Category Archives: Literature

Having this day my horse


De arte Athletica, Paulus Hector Mair, 1540, From Wikipedia

Jousting was already somewhat archaic by the late sixteenth century, seen as a remnant of an older age and not particularly valued by the court of Queen Elizabeth I, but one of the iconic poets of her reign, Philip Sidney, wrote a rather good poem about it:

Having this day my horse, my hand, my lance 

Guided so well that I obtain’d the prize, 

Both by the judgment of the English eyes 

And of some sent from that sweet enemy France; 

Horsemen my skill in horsemanship advance, 

Town folks my strength; a daintier judge applies 

His praise to sleight which from good use doth rise; 

Some lucky wits impute it but to chance; 

Others, because of both sides I do take 

My blood from them who did excel in this, 

Think Nature me a man of arms did make. 

How far they shot awry! The true cause is, 

Stella look’d on, and from her heav’nly face 

Sent forth the beams which made so fair my race.

If there is something anachronistically medieval about Sidney’s poem, in other respects it was very modern. Though the late-medieval / early Renaissance Italians Petrarch and Dante had written their poetry over 200 years earlier, the Renaissance was just getting into swing in England, and Sidney with other poets like Spenser, following the Henrican Poets Wyatt and Howard, was instrumental in bringing the their influence into English poetry. Part of that influence was formal – the form used here is an English adaptation of the Italian form made popular by Petrarch, the sonnet. Part of that influence was stylistic – subtle rhythms, long complex lines, far-fetched metaphors and analogies. And another part of that influence was in subject matter and tone: a tendency towards platonic idealization and the overriding theme of a suitor trying to win the favour of a – usually quite unattainable – woman, the latter a theme the Italian poets had inherited from the troubadour tradition of early medieval Europe. The centre of the troubadour and romance tradition was of course France rather than Italy, and perhaps Sidney is aware of this in the way he values the praise of the French and designates England’s great rivals with the memorable epithet “sweet enemy”.

In this poem, Sidney proves his masterly command of the sonnet. Sidney’s sentences, you’ll notice, are long. The first 11 lines, for example, are composed of one long sentence (or four sentences connected by semi-colons, depending on your definition of a sentence, but they were probably put there by later editors anyway), as Sidney describes his success at the jousting and the competing theories as to why he was successful. At the same time as he balances all those carefully arranged clauses, he is maintaining a mildly modulated iambic pentameter, and a strict rhyme scheme. Not easy.

It is quite fitting that a poem so masterful in its command of language should be boasting of the poet’s (or his protagonist’s) impressive command of a horse. Sidney, besides his poetry, which was not published in his lifetime, had much to boast of. An early favourite of the queen, both sides of his family were families of note, courtiers of Elizabeth’s father and protestant stalwarts, an immensely influential and self-important clique that included in their train the executed Duke of Northumberland Lord Dudley (not a ‘real’ Northumberland like the Percys), the queen’s closest confident the Earl of Leicester, and the later over-reacher the Earl of Essex. He brags about his lineage thus:

because of both sides I do take 

My blood from them who did excel in this, 

Think Nature me a man of arms did make

But this is just one in a long line of boasts – even the French agree on his brilliance; he’s a great horseman; he’s strong; he’s skilful, or lucky. Sidney’s (or Astrophil’s) all-round brilliance is the subject of the first four fifths or so of the poem.

A sonnet traditionally has a turn, somewhere near the end of the poem that turns the whole meaning of the poem on its head, or at least that changes the context in which we understand the previous lines. In an Italian sonnet, which is comprised of two quatrains (or an octave) and a sestet, the turn comes with those last six lines. In an English sonnet, where the change in structure is more abrupt – a final couplet after three quatrains, the placing of the turn is less regular – often it is with the third quatrain, sometimes in that pithy final couplet. In this poem, it comes rather late on, in the last line of the third quatrain, thus:

How far they shot awry! The true cause is

Stella look’d on, and from her heav’nly face 

Sent forth the beams which made so fair my race.

 Sidney leaves it pretty much to the last gasp to turn the poem on its head, or attempt to.

The writer and critic John Williams divided the poets of the sixteenth century into nativists and Petrarchans, and Sidney is naturally classed as a member of the latter – perhaps the defining member. He comments of the Petrarchan style that, ‘subject and theme have drawn so far apart that only by an act of rhetoric can they be reunited.’* The subjects are various – here it is the poet’s own horsemanship, but the theme is always the same – love, the courting of the lady, or her all conquering brilliance. The Petrarchan poet’s tenor and are such that their similarities will not be immediately obvious to the reader, but rather persuaded out by the skilled poet. You could complain that such techniques are artificial, but you could also admire the very artifice that unites such disparate things, or uses an unlikely parallel to draw out an interesting truth. In this poem the subject may be Astrophil’s superb jousting, but the true theme is love, and the realization we are brought to is that commonplace of medieval romance, that the knight‘s brilliance is a reflection of his love’s heavenly beauty.

Somehow, I don’t quite buy it. I can’t shake the feeling that what Sidney really wants to talk about is his success at the tilt yard – nothing wrong with that, as there is something satisfying about his swagger, but the stuff about Stella is merely a bit of pretty dressing (or dressage) at the end. When Dante and Petrarch put Beatriz and Laura at the heart of all their poems, as mad as it may seem considering that both hardly knew their muses, it comes across as nothing but absolutely sincere; but when Sidney does it, and so many that follow him, it seems something of an affectation. Then again, Sidney pulls it off with panache. That ingratiating turnaround at the end is the poetic equivalent of a grand, ostentatious bow to the lady watching in the stands that the jouster makes after dismounting.

Sincere or not, it’s still a splendid poem – and Sidney did actually develop a more interesting and realistic attitude towards love later in his career, as I’ll explore in my next post.

* In his “English Renaissance Poetry”, most recently published by NYRB publishing, New York, 2016


Filed under Literature, Poetry

Where the wild thyme blows…


Heath-Robinson’s illustration for a Midsummer Night’s Dream. Via Wikipedia

I have not often succeeded in being topical here on Sweettenorbull, but with 2016 having marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I thought it appropriate to include at least one post on the Bard this year. So, here is my belatedly topical, and very unseasonal, take on one of my favourite passages in Shakespeare. A mid-winter day’s take on some lines of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in

That’s Oberon, the king of the fairies, or faeries, explaining where he will find his wife, Titania, the queen of the fairies, on whom he is going to play a rather mean trick. The soliloquy of which this is the beginning sets the scene for this trick and the action that follows. It is light-hearted stuff compared to many of Shakespeare’s other famous soliloquies: it is fair to say it worries at none of the great themes – life and death, love and hate, truth and falsehood, justice, fate, none of that. It is a bit of atmospherics, a means of setting the scene for a play that is essentially a bit of enjoyable nonsense.The purpose of the passage is to enchant the listener, and, for me at least, it does so every time.

It is a little fey, I know. We are talking about a passage full of flowers spoken by a great big fairy: not altogether manly that.I’m more into the flowers than the fairies, but I suppose that in itself is something of an admission. A few years ago that great journal of earthy British humour, the Viz, ran a memorable cartoon where Biffa Bacon is chastised (that is, beaten to a pulp) by his parents for reading the Guardian newspaper instead of the Sun. He has just about managed to persuade them that the Guardian isn’t just for ‘snurbs and short-liftaz’ when a free supplement falls out of the paper, ‘Fifty Poems about Flowers’. Biffa’s parents are enraged by this basic affront to decent Geordie reverse-snobbery and duly pummel the poor lad senseless.


From the Viz comic, via The Guardian

Actually, I understand where they are coming from (Newcastle, of course, which is also where I come from). For a long time, I would hazard from the early 19th century all the way through to the late 20th century, flower imagery was the standby of mediocre poets and poetasters, which may have fixed in the public’s mind, even those, like the Bacons, who would never read poetry, the idea of poetry as something blandly decorative, stuffily middle class and rather effeminate. But this view and all that bad poetry were merely unfortunate by-products of what is actually a great tradition in English poetry of poems about flowers, running from early poetry to the modern day.

(but if you’re not convinced, my site has plenty of posts on poems of a more masculine nature… tools! drinking!)

I would argue that at least a passing acquaintance with the English countryside and its flowers heightens ones appreciation of this poetry; at the same time, reading the poetry improves one’s enjoyment of the countryside. Well, this is true for me, at least. About seven years ago, I lived for a couple of years in Durham, and at about that time, after years of serious novel reading, I was getting very into English poetry. Three poets who I read a lot at that time were William Wordsworth, Edward Thomas and the American William Carlos Williams, in all of whose poems flowers feature prominently, usually with the flower named. Partly to know the flowers in their poems better, and partly because I lived near a rather nice meadow park (like many parks and meadows along the Tyne or the Wear, actually a reclaimed coal mine), and had started to notice flowers whose names I didn’t know, I bought an old Reader’s Digest guide to wild flowers at a car boot sale, and started to casually familiarise myself with the names of those I most often saw. After a couple of years I could identify most of the common flowers I’d come across, and recognise them when they came up in the poetry I was reading, and just walking the countryside I would notice and appreciate flowers much more whether I knew their names or not.

That first line of Oberon’s captures he very real wonder one feels when one comes upon a bank of wild flowers while wandering the woods or countryside. Myself, I know a hillock in Durham where cowslips sprout some years, and, mysteriously, some years they don’t. I know a wooded roadside bank that is carpeted with violets a couple of weeks each spring. In the nearby Finchale Priory there is a reliable bank of anemones on the north bank of the river. When we moved a little north to Prudhoe in Northumberland, my wife and I gradually found comparable scenes – another bank of anemones, a patch of teasels, a riverside outcrop of reeking ramsons, a field of mixed white and red clover. Finding such scenes and remembering them became one of the pleasures of walking.

Paul Auster the novelist and and sometime critic wrote of an interesting difference between English and French poetry. In French poetry, he claims, flowers tend to be described simply by the word flower – fleur, while in English poetry they are given specific names. I can’t quite remember where he went with that (I read it a long time ago and do not have it to hand), but I think he went on to generalise from this that the French think in the abstract, while the English-speaking peoples favour the specific and concrete, perhaps that the English like to categorise while the French philosophise. And maybe there is something in that. The English value the poetic power of particular names. Look at the first four lines of Oberon’s speech: it contains the names of six different flowers. Just the names of those flowers take up thirteen of the lines’ forty syllables. The last two plants take up six of the last lines’ ten. A great deal of the lines’ beauty inheres in the sound of those names alone. I wonder if Shakespeare, if indeed most people of his time, could reel off the names of plants like that, when plant lore was still a living tradition. Perhaps he asked around his fellow playwrights and actors at the Angel.

We tend to imagine A Midsummer-night’s dream taking place in an English woods – it certainly sounds like one and it has a couple of bona fide English myths wandering around in Puck and Robin Goodfellow. But of course the play is set in a wood outside Athens – it seems the characters wander into the wooded paradise of Arcadia – since that place was mythical I suppose Shakespeare was quite at liberty to model it after the woods of his homeland. Poets in the sixteenth century tended to use a classical setting for their pastoral poetry, as well as their love poems, which is why shepherds and maidens alike had names like Lycidas, Cynthia and Clarissa, rather than Roger, Mary and Lisa. This was a matter of convention, but it also gave them a bit of liberty from the rigid social mores of the sixteenth century. Titania is acting in a way that might have had a contemporary Englishwoman up before the church courts, ‘lulled ‘by ‘dance and delight’, sleeping in the open air in the most sensuous of settings.

There is a faint echo of Middle English poems in these lines, where ‘blow’ retains its Middle English meaning of ‘bloom’, and might remind some readers of the line ‘bloweth mead’ in ‘Sumer is ycumen in’. Eglantine is another word with a medieval ring to it, carrying the scent of Norman French: the Prioress in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was called Madame Eglentine, and gently mocked by the narrator for her old-fashioned Norman French pronunciation. Critics have commented much on Shakespeare’s propensity to use earthy Anglo-Saxon words in conjunction with Latin derived words (examples here would be nodding violet, enamelled skin and, arguably, luscious woodbine), but there is there is also here the mingling of modern and archaic English words. It all adds to the sense in the play of the past and present mingling with the eternal, of the familiar morphing into the strange and foreign, and of reality blending with fantasy.

As a reader who has read more than his fair share of poems aboot floo-ahs, as the Bacons would style them, I can’t help but sense a foreshadow of much later English poetry in Shakespeare’s lines. I have already mentioned those other serial flower name droppers Wordsworth, Thomas and Williams. Titania perhaps provided some inspiration for that equally fickle (though nastier) lady of the woods, Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot. And the alliteration and unusual syntax of the phrase ‘weed wide’ puts me in mind of Hopkins, who claimed to be reclaiming the old alliterative tradition of Old English. I could go on a lot longer about the richness of Shakespeare’s language and its influence, but a post, like a garden (though unlike a mythical wood) has got to end somewhere…


Filed under humour, Literature, Poetry

And wilt thou leave me thus?

Wyatt and Boleyn

Jamie Tomas King and Natalie Dormer as Thomas Wyatt and Anne Boleyn in The Tudors (

The above image is from HBO’s series The Tudors, and shows the lovelorn poet Thomas Wyatt wooing a somewhat less enamoured Anne Boleyn. In this scene of the series, Wyatt reads the below poem to Boleyn, and then she swiftly tells him never to see him again – not because of the poem, but because she knows the King of England wants her. We don’t know if such a scene ever took place, or indeed if Wyatt’s poem was inspired by his infatuation with the future queen, but of all the many liberties taken with history by that TV series, that was one of the more plausible ones: Boleyn really did terminate their relationship soon before being wooed by Henry VIII, and Wyatt really was besotted by her. Although it didn’t, alas for Wyatt – and for Boleyn – have the desired effect on its subject, it is indeed an arresting poem.

And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay, for shame,
To save thee from the blame
Of all my grief and grame;
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay!

And wilt thou leave me thus,
That hath loved thee so long
In wealth and woe among?
And is thy heart so strong
As for to leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay!

And wilt thou leave me thus,
That hath given thee my heart
Never for to depart,
Neither for pain nor smart;
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay!

And wilt thou leave me thus
And have no more pity
Of him that loveth thee?
Alas, thy cruelty!
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay!

Thomas Wyatt

Notes: Grame- Sorrow; the ‘pity’ of the last stanza sometimes has an accent written on the second syllable; ‘Alas’ is sometimes written in French ‘Hèlas’

Wyatt is often credited (alongside Henry Howard) with bringing the influence of Petrarch into English poetry, an influence that would have such a great impact, for good and bad, through the English Renaissance and beyond. But there is much about this poem that is very un-Petrarchan. The language is plain and straightforward, and there are none of the elaborate metaphors and oxymorons that characterise Petrarchan poetry. Wyatt is not talking to his muse, to a distant and unobtainable image of feminine perfection, such as Petrarch, Dante and so many of their imitators, but a real woman, albeit one suddenly unobtainable. It is a poem with something of what has been called the ‘native’ tradition of English poetry, typified by Skelton and, especially, Gascoigne. The novelist John Williams, who edited the NYRB’s English Renaissance Poems, characterised this group rather nattily as ‘mortals speaking to mortals’. In this poem a mortal, that is normal – and, frankly rather desperate man, vents his feelings to his belle, aloof and cold-hearted, perhaps, but accessible enough to address directly.

Each stanza consists of a tercet in iambic trimeter (bada bada bada  – to save thee from the blame / of all my grief and grame) sandwiched between the poem’s refrain. As C. Jobin has pointed out down in the comments, one of Wyatt’s great skills was the adaptation of Italian forms to the English language with its accentual (‘stress-timed’) rhythm, as opposed to the syllabic rhythm of most Romance languages. Unlike French, Italian and Spanish poets, who must count the number of syllables in a line, an English poet should (while paying heed to the number of syllables) instead count the number of stresses. The correct placement of stressed and unstressed syllables will affect how natural the poem sounds in the reading. A skillful poet can vary the meters of individual lines of the poem, according to the rhetorical tone required, without breaking the underlying rhythm of the poem. Wyatt does this exceptionally well, only faltering on the words ‘pity’ and ‘cruelty’, which we feel compelled to pronounce pity and cruelty. This aside, he follows the natural rhythm of English very well.

This might be the first poem in the English language to start with the word ‘and’. Of course, starting with and may have been put there as a necessary unstressed syllable before the stressed ‘wilt’. But it somehow  creates a quite modern impression. We seem to be are coming onto the scene in media res, as they say on screenwriting courses, as if the girl has just declared her intention to break their engagement, and the poet is giving his heartfelt response. Having asked her if she really will leave like this, he does not let her get a word in, but appeals rather ‘say nay, say nay’ – a refrain that is repeated at the end of each stanza. This emotional ejaculation makes up the first four syllables of the first tercet, and the effect is to make the start of the poem more conversational . This may not have been Wyatt’s intention, but it could be said to reflect the state of mind of the scorned lover.

The poet goes on in his incredulous way, pleading the woman to stay, listing the brief reasons why she shouldn’t leave. For anyone used to the love sonnets of Shakespeare, Spenser, Sidney et al, it is very direct and undecorated. There are, as I said, no elaborate metaphors – no metaphors at all, in fact – and no clever conceits. The ideas expressed may be conventional – some lines indeed are very similar to traditional marriage vows, and many are quite formulaic – but they are apt.

Where the poem really succeeds is in the marriage of a formal poetic form with a natural English rhythm, which makes it sound like an authentic (if unsuccessful) attempt at wooing, and more importantly to allow the charming voice of the 16th century poet to emerge.

The poem is also, how to put this? … abject. He appeals to the woman’s pity for him rather more than we might think manly these days. Sixteenth century men had a very different idea of what emotions were worthy of poetry. Could you think of a poem from subsequent centuries quite so pathetic and desperate? Certainly, it is hard to imagine any poet of the twentieth century laying down such emotions so baldly. Such sentiments are nowadays more likely to be heard in pop music – off the top of my head, say, Don’t Leave Me This Way by the Communards, but I’m sure you could think of a half-dozen others. Thus (if we were being a bit silly), we could say that Wyatt with all his other achievements wrote an early example of the ‘Don’t leave me, baby’ genre of lyrics.

Interestingly, this poem was put to music by the early 20th Century composer Peter Warlock, who turned many poems into songs. His composition is a eerie with a lovely piano melody, although the song lacks the human warmth and natural rhythm of the poem read by the spoken voice.

N.B. I amended parts of this post in response to C. Jobin’s comments below. Thanks to her for her important observations.


Filed under History, Literature, Poetry

The Summer Malison

Alberta's tar sands (National Geographic)

Alberta’s tar sands (National Geographic)

It’s just starting to cool down little by little, but while it is still summer, here is a rather sinister early Hopkins poem, The Summer Malison. Malison is an unusual word these days – so unusual that my spellchecker underlines it red, but it was a little more common in Victorian times when this was written. A malison is a curse, specifically a spoken curse – a malediction, or execration, if you like. So, you must imagine this poem, this curse, being read aloud…

The Summer Malison

Maidens shall weep at merry morn,
And hedges break and lose the kine,
And field-flowers make the fields forlorn,
And noonday have a shallow shine,
And barley turn to weed and wild,
And seven ears crown the lodged corn,
And mother have no milk for child,
And father be overworn.

And John shall lie, where winds are dead,
And hate the ill-visaged cursing tars,
And James shall hate his faded red,
Grown wicked in the wicked wars.
No rains shall fresh the flats of sea,
Nor close the clayfields’ sharded sores,
And every heart think loathingly
Its dearest changed to bores.

Readers familiar with Hopkins’ poetry will find here early traces of what would become his signature style . There is, of course, his great fondness for alliteration. There are a number of memorable alliterative phrases  – fields forlorn, wicked wars, shallow shine and so on, although it is nowhere near as dense with alliteration and aural effects as his later poetry. There is also a hint of Hopkins’ later ingenuity with language, such as the use of the word fresh as a verb.But there are also significant differences from his later poetry here too: this is not, like almost all of his later poetry, religious poetry, which is not to say that there is nothing religious in it, for there is a clear reference to the dreams of Joseph in the corn with seven ears; but it is not drawing our attention to the God-given divine beauty of nature as so many of his later poems do, nor (as in his poems of despair) does it lament His apparent absence. It is hard to imagine the later Hopkins conceiving of a poem in the form of a curse: this is a comparatively secular poem, the poetry of a man who has not yet (and in his mind, still might not) dedicate his life and all his works to God. It gives us an interesting glimpse of a quite different Hopkins – but it is in any case an interesting poem in its own right.

That doom-serving old dystopian Anthony Burgess liked this poem, and called the last line ‘terrifying’. That’s something coming from a man best known for chilling visions of the future. Most people associate Burgess with A Clockwork Orange, whose two dystopian elements are, on the one hand, uncontrolled violent juvenile subcultures, and on the other, the crude psychological engineering with which the state attempts to address it. He also wrote 1985, an updating of Orwell’s novel, in which 1984‘s face-stomping totalitarianism was replaced by strong-arm trade unionism that enervates Britain to the point that it is itself usurped by nascent Islamism. The trade unionism was a wrong call, though understandable from the pre-Thatcher 70’s Britain in which it was written, while the Islamism was strangely prescient. One more dystopia of his, one I haven’t read but intend to, is The Wanting Seed, set in a future in which homosexuality is legally enforced and natural conception strongly discouraged, although fertility movements are making a comeback. You could call Burgess right wing, I suppose. But what unites all these dystopias is a sense of society running out of control, a sense that man is the prisoner of his own strange chemistry, and this chemistry as much as his schemes and systems will dictate the future.

Burgess doesn’t say so – in fact he only refers to the poem briefly – but the terror inherent in the last line, and those lines directed at John and James, is the terror of man’s changeability. We are not entirely rational souls, but vulnerable to the influence of bad spells and bad weather. It brings to mind a memorable scene from another well known 20th century novel. The protagonist of Camus’s The Outsider shoots an Arab on a beach, not for any good reason, but because it was a very hot day and he was feeling hot and bothered. What inspires Hopkins with terror, leads Camus into existential doubt: the very substance of our selves (he would not talk of souls) is shown to be entirely contingent on circumstances.

There are other varieties of terror in the poem too. The earth itself is infertile, lacking energy, unable to provide the people with food. It is interesting that the environmental terror here is presented in terms of dearth and lack, with images of Old Testament famine, dryness, tars and, most memorably, those ‘sharded sores’ of drought-hit clay fields. Horrifying indeed for a poet who would later declare that ‘The world is charged with the grace of God’, and being a native of our rainswept Atlantic islands, find proof of that grace in wetness and greenness. If the seven ears of corn bring to mind an Old Testament episode, the names John and James in the second stanza bring the disaster into more recent times. It is the universality of the names which is important to the poem – we all know a John and a James, I think, and so we do not quite imagine these men to be strangers, but our own countrymen, perhaps our neighbours and friends. This Malison is not something remote and fantastical, but something that can happen – perhaps is happening – to our own communities; and, in that very last line that so chilled Burgess, to our very own souls.

Picture Credit:


Filed under Literature, Poetry

A Song from the Coptic

Last month a group of Egyptian Coptic Christians were murdered on a beach by a group claiming a link with the so-called Islamic state, or ‘ISIS’, whose English acronym, in a bizarre irony, recalls one of the gods of ancient Egypt. Christians in Egypt have suffered persecution for many generations, which has intensified in the twenty first century. These Christians are not just Egyptians who happen to be Christian, but are Copts, the descendants of the pre-Arab inhabitants of Egypt. They have been Christian for many centuries (longer than most European countries), but for many centuries – for some millennia – before that followed the ancient religion of Egypt, of Thoth, Isis and Ra. In fact, the word ‘Copt’ is cognate with the word ‘Egypt’ – they are at least as old as our very word for Egypt… one remembers that Herodotus himself was over-awed with their country’s antiquity when he visited.There is an informative and interesting website about The Copts’ culture, and their plight here.

One of its posts is the 19th Century translation, by Irish poet James Mangan, of a poem by Goethe:

A Song from the Coptic


Quarrels have long been in vogue among sages;

Still, though in many things wranglers and rancorous,

All the philosopher-scribes of all ages

Join, una voce, on one point to anchor us.

Here is the gist of their mystified pages,

Here is the wisdom we purchase with gold –

Children of Light, leave the world to its mulishness,

Things to their natures, and fools to their foolishness;

Berries were bitter in forests of old.

Hoary old Merlin,that great necromancer,

Made me, a student, a similar answer,

When I besought him for light and for lore:

Toiler in vain! Leave the world to its mulishness

Things to their natures, and fools to their foolishness;

Granite was hard in the quarries of yore.

And on the ice-crested heights of Armenia,

And in the valleys of broad Abyssinia,

Still spake the Oracle just as before:

Wouldst thou have peace, leave the world to its mulishness

Things to their natures, and fools to their foolishness;

Beetles were blind in the ages of yore.

The article in Coptic Literature looks at the history of this poem, why and when Goethe wrote it – it is well worth a read . He rightly notes that Mangan’s poem is a free translation, not a a direct one, of Goethe’s original, and I think there is more to be said about Mangan’s translation.

The poem is, of course, not from a Coptic text, but from the pen and imagination of Goethe. Goethe puts his words in the mouth of an ancient sage – creating an aura of exoticism and mystery, and paradoxically making its message seem more authentic than if we were to think it was the musings of a nineteenth century German civil servant.

Why evoke the Copts, in particular? As the Coptic Literature article explains, this is partly to do with the plot of the play that the poem was intended to be a part of. But I think, in particular, the Copts are used because they are thought to be the very oldest of all the sagacious peoples: Goethe’s original mentions Egyptians and Indians, while Mangan changes this, perhaps for poetic purposes, perhaps others to Abyssinians and Armenians, while both versions also mention a Greek and a Celtic sage (the Oracle and Merlin respectively). Egypt has a strong association with the idea of hidden wisdom, which accords with the message of the poem that it is better not to engage with the wider, foolish world. The ancient, semi-mythical figure of Hermes Trismegismus, the supposed writer of the Hermetic texts, from which so many sages and magicians took their knowledge was, of course, an Egyptian, though it later transpired that his writings were not, as had been claimed, contemporary with the time of Moses, but from early in the first millennium AD.

It is interesting to speculate what drew Mangan to this poem. Mangan is perhaps best known for his poems set in old Ireland, the brooding ‘Dark Rosaleen’, and my favourite poem of his, A Vision of Connaught in the Thirteenth Century (a poem I have been meaning to blog on for months, and may get round to one day). He was a man of many interests, translating from Arabic as well as German, and, of course, Gaelic. As an Irishman, Mangan was from a people of ancient pedigree, who had – like the Copts, the Armenians, Abyssinians, Welsh and even the Greeks (at the time of writing) – been dominated by another culture, and perhaps this is one of the things that interested Mangan in the poem.

That is speculation of course, but what we can discuss more certainly is what Mangan with his translation brought to the poem. First, it is dramatic. When it comes to high-flown, dramatic poetry, Mangan can compete with Tennyson, who was a contemporary. The fast-paced rhythmical lines almost reach the pitch of Poe, and like Poe he has a virtuoso’s skill with rhyme and alliteration.

Mangan also brings to the poem some earthy Irish humour. Compare two other translators’ rendition of the poems’ refrain (courtesy again of Coptic Literature):

Folly, to wait until fools become better !

Children of wisdom, ’tis true to the letter

Fools will be fools, as it’s best they should be !” (John Sullivan Dwight)

Smile, nod, and join in the chorus with me:
“Vain ’tis to wait till the dolt grows less silly!
Play then the fool with the fool, willy-nilly,— (Edgar Alfred Bowring)

There are, in fact, a number of translations in this vein. Now Mangan’s again:

Children of Light, leave the world to its mulishness,

Things to their natures, and fools to their foolishness;
Berries were bitter in forests of old.

How much more we feel the comical stupidity of the world with the quality ‘mulishness’. How much more we appreciate the special calling of sages and scholars with the sobriquet ‘Children of light’, which also brings to mind certain other esoteric teachings related to light – Plato’s allegory of the cave, for example, or the ancient teachings of Zoroaster. Varying the last line of the refrain -as Goethe didn’t – gives the poem an extra three images to show the unchanging stupidity and nastiness of the world (hey, didn’t I do something like that in my translation of Gòngora’s Da Bienes Fortuna  a couple of years ago? Yes, I did!) It brings to mind certain passages in the Old Testament, whose authors, like Mangan, were wise enough to use concrete imagery to express their meaning. Proverbs 26:11 wouldn’t look out of place in the poem – a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.

On a political note, here’s hoping, by the way, that ISIS and their ilk are sooner or later (preferably sooner) undone by their spite and folly, and the Copts and groups like them survive and prosper in the Middle East and North Africa.


Filed under Literature, Poetry

To His Mistress Going to Bed

The retired England footballer Michael Owen recently sullied (albeit slightly) his squeaky clean image with a rather tasteless tweet directed at his wife, and shared, as is the modern morè, with the whole world via Twitter. The tweet consisted of a picture of one of his dogs lying adjacent to and staring longingly at his other dog’s testicles with the caption ‘I wonder if Mrs Owen will be so obliging tonight’. England baulked, and Mrs Owen, if the follow up tweet is anything to go by, obliged him not, skulking on her sofa flicking him the v’s (v for eff off, that is, not v for victory). Better luck next time, Michael.

The erstwhile England wonder kid can at least take solace in being part of a long English tradition of publishing one’s personal entreaties for, er, intimacy to one’s lover. John Donne’s To His Mistress Going To Bed is one of the best, and one of the bluntest.

To His Mistress Going to Bed
Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy,
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe oft-times, having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing, though they never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glistering
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breast-plate, which you wear
That th’eyes of busy fools may be stopped there:
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now ’tis your bed time.
Off with that happy busk, whom I envy
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown’s going off such beauteous state reveals
As when from flowery meads th’hills shadow steals.
Off with your wiry coronet and show
The hairy diadem which on you doth grow.
Off with those shoes: and then safely tread
In this love’s hallowed temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes heaven’s angels used to be
Received by men; thou Angel bring’st with thee
A heaven like Mahomet’s Paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know
By this these Angels from an evil sprite:
They set out hairs, but these the flesh upright.

License my roving hands, and let them go
Behind, before, above, between, below.
Oh my America, my new found land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my Empery,
How blessed am I in this discovering thee.
To enter in these bonds is to be free,
Then where my hand is set my seal shall be.

Full nakedness, all joys are due to thee.
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are as Atlanta’s balls, cast in men’s views,
That when a fool’s eye lighteth on a gem
His earthly soul may covet theirs not them.
Like pictures, or like books’ gay coverings made
For laymen, are all women thus arrayed;
Themselves are mystic books, which only we
Whom their imputed grace will dignify
Must see revealed. Then since I may know,
As liberally as to a midwife show
Thyself; cast all, yea this white linen hence.
Here is no penance, much less innocence.

To teach thee, I am naked first: why then
What need’st thou have more covering than a man.

Donne is called a Metaphysical poet sometimes, but this is not because he is interested in metaphysical enquiry and not in the physical life of the body; this poem is very physical indeed – Mary Whitehouse might have called it filth had she been around at the turn of the 17th Century. Rather, it is a term coined by Samuel Johnson to describe, disapprovingly, poets of that era who used clever conceits and bizarre metaphors, rather than more natural means, to win the hearts (or beds) of their sweethearts. Poetics aside, however, this poem shows by the end that Donne can use very, er, natural methods to forward his amours.

Donne starts by begging his mistress’s sympathy for a situation just too hard to bear. For most of the rest of the poem, he begs her remove her clothes, item by item, before finally extolling the virtues of complete nakedness. You might think of that outrageously decadent perfume commercial from a Christmas or two ago, where a leggy actress strides through a mansion flinging off her clothes until she’s wearing nothing but perfume; alternatively, think of a romantic scene in a period drama where a couple must tackle the complex rigours of the woman’s apparel before getting down to action – or not, as the case may be. In humour, the poem sits somewhere between these two scenes, though more of the second: it has a little of the erotic charge of the first, and all the lusty comedy of the second. Incidentally, it provides a quite detailed list of the forbidding clothing of sixteenth and seventeenth century lady that might for a while fend off a woman’s interested suitor, or husband even: girdle, breast-plate, busk, gown, white undershirt, coronet, gems…

The flattery is over the top, and for a man who was an ordained clergyman, and went on to write some of the most famous devotional poetry in the English language, Donne is remarkably playful with religious imagery. I wonder how well some of Donne’s Godlier readers would have taken the joke. And how effective was it, I wonder, as seduction? His lady’s girdle, he says, is like the heavens, but encompassing a fairer world: one can imagine this line inspiring groans in his beloved, though not of the kind he is after.

There are many dirty jokes in the poem, though. Donne makes a play on the whiteness of the lady’s under garment commenting that evil spirits as well as angels dress like this, but there is an easy way to tell them apart:

By this these Angels from an evil sprite:
They set out hairs, but these the flesh upright.

Down wanton down! There is another intriguing pun at the end of the next stanza. Donne imagines he is entering into a contract with his lover. The line ‘where my hand is set my seal shall be’ is one borrowed from a contract, especially a last will and testament – so in one sense, Donne imagines the consummation of their love to be the kind of legal bond, akin to signing and sealing a contract. Well that is all of a part with good, healthy Christian (if not puritan) sexual relations. But he may also be making a very physical pun:’hand’ could well mean just that, his hand, which, since he has dispensed with her underclothes, is busy fondling his lover – roving ‘Behind, before, above, between, below’ as he has put it; the ‘seal’ could be a play on semen – that is both in the sense that its ejaculation confirms the act of sex, and its physical sense as a hot liquid.

Sorry! Sorry – that’s a bit much, isn’t it, for a Sunday afternoon read? You come here for edifying poetry, not this smutty filth… apologies all round. It’s just a theory really, perhaps one I could have kept to myself – though I’m not the first reader to find traces of semen in Donne’s poetry. But since we’re on the subject of smut, is there a more outrageous, queasier ‘come hither’ in English poetry than this:

Then since I may know,
As liberally as to a midwife show

Don’t answer that question. I could go on and on taking lines in this poem, analysing them, affecting mock-outrage, and making wisecracks, but – as Donne shows us in the poem – things have to end somewhere. I noticed reading around about this poem, that an awful lot of commentary on it comes from a feminist and post-colonialist angle, inspired especially by that joke about America, and the regular references to Donne’s manhood. The critique goes something like this ‘Donne is an evil dead white male who sought to dominate his lover, just as those infamous evil dead white men, European colonists, sought to dominate new territory and its peoples’ (I paraphrase slightly). I don’t think so. This is not about domination, it is a witty and intimate invitation, and the phallic references are not so much egotistical as desperate – Michael Owen would understand


Filed under Literature, Poetry

Volpone’s Song to Celia

Aubrey Beardsley's Front Cover to Volpone

Aubrey Beardsley’s Front Cover to Volpone

This week’s poem is from Volpone, by Ben Jonson, a biting, hilarious satire set in Venice about a man undone by his own greed and lust, who undoes a good many others in the process – and has some rather wicked fun on the way (though not as much as he intends). Volpone spends most of the first act lying in bed – apparently a deathbed – as his servant Mosca leads in a procession of well-wishers, wishing mostly of course to be written into the rich Volpone’s will. Each is persuaded by the crafty Mosca, and by encouraging wails and grunts from Volpone himself, that they are the main beneficiaries of Volpone’s Will, but in the meantime leave the not-so-sick man an expensive gift as a token of their love and good faith. Volpone – Italian for fox – and his servant Mosca – mosquito – thus trick them out of their money. They have, we can assume, made a great living out of such scams before, and this is their most successful yet. Volpone is side-tracked from this scheme, however, when he hears of the legendary beauty of the wife of one of his well-wishers, and, having ventured out in disguise and espied her, is determined to bed her.

Mosca devises an ingenious plan to make this happen. He explains to one of the well-wishers, Corvino, that a doctor has recommended an unusual treatment to help the ailing Volpone: a young maiden must lie with him. Though there is little chance of success in this treatment, on accunt of Volpone’s supposed incapacity, Volpone will look favourably on anyone who has tried to aid his unlikely recovery. Corvino, thinking that this will seal his place in Volpone’s will, agrees to provide his wife for such purposes, of whom he is normally extremely jealous.

A further obstacle to this plan is Celia’s great modesty and moral uprightness – having been taken to Volpone’s chamber, where he lies groaning in pain, she steadfastly refuses, on pain of death even, to assent to the plan. Mosca tactfully suggests that she will be more forthcoming if she and Volpone are left alone, for no woman likes to be immodest in front of her husband. When her husband and Mosca have left the chamber, Volpone throws off his disguise and immediately begins wooing Celia in the most tasteless way imaginable. Oblivious to her misgivings – to her horror, in fact – he woos her with the following song:


Come, my Celia, let us prove,

While we can, the sports of love;

Time will not be ours forever;

He at length our good will sever.

Spend not then his gifts in vain.

Suns that set may rise again;

But if once we lose this light,

Tis with us perpetual night.

Why should we defer our joys?

Fame and rumor are but toys.

Cannot we delude the eyes

Of a few poor household spies,

Or his easier ears beguile,

So removèd by our wile?

Tis no sin love’s fruit to steal;

But the sweet thefts to reveal,

To be taken, to be seen,

These have crimes accounted been.


Michael Jamieson, the editor of the Penguin edition of the paly, informs us that ‘educated members of the audience would recognize that the opening lines are adapted from Catallus’s Vivamus, mea Lesbia’. Wikipedia’s translation of this poem runs as so:


Let us live, my Lesbia, and love.

As for all the rumors of those stern old men,

Let us value them at a mere penny.


Suns may set and yet rise again, but

We, with our brief light, can set but once.

One never-ending night must be slept.


Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred.

Then, another thousand, and a second hundred.

Then, yet another thousand, and a hundred.


Then, when we have counted up many thousands,

Let us shake the abacus, so that no one may know the number,

And become jealous when they see

How many kisses we have shared.


Now that’s rather beautiful, I think. Guy Lee’s translation is even nicer – I would recommend his edition to those interested in Catullus. To give you an idea, here is how he renders lines 4-6:


Suns can set and rise again;

For us, once our brief light has set

There’s one unending night for sleeping.


Catullus, The Complete Poems, Ed. Guy Lee, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford 1990


Volpone’s poem owes an awful lot to Catullus’s, and suffers badly in comparison. Catullus could be accused of being amoral, but he is, in his own terms, sincere – he really does think his love more important than the opinion of the old men; he really does think that we must value our daily pleasures all the more because one day death will put them to an end. His invitation, moreover, is seductive because his affection for Lesbea strikes us as very genuine: as the lines on hundreds and thousands of kisses attest. Volpone, we suspect, is much less worried about death than about Celia’s husband running through the door, while his imagery could do little to persuade Celia that it is her pleasure and not only his own he has in mind. The argument running through Volpone’s song is cynical and self-serving – there is no such thing as sin, as long as one doesn’t get caught, so let’s get to it!

Others, I think, would be reminded by that opening ‘Come’ and the love/prove rhyme of Marlowe’s Passionate Shepherd who sang ‘Come live with me and be my love / and we will all the pleasures prove’ (which itself borrowed the rhyme and much of the pastoral imagery from folk lyrics). A comparison is telling, however: Marlowe’s Shepherd had a wide (if overly idealized) idea of what pleasures entailed – from the outdoor delights that nature provides to the beautiful goods one can make of its materials, with coral clasps and amber buds and the like. Volpone, on the other hand, can imagine only one kind of delight: ‘love’s fruit’, sex that is. While Marlowe’s poem conjures images of romantic walks in an Arcadian setting, Volpone’s conjures tawdry images of sex in the house under the prying noses of servants. Volpone isn’t taking Celia anywhere. For reasons that are clear, Volpone is in an almighty hurry to get her clothes off. Even the poem itself sounds somewhat hurried, with the meter the same as Marlowe’s, but the lines much shorter, as if Volpone is squeezing his argument into as short a poem as he can.

To put it briefly, all that is good in the poem is from Catullus and Marlowe, and all that is bad is down to Volpone. In the context of the play, of course, this is very funny, as is Celia’s definitive response:

Celia:   Some serene [i.e. poisoned mist] blast me, or dire lightning strike

This my offending face.


Filed under Literature, Poetry