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.

Saturday
Mar152014

Death seems a comely thing

This year Autumn seems slow in coming. Our oak tree is streaked with rust here and there, but the days are warm, and mostly the eye meets what Hopkins called “grass and greenworld.” Still, it won't be long before the colour comes to riot in the trees, and the leaves begin to fall. It's my favourite among the seasons, and I've written before about why it inspires more poetry than the others. It also inspires more various poetry. It's a play with many meanings, or a symphony with many themes. Some poems celebrate its beauty, where others, like Dante Gabriel Rossetti's “Autumn Song” (1883), are full of a drowsy melancholy. In spite of the beauty, death is the climax, the returning melody. 
Know’st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the heart feels a languid grief
   Laid on it for a covering,
   And how sleep seems a goodly thing
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?

And how the swift beat of the brain
Falters because it is in vain,
   In Autumn at the fall of the leaf
   Knowest thou not? and how the chief
Of joys seems—not to suffer pain?

Know’st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the soul feels like a dried sheaf
   Bound up at length for harvesting,
   And how death seems a comely thing
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?