Monday, October 6, 2008

Norton Anthology: Misc. Great Poems

Ben Jonson, "On My First Sonne":
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sinne was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy,
Seven yeeres tho'wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I loose all father?, now. For why
Will man lament the state he should envie?
To have so soone scap'd worlds, and fleshes rage,
And, if no other miserie, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask'd, say, here doth lye
Ben. Johnson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake, hence-forth all his vowes be such
As what he loves may never like too much.
A heart-breaking work, for sure. For a touch of levity, though, a Dartmouth-related anecdote: You'll notice that Jonson spells his name the way we commonly spell that surname, though not usually his. (The Norton standardizes it to "Jonson," btw.) Well, evidently other people have that trouble and more too: there is an academic legend that I've seen reported in a number of places that Jeff Hart, the long-time adviser to The Dartmouth Review, assigned a paper for his 18th century English class on Samuel Johnson, but received from one student a paper on Ben. The student was relieved to find only two marks on his paper when it was returned: "Wrong Johnson" and "B+." Hart was known in his teaching days as "Easy Jeff."

George Herbert: There are three poems I'd like to share with you, although I am feeling a little lazy and don't want to bother formatting them here, so I'll just link to them: "The Pulley" is a fable in miniature of the way God's will basically has us coming and going—what's amazing about the poem is how it softens this very deterministic view of divine love into a state that seems infinitely better than the alternative—free will. The repeated punning on "rest" is the key to the poem and to the effect.

Both "Jordan" poems reflect on the vanity of artificial beauty, especially as it is cultivated in verse. Some immortal lines there—"Is all good structure in a winding stair?" or "Catching the sense at two removes?" or "Curling with metaphors a plain intention, / Decking the sense, as if it were to sell" or "There is in love a sweetnesse readie penn'd." Clearly a response to Donne's gaudily bruising metaphysicality, Herbert makes the case that intellectualizing one's way to God is a form of temporizing on the way to Him, of setting obstacles (in this case syntactic or semantic obstacles) before oneself in order to hold back from His will a little while yet, as if one were taking a "winding stair" to God. A very astute reading of Donne, and one which translates well to modernism, I think.

Henry Vaughan, from "The World":

I saw Eternity the other night, 
Like a great ring of pure and endless light, 
             All calm, as it was bright ; 
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years 
                     Driv'n by the spheres                                   
Like a vast shadow mov'd ; in which the world 
                     And all her train were hurl'd. 
The doting lover in his quaintest strain 
                     Did there complain ; 
Near him, his lute, his fancy, and his flights,                        
                     Wit's sour delights ; 
With gloves, and knots, the silly snares of pleasure, 
                     Yet his dear treasure,
All scatter'd lay, while he his eyes did pour 
                     Upon a flow'r.

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