in verse #58 : Grammarian

In his preface to Poems by Emily Dickinson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson draws an interesting distinction, which he blames on Emerson.  This is how he opens his preface:

The verses of Emily Dickinson belong emphatically to what Emerson long since called “the Poetry of the Portfolio,” — something produced absolutely without the thought of publication, and solely by way of expression of the writer’s own mind.[i]

Higginson, as I noted in an earlier post, was the editor of the Atlantic Monthly whom Dickinson asked, in 1862, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?”[ii]  Perhaps he had forgotten in the intervening thirty years that he had judged her poetry unfit for publication.  But in the next sentences of his preface, he further compounds this lapse of memory by explaining why she was a portfolio poet:

Such verse must inevitably forfeit whatever advantage lies in the discipline of public criticism and the enforced conformity to accepted ways.  On the other hand, it may often gain something through the habit of freedom and the unconventional utterance of daring thoughts.  In the case of the present author, there was absolutely no choice in the matter ; she must write thus, or not at all.[iii]

Note how carefully Higginson delineates his world, that of “accepted ways,” and how much he urges upon us Continue Reading →

in verse #48 : Voice of the turtle

That title is not a reference to Mitch McConnell, no matter how much people say he resembles a turtle. No, it’s a reference to “Canticles,” a book of the Bible hitherto unknown by this moniker to me, but familiar to you as “The song of Solomon,” and it is of interest to us not only because that book is the only one Joseph Smith picked out as “not inspired writings,” and in fact only secular wedding poetry (at least he understood the text, which is more than I can say for many of the monks who struggled to understand the book and place it in the Bible).  The phrase “the voice of the turtle” occurs in the 2nd chapter:

8The voice of my beloved! behold,
he cometh leaping upon the mountains,
skipping upon the hills.
9My beloved is like a roe or a young hart:
behold, he standeth behind our wall,
he looketh forth at the windows,
shewing himself through the lattice.
10My beloved spake, and said unto me,
Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.
11For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
12The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of the singing of birds is come,
and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;
13The fig tree putteth forth her green figs,
and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell.
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

This is of interest to us — well, to me — as an example of Hebrew poetic form. It is also an example of how the sap rises in spring. So, appropriately enough, in this context, we will discuss the voice of Walt Whitman. Continue Reading →

in verse #39 : the lost leader

I raised the issue in my last post of the political and economic forces driving Romantic poetry, citing Roger Sales, who argues that in the Romantic authors we find apologists for the destruction of English rural life.[i]  Jonathan Langford, in a comment on that post, wrote that “while I’m willing to concede political implications of poetry (often unintended, and sometimes counter what was intended), I take a lot of convincing to see the political and/or economic as driving Romantic poetry.”[ii]  I’m not certain Sales is right — I’m still reading the book — but it seems to me that his main point goes more to the “unintended” element Langford notes, when he describes the pastoral as “deceptive and prescriptive. It offers a political interpretation of both past and present.…. provid[ing] sheep’s clothing for aristocratic wolves, or indeed for anybody who was on the side of the victors in the civil war which was fought for control of rural society.”[iii]  If you read Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” closely (and you can in that last post) you can’t help but see the link between the poet’s nostalgia for the past and the pastoral view of the world.  The poem is saturated in nostalgia.

As for the political and economic implications, I will respond here as I did to Jonathan’s comment:  note the injured tone of the poem below, and guess who wrote it, and about whom, and on what occasion:

The Lost Leader

Just for a handful of silver he left us,
Just for a riband to stick in his coat—
Found the one gift of which fortune bereft us,
Lost all the others she lets us devote;
They, with the gold to give, doled him out silver,
So much was theirs who so little allowed:
How all our copper had gone for his service!
Rags—were they purple, his heart had been proud!
We that had loved him so, followed him, honoured him,
Lived in his mild and magnificent eye,
Learned his great language, caught his clear accents,
Made him our pattern to live and to die!
Continue Reading →

in verse #35 : Blake our guide

Dante chose as his guide through Hell and Purgatory his great predecessor Virgil, the greatest of the Latin epic poets.  But when he came to the gates of Heaven, Virgil could not enter, and the pure Beatrice became his guide into Heaven and into the presence of God.

Blake chose Milton as his guide through the Hell that he found Britain to be, seeking to bring Heaven back to Albion.  Milton, his great predecessor, the greatest of the English poets working in the epic mode, appears as Blake’s avatar in the search for that earlier unity, which for Blake precedes the Europe he describes in these words from Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion:

I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe,
And there behold the Loom of Locke, whose Woof rages dire
Wash’d by the Water-wheels of Newton : black the cloth
In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation : cruel Works
Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
Moving by compulsion each other : not as those in Eden, which
Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.[i]

The contrast limned here between the Europe contemporary with Milton, Continue Reading →

in verse # 34 : a different Blake

If William Blake is the father of contemporary American free verse, Emily Dickinson is surely its mother.  But hold on, I hear you say, wasn’t that father Walt Whitman?  Well, maybe he was the godfather.  And I am aware of the distance in time and space between the father and the mother, and the fact that Dickinson may have never heard of, let alone read, Blake.  Although he could have visited her as an emanation.  Maybe that’s what she was writing about in “Wild nights.”  So call it an immaculate conception, if you will.

I will.

After all, Blake worked with a biblical line, and Dickinson with a wide selection of meters, most commonly the ballad stanza of four lines in 4, 3, 4 and 3 stresses, a meter common in hymns as well.  Blake has always been known as an eccentric and experimental poet.  It is becoming clearer, as explorations of Dickinson’s manuscripts[i] proceed apace, that she was more experimental than eccentric.[ii]   More on Dickinson later, but for now the focus is on Blake.  And in my last post, I neglected perhaps one of the best sources on Blake’s relationship to the Bible.  Peter Ackroyd, in his biography of Blake, says this, which is worth reading at length in relation to Blake’s prosody:

His early biographers do agree upon a single aspect of his childhood, however, since it is one that affected his entire life — his closest and most significant attachment [among books] was to the Bible.  I would have been the staple reading of his family, the object of continual meditation and interpretation.  It is hard to re-imagine a culture in which that book was the central and pre-eminent text, through which the world itself was to be understood, but the sectaries of mid-eighteenth-century England [Blake’s parents were Dissenters from the Church of England] still retained the old radical traditions of commentary and exegesis. …  His poetry and painting are imbued with biblical motifs and images; the very curve and cadence of his sentences are derived from the Old Testament, while his passages of ritualistic description and denunciation come from the words of the great prophets that were heard in the house on Broad Street.[iii]

As I said in that last post, “The translators [of the Authorized Version] produced a liturgical text, a text intended to be heard by the congregation, to be read aloud by the priest or preacher or lector” — or, in Blake’s case, mother and father and siblings and, eventually, himself.  As Ackroyd notes above, “the very curve and cadence of his sentences are derived from the Old Testament.”  But here a word of caution is in order, a caution that I myself need to recall:  it comes from David Norton, the editor of The new Cambridge paragraph Bible, discussing the work of the translators of the Authorized Version.  “Poetic parts of the text” he says

have been given in verse lines.  Here a word of caution is necessary:  it is not always clear what parts of the original were poetry, nor how that poetry should be lineated; moreover, the King James Bible was made as a prose translation, and its words only sometimes work as verse.  Nevertheless, the appearance of poetry, at the least, may act as a reminder that some parts were originally poetry.  Sometimes it may do more, bringing out the structure of the poetry and more of the rhythm of the text.[iv]

But as you saw in that last post, Blake’s verse does have the lilt and stress of the biblical poetry exemplified in the selection from Nahum.  In this post, I want to examine Continue Reading →

in verse # 33 : a Blake vision

William Blake was perfectly capable of writing rhyming verse; it can and has been set to music.  Here is the text of an anthem known as “Jerusalem,” written by Blake around 1804 and set to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916:[i]

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.[ii]

“Those feet” are the feet of Jesus, and Blake is responding to the legend that he was brought to England during the “lost years[iii]” of his youth by his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea — a myth which Blake then connects to the idea that Jesus will return Continue Reading →

in verse # 32 : warning – vasty generalization looming

Looming on my intellectual horizon, and thus on yours, unless, on reading this prophecy, you bail on me, is a vasty generalization — to which I am being enticed by John Pollack through the medium of his book The pun also rises, to wit:  one casualty of the Restoration was blank verse.  The main casualty, as far as this blog is concerned.  When England emerged from its Taliban — or Caliban — interval, the Protectorate, following hard on the death of Cromwell; when, I say, the Stuarts were restored to the throne of Great Britain in the person of the Frenchified Charles II, England broke the mold of its greatest poetic achievement, blank verse.

Well, no.  Milton broke it.  And it wasn’t really a mold, it was more of a die, used to strike one perfect, highly polished, platinum coin:  Paradise lost.  Although many of you might regard that poem as not much more than a moldy tome,  Continue Reading →

in verse # 31 : dark Satanic mills

If I were to tell you that I was writing a parody bent on displaying a hacker’s mindset, based on Ira Gershwin’s “I got rhythm,” and that it began

I got rhythm
I got rhythm
Who could ask for anything more?

would you revise the title for this post to “dork Satanic mills”?  What if my parody morphed into

I got rhythm
Al Gore rhythm
I got rhythm
Who could ask for anything more?

would that incline you to a more charitable view?  Would you even notice the change in rhythm in the second line with the change in wording?

Of course you would, because Continue Reading →

in verse # 30 : the doors of perception

The first day of war in heaven didn’t go so well for Satan and his crew.  But as they counseled together in their defeat, Satan put forth a plan.  It takes the form of an assertion regarding that Heaven in which they are warring, to wit that it contains the seeds of its own destruction.  Milton here gives Satan the beautiful language he needs to persuade his angels, thrones, dominions, etc., and an argument that at root heaven is rotten[i] (i.e., “pregnant with infernal flame”):

Whereto with look compos’d Satan repli’d.
Not uninvented that, which thou aright
Beleiv’st so main to our success, I bring;
Which of us who beholds the bright surface
Of this Ethereous mould whereon we stand,
This continent of spacious Heav’n, adorn’d
With Plant, Fruit, Flow’r Ambrosial, Gems and Gold,
Whose Eye so superficially surveys
These things, as not to mind from whence they grow
Deep under ground, materials dark and crude,
Of spiritous and fiery spume, till toucht
With Heav’n’s ray, and temper’d they shoot forth
So beauteous, op’ning to the ambient light.
These in thir dark Nativity the Deep
Shall yeild us, pregnant with infernal flame,
Continue Reading →

in verse # 29 : of the devil’s party

William Blake was Milton’s son.  But it was no easy birth.  In his fine article on Milton’s prosody, John Creaser describes how Milton was able to work so well within the conventions of blank verse.  Creaser begins by summarizing the description by Derek Attridge of “the prevailing norms” of verse rhythm in English:

Fundamental to the rhythm of English speech are (1) isochrony — the tendency, allowing for sense “breathings,” to perceive stressed syllables as falling at equal intervals of time; and (2) duple movement — the tendency for stressed and unstressed syllables to alternate.[i]

These are our Anglo-Saxon heritage, the stresses of our Germanic past, lingering in English only in the rhythms of our speech, reflecting the stripping away of most inflections in our grammar, yet the retention of that old 4-beat prosody irrespective of syllable counts.  Of the iambic foot, Creaser describes Attridge as concluding that “in lines of any rhythmic complexity, the foot cannot be felt as a unit.”[ii]  This is what makes the later Shakespeare plays so wonderfully adaptive to the actor’s voice.  I would argue Continue Reading →

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