Poetry

And after winter folweth grene May

Sunday, 1 May, 2016 0 Comments

The poem Troilus and Criseyde shows Geoffrey Chaucer at the top of his game and he displays great elegance in the challenging Rhyme royal measure. The tale was old when Chaucer took it over in the 14th century from Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato, making some changes to the characters and lengthening the yarn. Boccaccio had borrowed it from an earlier Italian, Guido delle Colonne, who got his version from the French Roman de Troie by Benoit de Ste-Maure, who pretended that he got it from the Romans Dares Phrygius and Dictys Cretensis. Two centuries after Chaucer died, Shakespeare retold the story in Troilus and Cressida. For the day that’s in it (May Day), here’s Chaucer:

“But now help God to quenchen al this sorwe,
So hope I that he shal, for he best may;
For I have seyn, of a ful misty morwe
Folwen ful ofte a mery someres day;
And after winter folweth grene May.
Men seen alday, and reden eek in stories,
That after sharpe shoures been victories.”

May


Housman in the happy field of hay

Saturday, 30 April, 2016 0 Comments

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

On this day in 1936, the poet A. E. Housman died. He’s best known for A Shropshire Lad, a lyrical cycle of poems that celebrates and mourns a rural English way of life that has disappeared. The beauty of the poems is captivating; their simplicity is deceptive and Housman’s epigrammatic observations about the fleeting nature of life and love are wistful and wise. Note: The image that accompanies poem XXIII is of the painting “Haymaking” by the Irish artist John Morris.

XXIII

In the morning, in the morning,
In the happy field of hay,
Oh they looked at one another
By the light of day.

In the blue and silver morning
On the haycock as they lay,
Oh they looked at one another
And they looked away.

A.E. Housman (26 March 1859 – 30 April 1936)

Haymaking


William Shakespeare and The Search of Lost Time

Sunday, 24 April, 2016 1 Comment

Terence Kilmartin and C. K. Scott Moncrieff translated À la recherche du temps perdu, Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, in the 1920s. In need of an English title, they found inspiration in Shakespeare, in Sonnet 30, which begins: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past.”

Remembrance of Things Past is a work about time, memory, the past, the present and loss, as is Sonnet 30. When Shakespeare talks of “precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,” does he mean that our departed loved ones are buried, like treasure? Or are they hidden from us in some way we cannot perceive? Despite the ache of loss, what shines through the sonnet is our lifelong longing for friendship, for spiritual and emotional support. As we mark 400 years of Shakespeare, the brilliance of his writing continues to illuminate. Some things might have been lost in interpretation down through the centuries, but what this astonishingly gifted witness of the human condition observed in Elizabethan England continues to echo around the globe. In Shakespeare, we find our remembrance of things past, of lost friends, princes, lords and ladies.

Sonnet 30

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan th’ expense of many a vanish’d sight;
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d, and sorrows end.

William Shakespeare (26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616)

Mother and Prince


On The Birthday Of Synge

Saturday, 16 April, 2016 0 Comments

The playwright and poet John Millington Synge was born on this day in 1871. A key figure in the Irish Literary Revival and one of the co-founders of the Abbey Theatre, he is best known for his play The Playboy of the Western World, which caused riots in Dublin during its opening run at the Abbey. Although he came from a privileged Anglo-Irish background, Synge’s writings are mainly concerned with the Catholic culture of rural Ireland and with the earthy spiritualism of its world view. Synge developed Hodgkin’s disease, which was then untreatable, and he died shortly before his 38th birthday.

On A Birthday

Friend of Ronsard, Nashe, and Beaumont,
Lark of Ulster, Meath, and Thomond,
Heard from Smyrna and Sahara
To the surf of Connemara,
Lark of April, June, and May,
Sing loudly this my Lady-day.

John Millington Synge (16 April 1871 — 24 March 1909)

The Playboy of the Western World


Swineherd of the brass pig

Friday, 8 April, 2016 0 Comments

etymology: A swineherd is a person who looks after pigs, but the more popular term today is “pig farmer”. The word “swineherd” is a compound of swine + herd and comes from the Late Old English swȳnhyrde, from Old English swȳn (‘swine, pig’) + Old English hierde (‘herd, herder’).

Swineherd is a poem by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, who was educated in Cork and Oxford and is now a Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin. Along with Leland Bardwell and Pearse Hutchinson, she founded Cyphers, a fine literary magazine.

Swineherd

When all this is over, said the swineherd,
I mean to retire, where
Nobody will have heard about my special skills
And conversation is mainly about the weather.

I intend to learn how to make coffee, as least as well
As the Portuguese lay-sister in the kitchen
And polish the brass fenders every day.
I want to lie awake at night
Listening to cream crawling to the top of the jug
And the water lying soft in the cistern.

I want to see an orchard where the trees grow in straight lines
And the yellow fox finds shelter between the navy-blue trunks,
Where it gets dark early in summer
And the apple-blossom is allowed to wither on the bough.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

The brass pig


The Easter bells enlarge the sky

Sunday, 27 March, 2016 0 Comments

The poetry of Sir John Betjeman is marked by nostalgia and humour. Loneliness, however, is unusually bleak, but it expresses a quintessential British stoicism, which is fitting for an Easter that is being celebrated in the shadow of loss and sorrow.

Loneliness

The last year’s leaves are on the beech:
The twigs are black; the cold is dry;
To deeps byond the deepest reach
The Easter bells enlarge the sky.
O ordered metal clatter-clang!
Is yours the song the angels sang?
You fill my heart with joy and grief –
Belief! Belief! And unbelief…
And, though you tell me I shall die,
You say not how or when or why.

Indifferent the finches sing,
Unheeding roll the lorries past:
What misery will this year bring
Now spring is in the air at last?
For, sure as blackthorn bursts to snow,
Cancer in some of us will grow,
The tasteful crematorium door
Shuts out for some the furnace roar;
But church-bells open on the blast
Our loneliness, so long and vast.

Sir John Betjeman (1906 – 1984)

Easter


A human head in bronze

Sunday, 20 March, 2016 0 Comments

The poet Edwin Morgan was born in Glasgow in 1920 and studied English at Glasgow University. During the Second World War he became as a conscientious objector, to the horror of his loyal Presbyterian parents, but he compromised by serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps in Egypt, the Lebanon and Palestine. A true original, he lived on his own all his life and when he won the Soros Translation Award in 1985, he spent the prize money on a day trip to Lapland on the Concorde.

This poem brings back memories of a trip to Holy Cross Abbey, a restored Cistercian monastery near Thurles, County Tipperary, Ireland.

A human head

A human head would never do
under the mists and rains or tugged
by ruthless winds or whipped with leaves
from raving trees. But who is he
in bronze, who is the moveless one?
The poet laughed, It isn’t me.
It’s nearly me, but I am free
to dodge the showers or revel in them,
to walk the alleys under the stars
or waken where the blackbirds are.
Some day my veins will turn to bronze
and I won’t hear, or make, a song.
Then indeed I shall be my head
staring ahead, or so it seems,
but you may find me watching you,
dear traveller, or wheeling round
into your dreams.

Edwin Morgan (1920 – 2010)

Holy Cross Abbey, Tipperary


The dreamy, liquid daybreak of Stephen Spender

Sunday, 28 February, 2016 0 Comments

On this day in 1909, Stephen Spender was born. A member of a generation of British poets who came to prominence in the 1930s, he counted W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Cecil Day Lewis and Louis MacNeice as contemporaries. Like many daring young intellectuals of the era, Spender became a member of the Communist party and was adventurous in his sexuality. His autobiographical World within World, published in 1951, created a commotion with the disclosure of a homosexual relationship he had had at the time of the Spanish Civil War, but the affair ended when Spender married.

When critic Helen Vendler compared Spender and Auden she concluded that no two poets could have been more different. “Auden’s rigid, brilliant, peremptory, categorizing, allegorical mind demanded forms altogether different from Spender’s dreamy, liquid, guilty, hovering sensibility,” she wrote, adding: “Auden is a poet of firmly historical time, Spender of timeless nostalgic space.” Daybreak is dreamy and timeless.

Daybreak

At dawn she lay with her profile at that angle
Which, when she sleeps, seems the carved face of an angel.
Her hair a harp, the hand of a breeze follows
And plays, against the white cloud of the pillows.
Then, in a flush of rose, she woke and her eyes that opened
Swam in blue through her rose flesh that dawned.
From her dew of lips, the drop of one word
Fell like the first of fountains: murmured
‘Darling’, upon my ears the song of the first bird.
‘My dream becomes my dream,’ she said, ‘come true.
I waken from you to my dream of you.’
Oh, my own wakened dream then dared assume
The audacity of her sleep. Our dreams
Poured into each other’s arms, like streams.

Stephen Spender (1909 – 1995)

Dawn


Chariot of Fire, Cloud of Data

Wednesday, 24 February, 2016 0 Comments

Now that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is underway, one wonders how/if contemporary artists will rise to the challenge of depicting the great changes that are coming. These changes might lead to the ending of drudgery or to the ending of privacy; they might lead to the printing of human organs or to mass production of sexbots… The threats and opportunities are bewildering and what makes the concept of Industry 4.0 so exciting is that where we’re going doesn’t have roads yet.

The First Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century saw the development of new manufacturing techniques, including steam power, and this had a huge impact on employment, output and living standards. But it was hugely disruptive and the English artist William Blake portrayed the downside in his poem Jerusalem:

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?

As smoke and ash belched across hill and dale, the Romantic poets railed against what they say as the ruin of Eden, but the same William Blake, who memorably pictured the “dark Satanic mills”, also said: “Nature without man is barren.” In other words, we are responsible for this world and we must embrace change:

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of Fire!

Blake ended his poem on a defiant note. Let’s see if our modern poets can craft anything as inspiring as Jerusalem while the Cloud unfolds:

I will not cease from mental fight;
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

Two hundred years ago, William Blake urged people to join the fight to build a better world. To arm himself and his readers for the spiritual revolution within the Industrial Revolution, he called for bow, arrow, spear, chariot of fire, passion and imagination. These were the tools for the task. Despite the smoke and flames from the mills, nature could be preserved, he said, but only if people had the will and the wit to save it. Today’s Fourth Industrial Revolution promises great benefits, but its agents, robotics and artificial intelligence, could trigger mass unemployment and social chaos. Do we have the will and wit to cope with that?


Auden in a time of public shaming

Sunday, 21 February, 2016 0 Comments

On this day in 1907, the poet Wystan Hugh Auden was born. Alexander McCall Smith, author of What WH Auden Can Do For You, describes him as an astonishingly versatile lyricist who “wrote about rocks, about love, about psychoanalysis, about the bacteria that live on our skin, about war and about cooking. In the Thirties he was a political poet; after going to America he re-embraced Christianity. In his later years he became positively Horatian in his tastes, preaching the virtues of the domestic life and simple pleasures.” Auden is kaleidoscopic and timeless; At Last the Secret is Out is the proof.

    Background: The British writer/actor Stephen Fry made headlines earlier this week with a joke about his friend, costume designer Jenny Beavan. Following Beavan’s appearance at the BAFTA film awards, Fry said, “Only one of the great cinematic costume designers would come to the awards ceremony dressed like a bag lady.” Furious accusations of misogyny followed and, appalled by the humourlessness of the PC mob, Fry quit Twitter.

Jon Ronson explores this kind of public humiliation in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, a book about reputation in an era of hysteria and recreational rage. The flames of shame are fanned today on social media but this is just an amplification of what was common in Auden’s time because “there is always a wicked secret” and it will out.

At Last the Secret is Out

At last the secret is out,
as it always must come in the end,
the delicious story is ripe to tell
to tell to the intimate friend;
over the tea-cups and into the square
the tongue has its desire;
still waters run deep, my dear,
there’s never smoke without fire.

Behind the corpse in the reservoir,
behind the ghost on the links,
behind the lady who dances
and the man who madly drinks,
under the look of fatigue
the attack of migraine and the sigh
there is always another story,
there is more than meets the eye.

For the clear voice suddenly singing,
high up in the convent wall,
the scent of the elder bushes,
the sporting prints in the hall,
the croquet matches in summer,
the handshake, the cough, the kiss,
there is always a wicked secret,
a private reason for this.

W. H. Auden (1907 – 1973)

WH Auden


The heart of the Valentine matter

Sunday, 14 February, 2016 0 Comments

According to the ancients, Saint Valentine of Rome was martyred on 14 February in the third-century and buried in a cemetery on the Via Flaminia. History and hagiography disagree on the exactness of all this, but Saint Valentine’s Day is widely recognized as an occasion for romance and E. E. Cummings provides suitable words for the occasion.

Love was Cummings’ main subject of interest and he approached it, and poetry, with a charming sense of linguistic invention that enabled him to create verse that was lyrical, visual and unique: “[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]” is classic Cummings.

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart) i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)

                  i fear

no fate(for you are my fate, my sweet) i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

e.e. cummings (1894 – 1962)

The heart of love