Why has Happiness no Second Spring: The Poetry of Charlotte Smith

Spring by Francois Boucher. 1755. The Frick Collection

Some of my favorite discoveries in Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets are neglected and new-to-me female poets.  Schmidt says of one such poet, Charlotte Smith:

Eighteen years after Cowper’s birth, in 1749, a unaccountably neglected poet (half remembered as a novelist) was born.  If Cowper had his hand on the latch of Romanticism, her foot was firmly in the door.  Wordsworth read her: Dorothy Wordsworth recalls his turning the pages of her Elegiac Sonnets, and Other Essays—the fifth edition, for she as popular in her time; and he visited her in Brighton. She treated him politely, introducing him to other women writers in the town.  In London at the end of the century she dined with the young Coleridge.  A recurrent footnote, doggedly represented in anthologies by a sonnet that is wonderful (“Pressed by the moon, mute arbitress of tides”) and to which few attend closely, she is a key poet of the transition to Romanticism.

“Written at the Close of Spring” is one of her elegiac sonnets that showcases her intimate view of nature mixed with personal meditation:

The garlands fade that Spring so lately wove,
Each simple flower, which she had nursed in dew,
Anemonies, that spangled every grove,
The primrose wan, and hare-bell mildly blue.
No more shall violets linger in the dell,
Or purple orchis variegate the plain,
Till Spring again shall call forth every bell,
And dress with humid hands her wreaths again—
Ah! poor humanity! So frail, so fair,
Are the fond visions of thy early day,
Till tyrant passion, and corrosive care,
Bid all they fairy colors fade away!
Another May new buds and flowers shall bring;
Ah! why has happiness—no second Spring?

For her elegiac poems,  like “To Night,” I agree with Michael Schmidt that, “She deserves to be read today.”

I love thee, mournful, sober-suited Night!
When the faint moon, yet lingering in her wane,
And veil’d in clouds, with pale uncertain light
Hangs o’er the waters of the restless main.
In deep depression sunk, the enfeebled mind
Will to the deaf cold elements complain,
And tell the embosom’d grief, however vain,
To sullen surges and the viewless wind.
Though no repose on they dark breast I find,
I still enjoy thee—cheerless as thou art;
For in they quiet gloom the exhausted heart
Is calm, though wretched; hopeless, yet resign’d.
While to the winds and waves its sorrows given,
May reach—though lost on earth—the ear of Heaven!

I’m eagerly awaiting my copy of Smith’s complete collection of Elegiac Sonnets.  I am also tempted to try one of her novels.  If anyone has read any of her novels, please let me know which one(s) you would recommend.

 

 

 

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An Excess of Xenia: Some Thoughts on the Odyssey (trans. Emily Wilson)

Xenia, usually translated as “guest-friendship”  is an important part of the mores of the ancient Greeks during the Bronze Age;  a person is required to welcome travelers into his home as guests and the expectation is that the host provides a warm place to sleep, good food, a bath, wine and entertainment.  Emily Wilson, in the introduction to her translation writes, “Xenia acquired an extra importance in the era when Greek men were expanding their world.  Travelers, in an era before money, hotels, or public transportation, had to rely on the munificence of strangers to find food and lodging and aid with their onward journey.”

I view the Odyssey as a series of episodes, in rapid succession, that show men either correctly carrying out their duties of xenia or horribly violating the standards and expectations of this social code. It is a blueprint for Greeks on how to act and how not to act in terms of fulfilling one’s duties regarding xenia. Polyphemus, for example, perpetrates one of the most horrible, ugly and disgusting violations of the guest-friendship demands of xenia when, instead of feeding Odysseus and his men, he eats them for his own dinner.  This episode is oftentimes portrayed as a cute fairytale about a one-eyed monster who doesn’t know how to behave.  But in Emily Wilson’s incisive and skillfully efficient translation, the full horror of this episode is laid bare:

Leaping up high, he reached his hands towards my men, seized two, and knocked them hard against the ground like puppies, and the floor was wet with brains.  He ripped them limb by limb to make his meal, then ate them like a lion on the mountains, devouring flesh, entrails, and marrowy bones, and leaving nothing. Watching this disaster, we wept and lifted up our hands in prayer to Zeus.  We felt so helpless.

Another code of conduct that xenia covers is the mutual respect due to a host when one is a guest in another man’s home. A house guest is expected to be polite, grateful and provide a gift to the host. One of the most obvious violations of this concept of xenia in the Odyssey deals with the suitors who have placed a burden on Telemachus and Penelope by overstaying their welcome, eating all of their food and being rude to their hosts. The suitors are the ultimate bad house guests.  One of my favorite passages in the Odyssey is the Phaeacian bard’s tale of Aphrodite and Ares getting caught by Hephaestus in his own home.  The Greek, anthropomorphic gods are also capable of bad behavior, violating xenia and paying the price for it.   Ares is an awful house guest and, much like Paris himself, steals his host’s wife:

Then Ares took her hand and said to her, ‘My darling, let us go to bed. Hephaestus is out of town; he must have gone to Lemnos to see the Sintians whose speech is strange.’ She was excited to lie down with him; they went to bed together. But the chairs ingenious Hephaestus had created wrapped tight around them, so they could knot move or get up.  Then they knew that they were trapped.

And what of Odysseus himself as far as xenia is concerned?  Wilson’s translation of the Greek word polutropos as “complicated” which is used to describe Odysseus in the first line is brilliant.   He certainly relies on his trickery as well as the kindness of strangers to feed him, clothe him, and in the case of Calypso and Circe, sexually satisfy him.  Disguising himself as a beggar in his own home, he provides the ultimate moral test for his wife and son when he observes how they, and others in his household, treat a decrepit old man who is  most in need of food, clothing and shelter.  Penelope, who is the true hero of the epic in my opinion, treats the beggar with a gentle and respectful kindness.

Tricky, selfish, narcissistic, and, yes, complicated.  As a Homeric hero he certainly strives to be the good warrior, the good father, the good master, the good husband.  But even by Homeric standards his lying, cheating and elaborate falsehoods are difficult to see beyond.  Bernard Knox says of Odysseus:

For Achilles a lie is something utterly abhorrent.  But for Odysseus it is second nature, a point of pride. ‘I am Odysseus,’ he tells the Phaeacians when the time comes to reveal his identity, ‘known to the world/for every kind of craft’ (9.21-22).  The Greek word here translated ‘craft’ is dolos.  It is a word that can be used in praise as well as abuse.  Athena uses the word when, in the guise of a handsome young shepherd, she compliments Odysseus on the complicated lie he has just told her about his identity and his past, and it is with this word that Odysseus describes the wooden horse he contrived to bring Troy down in flames.  On the other hand, Athena, Menelaus and Odysseus use it of the trap Clytemnestra set for Agamemnon when he returned home, and it serves Homer as a way back from Pylos. But whether complimentary or accusing, it always imples the presence of what Achilles so vehemently rejects—the intention to deceive.

Is appealing for the privileges due under the umbrella of xenia respectful to one’s hosts when it is done under disguise and under false pretenses?  Yes, deception is oftentimes necessary for his survival.  But what about keeping his identity from his wife who is the last to know who he is?  Penelope brilliantly turns the tables on Odysseus by putting him through her own test and calling out his penchant for deception.   As a woman she has little control over what goes on with guests in her house, but she does have control over who sleeps in her bed—her secret, cleverly made bed.  Once again, Wilson’s translation of this passage is keen and trenchant:

Do not be angry at me now, Odysseus!  In every other way you are a very understanding man.  The gods have made us suffer: they refused to let us stay together and enjoy our youth until we reached the edge of age together.  Please forgive me, do no keep bearing a grudge because when I first saw you, I would not welcome you immediately.  I felt a constant dread that some bad man would fool me with his lies.  There are so many dishonest, clever men.

I have to admit that The Odyssey has not been one of my favorite ancient texts.  I’ve always greatly preferred the Iliad.   I had an intense seminar in graduate school on the Odyssey with John Peradotto and at that time, in my early twenties, translating and absorbing an entire book a week was too overwhelming for me.  But Emily Wilson’s literal and precise yet musical translation of the epic has given me a new appreciation of this text.  On a personal note, my thirteen-year-old daughter came home a few weeks ago with a copy of the Odyssey she took out of the library.  The translation was one of those that have been very popular in the past 20 years.  I quickly replaced it with Wilson’s translation.  I think it is an amazing thing that my daughter’s first impression of the Odyssey, and the standard by which she measures all subsequent renditions, will be that of Wilson’s.  She has been coming home every day and describing to me Odyssey’s latest adventures and her impressions of it.  She has asked if she can read the Iliad next.

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Love is Finite, We Grow Old


Pierre Bonnard. A Man and a Woman. 1900.

I put my reading of Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets on hold while on a delightful trip to London this past week. I’ve picked up Schmidt’s narrative again with his insightful description of Andrew Marvell’s poetry:

“Marvell’s verse delivers sharp surprises in part because of its quietness. Surprises emerge, they are insisted on. He seems always to be recognizing significance in what he sees. His whole mind is engaged along with his senses. His intensity is awareness; even as he speaks he is aware of things he might have said. The classics shaped his poems, but scripture is never far away. He doesn’t discharge his poems but launches them quietly.”

“His verse is urbane, detached, with recurrent motifs and words and a recognizable tone that distinguishes it from the work of other Metaphysicals. He has his own themes, too. Wise passivity marks some poems, which leads to closeness with the natural world as his imagination relaxes and receives. Other poems strive for contact through passion or activity, a kind of contact in which individuality is lost in the teeming variety of the world. Underlying these themes is the knowledge that in love or action time can’t be arrested or permanence achieved. A sanctioned social order can be ended with an axe, love is finite, we grow old.”

One of my favorite Marvell poems that came to mind and that I keep rereading because of Schmidt’s writing is “The Definition of Love”

My love is of a birth as rare
As ‘tis for object strange and high;
It was begotten by Despair
Upon Impossibility.

Magnanimous Despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing
Where feeble Hope could ne’er have flown,
But vainly flapp’d It’s tinsel wing.

And yet I quickly might arrive
Where my extended soul is fixt,
But Fate does iron wedges drive,
And always crowds itself betwixt.

For Fate with jealous eye does see
Two perfect loves, nor lets them close;
Their union would her ruin be,
And her tyrannical pow’r depose.

And therefore her decrees of steel
Us as the distant poles have plac’d
(Though love’s whole world on us doth wheel)
Not by themselves to be embrac’d;

Unless the giddy heaven fall,
And earth some new convulsion tear;
And, us to join, the world should all
Be cramped into a planisphere.

As lines, so loves oblique may well
Themselves in every angle greet;
But ours so truly parallel,
Though infinite, can never meet.

Therefore the love which us doth bind,
But Fate so enviously Debra’s,
Is the conjunction of the mind,
And opposition of the stars.

 

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The Hippocratic Corpus: A Wandering Uterus and Fox Possession

The Hippocratic Corpus is a collection of dozens of Ancient Greek texts which were originally attributed to Hippocrates but were actually written by several unknown authors from the sixth through the fourth centuries B.C.E.  The writings contain an astonishingly wide range of descriptions of bodily functions, ailments of different body parts, and cures for diseases.  The section entitled “Diseases of Women,” for instance, describes the uterus which the physicians believed did not stay in one part of a woman’s body but instead wandered around causing great pain and discomfort.  Movements of the uterus within the body can include towards the head, the heart, the liver, the hips, or the bladder (137 L—translation of the Ancient Greek is my own):

Of all the diseases pertaining to the uterus that come about for a woman, I say this: whenever the uterus is set in motion away from its space, sometimes falling in one direction and sometimes in another direction, and where it comes to fall, causes this spot severe bodily pain.  And if it comes to fasten itself to the bladder, it causes bodily pain and does not accept urine, and it does not draw in any seed to itself.  And if both uterus and bladder suffer, and if a swift release does not come about, then in time the uterus will rot in that same spot and it will wither away.

As I was reading Christine Wunnicke’s latest book, The Fox and Dr. Shimamura, the author’s descriptions of women who were said to be possessed by a fox seemed eerily similar to the wandering womb described by the Hippocratic physicians.   In Wunnicke’s mythical, mystical, and at times bizarre tale, a late nineteenth-century Japanese doctor is sent to remote areas of the Shimane prefecture to cure women of fox possession. The book begins at the end, as Dr. Shimamura’s career as a renowned neurologist has passed, and his memories of curing fox possession and other forms of female hysteria are told in a feverish state from his sick bed. His hazy memories also bring us through his time in Europe, where he meets and studies with other famous doctors, Charcot and Breuer, who have an interest in ailments that particularly affect females.

For my complete review of The Fox and Dr. Shimamura and the connections between fox possession and Ancient Greek medicine, please follow this link to the Music & Literature website:   http://www.musicandliterature.org/reviews/2019/3/27/christine-wunnickes-the-fox-and-dr-shimamura

Thanks to Taylor and David, who were a true pleasure to work with, for publishing my piece.

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Lives of the Poets: Donne and Milton

I still making my way through Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets.  I can only read about 20 or 30 pages a week because I keep stopping to read the poems he discusses in his text.  What is equally fascinating are the details he chooses to include in his brief biological sketches of each poet.  The poets from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries have some common threads: poverty, affairs, political intrigue and imprisonment in The Tower.  But he also works in stories and anecdotes that I have not typically encountered when reading about these poets.  My two favorite chapters, so far, are those describing the lives of Donne and Milton.

John Donne, like many of the poets from the 17th century including Herbert, Marvell and Vaughan, did not consider themselves professional writers.  His manuscripts were circulated among a small group of friends but most knew him as a political and religious orator and not as a poet.  One of Donne’s preoccupations was with death and how his demise would be handled by his relatives when he passed from this earth.  Schmidt writes, “Most men allowed their survivors to bury the as they thought appropriate.  Donne took his death into his own hands.  The rehearsals as much as the memorial tell us more about him than we could learn from the rooms he lived in.”  Schmidt goes on to quote from Izaac Walton’s “Life of Donne”:

Dr. Donne sent for a carver to make for him in wood the figure of an urn, giving him directions for the compass and height of it; and to bring with it a board of the just height of his body.  These being got, then without delay a choice painter was got to be in readiness to draw his picture, which was taken as followeth.—Several charcoal fires being first maed in his large study, he brought with him into that place his winding-sheet in his hand, and, having put off all his clothes, had this sheet put on him, and so tied with knots at his head and feet, and his hands so placed, as dead bodies are usually fitted to be shrouded and put into their coffin, or grave.  Upon this urn he thus stood with his eyes shut, and with so much of the sheet turned aside as might show his lean, pale and deathlike face.”

I will never look at Donne poem the same again after reading these morbid, and somewhat creepy, details.

The biographical summary of Milton’s life includes more charming personal stories.  For example,  Milton’s father encouraged his son to read and, “If Milton as a boy of nine of ten wanted to read late, his father made sure that a maid sat up with him until midnight and after.”  The details of his education I found especially interesting:

When he went up to Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1625 he found the place disappointing, the curriculum dry and narrow.  He craved a broader, more liberal education than was offered.  He composed Latin poems in the manner of Ovid and Horace, epigrams, a Latin mock-epic on the Gunpowder Plot, Italian sonnets, more English paraphrases of the Psalms, and the eleven stanzas “On the Death of a Fair Infant Dying of a Cough.” His Latin elegies are in some ways his most personal utterances, including details of his life and thought not recorded elsewhere.  He was at the time as much at home in Latin as in English verse.

I’ve tracked down some of his Latin which I will try to translate for myself.  And Schmidt has also inspired me to reread Paradise Lost which I haven’t looked at since I was an undergraduate.  At this rate I will be spending my time with Schmidt’s book for the better part of this year…

 

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