Poetry Peek : Wordsworth Wrap-up

I must say I have thoroughly enjoyed my foray with Wordsworth.  I enjoy his accessible style which has done much to absolve my apprehensions about investigating poetry.  I love the subjects that he explores; nature, childhood, imagination, memory.  Those are all things that resonate with me.

In addition to the poems that I commented on, I also read Ode: Intimations of Immortality, in which Wordsworth mourns the loss of his childhood as he questions why he was once able to see the divine in nature but lost that ability as he grew up.  I went through a similar period during my early to mid-twenties.  The moon peeking through the cracks in my blinds or a clear starlit night just didn’t ignite the same exuberance it once did.      I would sometimes sit next to a pond or gaze up at the stars trying to will those feelings back.  I wondered, what is wrong?  I quite literally felt like I was losing a part of myself.  I guess in a way I was.  I wonder what I would have thought of Wordsworth’s Ode back then.  I think I might have felt a kinship with him.  At the very least,  I wouldn’t have felt so alone in my experience.  And maybe, just maybe, I would have found solace in his ability to be consoled by memory.  That thought is reflected in one of my favorite passages that I’ve read from Wordsworth so far:

What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
               Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
                      We will grieve not, rather find
                      Strength in what remains behind;
                      In the primal sympathy
                      Which having been must ever be;
                      In the soothing thoughts that spring
                      Out of human suffering;
                      In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

Just as Wordsworth discovered in Tintern Abbey that his emotions had been replaced by thoughts, I experienced the same.  Though to be honest, I wasn’t able to fully articulate that until I read these poems.   A full moon, or a walk through the leaves, or the high pitched hum of crickets filling the air might not bring the flood of emotions that were present when I was younger, but those emotions have been replaced by thoughts and by reflections. Growth brings knowledge of more sobering things, so those thoughts aren’t always jovial, but still deep.  I’ve learned to find beauty in that too.

~~~~~

My first poetry peek has consumed a bit more of my time than I had anticipated.  I’m not sure if that will continue as I proceed, but if it does, that’s okay.  I strive to go beyond simply reading the poems.  I want to become familiar with them.  I want to get to know these poets well enough to begin recognizing their unique styles and subjects.  In my posts I mention things like # of stanzas and rhyme scheme, which might seem obvious and redundant to more experienced readers; but my hope is that those acknowledgements will help me to become more familiar with poetic forms, meters, and rhythms.  My hope is to discover poetry, and maybe a little something about myself.

I will close this little peek at Wordsworth with a few pictures that I found.  Enjoy.

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Dove Cottage : Wordsworth's home, which is now a museum that is open to visitors

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A distant view of the Village of Grasmere, where Dove Cottage is located

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Where Wordsworth is said to have composed some of his poetry - near Rydal Hall

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logoFeedback and suggestions are always welcome.

My Next Peek : Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Poetry Peeks : Wordsworth Part III – Resolution and Independence

Resolution and Independence (click to read) is a lyric poem, or a song-like poem that expresses personal or emotional feelings.  Apparently it was a standard form in the Middle Ages.  Wordsworth’s poem from 1802 contains 20 stanzas each with 7 lines following an a-b-a-b-b-c-c rhyme scheme.

In short, the subject concerns a wanderer’s chance meeting with a leech-gatherer and it’s based on an actual encounter of Wordsworth’s near his home in Grasmere.

The poem opens with the wandering poet’s description of a blissful pastoral scene;

All things that love the sun are out of doors;
The sky rejoices in the morning’s birth;
The grass is bright with rain-drops;—on the moors
The hare is running races in her mirth;
And with her feet she from the plashy earth
Raises a mist, that, glittering in the sun,
Runs with her all the way, wherever she doth run.
Yet, the poet’s feelings do not match his surroundings.  He is not enveloped in the beauty of the natural world, but instead is agonizing over the “vain and melancholy” ways of men.
As high as we have mounted in delight
In our dejection do we sink as low;
To me that morning did it happen so;
And fears and fancies thick upon me came;
Dim sadness—and blind thoughts, I knew not, nor could name.
The wanderer continues to sink in his sad thoughts as in the 7th stanza he reflects on poets who have died, poets whose youth began in gladness, only to “come in the end despondency and madness.”  
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When the wandering poet first encounters the leech-gatherer he describes the man as “old and poor” as he observes him looking down at the muddy water “As if he had been reading in a book.”  The man relates his life of gathering leeches but as he does so the wanderer is distracted as his thoughts drift back to fear, unfulfilled hopes, to pain and labor.  Feeling “perplexed and longing to be comforted,” the poet asks the leech gatherer to begin again, “How is it that you live, and what is it you do?”
He with a smile did then his words repeat;
And said that, gathering leeches, far and wide
He travelled; stirring thus about his feet
The waters of the pools where they abide.
“Once I could meet with them on every side;
But they have dwindled long by slow decay;
Yet still I persevere, and find them where I may.”
Though his profession is lowly, the poet finds in the leech gatherer a strength to endure.  Wordsworth describes gathering leeches as “hazardous and wearisome.” To add a little weight to that I looked up exactly what leech gathering entailed.  Leeches were gathered for medicinal purposes as they were used in blood letting.  It’s not unusual to think that Wordsworth would encounter such a person, as the Lake District where he resided was known to be a particularly prosperous region.  The gatherer mentions having to travel “far and wide;” as leeches were being exported by the millions their population was indeed on the decline, making the search for them even more tedious and toilsome.  The gatherers would sometimes use animals to attract them but more often they would use their own legs, allowing the leeches to latch on.  As a result, they frequently suffered from blood loss as the wounds incurred from the leeches could continue to bleed for hours after they were extracted.  Knowing that adds considerable power to Wordsworth’s mention of the gatherer responding to the poet “cheerfully.”
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The leech-gatherer, unlike the poet, had adapted both his lifestyle and his expectations in order to reach a level of acceptance.  In the end, the poet’s resolve to remember the man with “so firm a mind” demonstrates that one can learn from the commonest of men and from those whose lives and experiences are very different from one’s own.

Poetry Peeks : Wordsworth Part II – The Lucy Poems

If you missed part one you can find it HERE.  In that post I explained my new feature “Poetry Peeks,” introduced my first poet, William Wordsworth, and commented on his poem Tintern Abbey.

The next set of poems that I read are collectively known as “The Lucy Poems,” a series of 5 poems (4 of which were included in Lyrical Ballads) that revolve around the death of a young female character called Lucy.  There is some debate surrounding the origins of Lucy and whether she is based upon a real person or resided only in Wordsworth’s imagination.  One theory is that the poems spawned from Wordsworth’s depression over a prolonged separation from his friend Coleridge while he was living in Germany.  Coleridge was either back home in England or in anther part of Germany (I’ve read both, not sure which is correct).   In any case, Wordsworth and Coleridge were accustomed to daily conversation and contact so the separation resulted in loneliness coupled with homesickness for Wordsworth who also grew to miss his native England.

Wordsworth never commented directly on who or what inspired the Lucy poems so it’s been left entirely to speculation.

Strange fits of passion have I known

Strange fits of passion have I known :

And I will dare to tell, 

But in the Lover’s ear alone,

What once to me befell.

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When she I loved looked every day

Fresh as a rose in June,

I to her cottage bent my way,

Beneath an evening moon.

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Upon the moon I fixed my eye, 

All over the wide lea;

With quickening pace my horse drew nigh

Those paths so dear to me.

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And now we reached the orchard-plot;

And, as we climbed the hill, 

The sinking moon to Lucy’s cot

Came near, and nearer still. 

.

In one of those sweet dreams I slept,

Kind Nature’s gentlest boon!

And all the while my eyes I kept 

On the descending moon.

.

My horse moved on; hoof after hoof

He raised, and never stopped:

When down behind the cottage roof,

At once, the bright moon dropped.

.

What fond and wayward thoughts will slide

Into  a Lover’s head!

‘O mercy!’ to myself I cried,

‘If Lucy should be dead!’

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This is the first of the poems, written in 1799.  It is a 7 stanza ballad with each stanza containing 4 lines following the a-b-a-b rhyme scheme.  In the poem the natural procession of the setting of the moon parallels Lucy’s descent from health to sickness and death.  When she is “Fresh as a rose in June,” the moon is high in the sky.  When she’s dying in her cot, the moon is sinking.  And it drops out of the sky completely at her death.

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She dwelt among the untrodden ways

She dwelt among the untrodden ways

Beside the springs of Dove,

A Maid whom there were none to praise

And very few to love:

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A violet by a mossy stone

Half hidden from the eye!

–Fair as a star, when only one 

Is shining in the sky.

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She lived unknown, and few could know

When Lucy ceased to be;

But she is in her grave, and, oh

The difference to me!

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This is probably the most well known of of the series.  When I read it, I immediately recognized it as a poem that I studied in college but I didn’t remember a thing about it.  It is comprised of three quatrains (or three stanzas with 4 lines each).  Fitting with Wordsworth’s “language of the common man” the words are simple, most just one syllable.  Like Strange Fits of Passion, it follows the style of a ballad, or a straightforward simply told story.

Three Years She Grew in Sun and Shower (click to read) highlights how nature’s responses can clash and offset each other with the use of opposing words in close succession, such as “sun and shower,” “law and impulse,” “earth and heaven,” “glade and bower,” “kindle and restrain.” Perhaps this speaks to Nature imparting not only life but also death. It reminds me a bit of Hardy, who, in The Mayor of Casterbridge ends a scene by saying that “all terrestrial conditions were intermittent” or in other words that states of nature are temporary.  A bucolic scene of blissful beauty one day might be transformed into one that is “raging loud” the next.

Each of the poems connects Lucy’s state with some aspect of nature as well as the interplay between man and nature.The shortest of the poems, A slumber did my spirit seal, also speaks of being connected to nature even in death and becoming a part of nature’s cyclic course.  When Lucy dies, she’s said to have:

“Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,

With rocks and stones and trees.”

The last of the Lucy series, I travelled among Unknown Men, makes only a brief mention of Lucy and wasn’t included in Lyrical Ballads.  This poem definitely seems to make the case for the poems reflecting Wordsworth’s homesickness as he makes direct mention of his longing for England.

I travelled among unknown men, 
In lands beyond the sea;
Nor, England! did I know till then
What love I bore to thee.
.
Tis past, that melancholy dream!
Nor will I quit thy shore 
A second time; for still I seem
To love thee more and more.
.
Among thy mountains did I feel
The joy of my desire;
And she I cherished turned her wheel
Beside and English fire.
.
Thy mornings showed, thy nights concealed,
The bowers where Lucy played;
And thine too is the last green field
That Lucy’s eyes surveyed.
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In the end, the poet stays connected with Lucy also through nature, by looking on the land that she looked upon.  In keeping with the line, “Nor will I quit thy shore,” upon Wordsworth’s return from Germany he vowed never to live abroad again.  And he didn’t.  He lived out the remainder of his days in Grasmere, dying of a lung inflammation in April of 1850.

These poems are haunting in their simplicity.  Though there’s the common thread of nature and man’s relationship with nature, the Lucy poems feel very different from the others that I’ve read from Wordsworth thus far.  They are more succinct and feel more stark and somber in their use of nature to point to the inevitability and finality of human mortality.

~

logoStay tuned for more.  I’m not finished with Wordsworth yet!

Introducing Poetry Peeks : and a first look at William Wordsworth

As many of you know, over the course of this year I’ve been reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  As that exploration draws to a close, I’ve commenced to thinking (and discussing with a few of you) about who / what I should delve into next.  I couldn’t seem to decide on just one poet and as I know relatively little about poetry in general I decided that a better course of action might be to embark on a broad survey of poetry.  So . . .

Each week for an undetermined amount of time, I will be taking a peek at various poets.

I settled upon “Poetry Peeks” as the title of my ongoing feature because I do not intend for my explorations to be anything close to comprehensive.  They will quite literally be peeks into the lives and crowning achievements of selected poets.  Along the way I will be aided by Harold Bloom’s The Best Poems of the English Language, which I’m using to guide me in my selection.

My hope is to post weekly, but I can’t promise that.  I’m not going to rush through the poems just to publish once per week, so my postings will occur as I complete each little study.

I anticipate that my writings will be very much in the style of my personal commonplace book; mostly notes and things that I want to remember supplemented with my own personal remarks.

Without further ado, a first peek at . . .

William Wordsworth

I began with William Wordsworth because I read that he is considered the father of modern poetry. From what I understand Wordsworth was among the first to deviate from the lavish style and lofty diction of Victorian poetry. He believed that poetry should be accessible to the common man and should therefore be written in common language.  (I’ll come back to this thought when I comment on Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads)

Wordsworth was born in 1770 in Cumberland, England – near what is known as the Lake District.  His mother died when he was the tender age of 8, and his father followed just 5 years later.  He became not only an orphan but estranged from his beloved sister, Dorothy.  Though Wordsworth’s youth was marked by tragedy and heartache, his natural surroundings were beautiful and this had an impact on his life and came through in his poetry.  

Wordsworth had a rather unexceptional stint at Cambridge, most notably marked by a walking tour of France, Switzerland, and Italy during one of his summer vacations.  He later returned to France to live for a year during which time he fell in love with a French woman (Annette) and fathered a daughter.  With tensions rising between France and England, Wordsworth was forced to leave them behind and return to England.  The years after his return have been cited as a time of great emotional turbulence for Wordsworth.  He would not see Annette or his daughter again until 1802, an absence of nearly 10 years.

Painting by Benjamin Haydon

In 1795 Wordsworth met Samuel Taylor Coleridge who would become his best friend and with whom he would compose the masterwork of Romantic poetry, Lyrical Ballads.  I began my study of Wordsworth with a reading of his famous “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, in which he ruminates about the purpose of his work and about the meaning and pursuit of poetry in general.  I must say, this was the perfect essay to excite my interest in reading poetry.  His thoughts are so simple and eloquent.  I highly recommend a reading of this essay.  It is an essential source of insight into Wordsworth’s (and Coleridge’s) poetry but it also stands alone as it encapsulates some beautiful thoughts on the plight of the poet.

In it he states that the subsequent poems in Lyrical Ballads will be defined by the “real language of men” and “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”

The following passage conveys Wordsworth’s concern for the elevation of the ordinary which seems to me to carry a hint of the anti-Romantic, or at the very least goes a step beyond the exotic sublimity of Romanticism.

“The principal object, then, proposed in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men, and at the same time, to throw over them a certain coloring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect;”

Other Notable Passages from the Preface

“Humble and rustic life was generally chosen, because in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity, and consequently, many be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated;”

“What is a Poet?  . . . He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind; a man leased with his own passions and volitions, and who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the Universe, and habitually impelled to create them where he does not find them, to these qualities he has added a disposition to be affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present;”

“Poetry is the image of man and nature.”

“The Man of science seeks truth as a remote and unknown benefactor; he cherishes and loves it in his solitude: the Poet, singing a song in which all human beings join with him, rejoices in the presence of truth as our visible friend and hourly companion.  Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science. “

“In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs; in spite of things silently gone out of mind, and things violently destroyed; the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time.”

“Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge–it is as immortal as the heart of man.”

Tintern Abbey

The first of Wordsworth’s poems that I read was the one known as Tintern Abbey.  (At this point, I should note that for longer poems such as this one I am not going to paste the entire text here but I’ll make every effort to link to where the poem can be read in its entirety. )  The poem was composed and published in 1798 and is written in blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter.

The subject concerns a real location, an abbey that was built in 1131 and abandoned in 1536, so Wordsworth looked upon ruins just as we would today.   The location was also a source of inspiration for Tennyson and J.M.W. Turner, among others.  Wordsworth first visited the abbey in 1793.  Five years elapsed between his first and second visits and in his poem he reflects on the “boyish days” of his first visit and the impact that the natural environment has had on him, as well as the memories and thoughts that it evokes.

He begins with a description of the landscape, making mention of the lofty cliffs and orchard tufts with their unripe fruit, the hedge rows and the trees. But he quickly reminds us that it’s not the landscape by itself that is important:

“These beauteous forms, 

Through a long absence, have not been to me

As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:

But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din

Of towns and cities, I have owed to them

In hours of weariness, sensations sweet, 

Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;”

I understood this to mean that Wordsworth’s memories were more emotional than visual, more sentimental than sensory.  However, even though his memories are emotional, the experience of nature in his youth was purely tactile and visual.  This contrast calls to mind thoughts on experience vs. memory.

“Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first

I came among these hills; when like a roe

I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides

Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,

Wherever nature led:”

He continues;

“The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,

Their colours and their forms, were then to me

An appetite; a feeling and a love,

That had no need of a remoter charm,

By thought supplied, nor any interest

Unborrowed from the eye.”

From these passages I glean that the younger Wordsworth didn’t need to think lofty thoughts in order to reap joy from the natural world.  He required nothing more than the physical, tangible experience of nature.  The older Wordsworth, however, is more contemplative, nature begins to speak for him something larger, something grander, something deeper.

“For I have learned

To look on nature, not as in the hour

Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes 

The still, sad music of humanity,”

~

This is a very personal poem about a very specific and personal experience, and yet it speaks to something more universal and collective, that of experience and memory.  When we’re young we tend not to philosophize about what we encounter, we just experience it.  One might say that youth is about being in the moment and adulthood (or maturity) is about reflecting on those moments, letting them sink ever more inward, and deriving meaning from what we have seen, experienced, and heard.  For Wordsworth, this meant finding meaning in nature.

When I first read Tintern Abbey I felt an affinity with Wordsworth’s ideas and perceptions of nature but found them difficult to articulate.  I still do.  I feel the truth of what he expresses in ways that I can’t find words for.  Incidentally, I started reading Emerson the day after I finished my exploration of Wordsworth  and in his essay on Nature I came across thought after thought which seemed to coincide with Wordsworth’s notions.  He says, “all natural objects make a kindred impression when the mind is open to their influence.” Wordsworth’s meadows and woods and mountains had an influence beyond the beauty that meets the eye.

I have found that reading Emerson follows Wordsworth’s poetry perfectly.  Also fitting with the ideas in this poem, Emerson relates,

“Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind.”  

Wordsworth too connected nature with emotion.

Perhaps my lack of words isn’t so unusual as Emerson further imparts,

“We know more from nature than we can at will communicate.”

~

logoI’m going to break there for now.  My notes on Wordsworth have proven to be quite lengthy.  Therefore, I’ve divided my posting into what will hopefully be a more readable format.  Next, I’ll be commenting on “The Lucy Poems” followed by Resolution and Independence, Ode, and The Prelude.

As always, comments and suggestions are much appreciated.

O Captain! My Captain! – OR – How Walt Whitman Saved Me

When I was in 11th grade, I took a drama class as one of my electives.  As I was a rather reserved kid, this really threw me out of my comfort zone.  I mostly loved drama class, though I probably approached it with a bit more seriousness than it required – as I did with most things in those days.  Early in the year, we had a public speaking unit during which we recited short pieces revolving around different themes, such as prose, poetry, humor, etc.  I typically chose my pieces well in advance and practiced the hell out of them – to the point of over-rehearsing every pause, every inflection (hence the seriousness, spontaneous I was not).

There was, however, one exception . . .

On the eve of my poetry piece, I had selected no poem and didn’t have so much as a single book of poetry in my possession. This was before the “internet in every home” phenomenon, so with no other options, I stood in front of my father’s library of moldy books and began to pull volumes off the shelf.  One by one I would flip through them and one by one I would despairingly return them to their spot on the shelf. Eventually I realized that I was starting to pull the same books off the shelf over and over again.  I started to panic; and then I started to sneeze.  Most of these books hadn’t been touched since they were bought so I had stirred up quite a bit of dust in my search.  My dad had a sizable collection, but as I soon learned, these were mostly decorative antique volumes by obscure authors, none of them poets!

It was hopeless; but I kept yanking books off the shelf anyway.  What else was I going to do?  It was getting late and I started to plot how I could arrive at school early and beg to be let into the library.  I was just about to give up and go to bed when I found a tattered book of short stories for young boys.  As I flipped through the pages, I discovered that between every story there was a POEM!!  And where there was a poem, there was HOPE!!  A glimmer of beautiful, glorious hope!  Until I started to read the poems anyway.  Most of them were ridiculously simple verses with even simpler rhymes about things like balls and bikes and fishing lures.  Ugh.

Towards the end of the book, I reached a poem entitled O Captain! My Captain! My heart started to race.   As my red, allergen-infested eyes glanced over the words, I could feel hope welling up within me again.  After the first reading, I knew this was a poem I could respectably perform without being laughed out of the room.  After the second reading, I could feel the emotion, the expression, the sheer power behind the words.

At the time, I had no idea that the author of that poem was a well known poet.  I had never heard of Walt Whitman.  My drama instructor must have assumed that I knew because she made no mention of it.  I didn’t realize it until years later, when I studied Whitman in a college poetry class.  What I had thought was just an obscure verse in a yellowed and tattered book for boys was actually a famous poem by a great American bard!

And that is how Walt Whitman saved me.

*****

The poem is actually a metaphor for Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, with the “Captain” representing Lincoln.  The “ship” refers to the United States and the “fearful trip” alludes to the Civil War.

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O Captain! My Captain!

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O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is

won,

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;

But O heart! heart! heart!

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

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O Captain! my captain! rise up and hear the bells;

Rise up – for you the flag is flung – for you the bugle trills,

For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths – for you the shores

a-crowding,

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

Here Captain! dear father!

This arm beneath your head!

It is some dream that on the deck,

You’ve fallen cold and dead.

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My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and

done,

From feartul trip the victor ship comes in with object won;

Exult O shores, and ring O bells!

But I with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

*****

Christopher Marlowe and Sir Walter Raleigh: Two Love Poems

I’m thinking of doing a weekly or bi-weekly poetry feature but I want to try it on first and see if I will keep it up before I declare it a regular thing.  As the year is over half gone, I’m already thinking about a poetry project for next year, something similar to this year’s Whitman project.  I haven’t decided whether I’d like to focus on one poet, one movement, or perhaps work my way through an anthology such as Harold Bloom’s The Best Poems in the English Language.  I’m hoping that a light exploration of poetry from now until the year’s end will help me to decide.  As usual, thoughts and suggestions are welcome.

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marlowe imageChristopher Marlowe was a poet of the Elizabethan era, is known for his blank verse, and has been called the father of the English tragedy.  He was born in Canterbury in England.  The exact date of his birth is unknown but it’s possible that his birth and that of Shakespeare’s are as little as two months apart.  He received a degree from Corpus Christi College in 1584.  He is most remembered for his plays, particularly Dr. Faustus, about a doctor who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for power, but he is also responsible for translating Ovid’s Amores.

The following poem, The Passionate Shepherd to His Love, written in 1599, is one of the earliest examples of pastoral poetry in England.  It is comprised of seven stanzas, in iambic tetrameter (most simply described to me as da-DUM / da-DUM / da-DUM / da-DUM – amounting to eight syllables total), each with two rhyming couplets.

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love

 

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods or steepy mountain yields.

 

And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals. 

 

And I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;

 

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;

 

A belt of straw and ivy buds,
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my love.

 

The shepherds’ swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.

_______________________

raleigh imageAbout one decade later, Sir Walter Raleigh composed a response to Marlowe entitled The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.  The naivety of Marlowe’s poem becomes apparent alongside Raleigh’s, who was clearly more jaded.

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The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd

 

If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherd’s tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee and be thy love.

 

Time drives the flocks from field to fold
When rivers rage and rocks grow cold,
And Philomel becometh dumb;
The rest complains of cares to come.

 

The flowers do fade, and wanton fields
To wayward winter reckoning yields;
A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy’s spring, but sorrow’s fall.

 

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten
In folly ripe, in season rotten.

 

Thy belt of straw and ivy buds,
Thy coral clasps and amber studs,
All these in me no means can move
To come to thee and be thy love.

 

But could youth last and love still breed,
Had joys no date nor age no need,
Then these delights my mind might move
To live with thee and be thy love.


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Excerpt: Leaves of Grass – A Glimpse -

A glimpse through an interstice caught,

Of a crowd of workmen and drivers in a bar-room around the

. . . . . stove late of a winter night, and I unre-

. . . . .mark’d seated in a corner,

Of a youth who loves me and whom I love, silently approach-

. . . . .ing and seating himself near, that he may

. . . . .hold me by the hand,

A long while amid the noises of coming and going, of drink-

. . . . .ing and oath and smutty jest,

There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking lit-

. . . . .tle, perhaps not a word.

Excerpt: Leaves of Grass

Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances

 

OF the terrible doubt of appearances,
Of the uncertainty after all—that we may be deluded,
That may-be reliance and hope are but speculations 
         after all,
That may-be identity beyond the grave is a beautiful 
         fable only,
May-be the things I perceive—the animals, plants, men,
         hills, shining and flowing waters,
The skies of day and night—colors, densities, forms— 
         May-be these are, (as doubtless they are,) only 
         apparitions, and the real something has yet to be 
         known; 
(How often they dart out of themselves, as if to con-
         found me and mock me!
How often I think neither I know, nor any man knows,
         aught of them;)
May-be seeming to me what they are, (as doubtless 
         they indeed but seem,) as from my present point 
         of view—And might prove, (as of course they 
         would,) naught of what they appear, or naught 
         anyhow, from entirely changed points of view; 
—To me, these, and the like of these, are curiously 
         answer’d by my lovers, my dear friends; 
When he whom I love travels with me, or sits a long 
         while holding me by the hand,
When the subtle air, the impalpable, the sense that 
         words and reason hold not, surround us and 
         pervade us,
Then I am charged with untold and untellable wisdom 
         —I am silent—I require nothing further,
I cannot answer the question of appearances, or that 
         of identity beyond the grave; 
But I walk or sit indifferent—I am satisfied,
He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me.

 

-Walt Whitman

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Whitman logo

Phillis Wheatley: America’s First African American Author

old south meeting houseIn early May I had the opportunity to travel to Boston and while there I became intrigued by writer, Phillis Wheatley.  I first saw a statue of her in the Old South Meeting House and learned that she was America’s first African American writer and poet. Her likeness is preserved at Old South because she was a member and baptized there at age 17.

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Her story is a remarkable one.

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Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley’s life began in western Africa; it is guessed that she was born in 1754. The only memory that she put in writing of her childhood in Africa is one of her mother waking to pour water before sunrise.  As a small child Phillis was kidnapped, brought to America on a slave ship called The Phillis, and bought at age 7 by John Wheatley of Boston.  Years later, she would capture the experience in her poem, To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth;

I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate

Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:

What pangs excruciating must molest,

What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?

Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d

That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:

Such, such my case. And can I then but pray

Others may never feel tyranic sway?

She was educated by Wheatley’s oldest daughter, Mary, and learned to read in just over a year.  By age 12, she was reading Greek and Latin classics and was said to enjoy the poetry of Alexander Pope.  This was obviously an unconventional education for a slave, but also for a female.  Wheatley’s academic achievements rivaled any boy her age.  She wrote her first poem at age 13.

She would go on to write just over 50 poems and publish a book of poetry in London, a first for an African American.  In 1775, she wrote To His Excellency General Washington.  It was published by Thomas Jefferson in the Pennsylvania Gazette and Wheatley sent the poem to George Washington accompanied by this letter;

Sir,
I have taken the freedom to address your Excellency in the enclosed poem, and entreat your acceptance, though I am not insensible of its inaccuracies. Your being appointed by the Grand Continental Congress to be Generalissimo of the armies of North America, together with the fame of your virtues, excite sensations not easy to suppress. Your generosity, therefore, I presume, will pardon the attempt. Wishing your Excellency all possible success in the great cause you are so generously engaged in. I am,

Your Excellency’s most obedient humble servant,
Phillis Wheatley
1776

Washington received the letter at the height of the turbulent Revolution, and yet found the time to compose a personal response.  On February 28, 1776 from his quarters at Longfellow House in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he penned the following note;

Mrs. Phillis,
Your favour of the 26th of October did not reach my hands ’till the middle of December. Time enough, you will say, to have given an answer ere this. Granted. But a variety of important occurrences, continually interposing to distract the mind and withdraw the attention, I hope will apologize for the delay, and plead my excuse for the seeming, but not real neglect.

I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me, in the elegant Lines you enclosed; and however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyrick, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents. In honour of which, and as a tribute justly due to you, I would have published the Poem, had I not been apprehensive, that, while I only meant to give the World this new instance of your genius, I might have incurred the imputation of Vanity. This and nothing else, determined me not to give it place in the public Prints.

If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near Head Quarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favoured by the Muses, and to whom Nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations.

I am, with great Respect

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In 1772, Wheatley would go to trial to defend her literary abilities the face of those who believed a slave could not be capable of such poetic heights.  She was scrutinized by the likes of John Hancock and Thomas Hutchison (then governor of Massachusetts).  They concluded that the poems were most certainly from her mind and being.  In the years following, her work would be cited as evidence that an African American was just as intellectually capable as any white man or woman.

Though Wheatley exalted the Revolution in her poetry, times were hard for poets.  The chaotic days of war didn’t leave much time for idle thought and contemplation of even the most elegant verse.    This confined Wheatley to a life of poverty even after she was freed upon the death of John Wheatley in 1778.

Granary Burying Ground

John Wheatley, Phillis' owner, is buried at the Granary Burying Ground in Boston. The location of Phillis Wheatley's remains are unknown.

With health complications of her own, Phillis died at the young age of 31, followed, within a few hours, by the death of her infant daughter.  The location of her remains is unknown, but her legacy is long-lasting.

In conclusion, a poem by Phillis Wheatley, America’s first African American author:

To S.M., A Young African American Painter, on Seeing His Works

 To show the lab’ring bosom’s deep intent,

And thought in living characters to paint,

When first thy pencil did those beauties give,

And breathing figures learnt from thee to live,

How did those prospects give my soul delight,

A new creation rushing on my sight!

Still, wondrous youth! each noble path pursue;

On deathless glories fix thine ardent view:

Still may the painter’s and the poet’s fire,

To aid thy pencil and thy verse conspire!

And may the charms of each seraphic theme

Conduct thy footsteps to immortal fame!

High to the blissful wonders of the skies

Elate thy soul, and raise thy wishful eyes.

Thrice happy, when exalted to survey

That splendid city, crowned with endless day,

Whose twice six gates on radiant hinges ring:

Celestial Salem blooms in endless spring.

Calm and serene thy moments glide along,

And may the muse inspire each future song!

Still, with the sweets of contemplation blessed,

May peace with balmy wings your soul invest!

But when these shades of time are chased away,

And darkness ends in everlasting day,

On what seraphic pinions shall we move,

And view the landsapes in the realms above!

There shall thy tongue in heavenly murmurs flow,

And there my muse with heavenly transport glow;

No more to tell of Damon’s tender sighs,

Or rising radiance of Aurora’s eyes;

For nobler themes demand a nobler strain,

And purer language on the ethereal plain.

Cease, gentle Muse! the solemn gloom of night

Now seals the fair creation from my sight.

Meandering: Whitman, Art, and a Question

image of bookI recently completed the brief biography simply titled, Walt Whitman, written by David Reynolds.  Reynolds puts forth concise biography that retains  a broad scope.  He touches on the logistics of Whitman’s life, his family, and the economic, cultural, and societal climate in which Whitman lived.  Beyond the logistics, Reynolds delivers a succinct explanation of the various things that inspired Whitman in writing his poetry – from politics, theater, and art,  to science, sex, and religion.  All of this serves as a good foundation and provides a springboard for delving deeper into the life and times of one of America’s greatest poets.

Regarding theater, in his own words, Whitman said that he spent his youth “absorbing theaters at every pore.”  As he grew older he became very theatrical in his day-to-day interactions, often “spouting” portions of Shakespeare with all manner of dramatics while walking the streets or riding the ferry.  Whitman also admired noteworthy lecturers and orators.  He confessed to a friend that he once desired to be a great orator, saying;

. . . I was to be an orator–to go about the country spouting my pieces, proclaiming my faith. . . I thought I had something to say–I was afraid I would get no chance to say it through books: so I was to lecture and get myself delivered that way.”

Apparently Whitman’s voice projection did not lend itself to being a great orator, but of course, Whitman  found his “voice” with poetry, which interestingly does have an oratorical quality to it.  Whitman remained passionate about oratory and his admiration for it is reflected in this excerpt:

O the orator’s joys!

To inflate the chest, to roll the thunder of the voice out from the

ribs and throat,

To make people rage, weep, hate, desire, with yourself,

To lead America–to quell America with a great tongue”

Whitman’s poetry contains numerous references to the philosophic, the spiritual, and the scientific. Reading about the sciences and pseudo-sciences that appealed to Whitman was intriguing!  For Whitman, the mystical and the scientific sat well together, as is implied by the inclusion of both in his poetry.  He looked to philosophy and religion to fill in the gaps left by science.  He did not believe in the exclusivity of any religion but embraced and celebrated them all.

All of those topics made for fascinating reading but I was perhaps most captivated by the chapter on the visual arts, in which Reynolds points to specific paintings and sculptures  that may have influenced his poetry.

The following are a few examples along with parallel excerpts from Whitman’s poems:

The Trapper’s Bride

image of painting

1850 - Alfred Jacob Miller

I saw the marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west, the bride was the red girl,
Her father and his friends sat near cross-legged and dumbly smoking, they had moccasins to their feet and large thick blankets hanging from their shoulders,
On a bank lounged the trapper, he was dressed mostly in skins, his luxuriant beard and curls protected his neck, he held his bride by the hand,
She had long eyelashes, her head was bare, her coarse straight locks descended up her voluptuous limbs and reached to her feet.

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Shooting for the Beef

image of painting

1850 - George Caleb Bingham

The western turkey-shooting draws old and young, some lean on their
rifles, some sit on logs,
Out from the crowd steps the marksman, takes his position, levels his piece;

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Cotopaxi

1862 - Frederic Edwin Church

Whitman expounded on the effects of light in poems like the one below, A Prairie Sunset.  So it is not unreasonable that he may have also felt an affinity with certain luminist painters such as Fredric Edwin Church.

Shot gold, maroon and violet, dazzling silver, emerald, fawn,
The earth’s whole amplitude and Nature’s multiform power consign’d for once to colors;
The light, the general air possess’d by them-colors till now unknown,
No limit, confine- not the Western sky alone- the high meridian- North, South, all,
Pure luminous color fighting the silent shadows to the last.

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I enjoy learning what artists think and believe about their own work in addition to the intention of art in general.  The artists that Whitman admired were the ones who, like him, depicted and elevated the ordinary, the everyday, the commonplace.  Yet, he felt that there was something lacking in American art during his time.  While paintings such as these were picturesque and relevant to the common people, they were also complacent. He felt that art should include “heroic actions, especially revolutionary or subversive ones. (Reynolds, p.72)”  As Reynolds relates, Whitman “regarded art as a means of refining and elevating the masses.”  His dream was that society could be reformed by art.

 

I admire both Whitman’s idealism and ambition with this idea.   My own thoughts about what art should embody and project are somewhat pliant.  I do not have a background in art and my approach is very much learn as you go. I also appreciate George Eliot’s perspective, when she expressed, “If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.”

My inclination is to view the visual arts in the same way that I do literature.  It should be enjoyable on some level, yes, but I don’t look to literature for a diversion or to be entertained.  I want something with substance.  I want something that makes me feel awake and alive, alters my perspective, shakes my perceptions, and makes me ask questions, or do more research.  I want to read literature that is an expression of humanity, history, and ideas.

I want to read literature that has a pulse.

Of course, all of that is highly individualistic.  Though I admire Whitman for his stance, I’m not so sure that societies on a grand scale can be reformed or elevated through art.

What do you think?

The Brittanica Online Encyclopedia defines art as “the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others.”  Is it okay if art is merely aesthetically pleasing, or demonstrates a beyond-proficient use of a certain technique or skill — or should art communicate something more?

Any thoughts?

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