What is genius?

McGonagall’s poem on genius is somewhat subversive, pointing out that reputation for genius can rely entirely on wealth or social position, rather than actual ability or talent. In this he poetically builds on the thoughts of Adam Smith, that giant of the Scottish enlightenment, who so memorably declared in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” that:

“We frequently see the respectful attentions of the world more strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous. We see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent…The great mob of mankind are the admirers and worshippers, and, what may seem more extraordinary, most frequently the disinterested admirers and worshippers, of wealth and greatness. “(Theory of Moral Sentiments, I.III.29)

This is indeed the subject matter of William McGonagall’s poem.


What is genius?
’Tis a thing seldom rewarded;
If you are in poverty
’Tis sure to be disregarded.
But if you are a rich man
Your company is courted
By the high and the low,
Throughout the world wherever you go.
Whereas the poor man
By his fellow-workmen is spurned;
They look on him with a jealous eye,
And their noses upturn’d,
And they say to themselves,
You are no greater than we;
If you are, show it,
And we’ll all worship thee.
And rally around you,
And applaud you to the skies;
And none of us all
Will ever you despise,
Because you can help yourself,
You are a very great man,
And every one of us
Will do all that we can,
You for to please,
And never will tease,
Nor try to offend you,
By any misbehaviour;
And to court your favour
We will always endeavour.
That is the way genius
Is rewarded;
But if you are in poverty
’Tis sure to be disregarded.

From <http://www.mcgonagall-online.org.uk/gems/genius&gt;

Its very simple – a rich man is highly regarded, and a poor man is disregarded, even if their relative abilities are completely the other way round. In this worldview, the assumption is that wealth, success and social standing must come from superior ability, not luck or cheating. Maybe even today we still see this, despite the spread of education and democracy,

The Poetry Dude


Parbleu ! j’en tiens, c’est tout de bon. 

Yet another poet in love, or at least so Saint-Amant would have us believe from the title of this poem. But, as he explains in the poem, there are some downsides to being in love…


Parbleu ! j’en tiens, c’est tout de bon.
Ma libre humeur en a dans l’aile,
Puisque je préfère au jambon
Le visage d’une donzelle.
Je suis pris dans le doux lien
De l’archerot idalien.
Ce dieutelet, fils de Cyprine,
Avecques son arc mi-courbé,
A féru ma rude poitrine
Et m’a fait venir à jubé.

Mon esprit a changé d’habit :
Il n’est plus vêtu de revêche,
Il se raffine et se fourbit
Aux yeux de ma belle chevêche.
Plus aigu, plus clair et plus net
Qu’une dague de cabinet,
Il estocade la tristesse,
Et, la chassant d’autour de soi,
Se vante que la politesse
Ne marche plus qu’avecques moi.

Je me fais friser tous les jours,
On me relève la moustache ;
Je n’entrecoupe mes discours
Que de rots d’ambre et de pistache ;
J’ai fait banqueroute au pétun ;
L’excès du vin m’est importun :
Dix pintes par jour me suffisent ;
Encore, ô falotte beauté
Dont les regards me déconfisent,
Est-ce pour boire à ta santé !

From <http://www.paradis-des-albatros.fr/?poeme=saint_amant/l-enamoure&gt;

The first stanza comically sets the scene, describing the poet lamenting his discovery that he now prefers to look at the face of a girl rather than tuck into a nice piece of ham. For he has been struck by Cupid’s arrow and brought down by it.

The second stanza goes on to lament the changes in him brought about by this sad state of affairs. He needs to dress smartly, not shabbily, he needs to be alert, chase away sadness and be politer than anyone else.

In the third stanza the poet has his hair and moustache trimmed and curled every day; he only belches after eating amber (?) and peanuts, not, as usual, from drinking – in fact while in love he must limit himself to only 10 pints of wine a day – what a sacrifice. And those ten pints are only to drink good health to the beauty of his lover.

The poet does indeed leave the reader wondering whether all these changes are worth it to be in love.

I guess this could be an anti-love poem

The Poetry Dude

Podrá nublarse el sol eternamente;

Here is a poem by Gustavo Adolfo Bequer, the mid-nineteenth century Spanish romantic poet on the meaning of eternal love. It turns out that the power of eternal love is greater than anything, than any force of nature or mighty event. I wish that was true…

Amor Eterno
Podrá nublarse el sol eternamente;
Podrá secarse en un instante el mar;
Podrá romperse el eje de la tierra
Como un débil cristal.
¡Todo sucederá!
Podrá la muerte
cubrirme con su fúnebre crespón;
pero jamás en mí podrá apagarse
la llama de tu amor

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer

From <http://www.donquijote.org/spanishlanguage/love/poem-3.asp&gt;

So, the sun could be blocked out for ever, the sea could dry up in a moment, the earth’s axis could shatter, the poet could die, but the flame of the poet’s love could never be extinguished. This is the frenzy of one in love, but the reader knows it cannot last.

The Poetry Dude

Suppose your life a folded telescope

Here is a poem in which the title is a description of the subject of the poem, and is also designed to make the reader think about something which almost everybody would take for granted. The objective is to intrigue the reader and draw him or her straight into the poem. There might also be a slight comic intent, but I am not completely sure of this.

So the natural lead-in to this poem by X.J. Kennedy is “What is the purpose of time?” And here is the answer…

The Purpose of Time is to Prevent Everything from Happening at Once
by X.J. Kennedy, from The Lords of Misrule.

Suppose your life a folded telescope
Durationless, collapsed in just a flash
As from your mother’s womb you, bawling, drop
Into a nursing home. Suppose you crash
Your car, your marriage—toddler laying waste
A field of daisies, schoolkid, zit-faced teen
With lover zipping up your pants in haste
Hearing your parents’ tread downstairs—all one.
Einstein was right. That would be too intense.
You need a chance to preen, to give a dull
Recital before an indifferent audience
Equally slow in jeering you and clapping.
Time takes its time unraveling. But, still,
You’ll wonder when your life ends: Huh? What happened?

From <https://365pwords.wordpress.com/2008/12/16/poem-purpose-of-time-by-xj-kennedy/&gt;

The first half of the poem, paints a picture of what it would be like if time didn’t exist, if everything happened instantaneously in someone’s life. You can find a similar concept in Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot”, which has an image of a woman giving birth astride a grave.

Then in the ninth line we have the poem’s pivot point – a nod to Einstein, modernity, science, the poet’s sophistication, and the understated conclusion that such a instantaneously lived life would be too intense. Yes. Indeed. The next four lines are closer to reality, the slow passage of time opening up a world of contrast, of slow development, of one thing leading to another.

And then the last line brings everything back together, reconciling the opposing states – at the end of life there would be no difference between having lived sequentially or simultaneously – you are dead, that’s all. What happened?

And, by the way, this is a sonnet.

The Poetry Dude

Beau Monstre de Nature, il est vrai, ton visage

The poet Tristan l’Hermite is the seventeenth century poet and dramatist, not the mediaeval general who served Louis XI, and from whom the poet borrowed his name. This is a sonnet, which celebrates the beauty of a dark-skinned Moorish (North African) slave-girl. At the same time it contains many elements of Baroque sonnetry, in its oppositions, its structure, its word-games and imagery, while also to the modern reader being a chilling reminder of racial attitudes in the not-so-distant past.

Tristan L’Hermite

La Belle Esclave more

Beau Monstre de Nature, il est vrai, ton visage
Est noir au dernier point, mais beau parfaitement :
Et l’ébène poli qui te sert d’ornement
Sur le plus blanc ivoire emporte l’avantage.

Ô merveille divine, inconnue à notre âge !
Qu’un objet ténébreux luise si clairement ;
Et qu’un charbon éteint, brûle plus vivement
Que ceux qui de la flamme entretiennent l’usage !

Entre ces noires mains je mets ma liberté ;
Moi, qui fus invincible à toute autre Beauté,
Une More m’embrase, une Esclave me dompte.

Mais cache-toi Soleil, toi qui viens de ces lieux
D’où cet Astre est venu, qui porte pour ta honte
La nuit sur son visage, et le jour dans ses yeux.

From <http://www.florilege.free.fr/florilege/tristan/labellee.htm&gt;

The elements of racism are everywhere – first of course in the title where it would be evident to poet and reader that the beautiful Moorish girl must be a slave. Then the fact that she is referred to as a monster of nature, because of her dark skin; then in the second line where her face is portrayed as perfectly beautiful, in spite of being black. And so on, and so on right through the poem. This is shocking to the modern reader, but would probably have been considered just an interesting curiosity in the seventeenth century, when upper class western European classes would have been almost invariably white.

The poet’s intent of course is to write a sonnet praising the beauty of the girl and describing how he falls under her spell, despite her colour and despite the difference in status between the two. This is the source of the Baroque paradox which runs through the poem – she is dark-skinned, a slave girl, and yet she is outstandingly beautiful and has captured the poet’s heart. We even see ebony winning out over ivory (350 years before Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney). The final line sums it up – night on her face, daylight in her eyes, the marriage of opposites for an irresistible appeal.

The Poetry Dude

Lentos veranos de ninez

Today’s poet, Jorge Guillen, was a contemporary of Alberti, Lorca, Hernandez, Leon and was one of those poets who left Spain for exile in the late 1930s as a result of Franco taking power in Spain – better than staying and being shot or thrown in jail for years, I guess. The poem is a short and simple shot of nostalgia for the summers of childhood, when innocent enjoyment was to be had in long summer vacations.

Aquellos Veranos

Jorge Guillén

Lentos veranos de niñez
Con monte y mar, con horas tersas,
Horas tendidas sobre playas
Entre los juegos de la arena,
Cuando el aire más ancho y libre
Nunca embebe nada que muera,
Y se ahondan los regocijos
En luz de vacación sin tregua,
El porvenir no tiene término,
La vida es lujo y va muy lenta.

From <http://www.spanish-learning-corner.com/short-spanish-poems.html&gt;

The poem successfully evokes long, languid, timeless days spent on the beach, playing in the sand, with limitless horizons stretching forward over the sea and backward over the mountains. The days are never-ending but fulfilling, there re no worries or dark clouds, for the children, probably around 8 to 10 years of age, enjoying their summer vacation. The overwhelming sense of this poem is that the passage of time seems stretched out, eternal, the repetition of “horas”, the idea of “vacacion sin tregua” and “el porvenir no tiene termino”… Those were the days, indeed.

The Poetry Dude

When Susanna Jones wears red

Here is a fine poem from Langston Hughes about the impact of a stunningly beautiful woman walking into the room. Her impact is magnified by wearing red, that most immediate of colours. A head-turner indeed…


When Sue Wears Red

When Susanna Jones wears red
her face is like an ancient cameo
Turned brown by the ages.
Come with a blast of trumpets, Jesus!

When Susanna Jones wears red
A queen from some time-dead Egyptian night
Walks once again.
Blow trumpets, Jesus!

And the beauty of Susanna Jones in red
Burns in my heart a love-fire sharp like a pain.
Sweet silver trumpets, Jesus!
Langston Hughes

From <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/when-sue-wears-red/&gt;

The words of the poem speak for themselves. Who has not had a moment like this when you catch your breath at a living goddess approaching. The trumpets do indeed metaphorically blow, while Susanna feigns indifference to the reaction of all before her.

The Poetry Dude