The British Library this week takes a look at WH Auden’s poems.
At We Minored in Film, Kelly Konda ponders the role of the thematically relevant backstory in survival stories.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote a delicious piece of what is essentially Virginia-Woolf-inspired fanfiction about Melania Trump for the NYT.
Happy Fourth of July! 12 authors, including Teju Cole and Jay McInerney, picked their essential American books for Time. What would you pick?
It’s dark. Not caring where I go, which path I follow,
Past sleepy ponds I stroll.
Of autumn freshness, leaves and fruit the fragrance mellow
Drifts over all.
The garden’s almost bare, and through the branches whitely
The stars of evening show.
Dead silence reigns. Murk clothes the paths. It’s nighttime.
My steps are slow.
They’re slow, but wake the hush… High in the sky’s cool
A princely diadem,
The icy Pleiades blaze diamond-like and sparkle,
Each one a gem.
On its face, “The Pleiades” by Nobel Prize-winning Russian author Ivan Bunin (translation from All Poetry) contains an inspirational (and somewhat unoriginal) message: when life seems dark, confusing, and/or pointless, look at the stars, and their transcendent light will lead you to your spiritual home. Continue reading →
Why did the morning rise to break
So great, so pure a spell,
And scorch with fire the tranquil cheek
Where your cool radiance fell?
Poetry so often conflates springtime with rebirth, renaissance, hope, and the like, but Emily Brontë’s work begs to differ. The narrator of “Ah! Why, Because the Dazzling Sun” spends the poem shutting her eyes tightly (and vainly) against the “blood-red” light that “throbs with her heart” and destroys her peace. And as she says in “Fall, leaves, fall”:
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.
Brontë’s poetry seems keenly aware of the Icarus myth: her relationship to daylight and springtime springs from an understanding that sunlight is not the product of a benign reflection, a consumptive fire.
From “Ah! Why, Because the Dazzling Sun” again:
O Stars and Dreams and Gentle Night;
O Night and Stars return!
And hide me from the hostile light
That does not warm, but burn—
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.
Continue reading →
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.
Continue reading →