January 30, 2017
While you are sipping your coffee this morning and looking out the window at the howling winter wind, consider for a moment this poem for a cold winter’s day.
[Blow, blow, thou winter wind]
As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII
Lord Amiens, a musician, sings before Duke Senior’s company.
Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.
Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
That dost not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot:
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As friend remembered not.
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly…
January 28, 2017
On this date in 1939 William Butler Yeats died in France. One of the most famous elegies in English was written by W. H. Auden:
In Memory of W. B. Yeats
By W. H. Auden
He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.
But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumors;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.
But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
Earth, receive an honored guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.
In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;
With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise
Read this poem slowly and carefully. Let the profound gravity of the moment rest upon you this cold winter morning and look back to another winter morning in 1939 when the voice of a nation became silent evermore.
The elegy is composed of three sections:
- a free verse section describing the event of Yeats’ death in its contemporary setting,
- a section of hexameters about the significance of Yeats’ death, and
- a section of six tetrameter quatrains which constitute a sort of prayer and exhortation for the things Yeats’ spirit will always stand for.
In section 1, Auden notes that it was winter when Yeats died, and the world that received his bequest of ideas on that day was unconcerned with his death.
In section 2, he declares that Yeats’ poetry will survive—it may make nothing happen directly but it will survive as a standing judgment of a world which it does not enter into.
In section 3 Auden prays that Yeats’ spirit will still “persuade us to rejoice” even in the midst of national hate and impending holocaust:
In the desert of the heart/ Let the healing fountain start/ In the prison of his days/ Teach the free man how to praise.
One more thing. When the speaker says of Yeats, “Now he is scattered among a hundred cities. . .” (l. 18) at the beginning of the stanza he probably is suggesting that the poet will survive through the words of his poems which are “modified in the guts of the living” (l.23). Line 18 evokes an image of Yeats’s poems being dispersed like the ashes of a cremated body; they become part of all they touch, but they are also transformed by the host on which they come to rest.
Yeats’s epitaph is from his poem “Under Ben Bulben.”
W. B. Yeats’s Grave (from U. of Texas)
January 25, 2017
To commemorate Robert Burns’s birthday in The Literary Life here is one of the Scotch poet’s more humorous poems:
To a Louse: On Seeing One On A Lady’s Bonnet, At Church
(Hover over the dialect words for definitions.)
|Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie?
Your impudence protects you sairly;
I canna say but ye strunt rarely,
Owre gauze and lace;
Tho’, faith! I fear ye dine but sparely
On sic a place.Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
Detested, shunn’d by saunt an’ sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her-
Sae fine a lady?
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner
On some poor body.
Swith! in some beggar’s haffet squattle;
Here’s what I said about “To a Louse” in my Historical Dictionary of Romanticism in Literature:
Robert Burns wrote this poem in his familiar Standard Habbie stanza form. Since Burns rarely attended the common Scottish Presbyterian assemblies, this poem is his imagining of a church service with its hypocritical churchgoers. The speaker sits in a pew behind a respectable young lady during the service. She has dressed in her finery for Sunday church. The speaker notices a louse crawling in her hair. The fine lady is, of course unaware and would be utterly horrified to know someone had spotted lice in her hair. The poem’s obvious theme is that we seldom see ourselves as others see us.
The Standard Habbie stanza form perfected by Robert Burns, Burns adapted the stanza from the 17th-century Scottish poet Robert Sempill who used it in his ballad “The Life and Death of Habbie Simpson.” A Standard Habbie stanza consists of a six lines, or sestet, with three lines of iambic tetrameter rhyming aaa followed by an iambic dimeter line making the b rhyme. The last two lines are iambic tetrameter and iambic dimeter rhyming ab. Burns uses this stanza in other poems as “Address to a Haggis” (traditionally read tonight, “Holy Willie’s Prayer,” and “To a Mouse.”
I started out The Literary Life in 2015 with this post–or manifesto, if you will. I think it is time to post it again with just a few tweaks.
Art, literature, is by its nature subversive of its contemporary social and economic order.
- Art is contemptuous of philistine values.
- Art is elitist. But the elite are not those of the conservative middle classes since these classes have no use for art—not real art. Members of these classes have conventionally been call philistines. The philistines now rule the United States and Britain.
- The elite are those who, while yes, technically are of the power, privileged class, can rise above and realize the vacuity of philistine values.
- All true art subverts philistine values. The great masterpieces of pure beauty, of pure art for art’s sake, subvert by their very existence. The great masterpiece of pure art, of pure literature, screams out “I exist,” “I transcend.” Imagine a great piece of marble such as the Pieta by Michelangelo pictured above. Certainly, the piece promotes an intense devotional response. But in economic terms it serves no purpose beyond beauty. But who cares? Nothing of that sort matters to philistinism unless it can be commodified.
So, when our friends ask us how to distinguish great literature from among all the books lining the bookshelves down at Barnes & Noble, ask them to pay attention to which books pledge their loyalty to the social and economic orders of the day and which pledge their loyalty to pure art. Which books are primarily commodities for philistine market forces and which aim to subvert commodification? These questions are easily determined and require no particular literary acumen.
Some big questions arising today in our postmodern period about art and literature are: Why does philistinism abhor the word “elite”? Can a work of true art collaborate with philistine values? Or, Who are the philistines? Can those of us who are serious in our own tastes about literature really escape our personal philistinism? (Alas, I wrestle constantly with this and usually fail.) Can philistinism coexist with democratic values?
Questions, questions, questions. I want to keep talking about these big questions in this blog. Join in.
January 16. 2017
As it happens, the third week of January 2017, the week in which the United States holds its formal Inauguration of a new American president, begins with the commemoration of Martin Luther King Day today and ends with a Women’s March on Washington, D.C. that will dwarf the attendance of the Inauguration itself. This will be a week that will overwhelmingly manifest the sharp moral divide in the United States over questions of basic human rights.
As I begin The Literary Life for the last half of Season Two, let me put in front of you this poignant passage from Martin Luther King’s most important written work, the Letter from the Birmingham Jail, written in 1963.
“I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is a historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well-timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait!’ has almost always meant ‘Never!’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”