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The Poets

July 31, 2009

Lull (November 1939): Roethke Poem

Lull
(November 1939)

The winds of hatred blow
Cold, cold across the flesh
And chill the anxious heart;
Intricate phobias grow
From each malignant wish
To spoil the collective life.
Now each man stands apart.

We watch opinion drift,
Think of our separate skins.
On well-upholstered bums
The generals cough and shift
Playing with painted pins.
The arbitrators wait;
The newsmen suck their thumbs.
The mind is quick to turn
Away from simple faith
To the cant and fury of
Fools who will never learn;
Reason embraces death,
While out of frightened eyes
Still stares the wish to love.

July 29, 2009

My Papa’s Waltz: Ambiguity in Poetry

Before reading the commentary, please read the poem first.




My Papa’s Waltz

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.


Of the Poem:

Ambiguity in poetry generally arises in three ways:
1. when we lack the context within which the poem was written
2. when we’re outside the vernacular of the poem or the poet
3. and, when we lack both the context of the poem along with its vernacular

My Papa’s Waltz is a strange poem to interpret. Its vernacular isn’t cryptic or remote, so it would seem any English reader could easily pick up the meaning it imparts. Its context, even if the poet hasn’t disclosed it to us elsewhere, essentially gives itself away. So the possibility of misunderstanding it, one would think, would be next to nonexistent.

That said, this poem has produced two schools of thought as to its meaning. On the one hand are those who believe the poem speaks of child abuse by an alcoholic father; on the other hand there are those who, while acknowledging the role alcohol plays, believe the poem to be a cherished childhood reflection of a boy waltzing with his dad who's slightly tipsy.

It is said by the latter group that the father may have been a kind of jolly drinker who comes home from work and (albeit clumsily) dances his boy to bed; the former group- citing examples from words like battered, knuckle, scraped, beat- think the poem clearly shows the father to be a mean drunk who rapaciously abuses his boy after a day of work.

Though seemingly simple, the poem does seem to contain a strong degree of ambiguity (otherwise this division of meaning wouldn't exist as it does). Looking at it under the microscope one can understand the arguments from both sides. One might even say- though I doubt the poet would- both sides are in a way correct.

*****

There seems little question that the poet speaks of himself. The use of past tense terminology (e.g. was not easy) seems to suggest 'presence' and reflection. Some of the details are too descriptive to not be actual memories (whiskey on your breath, battered on one knuckle, right ear scraped). These and other examples have led both schools of interpretation to the general conclusion that the boy in the poem is Roethke himself.

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy


This doesn’t require much hermeneutic prowess; that the father had been drinking whiskey there’s no question. Both schools would agree. What they might disagree on is how much and how drunk the father was. Also, since this is where the division of interpretation seems to occur, there's the question of how the alcohol affected his mood.

But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy

The advocates of a more peaceful poem would say the boy ran to his father and gripped his leg as he walks in the house. The term ‘death’ does not need to be a negative one, it may resemble phrases such as: 'hugged to death', 'tickled to death', etc. Because the father staggers as the boy holds on, the boy says that this “waltzing was not easy” (in much the same way a rollercoaster ride isn’t easy). The advocates of this position tend to believe the term waltz is a simple euphemism for the father’s disequilibrium.

Those who see a more cruel aspect in the poem believe the father jerked his boy about, that the boy, off balance perhaps, “hung on like death” (where death implies the boy’s state of fear). Obviously such violent 'waltzing' wouldn't be easy for anyone. The advocates of this position tend to believe the term waltz is a euphemism for conflict, in much the same way that the phase ‘let’s dance’ might mean ' let's fight'.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

Romping by definition is playing. Here the boy and his father carry on into the kitchen where some dishes are bumped into and, falling to the ground, provoke a mild annoyance in the mother’s looks. Then again, perhaps 'romp' is deliberately used as a poetic symbol, and the reason the pans fall and the reason the mother is frowning is precisely because the abuse and violence tears into the kitchen.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.


The third stanza is where the bulk of the said ‘violent images’ comes from. Terms like, held my wrist, battered, knuckle, ear scraped, buckle …. all these seem to indicate a violent struggle: the father grips the boy’s wrist to spank him with a belt; drunk, he looses his step and catches the boy with the belt’s buckle a few times. His battered hand? Perhaps from the struggle in the kitchen area?

Some say this is going overboard. Despite being slightly buzzed, the father dances lovingly with his boy. His battered hand? Perhaps from a half-stumble in the kitchen area? Perhaps from working? The point is that they’re dancing, and because the father keeps missing his beat (he’s buzzed remember) his buckle keeps bumping his son’s right ear.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.


The word ‘beat’ seems another violent potential. In fact, it would almost certainly mimic the escalation of a violent frenzy: The father grabs his boy about; the boy, clinging fearfully to the father’s shirt, is yanked around in the kitchen where dishes fall to the ground; next comes the belt (and inadvertently the belt's buckle) … finally, perhaps frustrated by his own disequilibrium, he discards the belt and takes up his hand, dragging the boy to his room (the boy still clinging fearfully to his father’s shirt). Sad, sad if true.

Again, some would blame that perspective for going overboard. It should be simple: The father comes home a little buzzed (not necessarily drunk, and certainly not mean); his boy runs and jumps and hug onto his leg; the father mimics a waltz perhaps, but being a little tipsy in the kitchen bumps some dishes to the ground (annoying mom and maybe battering a knuckle in the process); unable to maintain tempo he misses some steps which, as this happens, causes his belt buckle scratch his son’s ear; in his attempt to maintain tempo, the father pats the rhythm of the waltz on his son’s head (“you beat time on my head”), and literally waltzes his son to bed (the son lovingly still clinging to his shirt).

****

Brief Note on Hermeneutics:

Traditional hermeneutics pertains to the art of interpretation and is usually reserved for, and applied to, sacred texts. In our contemporary world the term has found itself at home in linguistics and the philosophy of language, where the question of interpretation isn’t limited to scripture, but includes such things as broad spectrum language, sign language, and even body language. Martin Heidegger applies the term to life itself, and would have us understand that without an ‘existential hermeneutic’ (of reality) human understanding would itself be impossible.

The problem in hermeneutics as linguists know it is that interpreting anything correctly depends entirely on an agreed system of terms and symbols so that a mutual vernacular is established. Where this lacks ambiguity lurks. So when we come across a poem written by a poet long gone who hasn’t disclosed the context within which the poem was written, misinterpretations give way.

That’s what I find here. We lack the knowledge of the true event that produced this poem, and the poet can’t lend us an answer. We seem left with a beautiful (maybe tragic) work that asks: What am I? Had the terms (particularly, for me anyhow, the term ‘romp’) been explained to the letter I suspect the apparent dichotomy of it would hardly exist- but then again, what would have become of the poem as poetry.

I’d love to know what your perspective of the poem was when it was first read by you. Where did you fall in the dichotomy of it? If it would help to hear the poem read, click on the link below- it is Roethke himself who does the reading (note his mood and inflection as he reads his own poem).

****

I’d like to acknowledge the New England Blog PoemShape for a great breakdown of My Papa's Waltz. Also, One Poet's Notes elaborates beautifully on this topic. Please, do check these blogs out.

July 27, 2009

Theodore Roethke*


Theodore Roethke (1908 – 1963)

Theodore Huebner Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan, the son of Otto Roethke and Helen Huebner, who, along with an uncle owned a local greenhouse. As a child, he spent much time in the greenhouse observing nature. Roethke grew up in Saginaw, attending Aurthur Hill High School, where he gave a speech on the Junior Red Cross that was published in twenty six different languages. In 1923 his father died of cancer, an event that would forever shape his creative and artistic outlooks. From 1925 to 1929 Roethke attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, graduating magna cum laude. Despite his family’s wish that he pursue a legal career, he quit law school after one semester. From there he spent 1929 to 1931, taking graduate courses at the University of Michigan and later the Harvard Graduate School. There he met and worked with fellow poet Robert Hillyer.

When the Great Depression hit Roethke had no choice but to leave Harvard. He began to teach at Lafayette College, and stayed there from 1931 to 1935. It was here where Roethke began his first book, Open House. At Lafayette he met Stanley Kunitz, who later in life, became a great support and friend. By the end of 1935 Roethke was teaching at Michigan State College at Lansing. His career there, however, did not last long. Roethke was hospitalized for what would prove to be a bout of mental illness, which would prove to be reoccurring. However the depression, as Roethke found, was useful for writing, as it allowed him to explore a different mindset.

By the time he was teaching at Michigan State Roethke’s reputation as a poet had been established. In 1936 he moved his teaching career to Pennsylvania State University, where he taught seven years. During his time there he was published in such prestigious journals as Poetry, the New Republic, the Saturday Review, and Sewanee Review. His first volume of verse, Open House, was finally published and released in 1941. Open House was favorably reviewed in the New Yorke, the Saturday Review, the Kenyon Review, and the Atlantic; W. H. Auden called it "completely successful." His first work shows the influence of poetic models such as John Donne, William Blake, Léonie Adams, Louise Bogan, Emily Dickinson, Rolfe Humphries, Stanley Kunitz, and Elinor Wylie, writers whose verse had shaped the poet's early imagination and style.

In 1942 Harvard asked Roethke to deliver one of their prestigious Morris Gray lectures. Then in 1943 he left Penn State to teach at Bennington College, where he met Kenneth Burke, whom he collaborated with. The second volume of Roethke's career, The Lost Son and Other Poems was published in 1948 and included the Greenhouse poems. Roethke described the glasshouse, in An American Poet Introduces Himself and His Poems in a BBC broadcast, on the 30th of July 1953, as "both heaven and hell.... It was a universe, several worlds, which, even as a child, one worried about, and struggled to keep alive."

He penned Open Letter in 1950, and explored eroticism and sexuality with I Need, I Need, Give Way, Ye Gates, Sensibility! O La!, and O Lull Me, Lull Me. He later wrote Praise to the End! in 1951 while at Washington University, and a telling Yale Review essay, How to Write Like Somebody Else in 1959. Roethke was awarded Guggenheim Fellowship in 1950, the Poetry magazine Levinson Prize in 1951, and major grants from the Ford Foundation and the National Institute of Arts and Letters the year after. In 1953 Roethke married Beatrice O'Connell, whom he had met during his earlier years at Bennington. The two spent the following spring honeymooning at W. H. Auden's villa at off the coast of Italy. There Roethke began editing the galley proofs for The Waking: Poems 1933-1953 which was published later that same year, and won the Pulitzer Prize the next year. It included major works such as Elegy for Jane and Four for Sir John Davies, which was modeled on Davies's metaphysical poem Orchestra.

During 1955 and 1956 the Roethke and his new wife traveled Europe, on a Fulbright grant. The following year he published a collection of works that included forty-three new poems entitled Words for the Wind, winning the Bollingen Prize, the National Book Award, the Edna St. Vincent Millay Prize, the Longview Foundation Award, and the Pacific Northwest Writer's Award for it. The new poems included his famous I Knew a Woman, and Dying Man. Roethke began a series of reading tours in New York and Europe, underwritten by another Ford Foundation grant.

While visiting with friends at Bainbridge Island in 1963, Washington, Roethke suffered a fatal heart attack. During the last years of his life be had composed the sixty-one new poems that were published posthumously in The Far Field in 1964--which received the National Book Award--and in The Collected Poems in 1966.

*Biography (with edit) from PoemHunter

July 19, 2009

Narcissus*


Narcissus

He viewed afoot a silv’ry lake
And took himself to take a drink-
Then beauty moved his thirsting soul,
As there he bent above the brink.

No mortal flesh this seemed to he
Who marveled at its dear design-
Behold, a face beheld him back,
Whose symmetry was pure divine!

Handsome was the heav’nly sight
That rip’ling lay within the clear;
He touched his finger to its cheek
And wavelets had it disappear.

When agitation placid came
He dared- from love- new love embrace;
But wading through the wat’ry void
Disturbed the beauty of its face.

Again it came, again he touch’d;
Again the figure fluctuates.
Lamenting there aside that bank
He cursed himself and all the Fates:

“What awful light is cast below
That tells me what I see is I:
The boy within the shimm’ring gleam,
‘Tis me, O wretch’d me- but why?”

Then Nemesis who linger’d there,
With fatal judgment in her vest,
Remorseless cast the final lot
Which grew despairing in his breast.

Bereft of love’s requited touch
He pounded moans upon his chest,
And stagg’ring ‘mongst the wind’d reeds
There came by Nyx eternal rest.

His deathbed there’s a thing of woe,
A cautionary tale some fear:
The Naiads, Dryads- all the Nymphs,
Warn self-love grows a flower there.

-jwm


*See comments area for brief background to the poem.

God in the Quad: A Knox Limerick


What’s interesting about the philosopher and bishop George Berkeley is his ontological proof for the existence of God. According to the bishop things have being only insofar as they’re perceived- that tree, this child, that can of corn … all these literally owe their existence to being perceived by one of my five senses. That screen, those letters, and presumably that cup of coffee your holding would have absolutely no existence were it not for your perceiving them this very second.

In fact, according to Berkeley, we can hardly validate the existence of anything without immediate reference to one or more of the senses.

Think about it: Can you prove your neighbor across the way exists at this very moment without the use of one of these senses? Memory doesn’t count- these are images of your neighbor in the past. A quick phone call doesn’t work- your using a sense: hearing. For all accounts and purposes, your neighbor simply doesn’t exist .

What a strange world Berkeley would have us in: things entering and exiting our perceptions (that is to say, entering and exiting existence itself, having being one moment and non-being the next). How can this be? Berkeley has a solution.

If things owe their existence to being perceived, and cannot logically pop in and out of existence based on our perceiving them one moment and not the next, then how do we account for their existence apart from our perception of them? Berkeley’s answer is that there’s an Infinite Perceiver, namely God.

Things exist independently from their being perceived by one another because God perceives them all from an infinite perspective.

Therefore, and perhaps to your grief, your neighbor does exist; when you walk out of the room you can be assured that that coffee cup you set down will still be there when you return, since a Higher Perception keeps it from plunging into non-being.

This is the approach taken by Berkeley to show how God might exist within the parameters of a logical system of 'empirical' philosophy. He means to impart to us the possibility of an ontological proof based ever so strickly on our perceptions as sentient beings (hence his partial classification as an empirical philosopher, as strange as that may be).

With that said, this blog site is not dedicated to philosophy- it dedicates itself to poetry. Berkeley’s principle of perception, existence and God are presented here because his ideas are expressed beautifully (and philosophically) in a limerick written by Monsignor Ronald Knox : God in the Quad.

Here's that limerick below:

God in the Quad

There was a young man who said "God
Must find it exceedingly odd
To think that the tree
Should continue to be
When there's no one about in the quad."

Reply:
"Dear Sir: Your astonishment's odd;
I am always about in the quad.
And that's why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God."


Of the Poem:

Here in our poem a quad is essentially the courtyard of a campus, or a quadrangle thereof.

The word Limerick comes from the name of a town in Ireland, and limericks as a poetic form are said to have emerged there (but this is far from certain). What is certain is that they were made popular by Edward Lear's Book of Nonsense.

The subject matter of limericks by tradition is usually risqué, next-to inappropriate, and commonly humorous.

A stanza consists of five lines whose rhyme scheme is AABBA. Lines 1, 2, and 5 usually have seven to ten syllables, while lines 3 and 4 will usually have five to seven.

One of the most popular limericks is Hickory Dickory Dock.

About our limerick above, do you remember this question: If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? This poem, along with our bishop, contends that God always perceives the tree, and that therefore anything it does- even crashing to the ground- is being observed. Therefore yes, the tree is heard.

July 12, 2009

When the Frost is on the Punkin


James Whitcomb Riley, a man who had a hand in bringing Dunbar to wider recognition of the American literary culture, is another poet whose works are almost all in dialect.

Here’s a further example of a poem done in dialect. As you read it keep in mind that Riley was born and raised in Greenfield, Indiana (hence the nickname: the Hoosier Poet). The Old National Road cut right through Indiana and brought many visitors across the boy's path, so much so that he acquired an ability to 'read' the dialect of where these visitors were from. I'm quite certain this bore influence on his works.


When the Frost is on the Punkin

WHEN the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin' turkey-cock,
And the clackin' of the guineys, and the cluckin' of the hens,
And the rooster's hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;
O, it's then the time a feller is a-feelin' at his best,
With the risin' sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.

They's something kindo' harty-like about the atmusfere
When the heat of summer's over and the coolin' fall is here—
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossoms on the trees,
And the mumble of the hummin'-birds and buzzin' of the bees;
But the air's so appetizin'; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur' that no painter has the colorin' to mock—
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.

The husky, rusty russel of the tossels of the corn,
And the raspin' of the tangled leaves as golden as the morn;
The stubble in the furries—kindo' lonesome-like, but still
A-preachin' sermuns to us of the barns they growed to fill;
The strawstack in the medder, and the reaper in the shed;
The hosses in theyr stalls below—the clover overhead!—
O, it sets my hart a-clickin' like the tickin' of a clock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.

Then your apples all is gethered, and the ones a feller keeps
Is poured around the cellar-floor in red and yaller heaps;
And your cider-makin's over, and your wimmern-folks is through
With theyr mince and apple-butter, and theyr souse and sausage too!...
I don't know how to tell it—but ef such a thing could be
As the angels wantin' boardin', and they'd call around on me—
I'd want to 'commodate 'em—all the whole-indurin' flock—
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.

An Easy Goin' Feller: Poem In Dialect (Dunbar)


Paul Laurence Dunbar is one of the most widely known- and probably one of the best- poets to write in dialect. My favorite poem of his is without qualification The Poet and His Song (a poem written in Standard English), yet every time I read one of his dialect poems (or any such poem for that matter) I’m always moved in a way that doesn’t happen with Standard English reads.

Both have their beauty, but poems in dialect seem to me to impart an apperception of culture that poems in grammatically correct English cannot. It is in this sense that I feel poems in dialect are prettier and more interesting. (Don't get me wrong, almost all of my favorite poems are in 'correct' syntax.)

I don’t know quite yet if I have a favorite dialect poem done by Dunbar, but I find this one below delightful (not to mention its message is good).


An Easy Goin' Feller

Ther' ain't no use in all this strife,
An' hurryin', pell-mell, right thro' life.
I don't believe in goin' too fast
To see what kind o' road you've passed.
It ain't no mortal kind o' good,
'N' I would n't hurry ef I could.
I like to jest go joggin' 'long,
To limber up my soul with song;
To stop awhile 'n' chat the men,
'N' drink some cider now an' then.
Do' want no boss a-standin' by
To see me work; I allus try
To do my dooty right straight up,
An' earn what fills my plate an' cup.
An' ez fur boss, I'll be my own,
I like to jest be let alone,
To plough my strip an' tend my bees,
An' do jest like I doggoned please.
My head's all right, an' my heart's meller,
But I'm a easy-goin' feller.

July 11, 2009

Paul Laurence Dunbar*


Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872 to 1906)

Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first African-American poet to garner national critical acclaim. Born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1872, Dunbar penned a large body of dialect poems, standard English poems, essays, novels and short stories before he died at the age of 33. His work often addressed the difficulties encountered by members of his race and the efforts of African-Americans to achieve equality in America. He was praised both by the prominent literary critics of his time and his literary contemporaries.

Dunbar was born on June 27, 1872, to Matilda and Joshua Dunbar, both natives of Kentucky. His mother was a former slave and his father had escaped from slavery and served in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Calvary Regiment during the Civil War. Matilda and Joshua had two children before separating in 1874. Matilda also had two children from a previous marriage.

The family was poor, and after Joshua left, Matilda supported her children by working in Dayton as a washerwoman. One of the families she worked for was the family of Orville and Wilbur Wright, with whom her son attended Dayton's Central High School. Though the Dunbar family had little material wealth, Matilda, always a great support to Dunbar as his literary stature grew, taught her children a love of songs and storytelling. Having heard poems read by the family she worked for when she was a slave, Matilda loved poetry and encouraged her children to read. Dunbar was inspired by his mother, and he began reciting and writing poetry as early as age 6.

Dunbar was the only African-American in his class at Dayton Central High, and while he often had difficulty finding employment because of his race, he rose to great heights in school. He was a member of the debating society, editor of the school paper and president of the school's literary society. He also wrote for Dayton community newspapers. He worked as an elevator operator in Dayton's Callahan Building until he established himself locally and nationally as a writer. He published an African-American newsletter in Dayton, the Dayton Tattler, with help from the Wright brothers.

His first public reading was on his birthday in 1892. A former teacher arranged for him to give the welcoming address to the Western Association of Writers when the organization met in Dayton. James Newton Matthews became a friend of Dunbar's and wrote to an Illinois paper praising Dunbar's work. The letter was reprinted in several papers across the country, and the accolade drew regional attention to Dunbar; James Whitcomb Riley, a poet whose works were written almost entirely in dialect, read Matthew's letter and acquainted himself with Dunbar's work. With literary figures beginning to take notice, Dunbar decided to publish a book of poems. Oak and Ivy, his first collection, was published in 1892.

Though his book was received well locally, Dunbar still had to work as an elevator operator to help pay off his debt to his publisher. He sold his book for a dollar to people who rode the elevator. As more people came in contact with his work, however, his reputation spread. In 1893, he was invited to recite at the World's Fair, where he met Frederick Douglass, the renowned abolitionist who rose from slavery to political and literary prominence in America. Douglass called Dunbar "the most promising young colored man in America."

Dunbar moved to Toledo, Ohio, in 1895, with help from attorney Charles A. Thatcher and psychiatrist Henry A. Tobey. Both were fans of Dunbar's work, and they arranged for him to recite his poems at local libraries and literary gatherings. Tobey and Thatcher also funded the publication of Dunbar's second book, Majors and Minors.

It was Dunbar's second book that propelled him to national fame. William Dean Howells, a novelist and widely respected literary critic who edited Harper's Weekly, praised Dunbar's book in one of his weekly columns and launched Dunbar's name into the most respected literary circles across the country. A New York publishing firm, Dodd Mead and Co., combined Dunbar's first two books and published them as Lyrics of a Lowly Life. The book included an introduction written by Howells. In 1897, Dunbar traveled to England to recite his works on the London literary circuit. His national fame had spilled across the Atlantic.

After returning from England, Dunbar married Alice Ruth Moore, a young writer, teacher and proponent of racial and gender equality who had a master's degree from Cornell University. Dunbar took a job at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. He found the work tiresome, however, and it is believed the library's dust contributed to his worsening case of tuberculosis. He worked there for only a year before quitting to write and recite full time.

In 1902, Dunbar and his wife separated. Depression stemming from the end of his marriage and declining health drove him to a dependence on alcohol, which further damaged his health. He continued to write, however. He ultimately produced 12 books of poetry, four books of short stories, a play and five novels. His work appeared in Harper's Weekly, the Sunday Evening Post, the Denver Post, Current Literature and a number of other magazines and journals. He traveled to Colorado and visited his half-brother in Chicago before returning to his mother in Dayton in 1904. He died there on Feb. 9, 1906.

*Biography from AfroPoets.Net

July 08, 2009

No Second Troy: A Yeats Poem


Edith Maud Gonne, who was born in England, would eventually acquire anti-British sentiments through the influence of Lucien Millevoye, a French political activist. Her revolutionary spirit would thrust her into the midst of the Irish independence movement. William Butler Yeats came to love her dearly, so much so that on a few occasions he asked her hand in marriage- Maud declined all of them. In fact, and to Yeats’ grief, she married Major John MacBride (an Irish nationalist).

Maud’s rejection of his proposals, her nationalistic tendencies and the men that these tendencies attracted (coupled with the pressing and climatic tension between Ireland and Britain), produced in our poet a series of reflections that ultimately found expression in the following poem:


No Second Troy

WHY should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great.
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?


Of the Poem:

The poem seems to be divided into two parts: lines 1 through 5 deal more in the empirical realm (from emotional pain to political defiance and out rage), while lines 6 through 12 veer off into the ethereal- and apocalyptic- world of ancient Troy and its Helen.

WHY should I blame her that she filled my days / With misery describes the pain of Yeats’ unrequited love.

that she would of late / Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways refers to Irish nationalists drawn to both her beauty and her nationalistic tendencies. That Yeats refers to them as ‘ignorant’ implies Maud’s intelligence.

My favorite line of the poem is: Or hurled the little streets upon the great, where ‘little streets’ is a reference to Irish nationalists and commoners rising up against the strength of a great British Empire. Yeats, it seems, has little confidence that the level of what they desire- an autonomous Ireland- would be met by an equal level of courage, hence the line: Had they but courage equal to desire.

Lines 6 through 10: Yeats exalts his would-be love by etherealizing her as above what he condemns in his own time (not natural in an age like this / Being high and solitary), and predicates upon her qualities of a goddess (peaceful, nobleness, beauty), even a warrior goddess (fire, like a tightened bow, most stern).

His language between lines 6 and 12 is suddenly one of allusions, memories and ideas that the earily Greeks would have known. He continues in line 11 with an allusion to Fate and Necessity, two ideas most certainly known by ancient Greeks, when describing her actions as being necessitated by her character (those attributes mentioned through lines 6 and 10): what could she have done, being what she is ...

Then comes- once again with Yeats- an apocalyptic consideration, a consideration which seems to me to be a synthesis of the empirical and ethereal tones of the poem as a whole: Was there another Troy for her to burn. In one breath Yeats refers to both Helen of Troy and 'Maud of Ireland’- where Ireland, another Troy, is set ablaze by a large and formidable foe (the fate of ancient Tory).

What I love about this poem is that it expresses so much- more than I dare attempt to touch on here- in just a few lines. Poets that do this (and do it well) leave me staggering in awe.

To know a poem in its context, even if vaguely, makes it so much more interesting and beautiful. Yeats would write notes and little comments about the works he produced; because he did this, some of his poems-poems that would normally be too remote for me to ‘feel’- have become some of my favorite to read and know. Context is a pretty thing.

July 03, 2009

The World Within

I wrote this sonnet a little over a year ago. Though the temptation to edit its content is still with me, it's my favorite poem (perhaps because it was my first sonnet).


WE EMERGED on earth from eternal skies
Whose nursing root is our efficient cause,
Where the song of angelic whistle flies
And all its creation to God gives pause.

Yet we shun the thought of internal land-
Boastful and clinging to our thistled plots;
The refrains of heaven we cannot stand-
Content without Him in our wayward lots.

What is the world without heaven within,
Or Eden’s flowery patch void of scent?
Weep when you hear the serpent’s violin,
And weep when reprobates cannot repent.

But rejoice if your own feeble heart weeps,
Since it is awake, even though it sleeps.

-jwm

As of April 9th, 2010