Thursday, February 28, 2008

Poem of the Week 2/25/2008: My Last Duchess

My Last Duchess

That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will 't please you sit and look at her? I said
'Frà Pandolf' by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 't was not
Her husband's presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say, 'Her mantle laps
Over my lady's wrist too much,' or 'Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:' such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart -- how shall I say? -- too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 't was all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace -- all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men, -- good! but thanked
Somehow -- I know not how -- as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech -- (which I have not) -- to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, 'Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark' -- and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
-- E'en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will 't please you rise? We'll meet
The company below then. I repeat,
The Count your master's known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

Robert Browning

Along with Chaucer and James Joyce, Robert Browning is one of the great portrait authors of the English Language. Each of them writes a person who can speak straight out of the page; the poem becomes more like a conversation, or meeting somebody at a party than it does some kind of Literary Exercise, or Diorama of Life. See if you can catch the dark turn of the poem, about 15 lines from the end!

Poem of the Week 2/18/2008: Sonnets from the Portugese, Sonnet XIV


If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love's sake only. Do not say
'I love her for her smile---her look---her way
Of speaking gently,---for a trick of thought
That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day'---
For these things in themselves, Belovèd, may
Be changed, or change for thee,---and love, so wrought,
May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity's wiping my cheeks dry,---
A creature might forget to weep, who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love's sake, that evermore
Thou mayst love on, through love's eternity.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

This is from a collection of some of the most famous love sonnets (How do I love thee? Let me count the ways...), written to Robert Browing, also a famous poet. The two had a long love affair in letter form, before they met and married. Delightfully 19th Century of them, and the poems are really classic love poems.

Poem of the Week 2/11/2008: from Prometheus Unbound

Act I

SCENE, a Ravine of Icy Rocks in the Indian Caucasus. PROMETHEUS is discovered bound to the Precipice. PANTEA and IONE are seated at his feet. Time, Night. During the Scene morning slowly breaks.

MONARCH of Gods and Dæmons, and all Spirits
But One, who throng those bright and rolling worlds
Which Thou and I alone of living things
Behold with sleepless eyes! regard this Earth
Made multitudinous with thy slaves, whom thou
Requitest for knee-worship, prayer, and praise,
And toil, and hecatombs of broken hearts,
With fear and self-contempt and barren hope;
Whilst me, who am thy foe, eyeless in hate,
Hast thou made reign and triumph, to thy scorn, 10
O'er mine own misery and thy vain revenge.
Three thousand years of sleep-unsheltered hours,
And moments aye divided by keen pangs
Till they seemed years, torture and solitude,
Scorn and despair--these are mine empire:
More glorious far than that which thou surveyest
From thine unenvied throne, O Mighty God!
Almighty, had I deigned to share the shame
Of thine ill tyranny, and hung not here
Nailed to this wall of eagle-baffling mountain, 20
Black, wintry, dead, unmeasured; without herb,
Insect, or beast, or shape or sound of life.
Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, forever!

No change, no pause, no hope! Yet I endure.
I ask the Earth, have not the mountains felt?
I ask yon Heaven, the all-beholding Sun,
Has it not seen? The Sea, in storm or calm,
Heaven's ever-changing shadow, spread below,
Have its deaf waves not heard my agony?
Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, forever!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Poem of the Week 2/4/2008: XII. Here’s Our Clean Business Now Let’s Go Down the Hall to the Black Room Where I Make My Real Money

XII. Here’s Our Clean Business Now Let’s Go Down the Hall to the Black Room Where I Make My Real Money

You want to see how things were going from the husband’s point of view---
let’s go round the back,
there stands the wife
gripping herself at the elbows and facing the husband.
Not tears he is saying, not tears again. But still they fall.
She is watching him.
I’m sorry he says. Do you believe me.
I never wanted to harm you.
This is banal. It’s like Beckett. Say something!
I believe

your taxi is here she said.
He looked down at the street. She was right. It stung him,
the pathos of her keen hearing.
There she stood a person with particular traits,
a certain heart, life beating on its way in her.
He signals to the driver, five minutes.
Now her tears have stopped.
What will she do after I go? he wonders. Her evening. It closed his breath.
Her strange evening.
Well he said.
Do you know she began.

If I could kill you I would then have to make another exactly like you.
To tell it to.
Perfection rested on them for a moment like calm on a lake.
Pain rested.
Beauty does not rest.
The husband touched his wife’s temple
and turned
and ran

--Anne Carson, The Beauty of the Husband: a fictional essay in 29 tangos

Jumping from a very old portrait to a very new one. Though of course few can rival Chaucer, I think this poem is very good, especially the tone that it strikes, one that is at once modern and self-consciously dramatic. A melodrama, in fact! Though the events of this poem are serious, it seems, the barefaced telling of these emotions, the broken structuring of the stanzas, and the choppy lines take away from any real buildup for the poem. It's a relief from poems that take themselves so seriously. This one does to such an extent that we are relieved, it seems.

Poem of the Week 1/28/2008: from Canterbury Tales

I have included the Miller's Prologue in Middle English first, but following it is the Modern English translation.
from the Miller's Prolouge, Middle English:

Whan that the Knyght had thus his tale ytoold,
In al the route ne was ther yong ne oold
That he ne seyde it was a noble storie,
And worthy for to drawen to memorie;
5 And namely the gentils everichon.
Oure Hooste lough, and swoor, "So moot I gon,
This gooth aright; unbokeled is the male,
Lat se now who shal telle another tale,
For trewely the game is wel bigonne.
10 Now telleth on, sir Monk, if that ye konne
Somwhat to quite with the Knyghtes tale."
The Millere that for dronken was al pale,
So that unnethe upon his hors he sat,
He nolde avalen neither hood ne hat,
15 Ne abyde no man for his curteisie,
But in Pilates voys he gan to crie,
And swoor, "By armes and by blood and bones,
I kan a noble tale for the nones,
With which I wol now quite the Knyghtes tale."
20 Oure Hooste saugh that he was dronke of ale,
And seyde, "Abyd, Robyn, my leeve brother,
Som bettre man shal telle us first another,
Abyd, and lat us werken thriftily."

"By Goddes soule," quod he, "that wol nat I,
25 For I wol speke, or elles go my wey."
Oure Hoost answerde, "Tel on, a devel wey!
Thou art a fool, thy wit is overcome!
"Now herkneth," quod the Miller, "alle and some,
But first I make a protestacioun
30 That I am dronke, I knowe it by my soun;
And therfore, if that I mysspeke or seye,
Wyte it the ale of Southwerk I you preye.
For I wol telle a legende and a lyf
Bothe of a carpenter and of his wyf,
35 How that a clerk hath set the wrightes cappe."
The Reve answerde and seyde, "Stynt thy clappe,
Lat be thy lewed dronken harlotrye,
It is a synne and eek a greet folye
To apeyren any man or hym defame,
40 And eek to bryngen wyves in swich fame;
Thou mayst ynogh of othere thynges seyn."

Modern English:
Now when the knight had thus his story told,
In all the rout there was nor young nor old
But said it was a fine and noble story
Worthy to be kept in memory;
5 And specially the gentle folk, each one.
Our host, he laughed and swore, "So may I run,
But this goes well; unbuckled is the mail;
Let's see now who can tell another tale:
For certainly the game has well begun.
10 Now shall you tell, sir monk, if't can be done,
Something with which to pay for the knight's tale."

The miller, who of drinking was all pale,
So that unsteadily on his horse he sat,
He would not take off either hood or hat,
15 Nor wait for any man, in courtesy,
But all in Pilate's voice began to cry,
And "By the arms and blood and bones," he swore,
"I have a noble story in my store,
With which I will requite the good knight's tale."
20 Our host saw, then, that he was drunk with ale,
And said to him: "Wait, Robin, my dear brother,
Some better man shall tell us first another:
Submit and let us work on profitably
"Now by God's soul," cried he, "that will not I!
25 For I will speak, or else I'll go my way."
Our host replied: "Tell on, then, till doomsday!
You are a fool, your wit is overcome."
"Now hear me," said the miller, "all and some!
But first I make a protestation round
30 That I'm quite drunk, I know it by my sound:
And therefore, if I slander or mis-say,
Blame it on ale of Southwark, so I pray;
For I will tell a legend and a life
Both of a carpenter and of his wife,
35 And how a scholar set the good wright's cap."
The reeve replied and said: "Oh, shut your tap,
Let be your ignorant drunken ribaldry!
It is a sin, and further, great folly
To asperse any man, or him defame,
40 And, too, to bring upon a man's wife shame.
There are enough of other things to say."
This dronke Millere spak ful soone ageyn,
And seyde, "Leve brother Osewold,
Who hath no wyf, he is no cokewold.
45 But I sey nat therfore that thou art oon,
Ther been ful goode wyves many oon,
And evere a thousand goode ayeyns oon badde;
That knowestow wel thyself, but if thou madde.
Why artow angry with my tale now?
50 I have a wyf, pardee, as wel as thow,
Yet nolde I for the oxen in my plogh
Take upon me moore than ynogh,
As demen of myself that I were oon;
I wol bileve wel, that I am noon.
55 An housbonde shal nat been inquisityf
Of Goddes pryvetee, nor of his wyf.
So he may fynde Goddes foysoun there,
Of the remenant nedeth nat enquere."

This drunken miller spoke on in his way,
And said: "Oh, but my dear brother Oswald,
The man who has no wife is no cuckold.
45 But I say not, thereby, that you are one:
Many good wives there are, as women run,
And ever a thousand good to one that's bad,
As well you know yourself, unless you're mad.
Why are you angry with my story's cue?
50 I have a wife, begad, as well as you,
Yet I'd not, for the oxen of my plow,
Take on my shoulders more than is enow,
By judging of myself that I am one;
I will believe full well that I am none.
55 A husband must not be inquisitive
Of God, nor of his wife, while she's alive.
So long as he may find God's plenty there,
For all the rest he need not greatly care."

-Geoffrey Chaucer 1400.

In this poem, I hope, more than any Great and Wise Idea, you search for some sense of a person and a conversation. Reading can be a kind of seeing--watching specific people move around in a specific manner in their specific lives. And Chaucer was a master of specificity--if you can even pick out the characteristics of a person from one of his portraits in The General Prologue, you will learn something most certainly. Part of the genius of Chaucer (though not all, for his runs deep) is that he has such an open eye for types of people. Unconstrained by like for one or judgment for another, though his narrator sometimes expresses these feelings, he still presents them as they are. How easy is it to do? Not very. Some of the novels I have been reading are not necessarily full of very specific or deep voices, nor of types of people.

In this little train of thought, I am influenced by William Blake's comments about Chaucer. He writes,

The Characters of Chaucers Pilgrims are the Characters that compose all Ages & Nations, as one Age falls another rises. different to Mortal Sight but to Immortals only the same, for we see the same Characters repeated again & again in Animals in Vegetables in Minerals & in Men. Nothing new occurs in Identical Existence . . Accident ever varies Substance can never suffer change nor decay.

He always has something new to say.

Good luck reading this, and I hope that you enjoy it!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Poem of the Week 1/21/2008: Psalm 39

Psalm 39

1 I said, "I will take heed of my ways, that I sin not with my tongue;
I will keep my mouth with a bridle while the wicked is before me."
2 I was dumb with silence; I held my peace,
even from good, and my sorrow was stirred.
3 My heart was hot within me; while I was musing,
the fire burned. Then I spoke with my tongue:
4 "LORD, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days,
what it is, that I may know how frail I am.
5 Behold, Thou hast made my days as a handbreadth, and mine age
is as nothing before Thee; verily every man in his best state is altogether vanity. Selah
6 "Surely every man walketh in a vain show; surely they are disquieted in vain;
he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them.
7 "And now, Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in Thee.
8 Deliver me from all my transgressions; make me not the reproach of the foolish.
9 I was dumb, I opened not my mouth, because Thou didst it.
10 Remove Thy stroke away from me;
I am consumed by the blow of Thine hand.
11 When with rebukes Thou dost correct man for iniquity,
Thou makest his beauty to be consumed away like a moth;
surely every man is vanity. Selah
12 "Hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear unto my cry;
hold not Thy peace at my tears; for I am a stranger with Thee and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.
13 O spare me, that I may recover strength before I go hence and am no more."

King James Version.
See also the New English Translation at

Good advice, if difficult.

Poem of the Week 1/14/2008: from The Four Zoas

from The Four Zoas
Night the Fourth

Deathless for ever now I wander seeking oblivion
In torrents of despair in vain. for if I plunge beneath
Stifling I live. If dashd in pieces from a rocky height
I reunite in endless torment. would I had never risen
From deaths cold sleep beneath the bottom of teh raging Ocean
And cannot those who once have lovd. ever forget their Love?
Are love & rage the same pasion? they are the same in me
Are those who love. like those who died. risen again from death
Immortal. in immortal torment. never to be delieverd
Is it not possible that one risen again from Death
Can die! When dark despair comes over can I not
Flow down into the sea & slumber in oblivion.

Plate 47: ll. 12-23
William Blake

Scholars Brian Wilke and Mary Lynn Johnson note in Blake's Four Zoas: The Design of a Dream, that this passage ought to sit with the great laments of Western literature. Like Hamlet or Byron's character Manfred, the character here (Tharmas, representative of Instinct, the Bodily Senses, or perhaps Creative Power, as in sex or carpentry) longs for a joy now faded. This passage is a cry of despair, one of loneliness and the continual, cyclic shattering of oneself. "Tharmas simply wants to lose consciousness," the scholars write, but cannot. What is Blake saying here? How does this literature embody a universal cry? It calls to mind ideas of life within death, and the role of suffering therein. When is it better to let a piece of oneself die, and when is it seemingly impossible to encourage that along? But better to read it and perhaps taste the cry all humans share here than to let me unpack or "analyze" it to the best of my abiity.