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Rhymed Blank Verse: Thomas Hood

October 26, 2014
Thomas Hood (1799-1845), artist unknown.

Thomas Hood (1799-1845), artist unknown.

Thomas Hood penned the following bit of whim.



SIR . — In one of your Annuals you have given insertion to “A Plan for Writing Blank Verse in Rhyme”; but as I have seen no regular long poem constructed on its principles, I suppose the scheme did not take with the literary world. Under these circumstances I feel encouraged to bring forward a novelty of my own, and I can only regret that such poets as Chaucer and Cottle, Spenser and Hayley, Milton and Pratt, Pope and Pye, Byron and Batterbee, should have died before it was invented. The great difficulty in verse is avowedly the rhyme. Dean Swift says somewhere in his letters, “that a rhyme is as hard to find with him as a guinea,” — and we all know that guineas are proverbially scarce among poets. The merest versifier that ever attempted a Valentine must have met with this Orson, some untameable savage syllable that refused to chime in with society. For instance, what poetical Foxhunter—a contributor to the Sporting Magazine—has not drawn all the covers of Beynard, Ceynard, Deynard, Feynard, Geynard, Heynard, Keynard, Leynard, Meynard, Neynard, Peynard, Queynard, to find a rhyme for Reynard? The spirit of the times is decidedly against Tithe; and I know of no tithe more oppressive than that poetical one, in heroic measure, which requires that every tenth syllable shall pay a sound in kind. How often the Poet goes up a line, only to be stopped at the end by an impracticable rhyme, like a bull in a blind alley! I have an ingenious medical friend, who might have been an eminent poet by this time, but the first line he wrote ended in ipecacuana, and with all his physical and mental power, he has never yet been able to find a rhyme for it. The plan I propose aims to obviate this hardship. My system is, to take the bull by the horns; in short, to try at first what words will chime, before you go further and fare worse. To say nothing of other advantages, it will at least have one good effect—and that is, to correct the erroneous notion of the would-be poets and poetesses of the present day, that the great end of poetry is rhyme. I beg leave to present a specimen of verse, which proves quite the reverse, and am, Sir, your most obedient servant,
John Dryden Grubb.

The Double Knock

Rat-tat it went upon the lion’s chin,
“That hat, I know it!” cried the joyful girl;
“Summer’s it is, I know him by his knock,
Comers like him are welcome as the day!
Lizzy! go down and open the street-door,
Busy I am to any one but him.
Know him you must — he has been often here;
Show him up stairs, and tell him I ‘m alone.”
Quickly the maid went tripping down the stair;
Thickly the heart of Rose Matilda beat;
“Sure he has brought me tickets for the play—
Drury—or Covent Garden—darling man!—
Kemble will play—or Kean who makes the soul
Tremble; in Richard or the frenzied Moor—
Farren, the stay and prop of many a farce
Barren beside—or Liston, Laughter’s Child—
Kelly the natural, to witness whom
Jelly is nothing in the public’s jam—
Cooper, the sensible—and Walter Knowles
Super, in William Tell—now rightly told.
Better—perchance, from Andrews, brings a box,
Letter of boxes for the Italian stage—
Brocard! Donzelli! Taglioni! Paul!
No card—thank heaven—engages me to-night!
Feathers, of course, no turban, and no toque—
Weather’s against it, but I’ll go in curls.
Dearly I dote on white—my satin dress,
Merely one night—it won’t be much the worse—
Cupid—the New Ballet I long to see—
Stupid! why don’t she go and ope the door!”
Glistened her eye as the impatient girl
Listened, low bending o’er the topmost stair.
Vainly, alas! she listens and she bends,
Plainly she hears this question and reply:
“Axes your pardon, Sir, but what cl’ ye want?”
“Taxes,” says he, “and shall not call again!”

Hood has thrown down a gauntlet, here. If we can shift the rhyme from the 5th position in a purportedly pentameter line to the first, then why not to the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th? For that matter, why not call for a poem in pentameter in which the rhyming foot slides, in a regulated way, from position to position? I speak of pentameter lines, because that’s what blank verse is said to entail (five feet, five beats). But his mischief runs further than the shifting of (almost entirely) two-syllable trochaic rhymes, and we shouldn’t take him prima facie in this jeu d’sprit.

Nicholson Naker

Nicholson Naker

As is the case with so much light verse, Hood’s lines, here, tend rather toward triplet meter, falling out of step with “five-foot” lines, and, in fact, bearing out an argument made in Nicholson Baker‘s charming novel, The Anthologist. Narrating that book is Paul Chowder, a poet, and he’s at work on an anthology titled Only Rhyme. Threading its way in among plot-lines to do with Chowder’s personal misfortunes (his girlfriend, Roz, has left him), or to do with his dog Smacko, or his neighbour Nannette, is a running debate as to the nature of the pentameter line, and as to the real locomotion of poetry in English:

And yes, of course, there are things that should be said about iambic pentameter, and I don’t want to lose sight of that. I don’t want to slight “the longer line.” I hope we can get to that fairly soon. My theory — I can’t resist giving you a little glimpse of it here — my theory is that iambic pentameter is in actuality a waltz. It’s not five-beat rhythm, even though “pent” means five, because five beats would be totally off-kilter and ridiculous and would never work and would be a complete disaster and totally unlistenable. Pentameter, so called, if you listen to it with an open ear, is a slow kind of gently swaying three-beat minuetto. Really, I mean it.

Thomas Hood inadvertently bears Paul Chowder out, because although all lines in “The Double Knock” have ten syllables, and many can be laid on the Procrustean bed of the five-stress line—”Rat-tat it went upon the lion’s chin”—the real motive here is a four-beat rhythm with a little triplet motive as its subroutine, or, as The Anthologist has it, the minuet, or waltz, that Chowder hears in all but the most programmatic pentameter lines:

Rat-tat it went upon the lion’s chin,
“That hat, I know it!” cried the joyful girl;
Summer’s it is, I know him by his knock,
Comers like him are welcome as the day!
Lizzy! go down and open the street-door,
Busy I am to any one but him.

Hear that? Four beats, carried off with triplets tossed in, as for a waltz. Paul Chowder is dancing, up in his barn. Perhaps The Anthologist is among the happier contributions to poetics published since Derek Attridge published The Rhythms of English Poetry in 1982—a book, by the way, that Chowder commends.

Incidentally, a Mr. Heyward Smith once googled Hood’s poem in 1906. Edward Rankle googled back:

From The New York Times, September 1, 1906.

From The New York Times, September 1, 1906.

“Tinker not with that which runs apace”: Notes on a poem by John Ashbery

July 9, 2014
John Ashbery in 2010 (photo by David Shankbone).

John Ashbery in 2010 (photo by David Shankbone).

The Helsinki-born composer Robert Kajanus (1856-1933) wrote two works known, in English, as “Finnish Rhapsodies,” the first in D minor (1881), the second in F major (1886). John Ashbery made shorter work of it by writing two poems at once, also under the title “Finnish Rhapsody.”

Here is a poem that is at once itself and itself in other words, as if settling on the right and clarifying words were either unnecessary, or perhaps an exercise in which, for once, a poet might simply decide he’s not obliged to engage. Poets have been giving us single poems at once for millennia; many have revised, or overhauled, poems once written (and published) into other words (as Yeats, Marianne Moore, and Robert Lowell did). But if a weirdly stereophonic poem like “Finnish Rhapsody” exists, in which the lines come to us as though simultaneously in two channels (put on your headphones), I’m unaware of it (a signal exception: Ashbery’s “Litany”).

The effect is strange and funny. The second half of each line restates what’s said in the first half, often in higher (even preposterous) diction, sometimes in phrasings a bit more idiomatic, sometimes in terms that don’t differ much as to diction or idiom, and once in another language altogether (French). Not that “Finnish Rhapsody” is without some precedent. In John Ashbery and You: His Later Books (2007), John Vincent points out that the poem is “composed in paraphrastic hemistitches, a form borrowed from the Kalevala, a collection of Finnish oral epic poems,” wherein “the first half of each line in a paraphrastic hemistich is paraphrased in the second half.” Borrowed, to be sure, but also adapted to quite different purposes, because as Mr. Vincent suggests, the poem may be meant to forestall, or simply make a mockery of, efforts to “paraphrase”—or make stolid sense of—Ashbery generally. A shot across the bow of the USS Vendler, say, or a surface-to-air missive aimed at that literary-historical balloonist nonpareil, Harold Bloom. Maybe. I’m not so sure.

Whatever the case, “rhapsody” once designated an epic poem, or long part of one, suitable (as the OED has it) “for recitation at one time.” The term also refers (again, as per the OED) to “a literary work consisting of miscellaneous or disconnected pieces; a written composition having no fixed form or plan.” This latter sense Ashbery may (mischievously) have in mind, with the ingratiating difference that nothing could be more evident, here, and better fixed, than the “plan” or “form” this poem takes: Ashbery has written a rhapsody that is also anti-rhapsodic. It is its own weird double, its own twin (neither identical nor quite fraternal); it is both phrase and paraphrase (and a parody of paraphrase). It’s a queer reflection of itself, not as in a convex mirror, but as in a fun-house one. Ashbery has written a “rhapsody” to end all rhapsodies, a rhapsody to finish rhapsodies (I’ll not say the title doesn’t double itself in a pun).

Given that “rhapsody” may also mean (the OED, again) “the joining together of miscellaneous unconnected literary pieces,” Ashbery may have written, here, his most exemplary, most Ashbery-like, poem. Most readers, with good enough reason—after all, Ashbery translated Rimbaud’s Illuminations, and his affiliations with the French symbolists are manifest and on the record;—many readers, as I say, properly regard his poetry as generally in this happily deranged line.

I’ll discuss in detail only the first two verse paragraphs, given that this entry already exceeds 5,000 words. Some may wish to read the opening fourteen lines of “Finnish Rhapsody,” scroll down for the commentary, such as it is, and then return to the poem for a complete reading. After I’ve had my say, I will print the two halves of the poems, so to speak, one after the other, for whatever that exercise may reveal. One more note: WordPress doesn’t like long lines of verse, and, depending on how your browser works, some of the longer lines may “wrap” as we’d prefer they not.

“Finnish Rhapsody”

He managed the shower, coped with the small spattering drops,
Then rubbed himself dry with a towel, wiped the living organism.
Day extended its long promise, light swept through his refuge.
But it was time for business, back to the old routine.

Many there are, a crowd exists at present,
For whom the daily forgetting, to whom the diurnal plunge
Truncates the spadelike shadows, chops off the blades of darkness,
To be rescued, to be guided into a state of something like security.
Yet it falls off for others; for some, however, it drops from sight:
The millers, winnowers of wheat,
Dusted with snow-white flour, glazed with farinaceous powder,
Like Pierrot, like the white clown of chamber music;
The leggy mannequins, models slender and tall;
The sad children, the disappointed kids.

And for these few, to this small group
Forgetting means remembering the ranks, oblivion is recalling the rows
Of flowers each autumn and spring; of blooms in the fall and early summer.
But those traveling by car, those nosing the vehicle out into the crowded highway
And at the posts of evening, the tall poles of declining day,
Returning satisfied, their objective accomplished,
Note neither mystery nor alarm, see no strangeness or cause for fright.
And these run the greatest risk at work, are endangered by their employment
Seeing there can be no rewards later, no guerdon save in the present:
Strong and severe punishment, peine forte et dure,
Or comfort and relaxation, coziness and tranquillity.

Don’t fix it if it works, tinker not with that which runs apace,
Otherwise the wind might get it, the breeze waft it away.
There is no time for anything like chance, no spare moment for the aleatory,
Because the closing of our day is business, the bottom line already here.
One wonders what roadblocks we’re set up for, we question barricades:
Is it better to time, jot down the performance time of
Anything irregular, all that doesn’t fit the preconceived mold
Of our tentative offerings and withdrawals, our hesitant giving and taking back?
For those who perform correctly, for the accurate, painstaking ones
Do accomplish their business, get the job done,
And are seldom seen again, and are rarely glimpsed after that.
That there are a few more black carriages, more somber chariots
For some minutes, over a brief period,
Signifies business as usual, means everything is OK,
That the careful have gone to their reward, the capable disappeared
And boobies, or nincompoops, numskulls and sapheads,
Persist, faced with eventual destruction; endure to be confronted with annihilation someday.

The one who runs little, he who barely trips along
Knows how short the day is, how few the hours of light.
Distractions can’t wrench him, preoccupations forcibly remove him
From the heap of things, the pile of this and that:
Tepid dreams and mostly worthless; lukewarm fancies, the majority of them unprofitable.
Yet it is from these that the light, from the ones present here that luminosity
Sifts and breaks, subsides and falls asunder.
And it will be but half-strange, really be only semi-bizarre
When the tall poems of the world, the towering earthbound poetic utterances
Invade the street of our dialect, penetrate the avenue of our patois,
Bringing fresh power and new knowledge, transporting virgin might and up-to-date enlightenment
To this place of honest thirst, to this satisfyingly parched here and now,
Since all things congregate, because everything assembles
In front of him, before the one
Who need only sit and tie his shoelace, who should remain seated, knotting the metal-tipped cord
For it to happen right, to enable it to come correctly into being
As moments, then years; minutes, afterwards ages
Suck up the common strength, absorb the everyday power
And afterwards live on, satisfied; persist, later to be a source of gratification,
But perhaps only to oneself, haply to one’s sole identity.

The first verse paragraph works as do all that succeed it, the inaugural foray gets itself off in such a mode as characterizes the motive principle of its progeny. As I say, this is a highly patterned and planned “rhapsody,” which is to suggest (again) that as a rhapsody it is neither here nor there, both at one with itself (it’s wilder vagaries are certainly rhapsodic), and at sixes and sevens with itself (no “rhapsody” worthy of the name would be built with such transparent machinery).

Anyway, here’s the first paragraph, un-twinned:

He managed the shower,
Then rubbed himself dry with a towel.
Day extended its long promise,
But it was time for business.

He coped with the small spattering drops,
Then wiped the living organism.
Light swept through his refuge,
But it was back to the old routine.

The stanza’s first version of itself is straightforward enough. Its second version of itself is slightly bizarre and, without its twin, partly unintelligible: we don’t know, for example, that it describes a man taking a shower, and of course it may not, or anyway may only appear to when joined to its more demotic counterpart. The second half of line one (taken whole) is a slightly obscure paraphrase of the first. “Coped” stands in for “managed,” though its connotations differ; “small spattering drops” opens “shower” out into something much less precise. “Rubbed himself dry with a towel” is as prosaic as “wiped the living organism” is not. The latter has a faux biological air about it, and wiping and rubbing, though in the same denotative bin, stand quite apart. You wipe to clean something up, you rub to dry or polish. On the other hand, “it was back to the old routine” seems at first simply a jaunty way of saying “it was time for business,” but then, at second glance, not: both are perfectly idiomatic, of course, but they do not mean the same thing. “Time for business” means “time to stop fooling around” (which “Finnish Rhapsody” never does—unless). And then, with line three, we find two very different things indeed. “OK. Get out of bed, shower up, and then consider the day’s long promise, as you turn to your business.” But “light,” though of the day, is not identical with it, and the shower from which you emerge, after towelling down, is no “refuge” (though the house of which it forms a part may be). The first visitation of the four lines is coherent, in diction and in theme, the second visitation is not, wavering, as it does, from what seems like bad writing (“wiped the living organism”), to something Paul Chowder (narrator of Nicholson Baker‘s The Anthologist) might slap his thigh and say (“back to the old routine”), to something that seems to ANNOUNCE itself as “poetic” (“light swept through his refuge”). Each line is a swinging double-door the right half of which comes unhinged as we pass through it. The method isn’t at all mad, but the results are often madcap. Read more…

The Natural History of Frost’s Poetics

May 30, 2014
Frost, at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Middlebury, Vermont.

Frost, at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Middlebury, Vermont.

N.B.: I’m likely not learned enough to make the following arguments, which I offer here “on spec.” Henry will tell me where I err.


On October 8, 1919, Robert Frost wrote to Katherine Lee Bates, a family friend, professor of English at Wellesley College, and author of the lyrics to “America the Beautiful” (the lines first appeared as a poem, titled simply “America,” in 1895). Frost had been arranging for a series of talks on “vocal reality,” one of which was to be given at Wellesley on October 31:

Do you get excited about all the nonsense that is being said about free rhythms? Free rhythms are as disorderly as nature; meters are as orderly as human nature and take their rise in rhythms just as human nature rises out of nature.

The “free rhythms” in question are those of what Frost, in 1913 and 1914, had been calling the “sounds of sense.” As here, in a July 4, 1913 letter to John Bartlett: “The sound of sense, then. You get that. It is the abstract vitality of our speech. It is pure sound—pure form. One who concerns himself with it more than the subject is an artist.” Frost offers up a number of examples of the “abstract vitality of our speech,” “abstract” because the sounds he has in mind may be abstracted from, withdrawn from, the words that embody them. He explains, again in a letter to Bartlett: “Suppose Henry Horne says something offensive to a young lady named Rita when her brother Charles is by to protect her. Can you hear the two different tones in which she says their respective names, ‘Henry Horne! Charles!’ I can hear it better than I can say it.” A simple exercise shows how the tones are independent of, and may be abstracted from, the vowels and consonants of the words that convey them. Substitute “Paul Ryan!” for “Henry Horne!” and “Krugman!” for “Charles!” The sounds remain, every bit as clearly marked. That they are language-independent, and so abstractable from English, is also easy to show: “Satoshi Torada! Koji!” works every bit as well for a young lady named Yasuyo to whom Satoshi Torada has said something offensive.

Frost puts the matter another way in a 1915 letter to Walter Prichard Eaton, at the time an eminent drama critic:

All I care a cent for is to catch sentence tones that haven’t been brought to book. I dont say to make them, mind you, but to catch them. No one makes them or adds to them. They are always there—living in the cave of the mouth. They are real cave things: they were before words were.

“Real cave things” that “were before words were,” “living in the cave of the mouth”: the anthropological nuances are intentional, and they take us back to the letter to Bates: “Free rhythms are as disorderly as nature; meters are as orderly as human nature and take their rise in rhythms just as human nature rises out of nature” (italics added). Frost is sketching out nothing less than the natural history of his poetics, and therefore also of his poetry. Pound understood that the slogan “make it new” meant also “re-new it”; hence his recourse to literary traditions, and to poetry, centuries old and continents apart. Frost went him one better to make poetry new, and also to renew it: he went all the way back to the cave, to sounds that were before words were. The sounds we hear in “Henry Horne!” and “Charles!” could be made with a homo habilis, early Palaeolithic grunt-snarl (say) and a cry (beseeching in all but words). During the Palaeolithic (to carry my point forward, playfully) “human nature” arose out of “nature”: homo sapiens sapiens supervened upon homo habilis (and its other antecedents), and, in the Upper Palaeolithic, what we properly call “culture” made its advent (cave paintings, quasi-religious ritual, ceramics, and so on). Free rhythms (of whatever kind) as disorderly as nature were made orderly in culture (and in agriculture).

The analogical way Frost goes about his business in the 1919 letter to Bates anticipates what he says in his 1935 “Letter” to The Amherst Student: “There is at least so much good in the world that it admits of form and the making of form. And not only admits of it, but calls for it. We people are thrust forward out of the suggestions of form in the rolling clouds of nature. In us nature reaches its height of form and through us exceeds itself.” As Frost elsewhere says, “this is no literary mysticism.” In fact, it is sound Darwinism—of a sort anyway. Consider certain remarks Richard Dawkins makes toward the end of The Selfish Gene:

It is possible that yet another unique quality of man is a capacity 
for genuine, disinterested, true altruism. I hope so, but I am not going to argue the case one way or the other … The point I am making now is that, even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight—our capacity to 
simulate the future in imagination—

Say, in novels, poetry, legal codes, monetary policy, treaties, what have you—

could save us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests. We can see the long-term benefits of participating in a ‘conspiracy of doves,’ and we can sit down together to discuss ways of making the conspiracy work. We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination [into such things as monotheism, American exceptionalism, and the idea that taxes on capital gains are an abomination]. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism—something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

“Something that has no place in nature”: altruism, for example—or art, poetic art included. This is what Frost has in mind in speaking of nature supervening upon and “exceeding” itself in and through us: out of “suggestions of form,” we get “form,” in a strictly cultural sense; out of (untamed) “free rhythms,” we get “meter.” Blind replicators (molecules called DNA) account for homo sapiens well enough, but not (say) for “humanity,” and certainly not for any possible “conspiracy of doves.” And this notwithstanding the weak attempts, by some evolutionary psychologists, to account for “altruism” in Darwinian ways—tribal and contingent altruism, yes, but not pure, disinterested altruism of the kind Dawkins has in mind.† For this great desideratum to come into being, nature must exceed itself in us. Note that the movement is from the bottom up: nothing at all about this supervention need be supernatural. We have to do with cranes, not skyhooks, as the philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett likes to say. Read more…

“Quick as a shot through the brain”: Notes on Kipling’s “Lichtenberg”

April 17, 2014
From Murray's History.

From P. L. Murray’s “Official Record of Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa.” Click on the image to enlarge it.

During the Anglo-Boer War (also called the Second Boer War), New South Wales, Australia, sent five contingents of soldiers to fight with the British in South Africa, and in the Boer-controlled South African Republic (informally known as the Transvaal Republic, or, at the time, simply as the Transvaal). They saw action from 1900-1902 (though the first departed Australia on October 9, 1899). In his Official Record of Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa (A. J. Mullett, Government Printer: Melbourne, 1911), Lieutenant Colonel P. L. Murray explains, in a chapter on The New South Wales Imperial Bushmen, that these contingents were “raised in response to an invitation from the British Government, which (the second phase of the war having commenced) now asked the Colonies for hardy bushmen—men who could ride, shoot, and find their way about—in order to fight the Boers with their own weapons” (the Boer having resorted to irregular, guerrilla combat). Murray has this to say, by way of preface to the section of his book devoted to New South Wales:

The first Contingents embarked were in reality drafts from the three New South Wales mounted regiments; the company of infantry was enrolled entirely from selected men of the Militia and Volunteer Battalions. These were, therefore, a superior class of individuals, from whom considerable was to be expected; and there was little trouble in getting them away. “A” Battery R.A.A. was, of course, under strict discipline; and the same may be said of the Army Medical Corps. But much rougher material had to be dealt with in the Bushmen’s and subsequent Contingents; though, of course, they ultimately became leavened with a proportion of men who had been to the war and gained valuable experience. Many of the recruits, however—a large majority in some cases—were mere rough bushmen, countrymen, handicraftsmen, farm labourers, and the like, who had never soldiered before, and had everything to learn in the way of drill and discipline.

It is from men like these latter (“mere rough bushmen, countrymen, handicraftsmen, farm labourers, and the like”) that the solider who figures in Rudyard Kipling’s “Lichtenberg” was drawn. Or so we are to imagine him, in any case: a farmer who kept a vineyard in the Hunter River Valley in New South Wales, now celebrated for its wine, the major production of which began at about the time the NSW Bushmen were sent to fight the Boer in South Africa.

Lichtenburg (as it’s usually spelled) was a small market-town in the Transvaal, when it was established in 1873 (it is now in the North West Province of South Africa). General de la Ray, the Boer commander in the region during the war of 1899-1902, was associated with the town and is buried there. A diamond rush dating to the 1920s altered the town, overtaking it for nearly a decade. But when the NSW Bushmen (and their successor contingents) fought in and around Lichtenberg (as Kipling spells it in the poem), the town had been shorn of its trees by General de la Ray, to make it easier to defend, and it passed from Boer to British control more than once. The NSW Bushmen, as Murray indicates, took part in the re-occupation of the town on September 28, 1900 (five firefights with the Boer, with one Australian killed on the 29th), fought near it in February 1900 (losing another soldier), and then again in the relief of it on March 7, 1901 (the NSW Bushmen remained in the vicinity through April, on the 10th of which they lost yet another soldier). For all of which reasons the town is properly described, in “Lichtenberg,” as wide open (emptied of residents, stripped of shade trees) and un-supplied (the “sold-out shops,” owned by Boer merchants, could hardly expect British-controlled trains to stock their shelves). In short, Lichtenberg was a war-time town, exactly as given us in the poem, which Kipling placed in “Service Songs,” a sequence of sixteen poems that close his 1903 volume The Five Nationsthe title of which commends, in a Kiplingesque way, the ties that bound England to its four major (largely “white”) colonies: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Cape Colony, South Africa.

As for “nations”: it should be noted that, even as the Anglo-Boer War proceeded, Australia moved towards union, which was achieved on New Year’s Day 1901, when the new Federal Constitution went into effect, making a Commonwealth of what had been a group of colonies scattered across a continent. So, although the soldier in “Lichtenberg” calls up memories highly specific to New South Wales and the Hunter River Valley, the exclamation, “Ah, Christ! My country again!,” was assuming (perhaps) a new, and broader resonance in Australia. What role Australian soldiers’ experiences in the Anglo-Boer War played  in consolidating a sense of nationalism, I’m not qualified to say, except insofar as partisans of Harry “Breaker” Morant, Peter Handcock, and George Witton are concerned. Kipling was altogether on the side of British Imperial solidarity, and such poems as “Lichtenberg” (an act of Australian ventriloquism on his part) are hardly incompatible with that; in fact, I should think they’re necessary to it. I haven’t the time to look into the matter, but it would be instructive to see how Kipling’s writings on Australian military service in the Anglo-Boer War were received in Sydney, Perth, Canberra, Melbourne, and Brisbane. Or are received now. I’ll leave that to my Australian friends Justin, Mark, John, and Adam (aka “The Pirate”), who’ll know who they are if they read this.


(New South Wales Contingent)

Smells are surer than sounds or sights
To make your heart-strings crack—
They start those awful voices o’ nights
That whisper, “Old man, come back!”
That must be why the big things pass
And the little things remain,
Like the smell of the wattle by Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain.

There was some silly fire on the flank
And the small wet drizzling down—
There were the sold-out shops and the bank
And the wet, wide-open town;
And we were doing escort-duty
To somebody’s baggage-train,
And I smelt wattle by Lichtenberg—
Riding in, in the rain.

It was all Australia to me—
All I had found or missed:
Every face I was crazy to see,
And every woman I’d kissed:
All that I should n’t ha’ done, God knows!
(As He knows I’ll do it again),
That smell of the wattle round Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain!

And I saw Sydney the same as ever,
The picnics and brass-bands;
And my little homestead on Hunter River
And my new vines joining hands.
It all came over me in one act
Quick as a shot through the brain—
With the smell of the wattle round Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain.

I have forgotten a hundred fights,
But one I shall not forget—
With the raindrops bunging up my sights
And my eyes bunged up with wet;
And through the crack and the stink of the cordite
(Ah Christ! My country again!)
The smell of the wattle by Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain!

Fitting that a poem concerned with memory should have a refrain, rung in here with subtle variations in the last two lines of each stanza. Fitting also that a poem concerning not memory only but also a singularly affecting kind of nostalgia should have, as an organizing principle, or motive, that most familiar, and oldest, of stanzas—the English ballad stanza, sometimes called “hymn meter” (because so many hymns are composed in it): four-line runs of verse, alternating, in stress, 4/3/4/3, sometimes rhyming A-B-A-B, as in the first four lines of each stanza here, sometimes x-A-x-A, as in the last four lines of each stanza. These are the patterns earliest learned and most enduringly available to the ear of anyone native to an English-speaking, Christian country. They’re demotic, so to speak, and as fully vernacular as are so many turns of phrase in the poem, which differ in no respect from ordinary speech (“some silly fire on the flank,” “somebody’s baggage-train,” “All that I should n’t ha’ done, God knows! / As he knows I’ll do it again,” “bunged up,” and so on).

Kipling’s tact is to make so keenly felt, against these easy patterns and phrasings, those moments when the soldier’s voice takes on its peculiar and affecting note (“the small wet drizzling down,” “It was all Australia to me,” “Every face I was crazy to see,” “my new vines joining hands”). Mary Hamer suggests, rightly I think, that with “the small wet drizzling down” the poem recalls, or remembers, that oldest and most immediately moving poem of nostalgia in English (in, of course, the ballad stanza):

O westron wind, when wilt thou blow,
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again.

The “wattle” referred to in the refrain is a flowering plant (of the mimosa family), indigenous to New South Wales. The smokeless explosive cordite—through the stink of which the solider gets his whiff of the wattle—was developed and produced in the UK; it replaced gunpowder in the .303 cartridges used, by the infantry, from 1891 to 1915. So much for the details. What chiefly marks the poem are such touches as follow.

“There was some silly fire on the flank”: the word “silly” has had (as the OED shows) a strange career in English, meaning (sometimes during the same epoch) quite diverse and incompatible things. In the 15th and 16th centuries it meant, or could mean, “worthy, good, pious, holy.” By the 17th century it also meant “auspicious, fortunate.” The word has also been applied, since the 15th century, to defenseless creatures (in particular those who suffer undeservedly), a hint of which sense has been retained, somewhat altered, in contemporary uses of the word “silly” as a term of endearment. All the while, in the 16th and 17th centuries, “silly” also came to mean (when applied to persons) “weak, frail,” and (when applied to things) “trifling, of little significance.” The last sense operates here. This soldier may have once been (as were the men brought into the NSW Bushmen) without any military training or service. But by now he’s been in enough skirmishes to have forgotten a hundred of them, and no doubt he’s simply observed the fire off to the flank, and assessed it with the ready judgment veterans of combat acquire: in a trice they decide whether a fire, or the sound of a shell, or some smoke on the horizon, is or isn’t a threat that needs tending to; this fire off to the flank (it seems) is a trifle, not worth a second glance, let alone a soldier’s apprehension. The colloquial phrasing as much as the word “silly” dismisses it—has done with it.

That the solider speaks of himself as doing escort duty to “somebody’s baggage-train” hits the right note. Is the train to supply British forces, Canadian forces, forces from Cape Colony? The fact matters about as much as that silly fire on the flank matters, which is as it should be; you get, here, the war-weariness wherein not a thought is expended on things an infantryman (say) doesn’t need (or often wish) to know. All he knows, and needs to know, is that it isn’t supplying his own contingent. Lightly registered here is a slight disaffection with, or disregard for, the larger machinations governing the battlefield—a disposition of long-standing amongst enlisted men in modern armies. He’s good at what he does, our man; he can tell a silly fire from a serious one, passing into a town bedevilled by un-uniformed guerrillas conducting “irregular” warfare. But as for the disposition of troops and trains, well, what’s that to a man who only wants to live to hear, again, a brass band in Sydney? He can be of two minds, of two places—that smell of a wattle’s compelled him so to be: he’s in the Transvaal, but also by the Hunter River in New South Wales. “Crazy” catches the sheer vehemence of his nostalgia, and the lines “All that I should n’t ha’ done, God knows! / (As He knows I’ll do it again)” catch his ingratiating, and happily ironic, way of taking himself.

But most remarkable is what lies at the heart of the fourth stanza:

And I saw Sydney the same as ever,
The picnics and brass-bands;
And my little homestead on Hunter River
And my new vines joining hands.
It all came over me in one act
Quick as a shot through the brain—
With the smell of the wattle round Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain.

“My new vines joining hands”: here is a case where the tenderness a man feels for the work he does, the land he works, the vineyards he keeps, gives rise to the language he uses to speak of them all. The phrase “joining hands” is partly literal (this is more or less how vines grow on, and through, trellises, etc.), but chiefly figurative, sounding notes at once fraternal, affectionate, pious, or anyway reverential, as when a man, in this case a vintner, might join his own hands (spes alit agricolam). Adding force to the latter ideas is (perhaps) the scriptural resonance of talk about vines and vineyards (terms that occur hundreds of times in the English Bible).

That these ideas, these memories, this rendition from the Hunter River Valley, and in fact from “all Australia,” should “[come] over him in one act” is as correct psychologically (that is how olfactory memory works) as it is disquieting, when the coming over, when the act, is “quick as a shot to the brain,” whether from the cordite in a .303 cartridge, or from a Boer sniper wearing British kahki: the wattle and the memories it brings out simply slay this soldier from the New South Wales Contingent. And so it happens that out of a hundred skirmishes, and the forgetting of them, only one is lodged so deeply in memory by the scent of a wayside flower.

With the raindrops bunging up my sights
And my eyes bunged up with wet;
And through the crack and the stink of the cordite
(Ah Christ! My country again!)
The smell of the wattle by Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain!

 The scene evoked so obliquely is no doubt chaotic, aggravated by “bunged up” rifle sights, such that those .303 shells are hard (or impossible) to get off to good effect in a firefight not at all “silly” (the stink and the crack of the gunshots tell us how things now are, in or near that market-town coveted by the Boer commander de la Ray); and the eyes that would sight the rifle are “bunged up” not with rain but with “wet,” as likely from welled up tears as from whatever’s “drizzling down.” But set against the chaotic manoeuvres, and the incapacity rightly to see anything immediate, are those scenes realized in memory, and occasioned by a scent, with such uncanny precision: the brass bands, the picnics, Sydney, and a “little homestead on Hunter River.” In short, the soldier’s country again—where the word involves two incompatible ideas: delight in the memory, and frustration that it should come here, now, exactly where and when it’s as likely to cause pain as give relief.

In closing, I’ll add that Ralph Durand, in his Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling (1914), relays the following anecdote:

Some time after the war a group of men in a New Zealand club were discussing Rudyard Kipling’s accuracy. One man referred to this poem, and declared positively that there was no wattle in Lichtenberg. An argument followed, and the point was referred to a man present, an Australian, who had been to Lichtenberg. The Australian declared the first speaker to be wrong. He said that on a rainy day in Lichtenberg he had smelt wattle though he could not at first see any. Later, when opportunity offered, he had searched for it and found one small wattle-bush in full flower.

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The Rudyard Kipling Society maintains a page devoted to “Lichtenberg,” which you’ll find here. As for olfactory memory, you’ll find articles here, here, here, and here. You’ll find a useful site devoted to the Anglo-Boer War here. Finally, for discussion, in these pages, of another poem pertaining to the Anglo-Boer War (by Thomas Hardy), click here.

Map showing British colonies and Boer Republics, as disposed at the start of the Second Boer War.

Map showing British colonies and Boer Republics, as disposed at the start of the Second Boer War.

“How is this matter for mirth?”: Kipling’s Open Question

March 4, 2014

Rudyard Kipling first collected “Epitaphs of the War” in his 1919 volume The Years Between. Thirty-one in number, the epitaphs range as widely as “epitaphs” can, in theme, in manner, in tone, and in form. Kipling’s models, as a number of scholars have pointed out, were the epitaphs and epigrams in The Greek Anthology, which Kipling knew in translation (several translations would have been available to him), but perhaps also perused a bit in Greek, using a translation as an aide.

Following is the fifteenth of Kipling’s epitaphs, coming right midway through them:

“The Refined Man”

I was of delicate mind. I stepped aside for my needs,
Disdaining the common office. I was seen from afar and killed. . .
How is this matter for mirth? Let each man be judged by his deeds.
I have paid my price to live with myself on the terms that I willed.

Rudyard Kipling, circa 1915

Rudyard Kipling, circa 1915

Yes, that’s right. Our refined man couldn’t bear to relieve himself in the latrine, alongside other soldiers and in the general stench, and got shot while taking a dump off to the side somewhere. Here is an English Tommy of a kind not typical (though not entirely without precedent) in Kipling’s poetry. And what a foul exposure he suffers. We may assume that it is, in fact, an  infantryman with whom we here meet (as he met his end). Officers had ways of sparing themselves the worst indignities of the latrine (or the “common office,” a “refined” euphemism for an unrefined site and act). I would note also that our infantryman comes before us in his capacity as a “man,” not as a soldier, one purpose of military training, and one effect of combat, being to reduce the complexities of identity—man, son, father, Northumbrian, Londoner, husband, lover, brother, scholar, tanner, mason, farmer, whatever the case—to something single and indistinct. Here, a soldier simply chooses, again, to distinguish himself (as “refined”) and suffers the consequence. And is immortalized for it in an epitaph unlike any ever written.

But to our refined man’s question: How is this matter for mirth? I consider the question genuine, open, and as asked as much by Kipling as by his refined man (again, he’s not brought before us in his capacity as soldier). Maybe it’s matter for mirth, maybe not. If a man’s willing to hold to his delicacies in the trenches and out of them, though it cost him his life—well, I say fine, good for him. Admirable, even. The trenches were an obscenity anyway; so was the war—an every-hour affront to the privacies of every private in every privy. Violate with unwarranted mirth some other man’s peculiar dignity; ridicule his way of carrying himself, of taking himself, on the only terms he can in that appalling war; make sport, indeed, of his way of bearing our common animal burden (bodies that we are):—bad form; in fact, unrefined. On the other hand, a certain kind of snobbery meets its end. “Disdain” the common office in battle and punishment is usually swift. The platoon that shits together stays together—until it doesn’t. Anyway, camaraderie surely has other bases than such necessities as these. This epitaph is here to suggest as much: Precisely how is this matter for mirth?—because mirth can either make or break camaraderie.

But that rhyme! “Needs”/”deeds”—the need being to take the dump in private that was (in one sense) the deed. Kipling is one of the great rhymers—maybe our greatest. The wit of the rhyme is thematic, as good rhymes often are: here, surely, is matter for mirth—this rhyme. But take the bait—I think the poem quite likely baits us—and you may well find your laughter undermined, confounded, embarrassed; and that by precisely the thing that gave rise to it: this quatrain, this rhyme.

Which is to say, your mirth may draw out of you, quite before you realize it, something unseemly. The poem is at once about an occasion for mirth and also a thing that may or may not occasion mirth. It’s a kind of test, a touchstone: the nature of the amusement a reader derives from it characterizes him (whether in arraignment or commendation). Here, if ever there was one, we have a quatrain fit for consideration in light of “reader-response” theory; one might call it (and all Kipling’s epitaphs) a contribution to reader-response theory. Mind how people speak of these poems, and you’ll learn much. This quatrain is toilet humour of a very high order, such that it attains, I’d suggest, to real pathos (rising up well out of bathos).

To put it all another way, Kipling sets up an occasion for mirth and also forestalls it, giving us (and himself) pause. Reader, are you laughing? Look to your mirth. We are in a graveyard; this is an epitaph. And not just any graveyard: one for residence in which you must have worn the uniform and taken a bullet. Kipling never laughed at his English Tommy, nor at dead soldiers generally. Think through the matter well, before concluding that Kipling mocks this man and his refinement, though the man’s fellow soldiers may have, and though the (presumably) German soldier who shot him almost surely did (though, for all that, the indignities of the common office know no nationality).

However that may be, matter for bleakest mirth is the thing we mustn’t, again, forget: we are reading an epitaph, an unsweet remembrancer, about a deed we must all daily do and not be killed while at it.

Imagine reading this epitaph not in a book (where it exists) but at, say, Arlington National Cemetery, or some other such place where epitaphs of the kind Kipling left us don’t exist, the point being, there, properly to lodge soldiers in their common office for common homage; but where, if epitaphs were written with sardonic esprit de corps, they would surely be marked by the genius of the soldiers who’ve given America (and England) such a rich and bitter store of idiom and joke (one of the great records of which is Kipling’s own poetry, from Barrack Room Ballads  and Departmental Ditties on through the “epitaphs” under discussion here).

And finally, how many wars have shown the governments that wage them for what they are—a bathroom stall? Let Rudyard Kipling (or the soldiers logged in Generation Kill) say. Donald Rumsfeld never will.

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For more on Kipling’s “Epitaphs,” see this page, maintained by the Kipling Society. Note also that Kipling played a signal role in the early history of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (instituted by royal charter in 1917 as the Imperial War Graves Commission).

The Left Hand of Ogden Nash

December 7, 2013
Frederick Seidel (photograph by Mark Mahaney)

Frederick Seidel (photograph by Mark Mahaney)

In 2012, Frederick Seidel published his thirteenth volume of new verse, Nice Weather. Readers familiar with the blurbs that happily disgrace the back covers of his books will know that Seidel is, or is said to be, a poet who enjoys cutting a mean figure. David Orr, writing in the New York Times, had this to say of Seidel’s Poems: 1959-2009 (echoing Robert Frost at the outset):

Many poets have been acquainted with the night; some have been intimate with it; and a handful have been so haunted and intoxicated by the darker side of existence that it can be hard to pick them out from the murk that surrounds them… Frederick Seidel has spent the last half-century being that darkest and strangest sort of poet. He is, it’s widely agreed, one of poetry’s few truly scary characters. This is a reputation of which he’s plainly aware and by which he’s obviously amused, at least to judge from the nervy title of his 2006 book, Ooga-Booga. This perception also colors the praise his collections typically receive — to pick one example from many, Calvin Bedient admiringly describes him as “the most frightening American poet ever,” which is a bit like calling someone “history’s most bloodthirsty clockmaker.”

I don’t know that I’ve ever been frightened by a poet or a poem. Certain phrases in “Christabel” give me the shivers (not unpleasantly), though I haven’t read it in twenty years. There’s always E. A. Robinson‘s miller and what he said. Hardy, too, could certainly do it up right.

“Peace upon earth!” was said. We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We’ve got as far as poison-gas.

This merely states the facts, and the rhyme in the second couplet is perfect in its disgust.

But whatever the case, I’d rather Seidel’s reviewers set “scary” and “frightening” in scare quotes. An occult belief that poetry is considerably more consequential than it actually is underwrites their claims. It’s exhilarating to hitch your wagon to a dark star. Lionel Trilling could only respect Frost by making him out a terror. “Read the poem called ‘Design,’” said Trilling at the poet’s 85th birthday dinner, “and see if you sleep any better for it. Read ‘Neither Out Far Nor in Deep,’ which often seems to me the most perfect poem of our time, and see if you are warmed by anything in it except the energy with which emptiness is perceived.” Emptiness (abstract)? Well, what else is there (abstract)? If Trilling’s honest, and not merely rising to the occasion, I must say that he’s pretty easily spooked. I’d hate to sit next to him for Macbeth.

Elsewhere the New York Times designates Seidel the “[poet] laureate of the louche,” which is perhaps more to the point. In the New York Review of BooksDan Chiasson calls him “a ruthless poet, almost gleefully deficient in empathy. Empathy, after all, requires more than one second of attention.” “Ruthless”? Fair game, I suppose, in the poetry business. But shall we fetch in language from psychiatry to say the same thing in other terms? How does Chiasson know Seidel is “deficient in empathy” and pleased with the fact? The implication is that the poet, on the evidence of the poetry, is well nigh sociopathic (Zero-Negative personality): the traffic between attributes here ascribed to the writing, and to the writer, is hard to assess. The same goes for this: “[Seidel's] is therefore not an unsympathetic art: it is, rather, an art of deliberately refused sympathy. This is a large difference. Because Seidel runs his imagination through only one channel, the id, being nasty, impolite, rude, and so on sustains him” (emphasis mine). Speak advisedly. “Sustains” him as a poet, as a man, or as both? And in what sense sustain? Well: sustenance, nourishment. Better the “heartbreaking” catalogs of Walt Whitman, Dan Chiasson suggests, seeing as how they “stand in for Whitman’s paradoxical wish to do justice to the total fabric of life while honoring each individual strand.” Justice and honor, on the one hand, injustice and dishonor on the other. Chisasson doesn’t put it that way, but he might as well have; every shot has its negative. And then he adds:

Seidel’s gamble is that the world can be understood entirely through the glee he gets from the contempt he stimulates and feels. Other moods do exist in his poems—the pleasures of sex and motorcycles, the thrill of gossip, horror (never sympathy, exactly) at what becomes of people, the garden-variety I’m-getting-old melancholy of a person in his sixties. But all of them are made to shimmy uncomfortably into the narrow serpent’s body of contempt… Seidel has made the brutal postmodern calculation that cynicism is the only defensible moral position. Any other relation to suffering sentimentalizes the pain. Seidel’s is an aesthetics that avoids aestheticizing human grief, sometimes in favor of aestheticizing human meanness.

Note, again, how difficult it is to distinguish things said of the poetry from things said of, or implied about, the poet, and also the man. You can not tell and yet it seems as if Chiasson—and others who say such things about Seidel—really believe they’re talking about a person. Is Seidel “gambling,” or is Seidel the poet gambling, and if either is, what are the stakes for a loss? That the heir to a coal mining fortune’s investment in schadenfreude won’t pay off, that the optative mood will carry the day, that the Arab Spring will all work out, that we’ll take back the House in 2014, and that 15,000 U.S. troops won’t be in Afghanistan until 2024? Or if Seidel the poet is gambling, will a loss mean he won’t get read, and have no recourse but to find some other means to “stimulate” in others the “contempt” he himself (we are given to assume) feels? Actually, nothing much is at stake, so long as Seidel doesn’t run for mayor.

Still: Seidel has made the brutal postmodern calculation that cynicism is the only defensible moral position. Forgive me for taking this as an inadvertent defense of something like gentility; I’ll be as extravagant in my position as Chiasson is in his (for the nonce), when he states outright that he knows what “calculations” Seidel has made. Two other vagaries merit notice: the way “brutal” and “postmodern” unstably consort, and that a claim is being made, in Seidel’s poetry, not only for a certain “moral position,” but for its singular prestige.

In any case, cynicism—if that really is what’s on offer—is hardly “postmodern.” We’ve had Rochester‘s Satyr Against Reason and Mankind in hand since 1675, Baudelaire‘s Les Fleurs du Mal since 1857, Rimbaud‘s Une Saison en Enfer since 1873, and Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals since 1887—to name but four. Seidel is of that shifty company. To speak, as Chiasson does, of an aesthetics that aesthecizes is tautological, or courts tautology. No, not exactly: having an “aesthetic” is fine; “aestheticizing” anything, whether grief or meanness, is decadent, a shade parasitic, echt fin de siècle (if I may straddle the Rhine). Terms of art and terms of abuse mingle a bit too freely in Chiasson’s review, one unspoken (Whitmanesque) implication of which is that American poets appear to have a certain unspecified civic responsibility (“empathy” in operation, even if only in potentia). The most telling moment in the review comes when Chiasson speaks of Seidel’s upbringing (and of his family’s “parlor”: invidious word):

Seidel was born, in 1936, in St. Louis. The family business delivering coal and ice had prospered. The Seidels owned a coal mine in West Virginia. Whatever was happening in that mine was very far from what was happening in the Seidels’ parlor. . . Seidel never got over the fact that remote misery could be laundered into money and converted into the pleasing objects of his prosperous childhood. It’s made him an expert on two things: luxury objects and human pain.

One certainly can speak of commodity fetishism in the poetry Frederick Seidel, which (as Chiasson rightly hints) often takes that theme for its tonic note. We might even say that, in Seidel’s poetry, fetishism per se stands in for commodity fetishism proper, whereby “definite social relations” between men (as Marx says) assume, in their eyes, “the fantastic form of a relation between things.” Good to have that front and center. But is there some intimation in what Chiasson says that Seidel is a canny 1-percenter, aware of the relation between luxury objects and human pain, surpassingly deft at registering it, but blithely indisposed to do anything about it other than write in contempt tout court—to write in such a way as “gleefully” to “stimulate” “contempt”? The tools to those that can use them.

In The Nation, Ange Mlinko calls Seidel’s “the prosody of atrocity,” another way of saying he “aestheticizes human meanness.” In the Boston Review, Calvin Bedient, whom Orr quotes, issued this warning in 2001, shortly after the Twin Towers fell. He might as well be writing of Rochester:

Hide your lyricals, your tenders: Frederick Seidel is coming. Ogre to what used to be called (without a sneer) sentiment, grim beyond Gothic contrivance, the most frightening American poet ever—phallus-man, hangman of political barbarism—Seidel is the poet the twentieth century deserved. (But why stop there, the poet the millennium deserved.) Which is his brilliance, his grief.

Not so much scandal proper, I should think, as an “air of scandal” hangs about Seidel’s writing. I suppose this is one thing Dan Chiasson has in mind in speaking of “the glee he gets from the contempt he stimulates,” though the idea that “contempt” can be “stimulated” strikes me as behaviouristic; and the implication that Seidel is, yes, something of a sadist strikes me as unwarranted, at least on the evidence of the poetry. Are we really to suppose he writes from such motives as these?—to fetch in “glee” by inducing contempt, and all on a gamble that this is the way properly to “understand,” and entirely, something as inchoate as “the world”? How would Chiasson know that Seidel harbored any such ambition, other than by working from a curious assumption (once you look at it) that poets simply must try to “understand the world”? I’m not sure whose responsibility it is to understand the world. The State Department has that brief, with what results we know. Let the world understand itself. As Schopenhauer says:

[If] we desire to know what men, morally considered, are worth as a whole and in general, we have only to consider their fate as a whole and in general. This is want, wretchedness, affliction, misery, and death. Eternal justice reigns; if they were not, as a whole, worthless, their fate, as a whole, would not be so sad. In this sense we may say, the world itself is the judgment of the world. If we could lay all the misery of the world in one scale of the balance, and all the guilt of the world in the other, the needle would certainly point to the centre.

Whatever the case, reviewers seem to believe that Seidel’s poetry compels them to discuss such things as I’ve just surveyed. And Dan Chiasson’s review—which I commend altogether as far more than a curiosity: one could do much worse by way of introduction to Seidel—certainly has its merits, chief among them being that it makes me (I’m surely not alone in this) want to read more of Seidel. Read more…

“This world is nothing except it tend to another”: Herbert’s “Vertue” (and a parting glance at Nietzsche)

November 30, 2013
Portrait of George Herbert, by Robert White in 1674. From National Portrait Gallery (UK).

Portrait of George Herbert, by Robert White in 1674. From National Portrait Gallery (UK).

“Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.” Romans 12: 19-20

With that sweet, charitable, Pauline sentiment, let us begin. And though I shall do my best in what follows to read George Herbert’s “Vertue” as well as I can, candour constrains me to say, at the outset, that I mean a good deal of it to be irreverent, if only for purposes of trial (in fact, I love reading Herbert). Like Al Pacino, I will play the Devil’s advocate, which in this case means the world’s advocate. And I will hold that a certain strain of ressentiment, such as sorts well with the book of Romans, runs through all of Herbert’s ascetic enterprises.

I’ve taught “Vertue” often enough to find about it, now, in the old anthologies I use in classrooms, a palimpsest of notes in pencil and in varying colours of ink. The poem takes its place, of course, in George Herbert’s The Temple, published the year he died, in 1633. Last week I happened to read the poem again, after a lapse of some years, and it struck me anew, or for the first time really, just how world-hating a thing it is—I mean, if we take it unalloyed.

By way of preface to the poem, we do well to recall Herbert’s celebrated letter to his mother, Magdalene Herbert, written while he was a student at Cambridge, and wherein he chastens his avocation as poet, as he would later his vocation as a priest. Herbert was seventeen at the time. Here is Izaak Walton‘s account of the letter, which enclosed a poem for his mother’s delectation:

And in Cambridge we may find our George Herbert’s behaviour to be such, that we may conclude, he consecrated the first-fruits of his early age to virtue, and a serious study of learning. And that he did so, this following letter and sonnet, which were in the first year of his going to Cambridge sent his dear mother for a new-year’s gift, may appear to be some testimony. ‘But I fear the heat of my late ague hath dried up those springs, by which scholars say, the muses use to take up their habitations. However I need not their help, to reprove the vanity of those many love-poems that are daily writ and consecrated to Venus; nor to bewail that so few are writ, that look towards God and heaven. For my own part, my meaning (dear mother) is in these sonnets, to declare my resolution to be, that my poor abilities in poetry shall be all and ever consecrated to God’s glory; and I beg you to receive this as one testimony.’

As given in "The Remains of that Sweet Singer of the Temple, George Herbert" (1841 Pickering edition, with new material, of a volume originally issued in 1652).

As given in “The Remains of that Sweet Singer of the Temple, George Herbert” (1841 Pickering edition, with new material, of a volume originally issued in 1652). Click on the image to enlarge it.

The accompanying poem goes as follows:

My God, where is that ancient heat towards thee,
Wherewith whole shoals of martyrs once did burn,
Besides their other flames? Doth poetry
Wear Venus livery? only serve her turn?
Why are not sonnets made of thee? and lays
Upon thine altar burnt? Cannot thy love
Heighten a spirit to sound out thy praise
As well as any she? Cannot thy dove
Out-strip their Cupid easily in flight?
Or, since thy ways are deep, and still the same,
Will not a verse run smooth that bears thy name?
Why doth that fire, which by thy power and might
Each breast does feel, no braver fewel choose
Than that, which one day worms may chance refuse?

The poetry Herbert would write, while parish priest at Bemerton and before getting there, would certainly be “consecrated to virtue,” as Walton indicates. And he would, in “Vertue,” transfigure the metaphors in the poem just quoted—having to do with martyrdom by fire, consumption by fire, burnt offerings, and so on—to speak (quite happily, I think) of a day when “the whole world turn to coal” (that is, to cinders). Two “fewels” are on offer to poet, and to men and women, wherewith they might set themselves aflame: one issues from Venus, the heat of sexual desire, the other issues from God, the purifying fire of devotion, even to the point of martyrdom, whereby poet and penitent alike may joyfully offer themselves as “burnt offerings” on the altar of the Lord. And as the scripture tells us, He loves burnt offerings. Exodus 10: 25: “And Moses said, Thou must give us also sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice unto the LORD our God.” What William Empson once called “the miraculous corpse worm” of the Elizabethan imagination, is also brought out here, of course (memento mori, as so often with Herbert). Wear the livery of Venus (a sign of enlistment in service to that pagan Goddess of Love), and you shall burn with a fire such that even a worm may not deign to consume what’s left of you.

On the other, and right, hand sits the Dove (associated with the Holy Spirit, the third person of God). “Imp” your wing on those of the Dove, not of Cupid, and you shall be redeemed, just as Herbert says in “Easter Wings” (where “imp” means graft, but has more particularly to do with falconry, as per the OED: “To engraft feathers in the wing of a bird, so as to make good losses or deficiencies, and thus restore or improve the powers of flight; hence, allusively, with reference to ‘taking higher flights’, enlarging one’s powers, and the like”). Herbert, of course, took the latter way, and was named rector of Bemerton (near Salisbury, Wiltshire) in 1630, the year after his marriage to his cousin Jane Danvers, “a loving and vertuous lady” (Walton), or “a handsome bona roba and ingeniose” (Barnabas Oley), or perhaps all three (voluptuous in physique—a bona roba—virtuous, and ingenious). The couple never bore a child. Walton gives the following account of Herbert’s induction at Bemerton:

When at his induction he was shut into Bemerton Church, being left there alone to toll the bell (as the law requires him), he staid so much longer than an ordinary time before he returned to those friends that staid expecting him at the church door, that his friend Mr. Woodnot looked in at the church-window, and saw him lie prostrate on the ground before the altar: at which time and place (as he after told Mr. Woodnot) he set some rules to himself, for the future manage of his life; and then and there made a vow to labour to keep them.

An conspicuously uncommon prostration, the sincerity of which is not in doubt. Herbert was soon fully ordained into the priesthood.

So much by way of introduction to “Vertue,” which has figuratively to do with “bridalls” (weddings, done under the livery, let’s fancifully say, of Venus); the sensual, seductive things of this world as against that other, super-sensual world; and the consummation of all in fire (“coal” means, in this poem, again as per the OED, not fuel for fires yet to begin but “the result or residue of combustion; cinders; ashes; charred remains”). Here is the poem, in its old spelling (for the most part):

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridall of the earth and skie:
The dew shall weep thy fall to night;
——————–For thou must die.

Sweet rose, whose hue angrie and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye:
Thy root is ever in its grave
——————–And thou must die.

Sweet spring, full of sweet dayes and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My musick shows ye have your closes,
——————–And all must die.

Onely a sweet and vertuous soul,
Like season’d timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
——————–Then chiefly lives.

“Sweet” chiefly works here by bringing to mind its negation. OED sense 3.a for “sweet”: “not corrupt, putrid, sour, or stale.” The idea in “Vertue” is that nothing “sweet” possesses any real integrity or property of enduring value; “sweetness” is apparent, not real. All things sweet (to the senses) are best understood as imperfect stays against corruption, or else as corruption incipient: touch them not. We mustn’t—no, not by any means—savour the sweetness of the day, or of the rose, or of the spring—as will soon become clear, rash gazers upon this weblog.

“Bridall” means “wedding” (the event proper, that is): the marriage of “the earth and skie,” on this very day (“so cool, so calm, so bright”). What follows the night after a wedding we know (at least in 17th century literary contexts unaffiliated with Rochester): not merely the consummation of the marriage, but the loss of chastity. “Vertue” puts us in such a frame of mind as to regret this should happen, in fact in such a frame of mind as to “weep” for it, as does the day itself when it (inevitably) “falls” to “dew” (a thing organically, naturally, generated by the “marriage” of earth and sky, as any close observer of the weather knows: Herbert avails himself of a natural fact to make a spiritual one, about which more below). Here, night-fall is given a slightly lapsarian air; what followed on Eden follows here (mortality and sin, and, moreover, sin communicated via sexual consummation, whether under “bridall” auspices or other ones). The poem exists to chasten us out of worldly consummations. It’s attitude toward “bridalls” of all kinds (I venture to say) is deeply ambivalent.

I certainly won’t rule out the possibility, in fact the likelihood, that “die,” in that first mortifying injunction (“For thou must die”), means, in addition to “come to an irrevocable end,” what it often meant in the late 16th and early 17th centuries: sexual climax (another sort of dying fall). A fine example occurs in Much Ado About Nothing, when Claudio and Don Pedro speak of Benedick (3.ii):

Don Pedro. Indeed that tells a heavy tale for him: conclude, he is in love.
Claudio. Nay, but I know who loves him.
Don Pedro. That would I know too, I warrant one that knows him not.
Claudio. Yes, and his ill conditions, and in despite of all, dies for him.
Don Pedro. She shall be buried with her face upwards.

The double meaning, if it works in line four of “Vertue,” would enforce a point: to wit, that sexuality, death and sin are affiliated, as of course they are, both theologically and scripturally (and elsewhere in The Temple).

Read more…


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