Everything is Oll Korrect!

An eclectic bibliophile's journal…

Category: poetry

Twenty-First Friend: Sir John Denham, “A Song”

Our next friend is another one of our good ol’ Cavalier buddies. Sir John Denham was born in Dublin in 1615 and lived to 1669, a lawyer and the son of the Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in Ireland. That sounds like an impressive title, and when his father died Sir John did inherit a great deal of property. During the English Civil War he was sheriff of Surrey and made a brief attempt to defend Farnham Castle against Parliamentary forces; after the war his estates were confiscated and he lived abroad with Charles II, though Cromwell did give him permission to live in Suffolk in 1658.

In literature, he’s best-known for two works, a blank verse tragedy called The Sophy, and a pastoral poem called “Cooper’s Hill.” Fans of the latter include no lesser figure than Dr. Samuel Johnson, who, despite a few criticisms, said that it “is the work that confers upon him the rank and dignity of an original author.” He adds:

To trace a new scheme of poetry has in itself a very high claim to praise, and its praise is yet more when it is apparently copied by [Samuel] Garth and [Alexander] Pope; after whose names little will be gained by an enumeration of smaller poets, that have left scarce a corner of the island not dignified either by rhyme or blank verse.

He also has good things to say about Sir John’s poem written on the death of Abraham Cowley, whom we’ve met previously.

Today I’ll share a shorter poem, simply titled “A Song” and which is taken from The Sophy.

Somnus, the humble god, that dwells
In cottages and smoky cells,
Hates gilded roofs and beds of down,
And, though he fears no prince’s frown,
Flies from the circle of a crown.

Come, I say, thou powerful god,
And thy leaden charming rod
Dipped in the Lethean lake,
O’er his wakeful temples shake,
Lest he should sleep and never wake.

Nature, alas, why art thou so
Obligéd to thy greatest foe?
Sleep, that is thy best repast,
Yet of death it bears a taste,
And both are the same thing at last.

“Somnus,” as you may guess, is the god of sleep. “Charming” is meant in the sense of spellbinding.

Though overall a solid poem, I’m not a big fan of the conclusion since the comparison of sleep to death has been done multiple times elsewhere, and done better. I also prefer John Donne’s more take optimistic take on the subject with this same analogy. That said, this is taken from a play so I’m obviously missing some context here, so I won’t judge it too harshly.…

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The Poetry of Guido Cavalcanti, That Other Great Florentine Poet

My primary reading goal for 2019, if I can find time to read at all, is to greatly deepen my knowledge of Dante Alighieri. I’ve written briefly of La Vita Nuova and extensively of Monarchia, and have previously read the Divine Comedy, but this constitutes the mere highlight reel of his career. Though not terribly prolific, Dante did write more than many people realise and besides, the Comedy itself has such depths that it deserves careful study even on its own. That said, I’d like to begin with by setting the stage with a friend of Dante’s, fellow Florentine and poet Guido Cavalcanti.

It’s a testament to Dante’s excellence that a poet of Cavalcanti’s calibre is only the second-greatest poet of his era. Though obscure to Americans, he is an important figure in Italian poetry and well-respected among those who study Italian and Medieval literature. Some readers may be aware that among his admirers were Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Ezra Pound, who each translated a volume of Cavalcanti’s poems. Let’s take a look at one of them, numbered 45 in Marc Cirigliano’s edition, “Se non ti caggia la tua santalena.”

may you not drop your little jewel
between the plowed clumps
so it is picked up by a farmer
who fondles and keeps it

tell me if the earth’s fruit
is born from dryness, heat, or moisture
and which wind blows it
and what fog fills the storm

and if you like the morning
that hears the workman’s voice
and family cacophany

i certainly know that if Bettina’s
heart has a sweet spirit
you’ll get rid of your young acquisition…

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Twentieth Friend, William Cecil, 1st Lord Burghley “To his Daughter Ann, New Year’s Day, 1567”

Today we’ll meet William Cecil, 1st Lord Burghley. He’s another Elizabethan, living 1520-98, but he’s not well-known as a poet. Rather, his legacy lies in the world of political history, especially as Queen Elizabeth I’s principal adviser. An outline of his political career would be well beyond the scope of this series, but in short he seems to have been quite competent, though as one would expect of an adviser to Elizabeth, one’s ultimate judgement of him comes down to what one thinks of Elizabeth, which often depends on whether one is Catholic or Protestant.

So, let’s set Lord Burghley’s career aside and instead join him and his family with this poem addressed to his then eleven year old daughter Ann, “New Year’s Day, 1567.”

As years do grow, so cares increase,
And time will move to look to thrift.
These years in me work nothing less,
Yet for your years and New Year’s gift
To set you on work, some thrift to feel,
I send you now a spinning wheel.

But one thing first I wish and pray,
Lest thirst of thrift might soon you tire,
Only to spin one pound a day
And play the rest, as time require,
Sweat not (O fie!), fling work in fire!
God send, who sendeth all thrift and wealth,
You long years and your father health.

“Thrift” here means “home economy.”

This is likely technically the least exciting poem so far, but I enjoy it nonetheless. Children often look forward to and try to imitate adult duties, and so Lord Burghley sends Ann a spinning wheel. However, she is still a child and so he urges her to spend more time in play (“fling work in fire” is rather strong, but hey, it gets the point across). There is some irony here in that Lord Burghley himself was a tireless worker, and continued serving the Queen even as his health declined to the day he died.

I’ll finish up this post by wishing all of you a happy New Year, and remember to work hard – but be sure to spend at least some time in play as you can.…

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The Lively (and Nauseous) Genius of Martial’s Epigrams

Note: This is the final repost from Thermidor, originally published June 5, 2018. As with all of these, this is presented with only minimal editing.


Last time we talked about Roman poetry, it was on Catullus’ “stately bawdiness.” Today, we’ll move forward roughly a century to Martial, who was born in what’s now Spain in A.D. 40. He moved to Rome at twenty-four years old to pursue a literary career, with some success, but eventually grew tired of life in the capital and so moved back to Spain in 100. We don’t know the exact date of his death, but it was no later than 104.

As for his work, well, it can be rather divisive. On the one hand, Pliny the Younger called him “a man of an acute and lively genius, and his writings abound in both wit and satire, combined with equal candour,” though he added that he did not expect his poetry to be “immortal.” On the other hand, Lord Macauley wrote in a letter that “I wish he were less nauseous. […] Besides his indecency, his servility and his mendicancy disgust me.”

Of course, much the same could be said of Catullus, in whose tradition Martial followed. Like his predecessor, Martial is known for his short, often comical poems skewering fair-weather friends, the shallow rich, and promiscuous men and women, among other (mostly) deserving targets. However, he doesn’t work in obscenity and abuse quite as often as Catullus. Make no mistake, there is plenty of both in Martial’s Epigrams, but he was also more dependent on his patrons that Catullus was, and those patrons included the emperor Domitian. This is the “servility” that Lord Macauley referred to, and between the poems abusing Rome’s narcissists and cheapskates one finds others praising his rich patrons, and given the tone of the rest of the Epigrams one can’t help but question his sincerity in these.

Before going farther let’s take a look at one of his poems about his “friends,” translated by James Michie. This is from Book X, Epigram 15:

Crispus, you’re always saying you’re the friend
Who loves me best. But your behaviour offers
No evidence for it. When I asked, “Please lend
Five thousand,” you refused me though your coffers
Are crammed to bursting. And though fellaheen
Sweat on your profitable Nile estate
Have I had one ear of spelt from you, one bean?
Have you ever given me in the chilly season
A short-cut toga? Or sent silver-plate,
Even half a pound of it? I see no reason
Why I should count you as a friend – apart
From the informality with which you fart.

It makes one feel good about the brotherhood of Man to know that, in all times and all places, we can all agree that fart jokes are universally funny. You won’t find those in Virgil, by the way.…

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