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Olivia

Olivia’s lewd, but looks devout,
And scripture-proofs she throws about
When first you try to win her.
Pull your fob of guineas out,
See Jenny first, and never doubt
To find the saint a sinner.

Baxter by day is her delight:
No chocolate must come in sight
Before two morning chapters:
But lest the spleen should spoil her quite,
She takes a civil friend at night
To raise her holy raptures.

Thus oft we see a glowworm gay
At large her fiery tail display,
Encouraged by the dark;
And yet the sullen thing all day
Snug in the lonely thicket lay,
And hid the native spark.

–Elijah Fenton, 1707

COMMENTARY: I don’t think anybody teaches Elijah Fenton anymore, and several English professors I mentioned his name to had never heard of him. I only found this poem by chance leafing through Paul Fussell’s anthology English Augustan Poetry. During Fenton’s lifetime, though, he was fairly well-known. Or at least known by the right people. As schoolmaster at a small school in Kent, he was private tutor to the statesman William Trumbull. Though his literary output was small (a book of poems in 1707 and a biography of John Milton in 1725), he had the good fortune of living roughly next door to Alexander Pope. According to Samuel Johnson, Fenton’s poems impressed Pope who then asked him to help with his verse translation of The Odyssey. When Fenton died in 1730, Pope composed his epitaph calling him: “A poet blest beyond the poets fate/ Whom heav’n left sacred from the proud and great.”

Anyway, I like this poem for its lively control of its musical form, the wiliness of its euphemisms (especially the winking “civil friend” for lover) and the striking final metaphor. The “Jenny” in the fifth line likely refers to a waiting maid (at the time, Jenny was the “Jeeves” of maid names) who likely had some influence over her mistress. Baxter was Richard Baxter, a Presbyterian theologian, whose What Must We Do To Be Saved was a popular devotional in the early 18th century.

Victory Comes Late

Victory comes late,
And is held low to freezing lips
Too rapt with frost
To take it.
How sweet it would have tasted,
Just a drop!
Was God so economical?
His table’s spread too high for us
Unless we dine on tip-toe.
Crumbs fit such little mouths,
Cherries suit robins;
The eagle’s golden breakfast
Strangles them.
God keeps his oath to sparrows,
Who of little love
Know how to starve!

–Emily Dickinson, 1861

COMMENTARY: Emily Dickinson is not often thought of as a “war poet.” Living in Amherst her entire life, never making it much father south than Philadelphia, she lived out her days in extreme physical isolation. Nevertheless, she would have read about the Civil War in the papers every day and, to someone of her imaginative depth, the war must have been a vivid reality. This poem, written just at the start of the Civil War, contrasts two images: someone (presumably a soldier) dying of frostbite just after a victory, and various birds gathering around “God’s table.”

The second image is an ironic allusion to several Biblical passages: the Phoenician woman’s saying to Jesus, “The dogs eat the crumbs falling from the master’s table,” the line from the sermon on the mount “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father” and, from the same passage, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”

Dickinson’s treatment of these Biblical images is aloof and sardonic. It’s easy for God to keep “his oath to sparrows,” because they eat so little. They know how to starve. In making this point it is interesting how Dickinson starts with the smallest morsel and works her way up. Crumbs for “such little mouths,” cherries for robins and a golden breakfast for an eagle. The implication is that a man-sized hunger (and a hunger for things, like victory, that aren’t strictly physical) requires a God-sized largess. But this hunger, as in the case of the dying soldier for whom victory comes to late, is not satisfied by the drops and hints that fall from the “too economical” table of the world.

Of Man, By Nature

From God he’s a Back slider,
Of Ways, he loves the wider;
With Wickedness a Sider,
More Venom than a Spider.
In Sin he’s a Confider,
A Make-bate, and Divider;
Blind Reason is his Guider,
The Devil is his Rider.

–John Bunyan, 1686

COMMENTARY: Though John Bunyan is remembered mainly for his famous prose allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, he wrote poetry throughout his life and published a number of jaunty little collections. This poem is from his collection Country Rhymes For Children, a series of short moral poems often in the manner of object lessons. There are little meditations on frogs and hens and snails and tops with each used to teach a little homily, but, as the poems of other famous “morality” poets (Aesop, La Fontaine, etc) the punchline of the lesson is usually frolicsomeness of the language.

Grasse: The Olive Trees

Here luxury’s the common lot. The light
Lies on the rain-pocked rocks like yellow wool
And around the rocks the soil is rusty bright
From too much wealth of water, so that the grass
Mashes under the foot, and all is full
Of heat and juice and a heavy jammed excess.

Whatever moves moves with the slow complete
Gestures of statuary. Flower smells
Are set in the golden day, and shelled in heat,
Pine and columnar cypress stand. The palm
Sinks its combs in the sky. The whole South swells
To a soft rigor, a rich and crowded calm.

Only the olive contradicts. My eye,
Traveling slopes of rust and green, arrests
And rests from plenitude where olives lie
Like clouds of doubt against the earth’s array.
Their faint disheveled foliage divests
The sunlight of its color and its sway.

Not that the olive spurns the sun; its leaves
Scatter and point to every part of the sky,
Like famished fingers waving. Brilliance weaves
And sombers down among them, and among
The anxious silver branches, down to the dry
And twisted trunk, by rooted hunger wrung.

Even when seen from near, the olive shows
A hue of far away. Perhaps for this
The dove brought olive back, a tree which grows
Unearthly pale, which ever dims and dries,
And whose great thirst, exceeding all excess,
Teaches the South it is not paradise.

–Richard Wilbur, 1948

COMMENTARY:

Grasse is a commune in the south of France, just north of Cannes, which Wilbur likely visited when he was part of the force that liberated western Europe in World War II. Half quaint, half lavish (Grasse is known for its perfume factories), the commune features wild and cultivated olives, which, as anyone who’s seen them knows, are a gnarled, twisted, bitter-looking tree.

One of the themes that recurs in Wilbur’s poetry is the extent to the physical world is rich, intricate, and intoxicating, yet, at the same time, not enough. There’s always, mixed in with the “jammed excess,” a hint of something missing, a slight uncertainty, a pang or imperfection. The Grasse he paints is vivid and scenic–those rain-pocked stones, those flower smells, those statues–but the sweet excess is contradicted by the gaunt, famished, somber olives. More than botanical fact, their “great thirst” stands for the way the mind (spirit/soul) yearns for luxury but is never fully slaked by it–a paradox that hints that what it thirsts for isn’t in the the physical realm.

From “The Phoenix And The Turtle”

Here the anthem doth commence:
Love and constancy is dead;
Phoenix and the Turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.

So they lov’d, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.

Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance and no space was seen
‘Twixt this Turtle and his queen:
But in them it were a wonder.

So between them love did shine
That the Turtle saw his right
Flaming in the Phoenix’ sight:
Either was the other’s mine.

Property was thus appalled
That the self was not the same;
Single nature’s double name
Neither two nor one was called.

Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together,
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded;

That it cried, “How true a twain
Seemeth this concordant one!
Love has reason, reason none,
If what parts can so remain.”

–William Shakespeare, 1601

COMMENTARY: Today is Shakespeare’s birthday, so I thought I’d post a second consecutive poem of his. One of a handful of relatively “long” poems by Shakespeare, the Phoenix and the Turtle was commissioned as part of an anthology of sorts, centered around a long poem by Robert Chester, which addressed the theme of devoted love using the metaphor the (female) phoenix and the (male) turtledove. Published under the title Love’s Martyr, the anthology also includes poems by Ben Johnson and John Marston.

The section of the poem excerpted here is a eulogy for the lovers who, having burned in the phoenix’s fire, are now fully intermingled in death. The fire, of course, is partly figurative–the desire that feeds on its own fuel, and unites the partners so that “love in twain/ has the essence but in one/ two distincts, division none.”

The poem is remarkable for the muscularity of the music, the way the syntax fits so snugly into the narrow-shouldered rhymes. I also like the way Shakespeare plays with the idea of unity in partition, of numbers confounded. It’s like a sort of amorous dividing of the loaves and the fishes and then putting them together. Happy 453rd Shakespeare.

From Romeo and Juliet Act I Scene V

Romeo: If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentler sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Juliet: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this.
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

Romeo: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers, too?

Juliet: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

Romeo: O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do:
They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Juliet: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Romeo: The move not while my prayers effect I take.

–WIlliam Shakespeare, 1595

COMMENTARY: Romeo and Juliet rhymes more than any other Shakespearian tragedy. From the sonnet prologue (“two households, both alike in dignity”) to the opening lines (“upon my word, we’ll not carry coals” / “nay for then we’d be colliers” / “An be in choler, then we’ll draw”) the language of the play, against the darkness of the story, shimmers with playfulness. Nowhere is this more evident than in the “kissing scene” at the end of the first act. At the level of words, there is the lyrical punning of palmers (pilgrims who returned from the holy land with a frond) and palm of the hand–a pun that lies flush in the finger-clasped line of “palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.” At the level of structure is the way Shakespeare embeds a Petrarchan sonnet in the dialogue, dividing the 14 lines and six rhymes evenly between the two lovers.

From The Wasteland

At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting,
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
Out of the window perilously spread
Her drying combinations touched by the sun’s last rays,
On the divan are piled (at night her bed)
Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.
I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—
I too awaited the expected guest.
He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
A small house agent’s clerk, with one bold stare,
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)
Bestows one final patronising kiss,
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit . . .

She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.

–T.S. Eliot, 1922

COMMENTARY: Alienation, boredom, infertility, and myth are more or less the four themes of The Wasteland and combine here in the “seduction” scene–a brief anecdote in the third section which explores, in various forms, unsatisfying love. Related by Tiresias, who, in Greek myth, was a seer who had lived as both a man and a woman, the seduction scene illustrates Elliot’s method of mixing the high style with the low subject. The deliberately elevated language (“violet hour,” “throbbing, waiting,” etc.) along with the traditional rhyme scheme contrast with the sordid, tedious, and (April-ish-ly) cruel encounter between the lovers. As such, the scene offers a pessimistic foil to the stereotype of romance associated with traditional love poetry.