Everything is Oll Korrect!

An eclectic bibliophile's journal…

Category: 100 Friends (100 Poems 100 Poets)

Nineteenth Friend: Thomas Randolph, “Upon his Picture”

Thomas Randolph was born in 1605 and was another member of the Tribe of Ben. I normally like to write a little about our friends’ “day jobs,” but unfortunately Randolph died young, at twenty-nine years old in 1635. Fortunately, he did see a good deal of success in his own lifetime primarily as a dramatist but also as a poet, as one would expect of a friend of Ben Jonson and his circle, and many expected him to eventually become poet laureate. His short life had its other excitements, though; my personal favourite poem of his is “Upon the Loss of his Little Finger,” which loss occurred during a fight in a tavern.

Those interested in American history may be interested to know that he also has a tangential connection to our country as the uncle of William Randolph, the influential Virginian colonist.

In any case, like some other poems of this era we’ve covered I don’t think “Upon his Picture” requires a great deal of explanation. It’s just solid, classic English poetry:

When age hath made me what I am not now,
And every wrinkle tells me where the plow
Of time hath furrowed; when an ice shall flow
Through every vein, and all my head wear snow;
When death displays his coldness in my cheek,
And I myself in my own picture seek,
Not finding what I am, but what I was,
In doubt which to believe, this or my glass:
Yet though I alter, this remains the same
As it was drawn, retains the primitive frame
And first complexion; here will still be seen
Blood on the cheek, and down upon the chin;
Here the smooth brow will stay, the lively eye,
The ruddy lip, and hair of youthful dye.
Behold what frailty we in man may see,
Whose shadow is less given to change than he!

The main, ironic thrust of the poem is clear enough.

The first half of the poem feels very cold, with its “snow,” “ice,” “coldness,” and “glass” (specifically meaning a mirror, in this case). I would’ve expected to see more warm imagery in the second half for contrast, but he doesn’t do that. Even the imagery he does use isn’t very vivid; “blood on the cheek,” “smooth brow,” “lively eye,” “ruddy lip,” and “hair of youthful dye.”

Whether this is a weakness per se, I’m not sure. It does make the picture, the imitation of his younger self, less of a focus than the narrator’s older self.

Of course, there’s also the notable irony to this poem aside from the contrast between his mirror and his painting. Randolph here speaks speculatively of “When age hath made me what I am not now,” but unfortunately he did not live to see old age, a great loss to his friends and to the world of English poetry.…

Continue Reading →

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.…

Continue Reading →

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.…

Continue Reading →

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.

 …

Continue Reading →