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The Old Astronomer -- Sarah Williams

(Poem #1769) The Old Astronomer
 Reach me down my Tycho Brahe, --  I would know him when we meet,
 When I share my later science, sitting humbly at his feet;
 He may know the law of all things, yet be ignorant of how
 We are working to completion, working on from then till now.

 Pray, remember, that I leave you all my theory complete,
 Lacking only certain data, for your adding as is meet;
 And remember, men will scorn it, 'tis original and true,
 And the obloquy of newness may fall bitterly on you.

 But, my pupil, as my pupil you have learnt the worth of scorn;
 You have laughed with me at pity, we have joyed to be forlorn;
 What, for us, are all distractions of men's fellowship and smiles?
 What, for us, the goddess Pleasure, with her meretricious wiles?

 You may tell that German college that their honour comes too late.
 But they must not waste repentance on the grizzly savant's fate;
 Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
 I have loved the stars too truly to be fearful of the night.

 What, my boy, you are not weeping?  You should save your eyes for sight;
 You will need them, mine observer, yet for many another night.
 I leave none but you, my pupil, unto whom my plans are known.
 You "have none but me," you murmur, and I "leave you quite alone"?

 Well then, kiss me, -- since my mother left her blessing on my brow,
 There has been a something wanting in my nature until now;
 I can dimly comprehend it, -- that I might have been more kind,
 Might have cherished you more wisely, as the one I leave behind.

 I "have never failed in kindness"?  No, we lived too high for strife, --
 Calmest coldness was the error which has crept into our life;
 But your spirit is untainted, I can dedicate you still
 To the service of our science: you will further it? you will!

 There are certain calculations I should like to make with you,
 To be sure that your deductions will be logical and true;
 And remember, "Patience, Patience," is the watchword of a sage,
 Not to-day nor yet to-morrow can complete a perfect age.

 I have sworn, like Tycho Brahe, that a greater man may reap;
 But if none should do my reaping, 'twill disturb me in my sleep.
 So be careful and be faithful, though, like me, you leave no name;
 See, my boy, that nothing turn you to the mere pursuit of fame.

 I must say Good-bye, my pupil, for I cannot longer speak;
 Draw the curtain back for Venus, ere my vision grows too weak:
 It is strange the pearly planet should look red as fiery Mars, --
 God will mercifully guide me on my way amongst the stars.
-- Sarah Williams
      (Published 1868)

Note: Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) has a strong claim to the title "Father of
Modern Astronomy" for his insistence on systematic observation.

The best word I can find to describe today's poem is "moving". Williams's
first-person narrator is sensitively and convincingly portrayed; the
astronomer's life, and his relationship with his pupil, shine through with
warmth and gentleness.

While the poem is uneven in places, it is never jarring, and the good bits
are very good indeed - in particular, the couplet

 Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
 I have loved the stars too truly to be fearful of the night.

has helped ensure its immortality. I was also strongly reminded of Kipling's
"The Explorer", a similar, regretless look back at a life that eschewed
"fellowship and smiles" and the pursuit of fame in favour of a lonely
impulse of delight.

And, when all is said and done, it was a real pleasure to read a poem that
neither deified nor vilified scientists (and I've seen too many of both),
but sought to present a genuinely sympathetic and human view of its subject.



Anthologised in "Best Loved Poems of the American People", Hazel Felleman, ed.
Garden City Publishing Co., Garden City NY: 1936, pp. 613-614

John and Proebe Brashear, a couple of astronomers buried at Alleghany
Observatory, famously have a quote from the poem as their epitaph:
  "We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night."


Biography of Williams:
  Sarah Williams (1837-1868)

Variations abound; I am indebted to the stumpers-l archive for the accurate
text of the poem:
[broken link]

From the fifteen-minutes-of-fame department, I was prompted to run this poem
after it was quoted in Irregular Webcomic:

Threnody -- Dorothy Parker

Guest poem submitted by Lakshmi Jagad:
(Poem #1768) Threnody
 Lilacs blossom just as sweet
 Now my heart is shattered.
 If I bowled it down the street,
 Who's to say it mattered?
 If there's one that rode away
 What would I be missing?
 Lips that taste of tears, they say,
 Are the best for kissing.

 Eyes that watch the morning star
 Seem a little brighter;
 Arms held out to darkness are
 Usually whiter.
 Shall I bar the strolling guest,
 Bind my brow with willow,
 When, they say, the empty breast
 Is the softer pillow?

 That a heart falls tinkling down,
 Never think it ceases.
 Every likely lad in town
 Gathers up the pieces.
 If there's one gone whistling by
 Would I let it grieve me?
 Let him wonder if I lie;
 Let him half believe me.
-- Dorothy Parker
I was introduced to Dorothy Parker and her wonderfully sassy works courtesy
the Minstrels. I always thought that her works were reminiscent of mischief,
cocky charm and a whole lot of free-spirited impishness. So you can imagine
how surprised I was when someone sent me this poem. It is so
uncharacteristic of her style or maybe that's my relative inexperience
speaking.  But there is such a heart-broken feel to this one... One of my
favourite lines is 'Lips that taste of tears, they say, are the best for

Picturesque, pensive and very imaginative, for lack of better adjectives,
this poem is a favourite, even though, it appears somewhat alien to Parker.


Sonnet II, from "To W.P." -- George Santayana

Guest poem sent in by Jeffrey Sean Huo
(Poem #1767) Sonnet II, from "To W.P."
 With you a part of me hath passed away;
 For in the peopled forest of my mind
 A tree made leafless by this wintry wind
 Shall never don again its green array.
 Chapel and fireside, country road and bay,
 Have something of their friendliness resigned;
 Another, if I would, I could not find,
 And I am grown much older in a day.

 But yet I treasure in my memory
 Your gift of charity, and young hearts ease,
 And the dear honour of your amity;
 For these once mine, my life is rich with these.
 And I scarce know which part may greater be,--
 What I keep of you, or you rob from me.
-- George Santayana
A brief biography of George Santayana was run with Minstrels Poem #25 ("The
Poet's Testament"). This poem was first published in 1896, as part of
Santayana's collection "Sonnets and other Verses". The W.P. of the title was
Warrick Potter, who tragically died of complications from a boating accident
three years earlier. Santayana suffered a number of significant personal
griefs and shocks as he approached his 30th birthday, including the tragic
deaths of many of his close friends.  But the death of Potter, whom
Santayana described as his "last real friend", hit Santayana particularly
hard. Today's poem is the second of four sonnets written by Santayana in
memory of his friend.

For me, Santayana in this sonnet captures a very deep idea within his lines.
Every death is a sorrow. But there are a rare few individuals close to us,
who filled our lives and the lives of all around them with life and laughter
and joy. Who touched us deeply with their wit and wonder, humor and
imagination, kindness and beauty. Those deaths hurt especially deeply
precisely because their lives enriched us so. Or, to turn around Santayana's
closing: we wouldn't be filled with so much sorrow at their deaths, if their
lives hadn't filled us with such laughter and joy.

There was a young lady of brilliant humor and wonderful imagination, founder
and moderator of an online humor quotations community myself and many of my
friends are a part of. In August, she went to the emergency room for severe
abdominal pain and was discovered to have a highly aggressive metatastic
colon cancer. Despite heroic measures, she died on Thursday, exactly a month
before her thirty-third birthday.

This poem is submitted to Minstrels in her memory.

Jeffrey Huo

Uncle and Auntie -- John Hegley

Guest poem submitted by Laura Simeon:
(Poem #1766) Uncle and Auntie
 my auntie gave me a colouring book and crayons
 I begin to colour
 after a while auntie leans over and says
 you've gone over the lines
 what do you think they're there for
 some kind of statement is it?
 going to be a rebel are we?
 your auntie gives you a lovely present
 and you have to go and ruin it
 I begin to cry
 my uncle gives me a hanky and some blank paper
 do some doggies of your own he says
 I begin to colour
 when I have done
 he looks over
 and says they are all very good
 he is lying
 only some of them are
-- John Hegley
I first encountered John Hegley on Minstrels last year (Poem #1584, Go and
play in the middle) and it was love at first sight.  On a trip to England
this summer I picked up a volume of his poetry entitled _Glad to Wear
Glasses_.  It was difficult to pick just one poem to submit, but I find this
one a delightful example of his unpretentious, razor sharp wit.  His website
may be viewed at: [broken link]

Thank you,
Laura Simeon.

Foolish, not Social -- Sankha Ghosh

Guest poem sent in by Sarah Korah
(Poem #1765) Foolish, not Social
 Returning home do you feel you talked too much?
 Cleverness, do you feel very tired?

 Do you feel like sitting quiet in the blue cottage
 Burning incense, after a bath, on return?

 Do you feel like wearing a human body at last
 After taking off the demon's dress?

 Liquid time carries moisture into the room.
 Do you feel like an ananta-shayana on her floating raft?

 If you feel like that, come back. Cleverness, go away.
 Does it really matter?
 Let them say foolish, let them say unsocial.
-- Sankha Ghosh
Note: ananta-shayana: Vishnu sleeping on the cosmic serpent Ananta.

I like people, and enjoy being outdoors. But on some weekends, I just long
to curl up with a book.. and have a cup of tea. Very antisocial and very
foolish - but quite enjoyable :-)

Sarah Korah

A brief bio of Sankha Ghosh can be found at

An Attempt At Unrhymed Verse -- Wendy Cope

Guest poem submitted by Monica Bathija:
(Poem #1764) An Attempt At Unrhymed Verse
 People tell you all the time,
 Poems do not have to rhyme.
 It's often better if they don't
 And I'm determined this one won't.

                              Oh dear.

 Never mind, I'll start again.
 Busy, busy with my pen...cil.
 I can do it if I try--
 Easy, peasy, pudding and gherkins.

 Writing verse is so much fun,
 Cheering as the summer weather,
 Makes you feel alert and bright,
 'Specially when you get it more or
     less the way you want it.
-- Wendy Cope
Here's one more by Wendy Cope, increasingly a favourite along with Sara
Teasdale thanks to Minstrels. Pencil and gherkins. Isn't that just so much
an effortless effort...

I loved it.


My Little One -- Tennessee Williams

Guest poem sent in by Lakshmi Jagad
(Poem #1763) My Little One
 My little one whose tongue is dumb,
 whose fingers cannot hold to things,
 who is so mercilessly young,
 he leaps upon the instant things,

 I hold him not. Indeed, who could?
 He runs into the burning wood.
 Follow, follow if you can!
 He will come out grown a man

 and not remember whom he kissed,
 who caught him by the slender wrist
 and bound him by a tender yoke
 which, understanding not, he broke.
-- Tennessee Williams
I don't think we have any of Tennessee Williams' work on Minstrels, do we?

Am not much of a critic (not yet) but I can say that I love this poem for its
faintly wistful charm. Not even sure what it is about it that reminds me of
lost innocence and the passage of time. Most of the times, we only remember
what we lost with time, rarely what we gained. The memory clings to the



Wikipedia page:

Mitchell's "Beatrix is Three" makes a nice companion piece to today's poem:

Peace -- Rupert Brooke

(Poem #1762) Peace
 Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
 And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
 With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
 To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
 Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
 Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
 And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
 And all the little emptiness of love!

 Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
 Where there's no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
 Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
 Nothing to shake the laughing heart's long peace there
 But only agony, and that has ending;
 And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.
-- Rupert Brooke

Note: The first sonnet in Brooke's 1914 sequence

Today's poem - challengingly titled "Peace" - marks the first of Brooke's
sequence of five World War I sonnets, commonly called the "1914 sequence".
("The Soldier", perhaps his best known poem, is Sonnet V in that sequence.)
Back when I ran "The Soldier", I noted that the patriotic tone, filtered
through the sensibilities of a post-World-Wars mind, makes these sonnets
seem old-fashioned at best, badly dated at worst. "The Soldier" tended
towards the former end of the spectrum; "Peace", despite is poetic merits,
tends definitely to the latter.

Which is not to say that I dislike the poem - indeed, I found the images of
renewal and cleansing, the almost palpable feeling of a skin being shed,
both finely crafted and powerful. But it would be naive to pretend that a
sentiment like "leave the sick hearts that honour could not move" sounds
anything but misguided today.

An excellent summary from captures both sides
of the matter perfectly:

  Although Rupert Brooke's 1914 sonnets received an enthusiastic reception
  at the time of their publication and the author's death (of blood
  poisoning), disenchantment with the ever-lengthening war meant a backlash
  against Brooke's work. These sonnets have been lauded as being "among the
  supreme expressions of English patriotism and among the few notable poems
  produced by the Great War" (Houston Peterson), while according to Patrick
  Cruttwell, "I suspect that these unfortunate poems, through their great
  vogue at first and the bitter reaction against them later, did more than
  anything else to put the traditional sonnet virtually out of action for a
  generation or more of vital poetry in English." But, as you can see here,
  some writers of the period adapted the sonnet to their war experience, and
  it is interesting to speculate on whether Brooke's writing would have
  become as bitter and disillusioned as that of his contemporaries had he
  lived a few years more. See Harry Rusche's Rupert Brooke page, part of his
  Lost Poets of the Great War.

Also, I feel an essential step towards fully appreciating today's poem is to
note its significant personal component - several of the attitudes expressed
are thrown into clearer focus when viewed against Brooke's biography.


[Links] has a few footnotes has more on the Brooke of the 1914

Poem #280, "The Soldier", has some more discussion of Brooke's war poetry.

Further in Summer than the Birds -- Emily Dickinson

Guest poem submitted by Mac Robb:
(Poem #1761) Further in Summer than the Birds
 Further in Summer than the Birds
 Pathetic from the Grass
 A minor Nation celebrates
 Its unobtrusive Mass.

 No Ordinance be seen
 So gradual the Grace
 A pensive Custom it becomes
 Enlarging Loneliness.

 Antiquest felt at Noon
 When August burning low
 Arise this spectral Canticle
 Repose to typify

 Remit as yet no Grace
 No Furrow on the Glow
 Yet a Druidic Difference
 Enhances Nature now
-- Emily Dickinson
It is a compliment to the Wondering Minstrels when a standard of the canon
has not yet appeared, but so it is and I here remedy the default, provoked
by the recent other Dickinson offerings.

It is easy to patronise "Emily," as her academic critics invariably rather
astonishingly call her - not "Dickinson"; not even "Miss Dickinson" or
"Emily Dickinson" - does one ever hear of "Twain" or "Whitman"? Nope: they
are always "Mark Twain" and "Walt Whitman"; fair enough, but why is Emily
Dickinson always "Emily"? Well, she had a rather sheltered sequestered small
town Old Maid Yankee existence. And her poems are all in 86 86 Common Metre,
like the 19th century hymns that would have been familiar to her at Sunday
Congregational church meetings. One wonders just how wide her reading could
have been, not to speak of her acquaintance: she might, after all, be simply
an astonishingly sensitive and acute original. Certainly her real life
experience was extremely straitened; she took her reclusiveness very
seriously - her poetry was mostly found after her death sewn up in
"fascicles," as she called them; in 20th century terms she would doubtless
be regarded as a pathological case and have been locked up like Robert
Lowell; and in, say, 4th century terms she would undoubtedly be in the canon
of saints.

But in her poetry - it is most certainly not mere "verse" - she pushes CM to
its outermost limits: she makes me think of William Cowper and John Newton
with their very fine CM hymns a hundred years earlier ("God moves in a
mysterious way/his wonders to perform"; "Glorious things of thee are
spoken/Zion, city of our God"; "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound/that
saved a wretch like me"), and Wordsworth's reverie on the disciplining
confines of the sonnet form in "Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow

The thing that's so amazing about her poetry is, continuingly, "How did she
know?! How COULD she know?!" A queer old maid Yankee just couldn't have
known about Catholic liturgical and exegetical niceties but yet,
astonishingly, she did. (T.S. Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins, with
backgrounds not wholly dissimilar to hers, went whole hog into small- and
large-C catholicism, respectively, but Emily Dickinson seems to have grasped
everything they did and found that route unnecessary.)

And so the hum of grasshoppers on a hot, dry August afternoon is the
celebration both of insubstantial quiddity and a sacramental rite. The
"Grace" that is imparted to faithful (well, say, to Boston Irish Catholics
in Emily Dickinson's world) in the Mass, some time after the "gradual" (ie
not just slowly-slowly, but also the scriptural tract recited or sung
between the epistle and the gospel) - in the case of the August insect
liturgies isolates and excludes rather than gathering and including. But HOW
did she know all this? An "antiquest"? It's perhaps an antiphon - the
responsory chanted by a monastic choir, but it's also a vain endeavour to
find involvement in nature and obviate loneliness and isolation. A
"canticle"? It's the liturgical term for the biblical hymns chanted in the
monastic office - magnificat, nunc dimitis, benedictus, benedicite and so
on; but again, how did she know? And they typify repose: they represent
rest; but "typology" is the hermeneutical term for supposed Old Testament
anticipations of New Testament fulfilments, such as the rod carried aloft
before the Israelites in the wilderness and the cross of Jesus. And yet
again, how DID she know? But clearly she did, for her closing reference to a
"Druidic difference" means, certainly, that she has considered all these
liturgical resonances before rejecting them as the appropriate metaphor;
nature is certainly sacramental, but the appropriate sacerdotalism is pagan.
And exclusionary.

"Further in summer than the birds," it seems to me, is a companion to, an
amplification of, that splendid other nature poem of hers, "A narrow fellow
in the grass," and its arresting concluding image of feeling "zero at the
bone" comes to mind here - as Wordsworth (to return to the opening of this
little discussion) with his sentimentality about nature most certainly does

Mac Robb.
Brisbane, Australia.

Leaves of Grass, Section 14, Poem 6 -- Walt Whitman

Guest poem submitted by Flavia:
(Poem #1760) Leaves of Grass, Section 14, Poem 6
 A child said, *What is the grass?* fetching it to me with full hands;
 How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is, any more than he.

 I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

 Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
 A scented gift and remembrancer, designedly dropt,
 Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say, *Whose?*

 Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.

 Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic;
 And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
 Growing among black folks as among white;
 Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

 And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

 Tenderly will I use you, curling grass;
 It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men;
 It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;

 It may be you are from old people, and from women, and from offspring taken soon out of their mothers' laps;
 And here you are the mothers' laps.

 This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers;
 Darker than the colorless beards of old men;
 Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

 O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
 And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

 I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
 And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.

 What do you think has become of the young and old men?
 And what do you think has become of the women and children?

 They are alive and well somewhere;
 The smallest sprout shows there is really no death;
 And if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
 And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.

 All goes onward and outward-nothing collapses;
 And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
-- Walt Whitman
Every now and then new symbols and achetypes get added to the strange tangle
we call the Western Culture. Everybody, wave to the guy who managed to add
that green stuff under your feet. This poem is far from the only time Walt
Whitman mentions grass, but it is the most memorable.

And the truth is, grass *is* fascinating. The only plant that grows on every
continent, including Antarctica, that can grow twenty meters high, or just
be microscopic green fuzz, that grows in sweet water as well as in salt
deserts. *Every* culture on earth that has left the hunter-gatherer stage is
based on grass, whether it's wheat, corn, oats, rice, spelt, rye, etc.
(Sorry, my Alter hanging over my shoulder points out that there are herding
cultures that subsists on meat-and-milk. I should have said every *settled*
culture. Mea culpa.)

In the symbolic flower language, grass means humility, and in the bible it
symbolises decay and the briefness of life. In this poem Walt Whitman turns
this around.

And he called his collected works "Leaves of Grass".

Cool, huh?


An Apology -- F J Bergmann

Guest poem submitted by Paramjit Oberoi:
(Poem #1759) An Apology
 Forgive me
 for backing over
 and smashing
 your red wheelbarrow.

 It was raining
 and the rear wiper
 does not work on
 my new plum-colored SUV.

 I am also sorry
 about the white
-- F J Bergmann
I was leafing through one of Billy Collins's anthologies of contemporary
American poetry ("180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day") when I ran
into this.  I love the haiku-like simplicity of the lines, and the random
irreverent touches ("plum-colored SUV", "white chickens").  So spare, not a
word out of place, and one gets such a clear and vivid picture of the event
when reading it.

"An Apology" was a finalist for the 2003 James Hearst Poetry Prize and
appeared in The North American Review Vol. 288, No. 2.

Frances Jean Bergmann is a web designer and artist.  She reads at spoken
word venues, and has been published in Margie-The American Journal of
Poetry, Wind, Pavement Saw, Realpoetik,in the anthology Connected: Poetry
Online In The Age Of Computers, in her own chapbooks, and has a poem
included in 180 More (Random House 2005).  In 2003 she received the Mary
Roberts Rinehart National Poetry Award; in 2004 she won the Pauline Ellis
Prose Poetry Prize with "Wall."  She lives in Madison, Wisconsin (USA), and
maintains several local poetry websites.

Biographical information from:


PS. Here's the original:

Eyes -- Czeslaw Milosz

Guest poem submitted by Sarah Korah :
(Poem #1758) Eyes
 My most honorable eyes, you are not in the best of shape.
 I receive from you an image less than sharp,
 And if a color, then it's dimmed.
 And you were a pack of royal greyhounds once,
 With whom I would set out in the early mornings.
 My wondrously quick eyes, you saw many things,
 Lands and cities, islands and oceans.
 Together we greeted immense sunrises
 When the fresh air set us running on the trails
 Where the dew had just begun to dry.
 Now what you have seen is hidden inside me
 And changed into memories or dreams.
 I am slowly moving away from the fairgrounds of the world
 And I notice in myself a distaste
 For the monkeyish dress, the screams and drumbeats.
 What a relief. To be alone with my meditation
 On the basic similarity in humans
 And their tiny grain of dissimilarity.
 Without eyes, my gaze is fixed on one bright point,
 That grows large and takes me in.
-- Czeslaw Milosz
I was reminded of this poem when my hardy 93 year old grandfather complained
of a slight loss of hearing. He was also rather upset about the fact that he
can *only* walk a couple of kilometers these days.

I confess we grandchildren shared smiles while thinking 'Hey, we'd be lucky
to be half as fit as you when we're in our 70's.'... But then it occurred to
me that sights, sounds and memories, mobility and independence - these are
important at any age.

Few poets have inhabited the land of old age as long or as energetically as
Milosz [1911-2003]. A self proclaimed "one day's master", Milosz had a great
capacity to both confront the world's suffering and embrace its joys.

Wistfulness, acceptance, even a little humour - this short poem has it all.

Sarah Korah.

Minstrels has write-ups on Milosz, so I'm spared the trouble. And yes, my
grandfather seems quite happy with his new hearing aid :-)