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April is poetry month! It is also the birth-month of the bard, William Shakespeare, who was born 456 years ago.  Although the exact day of his entrance upon the scene is a bit unclear, Shakespeare enthusiasts have assigned today’s date, April 23rd, as the most likely day and thus it is celebrated! Happy Birthday to the Bard!  However, as you may have guessed, that is not why we are here.

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The other day, I wrote that poets don’t seem to write poems about plagues (although this could well be a misapprehension born out of writers’ fondness for disguising their actual subject by appearing to write about something completely different).  This is true of Shakespeare too, and yet he certainly had ample experience with pestilence since the Black Death struck London in 1592, 1603, and 1606.  In fact, three of his greatest tragedies, including King Lear, were (probably) written during quarantine.

Indeed, squinting anew at the language of these plays reveals a fascination with darkness, lesions, pathology, and contagion hiding behind the mask of purity which could be (and undoubtedly has been) the subject of many works of literary criticism and scholarship.

Yet to my ears, the most pure plague poem from Shakespeare is really a poem which is unabashedly about death and how it brings an end to all want, anxiety, political strife, pain and anxiety (even as it ends all pleasure, learning, longing, and love).  The poem was (probably) written a half decade after the 1606 outbreak in London [I apologize for all of these words like “seems” and “probably” but we don’t have a lot of certainties about Shakespeare’s human life].  It takes the form of a valedictory song in Cymbeline, that strange and impossible-to-characterize late work which dates from Shakespeare’s final years as a writer.  After reading Cymbeline, Lytton Strachey opined that it is “difficult to resist the conclusion that [Shakespeare] was getting bored himself. Bored with people, bored with real life, bored with drama, bored, in fact, with everything except poetry and poetical dreams.”

Perhaps there is truth in this analysis, for the song is very melancholy and yet also very beautifully poetic.  We are including it here as a tribute to poetry month, and a tribute to Shakespeare, and a tribute to all of the dead. Yet it is is imperative that you not let the lugubrious gloom get you down (not from the poem nor from the situation we are in).

But enough of my blather, from Cymbeline Act IV Scene 2 here is Shakespeare’s sad song.

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The scepter, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.
Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.
No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!

The November eclogue of the Shepheardes Calender is the best and strongest, but, alas, it is also the most mournful.  It is an elegy for a dead shepherd maiden.  The poetry actually accomplishes what some other parts of the work do not: it marries the allusions of ancient Rome and Greece with the Christian worldview of Early Modern England. Additionally  the poem alloys the Chaucerian English (which Spenser always looks back towards with such longing) with the modern English he used for writing and speaking.  The best parts of the poem anticipate metaphysical poetry…and maybe even some of Victorian verse.  If you listen to the sad yet thunderous music of the lament there is also not a little of Shakespeare in it: it is strange to be reminded that he had powerful antecedents and did not spring like Minerva from godhead.

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Shepheardes Calender XI: November.

Edmund Spenser

THENOT. COLIN.

Colin, my Dear, when shall it please thee sing,
As thou wert wont, Songs of some Jouisance
Thy Muse too long slumbereth in sorrowing,
Lulled asleep through Love’s misgovernance.
Now somewhat sing, whose endless Sovenance
Emong the Shepherds Swains may aye remain;
Whether thee list thy loved Lass advance,
Or honour Pan with Hymns of higher Vein.

COLIN.
Thenot, now nis the time of Merry-make,
Nor Pan to herie, nor with Love to play;
Sike Mirth in May is meetest for to make,
Or Summer Shade, under the cocked Hay.
But now sad Winter welked hath the Day,
And Phoebus weary of his yearly Task,
Ystablisht hath his Steeds in lowly lay,
And taken up his Inn in Fishes Hask,
Thilk sullen Season sadder Plight doth ask,
And loatheth sike Delights, as thou doost praise:
The mournful Muse in Mirth now list ne mask,
As she was wont in Youngth and Summer-days.
But if thou algate lust light Virelays,
And looser Songs of Love to underfong
Who but thy self deserves sike Poet’s Praise?
Relieve thy Oaten Pipes, that sleepen long.

THENOT.
The Nightingale is Sovereign of Song,
Before him fits the Titmouse silent be:
And I, unfit to thrust in skilful Throng,
Should Colin make judge of my foolery?
Nay, better learn of hem that learned be,
And han been watred at the Muses Well:
The kindly Dew drops from the higher Tree,
And wets the little Plants that lowly dwell.
But if sad Winter’s Wrath, and Season chill,
Accord not with thy Muse’s Merriment;
To sadder times thou maist attune thy Quill,
And sing of Sorrow and Death’s Dreriment,
For dead is Dido, dead alas and drent!
Dido, the great Shepherd his Daughter sheen:
The fairest May she was that ever went,
Her like she has not left behind I ween.
And if thou wilt bewail my woeful Teen,
I shall thee give yond Cosset for thy pain:
And if thy Rimes as round and rueful been,
As those that did thy Rosalind complain,
Much greater Gifts for Guerdon thou shalt gain,
Than Kid or Cosset, which I thee benempt;
Then up I say, thou jolly Shepherd Swain,
Let not my small Demand be so contempt.

COLIN.
Thenot, to that I chose, thou dost me tempt,
But ah! too well I wote my humble vein,
And how my Rimes been rugged and unkempt:
Yet as I con, my Cunning I will strain.

Up then Melpomene, the mournfulst Muse of nine,
Such cause of mourning never hadst afore;
Up grisly Ghosts, and up my ruful Rime,
Matter of Mirth now shalt thou have no more:
For dead she is, that Mirth thee made of yore,
Dido my Dear, alas, is dead,
Dead, and lieth wrapt in Lead:
O heavy Herse!
Let streaming Tears be poured out in store:
O careful Verse!

Shepherds, that by your Flocks on Kentish Downs abide,
Wail ye this woful Waste of Nature’s Wark:
Wail we the Wight, whose Presence was our Pride;
Wail we the Wight, whose Absence is our Cark.
The Sun of all the World is dim and dark;
The Earth now wants her wonted light,
And all we dwell in deadly Night;
O heavy Herse!
Break we our Pipes, that shrill’d as loud as Lark:
O careful Verse!

Why do we longer live, (ah why live we so long?)
Whose better Days Death hath shut up in Woe?
The fairest Flower our Girlond all among,
Is faded quite, and into Dust ygo;
Sing now ye Shepherd’s Daughters, sing no mo
The Songs that Colin made you in her praise,
But into Weeping turn your wanton Lays.
O heavy Herse!
Now is time to die: Nay, time was long ygo.
O careful Verse!

Whence is it, that the Flowret of the Field doth fade,
And lieth buried long in Winter’s Bale?
Yet soon as Spring his Mantle hath displayde,
It flowreth fresh, as it should never fail.
But thing on Earth that is of most avail,
As Vertue’s Branch and Beauty’s Bud,
Reliven not for any good.
O heavy Herse!
The Branch once dead, the Bud eke needs must quail:
O careful Verse!

She while she was, (that was a woful Word to sain)
For Beauty’s Praise and Pleasance had no Peer:
So well she couth the Shepherds entertain
With Cakes and Cracknels, and such Country Cheer.
Ne would she scorn the simple Shepherd’s Swain;
For she would call him often heam,
And give him Curds and clouted Cream.
O heavy Herse!
Als Colin Clout she would not once disdain:
O careful Verse!

But now sike happy Cheer is turn’d to heavy Chaunce,
Such Pleasance now displac’d by Dolor’s dint:
All Musick sleeps, where Death doth lead the Daunce,
And Shepherds wonted Solace is extinct.
The blue in black, the green in gray is tinct:
The gaudy Girlonds deck her Grave,
The faded Flowers her Corse embrave.
O heavy Herse!
Mourn now my Muse, now mourn with Tears besprint:
O careful Verse!

O thou great Shepherd Lobbin, how great is thy Grief,
Where bin the Nosegays that she dight for thee?
The coloured Chaplets wrought with a chief,
The knotted Rush-rings, and gilt Rosemaree?
For she deemed nothing too dear for thee.
Ah, they been all yclad in Clay,
One bitter Blast blew all away.
O heavy Herse!
Thereof nought remains but the Memoree:
O careful Verse!

Ay me that dreery Death should strike so mortal Stroke,
That can undo Dame Nature’s kindly Course:
The faded Locks fall from the lofty Oke,
The Flouds do gasp, for dried is their Source,
And Flouds of Tears flow in their stead perforce.
The mantled Meadows mourn,
Their sundry Colours tourn:
O heavy Herse!
The Heavens do melt in Tears without remorse:
O careful Verse!

The feeble Flocks in Field refuse their former Food,
And hang their Heads, as they would learn to weep:
The Beasts in Forest wail as they were wood,
Except the Wolves, that chase the wandring Sheep,
Now she is gone, that safely did hem keep.
The Turtle on the bared Branch,
Laments the Wound, that Death did lanch.
O heavy Herse!
And Philomel her Song with Tears doth steep:
O careful Verse!

The Water Nymphs, that wont with her to sing and dance,
And for her Girlond Olive Branches bear,
Now baleful Boughs of Cypress done advance:
The Muses that were wont green Bays to wear,
How bringen bitter Elder Branches sere:
The fatal Sisters eke repent,
Her vital Threed so soon was spent.
O heavy Herse!
Mourn now my Muse, now mourn with heavy Chear:
O careful Verse!

O trustless State of earthly things, and slipper Hope
Of mortal Men, that swink and sweat for nought,
And shooting wide, do miss the marked Scope:
Now have I learn’d (a Lesson dearly bought)
That nis on Earth assurance to be sought:
For what might be in earthly Mould;
That did her buried Body hold;
O heavy Herse!
Yet saw I on the Beere when it was brought:
O careful Verse!

But maugre Death, and dreaded Sisters deadly spight:
And Gates of Hell, and fiery Furies force;
She hath the Bonds broke of eternal Night,
Her Soul unbodied of the burdenous Corse.
Why then weeps Lobbin so without remorse?
O Lobb, thy Loss no longer lament;
Dido nis dead, but into Heaven hent:
O happy Herse!
Cease now my Muse, now cease thy Sorrow’s sourse,
O joyful Verse!

Why wail we then? why weary we the Gods with Plaints,
As if some Evil were to her betight?
She reigns a Goddess now emong the Saints,
That whylom was the Saint of Shepherds light;
And is enstalled now in Heavens hight.
I see the blessed soul, I see,
Walk in Elysian Fields so free.
O happy Herse!
Might I once come to thee (O that I might!)
O joyful Verse!

Unwise and wretched Men to weet what’s Good or Ill,
We deem of Death as doom of ill Desert:
But knew we, Fools, what it us brings until,
Die would we daily, once it to expert:
No Danger there the Shepherd can assert;
Fair Fields and pleasant Layes there been;
The Fields aye fresh, the Grass aye green:
O happy Herse!
Cease now my Song, my Woe now wasted is,
O joyful Verse!

Dido is gone afore (whose turn shall be the next?)
There lives she with the blessed Gods in Bliss;
There drinks she Nectar with Ambrosia mixt,
And Joys enjoys, that mortal Men do miss.
The Honour now of highest Gods she is,
That whylom was poor Shepherds Pride,
While here on Earth she did abide:
O happy Herse!
Cease now my Song, my Woe now wasted is:
O joyful Verse!

THENOT.
Aye frank Shepherd, how been thy Verses meint
With doleful Pleasance, so as I ne wot,
Whether rejoyce or weep for great constraint?
Thine be the Cosset, well hast thou it got.
Up Colin up, ynough thou mourned hast:
Now ‘gins to mizzle, hie we homeward fast.

COLIN’S EMBLEM.
La mort ny mord.

Today’s post introduces a completely new feature for Ferrebeekeeper. Every month we are going to spend a day traveling back in time to 16th century England. The method we are using to go back half a millennia to the birthplace of modern English is itself the content of these dozen posts: which is to say we are stealing a poem from Edmund Spenser (ca. 1552 –1599). In fact, arguably we are stealing a whole book of poetry! Yet Edmund Spenser, the great fantasy allegorist, is dead. In taking this poem we are not robbing him or his family. Instead we are giving him all he really cared about—an audience for his poetry (although Spenser scholars may argue that he also cared about money and oppressing Ireland).

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Spenser’s first major work The Shepheardes Calender was published in 1579. It consisted of 12 allegorical pastoral poems about the year (and about art, politics, the natural world, and the human heart). Each poem is an eclogue—a pastoral soliloquy by the eponymous shepherd, Colin Cloute. Each month is written in a different form—to reflect the differing months and the changing subjects. The first poem, January, is a lament. The land is bare, wasted by winter. The sheep are mangy and dirty. The poet’s beloved does not return his affection. The poor shepherd breaks his pipe (his only remaining source of joy) and gives in to winter darkness.

As we go through the year with Spenser, we can say more about the larger meaning of The Shepheardes Calender (and more about Spenser, the first major literary figure of modern Enlish), but the despair of winter and of loveless life speak for themselves. So, without more preamble, here is…

The Shepheardes Calender: January

By Edmund Spenser

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Januarie. Ægloga prima. ARGVMENT.

 

IN this fyrst Æglogue Colin clout a shepheardes boy complaineth him of his vnfortunate loue, being but newly (as semeth) enamoured of a countrie lasse called Rosalinde: with which strong affection being very sore traueled, he compareth his carefull case to the sadde season of the yeare, to the frostie ground, to the frosen trees, and to his owne winterbeaten flocke. And lastlye, fynding himselfe robbed of all former pleasaunce and delights, hee breaketh his Pipe in peeces, and casteth him selfe to the ground.
COLIN Cloute.
A Shepeheards boye (no better doe him call)
when Winters wastful spight was almost spent,
All in a sunneshine day, as did befall,
Led forth his flock, that had been long ypent.
So faynt they woxe, and feeble in the folde,
That now vnnethes their feete could them vphold.
All as the Sheepe, such was the shepeheards looke,
For pale and wanne he was, (alas the while,)
May seeme he lovd, or els some care he tooke:
Well couth he tune his pipe, and frame his stile.
Tho to a hill his faynting flocke he ledde,
And thus him playnd, the while his shepe there fedde.
Ye gods of loue, that pitie louers payne,
(if any gods the paine of louers pitie:)
Looke from aboue, where you in ioyes remaine,
And bowe your eares vnto my doleful dittie.
And Pan thou shepheards God, that once didst loue,
Pitie the paines, that thou thy selfe didst proue.
Thou barrein ground, whome winters wrath hath wasted,
Art made a myrrhour, to behold my plight:
Whilome thy fresh spring flowrd, and after hasted
Thy sommer prowde with Daffadillies dight.
And now is come thy wynters stormy state,
Thy mantle mard, wherein thou mas-kedst late.
Such rage as winters, reigneth in my heart,
My life bloud friesing wtih vnkindly cold:
Such stormy stoures do breede my balefull smarte,
As if my yeare were wast, and woxen old.
And yet alas, but now my spring begonne,
And yet alas, yt is already donne.
You naked trees, whose shady leaves are lost,
Wherein the byrds were wont to build their bowre:
And now are clothd with mosse and hoary frost,
Instede of bloosmes, wherwith your buds did flowre:
I see your teares, that from your boughes doe raine,
Whose drops in drery ysicles remaine.
All so my lustfull leafe is drye and sere,
My timely buds with wayling all are wasted:
The blossome, which my braunch of youth did beare,
With breathed sighes is blowne away, & blasted,
And from mine eyes the drizling teares descend,
As on your boughes the ysicles depend.
Thou feeble flocke, whose fleece is rough and rent,
Whose knees are weak through fast and evill fare:
Mayst witnesse well by thy ill gouernement,
Thy maysters mind is ouercome with care.
Thou weak, I wanne: thou leabe, I quite forlorne:
With mourning pyne I, you with pyning mourne.
A thousand sithes I curse that carefull hower,
Wherein I longd the neighbour towne to see:
And eke tenne thousand sithes I blesse the stoure,
Wherein I sawe so fayre a sight, as shee.
Yet all for naught: snch [such] sight hath bred my bane.
Ah God, that loue should breede both ioy and payne.
It is not Hobbinol, wherefore I plaine,
Albee my loue he seeke with dayly suit:
His clownish gifts and curtsies I disdaine,
His kiddes, his cracknelles, and his early fruit.
Ah foolish Hobbinol, thy gyfts bene vayne:
Colin them gives to Rosalind againe.
I loue thilke lasse, (alas why doe I loue?)
And am forlorne, (alas why am I lorne?)
Shee deignes not my good will, but doth reproue,
And of my rurall musick holdeth scorne.
Shepheards deuise she hateth as the snake,
And laughes the songes, that Colin Clout doth make.
Wherefore my pype, albee rude Pan thou please,
Yet for thou pleasest not, where most I would:
And thou vnlucky Muse, that wontst to ease
My musing mynd, yet canst not, when thou should:
Both pype and Muse, shall sore the while abye.
So broke his oaten pype, and downe dyd lye.
By that, the welked Phoebus gan availe,
His weary waine, and nowe the frosty Night
Her mantle black through heauen gan overhaile.
Which seene, the pensife boy halfe in despight
Arose, and homeward drove his sonned sheepe,
Whose hanging heads did seeme his carefull case to weepe.
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