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Remember back when it was February and the world was a tattered veil of gray misery?  Well now it is glorious May, and it is hard to recall those dark times. The birds are singing.  The flowers are blooming. Shepherdesses float through Wall Street dressed in summer frocks. Fortunately we have poetry to keep us ever mindful of the darkness & perfidy of the world.

Below is the May installment of Shepheardes Calender: the poem starts out gloriously with exquisite descriptions of Arcadian revels.  There could hardly be a more sumptuous evocation of spring in the country.  If you cannot smell the blooming flowers and hear the songs of the happy youths, then your heart is devoid of pastoral poetry.

But then Spenser starts in with the animal metaphors and we sense that even in May we are not in a Disney movie.  First we have the ape which loves her baby so much that she throttles it by hugging it. Then there is the parable of the young kid who ignores his nanny goat’s stern warnings and opens up his door to the crafty fox..who has come dressed as a pathetic salesman.  This story has all sorts of double meanings, but right now there are so many foxes at the door it is hard to know what to make of it.   Spenser lived in England, where commerce rules…and he died penniless, so perhaps there is a lesson about business and businesspeople from the sly merchant fox.

Yet, even if this segment ends with a dark fable, there are many delights to be had herein.  Besides all of this sorry business about barely disguised tricksters lying and manipulating a gullible audience in order to make a meal of them couldn’t be valid in contemporary America…could it?

GOP 2016 Debate

Well…

Anyway, here is

may

Shepheardes Calender V: Maye

PALINODE. PIERS.

Is not this the merry Month of May,
When Love-Lads masken in fresh Array?
How falls it then, we no merrier been,
Ylike as others, girt in gawdy Green?
Our blonket Liveries been all too sad
For thilk same Season, when all is yclad
With Pleasance; the Ground with Grass, the Woods
With green Leaves, the Bushes with blossoming Buds.
Youth’s Folk now flocken in every where,
To gather May-Buskets, and smelling Breere:
And home they hasten the Posts to dight,
And all the Kirk-Pillers e’er Day-light,
With Hawthorn Buds, and sweet Eglantine,
And Girlonds of Roses, and Sops in Wine.
Such Merry-make holy Saints doth queam:
But we here sitten as drown’d in a Dream.

PIERS.
For Yonkers, Palinode, such Follies fit,
But we tway been Men of elder Wit.

PALINODE.
Siker this morrow, no longer ago,
I saw a Shole of Shepherds out-go,
With singing and shouting, and jolly Cheer:
Before them yode a lusty Tabrere,
That to the Many a Horn-pipe plaid,
Whereto they dauncen each one with his Maid.
To see these Folks make such Jouisaunce,
Made my Heart after the Pipe to daunce.
Tho to the green Wood they speeden them all,
To fetchen home May with their Musical;
And home they bringen in a Royal Throne,
Crowned as King: and his Queen attone
Was Lady Flora, on whom did attend
A fair Flock of Fairies, and a fresh Bend
Of lovely Nymphs. (O that I were there
To helpen the Ladies their May-Bush bear!)
Ah! Piers, been not thy Teeth on edge, to think
How great Sport they gainen with little Swink?

PIERS.
Perdy, so far an I from Envy,
That their Fondness inly I pity:
Those Faitours little regarden their Charge,
While they, letting their Sheep run at large,
Passen their time, that should be sparely spent,
In Lustihed, and wanton Merriment.
Thilk same been Shepherds for the Divel’s sted,
That playen while their Flocks be unfed.
Well it is seen their Sheep be not their own,
That letten them run at random alone.
But they been hired for little Pay,
Of other, that caren as little as they,
What fallen the Flock, so they han the Fleece,
And get all the Gain, paying but a Piece.
I muse, what Account both these will make,
The on for the Hire, which he doth take,
And th’ other for leaving his Lord’s Task,
When great Pan Account of Shepherds shall ask.

PALINODE.
Siker now I see thou speakest of Spight,
All for thou lackest some dele their Delight.
I (as I am) had rather be envied,
All were it of my Foe, that fonly pitied:
And yet, if need were, pitied would be,
Rather than other should scorn at me;
For pitied is Mishap that nas Remedy,
But scorned been Deeds of fond Foolery.
What shoulden Shepherds other things tend,
Than sith their God his Good does them send,
Reapen the Fruit thereof, that is pleasure,
The while they here liven at ease and leisure?
For when they been dead, their Good is ygo,
They sleepen in Rest, well as other moe;
Tho with them wends, what they spent in Cost,
But what they left behind them, is lost.
Good is no Good, but if it be spend;
God giveth Good for none other end.

PIERS.
Ah! Palinode, thou art a World’s Child:
Who touches Pitch, mote needs be defil’d.
But Shepherds (as Algrind used to say)
Mought not live ylike, as Men of the Lay.
With them it fits to care for their Heir,
Enaunter their Heritage do impair:
They must provide for means of Maintenance,
And to continue their wont Countenance.
But Shepherd must walk another way,
Sike worldly Sovenance he must fore-say.
The Son of his Loins, why should he regard
To leave enriched with that he hath spar’d?
Should not thilk God, that gave him that Good,
Eke cherish his Child, if in his ways he stood?
For if he mislive, in Lewdness and Lust,
Little boots all the Wealth and the Trust,
That his Father left by Inheritance,
All will be soon wasted with Misgovernance.
But through this, and other their Miscreance,
They maken many a wrong Chevisance,
Heaping up Waves of Wealth and Woe,
The Floods whereof shall them overflow.
Sike Mens Folly I cannot compare
Better than to the Ape’s foolish Care,
That is so enamoured of her young one,
(And yet God wote, such Cause hath she none)
That with her hard Hold, and straight embracing,
She stoppeth the Breath of her Youngling.
So oftentimes, whenas Good is ment,
Evil ensueth of wrong Intent.

The time was once, and may again retorn,
(For ought may happen that hath been beforn)
When Shepherds had none Inheritance,
Ne of Land, nor Fee in Sufferance;
But what might arise of the bare Sheep,
(Were it more or less) which they did keep.
Well I wis was it with Shepherds tho;
Nought having nought feared they to forgo,
For Pan himself was their Inheritance,
And little them served for their Maintenance.
The Shepherd’s God so well them guided,
That of nought they were unprovided:
Butter enough, Honey, Milk, and Whey,
And their Flocks Fleeces them to array.
But Tract of Time, and long Prosperity,
(That Nource of Vice, this of Insolency)
Lulled the Shepherds in such Security,
That not content with loyal Obeysance,
Some ‘gan to gape for greedy Governance,
And match themselves with mighty Potentates,
Lovers of Lordships, and Troublers of States.
Tho ‘gan Shepherds Swains to look aloft,
And leave to live hard, and learn to lig soft.
Tho under colour of Shepherds, some-while,
There crept in Wolves, full of Fraud and Guile,
That often devoured their own Sheep,
And often the Shepherd that did hem keep.
This was the first Sourse of Shepherds Sorrow,
That now nill be quit with bale, nor borrow.

PALINODE.
Three things to bear, been very burdenous,
But the fourth to forbear, is outrageous.
Women that of Love’s Longing once lust,
Hardly forbearen, but have it they must:
So when Choler is enflamed with Rage,
Wanting Revenge, is hard to assuage:
And who can counsel a thirsty Soul,
With Patience to forbear the offer’d Boul?
But of all Burdens, that a Man can bear,
Most is, a Fool’s Talk to bear and to hear.
I ween the Giant has not such a Weight,
That bears on his Shoulders the Heaven’s Height.
Thou findest fault, where nys to be found,
And buildest strong Wark upon a weak Ground:
Thou railest on Right, without Reason,
And blamest hem much, for small Encheason.
How woulden Shepherds live, if not so?
What, should they pinen in Pain and Woe?
Nay, say I thereto, by my dear Borrow,
If I may rest, I nill live in Sorrow.

Sorrow ne need to be hastened on:
For he will come without calling anon.
While Times enduren of Tranquillity,
Usen we freely our Felicity:
For when approachen the stormy Stowers,
We mought with our Shoulders bear off the sharp Showres.
And sooth to sain, nought seemeth sike Strife
That Shepherds so twiten each others Life,
And layen their Faults the Worlds before,
The while their Foes done each of hem scorn.
Let none mislike of that may not be amended:
So Conteck soon by Concord mought be ended.

PIERS.
Shepherd, I list no Accordance make
With Shepherd, that does the right way forsake:
And of the twain, if Choice were to me,
Had lever my Foe, than my Friend he be.
For what Concord hen light and dark sam?
Or what Peace has the Lion with the Lamb?
Such Faitours, when their false Hearts been hid,
Will do, as did the Fox by the Kid.

PALINODE.
Now Piers, of fellowship, tell us that Saying:
For the Lad can keep both our Flocks from straying.

PIERS.
Thilk same Kid (as I can well devise)
Was too very foolish and unwise.
For on a time, in Sommer Season,
The Goat her Dam, that had good Reason,
Yode forth abroad unto the green Wood,
To brouze, or play, or what she thought good:
But, for she had a motherly Care
Of her young Son, and Wit to beware,
She set her Youngling before her Knee,
That was both fresh and lovely to see,
And full of Favour, as Kid mought be.
His velvet Head began to shoot out,
And his wreathed Horns ‘gan newly sprout:
The Blossoms of Lust to bud did begin,
And sprung forth rankly under his Chin.

My Son (quoth she) and with that ‘gan weep:
(For careful Thoughts in her Heart did creep)
God bless thee, poor Orphan, as he mought me,
And send thee Joy of thy Jollity.
Thy Father (that Word she spake with Pain,
For a Sigh had nigh rent her Heart in twain)
Thy Father, had he lived this Day,
To see the Branches of his Body display,
How would he have joyed at this sweet Sight?
But ah! false fortune such Joy did him spight,
And cut off his Days with untimely Woe,
Betraying him unto the Trains of his Foe.
Now I a wailful Widow behight,
Of my old Age have this one Delight,
To see thee succeed in thy Father’s stead,
And flourish in Flowers of Lustihead.
For even so thy Father his Head upheld,
And so his haughty Horns did he weld.

Tho marking him with melting Eyes,
A thrilling Throb from her Heart did arise,
And interrupted all her other Speech,
With some old Sorrow that made a new Breach:
Seemed she saw in her Youngling’s Face
The old Lineaments of his Father’s Grace.
At last, her sullen Silence she broke,
And ‘gan his new-budded Beard to stroke.
Kiddy (quoth she) thou kenst the great Care
I have of thy Health and thy Welfare,
Which many wild Beasts liggen in wait,
For to entrap in thy tender State:
But most the Fox, Maister of Collusion:
For he has vowed thy last Confusion.
For-thy, my Kiddy, be ruled by me,
And never give trust to his Treacheree:
And if he chance come when I am abroad,
Spar the Yate fast, for fear of Fraud.
Ne for all his worst, nor for his best,
Open the Door at his Request.

So schooled the Goat her wanton Son,
That answered his Mother, All should be done.
Tho went the pensive Dame out of door,
And chaunc’d to stumble at the Threshold-Floor:
Her stumbling Step somewhat her amazed,
(For such as Signs of ill luck been dispraised)
Yet forth she yode, thereat half aghast,
And Kiddy the Door sparred after her fast.
It was not long after she was gone,
But the false Fox came to the Door anone.
Not as a Fox, for then he had be kend,
But all as a poor Pedlar he did wend:
Bearing a Truss of Trifles at his Back,
As Bells, and Babies, and Glasses in his Pack,
A Biggen he had got about his Brain,
For in his Head-piece he felt a sore Pain.
His hinder Heel was wrapt in a Clout,
For with great Cold he had got the Gout.
There at the Door he cast me down his Pack,
And laid him down, and groaned, alack! alack!
Ah! dear Lord, and sweet Saint Charity,
That some good body would once pity me.

Well heard Kiddy all this sore Constraint,
And leng’d to know the Cause of his Complaint:
Tho creeping close, behind the Wicket’s Clink,
Privily he peeped out through a Chink:
Yet not so privily but the Fox him spied,
For deceitful Meaning is double-eyed.

Ah! good young Maister (then ‘gan he cry)
Jesus bless that sweet Face I espy,
And keep your Corps from the careful Stounds,
That in my Carrion Carcass abounds.

The Kid, pitying his Heaviness,
Asked the Cause of his great Distress,
And also who, and whence that he were.

Tho he, that had well ycond his Lear,
Thus medled his Talk with many a Tear:
Sick, sick, alas! a little lack of dead,
But I be relieved by your beastly-head.
I am a poor Sheep; albe my Colour dun:
For with longer Travel I am brent in the Sun.
And if that my Grandsire me said, be true,
Siker I am very sybbe to you:
So be your Goodlihead do not disdain
The base Kinred of so simple Swain.
Of Mercy and Favour then I you pray,
With your Aid to forestall my near Decay.

Tho out of his Pack a Glass he took;
Wherein while Kiddy unwares did look,
He was so enamoured with the Newel,
That nought he deemed dear for the Jewel.
Tho opened he the Door, and in came
The false Fox, as he were stark lame.
His Tail he clapt betwixt his Legs twain,
Lest he should be descryed by his Train.

Being within, the Kid made him good Glee,
All for the Love of the Glass he did see.
After his Chear, the Pedlar ‘gan chat,
And tell many Leasings of this and that:
And how he could shew many a fine knack.
Tho shewed his Ware, and opened his Pack,
All save a Bell, which he left behind
In the Basket, for the Kid to find.
Which when he stooped down to catch,
He popt him in, and his Basket did latch:
Ne stayed he once, the Door to make fast,
But ran away with him in all haste.

Home when the doubtful Dame had her hide,
She mought see the Door stand open wide.
All aghast, loudly she ‘gan to call
Her Kid: but he nould answer at all.
Tho on the Floor she saw the Merchandise,
Of which her Son had set too dear a Price.
What Help? her Kid she knew well is gone:
She weeped and wailed, and made great moan.
Such end had the Kid, for he nould warned be
Of Craft coloured with Simplicity:
And such end perdy does all hem remain,
That of such Falsers Friendship been fain.

PALINODE.
Truly Piers, thou art beside thy Wit,
Furthest fro the Mark, weening it to hit.
Now I pray thee, let me thy Tale borrow
For our Sir John, to say to-morrow,
At the Kirk, when it is Holiday:
For well he means, but little can say.
But and if Foxes been so crafty, as so,
Much needeth all Shepherds hem to know.

PIERS.
Of their Falshood more could I recount,
But now the bright Sun ‘ginneth to dismount:
And for the dewy Night now draw’th night,
I hold it best for us home to hie.

PALINODE’S EMBLEM.
Pas men apistos apistei.

PIERS’S EMBLEM.
Tis d’ ara pistis apisto.

Hilliard_Minature_Elizabeth_Three

Somehow April is nearly gone.  I can’t believe time is running so swiftly! You have probably been worrying about where the April entry is for The Shephearde’s Calender is (although, I guess if you are truly anxious or really want to read ahead, it was published nearly half a millennium ago, and can now be found online).  The April entry is uncommonly beautiful, but it also highlights a problem with 16th century poetry—namely that poets had to suck up to aristocrats so hard.  Fortunately this is not a problem in the modern world, where the great masters do not care for poetry and sucking up to them does no good.  However ancient poems are filled with long eloquent digressions about the merits of some long dead lord or king…or in this case a queen.

At any rate, the poem starts promisingly, with the aged shepherd Hobbinoll lamenting an amorous misfortune to his friend, Thenot.  It seems that Hobbinoll’s favorite beautiful young shepherd, Colin, has fallen in love with a lovely young woman, Rosalind.  However before we can explore gender issues among 16th century English fops…er, I mean shepherds… the poem abruptly veers off.  Hobbinoll wants to demonstrate Colin’s skill at poetry by reciting a poem which he (Colin) made for Elisa, the Queene of shepheardes (a fairly transparent sobriquet for real-world sovereign Elizabeth, Queen of England).  The remainder of the poem is a beautiful mixture of spring imagery, classical allusions, and panegyric metaphors flattering Elizabeth, who was Spenser’s great patron (he certainly didn’t starve to death while she was alive).   The ramifications of the curious framing device are left unstated and unpursued…at least during April. However we now know that Colin and Rosalind are out there and that Hobinoll has a sharp interest in them.… We also know that daffodils used to be called “daffadowndillies” (and I think we should return to that 5 syllable usage immediately).  I guess that’s enough of an introduction.  Without further preliminaries,  here is

The Shepheardes Calender: April

 

[Woodcut for April]

 Ægloga Quarta.

 A R G V M E N T.

THis Æglogue is purposely intended to the honor and prayse of our most gracious souereigne, Queene Elizabeth. The speakers herein be Hobbinoll and Thenott, two shepheardes: The which Hobinoll being before mentioned, greatly to haue loued Colin, is here set forth more largely, complayning him of that boyes great misaduenture in Loue, whereby his mynd was alienate and with drawen not onely from him, who moste loued him, but also from all former delightes and studies, aswell in pleasaunt pyping, as conning ryming and singing, and other his laudable exercises. Whereby he taketh occasion, for proofe of his more excellencie and skill in poetrie, to recorde a song, which the sayd Colin sometime made in honor of her Maiestie, whom abruptely he termeth Elysa.

Thenot.       Hobbinoll.

TEll me good Hobbinoll, what garres thee greete?
What? hath some Wolfe thy tender Lambes ytorne?
Or is thy Bagpype broke, that soundes so sweete?
Or art thou of thy loued lasse forlorne? Or bene thine eyes attempred to the yeare,
Quenching the gasping furrowes thirst with rayne?
Like April shoure, so stremes the trickling teares
Adowne thy cheeke, to quenche thye thirstye payne.
 
 

Hobbinoll.

Nor thys, not that, so muche doeth make me mourne,
But for the ladde, whom long I lovd so deare,
Nowe loues a lasse, that all his loue doth scorne:
He plonged in payne, his tressed locks dooth teare. Shepheards delights he dooth them all forsweare,
Hys pleasaunt Pipe, whych made vs meriment,
He wylfully hath broke, and doth forbeare
His wonted songs, wherein he all outwent.
 
 

Thenot.

What is he for a Ladde, you so lament?
Ys loue such pinching payne to them, that proue?
And hath he skill to make so excellent,
Yet hath so little skill to brydle loue?
 
 

Hobbinoll.

Colin thou kenst, the Southerne shepheardes boye:
Him Loue hath wounded with a deadly darte.
Whilome on him was all my care and ioye,
Forcing with gyfts to winne his wanton heart. But now from me hys madding mynd is starte,
And woes the Widdowes daughter of the glenne:
So now fayre Rosalind hath bred hys smart,
So now his frend is chaunged for a frenne.
 
 

Thenot.

But if his ditties bene so trimly dight,
I pray thee Hobbinoll, record some one:
The whiles our flockes doe graze about in sight,
And we close shrowded in thys shade alone.
 
 

Hobbinol.

Contented I: then will I singe his laye
Of fayre Elisa, Queene of shepheardes all:
Which once he made, as by a spring he laye,
And tuned it vnto the Waters fall.YE dayntye Nymphs, that in this blessed Brooke
doe bathe your brest,
Forsake your watry bowres, and hether looke,
at my request:
And eke you Virgins, that on Parnasse dwell,
Whence floweth Helicon the learned well,
Helpe me to blaze
Her worthy praise,
Which in her sexe doth all excell.

 Of fayre Elisa be your siluer song,
that blessed wight:
The flowre of Virgins, may shee florish long,
In princely plight.
For she is Syrinx daughter without spotte,
Which Pan the shepheards God of her begot:
So sprong her grace
Of heauenly race,
No mortal blemishe may her blotte.

 See, where she sits vpon the grassie greene,
(O seemly sight)
Yclad in Scarlot like a mayden Queene,
And Ermines white.
Vpon her head a Cremosin coronet,
With Damaske roses and Dafadillies set:
Bayleaues betweene,
And Primroses greene
Embellish the sweete Violet.

 Tell me, haue ye seene her angelick face,
Like Phoebe fayre?
Her heauenly haueour, her princely grace
can you well compare?
The Redde rose medled with the White yfere,
In either cheeke depeincten liuely chere.
Her modest eye,
Her Maiestie,
Where haue you seene the like, but there?

 I sawe Phoebus thrust out his golden hedde,
vpon her to gaze:
But when he sawe, how broade her beames did spredde,
it did him amaze.
He blusht to see another Sunne belowe,
Ne durst againe his fyrye face out showe:
Let him, if he dare,
His brightnesse compare
With hers, to haue the ouerthrowe.

 Shewe thy selfe Cynthia with thy siuer rayes,
and be not abasht:
When shee the beames of her beauty displayes,
O how art thou dasht?
But I will not match her with Latonaes seede,
Such follie great sorow to Niobe did breede.
Now she is a stone,
And makes dayly mone,
Warning all others to take heede.

 Pan may be proud, that euer he begot
such a Bellibone,
And Syrinx reioyse, that euer was her lot
to beare such an one.
Soone as my younglings cryen for the dam,
To her will I offer a milkwhite Lamb:
Shee is my goddesse plaine,
And I her shepherds swayne,
Albee forswonck and forswatt I am.

 I see Calliope speede her to the place,
Where my Goddesse shines:
And after her the other Muses trace,
with their Violines.
Bene they not Bay braunches, which they doe beare,
All for Elisa, in her hand to weare?
So sweetely they play,
And sing all the way,
That it a heauen is to heare.

 Lo how finely the graces can it foote
to the Instrument:
They daucen deffly, and singen soote,
in their merriment.
Wants [not] a fourth grace, to make the daunce euen?
Let that rowme to my Lady be yeuen:
She shalbe a grace,
To fyll the fourth place,
And reigne with the rest in heauen.

 And whither rennes this beuie of Ladies bright,
raunged in a rowe?
They bene all Ladyes of the lake behight,
that vnto her goe.
Chloris, that is the chiefest Nymph of al,
Of Oliue braunches beares a Coronall:
Oliues bene for peace,
When wars doe surcease:
Such for a Princesse bene principall.

 Ye shepheards daughters, that dwell on the greene,
hye you there apace:
Let none come there, but that Virgins bene,
to adorne her grace.
And when you come, whereas shee is in place,
See, that your rudenesse doe not you disgrace:
Binde your fillets faste,
And gird in your waste,
For more finesse with a tawdrie lace.

 Bring hether the Pincke and purple Cullambine,
With Gelliflowres:
Bring Coronations, and Sops in wine,
worne of Paramoures.
Strowe me the ground with Daffadowndillies,
And Cowslips, and Kingcups, and loued Lillies:
The pretie Pawnce,
And the Cheuisaunce,
Shall match with the fayre flowre Delice.

 Now ryse vp Elisa, decked as thou art,
in royall aray:
And now ye daintie Damsells may depart
echeone her way,
I feare, I haue troubled your troupes to longe:
Let dame Eliza thanke you for her song.
And if you come hether,
When Damsines I gether,
I will part them all you among.
 
 

Thenot.

And was thilk same song of Colins owne making?
Ah foolish boy, that is with loue yblent:
Great pittie is, he be in such taking,
For nought caren, that bene so lewdly bent.
 
 

Hobbinol.

Sicker I hold him, for a greater fon,
That loues the thing, he cannot purchase.
But let vs homeward: for night draweth on,
And twincling starres the daylight hence chase.
 

Thenots Embleme. O quam te memorem virgo?

 Hobbinols Embleme.

 O dea certe.

Wherever I go these days, strangers come up to me begging to know spoilers for The Shepheardes Calender, Edmund Spenser’s great 12 part poetic masterpiece from 1579 (which Ferrebeekeeper is publishing in its entirety, month by month, to universal acclaim).  Will spring return to the picturesque English countryside? Will the shepherds ply their Arcadian trade while exchanging classical allusions? Will romantic contrivances lead to deeper questions concerning the human condition? Will love triumph anon?

I can’t answer these burning questions.  You will just have to wait for each additional installment and keep reading…but, by coincidence, here is the March eclogue. The grim months, January and February, are giving way to spring, when all of nature awakes. Two callow shepherd youth, Willye and Thomalin, discourse upon the beauties of the waxing season.  Willye lightly teases his friend Thomalin concerning the season’s longstanding connection with amorous pursuits (as adolescent boys everywhere are wont to goad their fellows), whereupon Thomalin tells a hunting anecdote of firing his crossbow at a beautiful winged child.  This supernatural entity easily avoids the inexperienced shafts of the shepherd and gravely wounds the farm lad with a return arrow.  Oh! The wanton follies of love!

Spenser follows up this little scene with an author’s gloss (which makes use of playfully ironic language to hint at deeper and unspoken undercurrents buried in the allusions). But enough of my prating, you came here to read Spenser and contemplate the paradoxical nature of love as explained by a 16th century aesthete.  So, without further preamble, here is…

The Shepheardes Calender: March

By Edmund Spenser

march

Ægloga Tertia.

 A R G V M E N T.

IN this Æglogue two shepheards boyes taking occasion of the season, beginne to make purpose of loue and other pleasaunce, which to springtime is most agreeable. The speciall meaning hereof is, to giue certaine markes and tokens, to know Cupide the Poets God of Loue. But more particularlye I thinke, in the person of Thomalin is meant some secrete freend, who scorned Loue and his knights so long, till at length him selfe was entangled, and unwares wounded with the dart of some beautifull regard, which is Cupides arrowe.

WILLY. THOMALIN.
Thomalin, why sitten we so,
As weren overwent with Woe.
Upon so fair a Morrow?
The joyous time now nigheth fast,
That shall alegg this bitter Blast,
And slake the Winter Sorrow.

THOMALIN.
Siker Willy, thou warnest well;
For Winter’s Wrath begins to quell,
And pleasant Spring appeareth:
The Grass now ‘gins to be refresht
The Swallow peeps out of her Nest,
And cloudy Welkin cleareth.

WILLY.
Seest not thilk same Hawthorn Stud,
How bragly it begins to bud,
And utter his tender Head?
Flora now calleth forth each Flower,
And bids make ready Maia’s Bower,
That new is uprist from Bed.
Tho shall we sporten in delight,
And learn with Lettice to wex light,
That scornfully looks askaunce:
Tho will we little Love awake,
That now sleepeth in Lethe Lake,
And pray him leaden our daunce.

THOMALIN.
Willy, I ween thou be a Sot;
For lusty Love still sleepeth not,
But is abroad at his Game.

WILLY.
How kenst thou that he is awoke?
Or hast thy self his Slumber broke?
Or made privy to the same?

THOMALIN.
No, but happily I him spide,
Where in a Bush he did him hide,
With Wings of purple and blue:
And were not, that my Sheep would stray,
The privy Marks I would bewray,
Whereby by chaunce I him knew.

WILLY.
Thomalin, have no care for-thy,
My self will have a double Eye,
Ylike to my Flock and thine;
For alas at home I have a Sire,
A Stepdame eke as hot as Fire,
That duly adays counts mine.

THOMALIN.
Nay, but thy seeing will not serve,
My Sheep for that may chaunce to swerve,
And fall into some Mischief.
For sithens is but the third morrow,
That I chauncst to fall asleep with Sorrow,
And waked again with Grief:
The while thilk same unhappy Ewe,
Whose clouted Leg her hurt doth shew,
Fell headlong into a Dell,
And there unjointed both her Bones:
Mought her Neck been jointed attones,
She should have need no more Spell.
Th’ Elf was so wanton and so wood,
(But now I trow can better good)
She mought ne gang on the Green.

WILLY.
Let be, as may be, that is past;
That is to come, let be forecast:
Now tell us what thou hast seen.

THOMALIN.
It was upon a Holy-day
When Shepherds Grooms han leave to play,
I cast to go a shooting:
Long wandring up and down the Land,
With Bow and Bolts in either Hand,
For Birds in Bushes tooting:
At length within the Ivy tod,
(There shrouded was the little God)
I heard a busie bustling.
I bent my Bolt against the Bush,
Listning if any thing did rush,
But then heard no more rustling.
Tho peeping close into the thick,
Might see the moving of some quick,
Whose Shape appeared not;
But were it Fairy, Fiend, or Snake,
My Courage earn’d it to awake,
And manfully thereat shot.
With that sprang forth a naked Swain,
With spotted Wings like Peacocks Train,
And laughing lope to a Tree;
His gilden Quiver at his Back,
And silver Bow which was but slack,
Which lightly he bent at me.
That seeing, I level’d again,
And shot at him with Might and Main,
As thick, as it had hailed.
So long I shot, that all was spent.
Tho pumy Stones I hastily hent,
And threw; but nought availed
He was so wimble and so wight,
From Bough to Bough he leaped light,
And oft the Pumies latched.
Therewith afraid, I ran away;
But he, that earst seem’d but to play,
A Shaft in earnest snatched,
And hit me running, in the Heel;
For then I little smart did feel,
But soon it sore increased.
And now it rankleth more and more,
And inwardly it festereth sore,
Ne wote I how to cease it.

WILLY.
Thomalin, I pity thy Plight,
Perdy with Love thou diddest fight:
I know him by a Token.
For once I heard my Father say,
How he him caught upon a day,
(Whereof he will be wroken)
Entangled in a Fowling-Net,
Which he for Carrion-Crows had set,
That in our Pear-tree haunted:
Tho said, he was a winged Lad,
But Bow and Shafts as then none had;
Else had he sore be daunted.
But see, the Welkin thicks apace,
And stooping Phoebus steeps his race:
It’s time to haste us homeward.

WILLY’S EMBLEM.
To be Wise and eke to Love,
Is granted scarce to Gods above.

THOMALIN’S EMBLEM.
Of Honey and of Gall, in love there is store:
The Honey is much, but the Gall is more.


GLOSS.

THIS Æglogue seemeth somewhat to resemble that same of Theocritus, wherein the boy likewise telling the old man, that he had shot at a winged boy in a tree, was by hym warned, to beware of mischiefe to come.

Ouerwent) overgone.

Alegge) to lessen or aswage.

To quell) to abate.

Welkin) the skie.

The swallow) which bird vseth to be counted the messenger, as it were, the fore runner of springe.

Flora) the Goddesse of flowres, but indede (as saith Tacitus) a famous harlot, which with the abuse of her body hauing gotten great riches, made the people of Rome her heyre: who in remembraunce of so great beneficence, appointed a yearely feste for the memoriall of her, calling her, not as she was, nor as some doe think, Andronica, but Flora: making her the Goddesse of all floures, and doing yerely to her solemne sacrifice.

Maias bowre) that is the pleasaunt fielde, or rather the Maye bushes. Maia is a Goddes and the mother of Mercurie, in honour of whome the moneth of Maye is of her name so called, as sayth Macrobius.

Lettice) the name of some country lasse.

Ascaunce) askewe or asquint.

For thy) therefore.

Lethe) is a lake in hell, which the Poetes call the lake of forgetfulnes. For Lethe signifieth forgetfulnes. Wherein the soules being dipped, did forget the cares of their former lyfe. So that by loue sleeping in Lethe lake, he meaneth he was almost forgotten and out of knowledge, by reason of winters hardnesse, when al pleasures, as it were, sleepe and weare out of mynde.

Assotte) to dote.

His slomber) To breake Loues slomber, is to exercise the delightes of Loue and wanton pleasures.

Winges of purple) so is he feigned of the Poetes.

For als) he imitateth Virgils verse. 

Est mihi namque domi pater, est iniusta nouerca &c.

A dell) a hole in the ground.

Spell) is a kind of verse or charme, that in elder tymes they vsed often to say ouer euery thing, that they would haue preserued, as the Nightspel for theeues, and the woodspell. And herehence I thinke is named the gospell, as it were Gods spell or worde. And so sayth Chaucer, Listeneth Lordings to my spell.

Gange) goe 

An Yuie todde) a thicke bushe.

Swaine) a boye: for so he is described of the Poetes, to be a boye .s. alwayes freshe and lustie: blindfolded, because he maketh no difference of Personages: wyth diuers coloured winges, .s. ful of flying fancies: with bowe and arrow, that is with glaunce of beautye, which prycketh as a forked arrowe. He is sayd also to haue shafts, some leaden, some golden: that is, both pleasure for the gracious and loued, and sorow for the louer that is disdayned or forsaken. But who liste more at large to behold Cupids colours and furniture, let him reade ether Propertius, or Moschus his Idyllion of wandring loue, being now most excellently translated into Latine by the singuler learned man Angelus Politianus: Whych worke I haue seene amongst other of thys Poets doings, very wel translated also into Englishe Rymes. 

Wimble and wighte) Quicke and deliuer.

In the heele) is very Poetically spoken, and not without speciall iudgement. For I remember, that in Homer it is sayd of Thetis, that shee tooke her young babe Achilles being newely borne, and holding him by the heele, dipped him in the River of Styx. The vertue whereof is, to defend and keepe the bodyes washed therein from any mortall wound. So Achilles being washed al ouer, saue anely his hele, by which his mother held, was in the rest [invulnerable]: therfore by Paris was feyned to bee shotte with a poysoned arrowe in the heele, whiles he was busie about the marying of Polyena in the temple of Apollo. Which mysticall fable Eustathius vnfolding, sayth: that by wounding in the hele, is meant lustfull loue. For from the heele (as say the best Phisitions) to the preuie partes there passe certaine veines and slender synnewes, as also the like come from the head, and are carryed lyke little pypes behynd the eares: so that (as sayth Hippocrates) yf those veynes there be cut a sonder, the partie straighte becometh cold and vnfruiteful. which reason our Poete wel weighing, maketh this shepheards boye of purpose to be wounded by Loue in the heele. 

Latched) caught. 

Wroken) reuenged.

For once) In this tale is sette out the simplicitye of shepheards opinion of Loue.

Stouping Phaebus) Is a Periphrasis of the sunne setting.
Embleme.

Hereby is meant, that all the delights of Loue, wherein wanton youth walloweth, be but follye mixt with bitternesse, and sorow sawced with repentaunce. For besides that the very affection of Loue it selfe tormenteth the mynde, and vexeth the body many wayes, with vnrestfulnesse all night, and wearines all day, seeking for that we can not haue: euen the selfe things which best before vs liked, in course of time and chaung of ryper yeares, whiche also therewithall chaungeth our wonted lyking and former fantasies, will then seeme lothsome and breede vs annoyaunce, when yougthes flowre is withered, and we fynde our bodyes and wits aunswere not to suche vayne iollitie and lustfull pleasaunce.

Colossal_octopus_by_Pierre_Denys_de_MontfortFor poetry month in April I featured an intense excerpt from a moving spiritual poem by Lord Alfred Tennyson.  Today has gotten away from me entirely….I just didn’t have enough arms to do everything I needed to do, much less write an intense literary essay. But do you know who does have more than enough arms–giant terrifying underwater squid monsters!  Here is a Tennyson poem about the kraken, which may be a mythical Cthulhu-type monster…or may be an all-too-real colossal squid.  It is from Tennyson’s juvenilia so he most likely wrote it as a gawky teenager (which is a funny image).

Whatever the case, it is an amazing and eerie poem which beautifully evokes the overripe and otherworldy horrors of the unknown depths and then imagines the poor kraken being dragged to a burning operatic end on judgement day!  Whoah!

Here is the poem!  Enjoy!

The Kraken (from Tennyson’s “Juvenilia” published 1871 and on)

  Below the thunders of the upper deep;
  Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
  His antient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
  The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
  About his shadowy sides: above him swell
  Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
  And far away into the sickly light,
  From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
  Unnumber'd and enormous polypi
  Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
  There hath he lain for ages and will lie
  Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep,
  Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
  Then once by man and angels to be seen,
  In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

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.

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.

schmidt

Justin Orvel Schmidt (pictured above) is an entomologist who specializes in insect defenses.  His greatest expertise is in the stings of hymenopterans—the bees, wasps, sawflies, hornets, and ants (although he also researches the toxic/chemical defences of other arthropods).   In the early 1980’s Schmidt attempted to systematize the different medical and physiological effects of insect stings.  This work led him to coauthor one of the comprehensive tomes on the subject of insect venom Insect Defenses: Adaptive Mechanisms and Strategies of Prey and Predators.  Unfortunately for Schmidt, in the course of his researches, he has been stung/bitten innumerable times by various aggressive and toxic insects (and other creepy crawlies) from around the world.

Did you know that bullet ants look just like ants.  In a moment that fact will horrify you. ( Photo: Getty Images/Peter Arnold)

Did you know that bullet ants look just like ants? In a moment that fact will horrify you. ( Photo: Getty Images/Peter Arnold)

Based on these experiences, Schmidt attempted to categorize the algogenic (i.e. pain-inducing) effects of hymenopteran stings in the now world-famous Schmidt sting pain index.  This index is a captivating blend of subjective pain analysis, horrifying real world experience, and inventive poetry.   The lowest sting on the Schmidt index is a 0—betokening a sting which has no effect on humans. The highest rating is a 4 which describes an experience of maddening absolute agony.  The index became famous because of an interview with Outdoor magazine.  Schmidt has since conceded that his descriptive efforts lack an empirical basis and that stings vary depending on body location and the amount of venom injected.  Because of such admissions, Wikipedia took down its remarkable table of stings–which is a shame because the subjective descriptions gave the index its visceral power.  Here is a sampling copied verbatim from “Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog”:

1.0 Sweat bee: Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.

1.2 Fire ant: Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch.

1.8 Bullhorn acacia ant: A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.

2.0 Bald-faced hornet: Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.

2.0 Yellowjacket: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.

2.x Honey bee and European hornet: Like a matchhead that flips off and burns on your skin.

3.0 Red harvester ant: Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.

3.0 Paper wasp: Caustic & burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.

4.0 Pepsis wasp: Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.

4.0+ Bullet ant: Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.

While the work lacks rigorous empirical criteria, even the most relentlessly analytical critics seem to aver that being stung by over 150 different species of arthtopods gives Schmidt a certain robust validity.  The literary merit of the metaphors is certainly genuine (although one hopes that the good Doctor Schmidt never actually dropped a hair dryer into his bubble bath or let misanthropic vaudevillians torture him with fire).   Personally I have only been stung by sweat bees, honey bees, and yellow jackets, so I cannot testify to the more esoteric sting ratings (thankfully–since yellowjacket stings nearly did me in), however something sounds completely right about the yellowjacket sting description.  I recall a moment of warmth which metastasized almost immediately into a sour panic-inducing pain which spread through my arm and then my body.

A Yellow Jacket Sting (photo credit: Richard Martyniak)

A Yellow Jacket Sting (photo credit: Richard Martyniak)

In conclusion, I salute Justin Orvel Schmidt as a man of science and a masochistic poet/performance artist.  If he claims that a bullet ant sting is the worst hymenopteran sting, I see no cause to contradict him and I never want to think about it again.

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.]

In Norse mythology, the world is ruled by glorious glowing gods, the Aesir, who are the magnificent (yet all-too-human) protagonists of Viking cosmology.  Arrayed against the Aesir are a wide range of antagonists.  Some of these enemies are vast beyond reckoning like the mighty Midregard serpent, which rings the oceans, or Níðhöggr, the giant snake that chews the world tree. Others are largely unknown–like the dark elves of Svartálfaheim (the hidden realm) or the fire beings of molten Muspellheim.  However, by far the most common antagonists in Norse mythology are the jǫtnar–the frost giants.  The giants (also known as trolls) are portrayed as huge powerful ice-beings whose behavior is even more unruly than that of the gods: symbolically they are the embodiments of chaos and nature. In fact the first living being in the Norse pantheon was a titanic progenitor jötunn named Ymir.  He was killed and dismembered by the Aesir, who then made the world from his body (which suggests that the jǫtnar may harbor a legitimate grudge against the Aesir).

Frost Giant (from "Asgard Stories: Tales from Norse Mythology" by Mary Foster)

Although the primeval frost-giants are usually portrayed as the enemies of the gods, the relationship between the groups is actually more complicated.  many Aesir gods have jǫtnar spouses or lovers. Although the frost giants show up from time to time in Valhalla to work mischief, their real home is Jotunheim, a wilderness land of ice, mountains, and frozen firs with no human population (much like contemporary Canada). Some giants are portrayed as monsters with multiple heads, animal features, or grotesque traits but others were comely.

Loki

The list of jotnar who featured in important myths is numerous.  Loki the trickster deity who sometimes saved the gods and other times worked to destroy them was a jötunn as was his daughter Hel, ruler of the land of the dead.  Other notable frost giants include Fornjot the Destroyer (a storm giant who fathered the wind), Skrymir, the master of illusions, and Hrungnir–a stone-headed giant of matchless strength.  Although many of these giants were horrible and feature in stories of epic battle, other giants were more fair and took part in more subtle contests.

Odin and Gunnlöd

The jötunn Gunnlöð was said to be exquisitely beautiful. Gunnlöð guarded the mead of poetry, which was made from the fermented blood of Kvasir, god of wisdom. According to the Prose Edda, poetry is a gift from Odin who seduced Gunnlöð and bargained three nights of passion for three sips of the mead.  The king of the gods tricked her– he took the poetry and gave it to humankind but broke his promise and left Gunnlöð unfulfilled. Other poets however tell the story differently and suggest that Odin fell in love with Gunnlöð and the two were happy to drink and sleep together.  Finally, it has been hinted that Gunnlöð tricked Odin and took what she wanted of his godhood in exchange for fake mead and false poetry.  The true mead of verse–the blood of Kvasir himself–never made it to earth.  All poetry we have is sour and ersatz.  Yet, strangely, most bards and epic poets are quiet concerning that last interpretation…

Giantess Gunnlöð, daughter of Suttung (Anders Zorn, oil on canvas)

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