Tag Archives: Poetry

Here of a Sunday Morning: The Poetry of A.E. Housman

“On the Teme”, one of William Hyde’s coloured illustrations to A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (1908)

I am very familiar with Housman’s academic writing on classical subjects, but George Steiner’s discussion of Housman promoted me to read his poetry.  I have been reading a few poems a week from The Wordsworth Poetry Library edition I bought and here I offer two of my favorites so far.  They are from A Shropshire Lad collection.

XXI
Bredon Hill

In summertime on Bredon
The bells they sound so clear;
Round both the shires they ring them
In steeples far and near,
A happy noise to hear.

Here of a Sunday morning
My love and I would lie,
And see the coloured counties,
And hear the larks so high
About us in the sky.

The bells would ring to call her
In valleys miles away:
‘Come all to church, good people;
Good people, come and pray.’
But here my love would stay.

And I would turn and answer
Among the springing thyme,
‘Oh, peal upon our wedding,
And we will hear the chime,
And come to church in time.’

But when the snows at Christmas
On Bredon top were strown,
My love rose up so early
And stole out unbeknown
And went to church alone.

They tolled the one bell only,
Groom there was none to see,
The mourners followed after,
And so to church went she,
And would not wait for me.

The bells they sound on Bredon,
And still the steeples hum.
‘Come all to church, good people,’—
Oh, noisy bells, be dumb;
I hear you, I will come.

XIV
There pass the careless people
That call their souls their own:
Here by the road I loiter,
How idle and alone.

Ah, past the plunge of plummet,
In seas I cannot sound,
My heart and soul and senses,
World without end, are drowned.

His folly has not fellow
Beneath the blue of day
That gives to man or woman
His heart and soul away.

There flowers no balm to sain him
From east of earth to west
That ’s lost for everlasting
The heart out of his breast.

Here by the labouring highway
With empty hands I stroll:
Sea-deep, till doomsday morning,
Lie lost my heart and soul.

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Poetry

Io Saturnalia: My Translation of Catullus Poem 14a

John Reinhard Weguelin. The Roman Saturnalia. 1884.

The ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia held on December 17th in the Julian calendar involved decorating, partying, eating, gift giving and general conviviality.   This special day, gradually expanded to a full week, was dedicated to the agricultural deity Saturn whose temple in the Forum was the center of sacrifices for the holiday.  A general spirit of frivolity was felt throughout the city as Romans of all classes participated in the merrymaking.  Catullus, the 1st century B.C. poet, calls Saturnalia the “best of days.” In his Carmen 14a, Catullus describes his great annoyance when his friend, Calvus, gives him a joke gift—a book of bad poetry!—for Saturnalia.  Catullus then plots the sweet revenge he will inflict upon Calvus (Translation is my own):

Oh Calvus, if I didn’t love you more than my own eyes
I would hate you as much as I hate that guy Vatinianus.
What could I have possibly said or done to make you
destroy me with so much bad poetry?  May the gods
do very bad things to that client of yours who originally
sent you this wicked gift.  Because if, as I suspect, Sulla
the elementary school teacher gave this new and well-chosen
gift to you then this situation has not turned out so badly
for me, and, in fact, it is good and fortuitous, and your
efforts are not in vain. Oh great gods, what a horrible
and accursed little book! That very book which I am
convinced you sent to your friend Catullus on this best
of days, Saturnalia, so that I might die again and again
on this day!  I will not, absolutely not, let this go,
you trickster.  As soon as it is light out, I am running
to the bookshop and collecting all the poisonous poetry I can
find for you—Suffenus and Caesius and Aquinus.  I will
pay you back with these punishments!  And as for you,
bad poets, goodbye! Go away!  Go back to that place where
you got your bad feet, the troubles of our generation,
you absolute worst of all poets!

We know from his other poems that Calvus is one of Catullus’s most dear and well-respected friends.  In addition to being a poet, Calvus is also a lawyer and Vatinianus who is mentioned in the first few lines in the poem is an odious man that Calvus once prosecuted.  Catullus considers Calvus an excellent poet and the two close friends would have contests and challenge each other to poetry duels.  A book of lousy poetry seems a fitting joke gift between these men.  What makes Calvus’s gift especially bad (and funny) is that he regifted it!  Catullus calls Calvus out in the poem for his regifting—Calvus received the book as payment from one of his clients, named Sulla, and Calvus then passes the book off to Catullus.  Catullus also calls Sulla, the original giver of the books,  an elementary school teacher, which in ancient Rome is an insult to Sulla’s intelligence.  The part of the poem that has always amazed me is that Catullus threatens to get Calvus back by emptying the bookshop of every bad piece of poetry he can find, and he names names!  Of the three he mentions, Suffenus is the poet whose writing we know the most about; in Carmen 22, Catullus describes Suffenus’s verse as akin to lines composed by a goat herder or ditch digger.  Oh to have seen the look on Calvus’s face when he reads that book of poetry.  Nice burn, Catullus!

To all of my fellow readers: Io Saturnalia, Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays.  May you receive lots of excellent books of poetry during your Saturnalia celebrations!

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If Only Sleep Would Come: One Night by Umberto Saba

Night and Sleep by Evelyn De Morgan, 1878

One of my favorite literary bloggers, Tom from Wuthering Expectations, did a post on Modern European Poetry with a focus on the Greek poetry contained within this wonderful volume.  If you haven’t had a chance to read Tom’s posts then please do yourself a favor and peruse his blog.  His analysis of literature is full of what the Roman poet Catullus would call facetiae (wit) and lepida (charms).

As I was reading through this collection of modern poetry, I was happy to find poems by Ingeborg Bachmann whose name I have seen many times on bloggers’ personal canons.  A few poems by the Italian author Umberto Saba also captivated me.  I thought I would share one particularly short yet moving piece (Catullus would definitely approve!)

One Night

If only sleep would come, as it has come
on other nights: already slipping through
my thoughts.

Instead now,

like an old washerwoman wringing clothes,
anguish wrings another pain from my heart.
I would cry out but cannot. As for torment—
suffered once—I suffer on in silence.

And that which I have lost, only I know

Translated by Felix Stefanile

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Filed under Classics, Italian Literature, Poetry

Everyone Forgets that Icarus also Flew: Poetry by Jack Gilbert

One of the things I like best about being part of such a great lit blogging community is the daily book recommendations I receive from like-minded readers.  Many have lamented the death of literary Twitter, but even on this crazy social media site I have managed to block out most of the nonsense and glean book suggestions from and engage in interesting literary conversations with other bloggers.  The other day as I was scrolling through my feed and reading the posts from my interesting literary friends (you know who you are) when I saw a Tweet that included a poem by Jack Gilbert entitled “Failing and Flying” that begins, “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.”  I immediately ran to my bookshelves and pulled out the volume of Jack Gilbert that I had bought a while back based on a recommendation from another reader.  What a pleasant experience it is to be involved and included in a community of people who love books and literature and talking about such things.  I was never the “cool” kid in school but being part of lit blogging makes me feel that I am a part of the “in” crowd.

Jack Gilbert often uses references and allusions to Greek and Roman myths and literature in his poems which makes reading his pieces a richer experience for me.  I thought I would share just a few of the poems that made the greatest impression, but I highly recommend reading his entire volume of Collected Poems.

Orpheus in Greenwich Village:

What if Orpheus,
confident in the hard-
found mastery,
should go down into Hell?
Out of the clean light down?
And then, surrounded
by the closing beasts
and readying his lyre,
should notice, suddenly
they had no ears?

Some days, especially at this time of the year, it feels as though I am Orpheus signing to the “beasts” who have no ears.

Many of the poems in this collection contemplate the different types of love we experience throughout the course of our lives. Gilbert talks about young love, passionate love, mature love and married love. The next poem I chose describes the enigmatic nature of love’s genesis and evolution. I thought, as I read this poem, that “we cobble love together” like a mosaic and every time we fall in love the experience is like composing a different work of art:

Painting on Plato’s Wall:

The shadows behind people walking
in the bright piazza are not merely
gaps in the sunlight. Just as goodness
is not the absence of badness.
Goodness is a triumph. And so it is
with love. Love is not the part
we are born with that flowers
a little and then wanes as we
grow up. We cobble love together
from this and those of our machinery
until there is suddenly an apparition
that never existed before. There it is,
unaccountable. The woman and our
desire are somehow turned into
brandy by Athena’s tiny owl filling
the darkness around an old villa
on the mountain with its plaintive
mewing. As a man might be
turned into someone else while
living kind of happy up there
with the lady’s gentle dying.

And one final poem worth pointing out is entitled “Trouble,” the first three lines of which I found rather striking:

That is what the Odyssey means.
Love can leave you nowhere in New Mexico
raising peacocks for the rest of your life.
The seriously happy heart is a problem.
No the easy excitement, but summer
in the Mediterranean mixed with
the rain and bitter cold of February
on the Riviera, everything on fire
in the violent winds. The pregnant heart
is drive to hopes that are the wrong
size for this world. Love is always
disturbing in the heavenly kingdom.
Eden cannot manage so much ambition.
The kids ran from all over the piazza
yelling and pointing and jeering
at the young Saint Chrysostom
standing dazed in the church doorway
with the shining around his mouth
where the Madonna had kissed him.

Who among us with “pregnant heart” hasn’t traveled a long distance, endured discomfort, various tribulations and the agony of hope all in the name of love?

Have you read this collection or any other pieces by Jack Gilbert? Or, better yet, what other poetry or literature recommendations have you gleaned from the lit blogging community recently?

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Venit Ver (Spring Arrives)

Fresco, The Roman Goddess Flora

The Latin poet Catullus had a passionate yet turbulent love affair with a prominent married woman named Clodia. When Clodia finally releases him for good, Catullus accepts a position on the staff of the Roman governor of Bithynia to get out of town for a while and away from any painful reminders of his love affair. He chooses this long and tedious journey to get as far away as possible from Rome in order to nurse his sore wounds. But as we learn from poem 10, the governor of Bithynia was a crook and Catullus did not make any profit there. After a year in this outpost in Asia Minor, Catullus writes a poem in 56 B.C. as he is about to embark on his journey home. It is springtime and Catullus has that renewed sense of hope which comes with the warmer air and the fresh breezes. The meter is hendecasyllabic:

Catullus, Carmen 46:

Iam ver egelidos refert tepores,
iam caeli furor aequinoctialis
iucundis Zephyri silescit aureis.
Linquantur Phrygii, Catulle, campi
nicaeaeque ager uber aestuosae:
ad claras asiae volemus urbes.
Iam mens praetrepidans avet vagari,
iam laeti studio pedes vigescunt.
O dulces comitum valete coetus,
longe quos simul a domo profectos
diversae varie viae reportant.

My Translation of Carmen 46:

Now spring returns the mild warmth
now the fury of the equinoctial sky is silenced
by the pleasant breezes of the west-wind.
Let the Phrygian plains, Catullus,
and the fertile fields of Nicaea be left behind:
Let us fly through the well-known cities of Asia.
Now my mind, trembling with anticipation, strongly desires to roam,
now my happy feet become lively with eagerness.
Take care, oh cherished group of friends
who, having traveled together far from our homes,
are now being carried back on different roads.

I find this time of the year, May in particular, to be the most difficult to get through as far as teaching my classes are concerned. The springtime causes the students to become increasingly impatient because they are trapped in a classroom as the weather is becoming warmer.  Who could blame them! The spring has mixed blessings for me: I enjoy the warmth of the sun and the budding flowers but I don’t look forward to fidgety students who are increasingly eager to carry their laeti pedes (happy feet) away from these halls of learning for summer.

Fresco from the Villa di Livia

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