Monthly Archives: November 2011

Nov 28, 2011 Sonnet 65

Here’s a beaut. My sister challenged a gathering of us at Thanksgiving to recite a favorite poem. I thought I could get through ee cummings’ “dominic has a doll,” but I botched the ending entirely. The one I decided NOT to try was today’s selection, because I knew I couldn’t remember past about the 7th line. But sonnets!–now there’s a verse form to be adored. We’ve read so many over the years–they are inescabable in English poetry–and I’m sure we’ve covered this one a time or two. It still resonates for me, musically and emotionally: Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “sonnet 65.”
So one can look at the rhyme scheme and see he’s not doing a Shakespearean sonnet–it lacks that neat couplet at the end. But his adherence to form is exacting, and he even maintains the traditional thematic break between lines 1-8 and lines 9-16. Inside the form, though, we find all kinds of whacked-out shit going on. His diction is erudite. His alliteration is overwhelming. His syntax seems, at times, purposefully archaic. And all throughout is a dramatic hyperbole that somehow maintains its purchase on lived reality–or perhaps I’m just melancholic.It is in many ways a poem about falling, and it falls forward with the mad fury of Hopkins’s sprung rhythm–which means that instead of using set “foot” patterns of a couple syllables at a time (the iambs of Shakespeare, e.g.), he employs longer, variable feet with an accented syllable always at the beginning. So there is not always the same number of accents (“beats”) per line. In this way they all fit nicely, but avoid the sing-songy effect of some of these formal examples we’ve been reading recently. It’s quite an awesome trick, when one thinks about how much verse had preceded him (1844-1889).
Hopkins never published poems in his lifetime, but they were collected by a friend and published in 1918, and went on to impress the modernist poets with their inventiveness. -ed.

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief-
woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing–
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
erring! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.’
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

Nov 21, 2011 Catastrophe

I have in my possession a collection called The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse, given to me, I think, by my father. Not to be punk, mind you, but perhaps as an acknowledgement that his son was weird and would never gain any remunerative work. Just like the son in today’s poem. In any case, this volume was first published in 1930, and includes among its esteemed ranks many of the most famous English poets–Wordsworth and Tennyson, for example. It also includes a whole lotta nobodies, nobodies like Cornelius Whur (1782-1853), a gardener and a Wesleyan minister. Apparently he was quite, quite sympathetic, and composed maudlin poems about the tragedies and gravestones he observed in his native Norfolk. Like most of the verse in The Stuffed Owl, the poem here is written in a tightly-measured, sing-songy form, making its expression of tragic subject all the more bathetic. I’m including the original author’s note, to enhance your understanding. Enjoy.
CATASTROPHE
[The lines below were suggested by seeing an artist who was born without arms, who supports himself and his parents also by his profession.–AUTHOR’S NOTE.]
“Alas! alas!” the father said,
“O what a dispensation!
How can we be by mercy led in such a situation?
Be not surprised by my alarms,
The dearest boy is without arms!…
“I have no hope, no confidence,
The scene around is dreary;
Hoiw can I meet such vast expense?
I am by trying weary.
You must, my dearest, plainly see
This armless boy will ruin me.”

Nov 14, 2011 Sailing to Byzantium

Dear readers,

 

At a play Sunday night, Older Lead Character told Younger Lead Character to pay attention to “what is past, or passing, or to come. That’s Yeats. But you wouldn’t know that.” I felt like the ignorant Younger Lead Character when I turned to my beloved and asked “What’s that from?” and she responded “One of the Byzantium poems…”

 

Indeed. It’s the concluding line to “Sailing to Byzantium,” which is the first poem in 1928’s The TowerThe Tower was Yeats’s first collection published after becoming a senator of the new Irish Free State, and, in 1923, winning the Nobel Prize for literature. It finds him in powerful voice, but turning the lens of analysis on himself, interrogating his voices, and asking mortal questions, which are all throughout this  poem. The first line is famous, too, of course, to some as the title of a McCarthy novel, to some a a clever play on the Tir na nOg that the younger, twilit Yeats had written about in his earliest published works.

 

I wanted to run this poem because of our mini-seminar on stanza form, and obviously Yeats is doing an ABABABCC (aka “Ottava Rima,” an Italian stanza form with a sort of stately tone) thing here, with even more repetition built in: “ing” and “ee” endings are more frequent than is necessary, and there are also repetitions of various words to link the stanzas, like rings in a chain: monument, holy, gold, sing, come. I also noticed this time, with my attention tethered to those lines from the play, that they echo syntactically line 6 of the poem, “Whatever is begotten, born, and dies”—and the echo rings on the level of theme as well: whereas the first stanza runs a lifespan and expresses human mortality, the final line is sort of pointing to birth into something else (that “other world” that always haunted Yeats). But what kind of other world? What kind of place is Byzntium? Why does Yeats describe an “artifice of eternity?”

 

I am eager to hear your reactions, as we all acknowledge that this is the kind of densely-packed poem that entire book chapters are written about. –ed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SAILING TO BYZANTIUM

 

I

 

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,

Those dying generations – at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.

 

II

 

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress,

Nor is there singing school but studying

Monuments of its own magnificence;

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium.

 

III

 

O sages standing in God’s holy fire

As in the gold mosaic of a wall,

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,

And be the singing-masters of my soul.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal

It knows not what it is; and gather me

Into the artifice of eternity.

 

IV

 

Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

 

-1926