Friday, November 30, 2007

Archaic Torso of Apollo by Rainer Maria Rilke

Rilke served for a while as secretary to Auguste Rodin. The sculptor would send him on assignments to observe animals, objects, or great art and then talk about them. This poem could be the result of one of those assignments. The speaker seems to struggle to find the right words to describe the power in the torso of Apollo—he compares it to ripening fruit, a lamp, a beast, a star. This exploration leads to the epiphany in the final line. There, the poem reaches out and grabs the reader. It’s a sudden, unexpected and remarkable shift.

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Rainer Maria Rilke was born in Prague in 1875. He resided throughout Europe during his lifetime, including a 12-year residency is Paris, where he befriending the famed sculptor Auguste Rodin. His best known work includes his Duino Elegies and his Sonnets to Orpheus.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats

The title of Keats's famous ballad translates to "the beautiful woman without mercy." Who is this woman? Did she really exist or did the knight dream her? A lot of this poem's appeal stems from its mystery--Keats leaves it up to the reader to imagine the details. It's a good example of what Keats termed "negative capability": when a writer "is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason."

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel's granary is full,
And the harvest's done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful - a faery's child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery's song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said -
'I love thee true'.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep
And there I dreamed - Ah! woe betide! -
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried - 'La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!'

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill's side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

John Keats (1795-1821) is considered one of the great British Romantic Poets along with Wordsworth, Byron and Shelley. Though he only lived to be 26, his work and his poetics (preserved in numerous letters) remain highly respected by contemporary poets and scholars. T.S. Eliot claimed that Keats was never wrong about poetry.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Resume by Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker’s suicide attempts were no laughing matter, unless you asked her. The New York writer and poet lived a brilliant but tempestuous life, marked by a caustic sense of humor she turned even on her own difficulties. Resume is a great example of her dark wit hitting close to home.


Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) was born in West End, New Jersey and raised in Manhattan. She became a well-known poet, writer and editor, working for Vogue and the New Yorker. Parker was a founding member of the "Algonquin Round Table," a group of intellectuals known for their vicious wit, along with Robert Benchley, Harpo Marx, George S Kaufman, and Edna Ferber.

Friday, November 09, 2007

To An Athlete Dying Young by A.E. Housman

To An Athlete Dying Young is A.E. Housman's best-known poem, and there's a good chance you've come across it before. On the surface, the poem is an elegy with a straightforward theme: one should take solace in the fact that a young man died at the height of his glory. For me, the poem's real power is beneath the surface, where the struggle and emotional restraint that typified Housman's life is palpable.

It's remarkable that despite the poem's sing-songy form--iambic tetrameter is the standard meter of nursery rhymes--Housman conveys the sense of barrenness and deep sorrow that permeated so much of his work. His life was, by all accounts, melancholy and reclusive. He was gay (they probably didn't teach you that in school) in a world where it was far less accepted than it is today. He spent his life in love (unrequited) with a heterosexual friend. The first line of the third stanza gives me chills. That's where the man who lived and wrote so buttoned up starts letting his guard down.

To An Athlete Dying Young

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl's.

A.E. Housman (1859-1936) was born in Fockbury, England, the oldest of seven children. A brilliant student, he won a scholarship to study Classics at Oxford. There, he fell in love with his heterosexual roommate Moses Jackson, a man who would become his lifelong friend. Housman worked as a professor of Latin at University College, London and translated many of the great Roman poets. He published only two books of poetry in his lifetime, the first, A Shropshire Lad, with money from his own pocket.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen

At a time when accounts of war were heavily romanticized, Wilfred Owen's poetry was blunt and real. Having been swayed to volunteer for service in World War I in part by the glory of war, Owen felt it was his duty to relay the harsher truth, writing in a letter to his mother: "All a poet can do today is warn." His best known poem: Dulce et Decorum Est, is brutal even by today's standards.

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen was born in 1893 in Shropshire, England. Teaching in France at the start of World War I, he joined the army in 1915. During that time met and befriended many writers, including Sigfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and H.G. Wells. He died in battle one week before the end of the war, and his parents heard of his death while the armistice bells were ringing. He would become one of the most admired war poets of all time.