sempill’s poem, which is well enough known to have been translated into Russian, does present problems, though. There are too many places in Grierson and Bullough’s text which, when one goes in search of help in the great online Dictionary of the Scots Language, remain obstinately unclear. The facsimile broadsheet text online seems an improvement, at least where intelligibility is concerned, though no doubt it has its own problems for expert eyes.
Among its virtues is that the names of individuals and places are italicized, though not (until I did a tweak) the titles of tunes. Even so, there are places where I haven’t had success with the dictionary or with the glossings of others, and simply don’t know what has been going on, or have made uncertain guesses. Scots was a language in which teuche, teugh, tewche, tewgh, tewich, thewch, tuche, tuich, tugh, tw(i)ch(e), teoch, touch, tough, tuff were all spellings of our “tough.”
There is flat disagreement about the meaning of “Kittoch.” Is that a familiar contraction of “Katherine” signifying something like “wench,” or the name of Habbie’s dirk? What you opt for, and whether it’s “she” or “we” who are left guideless by his death, will affect your visualization of the action. There would have been no uncertainty for hearers and readers at the time.
The poem is there, the online dictionary is there, there may be online commentaries or glossings that I’ve missed, and I’ve provided a tentative glossary of sorts. The poem, like lots of other New Book ones, is there to be enjoyed if one feels like it, even if, since this is partly a foreign language, with lacunae.
It’s a fine poem, full of what Leavis called “felt life” as the character of a loved and admired figure, along with aspects of his community, is built up for us in the recollections of the narrator.
It’s one that Auden and John Garrett might have included in their remarkable anthology for schools The Poet’s Tongue (1935), in which ballads, nursery rhymes, epigrams, folk-songs, nonsense verse, and “real” poems or bits from poems all jostled together anonymously, with the energy of versification as a common denominator—a work whose influence in schools, along with Auden’s own “pop” poems, would be a factor later in the verse of poets like John Whitworth and Kit Wright, who found other routes away from stylistic modernism than the “Movement” work of poets like Larkin , Jennings, and Gunn.
According to a Web item, Sempill’s poem was important for Scottish verse, its stanza form being used by Allan Ramsay, Burns, Fergusson, Stevenson, and no doubt others. It’s a curious form.
In contrast to the more common aabccb narrative stanza, the balancing of which permits of a steady advance, we have here each time, a three-line surge forward, and then a kind of check and diminuendo, which makes each stanza slightly more individual. Hence there is more opportunity for the kinds of variations in subject and syntax that can enable one to feel that, yes, there is indeed progression going on, a progression in the thinking and/or recalling of the speaking voice.
I wish that I understood the poem at a literal level all the way through. But there are enough parts that I do understand for me to feel confident that the meaning is there for recovery in the others, enabling one to enter more fully into those recreated times and rituals and minds.
Even if not absolutely the first outing for the stanza, it was the one that established it as the form that would be used by Ramsay, Fergusson, Burns, Stevenson, and no doubt others.
The facsimile is here:
Francis Sempill’s or Anon’s “Blythsome Wedding”
In his 1849 collection The Poems of the Sempills of Beltrees, James Paterson reports that “The Blythsome Wedding” was first published in James Watson’s Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Poems (Edinburgh, 1706) and that he himself has used that text, the poem having been a good deal reprinted subsequently.
I myself have settled on the one in Allan Ramsay’s The Tea-Table Miscellany: A Collection of Choice Songs, Scots and English, 14th ed., 2 vols. (reprinted 1871). The spelling is a little less, to modern eyes, idiosyncratic, the phrasing is a bit more robust in places, and small syntactical changes, such as beginning a particular line with “With” rather than “And,” slightly improve the sense and contribute to a tightening of the whole. Ramsay, himself a poet, evidently brought a craftsman’s eye to texts. The one for “Bonnie Barbara Allan,” for example, appearing here in print for probably the first time, is in the classic form in which we still have it.
The text in W.MacNeile Dixon’s Edinburgh Book of Scottish Verse (1910) is basically Ramsay’s, but with some tweaks here and there that make it marginally more decorous, though still strong and chewy, and with some good lines that aren’t in Ramsay. Dixon ascribes the poem to Anonymous. Apart from a handful by Gay, Ramsay attaches no names to his picks.
Paterson’s brief commentary is chiefly devoted to resisting the attribution of the poem to Sir William Scott of Thirlestane. He sees the poem as valuable for “furnishing an imperishable record of bygone manners, and of the dainties which used to garnish the tables of the peasantry, on occasions of festivity, a century or two ago.” Remarking that “Most readers of Scottish poetry will be able to peruse it without the aid of a glossary,” he glosses only the terms for the dainties at the feast.
So Dixon’s glosses are all the more welcome. As is the aid provided by the great online Dictionary of the Scots Language.
Fortunately one doesn’t need assistance for figures like thumbless Kate and blinking daft Barbara.
Ramsay’s glossary is of help in a few places. Paterson’s identification of “Mons-meg” as an antique canon and city landmark doesn’t seem obviously related to the pregnancy of the lass with the lilly-white leg who’s sent down “south” to Edinburgh to learn good manners. Ramsay makes the connection.
The relishing of naming in the poem puts me in mind of Villon, whose “Berthe au grand pie” (Bigfoot Bertha) is echoed, whether or not intentionally, by Sempill’s (or Anon’s) “splee/splae/splay-fitted/footed Bessie” in Paterson’s version. I see in Google that David Hume acquired a 1723 edition of Villon’s Oeuvres for the National Library of Scotland.
Robert Ford’s Vagabond Songs and Ballads of Scotland, with Many Old and Familiar Melodies (1901) includes the poem in what is essentially the Dixon version, with sensible slight tweakings of spellings.
For whatever reason, the poems in the General Books print-on-demand edition of it are not printed in stanza form, which shortens the book by over half and makes the page numbers in the Table of Contents useless. “A Bridal” is on pp. 89–90.
A Satyre against the Witch
I came upon this poem in Vivian de Sola Pinto and Allan Rodway’s excellent The Common Muse; An Anthology of Popular British Ballad poetry 15th-20th Century (1965/1957). It is on at least a couple of websites.
Here, cobbled together from several sources, is a bit of glossing:
Bustuary> pertaining to funeral pyres; funereal
Legion> numerous; “And he asked him [a demon], What is thy name? And he answered, saying, My name is Legion: for we are many.” (Mark 5:9)
Canidia> a Neapolitan witch and whore, from Horace’s Epodes and Satires.
Factours> here, penises
surfle>sew; or, to cover up, paint over (usually with cosmetics.
posterns> private entrance at the side or rear
Aceldama> Akeldama (field of blood); a field supposedly bought by Judas Iscariot with his ill-gotten gains, in which his bowels burst open and he fell down dead (in another version simply hanging himself). Acts 1:19
Golgotha> graveyard; the biblical name for the place where Jesus was crucified.
charnel> a building or place where corpses or bones are deposited; as in “whited sepulchers”?
Colchos> Colchis or Medea; witch, poisoner, and murderess.
Halcyon> a legemdary bird, which is supposed to have a peaceful, calming influence on the sea at the time of the winter solstice ; hence tranquil, happy, idyllic.
This powerful invective was directed at the notorious Frances Carr, Countess of Somerset (1590–1632), the novelistic complications of whose life included seeking a marriage annulment on the grounds that she was still a virgin (entailing a physical examination by a committee) and a murder by poison, for which she and her second husband were imprisoned. Judging from the refrain, the poem probably appeared around 1622, when James I gave her a pardon.
But as with various other satires, such as MacFlecknoe and Book IV of the Dunciad the allegorical figures take on larger-than-life lives of their own, thanks to a remarkable rhetorical richness.
Here the anonymous writer has drawn on an intense creepy poem by Horace involving a Neapolitan witch, with snakes braided in her hair, engaged with her minions in a plot to bury a page up to his neck in a graveyard, with food set tantalizing out of his reach, so that his liver will dry up as he starves to death, and be used later for spells. See: http://europrogovision.blogspot.com/2010/03/satyre-entituled-witch.html
Which is to say, a figure out of nightmare.
We also have horrorstory biblical allusions, classical myths, and legendary monsters.
And there’s an abundance of what might be called Metaphysical compressions—painting her heart as smoothly as her face, instigating swordplay with her silken words, closing up her extended vagina to give the appearance of virginity, giving kisses that drew men down below her waist, etcetera.
The insistences towards the end that there be no celebrations of her release from confinement, and the expressed hope that supernatural retribution will catch up with her, have the kind of intensity evoked in the later 20th-century by figures like Myra Hindley and Karla Homolka.
In fact she lived for ten more years, no doubt with an untroubled conscience. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frances_Carr,_Countess_of_Somerset
Margaret Cavendish, “Upon the Theme of Love”: adoration
In his delightful “Paris Letter” (1926), D.H. Lawrence suggests that French men “are just worn out, making offerings on the shrine of Aphrodite in elastic garters.” Cavendish’s “Upon the Theme of Love” points to a similar weariness with respect to the Renaissance tradition of poetic adoration.
There are robust departures from that tradition in the jaunty impatience of Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” (“C’mon, let’s boogie!”) and the deglamorizing candour of Wilmot’s “The Imperfect Enjoyment,” Alternative routes for men of feeling open up in Cowley’s “On the Death of Mr. William Harvey” (intimate male friendship). Vaughan’s “To His Books” (the joys of solitary study), and the sublimated eroticism of Marvell’s “The Garden”.
In the 17th- and 18th-century poems by woman here, we have the persistence of a genuinely classical realism about human behaviour, as witnessed in their own lives.
Andrew Symson and “The Poor Client’s Complaint”
“A Poor Client’s Complaint” comes from James Watson, A Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems both Ancient and Modern (Edinburgh, 1706). I have transcribed exactly the capitalization, which signals nouns, and the italicization, whose function seems mixed, partly indicating technical legal terms, partly doing—what?
Symson is identified as the author in a facsimile passage quoted on the Web, which I reached by Googling for “The Poor Client’s Complaint” and then clicking on “The Court of Session Garland.” Reportedly Symson confessed to the authorship to his son and a lodger in 1707 “and thereafter.” Apparently he was “well known for his zeal and suffering for Episcopacy,” and the author of “various works controversial, topographical, and poetical.” According to another site, he “belonged to a family which had occupied an important place in the ecclesiastical history of Scotland since the Reformation.”
None of this biographical information, apart from his dates, is of the slightest relevance to the poem, but having been enabled to find it, I may as well pass it on.
The text that I have used comes from Pills to Purge Melancholy; Songs Compleat, Pleasant and Divertive, by Thomas D’Urfey, 5 vols., London 1719–20, via Vivian de Sola Pinto and Allan Rodway, eds., The Common Muse; An Anthology of Popular British Ballad Poetry, 15th-20th Century, 1965 (1957). What is going on in it would appear to be a spring fertility festival on southern English downland. I don’t recognize a number of the terms, but it moves along with a fine dancing swing, one gets the general idea, the names have a lot of life in them (cf. Sempill’s wedding poem), the mingling of gods and humans is interesting, and everyone is having a great time. The lines don’t settle down into a mechanical jog-trot, so one has to pay attention to how the words are going, as if singing them.
Apparently an alternative title was “The Fetching Home of the May”—i.e., Mayflowers? I imagine that gowns became green from wriggling around on the grass with someone on top of you. The Green Gown Wedding Boutique is advertised on the Web.
The text of “The Progress of Marriage” used here is basically the one in Herbert Davis’s authoritative edition of Swift’s Poetical Works (Oxford, 1967). I have tweaked punctuation and spelling in the interests of narrative readability—e.g., “answered” for “answer’d,” the modern pronunciation being the same.
Whoever substituted “Poor Lady Jane has thrice miscarry’d” for “His Lady has twelve times miscarried” in the text used in John Hollander’s excellent Marriage Poems anthology in the Everyman’s Series, where I first found the poem, had missed the point. She had been practicing some form of birth control, probably a sponge, and didn’t miss a period.
I tweaked “Lady Acheson Weary of the Dean” in the same way, and removed non-functional roman numerals between stanzas. Apparently the Achesons were one of several landed families with whom Swift would stay, recovering some of that spaciousness that he had enjoyed during his early years as secretary to Sir William Temple at Moor Park.
The text here is that of Poetical Works, unaltered.
Anne Savage Acheson’s birthdate seems to be unknown, but she married Sir Arthur in 1715 and died in 1737 after having borne six surviving children.
On a website devoted to Gosford Forest Park, the renamed Gosford Demesne, one reads that “The ‘grottoes and seats’ and the ‘bow’r’ referred to near the end of the poem may be what are known today as Dean Swift’s Well and the Dean’s Chair where, rumour has it, he spent time writing and chatting with locals passing by on the nearby road.”
Walmsley and Whaley, like Jenny, were friends of the family in County Armagh. But who is intended here by “Daniel”?
The rhyming, as in Swift elsewhere, is exact—elbows, Panthayon, start-led, Jinny. Except maybe for Lady/play-day?
The poem is remarkable for Swift’s double vision of his own behaviour and of how it would/could have appeared to her. But given her thinness and early death, is it possible that she was by nature of low energy, and that in his bullying way he was trying to stimulate her?
Apparently he stayed with the Achesons twice more, though not for so long.
I deal with Swift’s concern for energy and effectiveness in “Swift and the Decay of Letters,” The Name of Action: Critical Essays (Cambridge U.P, 1984).
Allan Ramsay, “Lucky Spence’s Last Advice.”
T.S. Eliot famously said that true poetry can communicate before it is understood. This is nonsense, obviously, if the text on the page is in Hungarian or Cantonese, at least if you have no knowledge of those languages. But it makes sense if meaning that you can follow the words along metrically and, up to a point, syntactically, “hearing” the poem, with the diction clear enough in places for you to have a general sense of what’s going on.
Which, in the present instance, entails treating the spelling as relatively phonetic, and giving the sounds such Scottishness as you can summon up.
Ramsay, like Burns, could write standard English verse when he wanted to. Here he’s using dialect. And with dialect, and slang, and jargon, a certain caution is required with respect to sought one-to-one equivalents. If someone tells you that he felt royally screwed, you know that he isn’t saying he was literally fucked, but that replacing “screwed” with “cheated, “or “swindled,” or “treated unfairly” (the options in my Webster’s New World College Dictionary) misses something, a sense of penetration or violation, such as hovers around the sexual sense of “screw.”
In fact, I now see that the etymology of the word is: Middle English screwe, from Middle French escroue, hole in which the screw turns, from Latin scrofa, sow, influenced by—ta-dah!— scrobis, vulva!
Dialect words and idioms are mostly more tactile, more physical than their received standard equivalents. They certainly are in this robustly humorous poem, Scots having retained a vitality that had dwindled down from the Renaissance in what was already standard English, and which Victorian poets like William Barnes, in his phonetic Dorset dialect poems (a bit misguided in their eschewal of Latinisms), and Gerard Manley Hopkins, with his recourse to older or regional usages and at times his ad hoc coinages, would try to recover. As would twentieth-century Scottish poets employing Scots for a variety of purposes, like Hugh MacDiarmid.
So the glossary here, derived partly from the superb online Dictionary of the Scots Language, with its numerous examples, is an approximative aid and not a list telling you what each and every term really means. Particularly since idioms are often runs of words.
I myself have no expertise in this matter. At one-thirty-second-part Scottish, I’m a Sassenach here myself, and have had to do the delving and guessing for my own benefit. And I’m frustrated by the parts that I still don’t understand at a literal level, such as that “siller ca’” and the whistling. To judge from the spottiness of the glossings by others, my ignorance isn’t unique.
But the poem, with its linguistic richness, is splendid and reminds me of Villon. Its humour arises out of a lot of three-dimensional social observation and a tolerant enjoyment of rogueishness. It is much the best of Ramsay’s poems.
An enquiring Martian would no doubt also require enlightenment about that “royally.” Royally screwed?
Mary Wortley Montagu and Swift’s image.
For “A Receipt to Cure the Vapours,” I’ve used a tweaked online text rather than the one in Montagu’s Essays and Poems, ed. Robert Halsband and Isobel Grundy (Oxford, 1977). Online, “idly” in the second line has been added. I myself added “For” to the penultimate line. An alternate title of the poem, which was set to music, was “Song.” When all the other lines in a poem are regular, it seems likely that such anomalies were not intentional.
The online page containing “Epistle from Mrs. Y[onge] to Her Husbnnd” also contains “The Reasons That Induced Dr Swift to Write a Poem Called ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’” , both of them with 18th-century spelling and punctuation.
I can imagine the Swift poem having been dismissed later as “scurrilous,” as if that instantly denied any truth to it. But there’s an element of poetic justice to a bit of feminine payback to the author of “The Lady’s Dressing Room” and the cruel and repulsive “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed,” denying him, as it were, a protective Benefit of Satirist. One does, too, rather wonder how Swift had come to make the kinds of observations in them.
And while there could obviously be no decisive evidence one way or the other, suppose the basic claim that Swift had been unable (like Rochester in “The Imperfect Enoyment”) to get it up, took a self-justifying revenge, and wasn’t simply playing the satirist were true? Saying “So what?” wouldn’t quite do it, since what is being challenged is an aspect of Swift’s literary persona. Could the author of the Stella poems, the poet celebrated in those poems elsewhere in A New Book by James Wright and J.V. Cunningham, and in Yeats’ “Swift’s Epitaph” (“…he/ Served human liberty.”) really …?
But asking the question points up the dangers in what I have called the Story approach to a writer—the Yeats Story, the Coleridge Story, the Swift story, and so on—in which a writer’s poems, essays, letters, journal entries, and so on are all viewed as aids to arriving at an understanding of what he or she, it is presumed, essentially was—that spring-fed lake from which the various texts flowed.
Scrupulous and sensitive scholarship knows what it knows, and doesn’t know, and can never know. The slacker kind is liable to be haunted by the Demon of the Binary—the premature closure on a praiseworth image of a self which then, as contrary facts emerge, is thought to crumble into an ignoble and really real image, as if the ignoble were always more real.
Binary-antithetical thinking, whatever it may do for the self-esteem of the diagnostician, is generally as blunt an instrument when dealing with good writers as would be a typology in which the opposite of “greedy” is presumed to be “abstemious,” which slides into becoming its either/or alternative. So—sniff, sniff, probe, probe—maybe that saintly austere figure is really, secretly, don’t you know, greedy?
I used the term “Story” forty years ago in a review-article on Yvor Winters’ Forms of Discovery, in which I pointed out that such was not the approach used in that great book or in his other criticism, where what he did was look always at individual poems without any presumptions, deriving from the Romantic notion of the Organic, as to how they must fit together with one another, or how they must, being “poems,” cohere from start to finish.
Relationships between texts could exist and be perceived, of course. But the relationships were between particular speech-acts, particular formal articulatings of grief, or love, or nostalgia, or indignation, or religious dread, or moral perplexity, and not, in the conventional sense of the terms, biographical or autobiographical ones.
So maybe the flesh-and-blood and testicular Swift indeed behaved at times as foolishly as you or me.
[From Allan Ramsay, The Tea Table Miscellany: A Collection of Choice Songs, Scots and English, reprinted from the fourteenth edition, 2 vols. (1871 )]
In the summer of 1957, having arrived there by boat from Dubrovnik, I prowled around Venice with a camera for a day, without a guidebook or map, and with only a general sense of the Piazza San Marco and the Grand Canal as landmarks. It was a comfortable experience. You felt safe everywhere, and threaded your way without any goal in mind, and with no signs announcing that this or that building or piazza that you happened upon had major importance. There were few other tourists away from San Marco, and I took what turned out to be a reasonably good photograph (the second image in “Then”).
Browsing in a reprint of Allan Ramsay’s The Tea-Table Miscellany has been a bit like that. The well over four-hundred songs, so-called, are nameless and not arranged in any obvious sequences that I can see. The announcement at the start of the two indexes that “The /songs marked C, D, H, L, M, O, &c are new words by different hands; X, the authors unknown; Z, old songs; Q, old songs with additions” has been ignored in the 1871 reprint. There is a group that is explicitly from The Beggar’s Opera, and a poem that seems to be attributed to Swift. But otherwise you’re on your own.
Classic texts of “Bonnie Barbara Allan,” “O Waly, Waly,” “The Bonnie Earl of Murray,” and one or two other traditional ballads are scattered in there. But apart from Suckling’s “Why so pale and wan, fond lover?” I can identify (unaided) nothing else. Some feel Cavalierish, some eighteenth-century. And that’s just about that. Which is to say that this is that uncommon thing, an anthology of poems, not of poets or periods. Tunes are named for some of the songs. No doubt contemporary readers would have known tunes for some of the others. In any event, it’s clear that perusers of the volumes were not seeking out the “minds” of authors, they were enjoying the feelings in individual texts.
Predominantly these are poems dealing with aspects of Eros—love and sex, sought and denied—and mostly from a male perspective, but without either swoonings from hopeless eternal passion or obscenity. As Ramsay puts it in his preface to the fourteenth edition,
In my compositions and collections, I have kept out all smut and ribaldry, that the modest voice and ear of the fair singer might meet with no affront; the chief bent of all my studies being to gain their good graces…
In this regard, the anthology seems to me superior to Burns’ rather depressing and unfunny Merry Muses of Caledonia. Obscene songs need to have the full-throated gusto and wit of the great after-football and military narratives about old ladies locked in lavatories, the good ship Venus, the finest f---ing family in the land, and so forth, in which it’s the doings of the characters that are entertaining.
The Miscellany, by and large, is a comfortable and mildly theatrical mulch of the social, without any romantic agonies.
For my own purposes in A New Book, a lot of it isn’t of special interest, either in sentiments or versification, lacking the je ne sais quoi or certain something that gives you the pleasant slight shock or tweak of the unfamiliar. But I’ve extracted eight poems, and may find one or two more, that aren’t simply mainstream, at least insofar as that is what is defined by the standard big historical anthologies and a lot of New Book poems. All, obviously, are very minor, and not with the crispness that makes “minor” epigrams last. But all offer their linguistic pleasures. One technically violates the principle of no excerpts in A New Book. But I wasn’t doing the excerpting, and in theory it could be free-standing, an as-if-from slice of the carnivalesque.
On our last day in Venice I made the mistake of ascending the Campanile in the Piazza San Marco. Suddenly what had felt like being in a warren without borders was turned into a three-dimensional map, Oh yes, there’s the Rialto, and the this, and the that, and the Grand Canal has its curves and bridges, and so on. It had become more of a tourist site, rather than a lived-in environment.
The Web, like the campanile and maps, can put a lot of information almost instantly, at one’s fingertips, and I now know the provenance of some of the poems, fortunately only in a general way. But there is still a loss of hiddenness and remoteness and temporality, meaning the time that in pre-electronic days might be required for finding out about the arcane.
The poems in Tea-Table Miscellany were obviously assembled to be shared, sung, enjoyed—not studied. My own mini-miscellany will not be on the exam, and I’ve not attempted any glossing. I wonder what some of those things are that the Nurse is saying, though. Obviously she’s not just spouting nonsense syllables.
The Dwarf’s Interlude
I came upon this poem in Allan Ramsay’s The Ever Green; a Collection of Scots Poems Written by the Ingenious before 1600, 2 vols (1875 ). For the purposes of A New Book, it belongs better here than back in the Renaissance. It has a linguistic richness absent by then from English verse, and must have been challenging to English readers in its Rabelasian tactility and exuberant myth-making. Scotland, after all, was, in the American sense, England’s South back then—wilder, weirder, more verbal, and still potentially, as had been demonstrated in the 1715 Jacobite rebellion, dangerous.
But perhaps such a poem was also liberating for some in its underground fashion, the way the great horror and gangster movies of the early 1930s had been when set beside portentous historical movies. And even when a lot of the diction may have been Greek to them, there would still have been a welcome aura of the indecorous.
Ramsay may have been making a political statement of sorts with The Ever Green.
His Tea Table Miscellany, which came out in the same year was mainly a very English and user-friendly assemblage of love-game and friendship poems extending the modes of the Cavalier poets, and presented anonymously.
The Ever Green, in contrast, drew heavily, on 15th and 16th-century Scottish verse, one of the great phases in British poetry, with Dunbar, David Lyndsay, John Stewart, Walter Kennedy, and Alexander Scott among the named authors. On another website “Ane little Interlude” is attributed to Dunbar and presented in a somewhat longer and slacker version. But to judge from James Kinsley, ed, The Poems of William Dunbar (Oxford, 1979), the attribution would have been among a number that have been rejected.
The roman-numeral dividers were provided by Ramsay for all the poems in the anthology. But they serve here, as they did for Yeats in poems like “Sailing to Byzantium” and “The Municipal Gallery Revisited,” to block things out more.
It’s still a wild ride. It deserves to be savoured.
I’m indebted to Tiree MacGregor for “Cartane” in place of Ramsay’s “Bartane,” and for the point that she is so huge that when she’s cold the only way that she can warm up is with a raging fever every four days.
Brash of Wooing
I didn’t discover until I was into the glossing that this poem, untitled, was by Dunbar. But it seemed best to stay with Ramsay’s text, since that was the one that readers of The Ever Green would have been confronted by. If the one from Dunbar’s collected poems were used, it would be natural to wonder what kind of sea-change it suffered during the intervening couple of centuries.
In fact the changes in the body of the text are almost all a matter of spelling. This complicates searching in the 120-page Dunbar glossary, and Ramsay omits some alternative meanings in his, and doesn’t tackle some words at all. But while he spares female readers the, ahem! pudendum, and leaves open the question of what activity the couple are engaging in at the end, the line about his “Stang” and her “Towdy,” which Ramsay gives simply as “the Arse,” is more kinky than it appears to be in Dunbar. And one doesn’t need a degree in Scottish Studies to come up with a plausible rhyme for “chukit.”
Moreover, the basic monosyllabic indelicacies that Ramsay, in his introduction to the parallel Tea Table Miscellany in the same year, made a point of saying weren’t present in that collection, pale beside what imaginations might sense behind terms like “Belly Hudrom,” “Honneyguks,” and “Capercalyeane.”
Some of which, it occurs to me, may have been nonce terms, as if someone nowadays were to refer to an inamorata as an iggly-wiggly sucksiebubble.
Henrietta Knight, “Written to a Near Neighbour in a Tempestuous Night”: laudanum
The reference to Morpheus and poppies is obviously to laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol), on which see Alethea Hayter. In this poem from the mid-point of the century, we see, as it were, a chrysalis starting to break open. But for her, with a classical good sense that persists even though the classical verities aren’t working for her as they should, it is the “wildfire, ” the frenzy, the intoxication that is the poet’s bane, not blessing. Laudanum will simply induce a voiceless calm of sorts.
Thomas Gray, “On Lord Holland’s Seat Near Margate, Kent”: topography
I see from the notes in one of my Nortons that Henry Fox, first Baron Holland, was, “despite his great gifts, one of the most hated statesmen of the century,” and that St. Peter’s was an alternate name for Westminster Abbey. A BBC website reports that:
The Goodwin Sands, a stretch of shoals and sandbars about 10 miles long, lie off the east coast of Kent. They are named after Earl Godwin or Goodwin, the father of King Harold, who is said to have owned what was then an island of 4,000 acres of fertile but low-lying land with a sea wall all around. William the Conqueror gave the land to the abbey of St Augustine at Canterbury. It was the abbot who allowed the sea wall to collapse and the sea broke through in 1100 and flooded the island. Since then the Goodwin Sands have been a hazard to shipping and are littered with wrecks. The most famous events in their history were the Great Storm of 1703 when a number of vessels, including the man-of-war Stirling Castle, foundered on the Sands, and in 1954 when the South Goodwin Lightship (there are no rocks that would support a lighthouse) sank with considerable loss of life.
I quote the passage for its general interest. Though little of this is actually present verbally in the poem, there is something here of Edmund Burke’s Sublime, as in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757).
It is interesting to see the growing eighteenth-century fascination with romantic ruins and picturesquely wild nature metamorphosing, perhaps with Piranesi’s great etchings of ruined Imperial Rome in mind, into a preference for apocalyptic destruction over the political to-and-fro of conventional social order.
We owe the critical foregrounding of this poem to F.R. Leavis, who printed it in full in his essay “Johnson and Augustanism” (1952).
Jean Elliot, “A Lament for Flodden”
I’ve chosen Arthur Quiller-Couch’s text and glossary in The Oxford Book of English Verse over those in the Ferguson, Salter, Stallworthy Norton Anthology of Poetry (2005 ).
Though the Battle of Flodden, back in 1513, is the nominal subject of the poem, the Battle of Culloden, with its ensuing butchery and “pacification” of the Highlands, was less than three decades in the past, in 1746.
Charles Churchill, “The Dedication to the Sermons”: biography and rhetoric
In Forms of Discovery, Yvor Winters, who first drew attention to it in the 1930s, calls Churchill’s “Dedication” “the greatest English poem of the eighteenth century and one of the greatest in our language.”
However, his discussion of it is one of his less satisfying critical performances—mostly information about the individuals and their relationships referred to in the poem, plus descriptions of its metrical and syntactical features. Nothing, on the other hand, that throws light on the talk about wills (why would someone be bothered by receiving a bequest?), or whether the lines ensuing on the extended reference to “thy Love-commanding eye” imply extra-marital cavortings, or if the sire’s being “unknown” hints at illegitimacy, or whether the Welsh genealogy was fake, or other points of phrasing. And he blurs the distinction between actual personages (as described elsewhere) and how their names operate in the poem.
The practice of providing fictive names for character-types—Lip, Bastides, etc,—has its advantages. When “Poor Cornus sees his frantic wife elope,/ And curses Wit, and Poetry, and Pope,” we don’t, or at least shouldn’t, feel we have to know who the cuckold in this thumbnail sketch really was. And when, conversely, Pope’s twenty-nine-line characterization of Sporus invites us into the drama of Pope’s engagement with what feels like (and was) an actual person, Sporus would still be there for us in the poem if we knew nothing about Lord John Hervey, and we would recall, if we knew our Classics or had just Googled, that in Imperial Rome Sporus was the castrated boy-toy of Nero. At times, too, one size fits many, as in Timothy Steele’s
Here lies Sir Tact, a diplomatic fellow
Whose silence was not golden, but just yellow.
The proper names in “Dedication” lack those kinds of substantiality, and a minimal glossing is necessary, since we can’t get by on a single working assumption, as we can when we take it that Bute, Shelburne, Rigby, and Calcraft in Gray’s “On Lord Holland’s Seat” are more or less reprehensible aristocratic politicians.
So, a detour, courtesy of Arthur H. Cash (see below) and Google.
William Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester (1698–1779), was living on the estate of his wealthy father-in-law, Ralph Allen. Thomas Potter, a mere name to me initially, was very likely the father of Warburton’s son and collaborated with John Wilkes in creating “An Essay on Woman,” a mildly obscene parody of Pope’s “Essay on Man,” with a few obscene footnotes attributed (falsely) to Warburton, whose friend the Lord Chief Justice Lord Mansfield found Wilkes guilty of an obscene libel and obliged him to spend four years of exile in Paris.
Well, words to that effect. This is family-quarrel stuff and tedious if you don’t have independent knowledge of the players when Cousin Harry goes into his perennial routine about Aunt Sylvia.
You would never, for example, gather from the poem, or from Winters’ commentary, that Warburton served for eighteen years as a country clergyman, that he was a serious and prolific theologian, that Pope made him his literary executor, that Boswell reports that Johnson “had always a high opinion of Warburton” and called him “perhaps the last man who has written with a mind full of reading and reflection,” that the home of the public-spirited and benevolent-sounding Ralph Allen was a graceful piece of Palladian architecture, that according to the editor of a year-2000 edition of the poem (Arthur H. Cash) Thomas Potter, who was a rakish M.P. and son of the future Archbishop of Canterbury, and loathed Warburton personally, and had an affair with his delightful young wife, most likely authored the principal part of the parody (with Wilkes, a dozen or more years his junior, supplying the supporting material), and that Wilkes had intended to hand-print a dozen copies for the amusement of fellow rakes in the Hell Fire Club, and that the Government, having obtained page-proofs, seized on the opportunity to discredit him and have him expelled from Parliament, and that when his case came to trial, he was already in Paris after having been wounded in a duel, and I’ve forgotten what the duel was about, and that the parody, as seen in the dual-text 2000 edition, dexterously parallels below the belt what Pope does above the collar, but lacks Rochester’s kinetic vigour, and by now it will be clear what I mean about family grievances, the kind where you’re being asked to take sides.
William Warburton and Cousin Harry might indeed be unpleasant personalities, but while the trigger for Churchill’s polemic was evidently the treatment of Wilkes, no serious matter of principle appears to have been involved in the creation of the parody, which was indeed both obscene and technically libelous, though a more generous-spirited victim could have shrugged it off.
Enough of all that. Back to the poem.
In the standard text, the eighteenth-century practice of capitalizing proper names suggests misleadingly that the ones here should be pronounced with special force. I’ve modernized that part of the typography.
But maybe the absences that I’ve pointed to accord with the general instability of the poem. There is no comfortable distance here between satirist and satirized, nor is the satirical tone consistent. One soon, as a sophisticated reader, takes the point that when Warburton is praised for something we should probably assume that the opposite is true, and that the character we are invited to construct for ourselves is without redeeming traits. When, for example, Warburton waxes indignant in the House of Lords against Wilkes for having written blasphemously as well as libelously and obscenely, we are to see this as inconsistent with Warburton himself having argued in print on behalf of religious tolerance.
But the poem reads oddly as the dedication of an actual volume of Churchill’s own reportedly rather dull sermons from the time when he was still a practicing cleric. A contemporary picking up such a volume in ignorance of the Warburton-Wilkes-Churchill story might be impressed for a bit by the fulsomeness of the praise, and by the writer’s assurance that he wasn’t on the make in this. But there are odd little early wobbles in the references to “thy true and proper love of wealth” (not exactly a saintly characteristic), “thy tinsel trumpery of state,” and the ease “which all priests love,” and to Warburton’s unpriestly sexiness, and it would not have been customary for humble dedicators to wind up by cautioning their lordly dedicatees against the sin of pride.
But then, the lowly dedicator here was apparently for awhile, according to Winters, the best-known living English writer. And far from being sexy, the acidulous Warburton was reported to be impotent in his marriage to a charming, vivacious, penniless eighteen-year-old girl, less than half his age— a marriage that Potter, and with him Wilkes and Churchill, may have viewed with disgust. There are layers below layers here.
And the speaker?
Well, he gives himself some good marks,—proud, candid, orthodox in his Christianity, unimpressed by Gloster’s social position, etc. But by his own account he was an unsatisfactory clergyman whose parishioners disapproved of his morals and slept during his sermons, and who decided to quit the Church and try to make a go of it as a writer. And now he’s poor, it seems, and with numerous dependents, or maybe numerous creditors.
But he does protest a bit much about how he’s unimpressed by Warburton’s success, and there’s a touch of self-reassurance, maybe, in the detailing of how social position can be faked or achieved by chance or royal whim. And what are we to make of his grumbling about how Warburton didn’t help him as a writer? What he seems to have been after was ploys in literary gamesmanship (“Where Pope was wrong, where Shakespear was not right.”) Warburton may—I say may, for I’ve not read him— have been a bad critic and editor, but Churchill here is mad at him because he wouldn’t condescend to help HIM.
But maybe these features, and the slippages from and swerves back to a poised tone of conventional classical moralizing, help to give the poem its peculiar weight. Churchill, one might hazard, is trying to come to terms personally, in his head, with someone who is indeed more wealthy, more rich, more powerful, a better perceiver of career routes, and all-round more successful than himself, and who started life at the same modest social level. There is no hint here of Churchill’s own literary celebrity, let alone any deserved satisfaction in it or any sense of Poetry as a realm with its own high traditions and honours. This is writing de bas en haut.
It brings to mind for me that characteristic mode of Rousseau’s in his Confessions, where after a bit you know that when he starts a long paragraph by telling you how wonderfully helpful some nobleman had been to him, there will be a sequence of second thoughts, one triggering another, that culminate at the end of the paragraph in Rousseau’s realization of how ill-disposed towards him that nobleman had actually been.
And as “Dedication” unscrolls, who will be listening to the speaker and nodding assent? Is there anyone out there who’s there, the way the, by invocation, decent-minded audiences are for those two Prologues of Johnson’s? We have neither a substantial context of social allusions and institutions, such as we get in Pope’s “Epistle to Arbuthnot,” nor supportive references to good guys whose goodness would instantly be acknowledged—Swift, Gay, “Granville the polite,” etc. Only Wilkes is here, and Wilkes, ugly physically and threateningly radical in his politics (though actually, in Yeats’ words about Swift, “he/ Served human liberty”), did not have the most savoury of reputations.
But it is an intense poem, and the engagement here of one individual with another is dramatic. And intrinsic to the drama, as Winters shows us, are the long and complex sentences, with their departures from and returns to the balanced couplet norm, their interjections, their parentheses, their shifts in tone—
In spirit I’m right proud, nor can endure
The mention of a bribe—thy pocket’s free,
I, though a Dedicator, scorn a fee.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
We see thy mind at large, and through thy skin
Peeps out that Courtesy that dwells within.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Methinks I now
See stern Rebuke enthroned on his brow,
And armed with tenfold terrors—from his tongue,
Where fiery zeal, and Christian fury hung,
Methinks I hear the deep-toned thunders rull,
And chill with horror every sinner’s soul . .
Winters is generally thought to have disapproved of the mimetic. My take on that now is that what he disapproved of was the kind of generalized mimesis in which someone is furious and the whole poem or passage has the choppiness and incoherence of rage, or is depressed and the sentences and rhythms droop. What we have in “Dedication” is something more like the effect in Macbeth’s “If it were done, when ’tis done” soliloquy, in which one meaning-charged metaphor succeeds another rapidly in metrically coherent and expressive lines.
Winters says finely of the poem,
This is not satire in the eighteenth-century tradition. It is not epigrammatic and it does not endeavor to make stupidity ridiculous. Stupidity is the result of privation of being; privation is evil; and when a stupid man rises to power he becomes pompous, hypocritical, and dangerous. The phenomenon is a common one: I have seen it a good many times in the academic world, but here the evil man is operating on a national scene and becomes a major representative of evil.
As happens at times in his criticism, what Winters gives us here in eighty-two words is more powerful than what is manifest in the words of the poem itself. But the poem is indeed about, and charged with, power, and was written within a year or two of power-charged works like the reworked edition of Piranesi’s Prisons (1761) and Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764).
Was the poem left unfinished, as an early editor suggested? Was “Kubla Khan” finished? Winters rightly says that it’s hard to see where “Dedication” could go next. Where could it go after the climactic evocation of heights and depths in the final paragraph—a figure high up there on “the topmost round/ Of Fortune’s ladder,” another far below him looking up, a sense of psychological peril?
Let not thy Brain (as Brains less potent might,
Dizzy, confounded, giddy with the height,
Turn round and lose distinction, lose her skill
And wonted powers of knowing good from ill,
Of sifting Truth from falsehood, friends from foes.....
And the possibility of a Satanic fall.
But maybe there could have been more infill, more consolidation of what is there already? Maybe But maybe, too, as with “Kubla Khan,” that’s all there was, there wasn’t any more.
The Reason that Winters defended wasn’t bloodless, any more than were the literary forms whose potentials he explored. Maybe what so moved him about this particular poem, over and above his own detestation of certain literary/academic types, was precisely the struggle in it, with imperfect success, to find a stance that would accord both with a traditional moral perception of the deplorable aspects of Gloster and with Churchill’s own highly personal angers and resentments, resulting in part, like Wilmot’s, from a dissolute life.
But Wilmot, as Lord Rochester, had his estate and rank to buoy him up, and an intimate acquaintance with the doings of Court and Town. Both the figure speaking in “The Dedication” and its author feel a bit lonely, like Truman Capote after he had burned too many social bridges at both ends. But their plight isn’t glamorized, and all that goes on here is susceptible of the judgments of moral reason.
James Hogg, “Birniebouzle”
This charming poem and the glossary items without question marks come from James Hogg, Selected Poems, ed. Douglas S. Mack (1970). The name “Birniebouzle” would appear to be fictitious. According to the online Dictionary of the Scots Language, the adjective “birny,” “birnie,” “birney” is “used to describe a birn stalk or land covered with birns,” and a birn is “a pasture on dry, heathy land.” The following web page contains a present-day folksong condensation of the poem, plus notes. www.mysongbook.de/msb/songs/b/birniebo.html
The poem itself became a popular song.
There’s no doubt a touch of Cockaigne here, but this isn’t Marlowe’s shepherd inviting her to come live with him and be his love. Like John Clare, Hogg, who was scraping a hard living as a young shepherd when an intelligent employer gave him the chance to become literate, with subsequent encouragement by Scott, knew the harsh rural realities. But the yearnings expressed here seem grounded in not impossible actualities (he knew country things), which probably helps account for the popularity of the poem as a song. And in Scotland it may have been easier for merit to rise and sustain itself than it was in Clare’s enclosures England, where engaging in some of the activities described would have got you transported to Van Dieman’s Land. Hogg was obviously tougher-minded than Clare, but he also had the advantage of a popular Scottish poetic tradition to tap into, starting with ballads collected by his mother, whereas Clare had to work out his own wonderful poetic discourse on his own.
skull> wicker basket
Donald Gun>nickname for his gun?
bught>sheep- or cattle-fold
George Colman, Byron, Don Leon, and A New Book of Verse
I first encountered Don Leon in August 1946 in a gloomy used bookstore in the northwest corner of the Palais-Royale arcade in Paris. Some low instinct for the clandestine may have taken me into it, some Gestalt glimpsed in the store window, since it wasn’t until years later that I learned that for a long time, earlier on, the Palais Royale had been the erotic—and erotica— center of the city.
I was still searching in vain, during those two summer months with relatives of my stepmother, for copies of Ulysses and Emaux et Camées, which latter had been praised by Ezra Pound. One could get the making of a literary education back then following up Pound’s tips in Polite Essays. The proprietor was unfriendly, and no, no Ulysses or Gautier. But Don Leon—by Byron??— with “Not to be brought into England,” or some such words? Hey!
The edition, in its orange hardback, with quality pre-war paper, was that of the Fortune Press, that curious one-man operation, as described in Wikipedia, that, with its mixed offerings of gay erotica and slim first volumes of poetry, was a tiny chink in the boundary wall of English literary respectability. The copy must have been cheap, since, currency regulations being what they austerely were, ten quid’s worth of travellers’ cheques was all that I’d been able to take across the Channel with me. But the pound was worth much more back then, and the franc less.
A couple of years later, as an undergraduate, I was informed by a research student that, no, this wasn’t in fact a little known work by the noble Lord. But I’d enjoyed having a secret, illegal, and unofficial book, offering to my mind a much more interesting take than the standard one on the author of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which I’d had to wade through for scholarship purposes at school. None of the handful of persons to whom I mentioned the book had heard of it, or wanted to know more about it, or to borrow it.
In 1954, I came upon a serious scholarly article, “Who Wrote Don Leon?’ by G. Wilson Knight, best known for his somewhat dithyrambic books about Shakespeare. By that time, I’d given my copy to a friend, and there was no way of rereading the poem itself. But it had stayed somewhere in my mind. It was an erotic poem, certainly, particularly when supplemented by lots of notes about sodomy and British law in the early nineteenth century, and naughty practices in classical Rome, and Byron’s life’n loves. But there were energetic passages in it that stayed in the mind.
So now I have the Fortune Press edition again, only with black covers and far from cheap. And the text, thanks to an online site, is now in A New Book of Verse.
I mention these things for their bearing on the question of canon formation. If I hadn’t come across the book itself like that, I doubt that I’d ever have heard of the poem. To judge from the paucity of online references to it, its main (exclusionary) status in Byron studies is that it isn’t by Byron.
In “Who Wrote Don Leon?” and “Colman and Don Leon,” both of them in his Neglected Powers; Essays on Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Literature (Routledge, 1971), Knight assigns the poem to the dramatist and poet George Colman (1762–1836), on whom see Wikipedia.
Colman had been friendly with Byron, and Knight’s attribution seems convincing.
There are no obvious parallel passages in Colman’s Poetical Vagaries (1814). But “Vagaries Vindicated” (pp. 169–217) is a polemic, rather too obliquely allusive to be effective now, against reviewers, probably of the Noncomformist persuasion, who had objected to nudity, double-entendres, and disrespect for Christianity in his work.
And in “Two Parsons” we have:
Again,—if we should never die, nor dress,
But walk, immortally, in nakedness,
’Twould be a very losing game for those
Who furnish us with Funerals, and Clothes.
To sum the matter up, then, briefly,
Losers through Innocency would be, chiefly—
The Lord Chief Justice, Undertakers,
Hatters, Shoe, Boot, and Breeches Makers;
Jack Ketches, Parsons, Tailors, Proctors,
Mercers, and Milliners,—perhaps Quack Doctors;
Hosiers, and Resurrection-Men,
Sextons,—the Bow-Street Officers,—and, then
Those infinitely grander Drudges,
The big-wigged, circuiteering Judges:—
The venal Fair who kiss to eat,
The Key-Keeper of Chandois-Street;
The—pooh!—there ne’er could be an end on’t,
Should I attempt to count them all, depend on’t—
We know “hoc genus omne” daily is
Before our eyes—“cum multis aliis.”
But who would, then, have heard of, by the by,
The Vice-Suppressing, starch’d Society?—
That tribe of self-erected Prigs,—whose leaven
Consists in buckramizing souls for Heaven;
Those stiff-rump’d Buzzards, who evince the vigour
Of Christian virtue, by Unchristian rigour;
Those Quacks, and Quixotes, who, in coalition,
Compose the Canters’ secret Inquisition;
Dolts, in our tolerating Constitution,
Who turn Morality to Persecution,
And, through their precious pates’ fanatick twists,
Are part Informers, Spies, and Methodists.
It’s perfectly credible that after Byron’s death in 1824, and with strong feelings of his own about sex and the Law, Colman should have picked up some of the stylistic energy and name-naming of Byron’s “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers” and created an apologia for the exiled poet, completed, reportedly, at the start of the Thirties though not published until 1866, in that in fact very far from “Victorian” decade.
How good is the poem?
Some parts of it are better than others. The earlier stretches in which Byron, as speaker, is recalling his boyish and early-manhood fumblings towards entry into mysterious and excoriated practices, lack tension, since we of course have now passed collectively way beyond that kind of innocent-ignorance—as did, it would appear from Googling, Byron himself. It’s a bit hard to make “I didn’t yet know’s” lively, when we aren’t given details of what it was that he didn’t know.
But the action picks up with his affair with the lovely Greek boy Giraud, and does again with his account of the conversations in bed with the heavily pregnant Arabella that led to her letting him use an alternative route—from which activity, it appears, came his subsequent legal problems, the divorce and, since sodomy was a capital offence, his permanent exile from England.
The most vigorous parts of the poem are the angry assaults on the draconian laws against sodomy (the notes tell us of an otherwise respectable gentleman hanged in 1835 for the offence), and the hypocrisy of an establishment in which sodomy was widespread and high-class brothels flourished. E.g.
Thou ermined judge, pull off that sable cap!
What! Cans’t thou lie, and take thy morning nap?
Peep thro the casement; see the gallows there:
Thy work hangs on it; could not mercy spare?
What had he done? Ask crippled Talleyrand,
Ask Beckford, Courtenay, all the motley band
Of priests and laymen, who have shared his guilt
(If guilt it be) then slumber if thou wilt… ( 1–8)
H— D— paws, and red-haired Charlton sips,
Tip-tongued, the nectar from vaginal lips.
Some take a flogging, till the smart supplies
Incentives to their dormant energies.
Some hoary captains oft their yards have braced
Where Jean Secundus only basia placed:
For Mother Wood has maidens complaisant,
With mouth-piece ready foe each old gallant;
And Mother Windsor plies her dirty work,
To suit the taste of Hebrew, Greek, or Turk.
Professors there peep through the wainscot hole,
And watch the needle dipping at the pole.
Or nicely solve by observations found,
The problem of the oval and the round. (33–34)
Yes, London! all thy chastity is show;
Bear witness Vere Street and the Barley Mow.
Lives there a man, what’er his rank may be,
Who now can say, my caste from stain is free?
Are you a soldier? Pace the barrack-room,
Just as the morning dawn dispels the gloom.
See where the huddled groins in hot-beds lie,
Each fit to be a garden deity.
Though all the Messalinas of the shire,
Devote their days and nights to quench the fire,
And misses club in every country town,
To keep the martial priapism down,
The fermentation still much scum supplies,
Which to the bunghold will o’erflowing rise.
Drummers may flog, judge advocates impeach,
The soldier’s post is ever at the breach. (36)
The 1850s and 1860s were in fact a boom time for the old ongoing upper-class raffishness, what with the pleasure gardens, the “pretty horsebreakers” of Rotten Row, the swarms of West End street-walkers. In that most readable—and scholarly—work of social history, The Girl with the Swansdown Seat (1956), Cyril Pearl reports of Cremorne Gardens that:
“Cremorne,” said the Saturday Review in 1861, “is a point of attraction not only to all London but to all England. The provincial farmer who comes to the capital on business, and seasons his business with pleasure, would scarcely think he had his full measure of enjoyment if he did not visit the famous Chelsea Gardens. In the country he is perhaps a strict Puritan … but he feels that when in Rome he must do as Romans do.”
For nearly half a century, these twelve acres of lawns, groves, flower beds, dance floors, refreshment rooms, kiosks, and side shows were London’s best-known playground—as the Spring Gardens had been when Pepys noted young gallants, “almost forcing” women in the arbours, or when, as Vauxhall Gardens, Horace Walpole and Johnson and Goldsmith patronized them. Cremorne Gardens were at their peak of popularity when Vauxhall closed down in 1859. They ran along the Thames at Chelsea, just south of Battersea Bridge.…
Thousands visited Cremorne in the afternoon and early evening “for mere relaxation; they found it in the Ballet Theatre, the Oriental Circus, the American Bowling /Saloon, the Stereorama, the Fernery, the Menagerie, the Shooting galleries, the female Blondin, the Man Frog and the fireworks—which were painted by Whistler in a way that puzzled Ruskin. …
But as the evening wore on, the character of the Gardens changed, and more worldly relaxations were pursued. (Ch. 5)
Those were good years for erotica, too, before the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 kicked in.
In the early ’fifties [Pearl again] the Lancet was complaining that “many of the tobacconsts shops in the most important thoroughfares have exposed in their windows the most licentious representations, as inducements to erotic passion.” Pornography had become a thriving British industry and the Vice Society’s main objective, Holywell Street, named for its “sweete, wholesome and cleere” holy springs, was the centre of this unwholesome and unholy trade. It ran parallel to the Strand from St. Mary’s to St. Clements Danes, and disappeared, with Wych Street, when the Strand was widened at the beginning of this century. A correspondent to the Times in 1857 described it as “without exception … the most vile street in the civilized world, every shop teeming with the most indecent publications and prints.” (Ch. 7)
I quote that last sentence with pleasure, since elsewhere in Jottings I engaged in my own descent into another underworld, the so-called Mushroom Jungle of British crime pulps in the 1940s and early 50s, only to find that the sensationalist terms in which it had been condemned were unwarranted.
And I’m glad that the Web allows Colman’s poem to come in from beyond the pale. And to have had the opportunity, via Pearl, to recall the social and psychological impoverishment that had gone on in the later Victorian years in the name of good morals and social order.
There’s been a lot of broadening and enriching during A New Book’s evolution with respect to the “popular.” I haven’t been consciously following any scenario. It’s been basically a matter of if this, why not that? and of one thing leading, at times nervously, to another. But recently, in a note on Tennyson, I invoked the classicism (not neoclassicism) of Joyce’s Ulysses. And half a century ago, in ignorance of Mikhail Bakhtin (like almost everyone else on this North American continent) and using the term in a somewhat different sense than his, I was talking in print about multiple “languages.”
There are indeed elements here and there in A New Book of the carnivalesque. However, there’s no implication of everything’s being just-as -good as everything else, because, well, who’s to do the deciding?—a question both naïve (when carrying with it an implied “Nobody, you snob”), and profound, as a basic consideration in aesthetics.
It’s more a matter of lots of things being good or at times great in certain ways and for certain purposes, but with (since A New Book is far from a grab-bag) interconnections of the kind defined in Wittgenstein’s brilliant analogy of family likenesses.
The family here is a greatly extended one, of course.
Wolfgang Goethe: Roman Elegies
Being able to use texts without having to grovel to publishers for permissions is such a treat.
J.W. Worthy’s version of Römische Elegien that is generously available online presents the same sequence of twenty-four texts as in the bilingual Oxford World’s Classics Erotic Poems of Goethe, trans. David Luke (1988/2000). The seven texts that I’ve picked do not require annotation, and their versification, like that of Peter Green’s translations of Ovid’s Amores in the Penguin Classics series, approximates that of the Latin originals. Apparently “elegy” is used in a technical sense about aspects of the versifiction.
So it’s as if the writer/speaker in these so-called elegies—in effect, a single work with independent sections— is articulating his own Roman experiences in a still living classical mode, but concerning a Rome whose symbolic importance has grown richer during the physical erosion of its imperial grandeur across the centuries. There is a powerful liberation of erotic/creative energies here, without the melancholy of Piranesi’s engravings of larger-than-life Roman ruins.
I’ve come late myself to this marvelous work of Goethe’s—a fine example of classical romanticism (or, for me, true classicism)—, in which the mind reaches out wide and deep, but, in contrast to Gérard de Nerval’s memorable dealings with antiquity in the group of sonnets in A New Book, from a grounded present self. Eros is more alive in them, at least in translation, than in the poems of Cavafy.
Fergusson and Johnson
According to the notes in Christopher MacLachlan’s Before Burns; Eighteenth-Century Scottish Poetry (2002), Johnson and Boswell were entertained at St. Andrews on August 19, 1773, and Robert Fergusson’s poem appeared a fortnight later. This was near the outset of their tour of Scotland and the Hebrides.
St. Andrews, in the county of Fife on the east coast of Scotland, was the third-oldest university in the English-speaking world. The River Eden flows into the sea there.
“The Roast Beef of Old England” and “East Neuk of Fife” were popular tunes. (MacLachlan). As to the concluding lines, Alexander Kinghorn and Alexander Law report in their edition of Poems by Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson (1974) that Fergusson “had recently been challenged to a duel by a native of Dunfermline, angered by his criticism of Fifan inhospitality and bigotry …” He had been an undergraduate at St. Andrew’s.
Johnson was a very great man, and remains England’s greatest man of letters, though the reiterated claim that he was a great Shakespeare critic seems to rest on the fact that he wasn’t as bad as, back at that time, he might have been. His career, rightly viewed, was a saga of crippling handicaps heroically overcome after strings of failures. He was in his mid-sixties, overweight, and with various ailments, when he allowed Boswell to lure him into the discomforts and potential dangers of their quasi-sociological journey around darkest Scotland.
But Fergusson’s poem is a salutary and I think humanizing reminder that Johnson, a boon to caricaturists in England, was not yet Boswellized into everyone’s favourite eccentric uncle, warm-hearted beneath his bearlike exterior, and given, all in sport of course, to provocative one-liners, usually beginning with “Sir,” like those, before he visited it, about Scotland and the Scots. (Boswell’s Johnson must be supplemented with Hester Thrale’s.) It can be insidiously easy, when following the Johnson Story in Boswell’s delightful Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, to see all the encountered Scots on that trip as somewhat Hollywoodish supporting players.
There is a dangerous energy to the poem. Eighteenth-century Scotland was in some ways England’s Old South—a source of graceful songs from fairly early on in the century, and, towards the end of the century, of heroic martial-erotic deeds as celebrated in the Border ballads. But it had been a land of Jacobite risings, most recently the rebellions of 1715 and 1745, the latter being put down with a savagery that ensured that there would never be a another. Like Ireland, it had been, in part, an occupied country. And in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it had had one of the great literary cultures of Europe to look back on with pride. Allan Ramsay’s The Ever Green; a Collection of Scots Poems Wrote by the Ingenious before 1600 (1724) provided generous samplings of Dunbar, Henryson, Kennedy, Lindsay, Alexander Scot, and others. Including the over-the-top ferocious Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy.
Fergusson had previously published the unfunny seventy-four lines of blank-verse satire, “To Dr. Samuel Johnson: Food for a New Edition of his Dictionary,” crammed with actual and fictive Latinate words, but not sounding in the least like Johnson; e.g., “To meminate thy name in after times, / The mighty Mayor of each regalian town/ Shall consignate thy work to parchment fair …”
According to MacLachlan, Fergusson “seems to have realized that Johnson’s attempt to standardize English spelling and meaning posed a threat to non-standard forms, including Scots.”
The texts of To the Rev. John M’Math, Elegy on Capt. Matthew Henderson, McPherson’s Farewell, The bonnie lass made the bed to me, Johnie Cope, and What can a young lassie? are taken from Burns, Poems and Songs, ed. James Kinsley (Oxford U.P., 1969)
Ballads, editors, and texts
In his important edition of Walter Scott’s major collection of ballads, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, 4 vols. 1902 [1802–10], Thomas Finlayson Henderson writes:
Properly to judge of Scott’s treatment of ballad versions, we must take into account (1) that his work was largely that of pioneer, and (2) that his aim was less to obtain an accurate text than to stimulate an interest in the subject, by versions which should attract the attention of persons of taste and culture …
His professed method was to construct his version strictly by the rearrangement or combination of other versions, or by following mainly one version but correcting and improving it by the selection of words, lines, phrases, or stanzas from other versions. This, however, was often not to be done, without the introduction, as well, of words, phrases, lines, and occasionally even stanzas of his own. Moreover, he often found it impossible to resist the impulse to improve the phraseology, and he hardly ever resisted the impulse to improve the rhythm or the rhyme. … (I, xvii-xviii)
Apparently “the ballad versions of Scott’s minstrelsy are often extremely composite, some of them not retaining a single complete stanza of any of the copies obtained from recitation.” (I, xxxii)
Scott’s version of “Sir Patrick Spens” contains twenty-six stanzas. Thirteen of those, in among others that fill out the narrative, are, with a few minor differences, the poem as it has come to figure in our own general anthologies.
It’s not hard to see nowadays why the poem is better without stanzas like
“Ye Scottishmen spend a’ our King’s goud,
And a’ our Queenis fee.”
“Ye lie, ye lie, ye liars loud!
Fu’ loud I hear ye lie.”
The ankers brak, and the topmast lap,
It was a deadly storm;
And the waves came o’er the broken ship,
Till a’ her sides were torn.
And it’s reassuring to learn from Henderson’s footnotes that the first of those stanzas is one of a group of three that Scott had lifted from another version and added to the version in Percy’s Reliques, as he did with the first half of the second stanza, and that “the second half of that stanza is apparently Scott’s own.”
But if, like readers at the time, one were to come to Scott’s version cold in an anthology, and knowing little about ballads, it would probably be natural to assume that this was the real thing, the real original (and slightly primitive) ballad from, maybe, the Renaissance or later Middle Ages.
Scott’s version of “The Demon Lover,” on the other hand, is almost all “ours,” apart from
And aye when she turn’d her round about,
Aye taller he seemed for to be;
Until that the tops o’ that gallant ship
Nae taller were than he.
The clouds grew dark, and the wind grew loud,
And the levin fill’d her ee;
And waesome wail’d the snaw-white sprites
Upon the gurlie sea.
And the five stanzas of “The Twa Corbies” are ours entirely.
Of it Scott writes:
The poem was communicated to me by Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, Esq., jun. of Hoddom, as written down, from tradition, by a lady. It is a singular circumstance, that it should coincide so very nearly with the ancient dirge, called “The Three Ravens,” published by Mr. Ritson, in his Ancient Song ; and that, at the same time, there should exist such a difference, as to make the one appear rather a counterpart than copy of the other.”
The Ritson version, given here by Scott, is the one, also “ours,” that goes, as “The Three Ravens”,
There were three ravens sat on a tre,
They were as blacke as they might be;
The one of them said to his mate,
“Where shall we our our breakfast take?
“Downe in younder grene field,
There lies a knight slain under his shield;
“His hounds they lie down at his feete
So well they their master keepe;
“His haukes they fly so eagerly,
There’s no fowle dare come him nie.
“Down there comes a fallow doe,
As great with young as she might goe.
“She lift up his bloudy hed,
And kist his wounds that were so red.
“She got him up upon her backe,
And carried him to earthen lake.
“She buried him before the prime,
She was dead her selfe ere even song time.
God send every gentleman,
“Such haukes, such houndes, and such a leman.”
With its literally impossible action, its stylized symbolism, its supernaturally benign creatures, and its traditional religious overtones, it is quasi-medieval in feeling, and according to Francis James Child in his monumental English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882–1898) was first printed in 1611.
The bleak and great “Twa Corbies,” with its implicit murder and abandonment, and its leap from the up-close physical details of the fourth stanza (“I’ll pike out his bonny blue eyn,” etc) to the wide-world mourning and the wind’s blowing for evermore, is obviously later.
In a footnote, Henderson remarks:
Sharpe, in a letter to Scott, 8th August 1802, states that he got “The Twa Corbies from Miss Erskine of Alva, “who, I think, said that she had written it down from the recitation of an old woman at Alva (Letters, ed. Allardyce, i. 136).
If they were so written down, the verses have clearly been much improved either by Sharpe or Scott.
Scott, it appears, had been inspired to become a collector of ballads by Thomas Percy’s very popular Relics of Ancient English Poetry, aka Percy’s Reliques (1765).
It wasn’t until I went to it myself that I realized that Percy’s Reliques (a rather off-putting title) wasn’t just a collection of ballads, but also contained poems by Marlow, Raleigh, Daniel, Beaumont and Fletcher, Shirley, Jonson, Chaucer, Carew, Gascoigne, Elizabeth I, Suckling, Beaumont and Fletcher, and other readables,
Despite Henderson’s sniffiness about his editorial “improvements”, Percy’s texts for “Edward, Edward,” “Sir Patrick Spens,” and “The Bonnie Earl of Murray” are what are now the popular ones.
So, apart from the formatting, is “O Waly Waly,” which is the same as the one in Allan Ramsay’s Tea-Table Miscellany, with its misguided consolidation of ten quatrains into five eight-line stanzas. Which inevitably weakens the impact of the five subordinate quatrains particularly when there isn’t a sufficient connection between the two halves. E.g.,:
‘Tis not the frost that freezes fell,
Nor blawing wind’s inclemency:
‘Tis not sic cauld that makes me cry,
But my love’s heart grown cauld to me.
When we came in by Glasgow town,
We were a comely sight to see;
My love was clad in the black velvet,
And I myself in cramasie,
The tweaks to “Barbara Allen” in Percy are less jarring than the changes to “Sir Patrick Spens” in Scott. E.g,
With scornful ee she looked downe,
Her cheeke with laughter swellin;
Whilst all her friends cryd out amaine,
Unworthy Barbara Allen.
Percy had got it right, aesthetically, about “Sir Patrick Spens,” and Scott had got it wrong—but got it very right for “The Twa Corbies,” and also with “Lord Randal.”
Allan Ramsay’s “Bonnie Barbara Allan” is also virtually ours.
What we have here, in other words, is texts, not pedigrees, and deciding which of those texts is aesthetically the best, regardless of known or imagined origins is, properly, a matter of critical judgments, and not a wallowing in “mere subjectivity.”
Informed scholarly-critical opinion would appear to be that insofar as there are certainties, they are the dates of first print publication, and that the ballads that are automatically on short-lists now largely appeared for the first time in print in the eighteenth century.
But if the best ballads weren’t originally composed by the folk, their evolution has been in part a collective one, a matter of preferences by audiences, and their entertainers and would-be enlighteners.
In his Oxford Book of Ballads (1910) and Oxford Book of English Verse (1919), Arthur Quiller-Couch, who in the latter, presumably with a clear conscience, printed Abraham Cowley’s “On the Death of Mr. William Harvey” with several stanzas discreetly omitted (much to its benefit), used the twenty-two stanza version of “Sir Patrick Spens” stanza.
When in An Approach to Literature (1936), Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks opted for Percy’s shorter version, it obviously imprinted itself on the consciousnesses of generations of American undergraduates, and persisted in that form into the folksong years, because readers liked its dramatic elisions.
But the currents don’t all flow in one direction.
In the invaluable Representative Poetry Online, the version of “Lord Randall” is a Frankensteinian monstrosity, in which Percy’s version, tweaked, is supplemented with stanzas from an “Edward, Edward” narrative. The mounting fear and despair below the understated dialogue is lost, and those eels boiled wriggling and slimy in broth are prosaically fried in a pan.
It evidently comes from Child, the note by whom doesn’t inspire confidence in its “authenticity”:
From a small manuscript volume, lent to Professor Child by Mr. William Macmath, of Edinburgh, containing four pieces written in or about 1710, and this ballad in a later hand (probably of the beginning of the 19th century). Charles Mackie, August, 1808, is scratched upon the binding.
The two other versions that follow it in Child—“Lord Donald” (Kinloch MSS, vii, 80. Kinloch’s Ancient Scottish Ballads, p. 110. From Mrs. Commie, Aberdeen”) and “The Bonnie Wee Croodlin’ Dow” (Motherwell’s MS, p. 238. From the recitation of Miss Maxwell, of Brediland”)— take us even further from the tragic. E.g.
“What like were your fishes, Lord Donald my son?
What like were your fishies, my jollie young man?”
“Black backs and speckled bellies; mither, mak my bed soon …
“What did ye wi the wee fishie, my bonnie wee croodlin dow?”
“I boiled it in a wee pannie; oh, mak my bed, mammie, now.” (22-24)
Scott’s version isn’t in Child.
Representative Poetry Online also opts for the eight-line-stanza “O Waly, Waly.”
A self-correction, though. If “the best” is too protean a term, how about “the best for specific purposes?” “The Bonnie Wee Croodlin’ Dow” was obviously better for kids than “Lord Randall” would have been.
The hovering spirit of Jorge-Luis Borges enquires why the improved version of the Cowley poem couldn’t still be used in A New Book.
Unfortunately there would need to be indications that parts were missing, and once the statement or the ellipsis marks were there, it would be hard, while reading what’s there, to wonder about what isn’t.
Not that alternate texts can’t have their functions. In De/Composition; 101 Good Poems Gone Wrong (2001) W.D. Snodgrass reworks 101 classic poems so cunningly that if you come to a rewrite without the original clearly in mind, there may seem (until you’ve gone back to the original) nothing to regret, the rewrites being just as much poems in their own right as the originals. Professor John Baxter assures me that it’s an excellent classroom text.
And Wendy Cope’s rendering down of The Waste Land to five limericks is famously a delight that doesn’t, in contrast to an odious movie pastiche like Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, undermine one’s responses to the original.
The number of traditional border ballads that are memorable as poetry when standing alone and without musical accompaniment seems to be pretty small, unless one enjoys reading about endless feuds, frays, sexual relationships (often political) resulting in violence, and the like. The same names keep coming up.
The bare rolling stretch of country from the North Tyne and Cheviots to the Scottish southern uplands was for a long time the territory of men who spoke English but had the outlook of Afghan tribesmen; they prized a poem almost as much as plunder, and produced such an impressive assembly of local narrative songs that some people used to label all our greater folk poems as “Border ballads”.
AL Lloyd, Folk Song in England, p.150.
Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye
I first came upon this moving early-19th-century poem in 1951, in W.H. Auden and John Garrett’s The Poet’s Tongue (1935), when I myself had just left the British Isles, and I got it by heart. It did not at that time figure for me, or, I’m sure, to readers in general, as a protest- poem. It was a poem of loving forgiveness, partly overlapping “Grief of a Girl’s Heart.” To judge from Google, Johnny, like other Irishmen from Athy in County Kildare, had been in the army of the British East India company in Ceylon (Sulloon) after it had been declared a Crown Colony in 1802.The heaviest fighting there was with the kingdom of Kandy in the interior in 1803. The Kandian forces were equipped with firearms, including canon, and repulsed the British, eventually surrendering peacefully a dozen or so years later.
But for the poem all that really matters is that, in the words of another poem, Johnny had gone for a soldier and come back.
In the text that I’ve provided here, and which Auden and Garrett had taken from Lennox Robertson’s A Golden Treasure of Irish Verse (1925), it was with their drums and guns that the enemy had nearly slain him. There is no irony here about the British, despite their superior armaments, being unable to subdue a “primitive” people. Enlisting in the army, with its perils and rewards, was one of the few ways in which young men of spirit, particulalry ones needing to leave their community in a hurry, could find gainful employment elsewhere that wasn’t mere drudgery. There were lots of Irish in the armies of Europe.
The Irish have not, on the whole, been notable for their pacifism.
Variants like “With your drums and guns and drums and guns,” “Why did ye skedaddle from me and the child,” “Where are the legs that used to run,” and “You’ll have to go out on the streets to beg” all weakening the poem as it stands here. But anonymous ballads take their chances, and the poem does indeed evoke the ravages of battle, just as the earlier “An Old Souldier” gives us the discomforts and coarse stoicism of a common soldier’s life.
There are anti-war poems elsewhere in the Table of Contents, or at least poems against particular wars, by Siegrfried Sassoon, Bertoldt Brecht, Auden, Robert Barth, and James Fenton.
Could Robertson’s friend and associate at the Abbey Theatre, W.B. Yeats, have tweaked the poem to its present crispness? Yeats himself, in his own poems, was no pacifist.
Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, “Cantique des Mères”: the ballade
Desbordes-Valmore was one of the six poets whom Verlaine discussed in his Les Poètes Maudits (1880), along with Tristran Corbière, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and a couple of others—which is to say, heavy-hitters.. As well as writing poignantly and intelligently about love, she could also, in a poem like “Cantique des Mères,” speak with admirable clarity about politics.
Addressed to the Queen on behalf of the silk-weavers of Lyons who had been imprisoned after a labour conflict in the 1830s, the poem is in a ballade-like mode, with a repeated refrain, that would not have been out of keeping in the fifteenth century of Villon. But there is nothing anachronistic or fustian about it, and in the middle of the French High Romantic period, it has a verbal and moral clarity, and a sense of the speaker and the auditor as both being under the governance of the same values, for which there was no equivalent in English Romanticism.
The ballade- or quasi-ballade form is repetitive and incremental rather than linear and developmental, and hence more impersonal and public than sonnets or couplets, which have to get somewhere and which had dominated in the English Renaissance. You could address the Queen of Heaven in a ballade if you wished, without being either disrespectful or servile, conscious also of owing loyalty to, and being sustained by, the traditional values of art as craft.
Marilyn Hacker’s “Ballad of Ladies Lost and Found” is a splendid ballade from our own time. See also Chaucer’s “Hyd, Absalon, thy gilte tresses clere” and Villon’s “Frères humains qui après nous vivez” and “Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis.”
John Clare, “Decay: a Ballad”: romantic vision
This poignant analysis of the possibilities for implosion in certain kinds of poeticizing seems to me the equivalent in Clare’s oeuvre of Samuel Coleridge’s “Dejection; an Ode,” just as Clare’s “The Skylark” is obviously a reaction to the skylarking of Percy Shelley, only a year Clare’s senior, but born into vastly more fortunate circumstances. The fineness of Clare’s mind is manifest in the simultaneous lovely cantabile evocation of how things used to glow and quiver with Being for him, and the desolation of how they are now, with the numinousness, and the love, and the delight in analogies perceived as actuality all gone and “the brambles dwindled to a bramble.”
A good deal of intelligent poetic effort would go subsequently into grounding values, including those of “Nature,” in ways that would not be so vulnerable, most memorably in Paul Valéry’s “Le Cimitière Marin.” See also part 3, “Vision and Craft,” of my “Powers of Style.”
An interesting demonstration of that grounding is provided in Clive Wilmer’s “The Natural History of the Rook,” in which we see a literary-romantic supernaturalizing giving way to a perception of complex moral beauties in the natural, when viewed with a naturalist’s understanding.
George monbiot has written about Clere here.
Heinrich Heine: Lazarus poems
In his introduction to the dual-text edition of The Lazarus Poems (1979), Alistair Elliot says:
Heine lived in Paris nearly half his life, from April 1831 to his death in February 1856 at the age of fifty-eight. Many of his finest poems were written in this period of exile, and particularly in the last eight years, when he was bedridden and consciously dying of tabes dorsalis, a spinal degeneration which is now known to be a form of tertiary syphilis. There was no cure for this extremely painful disease, and Heine had to sleep—in fact live—on a heap of half-a-dozen mattresses piled on the floor, the “mattress-grave” as he called it.
In spite of the illness, Heine’s life continued to be sociable, though he was no longer able to move, as he had once been in the habit of doing, to escape visitors and tourists. His mind remained unaffected and he was witty and usually cheerful right to the end.
When able to work, he “would compose in his head, often at night when sleepless, and dictate the verses in the morning.”
Mathilde was his wife, married after a number of years as his mistress—a peasant girl from Normandy who didn’t know German.
The Lazarus Poems, with English versions by Alistair Elliot, Mid Northumberland Arts Group, in association tith Carcanet Press, 1979, p.1.
Here, to provide a taste of the originals, is the German text of “Anniversary”:
Keine Messer wird man singen,
Keinen Kadosch wird man sagen,
Nichts gesagt und nichts gesungen
Wird an meinem Sterbetagen.
Doch vielleicht an solchem Tage,
Wenn das Wetter schõn und milde,
Geht spazieren auf Montmartre
Mit Paulinen Frau Mathilde.
Mit dem Kranz von Immortellen
Kommt sie, mir das Grab zu schmücken,
Und sie seufzet: “Pauvre homme!”
Feuchte Wehmut in den Blicken.
Leider wohn ich viel zu hoch,
Und ich habe meiner Süssen
Keinen Stuhl hier anzubieten,
Ach! Sie schwankt mit müden Füssen.
Süsses, dickes Kind, du darfst
Nicht zu Fuss nach Hause gehen;
An dem Barrieregitter
Siehst du die Fiaker stehen.
Heinrich Heine (1797–1856)
The metre is trochaic (falling) and regular, without being monotonous. The final e’s on “Tage,” “homme,” “Montmartre,” “habe,” etc, would be pronounced like the “e” on Goethe or, of course, Mathilde. “Fiaker” is the French “fiacre” (hackney cab). The way Luftwaffe pilots say “Achtung! Achtung!” in old movies sufficiently takes care of the “ch” sound here.
Reading the poem aloud as a poem, which is to say metrically, rather than as a grab-bag of words in a vocabulary test, can help with the meaning. If your pronunciation is wrong for Hamburg, it will no doubt be OK for somewhere deep in the Black Forest ☺. If one wants more precision, there’s Google.
The flexibility in the syntax is an important element in the flow of the poem. “Goes to walk in Montmartre with Pauline Frau Mathilde,” rather than “Frau Mathilde goes to walk in Montmartre with Pauline,” or “Frau Mathilde goes to walk with Pauline in Montmartre,” puts the final emphasis on Mathilde, where it belongs, after foregrounding the action along the way. The hovering of uncompleted meaning as a sentence proceeds is partly why the metrical regularity doesn’t feel mechanical.
And a compound word like “Sterbetagen” is no more pretentious than “death-days” would be in English. If German used hyphens, we’d presumably have Sterbe-Tagen, since nouns in German are capitalized. In Middle English, “sterven,” my Webster’s New World College Dictionary tells me, meant to die or perish.
Here is the more complex and metrically more flexible original of “Mrs. Worry.”
In meines Glückes Sonnenglanz,
Da gaukelte fröhlich der Mückentanz.
Die lieben Freunde liebten mich
Und teilten mit mir brüderlich
Wohl meinen besten Braten
Und meinen letzten Dukaten.
Das Glück ist fort, der Beutel leer,
Und hab auch keine Freunde mehr;
Erloschen ist der Sonnenglanz,
Zerstoben ist der Mückentanz,
Die Freunde, so war die Mücke,
Verschwinden mit dem Glücke.
An meinem Bett in der Winternacht
Als Wärterin die Sorge wacht.
Sie trägt eine weisse Unterjack’,
Ein schwarzen Mützchen, und schnupft Tabak.
Die Dose knarrt so grässlich,
Die Alte nickt so hässlich.
Mir träumt manchmal, gekommen sei
Zurück das Glück und der junge Mai
Und die Freundschaft und die Mückenschwarm—
Da knarrt die Dose—das Gott erbarm,
Es platzt die Seifenblase—
Die Alte schneutzt die Nase.
Alistair Elliot is the author of a number of other volumes of translations, including Women/Men; the Secret Poems of Paul Verlaine (1979), French Love Poems (1991), Italian Landscape Poems (1993), and Roman Food Poems (2003). His translation of Euripedes’ Medea ran in theatres in London and New York. He’s hoping that the same will happen with his reconstruction of Euripedes’ Phaethon (Oberon Books, 2008)
Among the several books of his own poems is My Country: Collected Poems, Carcanet, 1989.
Pushkin’s wonderful verse novel, the given name pronounced Yevgeny in Russian, has been much translated. See Wikipedia.
Charles Johnston’s version, which is used in the Penguin Classics edition, is generously available online, and is eminently readable, its fourteen-line rhyme scheme handled with perfect speech-naturalness.
Moreover, octosyllabic couplets are usually verb-driven, with less reliance on adjective-noun and adverb-verb constructions for the finer and/or deeper points of meaning.
So there is less room for major disagreements about meaning and intention, as distinct from differing decisions about how best to re-create particular effects in the original. For a brilliant demonstration of that difference, see the multiple plausible translations of a charming and even shorter-lined little poem by Clement Marot in Douglas Hofstadter’s almost too brilliant Le Ton beau de Marot (1997).Link to the item in Resources> Bibliography
The sprezzatura intertwining of rhyme, metre, and sophisticated speech patterns, respecting the rules of actual human behaviour and feeling in a distillation of the best Byron, make the Onegin effect instantly recognizable, whether in Babette Deutsch’s older version in which I first read it, or Johnston’s, or others that I have seen quotations from, or Vikram Seth’s lighter-weight The Golden Gate.
Victor Hugo: miscellaneous
I’m grateful to have been allowed to reproduce the translations here—poems in their own right—from E.H. and AM. Blackmore’s Selected Poems of Victor Hugo; a bilingual edition (University of Chicago Press, 2001), with their range of perfectly controlled tones within relatively small forms and their grounding in the physical world even when they soar towards the top.
The missing French originals will be added later.
“J’aime. O vents, chassez l’hiver” and the translation are on pages 418–421 of the section “Le Cantique de Bethphagé” and, like the nine other poems by various speakers in that section, aren’t indexed.
The “he” of “The Imperial Cloak” (1853), one of the great poems of political invective, is Emperor Napoleon III. According to the Blackmores:
During the early hours of 2 December 1851 the constitutional president of France, Louis Napoleon, seized absolute power in a coup d’état. The National Assembly was dissolved; martial law was proclaimed; and a large number of politicians known to have democratic sympathies were arrested. There was little organized resistance to the new regime, but on the evening of 4 December Louis Napoleon’s troops fired at random on bystanders in various Parisian streets for over a quarter of an hour, and several hundred civilians were killed. About ten thousand opponents of the regime were subsequently deported to penal colonies in Algeria and French Guiana. A year later the dictator proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III. (p. 211)
Hugo, born in 1802, and an outspoken opponent of his, went into exile in the Channel Islands, where he continued to pour out works until the fall of the Emperor in 1870 during his disastrous war with Prussia.
Like The Rape of the Lock,” “Goblin Market,” and “House of Words,” La Rose de l’Infante/ The Infanta’s Rose is too long for physical inclusion here, at least for the time being. But it shouldn’t be missed.
It juxtaposes the imperious five-year-old Royal Princess having the unaccustomed experience of disappointment out in the garden of the Escorial and her father, Philip II, up in his rooms in the massive palace, lost in imaginings of the glorious victory of his great Armada, which in fact is about to be ruined by the wind, like the rose in the Infanta’s hand.
Gérard de Nerval, Maker
The poems of Gérard de Nerval (1808–1855) apparently occupy only a fraction of the space in the three-volume Pléiade edition of his collected works, which probably, if volume II, which is all that’s currently available to me, is anything to go by, contain two or three thousand pages of texts by Nerval himself, much of it probably journalism.
The handful of poems that I’ve picked are taken from Selected Writings, ed. and trans. Geoffrey Wagner (1968/58) and Selected Writings, ed. and trans. Richard Sieburth (1999), and give an idea of his stylistic variousness and the distance he traveled.
Sieburth’s translation of “El Desdichado” can be found elsewhere on this site. His “Hieronymo’s Mad Againe; On Translating Nerval” interestingly supplements what he has to say in Selected Writings.
The following commentary on Nerval’s most famous poem can if one prefers, be read elsewhere on the Web, in white print on a black ground, accompanied by photos of C.S. Lewis, a youthful T.S. Eliot, G.K. Chesterton, and the author himself, J.R.R. Tolkien, in among his books. See http://sesquipadalianmusings.blogspot.com/2009/09/el-desdichado-translation.html
Different accounts of the poem must by now be legion, and I have never myself, to put it gently, been a Tolkien groupie. But this one has the virtues of getting well down into romance and myth, as Nerval himself did, and of possessing emotional coherence. It suggests, lucidly and unanchronistically, some of the kinds of concerns that could have obtained in an actual mind during its composition in the 1850s. At least it’s a starting point.
Tolkien is presumably writing for his fellow Inklings at Oxford, a group that collectively defined a very different view of “English” as an academic subject from that of the Leavises and their circle at Cambridge.
Here's the promised translation of El Desdichado, done verse by verse. I'm only giving it a literal translation for the purposes of analysis; I have neither the time nor the skill to translate it poetically.
Note that this poem is in the classic form of the French sonnet, which differs slightly in arrangement from both the Petrarchan and the English sonnets. Ideally, there are two initial verses of four lines each (octet) and then two verses of three lines each (sestet). And of course, there's a fairly regular rhyme scheme, just as in the classical English sonnet. Alternate ABAB rhymes in the two parts of the octet, and the sestet's pattern is: CDD CEE.
Je suis le Ténébreux, — le Veuf, — l’Inconsolé,
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la Tour abolie :
Ma seule Étoile est morte, — et mon luth constellé
Porte le Soleil noir de la Mélancolie.
"I am the man of shadows, — the widower, - the unconsoled,
The Prince of Aquitaine of the ruined Tower:
My only Star is dead, — and my starry lute
Carries the black Sun of Melancholy."
The "Prince of Aquitaine" is not a random image (no image is in this poem); it refers to Godfried d'Aquitaine, a medieval lord famous for his misfortunes, who came from the same provence Nerval came from. The connection is not crucial to understanding the poem, but it does at least give you an idea of why he uses that image in particular to emphasize his desolation. And why is he desolate, why a widower and unconsoled? His "only star is dead" - so there's been a death of some sort, figurative or literal, a loss of someone who would, perhaps, have consoled him. Now his "starry lute" - a musical instrument equipped to bring light to the darkness (and, as Nerval makes explicit by the end of the poem, a reference to Orpheus) brings only the "black sun of melancholy", "black sun" being a technical term from alchemy to describe a powerful "negative light" (though the idea is quite absurd) that is not merely the absence of light, but its inverse. The imagery as a whole in this stanza is quite easy to follow all in all, giving us a picture of a sort of "dark night of the soul" or of a descent into a realm of overwhelming darkness.
Dans la nuit du Tombeau, Toi qui m’as consolé,
Rends-moi le Pausilippe et la mer d’Italie,
La fleur qui plaisait tant à mon cœur désolé,
Et la treille où le Pampre à la Rose s’allie.
"In the night of the Tomb, You who consoled me,
Give me back Posilipo and the Italian sea,
The flower which pleased my desolate heart,
And the trellis where the Vine and the Rome are united."
Posilipo and the Italian sea are partly autobiographical references to a summer he spent with an Englishwoman in a town near Naples. Yet like the Prince of Aquitaine imagery, the self-referential aspect of this line is really not the main point. There is, of course, the larger image (almost cliched in Nerval's time as well as ours) of the warm, brilliant south as another world in which consolation was possible. The syntactical confusion in the first line of this stanza - "Dans la nuit du Tombeau, Toi qui m’as consolé" - forces us to wonder whether the speaker is referring to himself as metaphorically dead, or to the one who consoled him as literally dead. Or perhaps both, the former as a result of the latter? And we also get a confirmation here of what the phrase "the unconsoled" (as opposed to "the unconsolable" or something tantamount) made us suspect in the first stanza: there was once someone who had consoled him, and she is now gone, just as the comfort of the time in Italy, of the lost flower are gone. He longs for a return of the trellis which made possible the union of two different yet complementary beings - the vine and the rose.
Suis-je Amour ou Phébus ?… Lusignan ou Biron ?
Mon front est rouge encor du baiser de la Reine ;
J’ai rêvé dans la Grotte où nage la sirène…
"Am I Cupid or Phebus? .…Lusignan or Biron?
My forehead is still red from the kiss of the Queen;
I have dreamed in the Grotto where the mermaids sing…"
Now comes the turn in the poem from the speaker's lamentation of his loss to his meditation on how to respond to it and on his role as a poet. Not how the opening of the sestet reverses the declarative "je suis" at the beginning of the octet to the questioning "suis-je?". The references to mythology and folktale only hinted at in the previous eight lines now become explicit, as he explores characters from both Greek mythology and French legend as possible analogues to himself. Is he Cupid, the god of passion and eros or Phoebus, god of the sun, of rationality, of light? Is he Lusignan, husband of the fairy Melusine, or Biron, a French hero whose name also recalls the English poet? The tension between the enchantment of eros and the appeal of rationality and love of higher order is reemphazied in the two following lines, where the "kiss of the queen" merges with his dream of a mysterious grotto filled with mermaids. It's also important to remember that both Cupid and Lusignan lost their loves because of a transgression - Cupid because his wife, Psyche, looked at his face against his command, and Lusignan because he saw his wife bathing and thus discovered that she was really a mermaid. Apollo and Biron, on the other hand, are the pursuers of light, yet have no record of seeing what must not be seen; and as poets, they have the ability to do exactly what Nerval is trying to do in this verse: recall a joyful time that has now disappeared from physical sight.
Et j’ai deux fois vainqueur traversé l’Achéron :
Modulant tour à tour sur la lyre d’Orphée
Les soupirs de la Sainte et les cris de la Fée.
"I have twice crossed the Acheron, victorious:
Modulating by turns on Orpheus' lyre
The sighs of the Saint and the calls of the Fairy."
Now we get the explicit connection to Orpheus, the lute/lyre player, who crossed the Acheron in an attempt to retrieve his wife from Hades but who on the victorious return lost her once more, and decisively this time. As he goes, the melody of the lyre, mirroring the flow of the poem, "modulates" between the "sighs of the Saint" and the "cries of the Fairy": contrasting the dark night of the soul described in the octet with the alluring calls of myth (sestet) which may or may not turn out to be consoling.
It's easy to see what aspects of the Orpheus story Nerval wants to emphasize after having seen the contrast between the mythological figures of the previous tercet. He's fascinated by the way the poet seemingly has the ability to evoke his lost love (or whatever he's describing) in a manner so real as to make it almost present once more. Yet there's always the danger that as a human, under the influence of eros and other no less strong desires (curiosity and lack of trust in particular), he will "look back" against the command of the form, and realize that in seeking to ensure the presence of his loved one, he will seal his loss. You cannot be conscious of the fiction of the poem if it is to really make present what you are hoping to regain.
An interesting and, it seems to me, appealing account, regardless of what may have been done elsewhere.
As for the other poems that I’ve included, all of them good in their own right:
Louis XIII reigned from 1601 to 1643. The chateau in “Fantaisie” would be one of those large brick country houses with stone edgings at the corners, not a stone castle. The scene is peaceful, the brick walls warm in the sunset.
Posilipo, which figures in a couple of poems, is described by Sieburth as a “volcanic ridge projecting into the Bay of Naples, site of Virgil’s grave.” The important fact of its being volcanic is missing from guidebook descriptions in which it is simply a headland at one end of the Bay.
According to Wikipedia, “In the following centuries [Virgil’s] name became associated with miraculous powers, his tomb the object of pilgrimages and pagan veneration.” Among the “relatively severe” eruptions of Vesuvius (Wikipedia again) were ones in 1834, 1839, and 1850.
The name “Myrtho” is apparently an allusion to Venus, to whom the dark myrtle was sacred, entwined in the poem of that name with the pale Christian hydrangea.
The book in English through which I myself recently entered the continent of Nerval was Robert Emmet Jones’s Gérard de Nerval (1974), in the Twayne series. It is excellent, but also intimidating. Nerval, in this take on him, knows so immensely much, and the arcane is so strong an element in his reading and consciousness, that a tyro is simply never going to be able to catch up, or to read with any sense of competence the handful of highly compressed poems from the early 1850s which stand, by seemingly general consent, at the peak of his oeuvre. Jones’ account of “El Desdichado” is of course, a good deal different from Tolkien’s.
And Nerval’s literary life, starting out as a young Romantic, admirer of Hugo, friend of Gautier, Dumas père, Baudelaire, and others, first translator of Goethe’s Faust into French, traveler, dramatist, music critic, and so on who blows his inheritance on a literary journal, and has attacks of acute schizophrenia (perhaps drug-related) requiring hospitalization, and dies in poverty at forty-six by his own hands, has the dimensions of a novel written with the wisdom of hindsight by someone concerned to create a figure in whom numerous subsequent dispositions and strategies--—Romantic, Symbolist, Surrealist, Postmodernist—can be observed in embryo.
No wonder so much has been written about him.
But caution seems in order.
A New Book of Verse comprises poems that, as far as possible, are free-standing and could be read individually with little or no loss were they anonymous. The reality is this or that particular voicing of grief, affection, amusement, bitterness, nostalgia, love, religious devotion, moral perplexity, and so on, not a hypothesized “mind” of which it is taken to be an emanation, though as one reads more poems by a poet a poetic self—inevitably loose, and not to be confused with autobiographical-seeming statements made in the poems— builds up.
But obviously the realworld lives and doings and utterances of individual writers are as much subjects for examination as those of statesmen, or movie directors, or serial killers, or anyone else, and in would-be holistic studies, nothing is off the board.
What matters is not to confuse the two modes of reading, of which, logically, the first takes precedence. Back when records were 78’s and hard to come by, what you fastened on to and listened to over and over again was “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” and “Potato Head Blues,” with “Louis Armstrong” and the name of a group on the label, in which the trumpet/cornet solos were stylistically different from Bix’s in “Singin’ the Blues,” and “I’m Coming, Virginia,’ and Bunny Berrigan’s in “I Can’t Get Started.” You were not being deprived in that thrilled hearing of Armstrong because you hadn’t read someone rabiting on about the discography of the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens.
And no one, I hope, would seriously argue that one can’t enjoy the Trout Quintet without having been instructed about Schubert’s life and works.
Enrichment can come, of course, as it can when an art critic like—why not?—Wendy Becker in 1000 Masterpieces of Western Art— draws your attention to elements in a painting that you hadn’t noticed and are glad to see now.
But a reader of poems is just as entitled to resist the claims and pretensions of the broader approach if he or she wishes, otherwise nothing can really be read without expert guidance.
The guidance of which experts?
One is entitled not to be bullied, intimidated, overwhelmed.
Some of those dozen short poems from Nerval’s last year or two that are all that Sieburth includes in his volume indeed have an almost Mallarméan difficulty, mostly because of their allusiveness.
But one needs to resist the sensation of having penetrated into the innermost shrine of an immense temple of whose mysteries they are the quintessence. And in this regard, Sieburth’s volume, which is preponderantly a selection of Nerval’s prose writing, is liberating. Reading the prose itself, the various voicings in that volume, is a very different experience from reading about Nerval in general.
The author may indeed be someone who has gone on unusual mental voyages in his reading, and during the constructions and deconstructions resulting from them. But he is not, in these pieces, writing as a seer who has authority because of those experiences. If he were, he would not have inspired the affection that he has, and the trajectory of his life would not be as poignant as it is.
And while the allusions in a poem like “El Desdichado” may not be self-explanatory, how they are functioning still has emotional heft. We recognize attempts at coping with feelings of loss, isolation, uncertainty about one’s identity, uncertainty about which direction (s) to commit oneself to, and so forth. There may be uncertainties about what is intended by “Lusignan or Biron.” But if someone were to ask in an American poem, “Am I Tecumseh or Stonewall?” we would at least, even if we had to go to Wikipedia for it, have a general sense of different of types of temperament.
I shall now glance at the three most important prose pieces, “Sylvie,” “Angélique,” and “Aurélia,” all from the last handful of years remaining to him, during which Nerval did his most important creating.
I shall do a good deal of quoting. These are definitely works where quoting is superior to summarizing, especially “Sylvie,” and I have not done as well as I would like in my summarizing of the narrative line. Nerval himself always says which of the pasts or presents in “Sylvie” something is happening in. But keeping the sequences in one’s head isn’t easy, and a straightforward story line obviously isn’t what he’s interested in. “Sylvie” is an affair of episodes and passages, and I’ve only been able to present a few of them.
It is the textures that matter most here.
Sieburth reports that “In a 1909 essay on ‘Sylvie,’ drafted as he was about to embark on his own epic investigation into time lost and regained, Marcel Proust discerned in the condensed compass of Nerval’s novella the germ of his own magnum opus to come.”
And that he
observed that to read “Sylvie” for the first time was to experience a disorientation verging on mild panic. Forced at every moment to leaf back to the preceding page to get his textual bearings (particularly during the seven nocturnal chapters of the novel), the reader—like the narrator himself—feels perilously lost in the woods, casting about for a few familiar landmarks that might distract him from the illusory spoors of the past and at last allow him to reach some sort of mappable vantage point in present time and space. (Selected Writings, 64)
But it’s not as though there were no anchoring, no baseline of discourse anywhere in this novella that feel much longer than its forty-two pages.
On the second page is the following lucid account of what things were like were back in the 1830s for bright young men like the narrator (with the ruined Emperor, though he doesn’t mention him, dead out on St. Helena’s barely a decade earlier.
We were then living in a strange period, one of those eras that usually follow in the wake of revolutions or the declines of great reigns. But its hallmark was no longer the heroic gallantry of the Fronde, the stylish vice of the Regency, or the skepticism and outlandish debauchery of the Directory. It was instead a mixture of activity, hesitation and indolence, an assortment of dazzling Utopias, religious or philosophical aspirations, vague enthusiasms and dim intimations of renaissance in which a general weariness with the discords of the past was blended with ill-defined hopes for the future—a period, in short, not unlike the age in which Peregrinus or Apuleius lived. Material man longed for the bouquet of roses which would regenerate him at the hands of the lovely Isis; forever young, forever pure, the goddess would appear to us at night, filling us with shame for having wasted the hours of day. Worldly ambitions, however, meant little to our generation; the greedy scramble for honours and positions in which everyone was then engaged only served to distance us from all possible spheres of activity. The sole refuge left to us was the poets’ ivory tower—which we climbed higher and higher, in order to isolate ourselves from the crowd. Having been guided to these heights by our masters, we at last breathed the pure air of solitude, drinking ourselves into oblivion from the golden cup of fable, drunk with poetry and love love, alas, of vague shapes, of blue and rosy hues, of metaphysical phantoms. Seen close, any real woman seemed too gross to our starry-eyed sensibilities. She had to appear a queen or goddess; above all, she had to be beyond reach. (146)
And we have already heard how he himself, “night after night, would make my appearance in one of the stage boxes, dressed in the elegant garb of an ardent suitor,” and what happened when a particular actress was on-stage:
I felt myself alive in her, and she lived for me alone. Her every smile filled me with infinite bliss; each quaver of her voice, so gentle and yet so profoundly resonant, sent shivers of joy and love through me. For me she was utter perfection, an answer to my every rapture, my every whim. When she was lit from below by the footlights, she was as lovely as the day; and when the lights dimmed, showing her off more naturally beneath the rays of the chandelier overhead, she was as pale as the night, her sole beauty shining forth from the dark like those divine Hours who stand out so distinctly from the brown backgrounds of the frescos at Herculaneum, stars on their brows.
For an entire year it had not even occurred to me to find out who or what she might really be; I was afraid to cloud the magic mirror that cast her image back to me. (145-146)
No, this is certainly not a sage or seer. Nor is what follows particularly cerebral or, as we have come to understand the terms, modernist or post-modernist.
The occasional slippages, elisions, lacunae. uncertainties in his perceptions, recollections, dreams, imaginings are not offered as manifesting a new kind of abstract wisdom and order, or applauded for their underminings. They have psychological heft. They are how minds, or at least this one, can work. But we aren’t into a swamp of mere solipsistic subjectivity. The moves are always heuristic, the moves of a mind concerned not with the truth, la verité, but with local truths, local perceptions, local recollections, or what appear to be recollections, re-entering the mind involuntarily or sought out by it.
There is no superior self standing outside them, like that of Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Nabokov in Pale Fire. Which does not, however, mean that we are into the disjunctions and fragmentation of The Waste Land, or the corrosive rhetorical scepticism of Robbe-Grillet.
Having been accidentally reminded of an episode in his youth involving the peasant girl Sylvie and the well-born Antoinette, the narrator takes off impulsively to the village where, so far as he knows, the unwed Sylvie still lives. En route,
Beyond Louvres there is a lane lined with apple trees whose flowers I have often seen glimmer in the night like the stars above—it was a short cut to the outlying villages. While the coach is making its way up the hills, let us piece together the memories of the days when I often visited those parts. (152)
Attending a village fête some years before, he had run into Sylvie and her brother after what sounds like a considerable absence. The next day, Sylvie had taken him to call on an old aunt of hers, widow of a gamekeeper, where she casually, up in the bedroom, removed her calico dress and put on an old-fashioned one of shot silk, remarking that it would make her look like a fairy, and got him to put on the gamekeeper’s wedding-day costume. On the coach another memory comes, from which I will quote later, involving himself and Sylvie’s brother visiting another quasi-theatrical event. The coach arrives, a ball is going on, the maturer Sylvie, who now has a boyfriend, is there.
There are conversations. But no grand operatic passions and counter-passions, no contests, no closures. Or not exactly.
I say that because there is an ongoing theatricality in the festivities and settings and backdrops—A Wood at Night, A Ruined Convent, A Peasant Interior, A Castle, as it were. And throughout there is an air of strangeness, of his not being engaged in familiar goal-oriented activities, of his being moved by feelings that he hasn’t organized, and that to varying extents disrupt the kinds of orderings that he has achieved, such as in that coolly summarizing paragraph about the period. It feels odd, for example, when Sylvie’s aunt, when they come back downstairs to eat, sees them like a side-by-side married couple. And at one point he becomes pretty silly. Walking Sylvie home after the ball at Loisy, suddenly,
“Sylvie,” I said, “why don’t we just stop here?”
I threw myself at her feet; dissolving into tears, I confessed my irresoluteness, my sudden changes of heart; I mention the fatal spectre that was plagying my life.
“Save me!” I added. “I’m coming back to you for good.” …
She cast me a tender look.
But she herself isn’t silly, and nothing comes of it.
The festivities themselves are occasions for passing beyond the everyday, for an opening up of consciousness that is more than merely personal.
The initial re-entry of Sylvie into his awareness is rightly famous:
As I vaguely ran my eye over the newspaper I was still holding in my hands, my attention was caught by these two lines: “Fête du Bouquet provincial—Tomorrow the archers of Senlis will present the bouquet to the archers of Loisy.” These few simple words awoke a whole new series of impressions in my mind: they brought back a memory of country life I had long forgotten, a distant echo of the innocent festivals of my youth. The far off sound of drum and horn was drifting though the hamlets and woods; the young girls were weaving garlands and tying ribbons around bouquets, singing all the while. A heavy wagon, drawn by oxen, was receiving those offerings as it passed; and we, the children of these parts, were escorting it with our bows and arrows, imagining ourselves knights of old—unaware that we were merely repeating from age to age a Druidic festival that had survived all subsequent monarchies and forms of religion. (148)
And that night (he’s still in Paris), as he lies there half-asleep in “this state in which the mind is still fending off the bizrre concatenations of dreams,” he revisits (sees? imagines?) a fête on the grounds of a chateau, with girls dancing and he the only boy among them. He is there, in an extended paragraph, with dark-eyed Sylvie, “my only love.”
But the dance brings him together with tall aristocratic Adrienne, whose blonde ringlets brush his cheek as he gives her an obligatory ritual kiss, and he’s gone.
And she beautifully sings, again as part of the ritual, an old sad ballad about the misfortunes of a princess who has been locked away in a tower by her father as a punishment for having fallen in love.
As she sang, the shadows came down from the great trees and she stood there alone, lit by the first rays of the moon, set apart from our attentive circle. (147)
In the silence ensuing after she finished, he runs and gets a couple of laurel branches and plaits them into a crown for her, so that with the wreath on her hair “She resembled Dante’s Beatrice, smiling upon the poet as he wandered at the outer reaches of her blessed abode.” (150)
When he rejoins Sylvie, she is crying and refuses to speak to him when he walks her home. The next day Adrienne returns to the convent where she is a boarder, and we, or do we? see no more of her.
Obliged to return to Paris to resume my studies, I carried a double image with me—of a tender friendship that had sadly gone awry and of a love at once impossible and ill-defined, a source of aching thought which no amounts of schoolroom philosophizing could allay.
It was the sole figure of Adrienne that triumphed in the end—a mirage of glory and beauty whose company sweetened my hours of strenuous school work. The following year, during the holidays, I learned that this lovely girl whom I had scarcely glimpsed had been placed in a nunnery by her family. …
To me, this half-dreamt memory explained everything. This vague, hopeless love I had conceived for an actress, this love which swept me up every evening when the curtain rose, only to release me when sleep finally descended, had its seem in the memory of Adrienne, a night-flower blooming in the pale effulgence of the moon, a phantom fair and rosy glding over the green grass half-bathed in white mist. This resemblance to a figure I had long forgotten was now taking shape with singular vividness; it was a pencil sketch smdged by time that was now turning into a painting, like those studies by the Old Masters that one has admire in some museum, only t discover their dazzling original somewhere else.
To be in love with a nun in the guise of an actor!… and what if they were one and the same? It is enough to drive one mad—the fatal lure of the unknown, drawing one ever onward like a will-o’-the-wisp flitting over the rushes of a stagnant pool… Let’s try to regain our grip on reality. (150-151)
I would like to go on quoting, but the following major passage about the visit of himself and Sylvie’s brother to another theatrical event will have to do, with the gorgeous build up of intensity in the first paragraph and then—but read on.
We were intruders, Sylvie’s brother and I, into the private festivities which were being held that evening. A person of illustrious birth, the current proprietor of this estate, had had the idea of inviting several of the region’s families to attend a kind of allegorical dramatic presentation in which several boarders from a nearby convent were to perform. It was not a throwback to the tragedies played at Saint-Cyr [the aristocratic military college]; it reached further back in time to the lyric drama initially imported into France during the reign of the Valois. What I saw performed was a mystery play from the days of old. The costumes which consisted of long robes, varied only in their colour—azure, hyacinth, dawn. The action took place among the angels, amidst the debris of the devastated earth. Each voice sang in turn of the various splendours of this vanished world, and the angel of death spelled out the causes of its destruction. A spirit rose from the abyss, holding a flaming sword in its hand, and summoned the others to come and admire the glory of Christ, vanquisher of hell. The spirit was Adrienne, transfigured by her costume, as she already was by her vocation. The halo of gilt cardboard around her angelic head seemed to us, quite naturally, a circle of light; her voice had gained in power and range, its every birdlike warble embroidering the phrases of a stately recitative with the infinite filigree of Italian song. (161)
The questioning in the next paragraph is not destructive. There is no implication in it of any inevitable collapsing back of the exalted into the everyday, or of the merely imagined, if that is what it is, being without value because unreal. The beauty is there, whether elicited by the event itself or by what, in recollection, the event had elicited as a natural enlargement of itself. And the “real” in this second paragraph—the symbolic objects, the actualities of French history—is not banal.
As I retrace these details, I tend to wonder if they are real or if I have dreamed them. Sylvie’s brother was a bit tipsy that evening. We had stopped off for a few minutes in the keeper’s lodge where—and this impressed me greatly—outside, there was a swan splayed upon the door and, inside, tall armoires of carved walnut, a large encased clock, and various bows and arrows mounted as trophies above a red and green shooting target. A strange dwarf, wearng a Chinese cap, holding a bottle in one hand and a ring in the other, seemed to be inviting the archers to take their aim. The dwarf I believe was cut out of sheet-iron. But is the vision of Adrienne as real as these details or the incontrovertible existence of the abbey of Châalis? And yet it was surely the keeper’s son who had ushered us into the hall where the performance was taking place; we stood by the door at the back of a large audience which was solemnly sitting there, deeply moved. It was Saint Bartholomew’s Day—a day singularly associated with the memory of the Medici whose arms, conjoined with those of the House of Este, decorated these ancient walls … Perhaps this memory is an obsession? Luckily the carriage is just now coming to a stop on the route to Plessie; I am escaping from the world of reverie and only have a quarter of an hour’s walk along the back roads before I reach Loisy. (161-2)
This is, brilliantly, a psychological novel, not a philosophical one, even if philosophical extrapolations can be made from it about identity and perception and social structurings. And it doesn’t seem to me a disintegrative one.
At the end of his introductory remarks about “Sylvie,” Sieburth informs us that:
Like the celebrated overture to [Proust’s] Combray, the first half of “Sylvie” places us within the particular gravitational warp of a consciousness experiencing a free fall through space and time, half-waking, half-dreaming, visited by a succession of apparently disconnected memories that branch back through adolescence and childhood and sink into the strata of the Valois’s legendary past, the Utopian Enlightenment of Rousseau and the Illuminati, the pagan Renaissance of Catherine de Medici, the early Gothic of Châlis and Senlis, the battle sites of the Romans and Gauls, the shadowy forest tribes of the Sylvaneers, the looming Druid rocks.… (64)
I can only report that I didn’t experience the narrative myself in that perhaps rather “American” fashion, with its hunger for ultimate depths. Nerval wasn’t here the H.P. Lovecraft of “The Rats in the Walls” before the fact.
No, the past in “Sylvie” is not a deconstructive intrusion into the real or supposed real of the present. It is a part of the presesent, a shaping of consciousness in the present. One more quotation, then.
On his way to visit Sylvie again, he walks, during a silent noon of summer perfection, along a forest road, and en route, arrives at
the dancing-ring where the bench reserved for the elders may still be seen. All the memories of classical philosophy, revived by the former proprietor of this estate, rushed back in me at the sight of this picturesque illustration of [Barthélemy’s] Anacharsis and [Rousseau’s] Émile.
When I saw the glimmer of the lake through the branches of the willows and hazels, I recognized it as a spot to which my uncle had often taken me in the course of his walks: it was the Temple of Philosophy, an edifice its founder had not been fortunate enough to complete. Its form is that of the temple of the Tiburtine sibyl and, still standing in the shelter of a group of pines, it displays the names of all the great thinkers from Montaigne and Descartes to Rousseau. This unfinished structure is now no more than a ruin gracefully entwined with ivy, its steps loosened by the invading bramble. As a young child, it was here that I had witnessed ceremonies at which young girls clad in white were awarded prizes for academic excellence and good conduct. Where are the rose-bushes which once surrounded the hill? The eglantine and raspberry hide the last of them, now reverting to the wild. As for the laurels, have they all been cut?—to quote the song of those asses who’ll to the woods no more. No, these shrubs from fair Italy have simply perished under our misty skies. Fortunately, Virgil’s privet still flourishes, as if to underscore the words of the master inscribed above the portal: Rerum cognoscere causas! Yes, this temple is crumbling like so many others, and man, weary and forgetful will turn away from its threshold while nature, indifferent to all, reclaims the terrain that art tried to wrest from her; but the thirst for knowledge will live on forever, the spur of all vitality and all action! (105-106)
That final sentence is worthy of note. For it is clear that “knowledge,” here, refers primarily to the kinds of knowledge sought and displayed in these pages. It does not refer to mere discourse, however clever, or to the philosophical compulsion that Yeats was pointing to in “Meru,” where
man’s life is thought,
And he, despite his terror, cannot cease
Ravening through century after century
Ravening and raving until he come
Into the desolation of reality.
Egypt and Greece farewell, and farewell Rome.
We do not, in “Sylvie,” have the kind of implosion and collapse menacing or overtaking various other minds with the fading of the high-romantic exultations—the menace of a draining away of meaning and value as felt at various times by writers like Senancourt, Mallarmé, Hofmanstahl, Valéry, Conrad, and so on; the state of mind described by Amiel in his journal in which
I hold so lightly to all phenomena that they end by passing over me like gleams over a landscape, and are gone without leaving any impression. Thought is a kind of opium; it can intoxicate us, while still broad awake; it can make transparent the mountains and everything that exists.
(Henri-Frédéric Amiel, Amiel’s Journal [London, 1889], 9,
The 72-page Angélique is entertaining. I mean, in places you laugh. Well, I did.
Nerval himself had extracted it from his glorious The Salt Smugglers (Les Faux Saulniers), serialized in a newspaper in 1850, and taking off from a preposterous (real) law forbidding newspapers, upon pain of heavy fines, from publishing serialized novels, especially ones featuring l’Amour .
The narrative in both is a quasi-Sternean explanation, in a series of letters to his editor, of how the narrator has been scrupulously factual in his account of his quest for biographical information about a particular cleric, the abbé de Bucquoy, with research trips, and burrowings in libraries and bookstores in search of a volume glanced at in Frankfurt.
And since he wants his reader(s) to experience that quest in all its details, and with all its perplexities, he is able, in a rich variety of digressions, but without Sterne’s stylistic mannerisms, to bring in anything that feels remotely relevant, including in The Salt Smugglers, performing seals.
“He’s approaching the edge of the pool, said the trainer. He’s sniffing out the herrings to see if they are fresh… If they are not, he’ll refuse to put on a good show.”
The seal seemed to be satisfied and proceeded to say Pappa and Mamma with a Northern accent whose intonations nonetheless did not interfere with intelligibility of the syllables.
“He’s talking Dutch, said the sergeant. I thought you said he had been caught in Cape Verrrde!
—True enough. But even when they swim south they don’t lose their accent… These are trips they take during the summer, for health reasons, then they return back north—unless, that is, they are caught, as was the case with this one, so they can get to visit Versailles.” (Salt Smugglers 22-23)
Here are the journalist-narrator of “Angélique” and his somewhat bucolic friend Sylvain (the brother of Sylvie, actually, but there are no references to her), the two of them bearded and obviously not from around those parts, being asked for their papers by a police officer, which of course they don’t have. The ellipsis marks are in the text.
My Breton friend was seething—which was not helping the situation.
I said to him, “Calm down. Let me handle this, I virtually qualify as a member of the diplomatic corps. Over the course of my travels I have come face to face with kings, pashas and even padishahs. I know how to deal with the authorities.”
“Monsieur le commissaire,” I said to the police officer (one should always address people by their right titles), “I have traveled to England on three occasions and was never asked to show my passport except upon leaving France. I have just come back from Germany, where I traveled though ten sovereign states, including Hesse; even the Prussians never asked me for my passport.
“Well, I’m asking you for it here in France.”
“You are aware that criminals always have their papers in order …”
He had me there.
“I have lived in these parts for seven years, I even own some property around here…”
“But you have no papers?”
“Correct … Do you think that a potential suspect would just saunter in for a drink in a café filled with off-duty gendarmes?”
“It might be just another ruse to escape detection.”
I saw I was dealing with a mastermind here. (93-94)
And there are great moments after the narrator gets hold of a manuscript in which “that lovely adventuress” Angélique de Longueval, high-born great-aunt of the Abbé, recalls in an MS memoir her elopement and rackety life with one of her father’s servants, the wastrel son of a pork-butcher.
Here she is, accompanied by her lover, breaking into her parents strong-box with a kitchen shovel to get at the silverware that will finance their elopement.
She found a pile of silver plates, which she handed over to La Corbinière. She was about to dig out more, when he said, “Don’t take any more out, the sack is full.”
She wanted to take more articles—such as bowls, chandeliers, and ewers. But he said, “We’ll never be able to carry it all.” (104)
I love that “chandeliers”.
Here they are in the coach.
Somewhere beyond Moulins, a man who was in the coach—and who claimed to be a gentleman—began mumbling:
“Do we have a young lady here dressed as a man?”
To which La Corbinière replied:
“Yes there is sir… Would you care to make anything of it? I believe I have the right to dress my wife any bloody way I choose.” (106)
(She is wearing boots and spurs.)
They arrived in Lyon that evening and stayed at the Red Hat Inn, where they sold their dishes for three hundred ecus. With the proceeds La Corbinière had himself made [she tells us] “a handsome scarlet outfit with golden and silver braids, though he had no need for it whatsoever.”
They then took a boat down the Rhône and, having stopped at an inn for the night, La Corbinière wanted to try out his pistols. He was so clumsy that he managed to lodge a bullet in Angélique de Longueval’s right foot. To those who accused him of ineptitude, all he could say was, “What a stroke of bad luck … I don’t mind if I say so myself—after all, the woman is my wife.” (106)
Here, apropos of her pregnancy, we are informed that.
The act of bringing another sinner into the world—even if it is a legitimate act, as it was in the case of Angélique, who, after all was married—was always considered a profanity by the men of the Church. This certainly violates the spirit of the gospels, but that is neither here nor there. (113)
Here we learn how, when they’re in Germany, La Corbinière
was now more or less back in good health and was living a life of debauchery with the help of his two chums, M. de la Perle and M. Escutte. His wife’s affection for him, however, did not diminish. She decided “in order to make both ends meet” to take in lodgers—and the venture seemed to be succeeding, except that La Corbinière was spending all their earnings during his nights out on the town,”which pained me so much,” she says, “that it nearly proved the death of me.” In the end he sold off all their furniture—which meant they could no longer take in lodgers. (115)
Here is the autodidact Sylvain, “a talented and thoughtful fellow.”
He has his own ideas about everything. He can assemble a pocket watch…or a compass. The only thing that bothers him about watches is that you can’t get their chains to stretch far enough. And the only thing that bothers him about compasses is that their needles can only register the magnetic attraction of the pole. (136)
On the first day of the 1848 Revolution, a bibliophile makes his way through the mob to the Palais-National.
“My friends,” he asked, “has the Perceforest burned?
“No, we’re just burning carriages.”
“Very well. Carry on then. And the library?”
“Hasn’t been touched … What do you want, anyway?”
“I want them to spare the four-volume edition of Perceforest, a hero of yore … an irreplaceable edition, with two pages that have been transposed and a large ink stain in the third volume.”
He was told:
“Check with the first floor.”
Where, not unreasonably, “they looked at him as if he were stark mad.” (121-122)
On another occasion a bibliophile is trying, increasing desperately, to extract from a blandly stonewalling fellow collector a little volume, a mere nothing, of no value really, but…
“What if I also threw in my Romaunt of the Rose, with annotations in the hand of Marguerite de Valois?”
“Let’s just drop the subject.”
“You know I’m not a rich man, but I’d gladly offer a thousand francs.”
“Well, fifteen hundred then.”
“Money matters shouldn’t come between friends.”
“Well, I shall have the book at your death, when they sell off your estate.”
“At my death? But I’m younger than you are …”
“That may be, but you have a wicked cough.”
“And what about your sciatica?”
“You can make it to eighty with sciatica.” (138)
At the start of the brief conclusion, titled “Reflections,” we have:
And then …” (This is how Diderot began one of his stories, someone is bound to remind me.)
“You have merely imitated Diderot.”
“Who had imitated Sterne …”
“Who had imitated Swift …”
“Who had imitated Rabelais …’
“Who had imitated Merlinus Coccaius …”
“Who had imitated Petronius:”
“Who had imitated Lucian. And Lucian had imitated numerous others.” (142)
But the humour isn’t “literary” in the show-offy Nabokovian fashion, nor is it binary like that of Candide, in which a whole world-view is being shown up as ridiculous and all the incidents point in the same direction. Angélique’s life with La Corbiniére has its ups as well as downs, and she goes on loving the jerk, and her memoirs aren’t a diatribe
In a curious way, the humour seems to me psychological realism.
What is delicious, at least for me, is the glimpses of faux-reasonableness, whether in the doing or the saying—the fumbling logic on both sides in the exchange with the police officer, those chandeliers (with the sack already bulging), the imagined husband (they’re not at that point married) deliberately dressing his wife like that, the acknowledgment that you can’t have lodgers if they’ve nowhere to sit or lie, the sadly limited compass, the thoughtful reflection about the church fathers— with immediately “but that’s neither here nor there.”
I am reminded of nothing so much as the realworld ponderings and figurings and self-presentations in the great early-talkies Laurel and Hardy shorts—the times when Ollie magisterially sweeps Stan aside and steps forward to negotiate (disastrously, of coure) with the police officer or judge; the sublime moment when the two of them are sharing a bed and Ollie observes meditatively about his wife :
“She says I like you more than I do her.”
“Well, you do, don’t you?”
“Yes” (still meditatively), “but let’s not go into that.”
There’s an ancestry in the humour of “Angélique” that can be traced a long way back.
“Angéique” is more or less the first two-thirds of The Salt-Smugglers,” The remaining pages are devoted to the lively abbé de Bucquoy, the narrator having now found the volume that he has been seeking.
After what, for me, were a few longueurs, my interest in some of the finer points of French history being slight, and introduced by a robust demonstration of how historical facts could be jazzed up in the manner of Walter Scott if one were permitted—as of course one isn’t—to fictionalize, we’re introduced into the Bastille, to which Bucquoy, who has already escaped from a prison at Vincennes, has been committed after an accidental involvement with salt bootleggers (salt being at that time heavily taxed).
And what we have is a beautifully realistic forebear of umpteen good prison-escape narratives—La Grand Illusion, The Colditz Story, Billy Rags, etc., with inmates feeling one another out as possible partners, and piecing together equipment, and facing being moved from the cell where they have to be, and suffering betrayal by a fink seeking better conditions for himself, and working out the routines of sentries, and the rest of it.
There are enough understated unpleasantness too—the Hole (i.e. deepest dungeon) with its toads and rats and darkness, the abuse and death of a young woman prisoner, a reference to bullwhipping, the incarceration by the State for the smallest-seeming offences (a possibly satirical couplet)—to reinforce Sieburth’s reminder in his Afterword that “Angélique” is seriously a political novel, especially concerning the sought control of speech.
Though Sieburth himself doesn’t make the point in so many words, it strikes me that the strategies throughout for slipping things past the authorities while claiming, virtuously, to be scrupulously respecting the letter of the law, must have been familiar later to dissidents under a variety of authoritarian regimes.
After asking at one point, “And you are surprised by the persecution the abbé de Bucquoy would later face,—at the hands of minister Pontchartrain?” the narrator adds, “As for Angélique de Longueval, she is the petticoat version of this tradition of Opposition …”
Sieburth remarks that Nerval is “rarely read as a writer of worldliness.” (SS 139).
I had assumed as much.
“Aurélia” isn’t funny at all. It is about Nerval’s attacks of insanity, and was begun, it appears, as part of the process of recovery from one of them.
It is remarkable for his ability to recreate states of hallucination without the writing itself becoming insane or his losing sight of the fact of his own self adrift in the Paris streets, often at night, and requiring to be rescued by concerned friends or the authorities, and helped by what seems to have been a remarkably non-invasive doctor at a time when French doctors were becoming monsters of self-importance.
Here (and it will be my only quotation) is an extended excerpt about one of his hospitalizations.
I initially imagined that the people gathered in this garden all exercised some influence over the stars and that the individual who kept ceaselessly turning in the same circle was thereby regulating the course of the sun. An elderly man, who was allowed out at certain hours of the day and who tried to time himself with his watch as he tied knots, appeared to me to be in charge of monitoring the course of the hours. To myself I attributed an influence over the course of the moon, and I believed that having been struck by lightning by the Almighty, this star wore on its face the imprint of the mask I had previously noticed.
I ascribed a mysterious significance to the conversation of the guards and my companions. It seemed to me that they represented all the races of the earth and that our task was to replot the course of the planets and to further expand their system. As I saw it, an error had crept into the overall combination of numbers and this was the root of all the ills of humanity. I further believed that the celestial spirits had taken on human form and that they were participants in this general assembly, even though they appeared to be busying themselves with mundane matters My role, it seemed to me, was to re-establish universal harmony by cabbalistic arts and to discover a solution by summoning up the occult powers of the various religions.
In addition to the exercise area, we had a hall whose windows opened on to a horizon of foliage throurh their vertical bars. As I lookd through these windows at the row of buildings outside, I saw their facades and windows take on the silhouette of countless pavilions, all decorated with arabesques and ridged with frets and spires, which reminded me of the imperial kiosks on the shores of the Bosphorous. This naturally turned my thoughts to Oriental matters. Around two o’clock, I was given a bath, thinking the attendants were valkyries, daughters of Odin, who wanted to raise me into immortality by gradually stripping my body of all its impurities.(305-306)
It is a remarkable work, and obviously one of the most interesting of those in which detailed visions and hallucinations figure.
The first of the two parts appeared in January 1855.
In February, in his forty-seventh year, Gérard de Nerval, born Gérard Labrunie, hanged himself one night, out in the street, in the rue de la Vieille Lanterne…
For Yvor Winters, I imagine, the arc of Nerval’s career, like that of the also suiciding Hart Crane, would have been only an appalling warning about the perils of Romanticism.
Nerval was indeed a Romantic, the first translator into French of Goethe’s Faust and transmitter of other aspect of German thought, the enthusiastic explorer of esoteric modes of knowledge, the disrupter of conventional barriers between fact and fiction, truth and lies, the explorer and celebrator (as was André Breton later) of a pre-Roman France, and a man increasingly incompetent at the business of everyday living.
He was also, it appears, intermittently a member of the so-called Club des Haschischins, the group of significant creators who, during the 1840s, met to engage in and discuss the drug experience in the house on the at that time bohemian Île de la Cité. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2002/oct/12/featuresreviews.guardianreview34
But, unless I’ve been reading carelessly or there has been a cover-up, he wasn’t hopelessly in the grip of hashish or alcohol. And he was extraordinarily productive in his writing, in contrast to sad little fin-de-siècle British figures like Ernest Dowson and Lionel Johnson. Baudelaire, in Sieburth’s words, “observed that he was one of the few authors of his age who had successfully managed, even in death, to remain ‘forever lucid.”
The story of his leading a lobster on a leash in—what was it?—the public garden of the Palais-Royale, across the Rue de Rivoli from the Louvre, appears to have been made up, though apparently at one point he kept in his room as a pet, presumably in a tank, a lobster he had saved from the boiling.
Nor did he simply become and remain insane, like Hölderlin. He was right to maintain, even without the benefit of retroactive assistance from Foucault, that he wasn’t a madman. Like Virginia Woolf he had episodes of insanity and was ontologically fragile, but that’s not the same thing.
It seems to me arguable, too, that if he was the first of the heroic French Symbolist voyagers of the mind like Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Lautréamont, with the Surrealists after them, and capable, in some of the things that he did with language, of acting on the minds of others like Acid, he was also to some extent a warning for others in France as well as an inspiration, particularly when it came to questing after ultimate esoteric truths.
Baudelaire, while sympathetically acknowledging the hunger for vision and transcendence, brilliantly defined in the Les Paradis Artificiel (1860) the delusoriness of some of the claims being made on behalf of the drug experience, and observed, “Wine makes men happy and sociable, hashish isolates them. Wine exalts the will, hashish annihilates it.” Rimbaud quit cold turkey as a writer in favour of realworld action when he had gone as far as he could, or wanted to, in pursuit of the transcendent. Lautréamont was already turning away from the “evil” fury of Les Chants deMaldoror (1868-69) when he died at the age of twenty-four, perhaps of “fever,” during the Siege of Paris. Mallarmé pulled from back from the philosophical abyss that had yawned in front of him in his twenties. And Breton went on working at finding ways of inhabiting the surreal without being destroyed thereby or needing drugs or booze to remain visionary. The madness that overtook Artaud was the exception rather than the rule.
Where the damage was really done was in America, where alcoholic suicides like avant-garde poet and publisher Harry Crosby and Hart Crane, in 1929 and 1932 respectively, and a number of subsequent figures who, in contrats to Rimbaud, had never gone through the discipline of a formal classical French education, were encouraged in their yearnings for the Ultimate by an Emersonian belief in the goodness of what one sincerely did and thought.
It was in that context that Winters’ concern with reason—not to be confused with cool or sweet reasonableness and a readiness to compromise in the interests of social harmony—deserves to be seen. He himself, after all, as an adolescent, would jump into a chilly nighttime canal to cool a body fevered by his reading, thereby contributing to the onset of the TB that would confine him for two years to a New Mexico sanitarium, and whose own writing in the Twenties was fragmented, modernist, and, yes, reaching hungrily towards the absolute and infinite.
Sieburth’s restriction of the poems to the late ones seems to me an unwarranted attempt to increase Nerval’s strangeness and downplay the features that relate him to, rather than differentiate him from, other poets.
The earlier poems that I have included are simply—poems. Nor is the neo-paganism of “Myrtho” particularly difficult.
Nerval’s best poems, with their preference for forms from before the dominance of the neoclassical couplet, and the garrulity that it permitted to non-dramatic poets, are noteworthy for their concision and control, and at times lyrical or meditative charm.
In a serious reading of several of the difficult, at times almost opaquely different later ones, a problem as with commentaries on Mallarmé, is not to so over-allegorize as to convert them into condensed prose statements, or to have all manner of biographical associations accumulate round them like weeds on the bottom of an old-time sailing vessel.
A test is always, it seems to me, what happens when you read a poem out aloud from start to finish without stopping along the way. Being able to flesh out in the mind’s eye the term “le Pausillippe,” which, cold on the page, can mean just about anything for the tyro, really matters. But a one-line note equating a classical name with the name of an obscure woman in a poet’s early life will simply, in itself, do nothing to firm up the poem as one reads. And it is insidiously easy to overlook the “How” of a poem, always the hardest thing to talk about, if one concentrates on the “What.”
Nor are these poems simply the versified moans of a victim.
“El Desdichado" is in fact, in its decisiveness, chivalric allusions, and Orphic analogies, a curiously heroic work, befitting, perhaps, the son of someone who had been a doctor in Napoleon’s Grande Armée. The opening announcement, after the title’s evocation of Scott’s Ivanhoe, has something in it of the knight entering the tourney and proclaiming who he is and what his heraldic device signifies. And, descending like Orpheus into the Underworld, the “I” of the poem has kept on singing and been twice victorious, an allusion perhaps to surviving bouts of insanity.
Nerval’s life had indeed, in ways vastly different from that canard about the lobster, been a heroic one, and there is an extraordinary poignancy to his terminating it after the achievements of those packed final five years.
For more about vision, drugs, creativity, and romanticism, see Part 2 of the annotated bibliography for this site.
Tennyson, Proserpine, and the Underworld
In a letter to Donald Davie in 1950, Yvor Winters said that Tennyson’s “Demeter and Proserpine” was “pretty impressive.” High praise by him doesn’t necessarily settle things, at least for me. In the same letter he calls Wordsworth’s “Ode to Duty” “one of the few great poems of the 19th century.” But “Demeter and Proserpine” does have a psychological heft to it that you don’t get in the general run of Tennyson’s shorter poems. And the myth of the dark other kingdom figures in several other poems in A New Book, by such diverse poets as D.H. Lawrence, A.E. Stallings, Gérard de Nerval, Ellen Kay, A.D. Hope, and, added the other day, Rainer Maria Rilke.
This was without planning on my part. I simply liked certain poems. But I guess that, given the classical nature of “A New Book”—classical after the manner of Joyce’s Ulysses (on which see S.L. Godlberg, The Classical Temper), not neoclassical—it is natural for the idea of such a kingdom to figure in it as one of the many modes of being.
The Selected letters of Yvor Winters ed. R.L.Barth (2000), p.306
William Johnson Cory, “Hersilia”
Hersilia> Googling discloses that the mythical Hersilia, wife of Romulus, who had gone along voluntarily with the other Sabine women seized by the Romans, her daughter being among them, came to be the Goddess of Courage.
sub aureo nimb> under a golden cloud; nimbus “a bright cloud surrounding gods or goddesses appearing on earth; an aura of splendour about any person or thing,” Webster’s New World Dictionary, 4th ed.
Arthur, etc> Arthur Hallam, Alfred Tennyson, Edward Fitzgerald, Brooks ------??
Apologia> presumably John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1865–66).
bluest> gloomiest ?
We and the Czar> Crimean War, 1853–56.
Neville’s Court> quadrangle in Trinity College.
Granta/ Cam> same little river, with punts and nude (male) bathing.
Newnham College> second women’s college, founded 1871.
kirtled> in dress or skirt
fort of Edom> ?
Atalanta> mythical athlete and huntress, “best known for participation in male activities while at the same time having an aura of sexuality surrounding her” (Mia Gibson at www.pantheon.org/articles/a/atalanta.html)
car-wheels> chariot wheels
Milanion> suitor who acquired the thitherto undefeated Atalanta as wife after beating her in a foot-race by dropping golden apples along the way, which she stopped to pick up.
Miss Mannering> spirited Julia Mannering in Scott’s Guy Mannering.
This upper-class Victorian poem, with its explicit nostalgia for the dear old days when life for clever undergraduates at Cambridge, around 1830, was uncomplicated by the presence of girls, its perhaps slightly uncertain coping now with a clever girl about to go “up,” and the numerous allusions that its readers are presumed to be at home with, has the virtue of being neither solemnly assertive nor heavily “light” and humorous.
In contrast to the stasis of a neoclassical poem of statement or description by Robert Bridges in which nothing is different at the end from what it was at the beginning, there is a mimetic working through from the known attractiveness of this particular girl, via the nostalgic appeal, yet with a sense perhaps of limitations, of the male bonding and intellectual camaraderie back when, to the fact of the newly released energies of women desiring an education, with some uncertainty on his part as to how the male Cambridge cult of brilliance and success will play for this particular girl.
The poem is saved from Victorian heaviness or flippancy by being in the mode of Praed, with the classical-romantic later Cantos of Don Juan behind him, and treating social manners and mores as having their own charms and non-antithetical relationships with the feelings of individuals. The Hardy of poems like “An Ancient to Ancients” and “Reminiscences of a Dancing Man,” with his fondness for song-like stanzas like the ones here, would have known it, surely.
Hardy was much more continent in his allusions to classical matters that “everyone” knows. But Cory’s use of them is obviously a result of their being natural embodiments of vitality and not would-be dignifiers, and the social history is deft. It’s a poem that Larkin, in contrast I imagine to a Yahoo like Amis, would probably have respected.
As to the advice at the end, in 1948, early in the fall term at the Other Place, some twenty or thirty of us newcomers, of both sexes, attended an austerity lunch that supposedly would help in our acclimatization, during which the worldly-wise speaker, I don’t know from which college, informed us genially that since statistically none of us would get Firsts (with, by implication, academic careers and the higher Civil Service closed to us) we shouldn’t work too hard.
Louise Michel: crows, corridas, cholera
The juxtaposition here of the intensely private Dickinson and the very privately public Mallarmé with the intensely public Michel—Communard and subsequent indomitable propagandist for Anarchism, despite imprisonments, exile, and police harassment—is piquant. But in her larger-than-life Romantic courage, compassion, sense of occasions, brilliant manipulation of the authorities, and, in her commitment to the cause of what she saw as true social justice, selflessness, she was one of those organically unified figures, like Victor Hugo—whom she admired, learned from in her poetry, and corresponded with for years—who are simultaneously public and private.
Like Germaine de Staël, she was, of course, quite “impossible” if you were trying to make her do or stop doing something against her wishes. But she was beloved of many, and a true saint of radicalism.
I don’t at present know whether her crows or Rimbaud’s came first, or whether there was coincidence or, as seems more likely dialogic adaptaton.
“Chanson du Cirque” feels as though it was written in response to French Society’s taking a fashionable interest in bull-fights of the mise à mort kind in, at a guess, the decadently thrill-seeking 1890s. The Bloody Week of street-fighting in May 1871, and the executions of ten-? twenty-thousand? active or suspected Communards were barely two decades in the past.
Michel loathed cruelty to animals.
According to Wikipedia, “Jacques Bonhomme” was the contemptuous term of the aristocracy for the peasants who revolted in northern France in 1358, in the so-called Jacquerie. Apparently “Jacques” came from the short jacket worn by peasants. “Jacques Goodfellow,” one suggested rendering of “Bonhomme,” doesn’t sound particularly contemptuous to me. “Goodman Jack” might be more condescending, but neither seem to me to resonate now. “Clown” was of course an older English term for yokels, as in Shakespeare, and still, in some connexions, carries associations of clumsiness and ignorance.
But the clumsiness of circus clowns is only a feigned clumsiness.
The Roman arenas were the sites of circuses. I don’t know when bullfighting was started up again in modern times in the Arena in Arles.
The lower-case “sacré coeur” in “V’la le choléra” presumably fuses ironically the Catholic doctrine of the compassionate Sacred Heart of Christ and the sepulchre-white Sacré Coeur Basilica perched on top of Montmartre. According to Wikipedia,
The purpose of making a church dedicated to the Sacred Heart, with its origins in the aftermath of the French Revolution among ultra-Catholics and legitimist-royalists, developed more widely in France after the Franco-Prussian War and the ensuing uprising of the Paris Commune of 1870-71. Though today its is asserted to be dedicated to the honor of the 58,000 who lost their lives during the war, the decree of the Assemblée Nationale , 24 July 1873, responding to an appeal by the archbishop of Paris by voting its construction, specifies that it is to “expiate the crimes of the communards.” Montmartre had been the site of the communards’ first insurrection …
The construction of this highly controversial edifice began in 1875 and continued until 1914.
Stéphane Mallarmé, “Le Pitre Châtié”: two versions.
This version of “Le Pitre Chatié” comes from an 1864 notebook of Mallarme’s. Elsewhere I say a few words about the revised version of the poem published in1887 and the linguistic energizing in it, beginning with the mysterious first line, “Yeux, lacs avecs ma simple ivresse de renaitre”—mysterious, that is, if one doesn’t know the earlier version.
The earlier version is obviously a symbolic enactment and critique of the Romantic fantasy, strongest among young German males, of the pure young woman as a beautiful soul, repository of a spirituality that will transform and focus creatively the untidy life of the male. On the disjunctions of such relationships in practice, see, for example, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Penelope Fitzgerald’s marvelous succinct historical novel The Blue Flower (1995) about the two-year fixation of the poet known as Novalis on an ordinary, ill-educated, unintellectual, but amiable young miss of a respectable family, who’s a good deal baffled by his intensity and the insights that he attributes to her.
The first version of the poem is already pretty concrete in its evocation of the excitement, a flurry of new leaves turned over, etcetera, of the early stages of such a relationship, before it has settled down into routine. The “she” of the poem, as distinct from the ambitions generated by her, is there only as the pair of eyes into whose attributed interior mindscape of symbolic values, above all purity, one feels oneself being erotically and somewhat narcissistically drawn.
But the male messiness, show-offiness, self-dramatization, wildness, even clownishness are, alas, all part of the dynamics of creativity. Of creativity in general, or that of this particular figure? A friend and correspondent of Mallarmé’s noted that at one point earlier, Mallarmé had in fact written “de ma génie,” maybe more honestly.
Mallarmé was a very tactile poet, but in a very different fashion from Villon or the Ronsard of the erotica, setting up physical sites in which intense but narrowed ranges of emotions are elicited—a frozen lake, a buried temple, a huge fallen boulder, a mysteriously empty room, etc.
The punished clown? The chastised clown? The chastened clown? The purified clown?
The Muse will punish him by withdrawing her inspiration from him because of his disloyalty, his belief that he no longer needs the traditional cultural dialoguing of audience-related poetry but can have an unmediated access to the Absolute, as with the purer-than-pure cold of the distant glacier, a taste of whose waters has entered these lakes.
But do we feel him, in his consciousness, as chastised, purified, or, in his realization of where his egoistical and more than a little adolescent impetuosity has landed him, chastened?
I take the text of the poem and the information about its provenance from Stéphane Mallarmé, Oeuvres complètes, texte établi et annoté par Henri Mondor et G. Jean-Aubry (Paris, Gallimard, 1945), pp. 1416–1417.
Paul Verlaine: translating
The usefulness of online translations in which several different translations of a poem are given may be a matter of personal taste. Being reminded that there’s no one right translation of a poem can be welcome, and seeing the options may allow one to pick ones that feel more, or less, right than others. On the other hand, there may be too much clutter and static.
Of the eight translations of the impeccable and influential “Colloque Sentimentale,” the two best seem to me those by Joanna Richardson and Gertrude Hall.
Solomon’s is passable.
With its irregular line lengths and the weird importation of “mirror” in place of “glace”, “frozen,” Klein’s is considerably below what he’s done elsewhere. “Dark slopes” does not evoke the original’s “dark sky.”
Kirkup’s seems a series of glosses, with rhythms and tone completely lost.
Mulroney loses rhythms, tone, “poetry.”
Dale’s opting for eight-syllable over ten-syllable lines sacrifices the quiet cool steadiness of the lines’ advance.
Dean’s is awkward and in places inaccurate, or, if that seems “judgmental,” too big a stretch, such as “It’s unbelievable” as the equivalent of “C’est possible” (meaning, “It’s possible” “Possibly,” “Maybe,” “ “If you say so”) and “The night alone heard and of them took toll” for “Et la nuit seule entendit leur paroles,” which you scarcely need French to understand. Hearing something is not like taking toll.
With a poem so deftly economical and steady in its ironical progression, the less extraneous baggage you introduce the better.
But then, God knows it must be hard coming up with metre, and not just metre but rhymes.
Verlaine’s under-the-counter erotic poems are remarkable, and can be found in industrial strength in Women/Men, Femmes/Hombres, accompanied by Alistair Elliott’s own brilliant translations. They are the convincing utterances of someone who was truly bisexual, reveled in the bodily activities on both sides of the line, including the smelly parts, enjoyed his partners as individuals, and was not, at a time when it was a strong presence in erotica, sadomasochistic.
I would like to have included the exuberantly heterosexual “Gamineries” (rendered by Elliot as “The way the ladies ride”), and its also joyously explicit homosexual counterpart “Même quand tu ne bandes pas … “ (Elliot’s “Even without presenting arms…”). But I stretched Elliot’s generosity to the limit with his superb Heine translations, and, to be honest, there seemed a risk of the two “outlaw” poems overwhelming the more delicate ones.
The two poems are online in French at
Verlaine’s thirty-some paeons to Eros are in the several times reprinted dual-text Women/Men; Femmes/Hombres, trans. Alistair Elliot (Anvil Press Poetry, 2004 ). Translations of these poems have to be in formal verse, and I can’t imagine this being done better than by Elliott.
“Pensionnaires,” not in that book, comes from the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade Oeuvres poétiques complètes. The girls were not doing anything illegal, and it is unlikely that the staff, privately at least, would have been appalled had it come to their attention.
The tone is very different from that of Baudelaire’s “Femmes Damnés: Delphine at Hippolyte,” one of the poems that had got Les Fleurs du Mal into trouble with the authorities a quarter of a century earlier.
—Descendez, descendez, lamentables victimes,
Descendez le chemin de l’enfer eternal!
Plongez au plus profonde du gouffre, où tous les crimes,
Flagellés par un vent qui ne vient pas du ciel,s
Bouillonnent pêle-mêle avec un bruit d’orage.
Descend, descend, lamentable victims,
Descend the road of eternal hell!
Plunge to the depths of the gulf , where all the crimes,
Whipped by a wind which doesn’t come from heaven,
Seethe pell-mell with the sound of thunder.
I have not included a sample of his religious poems, which I find less interesting. But it seems more and more obvious that it is Verlaine, with his cultural omniverousness, his ability to speak with unforced naturalness in a great variety of forms, his alertness all the time to the details of what I hope can still be called the real, or at least the physical, world, his unironical commitment to each act of poetic definition, his all-too-human common humanity, and his continuing affirmativeness even under the most appalling conditions (often of his own making), who is the most viable of the great 19th-century French poets as a continuing presence now in poetic creation—Verlaine and, in his less turbulently visionary poems, Rimbaud.
In the great later-19th-century French dictionary of Emile Littré, the saying “Il faut hurler avec les loups” is defined as,”Il faut s’accoutemer aux manière de ceux avec qui l’on se trouve quoique’on ne les approuve pas.” /“One must become accustomed to the manners of those with whom one finds oneself although one doesn’t approve of them.” My Cassells dictionary gives, “do as others do.” Online we have ”repeat what others say so as to better become one of the group,” “repeat what everyone says without giving a personal opinion,” and “ so as not to look bad in other’s eyes,” and ‘join in criticisms or attacks on someone so as to conform to the dominant opinion.”
Online suggestions for English equivalents are: “when in Rome, do as the Romans do, “ “bay with the pack,” and “go with the flow.” In Verlaine’s poem, the last of those seems the most functional, given what appear to be shifts in meaning shift between the first stanza (grieve, but accept the way things are), the second one (that’s good; behave the way others behave), and maybe even the third (see, what did I tell you, go along and you’ll get along).
It’s a curious idiom, and different in its connotations from what “bleating with the flock” would be. Wolves, whether the implacable sledge-hunters of myth or the small family units of actuality, are free-ranging and plurisignative, at times deadly (“homo homini lupus”), at others, as with the infancy of Romulus and Remus, nurturing. The American “It’s my night to howl” signified cutting loose for a bit and having a good time.
In “False Impression” I’ve opted for “trots” over Collins Robert’s “scurries” (for mice and children). “Scurries” suggests for me a small creature moving around fast in a typical mouse fashion, as does “scampers.” I toyed with “skims,” “glides,” and “flows,” since the dark grey mouse currently living in my TV sunroom passes so silently along the top of the low bookcase below the windows. But there are still, from where I sit, glimpses of moving legs.
The more individuating “trots,” with its hint of equestrienne social display, makes Lady Mouse larger and more purposeful. “Madame Mouse trots” would take us straight to the Edith Sitwell text in Façade. “Mrs Mouse” is too domestic. “Dame” in Collins Robert keeps coming up “lady, even in dame pipi, lady toilet attendant. England’s “Old Dame Trot” would surely come out “Madame” in French. “Trots” is crisper than “scurries or “scamper.” Verlaine, who read and spoke English, would have had no trouble with “trots” sliding from horses to mousies. He would no doubt have known of Old Dame Trot in Mother Goose.
Since the English lines are all pretty much the same length, I didn’t follow the alignment of the French.
Gerard Manley Hopkins
I talk elsewhere, sympathetically, about Hopkins’ meters, inscape, and other dealings with language, and won’t repeat myself here.
“Heaven-Haven” and “The Habit of Perfection” feel like a two-part poem, in which the desire to withdraw from a too-harsh outer world is shown to be accompanied by an inner world of superior vitality. The notion of a chosen silence suggests nuns rather than monks, though no doubt it carries over to Hopkins’ renunciation of his too sensuous pre-conversion verse writing. In another early poem “The Alchemist in the City” Hopkins voices, in the imagined person of an alchemist, unhappiness about being alienated from the world of confident urban achievement, without any certainty that his alchemical activities will come to fruition, and describes his compensatory visits to natural locales.
Like Emily Dickinson and Mallarmé, Hopkins himself succeeded in endowing inner states and processes with a remarkable non-dramatic vitality, largely by means of figurative language. A variety of his styles are on display in A New Book.
“That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection,” a Petrarchan sonnet with an extension, seems to me the most remarkable and successful of the poems in which he moves from a delight in the shared natural world to specifically Christian concerns. There isn’t the conceptual gap between octave and sestet that we get in sonnets like “God’s Grandeur,” “Spring,” and “The Windhover,” in which the offered particulars in the octave are simply not enough to sustain the reaching after the (take-a-deep-breath) wide-angle Christian truths, as he sees them, in the sestet.
“That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire” is all a sustained flow. It is he who feels the comfort of the resurrection, and not we who should (the whole vast and varied natural and human world reduced to a cliché metaphor of earth stamped bare by boots) take comfort from notions of oil and brooding mother birds, or share the lovely (and much superior) snapshot images of actual beauties in spring while putting out of our minds that spring is, inseparably, a time of the reviving natural sexual energies that the poet wants to do without (was there no sex in Eden?), or leap, as Yvor Winters pointed out, from the fact that the flight of a (hunting) falcon may indeed be exhilarating to watch, to the proposition that Jesus, who’s own career was very far from being effortlessly superior, is therefore even more exciting.
Winters, incidentally, seems to me right on target in his modest suggestion that one of the dictionary meanings of “buckle”, as used in “The Windhover,” is “marry.”
“That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire” was apparently written in the year before he died from typhoid, So we’re not into a life-story of one-way descent from “the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation” to the gloom of the so-called terrible sonnets.
For “The Alchemist in the City,” go elsewhere online.
There are numerous Christian poems in A New Book, presented no less respectfully than the secular ones. What counts is how one plays within the givens of this or that belief system. What was obviously irritating for Winters was the Hopkins cult, in which it was assumed, and not just by fellow Catholics, that Hopkins and what he said and did in his poems deserved a special deference because, well, what he believed was, I mean, you know, TRUE, or at least truer than Protestantism, let alone Unbelief.
Personally I’m a sucker for Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley. But that doesn’t make “God’s Grandeur” any less of a mess intellectually, effective though it may have been as a Romantic mood poem, redoing (less well) for a more industrialized world Wordsworth’s “The world is too much with us,” which harks back to a world of pre-Christian sexual vitality, rather than to a globe polluted by the mere fact of people working and trading on it—activities that one would not have thought were innately displeasing to the Creator.
The ploughing in “The Windhover” and “Harry Ploughman” and the metal working of Felix Randal are another matter, of course. But poetic virtue doesn’t travel by osmosis, especially not retrospectively.
Aristide Bruant, argot, and translation
It feels a bit presumptuous to have tackled one of Bruant’s more heavily argotic lyrics, “Ah! les Salauds.” But then, what would “presumptuous” mean in this connection? Something, maybe, like presuming one could mount a skateboard for the first time at age fifty and waltz away downhill?
I don’t think it’s really that bad here. There are doubtless errors and missed subtleties, but at least there’s now a coherent narrative and attitude, and there are limits to what can be done with octosyllabics and three-line stanzas, at least if one’s preserving the basic metre. Could some translator manage to keep the same rhyme sound going in the third and fourth lines, I wonder? Peter Dale, maybe, considering what he did with Corbière’s “Cris d’Aveugle”? But meanings would surely have to be elastic.
I’m out of sympathy with the attitude that if you can’t get everything right, you can’t have anything, as though you were translating an exam text. (Five errors, sorry pal, F for Fail, better luck next time.) Something, assuming it’s not serious falsification, seems to me better than nothing, and getting some of Bruant’s Villonesque texture (more natural-feeling than in W.E. Henley’s lively adjoining argot ballade in the Table of Contents) and Montmartre class-feeling seems to me indeed something.
Yes, no doubt a bit presumptuous. But I couldn’t locate a translation by anyone else. And I was drawing on the excellent Collins Robert French Dictionary (9th ed., 2010), the online XM Littré v 1.3, and J. Marks’ very helpful French-English Dictionary of Slang and Colloquialism (Harrap), also dipping, without much luck, into other print and online dictionaries.
Only nine words in the Collins start with “tin”, the only relevant-feeling one, “tinette,” being defined as “latrine.” Collins gives “dungheap” as a meaning of “tas.” Marks gives “un vieux tableau” as “an old frump, old has-been, a painted old hag.” I took there to be word-play with “painted.” Marks gives “w.c.” as one meaning of “endroit” (basically, “place” or “spot”). Since a maison clos was a brothel, it seemed to me that there could be a triple play on the locale, the jakes (all that drinking), and where you’d plant your member. To judge from “quality” drawings online, there could be inventive goings-on in quality brothels.
Ribbons would be those narrow little bits of ribbon, like miniature medal ribbons, that civilians wore in lapel buttonholes to indicate the Légion d’honneur, etc. “Calot,” forage cap, I took to be a reference to obligatory military service.
A repeated brief refrain in English, with no rhyming function, can be a momentary speed-up and lowering of energy. Using translator’s licence, I’ve assumed that with a broad-spectrum term like “salauds,” particularly if given varying degrees of emphasis and body-English during performance, an audience would have been filling out the term in their heads in a variety of ways. Also, there’s a bit of compensation for the lost weighting of the rhymes. The substitute words that I’ve picked are more or less related to ones in a list of French synonyms for “salaud” that I found online.
“I’s” is a slang contraction of “Ils.” “Oùsqu’” is “Où”, I’ve no idea why.
The texts of “La Noire” and “Les Salauds” come from Aristide Bruant, Poèmes choisis extraits de Dans la Rue avec quelques souvenirs pour servir de préface (Seghers 1962).
Unfortunately the definitions in Bruant’s 468-pp. Dictionaire Français-Argot, nouvelle édition augmentée d’un supplément (Flammarion, 1905) only go in one direction, from standard words to argot synonyms.
“Derrière,” for example, has ninety-five equivalents, such as “rue aux pets” (fart-street) and “verre de montre” (watch-glass). Those two are reasonably self-explanatory, at least once one knows what’s fundamentally being referred to. But “gros visage,” “joufflu,” “juste milieu”…?
Augusta Gregory, “Grief of a Girl’s Heart”: textual
Since Ezra Pound is credited with “The River Merchant’s Wife: a Letter,” adapted from a translation by Ernest Fenollosa of a poem by an eighth-century Chinese poet (Li Po/ Rihaku), Augusta Gregory, patron of Yeats, Synge, and others of the modern Irish Renaissance can surely be credited with this one, translated from the Irish (written? spoken?), and further edited by persons unknown, a matter of lineation and the omission of plainly weaker portions, not any changes in phrasing. For more about it, see Comments.
Arthur Rimbaud: translating
Wyatt Mason’s translation of “Les Corbeaux” in his comely and deservedly admired Modern Library Rimbaud Complete demonstrates why wariness about translations is desirable. The poem acquires difficulties that simply aren’t there in the poem that Rimbaud wrote. Rimbaud can be difficult, at times very difficult, but he can also be clear, and there’s no gain in making him difficult needlessly.
Rimbaud’s language, like Hugo’s. is rich and precise, not rich and fuzzy. Tinkering with it inappropriately for the sake of metre and rhymes can bring losses, including false ideas of the poetical. Some of the stylistic features of Hart Crane resulted from tackling poets like Rimbaud and Mallarmé with insufficient French.
The most helpful translation of the poem that I’ve come across is by Oliver Bernard. It’s a “found poem” here, lifted from the Penguin Rimbaud, where it nestles humbly as prose at the foot of the page. I imagine that the lineation that I’ve restored to it was Bernard’s own while working on it.
Lord, when the meadowland is cold,
And when in the downcast hamlets’,
The long Angeluses are silent …
Down on Nature barren of flowers,
Let them sweep from the wide skies,
The dear delightful crows.
Strange army with your stern cries,
The cold winds are assaulting your nests!
You—along yellowed rivers,
Over the roads with their old Calvaries,
Over ditches, over holes—
Disperse and rally!
In your thousands, over the fields of France
Where the day before yesterday’s dead are sleeping,
Wheel in the wintertime, won’t you?
So that each traveller may remember!
Be, then, the one who calls men to duty,
O funereal black bird of ours!
But, ye saints of the sky, at the oak tree top,
The masthead lost in the enchanted twilight,
Leave alone the warblers of May,
For the sake of those whom, in the depths of the wood,
In the undergrowth from which there is no escaping,
Defeat without a future has enslaved.
Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891)
Tr. Oliver Bernard.
Mason’s version opens:
When your meadows lie cold, O Lord,
When the endless Angelus falls silent
In every crumbling hamlet
Strike down your dear delicious crows
From boundless skies above
To nature’s deflowered ground.
Strange armies with cries that crack,
Cold nests that winds attack …
Mason’s crows and the meadows are the Lord’s, but that’s not there in the text. Mason has “boundless skies,” Rimbaud “grands cieux” (big/great skies) Rimbaud’s Angeluses are “long.” Mason’s are “endless,” adding a touch of mystery. His speaker’s command to the Lord to “Strike down your dear, delicious crows” is senseless. It’s the crows that are hurling themselves downwards—sweeping down, swooping down, a magnificent image of organic mass in motion. Their cries are “sevères” (Bernard’s “stern”). They don’t “crack.”
Mason calls them “Heavenly saints,” linking them further to God, but Rimbaud’s are “saints du ciel,” saints of the sky. When we speak, if we still do, of looking up at the heavens, we’re thinking of the deep spaces of the sky, not the pearly gates.
The subsequent assertion (Mason) that “No passerby forgets” the dead gets things ass-backwards. The crows’ wheeling and crying is to make men remember what they would otherwise forget, or have already forgotten.
The poem is an expressionist intensification of what we have in Baudelaire’s “Les Petites Vieilles” when, in Barbara Gibbs’ translation, one of his little old women listens to
One of those concerts rich with brass
With which the soldiers sometimes flood our parks,
Pouring on golden evenings a kind of
Heroism in the hearts of burgesses.
John Kinsella ratchets things up with his “bizarre shock-troops,” “jaundiced rivers,” “decrepit” calvaries, falling crows that swallow fields, “imprisoned” grass, and the defeated “chained.” “Down on defoliated tracks of wildness” is a bit mysterious—ah that crazy Arthur!—but mightn’t “tracks” be “tracts”?
Making the poem less four-square and coherently kinetic encourages seeing it as more subjective and “personal,” because sounding more agitated.
But allegorizing it, as I’ve seen done on the web, into young Arthur bitching about his own situation is surely only possible with a programmatic conviction that a young proto-Beat with bad hair and terrible manners couldn’t possibly feel indignant about the bourgeois inability to perceive the shame of a national debacle that reversed the Napoleonic grandeur just about as far as it could go.
A few years later, Rimbaud himself, who’d escaped conscription in France, voluntarily joined an army—admittedly only a Dutch one, and colonial, and he soon deserted. But there were guns with bullets in them, and all. Christopher Middleton does a fine riff on the episode in “A Ballad of Arthur Rimbaud.”
Bernard’s title for his translation is “The Rooks.” I can see this working for England, since a rook, according to my dictionary, is “a gregarious European crow.” In Hardy’s “Weathers, “rooks in families homeward go,” and there was a lively rookery just outside my grandparents’ Wiltshire village, in a tall stand of trees in an abandoned chalk-pit.
But it’s crows, not rooks, who do the advising in folk tales, and those corbies/corbeauux in “The Twa Corbies” are obviously crows and not, as I’ve seen suggested, ravens, and the French for rook is “freux” or “corneille.” Ted Hughes’ poetic sequence wouldn’t have had its quasi-mythic dimension if it had been about Rook.
Mason’s edition is a book to own, and he knows vastly more French than I do, but there are things that a translator shouldn’t do to save a rhyme-scheme. If a reader can get the literal meaning of Rimbaud’s words right, at least in poems like this, and then follow the French along as metred discourse, Rimbaud himself will provide the music.
That indomitable Communard and saint of anarchism Louise Michel (1830-1905) has a powerful poem of her own that partly overlaps Rimbaud’s, also called “Les Corbeaux.”
John Meade Falkner
The so-called Trinity Sundays are apparently those of the six months between the close of the Easter cycle and the start of the Christmas one.
William Boyce (1711–1779), according to Wikipedia, “is widely regarded as one of the most important English-born composers of the 18th century,” Oh Where Shall Wisdom? being among his liturgical creations.
Googling also discloses that hodie mihi, cras tibi (“It is my lot today, yours to-morrow”) is “a line often found in old epitaphs,” presumably on tombstones.
Omnia vanitas takes us to “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity (Ecclesiastes)
Post pugnam pausa fiet sounds as though it means something like, “Let there be a respite after the struggle” Emmanuel (Wikipedia again) is evidently a name here for Jesus, considered as the Messiah.
This lovely poem is in Philip Larkin’s Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973), and may be the best of his discoveries there. If one wanted a quick take on the appeal of Church-of-England Christianity at its purest, one couldn’t do better than this. Here in the sequence of annual festivals and feast days, as observed by the devout, is a cycle of ordered significances in the natural year—the natural English, probably southern English, year—out of which the stages in the Book of Common Prayer partly evolved.
Personally I think it makes better sense than the high Romantic cult of Nature as observable in an influential novel like Senancourt’s Obermann (1804) the prime drawback of which was its formlessness. I mean, you can only gaze so much at a landscape, even a mountainous one, and have, or hope to have, inspired thoughts about the Spirit that moves through all things. That kind of thing wears out, as John Clare notes in his poignant “Decay: a Ballad”. The order in “After Trinity” is an intellectually structured one that permits the natural particulars to have their own identities, without the somewhat hectic personalizing of Catholicism’s Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Insofar as the poems in A New Book display what F.R. Leavis would have called “realized” states of being, the frame of mind in “After Trinity” belongs here just as much as the chaos in Mary F. Robinson’s poignant “Neurasthenia” adjoining it. Hardy would have understood where it was coming from.
Jules Laforgue, “Complainte des Pianos”
I marvel at the ability of translators like Peter Dale and Patricia Terry to render an elliptical poem like this in verse that not only scans but rhymes. But they don’t entirely resolve certain problems of literal meaning that I’ve had with it, nor does Graham Dunstan Martin’s prose translation in the Penguin Classics volume.
Various things are clearer to me now, including the fact that the kind of guesswork required would be a good deal helped by one’s being at home in the social and literary cultures of those years. But at least there are clarities here to be discovered. He is thinking about them— the girls— and not about himself, or about himself thinking about them, and it isn’t a dance of Hart-Cranean would-be profundities.
The syntax of the first two lines, in which “Menez” is a directive (“lead,” “conduct”), wouldn’t go naturally for me into English.
The sexual element now seems to me pervasive, partly because of a fillip from Verlaine’s boarding-school poem and one or two other bits of reading, partly because of what a French friend recalled some years ago about her own upper-bourgeoisie schooling in the late Thirties, early Forties.
His strolls are chaste, i.e., not in search of tarts or assignations. What are the girls thinking of as they practice? How about arm-in-arm confidings in the evening schoolyards of their boarding schools? And that handsome crucified man up there on the open-space dormitory wall has only a bit of fabric hiding his central parts.
I’d assumed that the “You” is a parent, since a scenario involving the narrator would be too complicated. But why only one parent, and would he/she be expected to resolve her “problem”? Graham Dunstan Martin reports in the notes to his Penguin Laforgue that “Tu t’en vas et tu nous quittes,/ Tu nous quitt’s et tu t’en vas” comes from a popular song, so we could be elliptically into their imagined romantic-love dramas.
Laforgue’s figures of speech point to realworld phenomena and behaviours. They’re not mysterious/mystical/ mystifying. He moves fast. He doesn’t want the intelligent reader to have to take time-out to interpret/translate a statement like “They know the reddest sunsets make the whitest avowals” (Martin). If “gras” and “couchant” are thought to evoke figuratively the sun going to bed, that’s because of what human bodies do literally. In convent-schools, Sunday “confessions” are more charged than the vaguer “avowals” of—of whom, of what? I like “blanc” being both figurative and (bed sheets) literal. Are girls themselves being discreetly silent, or do they know something of the world at second-hand?
According to Wikipedia, La Sulamite, a scène-lyrique by Emmanuel Chabrier, was performed in Paris in March 1885. “Within an oriental setting in high-walled gardens, the Sulamite, at first sad because of the absence of her loved one, soon feels his approach, calls him, sees him running and collapses finally in his arms in the longed-for ecstasy, among the delighted congratulations of her companions, happy with her good fortune.” Apparently Shulamith in The Song of Songs prefers a simple shepherd boy to the great King.
Martin sees the keys to “being” (être) as menstruation. If, as seems reasonable, a flow is intended, “spigot” makes things more kinetic than the idea of a key. The long metal rods, with cross-bars at the top, which were inserted through the holes in metal disks set in the sidewalk in order to turn on or off water mains were a species of key. But they would be unlikely to come to Anglo readers’ minds now.
“Psst!” is a beckoning, not a shushing.
Roses fade with their bushes (rosiers) unwatered. But “rosière” in my Collins-Robert dictionary is “village maiden,” and “rosir” is “to grow or turn pink, to blush slightly …” Blushing less as dormitory sex becomes familiar?
The curtains would be around individual bed-spaces in an open dormitory. Another girl is coming in, maybe?
I take “If you only knew” to be a reference to the dormitory stuff and dread of the “wounding” male. The ideal hero of the mind will clear up that problem for her—she hopes.
The idea of a flask of the lab kind or (Peter Dale in his virtuosic complete poems of J.L.) decanter being baptised makes little sense here for me. It presumably would set a seal of approval (the Church’s?) on the contents, but the poem seems to be about deprivation and the thwarting or taming of desire. Diluting and weakening the contents feels more appropriate. So I was pleased to find “to water down” (wine, milk, etc) as a fifth meaning of the term in Collins-Robert.
Drops that intoxicate? Cf. Scotland’s wee draps of usquebaugh? Collins-Robert gives “brandy” as a third meaning.
Relatedly, I can’t see a plunge into sexual experiments (essais) after the convent-school gates have closed behind them. It wasn’t that easy for the young to escape family and societal controls. The guilt felt by the members of the more sensitive first group of, I take it, wives would be more likely to result from a sense of their own sexual failures with their husbands, and/or their not becoming pregnant. There could also be a feeling of incapacity in the daily running of households, no doubt under the gimlet eyes of mothers-in-law.
At the end, separate bedrooms. That may have been a normal practice among the well-to-do, with individual dressing-rooms. But he doesn’t come to her now, or only rarely. She stares at the unchanging blank wall beside her bed.
Is the couplet about playing more exact ritornellos a reference, as Martin suggests, to sexual rhythms? That would suggest more heterosexual enjoyment than I find in the poem. Pregnancy and children might be more to the point.
My Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed) gives as the principal meaning of ritornello, “an instrumental interlude before or after an aria, scene, etc in early, esp. 17th-cent., operas.” So ritornellos, less demanding technically, are away from the dramatic intensities.
But on the Web there’s: ”A ritornello is a passage of music that returns. It acts as a unifying factor.” Laforgue was strongly interested in music, but I don’t know enough to draw inferences here.
An advantage to a less than perfect grasp of French is that one learns, chasteningly, not to take things for granted. My deduction that the casinos in “Ballade of Return” had done with their last, possibly yodeling, or at least vocal merry-makers took off from the idea of the Tyrol. But non! And no, even, to Peter Dale’s “When the casinos close the show/ With the last Tyrolean whirls,” with its intimation of guys in leather britches and little green hats slapping their thighs and yodeling as buxom maidens whirl in a flurry of petticoats.
The following page, with period photos of artistes, gives us plenty about tyroliennes and their performers (tyroliennistes).
I am not able to grasp how the music sounded. But apparently by the 1880s, this was a form of popular song that had begun some decades back with yodeling, but had become increasingly sophisticated so that it was now a matter of technically difficult vocalizing and phrasing, with yodel-derived aspects, which could be used for comic or other purposes.
Cabaret songs, of which Aristide Bruant up in Montmartre was the master composer-performer, were more or less working-class in attitude (though not necessarily in the composition of audiences) and linguistically realist. Café-concert songs were apparently a notch or two higher up socially. But no doubt boundaries blurred and the casino patrons, in addition to sweet-sour sentiments about l’Amour, would have had plenty of risqué double-entendres to laugh at.
There was nothing in England in those years to equal the wealth of French popular song, just as there was no café life and the artistic groupings that it permitted.
Rainer-Maria Rilke: translating
John Holcombe’s thirteen-page exploration of the kinds of options involved in translating “Herbsttag” is of considerable interest with respect to translating in general.
A frustrating feature of the art is how the diction and syntax of a line can be so plain and direct and perfect that almost any change will weaken it.
“Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr gross.”
The summer was very great?
(All in quoted translations.)
The “immense” of several translations seems to me the closest to getting the kind of feeling that would make you say in conversation that something was “very great” (or “so great”) and then follow it up, by way of amplification, with “immense”, which you wouldn’t do with “profuse,” “profound,” “towering,” or “lofty.”
It strikes me that there may be an implicit difference between translating free-standing and translating double-text. In the latter, if the reader has enough of the language to be able to hear his/her way along a line as a line, there can be a kind of overlapping of the experience of the original with the words of the translation.
So that here, in the present instance, it’s not a simple dictionary problem of finding a one-to-one equivalent for “gross.”
We’ve had the calm four-word opening statement or command: “Lord, it is time.” And then, in the expansion, there’s what feels to my ears like a four-step ascent with “-er war sehr gross, “ in which, as in the last four syllables of Ben Jonson’s “Drink to me only with thine eyes,” the “weak” syllable of the final foot is in fact stronger than the strong one preceding it. And the metrically enriched “gross” gets further enriched, subliminally, by its linking back to “Herr” at the start of the line.
So that even if it’s only “very great,” there’s that concealed charge of feeling in the words.
Ezra Pound, “Homage to Sextus Propertius IX”: rhombs and rites
Apparently rhombs weren’t musical instruments, as I had long assumed, but devices used by Roman witches, who claimed among other things to be able to charm down the moon. The ritual just concluded was presumably meant to alleviate the beloved’s sickness. When the poem first appeared, in Pound’s Quia Pauper Amavi (1919), the third line read, “And the moon still declined wholly to descend out of heaven.” That seems to me much better than what he later changed it to (“The moon still declined to descend out of heaven.”).
Rob Stevenson writes:
I’ve known the word almost since childhood, not because of any interest in the occult but rather my life-long love of anything mathematical and especially geometrical.
A “rhomb” as referred to in “Homage to Sextus Propertius IX” was likely a faceted glass ball which would give off a multi-coloured spray of light when spun near a light source such as a candle. It does this because it is, geometrically speaking, a rhombohedron—an object made up of six facets, each of which is a rhombus. And a rhombus, to follow the chain down to the basic shape, is a tilted rectangle. In common parlance, a diamond. So picture the rhomb as a crystal ball with six diamond faces.
Obviously, such an object would have been mysterious in its effect, most people never having studied physics and seen light refracted into a rainbow of colours through a prism. So a shaman/witch/doctor could use it to glaze the eyes of the victim, er, I mean patient, as well as those of any gawkers. And as we well know, the more mystification, the higher the fee.
The ball could be suspended, but an itinerant shaman would likely have a hand-held version, somewhat like a Maraca, with the crystal ball on top, and, since Pound refers to a clamour, a ring below it holding beads and such to make it rattle, the whole being held by a comfortable handle. Wish I could find a picture of one, since an image would definitely be worth a thousand words in this case.
But alas, I may have had the cart before the horse. According to this page the word rhomb comes from Greek and originally meant an object being twirled around to make a noise. Only after that was the word used for the geometric shape which resembled the twirling object. So Pound may have been using the word in its original, proper sense, while I was deducing his meaning from a later use of the term.
Arthur Waley and the Uta: Winters
The translations by Waley, British sinologist, come from his Japanese Poetry: the “Uta” (London, 1919). Yvor Winters says of him in Forms of Discovery (1968):
His knowledge of Chinese and Japanese is said to be impeccable; his translations are said to be accurate, although if we consider what later scholars have told us about Japanese poetry, about double-meanings, for example, accurate translation of many poems is probably impossible. The style of his Chinese poems is modeled on the style of Pound’s, but is less distinguished. Waley gives us excellent versions of the Noh, again less distinguished than Pound’s. Waley surpasses all competition, however, in his translations from the Japanese Uta (short poems, longer than the haiku), pp. 354.
Winters calls the poem about the deer “the finest English poem which we have from the Japanese.” How true that remains forty years later I have no idea.
The other poems that I’ve picked are ones which immediately evoke a cross-cultural kinship, rather than a feeling, like back during the early-modernist discovery of haiku, of how (interestingly) different that culture was.
“Sister” obviously doesn’t mean literally sister.
Brinsley MacNamara on Swift
“1742: declared of unsound mind and body [var. mad, insane] by committee of 19 in 1742, ‘a shocking object, though in person a very venerable figure’ (acc. Mary Delaney); exhibited by his manservant Patrick Brell.” (Web)
“There is a great mystery and controversy over Swift's relationship with Esther Johnson nicknamed ‘Stella’. Many hold that they were secretly married in 1716.” (Web)
“Hester Vanhomrigh, whom Swift had met in 1708, and whom he had tutored, followed him to Ireland after her mother had died. She was 22 years younger than Swift, who nicknamed her Vanessa. In the poem 'Cadenus and Vanessa' from 1713 Swift wrote about the affair: "Each girl, when pleased with what is taught, / Will have the teacher in her thought." In 1723 Swift broke off the relationship; she never recovered form his rejection.” (Web)
Appearances were all so strong,
The world must think him in the wrong;
Would say he made a treach’rous use
Of wit to flatter and seduce;
The Town would swear he had betray’d,
By magic spells, the harmless maid;
And ev’ry beau would have his jokes,
That scholars wee like other folks;
That when Platonic flights were over,
The tutor turned a mortal lover.
So tender of the young and fair!
It shew’d a true paternal care—
Five thousand guineas in her purse!
The Doctor might have fancy’d worse—
“Cadenus and Vanessa,” 642–655
But what success Vanessa met
Is to the world a secret yet:
Whether the nymph, to please the swain,
Talks in a high romantic strain,
Or whether he at last descends
To act with less seraphic ends;
Or, to compound the bus’ness, whether
They temper love and books together,
Must never to mankind be told,
Nor shall the conscious Muse unfold.
“Cadenus and Vanessa,” 818–827
Apollinaire, “Lul de Faltenin.”
I embarked on the translation of this poem knowing nothing about it. I was looking for something else from Alcools (1913) to replace the seventeen opening stanzas of “La Chanson du Mal Aimé” that had been sitting there a little oddly, and “Lul” was in the same stanza form and had what felt like the same crispness. It was also a convenient length. Since I couldn’t seem to get enough enlightenment from the translation in Donald Revell’s dual-text Poems by Guillaume Apollinaire, I thought I’d have a go at it myself, always a good way of acquiring a poem.
Having more or less finished, I turned to Philippe Renaud’s Lecture d’Apollinaire (Editions de l’Age de l’Homme, 1969) and Scott Bates’ Guillaume Apollinaire (Twayne, 1967) in search of enlightenment, and was pleased to learn that the poem is famously obscure. So some of the uncertainties weren’t just mine.
It was also pretty clear from the conflicting interpretations described in Renaud’s eight-page discussion that this was unlikely to be one of those instances where things shake down into a consensus, meaning in this case a start-to-finish interpretation— with detailed references to Apollinaire’s life— of the allegorical narrative. Since I mistrust that kind of reading anyway, and am far from being inward with Apollinaire, I wasn’t going to venture there myself. Nor does this in fact seem a poem that invites that kind of decoding . It isn’t like the version of Mallarmé’s sonnet “Le Pitre Châtié,” for example, that I translate and talk about elsewhere.
“Lul de Faltenin” isn’t a reprise of some particular episode in Classical mythology, nor does it have a clear narrative line at the Classical level. It seems to be, rather, an evocation, via a variety of Classical allusions, of sexual hungers, fears, confusions, compulsions too powerful and conflicting to be neatly tidied up. And there is a reaching back through the Classical to the energies embodied in it. One doesn’t just say, “Aha, Ovid,” or whatever the case may be, as if that was what an allusion was about, and now one can go home.
It’s the difference between “Like Dis’s ravishment of Proserpine” and “Like virgins snatched away to hidden lairs.” The latter is likely to bring the former to mind, but the former owes its strength to its epitomizing a variety of sexual seizures. In a curious work of Jungian criticism by D. Streatfeild, James Hadley Chase’s ravishment novel No Orchids for Miss Blandish (savaged by George Orwell) is in fact seen as a modern variant of the Proserpine legend, a suggestion that at least draws attention to the ongoing fascination of that basic narrative, present in several poems in A New Book.
Apollinaire seems to be subverting the conventional, smooth French neoclassicism of the well-educated, which was why, among other things, he could matter so much to André Breton during the years when the latter, sickened by the dulce et decorum rhetoric of the Great War, was feeling his way towards what would become Surrealism.
The poem is really beyond the broad linguistic zone of A New Book. But there are local clarities and an intelligible progression of concerns, and we don’t have either mysticism/mystification or the ingenious interconnections and conceptually overloaded terms that figure in accounts, the author’s among them, of Hart Crane’s “At Melville’s Tomb.”
Moreover, the poem joins the others in A New Book that involve underworlds, largely classical, I didn’t set out with that in mind as a theme to be explored. I’ve simply liked individual poems by Campion, Hugo, Nerval, Tennyson, Rilke, Lawrence, Hope, Pinsky, Harrison, Stallings. But the idea of another kingdom below us, with different rules, and emergent energies, and the possibility of two-way descents, Orphic and other, is major.
We can be pretty sure about a couple of things. One is that what looks like a classical reference in “Lul” will be one. The other is that what looks like an erotic reference will be one.
Apollinaire’s intense interest in the erotic, the clandestine, the taboo was notoriously on display in the same year as “Lul” in his anonymous and still disturbing Sadean oeuvre alimentaire (pot-boiler), Les Onze Mille Verges (1907), in which he took the governor off his imagination, and resulted in the appearance six years later of L’Enfer de la Bibliothèque Nationale, the pioneering bibliography of vaulted erotica that he and Louis Perceau published in 1913.
But for me the references in “Lul” take us into the intense and problematic realm of Eros, rather than being banal autobiographical allusions. If, as has been suggested, there is auto-eroticism here, the fantasies of a Guillaume Apollinaire reading Sade are likely to have been more interesting than the fantasies of an Alex Portnoy. They may, indeed, have issued in Les Onze Milles Verges (The Eleven Thousand Rods).
“Lul” apparently meant “penis” in Flemish, a language that Apollinaire, who lived for a while in Belgium, took an interest in, and “Faltenin” may have been derived from “phallum tenens,” which would be sort of like conflating actual etymologies and creating “Cock of Peosfaesl.”
Sirens in the general use of that term are dangerously, perhaps fatally, attractive females. However, before simply closing off the case with “prostitutes” or, higher up, “courtesans,” one should keep in mind that Paris at that time was the most eroticized city in Europe. It abounded in brothels catering to every taste, including S/M, some of them putting on shows that interfaced with the also abounding erotica (often published in Belgium) that included Les Paradis Charnels ou le Divin Breviare des Amants, the how-to guide by A.S. Lagail (Alphonse Gallais) to a hundred-and-thirty-six heterosexual positions, each with its own name (“The Double Scissors,” “The Silent Prayer,” etc), without even getting into S/M.
So the allure evoked by the term “Sirens” was not just a matter of Irma la Douce or Boule de Suif. For the uninitiated, brothels (maisons clos), their shuttered facades in their portrayal by Eugène Atget marked only by street numbers, would indeed be cave-like sites of Pompeian mysteries.
Aristide Bruant’s Dictionaire Français=Argot (1905) lists almost three hundred slang terms for prostitutes.
The physicality of “rampé” (crawled/crept) immediately shuts out the image of Odysseus tied to the mast as his crew row past the perilous coast, their ears plugged with wax. If “sirens” was a slang term for prostitutes, though I don’t see it in Bruant, there could have been a initial ambiguity for literate readers, as if a poem in English were to open, “Tarts, in so many shapes and sizes.” “Crawled” suggests an approach from land, along beach or cliff, rather than in—what? a rowboat, in which, unless at night, he would have been immediately visible to the sirens looking out to sea.
“Seas” seems to be a pretty rich term in French, to judge from the entry in the online Dictionaire Littré, where we progress from literal meanings to increasingly symbolic ones—an immense powerful otherness, as it were. .
The horses referred to are almost certainly those in Walter Crane’s seven-feet-wide painting “The Horses of Neptune” (1892), in which the long crest of a breaking wave becomes ten leaping white horses with flowing manes, with a bearded Neptune glimpsed in his chariot behind them. Apollinaire, who has a friendly references in an art review to some drawings by Crane, would have known this Symbolist work, which is on the Web now. Since the word “horses” by itself conveys little visual information, I have substituted “breakers.”
“In Roman mythology,” the online Myth Encyclopedia informs us, “the Golden Bough was a tree branch with golden leaves that enabled the Trojan hero Aeneas to travel through the underworld safely.” In Dante, a divine messenger, with a touch of his wand, gains admittance for Dante into the city of Dis, which is guarded by the Furies, including the Gorgon herself. In the episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which the young Dionysus is kidnapped by pirates ignorant of his identity, he manifests himself garlanded and with a wand as the boat is smothered in vegetation and wild beasts fiercely prowl.
The branch in “Lul” is from a willow-tree, slender and without blossoms (foliage?), a poet’s sought protection. Since sirens traditionally sing, I take those terrible mute mouths to be vaginas.
What the marvel is would seem to be up for guessing—poesy? creation? Nor am I sure whether it’s better than the Sirens or, if grammar permits, himself.
“Otelle” is apparently a term from heraldry, here meaning lance-tips, by analogy with the shapes of peeled almonds—and, of course, phallic. A knight would have had more than one lance. There’s too much about lances online for me to attempt precision. But here’s a sample.
Grail tradition associates the “Holy” or “Bleeding Lance” with the sacred chalice. In stories of the Holy Grail, Longinus’ lance is occasionally glimpsed dripping blood into the cup passed during the Last Supper. This is the spear which gave the Fisher King wounds which would not heal. His injuries could only be cured by the miraculous powers of the sacred instrument which inflicted them.
However, one may not need to get in that deep if a lance is primarily an implement with which a knight challenges others— challenges his world—and if the immediate association of blood-tipped penises is with deflowered virgins. Here, though, the blood is jetting from the lance-heads. So… ?
In Octave Mirbeau’s Le Jardin des Supplices (1899), a condemned man in the Imperial Chinese garden of tortures is slowly masturbated to death by a silent woman, expiring in agony with a jet of blood. Apollinaire would have known the novel. I have no idea if the concept is being evoked here, though the image would have been hard to keep out. But if it’s in play, then the “murder” to which he is confessing might be that of his two overworked cojones.
In Alfred Kubin’s drawing “Lubricity” (1901–1902), a naked woman cowers away in a corner from a huge hairy dog-like creature sitting back on its haunches in the foreground with a long stiff narrow penis jutting diagonally in her direction. Its tip, the shape of a reversed heart, is spear-like, with a stream of semen descending from it. In a review, Apollinaire merely mentions in passing that a German cubist (his first name mistakenly given editorially as Albert) is called Kubin. But then, he never mentions Felicien Rops with whose scandalous works he would undoubtedly have been familiar.
Having been unable to make sense of “à mon aspect” (stanza 3) in terms of appearance/appearing (I searched, I enquired), memory kicked in and googling took me to heraldry and astrology, both of them thematically relevant fields, where “aspect” is a technical term. In heraldry it gives us the stance of an emblematic creature (frontal, side-on, lying down, etc.) And in astrology it points to something like an intersecting of fields or lines of force, and to a configuration of stars that are affecting things thereby. In such a reading, he's under his own control, not that of the stars.
Rowers here, fleeing those siren heads just visible, flower-like, above the surface, are more general than Odysseus’s. Sensible as they humanly are, the “animal,” with its contrasting ideology, urges on the speaker in another direction. If one has to choose, they feel to me like land animals. It has been suggested (Renaud) that those starry eyes are up in the constellations. But there aren’t all that many constellations, and here the animality urges him on rather than reproving him.
“Gaping hole” seemed to me more energetic and hungrier than “hungry cave” or “avid grotto,” or some such.
The episode of Dionysus, the pirates, and the vine-covered ship figures in Canto II of Pound’s Cantos. In “Lul” it is obviously a good thing for sailors to have a Dionysus-like desire for transformation.
The firmament—the overarching sky, and now, as he descends, the overarching cavern roof— becomes like one of those poisonous jellyfish hanging domelike in the water. “Meduse” is the French term for jellyfish, presumably because of the resemblance between the stinging tendrils and the writhing serpentine locks of the Gorgon Medusa.
The constellations in the mapped heavens, pure and far from the sexual activities now going on in the lair of the Sirens, involve points of light connected up with straight lines, some of them in fact forming irregular oblongs. But is that in fact what is intended by oblong stars?
My thanks to Benoit Tadié, himself a fine translator of difficult Anglo poetry, including Hart Crane’s, for his careful reading of the translation, pencil in hand.
The ballad of John Henry
There are apparently almost two hundred versions of this poem, though presumably always with the central core of a steel-driving man beating a machine. The version here comes from John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax, American Ballads and Folk Songs (Dover, 1994 )
In Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, The Untold Story of an American Legend (Oxford U.P. 2006), historian Scott Reynolds Nelson fascinatingly uncovers an actual John Henry working under lethal conditions during the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in Virginia after the Civil War, and provides a lot of interesting socio-cultural information, including details about how, “As the song was assembled its composer or composers borrowed phrases from much older Anglo-American ballads.” (102)
Evidently many versions contain “those very old lines” near the end about who will now buy shoes for her little feet and gloves for her hands.
In 1917–1919, the great British folksong collector Cecil Sharp and his associate Helen Karpeles spent some forty weeks in the Appalachian region recording folksongs as performed by over two hundred singers, all ordinary members of their communities. While Sharp jotted down the music, Karpeles used shorthand for the words. According to Sharp in his 1917 introduction to English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, what she set down wasn’t tweaked later.
The texts had obviously shed a number of details during their decades of oral transmission in communities where “a few of those we met with were able to read and write, but the majority were illiterate.” (xxiii) Though Sharp reports that “their speech is English, not American” (England itself, after all, being an affair of regions), the four poems here, in their relative sparseness and abruptness, seem to me indeed American, though with British precursors that Sharp identifies. Social contexts have thinned out, explanations are mostly dispensed with, and the moral frameworks are less tidy. Crime here is not inevitably followed by punishment.
In those Calvinistic communities, where actual violences had, at least until recently, been a lot more common than they had been for a long time in England, the emphasis in the singing was on describing deeds, without personal editorializing or musical theatrics, the singer’s “attention being wholly concentrated upon what he’s singing, and not upon the effect which he is producing.” (xxiv) Presumably a higher Authority would be sorting out the goats from the sheep.
In the twenty-seven stanzas of “Lamkin” in Francis James Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1857–58), we have details like:
Lord Wearie got a bonny ship,
To sail the saut sae faem;
Bade his lady weel the castle keep,
Ay till he should come hame.
But the nourice was a fause limmer
As eer hung on a tree;
She laid a plot wi’ Lamkin,
When her lord was oer the sea.
She laid a plot wi Lamkin,
When the servants were awa
Loot him in at a little shot-window,
And brought him to the ha’.
“O whare’s a’ the men o’ this house
That ca me Lamkin?”
“They’re at the barn-well thrashing;
‘t will be lang ere they come in.”
Lord Wearie returns in stanza 23 and discovers what had gone on. In the final stanza the nurse is crying when she’s fastened to the stake to be burned.
The version of “The Three Butchers” on the Web at www.contemplator.com/england/butchers.html was collected, we are told, in peaceable Sussex in 1893.
In that one, three actual butchers, Gibson, Wilson, and Johnson, are returning from market flush with cash. In the second of the ten stanzas,
Now as they rode along the road,
As fast as they could ride,
Spur on your horses, says Johnson,
For I head a woman cry.
And as they rode into the wood,
The scene they spied around
And there they found a woman lay
A-swooning on the ground.
In the final stanza
Now, just as she had done the deed
Some men came riding by
And, seeing what this woman had done,
They raised a dreadful cry.
Then she was condemned to die in links
And iron chains so strong
For killing of bold Johnson,
That great and valiant man
The tighter-textured “Miller’s Apprentice” feels as though it could be fairly close to whatever British broadside versions preceded it, though I would expect the wicked apprenticeship to have ended on the gallows in the latter.
“A Single Woman” comes from the second of the two volumes, which is devoted to some two hundred songs (Sharp’s term) of various kinds, and by Sharp’s own account less interesting than the ballads. The more or less impersonal ballad mode is replaced, often, with the personalities of suffering selves. And there is a lessening of specific gravity (Winters’useful term for relative poetic density) when what is being talked about is merely personal experience, rather than iconic social behaviour.
But “The Single Grl” conveys an all-too-believable and far from unique wretchedness, lacking even the formal articulation and solidarity provided for Black women by the Blues.
The third and fourth lines in the first stanza no doubt served as a refrain in the subsequent ones.
The first edition of the collection was published by Putnam’s in 1917, at a time when an exhausted Britain had a very strong interest in America’s entering the war. I would guess that there are implications in it about the continuity of British and America culture, the mountain folk being, in Sharp’s words, “a leisurely, cheery people in their quiet way, in whom the social instinct is very highly developed” (xxii), and who have “the unselfconscious manners of the well-bred.” (xxiii) Blood-feuds are evidently a thing of the past.
But as poems like the three ballads demonstrate, there are uncivilized people in the world who are innately destructive and do wicked things to the innocent. And the Bryce Report about German atrocities in Belgium in 1914, containing lots of allegedly first-person reports of sufferings at their hands, had come out the previous year in a massive printing by the British Stationary Office.
But Karpeles and Sharp (who uses at one point the term “national type”) were obviously scrupulous scholars, and what I have picked are probably the bleakest poems in their great collection, whose music I regret being unable to read.
Bessie Smith and the Blues
In choosing the blues lyrics, I have tried to pick ones that can stand well enough on their own, rather than be dependent on the melody for the necessary slowing down and rhythmic expressiveness. In this respect, Bessie Smith, with her liking for the longer line and pronounced caesuras, seems to me more successful than Ma Rainey, though I share the feeling of that prince of jazz reviewers Philip Larkin that “Ma Rainey’s talent was mellower, more musical and at times more enjoyable than her pupil Bessie’s” (All What Jazz, revised edition [Faber, 1985]), p. 153
Billie Holiday, the greatest vocalist of the three, wasn’t in the formal sense a blues singer, and while her work was a distillation of the blues yearnings and grievings of love, there was a lot more to the blues than that.
The texts of the blues by Smith, and the attributions, come from Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism; Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (Vintage Books, 1998).
There are also “print” blues by Sterling Brown, W.H. Auden, Donald Justice, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, A.E. Stallings.
Carrie Smith, not a relative, made a superb recording of “Backwater Blues.” An excellent compilation of classic women blues singers is I Can’t Be Satisfied; Early American Women Blues Singers, two disks, available separately (Yazoo, 1997). Personally I find the women singers preferable to the men, with obvious exceptions like Robert Johnson. When it comes to sexual relationships, women in the blues grieve, men bitch. Well, much of the time.
Louis Aragon: versification
“Zone Libre,” first published in 1941, is set in 1940. The Unoccupied or Free Zone was the area of France—roughly the lower half, minus the Atlantic coast—that was left unoccupied by German troops after the armistice negotiated with Hitler on June 22. The new government of France, under Marshal Petain, was located in the town of Vichy, virtually in the dead centre of the country.
There is a good verse translation of the poem by Louis MacNeice, beginning,
Cross-fade of grief to nothingness,
The beat of the crushed heart grew less,
The coals grew white and lost their gleam;
Drinking the wine of summer’s haze
In a rose-castle in Corrèze
I changed this August into dream.
It is in The Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice, ed. E.R. Dodds (1966). But I can’t afford copyright fees, and continue to be dependent for permissions on the kindness of strangers.
The French of the opening stanza goes:
Fading de la tristesse oubli
Le bruit du coeur brisé faiblit
Et la cendre blanchit la braise
J’ai bu l’été comme un vin doux
J’ai rêvé pendant ce mois d’août
Dans un château rose en Corrèze
For the whole poem see:
Bierstube Magie allemande is probably the best-known of the numerous poems in a variety of forms composing Aragon’s Le roman inachevé (The Unfinished Novel), 1956, a quasi-autobiography in which, as the Stalinist certainties crumbled, he swerved away from Soviet realism and endeavoured to re-access the experiential realities of his—his own, not Socialist Man's—individual development.
The 1966 Gallimard edition of the book glosses “Bierstube” as “Brasserie” and “Gaense-Liesel” as “La Liesel à l’oie, statue à Strasbourg” (“oie” meaning “goose”).
With one small exception, only proper names and the first letters of lines are capitalized in the French text. “Magie” means “magic” (noun) in both German and French. I have assumed that what we have is the name of the beer-hall, parallel with constructions like “Café Etoile” (Star Café), and not an ascription of magical powers.
I’m not 100% certain of what’s going on in the Gaenze-Liesel bit.
The poem was famously adapted by songwriter Léo Ferré, a matter of omissions at the outset. See “Est-ce ainsi que les homes vivent?”
Yves Montand was among the important performers of it. I have been helped with some difficult lines by the expansive translation provided in Yves Montand paris recital, recorded live at the Théâtre d’Etoile and surely one of his greatest records.
To hear the poems here by Aragon as verse, it’s advisable to put out of one’s head the too often repeated claim that, in contrast to English accentual-syllabic verse (most typically, the iambic pentameter), French verse is only syllabic, as if all that French writers and their readers need do is see whether or not there are the requisite number of syllables in a line.
Insisters on this may be insufficiently conscious of the variations possible in English verse. Stresses, so-called, are relative to other syllables, not absolutes. “Upon,” “recalled,” and “shortchanged” are all iambs. “Then rose the King and moved his host by night” and “The murmuring of immemorial elms” are both what are considered iambic pentameters.
But in French, the stresses in polysyllabic words normally fall on the final syllable. In English it’s Paris, in French Paree. Hence the probable incomprehension when a visitor to London asks the way to “PiccadillEE CirCOOS” rather than PIC-a-DILL-y CIR-cus.
Lines of formal French verse may indeed sound oddly irregular and indeterminate in the manner of syllabic verse in English (not a form natural to the language). But, in addition to having done the equivalent of hearing Paree as Paree, this is likely to be because of the so-called mute “e” on the ends of numerous words, which has no duration when followed by vowels, but when followed by words beginning with consonants is like a weak, at times an almost notional, version of the second “e” in Goethe, or not so weak when you’re down in Provence with Italy not far off.
(“Tristesse,” “cendre,” “pense,” etc.)
The classical twelve-syllable French alexandrine is a special case, and I’m not speaking of that here.
But the Aragon poems sing along pretty much like iambic eight-syllable English verse, as do those by Viau and Voltaire, and Hugo’s Attente and Le Manteau Impérial, and some others. And to my ear the ten-syllable lines of Villon don’t sound notably different from English ones.
It helps to know that in the kind of French verse that I’m speaking of here there are no extra syllables introduced, as in
How long, we wondered, would the tempest last?
The great oak tree was shuddering to the blast,
But at least the windows and shutters were made fast.
Ten, eleven, and twelve syllables, but the mind’s ear still hears them as the same basic kind of line. That wouldn’t happen in French, where ten syllables means ten syllables, no more, no less. However, since one or more “sounded” mute-e may be among them, a line can be rhythmically quite light.
Since the mute “e” may be on the end of a one-syllable word, you can also have the equivalent of reversed feet in English: “Cette douleur sans souvenir.” “Drinking the wine of summer’s blaze.” If uncertain about where a stress falls in a word, try exaggerating another syllable or syllables: “DrinkING.” No, no, that’s not how it’s said. And two-syllable words in which both syllables are equally stressed are so uncommon in English as to be effectively invisible.
For other remarks about metrics in the site, see
The big thing is not to be intimidated, any more than if an oenophile insisted that one shouldn’t be drinking vintage wines unless one’s able to pick out those subtly intermingled flavours of scorched tarpaper, roadkill fawn, and the like.
To hear French verse as verse, however imperfectly, can be a great pleasure, and when one does so, the meaning may become clearer too.
Marie-Jeanne Durry, Orphée
“Orpheus’ Plea” (“Prière d’Orphée”) is the self-sufficient first and best section of Marie-Jeanne Durry’s Orphée (Paris, 1976), the other two being “Le Dieu répond” (“The God replies”) and “La remontée (“The ascent”). Its octosyllabic stanzas rhyme, ballade-style, ababbcbc. Here is the opening one
Mâitre, ô maître nocturne, maître,
Roi des nuits, prince des métaux,
L’odeur du soleil et des êtres
Ruisselle aux plis de mon manteau!
Les morts serrés dans ton étau
Frissonnants ouvrent leurs narines.
Je suis la mer et le bateau,
Maître immobile des racines!
I happened upon Orphée in the stacks recently (2011) when I went to Durry’s book on Alcools in search (unsuccessfully) of enlightenment about Apollinaire’s notoriously obscure “Lul de Faltenin.” I had never heard of her, and she doesn’t figure in the several anthologies of French poetry on my shelves, where, after a bit, vers libre spreads out over the twentieth century like the grey squirrel eliminating the red.
In the preface, in which she reports having worked on Orphée in private for thirty years, Durry remarks that its form might look like a challenge to her times. But, she goes on, there was nothing aggressive about her choice. There wasn’t any choice. “Il n’y a pas eu de choix. Pas de doute et donc point de délibération.” No hesitation, so no debate. In back of “Prière d’Orphee” there would have been octosyllabic stanzaic poems by Villon, Hugo, Valéry, Apollinaire, Aragon, and others.
In “Prière d’Orphée,” which from now on will be what I mean by “the poem,” Orpheus descends into the underworld and pleads with Pluto for the return of the dead Eurydice, reminding the dark god of how the latter too had been moved by human emotions when he snatched the lovely Persephone for his queen, allowing her to return to Earth once a year as the harbinger of spring.
The operatic nature of the poem, like an expansion of “Che faro” in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, has no doubt been to its later disadvantage. But seizures, imprisonments, losses, rapes, grievings, sacrificings, negotiatings with the Enemy (as in Marcel Carné’s Les Visiteurs du Soir), and so on were part of the climate of the Occupation, and in 1950 Cocteau’s Orphee would take beautiful Jean Marais down into the Underworld, with the Brazilian Orfeo Negre appearing nine years later.
The demands of the rhyme scheme, and the diminishing in octosyllabics of the portentously adjectival and adverbal, holds the poem back from a Hugoesque magniloquence. And the self-sufficiency of each stanza permits without strain the shifts in moods and modes as the speaker tries different ways, not perhaps always self-consistent, of getting through to the seemingly unreachable dark ruler.
This is a heuristic progression, not the steady rhetorical argumentation of Valéry’s “Ébauche d’un serpent.” It was energized, I’m sure, by the felt power of totalitarianism after the Liberation as the Stalinists, Aragon prominent among them, sought to move in on the vacuum left by the departing Nazis and the settling of accounts with French fascists.
With respect to form, here is the opening stanza again:
Mâitre, ô maître nocturne, maître,
Roi des nuits, prince des métaux,
L’odeur du soleil et des êtres
Ruisselle aux plis de mon manteau!
Les morts serrés dans ton étau
Frissonnants ouvrent leurs narines.
Je suis la mer et le bateau,
Maître immobile des racines!
When formal French verse is called syllabic, this doesn’t mean that it’s all monotones with no expressive speech emphases in it. Of course there are. In French the stressed syllable in a word or a phrasal unit is predominantly the last, “stress” meaning (as in accentual-syllabic English verse) its weight relative to the other syllables, not some predetermined degree of thump. The weight can be very light. Verse like that of the stanza here is syllabic in the sense that the number of syllables per line is fixed and the number of stresses is not.
Here, to simplify slightly, the lines are eight-syllable, by virtue of the use made of the mute-e. When “e” at the end of a word is followed by a consonant at the start of the following word, it counts as a syllable whether or not it is actually sounded, which may depend on a variety of speakers and circumstances Thinking of it as a weaker form of the second “e” in “Goethe” helps, I find. In any event, recognizing it is essential for getting the syllabic structure of a line right.
In the stanza here, the effect occurs with the second “maître,” “nocturne,” “prince,” and “immobile.” Also,“-ent” in “ouvrent” has a sound value.
In my translation, I’ve taken advantage of the flexibility of accentual-syllabic English, verse, in which the number of stresses (here four per line) is basically fixed but the number of syllables per foot (here four feet per line) may vary.
Partly I wanted to have the flow of verse rather than the stop-start movement of translationese. But I also wanted to slow down the verse, given the loss of the rhyming that achieves that in the French. So there is a good deal of variation, often resulting from how the French goes, I wasn’t trying for precision and failing to achieve it. What I was doing was for the ear, not just the eye, and feels speakable.
Frankie and Johnny
The text used here comes from W.H. Auden’s Oxford Book of Light Verse (1938). I’ve no idea where he found it. I like the fullness of the narrative, including details like Frankie’s working in a cheap crib while Johnny is living it up with whorehouse parlour whores (with Jelly Roll Morton at the piano?), and her telling the “chippies” not to mess with her. There is a start-to-finish chain of consequences here, not just a romantic explosion of love, sex, and death, as in the also fine shorter version in Cleanth Brooks, John Thibaut Purser, and Robert Penn Warren’s An Approach to Literature (1936).
In that respect, I’m reminded of Auden’s own ballad narratives from the later thirties—“James Honeyman,” “Miss Gee,” and “Victor,” of which the best, because closest to the uncondescending energy of traditional ballads, is the third. Did he tweak “Frankie and Johnny” here and there, I wonder? Did Robert Penn Warren? Had Yeats tweaked “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye”?
Among the excellent features of the Oxford anthology is the number of American ballads and folk songs. Auden hasn’t include anything by pop masters like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Ira Gershwin, who presented an America that was West-End popular in those years. (He himself could do pop with feeling.) The anthology, as the interesting introduction makes clear, isn’t “light” in that fashion. But Sweet Betsy from Pike, John Henry, Stagolee, Casey Jones, and even Cocaine Lil are there.
I would guess that the Oxford Book and, even more, Auden and John Garrett’s anthology for schools, The Poet’s Tongue (1935) had been presences in the evolving youthful consciousnesses of some good later poets.
I’ve taken this version from John Greenway’s American Songs of Protest (1970 ), where he gives the source as “Unpublished manuscript in the Library of Congress, Archive of American Folk Music.” I tried dividing it into quatrains, but energy was lost without the insistent pressing onwards that we hear in Leadbelly’s version.
Greenway classifies the poem as a chain-gang song and says:
“Anvils laugh at broken hammers.” This is the theme of “Grey Goose,” the story of an indestructible anserina who symbolizes the road prisoner, whose worth is measured by his ability to “make his time.” The “Grey Goose,” which dates to the period immediately proceeding 1914 (the black years of chain-gang oppression) has been found nowhere but in prison camps, yet it is strikingly analogical to the fourteenth-century English “Cutty Wren,” in which the wren symbolizes the oppressed but indestructible peasant. This is a remarkable example of polygenesis in folk song. (109)
George Grosz’s famous drawing “Fit for Active Service” (1918) shows a military doctor listening to the chest cavity of a rotted corpse-skeleton standing in front of a German draft board, and pronouncing it fit for active service. “Whitewings” sounds as though it might refer to nuns in elaborate headdresses acting as nurses (as in The Third Man). The official German executioner at that time wore evening dress and a top hat and appears with his axe in the final drawing in Ecce Homo.
Apparently the Apfelböck poem derives from an actual case of that name at that time, seen here, presumably, as analogous with the persistence of combatant nations during a war that should never have started.
The most spine-tingling rendition of the Pirate Jenny song must surely be that of Nina Simone.
W.H. Auden, “Madrigal”: lurchers
Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed., 2004) defines “lurcher” as “a crossbred dog trained to hunt silently: used by poachers.” Googling discloses, among other things, that “The lurcher is a silent hunting dog used for hunting and running down game. Usually a cross between a greyhound (sometimes a whippet or saluki) and other breeds. . . . Lurchers are also used to chase hares; a sport known as hare coursing.” Apparently they are gentle with humans.
Denise Levertov, “The Barricades”: topography
The Manacles are described on one website as “an area of granite reef” off southern Cornwall. On another the author reports that “the Manacles are truly notorious [for shipwrecks], and have virtually no redeeming features. Its sinister and evil reputation is matched only by its bleak and forbidding appearance, as it stretches out nearly one and a half miles into the sea, where it lies mostly submerged waiting to entrap the careless or just plain unlucky.”
The two poems by Levertov were in her first collection, Double Image (1946), published before she emigrated to the States. In them she achieves, it seems to me, a greater and more expressive rhythmic subtlety than she did after she became a convert to William Carlos Williams’ versification.
Some sounds instantly open windows—cock-crow…the lonesome railroad whistle… the spring cuckoo… the pipes … . (Well, depending on who’s doing the hearing.) Kipling wrote of the banjo as played in 1890’s India: “I am Memory and Torment—I am Town!/ I am all that ever went with evening dress.”
For me, ”Dixieland” was a window-opener in the Forties and ragtime in the Fifties (starting with the great Riverside LP of Scott Joplin piano-rolls), and they’ve stayed with me. Just a flicker of overheard sound and my spirits stir. But Country never became a presence for me when I was young. In my North London 1930s I didn’t as a pre-teen go to the Saturday morning shows in which you’d encounter onscreen (yecch!) singing cowboys and girls, and I only started listening to Hank Williams in the 1990s. He’s marvelous, especially on the CD “The Very Best of Hank Williams,” and later in the lovely impersonation of him by Sneezy Waters in the great movie version of Hank Williams; the Show He Never Gave. But even Sissy Spacek in Coalminer’s Daughter couldn’t draw me emotionally into Grand Ole’ Opry.
In Who Put the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz? Yip Harburg, Lyricist (1993), Harold Meyerson and Ernie Harburg suggest that:
no lyric is intended to be read as poetry, divorced from the music. A lyric is created to be sung. The lyric and music are jointly crafted to emerge as a single work of art. Printed lyrics are usually banal compared to the beauty of the same words when sung.
Which is true enough of numerous Broadway-type lyrics in Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball’s cornucopia Reading Lyrics (2000), But not of all, and certainly not of German cabaret songs and French chansons. Songs, like other things, don’t have to be either or, they can be both/and.
So there’s no reason in principle why there shouldn’t be more Country lyrics out there to add to the present lone item, which isn’t by Hank Williams.
I can only report that, skimming and dipping among the texts made available with exemplary generosity on the Web, I haven’t yet found them—not, anyway, among those by Williams, or Johnny Cash, or Merle Haggard, or Willie Nelson. The situation is very different from what obtains with the classic blues, at least if what one’s looking for is free-standing poems not dependent on music and performance. And I think I glimpse why.
Country performers are so highly styled as personalities, both in delivery and in appearance, and the appearances—the hats, the boots, the string ties, the leather fringes, etc—are simply extensions of how members of their audience may style themselves—that what they sing, whether or not as dramatic characters, comes out always as expressions of their presentational selves, and their hopes, and fallings, and loves, and losings, which in turn are very much those of their audiences.
And in consequence, they (whether or not themselves the lyricists) don’t need to work at conveying emotion by metrical/rhetorical means. They can simply do things with the individuated voice, and relatively bare words will instantly evoke for their hearers the social ambiance that they’re singing about, with the recurring presence of drink, cheating, dancing, honky-tonking, sheriffs, jail, sin, dreams, little ones, forgiveness, and so on. When Hank Williams sings the question “Why don’t you love me like you used to do?” the flat words become a perennial (male?) cri de coeur.
There isn’t the impulsion towards particularity of the best blues, with their concern to make concrete the precise situation of this or that experiencing individual implicitly denied visibility, seriousness, tragedy even, by virtue of skin coloration or, qua woman, gender.
And contrariwise, in the blues there isn’t the never-far- away Christian sense of sin, repentance, confession, forgiveness, or at least wry toleration. One of Willie Nelson’s songs is called “Ashamed.” I doubt that there’s an “Ashamed Blues.” I doubt that there are many blues references to souls.
Alan Stephens, “Prologue: Moments in a Glade”: Winters
Yvor Winters says of this poem:
The landscape is that of the dry hills of Southern California, on the seaward side, in this case near Santa Barbara. I spent my childhood in similar country further south; Stephens describes it with a kind of absolute precision, and he describes the snake with an absolute precision. But what is the poem about? In the first stanza Stephens seems to identify himself with the snake; then in stanzas two through five he describes himself and the snake as separate beings, hostile, watching each other; in stanza six and in the first two lines of seven the snake is watching for his prey, and I think the poet (identified with the snake again) is watching for his subject—the snake’s eyes are always open because he literally has no eyelids, the poet’s because of his spiritual nature. And then the poet, separate and hostile again, reaches for a stone. Too slowly: did he kill the snake or not? We are not told, and the fact is troublesome. And yet ultimately it may not matter, for, either way, the poet finds himself in the same uncertain predicament as the snake at the end. The poem is very fine in every way: diction, rhythm, syntax, symbolism. It is doubtless an example of what I have called the post-Symbolist method and should perhaps be called a great poem. It is Stephens’ best and one of the best of our time.
Forms of Discovery; Critical and Historical Essays on the Form of the Short Poem in English (1967), p.341.
Elizabeth Jennings: quality
I can’t afford the copyright fees for the two poems by Elizabeth Jennings that I picked—indeed, I can’t afford any such fees.
But since A New Book of Verse is a critical enterprise, de-emphasizing (dislodging?) some works and foregrounding others, I trust that I won’t be landed on like Grampa Simpson quoting Chaplin and Jimmy Durante if I say that the opening stanza of “Song at the Beginning of Autumn” provides a taste of an especially lovely poem, to be added conceptually to the several other autumnal poems in A New Book.
Now watch this autumn that arrives
In smells. All looks like summer still;
Colours are quite unchanged, the air
On green and white serenely thrives.
Heavy the trees with growth and full
The fields. Flowers flourish everywhere.
New Collected Poems, edited Michael Schmidt (Carcanet, 2002), pp. 7–8
In the line “Autumn is bonfires, marble, smoke,” “marble” should surely be “marbles,” the sidewalk and school-playground game.
I can imagine a critical gloss about the contrast between the fragile impermanence of the seasons and, by implication, individual human lives (“In our middle is our ending,” and so forth) and the permanent truths (“marble”) of, well, whatever you want them to be of—Roman Catholicism maybe?
But “To a Friend with a Religious Vocation” is poignant in its four-stanza heuristic development of the themes announced in the opening lines.
Thinking of your vocation, I am filled
With thoughts of my own lack of one. I see
Within myself no wish to breed or build
Or take the three vows ringed by poverty.
And yet I have a sense,
Vague and inchoate, with no symmetry,
Of purpose. Is it merely a pretence,
A kind of scaffolding which I erect
Half out of fear, half out of laziness?
New Collected Poems, p.50
A poem like that shows up the philistinism of the current crop of polemical British atheists. You really can’t beat the Brits when it comes to philistinism, as Matthew Arnold no doubt knew when he coined the term.
The reference to breeding and building brings to mind some phrasing in Gerard Hopkins’ late sonnet “Thou art indeed just Lord, if I contend,” but needs handling with care.
I have the impression that explicitly Christian, or Christian-related, poems, at least twentieth-century ones, are a vanishing species in anthologies for the college market, along with disagreeable subjects like death and dying.
Christopher Middleton: Rimbaud, biography, poetry
In 1876, having ended his affair with Verlaine and ceased writing poetry, Rimbaud, aged twenty-one, enlisted in the Dutch Colonial Army, and, after some basic training, was shipped east towards Java on a three-masted steamship, the Prins va Oranje.
In Rimbaud (2000), from which I take this information, Graham Robb reports that “Between 26 June and 2 July, nine men jumped into the Red Sea and swam for shore. At least one was drowned”(p. 281). Before I checked and rechecked, I would have sworn that at some point he speaks of Rimbaud, too, as jumping overboard somewhere.
I was wrong, but I wish I had been right. The nominally factual Arthur Rimbaud of Robb’s book seems to me to have less connection with the Rimbaud of the poems than does the Rimbaud of Christopher Middleton’s poem, become a semi-mythical type-figure. The term “Ballad” is presumably intended to recall also inaccurate ballads about Billy the Kid and other “outlaw” figures.
Biographical pseudo-factuality, where Rimbaud’s creative years are concerned, is an especial betrayal, the gap between the glimpsed unpreposessing schoolboy and the razor-sharp observing intelligence and effortless-seeming technical mastery—the genius— in the earlier poems being so unbridgeable..
Rimbaud climbed the servants’ staircase to the attic. His first encounter with the community of poets had been disappointing. Banville had failed to grasp the originality of “Le Bateau ivre”—a poem written especially for “the people of Paris” and which, in Rimbaud’s mind, was already out of date. …
Rimbaud’s timidity made him susceptible to small humiliations. Now that he was here [in Paris] in person, he could no longer hide the humorous discrepancy between his age and his talent, nor his northern accent. “Le Bateau ivre,” with its “screaming Redskins” and “giant serpents”, did after all have a lingering air of the nursery, while its bizarre images might easily be interpreted as crude provincilism. It was exasperating to be forced into a costume, expecially when the costume seemed to fit.
That isn’t the prose of brilliant biography, it’s the prose of mediocre fiction. Who is Robb that he—or anyone—knows what was going on in the mind of that prodigious young genius at that time? I won’t quote his coarse contextualizing of “Au Cabaret Vert,” a poem with which he is so little engaged that he translates its last two lines as “and filled my outsize mug with froth, /Gilded by a late ray of sun.” (58) With froth? Filled a beer mug with froth? You couldn’t be there in the evoked reality of the poem and come up with that.
Far better Middleton’s overtly fictional contrasting of Rimbaud immersing himself in the destructive element and more commonsensical types and attitudes, especially since he isn’t claiming some mystically inspired status for him. I offer some observations about genius elsewhere.
The odd thing is that Robb’s The Discovery of France; a Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War (2007) in which he intercuts bicycling into the obscurest corners of that country and summoning back from the documents, unpatronizingly, the lives of French peasants who up until well into the 19th century were often leading existences as remote from us now as those of any “primitive” peoples discovered by anthropologists, is a fascinating read. And his Rimbaud picks up once he’s simply talking about the company agent and trader in exotic parts.
“A Ballad of Arthur Rimbaud” is the penultimate poem in the section of Middleton’s 732-page Collected Poems (2008) called “Twenty Tropes for Doctor Dark.” The sea appears in several other poems in that section, most kinetically in “The Diving Apprentices,” about archaeological searches.
The two other poems here are the only ones in which Doctor Dark is a character, and I am unclear as to what relationship is being suggested between him and the “tropes.” But the two poems effectively evoke, in their different ways, a kind of decadent aestheticism that I associate particularly with fascism, as explored, for example, in that remarkable movie Docteur Petiot (1990), about a histrionic serial killer for money (and pleasure) in Occupied France.
Since the appearance of the foregoing, Christopher Middleton has now, in response to my solicitation, kindly provided the following:
As for 20 Tropes: the booklet was published in 2000 by Enitharmon Press, so before the poems reprinted in 2008. I know and knew nothing of G. Robb. The poems are obliquely directed to the phenomenon of liminality. Hence the oscillation from sea to land. (I wrote most of the poems in an apartment overlooking the sea at Cassis.) My Doctor Dark is also liminal—a figure in whom life and death slide in and out of one another quite vaguely (see also the note given in the booklet and in Collected Poems. Thousands of poems have liminality (transition) as their subtext, or as themes (e.g. Keats’ Odes, Rilke’s Orpheus sonnets, etc. etc.). Victor Turner, the ethnologist, wrote at least two books on the phenomenon in the field of pilgrimage. But liminality disappears if you aim words at it; hence my obliquities.
The note about “Envoi” in Collected Poems, which my eye had slid over, reads:
Line four [“That those with most to lose complain the least.”] comes from Alfred de Vigny’s prose work Stella (1832). Docteur Noir in that text, a rational and considerate, if secretly luciferian physician, together with traces of Gogol and of de Nerval’s “le tenébreux,” prompted the invocation here of an elusive “compound ghost.” The reader may decide whether whether the doctor also appears, behind a dragoon’s moustache, in “Cassis, October 23, 1999.”
Helen Pinkerton, “The Return”: explication
There are three speakers in this poem—the introducing one and two others. In the author’s own words,
The narrator returns to Montana. While there she finds herself able to dramatize her long internal conflict in terms of two voices in a dialogue. It is truly an “inner dialogue of self with self.” “He” is a dramatization of the Christian Catholic Thomistic interpretation of reality. “She” dramatizes the Romantic, self-oriented, atheistic rejection of that interpretation. Each has been an “old voice” in the narrator’s consciousness and now she wants, by fleshing out the two sides, to reach some kind of conclusion about which voice to listen to and agree with. (Personal letter, 2005)
James Wright and Swift
For Brinsley MacNamara’s poem, go to “On Seeing Swift in Laracor.”
I talk about Wright’s own poem elsewhere.
When I did those Personals I didn’t have A New Book in mind yet. I was simply trying to become clearer to myself about the kinds of things that I particularly enjoyed in poetry.
Browsing in them may help to clarify some of the things that have gone on in the pickings and choosings for A New Book.
R.S. Gwynn, “Lament for the Names Lang Syne”
In a 2010 e-mail to me the author said of this poem:
It was recently published in a book called "Literary Trails of the North Carolina Piedmont," which talks about the various writers who lived in (mostly) small towns. I actually took most of the names from a list that someone published on the leaksville.com website, adding the rest from memory. I can vouch that all of them are authentic.
Herbert, W.N., “Beppe” (notes by Tiree MacGregor)
Beppe: The nickname, derived from Giuseppe, of former Italian football star Giuseppe Signori (b. 1968), a fast, graceful, left-footed striker (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giuseppe_Signori).
Lazio: Italian Serie A football club based in Rome. The name derives from Latium, the ancestral home of the ancient Latins. Lazio FC, then, by its very name is associated with the long, glorious history of Rome (the gory horrors left aside for the nonce).
James Gazzetta Richardson: English commentator and tv host who focussed on the Italian Serie A in the 1990s. The nickname ‘Gazzetta’ derives from his popular Italian football highlights show, Gazzetta Football Italia.
‘top scorer’, ‘fans’: Referring to "capocanoniere" and "tifosi" in the previous stanaza.
keeper’s pond: The goalkeeper's six-yard box.
frog: A hyperactive, unprincely fellow holding dominion over the pond (not football slang).
Hibs: Hibernian FC, Edinburgh
Jim Maclean: (Sic? Spelt McLean) Dundee FC player, 1965-1970
It: Lazio FC blue
Zeman and for Zoff//—and Erickson: Former Lazio managers
back-heel: From the verb; to pass the ball backwards, using the heel
six-yard box: A rectangle within the ‘penalty area,’ or 18-yard box; also known as the ‘keeper's box’
out of play: Phrase derived from when the ball goes off the field
Per-Luigi Casaraghi: Pierluigi Casiraghi, former Italian football player and current manager
one step to strike/so no one could predict a penalty: Referring to Beppe's famous one-step penalty shot
moshing box: The penalty or 18-yard box (“mosh” comes from a form of frantic dancing to raucus rock music)
Guelph/nor Ghibelline: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guelphs_and_Ghibellines
show . . . sold: “[S]how” is apparently short for “show it,” the player's integrity to that extent remaining intact. These words have the feel of puns about them, but as football jargon (to “show” for the ball, or get into a position to receive a pass) the first doesn't work, and therefore the second, itself a dead or near-dead metaphor from the world of commerce (“sold”: to be fooled, tricked by an attacker's move), can't possibly. There is something of a crux here, or simple obscurity. The same goes for “hit the shelf” in the previous line. It's not a football phrase, though “top shelf” be used by journalists, who speak of the the ball hitting the “roof of the net” (i.e., the outside of the top netting). But the phrase doesn't work accordingly. It seems to mean “hang up the boots.”
nutmeg: A cheeky slipping of the ball through a defender's legs, when either passing to a teammate, or dribbling. It probably derives from the idea of adding a bit of spice to a dish, or in this case to the activity of beating a defender.
Juve: Italian Serie A club, Juventus FC, from Turin
moving posts: A reference to the imaginative striker's perennial complaint against the art of magic
The proffering of “the best poems in the English language” in one of the anthologies listed above seems to me a carnival-barker come-on. (“Step right up, folks! See the oldest living mermaid in captivity!”), all the more so because of the conventionality of the selection. Winters himself never made such a claim for the hundred-and-eighty-seven poems in Quest for Reality (the introduction is by his co-editor Kenneth Fields, who called them—unfortunately, in my opinion— “in our opinion the most remarkable poems in English”), and it is plain from Forms of Discovery (1967) that he regarded some of the inclusions as excellent minor poems.
A fascinating glimpse of what went on during the making of Quest is provided in Fields’ “Teaching by Fiat.”
Near the end of Winters’ life, I assembled manuscripts of his favorite poems, and week after week we pored over them, deciding which poems would comprise [sic] the anthology, Quest for Reality. I still have a box of the poems that nearly made it into print. One was a tiny poem by William Carlos Williams, “The Nightingales,” that he had often included in references to Williams. We did include “To a Dead Journalist,” a poem that is rarely anthologized. But one day when I came out to retrieve the latest installments, he handed back “The Nightingales.” “They’re going to hate this book, anyway,” he grinned, referring to the anonymous mass of critics he imagined. “This one would just drive them crazy.”
The poem seems to me ho-hum and mystifyingly titled, and I have the impression that “they” never got close enough to the anthology to be more than mildly irritated or perplexed by it, if that. But what, oh what, is in that box, I wonder?
In extending the contents of A New Book way beyond the boundaries that Don Stanford and I reached, and considerably beyond what Winters himself, I’m sure, would have approved of, I have been making a point, or at least seeing a point to the additional titles that have gone on suggesting themselves.
You cannot live, and move, and have your poetic being in a medium in which not to be great (aka “major”) is to be a failure. If you lust after greatness, as distinct from excellence or even just goodness, the result will be bombast and egotism, as witness a number of names that are missing from these pages. There are also likely to be problems if you assume that those virtues will only be possible in relation to this or that particular belief system.
But there can still be zones of being in which a good deal of latitude is possible, including latitude within one’s own oeuvre, and in which a variety of works are able to cohabit, the good not being diminished by the great, and the great not undercut by the good, the common denominators including the felt presence of intelligent readers, a sense of forms as sets of possibilities that you try to realize to the full but whose conventions, once chosen, you must abide by, an essentially unegotistical relationship with your subject (each poem just as good if it were anonymous), and a respect for the concrete realities inhering, willy-nilly, in figurative language.
Such poetry, I would like to think, is celebrated in A New Book of English Verse, with its reminders, particularly in recent decades, of the difficulty of achieving certain kinds of dynamic order, and the preciousness of such order when achieved.
Yeats gave good counsel when he said,
Irish poets, learn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made . . .
But there has to be more, doesn’t there? as there was in Yeats’ own practice—some primary emotional energy, some serious risk-taking, some concern to seek out and honour the best as achieved by others. In any event, not the competitiveness of farmyard winners crowing atop academic-intellectual dunghills.
The concept of admiring emulation seems to have largely vanished from critical discourse.
I am grateful to the following for permission to add copyrighted material to Voices>Resources>Reservoir.
To Carolyn Kizer for “A Muse of Water.”
To Christopher Middleton, for his translation of “Mein Eigentum.”/”My Possession,” in Friedrich Hölderlin / Eduard Mörike, Selected Poems, trans. and introd. Christopher Middleton (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1972).
To Clive Wilmer and Carcanet Press for “The Goldsmith” and “Transference.”
To Dick Davis and Anvil Press for “The Shore” and “With John Constable.”
To Donald Stanford, in the name of Donald E. Stanford, for “The Bee” and “The Cartesian Lawnmower.”
To Helen Pinkerton Trimpi for “Error Pursued II,” “Degrees of Shade,” “Indecision,” “The Return,” “Crossing the Pedregal,” “On Watteau’s Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717) in the Louvre,” and “For an End,” all in Taken in Faith; Poems, afterword by Timothy Steele, Swallow Press/ Ohio University Press, 2002.
To Kenneth Fields for “Aubade Near Coldwater Canyon,” “Come the Sirens,” and “Early Autumn.”
To Maxine Kumin for “Morning Swim.”
To Nancy Winters and Swallow Press, in the name of Janet Lewis and Yvor Winters for “Lines with a Gift of Herbs,” “Helen Grown Old,” “A Summer Commentary,” “The Marriage,” “The California Oaks,” and “Two Old-Fashioned Songs.”
To Timothy Steele for “Wait” (Uncertainties and Rest, Louisiana State University, 1979), “The Sheets,” “Stargazing at Barton,” “An Aubade” (Sapphics and Uncertainties, University of Arkansas, 1995), “Her Memory of the Picnic,” “Joseph” (The Color Wheel, Johns Hopkins University, 1994), “In Montmartre Cemetery,” Able Muse Anthology (Able Muse Press, 2010).
To Rachel Hadas for “Winged Words.”
To Joan LaBombard for “By the Beautiful Ohio” (La Jolla, San Diego Poets Press, The Counting of Grains, 1990) and “Adam” and “The Return” (San Diego Poets Press, The Winter Watch of Leaves, 1992).
To Robert L Barth for “A Letter to My Infant Son.”
To Sue Goyette for “The Season of Forgiveness” and “Vigil.”
To A.E. Stallings for “Bad News Blues,” in Hapax (TriQuarterly Books, Northwestern University Press, 2006)
To Alan Stephens for “Prologue: Moments in a Glade,” from From Between Matter and Principle (Swallow, 1963)
To David Middleton for John Finlay’s “The Slaughter of the Herd” (John Daniel, 1992)
To E.H. and A.M. Blackmore and the University of Chicago Press for “Anticipation,” “The Imperial Cloak,” “Be off! say Winter’s snows,” “Beware of Pretty Girls,” “Pretty Girls: Sonnet for an Album,” “Marble and night created me,” “To France,” and “A Young Girl,” all from Selected Poems of Victor Hugo; a Bilingual Edition, translated by E.H. and A.M. Blackmore, University of Chicago Press, 2004.
To the University of Massachusetts Press for Robert Francis’ “Fall,” “Hay,” and “Remind Me of Apples” from Robert Francis, Collected Poems 1936–1976 (University of Massachusetts Press, 1976)
To Christopher Middleton for “The Moon from a Box of Lokum,” “A Ballad of Arthur Rimbaud,” and “Envoi,” from Collected Poems (Carcanet, 2008, pp. 610–611, 624–625).
To Alistair Elliot for “Gone Cold,” “Mrs. Worry,” “Last Will and Testament,” “I saw them laugh,” and “Anniversary,” from Heinrich Heine, The Lazarus Poems (Mid Northumberland Arts Group, in association with Carcanet Press, 1980), and “A Touch of Death,” from My Country; Collected Poems, (Carcanet 1989). For more, see Wikipedia.
To X.J. Kennedy for “In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus One Day,” “Talking Dust Bowl,” “Terse Elegy for J.V. Cunningham,” “A Curse on a Thief,” “Pie,” and “God’s Obsequies,” all from X.J. Kennedy, In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus; New and Selected Poems, 1955-2007 (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), copyright © 2007 by X.J. Kennedy.
To R.S. Gwynn for “My Agent Says,” “Train for Ill; a Ballad,” and “Snow White and the Seven Deadly Sins,” from R.S. Gwynn, No Word of Farewell; Selected Poems: 1970–2000 (Story Line Press, 2001). See also this link.
To John Whitworth for “The Things,” in “Poems For A Very Small Daughter,” in his Tennis and Sex and Death (1989); for ”Criminal Damage” and “Princess Time” in his The Whitworth Gun (2002); and for “Reading the Bones” in his Being the Bad Guy (2007).
To Catherine Tufariello for “Fruitless” (first published in Poetry) and “Useful Advice,” both in Keeping My Name (Texas Tech University Press, 2004)
To the Estate of Thom Gunn for “On the Move,” “To Yvor Winters, 1955,” “In Santa Maria del Popolo,” “Considering the Snail,” “Street Song,” “Waitress,” “The J Car,” and “Nasturtium,” all in Thom Gunn, Collected Poems (NY, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994).
To Richard Wilbur for “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” “Piccola Commedia,” “Cottage Street, 1953,” “In Limbo,” “Leaving,” and “This Pleasing Anxious Being,” all of them in Richard Wilbur, Collected Poems 1943–2004 (Harcourt, 2004).
To Anvil Press Poetry for “The Flickering Shadow Stanzas,” “Sestina at the End of Socialism,” “Villanelle of the Last Gasp,” and “A Double Villanelle,” all from Matthew Mead, The Autumn-Born in Autumn: Selected Poems (Anvil Press Poetry, 2008). (www.anvilpresspoetry.com)
To the Swallow Press (www.ohioswallow.com) for “Jig Time: Not for Love,” “A Real Gone Guy: Short Requiem for Percival Angelman,” “A Little Song About Charity,” and “Poem,” all of them in Thomas McGrath, The Movie at the End of the World: Collected Poems (Swallow, 1972). See: http://ohioswallow.com/book/The+Movie+at+the+End+of+the+World
To Joseph Harrison and the Waywiser Press for “At the Grave of Burns” (Joseph Harrison, Someone Else’s Name, Waywiser, 2003) and “On Rereading Some Lines of Poetry” (Joseph Harrison, Identity Theft, Waywiser, 2008).
To Harry Chambers and Peterloo Press for “Thoughts After Ruskin,” from Elena Mitchell, People, Etcetera: Poems New and Selected (Peterloo Poets, 1987). People, Etcetera is available from Harry Chambers and orders can be made via www.peterloopoets.com
To the Estate of George Johnston for “Time in a Public Ward,” “On the Porch,” “Music on the Water,” “Dust,” and “The Queen of Lop,” from George Johnston, Endeared by Dark; The Collected Poems (1990).
To W.N. Herbert for “Cabaret McGonagall” and “Ballad of the House of Fear,” from W.N. Herbert, Cabaret McGonagall (Bloodaxe Books, 1996), and “Beppe,” from W.N. Herbert. The Laurelude (Bloodaxe Books, 1998).
To Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl Ltd for “Sweet Thames Flow Softly,” “The Big Hewer,” “The Gravedigger’s Song,” and “Hard Case,” from The Essential Ewan MacColl Songbook, ed. Peggy Seeger (Loomis House Press, 2009).
To Fiona Pitt-Kethley, for “High Noon in the Oral Office,” “The Serpent’s Complaint,” “Penis Envy,” and “Married Bliss,” all in Fiona Pitt-Kethley, Selected Poems (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2008). www.saltpublishing.com/shop/proddetail.php?prod=9781844714537 See also her blog, http://fionapitt-kethley.blogspot.com/
To Harry Bruce for “Nova Scotia Fish Hut,” “Wool,” “Fall Grass,” “Girls in the Parlor,” and “Orchard in the Woods,” all in The Mulgrave Road; Selected Poems of Charles Bruce, ed. Andy Wainwright and Lesley Choice, introd. Harry Bruce (Pottersfield Press, 1985).
To Morri Creech and the Waywiser Press for “Engine Work,” “The Canto of Ulysses,” and “The Music of Farewell,” from Morri Creech, Field Knowledge (London, Waywiser Press, 2006).
To Erica Dawson and the Waywiser Press for “High Heel,” “The Platitudinous and the Clever,” and “Parallax,” from Erica Dawson, Big-Eyed Afraid (Waywiser Press, 2007).
To Caki Wilkinson and the University of North Texas Press www.unt.edu/untpress for “Lares and Penates,” “Itinerant,” and “Genealogy” from Caki Wilkinson, Circles Where the Head Should Be (University of North Texas Press, 2011).
To Susan Warner Keene and Peter M. Newman, Trustees for the Literary Estate of Richard Outram, for “The Hunter Delirious with an Infected Wound,” from Richard Outram, Selected Poems 1960–1980 (Exile Editions, 1984), and “What Do Poets Want?” from Richard Outram, Dove Legend and Other Poems (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2001).
To Alan Shapiro for “New Year’s Eve in the Aloha Room,” “Aphrodite,” “Old Joke,” and “The Dawn Walkers,” from The Dead Alive and Busy (University of Chicago Press, 2000), and “Country-Western Singer,” from Old War (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)
To Carmine Starnino for “Malocchio,” from Credo (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000) and “Summons,” from With English Subtitles (Gaspereau Press, 2004)
To Peter Green, for his translations of Ovid, Amores, Book II, #6 (“Parrot, that feathered mimic”) and #19 (“You may not feel any need”), both in Ovid, The Erotic Poems, trans. and ed. Peter Green (Penguin, 1982).
To W.G. Shepherd for his translations of Propertius, III.17, “Nunc, o Bacche” and III.8, “Dulcis ad hesternas”, both in Propertius The Poems, trans. W.G. Shepherd (Penguin, 1985).
To Robert Pinsky for “A Woman” from The Figured Wheel; New and Collected Poems, 1966–1996 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996) and “Eurydice and Stalin,” from Gulf Music (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).
To Judith Emlyn Johnson for “Ballade of the Grindstones,” first published in The New Yorker, 1979, reprinted in Philip Dacey and David Jauss, eds., Strong Measures: American Poetry in Traditional Forms (Harper & Row, 1986), and in Judith Emlyn Johnson, The Ice Lizard, (Sheep Meadow Press, 1992.). See also the author’s site at www.albany.edu/~jej84 and, for the distribution of Sheep Meadow Press books, www.upne.com/index_new.html
To Tony Harrison for “The Heartless Art,” from Collected Poems (Viking, 2007).
To Peter Wigham for his translations of Catullus, #32, “Call me to you,” and #55, “Where/ if it’s not too much to ask,” in The Poems of Catullus, tr. Peter Wigham (Penguin, 1966)
A New Book of Verse is a not-for-profit web anthology created and maintained by John Fraser. It has no institutional connections, no grants to it have been sought or given, and it receives no income of any kind. No hard-copy from it is made available. There are no editorial or research assistants or proofreaders, and coding is paid for in the usual way. No copyright fees have been paid, thanks to the kindness of strangers (see above).
It is a critical anthology challenging and displaying alternatives to various orthodoxies and received opinions, so it’s been important to have as many texts as possible available electronically, rather than immured in the stacks or on bookstore shelves. The Table of Contents is a wish-list, but a lot of wishes have come true.
Some requests for permission have been refused, particularly in Britain. For what it’s worth, I think that a circle-the-wagons attitude towards the new electronic media is misguided. Poets and publishers who themselves provide online samples of a writer’s work would seem to be more in tune with financial and other realities.
With too many refusals for A New Book, there would have been a tacit censorship on behalf of the status quo. Luckily this didn’t happen.