His chosen comrades thought at school

 

This is an interesting poem by WB Yeats which seems to ponder on the purpose of life. The title, “What then?”, a question which is repeated in the final line of each of the four stanzas is a bit like the ‘So what?” question which challenges us to push beyond our comfortable preconceptions and views of the world.

What Then?

HIS chosen comrades thought at school
He must grow a famous man;
He thought the same and lived by rule,
All his twenties crammed with toil;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘What then?’

Everything he wrote was read,
After certain years he won
Sufficient money for his need,
Friends that have been friends indeed;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘ What then?’

All his happier dreams came true —
A small old house, wife, daughter, son,
Grounds where plum and cabbage grew,
poets and Wits about him drew;
‘What then.?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘What then?’

The work is done,’ grown old he thought,
‘According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,
Something to perfection brought’;
But louder sang that ghost, ‘What then?’

 
William Butler Yeats

From <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/what-then/&gt;

Each of the four stanzas takes us through the stages of what looks like a successful and fulfilled life, by any standards. It begins with a young man identified by his peers as likely to do well, and who actually works and studies hard in his teens and twenties to be well-prepared. The second stanza recounts the fulfilment of this potential – recognition for his work, high earnings and lasting friendships. In the third stanza, he gets a family and a nice house with garden. And in the fourth stanza, as an old man, he looks back and realizes he has achieved all he set out to and lived his life to perfection.

And yet, there is a ghost lurking over his shoulder and asking at every juncture, “What then?” is this the human capacity for self-doubt and dissatisfaction, even in the face of such lifelong achievement? Maybe so, but that seems to be belied by the last stanza in which the man looks back with pride and acknowledgement of all he has done. Or is it the poet hinting that there are other, perhaps more spiritual aspects to life, which have been neglected by the pursuit of worldly success?

The Poetry Dude

Poeta ayer, hoy triste y pobre

In today’s poem Antonio Machado conveys a melancholy world-weary mood in which the hopes and dreams and love-affairs of a young man have been supplanted by the hard knocks of life, real or metaphorical. Disillusion and disappointment are the dominant state of the poet’s mind in this poem.

Much of Machado’s work alternates between navel-gazing, as here, and celebrating the countryside and natural beauty of his native region of Castille.
There are also a few political poems and some poems which are written as tributes to friends, mentors, precursors or others he admired. This poem belongs firmly in the first category.

Antonio Machado
Coplas mundanas

 
Poeta ayer, hoy triste y pobre
filósofo trasnochado,
tengo en monedas de cobre
el oro de ayer cambiado.

Sin placer y sin fortuna,
pasó como una quimera
mi juventud, la primera…
la sola, no hay más que una:
la de dentro es la de fuera.

Pasó como un torbellino,
bohemia y aborrascada,
harta de coplas y vino,
mi juventud bien amada.

Y hoy miro a las galerías
del recuerdo, para hacer
aleluyas de elegías
desconsoladas de ayer.

¡Adiós, lágrimas cantoras,
lágrimas que alegremente
brotabais, como en la fuente
las limpias aguas sonoras!

¡Buenas lágrimas vertidas
por un amor juvenil,
cual frescas lluvias caídas
sobre los campos de abril!

No canta ya el ruiseñor
de cierta noche serena;
sanamos del mal de amor
que sabe llorar sin pena.

Poeta ayer, hoy triste y pobre
filósofo trasnochado,
tengo en monedas de cobre
el oro de ayer cambiado.

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

Machado was clearly striving here to capture a mood rather than construct a tidy poem in formal terms. All the stanzas have four lines except the second which has five. However he does achieve symmetry by having the final stanza repeat the first one.

The poem evokes in several ways the contrast between optimistic youth and his disillusioned older state, but the comparison is entirely in favour of being young, carefree and in love, open to experience whether hearing the nightingale sing or shedding tears because of some youthful love affair. Whereas his older state seems grey, monotonous and bereft of future.

This is indeed mid-life crisis poetry – I hope he went out and bought a sports car or secured a trophy wife…

The Poetry Dude

Voici venir les temps ou vibrant sur sa tige

Another beautiful poem from 19th century French maverick, Charles Baudelaire. Like almost no other poet he draws you in to the world of the senses, conveying sights, sounds, smells, feelings as if the reader is actually experiencing the same sensations as the poet. This almost makes you not notice the poetic craft which goes in to the work, but on second or third readings you start to notice and appreciate the wonderful way in which the poem is put together.

Please enjoy “Harmonie du Soir”, evening harmony, by Charles Baudelaire:

 
Harmonie du soir

Voici venir les temps où vibrant sur sa tige
Chaque fleur s’évapore ainsi qu’un encensoir;
Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir;
Valse mélancolique et langoureux vertige!

Chaque fleur s’évapore ainsi qu’un encensoir;
Le violon frémit comme un coeur qu’on afflige;
Valse mélancolique et langoureux vertige!
Le ciel est triste et beau comme un grand reposoir.

Le violon frémit comme un coeur qu’on afflige,
Un coeur tendre, qui hait le néant vaste et noir!
Le ciel est triste et beau comme un grand reposoir;
Le soleil s’est noyé dans son sang qui se fige.

Un coeur tendre, qui hait le néant vaste et noir,
Du passé lumineux recueille tout vestige!
Le soleil s’est noyé dans son sang qui se fige…
Ton souvenir en moi luit comme un ostensoir!

— Charles Baudelaire

From <http://fleursdumal.org/poem/142&gt;

The first stanza draws you in to an evening scene, with fading flowers giving off their last perfume like an incense burner, with heady sounds and smells inducing a sense of melancholy and slight weakness, as if the senses are overwhelmed by the stimuli of the evening.

The second stanza builds on the scent of the flowers and adds the sound of a violin playing to create an atmosphere of sensory richness bringing a sense of calm. It is as if the whole sky has created a place to rest and take in the sights, sounds and smells.

The final two stanzas deepen the descriptions of all the elements coming together to inebriate the poet. While the final line brings it all back to the poet’s lover – with all his senses at work, it makes her memory come alive, shining vividly in his mind.

Baudelaire uses repetition throughout the sonnet to accentuate the sensual impressions which he conveys. The “v” sound occurs many times though the poem, heralded by the first two words “Voici venir”. Spoken out loud this sound seems to bring with it the soft smells and sounds pervading the scene.

And then, there is the repetition of complete lines, which in a16 line poem is quite remarkable and a means of deepening the reader’s experience of the poem’s subject. From the first stanza, lines 2 and 4 are repeated as lines1 and 3 of the second stanza. And again, lines 2 and 4 of the second stanza are repeated as lines one and three of the third stanza. And once again, the same pattern is repeated from stanza three to stanza four. This is impressive technique which adds to, instead of getting in the way of, the sensual power of the poem.

The Poetry Dude

En tanto que de rosa y azucena

Garcilaso was chronologically the first, I think, of Spain’s great poets pf the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, pre-dating Fray Luis de Leon, Quevedo and Gongora. He was a soldier poet, and died in battle in Italy. This sonnet, on the theme of enjoy life while you are young because age will inevitably come and wither youthful beauty and vigour, is a direct precursor of Gongora’s “Mientras por competir con tu cabello”, (see post here on October 2nd 2014), both in the subject matter, the rhythms and the images. Look at both poems and compare…

 
Garcilaso de la Vega
(1501-1536)

Soneto XXIII

En tanto que de rosa y azucena
se muestra la color en vuestro gesto,
y que vuestro mirar ardiente, honesto,
enciende al corazón y lo refrena;

y en tanto que el cabello, que en la vena
del oro se escogió, con vuelo presto,
por el hermoso cuello blanco, enhiesto,
el viento mueve, esparce y desordena:

coged de vuestra alegre primavera
el dulce fruto, antes que el tiempo airado
cubra de nieve la hermosa cumbre;

marchitará la rosa el viento helado.
Todo lo mudará la edad ligera
por no hacer mudanza en su costumbre.

From <http://users.ipfw.edu/jehle/poesia/entantoq.htm&gt;

The first two stanzas paint the picture of a young lady in the prime of her youth with rose and lily colours in her cheeks, a way of looking which gladdens the heat, blonde hair blowing in the wind over a beautiful neck. This is very similar to the imagery in Gongora’s later sonnet and is a lead in to the final two stanzas in which the same conclusions are reached. The message is enjoy life while you are young before the ravages of age whither youthful beauty and vigour.

These themes are of course commonplace throughout poetry, and especially of this time. You can find them equally in Shakespeare, for example. But this is a fine example at all levels – language, imagery, rhythm and elegance.

To be enjoyed like a fine bottle of vintage wine.

The Poetry Dude

Je m’en allais, les poings dans mes poches crevees;

Here is a poem from Arthur Rimbaud, the teenage lover of Paul Verlaine. He only wrote poetry for a very few years in his youth; after he and Verlaine fell out, Rimbaud went off to be a trader in East Africa and devoted his life to commerce, not poetry. Rimbaud’s poems are usually quite difficult, but this sonnet seems to me to be one of his more accessible works. In it, we see the poet devoting himself to a Bohemian lifestyle, quite happy to be poor and ragged as long as he has his poetry. That’s a viable choice for a very young man, with or without an older protector, but probably couldn’t go on forever.

Ma Bohème

Je m’en allais, les poings dans mes poches crevées ;
Mon paletot aussi devenait idéal ;
J’allais sous le ciel, Muse ! et j’étais ton féal ;
Oh ! là là ! que d’amours splendides j’ai rêvées !

Mon unique culotte avait un large trou.
– Petit-Poucet rêveur, j’égrenais dans ma course
Des rimes. Mon auberge était à la Grande Ourse.
– Mes étoiles au ciel avaient un doux frou-frou

Et je les écoutais, assis au bord des routes,
Ces bons soirs de septembre où je sentais des gouttes
De rosée à mon front, comme un vin de vigueur ;

Où, rimant au milieu des ombres fantastiques,
Comme des lyres, je tirais les élastiques
De mes souliers blessés, un pied près de mon coeur !

Arthur Rimbaud

From <http://www.mag4.net/Rimbaud/poesies/Boheme.html&gt;

This poem (yet another sonnet of course…) is a study in contrasts between the poet’s physical appearance and circumstances (holes in his pockets and pants, sleeping outside, presumable homeless, his shoes falling apart) with his dedication to the poetic Muse which can inspire him whatever his situation.

The adjectives are all positive and convey a sense of wonder and commitment to poetry at the expense of all else. This is Rimbaud looking on the bright side of life and seeing, feeling and reacting to the beauty and poetic potential of everything around him.

The Poetry Dude

Who has not seen their lover

Frances Cornford, granddaughter of Charles Darwin and mother of poet John Cornford, wrote this poem on the emotions of seeing a lover walking down the street. “The Avenue” is a short poem to capture the particular emotion of a particular moment, but it sets out to have universal connection to anybody who has been in love.

The Avenue

Who has not seen their lover
Walking at ease,
Walking like any other
A pavement under trees,
Not singular, apart,
But footed, featured, dressed,
Approaching like the rest
In the same dapple of the summer caught;
Who has not suddenly thought
With swift surprise:
There walks in cool disguise,
There comes, my heart.

 
…..The Avenue by Frances Cornford (1886-1960)

From <http://www.helpself.com/love-poems/poem-8o.htm&gt;

What this poem does so elegantly is connect a banal everyday moment – someone watching other people walk down the street or avenue – with the magical experience of being in love. Just the fact that the loved one is in the observer’s field of vision transforms the scene and the experience into one of joy, fulfillment and wonder. The state of being in love has made the scene into a heart-warming and uplifting moment.

This for me is one of the beauties of poetry – it can bring us back to a state of wonder and appreciation of small moments, everyday experiences and fleeting moments which we ignore most of the time. Poetry and beauty are all around if we could just be open to it.

 
The Poetry Dude

Quoy qu’on tient belles langagieres,

Today’s poem goes back to the 1400s, but the theme is universal. Francois Villon is the author, and in this poem he writes in praise of the women of Paris, superior in all respects to women from another place he cares to mention. Compare with the song from the Beach Boys, “California Girls”, or the Beatles “Back in the USSR”

 
Ballade des femmes de Paris
François Villon (1431-1463)

Quoy qu’on tient belles langagieres
Florentines, Veniciennes,
Assez pour estre messaigieres,
Et mesmement les anciennes;
Mais, soient Lombardes, Rommaines,
Genevoises, a mes perilz,
Piemontoises, Savoysiennes,
Il n’est bon bec que de Paris.

De tres beau parler tiennent chaires,
Ce dit-on, les Napolitaines,
Et que sont bonnes cacquetoeres
Allemanses et Bruciennes;
Soient Grecques, Egyptiennes,
De Hongrie ou d’autre pays,
Espaignolles ou Castellannes,
Il n’est bon bec que de Paris.

Brettes, Suysses, n’y scavent gueres,
Ne Gasconnes et Tholouzaines;
Du Petit-Pont deux harangeres
Les concluront, et les Lorraines,
Anglesches ou Callaisiennes,
(Ay je beaucoup de lieux compris?)
Picardes, de Valenciennes;
Il n’est bon bec que de Paris.

Prince, aux dames parisiennes
De bien parler donnez le prix;
Quoy qu’on die d’Italiennes,
Il n’est bon bec que de Paris.

From <http://poemasenfrances.blogspot.com/2004/05/franois-villon-ballade-des-femmes-de.html&gt;

The first stanza evokes the sparkling verbal skills of ladies from Florence, Venice, Lombardy, Rome, Genoa, Piedmont and Savoy – but concludes that Paris women re the only ones who can really talk – “il n’est bon bec que de Paris”.

The second stanza talks of the conversation abilities of the women from Naples, Germany, Bruges, Greece, Egypt, Hungary, Spain and Castille but concludes that the best talkers are in Paris.

The third stanza goes on to list places where women can’t talk well – Brittany, Switzerland, Gascony, Toulouse, Lorraine, England, Calais, Picardy, Valenciennes – only in Paris will you find women who can really talk.

The final stanza implores the Price to give the prize for fine speech to Parisian ladies, whatever he might have heard of Italian ladies, because only in Paris can good talk be heard.

The Poetry Dude