Category: 100 Friends (100 Poems 100 Poets)

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”

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”

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”

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”