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Your Attention Please -- Peter Porter

Indulging my morbid streak...
(Poem #222) Your Attention Please
The Polar DEW has just warned that
A nuclear rocket strike of
At least one thousand megatons
Has been launched by the enemy
Directly at our major cities.
This announcement will take
Two and a quarter minutes to make,
You therefore have a further
Eight and a quarter minutes
To comply with the shelter
Requirements published in the Civil
Defence Code - section Atomic Attack.
A specially shortened Mass
Will be broadcast at the end
Of this announcement -
Protestant and Jewish services
Will begin simultaneously -
Select your wavelength immediately
According to instructions
In the Defence Code. Do not
Take well-loved pets (including birds)
Into your shelter - they will consume
Fresh air. Leave the old and bed-
ridden, you can do nothing for them.
Remember to press the sealing
Switch when everyone is in
The shelter. Set the radiation
Aerial, turn on the geiger barometer.
Turn off your Television now.
Turn off your radio immediately
The Services end. At the same time
Secure explosion plugs in the ears
Of each member of your family. Take
Down your plasma flasks. Give your children
The pills marked one and two
In the C.D green container, then put
Them to bed. Do not break
The inside airlock seals until
The radiation All Clear shows
(Watch for the cuckoo in your
perspex panel), or your District
Touring Doctor rings your bell.
If before this, your air becomes
Exhousted or if any of your family
In critically injured, administer
The capsules marked 'Valley Forge'
(Red Pocket in No. 1 Survival Kit)
For painless death. (Catholics
Will have been instructed by their priests
What to do in this eventuality).
This announcement is ending. Our President
Has already given orders for
Massive retaliation - it will be
Decisive. Some of us may die.
Remember, statistically
It is not likely to be you.
All flags are flying fully dressed
On Government buildings - the sun is shining.
Death is the least we have to fear.
We are all in the hands of God,
Whatever happens happens by His Will.
Now go quickly to your shelters.
-- Peter Porter
Yes, it's nuclear meltdown time here in Japan, and your favourite Japanese
poetry reviewer is glowing gently in the dark (in a most evocative shade of
green, let it be said) while he composes these lines.

Seriously, though, sometimes it seems that the only way to handle lunacy like
nuclear weaponry is to laugh at it. "Ours is a tragic age, so we refuse to take
it tragically" [1]. Stanley Kubrick had the right idea in Dr. Strangelove, and
indeed, today's poem shares much with that classic of black comedy - there's the
same curious mix of utter seriousness ('you can do nothing for them') and pure
farce ('Watch for the cuckoo in your perspex panel'). The announcer's calm, flat
tenor is perfectly captured in the precise (well, not that precise, to be
honest, but never mind) syllabics; at the same time there is  heavy irony in
phrases like 'the sun is shining' and 'Massive retaliation - it will be /
Decisive' - an irony so strong that it makes you wonder if the speaker grasps
the real truth of what he's saying.

For make no mistake - in its own way, 'Your Attention Please' is as savage an
indictment of the arms race as any hippie slogan or Green manifesto. It's closer
in spirit to Adrian Mitchell than Wilfred Owen, but the criticism is just as


[1] from Lady Chatterley's Lover.

PS. I forgot to mention: Quite apart from contextual irony, Porter makes the
telling point that modern-day warfare is a dehumanized, dehumanizing undertaking
- the mechanical tones reflect the impersonal nature of a conflict where
millions of lives can be sacrificed at the push of a button.


For more on Peter Porter, read the commentary at poem #198
My favourite Porter poem is 'Instant Fish', which can be found at poem #64
My favourite protest poem is Adrian Mitchell's 'Nostalgia - Now Threepence Off',
which you can read at poem #95
One of the greatest anti-war poems of all time is Wilfred Owen's 'Dulce Et
Decorum Est', poem #132

Invictus -- William Ernest Henley

(Poem #221) Invictus
 Out of the night that covers me,
       Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
 I thank whatever gods may be
       For my unconquerable soul.

 In the fell clutch of circumstance
       I have not winced nor cried aloud,
 Under the bludgeonings of chance
       My head is bloody, but unbowed.

 Beyond this place of wrath and tears
       Looms but the horror of the shade,
 And yet the menace of the years
       Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

 It matters not how strait the gate,
       How charged with punishments the scroll,
 I am the master of my fate:
       I am the captain of my soul.
-- William Ernest Henley
Note: The title is Latin for 'unconquerable'

This is undoubtedly Henley's most famous poem, and his most popular.
Henley work is at its best, I feel, when steeped in an atmosphere of savage
gloom, and today's poem is no exception.

'Invicitus' is sweeping; passionate; larger than life in a way that few
modern poems can get away with. It is also an oft quoted poem, lines of it
having almost passed into the language. While these are invariably the ones
that involve hurling defiance into the teeth of the storm, note that the
poem itself hinges just as strongly on the 'storm' itself. It is the tension
between the strongly contrastive elements that raises 'Invicitus' from a
series of platitudes to a great poem.


Biography: See poem #117


 But what inspired "Invictus" ?? At the age of 12 Henley became a victim of
 tuberculosis of the bone. In spite of it all, in 1867 he successfully
 passed the Oxford local examination as a senior student. But a hospital was
 to be Henley's University. His diseased foot, treated by crude methods, had
 to be amputated directly below the knee. Worse yet, physians announced the
 only way to save his life was to amputate the other also. Henley fought
 this with all his spirit.

 He came out with his foot and his life. He was dicharged in 1875, and was
 able to lead an active life for nearly 30 years, though he was of course a
 cripple. With an artificial foot, he suffered horribly all his life from
 his disease before it killed him at 54. "Invictus" was written from a
 hospital bed.

        -- <[broken link]>



No comment.

Lament for Eorl the Young -- J R R Tolkien

Over two months since I did a Tolkien... this just will not do :-)
(Poem #220) Lament for Eorl the Young
Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?
-- J R R Tolkien
This is not so much a lament for one person as it is a lament for the passing of
time and the passing of a way of life - the Rohirrim (Eorl's people) were a
tribe of nomadic horsemen and pasturers, who settled down (became 'respectable')
a few hundred years before the events in The Lord of the Rings. This song is a
lament for the last of the nomadic chieftains (the aforementioned Eorl), who was
also the first of the Kings of the Golden Hall (as his seat of power was

The imagery is (as always with Tolkien) utterly beautiful; I like it especially
for its simplicity. Which, again, is only what's to be expected from a direct
and unsophisticated (I wouldn't say 'crude') people. Another example [1] of
Tolkien's practice of matching the quality of his poetry to the skill of the
(fictional) poet supposed to have written it.

A few comments on the form: the poem is consciously modelled on Old English
verse - specifically, in the rhyming-couplet scheme and the heavy alliteration.
Indeed, Tolkien based the Rohirric language on Anglo-Saxon at a sort of
meta-linguistic level - it (i.e., true Rohirric) bears the same relation to the
Common Speech of the characters in the book as does Old English to our modern
language [2].

Lest any Middle Earth neophytes think otherwise, let me assure you that Tolkien
did indeed write poems other than elegies and laments; in fact, his narrative
comic verse is among the best there is. It's just that I happen to like the slow
dignity and poignancy with which he imbues his serious verse - it takes great
skill to pull this off without sounding pompous or ponderous; at its best,
though, such verse can be deeply moving.


[1] See Martin's note to 'Lament for Boromir', Minstrels Poem #46
for the first example
[2] As you've probably realized by now, a large part of the seeming
'authenticity' of The Lord of the Rings stems from the author's attention to
detail and his linguistic skills; Tolkien himself commented (on more than one
occasion) that the languages of Middle Earth were the most important component
of his 'sub-creation'.

Full many a glorious morning have I seen (Sonnets XXXIII) -- William Shakespeare

(Poem #219) Full many a glorious morning have I seen (Sonnets XXXIII)
 Full many a glorious morning have I seen
 Flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye,
 Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
 Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
 Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
 With ugly rack on his celestial face,
 And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
 Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
 Even so my sun one early morn did shine
 With all triumphant splendor on my brow;
 But out, alack! he was but one hour mine;
 The region cloud hath mask'd him from me now.
       Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
       Suns of the world may stain when heaven's sun staineth.
-- William Shakespeare
One noticeable thing about Shakespeare's sonnets is how commonplace the
underlying metaphors and images are. Most of them have the same general
theme, and the specific subjects - even given the large extent to which
Shakespeare has influenced English literature, do not seem especially

However, this does not in any way diminish what is undoubtedly the finest
collection of sonnets the language has produced. Shakespeare's genius lay
not in novelty, but in his use of language; his mastery of subtle nuances
and the way he could breathe new life into even the most timeworn of themes.

Even so in today's poem - if you've read any of Shakespeare's sonnets, the
sequence of images is instantly familiar. Time triumphs over flesh, and Love
over all. However, the language, and the images it evokes, are simply

A final comment - most poems have their main impact either at the beginning
or at the end. Shakespeare's sonnets definitely belong to the former
category, having their most beautiful images, their best-phrased lines in
the first quatrain or two. It seems somewhat counterintuitive, since the
form might be expected to pack the impact into the final couplet, but while
I can call to mind several of his sonnets with memorable opening verses, I
can think of few with memorable endings.


Look up the other Sonnets in the minstrel's archive,

Psalm 23 -- David

(Poem #218) Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
-- David
Virtually every phrase of this beautiful psalm has passed into the language, and
deservedly so - the words are purest music.


Ithaka -- Constantine Cavafy

Guest poem sent in by Vikram Doctor
(Poem #217) Ithaka
  As you set out for Ithaka
  hope the journey is a long one,
  full of adventure, full of discovery.
  Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
  angry Poseidon - don't be afraid of them:
  you'll never find things like that on your way
  as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
  as long as a rare excitement
  stirs your spirit and your body.
  Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
  wild Poseidon - you won't encounter them
  unless you bring them along inside your soul,
  unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

  Hope the voyage is a long one.
  may there be many a summer morning when,
  with what pleasure, what joy,
  you come into harbours seen for the first time;
  may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
  to buy fine things,
  mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
  sensual perfume of every kind -
  as many sensual perfumes as you can;
  and may you visit many Egyptian cities
  to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

  Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
  Arriving there is what you are destined for.
  But do not hurry the journey at all.
  Better if it lasts for years,
  so you are old by the time you reach the island,
  wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
  not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

  Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
  without her you would not have set out.
  She has nothing left to give you now.

  And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
  Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
  you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
-- Constantine Cavafy
      (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

Some years back when I was despairing about the cost of New Year Cards,
though still wanting to send them out as a slightly shame faced, but still
useful once-in-a-year way of keeping in touch with people, I decided to
print a poem I liked on good hand made paper and send it out instead. I was
a bit apprehensive, since it seemed rather a precious idea, but I found that
people really liked it, and now say they look forward to it. It confirms my
feeling that most people have a latent ability to love poetry, which is
suppressed and scared into hiding by our appalling educational system.

I think I sent out Ithaka the third or fourth year I did it and after that I
noticed something. This was one poem people seemed to keep. I've come across
my New Year card pinned onto several people's softboards, and people have
asked me for copies. Ithaka automatically strikes a chord with people, which
is hardly surprising since its such a simple poem, and what it says is
something most of us know instinctively to be true. I like the images as
well - the shop sailing into a harbour on a summer morning, and the fabulous
bazaars and souks. And the last line leaves you with just enough balance
between clarity and ambiguity to stop the poem falling flat. This is one of
the great ones.

about Cavafy.

Cavafy is one of the greats too. I don't have much biographical matter with
me at the moment, but then in terms of major events there really isn't much.
He was born into the Greek community in Alexandria in 1863, when Alexandria
was still quite a Greek city. He lived there all his life, in moderate
obscurity. I think he was reasonably well off, so didn't have to do much
work. Alexandria in his time was in its last gasp of greatness, a
cosmopolitan, lively, with a large expat community, Westernised, yet
mysteriously 'Eastern' as well - if one is to take Lawrence Durrell's
Alexandria Quartet, which I'm sure we all read as impressionable teenagers,
as a guide.

Cavafy must have fit very well into this hothouse atmosphere. His poems talk
both about the city's glorious past in the time of Alexander and the
Ptolemies. And they talk about its sensuous present in perhaps the most
homoerotic poetry of this century (which has, of course, lead to him being
labeled as the great gay poet of this century. But luckily, I think he
transcends the annoying limitations of such a label - Cavafy is great on any
terms, gay or otherwise.

There is a deliberately antique feel, I think, to the poems - possibly
because he wrote in a rather archaic and formal version of Greek. This comes
through in translation - there is a sort of formal, faintly mannered quality
to them, which adds, rather than detracts from their quality. He died in

I'd just like to add that I visited Alexandria last year, obviously in
homage to Cavafy, but sadly the Alexandria he writes about has mostly
vanished. There are few Greeks left in Alexandria today - one cafe where you
get Egyptian food with Greek names, the sea front cafes, and Cavafy's house,
which is maintained by the Greek government. I dragged my boyfriend through
the back roads to find it, though unfortunately just got there after it
closed. Alexandria is a nice place today - a pleasant provincial town, with
a lovely location spread across a bay and a strong sea breeze blowing and
nice laid back people. But of Cavafy's sensual city, and the world of the
Alexandria Quartet there is nothing left beyond what's written.

Vikram Doctor

The Golf Links -- Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn

(Poem #216) The Golf Links
 The golf links lie so near the mill
       That almost every day
 The laboring children can look out
       And see the men at play.
-- Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn
A short but powerful poem. Recalling my comment on four-line humorous poems:

   [The four line form] allows a little more buildup than a couplet, while
   preserving the added impact that comes from having the punchline coincide
   with the first rhyme

one can see that pretty much the same applies here, except that the
'punchline' is calculated for impact rather than humour. The topic is, of
course, indicative of Cleghorn's stance as a socialist (see the biography).

Personally, the understated commentary in the poem is just as effective as
some of the more extended rants and graphic descriptions I've seen - it
makes nice use of the dissonance the last line sets up in the reader's mind.


  Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn

  née Stevenson
  b. Sept. 29, 1810, Chelsea, London, Eng.
  d. Nov. 12, 1865, near Alton, Hampshire English novelist, short-story
  writer, and first biographer of Charlotte Brontë.

  She was a daughter of a Unitarian minister. When her mother died, she
  was brought up by a maternal aunt in the Cheshire village of Knutsford
  in a kindly atmosphere of rural gentility that was already
  old-fashioned at the time. In 1832 she married William Gaskell, a
  Unitarian minister, and settled in the overcrowded, problem-ridden
  industrial city of Manchester, which remained her home for the rest of
  her life. Domestic life--the Gaskells had six children, of whom four
  daughters lived to adulthood--and the social and charitable
  obligations of a minister's wife claimed her time but not all her
  thoughts. She did not begin her literary career until middle life,
  when the death of her only son had intensified her sense of community
  with the poor and her desire to "give utterance" to their "agony." Her
  first novel, Mary Barton, reflects the temper of Manchester in the
  late 1830s. It is the story of a working-class family in which the
  father, John Barton, lapses into bitter class hatred during a cyclic
  depression and carries out a retaliatory murder at the behest of his
  trade union. Its timely appearance in the revolutionary year of 1848
  brought the novel immediate success, and it won the praise of Charles
  Dickens and Thomas Carlyle. Dickens invited her to contribute to his
  magazine, Household Words, where her next major work, Cranford (1853),
  appeared. This social history of a gentler era, which describes,
  without sentimentalizing or satirizing, her girlhood village of
  Knutsford and the efforts of its shabby-genteel inhabitants to keep up
  appearances, has remained her most popular work.

  The conflict between Mrs. Gaskell's sympathetic understanding and the
  strictures of Victorian morality resulted in a mixed reception for her
  next social novel, Ruth (1853). It offered an alternative to the
  seduced girl's traditional progress to prostitution and an early

  Among the many friends attracted by Mrs. Gaskell was Charlotte Brontë,
  who died in 1855 and whose biography Charlotte's father, Patrick
  Brontë, urged her to write. The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857),
  written with warmhearted admiration, disposed of a mass of firsthand
  material with unforced narrative skill. It is at once a work of art
  and a well-documented interpretation of its subject.

  Among her later works, Sylvia's Lovers (1863), dealing with the impact
  of the Napoleonic Wars upon simple people, is notable. Her last and
  longest work, Wives and Daughters (1864-66), concerning the
  interlocking fortunes of two or three country families, is considered
  by many her finest. It was left unfinished at her death.

                  -- EB

The Loch Ness Monster's Song -- Edwin Morgan

(Poem #215) The Loch Ness Monster's Song
            Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl?
        Gdroblboblhobngbl gbl gl g g g g glbgl.
    Drublhaflablhaflubhafgabhaflhafl fl fl -
    gm grawwwww grf grawf awfgm graw gm.
Hovoplodok - doplodovok - plovodokot - doplodokosh?
    Splgraw fok fok splgrafhatchgabrlgabrl fok splfok!
                    Zgra kra gka fok!
                   Grof grawff gahf?
                    Gombl mbl bl -
                        blm plm,
                        blm plm,
                        blm plm,
-- Edwin Morgan
Yes, it's a poem. No, I won't be commenting on it. Enjoy!


PS. There's a Morgan bio at poem #147

Where's Madge then, -- e e cummings

(Poem #214) Where's Madge then,
 Where's Madge then,
 Madge and her men?
 buried with
 Alice in her hair,
 (but if you ask the rain
 he'll not tell where.)

 beauty makes terms
 with time and his worms,
 when loveliness
 says sweetly Yes
 to wind and cold;
 and how much earth
 is Madge worth?
 Inquire of the flower that sways in the autumn
 she will never guess.
 but i know

 my heart fell dead before.
-- e e cummings
There is a certain quality to Cummings' poems that is at once elusive and
unmistakable. Part of it does lie in the 'concrete verse' aspects; the
irregular capitalization and indentation. However, that that is far from the
whole story can be seen in today's poem, which is wholly free of such
effects. The conversational tone, the phrases and images that hover
deceptively on the edge of childishness, the deliberately simple rhymes all
combine to make up a whole that is breathtakingly greater than the sum of
its parts. It's hard to point to any one bit and say 'this is good
because...', and yet the poem as a whole is wonderful, and has not a word
out of place.

For Cummings' biography etc, see poem #57


The Artist -- William Carlos Williams

(Poem #213) The Artist
Mr T.
                            in a soiled undershirt
his hair standing out
            on all sides
                            stood on his toes
heels together
            arms gracefully
                            for the moment

curled above his head.
            Then he whirled about
into the air
            and with an entrechat
                            perfectly achieved
completed the figure.
            My mother
                            taken by surprise
where she sat
            in her invalid's chair
                            was left speechless.
Bravo! she cried at last
            and clapped her hands.
                            The man's wife
came from the kitchen:
            What goes on here? she said.
                            But the show was over.
-- William Carlos Williams
One of those 'slice of life' poems which are so incredibly difficult to pull off
convincingly... I suppose the problem is that most of our lives are terribly
boring and humdrum; it takes a poet to find beauty and meaning in them, to give
voice to 'the music of what happens' [1].


[1] A truly lovely phrase, don't you think? It's from Seamus Heaney's poem
'Song', Minstrels Poem #61

[Minstrels Links]

A Williams biography can be found at poem #83
along with the one poem of his that I've run before, 'The Red Wheelbarrow'.

More on Imagism can be found in the essay accompanying Amy Lowell's
'Generations', Minstrels poem #102

One of my favourite poems by an Imagist poet is Ezra Pound's 'The River
Merchant's Wife: A Letter', which you can read at poem #70

And of course, you can read all our other poems at


Re-reading the poem, I notice a distinct lengthening of the lines towards the
end. I'm not sure if this is intentional, but (this being a Williams poem) I
suspect that it is. And I can't quite put my finger on the 'poetic' effect of
this mode of construction... perhaps it has something to do with the rhythm of
the dancer and the tempo of the actions being portrayed. Comments, anyone?

To Alice-Sit-By-The-Hour -- Franklin P Adams

(Poem #212) To Alice-Sit-By-The-Hour
  Lady in the blue kimono, you that live across the way,
  One may see you gazing, gazing gazing all the livelong day,
  Idly looking out your window from your vantage point above.
  Are you convalescent, lady? Are you worse? Are you in love?

  Ever gazing, as you hang there on the little window seat,
  Into flats across the way or down upon the prosy street,
  Can't you rent a pianola? Can't your iron, sew, or cook?
  Write a letter, bake a pudding, make a bed or read a book?

  Tell me of the fascination you indubitably find
  In the "High Cash Cloe's!" man's holler in the hurdy-gurdy grind.
  Are your Spanish castles blue prints? Are you waiting for a knight
  To descend upon your fastness and to save you from your plight?

  Lady in the blue kimono, idle mollycoddle dame,
  Does your doing nothing never make you feel the blush of shame?
  As you sit and stare and ditto, not a single thing to do,
  Lady in the blue kimono, lady, how I envy you!
-- Franklin P Adams
A common feature of light verse is the regularity of its surface, and
today's is no exception. The point is to be unobtrusive; to let the verse
carry the reader smoothly along, without any sticking points, until the
final line (usually a punchline). Here, of course, it serves an additional
purpose; conveying the perceived monotony of the woman's 'gazing, gazing,
gazing all the livelong day' existence. And, of course, the form was one
that perfectly catered to Adams' dislike of free verse - half the pleasure
of the poem comes from the effortless perfection of the verse.



  Adams, Franklin Pierce

  b. Nov. 15, 1881, Chicago
  d. March 23, 1960, New York City byname F.P.A., U.S. newspaper
  columnist, translator, poet, and radio personality whose humorous
  syndicated column "The Conning Tower" earned him the reputation of
  godfather of the contemporary newspaper column. He wrote primarily
  under his initials, F.P.A.

  Adams' newspaper career began in 1903, with the Chicago Journal. The
  next year he went to New York, where he wrote for several newspapers.
  From 1913 to 1937 his column, "The Conning Tower," appeared in the
  Herald Tribune and several other New York newspapers, interrupted only
  during the years of World War I, when Adams wrote a column for Stars
  and Stripes, and from 1923 to 1931, when he worked for the New York
  World until it ceased publication. Witty and well-written, his columns
  consisted of informal yet careful critiques of the contemporary U.S.
  scene. His column also included writing by such authors as Dorothy
  Parker and Sinclair Lewis. His Saturday columns imitated the language
  and style of Samuel Pepys' diary, and Adams is credited with a renewal
  of interest in Pepys. Reprints were collected in The Diary of Our Own
  Samuel Pepys (1935).

  Adams' poetry is light and conventionally rhymed. He hated free verse
  and was never slow in expressing this opinion. His verse is collected
  in 10 volumes, beginning with Tobogganning on Parnassus (1911); the
  final volume, The Melancholy Lute (1936), is Adams' selection from 30
  years of his writing.

  In 1938, Adams became one of the panel of experts on the radio show
  "Information, Please." He achieved almost instant popularity for his
  humour and erudition, and his name became something of a household
  word in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s.

        -- EB

The Oxford Hysteria of English Poetry -- Adrian Mitchell

(Poem #211) The Oxford Hysteria of English Poetry
Back in the caveman days business was fair.
Used to turn up at Wookey Hole,
Plenty of action down the Hole
Nights when it wasn't raided.
They'd see my bear-gut harp
And the mess at the back of my eyes
And 'Right', they'd say, 'make poetry'.
So I'd slam away at the three basic chords
And go into the act ---
A story about sabre-toothed tigers with a comic hero;
A sexy one with an anti-wife-clubbing twist ---
Good progressive stuff mainly,
Get ready for the Bronze Age, all that,
And soon it would be 'Bring out the woad!'
Yeah, woad. We used to get high on woad.

The Vikings only wanted sagas
Full of gigantic deadheads cutting off each other's vitals
Or Beowulf Versus the Bog People.
The Romans weren't much better,
Under all that armour you could tell they were soft
With their central heating
And poets with names like Horace.

Under the Normans the language began to clear,
Became a pleasure to write in,
Yes, write in, by now everyone was starting
To write down poems.

Well, it saved memorizing and improvizing
And the peasants couldn't get hold of it.
Soon there were hundreds of us,
Most of us writing under the name
Of Geoffrey Chaucer.

Then suddenly we were knee-deep in sonnets.
Holinshed ran a headline:

It got fantastic ---
Looning around from the bear-pit te tho Globe,
All those freak-outs down the Mermaid,
Kit Marlowe coming on like Richard the Two,
A virgin queen in a ginger wig
And English poetry is full whatsit ---
Bloody fantastic, but I never found any time
To do any writing till Willy finally flipped ---
Smoking too much of the special stuff
Sir Walter Raleigh was pushing.

Cromwell's time I spent on cultural committees.

Then Charles the Second swung down from the trees
And it was sexual medley time
And the only verses they wanted
Were epigrams an Chloe's breasts
But I only got published on the back of her left knee-cap.
Next came Pope and Dryden
So I went underground.
Don't mess with the Mafia.

Then suddenly --- WOOMF ---
It was the Ro-man-tic Re-viv-al
And it didn't matter how you wrote,
All the public wanted was a hairy great image.
Before they'd even print you
You had to smoke opium, die of consumption,
Fall in love with your sister
Or drown in the Mediterranean (not at Brighton).
My publisher said: 'I'll have to remainder you
Unless you go and live in a lake or something
Like this bloke Wordsworth'.

After that there were about
A thousand years of Tennyson
Who got so bored with himself
That he changed his name
To Kipling at half-time.

Strange that Tennyson should be
Remembered for his poems really,
We always thought of him
As a golfer.

There hasn't been much time
For poetry since the 'twenties
What with leaving the Communist Church
To join the Catholic Party
And explaining why in the C.I.A. Monthly.
Finally I was given the Chair of Comparative Ambiguity
At Armpit University, Java.
It didn't keep me busy,
But it kept me quiet.
It seemed like poetry had been safely tucked up for the night.
-- Adrian Mitchell
A brilliantly funny poem; there are several parts [1] which make me laugh out
loud each time I read them. Mitchell here is not so much the Ethereal Muse of
Poetry as he is a sort of grubby journeyman bard, trying to get along the best
he can. For all that, this, errm, 'epic' is as good a guide to the history of
English poetry as you're likely to get inside of 500 words: I certainly learned
more from this poem then from any number of Eng. Lit. textbooks [2].


[1] Especially the Chaucer line, and the dig about Tennyson changing his name...

[2] I'm awaiting feedback along the lines of 'Yes, it shows in your
commentaries' here :-)

'The humour is indebted to the headlong monologue style of some North Country
comedians rather than any traditional literary models. Most of the jokes would
work with a group of workers in a factory, or a crowd at a bar, but still
pinpoint the essence of most of the literary movemonts they touch on. Mitchell
has been very ingenious in satirising what he doesn't like, and the persona of
the bard working through history has been adjusted to fit neatly over his own
    -- George MacBeth

You can read a Mitchell bio at poem #28
Another favourite poem of mine is poem #95

Romance Sonambulo -- Federico Garcia Lorca

Guest poem sent in by Anustup Datta
(Poem #210) Romance Sonambulo
  Green, how I want you green.
  Green wind. Green branches.
  The ship out on the sea
  and the horse on the mountain.
  With the shade around her waist
  she dreams on her balcony,
  green flesh, her hair green,
  with eyes of cold silver.
  Green, how I want you green.
  Under the gypsy moon,
  all things are watching her
  and she cannot see them.

  Green, how I want you green.
  Big hoarfrost stars
  come with the fish of shadow
  that opens the road of dawn.
  The fig tree rubs its wind
  with the sandpaper of its branches,
  and the forest, cunning cat,
  bristles its brittle fibers.
  But who will come? And from where?
  She is still on her balcony
  green flesh, her hair green,
  dreaming in the bitter sea.

  --My friend, I want to trade
  my horse for her house,
  my saddle for her mirror,
  my knife for her blanket.
  My friend, I come bleeding
  from the gates of Cabra.
  --If it were possible, my boy,
  I'd help you fix that trade.
  But now I am not I,
  nor is my house now my house.
  --My friend, I want to die
  decently in my bed.
  Of iron, if that's possible,
  with blankets of fine chambray.
  Don't you see the wound I have
  from my chest up to my throat?
  --Your white shirt has grown
  thirsty dark brown roses.
  Your blood oozes and flees
  around the corners of your sash.
  But now I am not I,
  nor is my house now my house.
  --Let me climb up, at least,
  up to the high balconies;
  Let me climb up! Let me,
  up to the green balconies.
  Railings of the moon
  through which the water rumbles.

  Now the two friends climb up,
  up to the high balconies.
  Leaving a trail of blood.
  Leaving a trail of teardrops.
  Tin bell vines
  were trembling on the roofs.
  A thousand crystal tambourines
  struck at the dawn light.

  Green, how I want you green,
  green wind, green branches.
  The two friends climbed up.
  The stiff wind left
  in their mouths, a strange taste
  of bile, of mint, and of basil
  My friend, where is she--tell me--
  where is your bitter girl?
  How many times she waited for you!
  How many times would she wait for you,
  cool face, black hair,
  on this green balcony!
  Over the mouth of the cistern
  the gypsy girl was swinging,
  green flesh, her hair green,
  with eyes of cold silver.
  An icicle of moon
  holds her up above the water.
  The night became intimate
  like a little plaza.
  Drunken "Guardias Civiles"
  were pounding on the door.
  Green, how I want you green.
  Green wind. Green branches.
  The ship out on the sea.
  And the horse on the mountain.
-- Federico Garcia Lorca
        (Translated by William Logan)

Comments :

I discovered this poem recently and was transfixed. The sheer power of the
imagery and the vivid yet chilling picture it conjured up held me
spellbound. In my imgaination, I saw Franco's Spain and the rout of the
Republicans - and a broken wounded soldier coming home in the night to meet
his true love. I could hear the guitar notes in the background as the two
friends climb up to the balcony for the girl who used to wait there. The use
of phrases like 'gypsy moon', 'hoarfrost stars', 'the forest, cunning cat'
adds to the mystery of it all. What happened to her when the soldiers came?
Did she jump from the balcony into the green sea and become one with it? Is
the reflection of the gypsy moon in the water her 'eyes of cold silver'? The
more I read it, the more it haunts me, and the superb atmospheric quality
reminds me of Walter de la Mare.

A brief biography of Lorca is available at, along with the
Spanish original of this poem.


The Camp -- Mary Robinson

(Poem #209) The Camp
 Tents, marquees, and baggage-waggons;
 Suttling-houses, beer in flagons;
 Drums and trumpets, singing, firing;
 Girls seducing, beaux admiring;
 Country lasses gay and smiling,
 City lads their hearts beguiling;
 Dusty roads, and horses frisky,
 Many an Eton Boy in whisky;
 Tax'd carts full of farmers' daughters;
 Brutes condemn'd, and man who slaughters!
 Public-houses, booths, and castles,
 Belles of fashion, serving vassals;
 Lordly gen'rals fiercely staring,
 Weary soldiers, sighing, swearing!
 Petit-maitres always dressing,
 In the glass themselves caressing;
 Perfum'd, painted, patch'd, and blooming
 Ladies -- manly airs assuming!
 Dowagers of fifty, simp'ring,
 Misses for their lovers whimp'ring;
 Husbands drilled to household tameness;
 Dames heart sick of wedded sameness.
 Princes setting girls a-madding,
 Wives for ever fond of gadding;
 Princesses with lovely faces,
 Beauteous children of the Graces!
 Britain's pride and virtue's treasure,
 Fair and gracious beyond measure!
 Aid-de-camps and youthful pages,
 Prudes and vestals of all ages!
 Old coquets and matrons surly,
 Sounds of distant hurly-burly!
 Mingled voices, uncouth singing,
 Carts full laden, forage bringing;
 Sociables and horses weary,
 Houses warm, and dresses airy;
 Loads of fatten'd poultry; pleasure
 Serv'd (to nobles) without measure;
 Doxies, who the waggons follow;
 Beer, for thirsty hinds to swallow;
 Washerwomen, fruit-girls cheerful,
 Ancient ladies -- chaste and fearful!!
 Tradesmen, leaving shops, and seeming
 More of war than profit dreaming;
 Martial sounds and braying asses,
 Noise, that ev'ry noise surpasses!
 All confusion, din, and riot,
 Nothing clean -- and nothing quiet.
-- Mary Robinson
A lovely poem, its cascading couplets perfectly evoking the kaleidoscopic
chaos of an army camp. It doesn't need a whole lot said about it, so I

Note: from The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse.

Biographical Note:

 Mary Robinson, writer of poems and semi-autobiographical novels. She also
 was an actress, and "slipped into the demi-monde" when Prince George fell
 in love with her when he was 17 and she was 21 (I think). She agreed to
 become his lover in exchange for a bond which he was supposed to pay on
 his 21st birthday, but never did (the rat!)--the affair broke up well
 before he turned 21.

 If you're interested, Lonsdale's anthology of 18C Women Poets contains a
 brief biographical sketch and some more poems.

        -- Louise Slater

The Great Panjandrum -- Samuel Foote

... completely unintentionally, I seem to have stumbled across a theme of
(Poem #208) The Great Panjandrum
So she went into the garden
to cut a cabbage-leaf
to make an apple-pie;
and at the same time
a great she-bear, coming down the street,
pops its head into the shop.
What! no soap?
    So he died,
and she very imprudently married the Barber:
and there were present
the Picninnies,
    and the Joblillies,
        and the Garyulies,
and the great Panjandrum himself,
with the little round button at top;
and they all fell to playing the game of catch-as-catch-can,
till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots
-- Samuel Foote
(Composed by Foote in 1755 to test the memory of the actor Charles Macklin, who
had claimed  he could read any paragraph once through and then recite it
verbatim. It is not recorded whether or not Macklin was, in fact, able to
memorise the passage at first reading, but he apparently took great pleasure in
reciting both the anecdote and the passage in later life).

Yes,  the theme for this week is (as you may have guessed) poems which have
given words to the English language. This one's one of my favourites: like an
Escher etching or a Lear limerick [1], each little part _seems_ to make perfect
sense, while the whole is nonsensical, even surreal.


[1] alliteration always amuses...

[while on the theme]
Main Entry: panjandrum
Pronunciation: pan-'jan-dr&m
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural -drums also panjandra /-dr&/
Etymology: Great Panjandrum, burlesque title of an imaginary personage in some
nonsense lines by Samuel Foote
Date: 1755
: a powerful personage or pretentious official
    -- from MWCD10, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition,
online at

I've heard the phrase 'Grand Panjandrum' as well (especially in the dictionary
sense of the word); perhaps the resonance of the vowel sounds has something to
do with the popularity of this variant.

... this particular poem is the sample text used in a standard Java tutorial on
using file streams... as a result, a web search on 'Great Panjandrum' returned
several zillion sites... :-)

Clerihews -- Edmund Clerihew Bentley

(Poem #207) Clerihews
The art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.

Sir Christopher Wren
Said, 'I am going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls
Say I am designing St. Paul's.'

John Stuart Mill,
By a mighty effort of will,
Overcame his natural bonhomie
And wrote 'Principles of Political Economy.'

What I like about Clive
Is that he is no longer alive.
There is a great deal to be said
For being dead.

Edward the Confessor
Slept under the dresser.
When that began to pall,
He slept in the hall.

Chapman & Hall
Swore not at all.
Mr Chapman's yea was yea,
And Mr Hall's nay was nay.

It was a weakness of Voltaire's
To forget to say his prayers,
And one which to his shame
He never overcame.
-- Edmund Clerihew Bentley
from 'Biography for Beginners', 1905.

Not many poets can lay claim to inventing a poetic form; still fewer have had
forms named after them. Lucky old ECB :-).


PS. Again, having such an odd middle name helps :-)


Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956) is remembered mainly for his classic
detective story Trent's Last Case and for the verse form that was named after
him - the clerihew. It was at the age of sixteen, while he was at St. Paul's
School in London, that Bentley first started writing clerihews, as a diversion
from school work. G. K. Chesterton, Bentley's life-long friend, was at St.
Paul's at the same time, and he too wrote clerihews.

Here is one of Bentley's original clerihews from this period:
    Sir Humphrey Davy
    Abominated gravy.
    He lived in the odium
    Of having discovered sodium.

Bentley's first collection of verse in this vein was published in 1905 as
Biography For Beginners. Further collections appeared in 1929 and in 1939. It
was soon after publication of the first volume that the name 'clerihew' became
applied to this particular form of light verse. What exactly is a clerihew?
Frances Stillman in The Poet's Manual and Rhyming Dictionary defines it as 'a
humorous pseudo-biographical quatrain, rhymed as two couplets, with line of
uneven length more or less in the rhythm of prose'. Add to this, that the name
of the subject usually ends the first or, less often, the second line, and that
the humour of the clerihew is whimsical rather than satiric, and there you have
a complete definition.


Sky Line -- Prescott Hoard

(Poem #206) Sky Line
 A workman climbed a lofty tower,
       None beside him being able;
 Gripped and struggled half an hour
       Binding up a broken cable;
 Paused to glimpse the toy-house town,
       Spat, swung outward, and came down.
-- Prescott Hoard
Note: Taken from 'The Best Poems of 1923' (Leonard A.G. Strong ed.)

One of my favourite poetic forms is the vignette, a short poem that seeks to
capture a single scene or image. These little vignettes are often
strongly evocative of a particular art-form, such as watercolour, etching
etc. Today's is definitely a photograph - straightforward description
without embellishment, abstraction or other stylistic effects.

In fact, one may wonder, with such an absence of poetic devices, exactly
what makes this such a good poem. The most immediately striking feature is
it's vividity - I can *see* the man, leaning away from the tower, outlined
against the sky. And this Hoard has achieved not through metaphor or
allusion, but by pinpointing precisly the salient features of the scene. So
sharply do the workman, the tower and the 'toy-house town' define the scene
that the reader's mind automatically fills in the background details,
producing the photographic effect.

Compare this poem to Levertov's 'To the Reader' (Minstrels Poem #201).
Levertov might have eschewed metaphor and allusion, but Hoard takes the
process a step further - he has avoided playing with foregrounding, focus
and perspective for artistic effect. His focus is utterly 'natural';
describing the scene in much the was a straightforward prose piece would,
but making every word and image count.


  I couldn't find one; nor could I find any poem other than 'Sky Line'.
  Still, all in all it's a pretty good claim to fame.


  Levertov's poem is at poem #201

  The point about the 'natural focus' might become a little clearer if you
  compare it to the following sample of poems

  poem #23 is a typically beautiful haiku

  'Song' poem #61 is a very different kind of picture-poem

  'Pippa Passes' poem #133 has the details creating the background,
  rather than the foreground

  'A route of Evanescence' poem #174 is far more 'impressionistic'

  And finally, 'Crucible' poem #205 is perhaps the opposite of today's
  poem - the whole scene is deliberately set up and focused on for artistic


Crucible -- Carl Sandburg

(Poem #205) Crucible
Hot gold runs a winding stream on the inside of a green bowl.

Yellow trickles in a fan figure, scatters a line of skirmishes, spreads a chorus
of dancing girls, performs blazing ochre evolutions, gathers the whole show into
one stream, forgets the past and rolls on.

The sea-mist green of the bowl's bottom is a dark throat of sky crossed by
quarreling forks of umber and ochre and yellow changing faces.
-- Carl Sandburg
Carl Sandburg is often thought of as a working man's poet, and it's true that
his major theme is the "attempt to find beauty in modern industrialism...
celebrating industrial and agricultural America, American geography and
landscape, and the American common people." His words are plain and unadorned;
his rhythms driving, energetic; his philosophy simple and direct. He eulogizes
workers:  "Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Gary, they make their steel with men", and
glorifies life in all its raw beauty: "Come and show me another city with lifted
head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning."

Yet to dismiss him as merely a hewer of granitic verse - passionate, yes, but
also crude and unsophisticated in the traditions of 'true' poetry - would be to
do him an injustice, for he could wield the finest of chisels with rare skill,
crafting poems of delicate strength and perfect balance. Today's vignette is one
of them: it has all the beauty (both superficial and implicit) of the very best
Imagist poems, while retaining the energy and flow that's so characteristic of
Sandburg. Lovely.



Carl Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois, on January 6, 1878. His parents,
August and Clara Johnson, had emigrated to America from the north of Sweden.
After encountering several August Johnsons in his job for the railroad, the
Sandburg's father renamed the family. The Sandburgs were very poor; Carl left
school at the age of thirteen to work odd jobs, from laying bricks to
dishwashing, to help support his family. At seventeen, he traveled west to
Kansas as a hobo. He then served eight months in Puerto Rico during the
Spanish-American war. While serving, Sandburg met a student at Lombard College,
the small school located in Sandburg's hometown. The young man convinced
Sandburg to enroll in Lombard after his return from the war.

Sandburg worked his way through school, where he attracted the attention of
Professor Philip Green Wright, who not only encouraged Sandburg's writing, but
paid for the publication of his first volume of poetry, a pamphlet called
Reckless Ecstasy (1904). While Sandburg attended Lombard for four years, he
never received a diploma (he would later receive honorary degrees from Lombard,
Knox College, and Northwestern University). After college, Sandburg moved to
Milwaukee, where he worked as an advertising writer and a newspaper reporter.
While there, he met and married Lillian Steichen (whom he called Paula), sister
of the photographer Edward Steichen. A Socialist sympathizer at that point in
his life, Sandburg then worked for the Social-Democrat Party in Wisconsin and
later acted as secretary to the first Socialist mayor of Milwaukee from 1910 to

The Sandburgs soon moved to Chicago, where Carl became an editorial writer for
the Chicago Daily News. Harriet Monroe had just started Poetry: A Magazine of
Verse, and began publishing Sandburg's poems, encouraging him to continue
writing in the free-verse, Whitman-like style he had cultivated in college.
Monroe liked the poems' homely speech, which distinguished Sandburg from his
predecessors. It was during this period that Sandburg was recognized as a member
of the Chicago literary renaissance, which included Ben Hecht, Theodore Dreiser,
Sherwood Anderson, and Edgar Lee Masters. He established his reputation with
Chicago Poems (1916), and then Cornhuskers (1918). Soon after the publication of
these volumes Sandburg wrote Smoke and Steel (1920), his first prolonged attempt
to find beauty in modern industrialism. With  these three volumes, Sandburg
became known for his free verse poems celebrating industrial and agricultural
America, American geography and  landscape, and the American common people.

In the twenties, he started some of his most ambitious projects, including his
study of Abraham Lincoln. From childhood, Sandburg loved and admired the legacy
of President Lincoln. For thirty years he sought out and collected material, and
gradually began the writing of the six-volume definitive biography of the former
president. The twenties also saw Sandburg's collections of American folklore,
the ballads in The American Songbag and The New American Songbag (1950), and
books for children. These later volumes contained pieces collected from brief
tours across America which Sandburg took each year, playing his banjo or guitar,
singing folk-songs, and reciting poems.

In the 1930s, Sandburg continued his celebration of America with Mary Lincoln,
Wife and Widow (1932), The People, Yes (1936), and the second part of his
Lincoln biography, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (1939), for which he was
awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He received a second Pulitzer Prize for his Complete
Poems in 1950. His final volumes of verse were Harvest Poems,and Honey and Salt (1963). Carl Sandburg died in 1967.

    -- from the site of the American Academy of Poets,

[Minstrels Links]

The EB biography of Sandburg can be had at poem #163

'Chicago', Sandburg's most famous poem, was also one of the very first poems to
be run on Minstrels; you can read it at poem #5

And of course, all our other poems are archived at

The Vision of a Giant who Migrated from Baja to Tiburon Island -- Anonymous

Guest poem sent in by Rohit Grover
(Poem #204) The Vision of a Giant who Migrated from Baja to Tiburon Island
Slender whirlwinds coming from the sky
        touch the land.
Sounds of arrows striking the ground
        raising dust clouds.
He shouts, warning of the days of danger.
I stand on the peak of Red Mountain.
He comes toward me
My heart is a stone.
I shout, I declare it.
-- Anonymous
This is the song of a shaman of the Seri, an Native American tribe that
made its home at the edge of the desert and the sea in south-western
United States (where I am right now, in Tucson, Arizona).

I like the imagery of the first few lines, though the import of the last
few is a mystery to me.

About the Seri

The Seri believed that the world started as an ocean. Haant-Caai - the
creator - shaped land with the help of a Giant Turtle and placed a man,
woman and a horse on the earth - these were the Giants who died in the
great flood and became boojum tree, barrel cactii and other plants.

Haant-Caai tested the ability of the Giants by placing a man on a horse,
off which he promptly fell. When the man was placed on a balsa (Seri
boat), he rowed into the sea and harpooned a sea-turtle. The Seri
conclude from this that man was not meant to till the land and was meant
to live off the sea.

It is not known if they believe themselves descendents of the Giants,
however, they occupy an important place in their folklore.

Turtles play an important part in the folk culture. The following is the
Turtle Song as sung by on Robert Harrera:

  Turtle Song

  The phosphorescence of the sea
  The phosphorescence passes over my body
  It is gray on me
  The sea covers me
  The turtles that accompany me
          they come slowly toward me

  (from Paths and Lives, an exhibit at the Arizona State Museum, University
  of Arizona, Tucson)

The Battle of Blenheim -- Robert Southey

(Poem #203) The Battle of Blenheim
   It was a summer evening,
      Old Kaspar's work was done,
  And he before his cottage door
      Was sitting in the sun,
  And by him sported on the green
      His little grandchild Wilhelmine.

    She saw her brother Peterkin
      Roll something large and round,
  Which he beside the rivulet
     In playing there had found;
 He came to ask what he had found,
     That was so large, and smooth, and round.

   Old Kaspar took it from the boy,
     Who stood expectant by;
 And then the old man shook his head,
     And, with a natural sigh,
 "'Tis some poor fellow's skull," said he,
     "Who fell in the great victory.

   "I find them in the garden,
     For there's many here about;
 And often when I go to plough,
     The ploughshare turns them out!
 For many thousand men," said he,
     "Were slain in that great victory."

   "Now tell us what 'twas all about,"
     Young Peterkin, he cries;
 And little Wilhelmine looks up
     With wonder-waiting eyes;
 "Now tell us all about the war,
     And what they fought each other for."

   "It was the English," Kaspar cried,
     "Who put the French to rout;
 But what they fought each other for,
     I could not well make out;
 But everybody said," quoth he,
     "That 'twas a famous victory.

   "My father lived at Blenheim then,
     Yon little stream hard by;
 They burnt his dwelling to the ground,
     And he was forced to fly;
 So with his wife and child he fled,
     Nor had he where to rest his head.

   "With fire and sword the country round
     Was wasted far and wide,
 And many a childing mother then,
     And new-born baby died;
 But things like that, you know, must be
     At every famous victory.

   "They say it was a shocking sight
     After the field was won;
 For many thousand bodies here
     Lay rotting in the sun;
 But things like that, you know, must be
     After a famous victory.

   "Great praise the Duke of Marlbro' won,
     And our good Prince Eugene."
 "Why, 'twas a very wicked thing!"
     Said little Wilhelmine.
 "Nay... nay... my little girl," quoth he,
     "It was a famous victory.

   "And everybody praised the Duke
     Who this great fight did win."
 "But what good came of it at last?"
     Quoth little Peterkin.
 "Why that I cannot tell," said he,
     "But 'twas a famous victory."
-- Robert Southey
An antiwar poem with a somewhat different approach - rather than a graphic
portrayal of the horrors of the battle, or a heartrending account of loss,
it uses a matter of fact tone much more reflective of the common man's
attitude to war, and a couple of children to reveal that the emperor is,
indeed, unclad.

Compare this poem to Wilfred Owen's 'Dulce Et Decorum Est', which speaks of
"children ardent for some desperate glory" - Southey takes the opposite
point of view; that left to themselves, children see war for the pointless
exercise it usually is.


  Southey, Robert

  b. Aug. 12, 1774, Bristol, Gloucestershire, Eng.
  d. March 21, 1843, Keswick, Cumberland

  English poet and writer of miscellaneous prose who is chiefly
  remembered for his association with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and
  William Wordsworth, both of whom were leaders of the early Romantic


  Southey by this time [1799] had decided to earn his living as a writer. In
  these years he composed many of his best short poems and ballads, and he
  became a regular contributor to newspapers and reviews. Southey also did
  translations, edited the works of Thomas Chatterton, and  worked on the
  epic poem Madoc (1805) and completed the epic Thalaba the Destroyer

  In 1803 the Southeys visited the Coleridges, then living at Greta
  Hall, Keswick. The Southeys remained at Greta Hall for life, partly so
  that Sara and Edith could be together. Southey's friendship with
  Wordsworth, then at nearby Grasmere, dates from this time. The
  Southeys had seven children of their own, and, after Coleridge left
  his family for Malta, the whole household was economically dependent
  on Southey for a time. He was forced to produce unremittingly--poetry,
  criticism, history, biography, journalism, translations, and editions
  of earlier writers. During 1809-38 he wrote, for the Tory Quarterly
  Review, 95 political articles, for each of which he received £100. Of
  most interest today are those articles urging the state provision of
  "social services." He also worked on a projected history of Portugal
  that he was destined never to finish; only his History of Brazil, 3
  vol. (1810-19), was published.

  In 1813 Southey was appointed poet laureate through the influence of
  Sir Walter Scott, and in 1835 his government pension of £160, which
  had been secured for him by Wynn in 1807, was increased to £300 in
  recognition of his services to literature. He thus gained economic
  security, but the unauthorized publication (1817) of Wat Tyler, an
  early verse drama reflecting his youthful political opinions, enabled
  his enemies to remind the public of his youthful republicanism. About
  this time he became involved in a literary imbroglio with Lord Byron,
  who disliked him. Byron had already attacked Southey in English Bards
  and Scotch Reviewers (1809) and had dedicated to him (1819) the first
  cantos of Don Juan, a satire on hypocrisy. In his introduction to A
  Vision of Judgement (1821), Southey continued the quarrel by
  denouncing Byron as belonging to a "Satanic school" of poetry, and
  Byron replied by producing a masterful parody of Southey's own poem
  under the title The Vision of Judgment (1822). Southey's last years
  were clouded by his wife's insanity, by family quarrels resulting from
  his second marriage after her death (1837), and by his own failing
  mental and physical health.


  Robert Southey was closely associated with Wordsworth and Coleridge
  and was looked upon as a prominent member, with them, of the "Lake
  School" of poetry. His grandiose epic poems, such as Thalaba the
  Destroyer (1801) and The Curse of Kehama (1810), were successful in
  their own time, but his fame is based on his prose work--the vigorous
  Life of Nelson (1813), the History of the Peninsular War (1823-32),
  and his classic formulation of the children's tale "The Three Bears."

        -- EB

About the 'Lake Poets':

  Lake poet

  any of the English poets William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
  and Robert Southey, who lived in the English Lake District of
  Cumberland and Westmorland (now Cumbria) at the beginning of the 19th
  century. They were first described derogatorily as the "Lake school"
  by Francis (afterward Lord) Jeffrey in The Edinburgh Review in August
  1817, and the description "Lakers" was also used in a similar spirit
  by the poet Lord Byron. These names confusingly group Wordsworth and
  Coleridge together with Southey, who did not subscribe in his views or
  work to their theories of poetry.

          -- EB


  Except for a few lyrics, ballads, and comic-grotesque poems--e.g., "My
  days among the Dead are past," "After Blenheim," and "The Inchcape
  Rock" (considered a masterpiece of comic invention)--Southey's poetry
  is little read, but his prose style has been long regarded as masterly
  in its ease and clarity.
  His less successful epic poems are  verse romances having a mythological
  or legendary subject matter set in the past and in distant places. In his
  prose works and in his voluminous correspondence, which gives a detailed
  picture of his   literary surroundings and friends, Southey's effortless
  mastery of prose is clearly evident, a fact attested to by such eminent
  contemporaries as William Hazlitt and Scott and even by such an enemy as
        -- EB

Missing Dates -- William Empson

(Poem #202) Missing Dates
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is not your system or clear sight that mills
Down small to the consequence a life requires;
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills
Of young dog blood gave but a month's desires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the Chinese tombs and the slag hills
Usurp the soil, and not the soil retires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.
The complete fire is death. From partial fires
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the poems you have lost, the ills
From missing dates, at which the heart expires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.
-- William Empson
One of the two 'important' villanelles written in the twentieth century [1],
Missing Dates is fairly representative of William Empson's work as a whole:
dense, carefully constructed, honest to the point of harshness, complex and
intellectual, almost frightening in its intelligence, but still passionate in
its adherence to truth. Many of the same adjectives could be used to describe
his character and his critical writings; indeed, his status as the foremost
literary critic of his time seems assured.

Which is not to say that he'll ever be a popular poet, or even a well-liked one.
Empson's poems, though not intentionally obscure in the manner of, say, Geoffrey
Hill's early work, nevertheless make the reader 'work' to understand them; his
astonishingly wide range of reference and allusion does not make the task any
easier. As a poet's poet and a critic's critic he ranks among the very best;
that's quite enough for me.


[1] the other, of course, being Dylan Thomas' Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good
Night, minstrels poem #38; you can read more about this wonderfully intricate
poetic form at poem #38


Like Eliot before him and Donald Davie after him, Empson has an equal reputation
as a poet and a critic. The passionate intelligence of  his poetry has something
in common with the work of the seventeenth-century poet John Donne, though
Empson is more perversely obscure than Donne ever was, and much less directly
concerned - on the surface at least - with his own experience. Empson has
himself spoken of the 'puzzle interest' of poetry, though one feels that this is
in part said with his tongue in his cheek for the sake of shocking readers out
of their preconceived ideas. Unlike Eliot's notes to The Waste Land, the notes
which Empson prints in the back of his Collected Poems are of considerable value
in elucidating the imagery and intention behind some of his poems.

In recent years Empson's reputation has come increasingly to depend on his
tough-minded and yet not uninvolved attitude to life, which has come to be felt
as a sort of moral touchstone. This may in part be due to his open opposititon
to established Christianity. It is certainly also due to his (as it now seems)
more perceptive attitude to the problems of the 1930s than the group of poets
who centred round Auden. Empson himself was teaching in the Far East in the late
1930s and saw more of the upheaval caused by war than poets who seemed to write
more directly about it in Europe. His work was a major influence on the
counter-revolutionary poetry of The Movement in the 1950s.

[Missing Dates] is one of Empson's most characteristic and powerful ones.
Whether one takes it mainly about politics, or mainly about private life, it
conveys a kind of doomed grandeur. Even the inversion in the first of the two
refrain lines seems unobtrusive in the context of the whole poem's even,
dignified delivery.

    -- George MacBeth


There's an _excellent_ essay on critical reactions (over time) to Empson's
poetry and his (highly influential) critical theories at
[broken link]
Strongly recommended.

[More Stuff]

For the significance of Empson's criticism is this: his criticism is an attempt
to deal with what the poem "means" in terms of its structure as a poem. To sense
its importance, one must recall what the critic in the past has attempted to do:
either he attempted to find the goodness of the poem (and its status as poetry)
in terms of its prose argument - and in terms of the "truth" of what was being
said - and thus made poetry compete with philosophy or science; or else he tried
to find the poetry in the charm of the decorative elements - in the metrical
pattern, in the sensuous imagery, etc.

    -- Cleanth Brooks

Ambiguity: A nonpejorative term for the capacity of language to sustain multiple
meanings. Also called plurisignation or polysemy, ambiguity arises from what
William Empson calls "any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for
alternative reactions to the same piece of language." In literary parlance,
ambiguity is not a mistake in denotation to be avoided, but a resource of
connotation to be exploited. In Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), Empson argues
that the richness, complexity, and concentration of literary language derives
from the seven types of ambiguity he discusses. The notion that ambiguity is the
root condition of all literary discourse, a notion that arises from I. A.
Richards's distinction between the scientific (referential or denotative) and
the poetic (emotive or connotative) uses of language, is an integral aspect of
the New Critical view that irony, paradox, and tension are definitive aspects of
the work of art.

    -- Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown
Glossary of Literary Theory,

To the Reader -- Denise Levertov

(Poem #201) To the Reader
 As you read, a white bear leisurely
 pees, dyeing the snow

 and as you read, many gods
 lie among lianas: eyes of obsidian
 are watching the generations of leaves,

 and as you read
 the sea is turning its dark pages,
 its dark pages.
-- Denise Levertov
             (1923 - 1997)

Quoting a bit from the biography:

   Early in her career, Levertov became associated with the poets of the
   Black Mountain school, and she credited the spare, clear, objective
   work of the poet William Carlos Williams with helping her develop her
   own vital American style of composition. She tended to avoid the use
   of metaphor and allusion, preferring instead the direct and immediate
   description of objects, perceptions, and feelings in the rhythms of
   ordinary speech.

This is by no means an easy style to master - consider how devoid it is of
all the things one tends to associate with poetry; the aforementioned
metaphor and allusion, rhyme, metre, and, in general, 'poetic' language. And
yet this is  by no means 'prose with interesting line breaks'. The images are
carefully chosen and evocative, and the very economy of words indicates the
care with which each one is selected.

Focusing on today's poem, note the way the structure is built up on several
levels. The dominant images towards the start are the soothingly reinforced
of the white bear and the snow. The 'pees, dyeing' enters as a background
note, until it suddenly splashes[1] into prominence with the highly
contrastive 'saffron'.

The second verse adds a whole new level of contrast, with the sudden,
radical scene change to images of jungles and buried gods. ('Generations of
leaves' is, incidentally, an absolutely lovely image IMHO.) And then, in the
final verse, the 'as you read', hitherto merely a narrative device of sorts,
springs in its turn into focus, as it is reflected in the sea's 'turning

And finally there are lots of nice effects provided by the repetition of the
last line, but they're not too hard to see so I won't bother pointing them

[1] sorry!
[2] well, maybe one or two metaphors
[3] one of them, for instance, is the reinforcing of the present-continuous
    tense of the poem


  Levertov, Denise

   b. Oct. 24, 1923, Ilford, Essex, Eng.
   d. Dec. 20, 1997, Seattle, Wash., U.S.

   English-born American poet, essayist, and political activist who wrote
   deceptively matter-of-fact verse on both personal and political themes.

   Levertov's father was an immigrant Russian Jew who converted to
   Christianity, married a Welsh woman, and became an Anglican clergyman.
   Educated entirely at home, Levertov became a civilian nurse during
   World War II, serving in London throughout the bombings. Her first
   volume of verse, The Double Image (1946), was not very successful. She
   married the American writer Mitchell Goodman in 1947, moved with him
   to the United States in 1948, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in

   Early in her career, Levertov became associated with the poets of the
   Black Mountain school, and she credited the spare, clear, objective
   work of the poet William Carlos Williams with helping her develop her
   own vital American style of composition. She tended to avoid the use
   of metaphor and allusion, preferring instead the direct and immediate
   description of objects, perceptions, and feelings in the rhythms of
   ordinary speech.

   Levertov's first important poetry collection, Here and Now (1957), was
   followed by Overland to the Islands (1958), With Eyes at the Back of
   Our Heads (1959), and several others. She opposed American involvement
   in the Vietnam War and was active in the War Resisters League, for
   whom she edited the collection Out of the War Shadow (1967). One of
   her finest volumes of poems, The Sorrow Dance (1967), reflects her
   opposition to the war, while The Freeing of the Dust (1975) alternates
   antiwar poems with confessional poems about her personal life. Her
   subsequent volumes show a sympathy with Third World cultures and an
   involvement with feminism.

   Levertov's later efforts included essays and prose, as in The Poet in
   the World (1973), and the verse collections Candles in Babylon (1982)
   and Breathing the Water (1987). She taught at Stanford University from
   1981 to 1994.

        -- EB

And a bit on the Black Mountain school...

   By the mid-1950s, however, a strong reaction developed. Poets began to
   turn away from Eliot and metaphysical poetry to more romantic or more
   prosaic models, including Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Hart
   Crane, and D.H. Lawrence. A group of poets associated with Black
   Mountain College in western North Carolina, as, for example, Charles
   Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Edward Dorn, and Denise Levertov,
   treated the poem as an unfolding process rather than a containing form.
   Olson's Maximus Poems (1953-68) show a clear affinity with the jagged
   line and uneven flow of Pound's Cantos and Williams's Paterson. Allen
   Ginsberg's incantatory, prophetic "Howl" (1956) and   his moving elegy
   for his mother, "Kaddish" (1961), gave powerful impetus to the Beat
   movement. Written with extraordinary intensity, these works were inspired
   by writers as diverse as the biblical   prophets, William Blake, and
   Whitman, as well as by the dream-logic of the French Surrealists and the
   spontaneous jazz aesthetic of Ginsberg's friend, the novelist Jack

        -- EB again

Links: <[broken link]>

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks -- William Shakespeare

It's fitting that the 200th poem on the Minstrels is by the greatest poet of
(Poem #200) Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's moulds, and germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

[ FOOL:  O nuncle, court holy-water in a dry house is better than this
rain-water out o' door. Good nuncle, in, and ask thy daughters' blessing: here's
a night pities neither wise man nor fool. ]

Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call'd you children,
You owe me no subscription: then let fall
Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man:
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That have with two pernicious daughters join'd
Your high engender'd battles 'gainst a head
So old and white as this. O! O! 'tis foul!
-- William Shakespeare
from 'King Lear'.

Othello might be a better play than Lear - tighter in its orchestration, more
clever in its construction, more intricate in its plotting. Hamlet is certainly
a better study of character - deep and insightful, each player's thoughts and
actions depicted to a nicety. Macbeth is more dramatic; the action soars and
plummets, the all-too-human characters move against a violently supernatural
backdrop. The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream are more lyrical, more
shimmeringly beautiful.

Indeed, compared with each of these, King Lear seems to be a failure - a mess of
contradictions, a rambling, incoherent narrative; powerful, perhaps, but not a
little bit disturbing; harsh, even wantonly cruel at times...

And yet...

If I had to choose Shakespeare's supreme creation, it would be Lear. Without a

When I think of King Lear, I think of it not as a play, but as something far
greater. Lear has a stark, epic grandeur that transcends the boundaries of the
playwright's craft, a raw power that demands it be placed upon the same pedestal
as the roof of the Sistine Chapel, or Mozart's final requiem mass - works that
seem, somehow, to be beyond the pale of ordinary judgement or classification:
exaltations of the human spirit, explorations of the human soul.

What stage could possibly do justice to a production of Lear? The storm
sequence, where the aged and forsaken King hurls his defiance at the world - ah,
what actor would be foolhardy enough to essay the role? The final scene, where
Lear, blind and half-mad with grief, dies with Cordelia's lifeless body in his
arms - what director could ever hope to capture the pity, the sheer pity of it?
Nay, the truth is this: Lear's proper place is in the realms of the imagination,
in the towering heights and endless depths of the mind. Look at it that way, and
the truth is apparent: King Lear may not be as 'good' a play as some others, but
it's certainly the greatest of them all.


PS. In previous mails I've talked about Shakespeare's lyricism, his dramatic
skill, his philosophical genius and his insight into character. This, though, is
where he puts it all together. And ooh, it sends shivers down my spine. Simply

PPS. Many of the ideas expressed in today's critical essay were rather
shamelessly filched from A. C. Bradley's definitive collection of essays,
'Shakespearean Tragedy', which I had the enormous good fortune to read in high
school. A highly recommended book.


Vaunt-couriers (line 5) - forerunners
spill (line 8) - destroy
germen (line 8) - germ, as in 'something that initiates development or serves as
an origin'.

Lord Ullin's Daughter -- Thomas Campbell

(Poem #199) Lord Ullin's Daughter
 A Chieftain, to the Highlands bound,
       Cries, "Boatman, do not tarry!
 And I'll give thee a silver pound
       To row us o'er the ferry!" --

 "Now, who be ye, would cross Lochgyle,
       This dark and stormy weather?"
 "O, I'm the chief of Ulva's isle,
       And this, Lord Ullin's daughter. --

 "And fast before her father's men
       Three days we've fled together,
 For should he find us in the glen,
       My blood would stain the heather.

 "His horsemen hard behind us ride;
       Should they our steps discover,
 Then who will cheer my bonny bride
       When they have slain her lover?" --

 Out spoke the hardy Highland wight, --
       "I'll go, my chief --I'm ready: --
It is not for your silver bright;
       But for your winsome lady:

 "And by my word! the bonny bird
       In danger shall not tarry;
 So, though the waves are raging white,
       I'll row you o'er the ferry." --

 By this the storm grew loud apace,
       The water-wraith was shrieking;
 And in the scowl of heaven each face
       Grew dark as they were speaking.

 But still as wilder blew the wind,
       And as the night grew drearer,
 Adown the glen rode armèd men,
       Their trampling sounded nearer. --

 "O haste thee, haste!" the lady cries,
       "Though tempests round us gather;
 I'll meet the raging of the skies,
       But not an angry father." --

 The boat has left a stormy land,
       A stormy sea before her, --
 When, O! too strong for human hand,
       The tempest gather'd o'er her.

 And still they row'd amidst the roar
       Of waters fast prevailing:
 Lord Ullin reach'd that fatal shore, --
       His wrath was changed to wailing.

 For, sore dismay'd through storm and shade,
       His child he did discover: --
 One lovely hand she stretch'd for aid,
       And one was round her lover.

 "Come back! come back!" he cried in grief
       "Across this stormy water:
 And I'll forgive your Highland chief,
       My daughter! -- O my daughter!"

 'Twas vain: the loud waves lash'd the shore,
       Return or aid preventing:
 The waters wild went o'er his child,
       And he was left lamenting.
-- Thomas Campbell
A fairly standard ballad - unremarkable but enjoyable. As far as I know, it
has no basis in fact (the only references to Lord Ullin I could find
referred to the poem), though if anyone knows any better, do write in.

A quick note on the structure - the metre is the standard ballad heptameter,
unvarying throughout (which contributes to the old-fashioned feel); the
rhyme scheme likewise remains constant, except for one verse where it is
changed to link it to the previous one (a sort of carry over effect).

Campbell, Thomas

   b. July 27, 1777, Glasgow, Scot.
   d. June 15, 1844, Boulogne, France

   Scottish poet, remembered chiefly for his sentimental and martial
   lyrics; he was also one of the initiators of a plan to found what
   became the University of London.

   Campbell went to Mull, an island of the Inner Hebrides, as a tutor in
   1795 and two years later settled in Edinburgh to study law. In 1799 he
   wrote The Pleasures of Hope, a traditional 18th-century survey in
   heroic couplets of human affairs. It went through four editions within
   a year.

   He also produced several stirring patriotic war songs--"Ye Mariners of
   England," "The Soldier's Dream," "Hohenlinden," and, in 1801, "The
   Battle of the Baltic." With others he launched a movement in 1825 to
   found the University of London, for students excluded from Oxford or
   Cambridge by religious tests or lack of funds.

        -- EB