Category: literature

Eleventh Friend: James Shirley, “The Glories of our Blood and State”

I admit I’m not very familiar with today’s friend, James Shirley, except for the general knowledge that he’s a celebrated playwright, and wrote in the first half of the 17th Century. My only experience with his work are the poems and excerpts from my collection of the Cavalier poets, but his inclusion in that anthology is a good sign that he’s worth getting to know better. He was apparently a Catholic convert, and a supporter of the Royalist side in the English Civil War (though apparently he left the field and went to London when the tide began to turn against the King). Needless to say, his career as a dramatist came to an end under the Commonwealth, and he supported himself by teaching and writing educational work until his death in the Great Fire of London in 1666.

This poem, “The Glories of our Blood and State,” is actually an excerpt from his play The Contention of Ajax and Ulysses. I know I encountered this play in high school, though it may have been just this poem, since it may be his most famous.

The glories of our blood and state
Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armour against fate;
Death lays his icy hand on kings.
Sceptre and crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.

Some men with swords may reap the field,
And plant fresh laurels where they kill;
But their strong nerves at last must yield,
They tame but one another still.
Early or late,
They stoop to fate,
And must give up their murmuring breath,
When they, pale captives, creep to death.

The garlands wither on your brow,
Then boast no more your mighty deeds;
Upon death’s purple altar now,
See where the victor-victim bleeds.
Your heads must come
To the cold tomb;
Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in their dust.

I don’t think this requires a lot of explication, but I seem to be drawn to these poems about impermanence. The theme is much the same as “Kingdomes are but Cares,” though it does have one note of optimism regarding the “actions of the just.” I will say that the couplets in the fifth and sixth lines of each stanza made memorising this a little more difficult, since they’re a sudden change the metre and the abab rhyme scheme set up in the first four lines. I suppose not every poem can be as easy to memorise as a simple sonnet.…

Read More Eleventh Friend: James Shirley, “The Glories of our Blood and State”

Notes on the Purpose of Poetry

Two weks ago we and Socrates met with Ion, a rhapsode and Homer’s greatest interpreter (in his own opinion). One question we touched on was whether poetry and rhapsody are arts, to which Socrates answered “No.” Rather, it’s a form of divine inspiration, which definition Ion was happy to roll with. However, that doesn’t seem to be true, for there certainly is an element of craftsmanship and skill involved with writing and reciting poetry, despite the occasional one-hit-wonder. Furthermore, even individual works, especially long ones like epics, are of mixed quality or at least mixed goodness. The Iliad, for instance, is a work of immense skill throughout, but at times portrays the gods in an impious manner, which seems very odd if it’s the work of inspiration by the gods. (As an aside, I am aware that all this isn’t Socrates final opinion on the subject, and that at least some of what he had to say was essentially said for Ion’s sake).

If poetry and rhapsody are arts, though, then what sort of art are they, and what is their end or purpose? We need to begin by defining some terms.

First, note that when Plato says “art” he’s using it in a broad sense. I won’t get into the Greek because I’m not familiar with that language, but since I’m writing for anglophones anyway we’ll proceed in my native tongue. In English we use “art” both to refer to any application of a learned skill, even in industry, as well as to production of a work of imagination or for aesthetic purposes. So, poetry is an art in that it’s an application of a learned skill (metrical writing) in a work of imagination or for aesthetic purposes.

Yes, I’m keeping it simple by defining poetry as “metrical writing.” Writers of free verse may be artists and authors of literature, but at least for our purposes they’re in a separate, though related, category. What is the purpose of poetry? I would answer that it is the creation of a work of beauty. So, what is beauty? Again, let’s keep it simple and follow this short article on St. Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of the subject. Beauty is something that “elevate[s] man to the infinite,” in other words, toward God (don’t worry, we’ll flesh this out more shortly). We can see that it’s closely related, then, to goodness and truth, and for a work to be truly beautiful it must be good and true, as well. “Goodness” in this context, of course, does not mean merely inoffensive, but uplifting in some way, which often does involve a portrayal of evil in some manner. “Truth” will not usually be literal truth, but can also be allegorical.

So, we now have an idea of what poetry is, and what its purpose is. Rhapsody is the art of reciting poetry in an effective manner. Both have as their purpose focusing man’s mind on the transcendent, the good, true, and beautiful.

Socrates, no doubt, wouldn’t let me go that easily. Since this is a one-man show, though, I’ll have to raise my own objections, and the obvious one is this: does poetry actually do these things? If so, how? There have been many claims that it does; I’ve discussed Confucius’ previously, and also touched on Ben Jonson’s in that same article. We might also point to Scripture’s inclusion of many poems, most notably the Psalms but also throughout many of its other books. As far as appeals to authority go, then, we’re looking good, but that’s not quite enough. Confucius and Jonson are fallible, and Scripture’s poems aren’t just poems, but also prayers.

Regarding that last point, the Bible’s form and content aren’t arbitrary, and given the value of plain speech, it seems to me significant that the sacred authors, inspired by the Holy Spirit, thought it most appropriate to set the Psalms, hymns, and so on in verse. Most of Scripture follows a simple style, often too simple for modern tastes, so when it uses poetry we may safely assume that this is because there’s something about poetic form that’s especially appropriate or effective on the reader that suits the author’s purpose. If poetry is the creation of a work of beauty, and beauty raises one’s mind to the transcendent, then this is as expected. The Psalms, etc., are written to do precisely that, and so they use a form that amplifies the effect of what they attempt to do.

If that’s the case, though, then shouldn’t all of Scripture, and for that matter pretty much everything else, also be written in verse? Not necessarily. The primary purpose of the historical and didactic books is to convey information. For example, the authors of the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles tell us the narrative of the kingdom of Israel, while St. Paul in his Epistles tells us how we ought to live (primarily, of course – obviously, the same book can have multiple purposes and work on more than one level). This can be done in verse, but this type of information is best related in as straightforward and easy to follow a manner as possible. Additional ornament, though it may beautify the work, may also distract from the main points. Of course, this also applies to non-Scriptural works of history, philosophy, and so on, which typically are best presented in prose.…

Read More Notes on the Purpose of Poetry

Plato’s Dialogues: Ion

Over at Thermidor last month we talked about Homer, so it’s good timing that Plato is now giving us a chance to talk to Homer’s greatest interpreter, Ion. Who’s Ion? He’s a rhapsode and Socrates’ interlocutor in his shortest dialogue called, well, Ion. We know he’s the greatest because he says so himself, after telling Socrates about winning a contest in Epidaurus:

I judge that I, of all men, have the finest things to say on Homer, that neither Metrodorus of Lampsacus, nor Stesimbrotus of Thasos, nor Glaucon, nor anyone else who ever lived, had so many reflections, or such fine ones, to present on Homer as have I.

Well, he’s still more humble than our man Hippias, who claimed to be the best at everything, and Ion even admits that interpretation of Homer is the only thing he’s great at (with one exception, which we’ll get to shortly). Still, Ion is a likeable guy, and Socrates is amiable with him throughout the dialogue. It’s hard not to like his almost childlike enthusiasm for Homer; for instance, at one point Socrates wants to quote a few lines from the Iliad to illustrate a point, but Ion jumps in, “No, let me do it, for I know them.” He’s like a boy who just learned a new skill and wants to show it off.…

Read More Plato’s Dialogues: Ion

New at Thermidor: How to Read the Iliad

It’s been a while since I’ve posted twice in a day; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever done that. Well, if my review of the Gongyang Commentary wasn’t enough for you, my latest article for Thermidor is also up: “How to Read the Iliad.” As the title advertises, it’s a gentle introduction to one of the greatest books ever written, for those who may be reluctant to read Homer for whatever reason.

There’s a lot to say about the Iliad, of course, but I hope this is useful as a starting-point. I may write a follow-up just going over a few odds and ends about the poem that I found interesting, but aren’t really worth a post to themselves and didn’t really fit into that main article. We’ll see if I can come up with enough to justify a second article.

On a side note, I actually attempted to write about the Iliad after I first read it back in 2011. Looking back now, it’s funny how difficult it seemed for me to come up with even that short post about it. What I came up with isn’t even bad, really, it’s just boring and doesn’t have anything to say. I’ll keep the post up, but I may simply replace the link to it on the index page with this newer one.…

Read More New at Thermidor: How to Read the Iliad

Tenth Friend: Henry VI, “Kingdomes are but Cares”

This poem is of interest partly because it’s good on its own terms, but also because of who wrote it. Today’s friend, you see, is none other than King Henry VI. There have been a few monarchs who’ve written poetry, but not many. At least, not in English culture; in Japan, for example, it was very common, and emperors are well-represented in classic anthologies there.

In any case, in this poem, His Majesty reflects on his own royal position:

Kingdomes are but cares;
State ys devoyd of staie;
Ryches are redy snares,
And hastene to decaie.

Plesure ys a pryvie prycke
Wich vyce doth styll provoke;
Pompe, unprompt; and fame, a flame;
Powre, a smouldryng smoke.

Who meenethe to remoofe the rocke
Owte of the slymie mudde,
Shall myre hymselfe, and hardlie scape
The swellynge of the flodde.…

Read More Tenth Friend: Henry VI, “Kingdomes are but Cares”

Ninth Friend: Edmund Spenser, “Amoretti LXXV: One Day I Wrote her Name”

No, I didn’t forget about my goal of making a hundred friends by memorising their poems. I just took a break to reconsider the feasibility of this project, but have decided to go forward.

So, today we meet Edmund Spenser. You know Mr. Spenser, right? He was born in 1552 or 1553, the son of a journeyman clothmaker, went to Pembroke College but required financial assistance to do so (apparently, doing menial work for the college), and as an adult spent much of his career as a government official in Ireland. He became well-known in his own time, though, for his poetry and especially for his epic, The Faerie Queene.

For this post, though, I memorised one of his sonnets from the series Amoretti, which he wrote while wooing his future wife Elizabeth Boyle. This is the seventy-fifth, “One Day I Wrote her Name.”

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
“Vain man,” said she, “that dost in vain assay,
A mortal thing so to immortalize;
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wiped out likewise.”
“Not so,” (quod I) “let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name:
Where whenas death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.”…

Read More Ninth Friend: Edmund Spenser, “Amoretti LXXV: One Day I Wrote her Name”

Eighth Friend: Some Scottish Guy, “Edward, Edward”

Now, this is a bit awkward, because I don’t even know the name of today’s friend. All I do know is that he was a Scottish balladeer, and that this poem was collected in Thomas Percy’s 1765 collection Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Whoever our poet was, he lives on through his work, which is certainly worth something. The poem for today is “Edward, Edward,” which I first encountered in high school, alongside “Sir Patrick Spens.” I’ve remembered many individual lines ever since, which given the amount of repetition meant that I had decent chunks of the poem committed to memory before I even began this project. The old-fashioned Scottish spelling is a little confusing at first, but not too bad. Checking RPO’s notes may not be a bad idea, though, if this is your first time reading the poem.

Why dois your brand sae drap wi’ bluid,
Edward, Edward?
Why dois your brand sae drap wi’ bluid?
And why sae sad gang ye, O?
O, I hae killed my hauke sae guid,
Mither, mither,
O, I hae killed my hauke sae guid,
And I had nae mair bot hee, O.

Your haukis bluid was nevir sae reid,
Edward, Edward,
Your haukis bluid was nevir sae reid,
My deir son I tell thee, O.
O, I hae killed my reid-roan steid,
Mither, mither,
O, I hae killed my reid-roan steid,
That erst was sae fair and frie, O.…

Read More Eighth Friend: Some Scottish Guy, “Edward, Edward”

Olympic Level Poetry: Pindar’s Odes

After covering Sappho a couple weeks ago, I figured I’d move on to another of Greece’s most famous poets, Pindar. Fortunately, his work is much better preserved than the poetess of Lesbos, as we have several dozen of his poems. He made his name writing odes for the victors of the four Panhellenic games, the Olympian being the most famous of these, but also including the Isthmian, Nemean, and Pythian. To be specific, these odes were choral lyrics, which means that they were sung with musical accompaniment. Unfortunately, as far as I’m aware, we have little idea of what this music would’ve sounded like, so the words must stand on their own.

Even without the tune, though, my understanding is that the original Greek is still impressive. Pindar was widely respected in his own time, enough so that the victors of the games were willing to pay him for his work (including, as a side note, our old friend Hiero), and many poets since have admired him and even borrowed his style. Horace is the most famous example, but in English we also have Ben Jonson and Thomas Gray, among others. Edith Hamilton, in her book The Greek Way, also praises his odes highly, but notes that they’re extremely difficult to translate. Poet Abraham Cowley, another author of “Pindarics” in English, similarly noted that “If a man should undertake to translate Pindar word for word, it would be thought that one Mad man had translated another.” We’ll return to the issue of translation shortly.

Read More Olympic Level Poetry: Pindar’s Odes

Seventh Friend: James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, “On Himself, upon Hearing What was his Sentence”

Today in the United States, we’re celebrating Thanksgiving, commemorating that well-known story of Native Americans helping out a bunch of proto-Yankee Puritans… Well, that was nice of them, I must give credit for that, but if the Natives had seen the future they may have followed the example of the friend we’re meeting today and done something far more laudable: not feeding Puritans, but fighting them.

James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, is one of my favourite of the Cavalier poets. Part of the reason, of course, is his poetry; I especially like “My Dear and Only Love,” which is a good romantic poem in its own right, and the specific imagery he uses to describe a loyal relationship between husband and wife, monarchy, is apt but today has the added satisfaction of political incorrectness. He also, of course, supported the Royalist cause in the English Civil War. Interestingly, though, he was a Covenanter, and as such opposed King Charles I insofar as the King attempted to impose Anglican forms of worship on Scotland. However, he insisted throughout his life that he was both a Covenanter and loyal to the monarchy, and in 1644, with the Civil War underway, he was appointed lieutenant-general and won several victories in Scotland. Unfortunately, the Royalists lost, Charles I was martyred, and so Montrose fled to the Continent, but returned to Scotland in 1650 with a force of about 1,200 men. That invasion failed and he was ultimately captured and hanged.

Before his execution, though, he did write one more poem, “On Himself, upon Hearing What was his Sentence,” which is the one I’ve chosen to memorise:

Let them bestow on ev’ry airth a limb;
Open all my veins, that I may swim
To Thee, my Saviour, in that crimson lake;
Then place my parboil’d head upon a stake,
Scatter my ashes, throw them in the air:
Lord (since Thou know’st where all these atoms are)
I’m hopeful once Thou’lt recollect my dust,
And confident thou’lt raise me with the just.

An “airth,” by the way, is a quarter of the compass.

So, normally, I’d call that sort of imagery melodramatic, but from someone who knows he actually is about to die, all I can say is that this how one faces death like a man. The gory touches are justified, since according to the Montrose Society, “After he was dead his head, his arms and his legs were cut off, the head placed on a spike on the Tolbooth where he had spent his last hours, his other limbs were placed in the [four] major cities of Scotland in places of prominence.” So, as it happened, they basically did “bestow on ev’ry airth a limb.” Nonetheless, as he was led to the gallows and saw the gibbet he simply asked, “How long am I to hang here?” As if he had an appointment or something afterwards. His last words were “God have mercy on this afflicted land.”

This is a fine poem in its own right, but it’s this background story that makes it especially interesting. I doubt I need to stress the point, but there’s also a moral example here on how to behave when you’re seemingly defeated – but also never to lose hope. In 1650 the Royalist cause seemed lost, but ten years later, in 1660, the Puritan Interregnum ended and the monarchy was restored. Today the monarchist cause is again in poor shape, but the one way to guarantee that we lose is to give up. So, “Viriliter agite, et confortamini” –  act manfully, and be strengthened. In the worse case, you’ll have the opportunity to leave behind an immortal death poem.…

Read More Seventh Friend: James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, “On Himself, upon Hearing What was his Sentence”

New at Thermidor: “Immortal Fragments: Sappho’s Poetry”

I have  a new post over at Thermidor Magazine, “Immortal Fragments: Sappho’s Poetry.” As the title indicates, it covers the lyric poet Sappho and how to get the most out of her mostly poorly-preserved poems.

If you’re interested in other Classical poets, I’ve previously written about Hesiod, also at Thermidor, and the Homeric Hymns. Related to these is yet another Thermidor article, on Aristotle’s Poetics.

On a side note, I’m not especially good with titles so over here I often just use the title of whatever I’m reviewing, but writing elsewhere I feel the need to come up with something better. I haven’t been very successful at that, but I do rather like “Immortal Fragments.” Maybe this is where I turn it around and no longer have to settle for mediocre titles.…

Read More New at Thermidor: “Immortal Fragments: Sappho’s Poetry”