Whether Men do Laugh or Weep

Whether men do laugh or weep,

Whether they do wake or sleep,

Whether they dies young or old,

Whether they feel heat or cold;

There is, underneath the sun, 

Nothing in true earnest done.

 

All our pride is but a jest;

None are worst, and none are best;

Grief and joy, and hope and fear,

Play their pageants everywhere:

Vain opinion all doth sway,

And the world is but a play.

 

Powers above in clouds do sit,

Mocking our poor apish wit,

That so lamely, with such state,

Their high glory imitate;

No ill can be felt but pain,

And that happy men disdain.

 

Thomas Campion (From English Renaissance Poetry, NYRB, Ed. John Williams)

‘There is no new thing under the sun.’ So goes the King James Bible version of Ecclesiastes 1:9, although we tend to shift it around to ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ Thomas Campion may not have heard that exact line, and, as a Catholic (before the main Catholic English bibles were printed) may never have read the line in English; but he was a great Latinist, and so it is very likely he had read the lines in the Vulgate. In any case, he says something a little different from the Biblical verse. ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ is often taken to mean that originality is not possible, that humans will always behave in more or less the same way, and that the new fashions and ideas are really old fashions and ideas in a new guise. In the context of the Ecclesiastes, it adds weight to the idea that all human endeavours are futile. Campion instead writes: ‘There is nothing underneath the sun / nothing in true earnest done.’ It is not that everything is futile, or anyway, not just that everything is futile, but it is insincere too. ‘It’s all bullsh*t, Baby*’, as a more modern demotic would have it.

The last line of the second stanza will be recognizable to most as almost Shakespeare’s ‘All the world’s a stage,’ and like that line, it betrays cynicism about people’s motives – they don’t act the way they do because they want to, but because they’re bound to.

There is often much that is classical in Campion’s songs and poetry, of Arcadia and the Graeco-Roman Gods, and they seem to their appearance here at the beginning of the last stanza, mocking man’s ‘apish wit’. As with many renaissance poets, he can blend Judeo-Christian and pagan mythology without embarrassment: Ecclesiastes in the first stanza, the pagan Gods in the last – though he does not name any Gods, so it is at least arguable that he is referring to God and the saints. But the last two lines, if Campion means them in earnest, certainly suggest a way of thinking with its origins in ancient Greece, the idea that there is no objective good and bad at all, only pain, and that one’s life should be organised around avoiding pain as much as possible. This is the very rational, very unchristian, doctrine of Epicurus.

Epicurus practised philosophy in what came to be known as the Hellenistic period, in the wake of the Alexandrian conquest that finished off the old Greek states for good, and with them their idealism. The Stoics, the Cynics and the Sceptics philosophised in a world where they could not hope to alter events, but had to resign themselves to them, or withdraw from them. Ecclesiastes too was probably written in one of the (many) periods in Jewish history where the Hebrews were subjugated by a greater power, unable to control their own destiny. Political powerlessness breeds fatalism. So whence comes Campion’s fatalism? It could be simply another inheritance of the classics he was so influenced, but it could equally have been born from the circumstances of his own age.

Campion was, as I noted above, a Catholic. Catholicism in no way that I can see informs his work – his is simply not a poetry of religious ideas. But it affected his life. He attended Oxford, but did not graduate – and this is thought to be because Catholics were forbidden at the time from holding degrees from English universities. Many English Catholics in the Elizabethan era rebelled against their sovereign, from those in the north who took up arms against their queen, to the many who were ordained overseas as Jesuits to return and preach in their country, who were often hanged and quartered for their trouble (the most famous of whom shared the poet’s surname –one Edmund Campion), and those involved in plots to put Mary Stewart on the throne. But Campion was not a soldier, nor a priest – he was a poet and songwriter. He made his living in Tudor society as best he could, perhaps as a lawyer when younger, certainly as a doctor when older, and was involved in the great web of patronage around the Howard family, that sometimes crypto-Catholic, sometimes overtly Catholic noble household of great standing and high ambitions. For someone who was not inclined to wholly endorse Elizabeth’s settlement, but was not prepared to suffer the consequences of rebelling against it, a studied classical cynicism was just the thing.

Of course, it wasn’t just Catholics who couldn’t speak their minds in Elizabethan England. There were certain topics on which everyone had to watch their words. Ben Jonson found this to his cost when he was hauled in front of the authorities to account for satirical elements in his play ‘The Isle of Dogs’, which has unfortunately been lost to posterity. Kyd and Marlowe were two more playwrights who ran into trouble for offending the pieties of the day. Better be like Shakespeare and, if one wants to comment on court life, recreate the courts of generations past, those overseas or in a semi-mythical past, and let the audience make the connection to the modern day. Or, like Campion here, speak in the greatest generalities. An Elizabethan listener would likely have thought of Elizabeth’s royal marches at the sound of the word ‘pageant,’ even if Campion’s lines speak of a pageant of abstract entities. ‘Wit’ was a greatly valued characteristic in Elizabethan and Jacobean times, and strongly associated with the court and the monarchs, who like to test their own verbal dexterity on their cleverest courtesans: and yet here, the Gods, or God, looks down on such cleverness with scorn – rather Campion does. He can safely excoriate the powerful of his own age by talking about the powerful of all ages.

Many of Campion’s poems were also songs, and many of their tunes have survived to the modern day. I must profess ignorance on this one – I don’t know whether Campion (or his collaborator Rossiter) ever set this to music, or, if they did, whether it survived for posterity. All that seems to come up on the web is Vaughan Williams’ song. Williams song in any case is worth listening to, a mixed choir and piano arrangement. It’s beautifully uplifting – and that makes perfect sense to anyone who has experienced the relief of just not caring anymore…

*This is almost a quote from People Ain’t No Good, a lovely bit of miserablism from that most poetic of modern crooners, Nick Cave

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And wilt thou leave me thus?

Wyatt and Boleyn

Jamie Tomas King and Natalie Dormer as Thomas Wyatt and Anne Boleyn in The Tudors (http://tudors.wikia.com/wiki/Thomas_Wyatt)

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.

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Auguries of Insolence

I was asked my age in class the other day, and wheeled out the old lie/joke that really means, I’d rather you didn’t ask.

‘Twenty-one,’ I said.

‘You look like you’re forty-six,’ the eleven year old girl replied.

That number was no accident – she knows for a fact I’m thirty-six.

I explained to her (though surely she already knew), that it is polite to tell people they look younger than they are.

‘Okay,’ she said. ‘You look sixteen.’

‘Gah!’

I think the ideal lie is something like, guess someone’s age, then subtract ten years, but if I told her that then she would tell me I looked thirty-six, so I took a different tack.

Next lesson, in the back of her book I wrote the following lines from Blake’s Auguries of Innocence.

A truth that’s told with bad intent

Beats all the lies you can invent.

‘Special homework just for you,’ I said. ‘Read the poem and explain the meaning to me.’

‘It means don’t tell lies.’

‘No it doesn’t. Read it.’

‘But I can’t understand…’

‘Really?’

‘Your handwriting.’

‘Ah…’ I read it out to her.

A minute later she handed her book to me with her gloss on the poem:

It means be nice to the old teacher.

Gah!

(Just a short, light-hearted post this one. If you’re looking for a more serious consideration of Blake’s poem, um, I dunno – try Google or something? More substantial posts to follow soon ^^)

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Lucks, My Fair Falcon

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Hawking, Edwin Henry Landseer. 1832

Lucks, My Fair Falcon

Lucks, my fair falcon, and your fellows all,
How well pleasant it were your liberty!
Ye not forsake me that fair might ye befall.
But they that sometime liked my company:
Like lice away from dead bodies they crawl.
Lo what a proof in light adversity!
But ye my birds, I swear by all your bells,
Ye be my friends, and so be but few else.
This poem starts by praising birds, then disparages people, then goes back to the birds. So let’s follow suit and start with those falcons.

Thomas Wyatt, 1540-41

Notes: “ye not forsake me that fair might me befall” means, you don’t forsake me in order that fair things might happen to you.

Falconry was one of the regular pursuits of noblemen in the sixteenth century, and most young noblemen would have at least one bird of prey they took hawking (the word ‘hawk’ then referred to a male bird, and ‘falcon’ female), often that they had trained themselves. Bands of men – and women too – would take their birds out to chase down grouse, rabbits and other prey. In a sense, then, Wyatt’s falcon would have been than a pet, but, a companion and a kind of team-mate – emotionally speaking, their relationship would have been closer to that of man and horse, than say a budgie kept in a cage.

The ‘loyalty’ that Wyatt lauds in falcons is of course strictly conditioned. The birds are trained to be dependent on their owners, and that is why, when they are let go – given their temporary ‘liberty’, they always come back. Still, who’s to say that the birds don’t also have a genuine emotional attachment to their owners, as I believe (and other, more strictly rationalistic, types don’t believe) many animals have? The opening and closing lines of the poem really are a kind of encomium to falcons and their qualities, they aren’t just there to draw a comparison with humans, who lack those same qualities. But that is the main reason they’re there…

Wyatt wrote this poem during a spell in prison, after he had been caught up in the downfall of Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn, whom he had courted when they were both younger. The affair had, it seems, come to nothing, but Wyatt’s name came up when the king’s right hand man, Thomas Cromwell, was investigating – or more likely fabricating – scurrilous rumours about the young queen’s conduct. Wyatt was thrown in the tower, and watched several others and then Anne herself being executed from his cell window. He was eventually acquitted of the charges, but the experience was bitter. Not only, as we can see, for the fear and dread it inspired, but the loss of social prestige – and of fair weather friends – that accompanied his fall.

The whole affair was bad for Wyatt, but much worse for the queen and her supposed lovers; and it may have been good for poetry. Wyatt is a great poet, but an awful lot of his poems are on the subject of love, and the sufferings of a dedicated lover, in the Petrarchan style. It can get a bit tiresome, especially for those of us whose courting days are long behind us. Reading through his poems, this stands out as one of the most distinctive and most arresting. After the soaring appreciation of falcons, we are brought down to earth with a most disparaging description of Wyatt’s one time friends. The lice simile is at once superbly contemptuous of those who he feels to have abandoned him, but also creepily morbid. I imagine that lice were omnipresent in prisons in the sixteenth century, so perhaps when he wrote the poem he was uncomfortably well-acquainted with them. Omnipresent too, and implicit in the same image, must have been the thought of his own death.

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The Strange Death of the English R

Some thoughts about the disappearance of the terminal r from English speech and its effect on the sound of English poetry…

Andy Fleck's Blog

In one part of Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, the playwright Christopher Marlowe is sent on a mission among the English Catholic exiles in the Low Countries by the spy master Francis Walsingham. As he listens to the speech of an old priest at the English College he starts to notice a subtle defect in his speech:

What he noted in the speech of the speaker was a property that was not of the language of London… Our language is rich in what our orthopeists term the rhotic (I know these things; I was brought up an actor), that is to say our dog sound is a firm roll in words containing the letter r. But this gentleman was weak in it and spoke argument and preacher and Caesar with but a limp tap.
This weak r sound is something that Burgess’s Marlowe continues to notice in the English…

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Raleigh on his Execution

After a long hiatus (mostly due to the birth of my daughter), I am blogging again here, and also over at Andy Fleck’s Blog. The remit is a little wider than Sweettenorbull, but there will still be a lot about poetry. I guess about a quarter of the posts will focus on poetry, and I will reblog those here on Sweettenorbull.

Andy Fleck's Blog

One of the books I enjoyed over the winter was Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, which imagines the life and death of the playwright Christopher Marlowe. His Marlowe is an odd character: quick-tempered, quick-witted, provocative and quick to draw his sword, he is oddly reminiscent of Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Marlowe comes across as somewhat sophomoric, but then he was young, and must have been a sharp character to have lived the life he lived; as well as being a prodigious playwright from a fairly humble background, Marlowe was rumoured to be a homosexual, an atheist and a spy for the Elizabethan government.

I preferred another of the historical characters in the book, Sir Walter Raleigh,  – a warm and wily old adventurer, enjoying the company of his comrades while he must guard his back against his enemies at court.The more I read about Raleigh, the less he…

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Now is the Time of Christmas

Yes, it is, it’s that time of year.

Now there’s a misconception out there about Christmas, shared by many misty-eyed nostalgists of the golden days of yore (with whom, regular readers of Sweettenorbull may have noticed, I have a pronounced sympathy) that Christmas before the mid-Twentieth Century was an inherently tasteful thing, all about celebrating the birth of our Saviour through carol singing, church services, and the giving and receiving of modest gifts, often mere oranges. After the Second World War and the Sixties, Christmas became ever more commercial, hedonistic and materialistic, despite endless, desperate pleas by newspaper columnists and pious school teachers exhorting us to remember the true meaning of Christmas. So goes the misty-eyed nostalgist’s general view of events.

But we misty-eyed nostalgists of the golden days of yore will have to go hang, because, as this poem proves, Christmas has always brought out the bawd in those inclined to bawdiness. Here’s how they partied in the early sixteenth century:

 

Make we mery bothe more and lasse

For now is the time of Christimas.

 

Let no man cum into this hall,

Grome, page, nor yet marshall,

But that sum sport he bring withal,

For now is the time of Christmas.

 

If that he say he cannot sing

Sum oder sport then let him bring

That it may please at this festing,

For now is the time of Christmas.

 

If he say he can nought do,

Then for my love aske him no mo,

But to the stockes then let him go,

For now is the time of Christmas.

 

Anon, Selected from ‘Medieval English Lyrics’, Faber and Faber 1991, Ed. R.T. Davies

 

Come to think of it, that does rather get me in the mood for Christmas. I don’t know – maybe it was the threat of the stocks that did it. It beats ‘Last Christmas’ hands down, anyway.

***

I am not blogging at the moment, as regular readers of the blog will have noticed. I plan to launch a new blog with a slightly different remit early in the new year. In the meantime, I will be re-posting some old posts, especially ones that didn’t get much noticed the first time around. Merry Christmas to all who have dropped by!

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