Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A bit of night-poetry

Maybe it’s the coffee, but there’s something owl-like and night-birdish about tonight. A night for contemplating one’s mortality; your ghostly reflection in a window. When the summer began, it seemed to stretch forward limitlessly. Now there’s just a month to go and half of that will be spent abroad or with family.

In preparation for Michaelmas we’ve been attacking (or rather slogging through) our lists of Middle English romance & the Renaissance. My vote is all for the latter: I may have started off wrongly by reading the most exciting: the plays of Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, John Webster, Thomas Kyd, and John Marston. That leather-and-sweat world of the playhouses and the pox, Walsingham’s spies, the censors and the uneasy hand of royal favour. Elizabeth & Mary, James and Charles. The age of cross and conquest, the stake and ship. (The best line so far goes to Marlowe’s Tamburlaine: ‘I will confuse those blind geographers/ That make a triple region in the world…’) And now it’s on to Sir Philip Sidney. I’m afraid to say, Sir Sidney, that though your Defence of Poesy was spirited and colourful, Astrophil & Stella’s 108 consecutive sonnets seem a bit of a snooze.

The problem is that you can’t fly through poetry. And poets would be horrified, I think, by the suggestion you should. But perhaps one reads the Metaphysical poets at night. Love is present, yes, but it is always Death which pervades, the endless unravelling the alchemy of being.

And that dear pastoral clergyman George Herbert – who should be read in bits and not all at once, because he repeats himself – has near perfect poems:

Jordan (1)

Who says that fictions only and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?
Is all good structure in a winding star?
May no lines pass, except when the do their duty
Not to a true, but painted chair?

Is it no verse, except enchanted groves
And sudden arbours shadow coarse-spun lines?
Must purling streams refresh a lover’s lines?
Must all be veil’d, while he that reads, divines,
Catching the sense at two removes?

Shepherds are honest people; let them sing:
Riddle who list, for me, and pull for Prime:
I envy no man’s nightingale or spring;
Nor let them punish me with loss of rhyme,
Who plainly say, My God, My King.

1 comment:

Gfulmore said...

I like the comment about the "endless unravelling" - although not really considered one of the Metaphysical poets, this bit from Rilke (Mitchell translation) is a nice meditation on mortality (particularly the first line, since it could also reference the mortality of knowledge):

O tree of life, when does your winter come?
We are not in harmony, our blood does not forewarn us
like migratory birds'. Late, overtaken,
we force ourselves abruptly onto the wind
and fall to earth at some iced over lake.
Flowering and fading come to us both at once.
And somewhere lions still roam and never know,
in their majestic power, of any weakness.