Let the proud deride me, O God, and all whom you have not yet laid low and humiliated for the salvation of their souls; but let me still confess my sins to you for your honor and glory. Allow me, I beseech you, to trace again in memory my past deviations and to offer you a sacrifice of joy. Without you I am my own guide to the brink of perdition. And even when all is well with me, what am I but a creature suckled on your milk and feeding on yourself, the food that never perishes? And what is any man, if he is only man? Let the strong and mighty laugh at men like me: let us, the weak and the poor, confess our sins to you.1
I got it in my head about a week ago to start reading the Confessions. I can’t even entirely remember what reminded me of this book that I had heard about for so long but never attempted to read. One day, I’m not thinking about Augustine at all and the next, I have a five Amazon tabs open so I can use the previews to compare some of the major English translations. Like a lot of ancient literature, Confessions is divided into “books.” I have now read four out of thirteen of those books. Whatever the thing was that brought Confessions to my attention again, I’m glad it did.
Though Confessions is usually cited as one of the earliest examples of autobiography, it’s much more than that. True, the story of Augustine’s life and conversion makes up a large part of this book, but much of it is also concerned with theology, philosophy, beauty, even, I was surprised to find out, language.
In light of what I’ve learned so far about Augustine, however, it’s not very surprising at all: his entire education was devoted to making him an excellent rhetorician. Before converting and joining the priesthood, he had also been a teacher of rhetoric and an official speech writer for the imperial court. His skill in the use of language was immense, as you’ll see in this book.
Some credit, of course, is due to the translator of my edition, R. S. Pine-Coffin, who I think has produced one of the more beautiful English translations out there. But, good as the translator might be, he becomes an afterthought in the face of the passion with which Augustine writes. I expected an intellectually challenging book, as well as something that would encourage me in my faith. I didn’t expect for Augustine’s words to have such an emotional impact on me. Passages like the one at the top of this post, for instance, are deeply moving to me for reasons that are hard to put into words. The humility with which he writes strikes me as well. A friend said that Confessions was one of the most beautiful things he had ever read excluding the Bible and now I know why.
One of the fun things about reading the very old and very famous books is that you get to find out what all of the other books you’ve read were referencing. Writers often write in response to other writers: reading a book like Confessions means you get to see the other side of that conversation.
One person who took up a conversation with Augustine was C. S. Lewis, who mentions Confessions in his book The Four Loves. While writing about our duty to love our neighbors without counting the personal cost, Lewis alludes to Book IV, the first half of which describes the death of Augustine’s close friend and the effect that this had on him. (Lewis incorrectly identifies the friend as Nebridius, a mistake that I also made in an earlier version of this post. In reality, Augustine never gives the friend’s name.) Rather than quote Augustine directly, Lewis summarizes:
This is what comes, he [Augustine] says, of giving one’s heart to anything but God. All human beings pass away. Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose. If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away.2
In the long paragraph that follows, Lewis repudiates what he considers Augustine’s cold and calculating view of love, saying that it is even farther from “Love Himself” than “lawless Eros, preferring the beloved to happiness.”3 Having read Augustine in context, however, I don’t think he is presenting a cold and calculating view of love at all. He writes not against love itself but against idolatrous love for created things.
I think it would be fair to characterize Augustine’s love for his friend as idolatrous. In Book IV chapter 6, for instance, he writes that, although he “shrank from death,” he was also “sick and tired of living” following the death of this man.4 He felt as though his life could have no meaning and no purpose because his friend was dead. He loved this man more than anything, especially more than God, which is the definition of idolatry. Furthermore, the first sentence of Book IV chapter 7 reads, “What madness, to love a man as something more than human!”5 Not as a human, but as more than human. I don’t think Augustine has anything to say against loving your fellow creatures, even if that love is very deep. Instead, he wants to discourage us from pinning all of our hopes on created things and instead rely on God as the primary source of meaning and stability in our lives. That’s the conclusion that I came to, but if I’m misreading either Augustine or Lewis, feel free to leave me a comment.
1Confessions by St. Augustine, translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin. Penguin Books, 1961. Pg. 71.
2The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis. Mariner Books, 2012. Pg. 120.
For a number of reasons, my reading lately has tended away from fiction. Where I used to breeze through a new novel at least every month, now I’m struggling to finish the ones I start. I’m too easily distracted by all the new poetry and nonfiction that I want to read instead. But one fiction author who’s managed to hold my attention all this time is Anton Chekhov. Partly because his works are short, so they don’t take much time away from my other books, and partly because I find he and I are similar in some ways (not many, but some), I’ve gotten more from him than I have from any other fiction writer in a while. It wasn’t until recently, though, that I discovered one of his most famous stories, “The Beauties.” It’s very short, so you have time to read it here and then come back. Or you can listen to this reading that Philip Pullman recorded for the Guardian Short Story Podcast. He’s a good narrator.
One complaint that readers sometimes have with Chekhov is that “nothing happens” in his stories. In this case, I have to admit that they’re right: a boy meets a beautiful girl. He does not speak to or spend time with the girl, just admires her and then leaves. Years later, he sees another girl who is also very beautiful. He admires her for a few seconds and then leaves. The end. In some of Chekhov’s later stories, he seems to be less interested in crafting intricate plots and more interested in creating a mood: showing us who the characters are and what events in their lives mean by recreating their emotional state in the reader. “The Lady with the Dog,” with its famously abrupt ending, does this, and so does “The Beauties.” Here, the story is not about anything the protagonist does but rather about what happens to and around him. It’s about an encounter with a kind of beauty that is so far beyond ordinary life that it seems permanently out of reach. It comes for the hero and he always just misses it.
And because he’s in this constant state of expectation, it seems fitting that we should spend practically the whole story anticipating drama that never comes. Several times, Chekhov teases the reader with possible plots, none of which ever come to fruition. I thought the narrator would at least speak to Masha—he does not. I thought the girl at the train station was Masha, that the hero was finally getting his second chance with her and was going to do something about it—but it wasn’t her. I thought he was going to try to make something happen with the new girl—he doesn’t. Even in non-speaking side characters like the telegraphist and the guard at the rail station, there’s the potential for drama, but only suggestions, never actual facts. Chekhov hints at a whole tragic history behind the face of the guard, one that “wore a look of tenderness and of the deepest sadness, as though in that girl he saw happiness, his own youth, soberness, purity, wife, children ….” But, whatever that history is, we’ll never know it. Finally, we come to the end and to what I think is one of the most striking passages in the story:
The station no longer screened off the sunset, the plain lay open before us, but the sun had already set and the smoke lay in black clouds over the green, velvety young corn. It was melancholy in the spring air, and in the darkening sky, and in the railway carriage.
The hero expected to see the sun setting, but instead he see’s a lit sky and the sun gone. A hint of what had been there but is there no longer. Here, the feeling that pervades the whole story of having just missed something spectacular is encapsulated in only two sentences. It’s a perfect ending.
So though this is a story where “nothing happens,” it’s also a story draws you deep into the character, his mind and his emotions. It’s poetic and empathetic to a degree that I have rarely seen matched by any other writer. It reminds me of one of the main reasons why I keep coming back to Chekhov: not just because he understands people and their inner lives so well but also because he is able to transfer that knowledge to his readers in such palpable ways. In a short time, he’s become one of the writers I look up to most.
These past two years, I’ve tremendously enjoying taking part in Reading Ireland Month, the annual blog event celebrating Irish literature, movies, music, and culture, hosted by Cathy Brown and Niall McArdle. I’m afraid this year’s contribution won’t match the volume of last year’s, but hopefully you’ll still enjoy this longish essay on one of my favorite Irish poems.
I dreamt we slept in a moss in Donegal On turf banks under blankets, with our faces Exposed all night in a wetting drizzle, Pallid as the dripping sapling birches. Lorenzo and Jessica in a cold climate. Diarmuid and Grainne waiting to be found. Darkly asperged and censed, we were laid out Like breathing effigies on a raised ground.
And in that dream I dreamt—how like you this?— Our first night years ago in that hotel When you came with your deliberate kiss To raise us towards the lovely and painful Covenants of flesh; our separateness; The respite in our dewy dreaming faces.
Form and Function
The first thing to notice about this sonnet is that it is a sonnet. That’s significant for two reasons: first, the sonnet is considered the traditional vehicle for love poetry. Whatever else this is, it’s first and foremost a love poem.
Not only that, the sonnet is also the traditional vehicle of English love poetry. Though the form was invented in Italy, English poets like William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, and Phillip Sidney experimented with it to arrive at the sonnet form we know and love today. You could say that, like Ireland itself, the sonnet was taken from another people and claimed by the English as their own. This may be why so many critics have suggested that Heaney’s continual use of the sonnet form was a type of protest against the British literary establishment, who, despite expecting Northern Ireland to give up its own native culture and embrace England’s, still would not take seriously any “Ulsterman’s” attempt to participate in that culture. This is Heaney asserting both his right to be present and the worth of Irish culture and literary traditions when compared with England’s. More on that in a bit.
You all probably know already about the different types of sonnets, but just in case: the two most popular forms of the sonnet are the English (or Shakespearean) sonnet and the Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet. Both types consist of fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter, but the division of those lines and the specific rhyme scheme used are where these two forms differ. In an English sonnet, the rhyme scheme runs ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. It establishes its subject and then discusses or describes that subject for the first twelve lines, only to give some fresh insight or to address the subject from a different angle in the last two lines, called the “couplet.” One of the best examples of this form that I can think of is Shakespeare’s 130th sonnet, the one that begins “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun.” After spending twelve lines describing all of the ways in which his mistress is not an ideal beauty, Shakespeare suddenly turns around in the final two lines and says,
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare As any she belied with false compare.
At the tail-end of the poem, he turns what would have been a string of insults into a sort of backhanded compliment. Not good wooing, but good poetry.
The Italian sonnet’s rhyme scheme can vary somewhat, but the most common pattern is ABBAABBA CDECDE. It uses an almost halfway division to explore two different ideas, or the same idea from two different angles. The first eight lines, called the “octet,” establish the theme for the poem and the last six lines, the “sestet,” either shed new light on the topic or present another idea, complementary to the first, but not exactly the same.
Each form has its comparative merits. In my own reading, I’ve always preferred the English rhyme scheme to the Italian. Because the rhymes are less spread out in an English sonnet, I think it gives the whole poem a better sense of cohesion. And where the Italian sonneteers have to get along with only five rhymes, the English sonnet gives the poet seven. This further adds to the cohesion of the piece by continuing the pattern of multiples of seven (14 lines, 70 feet, 140 syllables, 7 rhymes). My Christian friends will probably also remember that in church tradition, seven is the number of completion, and therefore a symbol of perfection. So, if you want to read it that way, more sevens is always better.
On the other hand, the English sonnet can be rather top-heavy. Twelve lines out of fourteen is a long time to treat a single topic, especially if the whole point of the poem is to turn the entire thing around in the last two lines. The Italian sonnet gives a more balanced approach by assigning eight lines to the first idea and six to the second. It divides itself almost in half, but not quite, an imbalance which I think well-suits a poetic form that has been so often called upon to express the deepest thoughts and longings of imbalanced mankind.
What I love about Heaney’s sonnets is that, with some exceptions, he gives us the best of both worlds: the tight, instantly recognizable rhyme scheme of the English sonnet with the more balanced and more approachable organization of an Italian sonnet.
And that nearly-balanced Italian structure is put to good use in “Glanmore Sonnets, X.” In my reading of it, the whole poem is preoccupied with duality, paradox, and contradictions.
What It’s About: the Octet
Right away, you notice that between the octet and the sestet, things are the same but also very different. Both stanzas show us a pair of lovers, presumably the same two lovers, but in two almost opposing situations and moods.
Starting with the octet, we meet the lovers in an idyllic setting. The speaker himself tells us it was a dream, leading us to imagine some beautiful little hidden spot in a forest. They are lying on a river bank sleeping, while a light rain falls on them, a rain whose soft, steady beat you can hear in the repeated unaccented syllables in “dripp-ing sap-ling bir-ches.” So still and tranquil are they that the speaker compares them to “breathing effigies on a raised ground.” Here of course, “effigy” refers to the statues which once adorned the tombs of kings and queens and which depicted them laying down dead: I don’t think you can get any stiller than a rock imitating a dead person.
There’s more than one way to read the “asperged and censed” line (that too I’ll talk about more below) but in my readings, it had the sense of benediction. “Asperges” refers to a rite in the Roman Catholic Church in which the priest sprinkles his parishioners with holy water, while “censed” refers to the burning of incense, another common practice in the Catholic Church. Both asperges and incense can be used on many different occasions, but in all cases they are a sign of purification and consecration, of something or someone being singled out for a holy purpose. Because the water and the fragrant aroma in this poem are coming not from a priest but from nature, this phrases gives the idea that even the environment in which these people exist has blessed their union and is commending them on their future life. There’s a sense of assurance that the path these people are on is the right one.
At the same time, there is an element of foreboding and anxiety in this stanza, especially in the literary references Heaney makes: “Lorenzo and Jessica in a cold climate. / Diarmuid and Grainne waiting to be found.” In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Jessica is the daughter of Shylock—the stereotypical, Christian-hating Jew—while Lorenzo is a friend of Shylock’s enemy Antonio. He is also a Christian. Not only would each’s family disapprove of the union, it was also illegal for Christians and Jews to marry each other in seventeenth-century Venice. In defiance of society and of their families, Jessica and Lorenzo run away together to another city. From this allusion, we get a sense of some significant obstacle trying to force our two lovers apart.
The second reference heightens the sense of foreboding even further. In Irish mythology, Grainne was a princess brought to Ireland to wed the legendary king Finn MacCool. The night before her wedding, while Finn and his warriors the Fianna were feasting in the royal banquet hall, Grainne happened to meet one of the warriors, Diarmuid, and fell in love with him. Some versions say that Diarmuid fell in love with Grainne too, while others say that Grainne, schooled in the art of witchcraft, put a spell on Diarmuid so that he would love her. Regardless, the two ran away together into the forests of Connacht, where Finn and the Fianna found them weeks later. Grainne was still alive, but as for Diarmuid, he had been killed by a wild boar, in accordance with a prophecy given at his birth.
So where Lorenzo and Jessica eventually got a happy ending, the Diarmuid and Grainne story ended in tragedy. And really, there’s no other way it could have ended: even if the boar hadn’t killed Diarmuid, Finn MacCool would have. Maybe it’s this precariousness in their situation that leads Heaney to give them the phrase “waiting to be found.” They go into their new life expecting it to be taken from them, probably by death. It’s just a question of when.
One critique I read of the “Glanmore Sonnets” sequence chose to focus primarily on the darker tones of this stanza and the idea of death as expressed through funereal imagery: the reference to effigies, but also to asperges and incense, both of which, though they can appear at joyful occasions as well, are often used in Catholic funerals. And while I agree with this writer that the speaker obviously fears the separation that death will bring, I don’t think of this as an entirely mournful scene. The idea that they are “exposed all night” to the elements and to whatever malevolent forces may lurk around them, but that they still stay there, laying next to each other, gives me the idea that they each draw a sense of peace from their love, regardless of what goes on around them. Their love perseveres despite outward threats.
In the next stanza, things are not quite so idyllic. Turning to the speaker’s dream within a dream, we see the lovers in a hotel. Just the very fact of their being in a man-made, commercial space instantly kills the dreamy allure of the octet. The action changes completely too: where they once slept peacefully by each other’s sides, they’re now about to have sex for the first time. Before, the mood was tranquil but with an underlying tension; now it’s dominated by passion, both in the modern sense of overwhelming desire, but also in the more ancient sense of suffering, with the word “painful” adjoined to “lovely” and the man and woman’s eventual separation being described as “respite.” Previously, the pain in the relationship came from outside forces: now it arises from the relationship itself.
And so what Heaney does with these two stanzas—and the reason why the sonnet form fits this poem so perfectly—is that he presents two visions of love which not only contrast with each other but which also have contradictions inherent in them. The first stanza is the dream of love—peaceful, surmounting every obstacle, braving every danger—while the sestet is the reality—messy and painful. At the same time, the dreamy sense of calm in the octet is undercut by fear, while the pain in the sestet does not subtract from the “loveliness” of the moment. From this, we realize that the relationship itself is full of anxiety and pain–whether that comes from circumstances outside of the couple’s control or from each other. And still, this is the best thing that could have happened to them. It’s the road they need to be on. It is a strange and complex reality, but it is the reality of this couple, and Heaney captures it brilliantly.
A Poem about Poetry
Those are some of the reasons why I believe that “Glanmore Sonnets, X” is one of the best sonnets that I’ve ever read. But it’s not just Heaney’s skillful use of form or his insight that make this such a great poem. I think his use of allusion, especially literary allusion, is worth taking a look at also.
Some of the connections between this poem and older literature are obvious. In addition to the references to Shakespeare and Irish mythology, the phrase “how like you this?” is taken directly from “They flee from me,” a sixteenth-century love lyric by Sir Thomas Wyatt. In this poem, the speaker muses over his past relationships with women, all of which have since ended. Because this quotation comes directly after the octet, in which Heaney’s speaker preoccupied himself with worries about death and the impending end of his relationship, this quote helps give us better insight into the mind of the speaker, one that is already beginning to identify with the man who has been abandoned by his lover.
Elsewhere, the references are a bit more subdued. For instance, according to the scholar A. J. Smith, there’s long tradition in classical poetry of setting love poems on the edge of some body of water.1 Heaney was no stranger to the classics, so the octet’s setting on “turf banks” could be a nod to that tradition.
Heaney also shares at least one metaphor in common with love poet extraordinaire John Donne: in “The Ecstasy,” Donne compares two lovers—who, fittingly enough, are laying on a bank—to “sepulchral statues,” a comparison which is brought to mind in Heaney’s “breathing effigies.”
So, what does this abundance of references and homages tell us about the poem and Heaney’s intentions for it? A few things:
First, it’s not always a good idea to assume that poets are writing about themselves or people they know, but in the (very likely) case that Heaney is writing about himself, references like these flatter the loved one (and consequently, the lover) by comparing them to great lovers from history. It used to be a very common technique in poetry: evoke the lovers from past romances to make yours seem just as beautiful.
Second, these references put Heaney in conversation with the poetic greats of history. By the time this poem was published in 1979, Heaney was a mature poet, a Noble-Prize-worthy poet even. According to Harold Bloom, Field Work, the collection in which this poem appears, is the book whereby Heaney officially entered the Western Canon. He could bandy about references to Shakespeare and Wyatt because, unlike he was fifteen years ago, he’s closer to their level now.
By invoking common cultural touchstones, Heaney also creates something universal. Shakespeare, Donne, and Wyatt are all considered canonical authors and their works are fairly well-known to most of the English-speaking world. In a sense, they belong to everyone now, not just to Heaney but also his to readers. Forming a connection to a shared past makes this poem feel like it is, just like that older literature, a type of communal property.
However in the octet, we see that the places and characters Heaney alludes to are not necessarily universal. Not everyone knows where Donegal is and most people outside of Ireland will have to look up Diarmuid and Grainne. At the same time that Heaney wants to reach out into the broader world, he also wants to keep things close to home, grounded in what is familiar and important to him, even as the world around him dismisses it. By combining the hallowed literary canon of Great Britain with the places and folklore of Ireland, Heaney is attempting to put both on the same level, to assert the value of this specially Irish material when held against the “approved” literature. In his allusions, he is simultaneously universal and private, just as he is in the poem overall.
Thanks for staying till the end! Let me know in the comments what your favorite Heaney poem is and whether you agree or disagree with my thoughts on this one.
1The Complete English Poems by John Donne, edited by A. J. Smith, Penguin Books. Pg 368.
It appears that my interest in Russia is starting to come full-circle. First it was their literature, then their language, and now their history. Olive, one of the most enthusiastic Russophile bloggers I’ve seen yet, highly recommended the work of Robert Massie—and this book in particular—to anyone who is just beginning to study Russian history.
It turned out to be a great recommendation: despite having little prior knowledge of Russian history before the Soviet era, I didn’t find this book at all intimidating or inaccessible. Massie’s almost lyrical prose makes it an even greater pleasure to read. From the very first paragraph, his gifts as a narrator are evident:
From the Baltic city of St. Petersburg, built on a river marsh in a far northern corner of the empire, the Tsar ruled Russia. So immense were the Tsar’s dominions that, as night began to fall along their western borders, day already was breaking on their Pacific coast. Between these distant frontiers lay a continent, one sixth of the land surface of the globe. Through the depths of Russia’s winters, millions of tall pine trees stood silent under heavy snows. In the summer, clusters of white-trunked birch trees rustled their silvery leaves in the slanting rays of the afternoon sun. Rivers, wide and flat, flowed peacefully through the grassy plains of European Russia toward a limitless southern horizon. Eastward, in Siberia, even mightier rivers rolled north to the Arctic, sweeping through forests where no human had ever been, and across desolate marshes of frozen tundra.
While this is a traditional biography, narrating its subjects’ entire lives from their births to their deaths, the main focus of the story for Massie consists in three things: the love story between Nicholas and Alexandra, the tragedy of their son Alexei’s hemophilia, and the toll that the disease took not just on the family but on the entire country. On those damaged genes, Massie pins nothing less than the downfall of tsarist Russia and the rise of Lenin. If Alexei hadn’t been so sick, Alexandra would not have embraced the so-called “holy man” Rasputin and would not have given him so much power in the government. Without Rasputin’s influence, Massie goes on, Nicholas and Alexandra would not have made so many of the decisions that ultimately led to even Nicholas’s closest friends and advisers begging him to abdicate.
Am I convinced that Alexei’s disease was the beginning of the end for a family seemingly marked for tragedy? Yes. Am I convinced that the Romanovs would not have fallen without Rasputin’s being there? Not really. As this book plainly shows, Nicholas was, in many other respects, a very good man—he just wasn’t a good leader. Thoroughly schooled in the ways of autocratic imperialism by his father before him, he preoccupied himself with a number of ill-advised overseas conflicts, meanwhile the Russian people were starving and his nation’s industry was struggling. When his people demanded the civil rights afforded to the citizens of most Western nations, he responded alternately with force and with half-hearted concessions which only served to inflame both sides. All this to say that Nicholas II’s Russia had plenty of problems and was already teetering close to the edge of revolution before Rasputin got there. Nevertheless, Massie is right to conclude that Rasputin’s interference in the government—particularly during the critical years of World War I, when the people already doubted the allegiances of their German-born queen—was the last straw.
Elsewhere in the book, I wonder if Massie wasn’t a little overeager to protect his subjects from criticism, particularly when it comes to issues involving the Jews. He makes no mention, for instance, of the fact that anti-Jewish persecution greatly increased during Nicholas’s reign, or that, although he did relax some of the restrictions put on Jews by previous tsars, he also added a few of his own. It is unfortunate that Nicholas, noted by his contemporaries for his kindness and generosity, should succumb to the prejudices of his day on this particular point, but it is a fact, one that Massie seems to overlook.
In spite of those shortcomings, Nicholas and Alexandra is still a captivating book. Whatever their failings as leaders might have been, Nicholas and Alexandra were both fascinating people, and in some ways, even admirable people. Alexandra especially awed me with her strength and dignity. As Massie describes so poignantly, the struggle to cope with Alexei’s hemophilia nearly broke her, but even when she was at her lowest, she never gave way to despair. When she herself became plagued by poor health and exhaustion, she still found ways to help others and to make herself useful to them. During World War I, for example, she, along with her two oldest daughters Olga and Tatiana, trained as nurses with the Red Cross. There was the Empress of the All the Russias, changing bandages, administering medicine to delirious soldiers, and disposing of amputated limbs. Even at the very end, when she and her family had been under arrest for over a year and it was becoming obvious that they would not in fact be brought to England as promised, she was the one comforting her friends, assuring them that God was watching over them.
And her strength of character could be matched by her husband as well. My favorite story about him is probably the one where, after spending six months as a prisoner in his own home, he invited his and his family’s guards to share Easter dinner with them: he thought that, on Easter of all days, he should embrace his fellow Christians, whoever they happened to be. Stories like this convince me that, despite his failures and prejudices as a leader, he was still at heart a very good sort of man.
Really, though, that’s what makes the book worth reading in the first place: the complexity of these individuals, as well as of the times they lived through. The whole massive drama that they took part in. This was only my first taste of Russian royal history, but I will certainly be back for more.
It’s become a yearly tradition now for me to post a list of favorite love poems around Valentine’s Day. Lucky for me that Valentine’s Day should fall on a Wednesday this year! Regardless of how you feel about the holiday in general, I hope that you won’t mind looking over some rather incredible poems on the subject of love.
In my humble opinion, Anna Swir never got her due. Among her contemporaries in post-World War II Poland, her work was often regarded as distasteful for the frank way in which it deals with sexuality and the female body. These days, she tends to get overshadowed by her more famous countrymen, poets like Miłosz, Herbert, and Szymborska. Here’s hoping that one of these days, she is finally brought out of the shadows.
Like a lot of Swir’s poetry, this poem is very short, and like Swir’s other poems, its brevity is its strength. She understands that some experiences are too powerful and too far beyond human comprehension to do them justice in words and for this reason, she effaces herself as much as possible and tries to let the experience speak through her instead of her speaking for it.
Where Swir writes about a love that endures through long periods of time, Lee has in mind instead a love that transcends time—or at least seems to. The speaker readily admits that what he says “makes no sense, I know,” but that doesn’t keep him from feeling as though his love has always existed and will always exist into eternity.
As in Lee’s poem, the love in this poem is a thing unto itself, a force that is, in a sense, independent of the two people. Unlike in Lee’s poem, however, this speaker knows full well that his love will die with him or with his lover, and it’s that impending disaster—the catastrophe that will end their way of life—that gives the poem a sort of bitter-sweetness: they know it has to end, but the thought of it ending makes it all the more precious.
For me, this poem pairs well with “Love.” To the couples in both poems, their love is all-encompassing and completely changes the way they live their lives. But where Lalic’s poem has a more ethereal feel to it, Brodsky’s brings the focus closer to the here and now, though the poem is no less beautiful for that. While it can seem a bit abstract a times, concrete details like snow, eyelashes, lips, even crumbling wallpaper help the reader to place this couple in time and space. It’s that middle ground that Brodsky finds between the abstract and the concrete that makes this poem work for me, a kind of compromise that all good poems strike. (I might also add that, although most foreign language poems can’t help but become free verse when they enter English, Wilbur has taken great care to translate this one into a regular meter and to preserve the rhyme scheme of the original poem. So, that’s good.)
In addition to his career as a poet, Tranströmer also had a great passion for music, which can be plainly seen in much of his poetry. Here, the very air seems to play music around the lover in this poem, and the whole world is transfigured by his love.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Don Paterson is one of the greatest living poets in the world. And while his 2009 collection Rainoverall left me feeling cold, there are more than a few gems in it, this being one.
Unlike the other poems on this list so far, this one isn’t so much about love itself as it is about a particular lover: her unknowability and unpredictability. It explores the reality that, no matter how close you are to a person, you never completely understand them. I suppose, in a way, you could say that this poem is about any meaningful relationship.
That’s all for now, but do let me know in the comments what some of your favorite love poems are and what you think of these!
“His willingness to expose his own process of self-discovery in words and phrases was magical to me—and still is. As an artist, he was the most uncompromising individual I ever met in my life”: the great Mikhail Baryshnikov is currently starring in a one-man show inspired by the poetry of his friend Joseph Brodsky, and the Poetry Foundation interviewed him about it.
I’m always surprised at the ease with which some book bloggers can choose favorites. I find it very difficult to choose just one favorite book, or even one favorite prose writer among the dozens that I read often. Favorite poets, though, is another kettle of fish. After hearing one BookTuber talk about her favorite novel, I realized that, while my list of favorite books or authors is and will probably always be a little hazy, my list of favorite poets is surprisingly clear-cut. I can even rank them, though just a hair’s breadth separates them.
I could spend (and have spent) hours writing about any one of these people, but I’ll try to, as concisely as I can, explain why these three are my favorite poets.
1: Seamus Heaney
Reading Seamus Heaney for the first time marked a sea change for me. Previously, I had—with the exception of W. H. Auden—only read poems 100 years old or older, firmly convinced that all “modern” poetry was post-structuralist crap that was more trouble than it was worth to try to understand. I looked up Heaney after a friend recommended his translation of Beowulf to me. I had never heard of Heaney at this point, and when I read in his translator bio that he had published several collections of poetry, I remember rolling my eyes a little. Oh, another one of those modern poets, I thought. Even so, morbid curiosity led me to look up some of his poems on the Poetry Foundation anyway.
Four years and twelve books later, I have to say that my relationship to poetry is very different, and not just because I’m not engaging in that type of “chronological snobbery” any more. Among other things, reading Heaney changed my ideas about language itself. I was used to talking about the use of “language” in literature and pointing to a specific tone or certain connotations or denotations exploited by the author, but I never really gave much thought to the particular language (perhaps I should say tongue instead) that the poet wrote in: the regional, historical, and social factors that gave rise to his speech. It occurred to me after reading Heaney that, just like the particular words and images themselves, a whole language could be charged with meaning and provide yet another facet with which to reflect the poem’s inner truth.
That then allowed me to better appreciate other poets for whom their mother tongue was an integral part of their identity as poets, particularly Czesław Miłosz.
2: John Donne
I started reading Donne when I was seventeen (an aside for English teachers: if you want teenagers to care about poetry, John Donne is your man). I happened upon this video from a Poetry Out Loud competition of a contestant reciting his “The Canonization.” It was unlike any other poem I had ever read. The rapid-fire show of images and allusions felt like sensory overload, and yet, I loved it. So, I started seeking out other Donne poems. Not only did his strange comparisons and his fast-moving trains of thought continue to delight, but I also found a kindred spirit in his religious poetry. Some Donne fans, I know, tend to think the religious poems are too dark or dour. For me though, at the time, I resonated deeply with Donne’s regret and anxiety in the face of his own sin.
Really, Donne changed my ideas about nearly everything: God, poetry, the body, all of it. The fact that he was willing to embrace subject matter that had previously been deemed “unfit” for poetry showed me how art could encompass all of life and breathe new life into it. His bold declarations of doubt and anxiety regarding his faith, and then his fervent avowal of God’s ultimate power, were a boon to me at a time when I was very doubtful and anxious myself. And his frankness regarding the body in his poetry, and his eagerness to mix the spiritual with the earthly, changed some of the ideas I had previously regarding the place of the physical world in the life of the spirit. In every way, he’s an essential author for me.
3: Czesław Miłosz
Miłosz is the kind of writer I wish I could be, although I know I never will. He has such incredible range in his poetry, taking in the “big picture”—the universal truths underlying the universe and the whole sweeping arc of history—as well as tiny, tactile details of appearance, color, sound, texture. Jane Hirshfield credits him with helping to introduce intellect into modern American poetry—helping make it acceptable for a poet to think out loud in his poems—and I appreciate that aspect of his work too. Like Donne’s metaphysical poems, his embrace of intellect and philosophical themes broadens the horizons of poetry even further.
And then there’s another aspect of his work that I barely even know how to describe: a feeling that I get not just about it, but about everything else after I’ve read it. Adam Zagajewski came close to describing this feeling in a poem titled, aptly enough, “Reading Miłosz”:
Sometimes your tone
transforms us for a moment,
that every day is sacred
that poetry—how to put it? —
makes life rounder,
fuller, prouder, unashamed
of perfect formulation.
When I read Miłosz, I get the idea that there’s a whole other dimension to human life—to the life of the mind, the spirit, even of the body—that I didn’t know about before. That sounds very strange, I’m sure, but that’s as well as I can express it.
And there you have it: my three favorite poets of all time. Who are yours? What do think of these three? Let me know in the comments.
It occurred to me recently that, despite getting a ton of books for Christmas, I have yet to mention any of them here. And since it’s likely that some or all of them will show up in future blog posts, here’s an idea of what to expect:
40 Sonnets by Don Paterson – Philosophical differences aside, I’m willing to admit that Paterson is one of the best living poets in the world. It was a poem from 40 Sonnets that introduced me to him to begin with, so I’ll be reading these soon.
The Anatomy of Story by John Truby – A veteran screenwriter’s step-by-step guide to becoming a brilliant storyteller. I myself don’t go in much for fiction writing, but I do love literary analysis, and I think Truby’s book will be helpful for learning how to better critique the stories I read.
Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan edited and translated by Pierre Joris – A massive anthology that collects all of the poems from Celan’s last six books and prints them both in the original German and in Joris’s English translations. That’s on top of 200+ pages of commentary by Joris. Although it’s some of Celan’s densest and strangest poetry, I’ve always preferred the late poems to his older work. This has been on my wishlist for a long time. (Also, I just recently found out that it’s out of print now and the cheapest one can buy it for on Amazon is $78. So, I’m really glad I have a copy now.)
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell – Another book that I think will be useful for upping my criticism game. First published in 1947, Hero is a landmark work in mythology studies, describing the trope of the “Hero’s Journey” and how it manifests itself in cultures all over the world.
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell – Rilke’s famed correspondence with Franz Kappus, a young Austrian student who wrote to Rilke asking for advice as he embarked on a literary career. I’ve read three of the ten letters and hope to write on it soon. Meanwhile, these letters are making me love Rilke’s poetry even more than before.
Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie – This is a joint biography of Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, and his wife Empress Alexandra. Despite knowing very little about Russian history prior, I got caught up in this book immediately and am now about halfway through. I will definitely review this one later.
Has anyone read any of these? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.
Of wisdom, splendid columns of light waking sweet foreheads, I know nothing
but what I’ve glimpsed in my most hopeful daydreams. Of a world without end, amen,
I know nothing, but what I sang of once with others, all of us standing in the vaulted room.
But there is wisdom in the hour in which a boy sits in his room listening
to the sound of weeping coming from some other room of his father’s house,
and that boy was me, and he listened without understanding, and was soon frightened by how the monotonous sobs resembled laughter.
All of this while noon became vast day, while sunlight and the clock gave birth to melancholy,
before the days grew vacant, the sun grew terrible, the clock stopped, and melancholy gave up to grief.
All of this in a dead hour of a dead day, among doors closed for nap or prayer.
Who was weeping? Why? Did the boy fall asleep? Did he flee that house? Is he there now?
Before it all gets wiped away, let me say, there is wisdom in the slender hour which arrives between two shadows.
It is not heavenly and it is not sweet. It is accompanied by steady human weeping, and twin furrows between brows,
but it is what I know, and so am able to tell.
As I wait impatiently for Li-Young Lee’s latest poetry collection The Undressing to come out in February, I’ve been revisiting some of his older work. Rose, published in 1986, was his first book and contains some of my favorites of his poems, among them “From Blossoms” and “Irises.” I didn’t give much thought to “Epistle,” the collection’s opening poem, the first time I read it, but this time, I found it much more compelling. Even the title alone is evocative: the word “epistle” is so seldom used these days outside of a religious context (the Epistles of St. Paul, and so forth) that it’s hard to divorce it from the idea of something timeless. At the same time, “epistle” is just another word for a letter, the intimate correspondence of the writer to his reader. By calling this poem an “epistle,” Lee identifies it both as an address to all people, meant to convey truth, and as a more intimate experience, that of the writer sharing his own unique vision with his readers on a one-to-one basis. If a poem is good, it should be for all times and all people, but also for the individual.
This ties into the main theme of the poem, namely the growth of a young person as he tries to learn about the world. In the opening stanzas, the speaker is thinking of a church, where he used to pray (“… a world without end, / amen”) and sing hymns, with “all of us standing in the vaulted room.” The later stanzas, however, find him in his father’s house, listening to someone weeping in another room. One experience is public, shared with others and performed similarly by countless millions all over the world. The other is unique and private: he might have been the only one in the house that day, and the only one who could hear that weeping. And yet in both experiences, there is wisdom. These two forces—religion and his family’s grief—are the two wellsprings from which his wisdom comes, and therefore, the source of the wisdom that is to be found in his poems. Something specific and private, without the validation of any outside authority, becomes the means of granting him some truth.
I think that’s what poetry—and literature more broadly—tends to do: bring the personal and temporal in contact with the universal and the eternal. The father’s rising early to light the fireplace and polish the shoes is a first lesson in what it means to truly love a person. A bird flying becomes a sort of messenger from God. And in countless love poems, the beloved or the love itself becomes a way of understanding and internalizing truth.
So what was the truth that the speaker gleaned from his experience of another person’s grief? He doesn’t say in so many words. Only that “It is not heavenly and it is not sweet. / It is accompanied by steady human weeping, / and twin furrows between brows”. I like that he leaves that hole in his story, so that the reader, if so inclined, can fill it in with his own ideas or his own experiences. It becomes yet another way of deepening the intimacy between writer and reader. Now, the reader is not only a passive observer in this situation, but an active participant as well. That’s one of the things I love about Lee, the regard he has for his readers. He understands that they, like him, are seeking wisdom and he encourages them to take part in his journey toward it.