Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,

Somehow the first line of this poem by Christopher Marlowe has passed into the English language as a synonym for Helen of Troy. It might be at least as famous as any line from Homer or Virgil’s classical versions of the Trojan Wars, the Iliad and the Aeneid. But who can say that this was in fact taken from Marlowe’s great play Dr. Faustus. The notoriety of the first line certainly matches anything from Shakespeare, but the whole piece then expands on the beauty and impact of Helen on her contemporaries and on Dr. Faustus himself through the power of imagination and fantasy,

The Face That Launch’D A Thousand Ships

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies!
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy, shall Wittenberg be sack’d;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest;
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appear’d to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!
Christopher Marlowe

From <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-face-that-launch-d-a-thousand-ships/&gt;

In this speech, Faustus imagines he is Paris, the one responsible for the abduction of Helen and thus the ultimate destruction of Troy, besieged by the Greek forces transported to Troy in the thousand ships of Agamemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus and Achilles. Cognizant of the tragic outcome, Faustus is so carried away by the prospect of Helen’s beauty that he would be prepared to sacrifice all for a taste of her love.

It is indeed a beautiful and powerful poem of the power of love in the face of all odds and the power of a myth resonating across the centuries, from Homer’s time to Marlowe’s, and from Marlowe’s to our own.

The Poetry Dude

Qui no tinga a la finestra

A poem for this Sunday or any Sunday by Joan Maragall, the great Catalan poet from the turn of the 20th century. Sunday being the day when you can take a deep breath and appreciate the beauty of the world, realise your happiness and throw off the cares of the working week.

de Joan Maragall
Qui no tinga a la finestra
dos testos de flors germans,
un aucell dins d’una gàbia,
i un cor enamorat,
no sap lo que és benaurança
ni podrà saber-ho mai.
I a fe us dic que es bella cosa
el diumenge, al desvetlla’s
veure en les flors la rosada,
sentir l’aucell refilar
i per gaudir-lo amb l’aimia,
un jorn de festa al davant:
Amb l’aimia que us espera
abocada al finestral
amb el vestit dels diumenges
que es aquell de colors clars.

   Joan Maragall

From <http://elglobosblog.blogspot.com/2011/03/diumenge.html&gt;

This is a poem which celebrates the simple pleasures of awaking on a Sunday with flowers by the window, a bird singing in the gables and a heart full of love. This is indeed enough to bestow happiness, at least for the day when cares can be set aside. The first stanza sets out this scenario as a kind of theoretical set of conditions for happiness, saying that whoever can’t experience this must not be happy.

In the second stanza a very similar scenario is played out but this time the poet is at the center of the action – he is talking from personal experience and he adds more details – the waking, the dew on the flowers, the bird singing, and his lover alongside him leaning against the window – and they are wearing their bright Sunday best clothes, ready to take their happiness out into the world.

A poem of contentment and optimism indeed.

The Poetry Dude

My mind was once the true survey

Today’s poem is from Andrew Marvell, from the seventeenth century, a very clever and accomplished poet, who could tackle multiple subjects and themes with great skill and impact. In this poem, Marvell develops a metaphor for love based on mowing grass in a meadow. The poet’s love, Juliana in this poem, cuts down the poet just as he cuts down the grass in the meadow. Cleverly done, I think.

The Mower’s Song

My mind was once the true survey
Of all these meadows fresh and gay,
And in the greenness of the grass
Did see its hopes as in a glass;
When Juliana came, and she
What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me.

But these, while I with sorrow pine,
Grew more luxuriant still and fine,
That not one blade of grass you spy’d
But had a flower on either side;
When Juliana came, and she
What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me.

Unthankful meadows, could you so
A fellowship so true forgo?
And in your gaudy May-games meet
While I lay trodden under feet?
When Juliana came, and she
What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me.

But what you in compassion ought,
Shall now by my revenge be wrought;
And flow’rs, and grass, and I and all,
Will in one common ruin fall.
For Juliana comes, and she
What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me.

And thus, ye meadows, which have been
Companions of my thoughts more green,
Shall now the heraldry become
With which I shall adorn my tomb;
For Juliana comes, and she
What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me

From <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173952&gt;

The poem has a kind of narrative flow, proceeding from the poet’s state in the first stanza, when he has total mastery of his task of cutting grass, right to the end of the poem where he must die under the despair of being in love and the grass will adorn his tomb. The intervening stanzas recount the growing pain and suffering of being in love with the said Juliana, such that the poet and the meadow he is cutting fall into ruin. The two repeated lines at the end of each stanza hammer home the notion of love as a destructive force, upsetting the wellbeing of the poet and the world around him.

The Poetry Dude

Desmayarse, atreverse, estar furioso,

I wonder how many people know that Lope de Vega’s first name was Felix. I certainly didn’t realise until I saw his full name attached to this poem. Well, I think its appropriate, as his output of poems and plays was so prolific that he must have been really happy at what he was doing.

This sonnet is a tour de force of verbs and adjectives, piled one on top of the other to build a powerful portrait of the meaning of love. It is both playful and pointed, and makes more impact for combining these qualities.

The title announces the poem both in form and content, with two contradictory verbs capturing the tension of love – “To faint, to dare” – trepidation and foolhardy courage competing for the upper hand in the mind of the lover.


Desmayarse, atreverse, estar furioso,
áspero, tierno, liberal, esquivo,
alentado, mortal, difunto, vivo,
leal, traidor, cobarde y animoso;

no hallar fuera del bien centro y reposo,
mostrarse alegre, triste, humilde, altivo,
enojado, valiente, fugitivo,
satisfecho ofendido receloso;

huir el rostro al claro desengaño,
beber veneno por licor suave,
olvidar el provecho, amar el daño;

creer que el cielo en un infierno cabe,
dar la vida y el alma a un desengaño,
esto es amor: quien lo probó lo sabe.

From <http://www.diarioinca.com/2007/09/desmayarse-atreverse-poema-de-lope-de.html&gt;

The two verbs kick off the poem itself also, followed by an accumulation of adjectives describing the many-faceted emotions experienced by the confused lover. The reader is left reeling by this collection of conflicting states, just as the mind of the poet must have been. The second four lines continue in the same spirit, with yet more adjectives, the poet’s virtuosity carrying us forward with every word, every line.

In the final six lines, it is the verbs which regain the upper hand, each one expressing one of the paradoxes of love, until the final line proclaims that all this is love, and whoever has experienced it knows it well.

I think Lope was right, and this is a wonderful, vibrant expression of the contradictions of love.

The Poetry Dude

It keeps eternal whisperings around

Here is a nice sonnet from Keats on the sea, its mysteries and its healing powers for the psyche. This explains why people are drawn to the sea-shore, to listen to the lapping of the waves, feel the sea breeze wafting across their faces and gaze out at the far horizon which seems to have no limits. This poem is a good companion piece to his “Sonnet written on the top of Ben Nevis”, posted here on June 21, 2015, in which we get a similar appreciation of the mountains.

On the Sea

It keeps eternal whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand caverns, till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.

Often ’tis in such gentle temper found,
That scarcely will the very smallest shell
Be moved for days from whence it sometime fell,
When last the winds of heaven were unbound.

Oh ye! who have your eye-balls vexed and tired,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea;
Oh ye! whose ears are dinned with uproar rude,

Or fed too much with cloying melody, –
Sit ye near some old cavern’s mouth, and brood
Until ye start, as if the sea-nymphs choired!

From <http://www.online-literature.com/keats/486/&gt;

The first four lines evoke the remote mystery of the sea, its loneliness and desolation, as its tides swell into remote caverns, and then recede, as if under the spell of witchcraft, Hecate being the Greek goddess of witches and magic. But the second four lines move into a more comforting tone, with the sea in gentle mood, hardly disturbing a tiny shell on the beach, from where it had been deposited in some recent storm. The final six lines exhort the reader to watch, listen to and meditate on the sea as a restful and positive antidote to the stresses and strains of everyday life. Tired eyeballs find relief and the sound of the waves can bring joy, just as if they were beautiful and melodious sea-nymphs.

So let’s go to the sea…

The Poetry Dude

Yo vi unos bellos ojos, que hirieron

Here is a poem from Fernando de Herrera, writing in the 16th century at the height of the Spanish Golden Age of culture and economic ascendancy, but he is somewhat less well known than such as Fray Luis, Gongora or Quevedo. This poem is a sonnet describing the effect of the poet’s lover’s eyes on him. The intent is to display poetic technique and mastery of imagery, rhythm and rhyme rather than to evoke real emotion or depth of feeling. But Shakespeare also wrote like this sometimes, so why not?

Yo vi unos bellos ojos, que hirieron…

Fernando de Herrera

Yo vi unos bellos ojos, que hirieron
con dulce flecha un corazón cuitado,
y que para encender nuevo cuidado
su fuerza toda contra mí pusieron.

Yo vi que muchas veces prometieron
remedio al mal, que sufro no cansado,
y que cuando esperé vello acabado,
poco mis esperanzas me valieron.

Yo veo que se esconden ya mis ojos
y crece mi dolor y llevo ausente
en el rendido pecho el golpe fiero.

Yo veo ya perderse los despojos
y la membrana de mi bien presente
y en ciego engaño de esperanza muero.

From <http://www.ciudadseva.com/textos/poesia/esp/herrera/yo_vi_unos_bellos_ojos.htm&gt;

The poet is wounded by the beautiful eyes of his lover, as if they were arrows piercing his heart, rendering his hopes for recovery useless. And as his hopes fade, there is nothing left but death, which of course is here equivalent to remaining in love. This is a curious analogy perhaps, as most would consider being in love a desirable state, but it also implies complete loss of control of one’s destiny. A sweet death, perhaps.

The Poetry Dude

I’d been out the night before & hadn’t seen the papers or the telly

A poem in tribute from one poet to another, written shortly after the death of TS Eliot by Adrian Henri. Eliot died in 1965, when Henri was in his mid-30s, and his best years of poetry and success were yet to come. I suppose all poets of the second half of the 20th century were very aware of Eliot’s poetry and position as one of the foremost poets writing in English in the first half of the last century.

Poem In Memoriam T. S. Eliot

I’d been out the night before & hadn’t seen the papers or the telly
& the next day in a café someone told me you were dead
And it was as if a favourite distant uncle had died
old hands in the big strange room/new shiny presents at Christmas
and I didn’t know what to feel.

For years I measured out my life with your coffee spoons

Your poems on the table in dusty bed sitters
Playing an L.P. of you reading on wet interrupted January afternoons

Meanwhile, back at the Wasteland:
Maureen OHara in a lowcut dress staggers across Rhyl sandhills
Lovers in Liverpool pubs eating passion fruit
Reading Alfred de Vigny in the lavatory
Opening an old grand piano and finding it smelling of curry
Making love in a darkened room hearing an old woman having a fit on the landing
The first snowflakes of winter falling on her Christmas poem for me in Piccadilly Gardens
The first signs of spring in plastic daffodils
on city counters

Lovers kissing
Rain fallin

Dogs running
Night falling
And you `familiar compound spirit’ moving silently down Canning St in a night of rain and fog.

Adrian Henri

From <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/poem-in-memoriam-t-s-eliot/&gt;

The first stanza of the poem simply recounts how the poet heard of Eliot’s death and its immediate impact on him. The style is conversational and uses everyday language, clear to all. He compares Eliot to a distant uncle, not very well known but kind and benevolent, someone who was clearly a good influence on the younger poet.

The next three lines allude to Henri’s experience of growing up with Eliot’s poems always available, as part of his way of life he had the books and recordings and was able to assimilate both knowledge and easy familiarity with Eliot’s work.

The poem then morphs into a tribute of another sort – replicating the sparse, somewhat obscure allusions and unusual connections of an Eliot poem, such as the Wasteland, but using the language and style of Henri’s own work, evoking scenes from Liverpool and North Wales, each line highlighting another seemingly unconnected image, but the total adding up cumulatively, as in an impressionist painting, to a colourful and affectionate portrait of a time and place. The final line quotes from Eliot’s “Little Gidding”, one of the Four Quartet poems. In that poem a “familiar compound ghost” appears and speaks to Eliot. Here the spirit presumably represents Eliot himself, walking down Canning Street in Liverpool, Adrian Henri’s native city.

This is a warm and loving poem and a fine tribute from one poet to another

The Poetry Dude