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Poem of the Week: 26 February

 

This is the last poem I shall post this week, again by Landor.  The form is seductively sweet but rhyming triplets are not easy.  The fourth line, of course, is only five syllables and ends with a weak or feminine ending.  The rhyming of two consecutive  each fourth lines has the effect of tying the stanzas together.  I was perhaps 20 when I first read this and enjoyed it very much, obviously without really understanding the cruelty of the sentiments.

Yes; I write verses now and then,
But blunt and flaccid is my pen,
No longer talkt of by young men
As rather clever:

In the last quarter are my eyes,
You see it by their form and size;
Is it not time then to be wise?
Or now or never.

Fairest that ever sprang from Eve!
While Time allows the short reprieve,
Just look at me! would you believe
'Twas once a lover?

I cannot clear the five-bar gate,
But, trying first its timber's state,
Climb stiffly up, take breath, and wait
To trundle over.

Thro' gallopade I cannot swing
The entangling blooms of Beauty's spring:
I cannot say the tender thing,
Be 't true or false,

And am beginning to opine
Those girls are only half-divine
Whose waists yon wicked boys entwine
In giddy waltz.

I fear that arm above that shoulder,
I wish them wiser, graver, older,
Sedater, and no harm if colder
And panting less.

Ah! people were not half so wild
In former days, when, starchly mild,
Upon her high-heel'd Essex smiled
The brave Queen Bess.

 

 

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I am going to be posting a poem a week with a remark or two to invite our friends and colleagues to read and comment.  Let us begin with something short and sweet and deceptively simple, a little poem of Walter Savage Landor.

Mother, I cannot mind my wheel;
My fingers ache, my lips are dry:
Oh! if you felt the pain I feel!
But Oh, who ever felt as I!
No longer could I doubt him true;
All other men may use deceit:
He always said my eyes were blue,
And often swore my lips were sweet.

Before talking about if or why the poem works, a word is in order about its origin.  Landor had read a brief fragment of Sappho, which goes something like:  "Mother I cannot work the loom, filled by Aphrodite with  love of a slim boy."  Not much to work with except a dramatic situation.

Formally the poem consists of two stanzas of four lines, each of them in 8 syllables, alternately stressed and unstressed, with the rhyme scheme abab.  The rhythm is basically iambic: x-x- x-x-, and the lines are end-stopped, that is, the units of sense and syntax coincide with the lines and there is no enjambement, that is, run-over of meaning.  Also note that in every line but 1 and 4, there is a sense break in the very middle of the line after the fourth syllable.

This is, in other words, a clean and simple construction, easy to set to music.  Indeed, the same and similar patterns are found in songs and other hymns.

But while on this technical point, note the subtlety of the rhythm.  The first stanza is an outburst of passion, the second a rueful reflection, thus it is perfectly right that the beginning of lines 1 and 3 have an inverted rhythm -xx- x-x-.  Also note that 2 out of four lines (1 and 4) do not have word-break in the middle but in the following syllable.  These are simple techniques that a master like Landor did not have to think about or want us to think about much, but they do affect our appreciation.

Finally, there is the dramatic/narrative content.  What he has taken from Sappho is the effect of erotic passion on a young girl who thinks her mother cannot understand because she is suffering as no one in the history of the human race has suffered.  In the second stanza, she is more reflective, detached, even ironic.  Not the exquisitely delicate irony in her trust.  "All other men may use deceit" and in the slight shift in tone in the verbs.  He always said her eyes were blue and often swore her lips were sweet.  The first verb is used to state a fact while the second is a passionate declaration of an opinion expressed, obviously, to gain a response, namely a kiss and very likely more.

This is not an important and significant meditation on the human condition.  It is a lyric, a song that puts a passion in perspective by giving us distance--she tells her own story to her mother.  I don't want to over-analyze it but give a hint at the kind of craft that goes into so simple a piece.

 
Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.

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