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Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams -- Kenneth Koch

Imagism is all very well, but...
(Poem #278) Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams
 I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.
 I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
 and its wooden beams were so inviting.

 We laughed at the hollyhocks together
 and then I sprayed them with lye.
 Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.

 I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the
                                                         next ten years.
 The man who asked for it was shabby
 and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.

 Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
 Forgive me. I was clumsy and
 I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!
-- Kenneth Koch
A brilliant takeoff on William Carlos Williams' 'This is Just to Say'[1] - I
still can't read it without laughing. Koch has the tone down perfectly - it
is tempting to say that he dislikes Imagism, and is trying to skewer it for
its [perceived] pretentiousness, but I feel he is laughing more with than at
the genre (see his comments about seriousness in the notes). Perhaps the
proper comparison is with Porter's 'Japanese Jokes'[2] - at first glance a
rather cutting parody, but nonetheless genuinely sympathetic to the form.

And finally I feel more than usually compelled to point out that all the
above is strictly my opinion - feel free to ignore it and simply enjoy the
poem for its very considerable merits.

- m.

[1] run just a few days ago - see poem #274

[2] poem #198


  Kenneth Koch lives in New York City and teaches at Columbia University. He
  has published many volumes of poetry, most recently One Train and On the
  Great Atlantic Rainway, Selected poems 1950-1988 (both in 1994). Together
  they earned him the Bollingen Prize in Poetry in 1995; in 1996 he received
  the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry awarded by the
  Library of Congress. His short plays, many of them produced off- and
  off-off-Broadway, are represented in a recent volume, The Gold Standard: A
  Book of Plays, also available in paperback. Also recently published is
  Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry.

  -- from the Poetry Center website,

For a more complete biography and bibliography, see
[broken link]

The Brtiannica has the following note:

  Both daily life and an exposure to French Surrealism helped inspire a
  group of New York poets, among them Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, James
  Schuyler, and John Ashbery. Whether O'Hara was jotting down a sequence of
  ordinary moments or paying tribute to film stars, his poems had a
  breathless immediacy that was distinctive and unique. Koch's comic voice
  swung effortlessly from the trivial to the fantastic. Strongly influenced
  by Wallace Stevens, Ashbery's ruminative poems can seem random,
  discursive, and enigmatic. Avoiding poetic colour, they do their work by
  suggestion and association, exploring the interface between experience and
        -- EB

To which the biography cited above adds

  The poetry of the New York School represented a shift away from the
  Confessional poets[3], a popular form of soul-baring poetry that the New
  York School found distasteful (see the Life Studies exhibit on this site
  for examples). Instead, their poems were cosmopolitan in spirit and
  displayed not only the influence of action painting, but of French
  Surrealism and European avant-gardism in general.
        -- [broken link]

[3] who are these Confessional poets anyway? See for a nice essay on
the topic, and poem #53 for
the one Confessional poem run on Minstrels

Links abound on the web; just feed "Kenneth Koch" into any decent search
engine. Here're a few nice ones: has
an interview with the poet; sample question:

  ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I?ve been reading your poetry. Much of it is very
  funny, very playful and witty. It's not what many people expect poetry to
  be. There's this view that poetry should be kind of somber, isn't there?

  KENNETH KOCH: Oh, I suppose some people have that view. It's a confusion
  between seriousness and solemnity. The intention of my poetry is--I mean,
  I don't intend for my poetry to be mainly funny or satirical, but it seems
  to me that high spirits and sort of a comic view are part of being

[broken link] has a reading
of both Williams' poem and Koch's followup

Haiku -- Yosa Buson

(Poem #277) Haiku
The winter river;
down it come floating
flowers offered to Buddha.
-- Yosa Buson

As Martin pointed out to me this morning, it has indeed been some time since we
saw a haiku [1].

Actually, Martin suggested I dig up and run an English haiku (i.e., a haiku
written in English, as opposed to one translated from Japanese). And I tried,
indeed I did. But the fact is, I couldn't find anyone to match Basho, Buson or
Issa [2]. And without any discrimination intended, I have to say that most
non-Japanese attempts to write haiku just don't cut it. There's a peculiar
mastery involved to crafting immortality out of 17 syllables; there's more to it
than just cherry blossoms and mountain paths. I just wish I knew what.

Incidentally, I have yet to read (of) any 'proper' English poet who has
attempted the haiku form [1], though some of the Imagists come close (in spirit
if not in detail). (Which again is not completely expected, given how much the
Imagists were influenced by the Japanese aesthetic of minimalism). Any pointers?


[1] No, Peter Porter doesn't count :-)
[2] The Holy Trinity of haiku masters; read the note below.


There are three great names in the history of haiku, Basho, Buson and Issa; we
may include a fourth, Shiki. Basho is the religious man, Buson the artist, Issa
the humanist. Basho is concerned with God as he sees himself in the mind of the
Poet before flowers and fields. Buson deals with things as they exist by and for
themselves, in their own right. Issa is concerned with man, man the weak angel;
with birds and beasts as they struggle like us to make a living and keep their
heads above water. Shiki, though strongly realistic, sees things under the
aspect of beauty, as an artist.

    -- R. H. Blyth, 'Haiku'.

[On Winter]

Winter is the season of cold; not only the cold that animals also feel, and the
conciousness of it which exacerbates the feeling of it in human beings, but that
cold whose deep inner meaning we realize only at moments of vision, often when
connected with fear and loneliness, or with apparently unrelated qualities of

In the Solar Calendar, the end of the year does not coincide with any natural
change, but in the old Lunar Calendar it marks the beginning of spring in Japan.
The winter moon and the cold rain at the end of autumn have special meanings in
this season. Snow in winter corresponds in its range of significance and variety
of treatment to the cherry-blossoms of spring, the hototogisu in summer, the
moon in autumn. Fields and mountains, when trees are leafless and thickets are a
wild tangle of browns and greys, have a poetic meaning that the green of the
other seasons does not know. In Japan the grass all dies and turns colour,
making winter more of a time of death than in England. The pine-trees stand
apart, as it were, from the seasons. The religious haiku are nearly all
concerned with the processional chanting of the nembutsu during the period of
greatest cold. Plovers, owls, eagles, various water-fowl and fish are the only
animals treated, and of trees and flowers, it is fallen leaves that give us the
best poems.

    -- R.H. Blyth, 'Haiku', vol. 4
    -- on the web at

[Minstrels Links]

I've run two haiku before, both by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694):
poem #23 and poem #56.

The haiku form is descended from an older verse pattern known as the tanka;
there are two tanka by Otomo no Yakamachi (718-785) at poem #87.

And I would be remiss if I didn't include a link to Peter Porter's wickedly
funny (and piercingly insightful) 'Japanese Jokes', at poem #198.

High Flight -- Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee

Guest poem sent in by Rajeev
(Poem #276) High Flight
  Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
  And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
  Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
  Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things

  You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
  High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
  I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
  My eager craft through footless halls of air.

  Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
  I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
  Where never lark, or even eagle flew -
  And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
  The high unsurpassed sanctity of space,
  Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
-- Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee
        (No 412 squadron, RCAF,
         Killed 11 December 1941)

I was actually surfing the net looking for stuff on the Supermarine Spitfire
(ooh, what a plane!!), when I came across this. I'd read snatches of this
somewhere long back in a classic autobiography by another British fighter
pilot, Richard Hillary, called "The Last Enemy". But I'd never found the
complete poem. This was a welcome discovery.

I don't want to go into Aeolian cadences an' lilting music an' meter an'
all. I don't want to compare this to anything I've read before - I believe
that it beggars comparison. It stands on its own like Chidiock Tichbourne.

What does it make me feel like? Like I want to fly a SPITFIRE!!!!!

'nuff zed on this matter


Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., was an American serving with the
Royal Canadian Air Force. He was born in Shanghai, China in 1922, the son of
missionary parents, Reverend and Mrs. John Gillespie Magee; his father was
an American and his mother was originally a British citizen.

He came to the U.S. in 1939 and earned a scholarship to Yale, but in
September 1940 he enlisted in the RCAF and was graduated as a pilot. He was
sent to England for combat duty in July 1941.

In August or September 1941, Pilot Officer Magee composed High Flight and
sent a copy to his parents. Several months later, on December 11, 1941 his
Spitfire collided with another plane over England and Magee, only 19 years
of age, crashed to his death.

His remains are buried in the churchyard cemetery at Scopwick, Lincolnshire


The Glove and the Lions -- James Leigh Hunt

(Poem #275) The Glove and the Lions
  King Francis was a hearty king, and loved a royal sport,
  And one day, as his lions fought, sat looking on the court.
  The nobles filled the benches, with the ladies in their pride,
  And 'mongst them sat the Count de Lorge, with one for whom he signed:
  And truly 'twas a gallant thing to see that crowning show,
  Valor and love, and a king above, and the royal beasts below.

  Ramped and roared the lions, with horrid laughing jaws;
  They bit, they glared, gave blows like beams, a wind went with their paws;
  With wallowing might and stifled roar they rolled on one another,
  Till all the pit with sand and mane was in a thunderous smother;
  The bloody foam above the bars came whisking through the air;
  Said Francis then, "Faith, gentlemen, we're better here than there."

  De Lorge's love o'er heard the King, a beauteous lively dame,
  With smiling lips and sharp bright eyes, which always seemed the same;
  She thought, The Count my lover is brave as brave can be;
  He surely would do wondrous things to show his love of me;
  King, ladies, lovers, all look on; the occasion is divine;
  I'll drop my glove, to prove his love; great glory will be mine.

  She dropped her glove, to prove his love, then looked at him and smiled;
  He bowed, and in a moment leaped among the lions wild:
  The leap was quick, return was quick, he has regained his place,
  Then threw the glove, but not with love, right in the lady's face.
  "By Heaven," said Francis, "rightly done!" and he rose from where he sat;
  "No love," quoth he, "but vanity, sets love a task like that."
-- James Leigh Hunt
This is the third of Hunt's widely anthologised poems, and, like Abou Ben
Adhem, demonstrates a nice combination of simplicity and stylistic polish.
As poems go it's a fairly standard piece of narrative verse - not, perhaps,
as brilliant as Jenny Kissed Me, or as memorable as Abou Ben Adhem, but it
tells a nice story[1], and tells it well. And I love the playfulness that
runs through the rhyme scheme and metre - perhaps the one aspect of Hunt's
poetry that most endears it to me.

[1] as to whether the story has any basis in reality, or even whether it's
drawing upon an existing folk tale, I have no idea.



The two previous Hunt poems on Minstrels can be found, complete with
biography at poem #103 and poem #153.

There's a nice assessment of Hunt at

 An excerpt:

  Finally, a major virtue of Hunt's poetry is its unpretentiousness, its
  freedom, as someone has said, from fustian. Though he revered the high
  rhetoric of the great poets, he found his own analogy in an earlier minor
  poet, John Pomfret. Speaking of Pomfret's The Choice (1700), Hunt
  applauded the earlier poet as one "who knows / The charm that hollows the
  least thing from prose, / And dresses it in its mild singing clothes" (p.
  540). Hunt's approval is based on his fundamental principle of poetic
  classes cited earlier -- that regardless of the order of imagination,
  poetry must "spring out of a real impulse" and if it is true to that
  impulse, no matter how humble, the result must be recognized for its
  value. Such is the case with the best of Hunt's poetry.

This Is Just To Say -- William Carlos Williams

(Poem #274) This Is Just To Say
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast.

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold.
-- William Carlos Williams
I remember this as the first Imagist poem - indeed, the first 'modern' poem of
any sort - that I ever read. Having been schooled on Wordsworth, de la Mare and
Rossetti [1], it came as a bit of a shock to me when I stumbled upon Williams'
laconic beauty in an anthology discovered at a relative's house, one summer
vacation many years ago. This, poetry? Where were the rhymes? Where were the
sunsets and flowers and cute furry animals? Where was the Good Advice for the
Younger Generation [2]? And what was the poem about, anyway?

As faithful readers of my posts have no doubt realized by now, it was the
beginning of a lifelong affair. Recent excursions into the Romantics, the Beats,
the Movement and the Elizabethans notwithstanding, Eliot, Pound, Williams and
their ilk remain among my favourite poets...


PS. Oh, you wanted commentary on the poem? I'm sorry, why didn't you say so?

[1] Good poets all; don't get me wrong.
[2] To use Martin's elegant phrase :-)

[Minstrels Links]

A Williams biography can be found at poem #83 along with the first poem
of his to be run on the Minstrels, 'The Red Wheelbarrow'.

Another typical Williams slice-of-life is 'The Artist', which you can read
at poem #213

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

How a Cat Was Annoyed and a Poet Was Booted -- Guy Wetmore Carryl

(Words bracketed like _this_ were italicised in the text)
(Poem #273) How a Cat Was Annoyed and a Poet Was Booted
  A poet had a cat.
  There is nothing odd in that-
  (I _might_ make a little pun about the _Mews_!)
  But what is really more
  Remarkable, she wore
  A pair of pointed patent-leather shoes.
  And I doubt me greatly whether
  E'er you heard the like of that:
  Pointed shoes of patent-leather
  On a cat!

  His time he used to pass
  Writing sonnets, on the grass-
  (I _might_ say something good on _pen_ and _sward_!)
  While the cat sat near at hand,
  Trying hard to understand
  The poems he occasionally roared.
  (I myself possess a feline,
  But when poetry I roar
  He is sure to make a bee-line
  For the door.)

  The poet, cent by cent,
  All his patrimony spent-
  (I _might_ tell how he went from _verse_ to _werse_!)
  Till the cat was sure she could,
  By advising, do him good.
  So addressed him in a manner that was terse:
  "We are bound toward the scuppers,
  And the time has come to act,
  Or we'll both be on our uppers
  For a fact!"

  On her boot she fixed her eye,
  But the boot made no reply-
  (I _might_ say: "Couldn't speak to save its _sole_!")
  And the foolish bard, instead
  Of responding, only read
  A verse that wasn't bad upon the whole.
  And it pleased the cat so greatly,
  Though she knew not what it meant,
  That I'll quote approximately
  How it went:-

  "If I should live to be
  The last leaf upon the tree"-
  (I _might_ put in: "I think I'd just as _leaf_!")
  "Let them smile, as I do now,
  At the old forsaken bough"-
  Well, he'd plagiarized it bodily, in brief!
  But that cat of simple breeding
  Couldn't read the lines between,
  So she took it to a leading

  She was jarred and very sore
  When they showed her to the door.
  (I _might_ hit off the door that was a _jar_!)
  To the spot she swift returned
  Where the poet sighed and yearned,
  And she told him that he'd gone a little far.
  "Your performance with this rhyme has
  Made me absolutely sick,"
  She remarked. "I think the time has
  Come to kick!"

  I could fill up half the page
  With descriptions of her rage-
  (I might say that she went a bit too fur!)
  When he smiled and murmured: "Shoo!"
  "There is one thing I can do!"
  She answered with a wrathful kind of purr.
  "You may shoo me, and it suit you,
  But I feel my conscience bid
  Me, as tit for tat, to boot you!"
  (Which she did.)

  _The Moral_ of the plot
  (Though I say it, as should not!)
  Is: An editor is difficult to suit.
  But again there're other times
  When the man who fashions rhymes
  Is a rascal, and a bully one to boot!
-- Guy Wetmore Carryl
A slightly different poem by Carryl - unlike the previous two we've run,
this one is not a fable or fairytale retelling (though there seems to be a
nod towards 'Puss in Boots'). The humour appears to be mainly in the
parenthetical comments, a fairly common form of humour in which the author
uses a deliberately heavyhanded approach - the joke works on two levels,
both as a pun, and as a sly poke at people who *think* they're funny[1].

And as a final note, the poem referred to is 'The Last Leaf' by Oliver
Wendell Holmes ([broken link]

[1] I have no idea whether he's parodying anything specific here, but I
associate the form with Grossmith's 'Diary of a Nobody' - all the funnier
there because the protagonist actually did think he was funny, and insisted
on emphasising all his puns so that the listener wouldn't miss the point.


I am still unable to find a biography of Carryl, and would be eternally
grateful to anyone who could supply one

The previous two Carryl poems are available at
[broken link]


Napoleon -- Walter de la Mare

(Poem #272) Napoleon
'What is the world, O soldiers?
        It is I:
I, this incessant snow,
    This northern sky;
Soldiers, this solitude
    Through which we go
        Is I.'
-- Walter de la Mare
De la Mare, like Kipling, suffers from over-anthologization (especially in the
pages of school textbooks - has it ever occurred to you that, given the way
poetry is taught in schools these days, including a classic poem in a student's
curriculum is the surest way of ruining it forever?). Again like Kipling,
though, his work has risen above this handicap and insinuated itself into the
collective unconscious. And deservedly so - there are hardly any readers of
poetry, serious or casual, who haven't been affected by such classics such as
'The Listeners' (one of the very first poems to be run on the Minstrels).

'Napoleon' is straightforward enough; the diction is clear and confident, as
befitting the speaker, but the words are (in the hindsight offered by history)
ironic in the extreme - it was precisely the Russian campaign described in the
poem that led to the Little Corporal's downfall. A typical de la Mare touch, and
nicely done without being the slightest bit exaggerated.


[Minstrels Links]

'The Listeners', which you can read at poem #2 was the first de la Mare
to be run on the Minstrels; we've had to wait 270 poems for the second.

A freebie at the same link is T. S. Eliot's wonderful tribute to Walter de la
Mare, which Anustup posted as a comment on the original poem. Eliot confesses
himself spellbound by
    the delicate, invisible web you wove -
    The inexplicable mystery of sound.
and I must say I concur. De la Mare's poems have true magic in them.

For another poetic portrayal of a tyrant, read Ted Hughes' powerful 'Hawk
Roosting', at poem #42

If -- Rudyard Kipling

Old favourites time again...
(Poem #271) If
  If you can keep your head when all about you
  Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
  If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
  But make allowance for their doubting too:
  If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
  Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
  Or being hated don't give way to hating,
  And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

  If you can dream -- and not make dreams your master;
  If you can think -- and not make thoughts your aim,
  If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
  And treat those two impostors just the same:
  If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
  Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
  Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
  And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools;

  If you can make one heap of all your winnings
  And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
  And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
  And never breathe a word about your loss:
  If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
  To serve your turn long after they are gone,
  And so hold on when there is nothing in you
  Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

  If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
  Or walk with Kings -- nor lose the common touch,
  If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
  If all men count with you, but none too much:
  If you can fill the unforgiving minute
  With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
  Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
  And -- which is more -- you'll be a Man, my son!
-- Rudyard Kipling
In the commentary to Tommy, I remarked that 'the sheer volume and diversity
of [Kipling's] poetry has made many of [his poems] famous in many different
genres'. However, 'If' goes beyond that - it is known and memorised by
people who have never otherwise heard of Kipling, beloved by those who are
not 'into poetry', solemnly taught to generations of children and reprinted
in countless anthologies.

Of course, as good as the verse is - and like nearly all Kipling's verse, it
*is* good - the poem's popularity is largely due to its subject matter. Like
Henley's 'Invictus' it is a stirring challenge to pit oneself against a
hostile universe; again, like many deservedly less famous poems it is an
example of that most beloved of genres, Good Advice to the Younger

That the latter has not detracted from its appeal is remarkable - on the
face of it this is just the kind of poem that the system loves to forcefeed
generations of children, who in turn regard it with a 'yeah, right'
cynicism. The difference is twofold. Firstly, unlike most of the
self-conscious 'children's' poets, Kipling is genuinely *good*. The verses
breathe conviction, energy, and even excitement; whatever criticism may be
labelled against Kipling's work, dullness is not one of its faults.
Secondly, Kipling understood his audience. One need only read 'Stalky and
Co.', whose thoroughly subversive nature was way ahead of its time, to see
that. And 'If' promotes the same kind of self-reliant individualism as
Stalky does; it glorifies the gambler, the adventurer, the taker of risks.
Take another read through the poem, and note how well it fits the
protagonist of practically any adventure or heroic fantasy novel. Small
wonder, then, that it has a similar appeal, and that despite the last line,
children in general will not find the poem patronising or sententious.

On a more personal note, I've always felt that the quatrain beginning 'If
you can make one heap of all your winnings' was one of the most thoroughly
romantic pieces of verse I've encountered, capturing perfectly the grand
gesture, the moment when life hangs in the balance, when all creation holds
its breath and the universe shrinks down to the blood singing in your veins
and the faint, faraway rattle of a cosmic die. (Yes, I have been reading too
much sf&f - why do you ask?) And this brings me to the final - and perhaps
the greatest - reason this is such a memorable poem. Quite simply, it
touches people - there is almost invariably some section the reader can
relate to, that sticks in his mind because of its almost self-evident
rightness and pops up unbidden at odd moments. No, this is not the greatest
of Kipling's poems - but it may well be the farthest-reaching.

- martin


  Kipling wrote If with Dr Leander Starr Jameson in mind. In 1895, Jameson
  led about 500 of his countrymen in a failed raid against the Boers, in
  southern Africa. What became known as the Jameson Raid was later cited as
  a major factor in bringing about the Boer War of 1899 to 1902.  But the
  story as recounted in Britain was quite different. The British defeat was
  interpreted as a victory and Jameson portrayed as a daring hero.



  Invictus: poem #221

  Other Kipling Poems on Minstrels: As a diehard Kipling fan, I have run a
  number of these - rather than list them all, go to
  [broken link] and scroll to

  The biography et al can be found at poem #17

Under Milk Wood -- Dylan Thomas

A rather longish excerpt from
(Poem #270) Under Milk Wood
It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the
cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courter's-and-rabbits' wood limping
invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing
sea. The houses are are blind as moles (though moles see fine tonight in the
snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by
the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows'
weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now.

Hush, the babies are sleeping, the farmers, the fishers, the tradesmen and
pensioners, cobbler, schoolteacher, postman and publican, the undertaker and the
fancy woman, drunkard, dressmaker, preacher, policeman, the webfoot cocklewomen
and the tidy wives. Young girls lie bedded soft or glide in their dreams, with
rings and trousseaux, bridesmaided by glow-worms down the aisles of the
organplaying wood.   The boys are dreaming wicked of the bucking ranches of the
night and the jollyrodgered sea.  And the anthracite statues of the horses sleep
in the fields, and the cows in the byres, and the dogs in the wet-nosed yard;
and the cats nap in the slant corners or lope sly, streaking and needling, on
the one cloud of the roofs.

You can hear the dew falling, and the hushed town breathing.

Only your eyes are unclosed to see the black and folded town fast, and slow,

And you alone can hear the invisible starfall, the darkest-before-dawn minutely
dewgrazed stir of the black, dab-filled sea where the Arethusa, the Curlew and
the Skylark, Zanzibar, Rhiannon, the Rover, the Cormorant, and the Star of Wales
tilt and ride.

Listen. It is night in the chill, squat chapel, hymning in bonnet and brooch and
bombazine black, butterfly choker and bootlace bow, coughing like nannygoats,
sucking mintoes, fortywinking hallelujah; night in the four-ale, quiet as a
domino; in Ocky Milkman's lofts like a mouse with gloves; in Dai Bread's bakery
flying like black flour. It is tonight in Donkey Street, trotting silent, with
seaweed on its hooves, along the cockled cobbles, past curtained fernpot, text
and trinket, harmonium, holy dresser, watercolours done by hand, china dog and
rosy tin teacaddy. It is night neddying among the snuggeries of babies.

Look. It is night, dumbly, royally winding through the Coronation cherry trees;
going through the graveyard of Bethesda with winds gloved and folded, and dew
doffed; tumbling by the Sailors Arms.

Time passes. Listen. Time passes.

Come closer now.

Only you can hear the houses sleeping in the streets in the slow deep salt and
silent black, bandaged night. Only you can see, in the blinded bedrooms, the
combs and petticoats over the chairs, the jugs and basins, the glasses of teeth,
Thou Shalt Not on the wall, and the yellowing dickybird-watching pictures of the
dead. Only you can hear and see, behind the eyes of the sleepers, the movements
and countries and mazes and colours and dismays and rainbows and tunes and
wished and flight and fall and despairs and big seas of their dreams.

 From where you are, you can hear their dreams...
-- Dylan Thomas
'Under Milk Wood' is subtitled 'A Play for Voices'; originally written for the
BBC, it has been performed countless times since Dylan Thomas' death in 1953,
and is quite possibly his best-loved work. Today's poem is an excerpt from it;
in fact, it's merey the first 20 or so lines of the play. I had to exercise the
strictest discipline to stop myself from running more - the entire work is every
bit as good as this prologue.

As usual with Thomas, the words are utterly magical, a torrent of sound and
colour. Note especially the use of transferred epithets (in phrases such as 'the
dogs in the wet-nosed yard') - more pronounced than in most of Thomas' work.


In response to comments/requests from several of our readers, Martin and I have
decided to add a new feature to the Minstrels - an occasional column titled
Poetry 101. This column is aimed at readers without much formal knowledge of
poetry - we'll be discussing things like the basics of rhyme and metre, the
histories of various poetic movements, the art of criticism, construction,
deconstruction and reconstruction... well, you get the idea.

Disclaimer: I am not a poet. Nor am I a critic, commentator, essayist, or Writer
(with a capital W) of any sort. Neither, for that matter, is Martin. Our only
claim to superior knowledge is that we both like poetry, and read a lot of it.
So please don't take our writings for gospel truth - in this (as with everything
else) we could be (and often are) wrong. And please do write in if you spot any
mistakes on our part - we're just beginners at this game!

If there's any particular topic you'd like us to talk about, you have only to
let us know.

[Poetry 101]

Today I'd like to talk about a dichotomy that's basic to the understanding of
poetry (and, for that matter, of all literature) - the difference between
'connotation' and 'denotation'.

Let's start with the meanings of the two words:
Connotation: the suggesting of a meaning by a word apart from the thing it
explicitly names or describes.
Denotation: meaning; especially a direct, specific meaning as distinct from an
implied or associated idea.

Thus you can think of the denotation of a word as being its 'dictionary
definiton', while the connotation as being all the baggage of facts and feelings
a word carries with it.

Consider, for instance, the word 'clipper'. It denotes 'a fast sailing ship,
especially one with long slender lines, an overhanging bow, tall masts, and a
large sail area'. But its connotations include the tea trade, the East India
Company, the Cutty Sark and the War of Jenkins' Ear; these in turn evoke
thoughts of Washington and the Revolution of 1776, Clive of India, Scottish
border ballads, the rise of Napoleon and Nelson...

As you can see, the connotations of a particular word can be endless;
furthermore, they depend critically on the person reading the word - someone
other than myself would associate a completely different set of images with the
word 'clipper'.

Poetry works by connotation [1]. The task of the poet is to choose, out of a
plethora of 'possible' words, the one word that fits both the
superficial/structural demands of the composition and the themes underlying the
work as a whole. It's not easy, but when it works it can be glorious.

To illustrate using the absurd, consider the following line:
    'My love is like a red red fruit'.
Although 'fruit' fits the poem structurally and semantically, it makes a mockery
of the line. Why? Simply because it has none of the associations (springtime,
purity, beauty... ) of the word 'rose'.

As the above example makes clear, the use of metaphor in poetry depends to a
large extent on the connotative power of words. And that's why connotation
offers immense scope for compression of meaning and emotion - a single
well-chosen syllable can replace reams of drab descriptive prose [2], as today's
poem vividly demonstrates. Dylan Thomas uses 'words as much for their
connotations and rhythmic/melodic properties as for their meanings' -  phrases
like 'the snouting, velvet dingles' convey a lot more than just the words that
make them up. And (as I've mentioned several times before) Thomas was the master
of the compressed metaphor; he 'juxtaposes disparate words into combinations
which seem utterly right.... [his] phrases, with their wealth of connotation and
descriptive detail, seem so natural that you don't even notice them on a first

I think that's enough for the day. More later.


[1] This is, of course, a shameless over-generalization. But bear with me,
[2] The key phrase is 'well-chosen'.

[Minstrels Links]

Dylan Thomas is one of my favourite poets (and Martin's, too), so there's a lot
of his stuff on the Minstrels website.

There's a brief biography of Dylan Thomas accompanying one of the very first
poems to be run on the Wondering Minstrels, Thomas' Prologue to his Collected
Poems, at poem #14

Prologue is in many ways similar to today's poem; a less dense work than either
is Poem In October, which (surprise!) I ran in October; you can read it at
poem #225

And similar to Poem In October in form and spirit is the beautiful Fern Hill,
poem #138

The commentary accompanying Fern Hill has more material on compressed metaphors
and Thomas' use of language; it also talks about Thomas' poetic philosophy. You
can learn more about the latter by reading everybody's favourite Dylan Thomas
poem, the utterly magnificent Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, poem #38


'Starless and Bible Black' is the title of a classic album by King Crimson.

How do I love thee? -- Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Guest poem submitted by Anustup Datta
(Poem #269) How do I love thee?
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
-- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
This poem was recently chosen the greatest love poem of all time in a large
readers' poll - not surprisingly, it has found place in nearly all large
anthologies. It formed part of the Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "Sonnets from
the Portuguese", written in her Italian days at the Casa Guidi. It is addressed
to her husband, who used to call her 'My little Portuguese" as she was dark. I
was recently reminded of this poem while watching a re-run of 'The Barretts of
Wimpole Street' with Lawrence Olivier and Greer Garson in the lead - marvellous
performances in a marvellous play.

I think this is the epitome of the love poem - the heart pours out its emotions
in every word. I love the way in which the simple words echo when one reads it
aloud, and lines 9-12 are simply sublime. Also, I feel that the conventional
sonnet form has an intrinsic power that lends itself to intense outbursts of
emotion - for instance, Shakespeare's "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"
or Keats' "On first looking into Chapman's Homer". But notice how here the form
is subservient to the emotion - one is actually surprised to note how
effortlessly the scansion moves. All in all, a simply marvellous poem.


[Minstrels Links]

Both the othe sonnets mentioned have been covered on this list. 'On First
Looking into Chapman's Homer' is at poem #12, while
'Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day' (Sonnet XVIII) is at poem #71.


Elizabeth Barrett, an English poet of the Romantic Movement, was born in 1806 at
Coxhoe Hall, Durham, England. The oldest of twelve children, Elizabeth was the
first in her family born in England in over two hundred years. For centuries,
the Barrett family, who were part Creole, had lived in Jamaica, where they owned
sugar plantations and relied on slave labor. Elizabeth's father, Edward Barrett
Moulton Barrett, chose to raise his family in England, while his fortune grew in
Jamaica. Educated at home, Elizabeth apparently had read passages from Paradise
Lost and a number of Shakespearean plays, among other great works, before the
age of ten. By her twelfth year she had written her first "epic" poem, which
consisted of four books of rhyming couplets. Two years later, Elizabeth
developed a lung ailment that plagued her for the rest of her life. Doctors
began treating her with morphine, which she would take until her death. While
saddling a pony when she was fifteen, Elizabeth also suffered a spinal injury.
Despite her ailments, her education continued to flourish. Throughout her
teenage years, Elizabeth taught herself Hebrew so that she could read the Old
Testament; her interests later turned to Greek studies. Accompanying her
appetite for the classics was a passionate enthusiasm for her Christian faith.
She became active in the Bible and Missionary Societies of her church.

In 1826 Elizabeth anonymously published her collection An Essay on Mind and
Other Poems. Two years later, her mother passed away. The slow abolition of
slavery in England and mismanagement of the plantations depleted the Barrett's
income, and in 1832, Elizabeth's father sold his rural estate at a public
auction. He moved his family to a coastal town and rented cottages for the next
three years, before settling permanently in London. While living on the sea
coast, Elizabeth published her translation of Prometheus Bound (1833), by the
Greek dramatist Aeschylus.

Gaining notoriety for her work in the 1830's, Elizabeth continued to live in her
father's London house under his tyrannical rule. He began sending Elizabeth's
younger siblings to Jamaica to help with the family's estates. Elizabeth
bitterly opposed slavery and did not want her siblings sent away. During this
time, she wrote The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838), expressing Christian
sentiments in the form of classical Greek tragedy. Due to her weakening
disposition she was forced to spend a year at the sea of Torquay accompanied by
her brother Edward, whom she referred to as "Bro." He drowned later that year
while sailing at Torquay and Elizabeth returned home emotionally broken,
becoming an invalid and a recluse. She spent the next five years in her bedroom
at her father's home. She continued writing, however, and in 1844 produced a
collection entitled simply Poems. This volume gained the attention of poet
Robert Browning, whose work Elizabeth had praised in one of her poems, and he
wrote her a letter.

Elizabeth and Robert, who was six years her junior, exchanged 574 letters over
the next twenty months. Immortalized in 1930 in the play The Barretts of Wimpole
Street, by Rudolf Besier (1878-1942), their romance was bitterly opposed by her
father, who did not want any of his children to marry. In 1846, the couple
eloped and settled in Florence, Italy, where Elizabeth's health improved and she
bore a son, Robert Wideman Browning. Her father never spoke to her again.
Elizabeth's Sonnets from the Portuguese, dedicated to her husband and written in
secret before her marriage, was published in 1850. Critics generally consider
the Sonnets--one of the most widely known collections of love lyrics in
English--to be her best work. Admirers have compared her imagery to Shakespeare
and her use of the Italian form to Petrarch.

Political and social themes embody Elizabeth's later work. She expressed her
intense sympathy for the struggle for the unification of Italy in Casa Guidi
Windows (1848-51) and Poems Before Congress (1860). In 1857 Browning published
her verse novel Aurora Leigh, which portrays male domination of a woman. In her
poetry she also addressed the oppression of the Italians by the Austrians, the
child labor mines and mills of England, and slavery, among other social
injustices. Although this decreased her popularity, Elizabeth was heard and
recognized around Europe.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in Florence on June 29, 1861.

The Dalliance of the Eagles -- Walt Whitman

(Poem #268) The Dalliance of the Eagles
 Skirting the river road, (my forenoon walk, my rest,)
 Skyward in air a sudden muffled sound, the dalliance of the eagles,
 The rushing amorous contact high in space together,
 The clinching interlocking claws, a living, fierce, gyrating wheel,
 Four beating wings, two beaks, a swirling mass tight grappling,
 In tumbling turning clustering loops, straight downward falling
 Till o'er the river pois'd, the twain yet one, a moment's lull,
 A motionless still balance in the air, then parting, talons loosing,
 Upward again on slow-firm pinions slanting, their separate diverse flight,
 She hers, he his, pursuing.
-- Walt Whitman
A rushing, soaring, stunningly kinetic poem. If Tennyson's eagle was
majestic, Whitman's are *alive*, splashed across the page in a vibrant
celebration of life, sex and energy. To quote from the Britannica's
assessment of his work,

  "Whitman's greatest theme is a symbolic identification of the regenerative
  power of nature with the deathless divinity of the soul. His poems are
  filled with a religious faith in the processes of life, particularly those
  of fertility, sex, and the "unflagging pregnancy" of nature: sprouting
  grass, mating birds, phallic vegetation, the maternal ocean, and planets
  in formation ("the journey-work of stars")."

The language is vivid and descriptive even for Whitman - I find it
impossible to read the poem and not *see* the eagles, spinning and gyrating
against the azure[1] sky.

[1] 'Why azure?' I hear you ask. Well, first off, a poem like this seems to
call for a perfect day as backdrop. But more fundamentally, I suspect that
I'll never be able to see an eagle referred to without having Tennyson's
magnificent poem (see the links) flash through my mind.


Tennyson's 'Eagle': poem #15

Other Whitman poems, including an extensive biography and assessment:
  poem #54, poem #157, and poem #246.


The Meadow Mouse -- Theodore Roethke

Was planning to run this immediately after 'The Midnightmouse' last week, but
(Poem #267) The Meadow Mouse

In a shoe box stuffed in an old nylon stocking
Sleeps the baby mouse I found in the meadow,
Where he trembled and shook beneath a stick
Till I caught him up by the tail and brought him in,
Cradled in my hand,
A little quaker, the whole body of him trembling,
His absurd whiskers sticking out like a cartoon-mouse,
His feet like small leaves,
Little lizard-feet,
Whitish and spread wide when he tried to struggle away,
Wriggling like a minuscule puppy.

Now he's eaten his three kinds of cheese and drunk from his
        bottle-cap watering-trough--
So much he just lies in one corner,
His tail curled under him, his belly big
As his head; his bat-like ears
Twitching, tilting toward the least sound.

Do I imagine he no longer trembles
When I come close to him?
He seems no longer to tremble.


But this morning the shoe-box house on the back porch is empty.
Where has he gone, my meadow mouse,
My thumb of a child that nuzzled in my palm?--
To run under the hawk's wing,
Under the eye of the great owl watching from the elm-tree,
To live by courtesy of the shrike, the snake, the tom-cat.

I think of the nestling fallen into the deep grass,
The turtle gasping in the dusty rubble of the highway,
The paralytic stunned in the tub, and the water rising,--
All things innocent, hapless, forsaken.
-- Theodore Roethke
What most interests me about today's poem is its division into two very distinct
parts. It starts off as an exceedingly ordinary animal poem, of the sort that
abounds in school workbooks. Indeed, if I didn't know its provenance, I would be
tempted to label it juvenilia (and not very precocious juvenilia at that) and
think no more about it.

The second section, though, is everything that the first is not - original,
disturbing, provocative, carefully constructed... I especially like the
phrasing: while it's not stunning in and of itself, it is very effective at what
it sets out to do, and it's original enough to stick in your mind.

The transition isn't particularly abrupt, but it's very noticeable. And most
definitely intentional - the final stanza (the actual crux of the poem) wouldn't
work half as well without what went before it. In a sense, the very ineptitude
of the first section draws attention to the power of the last ten lines.
Skilfully done.



Theodore Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1908. As a child, he spent
much time in the greenhouse owned by his father and uncle. His impressions of
the natural world contained there would later profoundly influence the subjects
and imagery of his verse. Roethke attended the University of Michigan and took a
few classes at Harvard, but was unhappy in school. His first book, Open House
(1941), took ten years to write and was critically acclaimed upon its
publication. He went on to publish sparingly but his reputation grew with each
new collection, including The Waking which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in

He admired the writing of such poets as Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Blake, and
Wordsworth, as well as Yeats and Dylan Thomas. Stylistically his work ranged
from witty poems in strict meter and regular stanzas to free verse poems full of
mystical and surrealistic imagery. At all times, however, the natural world in
all its mystery, beauty, fierceness, and sensuality, is close by, and the poems
are possessed of an intense lyricism. Roethke had close literary friendships
with fellow poets W. H. Auden, Louise Bogan, Stanley Kunitz, and William Carlos
Williams. He taught at various colleges and universities, including Lafayette,
Pennsylvania State, and Bennington, and worked last at the University of
Washington, where he was mentor to a generation of Northwest poets that included
David Wagoner, Carolyn Kizer, and Richard Hugo. Theodore Roethke died in 1963.

The Litany for Doneraile -- Patrick O'Kelly

(Poem #266) The Litany for Doneraile
  Alas! how dismal is my tale,
  I lost my watch in Doneraile.
  My Dublin watch, my chain and seal,
  Pilfer'd at once in Doneraile.
  My Fire and Brimstone never fail
  To fall in show'rs on Doneraile.
  My all the leading Fiends assail
  The thieving Town of Doneraile.
  As light'ning's flash across the vale,
  So down to Hell with Doneraile.
  May Beef or Mutton, Lamb or Veal,
  Be never found in Doneraile,
  But Garlic Soup and scurvy Cale
  Be still the food for Doneraile.
  May Heav'n a chosen Curse entail
  On rigid rotten Doneraile.
  May Sun and Moon for ever fail
  To beam their lights on Doneraile.
  May ev'ry pestilential Gale
  Blast that curs'd spot called Doneraile.
  May no Cuckoo, Thrush, or Quail,
  Be ever heard in Doneraile.
  May Patriots, Kings, and Commonweal,
  Despise and harass Doneraile.
  May ev'ry Post, Gazette and Mail,
  Sad tiding bring of Doneraile.
  May profit light and tardy sale
  Still damp the Trade of Doneraile.
  May not one wish or pray'r avail
  To soothe the woes of Doneraile.
  May th'Inquisition straight impale
  The Rapparies of Doneraile.
  May curse of Sodom now prevail
  And sink to ashes Doneraile.
  May Charon's Boat triumphant sail
  Completely Mann'd from Doneraile.
  May ev'ry churn and milking pail
  Fall dry to staves in Doneraile.
  May vengeance fall at head and tail,
  From North to South at Doneraile.
  May Egypt's plagues at once prevail
  To thin the Knaves of Doneraile.
  May frost & snow, and sleet & hail
  Benumb each joint in Doneraile.
  May wolves & bloodhounds trace & trail
  The cursed crew of Doneraile.
  May Oscar with his fiery flail
  To Atoms thresh all Doneraile.
  May ev'ry mischief fresh and stale
  Abide henceforth in Doneraile.
  May all from Belfast to Kinsale
  Scoff, curse, and damn you, Doneraile.
  May want and woe each joy curtail
  That e'er was known in Doneraile.
  May not one Coffin want a nail
  That wraps a rogue in Doneraile.
  May all the Sons of Granaweal
  Blush at the thieves of Doneraile.
  May Curses wholesale and retail
  Pour with full force on Doneraile.
  Oh! may my Couplets never fail
  To find new cures for Doneraile.
-- Patrick O'Kelly
A wonderful Irish curse, full of fire, brimstone and enthusiasm. Whatever
the poet may have lacked for, it certainly wasn't inspiration, and the
couplet form, ending every second line with 'Doneraile', brings out his ire
beautifully. The fact that he paid to have it printed (see note) suggests
the incident is true - ah, the fine art of wrathful vengenace :)



Seamus Cooney, whose page I found this on, says 'A vigorous example by
a little-known early 19th century author (1754-1835?), who paid to have it
printed in 1812.'
        -- [broken link]

I couldn't find a biography of O'Kelly's - 'little known' appears to have
been accurate, and a web search came up with nothing. If you know anything
about him, do write in.

The Mad Gardener's Song -- Lewis Carroll

... no matter how many times I read this, it still makes me smile...
(Poem #265) The Mad Gardener's Song
He thought he saw an Elephant,
That practised on a fife:
He looked again, and found it was
A letter from his wife.
'At length I realise,' he said,
The bitterness of Life!'

He thought he saw a Buffalo
Upon the chimney-piece:
He looked again, and found it was
His Sister's Husband's Niece.
'Unless you leave this house,' he said,
"I'll send for the Police!'

He thought he saw a Rattlesnake
That questioned him in Greek:
He looked again, and found it was
The Middle of Next Week.
'The one thing I regret,' he said,
'Is that it cannot speak!'

He thought he saw a Banker's Clerk
Descending from the bus:
He looked again, and found it was
A Hippopotamus.
'If this should stay to dine,' he said,
'There won't be much for us!'

He thought he saw a Kangaroo
That worked a coffee-mill:
He looked again, and found it was
A Vegetable-Pill.
'Were I to swallow this,' he said,
'I should be very ill!'

He thought he saw a Coach-and-Four
That stood beside his bed:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bear without a Head.
'Poor thing,' he said, 'poor silly thing!
It's waiting to be fed!'

He thought he saw an Albatross
That fluttered round the lamp:
He looked again, and found it was
A Penny-Postage Stamp.
'You'd best be getting home,' he said:
'The nights are very damp!'

He thought he saw a Garden-Door
That opened with a key:
He looked again, and found it was
A Double Rule of Three:
'And all its mystery,' he said,
'Is clear as day to me!'

He thought he saw a Argument
That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bar of Mottled Soap.
'A fact so dread,' he faintly said,
'Extinguishes all hope!'
-- Lewis Carroll
Incongruity of this order is a high art. Indeed, it's astonishingly difficult to
pull off - there's more to it than just stringing random words together, as any
aspiring nonsense-poet will tell you. And today's poem is one of the very best -
whimsical, unexpected, even bizarre at times, yet consistently matter-of-fact
and deadpan - it's the tone of voice that does the trick, as much as the
incocngruity of the images.

As with the poems of Edward Lear (surely his only rival for the title of High
Priest of the Absurd), notice how simple Carroll's versification is - regular
iambic heptameters, simple masculine end-rhymes, and a well-defined template for
each stanza - the idea being to focus attention on the 'action' (such as it is),
not distract the reader with elaborate metaphors and complex metrical schemes.
That it works as it does is a tribute to Carroll's imagination.

Pope Thomas the First.

(Oops, that's Thomas the Freshly-Washed-In-Mottled-Soap, actually :-))

[Minstrels Links]

The canonical examples of nonsense poetry are Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky,
at poem #52 and Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussy-Cat, at poem #165.


Lewis Carroll is the pseudonym of the English writer and mathematician Charles
Lutwidge Dodgson, b. Jan. 27, 1832, d. Jan. 14, 1898, known especially for
children's books that are also distinguished as satire and as examples of verbal
wit. Carroll invented his pen name by translating his first two names into the
Latin "Carolus Lodovicus" and then anglicizing it into "Lewis Carroll."

The son of a clergyman and the firstborn of 11 children, Carroll began at an
early age to entertain himself and his family with magic tricks, marionette
shows, and poems written for homemade newspapers. From 1846 to 1850 he attended
Rugby School; he graduated from Christ Church College, Oxford, in 1854. Carroll
remained there, lecturing on mathematics and writing treatises and guides for
students. Although he took deacon's orders in 1861, Carroll was never ordained a
priest, partly because he was afflicted with a stammer that made preaching
difficult and partly, perhaps, because he had discovered other interests.

Among Carroll's avocations was photography, at which he became proficient. He
excelled especially at photographing children. Alice Liddell, one of the three
daughters of Henry George Liddell, the dean of Christ Church, was one of his
photographic subjects and the model for the fictional Alice.

Carroll's comic and children's works also include The Hunting of the Snark
(1876), two collections of humorous verse, and the two parts of Sylvie and Bruno
(1889, 1893), unsuccessful attempts to re-create the Alice fantasies.

As a mathematician, Carroll was conservative and derivative. As a logician, he
was more interested in logic as a game than as an instrument for testing reason.
In his diversions as a photographer and author of comic fantasy, he is most
memorable and original--the man who, for example, contributed, in "Jabberwocky,"
the word chortle, a portmanteau word that combines "snort" and "chuckle," to the
English language.

    -- Donald Gray,

A more comprehensive bio can be found at [broken link]

There Was a Man Who Lived a Life of Fire (The Black Riders LXII) -- Stephen Crane

(Poem #264) There Was a Man Who Lived a Life of Fire (The Black Riders LXII)
 There was a man who lived a life of fire.
 Even upon the fabric of time,
 Where purple becomes orange
 And orange purple,
 This life glowed,
 A dire red stain, indelible;
 Yet when he was dead,
 He saw that he had not lived.
-- Stephen Crane
We've had a poem by Crane quite recently, but I thought this made a perfect
followup to 'Recompense'. Crane, characteristically enough, sets up all the
standard images, then turns them on thier heads with the final lines.

I've already said that one of the things I like about Crane is his ability
to challenge set world-views and make the reader think; while today's poem
certainly satisfies this, it also exhibits Crane's sheer skill as a poet.
Yes, the central theme of the first six lines is thoroughly standard; still,
Crane has handled it with both vividness and economy. Indeed, the ending was
a bit of a disappointment; I felt that the first six lines would have made a
wonderful poem in their own right, and while I can see his reasons both for
the change of tone and the almost antipoetic[1] way in which it was
expressed, I still feel that neither the idea nor its juxtaposition with the
first theme were original enough to compensate for the letdown.

[1] yes, this is a technical term. no, I am not using it in its technical


More about Crane at poem #196

Recompense is at poem #261

I've done a somewhat related theme on death in the flames
   - see poem #34, poem #36, and poem #38.


Sonnet: Dolce stil novo -- Gavin Ewart

Thanks to Vikram Doctor for suggesting Gavin Ewart (whom I hadn't even heard of
(Poem #263) Sonnet: Dolce stil novo
That woman who to me seems most a woman
I do not compare to angels --- or digress on schismatic Popes ---
or exalt above the terrestrial or consider a madonna.
Nor do I search in others for her lineaments,
or wish for Death to free me from desire,
or consider Love an archer; or see her as a Daphne,
fleeing the embraces of Apollo, transformed into a laurel.
I am not lost in the amorous wood of Virgil.

But although I do not rhyme or use the soft Italian,
my love is a strong love, and for a certain person.
Human beings are human; I can see a man might envy
her bath water as it envelops her completely.
That's what my love would like to do; and Petrarch
can take a running jump at himself --- or (perhaps?) agree.
-- Gavin Ewart
A straightforward sonnet, more than mildly reminiscent of Shakespeare's 'My
Mistress' Eyes Are Nothing Like The Sun ' [1]. Nothing more to say, so I'll say


[1] Sonnet 130, poem #44


Ewart, Gavin Buchanan (1916-1996):  Ewart first published poems at the age of 17
in Geoffrey Grigson's New verse of 1933. After graduating at Christ's College,
Cambridge, he served in the Royal Artillery from 1940 to 1946, and worked for
the British Council from 1946 to 1952, and then as a copywriter in advertising
until 1971, when he became a full-time freelance writer. He became a Fellow of
the Royal Society of Literature in 1981. His works include Be my guest (1975),
Or where a young penguin lies screaming (1978),  All my little ones(1978), The
first eleven (1977) and No fool like an old fool (1976).

[Minstrels Links]

My favourite sonnet is Keats' unforgettable 'On First Looking Into Chapman's
Homer', which you can read at poem #12

A poem similar in its matter-of-factness and insight is Edwin Morgan's 'The
Unspoken', which can be found at poem #147

And as in so many other things, Shakespeare was there first and did it best with
Sonnet 130, 'My Mistress' Eyes', at poem #44

[Random Thought]

Is it just me or is there a hint of Blake in the juxtaposition of 'lineaments'
with 'desire'?

No Coward Soul is Mine -- Emily Bronte

Guest poem sent in by Mallika
(Poem #262) No Coward Soul is Mine
  No coward soul is mine,
  No trembler in the worlds storm-troubled sphere:
  I see Heavens glories shine,
  And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.

  O God within my breast.
  Almighty, ever-present Deity!
  Life -- that in me has rest,
  As I -- Undying Life -- have power in Thee!

  Vain are the thousand creeds
  That move mens hearts: unutterably vain;
  Worthless as withered weeds,
  Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,

  To waken doubt in one
  Holding so fast by Thine infinity;
  So surely anchored on
  The steadfast Rock of immortality.

  With wide-embracing love
  Thy Spirit animates eternal years,
  Pervades and broods above,
  Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears.

  Though earth and man were gone,
  And suns and universes ceased to be,
  And Thou wert left alone,
  Every existence would exist in Thee.

  There is not room for Death,
  Nor atom that his might could render void:
  Thou -- Thou art Being and Breath,
  And what Thou art may never be destroyed.
-- Emily Bronte
Why do I like it?

1. this poem underlines the fact that faith is a very personal experience,
unlike organised religion - "the thousand creeds".

2. The metaphysical cannot be dismissed - "Tho' Earth and Man were gone, ..
" reminds me forcefully of Agatha Christie's Hound of Death. We have no hope
of knowing the context in which this Terra exists. However, it is probably
safe to say that "all things are possible in this best of all possible
worlds" (who said that?) [Voltaire: "All is for the best in this best of all
possible worlds" - m.] and that there are in fact as many other worlds as
are possible.

3. This always brings me to my most fantastic theory (not mine, actually,
but most fantastic to me, because of the possibilities it holds out) that
every time we reach a crossroads in our lives, no matter how minor, there
are as many "instances" created as there are possible decisions, and these
play themselves out, sometimes meeting and merging, sometimes diverging
forever. Singlemindedness is to be recommended in this scenario, as the
strength of each "instance" is directly proportional to the "what-iffing" it
evokes. This is what causes some individuals to succeed while others spread
themselves too thin.

4. What does that have to say about the copies of others that exist and act
in our personal "instances"? Finally, that each of us has our very own
reality, and no matter what the others actually do, we interpret those
actions to suit our own needs. i.e. we are mostly living in a world peopled
with figments of our own imagination.

Here is a better critique:

  The God Within
  By Madeline Clark

  Every generation of humanity has its mystics. They are not to be described
  as a type, for each one is an original, individual, if not actually
  unique. But one factor they have in common, broadly speaking: they have
  glimpses behind the veil into the world of causes. They dwell nearer the
  heart of things where Truth abides. Jakob Boehme and William Blake come to
  mind, universally loved and revered.

  One of the most interesting and appealing of these rare souls was a young
  woman whose early death leaves her among the ever-young. A girl who grew
  up in her father's parsonage on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors: Emily
  Bronte, who wrote the still popular Wuthering Heights. The wide, wild,
  windswept moors, brooding in mystery, no better place to nurture such a

  Emily has left us a precious volume of verse, stamped with her own
  peculiar quality, and the most famous of the poems is the one beginning

    No coward soul is mine,
    No trembler in the world's storm-troubled sphere

  This poem has been pronounced one of "the greatest in the language," and
  it is apparent that something came straight through to her in a moment of
  inspired insight. It was the last she ever wrote, and it could well be
  that already she was beginning to experience that clear vision into
  Realities that is said by old philosophers to come to those just passing
  through into "the world of light."

  Those familiar with certain ancient but always recognizable teachings that
  have come to us over the many ages will be electrified to find Emily's
  glorious lines echoing thoughts they have loved for so long. They are the
  perfect tribute to the Divine, which she invokes with

    O God within my breast,
    Almighty, ever-present Deity!
    Life -- that in me has rest,
    As I -- undying Life -- have power in Thee!

  The sacred presence of the Divine is within every sentient being, is
  coexistent with life itself, and is the wing-lifting energy through which
  we share in the universal pageant of experience. It is to her infinity,
  immortality, for later lines are

    With wide-embracing love
    Thy Spirit animates eternal years,
    Pervades and broods above,
    Changes, sustains, dissolves, Creates, and rears.

  Here she has touched upon the compassion that is the life-giving force
  guiding all evolution. It is interwoven with our destiny.

  Many will recognize this as a most important truth, for a coldly
  mechanistic universe would have no incentive to evolve, and would be, I
  feel, unthinkable. But compassion animates indeed, and raises the great
  concourse of beings ever closer to the Divine. That last line sets forth
  in few words the way that Nature works to bring about the universal
  transformation: "Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears," a
  perfect description of cyclic evolution, with the coming into being of
  worlds, their continuance for a period, then their dissolution, only to be
  re-created and built up once more.

  But through all change there is yet the Changeless:
    Though earth and man were gone,
    And suns and universes ceased to be,
    And Thou were left alone,
    Every existence would exist in Thee.

  We are left with the deep consciousness of everlastingness, the
  reassurance that the Divine is always with us -- is in fact our inmost.

  In this connection, to go back to 1846, the year in which the poem was
  written: who talked then of suns and universes in this sense? The
  universe, perhaps, but universes! Immediately the concept becomes
  stupendous; and here was a frail young woman with little knowledge of
  the world daring to conceive of Space itself and of the august
  hierarchies that people it. As she says,

    There is not room for Death,
    Nor atom that his might could render void:

  A highly scientific, and at the same time metaphysical pronouncement.
  Then to close:

    Thou -- Thou art Being and Breath,
    And what Thou art may never be destroyed.

  She has brought us to the very heart of all Being and left us with
  mighty confidence and a mighty trust.

  So this is one of the great poems because genius has caught a great
  truth and set it down in words of fire. It has the sure touch, no hint
  of the common search for the right word. There are books of philosophy
  in which all this is set forth, but a flash of the poetic insight can be
  the lightning that brings not only illumination but realization.

  (From Sunrise magazine, February 1976. Copyright © 1976 by Theosophical
  University Press)


Recompense -- Robert E Howard

(Poem #261) Recompense
 I have not heard lutes beckon me, nor the brazen bugles call,
 But once in the dim of a haunted lea I heard the silence fall.
 I have not heard the regal drum, nor seen the flags unfurled,
 But I have watched the dragons come, fire-eyed, across the world.

 I have not seen the horsemen fall before the hurtling host,
 But I have paced a silent hall where each step waked a ghost.
 I have not kissed the tiger-feet of a strange-eyed golden god,
 But I have walked a city's street where no man else had trod.

 I have not raised the canopies that shelter revelling kings,
 But I have fled from crimson eyes and black unearthly wings.
 I have not knelt outside the door to kiss a pallid queen,
 But I have seen a ghostly shore that no man else has seen.

 I have not seen the standards sweep from keep and castle wall,
 But I have seen a woman leap from a dragon's crimson stall,
 And I have heard strange surges boom that no man heard before,
 And seen a strange black city loom on a mystic night-black shore.

 And I have felt the sudden blow of a nameless wind's cold breath,
 And watched the grisly pilgrims go that walk the roads of Death,
 And I have seen black valleys gape, abysses in the gloom,
 And I have fought the deathless Ape that guards the Doors of Doom.

 I have not seen the face of Pan, nor mocked the Dryad's haste,
 But I have trailed a dark-eyed Man across a windy waste.
 I have not died as men may die, nor sin as men have sinned,
 But I have reached a misty sky upon a granite wind.
-- Robert E Howard
For those of you who have never heard of Robert E Howard, he was to
swords-and-sorcery what Tolkien was to high fantasy. His Conan books
practically defined the genre for later authors; he stands along with
Tolkien as one of the founders of modern fantasy.

Unlike Tolkien, he did not intersperse his novels and stories with poetry;
nonetheless many of his poems clearly inhabit the same general fantasy
universe that his fiction does. Today's, for instance, deals with the
age-old theme of a barbarian commenting on civilized life; there is, of
course, little doubt as to where Howard's own sympathies lie.

As for the poem itself; as befits a barbarian's outpourings, it is more
energetic than polished; a somewhat disconnected sequence of highly vivid
images expressed in strong, masculine couplets[1]. The imagery is, of
course, instantly familiar to anyone who has read any sword-and-sorcery
fantasy; while it does at times appear cliched I have to wonder how much of
that was due to Howard's influence on the field.

  [1] masculine rhymes are those that rhyme on the final syllable only.

Then again, long exposure to fantasy has meant that even the triter phrases
are laden with associations, and thus evocative when set against the
backdrop of the genre. Which is only appropriate, given how heavily the
genre was influenced by Howard - it has in a sense helped lend his own works
a certain measure of timelessness. I do have a few complaints against the
poem - the occasional break in scansion, a few words I wish he'd avoided,
and especially the abruptness of the ending - but they're far outweighed by
the sheer cornucopia of strange and wondrous images.



The Britannica, oddly enough, doesn't deign to list either Howard or Conan.
There is also (somewhat ironically) a lot more on the net about Conan than
about Howard; still, I did manage to find the following biography:

Here's an excerpt, but do follow up te link, if only for the Howard quote at
the beginning:

  Robert Ervin Howard was born in Peaster, Texas in 1906. The son of one of
  the southwest's most prominent pioneer physicians, Howard's youth
  coincided with the last days of Americas frontier culture, a fact that
  would forever influence him and his stories.

  Very early on, Howard steeped himself in the folklore and history of the
  southwest, the Rio Grande valley. He became fascinated with the legendary
  virility and strength of the pioneers and delighted in the innate poetry
  found in the exploration of virgin land.

  At the age of 15, he began writing his yarns, tales of savage men living
  outside the rest of society, battling against other men, for land and
  pride. Though the circumstances and settings changed, the hero, or
  anti-hero, was always somehow a shade of the same creature--part savage,
  part nobleman, part poet, part pioneer--not unlike Howard himself.

  Always described as an imposingly tall, dark, brawny man with piercing
  blue eyes, Howard's characters were as much himself as they were pulled
  from his extraordinary imagination. Howard's mentor and friend, the
  legendary father of pulp fiction H.P. Lovecraft, described him as "a lover
  of the simpler, older world of barbarian and pioneer days, when courage
  and strength took the place of subtlety and stratagem, and when a hardy,
  fearless race battled and bled...the real secret [of Howards stories] is
  that he himself is in every one of them..."


  [broken link] is a pretty comprehensive Howard
  site. is worth a look, too

  Howard fandom is alive and well - see
  [broken link]

  and the web ring at [broken link]

Moonrise -- Gerard Manley Hopkins

(Poem #260) Moonrise
I awoke in the Midsummer not to call night, in the white and the walk of the
The moon, dwindled and thinned to the fringe of a finger-nail held to the
Or paring of paradisaical fruit, lovely in waning but lustreless,
Stepped from the stool, drew back from the barrow, of dark Maenefa the mountain;

A cusp still clasped him, a fluke yet fanged him, entangled him, not quite
This was the prized, the desirable sight, unsought, presented so easily,
Parted me leaf and leaf, divided me, eyelid and eyelid of slumber.
-- Gerard Manley Hopkins
This is one of the many unpublished fragments left behind in Hopkins' notebooks
[1], hence its rather disconnected nature. I'm running it for its rhythms -
they're absolutely beautiful, especially the first two lines. I'm not quite sure
if the verse itself has any meaning, though...


[1] Fragment Poem #60, to be precise.

[Minstrels Links]

My favourite Hopkins poem is 'Inversnaid', which you can read at poem #3
 - yes, poem #3, one of the very first poems to be run on this group -
   ancient history, so to speak.

I wrote an essay about Hopkins' use of sound which I was quite pleased with; it
forms part of the commentary which accompanies 'Pied Beauty', at poem #134

Another poem which sounds exquisite but doesn't mean a thing (and intentionally
so) is Algernon Swinburne's wonderful 'Nephelidia', at poem #99

[About 'Maenefa']

Although it sounds like a fantasy world  (Hi Martin!), Maenafa is a real place -
a township in the Welsh parish of Tremeirchion in Flintshire. (The other
townships in Tremeirchion are Bryngwyn Esgob, Llan, Graig and Bachegraig - as
you've no doubt guessed, I include this piece of useless information merely for
the sound of the Welsh words).

"Tremeirchion is a considerable parish in the Vale of Clwyd, chiefly notable for
the splendid Jesuit College (St. Bueno's) which it possesses. The college stands
on an elevation, and a little distance from it on the top of a hill is a neat
little chapel; a charming view of the country for many miles is obtainable here.
Indeed the scenery to be looked upon is of a rich and varied description, and
numbers avail themselves of the luxury during the summer months."
    -- from  'A Postal Directory of Flintshire', 1886.

And it should come as no surprise that Hopkins studied theology at the
abovementioned college and called himself by the Welsh pseudonym 'Bran Maenefa'.

" ... the roots of Hopkins' Welsh pseudonym 'Bran Maenefa' lie in the Hopkins
family's lifelong nicknaming habits, in frequent comparisons of black-gowned
priests to crowish birds, and in the Crows' Nests, seats atop trees near Saint
Bueno's College, where Hopkins studied in Wales."
    --  from 'Hopkins as the Crow of Maenefa' (Hopkins Quarterly vol. 23, nos.
3-4 [Summer/Fall 1996]: pp. 113-120), Norman White .

It's amazing what you can find on the Web, isn't it?

Songs from an Evil Wood -- Lord Dunsany

A doubly appropriate poem...
(Poem #259) Songs from an Evil Wood

 There is no wrath in the stars,
       They do not rage in the sky;
 I look from the evil wood
       And find myself wondering why.

 Why do they not scream out
       And grapple star against star,
 Seeking for blood in the wood,
       As all things round me are?

 They do not glare like the sky
       Or flash like the deeps of the wood;
 But they shine softly on
       In their sacred solitude.

 To their happy haunts
       Silence from us has flown,
 She whom we loved of old
       And know it now she is gone.

 When will she come again
       Though for one second only?
 She whom we loved is gone
       And the whole world is lonely.

 And the elder giants come
       Sometimes, tramping from far,
 Through the weird and flickering light
       Made by an earthly star.

 And the giant with his club,
       And the dwarf with rage in his breath,
 And the elder giants from far,
       They are the children of Death.

 They are all abroad to-night
       And are breaking the hills with their brood,
 And the birds are all asleep,
       Even in Plugstreet Wood.


 Somewhere lost in the haze
       The sun goes down in the cold,
 And birds in this evil wood
       Chirrup home as of old;

 Chirrup, stir and are still,
       On the high twigs frozen and thin.
 There is no more noise of them now,
       And the long night sets in.

 Of all the wonderful things
       That I have seen in the wood,
 I marvel most at the birds,
       At their chirp and their quietude.

 For a giant smites with his club
       All day the tops of the hill,
 Sometimes he rests at night,
       Oftener he beats them still.

 And a dwarf with a grim black mane
       Raps with repeated rage
 All night in the valley below
       On the wooden walls of his cage.


 I met with Death in his country,
       With his scythe and his hollow eye
 Walking the roads of Belgium.
       I looked and he passed me by.

 Since he passed me by in Plug Street,
       In the wood of the evil name,
 I shall not now lie with the heroes,
       I shall not share their fame;

 I shall never be as they are,
       A name in the land of the Free,
 Since I looked on Death in Flanders
       And he did not look at me.
-- Lord Dunsany
I was considering interrupting this week's theme to post a World War I poem,
and will admit to getting carried away by the sheer serendipity of finding
one written by a fantasy author.

Like Wodehouse, Dunsany's prose is far better than his poetry; still,
today's poem gives some indication of his style - highly coloured,
imaginative, abundantly supplied with imagery and atmosphere, and fantastic
in every sense of the word.

The last section anchors the poem directly in reality (Dunsany was a WW1
veteran), and involves a fairly noticeable change in style. The images are
quieter, and less 'wild', the tense shifts slightly into reminiscence.
While in no way original (all the images and concepts have been used time
and again, and by a number of poets) it winds up the poem nicely and leaves
the reader with an interesting blend of the more ominous aspects of fantasy
and reality.


  Dunsany, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th baron of

   b. July 24, 1878, London d. Oct. 25, 1957, Dublin

  Irish dramatist and storyteller, whose many popular works combined
  imaginative power with intellectual ingenuity to create a credible world
  of fantasy.

  Educated at Eton and Sandhurst, Dunsany served in the South African War
  and World War I. His first book of short stories was The Gods of Pegana
  (1905); his first play, The Glittering Gate, was produced by the Abbey
  Theatre in Dublin in 1909; and his first London production, The Gods of
  the Mountain, at the Haymarket Theatre in 1911. As in his more than 50
  subsequent verse plays, novels, short stories and memoirs, in these works
  Dunsany explored in a richly coloured prose mysterious kingdoms of fairies
  and gods; he also introduced a characteristic element of the macabre.

        -- EB


For a wonderful site on Lord Dunsany, see
  <[broken link]>

Some WW1 and related poems run previously on Minstrels:

  'In Flanders Fields', probably both the best-known and the best WW1 poem: poem #11
  'Tommy' - not directly WW1 related, but nonetheless relevant: poem #43
  'Dover Beach': poem #89