You have the face that suits a woman
For her soul’s screen —
The sort of beauty that’s called human
The meaning of the name Faustine is “made of the stuff of Faust,” just as Eve was made from the rib of Adam and Pandora at the hands of Hephaestus. By Swinburne’s own admission, Faustine’s unearthly beauty signals a missed opportunity for exaltation, a gift she squanders “to waste the loves and ruin the lives of men.”
The poem is concerned with one central idea, he says:
“…the transmigration of a single soul, doomed as though by accident from the first to all evil and no good, through many ages and forms, but clad always in the same type of fleshly beauty.”
And she has taken many forms through the ages, both in mythology and in literature. The gorgeous Faustine who is caressed by dishonest serpents and receives “flower of kisses without fruit of love”–she could be Daisy Buchanan, or Rosamond Vincy, or even Lily Bart. The awareness that beautiful, hollow monsters are made, not born, varies in each of these works, but there is virtually none in Swinburne’s (otherwise quite moving) poem.
You seem a thing that hinges hold,
With clockwork joints of supple gold —
No more, Faustine.
But lo, a stir is in the air!
The wave- there is a movement there!
As if the towers had thrust aside,
In slightly sinking, the dull tide-
As if their tops had feebly given
A void within the filmy Heaven.
Poe’s “City in the Sea” refers to the city erected by Death, in which all lost souls, squandered riches, and fallen idols are laid to waste in “melancholy waters,” as Death looks “gigantically down” in satisfaction.
But these lines also tend to remind me of the metropolis in which kht, jd, and I reside: New York, of course. On its best days, the towering skyline ascends to the heavens and punctures them, sending their contents spilling down onto us. On its worst days:
Hell, rising from a thousand thrones,
Shall do it reverence.
Here’s a spectacular catalogue describing “Angels” from Rilke’s Duino Elegies, as translated by Stephen Mitchell:
Early successes, Creation’s pampered favorites,
mountain-ranges, peaks growing red in the dawn
of all Beginning,—pollen of the flowering godhead,
joints of pure light, corridors, stairways, thrones,
space formed from essence, shields made of ecstasy, storms
of emotion whirled into rapture, and suddenly, alone,
mirrors: which scoop up the beauty that has streamed from their face
and gather it back, into themselves, entire.
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The poems of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience appear so simplistic at first blush, they were once interpreted as nursery rhymes; but the juxtaposition of thematically connected poems in Innocence and Experience, respectively, as well as the accompanying visual art, elucidate the complexity of even the most innocent poems. “The Little Boy Lost/The Little Boy Found,” for example, appears to be a straightforward, comforting reassurance of God’s infinite love. But the combination of these poems with “A Little Boy Lost” serves as a bitter, blistering indictment of the Church as a hypocritical appropriation, one that uses God’s words of forgiveness as a tool for placing the masses under a merciless doctrine.
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Persephone is a liminal figure, evoking the duality of the seasons which, as a result of the pathetic fallacy, we associate with dualities of human nature: light versus dark, warmth versus cold, passion versus frigidity, humanity versus roboticism. In Sylvia Plath’s “Two Sisters of Persephone,” this duality is used to uncover the contradictions inherent in the societal ideal of femininity. Continue reading →
In his first letter to a young poet, Rainer Maria Rilke mused, “Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered.” He finds himself confronted with the paradox inherent to most poetry, namely that it aims to express the inexpressible. Continue reading →