‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling

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 imposters 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 wornout 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 breath 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!

 

I’m not a great reader of Kipling but, of course, probably like the majority of us, this is the poem I most connect him with. ‘If’ is such a bolstering and wise poem about staying true to yourself and your beliefs and values. Joni Mitchell wrote a beautiful song that set this poem to music which I really love, too (it’s in her album ‘Shine’). 

‘I was nothing’ by Lalla

When my mind was cleansed of impurities,
like a mirror of its dust and dirt,
I recognized the Self in me:
When I saw Him dwelling in me,
I realized that He was the Everything
and I was nothing.

 

Lalla was a Hindu mystic and saint who lived in Kashmir, India, in the 1300s. I think this poem is a beautiful expression of what it feels like to meditate on God. We realise that God is “Everything” and that the “I’ — our ego — is “nothing”. This is not a negative thing, and we are losing nothing in this transformation, we simply become connected to the Divine — are filled and consumed by it — and become one with it.

‘That sanity be kept’ by Dylan Thomas

That sanity be kept I sit at open windows,
Regard the sky, make unobtrusive comment on the moon,
Sit at open windows in my shirt,
And let the traffic pass, the signals shine,
The engines run, the brass bands keep in tune,
For sanity must be preserved

Thinking of death, I sit and watch the park
Where children play in all their innocence,
And matrons on the littered grass
Absorb the daily sun.

The sweet suburban music from a hundred lawns
Comes softly to my ears. The English mowers mow and mow.

I mark the couples walking arm in arm,

Observe their smiles,

Sweet invitations and inventions,

See them lend love illustration
By gesture and grimace,
I watch them curiously, detect beneath the laughs
What stands for grief, a vague bewilderment
At things not turning right.

I sit at open windows in my shirt,
Observe, like some Jehova of the west
What passes by, that sanity be kept.

I loved this poem from the first time I read it, as a teenager. It is a poem I often come back to; I don’t think I ever open my Dylan Thomas book of poems without reading this one.

Its music is, of course, glorious, as with all Dylan Thomas’ poetry. For me, ‘That sanity be kept’ describes the complexity of the role of the poet beautifully. There is, near the end of the poem, a rather exaggeratedly grand description, as Thomas describes himself as a “Jehova of the west”. I find something ironic in the way Thomas describes himself in this way, when he is talking about preserving sanity… by describing himself as a sort of God makes himself sound a little bit delusional. But then, don’t you have to have a certain amount of ego to create poetry, or any form of art for that matter? And poets are God-like in the sense that they are creators. Poets create what Thomas loved to describe as his “craft”; they observe, describe, comment, philosophise, and, on occasion, prophesy.

There also seems to me to be in this poem a sense of ritual — of the religion of poetry. It is almost as though the speaker believes that, were he not to “sit at open windows” in his shirt, making “unobtrusive comment”, then the “traffic” would fail to circulate, that the “signals” would fail to “shine”, and the “brass bands” would fail to “keep in tune”. The writing of poetry becomes a sort of compulsive prayer. Thomas keeps leaving hints to reveal to us the complexity of his relationship to his craft, adding that, as he sits at his open window — that symbolic position of an observer, apart from the world — he is “Thinking of death”.

Another line in the poem that fascinates me is “The English mowers mow and mow”. Why the repetition of such a banal word? I think Dylan is showing us here how sometimes poetry is difficult, and that sometimes the world is dull, leaving him without inspiration (with Thomas, though, this phase is very short-lived.)

I love how the poet describes himself watching the couples “curiously”, watching them “lend love illustration”. This is a very interesting line to me because it seems to suggest that the speaker has only ever read about Love — not experienced it first-hand — and so what he observes in the couples walking “arm in arm” is simply an “illustration” of a theory… he “detect[s]” the meaning behind their behaviour from his high window. This is a very sad image of the poet — he is sort of doomed in his role of observer, apart from the real world. He can make only “unobtrusive comment”, which suggests that he cannot change things. He is a passive observer and commentator, rather than an actor in life’s continuation.

So, in this poem, the poet’s very complicated role is at once that of a passive observer and commentator, a creator with very grandiose (possibly deluded) ambitions or opinions of himself, and that of a sad person who does not connect with others, and who remains apart from the real world… Which is all quite negative and sad. But then I love the image of Thomas sitting at his window in his shirt because there’s something so romantic about it.

As a final thought, I love the idea of the poet doing what he does in order “that sanity be kept”. I love that phrase, and the variation of it — “for sanity must be preserved”. Throughout my life so far, poetry has been a great preserver of sanity for me. Poetry reminds us that we are not alone, it reminds us that there is beauty in this world, and that, even where there is none, we can nevertheless create beauty, through the expression of our experience.

‘Mrs Darwin’ by Carol Ann Duffy

7 April 1852
Went to the Zoo.
I said to Him—
Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of you.

 

This is from Duffy’s collection, The World’s Wife (1999). The World’s Wife is full of brilliant of poems from the perspectives of the wives of various famous men. This one, obviously, is from the perspective of Charles Darwin’s wife. I love how Duffy makes it sound as though Darwin’s wife suggested the notion of evolution to him by remarking that a chimp at the zoo rather resembled him.

I thought this was a good poem to follow my previous (very long) post about Prufrock, because it’s nice and short. Also, because it’s funny!

‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T.S. Eliot

     S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?

. . . . .

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

. . . . .

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep… tired… or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.”

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

. . . . .

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old… I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

I became obsessed with T.S. Eliot during the year after I left school, and my fascination for his work has continued to grow since then. I remember the first time I read this poem. I was utterly enthralled, though it confused me. I read it over and over, and I’m sure I still don’t understand it entirely. It is a poem about procrastination, fear, the angst-ridden mentality of the modern man, and probably many other things too. Here I’m just going to express some of my thoughts about a poem that I really, really love.

Eliot’s poems are littered with literary references (in the same way that Prufrock begins with an extract from Dante’s Inferno, and goes on to reference Shakespeare, Marvell, and probably others which I’m not well-read enough to pick up on!) These references serve to amplify and support the notions expressed in his poems, though I think they also reflect the often fragmented nature of the modern mind (which Eliot reveals to us here through the voice of Prufrock in his monologue). In The Wasteland, Eliot’s most famous and enduring poem (which contains an enormous amount of untranslated literary references), he states that the modern man “know[s] only a heap of broken images”. I think this statement describes Prufrock perfectly, as his language is made up of reflections and repetitions of things he has heard or read before.

This poem is called a “Love Song”, and yet, from the very beginning, you notice that it is not quite conventional… Prufrock starts conventionally, by asking someone (who I presume is a woman) to go for a walk with him, but then he kills the romance by describing the evening as being “spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table”. This is not exactly a romantic description, and, for me, it sets us up for the feeling that runs through the poem that Prufrock is trapped; later on in the poem he describes himself as being like an insect “sprawling on a pin”, waiting to be inspected or dissected. Prufrock seems afraid, nervous and paranoid.

There is no romance in this ‘Love Song’; Prufrock takes his ‘date’ through “half-deserted streets”, past seedy “one-night cheap hotels”. He tells us that he has an “overwhelming question” to ask, but he keeps putting it off throughout the poem. He keeps procrastinating, but never dares to “force the moment to its crisis”. We never find out what his question is, though I think it’s a question he wants to ask the woman to whom the poem is addressed. Prufrock is so paranoid and fearful and self-conscious that he fears that the woman will reply, “That is not what I meant, at all./ That is not it, at all”. He is afraid that he has misinterpreted or misread the woman’s intentions or feelings or words, and so is afraid to ‘make a move’, as we say.

I love that way that Prufrock keeps telling himself, “There will be time”. He keeps repeating it to himself: “time yet for a hundred indecisions,/ For a hundred visions and revisions,/ Before the taking of toast and tea”. Prufrock is in denial about the passing of time, and he is wasting it on procrastination. As the mention of “the taking of toast and tea” suggests, Prufrock is very much caught up with the trivialities, conventions and material aspects of modern life. Through all his indecisions about asking the woman his “overwhelming question”, and all his wondering “Do I dare?” and turning back to “descend the stair”, he is concerned about his appearance and his clothes. He is worried about his “bald spot”, and the fact that people might notice how his “hair” and “arms and legs are thin.” He is painfully aware and afraid of the consequences that his decisions could provoke.

There seems to be a (falsely) world-weary attitude to his dilemma with the woman, as Prufrock says “I have known the eyes already, known them all”, and “I have known the arms already, known them all”. He is fixated on the individual body parts of women, like a shy person who won’t look at you directly, and he inspects them (in the way he does not want to be inspected, sprawled on a pin), noticing the “light brown hair” on their arms… In this part of the poem it seems to me that Prufrock is, very childishly, convincing himself not to ask the woman his “overwhelming question” because he knows exactly how it will go, and he has ‘seen it all before’. It’s like he’s trying to make us think that he’s been with hundreds of women, and that this woman will be just like the others (which is clearly not true, seeing how he is so afraid, and making such a fuss about asking her a question.)

Prufrock is so afraid to “force the moment to its crisis”, and ask the woman his question, because he is afraid that he has misread her, and that she will “turn toward the window” and say “That is not it, at all./ That is not what I meant, at all”. He has no self-confidence: he wonders what he could possibly say to her — what can he say about his life wandering through “narrow streets”, watching the “smoke that rises from the pipes/ Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves”? His life is so trivial, he feels, and “it is impossible to say just what I mean!”

Prufrock tells us that he is “not Prince Hamlet” — not the protagonist of a story — “nor was meant to be”. He is rather an “attendant lord”. He has only a minor part to play on the world’s stage. He will do to “swell a progress, start a scene or two”, but that’s all. He’s “an easy tool”, and “almost ridiculous –/ Almost, at times, the Fool.” Here we can see Prufrock’s poor opinion of himself, his lack of conviction.

As the poem draws to a close, it becomes clear that Prufrock has not, and will never, ask the woman his “overwhelming question”. Time has passed him by, through all his procrastination: “I grow old… I grow old…” And still, infuriatingly, he is only concerned with trivialities and his appearance: “Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?/ I will wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach”.

There is a real sense of loss at the end of the poem, as Prufrock states that he has “heard the mermaids singing, each to each”, but adds, “I do not think they will sing to me”. He acknowledges here that there is magic in the world — he has caught glimpses of it in the past — but it it is too late for him now; he is old, and there is no longer any hope that the mermaids will sing to him. There is no hope for the love he once wished to share with the woman he was afraid to ask his “overwhelming question”. Prufrock seems to acknowledge at the end of the poem that he has been living in denial, in a dream — “in the chambers of the sea,/ By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown”. He was living in a constant dream of an imagined, hypothetical tomorrow, but was never brave enough to take action, to “force the moment to its crisis”. This is what happens if we are forever putting off decisions, deluding ourselves that there will always “be time” for our hesitations and procrastinations. This kind of behaviour leads to a life lived in an imaginary dream world, until reality breaks though — until “human voices wake us, and we drown.”

‘Consecrated’ by St. Catherine of Sienna

All has been consecrated.
The creatures in the forest know this,
The earth does, the seas do, the clouds know
as does the heart
full of love.

Strange a priest would rob us of this knowledge
and then empower himself with the ability
to make holy
what already was.

This is a poem by one of the great Catholic saints, Catherine of Sienna, who lived in the 14th Century. Her’s is a fascinating biography: she saw guardian angels from the age of 6, and became a nun at the age of 16 (against the wishes of her parents, who wanted her to marry.) She continued having visions and mystical experiences throughout her short life (she died at just 33), as well as writing much poetry, letters, and as other writings that are still considered very important in the Church.

I love this poem because it seems almost heretical, yet it was written by a saint. It is so beautiful, and voices something that I have often thought myself — Why do I need a priest to act as a mediator between myself and God?

“Everything has been consecrated”, St Catherine tells us. The world knows this; nobody has a special authority to make places, things or people holy. There is something almost pagan here, in the idea that the “creatures in the forest”, the “earth”, the “seas” and the “clouds” know it. St Catherine finds holiness everywhere — in nature — and tells us that we do not need another person or ‘holy man’ to consecrate what God has already consecrated. You do not need a person to perform any kind of ritual, or blessing over you to make you holy: you already are holy.

‘A child said, What is the grass?’ by Walt Whitman

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any more than he.

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

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

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

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

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

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.

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

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

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

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

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

 

I love this poem by Whitman. I love that way the poet meditates on a single, simple image — of grass — and manages to create the wealth of wisdom and beauty that is presented here. This poem is a meditation of the meaning of life — and death — and presents a beautiful image of continual renewal and rebirth.

The entire poem is provoked by the simple, innocent question of a child asking “What is the grass?” and the speaker realises that he is as clueless as the child. Of course, the broader significance here is in reference to the wonderful creation (or equally wonderful random phenomenon) of the world. And the poet presents us with a series of explanations.

The first explanation given by Whitman is that the grass is “the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful, green stuff woven”. Here the poet is delivering the notion that we see in the world as a reflection of our own dispositions, our own hopes.

Or perhaps, suggests Whitman, the grass is the “handkerchief” of God, “designedly dropped” so that we might infer a creator for our world. Has our Maker created the grass so green and beautiful in order to draw our attention to His might and glory?

Perhaps the grass is “a child itself” — the “babe of vegetation”. For me, this image conjures the idea of world being a product of itself, and part of an endless cycle of nature — of birth and death.

The next suggestion that the poet makes is that the grass is a “hieroglyphic” — a symbolic entity from which we may derive wisdom. Perhaps it has metaphorical significance: the grass grows alike in the zones of rich and poor people, among “black folks as among white”, and we as human beings ought to live the same way. We should take lessons from the democracy of the grass, and treat all people equally (“I give them the same, I receive them the same”.) These were vital  notions for Whitman, who had lived through the Civil War, and seen so much violence, death and suffering over the question of slavery.

The grass also becomes, through the voice of Whitman, the “beautiful uncut hair of graves.” The poet talks about the dead who were old, as well as the dead who were young — “offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps”. I like this about Whitman — he does not shy away from reality, or from mentioning that there are horrors in this world, as some poets do. I think that the descriptions here of tragedy and the death of the young reflects the atrocities of the American Civil War, during which Whitman spent time working in a hospital caring for wounded and dying soldiers. Whitman allows us to see death in this poem, but he also shows us his compassion: “It may be if I had known them I would have loved them”. The fact that Whitman allows death into his vision here creates, for me at least, the notion of an eternal cycle of life and death — of death breeding life and life breeding death, and so on. Tragedy and pain are not ignored in this poem, but rather acknowledged as part of an endless renewal and cycle of life. It reminds me of how we are all constantly dying and being reborn, in a spiritual and psychological sense.

“The smallest sprouts show there is really no death”. I love this line. And if there “ever was” death, says Whitman, then it “led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,/ and ceased the moment life appeared.” Even where there is death, and suffering, it is always leading to life, and healing — it is not waiting to damn us “at the end”. There is always new life after death — always the cycle continues — and death ceases to be, the moment life reappears.

“And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.” I really love this final line; it is mysterious, and beautiful, and full of hope.

 

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