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I am still thinking about Lady Xia’s pet gibbon, the first and last known representative of its kind, and the subject of yesterday’s post.  After I wrote about the interwoven fates of rice and trees and men and apes, I spent a long time looking through Ferrebeekeeper archives for the beautiful gibbon poem which I alluded to in the essay, but I came to realize that I never did write about it, so today’s post is another post about pet gibbons in ancient China. Bear with me, for the poem is an exquisite piece of history, and a remarkably soulful examination of pets…and of the winsome sadness of life itself.

The poem was written by Wen Tong (1019–1079AD), a scholar-artist of the Northern Song Dynasty who was famous for his bamboo paintings. Allegedly he could simultaneously paint different stalks of bamboo with both hands, and lovely examples of his work are still extant a thousand years after he painted them…as is poetry about his favorite pet (As an aside, medieval China featured a class of learned polymaths who were masters of writing, erudition, gardening, and “painting without financial reward”: there is no clear career analogy in the modern western world although the painting without financial reward part sounds rather familiar).

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Wen Tong wrote about his love and admiration for his pet, and the poem quietly reveals a great deal about the household mores and emotional norms of well-to-do life in the Northern Song dynasty (note how the painter has so many retainers that he just passingly assigns one to look after the gibbon).  It is a lovely and heartfelt window into a vanished world which is well worth examining line by line. As a poetic device, the back-and-forth switches from first person to second person keeps readers attentively off balance and yet draws them closer to both Wen Tong and his gibbon.  Although, the writer’s privilege and possessiveness shine through, so does his kindness, playfulness and curiosity (perhaps there is a reason he got on so well with his remarkable pet that we are still thinking about it all of these centuries later). However, the final stanzas transcend the writer’s time and place.  The poem speaks to the uneasy and fraught relationship we have with our fellow life-forms.  For animals have their own lives and hearts and spirits, no matter how much we want to love and possess them. Wen Tong also delves into the realm of the existential, questioning the apparently painful randomness of fate, which mocks notions of ownership and control.

Don’t let my clumsy words put you off reading the actual poem (coincidentally I have taken the whole translated work from “Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras: Understanding the World’s Most Intriguing Animals” By Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson).  It really moved me greatly and I hope you will also find it to be equally enchanting and sad.

it really is extraordinary and I think it will move you

Last year a Buddhist Monk of Hua-p’ing, in the Min mountains,

Obtained a gibbon for me and had it delivered from afar.

On arrival he was already tame and accustomed to captivity,

And his swift and nimble movements were a delight to watch.

He would come and go as told, as if he understood my speech

And seemed to have lost all desire to return to his mountains.

Put on a leash he was not interesting to watch,

So I set him free and let him romp about as much as he liked.

On a moonlit night, he would sing, swinging from a branch,

On hot days he would sit by the flowers and doze facing the sun.

When my children were around or my guests showed their interest,

He would hang upside down or jump about showing his tricks.

I had told a man to look after all his needs,

So that he never even once lacked his seasonal food and drink.

Yet the other day his keeper suddenly told me the gibbon was ill.

He stood on my steps, the gibbon in his arms, and I went to look,

Offered him persimmons and chestnuts, but he didn’t glance at them.

Legs drawn up, head between his knees, hunched up with folded arms,

His fur ruffled and dull, all at once his body seemed to have shrunk,

And I realized that this time he was really in great distress.

Formerly you were also subject to occasional slight indispositions,

But then after I had fed you a few spiders as a remedy,

After having swallowed them you would recover at once.

Why did the medicine fail now, though given several times?

This morning when a frosty wind was chilling me to the bone,

Very early I sent someone to inquire, and he reported you had died.

Although in this world it is hard to avoid grief and sadness,

I was tormented by repentance and bitter self-reproach.

You could be happy only when near your towering mountains.

You had been yearning for far plains and dense forests.

You must have suffered deeply being on a leash or chain,

And that was why your allotted span of life was short.

I had his body wrapped up well and buried deep in a secluded corner,

So that at least the insects would leave his remains in peace.

Mr. Tzu-p’ing, my western neighbor, a man of very wide interests,

When he heard about this, slapped his thigh sighing without end.

He came to inquire several times, in deep sorrow over my loss,

Then, back home, he wrote a long poem of over a hundred words.

Reading those lines my lonely heart was filled with sadness.

Well had he expressed the grief caused by my gibbon’s death!

He also tried to console me by referring to life’s natural course, “That

Meetings result in partings, subject to the whims of fate.”

I took his poem out into the garden, read and reread it

Then, looking up at the bare branches, I burst out in tears.

We are reaching the end of the year and now it is time too to reach the end of The Shepheardes Calender.  This year was harder to get through than I expected it to be…and so was this poem!  There was a lot of weird maudlin rustic business going on and a lot of terrifying politics.  The entire thing was nearly impossible to understand–even with help from trained commenters.  Perhaps you will not be entirely surprised that the conclusion of The Shepheardes Calender is sad and unfullfilling–since it ends the same way it started:  it is winter and Colin, the writer’s alter-ego and approximate protagonist of the piece is  lamenting his unhappy lot (and his unrequited love for Rosalind).

Colin compares the four seasons of the year to the four stages of human life, but he concludes that an early winter has blighted the fruits of fall and laments that winter will finish him off (which proved prophetic for Spenser, whose fortunes fell apart utterly which led him to an early death of starvation).  Like the November ecologue, the lament has the full force of conviction behind it and the poetry (my favorite passage of Spenser is the passage in the Fairy Queen, where Despair nearly defeats the RedCrosse knight by whispering syllabant words of negation and defeatism).  The Redcrosse knight is rescued by Una and Arthur…but no such figures hold out hope for shepheardes and poets, so we leave Colin heartbroken saying fairwell to his sheep as the cold settles ineluctably upon him.  Yet the poem is still here…and we are still talking about Spenser…Vivitur ingenio, caetera mortis erunt!

Without further comment, here is the conclusion of

The Shepheardes Calender

December

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Ægloga Duodecima.

 A R G V M E N T.

THis Æglogue (euen as the first beganne) is ended with a complaynte of Colin to God Pan. wherein as weary of his former wayes, he proportioneth his life to the foure seasons of the yeare, comparing hys youthe to the spring time, when he was fresh and free form loues follye. His manhoode to the sommer, which he sayth, was consumed with greate heate and excessiue drouth caused through a Comet or blasinge starre, by which he meaneth loue, which passion is comenly compared to such flames and immoderate heate. His riper yeares hee resembleth to an vnseasonable harueste wherein the fruites fall ere they be rype. His latter age to winters chyll & frostie season, now drawing neare to his last ende.

THe gentle shepheard satte beside a springe,
All in the shadowe of a bushy brere,
That Colin hight, which wel could pype and singe,
For he of Tityrus his songs did lere.
There as he satte in secreate shade alone,
Thus gan he make of loue his piteous mone. O soueraigne Pan thou God of shepheards all,
Which of our tender Lambkins takest keepe:
And when our flocks into mischaunce mought fall,
Doest save from mischeife the vnwary sheepe:
Als of their maisters hast no lesse regarde,
Then of the flocks, which thou doest watch and ward:

 I thee beseche (so be thou deigne to heare,
Rude ditties tund to shepheards Oaten reede,
Or if I euer sonet song so cleare,
As it with pleasaunce mought thy fancie feede)
Hearken awhile from thy greene cabinet,
The rurall song of carefull Colinet.

 Whilome in youth, when flowrd my ioyfull spring,
Like Swallow swift I wandred here and there:
For heate of heedlesse lust me so did sting,
That I of doubted daunger had no feare.
I went the wastefull woodes and forest wyde,
Withouten dreade of Wolues to bene espyed.

 I wont to raunge amydde the mazie thickette,
And gather nuttes to make me Christmas game:
And ioyed oft to chace the trembling Pricket,
Or hunt the hartlesse hare, til shee were tame.
What wreaked I of wintrye ages waste,
Tho deemed I, my spring would euer laste.

 How often haue I scaled the craggie Oke,
All to dislodge the Rauen of her neste:
Howe haue I wearied with many a stroke,
The stately Walnut tree, the while the rest
Vnder the tree fell all for nuts at strife:
For ylike to me was libertee and lyfe.

 And for I was in thilke same looser yeares,
(Whether the Muse so wrought me from my birth,
Or I tomuch beleeued my shepherd peres)
Somedele ybent to song and musicks mirth,
A good olde shephearde, Wrenock was his name,
Made me by arte more cunning in the same.

 Fro thence I durst in derring [doe] compare
With shepheards swayne, what euer fedde in field:
And if that Hobbinol right iudgement bare,
To Pan his owne selfe pype I neede not yield.
For if the flocking Nymphes did folow Pan,
The wiser Muses after Colin ranne.

 But ah such pryde at length was ill repayde,
The shepheards God (perdie God was he none)
My hurtlesse pleasaunce did me ill vpbraide,
My freedome lorne, my life he lefte to mone.
Loue they him called, that gaue me checkmate,
But better mought they haue behote him Hate.

 Tho gan my louely Spring bid me farewel,
And Sommer season sped him to display
(For loue then in the Lyons house did dwell)
The raging fyre, that kindled at his ray.
A comett stird vp that vnkindly heate,
That reigned (as men sayd) in Venus seate.

 Forth was I ledde, not as I wont afore,
When choise I had to choose my wandring waye:
But whether luck and loues vnbridled lore
Would leade me forth on Fancies bitte to playe:
The bush my bedde, the bramble was my bowre,
The Woodes can witnesse many a wofull stowre.

 Where I was wont to seeke the honey Bee,
Working her formall rowmes in Wexen frame:
The grieslie Todestool growne there mought I se
And loathed Paddocks lording on the same.
And where the chaunting birds luld me a sleepe,
The ghastlie Owle her grieuous ynne doth keepe.

 Then as the springe giues place to elder time,
And bringeth forth the fruite of sommers pryde:
Also my age now passed yougthly pryme,
To thinges of ryper reason selfe applyed.
And learnd of lighter timber cotes to frame,
Such as might saue my sheepe and me fro shame.

 To make fine cages for the Nightingale,
And Baskets of bulrushes was my wont:
Who to entrappe the fish in winding sale
Was better seene, or hurtful beastes to hont?
I learned als the signes of heauen to ken,
How Phoebe sayles, where Venus sittes and when.

 And tryed time yet taught me greater thinges,
The sodain rysing of the raging seas:
The soothe of byrds by beating of their wings,
The power of herbs, both which can hurt and ease:
And which be wont tenrage the restlesse sheepe,
And which be wont to worke eternall sleepe.

 But ah vnwise and witlesse Colin cloute,
That kydst the hidden kinds of many a wede:
Yet kydst not ene to cure thy sore hart roote,
Whose ranckling wound as yet does rifely bleede.
Why liuest thou stil, and yet hast thy deathes wound?
Why dyest thou stil, and yet aliue art founde?

 Thus is my sommer worne away and wasted,
Thus is my haruest hastened all to rathe:
The eare that budded faire, is burnt & blasted,
And all my hoped gaine is turned to scathe.
Of all the seede, that in my youth was sowne,
Was nought but brakes and brambles to be mowne.

 My boughes with bloosmes that crowned were at firste,
And promised of timely fruite such store,
Are left both bare and barrein now at erst:
The flattring fruite is fallen to grownd before.
And rotted, ere they were halfe mellow ripe:
My haruest wast, my hope away dyd wipe.

 The fragrant flowres, that in my garden grewe, 
Bene withered, as they had bene gathered long.
Theyr rootes bene dryed vp for lacke of dewe,
Yet dewed with teares they han be euer among.
Ah who has wrought my Ro[s]alind this spight
To spil the flowres, that should her girlond dight,

 And I, that whilome wont to frame my pype,
Vnto the shifting of the shepheards foote:
Sike follies nowe haue gathered as too ripe,
And cast hem out, as rotten an vnsoote.
The loser Lasse I cast to please nomore,
One if I please, enough is me therefore.

 And thus of all my haruest hope I haue 
Nought reaped but a weedye crop of care:
Which, when I thought haue thresht in swelling sheaue,
Cockel for corne, and chaffe for barley bare.
Soone as the chaffe should in the fan be fynd,
All was blowne away of the wauering wynd.

 So now my yeare drawes to his latter terme,
My spring is spent, my sommer burnt vp quite:
My harueste hasts to stirre vp winter sterne,
And bids him clayme with rigorous rage hys right.
So nowe he stormes with many a sturdy stoure,
So now his blustring blast eche coste doth scoure.

 The carefull cold hath nypt my rugged rynde,
And in my face deepe furrowes eld hath pight:
My head besprent with hoary frost I fynd,
And by myne eie the Crow his clawe dooth wright.
Delight is layd abedde, and pleasure past,
No sonne now shines, cloudes han all ouercast.

 Now leaue ye shepheards boyes yo[u]r merry glee,
My Muse is hoarse and weary of thys stounde:
Here will I hang my pype vpon this tree,
Was neuer pype of reede did better sounde.
Winter is come, that blowes the bitter blaste,
And after Winter dreerie death does hast.

 Gather ye together my little flocke,
My little flock, that was to me so liefe:
Let me, ah lette me in your folds ye lock,
Ere the breme Winter breede you greater griefe.
Winter is come, that blowes the balefull breath,
And after Winter commeth timely death.

 Adieu delightes, that lulled me asleepe,
Adieu my deare, whose loue I bought so deare:
Adieu my little Lambes and loued sheepe,
Adieu ye Woodes that oft my witnesse were:
Adieu good Hobbinol, that was so true,
Tell Rosalind, her Colin bids her adieu.

Colins Embleme.[Vivitur ingenio, caetera mortis erunt.]

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.

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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.

rsoe

April is poetry month and poetry month is coming to an end.  What better way to celebrate than with a modern poem about flowers…and what blossom could be more renowned in poetry and art than the rose?  I was worried that nobody enjoyed the previous poetry month entry (four interconnected erotic poems by Elizabethan luminary Edmund Spenser) so I asked my roommate, the gifted poet Katie Fowley to name the first poem about flowers she could think of.  Her answer was “The Rose is Obsolete” a poem by William Carlos Williams from his 1923 book Spring and All.  The poem does not utilize the rose in the obvious metaphorical contexts which are familiar from the dawn of writing (perhaps Mr. Williams saw such symbolism as obsolete).  Instead it is a poem about universal thresholds–the liminal transition between the rose and the rest of the universe.   The poem thus has a mathematical sensibility to it–as though it transcends contemplation of things which exist in order to concentrate on higher categories of being.  The reader is thus rapidly transported from the rose–real, sensual, and mundane–to abstract realms of calculus and ontology.  Cosmological truths beckon from the rose’s fractal edge as the physical rose is left behind. I think however you will agree that the poem strikes a wistful note for the obsolete rose.  The reader must decide for themselves what has been left behind–and just where humankind’s new sophistication at cosmological apprehension is leading.

[The poem does not have a title in the original printing so it just starts after the picture]

Supernova Fragments (NASA 2011)

Supernova Fragments (NASA 2011)

The rose is obsolete
but each petal ends in
an edge, the double facet
cementing the grooved
columns of air–The edge
cuts without cutting
meets–nothing–renews
itself in metal or porcelain–

whither? It ends–

But if it ends
the start is begun
so that to engage roses
becomes a geometry–

Sharper, neater, more cutting
figured in majolica–
the broken plate
glazed with a rose

Somewhere the sense
makes copper roses
steel roses–

The rose carried weight of love
but love is at an end–of roses

It is at the edge of the
petal that love waits

Crisp, worked to defeat
laboredness–fragile
plucked, moist, half-raised
cold, precise, touching

What

The place between the petal’s
edge and the

From the petal’s edge a line starts
that being of steel
infinitely fine, infinitely
rigid penetrates
the Milky Way
without contact–lifting
from it–neither hanging
nor pushing–

The fragility of the flower
unbruised
penetrates space

Edmund Spenser, oil painting by an unknown artist; in the collection of Pembroke College, Cambridge, England.

Edmund Spenser, oil painting by an unknown artist; in the collection of Pembroke College, Cambridge, England.

April is poetry month! For years I have shared my home and/or my heart with various poets—so I was going to feature some colorful and enigmatic contemporary poetry. Unfortunately none of my (living) poet friends has yet come to my aid with any relevant works. It therefore looks like I am going to have to rely on one of the great canonical poets of classical English literature to celebrate the beautiful discipline of poetry.

I wanted to feature a poem which combined three aspects: 1) the poem should have classical Greco-Roman flair; 2) it should be about bees or crowns (or maybe both); and 3) it should be really suggestive (because, let’s face it, we are talking about poetry—if you are reading this, you are old enough for adult things). The poem I found is actually a series of connected short poems by the great Edmund Spenser who was born around 1552 and died in 1599. Spenser is best known for The Faerie Queen, one of the most important and beautiful epic poems in English, but the work I selected by him has no formal title. I found a scholarly note which reads “These four short poems immediately follow Spenser’s “Amoretti” and precede his “Epithalamion”. Nothing seems known of their history. Editors have usually styled them “Poem I. Poem II.” &c. but they have no titles in any of the old impressions. We so continue them.”

The lack of title or history is appropriate. The work seems self-explanatory—an allegory concerning the pain of love written in the vein of both Catullus and Chaucer.  However just as Roman and Medieval poetry had unsettling edges and disconcerting depths, so to does Spenser’s poem about Cupid and the bee.

 

Detail of "Cupid Complaining to Venus" (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526, oil on canvas)

Detail of “Cupid Complaining to Venus” (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526, oil on canvas)

IN youth before I waxed old.
The blynd boy Venus baby,
For want of cunning made me bold,
In bitter byue to grope for honny.
But when he saw me stung and cry,
He tooke his wings and away did fly.
As Diane hunted on a day,
She chaunst to come where Cupid lay,
his quiuer by his head:
One of his shafts she stole away,
And one of hers did close conuay,
into the others stead:
With that loue wounded my loues hart,
but Diane beasts with Cupids dart.

I Saw in secret to my Dame,
How little Cupid humbly came:
and sayd to her All hayle my mother.
But when he saw me laugh, for shame:
His face with bashfull blood did flame,
not knowing Venus from the other,
Then neuer blush Cupid (quoth I)
for many haue err’d in this beauty.

VPon a day as loue lay sweetly slumbring,
all in his mothers lap:
A gentle Bee with his loud trumpet murm’ring,
about him flew by hap.
Whereof when he was wakened with the noyse,
and saw the beast so small:
Whats this (quoth he) that giues so great a voyce,
that wakens men withall.
In angry wize he flyes about,
and threatens all with corage stout.

TO whom his mother closely smiling sayd,
twixt earnest and twixt game:
See thou thy selfe likewise art lyttle made,
if thou regard the same.
And yet thou suffrest neyther gods in sky,
nor men in earth to rest:
But when thou art disposed cruelly,
theyr sleepe thou doost molest.
Then eyther change thy cruelty,
or giue lyke leaue vnto the fly.

NAthlesse the cruell boy not so content,
would needs the fly pursue:
And in his hand with heedlesse hardiment,
him caught for to subdue.
But when on it he hasty hand did lay,
the Bee him stung therefore:
Now out alasse (he cryde) and welaway,
I wounded am full sore:
The fly that I so much did scorne,
hath hurt me with his little horne.

VNto his mother straight he weeping came,
and of his griefe complayned:
Who could not chose but laugh at his fond game,
though sad to see him pained.
Think now (quod she) my sonne how great the smart
of those whom thou dost wound:
Full many thou hast pricked to the hart,
that pitty neuer found:
Therefore henceforth some pitty take,
when thou doest spoyle of louers make.

SHe tooke him streight full pitiously lamenting,
and wrapt him in her smock:
She wrapt him softly, all the while repenting,
that he the fly did mock.
She drest his wound and it embaulmed wel
with salue of soueraigne might:
And then she bath’d him in a dainty well
the well of deare delight.
Who would not oft be stung as this,
to be so bath’d in Venus blis.

THe wanton boy was shortly wel recured,
of that his malady:
But he soone after fresh againe enured,
his former cruelty.
And since that time he wounded hath my selfe
with his sharpe dart of loue:
And now forgets the cruell carelesse elfe,
his mothers heast to proue.
So now I languish till he please,
my pining anguish to appease.

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Meng Haoran was born in Xiangyang in 689 or 691 BCE.  He passed the all-important civil service test at the age of 39, but his brief political career was an abject failure.  He spent the rest of his life socializing with his friends and writing poetry about the winsome landscapes of his native Hubei.  Today, he is fondly remembered as one of the luminaries of Tang dynasty poetry and his works went on to have a big impact on subsequent poets and landscape painters in China and in Japan.

The Landscape of Hubei

The Landscape of Hubei

In his poems, Meng Haoran usually concentrates on the people who inhabit the mountains and rivers rather than describing the landscape itself.  His poems are filled with longing for the summits of the mountains—the haunt of unseen sages—however the poet never quite seems to ascend the peaks but rather ends up writing about rice wine and poetry.   Below is a characteristic poem addressed to his friend Zhang which veers from the soaring heights of aspiration to the day-to-day beauty of life and finally ends with the comforts of friendship:

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To Zhang, Climbing Orchid Mountain on an Autumn Day
Meng Haoran

The northern mountain is hidden in white cloud,
A happy place for hermits to retire.
So we can meet, I try to climb the heights,
My heart is fading like a goose in flight.
My sorrow’s prompted by the creeping dusk,
But then clear autumn spurs on my desires.
At length we see the villagers return,
They walk the sand and rest at the river crossing.
The trees against the sky are like shepherd’s purse,
An islet by the shore just like the moon.
I hope you have some wine to celebrate,
We’ll spend the autumn festival drunk together.

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.]

Common Wombat (Vombatus ursinus)

It’s the final day of Furry Mammal Herbivore week which has so far featured two different lagomorphs, one rodent, and the enigmatic hyrax. To mix things up a bit we are ending with a marsupial–the stolid wombat.  The wombat’s unusual moniker comes from the Eora language which was spoken by the Aboriginal people who originally inhabited the Sidney area. There are three species of wombats and all are powerful burrowing herbivores which are active mostly at twilight and at night.  Wombats are marsupials but the openings of  their pouches face backwards to prevent dirt from getting inside as they dig.  Although wombats are not often seen, their presence can be identified by the many burrows which they excavate and by their distinctive cubic scat which looks like bouillon cubes (you’ll have to look it up on your own).

Wombat physiognomy betwrays their close relation to koalas.

Wombats are larger than this week’s other herbivores, reaching nearly a meter (3 feet) in length.  Although they are preyed on by dingos and Tasmanian Devils, their large muscles and heavy claws give them some protection (as does their tailless haunch which is composed largely of dense cartilage).   A predator following a wombat into a burrow is confronted not only with the shield-like flesh of their rear-quarters but also with fearsome donkey kicks from their powerful back legs.  Wombats are never far from their burrows since they construct up to 12 at various spots around their territory.  Even if they are related to the dimwitted koalas, wombats are said to have a more complicated brain than other marsupials (although their intelligence in no way approaches that of the brilliant monotreme echidna) and they often surprise trappers and zoologists with their clever evasive thinking.  Additionally, when hard pressed, they can run 100 meters in less than 10 seconds—impressive when one learns the human world record is 9.58 seconds.

Death of a Wombat (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1869, pen and ink)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painter, poet and weirdo, used the wombat to parody the Victorian taste for overly lugubrious gothic melodrama in his sad drawing “The death of a Wombat” (above).  The drawing shows a plump 19th century gentleman weeping for his deceased wombat friend while declaiming the following lament:

I never reared a young Wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
But when he most was sweet & fat
And tail-less; he was sure to die!

The work might be a parody but I find the poor dead wombat curiously affecting.  Fortunately all wombats are now protected by Australian law.  Despite such protection, the creatures are still having trouble competing for grazing with cattle, sheep, and above all rabbits.  Hopefully wombats will continue to endure–the endearing little bulldozers are an irreplaceable component of Australia and Tasmania.

Aww!

A model of Argonauta argo from the American Museum of Natural History

The paper nautilus, aka the argonaut (family Argonautidae) bears an uncanny resemblance to the majestic nautiloids of yore.   This resemblance becomes bizarre when one realizes that the resemblance is superficial.  The paper nautilus is no nautiloid at all.* It is in fact an octopus.  Its shell is not a true shell manufactured within an internal shell sack (as in other mollusks), but is rather an egg case secreted and delicately assembled by the female.  It is as though, instead of having a protective skeleton from birth, you were expected to build one and hatch your young inside of it.

Argonauts are pelagic predators, hunting planktonic mollusks, minnows, and small octopi and squid.  Like other cephalopods, they can change colors and alter their shape.  They move by means of jet propulsion.  Argonauts exemplify one of the most formidable traits of the cephalopod: intelligence. To quote Marcie Orenstein’s Marine Animals of Bermuda, “These animals often form associations with gelatinous marine species, utilizing them for food, locomotion, and protection.”  For example Argonauts are often found clutching the top of jellyfish and steering the latter around the ocean.  The Argonaut eats through the jellyfish’s mantle into its digestive tract.  It can thereafter rely on the jellyfish’s tentacles as a sort of fishing apparatus with which to catch prey (which it takes from inside the jellyfish’s gastral cavity).  The jellyfish further serves as a protective shield, for the argonaut’s predators, such as tuna and dolphins, tend to shun such hydrozoans.  Additionally the Argonaut gets a free ride for as long as its jellyfish remains alive.

We have pictures of this behavior! Argonauta argo atop the jellyfish, Phyllorhiza punctata. Photographs Copyright ©, Thomas Heeger, University of San Carlos, Philippines.

I mentioned above that only female argonauts build shells.  The male is a strange armorless dwarf, a tenth the size of the female.  One of the male argonaut’s arms, the hectocotylus, is specialized for mating.  The Tree Of Life Argonaut webpage describes this process, “At mating, the hectocotylus, which carries one large spermatophore, breaks out of its sac and then from the male body. The free hectocotylus invades, or is deposited in, the female’s mantle cavity, where it remains viable and active for some time.”  Georges Cuvier first discolvered the hectocotylus but mistakenly described the organ as a worm parasitic on the female argonaut.

Georges Cuvier's original illustration of the Hectocotylus of an Argonaut (Iconographie du règne animal de G. Cuvier, 1829)

The paper-thin calcareous shell of the female argonaut is truly an egg case.  It is shaped in a Fibonacci spiral for reasons which are unclear, however, like a nautiloid’s shell, it contains a bubble of air which the adult female nautilus manipulates for buoyancy.  Aristotle wrote that the Argonaut used its egg case and its flattened tentacles to catch the wind and sail, however there is no current evidence of such behavior (although cephalopods travel all sorts of strange ways).  When the eggs grow large in the shell case and hatch, the female is pushed out of her egg case and she dies.  Marianne Moore very beautifully described the female argonaut’s maternal solicitude in her poem The Paper Nautilus (while additionally cross-referencing the hydra, which we love at this blog).  Moore describes the female argonaut as a metaphor for creativity:

for she is in
a sense a devil-
fish, her glass ram’shorn-cradled freight
is hid but is not crushed;
as Hercules, bitten

by a crab loyal to the hydra,
was hindered to succeed,
the intensively
watched eggs coming from
the shell free it when they are freed

(From The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore. Copyright © 1961 Marianne Moore)

An Argonaut Illustration by the gifted Debby Mason

*Of the shelled nautiloids which once ruled earth, which teemed in countless numbers through the oceans of the Paleozoic and the Mesozoic, exactly one species is left–the magnificent pearly nautilus, concerning which, more anon.

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