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 (one month 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 (one month 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 (one month 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 (one month 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 (one month 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 (one month ago) link

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