Our next acquaintance is with John Donne, who lived about a century before Alexander Pope, having been born in 1572 and passing away in 1631, and like Pope his family’s Catholic faith caused him some trouble early in his life. Interestingly, his mother was a direct descendent of St. Thomas More, and though he was able to study at Oxford and Cambridge, he couldn’t receive a degree there because his religion prevented him from swearing a required oath of allegiance to Queen Elizabeth. Unfortunately, he did not have More’s constancy, and after traveling in Italy and Spain for a few years, left the Church and became an Anglican sometime while working as a secretary for Sir Thomas Egerton. Disappointing, but I won’t doubt his sincerity given his reputation among those who knew him. He would eventually join the Anglican priesthood, despite feeling himself unworthy, after years of urging from his friends and even from King James I. He did suffer about ten years of hardship, though, because of his relationship with Anne More, who he secretly married because he knew he wouldn’t receive her father’s permission, which in those days was career suicide.…
After our brief visit in Japan, we come home to the English-speaking world to see one of our most famous poets, Mr. Alexander Pope. Though he did achieve financial stability and a good reputation during his lifetime as a respected poet and accomplished translator, his early life was difficult due to health problems (specifically, turberculosis of the spine, as well as being trampled by a cow as a child). Also, he was born in 1688, the same year as the “Glorious” Revolution, so he and his family were subject to the anti-Catholic legislation passed shortly afterward. For example, he was barred from attending university and so had to make due as an autodidact. This doesn’t seem to have held him back too much intellectually, though, and so he should serve as an inspiration for autodidacts everywhere.
The poem I’ve memorised is actually a selection from a longer work, An Essay on Criticism, but it’s probably the most famous part of that essay:
Well, we have the rhymed couplets that Mr. Pope is known for. This form was very common at the time but has long since fallen out of fashion, which honestly is fine with me since they’re a little boring. Also, they made this selection oddly more difficult than I expected – rhymes make memorisation easier in general, and memorising the couplets was simple enough, but each stands almost on its own, so the hard part was tying them all together in one unit and in the right order. In other words, rhymes help one to form sets of lines into “chunks,” so for example a rhyme scheme of abba gives you a four-line chunk. Unfortunately, couplets give a set of a mere two lines.
In any case, the poem itself is relevant to all autodidacts like Mr. Pope. When we study anything of substance, it’s easy and tempting to settle for a merely surface-level understanding of the subject. However, this is a dangerous attitude to take. We come away with a few facts, but no real understanding, and what facts we have are easily confused or forgotten. To quote another author, Bl. John Henry Newman, “Confused, inaccurate knowledge is no knowledge. It is the very fault we find with youths under education that they use words without meaning, that they are wanting in precision and distinctness, that they are ignorant of what they know and what they do not know.” I’ve covered some similar thoughts from Cardinal Newman previously.
I thought this would be an appropriate poem to cover early on because, as discussed in the introductory post, the best way to “drink largely” when attempting to understand a poem is to commit it to memory. So, whether you’re joining me in the study of poetry or if you’ve taken on another subject, remember to “Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring!”…
The first friend we’re making in the Hundred Friends project is Fujiwara no Masatsune, a Japanese poet and editor who lived 1170-1221. His picture and this poem is on the card to the right, and you can read a little more about both over here, if you like.
As I mentioned in the introductory post, this will mostly be an English project, but since the idea came from the Japanese anthology Hyakunin Isshu, I thought it would be appropriate to begin with a poem from that collection. This is the ninety-fourth poem in that book, and in Mostow’s translation goes like this:
the autumn wind in its mountains
deepens the night and
in the former capitol, cold
I hear the fulling of cloth…
Two years ago, I wrote about an excellent little book called the Hyakunin Isshu, a Medieval Japanese poetry anthology of one hundred poems, specifically five-line tanka, each by a different poet. At the time, I started wondering if, perhaps, I could memorise that many poems. If that sounds overly ambitious, keep in mind that this is something people actually do for a game called “karuta,” which is a card-matching game based around the poems. So, it’s certainly feasible, but I’m unsure about memorising the Hyakunin Isshu specifically. As much as I love the book, I do like some poems more than others, and besides, I’d like to write about the experience as I go. Each of the hundred poems, though, has already been covered, and covered very well, at this excellent blog.
Besides, as much as I admire Japan, I’m also a good patriot and so do ultimately prefer the literature of my own people. Could I make an English Hyakunin Isshu? The idea has stuck with me this long, and after memorising a couple of poems recently I remembered how much I enjoy doing this. So, after floating the idea on Twitter, I’ve decided to go ahead with this project.
Now, the closest equivalent to tanka we have would be the sonnet, but I soon decided to branch out a bit. I’m going to be spending a lot of time with these poems, and putting together a hundred of these was already a challenge, so though the sonnet would ultimately be well represented, I’m not restricting the list to them.
Regarding language and the poets’ countries of origin, I consider this an English project, though I also included a few Frenchmen since, contrary to what geographers may tell you, Britain is not an island, as well as one Japanese as a nod to the project’s origin. Furthermore, since this is supposed to be a set of standards, I was generally conservative in my selections; some of these are very well-known, almost cliché. That’s fine, because they deserve their reputation, and one benefit from this project will be a greater familiarity with the most notable poems in the language. Several of these are the types that make one think, “Oh, so that’s where that saying comes from!”
I prioritised poets from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, though the ultimate range is quite broad and other eras are well represented. Of course, some worthy poets are left out simply because I didn’t have room, or they didn’t have any suitable poems. A few of these are already quite a bit longer than is probably wise.
Me being me, I also favoured Cavaliers over Puritans, and Southerners over Yankees.
I should mention that I did get quite a bit of help in selecting these poets, as one can see from this thread where I announced the project. Joshua Jennings, always trustworthy in literary matters, contributed the most, but I also received suggestions from Arthur Ownby, Testis Gratus, Amy Mellein, Egon Maistre, and Fredrik Andréasson. Ezra Pound’s book ABC of Reading provided several of these, as well.
I am including some poems I’ve already memorised, so I do have a head start. Still, I’m unsure how long this will take. My goal will be one or two poems per week, but they vary so wildly in length that it’s hard to predict how this will go. Nonetheless, when it comes to reciting poetry, my ability is second only to Humpty Dumpty.
One final note, for those wondering about the “hundred friends” title. It comes from a comic called Chihayafuru, which is based on the karuta card game mentioned above and is how I first learned of both the game and the poems. I wrote about it a few years ago. In any case, when the protagonist first begins with the game and has to memorise all of the poems, her coach tells her to think of it as making a hundred new friends. The metaphor between a poem or poet and a friend is one that has stuck with me. As one can imagine, there’s no better way to really learn and understand a poem than to commit it to memory. Beyond that, though, there’s a deeper connection that’s difficult to describe, but it’s just what Confucius was getting at when he encouraged his students to study the Book of Odes, because the poems “will stimulate your emotions, broaden your observation, enlarge your fellowship, and express your grievances.” Some of my posts on these poems will be longer than others; some may offer a bit of analysis, others will basically just be “here’s a poem I think is worthwhile,” but I hope to be able to explain this better as we go on.
I also hope to encourage you to make some new friends of your own.…