Two things those poems aren’t, in any simple way: (1) The ten poems I’d take to a desert island. Or the ten poems I’d save if there was a fire at the British Library and they were the only works that would survive to represent English poetry for all time. (2) picked to indicate the kind of work I’d like to produce myself.
The Fall of Rome by W. H. Auden
The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.
Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.
Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.
Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.
Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK
On a pink official form.
Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.
Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.
This poem doesn’t have the slippery, oblique intellectuality of Auden at his most Audenesque. September 1, 1939 seems like a typically Auden poem; faced with the second great war of his lifetime, he produced a poem that flickers between the grand sweep of history and the mundanities of everyday life, via psychology and ethics and politics – but without using ideas to hide from the ominous reality.
The Fall of Rome is much more direct, although the handling of form, the subject matter and the use of the anachronisms all feel typically Auden. I think what makes this poem stick in my mind is simply the image-making – the aptness and precision. I like the poem even though I have an uneasy feeling that it’s trying to persuade me of something I don’t believe; but I’m not quite sure what that is. The vigour of the simple-minded, perhaps.
Next up – The Seafarer. Hopefully I can find something a bit more insightful to say about that one.
The Mower to the Glo-Worms by Andrew Marvell.
Ye living Lamps, by whose dear light
The Nightingale does sit so late,
And studying all the Summer-night,
Her matchless Songs does meditate;
Ye Country Comets, that portend
No War, nor Princes funeral,
Shining unto no higher end
Then to presage the Grasses fall;
Ye Glo-worms, whose officious Flame
To wandring Mowers shows the way,
That in the Night have lost their aim,
And after foolish Fires do stray;
Your courteous Lights in vain you wast,
Since Juliana here is come,
For She my Mind hath so displac’d
That I shall never find my home.
Again, I guess the question is – why this one rather than any other Marvell poem? Especially since this is the only poem from a Metaphysical poet, so it was also chosen in preference to all of Donne and Herbert. Well, on another day, I might have picked a different poem. Like The Sun Rising, or Good Friday, Riding Westward. Or The Collar. Or, getting back to Marvell, The Unfortunate Lover.
I do like this one though. Part of the appeal of the Metaphysicals is the ingenuity of their poems, but when the poems are at their most spectacularly ingenious, it sometimes unbalances the poem. When I first read Donne, at school, I thought the compasses conceit in A Valediction Forbidding Mourning was just fabulous, but now I’m less sure. I think the reader’s attention is pulled too far away from the putative subject of the poem. What I like about The Mower to the Glo-Worms is that it has some of that ingenuity – in comparing the glowworms to comets, for example – but the conceits are always tied into the world of mowers, glowworms and nightingales, so I don’t have the feeling that the poet’s ingenuity is in competition with the poem.
The other thing that really appeals to me about the poem is its shape. We get three parallel stanzas offering ways of looking at the glowworms, and although they establish atmosphere and themes, we don’t actually get any of the core subject – the mower’s love for Juliana – until the last stanza. And when it does come, it’s understated; it’s hard to imagine a simpler line than ‘that I shall never find my home’ to end a poem. I once heard/read an explanation of one way music works. I don’t understand music, so this will be a bit garbled, but: because people have certain (unconscious) expectations about how a musical pattern will resolve itself, a composer can open the pattern and the audience will be held in a slight sense of tension waiting for the pattern to resolve. Then when the resolution, the ending, appears, the audience has a pleasurable sense of release, of things falling into place. In this poem, I feel we’re left with a slight rhetorical tension at the end of each of the first three stanzas. We’re left hanging by the semicolon; and only after repeating this pattern three times does the poem resolve itself.
As promised, some thoughts on each of those ten poems, starting with As Kingfishers Catch Fire by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dr
The idea’s being doing the rounds of poblogs – ten poems you might use to introduce yourself. I guess the ten you pick depends on whether you’re introducing yourself to a possible employer or a possible shag. I’ll leave it to the reader to deicde whether my selection is the equivalent of a resum
the frogs were croaking.
Snow is falling.
I wonder whether a fixed ‘content word’ count would be a way of providing a clear formal model for haiku in English. i.e. count the nouns, verbs and adjectives. This would come in at six. So would “old pond – frog jumps – sound of water”, pretty much however you translate it. “little snail – inch by inch, climb – Mount Fuji!”, comes in as five in Japanese (katatsuburi soro-soro nobore fuji no yama), something like “snail slowly-slowly climb mount fuji” maybe. And many have even fewer. Hmm. Maybe not.