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From Henry V (Act 1, Scene 2)


So work the honey-bees,
Creatures that by a rule in nature teach
The act of order to a peopled kingdom.
They have a king and officers of sorts;
Where some, like magistrates, correct at home,
Others, like merchants, venture trade abroad,
Others, like soldiers, armed in their stings,
Make boot upon the summer’s velvet buds,
Which pillage they with merry march bring home
To the tent-royal of their emperor;
Who, busied in his majesty, surveys
The singing masons building roofs of gold,
The civil citizens kneading up the honey,
The poor mechanic porters crowding in
Their heavy burdens at his narrow gate,
The sad-eyed justice, with his surly hum,
Delivering o’er to executors pale
The lazy yawning drone.

–William Shakespeare, 1599

COMMENTARY: Shakespeare sometimes gives his most poetic speeches to minor characters. Here, the Bishop of Cantebury, one of the most insignificant characters in Henry V, makes a nice Homeric simile comparing a kingdom to a hive of bees. I like the careful almost panoptic thoroughness of the lines, the way each little character in the bee kingdom is celebrated. I like “armed in their stings/ Make boot upon the summers velvet buds” and “singing masons building roofs of gold” and “kneading up the honey.” Of course, the speech is really “about” Henry’s kingdom and how social harmony derives from cooperation, but, reading it, I lose the meaning and get caught up in the bees.


Sure Lord, there is enough in thee to dry

Sure Lord, there is enough in thee to dry
Ocean of Ink; for, as the Deluge did
Cover the earth, so doth thy Majesty:
Each Cloud distills thy praise, and doth forbid
Poets to turn it to another use.
Roses and Lilies speak thee; and to make
A pair of cheeks of them is thy abuse.
Why should I Women’s eyes for Crystal take?
Such poor invention burns in their low mind
Whose fire is wild, and doth not upward go
To praise, and on thee Lord, some ink bestow.
Open the bones, and you shall nothing find
In the best face but filth, when Lord, in thee
The beauty lies, in the discovery.

–George Herbert 1633

COMMENTARY: Though born into a wealthy family and educated at Cambridge, George Herbert was to spend much of his adult life as a rural priest at Fugglestone St. Peter (what a name!) in a small farming community south of London. In his only prose work, The County Parson, he argues that rural preachers should use examples drawn from ordinary life–plowing, baking bread, dancing–which (despite their commonness) could be “lights even of Heavenly Truths.” His conception of Christianity as the worship of a God incarnate–the lowering of God to the realm of the commonplace–found its compliment in the idea of the exaltation of the commonplace to the status of the divine. As he says at the end of this sonnet, beauty lies in the discovery of the ultimate nature of what, in and of itself, is bones, filth, plants, stone, and ink.

The sonnet makes this point through a critique of the mundane cliches of what Herbert saw as “merely” the love poetry of the Petrarchan tradition. The poem is similar to Shakespeare’s “My Lady’s eyes are nothing like the sun,” though while Shakespeare criticizes the style and diction of Petrarchan sonnets, Herbert finds fault with the subject matter. It isn’t that it’s predictable to use lilies and crystals and clouds in a poem, it’s that it’s a misuse of those lilies and crystals and clouds to make them about a woman when, really, they are the little hiding places of God.

From Song of the Open Road

No husband, no wife, no friend, trusted to hear the confession,
Another self, a duplicate of every one, skulking and hiding it goes,
Formless and wordless through the streets of the cities, polite and bland in the parlors,
In the cars of railroads, in steamboats, in the public assembly,
Home to the houses of men and women, at the table, in the bedroom, everywhere,
Smartly attired, countenance smiling, form upright, death under the breast-bones, hell under the skull-bones,
Under the broadcloth and gloves, under the ribbons and artificial flowers,
Keeping fair with the customs, speaking not a syllable of itself,
Speaking of any thing else but never of itself.

–Walt Whitman 1856

COMMENTARY: When Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, he claimed that he intended it to be small enough to fit in a pocket “to be read in the open air.” The compact size of the book likely had more to do with his shyness than any forethought he may have given to its portability. He had only a 200 copies published by a small press, and though he included a rather rugged-looking photograph of himself on the title page, he did not name himself as the author. It was only the following year, after he sent a copy to Ralph Waldo Emerson on a whim and after Emerson responded with high praise, that Whitman decided to publish a much expanded version. This second printing featured Emerson’s letter in prominent gold leaf after the table of contents as well as dozens of additional poems.

Thematically, “Song of the Open Road” picks up where “Song of Myself” leaves off: an expansive celebration of a freedom that is sometimes spiritual and sometimes sensual. Beginning many stanzas with allons! (let’s go!), the poem is an invitation to a vagabond’s frolic. Though the prevailing tone is one of romantic optimism and transcendence, there are certain lines, such as the excerpt above, contrasting Whitman’s ideal with the claustrophobic life of false strictures. The lines “Another self, a duplicate of every one….smartly attired, countenance smiling, form upright, death under the breast bones, hell under the skull bones” curses the psychological anguish that results from the social facade. The extent to which this anguish describes the Whitman’s uncertainty of himself in the days before Emerson is of course only speculation. Nonetheless, the lines are remarkable for their acidic renunciation of the “artificial flowers” of civilized life. In this way, they prefigure the alienation of modernity and foreshadow something of J. Alfred Prufrock.

From: Canto 1

Dark blood flowed in the fosse,
Souls out of Erebus, cadaverous dead, of brides
Of youths and of the old who had borne much;
Souls stained with recent tears, girls tender,
Men many, mauled with bronze lance heads,
Battle spoil, bearing yet dreory arms,
These many crowded about me; with shouting,
Pallor upon me, cried to my men for more beasts;
Slaughtered the herds, sheep slain of bronze;
Poured ointment, cried to the gods,
To Pluto the strong, and praised Proserpine;
Unsheathed the narrow sword,
I sat to keep off the impetuous impotent dead,
Till I should hear Tiresias.
But first Elpenor came, our friend Elpenor,
Unburied, cast on the wide earth,
Limbs that we left in the house of Circe,
Unwept, unwrapped in sepulchre, since toils urged other.
Pitiful spirit. And I cried in hurried speech:
“Elpenor, how art thou come to this dark coast?
“Cam’st thou afoot, outstripping seamen?”
And he in heavy speech:
“Ill fate and abundant wine. I slept in Circe’s ingle.
“Going down the long ladder unguarded,
“I fell against the buttress,
“Shattered the nape-nerve, the soul sought Avernus.
“But thou, O King, I bid remember me, unwept, unburied,
“Heap up mine arms, be tomb by sea-bord, and inscribed:
“A man of no fortune, and with a name to come.
“And set my oar up, that I swung mid fellows.”

Ezra Pound ~1924

COMMENTARY: These are my favorite lines from the opening to Cantos, the incomplete “epic” poem that Ezra Pound worked on throughout his life. By the time he died, Pound had completed 116 sections (over 10,000 lines) but most anthologies only reprint the opening section–the labyrinthine denseness of the poem–like much of the modernist work he inspired–being forbidding to most general readers.

This excerpt describe the arrival of Odysseus to the underworld where he has come to seek the council of the prophet Tiresias. The dead crowd around Odysseus, (Souls out of Erebus, cadaverous dead, of brides/ Of youths and of the old who had borne much;/ Souls stained with recent tears, girls tender,/ Men many, mauled with bronze lance heads,/ Battle spoil, bearing yet dreory arms). Before he finds Tiresias, though, he sees his old shipmate Elpenor. Puzzled Elpenor he has made it to the underworld before him, he asks “How art thou come to this dark coast?” Elpenor, then, tells him the story of how he was drunk on the roof of the nymph Circe, fell, and broke his neck. Since it is impossible for him to receive a proper burial, he asks Odysseus to make the oar that he rowed with into a memorial.

I admire these lines for the rugged, jostling pace of the images–the crowded subway sense of the various dead reaching out for Odysseus and crying for more sacrifices. I also like the surprising musicality of lines like, “Ill fate and abundant wine, I slept in Circe’s Ingle.” When my father and his friend Jack were working at Geno’s in the 70’s, they had a habit of saying to each other (commenting on a hangover) “Last night was ill fate and abundant wine” or something of the sort.

From Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

(Canto 4, Stanzas 27 & 28)

The Moon is up, and yet it is not Night –
Sunset divides the sky with her – a Sea
Of Glory streams along the Alpine height
Of blue Friuli’s mountains; Heaven is free
From clouds, but of all colours seems to be
Melted to one vast Iris of the West,
Where the Day joins the past Eternity;
While, on the other hand, meek Dian’s crest
Floats through the azure air – an island of the blest!

A Single Star is at her side, and reigns
With her o’er half the lovely heaven; but still
Yon sunny Sea heaves brightly, and remains
Rolled o’er the peak of the far Rhaetian hill,
As Day and Night contending were, until
Nature reclaimed her order – gently flows
The deep-dyed Brenta, where their hues instil
The odorous Purple of a new-born rose,
Which streams upon her stream, and glassed within it glows.

–George Gordon, Lord Byron, 1817

COMMENTARY: I came across these lines the other day when I learned that Donald Olson, a professor of astronomy at Texas State University, has just published an article arguing that, by happy coincidence, this month the moon and planet Jupiter are in the same alignment they were in 200 years ago when Byron wrote this effusive description of the sky. It’s a curious discovery (and striking that an Astronomy journal would devote an article to it). You can read the full story here:

As for the lines themselves, I like the celestial sumptuousness. “Melted to one vast Iris of the west” and “streams upon her stream and glassed within it glows” are my two favorite lines. Though the two stanzas alone do not do justice to Child Harold, which is over 2000 lines, long, it gives a sense of Byron’s technical balance, musical complexity, and elaborate diction. It is hard to imagine a narrative poem selling 40,000 copies on the first day nowadays, but that is precisely what happened in 1816 when the first canto was published. It would take more than a lunar alignment in these corrupt, prosaic times.

Chairing Mary

Heavy, helpless, carefully manhandled
Upstairs every night in a wooden chair,
She sat in all day as the sun sundialled
Window-splays across the quiet floor…

Her body heat had entered the braced timber
Two would take hold of, by weighted leg and back,
Tilting and hoisting, the one on the lower step
Bearing the brunt, the one reversing up

Not averting eyes from her hurting bulk,
And not embarrassed, but never used to it.
I think of her warm brow we might have once
Bent to and kissed before we kissed it cold.

Seamus Heaney, 2006

COMMENTARY: This is one of a series of domestic poems from Heaney’s 2006 book District and Circle. As a “portrait d’une femme,” it is a picture of passive suffering, as Mary appears almost as a piece of furniture–a hurting bulk, heavy and helpless. The contrast between this beset invalid and the young woman who might have been bowed to and kissed (chaired, here, in the sense of enthroned) is central emotional tension of the poem. But is the poem really a ‘portrait d’une femme?’ Is it really about Mary? It seems as much a reflection on the complex unease of the young men who carry her up the stairs–(“Not averting eyes from her hurting bulk/ And not embarrassed but never used to it”) as it is on her.

In terms of technique, I like the almost rhyme on “sundialled” and “manhandled” and the way the cramped, hard-edged nouns in the opening stanza give way to the looser, more direct music of the final stanza. “Her body heat had entered the braced timber” strikes me as an especially beautiful line.

From “Grandfather’s Old Ram”

You see, Sile Hawkins was–no, it warn’t Sile Hawkins, after all–it was a galoot by the name of Filkins–I disremember his first name; but he was a stump–come into pra’r meeting drunk, one night, hooraying for Nixon, becuz he thought it was a primary; and old deacon Ferguson up and scooted him through the window and he lit on old Miss Jefferson’s head, poor old filly. She was a good soul–had a glass eye and used to lend it to old Miss Wagner, that hadn’t any, to receive company in; it warn’t big enough, and when Miss Wagner warn’t noticing, it would get twisted around in the socket, and look up, maybe, or out to one side, and every which way, while t’ other one was looking as straight ahead as a spy-glass. Grown people didn’t mind it, but it most always made the children cry, it was so sort of scary. She tried packing it in raw cotton, but it wouldn’t work, somehow–the cotton would get loose and stick out and look so kind of awful that the children couldn’t stand it no way. She was always dropping it out, and turning up her old dead-light on the company empty, and making them oncomfortable, becuz she never could tell when it hopped out, being blind on that side, you see. So somebody would have to hunch her and say, “Your game eye has fetched loose, Miss Wagner dear”–and then all of them would have to sit and wait till she jammed it in again–wrong side before, as a general thing, and green as a bird’s egg, being a bashful cretur and easy sot back before company. But being wrong side before warn’t much difference, anyway; becuz her own eye was sky-blue and the glass one was yaller on the front side, so whichever way she turned it it didn’t match nohow. Old Miss Wagner was considerable on the borrow, she was. When she had a quilting, or Dorcas S’iety at her house she gen’ally borrowed Miss Higgins’s wooden leg to stump around on; it was considerable shorter than her other pin, but much she minded that. She said she couldn’t abide crutches when she had company, becuz they were so slow; said when she had company and things had to be done, she wanted to get up and hump herself. She was as bald as a jug, and so she used to borrow Miss Jacops’s wig–Miss Jacops was the coffin-peddler’s wife–a ratty old buzzard, he was, that used to go roosting around where people was sick, waiting for ‘em; and there that old rip would sit all day, in the shade, on a coffin that he judged would fit the can’idate; and if it was a slow customer and kind of uncertain, he’d fetch his rations and a blanket along and sleep in the coffin nights.

–Mark Twain, 1872

COMMENTARY: Not a poem this week but a fun little passage from “The Story of Grandfather’s Old Ram”–a chapter in Twain’s semi-autobiographical Roughing It, a collection of anecdotes about Twain’s travels out west after the Civil War. At the time Twain wrote the book, he was better known as a comedic journalist than a novelist, yet, throughout Roughing It, as in this passage, he experiments with creative techniques (dialect, free association, colloquialism, grotesque humor) that he would use so well in his later fiction.

I laughed out loud when read this little passage earlier this week. Poor bald-headed, stump-legged Miss Wagner with the one eye she borrows to take company in, jammed with cotton, rolling backwards, falling out of her head (though she never notices)! And that ratty old coffin-peddler who sits outside sick peoples houses waiting for them to die. Ah, Twain.