Posts Tagged ‘poetry’
The constant rain hereabouts the last couple of weeks hasn’t done much for the spirits.
It makes one remember people – absent people. And think sad thoughts …
And what are melancholic moods without melodramatic verse, lol ?
Give me the green gloom of a lofty tree,
Leaf and bough to shutter and bar
My dream of the world that ought to be
From the drifting ghosts of the things that are.
- Yuan Mei, “The Secret Land.” (Translated by L. Cranmer-Byng.)
On that note, Hokusai’s series of prints, Hyaku Monogatari (first published in 1831), of things that go bump in the night:
Portrait of A S Byatt: Red, Yellow, Green and Blue: 24 September 1997, Patrick Heron. In the collection of the National Portrait Gallery.
Image of the day: Patrick Heron’s portrait of one of my favourite writers, Antonia Susan Byatt (b. 24.8.1936), who today celebrates her 75th.
If the name doesn’t ring a bell, she wrote the 1990 Booker winner, Possession: A Romance; if you haven’t read it, run to the nearest bookstore — don’t walk.
A snippet from the book, where Byatt reworks Freud’s essay, The Theme of the Three Caskets (an exposition of said theme in The Merchant of Venice and King Lear), into a fairy tale involving a sojourner and three eldritch women, who ask him to choose among them:
First came the gold lady, stepping proudly, and on her head a queenly crown of gold, a filigree turret of lambent sunny gleams and glistering wires crisping gold curls as heavy with riches as the golden fleece itself. She held out her gold box bravely before her and it struck out such rays that his eyes were briefly dazzled with it and he was forced to look down at the grey heather.
And she sang:
“Mine the bright earth
Mine the corn
Mine the gold throne
To which you’re born
Lie in my lap
Tumbled with flowers
And reign over
Earth’s tall towers”
Then came the silver lady, with a white crescent burning palely on her pale brow, and she was all hung about with spangled silver veiling that kept up a perpetual shimmering motion around her, so that she seemed a walking fountain, or an orchard of blossom in moonlight, which might in the day have been ruddy and hot for bee kisses, but at night lies open, all white to the cool, secret light that blesses it without withering or ripening.
And she sang:
“Mine the long night
The secret place
Where lovers meet
In long embrace
In purple dark
In silvered kiss
Forget the world
And grasp your bliss”
And he turned from the gold lady and would have taken the silver, but caution, or curiosity, restrained him, for he thought he would still see what the dim last might offer, compared to her two sweet sisters.
And she came, almost creeping, not dancing nor striding, but moving imperceptibly like a shadow across his vision, in a still pool of soft light. And her garments did not sparkle or glitter but hung all in long pale folds, fluted like carved marble, with deep violet shadows, at the heart of which, too, was soft light. And her face was cast down in shadows, for she looked not at him, but at the dull lead casket, as pale as might be, and seemingly without hinge or keyhole, that lay cradled before her. And around her brow was a coronet of white poppies and on her feet were silent silken slippers like spider webs, and her music was single, a piping not of this earth, not merry, not sad, but calling, calling. And she sang:
“Not in the flesh
Not in the fire
Not in action
Is heart’s desire
But come away
For last is best
I alone tender
The Herb of Rest”
The Beguiling of Merlin (c. 1872-7), Edward Burne-Jones, currently in the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool. Reproduced on the cover of the popular Vintage paperback edition of Possession.
The so-called Borghese Hermaphroditus in the Louvre, a second-century CE Roman copy of an earlier Greek original. It was the inspiration for Swinburne’s eponymous poem.
Lift up thy lips, turn round, look back for love,
Blind love that comes by night and casts out rest;
Of all things tired thy lips look weariest,
Save the long smile that they are wearied of.
Ah sweet, albeit no love be sweet enough,
Choose of two loves and cleave unto the best;
Two loves at either blossom of thy breast
Strive until one be under and one above.
Their breath is fire upon the amorous air,
Fire in thine eyes and where thy lips suspire:
And whosoever hath seen thee, being so fair,
Two things turn all his life and blood to fire;
A strong desire begot on great despair,
A great despair cast out by strong desire.
Where between sleep and life some brief space is,
With love like gold bound round about the head,
Sex to sweet sex with lips and limbs is wed,
Turning the fruitful feud of hers and his
To the waste wedlock of a sterile kiss;
Yet from them something like as fire is shed
That shall not be assuaged till death be dead,
Though neither life nor sleep can find out this.
Love made himself of flesh that perisheth
A pleasure-house for all the loves his kin;
But on the one side sat a man like death,
And on the other a woman sat like sin.
So with veiled eyes and sobs between his breath
Love turned himself and would not enter in.
Love, is it love or sleep or shadow or light
That lies between thine eyelids and thine eyes?
Like a flower laid upon a flower it lies,
Or like the night’s dew laid upon the night.
Love stands upon thy left hand and thy right,
Yet by no sunset and by no moonrise
Shall make thee man and ease a woman’s sighs,
Or make thee woman for a man’s delight.
To what strange end hath some strange god made fair
The double blossom of two fruitless flowers?
Hid love in all the folds of all thy hair,
Fed thee on summers, watered thee with showers,
Given all the gold that all the seasons wear
To thee that art a thing of barren hours?
Yea, love, I see; it is not love but fear.
Nay, sweet, it is not fear but love, I know;
Or wherefore should thy body’s blossom blow
So sweetly, or thine eyelids leave so clear
Thy gracious eyes that never made a tear —
Though for their love our tears like blood should flow,
Though love and life and death should come and go,
So dreadful, so desirable, so dear?
Yea, sweet, I know; I saw in what swift wise
Beneath the woman’s and the water’s kiss
Thy moist limbs melted into Salmacis,
And the large light turned tender in thine eyes,
And all thy boy’s breath softened into sighs;
But Love being blind, how should he know of this?
Au Musée du Louvre, Mars 1863.
The Swinburne Project is dedicated to his life and work.
Like Barnes’ dirge for her lover, I wrote the following poem in the aftermath of a particularly distressing relationship, as a form of catharsis. It re-imagines the Greek myth of Hypnos, the god of sleep, and his obsession with the mortal, Endymion. So besotted with the youth’s pulchritude was the deity that he granted him the gift (?) of sleep with open eyes – so as to better delight in Endymion’s lovely visage for all eternity.
My jumping-off point though, was not so much the fact of infatuation, but the asymmetry between the waking god and the sleeping boy, and the emotional disjuncture represented therein. This is what Athenaeus of Naucratis recorded in his Deipnosophistae:
And Licymnius the Chian, saying that Hypnos [Sleep] was in love with Endymion, represents him as refusing to close the eyes of the youth even when he is asleep; but the god sends his beloved one to sleep with his eyelids still open, so that he may not for a single moment be deprived of the pleasure of contemplating them. And his words are these:-
But Hypnos much delighted
In the bright beams which shot from his eyes,
And lulled the youth to sleep with unclosed lids.
(From C. D. Yonge’s translation of Athenaeus, available in full online. See here for the relevant quote.)
Indeed, delight was the initial driving force – but one is reminded of Tennyson’s Tithonus, who after an eon of immortality without youth, begs his divine lover, the Dawn, to let him die: “Release me, and restore me to the ground:/ Thou seest all things, thou wilt see my grave:/ Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn;/ I earth in earth forget these empty courts,/ And thee returning on thy silver wheels.”
Perhaps, too, in time, the deity may have wearied of merely gazing upon his somnolent leman, and desired more than an object of admiration lost in the throes of a deep slumber. Painful then must have been the wide open eyes, promising a window into the beloved’s soul, but which in truth held out no more than an elusive figment …
Can one then love a stranger ?
A detail from Fernand Khnopff‘s I Lock the Door Upon Myself (1891), in the Neue Pinakothek, Munich.
Hypnos at Home
High above the city presides the god
deep in a hushed mansion.
The marble lies silent;
the drapes occlude.
A body sleeps on the leather couch.
He is watched.
White flesh glows lukewarmly,
and the soft down does not stir.
Open eyes stare –
The glass-clear orbs are certain.
The bouquet trembles and lets fall
a violet petal.
The god is moved. Grief grips the graven air.
He stretches out a finger;
“What do you see?”
This lovely short poem was penned by one of my favourite writers, the American Djuna Barnes (12.6.1892 – 18.6.1982), for her one-time lover, Mary Pyne.
Pyne, sadly, passed on early in life from tuberculosis. Barnes’ biographer notes: “The painter Maurice Stern remembers Barnes grieving over the death of the “Titian-haired beauty” Mary Pyne, “sobbing painfully, her head buried in her arms, saying over and over she would never get over the loss. These were the only times I had even a glimpse of the true intensity her controlled facade covered.” (Philip Herring, Djuna: The Life and Works of Djuna Barnes, p. 74.)
For you, for me ? Why then the striking hour,
The wind among the curtains, and the tread,
Of some late gardener pulling at the flower
They’ll lay between our hearts when we are dead.
This portrait of Barnes adorns a wall at the fabled Left Bank bookstore, Shakespeare & Co., in Paris. Barnes was a regular there, and when the legendary institution underwent a facelift recently, illustrator Joanna Walsh paid graphic tribute to her and other literary luminaries of the 1920s by by incorporating them into the decor. Read about it here.
Here’s a passage from Richard Le Gallienne‘s Variations on Whitebait, a short prose-poem in which a young man extemporizes a tragic tale of the fate of whitebait (young fish) to his dinner companion, who unfortunately seems more moved by the pianist’s music than her admirer’s lyrical improvisations. Its a remarkable piece of purple prose: the alliteration, the cadences, the diction, the rhythmic pulsing of the lines, the all-too-precious sentiment … It definitely strikes a surer note than, say, Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, which has its moments, but is ultimately let down by its own self-defeating aim of trying to maintain a white-hot pitch for the entire length of a novella.
Intense pain is poetic in short, consumable bursts, and unbearable for long, uninterrupted stretches.
‘Electric Light of the World,’ I said, ‘it is like this. While they are still quite young and full of dreams, their mother takes them out in picnic parties of a billion or so at a time to where the spring moon is shining, scattering silver from its purse of pearl far over the wide waters,–silver, silver, for every little whitebait that cares to swim and pick it up. The mother, who has a contract with some such big restaurateur as ours, chooses a convenient area of moonlight, and then at a given sign they all turn over on their sides, and bask and bask in the rays, little fin pressed lovingly against little fin–for this is the happiest time in the young whitebait’s life: it is at these silvering parties that matches are made and future consignments of whitebait arranged for. Well, night after night, they thus lie in the moonlight, first on one side, then on the other, till by degrees, tiny scale by scale, they have become completely lunar-plated. Ah! how sad they are when the end of that happy time has come!’
‘And what happens to them after that?’ asked the Sphinx.
‘One night when the moon is hidden their mother comes to them with treacherous wile, and suggests that they should go off on a holiday again to seek the moon–the moon that for a moment seems captured by the pearl-fishers of the sky. And so off they go merrily, but, alas! no moon appears; and presently they are aware of unwieldy bumping presences upon the surface of the sea, presences as of huge dolphins; and rough voices call across the water, till, scared, the little whitebaits turn home in flight–to find themselves somehow meshed in an invisible prison, a net as fine and strong as air, into which, O agony! they are presently hauled, lovely banks of silver, shining like opened coffers beneath the coarse and ragged flares of yellow torches. The rest is silence.’
‘What sad little lives! and what a cruel world it is!’ said the Sphinx–as she crunched with her knife through the body of a lark, that but yesterday had been singing in the blue sky. Its spirit sang just above our heads as she ate, and the air was thick with the grey ghosts of all the whitebait she had eaten that night.
But there were no longer any tears in her eyes.