Monday, May 14, 2007

Harmonius Tension, Pt. 6

The next line is tricky, because if the stress falls on ‘could’ it would make the line sound as if one is asking one’s self a question; but the poet is not asking of himself the possibility of reviving the song; he is only stating his desire to do so, thus the line has to be scanned this way, × / × / × / /, and with that ending we have a spondee; another variation, another element of growth and experiment. Then, before the growth becomes too much, before Progress goes out of hand, the poem returns to Permanence, to form. The next line is in strict iambic tetrameter., × / × / × /.
The poem loosens in line length in the following line that also, it seems, ends in a spondee. We know for certain that the first three feet are iambic; we know for certain that ‘’twould’ is not stressed; we think that both ‘win’ and ‘me’ are stressed. We know that ‘win’ is stressed. Is ‘me’ stressed? If we said it in the following way it is false speech, “’twould win me ,” because it just sounds forced, and it is, and then we would be glozing over the importance of being won over. However, if we said “’twould win me,” it sounds closer to natural speech and we have the element of being won over. Yet again, if we said “’twould win me,” it sounds almost natural, more so than unnatural and forced. But if we remember the spondee from two lines previous, then we will see the rhyme that this line completes; so one is drawn to conclude that this third way, with the spondee is the way the line is read. After all that, the line is scanned as × / × / × / × / /.
The next line is a trochee with three and half feet again, / × / × / × /, fitting for the line with ‘music’ in it. With the accents on ‘loud’ and ‘long’ we have the quality of the music desired for the construction of the dome. And the next also is of the same quality, a trochee with three and a half feet. Then we have four successive lines of iambic tetrameter. The placement of the accents in the first of these lines magnifies the quality and description of the sunny dome and the caves of ice. In the second of these four lines the second and third accents magnify how one would experience the vision of the constructed dome – audibly and visually. The next line brings with it the sense of dread, the sense of privation that is necessary for the effect of the sublime, in the placement of the accents. The accents in the last line of this sequence also emphasize the characteristics of what is seen, the flashing eyes and floating hair of this vision. The ‘flash’ in ‘flashing’ is all the more so with the stress, and magnifies the quality of the eyes, so too with ‘float’ in ‘floating’ as it interacts with ‘hair’. The iambic tetrameter quality is also suitable for these four lines because of the gravity and solemnity of the vision, the obscurity of it. It is also a constructed vision, so the accents are structured like a foundation to make firm what is built. Even though it is only a vision, it is surely seen and it definitely has an effect on the viewer.
Then the poem’s next line turns away from the iambic back to a line of trochee that is three and a half feet long, with the accent on ‘Weave’ to bring out the word more and what the hair does, / × / × / × /; the last accent in the line ensures that we understand how many times the hair weaves around him, similar to earlier in the poem when the measurement of the wall is stressed in the sixth line, ‘So twice five miles . . .” With this change, it is also noticed that the quality of looseness in the hair is given; the three circles are woven not tightly as if to make a fixed appearance, but floating, hence loose. Again, the variation in meter gives the quality of looseness in a form that does not stifle.
However, the gravity returns in the next line and we have that iambic tetrameter, × / × / × / × /. The accent on ‘ho’ in ‘holy’ and on ‘dread’ is enough to make us want to close our eyes, and it brings us closer to the sense of privation that is a quality of the sublime. The last two lines in the poem also follow the iambic tetrameter of this line. It is a frame that holds the poem together. The stanza, and the poem, concludes in this disciplined manner to carry on the same gravity from earlier lines. Hence, even though the last word in the poem is ‘Paradise’, there is a sense of dread still evident as picked up from the meter. The frame is complete. It began in iambic tetrameter and varied throughout to come back and end in iambic tetrameter. This is the necessary struggle that ensures the poem’s continuity as a great literary composition.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Harmonious Tension, Pt. 5

The variety we have so far seen, read and heard through our reciting of the poem reminds one of what Russell Kirk called the principle of variety, remembering Edmund Burke’s belief in the inherent variety that is found in nature and civilization.
Coming immediately after this scene that conjures the sublime, there is the space on the page that relieves the reader. Then the poems constricts as it did before in the first stanza. The imagery is a sudden change from that of the obscure and haunted to something completely different.

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice.

In this constriction, the poem does not suffocate upon itself; rather, it dances in its diction. The first line scans thus × / × / × /, with the feminine rhyme ending. The next line goes thus, / × / × / × /, a trochee that is three and a half feet; then next is another trochee, the same, / × / × / × /, with the feminine rhyme ending; and then another trochee, with three and a half feet, / × / × / × /. When we hear the accent falling on the first half of ‘shadow’, there is to be the sense of dread and the sense that what we are seeing is not the real thing, but its shadow. At the end of the line, with the accent falling on ‘pleasure’ we are lifted, so to say, from the effect/s of ‘shadow’. We are also to understand what is happening in the second line of this stanza as we observe where the accents are falling, ‘float’ from ‘floated’ and the position, ‘mid’ from ‘midway’ and where, ‘on’ and ‘waves’. The next line draws from this statement of where, for it indicates the source of the noise that is heard and the accent on ‘Where’ points us back to what we have just read, the shadow of the dome of pleasure that floated on the waves. And again our sense of hearing is paid attention to with the accent on ‘heard’. The most dance-like word and term are ‘mingled’ and ‘mingled measure’ respectively. The ‘m’ in both of the words contribute a murmuring quality that comprises of their sounds as consonants and the ‘ing’ in ‘mingling’ and the ‘easure’ in ‘measure’; they are both easy and light after ‘m’. We are brought back to thinking about the caves, the place where the mingled measure of the fountains was heard. The accent on ‘From’ tells us the mingled measure came from the fountains and the caves. Because of the musicality of these lines, the trochee is the most suitable meter.
The next line scans as iambic pentameter, × / × / × / × / × /; and so does the final line, × / × / × / × / × /. This return to iambic pentameter contrasts with the musicality of the previous lines. There is the less than magical moment after the illusion or vision is gone.
Another space of whiteness for the mind to relax, to continue looking on the disappearing vision, and prepare for what follows. The poem constricts again from iambic pentameter.

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Another vision appears, or is recalled, after that of the shadow of the dome of pleasure. The transition is straightforward. He tells us right away what it was he saw, not building up, a young, unmarried woman, a damsel. The line scans × / × / × / × /, iambic tetrameter. But the next line is a trochee with three and a half feet - / × / × / × /. The stress on ‘once’ tells us of the fleeting characteristic of the vision; he never saw it again. The sound of the first half of the line possesses a different quality as that in the second half of the line. ‘In a vision’ has that dreamy, fuzzy sound, whereas the second half, begun with the consecutive ‘on’ in ‘once’, after the soft ‘on’ in ‘vision’, carries the line into a clearer sound, ‘once I saw’. Then we have iambic tetrameter again, × / × / × / × /; ‘Abyssinian’ is pronounced as a four-syllable word, though one is tempted to count the ‘i’ as a syllable in itself. It is very small things like this that can affect the meter of a line. The next line is iambic tetrameter. But what follows then is a line that breaks the pattern of the previous two lines. The first half of the line is a dactyl, / × × and the second half a trochee, / × / ×, so in full the line looks like this / × × / × / ×. Here again is Progress.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

HarmoniousTension, Pt.4

After this, the breath is in a way forced out as the next line comes out, the river that has gushed out and burst its way beyond,

A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And ’mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.

The first line is definitely iambic pentameter with the accents falling where they should, × / × / × / × / × /. But the following line raises a doubt about its own falling of stress in the middle of the line. Going from the second to the third syllable we pause to ponder how to say it. Should the line scan as follows, × / × / × / × / × / or should it be this way, × /× / / × × / × /? If the stress falls not on ‘half’ we can say that the effect is like ‘less’ in ‘sunless’ in the first stanza of the poem; however, if it falls on ‘half’, thus this quality emphasized, and ‘in’ from ‘intermitted’ is unstressed, then the effect is also the same, magnifying the quality of not being a full intermitted burst, and the character of being intermitted is brought out more when mingled with the rest of the word.
After the dance of sounds in the line via ‘swift half-intermitted’ the line breaks at ‘burst’ that is stressed for emphasis, and is then followed by a line that scans either of the following ways, / × × / × / × / × / or × / × / × / × / × /. Is there a trochee in the first foot? The stress can fall either on the first syllable that is the word ‘huge’ or it can fall on ‘frag’ in ‘fragments’. If it falls on the former manner of scansion, the accent on ‘huge’ brings to mind the size of the rocks that we will read about further on; but if it scans the in the latter manner, the accent on ‘frag’ in ‘fragments’ makes us think more of the pieces of rocks, and the amount, and the magnitude of the fragments is not recognized. With the stress on ‘vaulted’ we understand the river’s ability to throw and scatter the rocks through the air. And ‘rebounding hail’ possesses that same dance-like quality as the previous line. The next line scans as perfect iambic pentameter without any question. The next line breaks the rule, so to say, and returns to the feminine rhyme scheme we saw previously in the first seven lines of the stanza. It too possesses and displays the musicality and dance-like quality of the previous two lines. The obedience to the rule of iambic pentameter is fully adhered to without sounding strict and dead. The next line brings us back to questions of stress. Where does the accent fall as the reader moves from the first to the second foot? It too also ends in a feminine rhyme. The line may scan accordingly, × / × / × / × / × / or × / / / × / × / × /. If the accent is not on ‘up’ then the momentary quality is made more comprehensive; however, if there is an accent on ‘up’ it brings out more ‘flung’ that precedes it, the quickness and force of being ‘flung up’. The stanza continues,

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war.

The diction possesses the quality of the river, its meandering playfulness, yet forcefulness. The sound of the line is commanded by ‘m’ in ‘miles’, ‘meandering’, ‘mazy’ and ‘motion’. This commandeering by ‘m’ is a smooth transition from the ‘i’ in ‘five’ and ‘miles’. In the sound of ‘m’ we hear the murmur of the river. And the quality also has wildness that is shown in ‘meandering’, how the word sounds and what it means, and again in ‘mazy’. It is a feminine ending to be complimented by a later line. The word ‘meandering’ is pronounced as a three-syllable word with the ‘e’ elided after the ‘d’. The following line presents a question we have seen before – it is a trochee for the first foot, or not? It scans thusly, / × × / × / × / × / or thusly × / × / × / × / × /. Like ‘through’ in the first stanza if the accent is on this ‘through’, it tells more of the way it, the river, is running, the course it is taking, through the wood and dale it runs. If the stress is on the latter, ‘wood’, it only tells of where the river goes through. There is a difference. If we think of through the wood and the dale, we understand more and the force of the image is more; we get more of the direction, of where the river is running. And again we think of the obscurity that is essential if the sublime is to be encountered. If the accent is on ‘wood’ the image is not that forceful as the reader is hardly carried through the wood but only told that it is a wood that the river is passing through.
The next line scans in iambic pentameter. The following line is the one that couples with line twenty-five and its feminine ending. With the accent on ‘sank’ one understands and hears in the pronunciation the downwardness of the word and the river. The weighty quality of the word and the shift of the vocal muscles from ‘nk’ in ‘sank’ to a light ‘i’ makes it sound as if we almost stopped. The ‘less’ in ‘lifeless’ performs the same as ‘less’ in ‘ceaseless’, magnifying the lifelessness of the ocean into which the river has sunk. The last two lines of the stanza scan in iambic pentameter, strict and not with the playful quality from earlier lines. Rather, because of the image and the allusion to martial events, the gathering of armies for war, the lines are disciplined to convey the marshalling and arrangement of a disciplined army. What music is heard is the music of war drums. There is a stern beat, or to use a phrase from Shakespeare’s Richard III, ‘stern alarums’. This discipline holds in check the tumult of the lifeless ocean from which Kubla hears those ancestral voices that are urging him on to war, voices one of which definitely will be of his grandfather Genghis Khan, which means ‘ruler of all’, his real name being Temujin. What these feminine rhyme endings with how they go beyond the strict scansion of iambic pentameter symbolize is the freedom inherent in an orderly society. They transgress the limit, yet are not harmful to the overall order and are even essential. There is the freedom of movement allowed and even encouraged; but they go only so far and by instinct and respect for order they stop. Also, the contraction of the lines to strict iambic pentameter scansion symbolizes the retraining of certain elements from going beyond what they are allowed, from going too far. The adherence to order is like the moral law set up by a government to encourage the charitable and cooperative existence between members of society, and the restraining of selfish and immoral appetites. This rule here at the end is extremely important in that it holds in place the forces implied in the images of a tumultuous falling of water and the haunting voices that are calling for war and destruction.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Harmonious Tension, Pt. 3

Two lines that very much stand out in this set are the sixth and seventh lines. Their diction rushes along with the sacred and mighty river, Alph; and they are onomatopoeic. Especially beginning after the pause in the sixth line, the phrase ‘with ceaseless turmoil seething’, the breath does not cease, but is rushed along as if from the chasm itself, (in a way, it is from a chasm, i.e. the throat), and along with the rush we encounter the vowels and consonants that sound as if they are fighting among themselves, mingling in the rush of the sacred river. In the rush, we encounter at the end of the line, the ‘th’ that blocks the smooth passage and enunciation of ‘see’ in ‘seething’. The seventh line follows with the same quality but in a different manner; the sound is thick, thickened because of ‘f’ and ‘th’ that command the line. The line is said in a rush, as well, thus we say it losing, or affected as if we are losing breath, intelligent that is especially when we consider that the word that breaks the line is ‘breathing’; and ‘th’ in breathing acts exactly as ‘th’ in ‘seething’. In this instance again of onomatopoeia and the seeming hindrance of breath we think again of the tension that exists in the poem as well as in society.
When I speak of tension, I am not alluding to just mere agitation. There is that ever -existing struggle to preserve order and the understanding to improve or to make adjustments in the existing order of things, so that society can continue to exist in peace. To radically overthrow the old in favor of the unknown is foolishness. Or as Edmund Burke said, that we “should not hack that aged parent in pieces . . .” and “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” The key to a well-ordered society was one that professed a prejudice for tradition and God’s moral law, for society was a spiritual unity in which all members shared an eternal partnership with the past and the future, and Kubla Khan does possess that characteristic.
In terms of the spiritual, one can see the history of Christianity in how the poem operates. The Old Law is the rule that regulates the different meters employed in the poem. The rule is followed. It is the temple set up in the desert, built according to very specific and minute instructions, and the construction is obeyed down to the very least. However, the temple means nothing if within is just emptiness and without is an attractive edifice. The temple has meaning and comes alive when the Spirit of God descends and dwells within the temple. In the New Testament this translates as the Holy Spirit dwelling in the believer. The Holy Spirit’s indwelling gives liberty and freedom of movement, thus Christianity is really liberating and fluid when lived out. We’ll see more of this kind of effect in the poem.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Harmonious Tension, Part 2

If in the fourth line the stress does fall on the first word, ‘through’, this is understood to carry the reader in the idea of the word through the caverns the reader has now encountered. With the stress that falls on ‘less’ in ‘measureless’, this is comprehended as emphasizing the immeasurability of the caverns. But we come to the end of these first four lines of tetrameter, we immediately are brought to a line of trimeter, that is if the ‘a’ is not elided. If that is the case, the line will scan thus, / × − × / ×; the stress falling on ‘down’ acting as it did on ‘through’ in the previous line. And the stress on ‘less’ in ‘sunless’ would also emphasize the lack of sun over this ‘sunless sea.’ Yet the ear can be deceived and the line may scan in the following, / × × / × /; if ‘less’ in ‘sunless’ is unstressed, it operates the same, but in a different process, in that as the stress moves off of ‘sun’ and the speech does not stress ‘less’ one can imagine the gradual darkness that one is coming upon over the sea. The line then has a trochee at the beginning and the last two feet would be iambic. And with the darkness, we have encountered Edmund Burke’s quality of obscurity that will arouse in us the sublime, as we have now a sense of fear and the instinct for self-preservation is struck in us. In this also the poem contracts upon itself, tightening before loosening to continue.
The next line immediately lifts us away from the ‘sunless’ and describes the erection of the palace and its grounds. It is an instant shift from obscure natural surroundings to manmade construction. It is also iambic tetrameter and gives the measurement of ten miles that is enclosed within the wall; the stress falling on ‘twice’ to emphasize the length and breadth of the area to be enclosed. Coleridge could easily have said ten miles, but then the line would be short one half of a foot. After this line is another line of iambic tetrameter. It is so, because ‘towers’ is pronounced as one syllable, not two, the ‘wers’ ending is elided. The stanza then loosens to finish off in lines of iambic pentameter.
In these lines, however, there is more elision. Line eight contains one in the word ‘sinuous’; it is not pronounced as a three-syllable word; rather, the ‘u’ is conjoined to the ‘ous’. Line nine has the following conjoining of two words to come off as one: ‘many an’ is said in quick succession with nary an acknowledgment of ‘y’ in ‘many’, so we would say the two words as if they were to be ‘many-an’ or ‘man-yan’. The play of sounds is like the play of light that he describes.
There is a space between this and the next stanza of white page. What this does is give the reader a breather from the constant flow and uninterrupted imagery, another element of Burke’s for the sublime, of the first stanza. It also allows the reader to be prepared unconsciously for the next stanza and its rush. The meter is iambic pentameter and the rhyme scheme for the first seven lines is feminine, i.e. rhyming stressed syllables followed by identical unstressed syllables; these are not counted as half-feet. He, Coleridge, takes us into a “deep romantic chasm”, as he calls it, of which we are ignorant, and it is because of this ignorance of what we are seeing or might see, we are fearful. There is, in the first section, bright light and sinuous rills etc., but we are taken beyond this, suddenly, into a darkness, a kind of which we have never entered. This sudden change from light to darkness Burke speaks of in section fifteen of the same part two, when he uses the illustration of entering a building: “. . . to make the transition thoroughly striking, you ought to pass from the greatest light, to as much darkness as is consistent with the use of architecture.” Obscurity abounds from the beginning, and Coleridge hurries the mind in Miltonic manner. The scene is holy, haunted, filled with chaos and turmoil, natural; and coursing through it is the sacred river, Alph.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,

The only exception to the iambic rule comes in the second line, as the stress falls in the first syllable falls on the first word, ‘down’, as it did in the fifth line of the first stanza; again, it is to emphasize direction and magnify the slant implied by the preceding word, ‘slanted’, that breaks the first line. If said in the other way, which is to put the stress on ‘the’ the line would sound false, the language certainly would be so, and the line would be a blemish. On other occasions, not in this poem, the stress might fall on ‘the’, but that is only if the focus is to be on what, usually a noun, is following, e.g. ‘he’s gone to the best college, the emphasis not on ‘best’ but on ‘the’ to indicate that whatever college is being alluded to is the best and that there is no other in comparison. Thus the second line scans / × × / × / × / × /, and we remember that what seems an extra half-foot is not measured, because of the feminine rhyme ending.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Harmonious Tension, Pt. 1

In 1829, five years before his death, Samuel Taylor Coleridge published an essay titled The Constitution of Church and State, According to the Idea of Each, in which he described the two opposing forces that are ever in struggle, and necessarily so, in order for a state to survive; they are Permanence and Progress. Permanence pertains to the elements of stability and continuity; its Progression the elements of growth and experiment. Coleridge was indebted to Edmund Burke as he was influenced by the latter’s political writings. What my essay endeavors to achieve is to elucidate how this idea of Permanence and Progress showed up over thirty years earlier in his poem Kubla Khan and how it is the underlying struggle that makes the poem cohere.
Kubla Khan, which takes its name from the ruler who lived from 1216 to 1294 and was the grandson of Genghis Khan, and who led the conquest of China and began the Yuan Dynasty, was written in the summer of 1797. According to the author in his preface, the poem was published at the request of “a poet of great and deserved celebrity,” i.e. Byron. The events surrounding the poem are well-known: how the author had fallen asleep after taking a drug of some kind for the treatment, according to him, of physical ailment; how because of reading an account of Kubla Khan’s plans to build a palace had dreamt of it and dreamt up the poem; how when he awoke he began to write what he remembered; was interrupted for over an hour by a person on business from Porlock; and when he returned to his desk could hardly recall anything else. Thus we have the fragment that he at first was hesitant to publish, but because of the persuasion of Byron it was made public. It is the most imaginative of poems in that it was dreamt up, is about the imagination, more than most poems and occurs in the imagination.
This poem also possesses that quality of the Sublime that Edmund Burke spoke of in his essay A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful with several other additions; it contains the elements that affect our senses and give us a sense of the sublime. He includes what Burke says is essential, which is obscurity. This is in part two and sections three and four. He (Burke) writes at the beginning of section three: “To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.” Burke continues his explanation of this quality in the section four that deals with “the difference between clearness and obscurity with regard to the passions.” He says, “It is one thing to make an idea clear, and another to make it affecting to the imagination. . . . the most lively and spirited verbal description I can give raises a very obscure and imperfect idea of such objects; but then it is in my power to raise a stronger emotion . . .” He continues and speaks of the clearness of ideas as opposed to “a crowd of great and confused images; which affect because they are crowded and confused.”

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

In this the opening stanza, the meter varies from iambic tetrameter to trimeter to iambic pentameter. The language is very fluid, as it is throughout the whole poem. The first three lines are perfect iambic tetrameter. The reader is injected right into the poem and introduced to the place, Xanadu, and the character, Kubla Khan. When read aloud and with attention to the rhythm, one hears the beat as not monotone, but is girded underneath by a strict adherence to form and rhythm, the adherence to the elements of stability and continuity. If we scan the line, it would read as follows, × / × / × / × /. But then we come to the fourth line that can read as either iambic tetrameter or the first syllable could also be read as a trochee; thus the line would scan as follows, / × × / × / × /. This variation would incorporate the idea of Progress, the elements of growth and experiment. If a poet writes in strict iambic meter, he runs the chance of coming off as stifled and dead; also, his language would not be reflective of his speech. One can already instinctively feel the tension in the form or frame, rather, of the poem, similar to that always existing tension that is understood to be necessary within a society.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Waller's Fair Tyrant

Cavalier, as defined in the dictionary, is an attitude in which one shows a lack of concern, is offhand, disdainful, informal and uninterested; it also describes someone who was a supporter of Charles I. My intention for beginning thus is to demonstrate how the Cavalier Poets, specifically Edmund Waller, were not so offhanded about poetry as the term would imply.
Let us first read Edmund Waller’s (and I cannot contain my admiration) elegant poem Of My Lady Isabella Playing on the Lute.

Such moving sounds from such a careless touch,
So unconcern’d her self, and we so much!
What Art is this, that with so little Pains
Transports us thus, and o’er the Spirits reigns?
The trembling Strings about her Fingers crowd
And tell their Joy for ev’ry Kiss aloud.
Small Force there needs to make them tremble so;
Touch’d by that Hand, who would not tremble too?
Here Love takes stand, and while she charms the Ear,
Empties his Quiver on the list’ning Deer:
Musick so softens and disarms the Mind
That not an Arrow does Resistance find.
Thus the fair Tyrant Celebrates the Prize,
And acts her self the Triumph of her Eyes.
So Nero once, with Harp in hand, survey’d
His Flaming Rome, and as it Burnt he Play’d.

The tension in the poem is that between gentle possession by art on the level of the Ideal, and the tyrannical destruction by an extreme, i.e. maniacal; also it is between the poetic diction in the first twelve lines of this sonnet and the casual colloquialism of the closing couplet.
The Lady Isabella is the conduit for art that seduces and elevates its audience, enclosing them inside of a certain rapture that o’er the Spirits reigns. She herself is the person who captures us with her ability to perform such gentle, moving sounds on her lute. We, her audience, are enraptured by the sounds heard from such careless finger-play. The viewer also makes Art, meaning, when its creation has been completed by the artist and the performer, the audience is the other entity that allows it to work, to continue to live. The first two lines of the poem imply professionalism on her part that is almost spontaneous, intimated by the unconcerned, careless touch of her fingers. She is unconcerned about the audience. That is the egotistical side of art, it cares about itself, and the artist is selfish like this also. We can go into a political discussion here, but will not, only to say that it is no wonder why many artists have fallen into the philosophical and political image of what the English author and judge J.F. Stephen said, explaining their actual motives behind slogans such as humanity: “Humanity is only I writ large, and love for Humanity generally means zeal for MY notions as to what men should be and how they should live.” And then Auden elucidates the human heart’s true desires, which is to be loved alone in September 1, 1939. But I have gone off my subject. Art, whether it is a poem, painting, or musical composition, when it succeeds, displays a certain shade of effortlessness on the artist’s behalf, despite the fact that there has been much effort, practice and frustration previously paid out in the creative process. To paraphrase Yeats, that a poem must read as if it took no work at all.
There is also another reading of the first two lines stemming from the interpretation that she is playing us like a lute. She plays with us, teasing us with her careless touch, and unconcerned about our response, our emotions, knowing that, or even thrilled with the fact that we will be distraught in the end as she leaves us to fantasize about what we hoped the fulfillment of her playing with us would be.
Edmund calls this ability of hers Art, What Art is this, that with so little Pains/Transports us thus, and o’er our Spirit reigns? For her, it is of little effort and consequence to do what she does. Enamoured, we give ourselves over to her pleasing, as we are pleased in our own manner, feeling transported out of ourselves, the usual moment when we feel that art has accomplished what it set out to do. This art of hers is a craft, and she is crafty, with all that that word implies, her deceptiveness, duplicity; art/craft. Art is a craft and vice versa. And art of course alludes to artifice.
Art, besides freeing us in this sense, also, because it holds our spirits, has conquered us. We are not free, but enclosed, without a will to release ourselves from its possession of our spirits and our minds. Thus we have ourselves disarmed ourselves willingly to its tyranny. Art over the spirit reigns tyrannically and art works like this in order to accomplish what it must. It is like the Holy Spirit Who must have His way, and the ego has to be erased. We give our consent and become a slave in order to be freed. We gave our consent to her, Isabella, when we entered the musical chamber and thus made it easier for her to perform what she did over us.
We have another word in the fifth line, trembling, that implies our cowering before Lady Isabella. The strings tremble from her touch, a natural reaction by the instrument, and we too tremble out of elevation received from the musical performance. For us, the trembling is also a sensory one. But out of fear we would have trembled too if touched by her hand, feeling the force she would have employed. Touched by that Hand can be read as clasped or arrested by that hand.
In the ninth line, Love takes stand, gives us the impression of an authoritative figure, dictatorial even. We are moving closer to the tyrannical nature. Love, that is supposed to be a freeing force, a liberating and life giving force, is now one that like art earlier in the poem, conquers and while its conduit charms us, playing us, makes us surrender our will, kills us by emptying his quiver into us. Her music has assisted in this killing, for that is what it is, by disarming us, but it disarmed us because we allowed it to. We were seduced and willingly so. Hence, no resistance was met by any of the arrows.
The eleventh line contains the elegant (that is the most appropriate word for this poem) contradiction, fair Tyrant. An oxymoron in itself is this phrase. This is the summation of art, of Lady Isabella herself. Fair, as in all of the following connotations: beautiful, light, blonde (feminine with the e), pleasing, attractive, fair in complexion, also playing by the rules, legitimate. She is fair, appealing to our eyes, and other senses, and she is more so as she is playing on the lute a musical composition that arouses our senses, making us sensitive to the music itself. She then acts on her tyrannical character by killing us in the same manner that love has just done. This is the tyrant in her and again, the tyranny of art. She knows what she has accomplished and is then pleased with herself, celebrating the prize, And acts her self the Triumph of her eyes. We know there is no such thing as a fair tyrant. And the term is usually applied to a male, hardly ever a female. We are now being set up by the poet for the clever conclusion.
This same phrase sets us up for the concluding couplet where the diction is more colloquial and and less poetic than the poem’s preceding twelve lines. And it is a complete surprise to the reader: So Nero once with Harp in hand surveyed/His Flaming Rome, and as it burnt he Play’d. This is why all the mention before of tyrant and tyranny. Waller brings it all together here. The fair Lady Isabella is now transformed into Nero, one of Rome’s most corrupt, immoral and murderous rulers. Waller has taken his lady into an extreme. She no longer is the fair tyrant, but now exposes that side we overlooked in our letting her seduce us and give in to her guile. Like Nero who surveyed Rome with harp in hand as it burned, so she celebrated the prize of our downfall. From the elevation of art in the first half of the poem we have travelled to the destructive nature, ending in destruction.
Another way the couplet succeeds is by undercutting the whole poem itself, by transforming Lady Isabella into Nero, from the beautiful flirtatious woman throughout the poem to a madman, changing gender altogether, letting the tyranny win out in the end. He has built up the poem to make us expect one thing but then proves our foolishness and how wrong we were. Reading that couplet is reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s surprise in the opening lines of The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock. Waller’s couplet is like a precursor to Eliot’s whose surprise was thus:

Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;

The two poets undercut the Romantic beauty hinted at in preceding lines, Waller and the fair Lady Isabella and Eliot and the sunset sky. They both bring their poems earthward and stun the reader with these sudden unexpected turns. Waller does it by the transformation of Isabella into Nero and Eliot by changing our glance from the splendour of an evening sky to a patient anesthetized upon a table. What we thought might occur does not, and what we thought might never occur does. In the end, Edmund Waller proves to be less cavalier about his poems than we might suspect him to be. And one of the best lines in all of poetry is by Waller himself in another poem, On a Lady Passing Through a Crowd of People that reads The yielding marble of her snowy breast. We can leave with all that this inspires us to imagine.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Heaney's "The Underground"

I have read this poem before and studied it, line by line, looking at how it works and I have returned to it many times following. His abilities as a lyric poet are fully displayed in this poem, The Underground. And there is not a line I would alter. For two sentences, for that is what the poem consists of, he creates a lyric that when read aloud, is intense and very oral and recalls the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

There we were in the vaulted tunnel running,
You in your going-away coat speeding ahead
And me, me then like a fleet god gaining
Behind you before you turned to a reed

Or some new white flower japped with crimson
As the coat flapped wild and button after button
Sprang off and fell in a trail
Between the Underground and the Albert Hall.

Honeymooning, mooning around, late for the Proms,
Our echoes die in that corridor and now
I come as Hansel came on the moonlit stones
Retracing the path back, lifting the buttons

To end up in a draughty lamplit station
After the trains have gone, the wet track
Bared and tensed as I am, all attention
For your step following and damned if I look back.

First off, the beat of the lines echoes the idea. That vaulted tunnel running is so certain, so subterranean, the vowel sounds in the first half of each word, 'vau', 'tun' and 'run' are heavy and they dominate the line with their guttural, underground and netherworld sounding quality. The opening line also has the implication and action of being propelled forward, the pace and action getting the poem going, or rather, thrusting the poem forward with its restless diction. Then Heaney’s craft continues in the second line - "You in your going-away coat speeding ahead". 'Y' anchors the line in musical flourish. The rest of the stanza fits neatly and follows in the unstoppable diction. The first sentence runs throughout the first two stanzas, while the second covers the second half of the poem.
We are taken underground (we cannot hold back, the poet is too strong) with him and this other person, a woman, on what is an Orphic journey. In the first and second lines of the second stanza, japped and flapped play into each other, also giving the impression of whatever is occurring is happening with such an intensity; and one can hear the words 'japped' and 'flapped' clearly.
The poem takes a turn at the beginning of the third stanza and this turn, or pause, or even quick stop, like that of an Amtrak, is reflected in the language: "Between the Underground and the Albert Hall" - stop, get off the train, or step quickly on the platform and hurry back on in under a second - "Honeymooning, mooning around, late for the Proms" . . . We’re off. And the language is playful. Again, here we have the same vowel dominance as that in the first line. I have indicated only the strong vowels, 'oo’ and 'roun' and 'rom'. This time, however, we are not propelled as in the poem’s first line, but held back a bit, yet not restrained. We breathe. The train slowing down, maybe coming to a halt. Then we gain our breath and strength to continue, but slower. The diction works like a speed bump or speed caution slowing the speed that was contained and let loose and used to its fullest in the first two stanzas, implying even a stopping, intimated by the next line, "Our echoes die in that corridor", but we do not stop, instead we move with and now, which is emphasized, kind of a gearing up for more, going into the next line, "I come as Hansel came on the moonlit stones/Retracing the path back" . . . That third line indicates ascendancy and must be read with the same ascending tone in the voice.
So the language ascends with the imagery of the poet coming up from the subterranean halls of the Underground, as if after his descent into Hades for his Eurydice. He does not trust that she is with him, but he dare not look back or he’ll be damned to loneliness as she fades off, just like in the myth. He feels lost, and must retrace his tracks, maybe even to the beginning of the poem. The trains are gone, the tracks are wet and empty, that lonely feeling in a major urban metropolis, the dampness all around. He is tense.
The action and speed in this poem has ceased. He is not moving and cannot move. We are above ground, but lost. "To end up" states the new surroundings and direction that must be taken, alone. The final word in the poem is 'back', ending the phrase "I look back", which points us to his "Retracing the path back" at the end of the third stanza, but more importantly, to the opening line of the poem, back into the tunnel and all that occurred in it.
The first two stanzas consist of we, the poet and his Eurydice and the reader/s, but in the last two stanzas, there is only the solitary I of the poet left alone. There is allusion, however, to the other with your step following, his Eurydice and the reader/s. Then the poem is finished in a tone not of regret and disappointment.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Heaney's "The Hermit"

It is a healthy poem, Seamus Heaney’s The Hermit, its lines looking so clean on the white page, its paper a clever thickness, and the lines perfectly arranged. The line breaks have been sculpted very well, displaying the poet’s craftsmanship, his instinct that instructs him on how far he should go, and it is as if he is seeing those markings in the earth that he recalls making with friends to play football in the poem Markings. There is no superfluity at all in this poem, all the unnecessary words sculpted off and thrown away.

As he prowled the rim of his clearing
where the blade of choice had not spared
one stump of affection

he was like a ploughshare
interred to sustain the whole field
of force, from the bitted

and high-drawn sideways curve
of the horse’s neck to the aim
held fast in the wrists and elbows -

the more brutal the pull
and the drive, the deeper
and quieter the work of refreshment.

A simple poem, yes, and it is, but it is not one of those little ditties that is second-rate and was published in a book to make the page-count more. It is the act of poetry, the raw act of writing poetry that the poet has so illuminatingly captured. The poet himself is the hermit. The aim that his body works towards through his elbow and wrist (singular here in prose study) is the poem. The tougher the fight for the right words and the right structure means the more satisfied and fulfilled in himself is the poet in the aftermath of this fight, for that is what it is, the act of writing poetry - it is a fight to let the poem win, a fight in which the poet surrenders; but it is a loss of the ego in submission to the poem; to push it, i.e. the poem, until it takes its own course. There is the biblical comparison of Jacob and the Angel of the Lord in Genesis 32:24-32. The Angel must win and like that earlier poet in his wrestle, this contemporary poet is wrestling with the poem, all of this history buried behind the simple lines and imagery of agrarian life. This loss of the ego is also reminiscent of Christ’s teaching that in order to gain his life a man must lose his life.
The lines read in smooth diction. We have an early prompt in prowled that pushes us through the rest of the first stanza without a break, pausing slightly only to observe the line-breaks, and then we continue until the first real pause appears at the end of the first stanza. We come upon stump of affection and it is the stump itself that stops us, the hardness and softness of the phrase with the stump sticking out above the smooth, flat earth of the poem; but the bluntness is alleviated by the affection that follows. Poetry, that is what it is, especially in this poem, the both hard, blunt and soft, not effeminate, but manly, affection, like that in the friendship between David and Jonathan. And it is this affection that lifts us into the next stanza.
We drive further into the poem, ploughing our way along with the poet and the hermit, both the same person, and we are fully into it, as indicated by interred in the second line of the second stanza, not directly in the middle of the poem, but driving to the center, so we are acting out the word and driving to the center of the poem and deeper into it. A clever trick to put that word where it is and at the beginning of the line. But let us look at the whole line itself, interred to sustain the whole field. Listen to its diction, how it reads, and its vowels. Again, that first word and what it does to the reader is pure elation, for it allows us to bury ourselves in the language in the line, and the imitation of the line is one of going within what we are doing and within ourselves at that moment to sustain, scuplt and bring together, and holding fast everything that we are pulling at for some result.
This is followed by the elegant change in imagery and sound of the language: and high-drawn sideways curve/of the horse’s neck . . . The wild, beautiful sideways curve of the horse’s neck and the hermit’s/poet’s body in conjunction, yet not altogether in agreement, for the horse possesses his own force, though domesticated he may be (or become). The line itself reads wonderfully off the tongue, the voice lifting into a lilt and the action of the mouth and the lips are dictated by the line and everything in and about it. It is a precise and accurate line drawing, reflected by the end of the line with to the aim. Here we feel the poem tightening as the fist of the poet does, as he grows more deliberate and intense in his experience of the poem. And then, recognition and exhilaration.
The poem is one sentence. In the last stanza the poet pulls everything together. We read of his confirmation in his labour. And we read the final stanza in a deeper, more trying voice and breath. Yet, he does not indicate any success. This is the farmer working hard and not always assured of harvest, for anything can happen in nature. The poet might fail in this specific endeavour on this specific day, but he does not admit to a sense of defeat, or failure. The real satisfaction and sense of fulfillment derive from the honest physical labour that the poet/hermit has done. The deep and quiet sense of fulfillment, the elation that comes only from such labour is one that the poet/hermit and any worker who has given his all, when he is in, as they say, his zone, can know and relax in. It is the elation after hard work that Robert Lowell knew and wrote about. And that this reader can come to know through a close and solitary reading of the poem.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Heaney's "May"

In his collection Wintering Out, Seamus Heaney has a poem of five stanzas titled May. It is a poem of implied action that ends in definite action. The poem’s title refers to the month of May, the seasons that are associated with it, late spring going into early summer, and finally, the implied action of intention, as when someone says “I may do this or do that.” Read the poem.

When I looked down from the bridge
Trout were flipping the sky
Into smithereens, the stones
Of the wall warmed me.

Wading green stems, lugs of leaf
That untangle and bruise
(Their tiny gushers of juice)
My toecaps sparkle now

Over the soft fontanel
Of Ireland. I should wear
Hide shoes, the hair next my skin,
For walking this ground:

Wasn’t there a spa-well,
Its coping grassy, pendent?
And then the spring issuing
Right across the tarmac.

I’m out to find that village,
Its low sills fragrant
With ladysmock and celandine,
Marshlights in the summer dark.

The poem begins with the author being physically passive, yet intellectually and imaginatively keen about his surroundings. He is pensive, contemplative, observing. The only action happening is that of fish splitting the reflection of the sky into smithereens, an elegant description, just enough of explosion included. Other particles of his environment are doing something, however subtle, such as the wall of the bridge that is giving off a certain warmth, probably with the warming weather of the season, or a specific warmth in terms of imaginative recollection, memory, personal attachment.
Physical motion begins in the second stanza with the poet wading through the vegetation of green stumps and lugs of leaf (such a heavy sounding phrase that implies hard walking). The first real imagery of spring is given here as it untangles and grows and may bruise. He has a keen eye, noticing the tiny gushers of juice.
He is walking, as he calls it, over the soft fontanel/Of Ireland. Fontanel is a word that means a space between the bones of the skull in an infant or fetus, where ossification is not complete and the sutures are not fully formed. At the end of this line, it is a charged word to keep, while simultaneously carrying on the soft sound of the line with the o’s and f’s. It also implied his mind at work, the lines of the poem being formed together while he is out there, and it also leads us to recognize and acknowledge the space between the end of one line and the beginning of the next.
A proactive decision occurs in the second line of this same stanzas, I should wear. The should states that a decision has been made, and it was made somewhere in the space between the two previous lines, and more precisely, in the space that divides fontanel and Of in the next line that is the beginning of the first half of this line in which he states the proof of a decision made. But then, at the beginning of the next stanza, we have another moment of contemplation (hesitation?) like that in the first stanza. He questions the accuracy of his memory and its recollection of where he is, asking if there might have been a relic there once, or not - Wasn’t there a spa-well/Its coping grassy, pendent? And the completing two lines of the stanza change abruptly to action, horizontal, blooming action, And then the spring issuing/Right across the tarmac. Wow, directive at its best, spring blooming its active forces.
In the last stanza, this directive we just came upon in the last two lines of the previous stanza continues. The poet continues the horizontal direction to go across the tarmac and the I should of stanza three is now I will, stated as I’m out to find that village. Definitive, willful, confident in his setting out to find that village with its grassy coping, its fragrant low sills full of spring blossoming in ladysmock and celandine and (this is a fantastic last line) Marshlights in the summer dark. Conclusive, nothing follows that line and image. That last line is one of contradiction, or tension, marshlight shining in a summer’s dark. Accurate.
We could, in a line constructed of some of the words in the poem, summarize the seasonal action - spring untangles, issuing tiny gushers of juice. It is a poem about taking a walk, that is all, but how much this poet can turn that taken-for-granted action and consecrate it.
The direction of the poem, a different idea from the directive will of the action implied, travels downward, and he mentions his toecaps, hide shoes, tarmac, low sills and marshlights. He is constantly looking down, hence the keen eye to see tiny gushers, and we look down with him, and the poem travels down from the bridge to marshlights, this journey echoed by the vowel sounds that can be heard in the words themselves. The last two lines of the fourth stanza and the first of the last one, however, give a successful and deliberate break in this journey, pointing out, going out, of one’s private area and aiming horizontally, across the field, before continuing and ending in the marshlights.
There is a good line of colloquial speech in the third line of the third stanza, the hair next my skin. It is a poem of close observation, formulation of will, a decision, a poem after contemplation, after passivity.