early poems

Matthew Arnold

1840-1849

(A man of intellect and of spiritual sensitivity contemplates the purpose of life and its struggles.)

MunchMelancholyCrop of Melancholy (1894), by Edvard Munch.  This painting is in The Rasmus Meyer Collection at The Bergen Art Museum (now part of the KODE museum group in Bergen, Norway).

 

“Unwelcome shroud of the forgotten dead,/ Oblivion’s dreary fountain, where art thou”.  What a dark way to begin one’s poetical efforts, at 18 years of age!  And we need read no further to suspect (correctly) that in Matthew Arnold we are in for something very different from the Romantics, and quite different also from his Victorian contemporaries Browning and Tennyson.  The essence of the distinction is in his preoccupation with the meaning of life, and by extension death and the loss of faith.  This spiritual decline that disturbed him so much, often called the maladie du siècle or the “sickness of the century”, had been treated more seriously on the continent, while in England Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley were grasping at Nature or the humanism of the Greeks for their spiritual anchor.  Arnold was a more melancholic, more skeptical poet, and doubted that the sickness could ever be cured, although he certainly loved the ancients (many of his early poems have classical subjects), and he also did look to nature for inspiration.  Even as a teen he presaged the Existentialists, and indeed much of the spirit of the twentieth century, in trying to devise a way to preserve our spirituality and sense of wonder while being brutally honest about our mortality and the fleeting nature of all human endeavor.  Matthew Arnold was a great poet not mainly because he was imaginative, spiritual, morally sensitive, and wonderstruck, nor on the other hand because he was freethinking, scholarly, and skeptical; he was great because he was somehow both of these sorts of people at once.  If his poetry could be said to have a single goal, it was to merge these two halves of his consciousness, the spiritual and the intellectual.

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Songs and Sonets

John Donne

d. 1631

(An earthy, imaginative, thoughtful soul reveals his view of love, steeped in metaphor and emotion.)

WilliamDyce_FrancescaDaRimini_1845Crop of Francesca da Rimini with her lover Paoloby the Scottish painter William Dyce (1837).  This painting can be seen in the National Galleries of Scotland. Though not quite as scandalous as Paolo, who is here courting his brother’s wife, John Donne snuck around with his master’s daughter against his will, eventually marrying her.

 

Donne is a master of love poetry– some say the best of them all– because he combines rich experience with deep and varied thought.  The whole person is writing here, his intellect and his heart in a powerfully effective, if strained, cooperation.  He is at once philosophical and romantic, a learned dreamer, an impassioned thinker.  On one hand these poems are often acutely emotional and physical, full of sweat and tears. Love and death are often intimately associated, by virtue of heartbreak as well as the sheer weight of true love itself. But at the same time the poems are bursting with erudite imagination, especially loose analogy and illustration (“conceits”) from physical science, alchemy, astronomy, and ancient and medieval philosophical and theological ideas. Donne sees no problem in linking his love to events and bodies of astronomic or even divine proportions. He employs so many characteristic devices, has so many surprising and intriguing perspectives, that his poems can be enjoyed just for these, even if we knew nothing of love.  But of course, love is the main thing on his mind… really the only thing on his mind.  Everything else is playing a supporting role. For those who think of Donne as the Reverend Doctor, the dean, the spiritual teacher… you will see that person here mainly in his cleverness, his breadth of education, a few metaphors, and of course his deep affinity for things spiritual.  Otherwise, here our Donne is a much more earthy bloke– here he is Jack Donne, the lover.  Then again, perhaps there is more to the continuity. The man who is first fascinated by women and drama and then later by God and church, is a man of fierce and fervent heart, seeking a worthy object of devotion.

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One of Cleopatra’s Nights

(Une nuit de Cléopâtre)

Théophile Gautier

1838

(A young hunter is willing to die to be with queen Cleopatra for just one evening.)

AlexandreCabanel_CleopatraPoisonsSlavesAlexandre Cabanel’s 1887 painting, Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Those Condemned To Death (Cléopâtre essayant des poisons sur des condamnés à mort).  It can be seen at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (KMSKA), Antwerp.

 

Word for word, this little novella (three times the length of a typical short story at about 12,700 words) probably paints the most vibrant description of ancient Egypt in all of literature.  This is my favorite aspect of the work, though for others it might be the engaging romantic plot, or the typical though attractive take on the queen’s psychology.  It is a simple tale, but richly set and beautifully told.

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First Love

(Первая любовь)

Ivan Turgenev

1860

(A young man is thrown into the sweet agony of unrequited love for his beautiful new neighbor.)

KonstantinMakovsky_RussianBeauty Russian Beauty, by Konstantin Makovsky (1839-1915).  This painting appears to be in a private collection.  See Makovsky’s paintings at Wikiart.

 

Woldemar, a young man of sixteen, experiences the whirlwind of love descending on him for the first time, as he becomes acquainted with the beautiful and elegant Zinaida, the daughter of a princess, who has moved in next door.  She enjoys a crop of suitors, and in her charming and carefree way pits them against each other.  They make fools of themselves competing for her attention and smiles; but Woldemar is different, so awed he is in her presence.  She is very kind towards him, and eventually gives him more attention than any other.  He is enraptured, able to think of nothing else, obsessed with thoughts and dreams of her.  He is overcome with the pain of his unrequited feelings, and is blissful when with her, sent into reverie with every careless touch or soft look.  In this experience he realizes the power of love, and the strong—even dangerous—grip it can have on a person.  Meanwhile, although he pays little attention to it, his home life is unsettled, with his parents often arguing.

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Lyrical Ballads, and other early poems

William Wordsworth

1785-1799

(A poetic sage takes lessons on goodness and beauty from nature.)

WilliamHavellTinternAbbeyCrop of Tintern Abbey (1804), by William Havell.  Hikers laze above the abbey in the Wye Valley, just as Wordsworth did with his sister before composing his most famous poem.  This painting is at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford.

 

A man of wisdom, a poet of nature, is Wordsworth.  These are the goals to which he aspires, goals that are discernable in his work from a very early age.  He wrote many of his greatest poems in the years covered here, before he reached 30.  Wisdom, or more specifically a yearning for and contemplation of goodness and beauty, suffuses his poetry.  Thus he is keen to deliver moral advice, and almost seems to teach or prophesy rather than reflect.  But it is the deepest and most profitable kind of reflection, I can almost hear him replying, whose results teach the reflector something.  And since he insists in the Preface to his Lyrical Ballads that he writes each poem with a purpose, and with the intent of delivering objective truths rather than ideas that one may take or leave as a matter of preference, we must prepare for a slight didactic or pedagogical flavor now and then.  For Wordsworth, though firmly against elitism in poetry, is aware of his own wisdom, and is driven to share it with others.  The topics range from attitudes towards people (as in “Matthew”), to attitudes towards nature (as in “Lines Written in Early Spring”), to a straightforward exhortation to be good (as in “Goody Blake and Harry Gill”).  He imparts his values on social matters as well, regarding for instance the evil of slavery (at the end of “Descriptive Sketches”), the necessity of legislated charity (at the beginning of “The Old Cumberland Beggar”), and thoughts on education (e.g. “Expostulation and Reply”).

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Sappho’s poetic fragments

Sappho

7th-6th centuries BC

(The tenth muse expresses beauty, love, and the contents of her heart.)

sappho1

Detail from “Woman with wax tablets and stylus”, a fresco from about 50 AD, discovered in Pompei in 1760, commonly called “Sappho”.  Courtesy of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples.

 

Αιαι.  Aiai!  If only our dinner hosts still upheld the custom of ordering beautiful recitations over the wine!  So it was in the days when some, at least, still believed in the Muses.  On one of these evenings, Solon the Athenian stopped his nephew Execestides, who had just sung a song.  “Teach it to me,” he said.  Then he turned to an inquiring fellow guest.  “I want to learn it and die.” (Aelian, in Stobaeus’ Anthology 29.58).  The ancients spoke of only one poet in such tones: Sappho (Σαπφώ, spelled in her dialect Ψάπφω).  Strabo called her the greatest poetess (Geography 13.617).  Her people the Mytilenaeans engraved her on their coins (Pollux, Vocabulary 9.84).  Plato called her the tenth muse (Palatine Anthology 9.506).  We can surmise, then, how precious her works must have been to these many admirers through the centuries, these classical devotees of expression and imagery.  Once, a volume of her poetry was taken from the town hall of Syracuse.  “How sorely this stolen Sappho was missed,” moaned Cicero, “is almost more than words can tell” (Orations against Verres 2.4.57).  Who would have thought that anything could even “almost” leave our eloquent Tully at a loss for words!  But just imagine how his tongue would have failed him if not just one volume but her entire works had been stolen, and not just from a town library but from the whole world!  For we are in this very state today, by some unhappy accident of history.  All we have of her nine books of poetry are a couple hundred fragments, most of them mere words or phrases that scholars have gleaned painstakingly from quotations throughout Greek and Latin literature.  A great irony lies in the epitaph Pinytus wrote for her, whose promise has sadly failed:  “This tomb hath the bones and the dumb name of Sappho, but her wise utterances are immortal” (Palatine Anthology 7.16).

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Tom Jones

Henry Fielding

1749

(Tom really wants to be good for the sake of his love Sophia, but his nature keeps getting in the way!)

TomJonesMovie1963Albert Finney as Tom Jones, and Susannah York as Sophia Western, in Tony Richardson’s 1963 film adaptation. Courtesy of the British Film Institute.

 

It is prudent to be morally pure– there can be weighty unseen consequences to any moral failure.  Fielding’s signature novel has this ponderous theme, and yet manages not to be at all heavy-handed but funny, colloquial, at times bawdy, ironic, rollicking.  The theme is kicked here and there and tossed around like a ball, but it is pervasive nonetheless– throughout this History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, from his birth to the point at which he finally comes to the beginning of what promises to be a good and happy life with Sophia, all of Tom’s sundry dilemmas and anguishes are a result of his own moral weakness.  Although an otherwise upstanding and honorable individual, poor Tom cannot seem to surmount two kinds of temptation: to lust and to folly.  He repeatedly places himself into compromising situations with women that– even if Fielding’s presentation of them makes us smirk– only prove disastrous to him through his family or his beloved.  Also, to achieve his goals he often resorts to schemes that involve some deceit, and that always backfire on him in the worst way imaginable.  We see Tom, and rightly so, as a victim of Fortune throughout the book; but he lays himself open to Fortune’s whims by his actions, and so he has lured his own fate.  No elements of the plot of this book are foreign to this theme.

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The Romance of Tristan and Iseult

(Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut)

Joseph Bédier

1900

(A knight and a lady pursue their magical love through bloodshed and sorrow.)

JohnWilliamWaterhouse_TristanDetail from Tristan and Isolde with the Potion (1916), by John William Waterhouse. The philtre on the high seas cements their love for all time– a draught unto death.  This painting is in the private collection of Fred & Sherry Ross.  Read about this collection at the Art Renewal Center

When tales pass through centuries of retellings, they tend to become what of audio media we would call “overproduced”:  too many interpreters have slanted the story their various ways, too many embellishments and new episodes have been inserted, too many accommodations and updates have aimed at suiting the fancies of each audience.  In the process the story can lose some of its grip on our imagination and our romantic sensibilities.  It can be so cobbled and abused that we are left to distill the heart of it as best we can from a variety of sources.  The only way such a beautiful old tale could ever be told today in anything like its original form and spirit, would be for three literary virtues to unite:  a single author must be simultaneously an expert scholar, a great poet, and above all, modest.  Only a scholar will know the history of the work; will be able to distinguish the wheat from the chaff in elements of theme, characterization, and plot; and will sufficiently understand an ancient teller’s perspective so as to effectively reproduce it.  And only a great poet will be able to convey this perspective, and the story itself, with convincing unity and supreme skill—for expectations of quality and beauty are very lofty when we pick up a beloved and popular story.  And finally, many a great poet and scholar will have great pride as well, in which case there will be too much of the writer and not enough of the legend in the text.  Granted, we love our authors’ egos when it is them we want to see; but if the aim is to represent something of the original (or at least old) character of a romance, an author must exercise admirable self-control. We can thank Joseph Bédier for being this author for the legend of Tristan & Iseult.

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Great Expectations

Charles Dickens

1860-1861

(Pip tells us of his lifelong love, the unexpected rise and fall of his fortune, and the lessons he learned about what makes a gentleman.)

MissHavisham&PipDetail from an 1860s illustration by John McLenan, “‘Who is it?’ said the lady at the table. ‘Pip, ma’am.'” Courtesy of The Victorian Web

 

In describing a novel, everyone, myself included, seems to have as the central focus an explanation of what the book is about, whether plotwise or themewise. So it has always been a curiosity to me that such a description rarely lures me to a novel, or, if I have already read it, rarely captures what I loved about it. Tell me that Great Expectations is Pip’s life story where such and such happens, and I will probably not care too much. Tell me that it is a story of foolish desires and their detriment to our good and healthy existence, or of the confusion we often suffer between our expectations and reality, or of the functions and effects of guilt or love or human sympathy– tell me that the book is about these things and I am likely to nod in agreement, but I’ll not be for the sake of those things very much impassioned to read the novel. It is not because I do not care about these things. In fact, I loved the novel and these are precisely what the novel is about, and I loved it at least partially because of them. But I suspect that there are situations where our experience of reading the novel results in our loving the novel for what it is, as distinct from what it is about. I think Dickens is one of those authors for whom this is regularly the case. Another orphan novel? the uninitiated might ask, having read David Copperfield. And we would have to say “Yes, Dickens is returning to theme of our human condition being one in which we are as orphans, trying to find our way through a world filled with few safe people and places but many threatening people and places. We must learn life’s lessons for ourselves, for our parents are not here to help us.” Now, as true and interesting as this is, does this statement shake the cynic from his negativity towards Dickens? Or, for the person who has read Great Expectations, does it nail down what is so endearing about the book? Probably not.

 

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