The Metaphysical Poets

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I've started reading an anthology called THE METAPHYSICAL POETS ed. Helen Gardner (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957, revised 1966 and 1972).

I'll try to post thoughts on it here.

Do you like English Renaissance poetry?

the pinefox, Sunday, 28 February 2021 11:29 (five months ago) link

Walter Ralegh (same as Raleigh?), writing ahead of his execution (to which he refers: 'Just at the stroke when my vaines start and spred / Set on my soule an everlasting head'): trying publicly to make his peace with God or Christianity I suppose. It does come across as valiant to write this way at such an imperilled time.

His poem 'What is our Life?' is more interesting: he compares life to a theatre, even 'Our mothers wombes the tyring houses [dressing rooms?] be''! Heaven is the audience, laughter is music between Acts, graves are drawn curtains. But, last line: 'Onely we dye in earnest, that's no Jest'.

This (though short) seems as full a comparison of life to theatre as Shakespeare made.

the pinefox, Sunday, 28 February 2021 11:33 (five months ago) link

Fulke Greville, Sonnet 87, is about death, in a religious purview - as many or most of these poems seem to be.

His Sonnnet 88 seems to be saying that we shouldn't bother thinking about the fantastic stories of the Bible, but amend our own lives: thus 'The divers tongues, and Babylons downe-fall, / Are nothing to the mans renewed birth'. It contains the nice phrase 'Then Seas with streames above the sky doe meet', glossed as 'Then the waters under the firmament will no longer be divided from those above it'.

'Chorus Sacerdotum', from the end of a play he wrote, is more interesting really. It seems to be saying: It's a difficult and ironic to be human, because we are constructed in such a way that we want to do bad things, and don't want to do supposedly good things. 'Borne under one Law, to another bound': the one law is that of our nature, the other is morality. Greville blames this not on God (perhaps he wasn't allowed to) but on Nature:

Tyrant to others, to her selfe unjust,
Onely commands things difficult and hard.
Forbids us all thingsm which it knows is lust [pleasure],
Makes easie paines, unpossible reward.

I think I can see some sense and reference to reality in this poem.

the pinefox, Sunday, 28 February 2021 11:40 (five months ago) link

Robert Southwell: 'Marie Magdalens Complaint at Christs death'. This again is quite interesting. The woman is lamenting the death of Jesus Christ. She seems to have been very close to him, such that she almost feels that her own life is over now that his is.

Seely starres must needes leave shining,
When the sunne is shaddowed.
Borrowed streames refraine theyr running,
When head springs are hindered.

This starts off feeling a bit like 'stop all the clocks', ie: 'Now that he's dead, the stars can stop shining!'. But I suppose it's more specifically religious and is saying 'When God dies, nature necessarily stops'. (I don't know if Christians think Christ is 'God', or if their God was still alive, or whatever. Their thought doesn't make much sense to me!)

The most interesting thing about this poem is a certain sense of passion, as though the woman was really close to Christ, perhaps intimate. I have seen some people imagine that this was the case, but don't know the source material myself.

With my love, my life was nestled
In the somme of happinesse;
From my love, my life is wrested
To a world of heavinesse.

This poem shares with others a resemblance to a hymn - you can half-imagine it being sung, the melody going up and down. Maybe a lot of these poems did indeed become hymns.

the pinefox, Sunday, 28 February 2021 11:51 (five months ago) link

Robert Southwell's 'The Burning Babe' is a rather sanctimonious-feeling poem about seeing a baby 'all burning bright' on a winter's day. I'm not sure why the baby, which is Christ, is burning 'in fierie heates', but he says 'now on fire I am to worke them [men's souls] to their good'. Then he vanishes and the speaker remembers it's Christmas Day. (How could he forget?)

Christians seem to have been big on this idea of the Jesus Christ figure taking on other's sins and redeeming them. This has never made any sense to me, and still doesn't (perhaps even less!) in this baby version.

the pinefox, Sunday, 28 February 2021 11:54 (five months ago) link

Southwell's 'New Heaven, New Warre' is described as two parallel poems on 'the Nativity and the Circumcision'. I'm glad to say I've never heard of the latter event.

I'm not very keen on this hymn-like poem which again describes baby Jesus Christ in his manger, guarded by Angels Gabriel and Michael; then says he will go to war against hell. The imagery becomes thoroughly warlike. I reflect that though Christianity has encouraged many good values, I'm not convinced of the use of the baby icon to do this. It doesn't convey any convincing emotion or passion.

the pinefox, Sunday, 28 February 2021 11:57 (five months ago) link

one month passes...

William Shakespeare: 'The Phoenix & the Turtle' is only a couple of pages long. Maybe the oddest surprise in this poem is that it's not about a turtle at all, but a turtle dove. It's about two birds, one of them mythical.

The poem is made of 13 quatrains in iambic quatrameter. They each maintain the rhymes ABBA. Thus: interdict, wing, King, strict. The words, in this edition at least, include a lot of old spellings: fowl as 'foule' (but there is also a pun on another nearby use of 'foule' as 'foul' I think), music as 'Musicke'.

The poem proceeds through a list of birds including eagle, swan, crow, likening them to people: king, priest, mourner. Then it reaches the phoenix and turtle dove. The essence of the poem concerns how, in forming a loving couple, these two birds confound identity. Or, they form an identity, comprising them both, and confound the division between them as separate entities. Shakespeare seems to be really exercised by this concept, exploring it eloquently over six stanzas. It's very abstract material, but the force of the theme comes through somewhat. It all seems to me more purely intellectual than most of what you find in his plays - as it's not spoken by a character with any interests of their own, but is more a pure philosophical disquisition. I suppose this says something about what poetry did at this time, and how it differed from (poetic) drama.

The big idea is conveyed in lines like these:

So they loved as love in twaine,
Had the essence but in one,
Two distincts, Division none,
Number there in love was slaine.

The line 'Either was the others mine' is glossed as indicating that they were a kind of 'gold mine' or 'treasure' for each other, but also that for each the other's self was 'mine', rather than 'thine'. The pun is elementary and blatant, but does seem to convey two ideas. (A mild type of Empsonian ambiguity.)

The lines:

Propertie was thus appalled,
That the selfe was not the same

do feel pregnant with much meaning. 'Property' is such a loaded word, from the 'properties' of an item to material or commercial 'property'. These phrases about 'the selfe was not the same' are as close as anything I've read in the Renaissance to justifying a post-structuralist interest in such poetry as anticipating its philosophical themes (which certainly happened in the 1980s).

I think it's a confounded 'Reason' that in the end is said to make a 'Threne', which I guess is a 'threnody' - a lament for the birds dying in the phoenix's fire, and not being resurrected?

the pinefox, Thursday, 22 April 2021 15:00 (three months ago) link

I posted that without remembering that the poem goes on, through 5 tercets also in iambic tetrameter. (I apologise for wrongly introducing the word 'quatrameter' in the last post; I was distracted by thinking about quatrains.) The rhyme is now AAA per stanza. These 5 stanzas are the THRENOS, or *Threne* or threnody indicated at the end of the previous part. The different stanza size clearly marks this section off. The section is basically a funereal announcement of the death of the birds, and of the qualities 'Beautie, Truth, and Raritie'. It's not made clear why these abstract qualities should be finished along with the birds.

the pinefox, Thursday, 22 April 2021 15:11 (three months ago) link

The next poet is William Alabaster. His poem 'Upon the Ensignes of Christes Crucifyinge' is a tribute to Jesus Christ, and repeats the claim, seemingly believed by Christians, that the death of this figure was good for other people. As Alabaster puts it, pain was bitter to Christ, 'But sweete to me, whose Death my life procur'd'. Thus 'such loss' also means 'such gaine'. I'm content to say that I have never understood this concept.

A bit more interesting is Alabaster's use of metaphor - though this also feels excessive and stagey: 'My tongue shall bee my Penne, mine eyes shall raise / Teares for my Inke, the Cross where I was cur'd / Shall be my Booke'. A cross doesn't seem much like a book. On the whole this poem feels unimpressively sycophantic towards its religious idol.

the pinefox, Thursday, 22 April 2021 15:18 (three months ago) link

Alabaster also presents another poem, called 'Incarnatio est maximum donum Dei'. It's good for people to know lots of languages, but I'm not really keen for poems in English to have titles in other languages, unless this makes a useful point that helps the poem somehow. It might have been good to translate this one.

The poem is 14 lines long: a sonnet. The first 8 lines describe one thing: the 'eternall bounty' of the god that the poet celebrates. The next 6 talk about 'goodnes', but aren't that clear to me. The statement about the god 'making man a God omnipotent' is false and not a pleasant picture of humanity, though it may refer to the Christian idea that their god took on human form, rather than its more obvious meaning.

On the whole another wheedlingly sycophantic poem. Religion doesn't seem to be very good for these poets.

the pinefox, Thursday, 22 April 2021 15:28 (three months ago) link

I just saw this thread!

I treasure my Penguin edition of the Gardner anthology. Will try to post a poem and response later.

So who you gonna call? The martini police (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Thursday, 22 April 2021 15:39 (three months ago) link


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