Category: poetry

Stately Bawdiness: The Poetry of Catullus

Note: This is another old Thermidor post, originally published on January 18, 2018.


Having covered some of the great Greek poets, including Hesiod and Sappho, it’s time to move on to some of the Romans. With the Greeks, I tried to approach their literature roughly in chronological order, but here I’ll begin in the late Republic with Catullus. He’s among the Classical world’s most popular poets, at least among those who don’t have the mixed blessing of being frequently assigned to bored high schoolers like Homer, and perhaps the best way to introduce Catullus and see why is to jump right into one of his poems:

Furius and Aurelius, Catullus’ comrades,
Whether he’ll push on to furthest India
Where the shore is pounded by far-resounding
Eoan rollers,

To Hyrcania or effeminate Arabia,
The Sacians or the arrow-bearing Parthians,
Or those levels to which the seven-double
Nilus gives colour,

Or make his way across the towering Alps
To visit the memorials of great Caesar,
The Gallic Rhine, those horrible woad-painted
And world’s-end Britons –

All this, whatever the will of Heaven above
May bring, ready as you are to brave together,
Simply deliver to my girl a brief dis-
courteous message:

Farewell and long life with her adulterers,
Three hundred together, whom hugging she holds,
Loving none truly but again and again
Rupturing all’s groins;

And let her not as before expect my love,
Which by her fault has fallen like a flower
On the meadow’s margin after a passing
Ploughshare has touched it.

There’s a certain gravity or stateliness we tend to associate with just about anything written in Latin, and understandably so. Most of the books that have come down to us comprise the Roman highlight reel of Caesar and Cicero, Tacitus and Livy, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, and so on. As Latin passed out of common usage it was taken up by Medieval and Renaissance scholars, who generally used it for serious topics of philosophy, science, history, and the like.

Read More Stately Bawdiness: The Poetry of Catullus

Eighteenth Friend: Thomas Campion, “Rose-Cheeked Laura”

Today we’ll meet Mr. Thomas Campion, who was born in London in 1567 and lived to 1620. Yes, once again, there was just something about this era in English literature where it seems like every single Englishman couldn’t help but write fine poetry. Mr. Campion’s day job was physician, but he was also a songwriter and musical and literary theorist in addition to being a poet.

A few of our friends, like John Crowe Ransom, did write literary theory but we haven’t covered this much yet, so I think it may be interesting to spend a few moments looking at Mr. Campion’s Observations in the Art of English Poesie. Don’t worry, I won’t get into the nitty-gritty since even I find this type of thing a bit dry (see Aristotle). For most of the pamphlet he discusses the types of poetic metre and which are most apt for use in English, but he opens with an extended criticism of rhymed poetry.…

Read More Eighteenth Friend: Thomas Campion, “Rose-Cheeked Laura”

Seventeenth Friend: A. E. Housman, “Here Dead Lie We”

Today, we’ll meet Mr. Alfred Edward Housman, a popular English poet and a staple of English literature classes, so I assume that most folks are at least aware of him. He was born in 1859 and attended Oxford, but failed his final exam due to emotional turmoil, apparently due in part to struggling with homosexual desires. So, he spent ten years (1882-92) working as a clerk at the Patent Office while spending his free time studying and writing articles about Latin literature. Today that would’ve been the end of it since he didn’t have any official credentials, but those articles did gain scholarly attention and he was hired as a professor of Latin at University College, London, and later at Cambridge. His largest contribution to the Classics from there was in editing and annotating a still respected edition of Marcus Manilius’ Astronomica. He passed away in 1936.

Now, let’s set aside his academic career and look at his poetry. Most of his work is in a traditional English style, with regular metres and conservative rhyme schemes. They’re also on the pessimistic side, as in his most famous poems, “To an Athlete Dying Young” and “When I was One-and-Twenty.” One might worry that a Latinist writing in a conservative style would produce overly formal poems, but Mr. Housman is popular for good reason. His style is approachable even for general audiences and his themes are easy to relate to. For example, take a look at “To an Athlete Dying Young.”

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

Anyone old enough to have been through high school will likely have known local athletes celebrated for their accomplishments, which are often soon forgotten, and those middle aged and older will have seen even famous professional athletes whom they admired when growing up now obscure and growing old. We can imagine how this may feel for the athlete itself, and it’s natural to wonder if, perhaps, it’s better in a way to die while still at the height of fame and renown.

Of course, when we’re young we assume, without much thought, that the good times will last forever. Early death is also the theme of this poem, “Here Dead Lie We,” which is a war poem:

Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.

This is very short, but there a few things going on. Honour is important, and it’s extremely important to young men. The first two lines, then, might have us expecting either a patriotic work lauding them for their sacrifice, or to mourn their early deaths for something ambiguous like shame and honour, for what Wilfred Own called “that old lie,” “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (from Horace, “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”).

The next two lines, though, are more ambiguous than that. “Life […] is nothing much to lose.” It’s not? Even if we consider it less important than shame and honour, the reason we praise men who risk their lives, even setting aside public holidays like Veterans Day, is because life is a great deal to lose. So, did the speakers not sacrifice much after all?

Maybe, but the last line takes a very subjective turn. “But young men think it is, and we were young.” The weight of sacrifice, apparently, is in the eye of the beholder.…

Read More Seventeenth Friend: A. E. Housman, “Here Dead Lie We”

Immortal Fragments: Sappho’s Poetry

Note: This is republished from Thermidor Magazine, where it was originally posted on November 19, 2017.


When looking across the Western literary canon, it quickly appears that writing is, in a sense, a man’s game. Take a list of recommended authors from before the era of political correctness, and one generally finds only a few women represented. To take a convenient example, Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren’s list of essential authors from the first appendix to How to Read a Book (which includes fiction and non-fiction) has only one female author, with Jane Austen standing alone to represent her entire sex. Now, that doesn’t particularly bother me; I don’t believe that we should grade on a curve so that we can include mediocrities like Maya Angelou or Rupi Kaur on “great authors” lists. There are, however, a handful of women who even a vile Reactionary like myself will gladly give credit to. Besides Austen, works by Flannery O’Connor, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and others all have a space on my bookshelf.

By far the longest-standing of all of these, though, is Sappho, widely respected among the ancient Greeks themselves and ever since. When discussing her poetry, though, we quickly run into two problems. First, a minor one, is that we don’t know much for certain about her. She’s hardly unique in this, as the lives of Homer and Hesiod are also largely mysterious. For Sappho, we know that she lived on Lesbos in the early Sixth Century B.C. There are also many stories about her that may or may not be true; translator Mary Barnard’s biographical note in her edition of Sappho’s poems lists some of these:

That she was born in Mitylene, or in Eresus on the same island;
That her birth date was about 612 B.C., or earlier, or later;
That her father’s name was Scamandronymous, or Eurygus, or Simon, or Eunominus, or Euarchus, or Ecrytus, or Semus;
That her mother’s name was Cleis;
That she married a merchant of Andros, named Cercolas, and had a daughter Cleis; or, contrariwise, that Cercolas is a fictitious name, and that Cleis was not her daughter;
That Sappho herself was a prostitute; that she was not;
That, maddened by her hopeless love for Phaon, a ferryman, she threw herself from the Leucadian cliffs […]; or, contrariwise, that she died at home in bed, tended by her daughter, Cleis […];
That the girls whose names are mentioned in the poems – Anactoria, Atthis, Gongyla, Hero, Timas – were her pupils, and participants with her in the religious exercises of kallichoron Mitylene (Mitylene of the beautiful dances); or, conversely, that they were no such thing.

How much of this is true? The name “Cercolas” is almost certainly fake, the prostitution charge can safely be discarded, and the story about Phaon is also unlikely. Some of this information came via Athenian comedians, which is like writing a biography of American presidents based on Saturday Night Live skits, others are possibly legendary accretions. There is a story that she was exiled to Syracuse, which is interesting because it would indicate an involvement in political life. Also, whether she was indeed a priestess, and what her relationship was to the other people mentioned in her work, does influence how we interpret some of her poems.…

Read More Immortal Fragments: Sappho’s Poetry

Hesiod’s Works (and his Days, as Well)

Note: This is another old Thermidor post, originally published on May 18, 2017.


Among Greek poets, two stand tall above all the others, Homer and Hesiod. One can easily see Homer’s appeal, with his renowned tales of heroes, war, and adventure, told with great craftsmanship and sublimity. Then you have Hesiod, who surveys the fields, tugs at his overalls, and says, “Good season for crops.”

Well, okay, that’s totally unfair to Hesiod, but the two poets’ themes and subject matter could hardly be more different. Before getting into that, though, let’s back up a little.

Hesiod lived between 750 and 650 B.C., roughly a contemporary of Homer. There’s even a story among the ancient Greeks that the two competed against each other in a poetry competition, but historians apparently dispute this, because there’s nothing historians hate more than a good story. Hesiod won that alleged competition, but even if that did happen, Homer got the last laugh since Hesiod today sits in his rival’s shadow. Many people have read The Odyssey for school, and possibly The Iliad as well. Even the average philistine, then, is at least aware of these works. On the other hand, though Hesiod is by no means an obscure figure, The Works and Days, Theogeny, and The Shield of Herakles have nowhere near the presence of Homer’s epics.

Read More Hesiod’s Works (and his Days, as Well)

Notes on the Odyssey

One notable thing about the Iliad is that it inspired a huge number of other poets and playwrights to use it as source material for their own works. Some filled in the gaps left by Homer, since he’d only addressed a relatively small part of the Trojan War, while others covered the adventures of the poem’s heroes after the war. The Greeks themselves were the most prolific and successful at this, but the Romans and even modern authors, musicians, and filmmakers have attempted their own additions and adaptations to the epic. I think it’s safe to say the most celebrated of these attempts was the Aeneid, making Virgil the world’s greatest author of fanfiction, but we’ll get to his work some other time.

Today, I thought I’d share some observations on the only official sequel, the Odyssey. This one needs less of an introduction than the Iliad, since it’s one of the few Classical works still commonly assigned to high school and college students, at least among Americans. I still won’t assume much familiarity – after all, I’m writing in large part for people who’ve finished schooling and are ready for an education. Since it is more accessible than the Iliad, though, I’ll talk about it less formally than I did about that epic and just offer a few observations about it.

So, as you might guess from the title Odyssey follows Odysseus after the Trojan War, whose trip home went about as well as every other hero’s – badly.

Very badly.

Read More Notes on the Odyssey

Sixteenth Friend: Abraham Cowley, “The Given Heart”

Another poet, another friend, another cavalier, this time Mr. Abraham Cowley. He was born in 1618 and like a few other writers we’ve covered, especially from this era, he was multitalented and had some success as a poet, playwright, essayist, and even as a promoter of the Royal Society. During the Civil War he accompanied the queen to France, where he worked for the royal household. He was able to return to England in 1656, and spent most of the rest of his life living a largely solitary life writing.

Like most of the cavalier poets, despite some success in his own lifetime Cowley isn’t widely read today. His reputation has had its ups and downs over time, and Dr. Johnson said that he “has been at one time too much praised and too much neglected at another.” Though not the best poet of his era, he was a talented man and I suspect that his current neglect stems not so much from any fault of his so much as from fashion. Those who read poetry at all are still caught up in something of a romantic mode, looking for outpourings of emotion, so the more formal, restrained style of the Seventeenth Century comes across as stiff to our ears regardless of how heartfelt a given poem may have been. The explosion of (mostly bad) free verse has deadened our senses to technical skill, and many readers find it difficult to read verse not written in modern, everyday language.

With all that said, let’s take a quick look at today’s poem, “The Given Heart.”

I wonder what those lovers mean, who say
They have giv’n their hearts away.
Some good kind lover tell me how;
For mine is but a torment to me now.

If so it be one place both hearts contain,
For what do they complain?
What courtesy can Love do more,
Than to join hearts that parted were before?

Woe to her stubborn heart, if once mine come
Into the self-same room;
‘Twill tear and blow up all within,
Like a granado shot into a magazine.

Then shall Love keep the ashes, and torn parts,
Of both our broken hearts:
Shall out of both one new one make,
From hers, th’ allay; from mine, the metal take.

For of her heart he from the flames will find
But little left behind:
Mine only will remain entire;
No dross was there, to perish in the fire.

Well, it’s a quite solid, respectable love poem, albeit not a happy one. I do like the explosive imagery in the third and fourth stanzas, and the work ends on a strong note in the last stanza contrasting the purity of his heart with hers. This probably isn’t a poem I’ll remember forever, but may hang onto the ending.

 …

Read More Sixteenth Friend: Abraham Cowley, “The Given Heart”

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