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The Knight's Portrait -- Geoffrey Chaucer

(Poem #327) The Knight's Portrait
 A knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,
 That fro the tyme that he first bigan
 To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
 Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.
 Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre,
 And therto hadde he riden, no man ferre,
 As wel in cristendom as in hethenesse,
 And evere honoured for his worthynesse.
 At alisaundre he was whan it was wonne.
 Ful ofte tyme he hadde the bord bigonne
 Aboven alle nacions in pruce;
 In lettow hadde he reysed and in ruce,
 No cristen man so ofte of his degree.
 In gernade at the seege eek hadde he be
 Of algezir, and riden in belmarye.
 At lyeys was he and at satalye,
 Whan they were wonne; and in the grete see
 At many a noble armee hadde he be.
 At mortal batailles hadde he been fiftene,
 And foughten for oure feith at tramyssene
 In lystes thries, and ay slayn his foo.
 This ilke worthy knyght hadde been also
 Somtyme with the lord of palatye
 Agayn another hethen in turkye.
 And everemoore he hadde a sovereyn prys;
 And though that he were worthy, he was wys,
 And of his port as meeke as is a mayde.
 He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde
 In al his lyf unto no maner wight.
 He was a verray, parfit gentil knyght.
 But, for to tellen yow of his array,
 His hors were goode, but he was nat gay.
 Of fustian he wered a gypon
 Al bismotered with his habergeon,
 For he was late ycome from his viage,
 And wente for to doon his pilgrymage.
-- Geoffrey Chaucer
        (From the Canterbury Tales, pub. 1387-1394)

There's a Modern English translation at
[broken link]

While the Middle English is somewhat hard on its own, it's perfectly
comprehensible when read side by side with the translation, and indeed has a
charm only enhanced by its unfamiliarity.

Chaucer needs little introduction...

  the outstanding English poet before Shakespeare and "the first finder of
  our language." His 'The Canterbury Tales' ranks as one of the greatest
  poetic works in English. -- EB

Though a run through his life and times makes interesting reading:

[broken link]

[broken link]

Of course, no mention of Chaucer would be complete without a quick
introduction to his most famous work, the Canterbury Tales ...

  By far Chaucer's most popular work, although he might have preferred to
  have been remembered by Troilus and Criseyde, the Canterbury Tales was
  unfinished at his death. No less than fifty-six surviving manuscripts
  contain, or once contained, the full text. More than twenty others contain
  some parts or an individual tale.

  The work begins with a General Prologue in which the narrator arrives at
  the Tabard Inn in Southwark, and meets other pilgrims there, whom he
  describes. In the second part of the General Prologue the inn-keeper
  proposes that each of the pilgrims tell stories along the road to
  Canterbury, two each on the way there, two more on the return journey, and
  that the best story earn the winner a free supper.

  Since there are some thirty pilgrims, this would have given a collection
  of well over a hundred tales, but in fact there are only twenty-four
  tales, and some of these are incomplete. Between tales, and at times even
  during a tale, the pilgrimage framework is introduced with some kind of
  exchange, often acrimonious, between pilgrims. In a number of cases, there
  is a longer Prologue before a tale begins, the Wife of Bath's Prologue and
  the Pardoner's Prologue being the most remarkable examples of this.

        -- [broken link]

Chaucer is justly considered the father of English poetry:

  In the first place, as he is the Father of English Poetry, so I hold him
  in the same Degree of Veneration as the Grecians held Homer, or the Romans
  Virgil: He is a perpetual Fountain of good Sense; learn'd in all Sciences;
  and, therefore speaks properly on all Subjects: As he knew what to say, so
  he knows also when to leave off; a Continence which is practis'd by few
  Writers, and scarcely by any of the Ancients, excepting Virgil and Horace.

        -- John Dryden

The above is from a wonderful essay on Chaucer, in which Dryden also
commented upon his verse:

 Chaucer's Meter Defective

 'Tis true, I cannot go so far as he who publish'd the last Edition of him;
 for he would make us believe the Fault is in our Ears, and that there were
 really Ten Syllables in a Verse where we find but Nine: But this Opinion is
 not worth confuting; 'tis so gross and obvious an Errour, that common Sense
 (which is a Rule in everything but Matters of Faith and Revelation) must
 convince the Reader, that Equality of Numbers, in every Verse which we call
 Heroick, was either not known, or not always practis'd, in Chaucer's Age.
 It were an easie Matter to produce some thousands of his Verses, which are
 lame for want of half a Foot, and sometimes a whole one, and which no
 Pronunciation can make otherwise. We can only say, that he liv'd in the
 Infancy of our Poetry, and that nothing is brought to Perfection at the

and defended his decision to translate it...

  You have here a Specimen of Chaucer's Language, which is so obsolete, that
  his Sense is scarce to be understood; and you have likewise more than one
  Example of his unequal Numbers, which were mention'd before. Yet many of
  his Verses consist of Ten Syllables, and the Words not much behind our
  present English: as for Example, these two Lines, in the Description of
  the Carpenter's Young Wife:

            Wincing she was, as is a jolly Colt,
            Long as a Mast, and upright as a Bolt.

  I have almost done with Chaucer, when I have answer'd some Objections
  relating to my present Work. I find some People are offended that I have
  turn'd these Tales into modern English; because they think them unworthy
  of my Pains, and look on Chaucer as a dry, old-fashioned Wit, not worth


  Chaucer, I confess, is a rough Diamond, and must first be polish'd, e'er
  he shines.

And delivers a wonderful tribute to his genius for characterisation...

  Here is God's Plenty

  He must have been a Man of a most wonderful comprehensive Nature, because,
  as it has been truly observ'd of him, he has taken into the Compass of his
  Canterbury Tales the various Manners and Humours (as we now call them) of
  the whole English Nation, in his Age. Not a single Character has escap'd
  him. All his Pilgrims are severally distinguished from each other; and not
  only in their Inclinations, but in their very Phisiognomies and Persons.
  Baptista Porta could not have describ'd their Natures better, than by the
  Marks which the Poet gives them. The Matter and Manner of their Tales, and
  of their Telling, are so suited to their different Educations, Humours,
  and Callings, that each of them would be improper in any other Mouth. Even
  the grave and serious Characters are distinguished by their several sorts
  of Gravity: Their Discourses are such as belong to their Age, their
  Calling, and their Breeding; such as are becoming of them, and of them
  only. Some of his Persons are Vicious, and some Vertuous; some are
  unlearn'd, or (as Chaucer calls them) Lewd, and some are Learn'd. Even the
  Ribaldry of the Low Characters is different: the Reeve, the Miller, and
  the Cook, are several Men, and are distinguished from each other, as much
  as the mincing Lady-Prioress, and the broad-speaking, gap-tooth'd wife of

        -- John Dryden

Read the whole essay at
[broken link]


Chaucer's contribution to English prosody is undeniable. From syllable
stress metre (the basis for nearly all of English poetry)...

  It has been shown that the metre of "Vertue" is determined by a pattern of
  stressed and unstressed syllables arranged into feet and that a precise
  number of feet determines the measure of the line. Such verse is called
  syllable-stress verse (in some terminologies accentual-syllabic) and was
  the norm for English poetry from the beginning of the 16th century to the
  end of the 19th century.

  Syllable stress became more or less established in the poetry of Geoffrey
  Chaucer (c. 1340-1400). In the century that intervened between Chaucer and
  the early Tudor poets, syllable-stress metres were either ignored or
  misconstrued. By the end of the 16th century, however, the now-familiar
  iambic, trochaic, dactylic, and anapestic metres became the traditional
  prosody for English verse.

through the ever popular heroic couplet...

  The preeminent English couplet is the heroic couplet, two rhyming lines of
  iambic pentameter with a caesura (pause), usually medial, in each line.
  Introduced by Chaucer in the 14th century, the heroic couplet was
  perfected by John Dryden and Alexander Pope in the late 17th and early
  18th centuries.

and, of course, iambic pentameter itself...

  Geoffrey Chaucer employed iambic pentameter in The Canterbury Tales as
  early as the 14th century, although without the regularity that is found
  later in the heroic couplets of John Dryden and Alexander Pope.

and a rather surprising piece of etymological lore...

  doggerel: One of the earliest uses of the word is found in the 14th
  century in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, who applied the term "rym
  doggerel" to his "Tale of Sir Thopas," a burlesque of the long-winded
  medieval romance.

he has left his mark indelibly on the corpus of English poetry.

(All quotes from the Britannica)

And finally, here's a nice comprehensive Chaucer site (one of many, let me
add) :


The Seafarer -- Anonymous

This week's theme: a brief history of poetry.
(Poem #326) The Seafarer
May I for my own self song's truth reckon,
Journey's jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast-cares have I abided,
Known on my keel many a care's hold,
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent
Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship's head
While she tossed close to cliffs. Coldly afflicted,
My feet were by frost benumbed.
Chill its chains are; chafing sighs
Hew my heart round and hunger begot
Mere-weary mood. Lest man know not
That he on dry land loveliest liveth,
List how I, care-wretched, on ice-cold sea,
Weathered the winter, wretched outcast
Deprived of my kinsmen;
Hung with hard ice-flakes, where hail-scur flew,
There I heard naught save the harsh sea
And ice-cold wave, at whiles the swan cries,
Did for my games the gannet's clamour,
Sea-fowls, loudness was for me laughter,
The mews' singing all my mead-drink.
Storms, on the stone-cliffs beaten, fell on the stern
In icy feathers; full oft the eagle screamed
With spray on his pinion.
        Not any protector
May make merry man faring needy.
This he little believes, who aye in winsome life
Abides 'mid burghers some heavy business,
Wealthy and wine-flushed, how I weary oft
Must bide above brine.
Neareth nightshade, snoweth from north,
Frost froze the land, hail fell on earth then
Corn of the coldest. Nathless there knocketh now
The heart's thought that I on high streams
The salt-wavy tumult traverse alone.
Moaneth alway my mind's lust
That I fare forth, that I afar hence
Seek out a foreign fastness.
For this there's no mood-lofty man over earth's midst,
Not though he be given his good, but will have in his youth greed;
Nor his deed to the daring, nor his king to the faithful
But shall have his sorrow for sea-fare
Whatever his lord will.
He hath not heart for harping, nor in ring-having
Nor winsomeness to wife, nor world's delight
Nor any whit else save the wave's slash,
Yet longing comes upon him to fare forth on the water.
Bosque taketh blossom, cometh beauty of berries,
Fields to fairness, land fares brisker,
All this admonisheth man eager of mood,
The heart turns to travel so that he then thinks
On flood-ways to be far departing.
Cuckoo calleth with gloomy crying,
He singeth summerward, bodeth sorrow,
The bitter heart's blood. Burgher knows not ---
He the prosperous man --- what some perform
Where wandering them widest draweth.
So that but now my heart burst from my breast-lock,
My mood 'mid the mere-flood,
Over the whale's acre, would wander wide.
On earth's shelter cometh oft to me,
Eager and ready, the crying lone-flyer,
Whets for the whale-path the heart irresistibly,
O'er tracks of ocean; seeing that anyhow
My lord deems to me this dead life
On loan and on land, I believe not
That any earth-weal eternal standeth
Save there be somewhat calamitous
That, ere a man's tide go, turn it to twain.
Disease or oldness or sword-hate
Beats out the breath from doom-gripped body.
And for this, every earl whatever, for those speaking after ---
Laud of the living, boasteth some last word,
That he will work ere he pass onward,
Frame on the fair earth 'gainst foes his malice,
Daring ado, ...
So that all men shall honour him after
And his laud beyond them remain 'mid the English,
Aye, for ever, a lasting life's-blast,
Delight mid the doughty.
        Days little durable,
And all arrogance of earthen riches,
There come now no kings nor Caesars
Nor gold-giving lords like those gone.
Howe'er in mirth most magnified,
Whoe'er lived in life most lordliest,
Drear all this excellence, delights undurable!
Waneth the watch, but the world holdeth.
Tomb hideth trouble. The blade is layed low.
Earthly glory ageth and seareth.
No man at all going the earth's gait,
But age fares against him, his face paleth,
Grey-haired he groaneth, knows gone companions,
Lordly men are to earth o'ergiven,
Nor may he then the flesh-cover, whose life ceaseth,
Nor eat the sweet nor feel the sorry,
Nor stir hand nor think in mid heart,
And though he strew the grave with gold,
His born brothers, their buried bodies
Be an unlikely treasure hoard.
-- Anonymous
Translated by Ezra Pound.

As a joint theme for the week, Martin and I have decided to run a
selection of poems from various points in time (and more importantly,
various poetic movements). We'll start with a style that's one of my
personal favourites, Old English alliterative verse.



Alliteration: Also called head rhyme or initial rhyme, the repetition of
the initial sounds (usually consonants) of stressed syllables in
neighboring words or at short intervals within a line or passage,
usually at word beginnings, as in 'wild and woolly'.
    Alliteration has a gratifying effect on the sound, gives a
reinforcement to stresses, and can also serve as a subtle connection or
emphasis of key words in the line, but alliterated words should not
'call attention' to themselves by strained usage.

[My favourite piece of alliteration is this:
    "To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,
    In a pestilential prison, with a life-long lock,
    Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,
    From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!"
from 'The Mikado', lyrics by W. S. Gilbert - t.]

Alliterative Verse: Poetry in which alliteration is a formal structural
element in place of rhyme; it was prevalent in a number of old
literatures prior to the 14th century, including Anglo-Saxon. In
alliterative verse, the first half-line is united with the second half
by alliterating stressed syllables; in the first half-line generally two
(but sometimes three) syllables alliterate, while in the second half
usually only one.
    Sometimes one alliterating sound is carried through successive
        In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne,
        I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were,
        In habite as an heremite unholy of werkes,
        Wente wide in this world wondres to here.
            -- William Langland, The Vision of Piers Plowman,
    To facilitate maintaining the alliterative pattern, poets made
frequent use of a specialized vocabulary, consisting of many synonymous
words seldom encountered outside of alliterative verse.
    By the 14th century, rhyme and meter displaced alliteration as a
formal element, although alliterative verse continued to be written into
the 16th century and alliteration retains an important function as one
of a poet's sound devices.

    -- Robert Shubinski
Glossary of Poetic Terms: [broken link]

Brittanica has this to say:

Alliterative Verse: early verse of the Germanic languages in which
alliteration, the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of
words or stressed syllables, is a basic structural principle rather than
an occasional embellishment. Although alliteration is a common device in
almost all poetry, the only Indo-European languages that used it as a
governing principle, along with strict rules of accent and quantity, are
Old Norse, Old English, Old Saxon, Old Low German, and Old High German.
The Germanic alliterative line consists of two hemistichs (half lines)
separated by a caesura (pause). There are one or two alliterating
letters in the first half line preceding the medial caesura; these also
alliterate with the first stressed syllable in the second half line.
Alliteration falls on accented syllables; unaccented syllables are not
effective, even if they begin with the alliterating letter.

 The introduction of rhyme, derived from medieval Latin hymns,
contributed to the decline of alliterative verse. In Low German, pure
alliterative verse is not known to have survived after 900; and, in Old
High German, rhymed verse was by that time already replacing it. In
England, alliteration as a strict structural principle is not found
after 1066 (the date of the Norman-French conquest of Britain), except
in the western part of the country. Although alliteration was still very
important, the alliterative line became freer: the second half line
often contained more than one alliterating word, and other formalistic
restrictions were gradually disregarded. The early 13th-century poetry
of Layamon and later poems such as Piers Plowman, Sir Gawayne and the
Grene Knight, and The Pearl use end rhyme extensively. Sometimes all the
verses rhyme; sometimes the succession of alliterative verses is broken
by rhymed verses grouped at roughly regular intervals. The last
alliterative poem in English is usually held to be "Scottish Fielde,"
which deals with the Battle of Flodden (1513).

and this:

Virtually all Old English poetry is written in a single metre, a
four-stress line with a syntactical break, or caesura, between the
second and third stresses, and with alliteration linking the two halves
of the line; this pattern is occasionally varied by six-stress lines.
The poetry is formulaic, drawing on a common set of stock phrases and
phrase patterns, applying standard epithets to various classes of
characters, and depicting scenery with such recurring images as the
eagle and wolf, which wait during battles to feast on carrion, and the
ice and snow, which appear in the landscape to signal sorrow. In the
best poems such formulas, far from being tedious, give a strong
impression of the richness of the cultural fund from which poets could
draw. Other standard devices of this poetry are the kenning, a
metaphorical name for a thing, usually expressed in a compound noun
(e.g., "swan-road" used to name the sea); and variation, the repeating
of a single idea in different words, with each repetition adding a new
level of meaning. That these verse techniques changed little during 400
years of literary production suggests the extreme conservatism of
Anglo-Saxon culture.

    -- EB


12. mere-weary: sea-weary.
17. scur: storm.
20. gannet: sea-bird.
22. mews: seagulls.
34. Nathless: nevertheless.
39. fastness: stronghold.
49. bosque: thicket, small wood.
81. doughty: brave.

Note that Pound's translation isn't always perfectly faithful to the
original (though on the other hand, he does capture the _mood_ of the
anonymous Seafarer far better than do other more pedantically precise
translators. In this I'm sure Pound's own poetic skill played a not
inconsiderable role; see 'The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter', poem #70,
for another, equally brilliant example of Pound's 'translation without


Keep in mind that alliterative verse belongs to what was essentially an
oral tradition, propagated by bards and skalds and wandering minstrels
<grin>; hence the emphasis on sound/word pictures; hence, indeed, the
alliteration itself. As the availability of written material spread, so
the popularity of the old sagas waned... more's the pity.

Common Cold -- Ogden Nash

Guest poem sent in by Anustup Datta
(Poem #325) Common Cold
  Go hang yourself, you old M.D,!
  You shall not sneer at me.
  Pick up your hat and stethoscope,
  Go wash your mouth with laundry soap;
  I contemplate a joy exquisite
  In not paying you for your visit.
  I did not call you to be told
  My malady is a common cold.

  By pounding brow and swollen lip;
  By fever's hot and scaly grip;
  By those two red redundant eyes
  That weep like woeful April skies;
  By racking snuffle, snort, and sniff;
  By handkerchief after handkerchief;
  This cold you wave away as naught
  Is the damnedest cold man ever caught!

  Give ear, you scientific fossil!
  Here is the genuine Cold Colossal;
  The Cold of which researchers dream,
  The Perfect Cold, the Cold Supreme.
  This honored system humbly holds
  The Super-cold to end all colds;
  The Cold Crusading for Democracy;
  The Führer of the Streptococcracy.

  Bacilli swarm within my portals
  Such as were ne'er conceived by mortals,
  But bred by scientists wise and hoary
  In some Olympic laboratory;
  Bacteria as large as mice,
  With feet of fire and heads of ice
  Who never interrupt for slumber
  Their stamping elephantine rumba.

  A common cold, gadzooks, forsooth!
  Ah, yes. And Lincoln was jostled by Booth;
  Don Juan was a budding gallant,
  And Shakespeare's plays show signs of talent;
  The Arctic winter is fairly coolish,
  And your diagnosis is fairly foolish.
  Oh what a derision history holds
  For the man who belittled the Cold of Colds!
-- Ogden Nash
It is with a great sense of disquiet (and some surprise) that I notice that
we haven't yet covered that epitome of comic versification, Ogden Nash. I
will not trouble you with a biography of Nash, for everyone has heard of him
and read his poetry. Indeed, I consider that my first acquaintance with
comic poetry began with his delightful

  The Cobra

  The cobra's mouth is filled with venom,
  He walks upon his duodenum.
  He who attempts to tease a cobra
  Is soon a sadder he, and sobra.

It progressed through the famous and oft-anthologised "Reflections on
Ice-Breaking". His jarringly exact rhymes and biting social satire were only
matched by his delightfully human failings and wonderful whimsicality. His
celebrated brevity is exemplified in the

  Reflection On A Wicked World

  Is obscurity.

This is the shortest poem I have ever read - may be the shortest ever
written. But the rapier thrust is ever the keener for that.

'Common Cold' is a longer and more substantial poem about a very mundane
subject. But what Nash does to it is far from common - with splendid
hypochondriac hyperbole, he elevates the everyday cold to Olympian heights.
I especially enjoy the last stanza and its withering humour - P G Wodehouse
couldn't have done it better - and calling his bacterium 'the Fuhrer of the
Streptococcracy' is nothing less than genius. I could go on - but you get
the picture.


Three Movements -- William Butler Yeats

(Poem #324) Three Movements
  Shakespearean fish swam the sea, far away from land;
  Romantic fish swam in nets coming to the hand;
  What are all those fish that lie gasping on the strand?
-- William Butler Yeats
Note: 'strand' is a somewhat archaic word for 'shore'; hence the current
  verb 'to strand' (literally to leave ashore)

A somewhat uncharacteristic poem by Yeats, but a compelling one nonetheless.
Whether because of its almost transparent simplicity, its length, its
pleasing rhythms or some other, more intangible quality, this is one of
those poems that has stuck in my mind.

One thing that especially intrigues me about it, though, is that I am unable
to decide whether this is something that Yeats dashed off on the spur of an
inspiration, or whether he painstakingly crafted every word. (Of course, one
of the marks of genius is the ability to labour over something, polishing it
until it looks like it has taken no effort whatsoever). Either way, a
delightful poem, and one that by its very unusualness stands out and catches
the reader's mind.



Yeats was the first poet run on Minstrels, and he has been far from
underrepresented since. Go to
[broken link] to see a list of
all the poems run, including a biography at poem #32.

Incidentally, while this is the first Yeats poem I'm running, he seems to be
popular among the members of the list - of the eight poems already on
Minstrels, three are guest poems.

(And speaking of guest poems - do keep sending them in!)

Silent Poem -- Robert Francis

(Poem #323) Silent Poem
backroad leafmold stonewall chipmunk
underbrush grapevine woodchuck shadblow

woodsmoke cowbarn honeysuckle woodpile
sawhorse bucksaw outhouse wellsweep

backdoor flagstone bulkhead buttermilk
candlestick ragrug firedog brownbread

hilltop outcrop cowbell buttercup
whetstone thunderstorm pitchfork steeplebush

gristmill millstone cornmeal waterwheel
watercress buckwheat firefly jewelweed

gravestone groundpine windbreak bedrock
weathercock snowfall starlight cockcrow
-- Robert Francis
What can you say about a poem like this? A beautifully simple idea,
executed to perfection... I found it while surfing the net just the
other day, and I've been entranced by it ever since.


In the Smoking Car -- Richard Wilbur

(Poem #322) In the Smoking Car
 The eyelids meet. He'll catch a little nap.
 The grizzled, crew-cut head drops to his chest.
 It shakes above the briefcase on his lap.
 Close voices breathe, "Poor sweet, he did his best."

 "Poor sweet, poor sweet," the bird-hushed glades repeat,
 Through which in quiet pomp his litter goes,
 Carried by native girls with naked feet.
 A sighing stream concurs in his repose.

 Could he but think, he might recall to mind
 The righteous mutiny or sudden gale
 That beached him here; the dear ones left behind ...
 So near the ending, he forgets the tale.

 Were he to lift his eyelids now, he might
 Behold his maiden porters, brown and bare.
 But even here he has no appetite.
 It is enough to know that they are there.

 Enough that now a honeyed music swells,
 The gentle, mossed declivities begin,
 And the whole air is full of flower-smells.
 Failure, the longed-for valley, takes him in.
-- Richard Wilbur
An interesting poem - not brilliant, but I like the theme, and it's handled
well enough. The poem is enjoyable not so much for the imagery as for the
tone, which balances humour and warm sympathy nicely, with perhaps a hint of
commiseration, and some lovely lines like 'So near the ending, he forgets
the tale'. The poem also presents a somewhat wry look at today's rather
pervasive success-oriented culture - the very stereotypicality of the
character makes the reader realise that a good many people would rather
inhabit a comfortable dreamworld than cope with the real one, desiring no
better epitaph than 'poor sweet, he did his best'.


While this poem has echoes of Thurber's Walter Mitty and Schulz's Charlie
Brown, neither analogy is that strong.

More interesting is to compare it to Robinson's "Miniver Cheevy", a far
harsher look at a similar misfit: poem #234


  Wilbur, Richard (Purdy)

   b. March 1, 1921, New York, N.Y., U.S.

  American poet associated with the New Formalist movement.

  Wilbur was educated at Amherst College, Amherst, Mass., and Harvard
  University, where he studied literature. He fought in Europe during World
  War II and earned a master's degree from Harvard in 1947. With The
  Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (1947) and Ceremony and Other Poems
  (1950), he established himself as an important young writer. These early
  poems are technically exquisite and formal in their adherence to the
  convention of rhyme and other devices.

  Wilbur next tried translating and in 1955 produced a version of Molière's
  play Le Misanthrope, which was followed by Molière's Tartuffe (1963), The
  School for Wives (1971), and The Learned Ladies (1978) and by Racine's
  Andromache (1982). In 1957 he won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry for Things
  of This World: Poems (1956), which was enthusiastically hailed as less
  perfect but more personal than his previous poetry. Wilbur wrote within
  the poetic tradition launched by T.S. Eliot, using irony and intellect to
  create tension in his poems. Some critics demanded more energy from his
  poems; this complaint was partially assuaged with the publication of
  Advice to a Prophet and Other Poems (1961), Walking to Sleep (1969), and
  The Mind Reader: New Poems (1976). He also wrote the lyrics for Leonard
  Bernstein's acclaimed musical comedy version of Candide (1957), children's
  books such as Loudmouse (1963) and Opposites (1973), and criticism,
  collected as Responses: Prose PiecesHe was poet
  laureate of the United States in 1987-88.

                -- EB

Strange Meeting -- Wilfred Owen

(Poem #321) Strange Meeting
It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,-
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

With a thousand pains that vision's face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
"Strange friend," I said, "here is no cause to mourn."
"None," said that other, "save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also, I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now... "
-- Wilfred Owen
Poets have long been the (self-appointed) legislators of the world's
conscience, but for every Milton or Dylan who actually makes a
difference, there are dozens of hack moralizers whose verse sinks under
the weight of its own pomposity. Not so the work of Wilfred Owen: few
poets - indeed, few people of any sort - have spoken with the clarity of
vision and moral authority he brings to bear upon the monstrosity that
is war.

In other poems, Owen chronicles the 'charring of the emotions' that war
brings about [1], or attacks 'the old lies' of glory and honour [2]. In
'Strange Meeting', though, he is concerned with the sheer pointlessness
of it all - 'the undone years / The hopelessness'. And it's not just the
senseless sacrifice that stirs Owen, but the moral corruption that
accompanies it - by participating in the slaughter, the protagonists
condemn themselves to an eternity of regret, where 'no guns thump', it
is true, but where 'the truth untold /The pity of war, the pity war
distilled' continues to haunt them.


[1] 'Insensibility', poem #232
[2] 'Dulce et Decorum Est', poem #132

PS. I especially like the couplet:
    'Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
    Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:'
As Martin pointed out in his commentary on 'Tall Ships and Tall Kings' a
few days back, it's probably the incantatory effect, the repetition of
form, that lends this couplet its peculiarly haunting quality.

[On Protest Poetry]

Poetry with a social agenda is nothing new, of course; indeed, there are
many writers today (both poets and critics) who hold that changing the
world is, in fact, the primary function of literature. I'm not sure I
agree with this view; having said that, I must add that possibly my
favourite contemporary poet is the 'high priest of social protest',
Adrian Mitchell. Do check out his work, especially 'To Whom It May
Concern', poem #28 and 'Nostalgia - Now Threepence Off', poem #95

[On Owen]

I found a neat little essay on Owen's poetic development on the Web;
rather than merely linking to it (as is our usual practice), I felt
compelled to include a rather generous extract in today's post:

"... the journey from Owen the shy and aspiring young writer of
interesting but immature verse, to Owen the bold army soldier and war
poet was a long and difficult one.

When Owen eventually made up his mind to enlist, it was after much
soul-searching and he carried with him all [sorts of] contradictory
feelings about the war. He later described himself as "a conscientious
objector with a very seared conscience". The more Owen came to
experience the terrible reality of the war, the more his indignation
toward the warmongers increased and so did his sympathy for the plight
of the ordinary soldier. He saw young men, with their full lives in
front of them, being sent into battle to kill each other.

At the same time, Owen could not withdraw from the senseless slaughter.
To do so would be to desert those he had the most affinity with and
stand alongside those for whom he had nothing but contempt; the people
who spoke about the "glory" and the "honour" of the war from a safe
distance, hundreds of miles from the trenches.

For Owen, there was neither glory nor honour in the war. As he explained
in the short preface he wrote for a collection of his poems, "This book
is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor
is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might,
majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned
with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in
the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense
consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn.
That is why the true Poets must be truthful."

It was the search for this truth - to reveal the real nature of the war
to those that could not or would not see it - that marked the steady
maturing of Owen's work. And herein lies the enormous significance of
Owen's encounter with Sassoon. Up until that point, Owen had a very
different idea of what kind of poetry he wanted to write. He had striven
to describe all the things that filled him with the joy and wonder of
life. And so he wrote, very skilfully, about love and passion, music and
song, about storms, dreams, and the feeling of happiness. Even after
having fought at the battlefront and witnessing much bloodshed and
carnage, he determined not to write about the brutality and horror of
the war. It was as if, amidst a world being torn asunder in the most
horrible and senseless way, this young poet was trying to preserve
something untainted by the hideous savagery around him. For Owen his
poetry was the antithesis of everything the war represented.

Sassoon's achievement was in turning Owen around to face the war head-on
and to write about what he saw. With a war raging across Europe there
was an added immediacy to everything. Owen realised, in order to impart
the preciousness of life, it was essential to write about the ugliness
and brutality taking place. All the anger and indignation towards the
war that had been building up inside him now found an outlet.

Once he began to "face the war" nothing seemed to escape his gaze. Nor
did he flinch from the full horror of what he saw. He wrote about the
disabled and disfigured young men, the mental destruction taking place
in the trenches, the vast numbers being sent to be slaughtered, the
callous inhumanity of the army generals and the men in power, and the
unbearable imminence of death. Owen's poems did not exhibit the fury and
bursts of anger that were characteristic of many of his contemporaries -
which included some of the finest poets in the English language.
Instead, Owen began to constructively fuse these sentiments with a
feeling of pity and compassion for the ordinary soldier. It is this
ability to combine such powerful emotions in a particularly graphic way
that marked Owen's work out from so many others and gives them an
enduring quality.

    -- Harvey Thompson; full article at
[broken link]

Rimer -- Ambrose Bierce

(Poem #320) Rimer
 The rimer quenches his unheeded fires,
 The sound surceases and the sense expires.
 Then the domestic dog, to east and west,
 Expounds the passions burning in his breast.
 The rising moon o'er that enchanted land
 Pauses to hear and yearns to understand.
-- Ambrose Bierce
Note: 'Rimer' is simply a synonym for 'rhymer' or poet. The word was
archaic even in Bierce's day (of which more later). However, the poem itself
follows the Devil's Dictionary entry for Rimer, which reads "Rimer, n. A
poet regarded with indifference or disesteem." It was attributed to "Mowbray
Myles" (a habit Bierce was fond of - see some of the other DD entries)

Bierce could be extremely cutting and cynical when he wanted to (which was
practically all the time); however what makes his verse worth running was
the skill with which his diatribes were delivered.

Note how wonderfully he sets up and skewers his target here. The surface
metaphor in the first four lines is, of course, hardly new or original. But
Bierce then goes on to invoke the moon, with its strong associations with
both poets and howling dogs, which at once raises the insult above the level
of the commonplace - in one stroke, it provides completion and coherence,
turning a derogatory comparision into a finished poem.

Nor does he stop there - the language throughout is 'poetic', but in a
rather self-conscious way, treading the fine line between good and bad
poetry[1] and not-so-subtly poking fun at the poet manqué. The final touch
is the use of 'rimer' rather than 'rhymer', an obvious affectation[2] that
merely highlights the difference between aspiration and reality.

[1] the word 'doggerel' is practically begging to be used here, making me
wonder if the pun was intentional - especially since 'doggerel' is
marked "etymology unknown, but probably from 'dog'".

[2] made even clearer by the Devil's Dictionary entry for 'rime':

  Agreeing sounds in the terminals of verse, mostly bad. The verses
  themselves, as distinguished from prose, mostly dull. Usually (and
  wickedly) spelled "rhyme."



We've run one other poem by Bierce; see poem #148

There's also a biography at the end.

The above poem is included in Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, which may be
found at [broken link]

In a Station of the Metro -- Ezra Pound

(Poem #319) In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
-- Ezra Pound
Possibly the first true Imagist poem, and certainly one of the finest. I'll
 leave you to read Pound's own words about its composition:

"Three years ago in Paris I got out of a `metro' train at La Concorde, and
saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a
beautiful child's face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all
that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find
any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion. And
that evening, as I went home along the Rue Raynouard, I was still trying,
and I found, suddenly, the expression. I do not mean that I found words, but
there came an equation... not in speech, but in little splotches of colour.
It was just that -- a  `pattern', or hardly a pattern, if by `pattern' you
mean something with a `repeat' in it. But it was a word, the beginning, for
me, of a language in colour. I do not mean that I was unfamiliar with the
kindergarten stories about colours being like tones in music. I think that
sort of thing is nonsense. If you try to make notes permanently correspond
with particular colour, it is like tying narrow meanings to symbols.

That evening, in the Rue Raynouard, I realized quite vividly that if I were
like a painter, or if I had, often, that kind of emotion, or even if I were
a painter, or if I had the energy to get paints and brushes and keep at it,
I might found a new school of painting, of `non-representative' painting, a
painting that would speak only by arrangements in colour... The `one image
poem' is a form of super-position, that is to say, it is one idea set on top
of another. I found it useful in getting out of the impasse in which I had
been left by my metro emotion. I wrote a thirty-line poem, and destroyed it
because it was what we called work `of second intensity.' Six months later I
made a poem half that length; a year later I made the following hokka-like
sentence [In a Station of the Metro]. I dare say it is meaningless unless
one has drifted into a certain vein of thought. In a poem of this sort one
is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective
transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward a subjective."

    -- Ezra Pound, quoted in A Guide to Ezra Pound's Personae (1926). K. K. Ruthven (1969).

Tall ships and tall kings -- J R R Tolkien

(Poem #318) Tall ships and tall kings
Tall ships and tall kings
Three times three
What brought they from the foundered land
Over the flowing sea?
Seven stars and seven stones
And one white tree.
-- J R R Tolkien
Note: Identified by Gandalf as one of the Rhymes of Lore

While no other fantasy writer I know of uses verse to the extent Tolkien
does, this particular form is fairly common. The manifestations are various
- an ancient prophecy, a potent piece of magical lore, a snippet of history
passed into legend, words of wisdom ranging from Zenlike utterances to folk
proverbs - but the form is usually the same: the language slightly archaic
or unusual, the imagery either straightforward or exaggeratedly
metaphorical, and the whole having something of the feel of a nursery rhyme.
Rhymes and scansion are both optional, as long as it fulfils the primary
criterion for poetry, viz. interesting line breaks. The main effect conveyed
is of something passed down from the days of old, translated, of course
(hence the lack of refinedness by the standards of English verse) and
possibly a fragment of a far larger work now lost in the mists of time.

Tolkien, of course, does not take the opportunity to relax the rigour of his
verse; while 'Tall ships' lacks the feel of 'high' verse, it is nonetheless
technically perfect (as, indeed, are most nursery rhymes - what many authors
do not realise is that for something to survive the translation through the
ages unchanged, it has to be both attractive and memorable. There's a
*reason* poetry is so much easier to memorise than prose is). Furthermore it
is, at least to me, one of the nicest pieces of verse in tLotR - sure, it is
a bit sing-song, but that's because it *works* here - the rhythm underscores
the perfection of the verse, while giving it the flavour of something that
was for at least part of its history passed on orally.



Both Thomas and I are diehard Tolkien fans, and we've run a number of his
poems in the past. (See
[broken link]
It's well worth reading through them one after another to get some feel for
the sheer diversity of Tolkien's poetry, and the skill with which he handled
a number of different verse forms and poetic traditions.

Inland -- Edna St Vincent Millay

Back after a while...
(Poem #317) Inland
 People that build their houses inland,
 People that buy a plot of ground
 Shaped like a house, and build a house there,
 Far from the sea-board, far from the sound

 Of water sucking the hollow ledges,
 Tons of water striking the shore --
 What do they long for, as I long for
 One salt smell of the sea once more?

 People the waves have not awakened,
 Spanking the boats at the harbor's head,
 What do they long for, as I long for, --
 Starting up in my inland bed,

 Beating the narrow walls, and finding
 Neither a window nor a door,
 Screaming to God for death by drowning --
 One salt taste of the sea once more?
-- Edna St Vincent Millay
As long-time readers of the list are doubtless aware, I love sea poems and
I love Millay, and this poem has disappointed neither set of expectations.
The sea is, in some ways, the perfect embodiment of Nature -- boundless,
untameable, "his Sea in no showing the same, his Sea and the same 'neath
each showing" -- in short, the very antithesis of civilization and its
"little boxes all the same". And Millay has captured this conflict
beautifully, with a poem that traverses a spectrum of moods, starting off
quietly and ending with a rising scream and a slap in the face.

As with many sea poems this progression of moods is very likely intended to
mirror the ever changing nature of the sea itself. This particular poem also
reminds me of a breaking wave - the long, slow buildup, followed by the
sudden rise and crash against an unyielding shore. And beneath the wave, the
gentle undercurrent of ripples suggested by the repeated words and phrases.
(Of course, it is all too easy to read more meanings and analogies into a
poem than its author ever intended, but such resonances only enhance the
experience; in the final anaylsis most poems are the joint creation of the
poet and the reader.)



We've run a number of Millay poems in the past, all available at
[broken link]

There's a Millay biography and some further links at poem #34

Ode to a Nightingale -- John Keats

It's been some time since we did a 'famous' poem...
(Poem #316) Ode to a Nightingale
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
    My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
    One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
    But being too happy in thine happiness,--
        That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
            In some melodious plot
    Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
        Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
    Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
    Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
    Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
        With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
            And purple-stained mouth;
    That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
        And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
    What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
    Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
    Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
        Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
            And leaden-eyed despairs,
    Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
        Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
    Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
    Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
    And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
        Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays;
            But here there is no light,
    Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
        Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
    Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
    Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
    White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
        Fast fading violets cover'd up in leaves;
            And mid-May's eldest child,
    The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
        The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
    I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
    To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
    To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
        While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
            In such an ecstasy!
    Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain ---
        To thy high requiem become a sod.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
    No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
    In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
    Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
        She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
            The same that oft-times hath
    Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam
        Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
    To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
    As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
    Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
        Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
            In the next valley-glades:
    Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
        Fled is that music --- Do I wake or sleep?
-- John Keats
We haven't had much Keats on the Minstrels - only two poems prior to
this, as a matter of fact. Which is surprising, given his stature -
long-time readers of the Minstrels will know that I don't care much for
the Romantics, but I do like Keats. A great deal.

'Nightingale' is possibly Keats' best-loved work (though personally I
prefer 'On First Looking into Chapman's Homer', which I think is about
as close to perfection as a poem can get) - I know several people (Hi
Mom!) who consider it among their favourite few poems of all time. And
it's no surprise, really - rarely have words been crafted to such
sublime effect; rarely have sound and meaning and feeling come together
in such perfect balance; rarely have phrases sounded so _right_, so
perfect that you get the feeling that they've always existed, and all
the poet did was to pluck them out of the ether, fully formed.

In a way, that's what Keats is all about. Not for him the metaphysics of
Shelley, the lushness of Byron, the down-to-earth genius of Wordsworth,
or the flights of fancy of Coleridge: Keats is, in the truest sense of
the word, a minstrel of the emotions. Perhaps more than any other writer
before or since [1], he had the ability to distil in its purest form
that quality called 'poetry' in his verse. He doesn't use ornate or
flowery language; his rhymes and rhythms are often less than perfect;
his themes can be ordinary. And yet his words are just magical - sheer


[1] always excepting Shakespeare

PS. The science-fictionally inclined among you are heartily encouraged
to read Dan Simmon's Nebula-winning novel 'Hyperion', which (as the
title suggests) is about (among many other things) John Keats.

PPS. Alert readers will have noticed some repetition of ideas from my
previous commentaries on Keats. Forgive me.

Juliet -- Hilaire Belloc

Guest poem submitted by Anustup Datta :
(Poem #315) Juliet
How did the party go in Portman Square?
I cannot tell you: Juliet was not there.

And how did Lady Gaster's party go?
Juliet was next to me and I do not know.
-- Hilaire Belloc
... I wanted to send just two poems, but came across this beauty from
Belloc, who has been covered in some detail on the group. He is not know
for romantic verse, but the current poem is memorable because of its
brevity and trenchant insight. Really liked it - don't know why I
haven't come across it earlier.


Aside: one of the fringe benefits of running the Minstrels is that we
get to discover lots of lovely poems (like today's little gem) which we
haven't read before. Come to think of it, that's not a fringe benefit,
that's one of the main reasons we keep the show running. That, and the
fact that it's fun to do :-)

(And I'm sure I speak for Martin too).

[Minstrels Links]

Belloc has indeed been covered in some detail on the Minstrels; some
previous poems of his to have featured include

'October', poem #226
'Tarantella', poem #294
'The Hippopotamus', poem #124

Another Aside: You should all listen to Little Feat's song 'Juliette',
on their classic 1973 album, 'Dixie Chicken'.

The Sermon on the Mount -- Anonymous

lines from
(Poem #314) The Sermon on the Mount
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons
of God.
-- Anonymous
Matthew, Chapter 5, verses 3 to 9.

As I've mentioned before, the Bible contains some of the
most beautiful verse in existence, bar none. But what I like
most is the utter perfection with which form is melded with
content - the words are simplicity itself; and in their
simplicity lies their power.

The Sermon on the Mount itself is one the great ethical
treatises of humankind. Its message of love and faith
transcends all boundaries of time and space, and it's
beautiful in many very different ways.


[Minstrels Links]

The Book of Job isn't very widely-read, but it does have some lovely verse.
You can read extracts from it at poem #40

The King James Bible is easily the richest single source of phrases in the
English language, putting even Shakespeare in the shade [1]. For example,
the utterly perfect Psalm 23: poem #218

I wrote a short essay on the power of great literature to transform the
language; you can read it (along with the verse it accompanies, from
Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus) at poem #75

Gypsy Songs -- Ben Jonson

And with Shakespeare done, can Jonson be far behind?
(Poem #313) Gypsy Songs
The faery beam upon you,
The stars to glister on you;
    A moon of light
    In the noon of night,
Till the fire-drake hath o'ergone you!
The wheel of fortune guide you,
The boy with the bow beside you;
    Run ay in the way
    Till the bird of day,
And the luckier lot betide you!

To the old, long life and treasure!
To the young all health and pleasure!
    To the fair, their face
    With eternal grace
And the soul to be loved at leisure!
To the witty, all clear mirrors;
To the foolish, their dark errors;
    To the loving sprite,
    A secure delight;
To the jealous, his own false terrors!
-- Ben Jonson
I like this poem for its affinities with medieval and Old
English verse, especially the ritual chants and rhymes of
blessing - Jonson captures the feeling of benediction very
well indeed, while the mystical/pagan undertones of words
like 'faery', 'fire-drake' and of course 'gypsy' add to the
overall effect.



Ben Jonson, 1572–1637, English dramatist and poet, b.
Westminster, London.

The high-spirited buoyancy of Jonson's plays and the
brilliance of his language have earned him a reputation as
one of the great playwrights in English literature. After a
brief term at bricklaying, his stepfather's trade, and after
military service in Flanders, he began working for Philip
Henslowe as an actor and playwright. In 1598 he was tried
for killing another actor in a duel but escaped execution by
claiming right of clergy (that he could read and write). His
first important play, Every Man in His Humour, was produced
in 1598, with Shakespeare in the cast. In 1599 its companion
piece, Every Man out of His Humour, was produced. In The
Poetaster (1601) Jonson satirized several of his fellow
playwrights, particularly Dekker and Marston, who were
writing at that time for a rival company of child actors. He
collaborated with Chapman and Marston on the comedy Eastward
Ho! (1604). A passage in the play, derogatory to the Scots,
offended James I, and the three playwrights spent a brief
time in prison. Jonson's great period, both artistically and
financially, began in 1606 with the production of Volpone.
This was followed by his three other comic masterpieces,
Epicoene (1609), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair
(1614). Jonson became a favorite of James I and wrote many
excellent masques for the court. He was the author of two
Roman tragedies, Sejanus (1603) and Catiline (1611). With
the unsuccessful production of The Devil Is an Ass in 1616
Jonson's good fortune declined rapidly. His final plays were
failures, and with the accession of Charles I in 1625 his
value at court was less appreciated.

His plays, written along classical lines, are marked by a
pungent and uncompromising satire, by a liveliness of
action, and by numerous humor characters, whose single
passion or oddity overshadows all their other traits. He was
a moralist who sought to improve the ways of men by
portraying human foibles and passions through exaggeration
and distortion. Jonson's nondramatic poetry includes
Epigrams (1616); The Forrest (1616), notable for the two
beautiful songs: `Drink to me only with thine eyes' and
`Come, my Celia, let us prove'; and Underwoods (1640). His
principal prose work Timber or Discoveries (1640) is a
collection of notes and reflections on miscellaneous
subjects. Jonson exerted a strong influence over his
contemporaries. Although arrogant and contentious, he was a
boon companion, and his followers, sometimes called the
`sons of Ben,' loved to gather with him in the London
taverns. Examples of his conversation were recorded in
Conversations with Ben Jonson by Drummond of Hawthornden.

    -- Infoplease,


Ben Jonson occupies by common consent the second place among
English dramatists of the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I.
He was a man of contraries. For "twelve years a papist," he
was also--in fact though not in title--Protestant England's
first poet laureate. His major comedies express a strong
distaste for the world in which he lived and a delight in
exposing its follies and vices. A gifted lyric poet, he
wrote two of his most successful plays entirely in prose, an
unusual mode of composition in his time. Though often an
angry and stubborn man, no one had more disciples than he.
He was easily the most learned dramatist of his time, and he
was also a master of theatrical plot, language, and

    -- EB,


For a minute there I was wondering if this poem was the
source of the phrase 'Wheel of Fortune', but Brewer assures
me otherwise:

Wheel of Fortune (The). Fortuna, the goddess, is represented
on ancient monuments with a wheel in her hand, emblematical
of her inconstancy.

     `Though Fortune's malice overthrow my state.
     My mind exceeds the compass of her wheel.'
     Shakespeare: 3 Henry VI., iv. 3.

    -- Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable,

Where the bee sucks -- William Shakespeare

One can never have too much Shakespeare on a poetry list...
(Poem #312) Where the bee sucks
Where the bee sucks, there suck I;
In a cowslip's bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat's back I do fly
After summer merrily.
    Merrily, merrily shall I live now
    Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.
-- William Shakespeare
from The Tempest, words spoken by Ariel after he is set free
by Prospero.

The Tempest fascinates me. Shakespeare's last play, it
combines the lyrical perfection of the early comedies with
the refined sensibility and practiced dramatic skill of the
middle period plays and the power and emotion of the great
tragedies. And although it's far from perfect [1], there's
no doubt that it's a glorious work of art - endlessly
complex thematically, shimmeringly (and, at times,
mystically) beautiful, the work of a mature playwright at
peace with the world. The Tempest's progressions are
refined, elegant, even stately. It has power, but it also
has grace. And it's simply gorgeous to read.

The character of Ariel is perhaps the most interesting
aspect of The Tempest. For some reason, it's spawned more
literary offshoots than almost any other character in any of
the plays - from Milton and Pope through Browning and
Hopkins to Eliot and Plath, poets have used (and abused) the
persona and symbolism of Prospero's attendant spirit, to
great effect. I wish I knew why; since I don't, I'll content
myself with enjoying the play for its innate poetry, as
exemplified by today's seven short lines. As I said before,
simply gorgeous.

(I could at this point digress and talk about the concept of
iconicity, how Shakespeare's creations have taken on lives
of their own, and are now as much a part of the collective
unconscious as, say, the Bible, or the classics, or the
heliocentric hypothesis. But I won't. Suffice to say that
Shakespeare continues to be the greatest of them all).


[1] I for one prefer the earthiness of the great tragedies
(especially Lear) and the ethereality of A Midsummer Night's
Dream to the (sometimes) hotchpotch of philosophy and action
that is The Tempest.

[More on Ariel]

Ariel: A spirit of the air and guardian of innocence. He was
enslaved to the witch Sycorax, who overtasked him; and in
punishment for not doing what was beyond his power, shut him
up in a pine-rift for twelve years. On the death of Sycorax,
Ariel became the slave of Caliban, who tortured him most
cruelly. Prospero liberated him from the pine-rift, and the
grateful fairy served him for sixteen years, when he was set
free. (Shakespeare, The Tempest.)

    -- Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

[Minstrels Links]

Both Martin and I absolutely worship Shakespeare; it's no
surprise that he's been featured on the Minstrels more often
than any other poet. Some of my favourite pieces of verse
'Our revels now are ended'
(poem #126)
for its metaphysical insight,
'Full fathom five'
(poem #16) for
its lyrical beauty,
'Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow'
(poem #229)
for the depth of its emotion, and
'Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks'
(poem #200)
for its sheer power.

All these, and much much more by the Bard (and others) can
be read at the Minstrels website,

Oh, and you especially shouldn't miss Sylvia Plath's incredible 'Ariel',
poem #129 , which, although I haven't the slightest idea what it means,
remains one of the most powerful poems I've ever read.

Untitled -- e e cummings

Guest poem submitted by Anustup Datta :
(Poem #311) Untitled
"think of it: not so long ago
    this was a village"
"yes; i know"

"of human beings who prayed and sang,
    or am i wrong?"
"no, you're not wrong"

"and worked like hell six days out of seven"
"to die as they lived: in the hope of heaven"

"didn't two roads meet here?"
    "they did;
and over yonder a schoolhouse stood"

"do i remember a girl with blue-
    sky eyes and sun-yellow hair?"
"do you?"

     "that's very odd,
for i've never forgotten one frecklefaced lad'

"what could have happened to her and him?"
"maybe they walked and called it a dream"

"in this dream were there green and gold
"through which a lazy brook strolled"

"wonder if clover still smells that way;
    up in the mow"
"full of newmown hay"

"and the shadows and sounds and silences"
"Yes, a barn could be a magical place"

"nothing's the same, is it?"
    "something still
remains, my friend, and always will"

    "if any woman knows,
one man in a million ought to guess"

"what of the dreams that never die?"
"turn to your left at the end of the sky"

"where are the girls whose breasts begin?"
"under the boys who fish with a pin"
-- e e cummings
One of the really original poets of the first half of the
century, cummings is sadly labelled too often an
'experimenter with form'. This label tends to gloss over his
worderfully evocative language and mastery of love poetry.
Today's poem is not the most celebrated of his oeuvre, but
captures the quiddity of his art - wonderfully constructed
poetic scheme, beautiful use of words and images, poignancy
of emotion - quite unconsciously, it raises a lump in your
throat. Do read it aloud.


Oread -- H D

Back after a much-needed vacation...
(Poem #310) Oread
Whirl up, sea --
Whirl your pointed pines,
Splash your great pines
On our rocks;
Hurl your green over us,
Cover us with your pools of fir.
-- H D
Hilda Doolittle published her first poems under the name H. D. Imagiste (the 'e'
was meant to suggest the French poets to whom Imagism owed such a debt). Later,
she dropped the artificial surname and wrote as just plain 'H. D.'.

'Oread' is probably H. D.'s most famous poem; it's certainly her most-quoted
work. I need hardly comment on the energy and intensity (bordering on violence,
sometimes) of the lines; what I find equally noteworthy is the simplicity of the
vocabulary - out of twenty-odd words, only two have more than one syllable.
This, of course, is perfectly in sync with the Imagist mantra "show, don't tell"
- it's no wonder that Pound and others considered 'Oread' to be among the purest
embodiments of their poetic ethos.

In later life, H. D. discarded (some would say 'grew out of') the Imagist mantle
she wore in her youth. Sometimes I wish she hadn't.


[About 'Oread']

It is time to consider the poem [Ezra] Pound selected as the exemplar of
Vorticist poetry. "In painting - Kandinsky, Picasso," he wrote, in the first
issue of Blast, "In poetry this by `H.D.'" In Blast the poem is untitled. When
it appeared in Some Imagist Poets (1915) it was called "Oread," and this is the
title under which appears in H. D.'s Collected Poems. F. S. Flint in the Egoist
referred to the poem as "Pines," clearly believing that it speaks of pines,
imaged as a green sea. Pound, however, appears to have read the poem differently
... "`H.D.'s waves like pine tops." ... This confusion is, paradoxically,
illuminating, for all such formulations misrepresent the poem. The poem is not
about pines or the sea. It ... functions in a non-discursive mode and cannot be
"unfolded" or explained; for [as Pound stated] "the Image is more than an idea.
It is a vortex or cluster of fused ideas and is endowed with energy."

And indeed the most immediately striking quality of "Oread" is perhaps its
projection of a contained energy: it is vibrant, yet reaches stasis. The stasis
is achieved in part by the poet's refusal to extend her compass... The energy is
a product of the intensity of the poet's vision. It is bodied forth in the
centering of the poem on forceful verbs. In six short lines we find five violent
verbs: "whirl" (twice), "splash," "hurl" (strengthened by the assonantal
relationship with "whirl"), and "cover." All are in the imperative mood; each is
placed at the beginning of a line; and only commas are allowed to articulate
this avalanche of energy. Thus we have a movement of breathless crescendo, or
rather of repeated climax, suggestive of the surging of sea and forest alike.
And thus the poem is a worthy model of authentic imagism, of Pound's vorticist
ideal - the five clauses really offer alternative expressions of a single idea.

    -- Brendan Jackson, from "'The Fulsomeness of her Prolixity': Reflections on
H.D. Imagiste". The South Atlantic Quarterly 83:1 (Winter 1984): 99-100.

[About H. D. ]

Her work is characterized by the intense strength of her images, economy of
language, and use of classical mythology. Her poems did not receive widespread
appreciation and acclaim during her lifetime, in part because her name was
associated with the Imagist movement even as her voice had outgrown its
boundaries, as evidenced by her book-length works, Trilogy and Helen in Egypt.
Neglect of H. D. can also be attributed to her times, as many of her poems spoke
to an audience which was unready to respond to the strong feminist principles
articulated in her work. She died in 1961.

    -- from the Academy of American Poets,
[broken link]

[About the Imagists]

A group of American and English poets whose poetic program was formulated about
1912 by Ezra Pound -- in conjunction with fellow poets Hilda Doolittle (H.D.),
Richard Aldington, and F.S. Flint -- inspired by the critical views of T.E.
Hulme, in revolt against the careless thinking and Romantic optimism he saw

The Imagists wrote succinct verse of dry clarity and hard outline in which an
exact visual image made a total poetic statement. Imagism was a successor to the
French Symbolist movement, but whereas Symbolism had an affinity with music,
Imagism sought analogy with sculpture. In 1914 Pound turned to Vorticism, and
Amy Lowell largely took over leadership of the group. Among others who wrote
Imagist poetry were John Gould Fletcher and Harriet Monroe; Conrad Aiken,
Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, D.H. Lawrence, and T.S. Eliot were influenced
by it in their own poetry.

    -- English 88, at UPenn -


A biography of H. D. can be found at [broken link]

A nice introduction to Imagism (including definitions, poems and commentaries)
can be found at  [broken link]

'Oread' is the first poem by H. D. to be featured on the Minstrels, but we've
covered lots of Imagists. Some of my favourites:

'The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter' by Ezra Pound is one of the most
heart-breakingly beautiful poems I know - poem #70

'The Red Wheelbarrow' by William Carlos Williams is possibly the most famous
Imagist poem of them all) - poem #83

'Whitman' by Alfred Kreymborg is dazzling in its simplicity - poem #245

Carl Sandburg's 'Crucible' is quite possibly my favourite poem of all time -
poem #205


Main Entry: oread
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English oreades, plural, from Latin oread-, oreas, from Greek
oreiad-, areias, from oreios of a mountain, from oros mountain
Date: 14th century
: any of the nymphs of mountains and hills in Greek mythology

    -- Merriam-Webster Online,

The Lake Isle of Innisfree -- William Butler Yeats

Guest poem sent in by Pavithra Krishnan
(Poem #309) The Lake Isle of Innisfree
  I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
  And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
  Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
  And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

  And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow
  Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
  There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
  And evenings full of the linnet's wings.

  I will arise and go now, for always night and day
  I hear the lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
  While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
  I hear it in the deep heart's core.
-- William Butler Yeats
I like that this one was written by the man who penned something as dark as
"The Second Coming". There is a quietness in this poem that  I find
arresting.So also, the simple, straight-forward sincerity reflected even in
the rhyme pattern. An unassuming poem with a depth of feeling made all the
more evident by its very understatement.


Untitled -- Bhartrihari

Guest poem sent in by C Surendranath

here's one couplet from the 6th century man Bhartrihari....
(Poem #308) Untitled
yasya asti vittam,                         1
sa naraha kuleenaha,                       2
sa eva vakta,                              3
sa cha shrutavan panditaha,                4
sarve gunaha kanchanam ashrayantih.        5
-- Bhartrihari
the translation:
1- with whom there is wealth,
2- that man is of a good clan
3- he is a good speaker
4- he is to be heard and he is a scholar
5- gold brings all virtues with it

This can paraphrased to-
He who has wealth is of a good clan, is wise, a scholar and his words are to
be heard.
Gold can bring all virtues.

It is a telling commentary on the value of wealth in the society that he
lived in.

The Background-

  Bhartrihari was a king of 6th century India. He once had a hunter bring
  him an exotic fruit from the forest which the hunter claimed would
  guarentee long life. The king was reluctant to consume it himself and gave
  it instead to his beloved queen. She in turn gave it to a musician who was
  her lover. He gave it to the woman he really loved, a courtesan. The
  courtesan, being truly loyal to her master, brought it back to the king
  himself. On finding out about the tortuous route the fruit had taken, the
  king was sick of the worldly life and took to the forest, where he held
  forth on the futility of this ephemeral existence.


Lay your sleeping head, my love -- W H Auden

Guest poem sent in by Vikram Doctor
(Poem #307) Lay your sleeping head, my love
  Lay your sleeping head, my love,
  Human on my faithless arm;
  Time and fevers burn away
  Individual beauty from
  Thoughtful children, and the grave
  Proves the child ephemeral:
  But in my arms till break of day
  Let the living creature lie,
  Mortal, guilty, but to me
  The entirely beautiful.

  Soul and body have no bounds:
  To lovers as they lie upon
  Her tolerant enchanted slope
  In their ordinary swoon,
  Grave the vision Venus sends
  Of supernatural sympathy,
  Universal love and hope;
  While an abstract insight wakes
  Among the glaciers and the rocks
  The hermit's sensual ecstasy.

  Certainty, fidelity
  On the stroke of midnight pass
  Like vibrations of a bell,
  And fashionable madmen raise
  Their pedantic boring cry:
  Every farthing of the cost,
  All the dreaded cards foretell,
  Shall be paid, but from this night
  Not a whisper, not a thought,
  Not a kiss nor look be lost.

  Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
  Let the winds of dawn that blow
  Softly round your dreaming head
  Such a day of sweetness show
  Eye and knocking heart may bless,
  Find the mortal world enough;
  Noons of dryness see you fed
  By the involuntary powers,
  Nights of insult let you pass
  Watched by every human love.
-- W H Auden
Abraham has made some sniffy comments recently about Auden, and suggested
that if we want more Auden we could put him in through the Sunday poems.
Well, obviously I can't resist that challenge lying, so here's one of his

In a way though I can understand what Abraham says when he says that he just
doesn't get Auden. I think its true that Auden hasn't written the sort of
poems one can simply love and remember and keep repeating to yourself. There
is not much delight in Auden's poems. Instead they are full of a troubled
intelligence, unease, ambiguity, sadness and a sense of anguish at the
frailty of things. The above poem sums this up in the first two lines: "Lay
your sleeping head, my love,/Human on my faithless arm..." Auden is
illusionless about love, but that doesn't stop him from being fully,
painfully, aware of its beauty and tenderness.

Auden, its often been said, was perhaps the first really modern poet. He was
not a "Modern" poet like Eliot and Pound, experimenting with forms, with
ideas and concepts. He was too human (as opposed to intellectual), too
romantic even for that. At the same time, he's not Romantic - if he had
idealism (which initially at least he did), it was never blind, and as time
and the Thirties took their toll his disillusioned intelligence grew, and
that's what give the later poems the full force of their understanding,
despair and yet some sort of hope in the beauty of things, and also in a
religious feeling of sorts. When you read Auden its not for the beauty of
the poems, but because you know that here is a poet who really reflects the
way you think.

Auden's modernity, rather than Modernity, also comes through in the
technical aspect of the poems. Auden's technical skills are awesome. He's a
rebuke to all those people who imagine that they can just churn out
something and call it poetry. His skills are rarely ostentatious, but are
always there. This is the poet as a craftsman, each poem finely, but
unobtrusively turned. He also has a matchless way with phrases - Auden's
lines feel so _right_, his phrases not polished and beautiful, but exactly
correct. You know without thinking, often without understanding, that these
are _real_ poems. And while he can do free verse as well as the Modernists,
I think the humanity and the ability to communicate with people that he had,
made him aware that sometimes the formal poetic forms - ballads, sonnets,
quatrains, rhymes - work best.

There have been better and greater poets this century, however you choose to
judge these criteria. Yet Auden, I think, remains the one most
representative of it.


[And a quick comment from me - while I don't have much to say about the poem
as a whole, the first two lines rank high on my list of immortal openings.
There is something about the prase 'human on my faithless arm' that is, as
Vikram put it, _right_. - m.]

Geometry -- Alfred Kreymborg

A nice poem to start the year off...
(Poem #306) Geometry
  Never a mouse
  chases ever a tail,
  never a mouse ever sees
  that always a cat
  catches always a mouse,
  cats being kittens
  who once chased their tails.
  Toss a pebble into a stream,
  never a circle catches a circle;
  shoot a dawn-ball
  into the sky,
  never a moonbeam
  catches a sun;
  drop the same thought
  on the floor:
  Only a kitten catches a tail,
  the tail being straight,
  the kitten a circle.
  Yet never a mouse
  chases ever a tail,
  never a mouse ever sees
  that always some death
  catches always his mouse,
  deaths being kittens
  who once chased their tails.
-- Alfred Kreymborg
A dizzying poem that seems to be a metaphor for human progress, life, death,
cosmology, logic, physics, metaphysics, space, time and the most
pronouncedly noneuclidean geometries that ever sprung from a mathematician's
pipe-dreams. And no doubt a host of other things that I'll think of the moment
my head stops spinning.



A biography of Kreymborg, and another of his poems at poem #245

For another beautiful poem that explores the relationship between form,
content, geometry and the universe, see poem #195