Category: poetry

Fifteenth Friend: Walt Whitman, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”

Last week we discussed Ezra Pound’s “Pact” with Walt Whitman, which turned out to be about as peaceable and long-lasting as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This week, we’ll meet with Walt Whitman himself.

Mr. Whitman was born in 1819 and grew up in Brooklyn. Professionally, he struggled for most of his life both in his day jobs (editing newspapers and as a clerk for the Department of the Interior) and as a poet. Some of this was just bad luck, like one publisher going bankrupt at the start of the War Between the States, while others stemmed from the content of his poems; Ralph Waldo Emerson was a supporter of his, and he also became popular in England because of his reputation as a champion of the common man, but the first few editions of Leaves of Grass did not sell well and critics responded poorly to his use of free verse. Exacerbating matters were accusations of indecency in his poems, which is why he was dismissed from his post at the Department of the Interior, and in 1881 a Boston publisher stopped publication of Leaves of Grass thanks to the efforts of an outfit called the Society for the Suppression of Vice. The controversy did bring some attention to the book, though, and once he found a new publisher finally found some moderate financial success.

I should also mention that Whitman was a supporter of the Free Soil Party, which opposed the extension of slavery into new territories and was eventually absorbed into the Republican Party. As one might guess, then, he also supported the Union cause in the War Between the States, despite being disturbed by the level of suffering the war caused. To his credit, he often went to hospitals to visit wounded soldiers, both Union and Confederate.

Now, to his poetry. Here’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Folks, I’m gonna be honest: I’m pretty sympathetic to Mr. Pound’s assessment of Mr. Whitman’s poetry, and I chose this poem in large part because it’s short. It does have its virtues; I like how the lines get progressively longer, making the lecture feel heavier and more oppressive, until we get some relief when he goes outside. He does get his point across by contrasting the abstract “charts and diagrams” and so forth with the more concrete “moist night-air” and “stars,” though “mystical” doesn’t convey much. He also contrasts the crowded and noisy lecture room with his later solitude and silence. However, none of these images really grab me like those in some of the other, better poems so far have, and because of the free verse it also doesn’t have as much musicality as I like.

Well, I’ll still respect Mr. Whitman for what he does do well, and for his influence on later poets, but frankly, American icon or not, I can take it or leave with his poetry.…

Read More Fifteenth Friend: Walt Whitman, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”

Fourteenth Friend: Ezra Pound, “A Pact”

I’ve written about today’s friend, Mr. Ezra Pound, a few times before, including addressing his war literature, a very short poem, and a brief reflection on his birthday. In literary terms, he’s a strong contender for the most accomplished friend we’ll meet during this whole series, as he was a great poet, a skilled though idiosyncratic translator, a thoughtful and opinionated critic, and an editor with a knack for finding and fostering talented writers. Because of all that he may be, apart from the Bard himself, the most important poet in English. His reputation suffered because of his support for Benito Mussolini, but I feel confident predicting that in a few centuries Mussolini will be a footnote to the Cantos, much as many great and powerful men are now footnotes to the Divine Comedy.

Read More Fourteenth Friend: Ezra Pound, “A Pact”

New at Thermidor: The Lively (and Nauseous) Genius of Martial’s Epigrams

I have a new post over at Thermidor Magazine, on Martial’s Epigrams. As I say in the review, it may not be the greatest work of Classical literature I’ve read so far, but it probably is the most fun.

On a meta note, the summer semester has started for me, so if new posts slow down or get shorter, that’ll be why. The Hundred Friends series should be able to provide a steady stream of content, and I do plan to keep up a weekly schedule, but I also have an upcoming special post (or possibly series) in July that I’m working on. So, any delays should be offset by quality content down the road.…

Read More New at Thermidor: The Lively (and Nauseous) Genius of Martial’s Epigrams

Thirteenth Friend: Edmund Waller, “Go, Lovely Rose”

Today, we’ll meet Mr. Edmund Waller, another Cavalier poet (well, more-or-less, as we’ll see). Yes, he’s certainly not the first, and won’t be the last. In fact, the general era has been well-represented among our acquaintances so far, and they’ll continue to show up throughout this project. This is debatable, but I think it’s an easily defensible position that the peak of English literature was roughly the period from the Elizabethan era up to the Civil War. During these decades one could scarcely throw a stone down a London street without hitting a poet of note, and many of them have stood the test of time admirably. When one thinks of the archetypal English poem, one is likely to think of one of the works produced by this formidable literary roster.

With the Elizabethans, for instance, we had Shakespeare, Spenser, and Marlowe. Among the “Tribe of Ben” and the Cavaliers more broadly we had, of course, Ben Jonson himself, Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace, and Thomas Carew. More broadly, their contemporaries include such luminaries as John Donne, John Milton, and James Shirley. Not coincidentally, this was also the era that produced the King James Bible, by far the most enduring translation of Scripture, and deservedly so (but don’t tell the Protestants I said that).…

Read More Thirteenth Friend: Edmund Waller, “Go, Lovely Rose”

Twelfth Friend: John Crowe Ransom, “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter”

Today’s friend is a good Tennessean, Mr. John Crowe Ransom. Even if you don’t read much poetry, if you read a lot of Southern or political history you may recognise Mr. Ransom as one of the Southern Agrarians, a contributor to I’ll Take My Stand. Some schools will also touch on his critical ideas, since he was important to New Criticism, which, very briefly, emphasises reading literature as self-contained, without too much emphasis on the author, social background, and the like. Of course, this is mostly covered at the college level if the student is lucky. I took a course on Southern literature specifically and even there, we only touched on Mr. Ransom’s work (coincidentally, we spent more time discussing New Criticism in a course on British literature). He also edited the poetry magazine The Fugitive, and taught first at Vanderbilt University and then Kenyon College, in Ohio.

Anyway, he only wrote two volumes of poetry, but most school curricula will include at least a couple of them, including the one I memorised, “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter.”

There was such speed in her little body,
And such lightness in her footfall,
It is no wonder her brown study
Astonishes us all.

Her wars were bruited in our high window.
We looked among orchard trees and beyond
Where she took arms against her shadow,
Or harried unto the pond

The lazy geese, like a snow cloud
Dripping their snow on the green grass,
Tricking and stopping, sleepy and proud,
Who cried in goose, Alas,

For the tireless heart within the little
Lady with rod that made them rise
From their noon apple-dreams and scuttle
Goose-fashion under the skies!

But now go the bells, and we are ready,
In one house we are sternly stopped
To say we are vexed at her brown study,
Lying so primly propped.…

Read More Twelfth Friend: John Crowe Ransom, “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter”

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”