Readings

Poetry
Archives
Books by John R. Turner
Click on the Cover
Some Swinburne
June 25, 2013

Algernon Charles Swinburne has long fascinated me. I can’t say I read him everyday, nor even every week. But whenever I return to him I find something that makes me glad I did. Last week in Bowling Green, I purchased for my Kindle a gigantic compilation of Swinburne’s writing, so big in fact I didn’t know he had written that much. Now, here on Anna Maria Island, at the beach, I’ve been poking through it.

This morning I worked my way through a poem I confess I had not read before: “In the Bay.” It’s fairly long, at least as compared to poems nowadays, forty stanzas of six lines each, with the uncommon rhyme scheme, abbaab (I’m sure there’s a name for such a stanza but I don’t know what it is, and truth is, I don’t much care; names of that sort don’t entice me).

A man stands before a “breathless bay,” in the interval between day and night, a time when he thinks he might find the place of the souls he desires, the place souls are transported to after they leave this world. He doesn’t know, of course, if such a place exists. But the spot and the time he has chosen affords him some hope:

“Here hope might think to find what hope were worth.”

The question of deathless souls seems to persist forever --or at least for as long as humans can imagine. Although modern secular thought has been working quite a while to wash away the notion of a soul that persists beyond bodily life, it has not had much success in putting the concept or the hope away. We can tell ourselves the hope hangs on because all we have known is existence and therefore nonexistence isn’t an idea we can assimilate. And yet, even when we try to reason our illusions away, we remain titillated by the possibility there may actually be something else.

Also, we have the right to ask why we should want to dismiss the hope. Swinburne says our inability to discern even the slightest signal from a world beyond this one consigns us to a “chill time,” and pleads to those who have gone before to send “one spark to change this face of our unworthiness.” Surely “some late love of thine old live land should cling.” In other words, you can’t have completely forgot about us can you?

In one of his strongest couplets, Swinburne tries to link the concept of deathless existence with something we feel does have staying power:

“If perfect life possess your life all through
And like your words your souls be deathless too.”

But that’s the question isn’t it? Does perfect life -- that is life that cannot end -- possess our lives all through? In this situation we can’t say it does and we can’t say it doesn’t.

In this poem Swinburne talks about a mysterious figure whom he designates, “he who rose our mightiest,” who might provide some leadership or guidance to the life beyond. One who knew nothing about Swinburne might suppose he had Christ in mind. But it’s clear Swinburne had no sense of Christian piety. In fact, he despised the concept. A likelier candidate would be a superior human from among the ancients, people who had a firmer grasp on the goods of life than we do, people, in short, who remembered what life is about.  But the point, I presume, is that we need somebody to teach us because we’re not very good at teaching ourselves.

In any case, this figure tells us that the riddles we read in sleep and fail to trust -- exactly what they are I’m not sure -- constitute flattering truth. It’s a strange adjective for the noun. Flattery is not usually seen as being strongly connected to truth. Nonetheless, the concept, flattering truth, is fascinating. What might it be? Is belief in the possession of a deathless soul a flattering truth. I suppose you can can say that if it is true, then it’s necessarily flattering.

The conclusion of this account links the lasting truth to the reality of what was. It’s having been allows us not to be forsaken. The earth was made fragrant, “once for all time with your birth.” It’s a version of the belief that whatever existed, will always exist, always be there for us to contemplate. But nothing is assured about the continuance of personal consciousness. For the truth about that we need to turn to a more famous poem, and one of the most rhythmic stanzas of English verse. The poem is “The Garden of Poserpine,” and the stanza:

From too much love of living
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.


Natural Delicacy
May 26, 2011

Here is a perhaps silly verse I wrote a while back. But the idea I was struggling for in it is not so silly: that once there was a belief that nature held purposes consistent with human longing and, therefore, that we could rest confidently on her breast. Though there are now some remnants of that belief, the substance of it has pretty well gone away. Whether or not the going is a good thing, I’m not sure.

  Natural Delicacy

Dead men, according to Pliny,
Float on their backs, facing the sun.
Dead women float with their faces down
In respect of their modesty.

Mounded buttocks gleaming dimly,
Mottled lightly by blown sea spume,
Rising, falling, ever swaying,
Raise no hint of membered straightness
Putting a blush on white death’s cheek.

Were sweet mother out of order,
Revolving where no turn should be,
Showing breasts and pointed nipples,
Knees, and hips, and half-parted lips,
What disgrace might the cosmos see?

Perfect solace nature proffers,
Taking from hasty chance all choice,
Saving all her cherished daughters
From the touch of unchastity.


Irish Seminar
April 17, 2011

Since I posted a musing about Killybegs here a couple days ago, I thought I might as well make a pair by adding another jotting from about that same time.

  Irish Seminar

A grey morning, clouds and rain,
In the Valley of the Black Pig
Between the mountains
Near Drumcliffe Churchyard
Where Yeats is laid,
With Americans sitting solemn
In a fuzzy drawing room
Delving into the fairy world.

The acids of modernity, of disbelief,
Are always at work in us, someone says.

And, then, the Americans yawn
And think about their bladders.


An Irish Moment
April 15, 2011

Here's a little verse I jotted down one afternoon in Killybegs, a small fishing town on the north shore of Donegal Bay. I was entranced by the little place, and spent an hour or so away from my companions strolling through the residential area just above the dock. The sun was shining, the town was charming and peaceful. I wished I could stay longer, perhaps a very long time. But then I got to thinking and the result was the lines below.

The point I was struggling towards, of course, was that many things seem romantic when you don't know them very well. But familiarity with all their gritty underpinnings might cause a change of mind. I don't want to denigrate Killybegs, though. It was a fine place to me the short time I was in it.

I called the poem:

An Irish Moment

Donegal cap pulled low on brow,
Back pressed against an ancient wall,
Idly fingering heavy coins
By fishy dock in Killybegs.

Conveyance to a simpler life
Quietly pervades the fancy.
Ambling along cobbled streets,
Drawing droll nods and grimaces,
A prelude to a steaming bowl
And evening of fusty mutter.

The thought dismisses the desire.


Basketball When It Doesn't Matter
April 7, 2011

An Incident of Age

After a layoff close to thirty years
I picked up a ball and took six shots
And, amazingly, didn't hit a one.

Indignant, hot -- no, infuriated,
I put up a hoop on the garage
And launched a campaign for self-respect.

Now, after three months, I can hit sixty percent,
From the free throw line, just behind the pitted gouge,
In the crumbled asphalt of the uneven drive.

A major improvement, but an improvement in what?
There are no dreams of the NBA
(Though some there can't reach that mark).

So why does it please me that I can get better
When the betterment means little or nothing at all?
Is it that age brings a sere muting of intent?
At twenty we archly contend with others,
But at fifty we struggle mildly with ourselves,
Having fitfully engorged a half-century
We start dimly to see who the real rival is?


Ecstasy
April 6, 2011

At various times I've said to myself, "I think I'll write a few poems." The drive hasn't possessed me steadily, and the products may not properly be called poems, but they are collections of words. So I thought I would stick a few of them here, now and then, if for no other reason than to have them recorded somewhere I can find them.

I'll start with a piece I called:

Ecstasy

"Kissing couple bursts into flames.
Their lips touched and thirty seconds later
they were ashes," proclaims the tabloid
Hanging at the check-out counter
In the Grand Union grocery store.

Think of the glory
In that instant of passion
Before the enveloping heat
Whisked consciousness away
In an exploding aura of light.

Considering the heaps of dirty coffee cups,
And stale half-smoked cigarettes,
And flab depending below the ribs,
Might it not have been worthwhile?

And if they had the chance again,
Having viewed the ashy pile,
Might they not once more embrace
And seek the moment electric?


Poets and Other Wise Characters
September 1, 2010

You may not even know who Mia Schmidt is. If not, more the pity for you. She was once named one of the outstanding young women of America.

If you want to get prosaic about her you could say that she is the feminine alter ego of Michael Glazer, a poet and once a teacher of literature at St. Mary's College of Maryland, where I worked for a few years. She was very active in helping Michael get poems published.

Rummaging through stacks of old notebooks this morning, I came on a more than twenty-year-old passage from one of Mia's essays, which struck me as being just about right. It's on a subject that once interested me far more than it does now, but its rightness makes me think it's worth inscribing here.

Academic men collectively: a symbol for something about America. What?
Ineptitude? No, that's not quite fair. Weakness? Closer, but still not it. Timidity?
You're getting warmer, almost hot. But timidity with a mask that's hard to pin
down. Mask? Mask? Mask? Emask? .... Emasculation!

To this quotation I appended a comment which I may not completely  stand by now. But since it's there, right in the notebook, it too demands the light of day: "Mia Schmidt, that cutup. She's irrepressible. Michael Glazer has the hots for her. Panting after her thighs."

I've lost touch with Michael. I hope he's well but I can't say. Only one of the reasons I hope so is that if he's not, Mia might not be as effervescent as she used to be.


][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

In Lycidas, Milton tells us that:

Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil,
Nor in the glistering foil
Set off to th' world, nor in broad rumour lies,
But lives and spreads aloft by those pure eyes,
And perfect witness of all-judging Jove.

If this were true it would be the most glorious news ever heard by humankind. It would mean that each of us, down the ages, would be known as he or she deserves to be known, independent of human publicity. The unpublished tract of genius would stand above the most lucrative of ephemeral bestsellers. A life of kindness and generosity would shine brighter than the the machinations of presidents and prime ministers. Acts of courage never mentioned in newspapers would overwhelm the manufactured, uniformed behavior of government and corporate agents. This being so, the only religion worth the name is striving to live as though Milton's words were the decree of the universe -- a religion made all the finer by the suspicion that they are not enrolled in eternity.  (Posted, 6/30/06)

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

A friend called to express shock that the Secretary of State, being interviewed on a right-wing talk show, referred to "Walt Whitman's" line, "The world is too much with us." She's supposed to be an educated woman," my friend intoned. I tried to moderate his upset by saying that modern notions of education, especially within the Bush administration, aren't much in keeping with the expectations of the past. Certainly, knowing the difference between Whitman and Wordsworth is not a requirement for serving in the Bush cabinet. His call reminded me that I had memorized the Wordsworth sonnet when I was a boy and that most of it was still lodged in my brain. I recall at that time the line that most affected me was:

"We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!"

Then, I couldn't understand why anyone would want to give his heart away. Now, I think I understand better, although I confess the swirling of human ambition remains more a mystery to me than, perhaps, it should. Wordsworth said he would rather be "a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn" than to be cut off from Nature as many of his contemporaries were. The pagan creed may not be as outworn as he supposed. It seems to be making a comeback. And, I'm ready to cheer it on -- particularly when I contemplate a conversation between Condaleezza Rice and Sean Hannity.   (Posted 6/2/06

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

I read a short poem by Pulitzer Prize winner Franz Wright which has this phrase: "clouds the color of the desperation of wolves." I honestly don't know what to make of such a literary conceit. Does it say something? Is it clever? Is it too clever? I guess most of us, if we tried to think of the color of anybody's desperation -- wolves or not -- would probably assign it some shade of gray.  Still, we're supposed to take something different out of "gray clouds" than from "clouds the color of wolves' desperation." But what is it? It can't be merely the truth that one term is more common than the other. As I have grown older my fascination with unusual language has declined. I used to think it was the finest thing in the world. Now I don't think much of it at all. Some might say that's because my own desperation has sunk below that of wolves. Maybe. On the other hand it could be because common things have filled my mind's eye more completely than they once did.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

Harold Bloom, in his big book titled Genius, says that Sonnet 129 is the most powerful of the hundred and fifty-four that Shakespeare wrote. It's about lust, which Shakespeare called "the expense of spirit in a waste of shame." Lust has generally, down the ages, had a bad press and it certainly can lead to results that after its pressure has been released seem shameful, even unthinkable. Yet, without it, I wonder who we would be and whether that being would be worth the bother of life. For some readers the sonnet may appear uncertain and yet the final couplet, I think, at least suggests an answer:

"All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell."

It all depends on whether one thinks hell is too high a price for heaven, and that decision is likely the most crucial we're ever asked to make.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

That non-human creatures have hearts that never grow old is a persistent belief, or perhaps I should say, a persistent hope, among those who wonder about human aging. It's the theme of Yeats's poem, "The Wild Swans at Coole," in which we're told that these elegant creatures -- fifty-nine of them who lend their beauty to the lake on Lady Gregory's estate -- are attended always by passion and grace, "wander where they will." Are these the qualities we fear the loss of more than any other as we, ourselves, wander toward the end of life? It's tempting to let them go amidst creaking joints. Yet, perhaps, that's the test, to go against a certain kind of human nature and be as the swans were, or as they were imagined, gliding across the mirror stillness of a lake.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

In the introduction to The Experience of Literature, an influential anthology that has been used by thousands of college students, Lionel Trilling takes up the question of why we read literature. After listing a series of secondary reasons, all of which have been proposed with some force, he concludes that we do it because we're human and that it's one of the things humans do. It is, he says, a "species-characteristic trait." I have no quarrel with that. I think he's right. But even if he is, it doesn't take away the issue of the relationship of literature to life. And it's that relationship which must justify literature if anything does. After all, as far as we can tell, dead people don't read literature. The reason I have called these squibs "Literary Reagents" is to emphasize a truth I think no one can deny but which is seldom talked about by professors. Literature, before it does anything else, reacts with life to bring forth different acts and different thoughts than would have been the case had there been no literature involved. It's these acts and thoughts that must constitute the good of the literary enterprise. Whether they are, indeed, good acts and  good thoughts is a question well worth considering. But before we do that, we have to know what they are. The main point of these short pieces is to encourage people, after they have read something, to ask themselves how the reading affected their thoughts and actions. Being conscious of this effect is, I think, the principal literary virtue.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

For most of my adult life William Butler Yeats was my favorite poet. He was such a favorite that he could do no wrong. But lately I've begun to ask myself whether my admiration wasn't tinged with idolatry. The issue, for me, has become the quality of Yeats's thought. Just how good was it? (I, by the way, have no patience with the claim that quality of thought doesn't affect the quality of a poem). When I look at his most famous work, "The Second Coming," the figure that rises up out of the sands of the desert, the one with its "slow thighs" slouching "toward Bethlehem to be born", has been engaged in twenty centuries of "stony sleep." And these long years, which coincide with the Christian era "were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle." It's this vexing to nightmare that leaves me puzzled. What is the nightmare? And what is the rocking cradle? I suspect that Yeats is judging Christianity in a manner that couldn't be done outside cryptic, magnificent language. And, I'm not sure that's entirely cricket. But, that's the point: I'm not sure. He's still a great poet, in any case.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

I went to a gathering last night (April 14, 2004) where one of Mary Oliver’s poems was read aloud, and it reminded me that I had seen just a few days earlier another of her poems in the New Yorker. The latter was called “Daisies” and had these lines: “it is heaven itself to take what is given/ to see what is plain; what the sun/ lights up willingly.” I’m not sure it’s heaven, but I do think it’s a good thing, and one we ought to be more aware of. Jane Austen, who was not a poet, put it this way: “A mind lively and at ease can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that will not answer.” Both these sentiments are so un-American that, perhaps, they ought to be reported to the F.B.I. We can be grateful, at least, that the agency can’t get at Jane Austen.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

In “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” Adrienne Rich ends with a stanza to show that though Aunt Jennifer’s life was oppressed by convention, her art showed the pride and independence that lurked somewhere within her:

When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.

I suppose we can pass by the concept of dead hands being terrified, even though it does seem to take away the possibility of our ultimate release from terror. But it would be wrong to bow down before the sentiment that the ring on her finger represents an ordeal that mastered her. The facile way present people assume their superiority to people of the past is the least attractive feature of current reformers. I think we have the right to hope that Aunt Jennifer knew more than her niece ever imagined.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

Perhaps the most troubling feature of the human psyche is our inability to imagine happiness severed from the prospect of suffering. What might happiness be if it didn’t speak of escape from something always looming that might seize it and wring its neck? That coupling we call “melancholy” and we believe, evidently as a necesssity of being human, that it is the essence of intelligence. The final six lines of Keats’s famous “Ode” expresses that sense as acutely as I have ever seen:

Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovereign shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue,
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

Thomas Hardy’s poem “Beeny Cliff” reminds me that verse needs to have a personal element if it’s to hook itself securely into one’s emotions. I don’t know what I would make of the poem if I had never been to Cornwall, had never strolled along the crest of the cliff, had never peered down at the Atlantic smashing itself on bizarre formations two hundred feet below. I’m fairly certain it wouldn’t have the force it has for me had I not walked there with people I cared for deeply, who now walk nowhere on this earth. But since I have done all those things, the final two stanzas haunt me and ring in my mind almost every day:
  
Still in all its chasmal beauty bulks old Beeny to the sky,
And shall she and I not go there once again now March is nigh
And the sweet things said in that March say anew there by and by?

Nay. Though still in chasmal beauty looms that wild weird western shore,
The woman now is -- elsewhere -- whom the ambling pony bore,
And nor knows nor cares for Beeny, and will see it nevermore.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

In "The Pains of Sleep," Coleridge tells of three nights of such hideous dreams that they left him "saddened and stunned" when he awoke. After he was able to calm down a bit, he came to this conclusion about such visions:

Such punishments, I said, were due
To natures deepliest stained with sin, --
For aye, entempesting anew
The unfathomable hell within
The horror of their deeds to view,
To know and loathe, yet wish and do!
Such griefs with such men well agree....

It's not a notion of dreams that fits well with the modern concept -- if there can be said to be a modern concept about dreams. Generally, when I read about nightmares now, they are spoken of a a kind of purgative, a way of keeping us from going mad. And, yet, I wonder. Sometimes I think dreams tell us deep things about ourselves. And other times I think they're senseless. But, they may function most honorably, as they did with Coleridge, as a goad to poetry.  (Posted, 1/26/06)

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

Coleridge's long poem "Christabel" is a strange and eerie combination of modern sensibilities -- which Coleridge must have divined were on the way -- and the attitudes of two centuries ago. In a little less than seven hundred lines it tells the story of a fair maiden, Christabel, who has crept into the forest in the middle of the night to pray under a giant oak for the safety of her knightly lover who is far away, presumably on some quest. There, in the blackness, she meets a lovely lady, Geraldine, who tells a wild tale of being abducted from her father's castle, tied over a horse's back, and carried across the land for so long she thought her strength would not keep her alive. Finally, she was deposited in the unknown forest by her kidnappers and left alone. Christabel is immediately sympathetic and offers the lady refuge in her own home, assuring her that on the morrow her father will seek to find and punish the men who carried her off. They make their way back through the forest and up the castle stairs to Christabel's room, where shortly some mysterious business takes place. What is it exactly? A lesbian seduction? A demon enchantment? A Faustian bargain? It's strongly sexual, whatever else it is, and, after the strange lady has told Christabel to undress and go to bed, includes the sensuous, and famous, lines:

And as the lady bade, did she
Her gentle limbs did she undress
And lay down in her loveliness.

After a few more minutes, Geradine joins her in bed, pulls Christabel to her breast, and says:

Thou knowest tonight, and wilt know tomorrow,
This mark of my shame, this seal of my sorrow.

But, what is her shame, and what is her sorrow? These, I suppose, we have to speculate about. In any case, Christabel is enchanted and though she feels a sense of alarm, she cannot speak of it to her father once the day has come round again.

Thus the poem ends, with Christabel bound, presumably forever, to the woman she met in the dark shade of a great oak.

In the preface to the poem, Coleridge tells us the first part of it was written in 1797, and the second part, after he returned from Germany, in 1800. On the basis of that simple fact, we may well conclude that Germany was not good for his poetic powers. The first part is far more arresting than the second, and in fact, gives the tale all the potency it can summon. It's readable work, with memorable lines that would keep it alive by themselves. But the things that hold us, and fascinate us, now are the mark of shame and the seal of sorrow.   (Posted 1/23/06)

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

Five years ago in Britain, Juliet Barker got published a biography of William Wordsworth which received some appreciative notices but was thought to be overly long. Now, in a new edition from Ecco Press it has been reduced from 971 to 548 pages, and in this form was reviewed by James Fenton for the New York Times.  Although the reviewer shies away from blunt language, I don't think it's too much to say that Mr. Fenton, who is a former professor of poetry at Oxford, thinks  Ms. Barker is stupid. He finds her reading of much of Wordsworth's poetry obtuse and her comments about the famous preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads ridiculous. And he buttresses his judgment with convincing quotations. It's hard to know what's going on when a supposedly competent biographer says that she can't find any meaning in a classic essay like Wordsworth's preface. I suspect it is presentism run mad. I have known people who wouldn't read books written by authors from the 18th and 19th centuries because they said the style was impenetrable. They were exhibiting a form of maniacal egotism which announces that if something is different from what one is used to then it must be worthless. I can't say, for sure, that Ms. Barker falls into that category. But not to be able to read Wordsworth's prose, particularly after you've written a long biography of him, is at least bizarre. (Posted, 1/1/06)

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][
 
It curious how certain phrases enter the mind of a culture even as knowledge of their origin drops completely away. I would guess that a goodly percentage of people nowadays have heard the line:

In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

And I would guess, too, that scarcely anyone knows where it comes from.

Tennyson's "Locksley Hall," written in 1837-38, has much more than that
single line that's worth remembering.

Perhaps the second most recalled feature of the poem is the couplet that runs:

As the husband is, the wife is: thou art mated with a clown,
And the grossness of his nature will have weight to drag thee down.

It's an old, old thesis. And we have no way of knowing its truth. How many young women, with a potential to develop the finer side of their nature, have been, in effect, sold to gross richness, and found a way to settle down into its comforts? That's a question not to be answered unless we have an idea of what the finer side of a young woman is. But Tennyson, at least, thought he knew and "Locksley Hall" paints convincingly the agonized passion of that knowing.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

Boadicea -- or Boudicca -- was queen of the Iceni, a people who in the First Century lived in the area of modern Norfolk. She led an uprising against the Romans, which was at first successful, but eventually the Roman armies crushed her soldiers, and Boadicea took poison rather than fall into her enemies' hands. That was in the year 61.  Tennyson's poem on the queen follows pretty closely Tacitus's acccount of the revolt but, with the wisdom gained from eighteen hundred years, manages to view the battles of that time as precursor to the glories Britain would eventually obtain;

Though the Roman eagle shadow thee, though the gathering enemy narrow thee,
Thou shalt wax and he shall dwindle, thou shalt be the mighty one yet!
Thine the liberty, thine the glory, thine the deeds to be celebrated ....

Thus did Boadicea rally her troops. In the actual battle, the Britons lost eighty thousand and the Romans four hundred. It was quite a bit of narrowing, and it set the stage for almost four centuries of Roman rule. About the only thing that comes down to us now, aside from the senseless misery of ancient battles, is the fury of an enraged, violated woman:

Me they seized, and me they tortured, me they lashed and humiliated,
Me the sport of ribald Veterans, mine of ruffian violators!

In the movies, and to a certain extent in literature, righteous rage finds a way to win out. And it usually captures our emotions. But none of that seems to matter to history. There the rotting flesh of eighty thousand bodies carried out its biological function with no Tacitus, or Tennyson, to pen the details of its disintegration.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

As a man proceeds into extreme old age it becomes natural for him to ask what remains for him to live for. When bodily strength is gone, and eagerness is gone, and sex is gone, what is there? It's the question that brought forth the myth of Tithonus, who was loved by Aurora, goddess of the dawn. She granted him immortality but forgot to add eternal youth to it. In Tennyson's poem, Tithonus has retreated to the East, where he roams among "far-folded mists," longing to die. Aurora's sweet kisses come to him no more. It's a mournful story and it almost makes us sympathetic. Yet, there is only one great line in the poem and it works on feelings that counter the story.
     
      And after many a summer dies the swan.

There is no sense of blessing in the death of the magnificent creature, no sense that its death fulfills anything. It's simply sad. Why can't he continue swimming forever, in his grace, in still waters? For all the talk of death's being our destiny, we don't welcome it. We can't welcome it, not even in a poem designed to issue it an invitation.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

There may be nothing that tells me more clearly how I have changed over the past couple decades than Tennyson's great poem, "Tiresias." I once cared for it so much I memorized all 177 lines, a thing I would be hard put to do today. There were many of its features I treasured: the picture of Athena climbing from her bath -- "beyond all dreams of Godlike womanhood," the fiery stature of Ares "whose one bliss is war, and human sacrifice," the mighty peaks of the Heliconian ridge, where Tiresias in his youth would climb "with some strange hope to see the nearer God." But the aspect that really set my heart thumping was Tiresias's promise to the young Menoeceus that,

No sound is breathed so potent to coerce,
And to conciliate, as their names who dare
For that sweet motherland which gave them birth
Nobly to do, nobly to die.

And now I say, what nonsense! All the lives snuffed out by that mawkish sentiment nauseate me when I think of them.

And yet -- yet -- I still like the poem. That may be the magic of poetry. It can charm even when its message is pure foolishness. And in that, it helps us understand those who bathe themselves in foolishness, which, I suppose, is a good thing to grasp.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

I was glad to find in the chapter on Alfred Tennyson in Geoffrey Tillotson's A View of Victorian Literature (Oxford University Press, 1978), a rejection of the common charge that Tennyson was a shallow thinker. True, says Tillotson, Tennyson "has suffered the fate of all who express views," but to convict him of using "the furniture of his time" is to convict him of nothing more than being human. What else could he have used if he were going to treat themes that had everyday currency?

It has seemed to me that Tennyson could raise questions of the deepest moment and discuss them in language that reinforced their urgency. In "Ulysses," for example, where he says,

Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move

he is approaching one of humanity's fundamental conflicts. The whole poem offers a resolution of that conflict, which through the beauty of language is afforded the grandeur it deserves. That there's much to be said against Ulysses's solution -- always moving on, always leaving behind -- is not a reason to fail to see it as an ongoing human temptation which can rise to nobility.

Tennyson knew that nobility has its flaws but he knew also something that seems to have evaded the mind of the early 21st Century, i.e., that without nobility, we are bereft.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][



©John R. Turner

All images and text on this page are the property of Word and Image of Vermont

This site is designed and managed by Neil Turner

Top of Page          Word and Image of Vermont Home