Sunday, 8 February 2009

Fleas: Adam 'ad 'em.

I am not a great one for poetry, if pressed I would say John Donne is my kind of poet. I like his conceits, particularly as they are usually concerned with sexual improbity. Hurrah! for sexual improbity I say. This is the first stanza from one of my favourites, The Flea:

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deny'st me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know'st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.

It sucked me first, and now sucks thee - subtle, eh?

I also adore Shakespeare's sonnets, not necessarily for the sentiments expressed but for the manner in which they are expressed, which is not to say the sentiments are unimportant or admirable in themselves but it is his technical facility with language that leaves me gasping. His early sonnets deal with notions of the fleeting temporariness of beauty and of man. I have chosen Number 17 because I like the ambiguity of the final line:

Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were filled with your most high deserts?
Though yet, heaven knows, it is but as a tomb,
Which hides your life, and shows not half your parts:
If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say, 'This poet lies;
Such heavenly touches ne'er touched earthly faces.'
So should my papers (yellowed with their age)
Be scorned, like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be termed a poet's rage,
And stretched metre of an antique song;
But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice: in it, and in my rhyme.

Now we all know, in the early sonnets, Shakespeare is attempting to persuade the young man to take a bride; however, in this one, I see concerns for his own mortality arising. So I believe the last line not only hopes his rhyme will help prolong the life of the person in question but also that of the author. Indeed, one could argue this sonnet is self-reflective throughout.

Why this sudden interest in poetry you may ask, to which the answer is my researches for my book have led me to the poetic works of the Brontës. Melancholic is their tone, so reader beware. These opening stanzas from A Voice from the Dungeon by Anne are typical:

I am buried now; I've done with life;
I've done with hate, revenge, and strife:
I've done with joy, and hope, and love,
And all the bustling world above.

Long have I dwelt forgotten here
In pining woe and dull despair,
This place of solitude and gloom
Must be my dungeon and my tomb,

No hope, no pleasure can I find;
I am grown weary of my mind;
Often in balmy sleep I try
To gain a rest from misery,

… and so on. The work of Christina Rossetti is similarly baleful, mostly concerned with details of her own funeral if I remember correctly. It is not surprising their verse was so concerned with death when death was all around them. (There is also the feminist argument to be taken into account in that their lives were severely constricted in those patriarchal times.)

With the recent death of Lisa Ratcliffe uppermost in my mind, I shall dedicate this last poem by Charlotte Brontë to her memory, On the Death of Anne Brontë:

There's little joy in life for me,
And little terror in the grave;
I've lived the parting hour to see
Of one I would have died to save

Calmly to watch the failing breath,
Wishing each sigh might be the last;
Longing to see the shade of death
O'er those belovëd features cast.

The cloud, the stillness that must part
The darling of my life from me:
And then to thank God from my heart,
To thank Him well and fervently;

Although I knew that we had lost
The hope and glory of our life;
And now, benighted, tempest-tossed,
Must bear alone the weary strife.

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