Tuesday
May132014

How soon, my dear

We are just a few weeks now from welcoming our first child. I've grumbled a fair bit through this pregnancy but I know I have much to be grateful for. So much that women in other places, or women in earlier times, have never had. I came across this poem from the seventeenth century, “Before the birth of one of her children,” by Anne Bradstreet, which brought home to me that once, looking forward to a birth meant an equal chance of facing death.

Bradstreet was born in England in 1612; she married at 16, and at 18 she and her husband migrated to America. In Massachussetts she became one of the first writers, and the first female writer, of English verse. Though none of it was very original in style, it has a deeply personal quality that seems to make the tired conventions fresh and poignant. And there's something compelling about the sheer rarity of a woman's voice and pen in that age. I'm very moved by this poem - and comforted to know that in the end she survived not only this birth but seven others. She died at 60, America's first published poet.

All things within this fading world hath end,
Adversity doth still our joys attend;
No ties so strong, no friends so dear and sweet,
But with death’s parting blow are sure to meet.
The sentence past is most irrevocable,
A common thing, yet oh, inevitable.
How soon, my Dear, death may my steps attend,
How soon’t may be thy lot to lose thy friend,
We both are ignorant, yet love bids me
These farewell lines to recommend to thee,
That when the knot’s untied that made us one,
I may seem thine, who in effect am none.
And if I see not half my days that’s due,
What nature would, God grant to yours and you;
The many faults that well you know I have
Let be interred in my oblivious grave;
If any worth or virtue were in me,
Let that live freshly in thy memory
And when thou feel’st no grief, as I no harmes,
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms,
And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains
Look to my little babes, my dear remains.
And if thou love thyself, or loved’st me,
These O protect from stepdame’s injury.
And if chance to thine eyes shall bring this verse,
With some sad sighs honor my absent hearse;
And kiss this paper for thy dear love’s sake,
Who with salt tears this last farewell did take.

Wednesday
Apr232014

On Shakespeare's birthday: Sonnet 60

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end,
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown’d,
Crooked eclipses ’gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth,
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:
And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.

Sunday
Apr202014

Resurrection, imperfect

Sleep, sleep old sun, thou canst not have repass'd,
As yet, the wound thou took'st on Friday last;
Sleep then, and rest; the world may bear thy stay;
A better sun rose before thee to-day;
Who—not content to enlighten all that dwell
On the earth's face, as thou—enlighten'd hell,
And made the dark fires languish in that vale,
As at thy presence here our fires grow pale;
Whose body, having walk'd on earth, and now
Hasting to heaven, would—that He might allow
Himself unto all stations, and fill all—
For these three days become a mineral.
He was all gold when He lay down, but rose
All tincture, and doth not alone dispose
Leaden and iron wills to good, but is
Of power to make e'en sinful flesh like his.
Had one of those, whose credulous piety
Thought that a soul one might discern and see
Go from a body, at this sepulchre been,
And, issuing from the sheet, this body seen,
He would have justly thought this body a soul,
If not of any man, yet of the whole.
Desunt Caetera.

Donne's poem is imperfect because unfinished, but also because our analogues of resurrection are imperfect: the rising of the sun, the transmutation of minerals. Our understanding is dim, fixed on the separation of body and soul; our fires are indeed pale. There's another sense, which Donne might not have meant, of the resurrection itself as unfinished, not because incomplete but because it was the beginning, not the end - as the rising sun is the prelude of day.

Friday
Apr182014

Each leaf which falls in Autumn

                 O My chief good,
How shall I measure out thy bloud?
How shall I count what thee befell,
                 And each grief tell?

                 Shall I thy woes
Number according to thy foes?
Or, since one starre show’d thy first breath,
                 Shall all thy death?

                 Or shall each leaf,
Which falls in Autumn, score a grief?
Or can not leaves, but fruit, be signe
                 Of the true vine?

                 Then let each houre
Of my whole life one grief devoure;
That thy distresse through all may runne,
                 And be my sunne.

From George Herbert's “Good Friday”, 1633.

Sunday
Mar232014

Joy sits singing in the trees

In contrast to Rossetti’s melancholy vision of Autumn, Blake’s is buzzing with life, humming with the song of fruits and flowers. Autumn is not about sleep but rest and revelry; not about death but fulfilment and fertility, blossoming and blessing. It brings what Summer promised. This is “To Autumn” (1793).

O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stain’d
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou may’st rest,
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe,
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.

“The narrow bud opens her beauties to
The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins;
Blossoms hang round the brows of Morning, and
Flourish down the bright cheek of modest Eve,
Till clust’ring Summer breaks forth into singing,
And feather’d clouds strew flowers round her head.

The spirits of the air live in the smells
Of fruit; and Joy, with pinions light, roves round
The gardens, or sits singing in the trees.”
Thus sang the jolly Autumn as he sat,
Then rose, girded himself, and o’er the bleak
Hills fled from our sight; but left his golden load.