My love is of a birth as rare

Andrew Marvell was a fine poet of seventeenth century England, whose work appeals as much to the intellect as to the emotions. Consider this poem “The Definition of Love”. The title itself warns us we are not about to get a parade of feelings and emotions created by love, but something more abstract, more analytical, more intellectual. And so it proves…

 
The Definition Of Love

My Love is of a birth as rare
As ’tis for object strange and high:
It was begotten by despair
Upon Impossibility.

Magnanimous Despair alone.
Could show me so divine a thing,
Where feeble Hope could ne’r have flown
But vainly flapt its Tinsel Wing.

And yet I quickly might arrive
Where my extended Soul is fixt,
But Fate does Iron wedges drive,
And alwaies crouds it self betwixt.

For Fate with jealous Eye does see.
Two perfect Loves; nor lets them close:
Their union would her ruine be,
And her Tyrannick pow’r depose.

And therefore her Decrees of Steel
Us as the distant Poles have plac’d,
(Though Loves whole World on us doth wheel)
Not by themselves to be embrac’d.

Unless the giddy Heaven fall,
And Earth some new Convulsion tear;
And, us to joyn, the World should all
Be cramp’d into a Planisphere.

As Lines so Loves Oblique may well
Themselves in every Angle greet:
But ours so truly Paralel,
Though infinite can never meet.

Therefore the Love which us doth bind,
But Fate so enviously debarrs,
Is the Conjunction of the Mind,
And Opposition of the Stars.

 
Andrew Marvell

From <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-definition-of-love/&gt;

 

The first two stanzas firmly position the view of love as an impossible state, where despair and impossibility are the qualities which make love strong, trumping hope, which is doomed to failure.

The remainder of the poem goes through the various ways in which Fate confounds Love, fate seeing love as a threat to its omnipotence. There are scientific and mathematical references, to the earth going round the sun, to the geometry of parallel lines. The reader of the 17th century would feel flattered to recognize the modernity and energy of these concepts.

For the modern reader this poem works best as an exercize in style and an expression of the craft of the poet. It engages our mind not our soul, but it engages us compellingly on that basis. It is a poem to admire, if not to love.

 

The Poetry Dude

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New York ! D’abord j’ai été confondu par ta beauté, ces grandes filles d’or aux jambes longues.

Today we return to the rare and rarefied world of Presidential poetry, with a piece by Leopold Senghor. Senghor was President of Senegal in the 1960s and 1970s and also a very accomplished poet. He was one of the very few of the first generation of post-colonial African leaders to give up office voluntarily, and I like to think that was very consistent with him being a first-rate poet. This poem is about New York, from the perspective of a first time visitor from a completely different place and captures the impressions and feelings which inevitably come forth, inspired by that great city

 
New York
Leopold Sedar Senghor

 
New York ! D’abord j’ai été confondu par ta beauté, ces grandes filles d’or aux jambes longues.
Si timide d’abord devant tes yeux de métal bleu, ton sourire de givre
Si timide. Et l’angoisse au fond des rues à gratte-ciel
Levant des yeux de chouette parmi l’éclipse du soleil.
Sulfureuse ta lumière et les fûts livides, dont les têtes foudroient le ciel
Les gratte-ciel qui défient les cyclones sur leurs muscles d’acier et leur peau patinée de pierres.
Mais quinze jours sur les trottoirs chauves de Manhattan
– C’est au bout de la troisième semaine que vous saisit la fièvre en un bond de jaguar
Quinze jours sans un puits ni pâturage, tous les oiseaux de l’air
Tombant soudain et morts sous les hautes cendres des terrasses.
Pas un rire d’enfant en fleur, sa main dans ma main fraîche
Pas un sein maternel, des jambes de nylon. Des jambes et des seins sans sueur ni odeur.
Pas un mot tendre en l’absence de lèvres, rien que des coeurs artificiels payés en monnaie forte
Et pas un livre où lire la sagesse. La palette du peintre fleurit des Cristaux de corail.
Nuits d’insomnie ô nuits de Manhattan ! si agitées de feux follets, tandis que les klaxons hurlent des heures vides
Et que les eaux obscures charrient des amours hygiéniques, tels des fleuves en crue des cadavres d’enfants.

II

Voici le temps des signes et des comptes
New York ! or voici le temps de la manne et de l’hysope.
Il n’est que d’écouter les trombones de Dieu, ton coeur battre au rythme du sang ton sang.
J’ai vu dans Harlem bourdonnant de bruits de couleurs solennelles et d’odeurs flamboyantes
– C’est l’heure du thé chez le livreur-en-produits-pharmaceutiques
J’ai vu se préparer la fête de la inuit à la fuite du jour. Je proclame la Nuit plus véridique que le jour.
C’est l’heure pure où dans les rues, Dieu fait germer la vie d’avant mémoire
Tous les éléments amphibies rayonnants comme des soleils.
Harlem Harlem ! voici ce que j’ai vu Harlem Harlem !
Une brise verte de blés sourdre des pavés labourés par les Pieds nus de danseurs Dans
Croupes ondes de soie et seins de fers de lance, ballets de nénuphars et de masques fabuleux
Aux pieds des chevaux de police, les mangues de l’amour rouler des maisons basses.
Et j’ai vu le long des trottoirs, des ruisseaux de rhum blanc des ruisseaux de lait noir dans le brouillard bleu des cigares.
J’ai vu le ciel neiger au soir des fleurs de coton et des ailes de séraphins et des panaches de sorciers.
Écoute New York ! ô écoute ta voix mâle de cuivre ta voix vibrante de hautbois, l’angoisse bouchée de tes larmes tomber en gros caillots de sang
Écoute au loin battre ton coeur nocturne, rythme et sang du tam-tam, tam-tam sang et tam-tam.

III

New York ! je dis New York, laisse affluer le sang noir dans ton sang
Qu’il dérouille tes articulations d’acier, comme une huile de vie
Qu’il donne à tes ponts la courbe des croupes et la souplesse des lianes.
Voici revenir les temps très anciens, l’unité retrouvée la réconciliation du Lion du Taureau et de l’Arbre.
L’idée liée à l’acte l’oreille au coeur le signe au sens.
Voilà tes fleuves bruissants de caïmans musqués et de lamantins aux yeux de mirages. Et nul besoin d’inventer les Sirènes.
Mais il suffit d’ouvrir les yeux à l’arc-en-ciel d’Avril
Et les oreilles, surtout les oreilles à Dieu qui d’un rire de saxophone créa le ciel et la terre en six jours.
Et le septième jour, il dormit du grand sommeil nègre.

 
From <http://www.newyorkinfrench.net/profiles/blogs/a-new-york-par-leopold-sedar-senghor-en-francais-and-in-english#.VHnPTDHF_yQ&gt;

 

The poem begins with a first stanza describing the poet’s initial awe and wonder at the New York of skyscrapers, bright lights, long-legged women bustling through the streets and then, after two weeks this turns into a sort of alienation as the poet begins to miss the sights and sounds of his African countryside. He misses the pastures, the wells, the children, the slow pace of life and Manhattan suddenly seems soulless and inhuman.

The second stanza evokes his discovery of Harlem, a district of New York where the trombones play, where the soul re-emerges with the night life, jazz and the preponderance of black people. The poet conveys his joy at finding this place which is full of love, music and solidarity, and which reminds him of the beat of the African tam-tam drum. Alienation has now given way to a sense of belonging.

The third stanza is a cry of joy and hope that the influence of blacks can conquer all of New York and infuse it with vibrancy, music and the African soul. People just have to open their eyes to the rainbow of colour and their ears to the music of saxophones giving access to the divine, and New York will be reborn as a heaven on earth.

The poet thus celebrates the possibility of the triumph of the African spirit in the most iconic city in the USA, and, as such, it is a poem of hope and reconciliation. And joy. All qualities which are admirable in a political leader; the world would be a better place of there were more like Senghor.

 
The Poetry Dude

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Yo, para todo viaje

This is a very well-known poem by Antonio Machado, which contains many of the characteristics of this poet’s work – simple but telling language, a straightforward style, a sense of solitary melancholy tempered by gentle whimsy, and the capture in verse of a moment or experience that we all might recognize.

Let’s hop on the train…

 
Antonio Machado
El tren

 
Yo, para todo viaje
– siempre sobre la madera
de mi vagón de tercera -,
voy ligero de equipaje.
Si es de noche, porque no
acostumbro a dormir yo,
y de día, por mirar
los arbolitos pasar,
yo nunca duermo en el tren,
y, sin embargo, voy bien.
¡Este placer de alejarse!
Londres, Madrid, Ponferrada,
tan lindos… para marcharse.
Lo molesto es la llegada.
Luego, el tren, al caminar,
siempre nos hace soñar;
y casi, casi olvidamos
el jamelgo que montamos.
¡Oh, el pollino
que sabe bien el camino!
¿Dónde estamos?
¿Dónde todos nos bajamos?
¡Frente a mí va una monjita
tan bonita!
Tiene esa expresión serena
que a la pena
da una esperanza infinita.
Y yo pienso: Tú eres buena;
porque diste tus amores
a Jesús; porque no quieres
ser madre de pecadores.
Mas tú eres
maternal,
bendita entre las mujeres,
madrecita virginal.
Algo en tu rostro es divino
bajo tus cofias de lino.
Tus mejillas
?esas rosas amarillas?
fueron rosadas, y, luego,
ardió en tus entrañas fuego;
y hoy, esposa de la Cruz,
ya eres luz, y sólo luz…
¡Todas las mujeres bellas
fueran, como tú, doncellas
en un convento a encerrarse!…
¡Y la niña que yo quiero,
ay, preferirá casarse
con un mocito barbero!
El tren camina y camina,
y la máquina resuella,
y tose con tos ferina.
¡Vamos en una centella!

 

From <http://www.poemas-del-alma.com/el-tren.htm&gt;

 
The poem recounts the experience of the poet travelling by train at night, on the wooden bench of his third class compartment, taking pleasure at the sights and sounds of the journey, a journey which is more important than the destination.

He describes a pretty young nun sitting opposite him and indulges in a flight of fantasy about what if she were not a nun, and had not chosen spiritual life in a convent. Although pretty, she is unattainable. The poet is reminded of his own lost love who has left him to go off and marry a barber.

The poem ends with the focus once again on the train moving forward through the night with the sound and rhythm of the engine providing the backdrop to the poet’s thoughts and fancies.

 

The Poetry Dude

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I know that I shall meet my fate

The great Irish poet, WB Yeats made this contribution to the rich body of First World War poetry, along with Siegfried Sassoon, Guillaume Apollinaire and many other fine warrior-poets. The title of this poem “An Irish airman foresees his death” sets a tone of impending and inevitable doom, which is immediately reinforced by the first line which talks of the airman’s foreknowledge of his unavoidable fate.

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
W. B. Yeats, 1865 – 1939

 
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

 

From <http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/irish-airman-foresees-his-death&gt;

 

However, while many first world war poems focus on the combination of horror and futility , this has a slightly different tone. The futility of the war is suggested obliquely, by stressing the airman’s indifference and detachment regarding both the enemy and his own side – neither represent his own place or his own people, from Kiltartan Cross, in Ireland.

Instead the poet is conscious and accepting of the inevitability of death in this combat which is not his own. This is fatalistic but also evokes “a lonely impulse of delight” as if there is some aesthetic quality pleasing to the poet in this seeking out of danger and coming face to face with death. And that somehow the moment and manner of death foretold has more importance than anything in the life that preceded it.

The poem many well reflect the experience and attitude of many of the troops on either side in this terrible conflict, a stoicism of carrying out their duty despite not understanding the reasons. It is nonetheless somewhat unsettling to find the poet writing of death in these terms – but of course a good poem should make us reflect.

 
The Poetry Dude

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Coucher trois dans un drap, sans feu ni sans chandelle

The wonderfully named Marc-Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant takes us to the lighter side of poetry today. This is supposed to be a satirical or humorous poem, an intention which is signalled by the title, Les Goinfres, which, loosely translated means neer-do-wells. I wonder if this written from personal experience by a poet starving in his garret. Since I know nothing of the life or circumstances of Saint-Amant, I can’t answer that question without doing some googling, which I am trying not to do while posting these poems.

So here we are in eighteenth century France for Les Goinfres.

• Marc-Antoine Girard de SAINT-AMANT   (1594-1661)

Les goinfres

 
Coucher trois dans un drap, sans feu ni sans chandelle,
Au profond de l’hiver, dans la salle aux fagots,
Où les chats, ruminant le langage des Goths,
Nous éclairent sans cesse en roulant la prunelle ;

Hausser notre chevet avec une escabelle,
Etre deux ans à jeun comme les escargots,
Rêver en grimaçant ainsi que les magots
Qui, bâillant au soleil, se grattent sous l’aisselle ;

Mettre au lieu de bonnet la coiffe d’un chapeau,
Prendre pour se couvrir la frise d’un manteau
Dont le dessus servit à nous doubler la panse ;

Puis souffrir cent brocards, d’un vieux hôte irrité,
Qui peut fournir à peine à la moindre dépense,
C’est ce qu’engendre enfin la prodigalité.

 

From <http://poesie.webnet.fr/lesgrandsclassiques/poemes/marc_antoine_girard_de_saint_amant/les_goinfres.html&gt;

The poem is a down to earth, comical depiction of the condition of life of a down at heel , out of luck gentleman who has wasted his assets by profligate living.

From the first line, which describes the poet sleeping three to a bed in a room with no fire and no candle (so freezing in the dark, as we might say today). The rest of the poem goes on piling up examples of the hardships endured by the poet and his friends. And the final line nails the cause of this discomfort and distress – profligacy -la prodigalite – leading to ruin and discomfort.

The reader is clearly intended to be amused by the circumstances described but it also has a bit of a moral message to live frugally if you want to avoid these pitfalls. It reminds me rather of one of those paintings of dissolute scenes which set out to both amuse and educate.

 
The Poetry Dude

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Alma, region luciente

In regularly rhymed five line stanzas our sixteenth century Catholic priest and poet, Fray Luis de Leon, gives us a vision of heaven. You can almost imagine this scene as a painting , perhaps by El Greco. In the most fervently Catholic country in Europe at the height of the Counter-reformation, all media were fair game for propagating the marvels of Catholic religious faith. So let’s read of the heavenly scene and wonder if it would have reinforced our faith at that time, in that place….

 
ODA XIII
 DE LA VIDA DEL CIELO 

 

Alma región luciente,
prado de bienandanza, que ni al hielo
ni con el rayo ardiente
fallece; fértil suelo,
producidor eterno de consuelo:

de púrpura y de nieve
florida, la cabeza coronado,
y dulces pastos mueve,
sin honda ni cayado,
el Buen Pastor en ti su hato amado.

Él va, y en pos dichosas
le siguen sus ovejas, do las pace
con inmortales rosas,
con flor que siempre nace
y cuanto más se goza más renace.

Y dentro a la montaña
del alto bien las guía; ya en la vena
del gozo fiel las baña,
y les da mesa llena,
pastor y pasto él solo, y suerte buena.

Y de su esfera, cuando
la cumbre toca, altísimo subido,
el sol, él sesteando,
de su hato ceñido,
con dulce son deleita el santo oído.

Toca el rabel sonoro,
y el inmortal dulzor al alma pasa,
con que envilece el oro,
y ardiendo se traspasa
y lanza en aquel bien libre de tasa.

¡Oh, son! ¡Oh, voz! Siquiera
pequeña parte alguna decendiese
en mi sentido, y fuera
de sí la alma pusiese
y toda en ti, ¡oh, Amor!, la convirtiese,

conocería dónde
sesteas, dulce Esposo, y, desatada
de esta prisión adonde
padece, a tu manada
viviera junta, sin vagar errada.

 
From <http://www.los-poetas.com/f/frayluis1.htm#ODA XIII – DE LA VIDA DEL CIELO>

This vision of heaven depicts God as a shepherd leading his flock to the highest places on the mountain and there regaling them with sweet harmonious music. This is a place with no cares, no sorrows, only sweet harmony.

The poem ends with the poet longing for jus a portion of this bliss to be brought down to earth where the poet’s soul is imprisoned, so that he can enjoy at least a taste of the rapture of eternal bliss.

This poem is a good example of the art of religious or mystic poetry as refined by Fray Luis in the mid 1500s.

 
The Poetry Dude

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In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy

It was nice to unearth this piece from William Blake, written in the late 18th century. Blake seems to have been a man of many talents, poetry, art, engraving, philosophy. This poem really strikes a chord with me, with its mix of aphorisms for life, the embrace of experience in all its forms and its closing thoughts on the origins of religion. This is a poem which might well be put on posters and in prefaces to self-help and positive thinking books, a bit like Kipling’s “If”. Or maybe not… I’m not sure about the title, unless it is tongue-in-cheek.

 
Proverbs of Hell

 
In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.
The cut worm forgives the plough.
Dip him in the river who loves water.
A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.
He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.
Eternity is in love with the productions of time.
The busy bee has no time for sorrow.
The hours of folly are measur’d by the clock; but of wisdom, no clock can measure.
All wholesome food is caught without a net or a trap.
Bring out number, weight, and measure in a year of dearth.
No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.
A dead body revenges not injuries.
The most sublime act is to set another before you.
If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.
Folly is the cloak of knavery.
Shame is Pride’s cloak.
Prisons are built with stones of Law, brothels with bricks of Religion.
The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.
The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man.
The fox condemns the trap, not himself.
Joys impregnate. Sorrows bring forth.
Let man wear the fell of the lion, woman the fleece of the sheep.
The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.
The selfish, smiling fool, and the sullen, frowning fool shall be both thought wise, that they may be a rod.
What is now proved was once only imagin’d.
The rat, the mouse, the fox, the rabbit watch the roots; the lion, the tiger, the horse, the elephant watch the fruits.
The cistern contains: the fountain overflows.
One thought fills immensity.
Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.
Everything possible to be believ’d is an image of truth.
The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow.
The fox provides for himself; but God provides for the lion.
Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.
He who has suffer’d you to impose on him, knows you.
As the plough follows words, so God rewards prayers.
The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.
Expect poison from the standing water.
You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.   71
Listen to the fool’s reproach! it is a kingly title!
The eyes of fire, the nostrils of air, the mouth of water, the beard of earth.
The weak in courage is strong in cunning.
The apple tree never asks the beech how he shall grow; nor the lion, the horse, how he shall take his prey.
The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.
If others had not been foolish, we should be so.
The soul of sweet delight can never be defil’d.
When thou seest an eagle, thou seest a portion of Genius; lift up thy head!
As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.
To create a little flower is the labour of ages.
Damn braces. Bless relaxes.
The best wine is the oldest, the best water the newest.
Prayers plough not! Praises reap not!
Joys laugh not! Sorrows weep not!
The head Sublime, the heart Pathos, the genitals Beauty, the hands and feet Proportion.
As the air to a bird or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.
The crow wish’d everything was black, the owl that everything was white.
Exuberance is Beauty.
If the lion was advised by the fox, he would be cunning.
Improvement makes straight roads; but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of Genius.
Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.
Where man is not, nature is barren.
Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believ’d.
Enough! or Too much.
The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged and numerous senses could perceive.
And particularly they studied the Genius of each city and country, placing it under its Mental Deity;
Till a System was formed, which some took advantage of, and enslav’d the vulgar by attempting to realise or abstract the Mental Deities from their objects—thus began Priesthood;
Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.
And at length they pronounc’d that the Gods had order’d such things.
Thus men forgot that All Deities reside in the Human breast.

 
From <http://www.bartleby.com/235/253.html&gt;

 

The first two-thirds of this poem is an exhilarating sequence of metaphorical and literal aphorisms about how to live life to the full, embracing experience, learning from other’s experience, respecting nature, being true to oneself and seeing the best in what surrounds us. Almost every line is inspirational, so it is hard to call out particularly meaningful ones – I guess everyone will pick out their favourite lines. The ones I like are “Exuberance is Beauty”, “What is now proved was once only imagin’d” and “If others had not been foolish, we should be so”.

The final third of the poem underscores the poet’s view of man being responsible for his actions and experiences, not god or religion. The poem tells that man conceived of gods, not vice-versa, and that religion only works to make us forget this basic fact, such that it works to diminish human responsibility and humanity itself. This message rings true for all ages and is particularly relevant today when religious dogmatism seems to be on the rise, fomenting discord and violence around the world.

We would all do well to act according to the first part of Blake’s poem and think according to the second part to achieve our real human potential by our own actions and words.

 
The Poetry Dude

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