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The Poets

December 29, 2010

The House on the Hill - A Villanelle

The villanelle is a poetic form that, aside from blank verse, that I consider to be one of the most difficult to handle. They consist of 19 lines that are broken up into five tercets and a concluding quatrain. Villanelles are usually done in iambic pentameter, but I’ve seen them done using several different types of meter (e.g. the poem considered here revolves around a trimeter).

The rhyme scheme is the most trying aspect of the poem: aba aba aba aba aba abaa. Seems somewhat simple on the surface, but it becomes exceedingly complicated due to the alternating refrain that weaves itself throughout the entire poem: aba aba aba aba aba abaa. Another way to write the structure is this: A1bA2 abA1 abA2 abA1 abA2 abA1A2 (where ‘A’ = the refrain).

As I mentioned in a previous post:

In other words, the first refrain (the first line) is repeated in lines 6, 12, and 18; while the second refrain (the third line) is repeated in lines 9, 15, and 19. Meanwhile, to add to the difficulty, the composer has to maintain 7 rhymed words on the one hand, 6 rhymed words on the other, while puzzling in the refrains so that the poem makes sense as the meaning of the refrains alternate ...

Below is a villanelle written by Edwin Arlington Robinson- one of the first villanelles I came across.

It is said that the poem is a bleak reflection on death and the seeming isolation that follows thereafter (apparently Robinson experienced the death of almost every immediate family member very early on). The ‘house’ may represent an actual house he grew up in as he experienced these tragedies, or, ‘house’ may very well be a euphemism for the Oak Grove Cemetery plot purchased for the family. What do you think?

Anyhow, here is that poem- enjoy the structure!



The House ong the Hill

They are all gone away,
The house is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.

Through broken walls and gray
The winds blow bleak and shrill:
They are all gone away.

Nor is there one today
To speak them good or ill:
There is nothing more to say.

Why is it then we stray
Around the sunken sill?
They are all gone away.

And our poor fancy-play
For them is wasted skill:
There is nothing more to say.

There is ruin and decay
In the House on the Hill
They are all gone away,
There is nothing more to say.

December 24, 2010

Mathew Arnold- Happy Birth Date


Like I said, December is a gorgeous month for poets. Earlier this month we had the 402nd anniversary of John Milton (my favorite poet), and the 180th anniversary of a woman whom I consider the most authentic poet ever, Emily Dickinson.

Today is the 188th anniversary of a great poet who I’ve known for a long time, Mathew Arnold (1822 -... 1888).

I was first inspired by this poet when, roughly three years ago, I read a poem that he scripted as a tribute to his father … the poem is call, Rugby Chapel.

The poem was written in 1857, when Arnold was 35 years old. I won’t lie, the poem’s long, but is well worth the read. If you don’t have the time to read it now (after all, it is Christmas Eve), set it aside and come back to it later- this is good literature, believe me.



****


Rugby Chapel

November, 1857

Coldly, sadly descends
The autumn - evening. The field
Strewn with its dank yellow drifts
Of wither`d leaves, and the elms,
Fade into dimness apace,
Silent; - hardly a shout
From a few boys late at their play!
The lights come out in the street,
In the school - room windows; - but cold,
Solemn, unlighted, austere,
Through the gathering darkness, arise
The chapel - walls, in whose bound
Thou, my father! art laid.

There thou dost lie, in the gloom
Of the autumn evening. But ah!
That word, gloom, to my mind
Brings thee back, in the light
Of thy radiant vigor, again;
In the gloom of November we pass`d
Days not dark at thy side;
Seasons impair`d not the ray
Of thy buoyant cheerfulness clear.
Such thou wast! and I stand
In the autumn evening and think
Of bygone autumns with thee.

Fifteen years have gone round
Since thou arosest to tread,
In the summer - morning, the road
Of death, at a call unforeseen,
Sudden. For fifteen years,
We who till then in thy shade
Rested as under the boughs
Of a mighty oak, have endured
Sunshine and rain as we might,
Bare, unshaded, alone,
Lacking the shelter of thee.

O strong soul, by what shore
Tarriest thou now? For that force,
Surely, has not been left vain!
Somewhere, surely, afar,
In the sounding labor - house vast
Of being, is practised that strength,
Zealous, beneficent, firm!

Yes, in some far - shining sphere,
Conscious or not of the past,
Still thou performest the word
Of the Spirit in whom thou dost live -
Prompt, unwearied, as here!
Still thou upraisest with zeal
The humble good from the ground,
Sternly repressest the bad!
Still, like a trumpet, dost rouse
Those who with half - open eyes
Tread the border - land dim
Twixt vice and virtue; reviv`st,
Succorest! - this was thy work;
This was thy life upon earth.

What is the course of the life
Of mortal men on the earth? -
Most men eddy about
Here and there - eat and drink,
Chatter and love and hate,
Gather and squander, are raised
Aloft, are hurl`d in the dust,
Striving blindly, achieving
Nothing; and then they die -
Perish; - and no one asks
Who or what they have been,
More than he asks what waves,
In the moonlit solitudes mild
Of the midmost Ocean, have swell`d,
Foam`d for a moment, and gone.

And there are some, whom a thirst
Ardent, unquenchable, fires,
Not with the crowd to be spent,
Not without aim to go round
In an eddy of purposeless dust,
Effort unmeaning and vain.
Ah yes! some of us strive
Not without action to die
Fruitless, but something to snatch
From dull oblivion, nor all
Glut the devouring grave!
We we have chosen our path -
Path to a clear - purposed goal,
Path of advance! - but it leads
A long, steep journey, through sunk
Gorges, o`er mountains in snow.
Cheerful, with friends, we set forth -
Then on the height, comes the storm.
Thunder crashes from rock
To rock, the cataracts reply,
Lightnings dazzle our eyes.
Roaring torrents have breach`d
The track, the stream - bed descends
In the place where the wayfarer once
Planted his footstep - the spray
Boils o`er its borders! aloft
The unseen snow - beds dislodge
Their hanging ruin; alas,
Havoc is made in our train!
Friends who set forth at our side,
Falter, are lost in the storm.
We, we only are left!
With frowning foreheads, with lips
Sternly compress`d, we strain on,
On - and at nightfall at last
Come to the end of our way,
To the lonely inn `mid the rocks;
Where the gaunt and taciturn host
Stands on the threshold, the wind
Shaking his thin white hairs -
Holds his lantern to scan
Our storm - beat figures, and asks:
Whom in our party we bring?
Whom we have left in the snow?

Sadly we answer: We bring
Only ourselves! we lost
Sight of the rest in the storm.
Hardly ourselves we fought through,
Stripp`d, without friends, as we are.
Friends, companions, and train,
The avalanche swept from our side.

But thou would`st not alone
Be saved, my father! alone
Conquer and come to thy goal,
Leaving the rest in the wild.
We were weary, and we
Fearful, and we in our march
Fain to drop down and to die.
Still thou turnedst, and still
Beckonedst the trembler, and still
Gavest the weary thy hand.

If, in the paths of the world,
Stones might have wounded thy feet,
Toil or dejection have tried
Thy spirit, of that we saw
Nothing - to us thou wast still
Cheerful, and helpful, and firm!
Therefore to thee it was given
Many to save with thyself;
And, at the end of thy day,
O faithful shepherd! to come,
Bringing thy sheep in thy hand.

And through thee I believe
In the noble and great who are gone;
Pure souls honor`d and blest
By former ages, who else -
Such, so soulless, so poor,
Is the race of men whom I see -
Seem`d but a dream of the heart,
Seem`d but a cry of desire.
Yes! I believe that there lived
Others like thee in the past,
Not like the men of the crowd
Who all round me to - day
Bluster or cringe, and make life
Hideous, and arid, and vile;
But souls temper`d with fire,
Fervent, heroic, and good,
Helpers and friends of mankind.

Servants of God! - or sons
Shall I not call you? because
Not as servants ye knew
Your Father`s innermost mind,
His, who unwillingly sees
One of his little ones lost -
Yours is the praise, if mankind
Hath not as yet in its march
Fainted, and fallen, and died!

See! In the rocks of the world
Marches the host of mankind,
A feeble, wavering line.
Where are they tending? - A God
Marshall`d them, gave them their goal.
Ah, but the way is so long!
Years they have been in the wild!
Sore thirst plagues them, the rocks,
Rising all round, overawe;
Factions divide them, their host
Threatens to break, to dissolve.
- Ah, keep, keep them combined!
Else, of the myriads who fill
That army, not one shall arrive;
Sole they shall stray; in the rocks
Stagger for ever in vain.
Die one by one in the waste.

Then, in such hour of need
Of your fainting, dispirited race
Ye, like angels, appear,
Radiant with ardor divine!
Beacons of hope, ye appear!
Languor is not in your heart,
Weakness is not in your word,
Weariness not on your brow.
Ye alight in our van! at your voice,
Panic, despair, flee away.
Ye move through the ranks, recall
The stragglers, refresh the outworn,
Praise, re - inspire the brave!
Order, courage, return;
Eyes rekindling, and prayers,
Follow your steps as ye go.
Ye fill up the gaps in our files,
Strengthen the wavering line,
Stablish, continue our march,
On, to the bound of the waste,
On, to the City of God.

December 22, 2010

Edwin Arlington Robinson*


Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869 – 1935)

Edwin Arlington Robinson was born on December 22, 1869, in Head Tide, Maine (the same year as W. B. Yeats). His family moved to Gardiner, Maine, in 1870, which renamed "Tilbury Town," became the backdrop for many of Robinson's poems. Robinson described his childhood as stark and unhappy; he once wrote in a letter to Amy Lowell that he remembered wondering why he had been born at the age of six. After high school, Robinson spent two years studying at Harvard University as a special student and his first poems were published in the Harvard Advocate.

Robinson privately printed and released his first volume of poetry, The Torrent and the Night Before, in 1896 at his own expense; this collection was extensively revised and published in 1897 as The Children of the Night. Unable to make a living by writing, he got a job as an inspector for the New York City subway system. In 1902 he published Captain Craig and Other Poems. This work received little attention until President Theodore Roosevelt wrote a magazine article praising it and Robinson. Roosevelt also offered Robinson a sinecure in a U.S. Customs House, a job he held from 1905 to 1910. Robinson dedicated his next work, The Town Down the River (1910), to Roosevelt.

Robinson's first major success was The Man Against the Sky (1916). He also composed a trilogy based on Arthurian legends: Merlin (1917), Lancelot (1920), and Tristram (1927), which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1928. Robinson was also awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his Collected Poems (1921) in 1922 and The Man Who Died Twice (1924) in 1925. For the last twenty-five years of his life, Robinson spent his summers at the MacDowell Colony of artists and musicians in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Robinson never married and led a notoriously solitary lifestyle. He died in New York City on April 6, 1935.

*Biography from Poets.org

December 16, 2010

Touch the Sky

Touch the Sky

A Poem in Gentle Dedication to Anne Sexton

She wants to walk the clouds aglow
To negate flesh and touch the sky
She thinks- I think- it’s bliss to die
To flee this sleepy earth below

It’s life, not death, she deems the foe
And earthen truths she deems the lie
She therefore towards the heavens ply
And goes where scarce others go

One wonders why she wishes so
Why she would walk where wrens would fly
The truth is that I don’t know why
The truth is … I don’t want to know

-jwm



Poetic Parameters

Stanza: Quatrain
Meter: Tetrameter (i.e. 8 syllables per line)
Rhyme Scheme: abba abba abba (Italian quatrain in repetition)

December 13, 2010

A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day


I read a poem during the summer that was beautiful: A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day. It was written by the English poet John Donne- a poet who I’ve heard of even before I had any interest in poetry.

The language of the poem was very intense- it spoke to me so deeply, so ‘metaphysically’, that I knew I had to share it in a post. Of course, I had to better understand the context within which it emerged before I could do so.


*****

Saint Lucy's Day, initially thought to be the shortest day of the year, is a day that celebrates the courageous sacrifice and martyrdom of a young woman by the hands of the Romans.

Story has it that, after having given herself completely over to God, when she refused to be given in marriage she was persecuted and threatened with prostitution. When these threats failed the Romans ceased her in order that they might throw her in a brothel- however, for a divine reason, they couldn’t move her. So, instead of condemning her to prostitution, they built a hearth around her, but the young lady’s body resisted even the flames. Finally, a Roman soldier took a sword and ran it through her throat.


*****

A nocturne usually refers to music- particularly ‘night music’ or something akin to lullabies. At first glance Donne seems to dedicate this poem to the memory of our martyr, but there are those that believe the poem speaks cryptically about his deceased wife who died at the terribly young age of 33 (childbirth).

Now if this is so, and clearly it may be, there may be aspects of the poem whose cryptic significance is beyond our scope, and symbols that are designed to portray his wife rather than our saint above.

Notwithstanding, even if this is the case, it doesn't do anything to diminish the artistic beauty of the poet's language. See for yourself ...

*****


A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day

'TIS the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world's whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd ; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness ;
He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death—things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
I, by Love's limbec, am the grave
Of all, that's nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown'd the whole world, us two; oft did we grow,
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death—which word wrongs her—
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest.
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all,
Since she enjoys her long night's festival.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's and the day's deep midnight is.


Side Notes

Lucy’s name, which ultimately derives from the Latin word for light (or lux) is said to signify a time when light manifests where darkness is its deepest- symbols I dearly adore.

There’s a tradition where a candle-wreath is worn on one’s head- this is supposed to signify the flames that couldn’t consume the flesh of the young martyr.


John Donne*


John Donne (1572 – 1631)

John Donne was born in 1572 in London, England. He is known as the founder of the Metaphysical Poets, a term created by Samuel Johnson, an eighteenth-century English essayist, poet, and philosopher. The loosely associated group also includes George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Andrew Marvell, and John Cleveland. The Metaphysical Poets are known for their ability to startle the reader and coax new perspective through paradoxical images, subtle argument, inventive syntax, and imagery from art, philosophy, and religion using an extended metaphor known as a conceit. Donne reached beyond the rational and hierarchical structures of the seventeenth century with his exacting and ingenious conceits, advancing the exploratory spirit of his time.

Donne entered the world during a period of theological and political unrest for both England and France; a Protestant massacre occurred on Saint Bartholomew's day in France; while in England, the Catholics were the persecuted minority. Born into a Roman Catholic family, Donne's personal relationship with religion was tumultuous and passionate, and at the center of much of his poetry. He studied at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities in his early teen years. He did not take a degree at either school, because to do so would have meant subscribing to the Thirty-nine Articles, the doctrine that defined Anglicanism. At age twenty he studied law at Lincoln's Inn. Two years later he succumbed to religious pressure and joined the Anglican Church after his younger brother, convicted for his Catholic loyalties, died in prison. Donne wrote most of his love lyrics, erotic verse, and some sacred poems in the 1590's, creating two major volumes of work: Satires, and Songs and Sonnets.

In 1598, after returning from a two-year naval expedition against Spain, Donne was appointed private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton. While sitting in Queen Elizabeth's last Parliament in 1601, Donne secretly married Anne More, the sixteen-year-old niece of Lady Egerton. Donne's father-in-law disapproved of the marriage. As punishment, he did not provide a dowry for the couple and had Donne briefly imprisoned. This left the couple isolated and dependent on friends, relatives, and patrons. Donne suffered social and financial instability in the years following his marriage, exacerbated by the birth of many children. He continued to write and published the Divine Poems in 1607. In Pseudo-Martyr, published in 1610, Donne displayed his extensive knowledge of the laws of the Church and state, arguing that Roman Catholics could support James I without compromising their faith. In 1615, James I pressured him to enter the Anglican Ministry by declaring that Donne could not be employed outside of the Church. He was appointed Royal Chaplain later that year. His wife, aged thirty-three, died in 1617, shortly after giving birth to their twelfth child, a stillborn. The Holy Sonnets are also attributed to this phase of his life.

In 1621 he became dean of Saint Paul's Cathedral. In his later years, Donne's writing reflected his fear of his inevitable death. He wrote his private prayers, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, during a period of severe illness and published them in 1624. His learned, charismatic, and inventive preaching made him a highly influential presence in London. Best known for his vivacious, compelling style and thorough examination of mortal paradox, John Donne died in London in 1631.

*Biography from Poets.org

December 10, 2010

Happy 180th Birthday, Emily Dickinson


What an incredible month for poetry December is … Milton's birthday celebrated yesterday, and today Dickinson (1830)! Awesome, awesome stuff!

Many people don’t know this about Emily Dickinson, but she composed roughly 1800 poems that almost nobody in the world knew about … her poetic life was essentially a secret, one that was lived- literally!- in solitude. This means, for me at any rate, that she loved poetry for poetry’s sake- and not for accolade, not for prestige, nor for honor, nor reputation or any of that! She, above any one I’ve come to know or study thus far, is what a poet ought to be.

Now anyone who knows me knows that Milton is my favorite poet, but I feel the truth of this statement deep, deep in my heart: I know of no other poet who is more authentic and more unique than Emily Dickinson. She is to poetry what Kierkegaard is to existentialism. I really, really love her and her works!

Happy birthday, Dickinson …


****

Poem 214: I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed

I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Frankfort Berries
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro' endless summer days –
From inns of molten Blue –

When "Landlords" turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove's door –
When Butterflies – renounce their "drams" –
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats –
And Saints – to windows run –
To see the Tippler
Leaning against the – Sun!

December 09, 2010

Happy 402nd Birthday, John Milton


Today is the 402nd anniversary of my favorite poet’s date of birth, John Milton. What I adore about this poet, apart from the magnitude of his genius, is how incredibly jammed-packed his works are with amazing imagery and details that revolve around the mythologies of several different civilizations. His knowledge of the classics is beyond reproach- not to mention that fact that he was completely blind when he composed his greatest work, Paradise Lost.

If you haven’t read Milton, I promise you you are missing out! Here … here’s a poem that he wrote called Light. The poem’s structure is based on blank verse (i.e. iambic pentameter that follows no rhyme scheme).

Enjoy- and happy birthday, Milton …


Light

HAIL holy light, ofspring of Heav'n first-born,
Or of th' Eternal Coeternal beam
May I express thee unblam'd? since God is light,
And never but in unapproached light
Dwelt from Eternitie, dwelt then in thee,
Bright effluence of bright essence increate.
Or hear'st thou rather pure Ethereal stream,
Whose Fountain who shall tell? before the Sun,
Before the Heavens thou wert, and at the voice
Of God, as with a Mantle didst invest
The rising world of waters dark and deep,
Won from the void and formless infinite.
Thee I re-visit now with bolder wing,
Escap't the Stygian Pool, though long detain'd
In that obscure sojourn, while in my flight
Through utter and through middle darkness borne
With other notes then to th' Orphean Lyre
I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night,
Taught by the heav'nly Muse to venture down
The dark descent, and up to reascend,
Though hard and rare: thee I revisit safe,
And feel thy sovran vital Lamp; but thou
Revisit'st not these eyes, that rowle in vain
To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;
So thick a drop serene hath quencht thir Orbs,
Or dim suffusion veild. Yet not the more
Cease I to wander where the Muses haunt
Cleer Spring, or shadie Grove, or Sunnie Hill,
Smit with the love of sacred song; but chief
Thee Sion and the flowrie Brooks beneath
That wash thy hallowd feet, and warbling flow,
Nightly I visit: nor somtimes forget
Those other two equal'd with me in Fate,
So were I equal'd with them in renown.
Blind Thamyris and blind Maeonides,
And Tiresias and Phineus Prophets old.
Then feed on thoughts, that voluntarie move
Harmonious numbers; as the wakeful Bird
Sings darkling, and in shadiest Covert hid
Tunes her nocturnal Note. Thus with the Year
Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of Ev'n or Morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or Summers Rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine;
But cloud in stead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the chearful waies of men
Cut off, and for the Book of knowledg fair
Presented with a Universal blanc
Of Natures works to mee expung'd and ras'd,
And wisdome at one entrance quite shut out.
So much the rather thou Celestial light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.

As of April 9th, 2010