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Symphony in Yellow -- Oscar Wilde

(Poem #992) Symphony in Yellow
 An omnibus across the bridge
   Crawls like a yellow butterfly,
   And, here and there, a passer-by
 Shows like a little restless midge.

 Big barges full of yellow hay
   Are moored against the shadowy wharf,
   And, like a yellow silken scarf,
 The thick fog hangs along the quay.

 The yellow leaves begin to fade
   And flutter from the Temple elms,
   And at my feet the pale green Thames
 Lies like a rod of rippled jade.
-- Oscar Wilde
These days, Oscar Wilde is celebrated as a playwright, essayist and wit, but
not as a poet. For ample reason: the monumental "Ballad of Reading Gaol"
apart, most of his poetry is simply not very good. Melodramatic, pretentious
and often juvenile, Wilde's verse follows that of the Pre-Raphaelites in
aping many of the worst excesses of the Romantics.

That said, there are times when Wilde gets it right, and "Symphony in
Yellow" is one of them. It's a beautifully Impressionistic poem, almost a
painting; note how there is no real action, just description. Also of
interest is the synaesthesia the poem engenders, in its mingling of colour
and movement and spoken word. Very nicely done, and all too rare.


Seascape -- Stephen Spender

Guest poem submitted by Aseem Kaul:
(Poem #991) Seascape
        In memoriam M.A.S

 There are some days the happy ocean lies
 Like an unfingered harp, below the land.
 Afternoon guilds all the silent wires
 Into a burning music for the eyes
 On mirrors flashing between fine-strung fires
 The shore, heaped up with roses, horses, spires
 Wanders on water tall above ribbed sand.

 The motionlessness of the hot sky tires
 And a sigh, like a woman's from inland,
 Brushes the instrument with shadowy hand
 Drawing across those wires some gull's sharp cry
 Or bell, or shout, from distant, hedged-in, shires;
 These, deep as anchors, the hushing wave buries.

 Then from the shore, two zig-zag butterflies
 Like errant dog-roses cross the bright strand
 Spiralling over waves in dizzy gyres
 Until the fall in wet reflected skies.
 They drown. Fishermen understand
 Such wings sunk in such ritual sacrifice.

 Remembering legends of undersea, drowned cities.
 What voyagers, oh what heroes, flamed like pyres
 With helmets plumed have set forth from some island
 And them the seas engulfed.  Their eyes
 Distorted to the cruel waves desires,
 Glitter with coins through the tide scarcely scanned,
 While, far above, that harp assumes their sighs.
-- Stephen Spender
One of my favourite poems about the sea - I'm fascinated by the way Spender
manages to create a poem that, rather like the sea, is full of movement, but
is fundamentally unmoving. This is not just a sombre poem - it is a poem in
which all movement (butterflies, winds, invasions) is drowned and sacrificed
to the staid permanence of the afternoon, of the sea, of death. Even the
sorrow is gentle here - like a soft undertow of current tugging at you - a
requiem of harps and not of trumpets.

The other thing I love about this poem is the rhyme (I can't honestly
remember having read any other Spender where the rhyme pattern is this
complex) with the constant repetition of rhymes creating a resonance that
however avoids becoming a regular beat - thus creating a sound that is
musical yet dissonant.


Sea Calm -- Langston Hughes

Guest poem sent in by David Wright

I am so enjoying this time at the sea shore.  The Lotos-Eaters was
wonderful.  Here's a little palate-cleanser:
(Poem #990) Sea Calm
 How still,
 How strangely still
 The water is today,
 It is not good
 For water
 To be so still that way.
-- Langston Hughes
Terse in the extreme, yet resonant, these short poems of Hughes intrigue me.
Neither Haiku or Imagist, nor Epigrammatic like Pope or Porchia.  But
sharing in both the unspoken quality of the Imagism - the implicit mood, the
feeling of watching, brooding; words that just hint at the scene they
describe - and the effective, almost talismanic brevity and symbolic
implications of Epigram - a poem like a small stone to be carried in the
pocket.  And finally, a poem that might have been penned by a child, and
been no less striking for that.

     Here are a couple more, one many of us know from school, and another
we may not have encountered due to its subject:

    I loved my friend.
    He went away from me.
    There's nothing more to say.
    The poem ends,
    Soft as it began,--
    I loved my friend.

    'Suicide's Note'

    The calm
    Cool face of the river
    Asked me for a kiss.

By way of contrast, here is haiku poet Issa looking at the sea:

    looking at the mountain
    looking at the sea...
    autumn evening

    oh purple clouds
    when will I mount you?
    western sea

(a very Western haiku, if you ask me)

    watching the sea
    sitting on the lawn...
    roasted mushrooms

    my dead mother--
    every time I see the ocean
    every time...

    Hamamatsu beach--
    helping out the cicadas
    singing waves

and then, I can't resist, thanks, Issa, for these, apropos of nothing...

    ain't a devil
    ain't a saint...
    just a sea slug

    hey boatman
    no pissing on the moon
    in the waves!



  We've run one of Hughes' poems before, the famous "The Negro Speaks of
  Rivers", Poem #410 (Biography attached)

  Issa has, surprisingly, not featured on Minstrels, though Basho and Buson
  both have. Here's a page with some resources on the poet and his works:
    [broken link]

The Lotos-Eaters -- Alfred, Lord Tennyson

(Poem #989) The Lotos-Eaters
 "Courage!" he said, and pointed toward the land,
 "This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon."
 In the afternoon they came unto a land
 In which it seemed always afternoon.
 All round the coast the languid air did swoon,
 Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.
 Full-faced above the valley stood the moon;
 And like a downward smoke, the slender stream
 Along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem.

 A land of streams! some, like a downward smoke,
 Slow-dropping veils of thinnest lawn, did go;
 And some thro' wavering lights and shadows broke,
 Rolling a slumbrous sheet of foam below.
 They saw the gleaming river seaward flow
 From the inner land: far off, three mountain-tops,
 Three silent pinnacles of aged snow,
 Stood sunset-flush'd: and, dew'd with showery drops,
 Up-clomb the shadowy pine above the woven copse.

 The charmed sunset linger'd low adown
 In the red West: thro' mountain clefts the dale
 Was seen far inland, and the yellow down
 Border'd with palm, and many a winding vale
 And meadow, set with slender galingale;
 A land where all things always seem'd the same!
 And round about the keel with faces pale,
 Dark faces pale against that rosy flame,
 The mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters came.

 Branches they bore of that enchanted stem,
 Laden with flower and fruit, whereof they gave
 To each, but whoso did receive of them,
 And taste, to him the gushing of the wave
 Far far away did seem to mourn and rave
 On alien shores; and if his fellow spake,
 His voice was thin, as voices from the grave;
 And deep-asleep he seem'd, yet all awake,
 And music in his ears his beating heart did make.

 They sat them down upon the yellow sand,
 Between the sun and moon upon the shore;
 And sweet it was to dream of Fatherland,
 Of child, and wife, and slave; but evermore
 Most weary seem'd the sea, weary the oar,
 Weary the wandering fields of barren foam.
 Then some one said, "We will return no more";
 And all at once they sang, "Our island home
 Is far beyond the wave; we will no longer roam."

    Choric Song


 There is sweet music here that softer falls
 Than petals from blown roses on the grass,
 Or night-dews on still waters between walls
 Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass;
 Music that gentlier on the spirit lies,
 Than tir'd eyelids upon tir'd eyes;
 Music that brings sweet sleep down from the blissful skies.
 Here are cool mosses deep,
 And thro' the moss the ivies creep,
 And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep,
 And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep.


 Why are we weigh'd upon with heaviness,
 And utterly consumed with sharp distress,
 While all things else have rest from weariness?
 All things have rest: why should we toil alone,
 We only toil, who are the first of things,
 And make perpetual moan,
 Still from one sorrow to another thrown:
 Nor ever fold our wings,
 And cease from wanderings,
 Nor steep our brows in slumber's holy balm;
 Nor harken what the inner spirit sings,
 "There is no joy but calm!"
 Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?


 Lo! in the middle of the wood,
 The folded leaf is woo'd from out the bud
 With winds upon the branch, and there
 Grows green and broad, and takes no care,
 Sun-steep'd at noon, and in the moon
 Nightly dew-fed; and turning yellow
 Falls, and floats adown the air.
 Lo! sweeten'd with the summer light,
 The full-juiced apple, waxing over-mellow,
 Drops in a silent autumn night.
 All its allotted length of days
 The flower ripens in its place,
 Ripens and fades, and falls, and hath no toil,
 Fast-rooted in the fruitful soil.


 Hateful is the dark-blue sky,
 Vaulted o'er the dark-blue sea.
 Death is the end of life; ah, why
 Should life all labour be?
 Let us alone. Time driveth onward fast,
 And in a little while our lips are dumb.
 Let us alone. What is it that will last?
 All things are taken from us, and become
 Portions and parcels of the dreadful past.
 Let us alone. What pleasure can we have
 To war with evil? Is there any peace
 In ever climbing up the climbing wave?
 All things have rest, and ripen toward the grave
 In silence; ripen, fall and cease:
 Give us long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease.


 How sweet it were, hearing the downward stream,
 With half-shut eyes ever to seem
 Falling asleep in a half-dream!
 To dream and dream, like yonder amber light,
 Which will not leave the myrrh-bush on the height;
 To hear each other's whisper'd speech;
 Eating the Lotos day by day,
 To watch the crisping ripples on the beach,
 And tender curving lines of creamy spray;
 To lend our hearts and spirits wholly
 To the influence of mild-minded melancholy;
 To muse and brood and live again in memory,
 With those old faces of our infancy
 Heap'd over with a mound of grass,
 Two handfuls of white dust, shut in an urn of brass!


 Dear is the memory of our wedded lives,
 And dear the last embraces of our wives
 And their warm tears: but all hath suffer'd change:
 For surely now our household hearths are cold,
 Our sons inherit us: our looks are strange:
 And we should come like ghosts to trouble joy.
 Or else the island princes over-bold
 Have eat our substance, and the minstrel sings
 Before them of the ten years' war in Troy,
 And our great deeds, as half-forgotten things.
 Is there confusion in the little isle?
 Let what is broken so remain.
 The Gods are hard to reconcile:
 'Tis hard to settle order once again.
 There is confusion worse than death,
 Trouble on trouble, pain on pain,
 Long labour unto aged breath,
 Sore task to hearts worn out by many wars
 And eyes grown dim with gazing on the pilot-stars.


 But, propt on beds of amaranth and moly,
 How sweet (while warm airs lull us, blowing lowly)
 With half-dropt eyelid still,
 Beneath a heaven dark and holy,
 To watch the long bright river drawing slowly
 His waters from the purple hill--
 To hear the dewy echoes calling
 From cave to cave thro' the thick-twined vine--
 To watch the emerald-colour'd water falling
 Thro' many a wov'n acanthus-wreath divine!
 Only to hear and see the far-off sparkling brine,
 Only to hear were sweet, stretch'd out beneath the pine.


 The Lotos blooms below the barren peak:
 The Lotos blows by every winding creek:
 All day the wind breathes low with mellower tone:
 Thro' every hollow cave and alley lone
 Round and round the spicy downs the yellow Lotos-dust is blown.
 We have had enough of action, and of motion we,
 Roll'd to starboard, roll'd to larboard, when the surge was seething free,
 Where the wallowing monster spouted his foam-fountains in the sea.
 Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind,
 In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined
 On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind.
 For they lie beside their nectar, and the bolts are hurl'd
 Far below them in the valleys, and the clouds are lightly curl'd
 Round their golden houses, girdled with the gleaming world:
 Where they smile in secret, looking over wasted lands,
 Blight and famine, plague and earthquake, roaring deeps and fiery sands,
 Clanging fights, and flaming towns, and sinking ships, and praying hands.
 But they smile, they find a music centred in a doleful song
 Steaming up, a lamentation and an ancient tale of wrong,
 Like a tale of little meaning tho' the words are strong;
 Chanted from an ill-used race of men that cleave the soil,
 Sow the seed, and reap the harvest with enduring toil,
 Storing yearly little dues of wheat, and wine and oil;
 Till they perish and they suffer--some, 'tis whisper'd--down in hell
 Suffer endless anguish, others in Elysian valleys dwell,
 Resting weary limbs at last on beds of asphodel.
 Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore
 Than labour in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar;
 O, rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.
-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Thanks to Frank O'Shea for suggesting today's poem. Frank wrote

  Anyway, you wanted to follow the theme of looking at the sea. Keats's
  tribute to Chapman has been run already although it is good enough to bear
  repetition. But my nomination is my favourite Tennyson poem, The Choric
  Song of the Lotos-Eaters. Hard to credit that it hasn't been run already -
  we're not afraid that it is encouragement to the cultivation of leafy
  substances, are we [lest the list go to pot? - m.] . If you wanted to
  explain onomatopoeia to someone, you would advise them to read this poem.

I fully agree with him, both about Keat's immortal "On First Looking into
Chapman's Homer", and about today's marvellous dream sequence. On the poem
itself, the UToronto site has this to say by way of annotation:

  Based on an incident in the Odyssey, IX, 82 ff.
  moly: the herb with magic protective powers given by Hermes to
    Odysseus to protect him against Circe (Odyssey, X).

Like a lot of Tennyson's poetry (in particular, one of my favourites, 'The
Brook'), today's poem is both intensely musical and highly atmospheric.
Indeed, it approaches Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan' in both respects, carrying the
reader along on a rippling stream of imagery and rhythm that is almost
hypnotic, especially when read aloud. I also admire the way that Tennyson has
varied the metre and line length - in places drastically - without disrupting
the poem's flow. The language is beautifully evocative throughout, both in
the exquisite use (and unobtrusive density) of adjectives, and the constant
appeal to the senses.

Notable, also, is the way the poem immerses us so thoroughly in the world of
the Lotos Eaters; even those unfamiliar with the story can see clearly that
the drug-induced dreams are a trap rather than a paradise, but nowhere is
that fact explicitly mentioned. Apart from the refreshing refusal to
patronise the reader, this mirrors the experience of the sailors themselves,
and thereby stays true to the voice and viewpoint of the poem (which may
sound too obvious to mention, but there is an ever-present temptation for an
author to break into omniscient mode and insert editorial comments, or even
indicate, by a subtle lapse in tone, that his view and that of the narrator

p.s. Surprisingly, this is not a poem I was too familiar with; indeed, I
hadn't reread it in years. I'd like to thank Frank for prompting me to
rectify this omission; I'd forgotten just how beautiful it was.


  Tennyson poems on Minstrels:
    Poem #15, 'The Eagle (a fragment)'
    Poem #31, 'Break, break, break'
    Poem #80, 'The Brook (excerpt)'
    Poem #121, 'Ulysses'
    Poem #355, 'Charge of the Light Brigade'
    Poem #653, 'Ring Out, Wild Bells'
    Poem #825, 'Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, Now the White'
    Poem #852, 'Mariana in the Moated Grange'
    Poem #896, 'The Kraken'

  Biography: Poem #15

  Some nice companion pieces to today's poem (by no means an exhaustive
    Poem #30,  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 'Kubla Khan'
    Poem #518, James Elroy Flecker, 'The Gates of Damascus'
    Poem #182, John Keats, 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci'
    Poem #616, James Wright, 'Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in
                Pine Island, Minnesota'

    (It would be interesting to have readers add to this list, with perhaps a
    line or two about the connection).


The Idea of Order at Key West -- Wallace Stevens

Guest poem sent in by Kimbol Soques
(Poem #988) The Idea of Order at Key West
 She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
 The water never formed to mind or voice,
 Like a body wholly body, fluttering
 Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
 Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
 That was not ours although we understood,
 Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

 The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
 The song and water were not medleyed sound
 Even if what she sang was what she heard,
 Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
 It may be that in all her phrases stirred
 The grinding water and the gasping wind;
 But it was she and not the sea we heard.

 For she was the maker of the song she sang.
 The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
 Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
 Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
 It was the spirit that we sought and knew
 That we should ask this often as she sang.
 If it was only the dark voice of the sea
 That rose, or even colored by many waves;
 If it was only the outer voice of sky
 And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
 However clear, it would have been deep air,
 The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
 Repeated in a summer without end
 And sound alone. But it was more than that,
 More even than her voice, and ours, among
 The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
 Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
 On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
 Of sky and sea.

                    It was her voice that made
 The sky acutest at its vanishing.
 She measured to the hour its solitude.
 She was the single artificer of the world
 In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
 Whatever self it had, became the self
 That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
 As we beheld her striding there alone,
 Knew that there never was a world for her
 Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

 Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
 Why, when the singing ended and we turned
 Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
 The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
 As the night descended, tilting in the air,
 Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
 Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
 Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

 Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
 The maker's rage to order words of the sea,
 Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
 And of ourselves and of our origins,
 In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
-- Wallace Stevens
Mr. Wright's theme of 20th century American Modernist poets focusing on
the sea called Wallace Stevens' lovely _The Idea of Order at Key West_  --
though the poem is as much about the singer as the sea.

This was one of the first poems I read after becoming serious about
being a poet (at age fourteen) -- that, and _Thirteen Ways of Looking at
a Blackbird_.

In the interest of speed I have little more than that for you -- other
than I link the Modernist idea of poets having an "innocent eye" with
Stevens, though I can't find a citation on the Web to prove he really
did say something about it.

Kimbol Soques                     Net:

Prayer -- Carol Ann Duffy

Still looking out to sea, a guest poem sent in by Martin Davis, who writes...

You've run a poem by Carol Ann Duffy before, (Valentine, Poem #865). I've
thought of suggesting this one, Prayer, in the past, and, as with so many
things, not got round to it. However, having been struck by the quiet
restraint of the Whitman poem, and its relevance to post-September 11th
emotions, I really feel that I should put it forward now. It's got the
best of Duffy's direct simplicity, and it has an oblique angle on the
theme of the sea as both symbol and backdrop.
(Poem #987) Prayer
 Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
 utters itself. So, a woman will lift
 her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
 at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

 Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
 enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
 then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
 in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

 Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
 console the lodger looking out across
 a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
 a child's name as though they named their loss.

 Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer -
 Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.
-- Carol Ann Duffy
I think that most people have some form of words that they fall back on in
times of stress; it's perhaps one of the well-springs of poetry.
Obviously prayers ('Pray for us now...') are a basic form of this, but
there are others - Bob Marley's No woman, no cry - Everything gonna be all one.

Duffy's brilliance is to take a very naturalistic rhythm - few people who
hear this read aloud realise that it is quite a formal sonnet structure -
and then, right at the end, to touch on a secular litany that is so
intimate that anyone I've ever discussed the poem with feels that she has
had an extraordinary insight into their life.

It's that last stanza that may need some explanation and I'll be
interested to see how well this poem crosses cultures. Rockall, Malin,
Dogger, Finisterre are all sea areas in the shipping forecast issued by
the Meteorological Service, and broadcast by BBC Radio Four. The shipping
forecast always follows a set pattern, a formalised routine. You can read
the current one at :

[broken link]

Read it out loud and savour the words as they roll off your tongue!
There's a map of the shipping forecast areas at :

[broken link]

The broadcast goes out at 12.30 and 05.30, so that you tend to catch it if
you can't sleep late at night or if you've woken up early, worrying - and
then you follow the coast of the British Isles in your mind's eye and
think of those working the dark sea areas, and sometimes you feel soothed.

There is a short biography of Carol Ann Duffy, a complete list of works
and a full bibliography at :

[broken link]

The site also includes a good summary of the press reaction to her
suggestion for the post of Poet Laureate, and the pusillanimity of the
Prime Minister, who was worried how her appointment 'might play in Middle


A Grave -- Marianne Moore

Carrying on our guest theme, another poem from David Wright
(Poem #986) A Grave
 Man looking into the sea,
 taking the view from those who have as much right
 to it as
            you have to it yourself,
 it is human nature to stand in the middle of a
 but you cannot stand in the middle of this;
 the sea has nothing to give but a well excavated
 The firs stand in a procession, each with an
 emerald turkey-
            foot at the top,
 reserved as their contours, saying nothing;
 repression, however, is not the most obvious
 characteristic of
            the sea;
 the sea is a collector, quick to return a
 rapacious look.
 There are others besides you who have worn that
 look --
 whose expression is no longer a protest; the fish
 no longer
            investigate them
 for their bones have not lasted:
 men lower nets, unconscious of the fact that they
            desecrating a grave,
 and row quickly away -- the blades of the oars
 moving together like the feet of water-spiders as
 if there were
            no such thing as death.
 The wrinkles progress among themselves in a
 phalanx -- beautiful
            under networks of foam,
 and fade breathlessly while the sea rustles in
 and out of the
 the birds swim throught the air at top speed,
 emitting cat-calls
            as heretofore --
 the tortoise-shell scourges about the feet of the
 cliffs, in motion
            beneath them;
 and the ocean, under the pulsation of lighthouses
 and noise of
 advances as usual, looking as if it were not that
 ocean in which
            dropped things are bound to sink --
 in which if they turn and twist, it is neither
 with volition nor
-- Marianne Moore
I can't resist an invitation to contribute more poems on this theme, if theme
it is, and I notice that the minstrels haven't had Marianne Moore yet. You'll
find as a heaping helping of commentary on this poem at

According to a note by Chris ) on his Marianne
Moore Home Page , "A Grave" was written shortly after the sinking of the
Lusitania and after Moore's brother Warner joined the Navy as a chaplin and
went out to sea. The sea was one of Moore's favorite topics, but she was also
very much aware of the sea as a grave. The sea, for Moore, was both beautiful
and deadly. Once, when she and her mother were standing together admiring the
sea, a man came and stood in from of them, Moore's mother remarked about how
people seem to feel the need to stand in the middle of things instead of
stepping back to get the full picture, and this incident became part of the
poem. (Source: Marianne Moore: A Literary Life by Charles Molesworth)

David Wright        Seattle Public Library


  [broken link] has a biography of Moore and
  some notes on exploring her poetry

Once by the Pacific -- Robert Frost

David Wright has sent in a wonderful followup to
yesterday's poem (Poem #984) - this would make an interesting theme if anyone
else would like to contribute...
(Poem #985) Once by the Pacific
 The shattered water made a misty din.
 Great waves looked over others coming in,
 And thought of doing something to the shore
 That water never did to land before.
 The clouds were low and hairy in the skies,
 Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.
 You could not tell, and yet it looked as if
 The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff,
 The cliff in being backed by continent;
 It looked as if a night of dark intent
 Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
 Someone had better be prepared for rage.
 There would be more than ocean-water broken
 Before God's last 'Put out the Light' was spoken.
-- Robert Frost
    Maybe poems come in sets, like waves.  At any rate, after pulling out
Whitman's "On the Beach at Night" recently, I stumbled on this Robert Frost
poem - another 'looking out to sea' poem - in a litcrit book I'm reading:
"The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age," by Robert Alter.  Alter's
observations helped me appreciate Frost, a poet I've felt ambivalent about
in the past - the studied folksiness always turned me off a little. The
analysis below is his: it is given in the context of his anti-
deconstructionist argument that literature is something special - not merely
a text but a work and a world of a special type.  (I know how it sounds, but
he's actually quite a good critic, much less reactionary and pious/pompous
than, oh - say - Harold Bloom.)  This is quite long, but those who
appreciate a good, close reading of a poem should enjoy it.  He begins by
referring to a statement by poet A.R. Ammons that in every work of
literature "a world comes into being about which any statement, however
revelatory, is a lessening." ("In all intellectual humilty, a critic should
always keep in mind the lessening, though it may be a price often worth
paying for the sake of the revelation.")

       "I will begin with what would be in Ammons' terms the most drastic
  kind of lessening, a thumbnail paraphrase that is in no way revelatory:
  the speaker in the poem stands by the Pacific shore watching the waves
  pounding and thinks apprehensively of the destruction of all things.  The
  paraphrase in a way does no more than describe the stimulus of the poem,
  since it seems safe to assume that Robert Frost was actually moved to this
  somber musing by looking at the Pacific breakers.  How do such thoughts
  generate a world in which as readers we powerfully experience a sustained
  moment of highly distinctive menace, waves raging and apocalypse
  impending? I say highly distinctive recognizing that each of us will bring
  to the reading of the poem his or her own literary and personal
  associations but also assuming that the elaborate structuring of language
  in these fourteen lines makes them quite different from any other modern
  apocalyptic poem (Yeats' "Second Coming," the end of T.S. Eliot's "The
  Hollow Men," and so forth), whatever the vagaries of our individual

       Frost's use of rhyming iambic pentameter in a fourteen-line piece
  indicates that the poem is meant to be taken as a variant of the sonnet.
  But the rhymes are a sequence of couplets (AA, BB, and so forth),
  producing no divisions into quatrains or octet and sestet as in the
  traditional sonnet form.  The sense of neat containment, then, generated
  by the structure of the traditional sonnet is blurred.  There may be an
  underlying tension between the prosodic form of the poem, whether we call
  it quasisonnet or heroic couplets, and the conspicuously colloquial
  diction preserved consistently throughout, reflected in the avoidance of
  the subjunctive after "it looked as if" (using "was," not "were"), and
  flaunted in phrases like "You could not tell," "the shore was lucky,"
  "someone had better*."  The only word in the entire poem that points
  toward a more literary diction is "intent," a choice dictated not merely
  by the rhyme but by the need to suggest something vast, vague, and ominous
  as the spelling out of the apocalypse moves to a climax - moves, moreover,
  through the only very pronounced enjambment in the poem: "a night of dark
  intent / Was coming."  The colloquial diction is the matrix for a peculiar
  quality of Frost's poetry here and elsewhere that might be called
  expressive vagueness, and that is felt, as several critics have observed,
  in his general fondness for words like "something" and "someone."  The use
  of these words provides an instructive instance of how ordinary language
  is transmuted as it participates in the world-building of the poem.  The
  source in spoken English for this usage would be an idiom employed in a
  situation like the following: an angry child says to another child,
  "Somebody better watch out" - meaning, of course, YOU - or, "I'm going to
  do something to you" - meaning, whatever I will do will be so terrible
  that I would rather not say exactly what.  The extraordinary effectiveness
  of the poem is in part the result of transferring these locutions, with
  their associations of colloquial vehemence, to a cosmic scale while never
  committing the sin or pretentiousness I have just committed in using a
  word like "cosmic."

       Although, as I have indicated, it is not in principle possible to
  enumerate all the kinds of interconnections that engender the world of a
  literary text, I would point here to the four salient aspects of the poem
  which, together with the expressive vagueness of something/someone,
  combine to  produce the distinctive mood and tone of this version of
  apocalypse.  These are: the chiasm and synesthesia of the first line (more
  of which in a moment), the pervasive personification of natural forces,
  the prominence of looking, and the allusions to the first chapter of
  Genesis.  A formal element of a literary text may contribute significantly
  to the building of a world through its placement, through repetition,
  through the rhetorical emphasis it gets, or through any combination of the
  three.  Thus, zeugma and catalogs help define the world of 'The Rape of
  the Lock' because they are repeated so frequently, with such inventive
  variations; and on the smaller scale of "Once by the Pacific," that is
  true of personification and the reiterated verb "looked."  On the other
  hand, the first line features two spectacular rhetorical devices that do
  not occur again in the poem, but because they form the archway through
  which we enter into the world of the poem, they play an important part in
  determining our vision of that world.  The line is symmetrical (two nouns,
  two modifiers, joined by the verb "made" at the midpoint of the line) in
  the form we call chiastic: ABBA (shattered/water/misty/din).  The formal
  crossover of the chiasm reinforces a crossover between different sensory
  realms in the imagery (that is, synesthesia): the din is "misty," though
  mist logically belongs to sight and touch, not sound; and the water is
  "shattered," as though it were hard and solid, not quite a synesthetic
  image but coming close in its transgression of the borders between
  different physical states.  This coupling of chiasm and synesthesia begins
  the poem with a terrific sense of the violent interfusion of opposing
  spheres, solid and liquid, sight and sound, land and sea, and that
  interfusion is the precondition for the poem's apprehension of apocalypse.

    The violent mixing of realms is a reversal of one of the organizing
  thematic features of Genesis 1: there, creation begins with the spirit of
  the Lord hovering over the face of the formless waters, and it proceeds
  through an ordered sequence of acts of separation, between the upper and
  the lower waters, between sea and dry land, between night and day.  The
  allusion becomes explicit only at the end of the poem, but it is prepared
  for at the beginning.

       As befits a reversal of the work of the anthropomorphic God of the
  Bible, the force of destruction pulsing through the breakers is
  personified and felt throughout as a malevolent will: "Great waves looked
  over others coming in, / And thought of doing something to the shore*."
  Perhaps the pronounced personification somehow justifies the rather
  strange image of the clouds as locks of hair, though I am not so sure of
  that.  In any case, the active "looked" of the personified waves is
  disturbingly reflected by the impersonal "it looked as if," twice stated,
  which betokens the looking of the observer at the appearance of those
  looking waves, that cliff, that descending night.  What I called the
  mnemonic power of the literary work, * here operates more visibly within
  the limits of fourteen lines.  The mind shuttles back and forth among the
  three occurrences of "looked," finds itself in a world of menacing
  appearances behind which there lurks some kind of baleful presence endowed
  with will.

      *..God's 'Put out the Light' in the last line of "Once by the Pacific"
  is, or course, a canceling of the divine 'Let there be Light' in Genesis
  1, and, as we noted, makes explicit the intimations of an undoing of
  biblical creation earlier in the poem.

       Because literary traditions repeatedly recapitulates itself,
  allusions may be layered, and I suspect that is true here.  A reversal of
  Genesis, running the reel back, as it were, from seventh day to chaos and
  void, presides over the conclusion of Pope's Duciad:

          Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restor'd;
          Light dies before thy uncreated word;
          Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
          And Univeral Darkness buries All.

  'Put out the Light' is also exactly the sentence Othello says, twice, in
  the brief soliloquy just before he murders Desdemona.  Are we intended at
  the end of Frost's poem to recall Shakespeare's image of a dark man
  enraged with jealousy about to destroy the beautiful woman he passionately
  loves?  There is no way of knowing whether Frost meant that echo to be
  heard, but the very possibility of its presence suggests how the
  accumulate d images, themes, and actual verbal formulations of literary
  tradition become charged particles in the mind of the writer (and "mind"
  is surely more than what is conscious and intentional) and of the reader."


[Martin adds:

 One other device that particularly struck me when I read the poem was the
 unusual use of 'if' as an end-rhyme; this is doubly emphasised, not just by
 the rhyme but by its unexpectedness. That this is deliberate can be inferred
 from its pivotal position in the centre of the poem - indeed, if one makes
 the almost invited comparison of the poem's structure to that of a wave, the
 'if' marks the point at which the wave, having reached its point of maximum
 advance, breaks on the shore and retreats, leaving an ominous brooding
 silence that is merely a waiting for the wave to come.

On the Beach at Night -- Walt Whitman

Guest poem sent in by David Wright
(Poem #984) On the Beach at Night
 On the beach at night,
 Stands a child with her father,
 Watching the east, the autumn sky.

 Up through the darkness,
 While ravening clouds, the burial clouds, in black masses spreading,
 Lower sullen and fast athwarth and down the sky,
 Amid a transparent clear belt of ether yet left in the east,
 Ascends large and calm the lord-star Jupiter,
 And nigh at hand, only a very little above,
 Swim the delicate sisters the Pleiades.

 From the beach the child holding the hand of her father,
 Those burial-clouds that lower victorious soon to devour all,
 Watching, silently weeps.

 Weep not, child,
 Weep not, my darling,
 With these kisses let me remove your tears,
 The ravening clouds shall not be long victorious,
 They shall not long possess the sky, they devour the stars only in
 Jupiter shall emerge, be patient, watch again another night, the Pleiades
        shall emerge,
 They are immortal, all those stars both silvery and golden shall shine
        out again,
 The great stars and the little ones shall shine out again they endure,
 The vast immortal suns and the long-enduring pensive moons shall
        again shine.

 Then dearest child mournest thou only for Jupiter?
 Considerest thou alone the burial of the stars?

 Something there is,
 (With my lips soothing thee, adding I whisper,
  I give thee the first suggestion, the problem and indirection,)
 Something there is more immortal even than the stars,
 (Many the burials, many the days and nights, passing away,)
 Something that shall endure longer even than lustrous Jupiter,
 Longer than sun or any revolving satellite,
 Or the radiant sisters the Pleiades.
-- Walt Whitman
  I've always loved this poem, and recently in the midst of personal losses,
our national pall, and the dark of Winter here in the Northwest, I came back
to it.

  I don't have much to say about the verse -it seems to offer a kind of hope,
an obscure hint of transcendence without the bounds of religion or dogma.  It
is interesting to let Whitman's poem speak with Gerard Manley Hopkins's
wonderful poem (Minstrels Poem #59 - To a Young Child):

        Spring and Fall: to a young child
        Gerard Manley Hopkins

        Margaret, are you grieving
        Over Goldengrove unleaving?
        Leaves, like the things of man, you
        With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
        Ah! as the heart grows older
        It will come to such sights colder
        By and by, nor spare a sigh
        Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
        And yet you will weep and know why.
        Now no matter, child, the name:
        Sorrow's springs are the same.
        Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
        What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
        It is the blight man was born for,
        It is Margaret you mourn for.

Another related poem, although somewhat lighter, is Wordsworth's.  They make
a nice trio,

        It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
        The holy time is quiet as a Nun
        Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
        Is sinking down in its tranquility;
        The gentleness of heaven broods o'er the Sea;
        Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
        And doth with his eternal motion make
        A sound like thunder - everlastingly.
        Dear child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
        If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,
        Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
        Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year;
        And worshipp'st at the Temple's inner shrine,
        God being with thee when we know it not.

          William Wordsworth, 1802


Minstrels Links:

  We've run several of Whitman's poems on Minstrels:
    Poem #54, "When I heard the Learn'd Astronomer" [biography included]
    Poem #157, "O Captain! My Captain!"
    Poem #246, "I Hear America Singing"
    Poem #268, "The Dalliance of the Eagles"
    Poem #445, "A Noiseless Patient Spider"
    Poem #498, "The World Below the Brine"
    Poem #508, "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing"
    Poem #887, "Beat! Beat! Drums!"

The General Public -- Stephen Vincent Benet

(Poem #983) The General Public
  "Ah, did you once see Shelley plain?" -- Browning.

 "Shelley? Oh, yes, I saw him often then,"
 The old man said. A dry smile creased his face
 With many wrinkles. "That's a great poem, now!
 That one of Browning's! Shelley? Shelley plain?
 The time that I remember best is this --

 A thin mire crept along the rutted ways,
 And all the trees were harried by cold rain
 That drove a moment fiercely and then ceased,
 Falling so slow it hung like a grey mist
 Over the school. The walks were like blurred glass.
 The buildings reeked with vapor, black and harsh
 Against the deepening darkness of the sky;
 And each lamp was a hazy yellow moon,
 Filling the space about with golden motes,
 And making all things larger than they were.
 One yellow halo hung above a door,
 That gave on a black passage. Round about
 Struggled a howling crowd of boys, pell-mell,
 Pushing and jostling like a stormy sea,
 With shouting faces, turned a pasty white
 By the strange light, for foam. They all had clods,
 Or slimy balls of mud. A few gripped stones.
 And there, his back against the battered door,
 His pile of books scattered about his feet,
 Stood Shelley while two others held him fast,
 And the clods beat upon him. `Shelley! Shelley!'
 The high shouts rang through all the corridors,
 `Shelley! Mad Shelley! Come along and help!'
 And all the crowd dug madly at the earth,
 Scratching and clawing at the streaming mud,
 And fouled each other and themselves. And still
 Shelley stood up. His eyes were like a flame
 Set in some white, still room; for all his face
 Was white, a whiteness like no human color,
 But white and dreadful as consuming fire.
 His hands shook now and then, like slender cords
 Which bear too heavy weights. He did not speak.
 So I saw Shelley plain."
                         "And you?" I said.

 "I? I threw straighter than the most of them,
 And had firm clods. I hit him -- well, at least
 Thrice in the face. He made good sport that night."
-- Stephen Vincent Benet
I do not, as long time readers are doubtless aware, care too much for
Shelley. I admit to laughing as loudly as any at Browning's slyly hilarious
"Memorabilia". And yet. And yet Shelley, for all the flaws in his verse, was
a fiery, a passionate, and yes, at times a great poet, of whom the
Britannica says "[his] personal lyrics voiced the concerns of an idealistic
reformer who is disappointed or persecuted by an unreceptive society".

It is this aspect of Shelley that Benet evokes here, and if his allegory is
rather obtrusive, it is nonetheless effective. The image of a howling mob of
boys baying for Shelley's blood is at once a vivid and starkly visceral
picture, and an apt metaphor for (at least according to Benet) society's
treatment of the poet.

Furthermore, Benet does to Browning's poem what the latter did to Shelley -
he takes the premise and deftly undercuts it, so that the failure to
appreciate the poet is a reflection on the public, and not on Shelley. This
is underscored by the twist in the last three lines - the narrator's
somewhat awed tone when describing Shelley contrasts strongly with the fact
that he was one of the mob. In the end, 'The General Public' is both a
comment on mob psychology, and a rather pointed depiction of what, exactly,
it means to 'see Shelley plain'.


  Browning's "Memorabilia": Poem #425

  A biography of Shelley, and one of his best poems: Poem #22, "Ozymandias"

  We've run one more of Benet's poems, the brilliant "Winged Man", Poem #609


What We Heard About the Japanese -- Rachel Rose

Guest poem sent in by Laura Simeon
(Poem #982) What We Heard About the Japanese
 We heard they would jump from buildings
 at the slightest provocation: low marks

 On an exam, a lovers' spat
 or an excess of shame.

 We heard they were incited by shame,
 not guilt. That they

 Loved all things American.
 Mistrusted anything foreign.

 We heard their men liked to buy
 schoolgirls' underwear

 And their women
 did not experience menopause or other

 Western hysterias. We heard
 they still preferred to breastfeed,

 Carry handkerchiefs, ride bicycles
 and dress their young like Victorian

 Pupils. We heard that theirs
 was a feminine culture. We heard

 That theirs was an example of extreme
 patriarchy. That rape

 Didn't exist on these islands. We heard
 their marriages were arranged, that

 They didn't believe in love. We heard
 they were experts in this art above all others.

 That frequent earthquakes inspired insecurity
 and lack of faith. That they had no sense of irony.

 We heard even faith was an American invention.
 We heard they were just like us under the skin.
-- Rachel Rose
Today's poem is actually one of a pair, and I think they really work best
read together....

    'What the Japanese Perhaps Heard'

    Perhaps they heard we don't understand them
    very well. Perhaps this made them

    Pleased. Perhaps they heard we shoot
    Japanese students who ring the wrong

    Bell at Hallowe'en. That we shoot
    at the slightest provocation: a low mark

    On an exam, a lovers' spat, an excess
    of guilt. Perhaps they wondered

    If it was guilt we felt at the sight of that student
    bleeding out among our lawn flamingos,

    Or something recognizable to them,
    something like grief. Perhaps

    They heard that our culture
    has its roots in desperate immigration

    And lone men. Perhaps they observed
    our skill at raising serial killers,

    That we value good teeth above
    good minds and have no festivals

    To remember the dead. Perhaps they heard
    that our grey lakes are deep enough to swallow cities,

    That our landscape is vast wheat and loneliness.
    Perhaps they ask themselves if, when grief

    Wraps its wet arms around Montana, we would not prefer
    the community of archipelagos

    Upon which persimmons are harvested
    and black fingers of rock uncurl their digits

    In the mist. Perhaps their abacus echoes
    the shape that grief takes,

    One island
    bleeding into the next,

    And for us grief is an endless cornfield,
    silken and ripe with poison.

      -- Rachel Rose

Rachel Rose is a young Canadian/American poet whose work has been published
in a volume of the Hugh MacLennan Poetry Series (_Giving My Body to
Science_, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1999,
[broken link], as well as appearing in _The Best
American Poetry 2001_.

When I first read these poems, they resonated strongly with me on several
levels. Being half Japanese, I have heard it all: both extreme negative
stereotypes and the almost unbelievable idealizing of Japanese culture that
some Westerners indulge in. Either approach reduces the Japanese to
something not quite like us, whether it's less-than-human or super-human.
Rachel Rose captures these absurdity of these contradictions economically
and strikingly in just a few lines.

Secondly, as an American with many friends from Japan, I'm often in the
position of trying to explain things about US culture that I can barely
grasp myself. Things like guns and individualism and attitudes towards the
elderly. Rose's second poem crystallizes all of this into a few vivid and
colorful images, showing us how strange and inscrutable we can appear when
viewed from the outside.

And finally, the timing of when I read poems felt significant. Much of what
I've been hearing lately about Muslims reminds me painfully of what was said
about the Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. They were
seen as people with no respect for life or regard for self-preservation, no
sense of morality that we could understand, showing fanatical loyalty to an
evil empire, and threatening our culture with their alien customs. I.e. not
"good Christians." Sound familiar? Life for Muslims in America today must be
much like it was for Japanese during World War II. It makes me ache, but I
do have hope that we can learn from past mistakes.

Laura Simeon

The Band Played Waltzing Matilda -- Eric Bogle

Thanks to Paul Stimpson, who suggested this as a followup to Poem #980
(Poem #981) The Band Played Waltzing Matilda
 Now when I was a young man I carried me pack
 And I lived the free life of the rover.
 From the Murray's green basin to the dusty outback,
 Well, I waltzed my Matilda all over.
 Then in 1915, my country said, "Son,
 It's time you stop ramblin', there's work to be done."
 So they gave me a tin hat, and they gave me a gun,
 And they marched me away to the war.

 And the band played "Waltzing Matilda,"
 As the ship pulled away from the quay,
 And amidst all the cheers, the flag waving, and tears,
 We sailed off for Gallipoli.

 And how well I remember that terrible day,
 How our blood stained the sand and the water;
 And of how in that hell that they call Suvla Bay
 We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.
 Johnny Turk, he was waitin', he primed himself well;
 He showered us with bullets, and he rained us with shell --
 And in five minutes flat, he'd blown us all to hell,
 Nearly blew us right back to Australia.

 But the band played "Waltzing Matilda,"
 When we stopped to bury our slain,
 Well, we buried ours, and the Turks buried theirs,
 Then we started all over again.

 And those that were left, well, we tried to survive
 In that mad world of blood, death and fire.
 And for ten weary weeks I kept myself alive
 Though around me the corpses piled higher.
 Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head,
 And when I woke up in me hospital bed
 And saw what it had done, well, I wished I was dead --
 Never knew there was worse things than dying.

 For I'll go no more "Waltzing Matilda,"
 All around the green bush far and free --
 To hump tents and pegs, a man needs both legs,
 No more "Waltzing Matilda" for me.

 So they gathered the crippled, the wounded, the maimed,
 And they shipped us back home to Australia.
 The armless, the legless, the blind, the insane,
 Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla.
 And as our ship sailed into Circular Quay,
 I looked at the place where me legs used to be,
 And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me,
 To grieve, to mourn and to pity.

 But the band played "Waltzing Matilda,"
 As they carried us down the gangway,
 But nobody cheered, they just stood and stared,
 Then they turned all their faces away.

 And so now every April, I sit on my porch
 And I watch the parade pass before me.
 And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march,
 Reviving old dreams of past glory,
 And the old men march slowly, all bones stiff and sore,
 They're tired old heroes from a forgotten war
 And the young people ask "What are they marching for?"
 And I ask meself the same question.

 But the band plays "Waltzing Matilda,"
 And the old men still answer the call,
 But as year follows year, more old men disappear
 Someday, no one will march there at all.

 Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda.
 Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?
 And their ghosts may be heard as they march by the billabong,
 Who'll come a-Waltzing Matilda with me?
-- Eric Bogle
Today's poem (song, actually) highlights another of those aspects of a war
that get overlooked in the trumpet's blare. The war comes and goes, and
fades into irrelevance, and the heroes, 'reviving old dreams of past glory',
are largely forgotten by the next generation.

And, of course, there are those who carry a far more bitter legacy -

    And when I woke up in me hospital bed
    And saw what it had done, well, I wished I was dead --
    Never knew there was worse things than dying.

says it all. Throughout, the primary mood is one of stark disillusionment -
or, rather, illusionlessness, made explicit in the verse

    But the band played "Waltzing Matilda,"
    As they carried us down the gangway,
    But nobody cheered, they just stood and stared,
    Then they turned all their faces away.

Bogle gives the narrator's plight an extra poignancy by invoking Banjo
Patterson's famous "Waltzing Matilda", a song that, like much of
Patterson's work, idealises the 'free life of the rover'. The contrast is
conveyed as much by the music as by the words, actually, and the segue into
"Waltzing Matilda" in the last verse is almost heartbreakingly powerful.


  [broken link] has Bogle's
  comments on the song

  Biography of Bogle: [broken link]

  Waltzing Matilda:


The March of the Dead -- Robert Service

(Poem #980) The March of the Dead
 The cruel war was over -- oh, the triumph was so sweet!
     We watched the troops returning, through our tears;
 There was triumph, triumph, triumph down the scarlet glittering street,
     And you scarce could hear the music for the cheers.
 And you scarce could see the house-tops for the flags that flew between;
     The bells were pealing madly to the sky;
 And everyone was shouting for the Soldiers of the Queen,
     And the glory of an age was passing by.

 And then there came a shadow, swift and sudden, dark and drear;
     The bells were silent, not an echo stirred.
 The flags were drooping sullenly, the men forgot to cheer;
     We waited, and we never spoke a word.
 The sky grew darker, darker, till from out the gloomy rack
     There came a voice that checked the heart with dread:
 "Tear down, tear down your bunting now, and hang up sable black;
     They are coming -- it's the Army of the Dead."

 They were coming, they were coming, gaunt and ghastly, sad and slow;
     They were coming, all the crimson wrecks of pride;
 With faces seared, and cheeks red smeared, and haunting eyes of woe,
     And clotted holes the khaki couldn't hide.
 Oh, the clammy brow of anguish! the livid, foam-flecked lips!
     The reeling ranks of ruin swept along!
 The limb that trailed, the hand that failed, the bloody finger tips!
     And oh, the dreary rhythm of their song!

 "They left us on the veldt-side, but we felt we couldn't stop
     On this, our England's crowning festal day;
 We're the men of Magersfontein, we're the men of Spion Kop,
     Colenso -- we're the men who had to pay.
 We're the men who paid the blood-price. Shall the grave be all our gain?
     You owe us. Long and heavy is the score.
 Then cheer us for our glory now, and cheer us for our pain,
     And cheer us as ye never cheered before."

 The folks were white and stricken, and each tongue seemed weighted with lead;
     Each heart was clutched in hollow hand of ice;
 And every eye was staring at the horror of the dead,
     The pity of the men who paid the price.
 They were come, were come to mock us, in the first flush of our peace;
     Through writhing lips their teeth were all agleam;
 They were coming in their thousands -- oh, would they never cease!
     I closed my eyes, and then -- it was a dream.

 There was triumph, triumph, triumph down the scarlet gleaming street;
     The town was mad; a man was like a boy.
 A thousand flags were flaming where the sky and city meet;
     A thousand bells were thundering the joy.
 There was music, mirth and sunshine; but some eyes shone with regret;
     And while we stun with cheers our homing braves,
 O God, in Thy great mercy, let us nevermore forget
     The graves they left behind, the bitter graves.
-- Robert Service
Today's poem offers an interesting perspective on war - its 'message', or,
more accurately, its burden is the complex mixture of joy and pain that
attends a victory celebration - joy for the triumph, and that the war is no
more; pain for all the lives lost. The device Service uses to bring forth
this conflict is chillingly effective; in particular, the lines

  We're the men who paid the blood-price. Shall the grave be all our gain?
  You owe us. Long and heavy is the score.
  Then cheer us for our glory now, and cheer us for our pain,
  And cheer us as ye never cheered before."

have a trenchant streak of truth swirling through the irony - true, dead men
have no need of cheers, but there's the uncomfortable realisation that the
"men who paid the blood-price" are indeed not being adequately honoured.

Unusually enough, the "it was all a dream" twist, which seldom fails to
annoy me, works very well here. The difference, I think, is that the dream
is not laughed off and dismissed - it is, for all its 'dream' nature, very
real, and as such harks back more to the tradition of revelatory dreams than
to the use of a dream as a way of writing off implausible occurrences.

The poem's rhythms, too, are highly pleasing, with the alternating long and
short lines striking just the right balance between regular and varied.
There's a nice 'run on' effect, too, with consecutive lines joining
naturally into pairs, the long line building up a tension that the short one
releases. (And while on the subject of rhythm, can someone with a print copy
of the poem confirm that the first line in verse 5 is indeed 'weighted' and
not 'weighed with lead'?)


  We've run a couple of Service's poems:
    Poem #698, "The Cremation of Sam McGee"
    Poem #781, "The Law of the Yukon"

  The latter contains further links to a biography and stuff[1]

  [1] there - that's your technical term for the day


The Parable of the Old Man and the Young -- Wilfred Owen

Guest poem sent in by Suzanne Longmaid
(Poem #979) The Parable of the Old Man and the Young
 So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
 And took the fire with him, and a knife.
 And as they sojourned both of them together,
 Issac, the first-born spake and said, My Father,
 Behold the preparations, the fire and iron,
 But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
 Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
 And builded parapets and trenches there.
 And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
 When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
 Saying, Lay not a hand upon the lad,
 Neither do anything to him. Behold,
 A ram, caught  in a thicket by its horns;
 Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
 But the old man would not do so, but slew his son,
 And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
-- Wilfred Owen
Though I have read much WW1 poetry, I first came across this particular poem
when it was quoted in the 1997 Film 'Regeneration' and was struck by its
simplicity and, like all of Owen's work, its poignancy. By taking a very well
known scripture passage as its basis, Owen has made a very stark and damning
comment on the idiocy and futility of the war in which he was fighting and
which, ultimately, claimed his life. As most people know, in the 'original'
passage Abram kills the ram and saves his son. Yet here Abram, used as a
metaphor for the generals and ministers in charge of the war, ignores the
angel's bidding and instead slaughters his son and, by implication, everybody
else's sons, husbands, fathers etc.

This poem not only brings home the sheer waste of life which the First World
War caused but brings it down to a very individual level. All the young men
who died were somebody's sons. (In my case it was my great-grandfather who
left behind a wife and three young children.) The language and phrases that
Owen uses further draw the comparisons -- instead of laying his son on the
altar, Abram binds him (them) with belts and straps and builds parapets and
trenches. Instantly we get a picture of the horrors of the front line. The
ram becomes the Ram of Pride, further damnation by Owen of those back in
London who held so many lives in their hands.

It is interesting that in the version I have it notes that when Sassoon came
to edit his friend's work he omitted the final line. A shame because I feel
that this is probably one of the most powerful lines in the whole poem, it
pulls no punches and very simply brings into focus the reality of just what
was happening to Owen and those around him.



  Biography of Owen:
    [broken link]

  Owen poems on Minstrels:
    Poem #132, "Dulce Et Decorum Est"
    Poem #232, "Insensibility"
    Poem #288, "Futility"
    Poem #321, "Strange Meeting"

Cinderella -- Anne Sexton

Guest poem sent in by Melissa Towner
(Poem #978) Cinderella
 You always read about it:
 the plumber with twelve children
 who wins the Irish Sweepstakes.
 From toilets to riches.
 That story.

 Or the nursemaid,
 some luscious sweet from Denmark
 who captures the oldest son's heart.
 From diapers to Dior.
 That story.

 Or a milkman who serves the wealthy,
 eggs, cream, butter, yogurt, milk,
 the white truck like an ambulance
 who goes into real estate
 and makes a pile.
 From homogenized to martinis at lunch.

 Or the charwoman
 who is on the bus when it cracks up
 and collects enough from the insurance.
 From mops to Bonwit Teller.
 That story.

 the wife of a rich man was on her deathbed
 and she said to her daughter Cinderella:
 Be devout. Be good. Then I will smile
 down from heaven in the seam of a cloud.
 The man took another wife who had
 two daughters, pretty enough
 but with hearts like blackjacks.
 Cinderella was their maid.
 She slept on the sooty hearth each night
 and walked around looking like Al Jolson.
 Her father brought presents home from town,
 jewels and gowns for the other women
 but the twig of a tree for Cinderella.
 She planted that twig on her mother's grave
 and it grew to a tree where a white dove sat.
 Whenever she wished for anything the dove
 would drop it like an egg upon the ground.
 The bird is important, my dears, so heed him.

 Next came the ball, as you all know.
 It was a marriage market.
 The prince was looking for a wife.
 All but Cinderella were preparing
 and gussying up for the big event.
 Cinderella begged to go too.
 Her stepmother threw a dish of lentils
 into the cinders and said: Pick them
 up in an hour and you shall go.
 The white dove brought all his friends;
 all the warm wings of the fatherland came,
 and picked up the lentils in a jiffy.
 No, Cinderella, said the stepmother,
 you have no clothes and cannot dance.
 That's the way with stepmothers.

 Cinderella went to the tree at the grave
 and cried forth like a gospel singer:
 Mama! Mama! My turtledove,
 send me to the prince's ball!
 The bird dropped down a golden dress
 and delicate little gold slippers.
 Rather a large package for a simple bird.
 So she went. Which is no surprise.
 Her stepmother and sisters didn't
 recognize her without her cinder face
 and the prince took her hand on the spot
 and danced with no other the whole day.

 As nightfall came she thought she'd better
 get home. The prince walked her home
 and she disappeared into the pigeon house
 and although the prince took an axe and broke
 it open she was gone. Back to her cinders.
 These events repeated themselves for three days.
 However on the third day the prince
 covered the palace steps with cobbler's wax
 and Cinderella's gold shoe stuck upon it.
 Now he would find whom the shoe fit
 and find his strange dancing girl for keeps.
 He went to their house and the two sisters
 were delighted because they had lovely feet.
 The eldest went into a room to try the slipper on
 but her big toe got in the way so she simply
 sliced it off and put on the slipper.
 The prince rode away with her until the white dove
 told him to look at the blood pouring forth.
 That is the way with amputations.
 The don't just heal up like a wish.
 The other sister cut off her heel
 but the blood told as blood will.
 The prince was getting tired.
 He began to feel like a shoe salesman.
 But he gave it one last try.
 This time Cinderella fit into the shoe
 like a love letter into its envelope.

 At the wedding ceremony
 the two sisters came to curry favor
 and the white dove pecked their eyes out.
 Two hollow spots were left
 like soup spoons.

 Cinderella and the prince
 lived, they say, happily ever after,
 like two dolls in a museum case
 never bothered by diapers or dust,
 never arguing over the timing of an egg,
 never telling the same story twice,
 never getting a middle-aged spread,
 their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
 Regular Bobbsey Twins.
 That story.
-- Anne Sexton

I love this poem for the matter-of-fact tone that one does not expect
when discussing fairy tales and charming princes.  Sexton's images
point up the vast chasm between the gritty reality of everyday life
and the sterility of "happily ever after" using many images from the
original Brothers Grimm's tale.  If you haven't read the Brothers
Grimm version of the tale lately I highly recommend it.  It's an

Melissa Towner


  Melissa sent this in in response to "The Wolf's Postcript to 'Little Red
  Riding Hood'", Poem #961

  Biography of Sexton:

  Another fascinating look at the Cinderella story, incidentally, is the one
  in Roald Dahl's "Revolting Rhymes"

The Darkling Thrush -- Thomas Hardy

Guest poem sent in by Neha Kumar
(Poem #977) The Darkling Thrush
 I leant upon a coppice gate
 When Frost was spectre-gray,
 And Winter's dregs made desolate
 The weakening eye of day.
 The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
 Like strings of broken lyres,
 And all mankind that haunted nigh
 Had sought their household fires.

 The land's sharp features seemed to be
 The Century's corpse outleant,
 His crypt the cloudy canopy,
 The wind his death-lament.
 The ancient pulse of germ and birth
 Was shrunken hard and dry,
 And every spirit upon earth
 Seemed fervourless as I.

 At once a voice arose among
 The bleak twigs overhead
 In a full-hearted evensong
 Of joy illimited;
 An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
 In blast-beruffled plume,
 Had chosen thus to fling his soul
 Upon the growing gloom.

 So little cause for carolings
 Of such ecstatic sound
 Was written on terrestrial things
 Afar or nigh around,
 That I could think there trembled through
 His happy good-night air
 Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
 And I was unaware.
-- Thomas Hardy
      (31 December, 1900)

Note: Originally titled "By the Century's Deathbed"

We did this poem in high school, before the turn of the century, and I
recall how we spent quite a bit of time discussing the date the poem was
written. Apparently, at that time it was understood that the 19th century
turned to the 20th on 1st January 1901 (rightly so).

Anyway, here's some additional information for those interested:

"... to commemorate the occasion, Hardy composed a poem originally titled
"By the Century's Deathbed" which was published under that name in the
Graphic on 19 December 1900. It later was renamed "The Darkling Thrush", and
has been published under that title ever since. It is considered by many to
be one of Hardy's finest poems. It is included in his 1901 collection titled
Poems of the Past and the Present, and, though written several weeks
earlier, is dated 31 December 1900.

The year 1900 was not kind to Thomas Hardy. His marriage to Emma had become
strained; she sat in her upper room writing letters and dabbling in poetry;
he sat alone in his Max Gate study writing letters and serious poetry.
Sickness in Emma's family had caused her to be absent from Max Gate for
prolonged periods, upsetting the daily routine so important to Hardy. Two of
Emma's cousins had been resident at Max Gate for several weeks, another
upsetting anxiety in his domestic life.

Thus, at year's end, as the 19th century drew its last breaths, Hardy
composed his thoughts at that time. He portrays a wistfully gloomy, wintry
world, "as fervourless as I". Yet, within that colorless scene, a thrush
sings a joyful, hopeful carol. This is classic Hardy: always hoping for the
best even within the context of a conviction of the worst."

have a great new year!