Subscribe: by Email | in Reader

On His Blindness -- John Milton

Rectifying a serious omission in the list of covered poets...
(Poem #106) On His Blindness
 When I consider how my light is spent
     Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
     And that one talent which is death to hide
     Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
 To serve therewith my Maker, and present
     My true account, lest he returning chide,
     "Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
     I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
 That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
    Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
    Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
    And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
    They also serve who only stand and wait."
-- John Milton
Milton is not really one of my favourite poets, but this in no way detracts
from his obvious merits. The poem above is one of his most famous[1], and
certainly one of the more famous sonnets around. Like most of Milton's
poetry, it is explicitly religious; this does, I think, give it a slightly
anachronistic feel today, but it was far from uncommon in his time. Like a
number of famous poems, most of this one's impact lies in its last line,
which provides a beautiful counterpoint to the rest of the poem, and which
is far more famous than the sonnet itself.

[1] always excepting 'Paradise Lost'



Form: sonnet: abbaabbacdecde
1. The date of composition is uncertain, Milton's blindness, to which this
   is the first reference in his poetry, became virtually complete in 1652,
   but if the arrangement of his sonnets is (as it elsewhere appears to be)
   chronological, the date must be, like that of Sonnet XVIII, 1655. First
   printed in Poems, 1673.

   light: power of vision, to be taken in conjunction with "this dark
   world.'' In a letter of 1654 Milton refers to a very faint
   susceptibility to light still remaining to him.

2. Ere half my days: we must not expect mathematical accuracy. But if we
   remember that Milton is speaking about his career in God's service, take
   its beginning in the avowed dedication to that service in Sonnet VII
   (1632), and assume the scriptural life-span of three score years and ten
   (which would mean life till 1678), 1652 falls before, and even 1655 does
   not extend beyond, the half-way mark of Milton's expected career of

3-6. The allusion is to the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30);
     death, like the outer darkness into which the unprofitable servant was
     cast, stands for the utmost in punishment; the Talent was a measure of
     weight and hence of value; there is here, of course, a play on the word
     in its modern sense of mental gift or endowment, in Milton's case his
     gift of poetry.

8. fondly: foolishly.

 -- from <>

Biography and Assessment

  Milton's sonnets (he only wrote a few, but they are so well-known that his
  variation is called the Miltonic sonnet) retain the original rhyme scheme
  of the Petrarchian or Italian sonnet, but completely get rid of the
  "volte", or change or perspective between the octet and sestet. The result
  is that the 14-line stanza becomes a monolith. An astounding thing is that
  it turns out to be just the right length, even for wide-minded (and
  occasionally long-winded) Milton.

        -- Bob Blair

  The major sonnets have much poetical as well as autobiographical interest,
  and as a group they illustrate (with "Lycidas") both in texture and rhythm
  the beginnings of the grand style (i.e., a literary style marked by a
  sustained and lofty dignity and sublimity) that was to have full scope in
  Paradise Lost. One is less conscious of sonnet structure and of rhymes
  than of a single massive unit that approaches a paragraph of Milton's
  blank verse.

        -- EB

Milton, John

 b. Dec. 9, 1608, London, Eng.
 d. Nov. 8, 1674, Chalfont St. Giles, Buckinghamshire

  one of the greatest poets of the English language. He also was a noted
  historian, scholar, pamphleteer, and civil servant for the
  Parliamentarians and the Puritan Commonwealth.

  Milton ranks second only to Shakespeare among English poets; his writings
  and his influence are an important part of the history of English
  literature, culture, and libertarian thought. He is best known for
  Paradise Lost, which is generally regarded as the greatest epic poem in
  the English language. Milton's prose works, however, are also important as
  a valuable interpretation of the Puritan revolution, and they have their
  place in modern histories of political and religious thought.

        -- EB

  A more complete biogaphy may be found at

And since no biography of Milton would be compelete without a short note on
Paradise Lost:

  By 1650 Milton had given up the idea of composing a British epic. Instead
  he chose what was considered the most momentous event, next to the life
  and death of Christ, in the world's history--the fall of mankind from
  grace. Paradise Lost is an epic poem written in blank verse--i.e.,
  unrhymed iambic pentameter verse. It tells the story of Satan's rebellion
  against God and his expulsion from heaven and the subsequent temptation
  and expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

  By Milton's time the Fall of Man had already received innumerable
  literary treatments, narrative and dramatic, so that the simple tale in
  Genesis and the more shadowy role of Satan in heaven, earth, and hell
  had acquired a good deal of interpretative and concrete embellishment.
  So the main motives and events of Paradise Lost had abundant literary
  precedent, though they were handled with powerful originality; Milton,
  like a Greek dramatist, was reworking a story familiar in outline to his
  audience. His story, moreover, gave him the advantage of immemorial
  belief and association in the minds of his earlier readers. This
  advantage no longer operates in the same way--although, for modern
  readers, the fable still possesses at least the immemorial and universal
  import of archetypal myth.

        -- EB

Five Ways to Kill a Man -- Edwin Brock

(Poem #105) Five Ways to Kill a Man
There are many cumbersome ways to kill a man.
You can make him carry a plank of wood
To the top of a hill and nail him to it.
To do this
Properly you require a crowd of people
Wearing sandals, a cock that crows, a cloak
To dissect, a sponge, some vinegar and one
Man to hammer the nails home.

Or you can take a length of steel,
Shaped and chased in a traditional way,
And attempt to pierce the metal cage he wears.
But for this you need white horses,
English trees, men with bows and arrows,

At least two flags, a prince and a
Castle to hold your banquet in.

Dispensing with nobility, you may, if the wind
Allows, blow gas at him. But then you need
A mile of mud sliced through with ditches,
Not to mention black boots, bomb craters,
More mud, a plague of rats, a dozen songs
And some round hats made of steel.

In an age of aeroplanes, you may fly
Miles above your victim and dispose of him by
Pressing one small switch. All you then
Require is an ocean to separate you, two

Systems of government, a nation's scientists,
Several factories, a psychopath and
Land that no one needs for several years.

These are, as I began, cumbersome ways
To kill a man. Simpler, direct, and much more neat
Is to see that he lives somewhere in the middle
Of the twentieth century, and leave him there.
-- Edwin Brock
A simple, direct poem, neither overstated nor emotional, yet chillingly
effective. The matter-of-fact tone, as dry as a news-caster's, highlights
the horror of the deeds being described; at the same time, it suggests the
impersonality which makes war so terrible. This is a poem where form is as
important as content in establishing meaning.



Born in London, Brock (1927-) served two years in the Royal Navy. He was a
police officer when he completed his first poetry collection, An Attempt at
Exorcism (1959). Influenced by American confessional poets, Brock writes
about family relationships, childhood memories, and sometimes shifts into
the linguistic mode of an advertising copywriter (which he became in 1959).
Suggesting that all poetry is to some extent autobiographical, Brock argues
"that most activity is an attempt to define oneself in one way or another:
for me poetry, and only poetry, has provided this self-defining act." His
works include over a dozen poetry collections; a novel, The Little White God
(1962); and an autobiography, Here, Now, Always (1977).

My Last Duchess -- Robert Browning

Guest poem sent in by Pavithra Krishnan
(Poem #104) My Last Duchess
    That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
    Looking as if she were alive. I call
    That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands
    Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
    Will 't please you sit and look at her? I said
    "Frà Pandolf" by design, for never read
    Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
    The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
    But to myself they turned (since none puts by
   The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
   And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
   How such a glance came there; so, not the first
   Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not
   Her husband's presence only, called that spot
   Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
   Frà Pandolf chanced to say, "Her mantle laps
   Over my Lady's wrist too much," or "Paint
   Must never hope to reproduce the faint
   Half-flush that dies along her throat"; such stuff
   Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
   For calling up that spot of joy. She had
   A heart . . . how shall I say? . . . too soon made glad,
   Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
   She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
   Sir, 'twas all one! My favour at her breast,
   The dropping of the daylight in the West,
   The bough of cherries some officious fool
   Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
   She rode with round the terrace--all and each
   Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
   Or blush, at least. She thanked men,--good; but thanked
   Somehow . . . I know not how . . . as if she ranked
   My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
   With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame
   This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
   In speech--(which I have not)--to make your will
   Quite clear to such an one, and say, "Just this
   Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
   Or there exceed the mark"--and if she let
   Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
   Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
   --E'en then would be some stooping; and I chuse
   Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
   Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
   Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
   Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
   As if alive. Will 't please you rise? We'll meet
   The company below, then. I repeat,
   The Count your Master's known munificence
   Is ample warrant that no just pretence
   Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
   Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed
   At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go
   Together down, Sir! Notice Neptune, though,
   Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
   Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me.
-- Robert Browning
I think this one is Great. A dramatic monologue and also the aristocratic,
unapologetic explanation of a poikilothermic  murderer. You read this poem
as partial victim of the Duke's chillingly warped sense of reality. This is
not Evil revelling in itself- but Evil masquerading as Righteousness...
Deliciously creepy. The brutal arrogance of the supremely egotistical Duke
and his veneer of consummate refinement are brought out masterfully in that
telling line- "..and I choose/ Never to stoop." The 'inconclusive-ness' of
the piece leaves the reader in horrified suspense (a pretty innovative
decision on Browning's part- the use of open-endings as a technique had yet
to catch on). A virtuoso performance by a fascinating character,an
exquisitely handled script, and a title that is a dangerous revelation in

Pavithra Krishnan

Jenny Kissed Me -- James Leigh Hunt

(Poem #103) Jenny Kissed Me
Jenny kiss'd me when we met,
  Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
  Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad,
  Say that health and wealth have miss'd me,
Say I'm growing old, but add,
  Jenny kiss'd me.
-- James Leigh Hunt
  Note: The Jenny in question was Jane Welsh Carlyle, wife of Thomas
  Carlyle. Hunt had just recovered from an extended battle with influenza,
  and when he went to tell the Carlyles the news, Jenny (in a very
  uncharacteristic move) leaped up and kissed him.

While Hunt is perhaps best known for 'Abou Ben Adhem'[1], I think the
charming, somewhat whimsical 'Jenny Kissed Me' is a far nicer poem. The
simple, unaffected lyrics hide the construction somewhat, which is how it
should be - however, several details of the form are notable.

First off, the poem is perfectly trochaic[2], which is neither common nor
easy. Moreover, it is probably the most natural piece of trochaic verse I've
seen. It also avoids both the common traps of trochaic verse, one being a
tendency to sound singsong (thanks in part to the fact that the most common
perfect trochaics around are nursery rhymes like 'Twinkle, twinkle little
star') and the tendency to sound heavy and solemn. The latter is not
technically a trap; it is due to the 'falling' pattern of a trochaic foot,
and is often used to good effect. However, here the poem is slightly more
lighthearted, and needs something to offset the trochees. That something is
provided by the feminine rhymes - masculine rhymes are usually associated
with serious poetry, and feminine and triple rhymes with lighter verse, and
most serious trochaic poetry drops the last syllable throughout, having
implied caesuras (pauses) at the end of each line. The singsong effect is
offset by the abab (as opposed to aabb) rhyme scheme - it makes the verse,
rather than the couplet, the basic unit of the poem - and by the alternate
feminine rhymes, which tend to group every two lines into a longer line,
with the masculine rhymes being deemphasized.

The verse pattern used here (alternating between implied caesuras and
feminine rhymes) lends the poem a very natural tone, putting the reader in
comfortable and familiar territory versewise, and letting the words get
across unhindered and unshadowed by formal complications.

[1] may his tribe increase
[2] a trochaic foot is stress, unstress.
    'Jen ny 'kiss'd me 'when we 'met etc.


Biography and Assessment:

Hunt, (James Henry) Leigh

 b. Oct. 19, 1784, Southgate, Middlesex, Eng.
 d. Aug. 28, 1859, Putney, London

English essayist, critic, journalist, and poet, who was an editor of
influential journals in an age when the periodical was at the height of its
power. He was also a friend and supporter of the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley
and John Keats. Hunt's poems, of which "Abou Ben Adhem" and "Jenny Kissed
Me" are probably the best known, reflect the influence of foreign

Though he falls short of greatness, Hunt, at his best, in some essays and
his Autobiography (1850; a rewriting of Lord Byron and Some of His
Contemporaries, 1828), has a charm that has gained him a high place in his
readers' affection. He excels in perceptive judgments of his contemporaries,
from Keats to the Victorian Tennyson; and, as Radical journalist, though not
much interested in politics, he attacks oppression with indignation. He
considered himself to be essentially a dilettante.

The poems in Juvenilia (1801), his first volume, show his love for Italian
literature. He looked to Italy for a "freer spirit of versification," and in
The Story of Rimini (1816), published in the year of his meeting with Keats,
he reintroduced a freedom of movement in English couplet verse lost in the
18th century. From him Keats derived his delight in colour and imaginative
sensual experience and a first acquaintance with Italian poetry, a potent
influence long after he had outgrown Hunt's tutelage.

        -- EB

Generations -- Amy Lowell

(Poem #102) Generations
You are like the stem
Of a young beech-tree,
Straight and swaying,
Breaking out in golden leaves.
Your walk is like the blowing of a beech-tree
On a hill.
Your voice is like leaves
Softly struck upon by a South wind.
Your shadow is no shadow, but a scattered sunshine;
And at night you pull the sky down to you
And hood yourself in stars.

But I am like a great oak under a cloudy sky,
Watching a stripling beech grow up at my feet.
-- Amy Lowell
Another Imagist poem... I like Imagist poetry :-)

'Generations' is deceptively simple in thought and execution. I say
'deceptively', because it's difficult to appreciate today how revolutionary
poems like this one were, back in the early years of this century. To an
audience who had grown up on a diet of maudlin Victorian poets, the plain
and unadorned yet intensely evocative works of art fashioned by Pound and
his ilk came as nothing short of a revelation. It takes great skill and
painstaking craftsmanship to make poetic statements with their particular
type of compressed 'meaningfulness'; today's poem may not be as brilliantly
concentrated as some, but it's nevertheless a fine piece of work, elegant
and unforced.

And yes, I used the phrase 'works of art' quite intentionally, in the
previous paragraph. I've always felt that Imagist poetry is closer to
painting than it is to literature - read 'The Red Wheelbarrow', Minstrels
Poem #83 to see what I mean.



First published in 1919 in Pictures of a Floating World, "Generations" is a
fine example of the imagist style which Lowell, along with Ezra Pound and H.
D. (Hilda Doolittle), made famous in England and America during the early
part of the twentieth century. This poetic movement, a reaction to what was
seen as the abstract and sentimental poetry of the Victorian period,
stressed the importance of the concrete image and argued for poetic forms
based not upon fixed forms but upon common speech presented through
free-verse or what Lowell termed "unrhymed cadence." Proponents of this
movement argued for what might be termed "rhetorical efficiency" or
minimalism. In other words, imagism called for a new poetry, one in which
there were no frills, no ornament, one in which the poem managed to
communicate as much as possible in the fewest words and with the least
rhetorical posturing.


"Generations" was first published in 1919, in a collection of poems titled
Pictures of a Floating World, a collection which did much to assure Lowell's
critical acclaim. The title of this volume Pictures of a Floating World was
derived from the Japanese word "ukiyoye" which was commonly applied to
eighteenth-century realistic paintings that depicted delight in life's
transient pleasures. As well, the brilliant images of the volume were
informed by Lowell's many years studying Chinese and Japanese visual art and
poetry. Indeed, one could argue that Lowell's poetry is best understood in
the context of her Asian studies. Glenn Richard Ruihley notes in his book
The Thorn of a Rose that the "wide ranging research" Lowell did in this area
"deepened her response to a civilization in which art had ordered and
refined the whole conduct of life. This was the concept of the Orient
developed by Percival Lowell, her brother, and Amy's identification with
Oriental life follows the lines of this thought." Poetically, Lowell was
especially interested in hokku and tantra and wrote a number of experiments
in which she tried to imitate these poetic forms. According to S. Foster
Damon, in his book Amy Lowell: A Chronicle with Extracts from Her
Correspondence, each of these might "be considered an experiment in economy
of means." That is to say that Lowell did not emulate the elaborate syllabic
patterns of these poetic forms. Rather, she was profoundly influenced by the
simplicity and clarity of their imagery. As Glenn Hughes notes in his
article "Amy Lowell: The Success," only a fraction of this book is "written
in actual imitation of foreign modes, yet the Oriental influence is dominant
throughout the book. Fantastic imagery conveying evanescent moods is the
artistic aim involved." "Generations" is not an imitation of Asian poetic
form per se, but the terseness of the last few lines are remindful of haiku
and share with it the sense of economy as regards language.


A descendent of one of the oldest and most respected families in New
England, Amy Lowell was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on February 9,
1874, to Augustus Lowell and Katherine Bigelow Lawrence Lowell. Raised on a
ten-acre estate, Lowell first received tutoring at home by governesses
before she attended private schools in Boston until the age of seventeen.
Around 1902 Lowell decided to seriously study poetry in hopes of becoming a
poet herself. Houghton Mifflin published her first collection of poems in
1912, but the work received little notice from critics. Not until she
traveled to London in the summer of 1913 to meet Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle
(H. D.), and other poets involved in Imagism, did Lowell begin to receive
both recognition and notoriety for her work. Upon returning to Boston she
became an important promoter for the Imagist movement in America, helping
edit, publish, and support Imagist poets and anthologies. Throughout the
rest of her life, Lowell continued to champion the works of American poets
and introduce the public to contemporary poetry. Afflicted by chronic hernia
problems since 1916, Lowell underwent numerous operations, but she never let
her illness interfere with her poetry. On May 10, 1925, she cancelled a
lecture tour after suffering from her most serious hernia attack. Two days
later, Lowell died on her Brookline estate of a cerebral hemorrhage.

(all the above are from the Gale Poetry Resource Centre,

The Bells -- Edgar Allan Poe

(Poem #101) The Bells
  Hear the sledges with the bells--
  Silver bells--
  What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
  How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
  In the icy air of night!
  While the stars that oversprinkle
  All the heavens, seem to twinkle
  With a crystalline delight;
  Keeping time, time, time,
  In a sort of Runic rhyme,
  To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
  From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
  Bells, bells, bells,--
  From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

  Hear the mellow wedding-bells,
  Golden bells!
  What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!
  Through the balmy air of night
  How they ring out their delight
  From the molten-golden notes!
  And all in tune,
  What a liquid ditty floats
  To the turtle-dove that listens, while she gloats
  On the moon!
  Oh, from out the sounding cells,
  What a gust of euphony voluminously wells!
  How it swells!
  How it dwells
  On the Future!   how it tells
  Of rapture that impels
  To the swinging and the ringing
  Of the bells, bells, bells--
  Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
  Bells, bells, bells--
  To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!

  Hear the loud alarum bells--
  Brazen bells!
  What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
  In the startled ear of night
  How they scream out their affright!
  Too much horrified to speak,
  They can only shriek, shriek,
  Out of tune,
  In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
  In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire
  Leaping higher, higher, higher
  With a desperate desire,
  And a resolute endeavor,
  Now--now to sit or never,
  By the side of the pale-faced moon.
  Oh, the bells, bells, bells!
  What a tale their terror tells
  Of despair!
  How they clang, and clash, and roar!
  What a horror they outpour
  On the bosom of the palpitating air!
  Yet the ear, it fully knows,
  By the twanging
  And the clanging,
  How the danger ebbs and flows;
  Yet the ear distinctly tells,
  In the jangling
  And the wrangling,
  How the danger sinks and swells,
  By the sinking of the swelling in the anger of the bells--
  Of the bells--
  Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
  Bells, bells, bells,--
  In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!

  Hear the tolling of the bells--
  Iron bells!
  What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
  In a silence of the night
  How we shiver with affright
  At the melancholy menace of their tone!
  For every sound that floats
  From the rust within their throats,
  Is a groan:
  And the people--ah, the people--
  They that dwell up in the steeple,
  All alone,
  And who, tolling, tolling, tolling,
  In that muffled monotone,
  Feel a glory in so rolling
  On the human heart a stone--
  They are neither man nor woman--
  They are neither brute nor human--
  They are Ghouls!
  And their king it is who tolls;
  And he rolls, rolls, rolls, rolls,
  A paean from the bells!
  And his merry bosom swells
  With the paean of the bells!
  And he dances and he yells;
  Keeping time, time, time
  In a sort of Runic rhyme,
  To the paean of the bells--
  Of the bells;
  Keeping time, time, time,
  In a sort of Runic rhyme,
  To the throbbing of the bells--
  Of the bells, bells, bells,
  To the sobbing of the bells;
  Keeping time, time, time,
  As he knells, knells, knells,
  In a happy Runic rhyme,
  To the rolling of the bells,--
  Of the bells, bells, bells--
  To the tolling of the bells,
  Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
  Bells, bells, bells,--
  To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.
-- Edgar Allan Poe
Seldom have I seen form and content so well integrated as in Poe's 'Bells'.
The poem needs very little explanation, but it's interesting[1] to see how it
does what it does, and since it exemplifies a lot of the things I like about
Poe, and indeed about poetry in general, I thought it'd be a nice idea to
examine it in some detail.

The repetition of the word 'bells' is the most immediately obvious 'effect'.
Along with the long cascades of mostly masculine rhymes[2], and the
pervasive alliteration, it sets up the basic structure of the poem; the
background beat if you like, or the central melody around which more complex
themes are woven. The other basic effect is provided by the sounds of the
words themselves. Apart from the deliberately onomatopoeic words like
'tintinabulation', the poem abounds with sonorants[3], and pure vowels (as
opposed to diphthongs) that lend it a bell-like clarity and resonance.

After this, the poem separates into verses, the form of each verse being
shaped by its underlying theme. Thus, the first verse has short vowels and
precise sounds, mimicking the 'sledges with the bells-- silver bells'. The
second verse has a more mellow sound, with the longer, deeper 'o' and the
softer 'e' replacing 'i' as the dominant vowel, and the next two verses
likewise evoking dissonance (shorter syllables, more hurried lines, harsher
consonants) and an almost Hardyish sense of time and death (heavy
repetition, far less vibrant sounds). Of course, these aren't standalone
effects, but rather both rely on and reinforce the actual content of the

And finally, the metronomic effect is broken by a number of interesting
devices, including unexpectedly irregular line lengths, missing syllables,
implied rests, an irregular rhyme scheme, the occasional feminine rhyme and
at least one broken rhyme ('ghouls' in the third verse), all of which act as
a sort of counterpoint to the basic rhythm.

[1] Especially given Poe's views on the crafting of poetry (see 'The
Philosophy of Composition',
<[broken link]>)
[2] Masculine rhymes are those that rhyme on the last syllable only, as
opposed to feminine (last two syllables) and triple rhymes.
[3] In phonetics, any of the nasal, liquid, and glide consonants that are
marked by a continuing resonant sound. Sonorants have more acoustic energy
than other consonants. In English the sonorants are y, w, l, r, m, n, and


Biography etc:

See the notes accompanying 'The Raven', poem #85

Days -- Philip Larkin

(Poem #100) Days
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
-- Philip Larkin
Another mysteriously beautiful and intensely thought-provoking little
vignette; the simple, straightforward words seem to hint at some intense
revelation that's just out of sight, but which throws its shadow over
the printed page, dark and foreboding...

I sometimes wonder how poems such as this one come to be composed...
although the final product is precisely and carefully detailed, there's
nothing 'constructed' about the theme, or about Larkin's way of
approaching it... oh well, call it the Muse, I suppose.


George Macbeth has this to say about today's poem:

['Days' is] a simple, direct-looking poem about time and death... the
one concrete detail, the 'long coats' of the priest and the doctor,
brings the poem to life with a sinister vividness... [it] seems to be
aiming at a plain, timeless quality very different from the practical
everyday flavour of most of Larkin's poetry...

and this about Larkin:

... [the] virtues [of the Movement poets] - a return to a cool tone,
tight form and intellectual backbone after some of the romantic excesses
of the 1940s - are all exemplified at their most striking in Larkin's

... The American poet Robert Lowell has said that he finds Larkin the
most formally satisfying English poet now writing...

... what gives Larkin's poetry its originality and special quality is
perhaps a piercing resonance of feeling which reveals a melancholy
sensibility as keen as Tennyson's and as tough as Hardy's....

Nephelidia -- Algernon Charles Swinburne

Note the p1c compliance :)
[in the next, actually - result of renumbering --sitaram]

[Lines split into two to fit the display. [not any more --sitaram]]
(Poem #99) Nephelidia
From the depth of the dreamy decline of the dawn
        through a notable nimbus of nebulous noonshine,
Pallid and pink as the palm of the flag-flower
        that flickers with fear of the flies as they float,
Are they looks of our lovers that lustrously lean
        from a marvel of mystic miraculous moonshine,
These that we feel in the blood of our blushes
        that thicken and threaten with throbs through the throat?
Thicken and thrill as a theatre thronged
        at appeal of an actor's appalled agitation,
Fainter with fear of the fires of the future
        than pale with the promise of pride in the past;
Flushed with the famishing fullness of fever
        that reddens with radiance of rathe recreation,
Gaunt as the ghastliest of glimpses that gleam
        through the gloom of the gloaming when ghosts go aghast?
Nay, for the nick of the tick of the time
        is a tremulous touch on the temples of terror,
Strained as the sinews yet strenuous with strife
        of the dead who is dumb as the dust-heaps of death:
Surely no soul is it, sweet as the spasm
        of erotic emotional exquisite error,
Bathed in the balms of beatified bliss,
        beatific itself by beatitude's breath.
Surely no spirit or sense of a soul
        that was soft to the spirit and soul of our senses
Sweetens the stress of suspiring suspicion
        that sobs in the semblance and sound of a sigh;
Only this oracle opens Olympian,
        in mystical moods and triangular tenses--
"Life is the lust of a lamp for the light
        that is dark till the dawn of the day when we die.
Mild is the mirk and monotonous music of memory,
        melodiously mute as it may be,
While the hope in the heart of a hero is bruised
        by the breach of men's rapiers, resigned to the rod;
Made meek as a mother whose bosom-beats bound
        with the bliss-bringing bulk of a balm-breathing baby,
As they grope through the grave-yard of creeds, under skies
        growing green at a groan for the grimness of God.
Blank is the book of his bounty beholden of old,
        and its binding is blacker than bluer:
Out of blue into black is the scheme of the skies,
        and their dews are the wine of the bloodshed of things;
Till the darkling desire of delight shall be free
        as a fawn that is freed from the fangs that pursue her,
Till the heart-beats of hell shall be hushed by a hymn
        from the hunt that has harried the kennel of kings.
-- Algernon Charles Swinburne
This marvellous piece of amphigouri[1] was a deliberate self-parody by
Swinburne, capturing his style, with its complex metres and abundant
alliteration, perfectly. While meaning precisely nothing, it nonetheless
manages to be an altogether delightful trip through the intricate interplay
of sounds and patterns. It also manages to have some wonderfully quotable
bits that hover tantalisingly on the edge of meaning.

[1] Amphigouri: A verse composition which, while apparently coherent,
contains no sense or meaning. 'Nephelidia' is usually cited as an example.


Biography and Assessment:

Swinburne, Algernon Charles

 b. April 5, 1837, London
 d. April 10, 1909, Putney, London

  English poet and critic, outstanding for prosodic innovations and
  noteworthy as the symbol of mid-Victorian poetic revolt. The
  characteristic qualities of his verse are insistent alliteration,
  unflagging rhythmic energy, sheer melodiousness, great variation of pace
  and stress, effortless expansion of a given theme, and evocative if rather
  imprecise use of imagery. His poetic style is highly individual and his
  command of word-colour and word-music striking. Swinburne's technical
  gifts and capacity for prosodic invention were extraordinary, but too
  often his poems' remorseless rhythms have a narcotic effect, and he has
  been accused of paying more attention to the melody of words than to their
  meaning. Swinburne was pagan in his sympathies and passionately

        -- EB

The Thought Fox -- Ted Hughes

(Poem #98) The Thought Fox
I imagine this midnight moment's forest:
Something else is alive
Besides the clock's loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox's nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.
-- Ted Hughes
Somehow, the adjective that comes to mind most often when I read Ted
Hughes is 'clean' - I think of his poetry as being very concise, very
elegantly crafted, incisive, as glittering and sharp and dangerous as a
scalpel... there's a latent violence about his work that, barely
restrained, imbues the whole with a raw, primal power.

And yet... poems like 'Hawk Roosting' (Minstrels, Poem #42) may be as
harsh as the surgeon's knife, but antiseptic they never are. There's a
colour and passion that fire Hughes' images; his world of 'Nature, red
in tooth and claw' is at once both more earthy and more 'real' than
those of the Movement poets who were his contemporaries; their works
seem pallid and strained in comparison.


"'The Thought Fox' is a poem about composing poetry, or rather, about
being visited by the muse. Appropriately enough, in Hughes' case, the
muse is an animal, a fox. Hughes has said that this was the first animal
poem he wrote."
    -- George Macbeth

Ted Hughes died last year, at the age of 68. Some extracts from his
obituary in the Times:

"It has been said that all great works of literature either found a new
style or dissolve an old one; that they are, in other words, special
cases. The poetry of Ted Hughes is such a special case; its forcefulness
and animal vitality injected new life into English poetry. He will be
remembered most particularly for the strength of his early work, and for
his final, remarkable two books.

The appointment of Hughes as Poet Laureate in succession to John
Betjeman in 1984 signalled not just a new generation, but a change of
outlook. A post that had for more than a century been filled by
Establishment men mostly with mellow voices - Betjeman, Day-Lewis,
Masefield, Bridges, the lamentable Alfred Austin, Tennyson - was
suddenly occupied by one of the fiercest, most critical and
uncompromising of writers, who seemed most unlikely to be able to
provide verses for state occasions.

Laureate poems were never his forte, but it was a chore which he
dutifully carried out. He much preferred to send private poems, not for
publication, to the Queen Mother, with whom he often stayed in Scotland
and shared a passion for fishing, and also to other members of the Royal
Family. This reticence was typical of Hughes, always preferring to
perform in a private and a modest manner. "The whisper is always louder
than the shout," he would tell friends when asked if he would like to
comment on his work. He preferred to let it stand on its own.

Yet Hughes was perhaps the most widely read serious poet of his time.
His early work - The Hawk in the Rain, Lupercal, Crow - was immediately
acclaimed, as were two books in the late 1990s, a free adaptation of
Ovid, and his verse memoir of his first wife, Sylvia Plath, Birthday
Letters. He was always a prodigious poet, as well as producing
children's books (including The Iron Man, now recognised as a classic),
anthologies and criticism. Both his great poetic triumphs and his
failures stemmed from uncompromising self-reliance.

His poem The Thought Fox contained what became one of Hughes's most
famous images, an emblem of the ferocity of his own poetry: an idea
entering the head with the violence of an animal, the "sudden sharp hot
stink of fox". These rapturous encounters with nature's claws and teeth
showed Hughes to be the finest English nature poet of his generation. "

You can read the complete obit at
[broken link]

For a more detailed biography, visit
[broken link]

The Fly -- William Blake

Guest poem sent in by Sriram
(Poem #97) The Fly
Little Fly
Thy summers play,
My thoughtless hand
Has brush'd away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink and sing
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath;
And the want
of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.
-- William Blake
The Fly touches me, like all great art, at several levels. The words are
simple yet so profound- le mot juste. The structure is perfect for the
subject, the tone and the meaning. The rhythm simple yet powerful, again
eminently suited to the tone, and the message. The "meaning" is so clear,
Blake succeeds so  well, seemingly effortlessly- a 5 year-old and a 50
year-old can both access it equally well:

   ...the pages blur,
                            the walls

Finally, it is a delight to read aloud, and silently- a joy of a poem.


During Wind and Rain -- Thomas Hardy

(Poem #96) During Wind and Rain
      They sing their dearest songs--
      He, she, all of them--yea,
      Treble and tenor and bass.
            And one to play;
      With the candles mooning each face....
            Ah, no; the years O!
 How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

      They clear the creeping moss--
      Elders and juniors--aye,
      Making the pathways neat
            And the garden gay;
      And they build a shady seat....
            Ah, no; the years, the years;
 See, the white stormbirds wing across!

      They are blithely breakfasting all--
      Men and maidens--yea,
      Under the summer tree,
            With a glimpse of the bay,
      While pet fowl come to the knee....
            Ah, no; the years O!
 And the rotten rose is ripped from the wall.

      They change to a high new house,
      He, she, all of them--aye,
      Clocks and carpets and chairs
            On the lawn all day,
      And brightest things that are theirs....
            Ah, no; the years, the years;
 Down their carved names the raindrop plows.
-- Thomas Hardy
Hardy's poetry is somewhat more depressing than I usually care for, but it
has a compelling quality that makes up for it. Today's poem deals with some
of his favourite themes - death, oblivion and futility - and does so with his
characteristic elegance and economy. The imagery is vivid and hard-hitting,
the last lines of each stanza stripping away the comfortable mask of life
and order, and hammering in the coffin nails of time. Note the way the
relentless progression is reinforced by the alliteration, and by the
repeated use of the penultimate line. It's interesting to compare Hardy's
poems with those of Christina Rossetti, who expresses some of the same
sentiments, but in a far gentler, more wistful and mistier style.

Biography and Assessment:

  Thomas Hardy was born in 1840, and has for years been famous on both
  sides of the Atlantic as a writer of intense and sombre novels. His
  Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure are possibly his best
  known, although his Wessex Tales and Life's Little Ironies are no
  less imposing.

  It was not until he was almost sixty, in 1898 to be precise, that
  Hardy abandoned prose and challenged attention as a poet. The
  Dynasts, a drama of the Napoleonic Wars, is in three parts, nineteen
  acts and one hundred and thirty scenes, a massive and most amazing
  contribution to contemporary art. It is the apotheosis of Hardy the
  novelist. Lascelles Abercrombie calls this work, which is partly a
  historical play, partly a visionary drama, "the biggest and most
  consistent exhibition of fatalism in literature." While its powerful
  simplicity and tragic impressiveness overshadow his shorter poems,
  many of his terse lyrics reveal the same vigor and impact of a
  strong personality. His collected poems were published by The
  Macmillan Company in 1919 and reveal another phase of one of the
  greatest living writers of English.
        -- Louis Untermeyer

  Hardy seems always to have rated poetry above fiction, and Wessex Poems
  (1898), his first significant public appearance as a poet, included verse
  written during his years as a novelist as well as revised versions of
  poems dating from the 1860s. As a collection it was often perceived as
  miscellaneous and uneven--an impression reinforced by the author's own
  idiosyncratic illustrations--and acceptance of Hardy's verse was slowed,
  then and later, by the persistence of his reputation as a novelist.
  Indeed, there is no clear line of development in Hardy's poetry from
  immaturity to maturity; his style undergoes no significant change over
  time. His best poems can be found mixed together with inferior verse in
  any particular volume, and new poems are often juxtaposed to reworkings of
  poems written or drafted years before. The range of poems within any
  particular volume is also extremely broad--from lyric to meditation to
  ballad to satirical vignette to dramatic monologue or dialogue--and Hardy
  persistently experiments with different, often invented, stanza forms and
        -- EB

Nostalgia - Now Threepence Off -- Adrian Mitchell

inverting the theme...
(Poem #95) Nostalgia - Now Threepence Off
    Where are they now, the heroes of furry-paged books and comics
brighter than life which packed my inklined desk in days when BOP meant
Boys' Own Paper, where are they anyway?
    Where is Percy F. Westerman? Where are H. L. Gee and Arthur Mee?
Where is Edgar Rice (the Warlord of Mars) Burroughs, the Bumper Fun Book
and the Wag's Handbook? Where is the Wonder Book of Reptiles? Where the
hell is the Boy's Book of Bacteriological Warfare?
    Where are the Beacon Readers? Did Ro-ver, that tireless hound,
devour his mon-o-syll-ab-ic-all-y correct family? Did Little Black Sambo
and Epaminondas dig the last sit-in?
    Did Peter Rabbit get his when myxomatosis came round the second
time, did the Flopsy Bunnies stiffen to a standstill, grow bug-eyed,
fly-covered and then disintegrate?
    Where is G. A. Henty and his historical lads - Wolfgang the Hittite,
Armpit the Young Viking, Cyril who lived in Sodom? Where are their
uncorrupted bodies and Empire-building brains, England needs them, the
Sunday Times says so.
    There is news from the Strewelpeter mob. Johnny-Head-In-Air spends
his days reporting flying saucers, the telephone receiver never cools
from the heat of his hand. Little Harriet, who played with matches,
still burns, but not with fire. The Scissorman is everywhere.
    Babar the Elephant turned the jungle into a garden city. But things
went wrong. John and Susan, Titty and Roger, became unaccountably afraid
of water, sold their dinghies, all married each other, live in a
bombed-out cinema on surgical spirits and weeds of all kinds.
    Snow White was in the News of the World - Virgin Lived With Seven
Midgets, Court Told. And in the psychiatric ward an old woman dribbles
as she mumbles about a family of human bears, they ate porridge, yes
Miss Goldilocks of course they did.
    Hans Brinker vainly whirled his silver skates around his head as the
jackboots of Emil and the Detectives invaded his Resistance Cellar.
    Some failed. Desperate Dan and Meddlesome Matty and Strang the
Terrible and Korky the Cat killed themselves with free gifts in a back
room at the Peter Pan Club because they were impotent, like us. Their
audiences, the senile Chums of Red Circle School, still wearing for
reasons of loyalty and lust the tatters of their uniforms, voted that
exhibition a super wheeze.
    Some succeeded. Tom Sawyer's heart has cooled, his ingenuity flowers
at Cape Canaveral.
    But they are all trodden on, the old familiar faces, so at the
rising of the sun and the going down of the ditto I remember I remember
the house where I was taught to play up play up and play the game though
nobody told me what the game was, but we know now, don't we, we know
what the game is, but lives of great men all remind us we can make our
lives sublime and departing leave behind us arseprints on the sands of
time, but the tide's come up, the castles are washed down, where are
they now, where are they, where are the deep shelters? There are no deep
shelters. Biggles may drop it, Worrals of the Wraf may press the button.
So, Billy and Bessie Bunter, prepare for the last and cosmic Yarooh and
throw away the Man-Tan. The sky will soon be full of suns.
-- Adrian Mitchell
Mitchell has always been a poet of the social conscience, unafraid to
take on the establishment while stating truths which he feels are in
need of being stated. As the 'elder statesman of literary protest'
(George Macbeth) he has often taken controversial stands; his poetry,
albeit harsh and uncomfortably honest, is always worth reading.

Today's poem is, in addition to being vividly nostalgic (despite the
self-parody of the title) and extremely funny, a vicious indictment of
modern society... the innocence of childhood seems forever lost in a
world where the old truths no longer hold, a world of hydrogen bombs and
the holocaust.


"There is no other poet in England who has more steadily focussed his
aesthetic aims through his social ones"... to read more about Mitchell,
see the notes to 'To Whom It May Concern, Minstrels Poem #28

PS. Yes, I know, I cheated, this isn't a poem 'by' a fictional
character, it's a poem about fictional characters. I couldn't find a
satisfactory third poem to round out the theme of the week... my first
choice was pre-empted by Martin for one of his themes :-(.

PPS. And I should have added to the commentary for my previous poem that
Tolkien's metapoet was Bilbo Baggins, who in turn was merely translating
an older lay from Elvish (Quenya, if you want to nitpick) into Common
Speech (Westron, which corresponds to modern English in Tolkien's
mythology)... thus making him (Bilbo) a metametapoet, I suppose :-).

The Embarrassing Episode of Little Miss Muffet -- Guy Wetmore Carryl

(Poem #94) The Embarrassing Episode of Little Miss Muffet
Little Miss Muffet discovered a tuffet,
(Which never occurred to the rest of us)
And, as 'twas a June day, and just about noonday,
She wanted to eat - like the rest of us:
Her diet was whey, and I hasten to say
It is wholesome and people grow fat on it.
The spot being lonely, the lady not only
Discovered the tuffet, but sat on it.

A rivulet gabbled beside her and babbled,
As rivulets always are thought to do,
And dragon flies sported around and cavorted,
As poets say dragon flies ought to do;
When, glancing aside for a moment, she spied
A horrible sight that brought fear to her,
A hideous spider was sitting beside her,
And most unavoidably near to her!

Albeit unsightly, this creature politely Said: "
Madam, I earnestly vow to you,
I'm penitent that I did not bring my hat.
I Should otherwise certainly bow to you."
Thought anxious to please, he was so ill at ease
That he lost all his sense of propriety,
And grew so inept that he clumsily stept
In her plate - which is barred in Society.

This curious error completed her terror;
She shuddered, and growing much paler, not
Only left tuffet, but dealt him a buffet
Which doubled him up in a sailor knot.
It should be explained that at this he was pained:
He cried: "I have vexed you, no doubt of it!
Your fists's like a truncheon." "You're still in my luncheon,"
Was all that she answered. "Get out of it!"

And the Moral is this: Be it madam or miss
To whom you have something to say,
You are only absurd when you get in the curd
But you're rude when you get in the whey.
-- Guy Wetmore Carryl
Guy Carryl has written a number of wonderfully funny versifications of
fables and fairytales, collected in 'Fables for the Frivolous' and a few
other books. (Those of you familiar with Roald Dahl's 'Revolting Rhymes'
might find it fun to compare the two.) The one above is typical -
complicated rhymes, a metre reminiscent of Gilbert[1] and a wonderful (or
awful, depending on your point of view) pun at the end.

[1] for the G&S fans among you, this one almost, but not quite, scans to the
Lord Chancellor's song from Iolanthe ("when you're lying awake, with a
dismal headache...")


Eärendil was a mariner -- J R R Tolkien

(Poem #93) Eärendil was a mariner
Eärendil was a mariner
that tarried in Arvernien;
he built a boat of timber felled
in Nimbrethil to journey in;
her sails he wove of silver fair,
of silver were her lanterns made,
her prow was fashioned like a swan,
and light upon her banners laid.

In panoply of ancient kings,
in chained rings he armoured him;
his shining shield was scored with runes
to ward all wounds and harm from him;
his bow was made of dragon-horn,
his arrows shorn of ebony;
of silver was his habergeon,
his scabbard of chalcedony;
his sword of steel was valiant,
of adamant his helmet tall,
an eagle-plume upon his crest,
upon his breast an emerald.

Beneath the Moon and under star
he wandered far from northern strands,
bewildered on enchanted ways
beyond the days of mortal lands.
From gnashing of the Narrow Ice
where shadow lies on frozen hills,
from nether heats and burning waste
he turned in haste, and roving still
on starless waters far astray
at last he came to Night of Naught,
and passed, and never sight he saw
of shining shore nor light he sought.

The winds of wrath came driving him,
and blindly in the foam he fled
from west to east and errandless,
unheralded he homeward sped.
There flying Elwing came to him,
and flame was in the darkness lit;
more bright than light of diamond
the fire upon her carcanet.
The Silmaril she bound on him
and crowned him with the living light,
and dauntless then with burning brow
he turned his prow; and in the night
from otherworld beyond the Sea
there strong and free a storm arose,
a wind of power in Tarmenel;
by paths that seldom mortal goes
his boat it bore with biting breath
as might of death across the grey
and long-forsaken seas distressed:
from east to west he passed away.

Through Evernight he back was borne
on black and roaring waves that ran
o'er leagues unlit and foundered shores
that drowned before the Days began,
until he hears on strands of pearl
where ends the world the music long,
where ever-foaming billows roll
the yellow gold and jewels wan.
He saw the Mountain silent rise
where twilight lies upon the knees
of Valinor, and Eldamar
beheld afar beyond the seas.
A wanderer escaped from night
to haven white he came at last,
to Elvenhome the green and fair
where keen the air, where pale as glass
beneath the Hill of Ilmarin
a-glimmer in a valley sheer
the lamplit towers of Tirion
are mirrored on the Shadowmere.

He tarried there from errantry,
and melodies they taught to him,
and sages old him marvels told,
and harps of gold they brought to him.
They clothed him then in elven-white,
and seven lights before him sent,
as through the Calacirian
to hidden land forlorn he went.
He came unto the timeless halls
where shining fall the countless years,
and endless reigns the Elder King
in Ilmarin on Mountain sheer;
and words unheard were spoken then
of folk of Men and Elven-kin,
beyond the world were visions showed
forbid to those that dwell therein.

A ship then new they built for him
of mithril and of elven-glass
with shining prow; no shaven oar
nor sail she bore on silver mast:
the Silmaril as lantern light
and banner bright with living flame
to gleam thereon by Elbereth
herself was set, who thither came
and wings immortal made for him,
and laid on him undying doom,
to sail the shoreless skies and come
behind the Sun and light of Moon.

From Evereven's lofty hills
where softly silver fountains fall
his wings him bore, a wandering light,
beyond the might Mountain Wall.
From World's End then he turned away,
and yearned again to find afar
his home through shadows journeying,
and burning as an island star
on high above the mists he came,
a distant flame before the Sun,
a wonder ere the waking dawn
where grey the Norland waters run.

And over Middle-earth he passed
and heard at last the weeping sore
of women and of elven-maids
In Elder Days, in years of yore.
But on him mighty doom was laid,
till Moon should fade, an orbéd star
to pass, and tarry never more
on Hither Shores where mortals are;
or ever still a herald on
an errand that should never rest
to bear his shining lamp afar,
the Flammifer of Westernesse.
-- J R R Tolkien
A Word to the Wise: it isn't necessary to know the details of Tolkien's
mythology in order to appreciate his poetry. The tale of Earendil is a
striking illustration of this fact; indeed, even within the context of
'The Lord of the Rings' it remains more or less unexplained, referring
as it does to events which take place long before those described in
that (truly magnificent) book.

Unlike many narrative poems in which the 'story' gets swamped in a mess
of factual detail, 'Earendil' relies more on a wealth of evocative
imagery and sound to create its effect. The use of proper nouns
('Arvernien', 'Nimbrethil' and so on) does not distract us from the
thrust of the poem; rather, it adds an air of realism (and mysterious
beauty) to the whole.

Tolkien himself was well aware of this last fact; he says somewhere that
'much of the magic of fantasy is created by a sense of what lies hidden
beneath the surface; once the exotic is made familiar, it loses its
charm' [1]. And of course, being the consummate craftsman that he was,
Tolkien made sure that his characters walked across the backdrop of an
incredibly detailed and rich world, one which offers innumerable
glimpses of distant, unrevealed vistas stretching as far as the mind can

[1] as liberally paraphrased by me, thomas

The poem itself is written with extraordinary skill. Note especially the
use of internal rhymes and alliteration: intricate, yet never strained,
and so natural as to be almost unnoticeable. Exotic and archiac words
('habergeon', 'chalcedony', 'carcanet'...) imbue the tale with a sense
of remoteness and majesty, as does the liberal use of inversion ('her
sails he wove', as opposed to 'he wove her sails', in line 5).

A one word summary? Magical.


There's a certain Slant of light -- Emily Dickinson

(Poem #92) There's a certain Slant of light
  There's a certain Slant of light,
  Winter Afternoons--
  That opresses, like the Heft
  Of Cathedral Tunes--

  Heavenly Hurt, it gives us--
  We can find no scar,
  But internal difference,
  Where the meanings are--

  None may teach it--Any--
  'Tis the Seal Despair--
  An imperial affliction
  Sent us of the Air--

  When it comes, the Landscape listens--
  Shadows--hold their breath--
  When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
  On the look of Death--
-- Emily Dickinson
Dickinson's style is decidedly unusual, and I don't always like it, but
when it works, it works well. The above poem is a nice example, the
unusual construction blending well with the somewhat mystical imagery.
One of the things I especially like about Dickinson's poetry is the
wonderful job she does of capturing images and examining them from
unexpected angles, and the 'slant of light, winter afternoons' is imho one
of her most beautiful. And the final two lines are simply exquisite.


Biographical Notes and Assessment:

Dickinson, Emily

 b. Dec. 10, 1830, Amherst, Mass., U.S.
 d. May 15, 1886, Amherst

 in full EMILY ELIZABETH DICKINSON, American lyric poet who has been called
 "the New England mystic" and who experimented with poetic rhythms and
 rhymes. Almost all her poetry was published posthumously.

Emily began to write verse about 1850, apparently while under the spell of
the poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Brontk and under the tutelage of
Benjamin F. Newton, a young man studying law in her father's office. Only a
handful of her poems can be dated before 1858, when she began to collect
them into small, handsewn booklets.


The poems of the 1850s are fairly conventional in sentiment and form, but
beginning about 1860 they become experimental both in language and prosody,
though they owe much to the metres of the English hymn writer Isaac Watts
and to Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible. Emily's
prevailing poetic form was the quatrain of three iambic feet, a type
described in one of the books by Watts in the family library. She used many
other forms as well, and to even the simpler hymnbook measures she gave
complexity by constantly altering the metrical beat to fit her thought: now
slow, now fast, now hesitant. She broke new ground in her wide use of
off-rhymes, varying from the true in a variety of ways that also helped to
convey her thought and its tensions. In striving for an epigrammatic
conciseness, she stripped her language of superfluous words and saw to it
that those that remained were vivid and exact. She tampered freely with
syntax and liked to place a familiar word in an extraordinary context,
shocking the reader to attention and discovery.


The later 19th century and early years of the 20th century were a poor
period for American poetry; yet (in addition to William Vaughn Moody) two
poets of distinction wrote songs that survived long after scores of minor
poets had been forgotten. One was Southern-born Sidney Lanier, [...]

The other poet was a New Englander, Emily Dickinson. A shy, playful, odd
personality, she allowed practically none of her writings to be published
during her lifetime. Not until 1890, four years after her death, was the
first book of her poems published, to be followed at intervals by other
collections. Later poets were to be influenced by her individual
techniques--use of imperfect, or eye, rhymes, avoidance of regular rhythms,
and a tendency to pack brief stanzas with cryptic meanings. Like Lanier, she
rediscovered the value of conceits for setting forth her thought and
feeling. Such poems as "The Snake," "I Like to See It Lap the Miles," "The
Chariot," "Farther in Summer than the Birds," and "There's a Certain Slant
of Light" represented her unusual talent at its best.

        -- EB

Cottleston Pie -- A A Milne

this week's theme: poems written by fictional characters - metapoets, if
you will.
(Poem #91) Cottleston Pie
Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie,
A fly can't bird, but a bird can fly.
Ask me a riddle and I reply
Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie.

Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie,
Why does a chicken? I don't know why.
Ask me a riddle and I reply
Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie.

Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie,
A fish can't whistle and neither can I.
Ask me a riddle and I reply
Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie.
-- A A Milne
This charming little snippet of verse was written by one of my favourite
characters, a Bear of Very Little Brain, Winne-the-Pooh. I remember
having been fascinated by the surrealism of the 6th line from my
childhood days, long ago when all the world and time was young...

... I continue to be fascinated by it :-)

As for what sort of beast a Cottleston Pie is, a search of the Web
revealed only the following URL:



Casey At The Bat -- Ernest Lawrence Thayer

(Poem #90) Casey At The Bat
It looked extremely rocky for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood two to four, with but an inning left to play.
So, when Cooney died at second, and Burrows did the same,
A pallor wreathed the features of the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go, leaving there the rest,
With that hope which springs eternal within the human breast.
for they thought: "If only Casey could get a whack at that,"
they'd put even money now, with Casey at the bat.

But Flynn preceded Casey, and likewise so did Blake,
And the former was a pudd'n and the latter was a fake.
So on that stricken multitude a deathlike silence sat;
For there seemed but little chance of Casey's getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a "single," to the wonderment of all.
And the much-despised Blakey "tore the cover off the ball."
And when the dust had lifted, and they saw what had occurred,
There was Blakey safe at second, and Flynn a-huggin' third.

Then from the gladdened multitude went up a joyous yell--
It rumbled in the mountaintops, it rattled in the dell;
It struck upon the hillside and rebounded on the flat;
For Casey, mighty Casey was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey's manner as he stepped into his place,
There was pride in Casey's bearing and a smile on Casey's face;
And when responding to the cheers he lightly doffed his hat.
No stranger in the crowd could doubt 'twas Casey at the bat."

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt,
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt;
Then when the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance glanced in Casey's eye, a sneer curled Casey's lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped;
"That ain't my style," said Casey. "Strike one," the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm waves on the stern and distant shore.
"Kill him! kill the umpire!" shouted someone on the stand;
And it's likely they'd have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey's visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumault, he made the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, "Strike Two."

"Fraud!" cried the maddened thousands, and the echo answered "Fraud!"
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed;
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn't let the ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Casey's lips, his teeth are clenched in hate,
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate;
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville: Mighty Casey has struck out.
-- Ernest Lawrence Thayer
A number of poets are known for just one poem, but seldom is that one poem
as famous as 'Casey at the Bat'; seldom has it conferred upon its author the
deep-seated immortality that 'Casey' brought Thayer. "Casey at the Bat is an
enduring example of American baseball literature." writes the Cosmic
Baseball Assocaiation. "Read countless times to countless children as they
fall asleep; memorized and recited by countless orators to countless
audiences, it is a tale that sinks deeply into the American soul."

And a pretty good poem it is too. It has all the features one looks for in a
good narrative poem - a gripping story, a strong rhythm and a rhyme scheme
that advances the poem in a series of couplets, lending itself well to

Of course, so famous and distinctive a poem has attracted its share of
parodies. Unfortunately, most of them aren't particularly good. Frank Jacobs
(of Mad Magazine fame) had a few nice ones, but they aren't online. A few
others may be found at <[broken link]>


For the full story behind the writing of the poem, see

Biography and Appraisal:

  Born August 14, 1863 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Ernest Thayer was the son
  of a prosperous mill owner. His family eventually moved to Worcester,
  Massachusetts where his father ran several wool mills.

  Ernest graduated magna cum laude with a major in philosophy in 1885.
  At Harvard he edited the college humor magazine, the Harvard Lampoon.
  The eminent American philosopher William James was a teacher and
  friend. Other classmates included William Randolph Hearst and George

  After college, and typical of the sons of the well-to-do, Ernest went
  abroad and settled for a time in Paris. Despite his father's desire to
  have him work in the family business, Ernest took a job writing humor
  pieces for his college friend Hearst, who was now running the San
  Francisco Examiner newspaper. Returning to Worcester in 1888, Thayer wrote
  "Casey" in May and Hearst published it in the June 3, 1888 edition of his
  newspaper. Thayer wrote his columns for the newspaper using the pseudonym
  "Phin" and it would be several years before the true authorship of "Casey"
  would be determined.

  Thayer eventually went to work for his father but ultimately quit
  altogether when he moved to Santa Barabara in in 1912. It was in
  California, at age 50 that he married Rosalind Buel Hammett, a widow
  from St. Louis. They had no children.

  Described as a slightly built, soft-spoken man who wore a hearing aid
  after middle age, Thayer died in Santa Barabara, in 1940.

  In his brief review of Thayer's life, Martin Gardner writes:

        One might argue that Thayer, with his extraordinary beginning at
        Harvard, his friendship with James and Santayana, his lifelong
        immersion in philosophy and the great books, was himself
        something of a Casey.

  Just before Thayer died he attempted to put some thoughts down on
  paper. However, he was too old or too sick to carry out the task and
  he lamented, "Now I have something to say and I am too weak to say

  Nevertheless, Thayer will forever be remembered for one remarkable at
  bat, a tragic-comic hit about a mighty hero who struck out.
        -- The Cosmic Baseball Association
        <[broken link]>

  Thayer was not without literary credentials. He had been the editor of the
  Lampoon in his undergraduate days...(Famed poet-philosopher George
  Santayana was his associate editor.) He accepted Hearst's offer, and soon
  his weekly column began to appear under the pseudonym "Phin," an echo of
  his Harvard days, where his friends had called him "Phinny."

  Santayana might have provided a clue as to why his old editor made Casey
  into a flawed hero.

  "Ernest...seemed to be a man apart...who saw the broken edges of things
  that appear whole." Casey could have been the lead character in a Greek
  tragedy, for he was given an opportunity to fulfill a truly heroic
  destiny, but his hubris caused him to take two pitches, either of which a
  less haughty man would have jumped on in an effort to win the game. But
  Casey, in Ted Williams fashion, was "waiting for his pitch." If only he
  had had Williams' eyes, his trigger reflexes, his fluid swing. But if he
  had been thus blessed, he would not have been playing in
  Mudville/Stockton, he would have been across the Charles River from
  Harvard, playing for the Red Sox or the Braves. And Thayer, although he
  had consorted with the likes of James and Santayana, was no Euripides. We
  get no clue of Casey's impending doom. We are sure that despite all the
  Mudville misfortune that had preceded the mighty one's fateful at bat, he
  would come through as he always had.


  The poem became somewhat of a curse for Thayer. He was embarrassed when
  people hailed him as the author. When asked to recite it, he did so
  reluctantly and not well. He never accepted royalties for it and never
  submitted another for publication.


  Santayana was right. Thayer was "a man apart." He lived in quiet
  retirement until his death 1940. His 15 minutes of fame echoed down
  through the decades in five minute and 40 second segments as Hopper,
  Connors and countless others regaled audiences from Little League picnics
  to Hall of Fame induction banquets with Phin's immortal muse.

    -- Bob Brigham, 'Where the Mighty Casey Struck Out'
    <[broken link]>

Dover Beach -- Matthew Arnold

(Poem #89) Dover Beach
 The sea is calm to-night,
 The tide is full, the moon lies fair
 Upon the straits; -- on the French coast the light
 Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
 Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
 Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
 Only, from the long line of spray
 Where the sea meets the moon-blanch'd land,
 Listen! you hear the grating roar
 Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
 At their return, up the high strand,
 Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
 With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
 The eternal note of sadness in.

 Sophocles long ago
 Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
 Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
 Of human misery; we
 Find also in the sound a thought,
 Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
 The sea of faith
 Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
 Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
 But now I only hear
 Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
 Retreating, to the breath
 Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
 And naked shingles of the world.

 Ah, love, let us be true
 To one another! for the world which seems
 To lie before us like a land of dreams,
 So various, so beautiful, so new,
 Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
 Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
 And we are here as on a darkling plain
 Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
 Where ignorant armies clash by night.
-- Matthew Arnold
... like most 'classic poems', 'Dover Beach' has its share of redeeming
features <g>

To tell the truth, Arnold isn't one of my favourite poets - much of his
work is too overtly didactic for my taste. The first and last stanzas of
'Dover Beach', however, are not; although I disagree with the
philospophy implied by the poem, I can't help being enchanted by its
language... "Where ignorant armies clash by night" has got to be one of
the most evocative (and in its way, saddest) lines ever written, right
up there with Keats' "Silent, upon a peak in Darien"...


[Brief Biography]

Matthew Arnold (1822 - 1888): English poet and critic. His first two
volumes of poems The Strayed Reveller and other Poems (1849) and
Empedocles on Etna and other Poems (1852) were published anonymously and
with little success. He made his mark with his third volume of poetry
Poems: A New Edition (1853-54) which contained 'The Scholar Gipsy',
'Sohrab and Rustum', and 'Memorial Verses to Wordsworth'. He reinforced
his standing as a poet with New Poems (1867) which included 'Dover
Beach' and 'Thyrsis'. He established himself as the leading critic of
the age with a number of works including Essays and Criticism (1865,
1888), Culture and Anarchy (1869) and Literature and Dogma (1873).

[Less Brief Biography]

Matthew Arnold was born in Laleham, Surrey. His father was Dr Thomas
Arnold, Headmaster of Rugby School. He was educated at Winchester,
Rugby, and Balliol College, Oxford where he met another well-known poet
of the age, A.H.Clough, and won the Newdigate prize with a poem on
Cromwell (1843). In 1845 he was elected a fellow of Oriel, another
Oxford college.

After working as private secretary to Lord Landsdowne (1847-51), he
became an inspector of schools (1851) and travelled widely in England
and the Continent observing how schools were organised and suggesting
how they could be improved.

In 1851 he married Fanny Lucy Wightman and part of his famous poem
'Dover Beach' (1867) dates from his honeymoon on the Continent. He was
to have six children, only three of whom outlived him.

His critical work, most of which was written after 1860, was to have a
profound influence on many writers after his death, including the poet
T.S.Eliot. In Essays and Criticism (1865) Arnold widened the limits of
literary criticism by using it to attack the state of English culture.
The focus of this attack was 'provinciality', or the narrowness of mind
caused by people's preoccupation with local affairs.

His eagerness to escape the limits of 'provinciality' formed the basis
of his work as an inspector of schools. He is now seen as having made a
valuable contribution to the improvement of education in England.


The Major General's Song -- W S Gilbert

(Poem #88) The Major General's Song

          I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
          I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
          I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
          From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;
          I'm very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
          I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
          About binomial theorem I'm teeming with a lot o' news,
          With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.

ALL:      With many cheerful facts, etc.

GENERAL:  I'm very good at integral and differential calculus;
          I know the scientific names of beings animalculous:
          In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
          I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

ALL:      In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
          He is the very model of a modern Major-General.

GENERAL:  I know our mythic history, King Arthur's and Sir Caradoc's;
          I answer hard acrostics, I've a pretty taste for paradox,
          I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
          In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous;
          I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies,
          I know the croaking chorus from the Frogs of Aristophanes!
          Then I can hum a fugue of which I've heard the music's din afore,
          And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.

ALL:      And whistle all the airs, etc.

GENERAL:  Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform,
          And tell you ev'ry detail of Caractacus's uniform:
          In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
          I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

ALL:      In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
          He is the very model of a modern Major-General.

GENERAL:  In fact, when I know what is meant by "mamelon" and "ravelin",
          When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin,
          When such affairs as sorties and surprises I'm more wary at,
          And when I know precisely what is meant by "commissariat",
          When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
          When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery --
          In short, when I've a smattering of elemental strategy,
          You'll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee.

ALL:      You'll say a better Major-General, etc.

GENERAL:  For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventury,
          Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;
          But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
          I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

ALL:      But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
          He is the very model of a modern Major-General.
-- W S Gilbert
                   from 'The Pirates of Penzance'

Gilbert is beyond a doubt one of the greatest lyricists the language has
produced to date. Of course his lyrics need Sullivan's accompanying music
for their full effect, but even alone they are outstanding examples of pure
comic verse. What I especially love about Gilbert is his scrupulous
attention to perfect form, and his unhesitating forays into some remarkably
complicated and innovative metres and rhyme-schemes. Not to mention his
predilection for triple-rhmyes, an increasingly rare commodity (as are rhymes
in general, for that matter <g>).

The song above is one of his most famous, and certainly his most parodied -
again, the utterly distinctive rhmyes and metre draw imitators like a
magnet. Sadly, few of them get it right - perfect triple-rhymes are hard to
achieve, and most parodists take the easy way out, resorting to single
rhymes, assonance, eye rhymes and suchlike. And, of course, a large and
increasing number of them are from the modern school, to whom scansion is an
eight letter word beginning with s. <g>

There's a parody archive at <>, my
undoubted favourite being <>
Tom Lehrer did not precisely a parody, but a song to the same tune - The
Elements - see <[broken link]>


Biographical Notes:


(1836 - 1911)

  William Schwenck Gilbert, born in London in 1836, was the son of a retired
  naval surgeon. Except for a kidnapping by Italian brigands in Italy at age
  two, and a ransomed release, he appears to have had a very normal
  upbringing. Beyond ordinary schooling, he took training as an artillery
  officer and was tutored in military science with hopes of participating in
  the Crimean War. Unfortunately for him, but not for us, he did not
  graduate until after the War was over. Gilbert subsequently joined the
  militia and was a member for 20 years.

  After finishing his military training Gilbert worked in a government
  bureau job which he hated. Upon receiving a nice inheritance from an aunt,
  Gilbert indulged his fancy and became a barrister. Called to the bar at
  age 28, Gilbert's law career, with no "rich attorney's elderly, ugly
  daughter" to help him escape mediocrity, lasted just a few years. Before
  leaving his law practice, however, he married the daughter of an army

  Gilbert had shown a proclivity for caustic wit and sarcasm from an early
  age and it was this talent that put him on the path to greatness.
  Beginning in 1861, Gilbert contributed dramatic criticism and humorous
  verse (unsigned) to the popular British magazine FUN. Some of his work was
  accompanied by cartoons and sketches which were signed "Bab." Many of the
  characters in the G&S operas were modelled after some of Gilbert's "Bab"
  characters. A collection of these Bab Ballads was later published in 1869.

  The period from 1868 to 1875 was a very fruitful period for Gilbert,
  primarily because two plays which he wrote in 1871 netted him huge
  financial rewards. This was also the year that he collaborated briefly
  with a composer named Sullivan on a production entitled Thespis which did
  not bring the duo any notoriety. Their collaboration, however, spanned
  twenty-five years and produced a total of fourteen comic operas of which
  The Grand Duke, the last in the order, premiered in 1896.

  Gilbert was knighted by Edward VII in 1907 and died in 1911, at age 74,
  while attempting to save a drowning woman.

  For a longer version, see <[broken link]>


  Gilbert was extremely adept in the difficult art of three-syllable rhyming,
  an art which seems to be almost completely lost today. Most pastiches of the
  Major-General's song make this distressingly clear. Now in the first line of
  this song Gilbert rhymes "Gineral" with "mineral". In both words the
  accented syllable is the first, so Gilbert is forced to find two words
  ending with "-ineral". For this reason Gilbert has to mis-spell "General",
  which is much more difficult to rhyme. (If I remember correctly, in a piece
  of discarded material for Pirates he rhymes "General" with "ten or all",
  which almost works as a rhyme, but is a bit of a strain.)

  So now we see why the Major-General is forced to the horrible rhyme
  "strategy/sat a gee". "Sat a gee" is nonsense, of course: "sat on a gee-gee"
  would at least be grammatical, though that wouldn't work even as a strained
  rhyme. But what else rhymes with "strategy"? We are looking for another
  word, remember, which ends "-ategy". The only word I can suggest is the
  Indian name "Chatterjee".

  Of course, the flexibility of English pronunciation means that a word
  seeming to require a three-syllable rhyme can be made to require a
  one-syllable rhyme without much strain - thus Samuel's couplet:

    We'd better pause, or danger may befall,
    Their father is a Major-General.

  But the Major-General's song is written in a scheme which commits Gilbert to
  three-syllable rhymes, and he is forced to obey his own rules scrupulously.
  I wouldn't mention the requirement that all rhymes in a set lyrical scheme
  should have the same number of syllables, but Richard Suart's rewrite of
  "Small titles and orders" in the 1997 Proms Gondoliers perpetrated
  "lottery/mockery" where two-syllable rhymes were required. (Even as a
  three-syllable rhyme it doesn't work.)

          -- From <>

  Gilbert began to write in an age of rhymed couplets, puns, and travesty;
  his early work exhibits the facetiousness common to writers of
  extravaganza. But he turned away from this style and developed a genuinely
  artful style burlesquing contemporary behaviour. Many of his original
  targets are no longer topical--Pre-Raphaelite aesthetes in Patience;
  women's education (Princess Ida); Victorian plays about Cornish pirates
  (The Pirates of Penzance); the long theatrical vogue of the "jolly jack
  tar" (H.M.S. Pinafore); bombastic melodrama (Ruddigore)--but Gilbert's
  burlesque is so good that it creates its own truth. As a librettist,
  Gilbert is outstanding not only because of his gift for handling words and
  casting them in musical shapes but also because through his words he
  offered the composer opportunities for burlesquing musical conventions.

          -- EB