La grant doulour que je porte

Towards the end of the fifteenth century and into the early years of the sixteenth century, in the midst of the turbulent years of the hundred years war, Christine de Pisan found a great talent as a poet. After marrying young and then becoming widowed with three children in he mid 20s, she found both solace and fame in poetry, and used this medium to proclaim the rights of women, mostly subordinated to men at that time.

This is a poem of grieving and sorrow, of the great pain suffered by the poet from the loss of a loved one, possibly her husband.

La grant doulour que je porte

Christine de Pisan

La grant doulour que je porte

Est si aspre et si tres forte

Qu’il n’est riens qui conforter

Me peüst ne aporter

Joye, ains vouldroie estre morte.

Puis que je pers mes amours,

Mon ami, mon esperance

Qui s’en va, dedens briefs jours,

Hors du royaume de France

Demourer, lasse ! il emporte

Mon cuer qui se desconforte ;

Bien se doit desconforter,

Car jamais joye enorter

Ne me peut, dont se deporte

La grant doulour que je porte.

Si n’aray jamais secours

Du mal qui met a oultrance

Mon las cuer, qui noye en plours

Pour la dure departance

De cil qui euvre la porte

De ma mort et que m’enorte

Desespoir, qui raporter

Me vient dueil et emporter

Ma joye, et dueil me raporte

La grant doulour que je porte.

From <>

This poem is said to be an early work, written shortly after the death of her husband in 1390, and expressing her sorrow and pain. It is still very moving, even over 600 years later. However, this theory looks a bit off to me , given the several references to her loss being the departure from France of her loved one, first signalled at the end of the second stanza, which refers to her loved one needing to leave France within a few days.

Interestingly, the first stanza follows the same format as the modern day limerick, with rhyming on the first second and fifth lines, and a different rhyme on the third and fourth line. The rest of the poem alternates between four and six line stanzas.

The poem enumerates the various stages of grief and sorrow experienced by the poet in a very moving way, with loss of joy, loss of hope, a breaking heart, despair and the prospect of death building to a climax which finally repeats the unifying theme of the poem, “la grant doulour que je porte”.

Fortunately for her, and now for us, the poet could express her feelings through poetry.

The Poetry Dude

Il fait bon voir, Paschal, un conclave serre

Here is a sonnet from Joachim du Bellay from the mid 1550s, written, as many of his poems were, while on a lengthy diplomatic mission to Rome. It is a poetic, and rather cynical account of his impressions of a conclave of Cardinals gathered together to elect a Pope. I’m not sure which Papal election is referred to here, there seem to have been several during du Bellay’s years in Rome. In any event, the poet’s impressions could probably apply to any one of them.
The poem is adressed to one Paschal, presumably a friend or colleague of the poet’s, in the manner of a letter.


Il fait bon voir, Paschal, un conclave serré

Il fait bon voir, Paschal, un conclave serré,
Et l’une chambre à l’autre également voisine
D’antichambre servir, de salle et de cuisine,
En un petit recoin de dix pieds en carré :

Il fait bon voir autour le palais emmuré,
Et briguer là-dedans cette troupe divine,
L’un par ambition, l’autre par bonne mine,
Et par dépit de l’un être l’autre adoré :

Il fait bon voir dehors toute la ville en armes
Crier : le Pape est fait, donner de faux alarmes,
Saccager un palais : mais plus que tout cela

Fait bon voir, qui de l’un, qui de l’autre se vante,
Qui met pour celui-ci, qui met pour celui-là,
Et pour moins d’un écu dix cardinaux en vente.

From <;

The poem opens with an expression of the poet’s pleasure or enjoyment at witnessing the discomfiture and corruption of the Cardinals during the conclave, Cardinals who presumably in ordinary times were seen to live in luxury in sumptuous palaces. The first four lines draw attention to their small and crowded living conditions when locked in to the conclave hall for the election, with the rooms crowded together and minimal space for cooking and meeting.

The second stanza talks of the place being walled off like a prison; and inside the intrigues, ambition and conniving of the Cardinals.

The third stanza reports on the atmosphere in the city with the excitement, the false rumours of the election of the pope, the crowds out of hand ransacking a palace, a bit like football hooligans,

A d the final stanza homes in on the fun of witnessing the dealings and double-dealings of the Cardinals as they declare and withdraw their votes and sell their votes to the highest bidder.

I wonder if much has changed since then…

The Poetry Dude

Heart of the heartless world

Today’s poet, John Cornford, wrote this poem just a couple of weeks before he was killed fighting in the Spanish Civil War, round about his 21st birthday. Is it fair to add additional meaning, pathos, sense of tragedy to the poem because we know this, but the poet didn’t when he wrote it? I think it is, because he knew he was putting himself in harm’s way and could die at any time. This is a poem written in the teeth of death, written to express his love which remains strong in his mind.
Heart of the heartless world,
Dear heart, the thought of you
Is the pain at my side,
The shadow that chills my view.
The wind rises in the evening,
Reminds that autumn is near.
I am afraid to lose you,
I am afraid of my fear.
On the last mile to Huesca,
The last fence for our pride,
Think so kindly, dear, that I
Sense you at my side.
And if bad luck should lay my strength
Into the shallow grave,
Remember all the good you can;
Don’t forget my love.

From <;

Cornford was from a privileged background, highly educated, one of the elite, a 1%erof his time. Yet he chose to go off and fight for freedom and democracy and pay the ultimate price at a very young age. This is incredibly sad and tragic.

The poem uses simple language to describe the poet’s anguish at the prospect of dying while so much in love, so much so that the thought of his love brings additional pain and sorrow. The repetition of “I am afraid” on lines 7 and 8 shows this emotion and gives it additional depth.

Here is yet another insight on the horrors and uselessness of war.

The Poetry Dude

Stand on the highest pavement of the stair

Here we are reading TS Eliot’s “La Figlia que Piange”, which translates as “The Girl who is weeping”. Although the title is in Italian, the poem’s text is in English (Eliot is unusual in that he also wrote poems in French, quite proficiently). Eliot is in very many twentieth century poetry collections, and rightly so, as his poetry really seemed to move the needle in terms of language, references, eclecticism and poetic craft. However, sometimes I find that the balance between language and sensibility is too much weighted towards inventive use of words, leaving the emotional impact obscured.

But this is a poem where I don’t get that reaction, where emotion and feeling are conveyed. It is one of Eliot’s simpler poems, both in structure and language.
La Figlia che Piange
O quam te memorem virgo …
Stand on the highest pavement of the stair—
Lean on a garden urn—
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair—
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise—
Fling them to the ground and turn
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.
So I would have had him leave,
So I would have had her stand and grieve,
So he would have left
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,
As the mind deserts the body it has used.
I should find
Some way incomparably light and deft,
Some way we both should understand,
Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.
She turned away, but with the autumn weather
Compelled my imagination many days,
Many days and many hours:
Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.
And I wonder how they should have been together!
I should have lost a gesture and a pose.
Sometimes these cogitations still amaze
The troubled midnight and the noon’s repose.
Source: Prufrock and Other Observations (1917)

From <;

For me, this poem captures the mystery of a moment, a mystery which will never be elucidated, but which will live on in the poetic imagination. The girl, with flowers in her hair, standing at the top of some steps, crying, is what the observer sees. The poet imagines the girl’s lover having left her, in a state of distress and hurt. Can he step in and comfort her? No, because that would destroy the spell of the mystery, but the last stanza points the way to immortalising the moment through imagination and poetry.

The simple descriptions and straightforward language make the power of this moment even more compelling. It is a fragment of life but still a powerful source of poetic inspiration.

The Poetry Dude

En Chimbarongo, en Chile, hace tiempo

Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet wrote about many themes in his lifetine of output. His love poems are very well-known, as are his reflections on deep-rooted Latin American history and culture. He also wrote engaged, hard-hitting, political poetry. Today I have chosen one of these poems, taken from his great Canto General collection. The poem describes election day in Chimbarongo, in Chile. The subject could have been taken from Dickens, who describes a similar scene in England in “Sketches by Boz”. But I strongly suspect that the scene described still has relevance in too many places

Elección en Chimbarongo.

En Chimbarongo, en Chile, hace tiempo
fui a una elección senatorial.
Vi cómo eran elegidos
los pedestales de la patria.
A las once de la mañana
llegaron del campo las carretas
atiborradas de inquilinos.
Era en invierno, mojados,
sucios, hambrientos, descalzos,
los siervos de Chimbarongo
descienden de las carretas.
Torvos, tostados, harapientos,
son apiñados, conducidos
con una boleta en la mano,
vigilados y apretujados
vuelven a cobrar la paga,
y otra vez hacia las carretas
enfilados como caballos
los han conducido.
Más tarde
les han tirado carne y vino
hasta dejarlos bestialmente
envilecidos y olvidados.
Escuché más tarde el discurso,
del senador así elegido:
«Nosotros, patriotas cristianos,
nosotros, defensores del orden,
nosotros, hijos del espíritu.»
Y estremecía su barriga
su voz de vaca aguardentosa
que parecía tropezar
como una trompa de mamuth
en las bóvedas tenebrosas
de la silbante prehistoria.

From <;

It is election day, and Neruda describers voters being brought into town in carts to cast their vote for the candidate who has provided the transport , who will feed them, and give them wine and a small amount of money. The voters are poor, ill-clothed, hungry, unkempt, barefoot and uneducated. The candidate in contrast is well-fed, prosperous, and cares nothing for the people whose votes he has paid for, except to keep them in their state of misery so h can easily buy their votes again next time.

The contrast is stark, and the candidate’s speech is full of meaningless, elevated language with no relevance to the lives of the people. It is a striking message about political cynicism and opportunism, and probably applies more broadly, even if more subtly even in advanced democracies. The 1% anyone?

Wouldn’t it be great if more voices like Neruda’s could be heard.



The Poetry Dude

I could never have dreamed that there were such goings-on

Dylan Thomas, the great 20th century Welsh poet, was a master wordsmith. His poems are fabulous to be read aloud, particularly if you can do a Welsh accent and imagine you are Richard Burton driving the words out in in uninhibited drink-fuelled flow.

This poem has the very apt title “Notes on the Art of Poetry”

I could never have dreamt that there were such goings-on
in the world between the covers of books,
such sandstorms and ice blasts of words,,,
such staggering peace, such enormous laughter,
such and so many blinding bright lights,, ,
splashing all over the pages
in a million bits and pieces
all of which were words, words, words,
and each of which were alive forever
in its own delight and glory and oddity and light.

From <;
Whoever has ever been transfixed, transformed, moved, blown away, discombobulated, taken completely to a different place by words written on a page will recognize what Dylan Thomas describes in this poem. The delight and marvel of words used to amaze and enlighten come through in the succession of superlative adjectives, the accumulation of sensations which the poet describes here. He captures the reader’s experience when confronted by great writing of any genre.

And, of course, in poems like this and in his great long-form prose work “Under Milk Wood”, Dylan Thomas is giving us his own contribution to the making this experience come alive for us, his privileged readers.
The Poetry Dude

Fay refraischir mon vin de sorte…

To France in the mid 16th century and Pierre de Ronsard, who, along with Joachim du Bellay, founded the Pleiade group of poets to revitalise French poetry. This is an ode, short, simple and perfectly charming. To be enjoyed with a large glass of wine, to really get into the spirit of the poem.

FAY refraischir mon vin de sorte
Qu’il passe en froideur un glacon:
Fay venir Janne, qu’elle apporte
Son luth pour dire une chanson:
Nous ballerons tous trois au son:         5
Et dy à Barbe qu’elle vienne
Les cheveux tors à la façon
D’une follastre Italienne.
Ne vois tu que le jour se passe?
Je ne vy point au lendemain:         10
Page, reverse dans ma tasse,
Que ce grand verre soit tout plain.
Maudit soit qui languit en vain:
Ces vieux Medecins je n’appreuve:
Mon cerveau n’est jamais bien sain,         15
Si beaucoup de vin ne l’abreuve.

From <;

Wine, women, music and song – what better, happier theme for a poet, echoing Omar Khayam many centuries later. The poet wants to live in the moment with a glass of wine in his hand, surrounded by pretty girls and with music and dancing. This is a simple poem, with a simple message, but with universal appeal.

The form is traditional. 16 lines with alternate rhymes. The French spelling is slightly archaic to a modern eye, but perfectly understandable and it even lends an additional charm to the piece, completely unintended by the poet of course..

So, a piece of elegant, light entertainment, playful and appealing to all.