To draw no envy, Shakespeare, on thy name,

Following yesterday’s great sonnet by Shakespeare, what better to follow up with than Ben Johnson’s tribute to the master. This is not the only poem by Johnson about Shakespeare – he also wrote about the picture of Shakespeare which is in the front of Shakespeare’s complete works. Maybe we will put that poem up on this blog a bit later, but this one is a much more expansive tribute, showing how honoured he was in his own time.

To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare

To draw no envy, Shakespeare, on thy name,
Am I thus ample to thy book and fame;
While I confess thy writings to be such
As neither man nor muse can praise too much;
‘Tis true, and all men’s suffrage. But these ways
Were not the paths I meant unto thy praise;
For seeliest ignorance on these may light,
Which, when it sounds at best, but echoes right;
Or blind affection, which doth ne’er advance
The truth, but gropes, and urgeth all by chance;
Or crafty malice might pretend this praise,
And think to ruin, where it seem’d to raise.
These are, as some infamous bawd or whore
Should praise a matron; what could hurt her more?
But thou art proof against them, and indeed,
Above th’ ill fortune of them, or the need.
I therefore will begin. Soul of the age!
The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage!
My Shakespeare, rise! I will not lodge thee by
Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie
A little further, to make thee a room:
Thou art a monument without a tomb,
And art alive still while thy book doth live
And we have wits to read and praise to give.
That I not mix thee so, my brain excuses,
I mean with great, but disproportion’d Muses,
For if I thought my judgment were of years,
I should commit thee surely with thy peers,
And tell how far thou didst our Lyly outshine,
Or sporting Kyd, or Marlowe’s mighty line.
And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek,
From thence to honour thee, I would not seek
For names; but call forth thund’ring Aeschylus,
Euripides and Sophocles to us;
Pacuvius, Accius, him of Cordova dead,
To life again, to hear thy buskin tread,
And shake a stage; or, when thy socks were on,
Leave thee alone for the comparison
Of all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome
Sent forth, or since did from their ashes come.
Tri’umph, my Britain, thou hast one to show
To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe.
He was not of an age but for all time!
And all the Muses still were in their prime,
When, like Apollo, he came forth to warm
Our ears, or like a Mercury to charm!
Nature herself was proud of his designs
And joy’d to wear the dressing of his lines,
Which were so richly spun, and woven so fit,
As, since, she will vouchsafe no other wit.
The merry Greek, tart Aristophanes,
Neat Terence, witty Plautus, now not please,
But antiquated and deserted lie,
As they were not of Nature’s family.
Yet must I not give Nature all: thy art,
My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part.
For though the poet’s matter nature be,
His art doth give the fashion; and, that he
Who casts to write a living line, must sweat,
(Such as thine are) and strike the second heat
Upon the Muses’ anvil; turn the same
(And himself with it) that he thinks to frame,
Or, for the laurel, he may gain a scorn;
For a good poet’s made, as well as born;
And such wert thou. Look how the father’s face
Lives in his issue, even so the race
Of Shakespeare’s mind and manners brightly shines
In his well-turned, and true-filed lines;
In each of which he seems to shake a lance,
As brandish’d at the eyes of ignorance.
Sweet Swan of Avon! what a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appear,
And make those flights upon the banks of Thames,
That so did take Eliza and our James!
But stay, I see thee in the hemisphere
Advanc’d, and made a constellation there!
Shine forth, thou star of poets, and with rage
Or influence, chide or cheer the drooping stage;
Which, since thy flight from hence, hath mourn’d like night,
And despairs day, but for thy volume’s light.

From <;

In fact, one of the great ways in which this poem appeals is that it gives us a window into the aspects of Shakespeare and his work which were recognized and appreciated by his contemporaries. Even though Shakespeare is for all ages, did the audience of his time think of his work like we do?

The first several lines reassure the reader that there are no base motives behind Johnson’s praise of Shakespeare, it is only to beat the drum for the finest writer of the age. And then Johnson piles on rapturous praise. He focusses here on the plays rather than the poems, “wonder of the stage”, and compares Will S. favourably with the dramatists of the time, Kyd, Marlowe and Lyly, but also the ancient Greek pioneers of dramatic art, Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and more. In fact, Johnson states clearly that Shakespeare is for all time, and he leaves his classical forebears in the dust, whether they be Greek or Roman, such as Terence or Plautus.

Johnson then goes on to emphasise the hard work that went in to writing these plays, the sweat, the workmanship, as if on an anvil, his use of his education and surroundings to give him material, vocabulary and character.

Just as earlier in the poem, Johnson coupled Shakespeare’s name with Chaucer and Spenser, pinnacles of English writing, he now reminds us that he was recognized by Queen Elizabeth and her successor King James, as he brought to life theatrical performance in London, on the banks of the Thames.

The poem finishes with Shakespeare, now departed from this life, becoming a star in the heavens and beaming his light and influence down on theatre for ever.

A great tribute, and a worthy exposition of the talents and impact of Shakespeare.

The Poetry Dude

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,

We are well overdue to have another Shakespeare sonnet on this blog, so today is the day. This is a love poem, but it is not a poem of falling in love, of hot passion and wild excitement. Rather it is a poem about keeping love alive as time passes, of continuing to find new ways to appreciate your lover as you get more, or too familiar with him or her. So this is dedicated to all those couples who stay together and keep on finding new ways to be in love.

Sonnet 104
To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah, yet doth beauty, like a dial hand,
Steal from his figure and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion and mine eye may be deceived;
For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred:
Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.

From <;

The first line celebrates the endurance of love, if both people want it that way. The lover is also a friend, and the poet will never see her as old, even as they age together. The poem goes on to stress that three years have passed since the lover’s met, and Shakespeare methodically goes through descriptions of the changing seasons – three winters, three summers, three springs, three autumns, three Aprils and three Junes, each season acting to frame in a different way the beauty of the poet’s lover.

But then we see an interesting tension between heart and head, between knowledge and perception, fully acknowledged by Shakespeare. He acknowledges that the passage of time can transform and dim the beauty of youth, but his eye can be deceived by continuing to see the beauty which justifies his love.

The final two lines gloriously accentuate the strength of the poet’s love – the beauty of summer is dead in comparison with her beauty in his mind’s eye.

The genius of Shakespeare – surprising, challenging, dazzling – read, re-read and read again…

The Poetry Dude

-Escoitá: os algoasiles

Here is a poem of protest from Rosalia de Castro, a cry of anger at the tax collectors coming round to poor villagers who can hardly get enough money for a roof over their heads and food for their family. It is written in the Galician language, and I hope it is reasonably accessible to those with a good grasp of Castilian Spanish.

The title “Why?”, and the first word, “Listen:”, grab the reader’s attention, create a sense of momentum and urgency which conditions how we read the rest of the poem. The meat of the subject is then revealed – the tax collectors are coming to the village.

¿Por qué?

-Escoitá: os algoasiles
andan correndo a aldea;
mais ¿cómo pagar, cómo, si un non pode inda pagar a renda?

Embargaránnos todo, que non teñen
esas xentes concencia, nin tén alma.
¡Quedaremos por portas,
meus fillos das entrañas!

¡Mala morte vos mate
antes de que aquí entredes!
Dos probes, ao sentirvos,
os corazós, ¡cál baten tristemente!

-María, se non fora
porque hai un Dios que premia e que castiga,
eu matara eses homes
como mata un raposo a unha galiña.

-¡Silencio! ¡Non brafemes,
que éste é un valle de lágrimas…!
Mais ¿por qué a algúns lles toca sufrir tanto,
i outros a vida antre contentos pasan?

From <;

The poem continues with the cry of despair, how can we pay our taxes if we can’t even pay the rent. But the tax collectors proceed remorselessly, without a conscience, without a soul and round everyone up.

The poet curses the tax collectors, wishing them a horrible death, and wishing she could kill them herself, like a fox kills a chicken, if only there were no God to judge everybody.

The poem finishes with a cry of protest, why do some people have nothing and suffer, while others live lives of ease and pleasure.

A poem for the 99% indeed.

The Poetry Dude

I watched old squatting Chimpanzee: he traced

Siegfried Sassoon is best known for his First World War poems, full of pain, anger and despair at the absurdities and miseries of war. But outside his wartime experiences he lived the life of a minor aristocrat, hunting, shooting and fishing, living a life of privilege. Here he writes a poem which depicts his jaundiced view of this world, as he describes some of the people he mixes with at sporting events. A precursor of Monty Python’s upper-class twits, perhaps…

Sporting Acquaintances

I watched old squatting Chimpanzee: he traced
His painful patterns in the dirt: I saw
Red-haired Ourang-utang, whimsical-faced,
Chewing a sportsman’s meditative straw:
I’d met them years ago, and half-forgotten
They’d come to grief (but how, I’d never heard,
Poor beggars!); still, it seemed so rude and rotten
To stand and gape at them with never a word.

I ventured ‘Ages since we met,’ and tried
My candid smile of friendship; no success.
One scratched his hairy thigh, while t’other sighed
And glanced away. I saw they liked me less
Than when, on Epsom Downs, in cloudless weather,
We backed The Tetrarch and got drunk together.

Siegfried Sassoon

From <;

The two acquaintances that the poet meets are characterized as a chimpanzee and an orang-outang. These days we might consider that this is denigrating to those primates. The scene takes place on Epsom Downs, the racecourse where the Derby is run every year (in the town where I was born). Despite his disdain for the acquaintances, the solidarity of class and the occasion win the day and the poet joins his friends in betting on a horse and then getting drunk with them (and possibly going on to nab a policeman’s helmet, like one of PG Wodehouse’s characters.)

The Poetry Dude

Todo ha florecido en

Neruda, writing a poem whose title evokes springtime and the great 16th century poet, Quevedo, manages to be remarkably downbeat here. This is certainly not one of those uplifting springtime poems where the vitality and renewal of nature are uplifting for the human soul. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is the beauty of spring which reminds the poet of his inner melancholy and despair. Perhaps the reference to Quevedo in the title is a clue, as Quevedo’s later poems could be quite pessimistic. Is there any Quevedo poem specifically on this theme? I don’t know of one.

Pablo Neruda
Con Quevedo, en primavera

Todo ha florecido en
estos campos, manzanos,
azules titubeantes, malezas amarillas,
y entre la hierba verde viven las amapolas.
El cielo inextinguible, el aire nuevo
de cada día, el tácito fulgor,
regalo de una extensa primavera.
Sólo no hay primavera en mi recinto.
Enfermedades, besos desquiciados,
como yedras de iglesia se pegaron
a las ventanas negras de mi vida
y el sólo amor no basta, ni el salvaje
y extenso aroma de la primavera.

Y para ti qué son en este ahora
la luz desenfrenada, el desarrollo
floral de la evidencia, el canto verde
de las verdes hojas, la presencia
del cielo con su copa de frescura?
Primavera exterior, no me atormentes,
desatando en mis brazos vino y nieve,
corola y ramo roto de pesares,
dame por hoy el sueño de las hojas
nocturnas, la noche en que se encuentran
los muertos, los metales, las raíces,
y tantas primaveras extinguidas
que despiertan en cada primavera.

From <;

For the first seven lines of the poem we are indeed in the world of the beauties of spring, the resurgence of natural vitality, the flowers, fruits, butterflies, the exhilaration of renewal, and all the joys of spring. But then, halfway through the first stanza, Neruda abruptly changes the mood – there is no spring in his living space, just sickness, loneliness and blackness.
the second stanza is evidently addressed to the poet’s loved one, asking what the joys of spring can mean to her. The poet is tormented by the external signs of spring, he yearns for night, darkness, death and the end of spring. The tension is between the external world and the poet’s internal state, disappointed in love, dominated by melancholy and dark thoughts.
This poem is the counterweight in many ways to Keats’ ” A Thing of Beauty”, posted here two days ago (May 25th). This is one for the glass half-empty brigade.

The Poetry Dude

Rosa divina, que en gentil cultura

Returning to spring-like themes, here is a nice sonnet from Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz on the majestic, but fleeting, beauty of a rose and the lessons we should learn from its glorious flowering and subsequent demise.

A una Rosa

Rosa divina, que en gentil cultura
Eres con tu fragante sutileza
Magisterio purpúreo en la belleza,
Enseñanza nevada a la hermosura.

Amago de la humana arquitectura,
Ejemplo de la vana gentileza,
En cuyo ser unió naturaleza
La cuna alegre y triste sepultura.

¡Cuán altiva en tu pompa, presumida
soberbia, el riesgo de morir desdeñas,
y luego desmayada y encogida.

De tu caduco ser das mustias señas!
Con que con docta muerte y necia vida,
Viviendo engañas y muriendo enseñas.

From <;

In the first four lines the rose is resplendent, with its glorious colours and subtle fragrance, an epitome of all things beautiful. The warning comes in the second four lines where we learn that it is rather like human vanity, all-conquering one day but dead and buried the next. In its glorious flowering the rose is majestic, haughty, proud, scornful of any possibility of death, but then, too soon, it has died and lies dried out and decaying. The poet’s intent is for this to be a lesson in humility for all her human readers. But I just like the description of the beauty of the rose.

The Poetry Dude

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:

This must be one of Keats’ most famous poems, and I am guessing pretty much everyone is familiar with the opening line, even if they are not sure where it comes from. But Endymion? That reference is maybe a bit less familiar these days, and even in Keats’ own time I wonder how many readers got it. So the homework assignment for readers of this blog today is to find out who or what was Endymion. Enjoy.

A Thing Of Beauty (Endymion)

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its lovliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkn’d ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid-forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.
John Keats

From <;

This truly a glass half-full, count your blessings, uplifting, optimists kind of poem. Keats acknowledges the despondence, gloomy days, unhealthy ways and dark spirits but knows that we can and should look on the beauties of the world, nature in all its glory and take joy and inspiration from just opening our eyes and seeing the wonders of the world. Let us all, every day wake up and wreath our flower band of optimism to bind us to the earth.

The Poetry Dude