‘The Scholars’ by W.B. Yeats

Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.
All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbour knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?

This poem from The Wild Swans at Coole means a great deal to me because it reminds us that poetry is an Art and a passion before it is anything else. In this piece, Yeats evokes the blinkered academic, furiously analysing – “edit[ing] and annotat[ing]” – the dry pages of tomes full of poetry that was “Rhymed out in love’s despair” by “Young men, tossing in their beds.” The Scholars is a spot-on, well-aimed jab at literary critics, but also a very pertinent comment on the nature of poetry.

I love the contrast between the bald heads – those “Old, learned, respectable bald heads” – and the young poets rhyming out “in love’s despair”. Notice how the scholars don’t seem to have bodies; they’re just heads. The “young men” are living their lives, and experiencing every moment of it intensely. Their writing is what Wordsworth described as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. The way the scholars are described as annotating and editing suggests they manipulate the verse to fit their purpose (which critics often do).

“All shuffle… all cough in ink”, Yeats tells us. The shuffling certainly amplifies this idea of quiet living – blinkered living – and the coughing brings to my mind a person that almost ignores the needs of his body because he is so deeply buried in his books. “All think what other people think”; these scholars seem to be dictated to by tradition, and pressure about what is the ‘right’ literature to venerate.

When we come to the end of the piece, Yeats poses us a question: “Lord, what would they say/ Did their Catullus walk that way?” I like this very neat ending. If Catullus (a Roman poet, known for his love poems) had been as dry, as hermit-like, and as studious as Yeats’ scholars, what on earth would his poetry have been like? Without experience – without a life – without at least some kind of passion – a poet is nothing, because it is in moments of intense emotion that poems are ‘born’, even if they are completed and polished in a calmer state (or “in tranquility” to quote Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads again).

As you can probably tell from this blog, I kind of like literary criticism. I love to read about writers and their techniques; I love to take a poem and really get to grips with it and work out how and why it’s such a marvel because I love poetry. But The Scholars reminds us that the greatest literary theorist cannot necessarily write a poem, and the greatest poets need not by any means be academics. On the contrary; the poet is an artist. Yeats certainly was.

W.B. Yeats

W.B. Yeats

‘A Desolation’ by Allen Ginsberg

Now mind is clear
as a cloudless sky.
Time then to make a
home in wilderness.

What have I done but
wander with my eyes
in the trees? So I
will build: wife,
family, and seek
for neighbors.

Or I
perish of lonesomeness
or want of food or
lightning or the bear
(must tame the hart
and wear the bear) .

And maybe make an image
of my wandering, a little
image—shrine by the
roadside to signify
to traveler that I live
here in the wilderness
awake and at home.

I am intrigued and captivated by this poem, though I admit that (as with many Ginsberg poems) I find it difficult. I think the poet is exploring the idea of a life lived in harmony with nature, as opposed to a conventional life – perhaps city life? – within modern Western society. Allen Ginsberg was an avid student of Buddhism (he even founded his own school based on its principles), and I think there are clear influences of that interest in this piece.

The opening stanza describes a state of mind, “clear/ as a cloudless sky”. In this state of peace and calm, the poet decides it is “Time then to make a/ home in wilderness”. These two lines suggest that when the poet’s mind is uncluttered by the mess and bustle of life within the confines set out by society (i.e. in a state of meditation?), his overriding desire is to live in the “wilderness” – in the purity of nature – abandoning ego, ambition and material greed. The poet’s desire to live in the “wilderness” also reflects the way in which Ginsberg masterfully rebelled against the inherited conventions of poetry, abandoning strict form and permitting himself the colloquial and sometimes even vulgar diction, and of course taboo subjects such as sex, homosexuality, racism etc.

“What have I done but/ wander with my eyes/ in the trees?” asks the speaker in the second verse. I think Ginsberg is saying here that this is all he has been seeking throughout his life — searching the horizon, the wilderness, for a way in (or a way out!) He says that he will “build” a home there, in the wilderness, with “wife”, “family” and “neighbours”. For me, there is a sort of self-conscious acknowledgement here that – however much he longs to separate himself from the trappings of conventional society – he is always applying society’s measures – its mores and norms – to the ‘free’ life he is seeking in the “wilderness”. Even here, he seeks to furnish his new home with the usual “wife”, “family” and “neighbors” that signify success in the Western world’s terms. Likewise, perhaps, even as free as the Beat poets seemed from literary convention, they doubtless still felt the weight and draw of it at times.

As we move into the third stanza, the poet begins to contemplate the possible failure of his dream home. He imagines that he might “perish of lonesomeness”, “want of food”, “lightning” or “the bear”. These fears are very intriguing. He is afraid that his ‘pure’ life in nature might cause him to die from loneliness, hunger (that is man’s greed). The lightning I think might refer to love (the coup de foudre or lightning bolt) and the bear of course signifies the dangers of the untamed natural world. Ginsberg adds at the end of this stanza, in brackets, that he must “tame the hart” and “wear the bear”. This implies that he realises he must tame the wild creatures in order to be safe (or even to eat), and kill in order to defend himself. There must be destruction, murder – a desolation – for man’s survival.

In the final verse, the speaker tells us that he wishes to leave a trace of himself in his wilderness. Man has always told stories, left an imprint of himself, from the time he lived in caves. It’s a natural, human impulse. Ginsberg talks of a little “shrine by the roadside”, so that travellers might know that he lives there in the wilderness, “awake and at home”. He is determined to pursue his ‘pure’ and ‘natural’ life, and he will leave a small trace of it for other pilgrims. This “shrine by the roadside” is surely a symbol for Ginsberg’s poems, which are beacons of this incredible poet’s courage and genius – a signpost for other poets seeking the same freedom.

Ginsberg_2

‘Morning Song’ by Sylvia Plath

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Here I am, writing about Sylvia Plath again. Every time I return to her ‘Ariel’ poems, I am newly astounded; the poems are so unique, challenging and rewarding. ‘Morning Song’ is the first poem in that collection, and describes a mother waking in the night to tend to her crying baby. As a mother of two, Plath is surely writing about her own child, her own experience.

The opening line is killer: “Love set you going like a fat gold watch.” From the outset, it is clear that Time is to be a prominent theme here. Plath likens her child’s birth to the winding of a watch. The implication here is of course that the watch must eventually wind down, stop; her child will ultimately die. There is a strong awareness throughout the poem that this baby is on its own life course – that it occupies Time in a space separate from the mother. Plath recognises this in the second verse as she describes the child as a “New/ statue./ In a drafty museum”. A new statue that will receive its own stains, chips and cracks. Mother, father and midwife become mere “walls”, eclipsed by the new life that has just become the most important thing in the world.

Plath develops this notion of separation in the third, magisterial stanza: “I’m no more your mother/ Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own/ Slow effacement at the wind’s hand”.  What a statement; this is Plath at her enigmatic, economical finest. The poet is poignantly aware that her child is a separate entity, and she sees her own mortality reflected in that life.

I love the description in the fifth verse of the mother stumbling from bed at the baby’s cry, “cow-heavy and floral/ In my Victorian nightgown”. Her description of herself here is decidedly unglamorous, dowdy and functional – the sole purpose of her existence now being to nurture and preserve the child. I do not want to dwell on the idea too much, but I cannot help but notice an apparent parallel between her child and her poems, in the sense of one’s creation becoming an independent entity with its own agenda. Plath describes her approach to motherhood in much the same way as she seems to have approached her vocation as a poet. Sylvia Plath famously used to write in the very early hours of the morning, before dawn, while her children were asleep. Her self-sacrificing dedication to her craft was quite ‘motherly’ of her, and the poems are (aren’t they?) mysteriously out of a poet’s control once they are written, and seem to have their own life force…

The final lines of the poem are just perfect, and neatly conclude the poem with a sense that the child is beginning its own, separate journey of life. It tries its “handful of notes”, the “clear vowels” rising “like balloons”. This is a clear acknowledgement that the child has its own independent voice, will tell its own story and build its own future. Plath, the mother, is helpless to control that voice or that life. It is not within her power to censor it.

If you want to read some of my other analyses of Plath’s poems, please take a look at my posts about ‘Ariel‘, ‘Daddy‘, ‘The Applicant‘ and ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree‘.

Sylvia Plath and her two children, Nicholas and Frieda

Sylvia Plath and her two children, Nicholas and Frieda

‘”Why Do I Love” You, Sir?’ by Emily Dickinson

“Why do I love” You, Sir?
Because—
The Wind does not require the Grass
To answer—Wherefore when He pass
She cannot keep Her place.

Because He knows—and
Do not You—
And We know not—
Enough for Us
The Wisdom it be so—

The Lightning—never asked an Eye
Wherefore it shut—when He was by—
Because He knows it cannot speak—
And reasons not contained—
—Of Talk—
There be—preferred by Daintier Folk—

The Sunrise—Sire—compelleth Me—
Because He’s Sunrise—and I see—
Therefore—Then—
I love Thee—

This breathtakingly unique and original poem by Emily Dickinson expresses the notion that love cannot be explained (and cannot, must not be justified) by reason or logic. Dickinson was an incredibly innovative poet, ahead of her time; although she lived in the 1800s, the way she writes often reminds me of 20th century poet E.E. Cummings. This piece is a perfect example of that. Notice the way she uses syntax, and punctuation; the characteristic hyphens; all of this breathes uncommon ease and freedom of language.

I adore the opening stanza of this poem. The speech marks indicate the poet is responding to a question: “”Why do I love” You, Sir?” and then that touching, self-contained, almost childish answer: “Because”. A concrete answer is never given, though the simple “Because” is illustrated with examples taken from nature. For example, the wind does not ask the grass for an explanation when it “cannot keep her place” as he blows. “Because he knows”, says Dickinson — again, enigmatically. He knows, presumably, that the grass has no choice but to move as it is moved by the wind.

Another example given is that of the lightning, which “never asked an Eye/ Wherefore it shut – when he was by”. Because he knows the eye cannot speak. And in any case, the reason is “not contained of -/ – of Talk – “. There is no explanation that can be put into words for such a phenomenon.

I find the last verse very touching as the poet employs a final example to illustrate her love. “The Sunrise”, she tells us, wakes her “Because he’s Sunrise”. She is woken by the light, because it is light – because it is itself. “Therefore, then -/ I love Thee”. What a beautiful, simple expression of something that is beyond us.

emily-dickinson-001

‘London’ by William Blake

I wandered through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:

How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.

But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the marriage-hearse.

I quoted this poem in my last post about Auden’s Their Lonely Betters, so I thought I would write about the whole piece. The phrase “mind-forged manacles” is one that I’ve never forgotten since I first read it. I think it must be inspired by Rousseau’s statement, “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains”. It expresses beautifully the idea that it is man’s own mind that limits and emprisons him.
This poem describes the London that Blake (1757-1827) knew when he was alive. However, there is a timeless and universal truth to it. Blake begins by describing the “charter’d streets” and the “charter’d Thames”. That word “charter’d” gives a sense that everything is mapped out; that every stone is named and accounted for; that there is no room for mystery in the world anymore. This reminds me of Keats’ famous “Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings, unweave a rainbow”.
The tragedy of poverty, the hypocrisy of the Church and the injustice of the class system are all present in this poem. They are dissatisfactions that lead to revolution. The poet describes the chimney sweeper’s cry ‘appalling’ the Church, and this really gives us a sense that Blake perceived a jarring incompatibility between what the Church preached and how it treated the many impoverished of the city. The “hapless Soldier”‘s blood running down Palace walls also amplifies the notion of injustice…
Most noticeable, according to Blake, is the “Harlot’s curse” blighting “with plagues the Marriage hearse”. This is really interesting to me, because the poet seems to consider society’s conventions surrounding Love as the most obvious contributors to human sorrow. It is true that Victorian mores really corseted women in particular with regard to marriage and having children. To call marriage a “hearse” is very extreme, and very dramatically effective, I think.
london william blake