Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Familiar Note in Poetry

Reading Scott’s Marmion, I found the poetry thin and shallow, though fluent. While a Romantic in his involvement with love and the past, in his nationalism and use of folk materials, Scott was uninventive (if competent) in his handling of verse. Yet I found the dedicatory excurses that begin every canto refreshing, fresh, and entertaining. Their casual evocation of deep friendship and their informal commentary on history and the contemporary scene contrast with the highly conventionalized and nearly mythic plot line of the main narrative, rendering these passages, which some have found intrusive and inappropriate, more lively and convincing than the main body of the poem.

I thought of other great poems which purport to be addressed to a specific individual and thus deal with what might seem to be private matters. Since all literature as such is circulated to a general readership, this pretense is a rhetorical pose, yet, like all rhetorical figures, it ideally contributes to the poem’s beauty, meaning, and effectiveness.

When Sappho writes of love, it is rarely in the abstract. If not addressing Aphrodite, whom she conceives anthropomorphically, she writes a letter to Atthis or an intimate note to Anaktoria. Yet she performed these compositions at least semi-publically, and they were circulated and recorded by others who may well have known none of the principals in person. Similarly, we all have taken an interest in Horace’s best wishes for a safe voyage of his friend Vergil and Catullus’ invitation to Fabullus for a dinner, promising rewards beyond food. An illusion of intimacy arises from the poet’s familiar tone.

The lineage of use of this device extends worldwide through history. Among its practitioners are such Tang Dynasty poets as Du Fu (for instance, for his “To Han the Censor” and “On Waiting for my Friend Ting”), troubadours employing such forms as the partimen and the tenso (such as the exchange between Marcabru and Uc Catola), Gay’s Epistles, Goldsmith’s “Verses in Reply to Dr. Baker’s Invitation” or his “Letter in Prose and Verse to Mrs. Bunbury.” The increasingly demotic idiom of modern poetry is congenial to this phenomenon. Though examples abound, I will mention only Elizabeth Bishop’s “Letter to N.Y.," Frank O’Hara’s “To the Harbormaster,” and Anne Waldman “A Phone Call from Frank O’Hara.”

To present a poem as a note between friends suggests its “reality,” implying that it arose, not as an intentionally designed aesthetic object, a “thing made,” or poem, but rather as a natural byproduct of everyday life. This pretense of authenticity resembles that of early novelists who encoded their imaginative productions as journals or letters arising directly from lived experience. The familiar text thus playfully asserts its character as a private utterance at the same time as its writer and every reader know that it is not, creating a sort of shimmering illusory simulacrum of experience.

Unreal as its consumers know it to be, this pose nonetheless dramatically supports a claim of sincerity. A note to a friend is assumed to be spontaneous and natural. The poet is using a version of the same device familiar from Sir Philip Sydney’s first sonnet in Astrophel and Stella which ends “’Fool,’ said my Muse to me, ‘look in thy heart, and write.’" This could be considered, of course, entirely a matter of convention, a literary pose with no implication of straightforwardness in the author’s lived experience. [1]

Apart from sincerity, addressing a friend in poetry focuses on the value of love and comradeship, especially an affection heightened by a mutual verbal sophistication, a capacity for delight in words. Friendship is a major theme in poetry and rises to prominence in Chinese and late Latin lyrics, though less prominent today. The poems then remain in a realm lit by human affection. If it is not the fevered heat of romantic love, it signals what is perhaps a steadier, more sustainable flame, promising a potential of companionship and mutual support.

By collapsing in the gap between the artistic and the natural, by acting as though poetic language is used in everyday exchanges, that a persona is identical with a historical individual, the writer is playfully suggesting the primacy of the cultivated poetic sensibility. The implication in the end is that life itself is aestheticized and unfolds in a realm of pattern, beauty, and significance. [2] In this sense the composition and consumption of aesthetic texts can be seen as a sort of sympathetic magic which strives by its verbal spells to impose order, grace, and meaning on the chaos of observed reality. In a sort of stealth technique, poets sometimes employ the most casual and unpretentious forms of discourse, words that present themselves as having little more weight than the trivia of daily conversation, hoping thereby to assure a life made livable by love and beauty.

The playful uses to which words are put in poetry are the most sophisticated use of the distinctively human capacity to manipulate symbols. Like other forms of art, poetry is, among other things, a pastime: people, in part for the fun of it, practicing their greatest skill, enjoying the companionship of others who enjoy the same game, and thus passing the time as the sun declines in the heavens.

1. Important as it may be to the Romantic for whom art is self-expression, the issue can hardly exist for those to whom another’s subjectivity must remain forever unknown to the observer.

2. Ironically, taking the artificial to its limit as in a Renaissance dream vision such as Lydgate’s Temple of Glas has much the same effect. One might compare the division of labor in Lyrical Ballads, with Wordsworth striving to illuminate the hidden depths of the quotidian and Coleridge seeking what is significant to all in the exotic and remote. Both aimed by such a contrast to point readers’ minds in new directions.

Every Reader’s Poets: Milton

This is the sixth of a series of essays meant to introduce (or re-introduce) non-scholarly readers to the work of important poets. In this series I limit my focus to the discussion of only three or four of each writer’s best-known works while providing a bit of context and biography, eschewing most byways and all footnotes.

Even considering the long term continental drift of literary focus away from poetry and from pre-twentieth century authors, Milton is a classic little honored by actual readers. Of course, there was a time when Paradise Lost shared a shelf in many British homes with the Bible and perhaps another title or two, but that was when many people not only accepted the poet’s theology but also were capable of swinging with the cadence of his iambic pentameter.

The fact is that Milton would be remembered had he never written a line of verse. His prose essays, notably those in defense of press freedom and divorce and in opposition to the monarchy, are eloquent as well as striking the modern reader as right-minded. He was sufficiently active in the tumultuous politics of his age that he was named Secretary for Foreign Tongues (primarily requiring him to draft diplomatic documents in Latin) under the Protectorate, and he found himself in trouble after the Restoration.

Though his greatest work is in long poems such as Comus, Lycidas, Samson Agonistes, and his masterpieces Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, he may more easily be approached through the rapid tetrameters of his youthful lyric “L’Allegro,” portraying “the happy man” as opposed to “the thoughtful one” characterized in “Il Penseroso.” The contrast of the two poems implies a dominantly formal interest; as the author seeks to display his technical skills in a show-piece.

The bipolar opposition is invoked in the poem’s first thirty-four lines which dramatically evoke melancholy with all the special effects of a fantasy or horror film. The Stygian cave is by itself insufficiently thrilling and is succeeded by an “uncouth cell” in the obscurity of Cimmeria. This dark vision suddenly vanishes, however, to be replaced by the cheering appearance of Euphrosyne.

Hence loathed Melancholy
Of Cerberus, and blackest midnight born,
In Stygian Cave forlorn
'Mongst horrid shapes, and shreiks, and sights unholy,
Find out som uncouth cell,
Wher brooding darknes spreads his jealous wings,
And the night-Raven sings;
There under Ebon shades, and low-brow'd Rocks,
As ragged as thy Locks,
In dark Cimmerian desert ever dwell.
But com thou Goddes fair and free,
In Heav'n ycleap'd Euphrosyne,
And by men, heart-easing Mirth,
Whom lovely Venus at a birth
With two sister Graces more
To Ivy-crowned Bacchus bore;
Or whether (as som Sager sing)
The frolick Wind that breathes the Spring,
Zephir with Aurora playing,
As he met her once a Maying,
There on Beds of Violets blew,
And fresh-blown Roses washt in dew,
Fill'd her with thee a daughter fair,
So bucksom, blith, and debonair.
Haste thee nymph, and bring with thee
Jest and youthful Jollity,
Quips and Cranks, and wanton Wiles,
Nods, and Becks, and Wreathed Smiles,
Such as hang on Hebe's cheek,
And love to live in dimple sleek;
Sport that wrincled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.
Com, and trip it as ye go
On the light fantastick toe,

Euphrosyne or “high spirits,” one of the three Graces, is born either the offspring of Bacchus and Venus or, in an equally original but more imaginative version, she is conceived as miraculously as Christ when Zephyr blows across fields of flowers, impregnating Aurora. Her birth produces a variegated rush of phenomena associated with high spirits, concluding with the delightful phrase which became enough of a cliché to appear in American popular song “trip the light fantastic.” For a moment it seems nearly as though life itself could be a blithe and glorious dance, though the poem’s companion piece “Il Penseroso” opens by banishing “vain deluding joys” in favor of “divinest Melancholy.” Taken together, the poems balance the dualities they engage and highlight the profound ambivalence of human experience with such accomplished music that his own skill becomes the principle theme and the beauty of the work guarantees the ambivalent rightness of things.

The masterful display of Classical references and the virtuoso versifying, though literary and artificial, articulate deep emotion. Milton also employed Classical pastoral conventions in “Lycidas” his elegy for his deceased college classmate Edward King. One passage describing the appropriate funereal bouquets constitutes a veritable garden on the page in tribute to his drowned friend.

return, Sicilian Muse,
And call the vales and bid them hither cast
Their bells and flow'rets of a thousand hues.
Ye valleys low, where the mild whispers use
Of shades and wanton winds, and gushing brooks,
On whose fresh lap the swart star sparely looks,
Throw hither all your quaint enamel'd eyes,
That on the green turf suck the honied showers
And purple all the ground with vernal flowers.
Bring the rathe primrose that forsaken dies,
The tufted crow-toe, and pale jessamine,
The white pink, and the pansy freak'd with jet,
The glowing violet,
The musk-rose, and the well attir'd woodbine,
With cowslips wan that hang the pensive head,
And every flower that sad embroidery wears;
Bid amaranthus all his beauty shed,
And daffadillies fill their cups with tears,
To strew the laureate hearse where Lycid lies.

Nature here is animated and can respond to the pastoral muse in individual ways: the “wanton” wind, the stars that “sparely” gaze, the “forsaken” primrose. The Christian god appears diffused into all creation, the recipient of virtually pagan devotion. The poet’s grief is projected onto nature where it is not merely ameliorated but fundamentally challenged by the glory of the blossoms represented in the beautiful lines of verse. The loss of life inherent in all of nature, then, is redeemed through aesthetics. The glory of god is evident in the charms of the creation and of the poet’s art alike.

Paradise Lost was composed after the restoration of the monarchy which prompted Milton to go underground when a warrant was issued for his arrest. He escaped the worst of consequences through the efforts of influential friends and a general pardon, but the poem was dictated by a blind and penurious poet. This grand epic is the basis of Milton’s reputation, though critics like Samuel Johnson (who had little sympathy with Milton’s politics) found it tiresome. Its Christian apologetics are complicated by its compelling drama. Blake notoriously said that Milton was “of the devil’s party without knowing it,” and Satan never appears a grander figure than in his self-reflective insight at the opening of Book IV. He addresses the sun.

O thou that with surpassing Glory crownd,
Look'st from thy sole Dominion like the God
Of this new World; at whose sight all the Starrs
Hide thir diminisht heads; to thee I call,
But with no friendly voice, and add thy name
O Sun, to tell thee how I hate thy beams
That bring to my remembrance from what state
I fell, how glorious once above thy Spheare;
Till Pride and worse Ambition threw me down
Warring in Heav'n against Heav'ns matchless King:
Ah wherefore! he deservd no such return
From me, whom he created what I was
In that bright eminence, and with his good
Upbraided none; nor was his service hard.
What could be less then to afford him praise,
The easiest recompence, and pay him thanks,
How due! yet all his good prov'd ill in me,
And wrought but malice; lifted up so high
I sdeind subjection, and thought one step higher
Would set me highest, and in a moment quit
The debt immense of endless gratitude,
So burthensome, still paying, still to ow;
Forgetful what from him I still receivd,
And understood not that a grateful mind
By owing owes not, but still pays, at once
Indebted and dischargd; what burden then?
O had his powerful Destiny ordaind
Me some inferiour Angel, I had stood
Then happie; no unbounded hope had rais'd
Ambition. Yet why not? som other Power
As great might have aspir'd, and me though mean
Drawn to his part; but other Powers as great
Fell not, but stand unshak'n, from within
Or from without, to all temptations arm'd.
Hadst thou the same free Will and Power to stand?
Thou hadst: whom hast thou then or what to accuse,
But Heav'ns free Love dealt equally to all?
Be then his Love accurst, since love or hate,
To me alike, it deals eternal woe.
Nay curs'd be thou; since against his thy will
Chose freely what it now so justly rues.
Me miserable! which way shall I flie
Infinite wrauth, and infinite despaire?
Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell;
Book IV, ll. 32-75

Milton here formulates the dialectic between ego-loss and illumination. Lucifer cannot understand what the “grateful mind” appreciates, that “by owing [one] owes not, but still pays, at once.” The paradoxes of the gospel are all implicit there: in death is life, humility is exaltation, giving is getting, the most real is the utterly imaginary. Satan willfully remains in darkness; his pride is his captor, and thus hell, and, presumably, for others heaven, is a condition in his own psyche. [ 55 ] He has chosen to refuse the grace-filled rain of “Heav’n’s free love” (68) and, like many a suffering mortal, condemns himself to despair. To Milton, of course, Satan’s options are those of every soul.

Devout and thoughtful Christian though the author was, Milton’s spirituality is meaningful to all. Though the knowledge cannot readily ward off suffering, people regularly alienate themselves from Ultimate Reality, Atman, or enlightenment by their own choices. Egoism is only the most yawning pitfall. Truly open eyes will find the cosmos a marvel with or without an anthropomorphic overseer.

The reader of “L’Allegro” can admire Milton’s technical abilities. “Lycidas” displays the same skill as well while adding the profoundly felt emotional content of an elegy for a beloved friend. Milton’s crowning achievement, the poem in which he encoded a comprehensive philosophy (including, according to many critics, veiled references to his unapologetic resistance to the king) rewards those susceptible to beauty and imaginative enough to transpose seventeenth century theology into more modern and universal terms.

Alkaios’ Happy Hour

These are new versions of a few poems and fragments of Alkaios, the Archaic poet. For the most part, I have not sought to mimic his meters, but only to maintain some rhythmic energy. Several editors have differently numbered Alkaios’ texts. The numbers in parentheses following translations refer to the ordering in J. M. Edmonds’ old Lyra Graeca, available on archive.org.

The works of Alkaios, who surely knew Sappho more than two and a half millennia ago in Mytilene, have been, like hers, largely lost. In antiquity the two were considered among the greatest of poets, and the Alexandrians counted both among the canon of nine. Sensation alone would perhaps have kept Sappho’s name familiar, if not always her words, but few readers know anything of her elder contemporary.

Alkaios was deeply involved in his island’s politics and was exiled for years as a result of his aristocratic opposition to the ascendancy of the “popular” party under a succession of tyrants. Many of his surviving poems are politically partisan poems, [1] but he also left hymns, war poems, and a few tattered remnants of what was once a book of love poems. [2] He wrote also a book of drinking songs, a genre popular in ancient China and the Latin Middle Ages as well as in Greece though quite neglected today even, I suspect, at fraternity parties.

The place of drinking songs in human culture is not difficult to explain. Though Camus thought the proper response of a human who realizes his identity with Sisyphus can only be revolt, many people have found intoxication a serviceable alternative. The implications of the surviving texts from Alkaios, whom one might reasonably assume to be socially if not politically normative, is that alcohol is an effective anodyne for mortal ills, appropriate for virtually any occasion.

According to Alkaios wine might, along with a blazing hearth and a good cushion, ameliorate the rigors of winter.

Zeus nods, the heavens open up
and all the streams are frozen hard.
[two lines missing]
Put down the storm, build up the fire,
and pour a good big bowl of wine,
so honey-sweet! Then pile soft pillows
on either side your brow.

Here sky-god Zeus is associated with the rigors of winter, implying as well all the rigors of life. The loving list of cozy sensual comforts promises instant if temporary pleasure, and the emphasis is on a generous serving of alcohol.

Yet summer heat provides an equally compelling reason to drink. Alkaios reworks a description in Hesiod’s Works and Days:

Wet your throat with wine -- the dog-star's here again
and hard days, too. In this heat all people drink.
Cicadas sing from under leaves, and from their wings
the shrill song pours when heat-fire flashes
and spreads across the earth. Everything is dry.
* * * * *
But the artichoke blooms. And the women do as they like,
while the men grow thin and wasted in brain and limb by
that scorcher,
the dog-star.

The sound image of the cicadas suggests the punishing temperature, further emphasized by the mention of artichokes with their desert-like toughness and sharp bract-ends. The peculiar gender contrast that follows perhaps signified more the lassitude of the persona than any actual claim of sexually confident women, equivalent to declaring, “Let them do whatever they please. I’m not moving.”

Alkaios is ready to rush the cocktail hour.

Let’s drink! Don’t wait for dark! A finger’s all
that’s left of day. So from the shelf get down,
my dear, the biggest cups, for wine that frees
from care was given us by Zeus’s son
and Semele’s. Pour cups brimful and mixed
quite strong, and one cup quick pursue the last.

Here the persona’s depth of feeling is signaled by the multiple intensitive terms: “biggest cups,” cups filled “brimful,” “quite strong,” and rapidly refilled with no end in sight.

The justification for drinking is explicitly the inevitable woes of life which leave a tender human sufficiently battered to appreciate a pharmacological insulation from suffering.

One mustn’t give over one’s heart to one’s pain.
Rejecting Bakkhos no one can move on.
So surely all that one can do
is order wine and then drink deep.

Pour perfume on my head that’s been through much
and on my greying chest. Oh, he who suffers --
let him drink! Olympians send woe
to everyone.

But then for Alkaios, any excuse will do.

Let’s drink! The star is coming round again!

If Alkaios repackages clichés, they are clichés none the less powerful for their familiarity, clichés that have become established through their resonance to generations of people who have found life to be so full of suffering as to be all but unbearable. With sufficient attention one may hear this millennia-old voice calling out a refrain that might be seconded by millions of moderns who have never heard his name.

“here, let’s have a drink”

Greetings! Have a drink

Come here! Let’s drink!

1. One bit yet extant (42) declares in effect of his political foe: “Now that Myrsilos is dead, let’s go get really drunk!”

2. Quintilian reversed the modern reflex by judging on moral grounds and finding the political poems to be excellent and the love poems dubious at best.

3. l. 581 ff. though, significantly, unlike the aristocratic Alkaios, Hesiod depicts the busy farmer pausing in his harvest to enjoy some wine with his frugal meal of curds.