Posts Tagged ‘love poetry’

John Donne: The Apparition

June 30, 2019
WHEN by thy scorn, O murd’ress, I am dead,
And that thou thinkst thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,
And thee, feign’d vestal, in worse arms shall see :
Then thy sick taper will begin to wink,
And he, whose thou art then, being tired before,
Will, if thou stir, or pinch to wake him, think
Thou call’st for more,
And, in false sleep, will from thee shrink :
And then, poor aspen wretch, neglected thou
Bathed in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie,
A verier ghost than I.
What I will say, I will not tell thee now,
Lest that preserve thee ; and since my love is spent,
I’d rather thou shouldst painfully repent,
Than by my threatenings rest still innocent

A nasty poem from John Donne? Surely not? But yes: the woman has rejected him and his advances, and gone to bed with another man, and he wants her to suffer for it.

Look at the power, the vitality, the sheer energy of the opening line: she is a killer, who has done for him by spurning him; when she learns he’s dead she will imagine he’s gone for good and so will stop harassing her, but he will return as a ghost… The multiple alliterations of the second line, through enjambment into the third, seem to help to create that false sense of security in her.

The ghost labels her feign’d vestal, suggesting she rejected the poet to hold on to her virginity for someone else, and that this was a lie, anyway; her lover is not as good a one as he would have been. The image of the sick taper winking – flickering as if it was about to go out, like an expiring candle – is a vivid visual picture. She will be scared, and perhaps seek to waken her partner. Here comes another put-down: he’s tir’d and asleep, with more than a hint of not being able to perform sexually, and will feign sleep when she tries to wake him. There’s a lot of pretending in this poem: her pretended virginity, his pretending to sleep; what about the notion of his shrinking from her: are we meant to imagine what may have shrunk? I think so.

The imagery used to describe her fear at the sight of the ghost – aspen wretch, in a quicksilver sweat – are also visual: she will end up looking more ghost-like than the poet’s ghost!

He taunts her further: he won’t say now what he will tell her then, when he appears as the ghost, in case that undermines the shock effect he intends; he’s over her (allegedly, although I suspect we are invited to think about what he means by my love is spent) and intends her to suffer; he wants her to realise what she’s missed out on…

It’s all a pose, of course, not a poem about a real situation, a real woman or a real rejection. In Donne’s day, any educated man should have been capable of turning out a poem about a rejection. Donne successfully brings out all the anger and spite felt by a man at being rejected sexually, in a poem that manages at the same time to be extremely unpleasant and extremely clever. A consummate artist.

 

Poems for Valentine’s Day #8

February 14, 2019

Elizabeth Jennings: One Flesh

Lying apart now, each in a separate bed,
He with a book, keeping the light on late,
She like a girl dreaming of childhood,
All men elsewhere – it is as if they wait
Some new event: the book he holds unread,
Her eyes fixed on the shadows overhead.

Tossed up like flotsam from a former passion,
How cool they lie. They hardly ever touch,
Or if they do, it is like a confession
Of having little feeling – or too much.
Chastity faces them, a destination
For which their whole lives were a preparation.

Strangely apart, yet strangely close together,
Silence between them like a thread to hold
And not wind in. And time itself’s a feather
Touching them gently. Do they know they’re old,
These two who are my father and my mother
Whose fire from which I came, has now grown cold?

I find this a very sad poem; I can’t decide why: is it because it’s a truthful picture of what the speaker sees as her parents falling out of love, or because the speaker cannot see beyond the superficial?

It’s a strange and difficult situation to put oneself in, thinking of one’s parents as lovers. I used to ask my students to do this, when we were studying a range of love poetry, and the initial reaction was always ‘eeeuw!’ Understandable, of course, but one of the things I wanted them to visualise was the idea that love inevitably changes and evolves over time, and that’s not something easily perceived by teenagers in the first flush of exploring their own emotions and sexuality. Youth can only, and probably should only, understand youthful passion. And depending on your age, reader, you will understand some of this or not…

Lying: in bed, untruth, or both? separate beds = single beds = no sex = no love. One sleeps, the other reads, together yet apart. What a sad picture. Yet, from the third line of the poem, if we read carefully, the poet is no longer merely seeing, but interpreting, fantasising: because they are in separate beds, they are emotionally separated.

It is a slow and reflective poem, the effect created by the line length, stanza length and rhyme scheme as well as the occasional enjambment.

The second stanza seems to start positively cruelly, I feel, with the alliteration of flotsam – suggesting wreckage, debris, rubbish, and former, and the lapidary monosyllables of How cool they lie. This reading of a deeper meaning and significance into something that is only superficial comes to an abrupt halt, however, with the idea that it may not be lack of feeling but too much. We are again faced with something that the poet cannot confirm, but at least she does entertain it, and we are looking at love changing over time, no longer perhaps so reliant on physical and sexual contact to affirm itself, the sense of connection coming more from the years of intimacy on so many different levels: one of those things that it was hard to get teenagers to imagine…

The idea of chastity will horrify a generation just beginning to enjoy the world of sex; one’s whole life is not necessarily just a preparation for that, but for the end of everything… another perhaps gloomy thought that rarely occurs to the immortals.

The poet works slowly and thoughtfully to a resolution in the final stanza, the repeated strangely acknowledging her inability to comprehend. The sounds of the stanza soften, calm, and the image of time itself’s a feather | Touching them gently is a very effective one, recognising the bond and the vulnerability of the couple. The sobering effect of the final old/ cold rhyme perhaps brings us up short, but I think the idea here is as much for the poet herself and her own future, as about her ageing parents. The image of Whose fire from which I came I find peculiarly touching. Here is a poem to make us all think about the nature of love and time.

Poems for Valentine’s Day #7

February 13, 2019

Warning: explicit content in this post

e e cummings: i like my body

i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again
kiss, i like kissing this and that of you,
i like, slowly stroking the, shocking fuzz
of your electric fur, and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh….And eyes big love-crumbs,

and possibly i like the thrill

of under me you so quite new

 

In my reading experience, erotic is difficult to do well: witness the Bad Sex Awards every year for toe-curling writing about sex. I happen to think e e cummings succeeds in this poem; you’ll either agree with me or not.

There is a certain childishness – in choice of vocabulary, as well as in phrasing – that works well, and is arresting, given that he’s clearly writing about an adult subject. The repetition of i like, for instance, and again and again and again.

Is the poem about the poet’s discovery of sexual pleasure per se, or the special pleasure with this partner? Reflecting, I think it is the way the words and ideas jar so often that I find particularly effective, particularly convincing: It is so quite new a thing… that so quite new is repeated in the final line of the poem, and it’s not the way one would phrase an idea in normal (?) English: we stop, or slow down and wonder, what exactly does he mean by this? Muscles better and nerves more what? i like its hows.

I have always considered that one of the things that mars attempts at erotic writing is over-explicitness: a certain amount needs to be said, but there has to be scope for the imagination to work, for our own fantasy to come into play. Perhaps this is why I have always found the sexual passages in D H Lawrence novels so unutterably creepy: he overdoes the description. So here, for example, the kissing this and that of you is rightly unspecific.

If you look carefully, the poem has fourteen lines, so it could be described as a (very informal) sonnet, that archetypal love poem form; Shakespearean perhaps, with the separate final two lines, although they aren’t a couplet… maybe that’s stretching it too far! But there is rhyme – your/ more, and part-rhyme – comes/ crumbs. And there is internal rhyme in the last line – you/ new, as well as the me/ you opposition. I particularly like the images of the shocking fuzz of your electric fur, and the eyes big love-crumbs.

I think e e cummings here is trying to convey the excitement of a new relationship, a new body being discovered, the pleasure in the unfamiliar. The lower case ‘i’, and absence of any capitalisation, is an e e cummings characteristic, as it were, and the ‘i’ here helps suggest a certain innocence, a total involvement in the pleasure of the moment to the exclusion of anything else.

Poems for Valentine’s Day #6

February 12, 2019

Philip Larkin: An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd— 
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn, the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

This poem, one of Larkin’s finest, I think, was inspired by this tomb; in it, he reflects on the nature of love and the nature of how we perceive reality, as well as how time changes us.

The rhyme scheme is a complex one: ABBCAC, and it’s not always scrupulously observed: if a half-rhyme suits his meaning, he uses one. That, and the six-line stanzas, together with frequent use of enjambment, sometimes from one stanza to the next, create a slow and meditative feel and pace to the poem; you can experience this clearly if you try reading it aloud. So he definitely wants his readers in a reflective mood.

The first stanza describes the ancient tomb: blurred faces and vague habits. We cannot see them particularly clearly, and they appear strange to a modern visitor. (Incidentally, anyone wondering why the husband of a countess is not a count should think about what obscene English word it closely resembles and remember that vowel sounds have shifted in English pronunciation over the centuries…)

We follow the poet’s eye through the slow second stanza, noting, via alliteration, how plain he finds it all, until the sharp, tender shock – what an astonishingly apt example of oxymoron that is – of seeing his hand clasping her hand. His response to the statues, and ours, changes: they have been lying there affectionately holding hands for centuries… or have they?

They would not think to lie so long. To lie there, as statues, or to lie, as in, give a false impression of their affection for each other? The joined hands might just have been a sculptor’s detail thrown off, no reflection of any truth. We cannot know. Is this Larkin the cynic revealing his attitude here?

We are shifted into travel through time in the fourth stanza. Observe how, although the names of the couple are inscribed on the base of the tomb, we are never told them: the couple are always they, for their names can mean nothing to us now, hundreds of years later. I love the image of their supine stationary voyage through time; again the oxymoron can almost pass unnoticed; time flows and people begin to look at the image rather than know or care who the images represent. Alliteration of sibilants, supine stationary, soon succeeding, helps the effect.

Look at the way that carefully-wrought fifth stanza makes the centuries pass: an enjambment leads into it, and another one out of it; brief phrases and lengthy sentences alternate, making the stanza itself seem longer. The endless altered people is effective as we picture centuries of churchgoers making their way to the building, and the way they are altered by time and fashion. The sixth stanza continues the effect through alliteration: helpless, hollow, and the sibilants a couple of lines later: as we reach the present day, it’s the attitude that strikes us, the pose, the couple hand-in-hand and what we read into that in our own time: tenderness, closeness, lovers happily together. And it could well have been nothing like that, way back when.

A lapidary final stanza suggests the poet’s take on his experience, his reflections on love. Time – first word of the line, sentence, stanza: what the poem is all about. Alliteration emphasises: transfigured, untruth. What is the effect of the oxymoron – for I think it is one – of stone fidelity? For Larkin, our interpretation is not what they wanted, and yet it bears a message for us nevertheless: the power of love to transcend time. But he hedges his bets with that superb double almost in the previous line, ever the cynic.

It’s a lovely poem and one of my all-time favourites. And although the tomb exists in Arundel, for me, on a personal note, it always takes me back to the village of my birth, Easton-on-the-Hill in Northamptonshire (but now Cambridgeshire) where in the village church the very well-worn stone paving of the aisle leads to the tomb of a Norman knight and his wife to the right of the sanctuary, set into the wall and labelled in fading Norman French.

Poems for Valentine’s Day #5

February 9, 2019

Warning: explicit content in this post

Donne Elegy XX

TO HIS MISTRESS GOING TO BED.

COME, madam, come, all rest my powers defy;
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe ofttimes, having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing, though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glittering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breast-plate, which you wear,
That th’ eyes of busy fools may be stopp’d there.
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now it is bed-time.
Off with that happy busk, which I envy,
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown going off such beauteous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads th’ hill’s shadow steals.
Off with your wiry coronet, and show
The hairy diadems which on you do grow.
Off with your hose and shoes; then softly tread
In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes heaven’s angels used to be
Revealed to men; thou, angel, bring’st with thee
A heaven-like Mahomet’s paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know
By this these angels from an evil sprite;
Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.
Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O, my America, my Newfoundland,
My kingdom, safest when with one man mann’d,
My mine of precious stones, my empery;
How am I blest in thus discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then, where my hand is set, my soul shall be.
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee;
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are like Atlanta’s ball cast in men’s views;
That, when a fool’s eye lighteth on a gem,
His earthly soul might court that, not them.
Like pictures, or like books’ gay coverings made
For laymen, are all women thus array’d.
Themselves are only mystic books, which we
—Whom their imputed grace will dignify—
Must see reveal’d. Then, since that I may know,
As liberally as to thy midwife show
Thyself; cast all, yea, this white linen hence;
There is no penance due to innocence:
To teach thee, I am naked first; why then,
What needst thou have more covering than a man?

Writing about this poem is a challenge; teaching it was always one, but I did not like to shy away from it, for it is Donne at his finest, his wittiest, his sexiest, too. I would like to know what he made of it if he ever looked back at it, much later in his life, when he was Dean of St Paul’s…

Structurally, it’s a single piece, in rhyming couplets: none of the inventiveness of some of his love lyrics in this elegy. And we have to remember, as we read, that although in our twenty-first century reading, the poet appears to be actually addressing a woman as she undresses, for Donne this may not have been the case: the poem may merely have been a poetic exercise, an extended piece of wit (not humour, but cleverness, a show-casing of knowledge) of the kind that educated young men of the time might be expected to turn out, a poem about a woman undressing. The mistress may be real or imagined.

I’m afraid it can help our understanding of poems like this to read with the smuttier mind of a teenager, deliberately looking for the double-entendres, and I’ll urge you to do that: consider at least the words which I’ve underlined in the text of the poem…

Clearly women wore far more clothes, and far more complex clothes in those days! Almost the first half of the poem is a catalogue of the different garments he watches her remove, and his description of what is then revealed. The reference to Mahomet’s paradise is interesting one: clearly even in Donne’s time people were familiar with the nowadays hackneyed (and perhaps inaccurate) trope of the hordes of beautiful virgins awaiting the blessed in paradise.

We can sense the poet’s eagerness, impatience even, in Licence my roving hands and the line that follows, understandable perhaps, after how long the disrobing must have lasted. O, my America, my Newfoundland: I love this line, so clever, with its topical references to the newly-discovered world across the Atlantic; this is what I mean when I write about ‘wit’. And then follow the slightly less original comparisons with mines of precious stones and empires; jewellery is clearly a distraction to him, as we see from the classical reference to Atlanta’s balls. Pleased that she is finally undressed, he points out how much quicker he was in removing his clothes, as if to set the example and reassure her: if he is naked, why should she be afraid to be? The last line says it all.

Does the poem work, as a piece of erotic fantasy? Or is it pornography? Those are not throwaway questions, but serious considerations, and started off lively discussions in some of my classes with sixth-formers. I don’t see it as pornographic because in the end I can see no exploitation of the woman here; nonetheless I’m not totally comfortable that, as in some other of his love lyrics, only the man gets to speak: the woman’s voice is imagined and her consent therefore assumed.

Valentine’s Day poems #4

February 8, 2019

Andrei Voznesensky: First Ice

A girl freezes in a telephone booth.
In her draughty overcoat she hides
A face all smeared
In tears and lipstick.

She breathes on her thin palms.
Her fingers are icy. She wears earrings.

She’ll have to go home alone, alone,
Along the icy street.

First ice. It is the first time.
The first ice of telephone phrases.

Frozen tears glitter on her cheeks —
The first ice of human hurt.

The telephone booth dates this poem just a bit, in the days of ghosting and dumping by text…

Pathetic fallacy goes a long way to making this an effective poem: to be told you are not wanted in the depths of winter feels so much harsher than if it were a sunny summer’s day. It’s another translated poem, and I’ve no idea where I first came across it, although I do know of a different translation, which I don’t find as effective as this one. I first found it many years ago when putting together an anthology of love poetry for a GCSE class, in the days when teachers were allowed to do that sort of thing.

Bald statements, all of them, in this poem, almost dispassionately reported: filmic in the way the picture gradually builds up for the reader. And reinforced by the use of the present tense: it unfolds before us, we are there as it happens: we see the hurt.

Images of cold, outside and within: she freezes, in a draughty coat, her fingers icy; the street is icy, too. She weeps, and it’s so cold her tears are frozen tears. Through the bald words shine the feelings: she hides, she must go home alone – note the effect of the repetition.

Relationships end, someone ‘finishes with’ or ‘dumps’ someone: get over it, some may say. But there’s always the shock of the first time this happens, and that is what the poet wants to share with the reader, to have us experience, or re-live. In the fourth stanza, first occurs three times.

Carefully chosen phrases: she wears earrings. Why tell us this, at this particular point? Is it perhaps a slight hint that she has made an effort to look right, prepared herself for going out on a date? The first ice of telephone phrases: the insincerity behind the awkward words used when someone says they no longer want to see you. Telephone phrases is good: there’s the clumsiness of foreign phrasebook language hinted at here.

Feelings come through in that last line, where emotion is verbalised for the first time: human hurt, emphasised through the alliteration, too.

I like the way the poet crams in so much when you slow down enough and think fully through what he’s saying, and I like how cleverly the translator has given us it in English.

Valentine’s Day Poems #3

February 7, 2019

Pete Roche: Somewhere on the Way

I wanted to say a lot of things:
I wanted to say how often lately
Your bright image has wandered through
The dusty old antique shop of my mind;
I wanted to say how good it is
To wake up in the morning
Knowing that the day contains
Something that is you.

I wanted to say a lot of things:
I wanted to talk about
The changing colour of moments,
The silent secret language
Of bodies making love.
I wanted to say that you
Are always only as far from me
As thoughts are from thinking.

I wanted to say
I love you
In fourteen foreign languages
But most of all (most
Difficult of all) in English.

I wanted to say a lot of things,
But they all seem to have lost themselves
Somewhere on the way; and now I’m here
There’s nothing I can say except
Hello, and –
Yes, I’d like some coffee, and
What shall we find to talk about
Before the night burns out?

It’s not a brilliant poem, but over the years, especially in my younger days, it spoke to me. It’s about fancying someone and finding the courage to break the ice, and say something meaningful that will move the contact along, into a relationship, perhaps; not everyone will have experienced this problem, but if you have, you will recognise it…

Here is someone who sees the object of his interest regularly ‘the day contains | Something that is you’; he (?) ‘wanted to say’ – notice how many times this phrase is repeated, as if he’s been so many times on the verge of opening his mouth to speak and then lost courage: each stanza begins with those words. Does he feel too boring for her? ‘your bright image’ is contrasted with his ‘dusty old’ mind. Glad to see her every day, he is unable to get any further.

His mind isn’t dusty and old: he imagines ‘The changing colour of moments’, and this image suggests there is something interesting about him, which would make a good opening. And of course, he is thinking about sex, although again his words suggest that there is more to him than just getting her into bed: ‘The silent secret language | Of bodies making lovehints at rather more feeling or consideration, I think.

The short stanza about all the foreign languages is a youthful romantic idea, and he is clued up enough to know that English would be the hardest, as it’s their language and the distance of a foreign language would be taken away: he would be taking a big step.

I wanted to say a lot of things’ suggests over-thinking and a lack of spontaneity, or an inability to take a risk, which is what the situation requires of him. In the final stanza he’s clearly with her again, and tongue-tied again; the pause suggests she’s said something to him – what? – something encouraging perhaps, the old chestnut of being invited in for coffee hinting that she is perhaps open to his being a bit more forward? And will he find the words?

It’s a rather sad poem, yet agonisingly true to life for some people. What the poet has succeeded in doing here, I think, is articulating that scenario clearly enough to make a reader pause and take in its full significance, and that’s enough.

 

Poems for Valentine’s Day #2

February 6, 2019

Anne Bradstreet: To My Dear & Loving Husband

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov’d by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole Mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that Rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay.
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever
That when we live no more, we may live ever.

Happiness is a great thing, when we have it and know we have it; happiness in a relationship is surely something to treasure, and this simple and straightforward poem by a seventeenth century American poet puts hers clearly on the record. Its honesty appeals to me, and I am also intrigued that these are woman’s sentiments, from an age when one imagines women perhaps being oppressed or submissive in marriage.

The honesty of the sentiments is underlined by the poem’s structure into rhyming couplets: there’s nothing complex or tricksy going on in the background to get in the way of intended meaning. The rhymes are simple, too: obvious English ones, apart from the slight jar with quench/recompense, which may be explained by an older pronunciation of those words. ‘We’ at the end of the first line stresses the unity of the couple, its rhyme ‘thee’ her devotion to him. The thrice-repeated ‘If ever’ hints at the unlikelihood or rarity of what she has, and thereby emphasises its preciousness to her.

The valuing of her husband’s love higher than gold and the riches of the East was a fairly commonplace trope at the time; John Donne uses it perhaps more brilliantly and effectively in poetic terms in The Sunne Rising, although we may choose to doubt his sincerity there: here we don’t.

There is a modern note in the idea that their love is mutual, the idea of some kind of balance and equality within a relationship. What takes us right back into the seventeenth century, perhaps, is the religious note which she strikes in the closing lines, the idea that if they cherish their love now, they will take it with them into eternity. And yet, even in our cynical present, we like to hold on to the idea that love may last forever…

Poems for Valentine’s Day #1

February 4, 2019

Jacques Prévert: Alicante

An orange upon the table
Your dress on the rug
And you in my bed
Sweet present of the present
Freshness of the night
Warmth of my life.

Une orange sur la table

Ta robe sur le tapis

Et toi dans mon lit

Doux présent du présent

Fraîcheur de la nuit

Chaleur de ma vie.

 

I thought about a whole month of love poems for February as a tribute to the idea of Valentine’s Day and then balked at so much choosing and writing; I’ll be offering a few of my favourite love poems over the next few days as the 14th approaches. Let’s start with this one.

I’ve liked Jacques Prévert ever since I first met his poetry at university, and this short lyric says so much in so little space. I give the original French as well as the translation into English which has so successfully captured the spirit of the French.

Why Alicante? What image does that conjure up for each individual reader? Prévert leaves it to us: warmth? Holiday? Relaxation? And why an orange on the table? Sperical as perfection, just the warmth of the colour, or a nod to his surrealist colleagues? Does it matter?

The poem exists in the gaps as much as in the words: the reader’s imagination has to create the sequence. The first three lines indicate a sexual encounter, and the next three suggest that it goes beyond that: there’s the play with ‘present’ as in now, this moment, and the idea of a gift, of lovers giving themselves to each other, then the contrast between ‘freshness’ and ‘warmth’. ‘Freshness’ suggests coolness (the French ‘fraîcheur’ is rather clearer) as well as something new, along with the possible connotation of the English word ‘fresh’ as frisky or flirty. ‘Warmth’ also can refer to an emotional as well as a physical condition. For six lines, there’s a lot to take in, and yet the totality is almost haiku-like in its encapsulation of an instant… if you’ve been there, then the poem will speak to you. A poem for insiders?

There’s very little to notice in the translation, except for the point that the English has not been able to mirror the internal rhyme in the French of the last two lines, which I think adds to the original: ‘fraîcheur’ and ‘chaleur’.

I like this one a lot.

August favourites #1: Love Poem

August 2, 2018

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

I couldn’t begin to count the number of love poems I’ve read, taught, studied and loved, but there is one that always calls to me, and which is definitely my favourite: John Donne’s A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning. The poet is about to travel overseas, a dangerous journey in the early seventeenth century: no guarantee that he will make it back to his wife. And I know that he must have been in love with her, because he wrecked his career by marrying her secretly. He forbids her to be sad about his departure, assures her he will be back, and that he will miss her. The conceit (extended metaphor) of the two of them as a pair of compasses (mathematical not navigational) is marvellously developed, and there is a lovely erotic touch, imagining his physical desire re-awakening as he gets closer to home.

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
   And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say
   The breath goes now, and some say, No:
So let us melt, and make no noise,
   No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
   To tell the laity our love.
Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears,
   Men reckon what it did, and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
   Though greater far, is innocent.
Dull sublunary lovers’ love
   (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
   Those things which elemented it.
But we by a love so much refined,
   That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
   Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
   Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
   Like gold to airy thinness beat.
If they be two, they are two so
   As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
   To move, but doth, if the other do.
And though it in the center sit,
   Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
   And grows erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
   Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
   And makes me end where I begun.
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