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It’s time for our monthly installment of the Shepheardes Calender, an epic poetic journey through the 12 months of the year which takes the form of dialogues between classically-minded shepherds concerning love, poetry, sheep, and politics. Ultimately the poem is about nature and the nature of reality and, of course, it is about love. We have come half-way through the year, from January’s abject darkness to glowing light of June. The exceedingly beautiful month of May featured a very peculiar and dark sort of fable. Likewise glorious June features a sad tale of love lost… The beauteous shepherdess Rosalind has left Colin for his arch-rival…yet this lament is couched within lovely pastoral poetry.

What is going on with this thing anyway? Who are these people and what are they talking about? Spenser wrote his poems for sophisticated classically-trained courtiers who delighted in unraveling complicated intrigues and unmasking hidden figures.  By this time, it has become plain that the unhappy, but gifted Colin represents Spenser himself.  Likewise the figure of Tityrus, “the God of Shepherds,” is Chaucer, the progenitor of English verse.  The identity of Rosalind, who appeared back in January to inaugurate the entire work, would seem to be the central mystery of The Shephearde’s Calender, but who she is…whether she represents love in general, or fame, or poetry…or whether she is some actual golden haired beauty whom the melancholic Spenser fixated upon is lost in time.

The poetry of each season has an entirely different character just as the months are each different.  So far the words have been honeyed and filigreed to the point where they are too pretty to understand, but June features the summer solstice–the turn of the year.  As the year darkens and winds down, the poems become earthier and easier to understand.  Perhaps we can get some closure on this Colin/Rosalind romance then, but if things are not good in June, when will they be good?

Well, there are still six months to come, but for now, here is June’s Aeglogue:

june

Aeglogue

HOBBINOL. COLIN.
Lo! Colin, here the Place, whose pleasant Sight
From other Shades hath wean’d my wandring Mind:
Tell me, what wants me here, to work Delight?
The simple Air, she gentle warbling Wind,
So calm, so cool, as no where else I find:
The grassy Ground with dainty Daisies dight,
The Bramble Bush, where Birds of every kind
To th’ Water’s Fall their Tunes attemper right.

COLIN.
O! happy Hoblinol, I bless thy State,
That Paradise hast found which Adam lost.
Here wander may thy Flock early or late,
Withouten Dread of Wolves to been ytost;
Thy lovely Lays here mayst thou freely boast:
But I, unhappy Man! whom cruel Fate,
And angry God, pursue from Coast to Coast,
Can no where find, to shroud my luckless Pate.

HOBBINOL.
Then if by me thou list advised be,
Forsake the Soil, that so doth thee bewitch:
Leave me those Hills, where Harbrough nis to see,
Nor Holly-bush, nor Brere, nor winding Ditch;
And to the Dales resort, where Shepherds rich,
And fruitful Flocks been every where to see:
Here no Night-Ravens lodge, more black than Pitch,
Nor elvish Ghosts, nor ghastly Owls do flee.

But friendly Fairies, met with many Graces,
And lightfoot Nymphs can chace the lingring Night,
With Heydeguies, and trimly trodden Traces;
Whilst Sisters nine, which dwell on Parnass’ hight,
Do make them Musick, for their mere Delight;
And Pan himself to kiss their crystal Faces,
Will pipe and daunce, when Phoebe shineth bright:
Such peerless Pleasures have we in these Places.

COLIN.
And I, whilst Youth, and Course of careless Years,
Did let me walk withouten Links of Love,
In such Delights did joy amongst my Peers;
But riper Age such Pleasures doth reprove,
My Fancy eke from former Follies move
To stayed Steps: for time in passing wears
(As Garments doen, which wexen old above)
And draweth new Delights with hoary Hairs.

Tho couth I sing of Love, and tune my Pipe
Unto my plaintive Pleas in Verses made:
Tho would I seek for Queen-Apples unripe,
To give my Rosalind, and in Sommer Shade
Dight gawdy Girlonds, was my common Trade,
To crown her golden Locks: but Years more ripe,
And Loss of her, whose Love as Life I wayde,
Those weary wanton Toys away did wipe.

HOBBINOL.
Colin, to hear thy Rimes and Roundelays,
Which thou wert wont on wasteful Hills to sing,
I more delight, then Lark in Sommer Days:
Whose Eccho made the neighbour Groves to ring,
And taught the Birds, which in the lower Spring
Did shroud in shady Leaves from sunny Rays;
Frame to thy Song their cheerful cheriping,
Or hold their Peace, for shame of thy sweet Lays.

I saw Calliope with Muses moe,
Soon as thy Oaten Pipe began to sound,
Their Ivory Lutes and Tamburins forgo:
And from the Fountain, where they sate around,
Ren after hastily thy silver Sound.
But when they came, where thou thy Skill didst show,
They drew aback, as half with Shame confound,
Shepherd to see, them in their Art out-go

COLIN.
Of Muses, Hobbinol, I con no Skill,
For they been Daughters of the highest Jove,
And holden Scorn of homely Shepherds-Quill:
For sith I heard that Pan with Phoebus strove,
Which him to much Rebuke and Danger drove,
I never list presume to Parnass’ Hill,
But piping low, in shade of lowly Grove,
I play to please my self, albeit ill.

Nought weigh I, who my Song doth praise or blame,
Ne rive to win Renown, or pass the rest:
With Shepherd fits not follow flying Fame,
But feed his Flock in Fields, where falls him best.
I wote my Rimes been rough, and rudely drest;
The fitter they, my careful Case to frame:
Enough is me to paint out my Unrest,
And pour my piteous Plaints out in the same.

The God of Shepherds, Tityrus is dead,
Who taught me homely, as I can, to make:
He, whilst he lived, was the sovereign Head
Of Shepherds all, that been with Love ytake.
Well couth he wail his Woes, and lightly slake
The Flames, which Love within his Heart had bred,
And tell us merry Tales, to keep us wake,
The while our Sheep about us safely fed.

Now dead he is, and lieth wrapt in Lead,
(O why should Death on him such Outrage show!)
And all his passing Skill with him is fled,
The Fame whereof doth daily greater grow.
But if on me some little Drops would flow
Of that the Spring was in his learned Hed,
I soon would learn these Woods to wail my Woe,
And teach the Trees their trickling Tears to shed.

Then should my Plaints, caus’d of Discourtesee,
As Messengers of this my painful Plight,
Fly to my Love, wherever that she be,
And pierce her Heart with Point of worthy Wight;
As she deserves, that wrought so deadly Spight.
And thou, Menalcas, that by Treachery
Didst underfong my Lass to wax so light,
Should’st well be known for such thy Villany.

But since I am not, as I wish I were,
Ye gentle Shepherds, which your Flock do feed,
Whether on Hills, or Dales, or other where,
Bear witness all of this so wicked Deed:
And tell the Lass, whose Flowre is woxe a Weed,
And faultless Faith is turn’d to faithless Fear,
That she the truest Shepherd’s Heart made bleed,
That lives on Earth, and loved her most dear.

HOBBINOL.
O! careful Colin, I lament thy Case,
Thy Tears would make the hardest Flint to flow!
Ah! faithless Rosalind, and void of Grace,
That are the Root of all this rueful Woe!
But now is time, I guess, homeward to go;
Then rise, ye blessed Flocks, and home apace,
Lest Night with stealing Steps do you foreslo,
And wet your tender Lambs, that by you trace.

COLIN’S EMBLEM.
Gia speme spenta.

[Works, ed. Hughes (1715) 4:1074-78]

April is poetry month!  I love poetry…and poets! Many of my friends and close associates are contemporary poets, scrambling to make ends meet as they rework language to capture the elusive meaning and rhythm of life.  I really enjoy talking to them about literature…including poetry, but much of my favorite poetry is Victorian poetry…and it’s frustrating to watch my poor friends’ smiles curdle when I say such a thing.  The rhythm and the themes of 19th century poetry are very different from modern poetic tastes, but not quite sufficiently different that it can be neatly archived away in the hallowed halls of ancient poetry. To modern poets a great deal of Victorian poetry seems fusty and overly-detailed.  It has a repetitive classical-music rhythm which (to ears more used to the syncopation of rap and rock) can sound like a monotonous drone.  Thematically, Victorian works are insufficiently focused on identity politics to rate approval from the academic literary establishment right now.  The canonical poets of the 19th century were seemingly unconcerned with the complexities of gender, class, race which hold the so much of the attention of the literati in today’s democracies (although this stereotype is less true on careful re- reading—indeed many of the great Victorian poets were passing, or gay…or even women!).

I am making the same mistake which drove me away from literature—talking about politics, historiography, the biography of authors, and suchlike “meta” concerns, when what really matters is the actual poetry!  At its zenith English poetry of the 19th century is unrivaled. The sumptuous language immerses the reader in a fulsome world where colors burn brighter than in real life and supernatural epiphany lurks around every verdant garden corner.  The great English poets of the nineteenth century were too concerned with the greater meanings of humankind, life, and the universe to become unduly caught up in the grasping web of daily politics…but that doesn’t mean humankind’s scheming clannish nature and self-delusions are not addressed.

Here is one of my favorite passages of poetry, from Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H., a vast elegy which Tennyson wrote for a beloved friend who died unexpectedly of a brain hemorrhage.  The work is an attempt to make sense of loss and human fragility.  It was written at a time when the simplistic certainties of religion were rapidly fading away. The scientific breakthroughs of the 18th century were driving technology and civilization forward at a breakneck pace during the 19th century but some of the other larger implications of these scientific breakthroughs were also becoming apparent. Victorians were relentlessly trained to be religious, but thinking people could see past the fraudulent stagecraft of the priests and begin to apprehend how vast, ancient, and uncaring the world really is.

ph_0111201592-Tennyson

Tension between the ersatz facade of religion, and the darkness of a world without any magical beings, was much at the center of Victorian thinking…and it made for dramatic and interesting poetry! Here is Tennyson’s poem (or actually the 69th canto thereof), a lament about the pain of death and loss…and about the larger nature of life…and about faith.

LXIX.

I dream’d there would be Spring no more,

That Nature’s ancient power was lost:

The streets were black with smoke and frost,

They chatter’d trifles at the door:

I wander’d from the noisy town,

I found a wood with thorny boughs:

I took the thorns to bind my brows,

I wore them like a civic crown:

I met with scoffs, I met with scorns

From youth and babe and hoary hairs:

They call’d me in the public squares

The fool that wears a crown of thorns:

They call’d me fool, they call’d me child:

I found an angel of the night;

The voice was low, the look was bright;

He look’d upon my crown and smiled:

He reach’d the glory of a hand,

That seem’d to touch it into leaf:

The voice was not the voice of grief,

The words were hard to understand.

The work is Christian in meaning and symbolism, but right away the narrator experiences problems with the dogma and the real nature of his faith. The poet picks up and puts on a wreath of thorns which is meant to represent grief for his dead friend and the larger grief of mortality itself.  This thorn crown obviously also has a special religious significance: it is the same crown which Jesus Christ wore during the passion.  Jesus was both human and divine.  In Christian mythology he was a person who died and then transcended death. Christianity extends the same promise to its followers.

Angel of Death (Evelyn De Morgan. 1881, oil on canvas)

Angel of Death (Evelyn De Morgan. 1881, oil on canvas)

In his broken sadness, the narrator attempts to bridge the gap between death and eternity by wearing the same garb as Christ, but right away society condemns the narrator as pitiful and childlike.  Grief is not meant to so undo a person.  Additionally, the promise of eternal life—of any divine compact at all—is in doubt.  Spring will not come again.  The streets are black with industrial grime. His friend is dead…as we all must die, and yet religion is no so longer a sovereign remedy. The world of society is founded on religious strictures—but laughs off expressions of those beliefs.  Worse the beliefs themselves have been undermined…by life’s sorrow sand by greater knowledge of the world.

When the narrator does encounter an actual angel–a numinous from beyond who represents the true meanings of existence—the angel transmutes the crown of thorns into a living wreath and says something which lies beyond the poet’s grasp.   It is a tremendous combined message of hope, uncertainty and grief…yet this sacred message lies beyond the poet.

The words were not the words of grief, but neither were they comprehensible to Tennyson…We all must keep fumbling towards meaning in a world without any certainty.

Divine messages are jumbled whispers from our dreams and from angels of the night…and from poets who keep delivering beautiful and ambivalent truths which the priests and politicians certainly would never dare utter.

April is National Poetry Month so I have been trying to think of how best to celebrate an art which is at least as old as writing and as broad as humankind.  Should I return to the epic beginnings and feature a Sumerian ode of ziggurats, abzus, and strange gods?  Should we fly through time and space to a mountain village of the Sung dynasty and listen to the thoughts of a bearded sage drinking rice wine?  We can visit a Greek battlefield, a Roman brothel, a Spanish galleon to watch history unfold–or alternately we could look at ourselves through the mirror of poetry by visiting a contemporary journal to read the works of poets who are still alive and trying to make sense of the turmoil which is the present. Historians record the basic plot of humankind’s doings over the long strange centuries, but poetry provides the life, the character, and the essence of what it is to live.

llustration by Warwick Goble

But to return to the conundrum of which poem to feature for Poetry month, I have decided to look back to my tempestuous teenage years by featuring my first girlfriend’s favorite poem, Goblin Market, written by Christina Rossetti and published in 1862.  The work is outwardly a gothic fairy tale about two sisters who are continuously tempted by the sumptuous otherworldly fruit peddled by bestial & obscene goblin-men.  What the poem is really about has been a hot topic of debate since it was written. Paradoxically the work is nakedly and explicitly erotic while also completely chaste.  It is beautiful while also shockingly ugly.  It is sad and troubling with an ending of golden transcendent joy.  Before we get into any more spoilers, here are the first two stanzas (which will immediately reveal why any lover of gardens or gothic imagery likes this poem).  I am including these lines because it would be a cruel jape to write a post about poetry which featured no actual poetry, but I cannot exhort you strongly enough to read the entire poem here.

MORNING and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries-
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheeked peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries–
All ripe together
In summer weather–
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy;
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Bright-fire-like barberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye,
Come buy, come buy.”

Evening by evening
Among the brookside rushes,
Laura bowed her head to hear,
Lizzie veiled her blushes:
Crouching close together
In the cooling weather,
With clasping arms and cautioning lips,
With tingling cheeks and finger-tips.
“Lie close,” Laura said,
Pricking up her golden head:
We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?”
“Come buy,” call the goblins
Hobbling down the glen.
“O! cried Lizzie, Laura, Laura,
You should not peep at goblin men.”
Lizzie covered up her eyes
Covered close lest they should look;
Laura reared her glossy head,
And whispered like the restless brook:
“Look, Lizzie, look, Lizzie,
Down the glen tramp little men.
One hauls a basket,
One bears a plate,
One lugs a golden dish
Of many pounds’ weight.
How fair the vine must grow
Whose grapes are so luscious;
How warm the wind must blow
Through those fruit bushes.”
“No,” said Lizzie, “no, no, no;
Their offers should not charm us,
Their evil gifts would harm us.”
She thrust a dimpled finger
In each ear, shut eyes and ran:
Curious Laura chose to linger
Wondering at each merchant man.
One had a cat’s face,
One whisked a tail,
One tramped at a rat’s pace,
One crawled like a snail,
One like a wombat prowled obtuse and furry,
One like a ratel tumbled hurry-scurry.
Lizzie heard a voice like voice of doves
Cooing all together:
They sounded kind and full of loves
In the pleasant weather.

Hopefully you read the entire poem (or re-read it if you are familiar with it). Critics continue to debate what it is about.  Most contemporary scholars tend to view the work as some sort of feminist allegory concerning the unfair treatment women were subjected to in Victorian (and subsequent) society. Other modern critics read it as a (barely) disguised defense of homosexuality.  Still other groups of readers have interpreted the poem as a critique of consumer culture and the ubiquity of advertisement, or a story about drug addiction, or an allegory of religious indoctrination.  Perhaps it was a work by Rossetti about art itself which, evermore, seems to consist of pursuing sensuous ghosts into a pauper’s grave. All of those ideas are valid and correct, yet there is even more to the poem. As I mentioned, it was the favorite work of my (anguished) first lover back when I was a jejune teenager.  When reading the poem it is hard for me not to think of her and her beautiful sister and wonder which was Laura and which was Lizzie.  Yet beyond aching personal feelings (which a good poem should stir up) there is an overarching tale about humankind in this poem which is bigger than the individual strands of desire and gender and subversion.

The Goblin Market after all mirrors the story of the fall from Eden.  There is tempting fruit and the (near fatal) consumption of the same.  It is a shocking tale of being cursed by one’s own desires and appetites and then redeemed by love.

The world is a marketplace. There are always a troop of goblins trying to sell us something which is bad for us–whether it is toxic gender stereotypes, or poisonous religious doctrine, or addictive narcotics, or endless shoddy consumer goods.  Celebrate National Poetry month by discarding some of the poisonous habits of thought you have picked up from the disfigured little merchants.  Don’t accept fallacious ideas about yourself or what you want!  If by some dread mischance you are languishing under someone else’s ideas or impositions you may need a dear friend to break the curse.  That person might be a family member or a lover or a close friend, or it might be a strange unmarried Victorian poet who has been dead for more than a century but whose words live on as a glowing antidote to life’s poisoned fruit.

[A Side Note: Rossetti’s religious poetry won her high esteem from the Church of England.  She is enshrined in the Episcopalian liturgical calendar with a feast day—today in fact, April 27th.]

Happy leap day!  Every time one comes around it makes me cast my mind back to where I was on past leap days—grinding through elementary school; about to graduate high school; about to graduate college; working without meaning at a parasitic bank, and so on.  Four years is a convenient marker in human life and there is something memorable about the end of winter as life takes a breath before flinging itself into spring.  However, if you keep leaping back over the century and millennia, eventually the leap years run out.

Prior to Julius Caesar, the Roman calendar was 355 days long.  Following such a calendar for any length of time caused the months to drift out of alignment with the seasons, so the ancient Romans sporadically included a leap month named Mercedonius, or Intercalaris.  Mercedonius, when it happened, was 27 days long and followed February.

February was named for the Latin word februum, which means “purification.”  Romans did not like even numbers (they regarded odd numbers as lucky).  February was the one month of the Roman year with an even number of days and so the Romans thought of the winter month as a time of purification and cleansing.  The Romans did not care for cold dark February, so they made it shorter than all other months—28 days.  Whenever Mercedonius was declared, February became shorter still—shrinking down to 23 days (at least this is probably what happened—contemporary classicists are still arguing about the precise mechanism of the ancient Roman calendar).

The pontifex maximus, the highest Priest of ancient Rome, was responsible for deciding when to insert Mercedonius into the calendar.  Throughout most of the history of Rome this worked well, however it broke down badly at least two times.  During the second Punic War, Roman society was so badly damaged by Hannibal’s invasion that the Romans lost track of Mercedonius and literally did not know what time it was.  After the battle was won, order was restored with the reforms of the Lex Acilia in 191 BC (the nature of which are unknown—but which seem to have solved everything).

"Excuse me, but do you perhaps know today's date?"

The second breakdown occurred during the years of confusion leading up to Julius Caesar’s ascendancy as dictator for life.  The pontifex maximus was inevitably a powerful citizen who was deeply involved in Roman politics.  He could interfere with the length of time other elected officials served by shortening or lengthening the year.  As civil war enveloped Rome, the calendar became a political tool and Romans again lost track of what day it was.  The confusion was only solved when Caesar took supreme office and proclaimed himself pontifex maximus.  He reformed the addled calendar into the Julian calendar, which abolished Mercedonius, the haphazard leap month, forever.

The "Tusculum bust" of Julius Caesar, possibly the only survivng portrait from Caesar's lifetime

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