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Ring Out, Wild Bells -- Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The old millennium changeth, yielding place to the new...
(Poem #653) Ring Out, Wild Bells
 Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
 The flying cloud, the frosty light;
 The year is dying in the night;
 Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

 Ring out the old, ring in the new,
 Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
 The year is going, let him go;
 Ring out the false, ring in the true.

 Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
 For those that here we see no more,
 Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
 Ring in redress to all mankind.

 Ring out a slowly dying cause,
 And ancient forms of party strife;
 Ring in the nobler modes of life,
 With sweeter manners, purer laws.

 Ring out the want, the care the sin,
 The faithless coldness of the times;
 Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
 But ring the fuller minstrel in.

 Ring out false pride in place and blood,
 The civic slander and the spite;
 Ring in the love of truth and right,
 Ring in the common love of good.

 Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
 Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
 Ring out the thousand wars of old,
 Ring in the thousand years of peace.

 Ring in the valiant man and free,
 The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
 Ring out the darkenss of the land,
 Ring in the Christ that is to be.
-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson
One of Tennyson's most famous poems - partly due to its association with
New Year's Eve, which ensures it a sort of recurrent popularity - but mostly
because it's a good poem in its own right.

Like most of Tennyson's poetry - indeed, as some people would argue, like
*all* poetry - today's poem is meant to be read aloud. And not just read
aloud, but declaimed - there is a fine dramatic quality to the lines that is
diminished if read silently.

'Ring Out, Wild Bells' was another childhood favourite, though I must
confess to being slightly less impressed by it of late. The problem with
poems like this is that there not only is there a fine line between noble
and sententious, but the placement of that line is highly subjective, and
the poem has a slightly preachy feel to it today that it lacked when I was
younger. Nonetheless, I do like it for its poetic virtues, and yes, because
the world needs more New Year's poems :)


Tennyson biography: poem #15

Compare Tagore's 'Where the Mind is Without Fear': poem #177

and Wordsworth's 'London, 1802': poem #128

And finally, happy new year, century, millennium or what-have-you.


The Cataract of Lodore -- Robert Southey

Guest poem sent in by Raghavendra
(Poem #652) The Cataract of Lodore
 "How does the water
 Come down at Lodore?"
 My little boy asked me
 Thus, once on a time;
 And moreover he tasked me
 To tell him in rhyme.
 Anon, at the word,
 There first came one daughter,
 And then came another,
 To second and third
 The request of their brother,
 And to hear how the water
 Comes down at Lodore,
 With its rush and its roar,
 As many a time
 They had seen it before.
 So I told them in rhyme,
 For of rhymes I had store;
 And 'twas in my vocation
 For their recreation
 That so I should sing;
 Because I was Laureate
 To them and the King.

 From its sources which well
 In the tarn on the fell;
 From its fountains
 In the mountains,
 Its rills and its gills;
 Through moss and through brake,
 It runs and it creeps
 For a while, till it sleeps
 In its own little lake.
 And thence at departing,
 Awakening and starting,
 It runs through the reeds,
 And away it proceeds,
 Through meadow and glade,
 In sun and in shade,
 And through the wood-shelter,
 Among crags in its flurry,
 Here it comes sparkling,
 And there it lies darkling;
 Now smoking and frothing
 Its tumult and wrath in,
 Till, in this rapid race
 On which it is bent,
 It reaches the place
 Of its steep descent.

 The cataract strong
 Then plunges along,
 Striking and raging

 As if a war raging
 Its caverns and rocks among;
 Rising and leaping,
 Sinking and creeping,
 Swelling and sweeping,
 Showering and springing,
 Flying and flinging,
 Writhing and ringing,
 Eddying and whisking,
 Spouting and frisking,
 Turning and twisting,
 Around and around
 With endless rebound:
 Smiting and fighting,
 A sight to delight in;
 Confounding, astounding,
 Dizzying and deafening the ear with its sound.

 Collecting, projecting,
 Receding and speeding,
 And shocking and rocking,
 And darting and parting,
 And threading and spreading,
 And whizzing and hissing,
 And dripping and skipping,
 And hitting and splitting,
 And shining and twining,
 And rattling and battling,
 And shaking and quaking,
 And pouring and roaring,
 And waving and raving,
 And tossing and crossing,
 And flowing and going,
 And running and stunning,
 And foaming and roaming,
 And dinning and spinning,
 And dropping and hopping,
 And working and jerking,
 And guggling and struggling,
 And heaving and cleaving,
 And moaning and groaning;

 And glittering and frittering,
 And gathering and feathering,
 And whitening and brightening,
 And quivering and shivering,
 And hurrying and skurrying,
 And thundering and floundering;

 Dividing and gliding and sliding,
 And falling and brawling and sprawling,
 And driving and riving and striving,
 And sprinkling and twinkling and wrinkling,
 And sounding and bounding and rounding,
 And bubbling and troubling and doubling,
 And grumbling and rumbling and tumbling,
 And clattering and battering and shattering;

 Retreating and beating and meeting and sheeting,
 Delaying and straying and playing and spraying,
 Advancing and prancing and glancing and dancing,
 Recoiling, turmoiling and toiling and boiling,
 And gleaming and streaming and steaming and beaming,
 And rushing and flushing and brushing and gushing,
 And flapping and rapping and clapping and slapping,
 And curling and whirling and purling and twirling,
 And thumping and plumping and bumping and jumping,
 And dashing and flashing and splashing and clashing;
 And so never ending, but always descending,
 Sounds and motions for ever and ever are blending
 All at once and all o'er, with a mighty uproar, -
 And this way the water comes down at Lodore.
-- Robert Southey

I find waterfalls fascinating. The sprinkle formed by the water crashing to
the base symbolizes life and energy to me. Reading Southey's "The Cataract
of Lodore" gave me the experience as of watching a spectacular waterfall. I
managed to find a photograph of the waterfall which, however, disappointed
me. I guess it was taken during a dry spell. Southey's description of the
waterfall is a masterpiece. The poem creates a wonderful image of a lively
waterfall. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that he spirit of the
waterfall has been captured in words for eternity by Southey.

Check out
[broken link]
for a photograph of the waterfall at Lodore.



Biography of Southey: poem #203

Also check out Tennyson's somewhat reminiscent 'The Brook' poem #80

Myth -- Muriel Rukeyser

Guest poem sent in by Rachel Granfield
(Poem #651) Myth
 Long afterward, Oedipus, old and blinded, walked the
 roads.  He smelled a familiar smell.  It was
 the Sphinx.  Oedipus said, "I want to ask one question.
 Why didn't I recognize my mother?"  "You gave the
 wrong answer," said the Sphinx.  "But that was what
 made everything possible," said Oedipus.  "No," she said.
 "When I asked, What walks on four legs in the morning,
 two at noon, and three in the evening, you answered,
 Man.  You didn't say anything about woman."
 "When you say Man," said Oedipus, "you include women
 too.  Everyone knows that."  She said, "That's what
 you think."
-- Muriel Rukeyser
The tone of this poem is interesting--the diction is simple and the
sentences short; it reads almost like a children's story (only with
apparently random line breaks).  I like this poem most of all for its
startling final sentence, which leaves the reader with a new look at the
Oedipus stories.

Muriel Rukeyser was born on 15 December 1913 in New York City. She attended
the Fieldston Schools and matriculated at Vassar College (Poughkeepsie, NY).
From 1930-1932, she attended Columbia University in New York. Rukeyser's
first book of poems, Theory of Flight, was chosen by Stephen Vincent Benet
for publication in the Yale Younger Poets Series in 1935, and this book
began a literary career spanning the rest of Rukeysers life and much of the
rest of the twentieth century.

As central and continual a part of Rukeyser's life as poetry was her deep
political commitment. Beginning in the late 1920s, Rukeyser was heavily
involved in political activism on a set of issues ranging from the
Scottsboro Case to the Spanish Civil War to feminism and the American
aggression in Viet Nam. Indeed, Rukeyser spent much of the 1930s in
political action. She traveled to Alabama to cover the Scottsboro case
(catching typhoid fever in a sheriff's station there) and worked for the
Internation Labor Defense, which handled the Scottsboro defendants appeals.
She wrote for the Daily Worker, went to Spain to cover the People's
Olympiad, an international anti-fascist games set up as an alternative to
the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. While Rukeyser was in Spain, the Spanish Civil
War broke out and she was evacuated. Her experience formed the basis for
_Mediterranean_, first published as a pamphlet by (and for) New York Writers
and Artists Committee, Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy in 1937.
Rukeyser also, and perhaps most famously, traveled to Gauley Bridge, West
Virginia, to investigate for herself a rash of silicosis cases among miners
there (the cases, and the Congressional Investigation into them, had
received a good deal of coverage in the American media). The research she
conducted there was fashioned into _The Book of the Dead_, Rukeyser's
astonishingly powerful poem sequence (published in 1938, in her volume, U.S.

Though often attacked by critics on the political Left and Right alike,
Rukeyser continued to write and publish poetry throughout her life. Among
her best, and most important, books are: _A Turning Wind_ (1939), Beast in
View (1944), _The Green Wave_ (1948), Elegies (1949), Body of Waking (1958),
_The Speed of Darkness_ (1968), Breaking Open (1973), and The Gates (1976).
She also published biographies of Willard Gibbs, Wendell Wilkie, and Thomas
Hariot; fiction; plays and film screenplays; translations of work by Octavio
Paz and Gunnar Ekelff; and, in 1949, The Life of Poetry.

Similarly, politics continued to inform Rukeyser's life and work. It was, in
fact, Rukeyser's feminism and her vocal opposition to the War in Viet Nam
that drew the attention of a new generation to her poetry in the 1960s. She
served as President of PEN's American Center to fight for the human rights
of writers around the world.  The centrality of political work, and the
connection between that work and Rukeyser's literary career, is perhaps best
illustrated by the fact that a thwarted attempt to visit Korean poet Kim Chi
Ha on death row in South Korea forms the basis for her last book's title
poem, "The Gates." Rukeyser died on 12 February 1980.

(biography pasted shamelessly from


All You who Sleep Tonight -- Vikram Seth

Guest poem sent in by Sukrit Mehra
(Poem #650) All You who Sleep Tonight
 All you who sleep tonight
 Far from the ones you love,
 No hand to left or right
 And emptiness above -

 Know that you aren't alone
 The whole world shares your tears,
 Some for two nights or one,
 And some for all their years.
-- Vikram Seth
Doesn't one feel inadequate at writing these commentaries. How can one
express in words, thoughts behind the words? How can one cross those
limitations? But this poem, I think, will appeal to most of us. Anybody who
ever lived must have been lonely, sometime or the other. Especially in this
day and age.

        "The global village" is a euphemism for the "every person for
himself - commando operation - world", where we exist now. It gets
lonely here. Living across oceans, away from family, friends and
familiarity. Somehow this poem always reminds me of "Brothers in Arms"
by Dire Straits.

  "...Someday you'll return to,
  your valleys and your farms
  and you'll no longer burn to be
  Brothers in Arms."

But then that is just half of the story - what about the people whose
loneliness is something much more incurable and not to do with geographical
location. What about them.

This poem has always been special to me... It says, "hey it happens, its
natural". And when nobody is there, it is.  I cherish its existence in my



 We've run one Seth poem before - see poem #460 has a biography of Seth and
 a writeup on his opus 'A Suitable Boy'.

A Song of the Weather -- Michael Flanders

The aforementioned Irresistible Followup...
(Poem #649) A Song of the Weather
 January brings the snow
 Makes your feet and fingers glow
 February's Ice and sleet
 Freeze the toes right off your feet
 Welcome March with wintry wind
 Would thou wer't not so unkind
 April brings the sweet spring showers
 On and on for hours and hours
 Farmers fear unkindly May
 Frost by night and hail by day
 June just rains and never stops
 Thirty days and spoils the crops
 In July the sun is hot
 Is it shining? No, it's not
 August cold, and dank, and wet
 Brings more rain than any yet
 Bleak September's mist and mud
 Is enough to chill the blood
 Then October adds a gale
 Wind and slush and rain and hail
 Dark November brings the fog
 Should not do it to a dog
 Freezing wet December then:
 Bloody January again!
 (January brings the snow
 Makes your feet and fingers glow).
-- Michael Flanders
"Oh, to be in England, now that April..." - no, wait a minute, May - um, no,
June? July? Ah, wotthehell - I'm *glad* I'm not there <g>. No particular
comment on this amusing catalogue of the seasons - perhaps someone more
local would care to comment on its accuracy?

Like Tom Lehrer on the other side of the Atlantic, Flanders and Swann wrote
and recorded a disappointingly small set of songs, but what's there is all
brilliant. I've contemplated running some of my personal favourites, like
'Misalliance', 'A Transport of Delight' and 'Madeira M'Dear', but held off
due to a reluctance to run song lyrics without the music on which they
depend. Still, like Gilbert before him, Flanders' lyrics are clever enough
(and funny enough) to stand on their own. This is particularly true since,
again like Gilbert, he revels in complicated rhyme schemes and metrical
patterns, and at times the most deliciously contrived of rhymes. (Sadly,
today's piece is not representative of the latter tendencies).


 There's a biography at
 [broken link]

 From the excellent F&S site at

 This was an Irresistible Followup to Goulder's 'The January Man', poem #648

 Other songwriters in the same vein include Tom Lehrer and W. S. Gilbert,
 both of whom have featured on Minstrels before. See

And finally:

 Many thanks to Ch'kai for introducing me to Flanders and Swann in the first


The January Man -- Dave Goulder

Guest poem sent in by Andy Webb
(Poem #648) The January Man
 The January man he walks the road
 In woollen coat and boots of leather
 The February man still shakes the snow
 From off his hair and blows his hands
 The man of March he sees the Spring and
 Wonders what the year will bring
 And hopes for better weather

 Through April rains the man comes down
 To watch the birds come in to share the summer
 The man of May stands very still
 Watching the children dance away the day
 In June the man inside the man is young
 And wants to lend a hand
 And grins at each new color

 And in July the man in cotton shirt
 He sits and thinks on being idle
 The August man in thousands take the road
 To watch the sea and find the sun
 September man is standing near
 To saddle up another year
 And Autumn is his bridle

 The man of new October takes the reins
 And early frost is on his shoulder
 The poor November man sees fire and rain
 And snow and mist and wintery gale
 December man looks through the snow
 To let eleven brothers know
 They're all a little older

 And the January man comes round again
 In woollen coat and boots of leather
 To take another turn and walk along
 the icy road he knows so well
 For the January man is here for
 Starting each and every year
 Along the road for ever
-- Dave Goulder
"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is a good carol, and since you mention
carols which do not rely upon the tune, I thought I'd send you the
following. This is the best version (indeed, the only version) I could
find on-line, it being as accurate as any that I could transcribe from

This is a tradional west country carol for the time of year. I had the
pleasure of hearing it sung (unaccompanied), by Hearts of Oak in an old
church in a Devon Village only two weeks ago.


[Martin adds]

Lovely poem, though I wouldn't have guessed it was a Christmas carol. I
suspect it wasn't really written as one, but rather adopted into the
Christmas tradition later. Andy's right; it does stand up on its own
very well, though I didn't appreciate how well the delayed rhyme worked
until I heard it sung.

Notes and Links:

- There's an mp3 at
  Recommended - this is a *beautiful* song. Many thanks to Andy for
  introducing me to it.

- has a bit about the song


  Written by Dave Goulder, a one time foot plate man in the good old
  days of steam trains, who was also a keen walker and climber. He left
  his hometown of Nottingham to run a climbing centre in the Torridon
  Hills in Scotland and it was there, he says, that he saw for the first
  time through his townie eyes the year passing month by month through
  the seasons. Dave now runs courses in dry-stone walling but is still
  singing and writing songs. This I believe is one of the most perfect
  songs ever written.

        -- [broken link]

- There are several variants floating around; Andy's matches the mp3 I
  pointed to; however there are some details I think have been altered
  from the original, particularly the end of the June verse (where 'new
  colour' seems to have replaced 'newcomer', though it is the latter
  that rhymes). For the sake of completeness, here's the other set of

  The January man he walks abroad in woollen coat and boots of leather
  The February man still wipes the snow from off his hair and blows his hands
  The man of March he sees the spring and wonders what the year will bring
  And hopes for better weather

  Through April rain the man goes down to watch the birds come in to share
    the summer
  The man of May stands very still watching the children dance away the day
  In June the man inside the man is young and wants to lend a hand
  And grins at each newcomer

  And in July the man in cotton shirt he sits and thinks on being idle
  The August man in thousands take the road and watch the sea and find the sun
  September man is standing near to saddle up and leave the year
  And autumn is his bridle

  And the man of new October takes the reins and early frost is on his shoulder
  The poor November man sees fire and wind and mist and rain and winter air
  December man looks through the snow to let eleven brothers know
  They're all a little older

  And the January man comes round again in woollen coat and boots of leather
  To take another turn and walk along the icy road he knows so well
  The January man is here for starting off each and every year
  Along the way forever

        -- Dave Goulder

- Here's a brief biography of Goulder:

- And look out for tomorrow's Irresistible Followup.


God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen -- Trad

Merry Christmas!
(Poem #647) God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
 God rest ye merry gentlemen,
 Let nothing you dismay.
 Remember Christ our Saviour
 Was born on Christmas day,
 To save us all from Satan's power
 When we were gone astray,
 O tidings of comfort and joy,
 Comfort and joy,
 O tidings of comfort and joy.

 In Bethlehem in Jewry,
 This blessed Babe was born,
 And laid within a manger,
 Upon this blessed morn;
 The which His mother Mary
 Did nothing take in scorn:
 O tidings of comfort and joy.
 Comfort and joy,
 O tidings of comfort and joy.

 From God our heavenly Father,
 A blessed angel came,
 And unto certain shepherds,
 Brought tidings of the same,
 How that in Bethlehem was born,
 The Son of God by name,
 O tidings of comfort and joy,
 Comfort and joy,
 O tidings of comfort and joy.

 "Fear not" then said the angel,
 "Let nothing you affright,
 This day is born a Saviour,
 Of a pure virgin bright,
 To free all those who trust in Him,
 From Satan's power and might",
 O tidings of comfort and joy,
 Comfort and joy,
 O tidings of comfort and joy.

 The shepherds at those tidings
 Rejoiced much in mind,
 And left their flocks a-feeding
 In tempest, storm, and wind,
 And went to Bethlehem straightway
 This blessed Babe to find:
 O tidings of comfort and joy
 Comfort and joy,
 O tidings of comfort and joy.

 But when to Bethlehem they came,
 Whereat this Infant lay,
 They found Him in a manger,
 Where oxen feed on hay;
 His mother Mary kneeling,
 Unto the Lord did pray:
 O tidings of comfort and joy.
 Comfort and joy,
 O tidings of comfort and joy.

 Now to the Lord sing praises,
 All you within this place,
 And with true love and brotherhood,
 Each other now embrace,
 This holy tide of Christmas,
 All others doth deface,
 O tidings of comfort and joy,
 Comfort and joy,
 O tidings of comfort and joy.
-- Trad
I've been meaning to run a carol for a while now - the problem is, most of
them depend as much on the music as they do on the lyrics, and it's hard to
imagine one without the other.

In the end, I decided not to bother about which carols made the best
standalone poems, and simply run one of my favourite ones. Like most carols,
this one has survived (with minor variations) for an excellent reason - both
the words and the music have a timeless beauty that the slightly archaic
language does nothing to detract from. Also, unlike many other carols, 'God
Rest Ye Merry Gentelmen' doesn't give me the feeling that it was written in
distinct stages, with later verses added long after the original ones were
written and popularised[1].

[1] My other favourite carol, 'O Holy Night', definitely suffers from this.
Not only are verses after the first nowhere near as beautiful, they don't
even have the same feel to them.

Note: The proper punctuation of the title is 'God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman'.
'God Rest Ye Merry' was a old greeting, 'rest' being used in the sense of


There's an interesting piece of historical background to the song at

Here's an mp3, in case you haven't heard it sung
(Or go to and take a look around - there are a bunch of them up


The North Wind Doth Blow -- Anonymous

(Poem #646) The North Wind Doth Blow
 The north wind doth blow,
 And we shall have snow,
 And what will the robin do then,
 Poor thing?

 He'll sit in a barn,
 To keep himself warm,
 And hide his head under his wing,
 Poor thing.
-- Anonymous
One of the several nursery rhymes I learnt at my mother's knee (hi mum!).
This one has always been one of my favourites, possibly helped by the
wonderful illustrations that accompanied it in a number of children's poetry
books. Like many other nursery rhymes, this one has an associated tune - as
much chanted as sung, as is also typical of the genre, and rather dolorous,
as befits the poem.

Note: It practically goes without saying that there are several minor
variants of the poem, with no one version laying claim to definitiveness.
This is merely the wording I like best.

On Mother Goose:

  fictitious old woman, reputedly the source of the body of traditional
  children's songs and verses known as nursery rhymes. She is often pictured
  as a beak-nosed, sharp-chinned elderly woman riding on the back of a
  flying gander. "Mother Goose" was first associated with nursery rhymes in
  an early collection of "the most celebrated Songs and Lullabies of old
  British nurses," Mother Goose's Melody; or Sonnets for the Cradle (1781),
  published by the successors of one of the first publishers of children's
  books, John Newbery. The oldest extant copy dates from 1791, but it is
  thought that an edition appeared, or was planned, as early as 1765, and it
  is likely that it was edited by Oliver Goldsmith, who may also have
  composed some of the verses. The Newbery firm seems to have derived the
  name "Mother Goose" from the title of Charles Perrault's fairy tales,
  Contes de ma mère l'oye (1697; "Tales of Mother Goose"), a French folk
  expression roughly equivalent to "old wives' tales."

  The persistent legend that Mother Goose was an actual Boston woman,
  Elizabeth Goose (Vergoose, or Vertigoose), whose grave in Boston's Old
  Granary Burying Ground is still a tourist attraction, is false. No
  evidence of the book of rhymes she supposedly wrote in 1719 has ever been
  found. The first U.S. edition of Mother Goose rhymes was a reprint of the
  Newbery edition published by Isaiah Thomas in 1785.

        -- EB

Links: has a
large collection of nursery rhymes

I'd hoped to list a site that explained the stories behind some of the
nursery rhymes, but was unable to find one I liked. Suggestions welcomed.

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature on Nursery Rhymes


Old Folks laugh -- Maya Angelou

Guest poem sent in by Ebor Mithwarg
(Poem #645) Old Folks laugh
 They have spent their
 content of simpering,
 holding their lips this
 and that way, winding
 the lines between
 their brows. Old folks
 allow their bellies to jiggle like slow
 The hollers
 rise up and spill
 over any way they want.
 When old folks laugh, they free the world.
 They turn slowly, slyly knowing
 the best and the worst
 of remembering.
 Saliva glistens in
 the corners of their mouths,
 their heads wobble
 on brittle necks, but
 their laps
 are filled with memories.
 When old folks laugh, they consider the promise
 of dear painless death, and generously
 forgive life for happening
 to them.
-- Maya Angelou
What I love about this poem is the way it conjures up the tired hilarity of
old people - a way of laughing that is equally a mode of surrender: and the
way the poem is like the laugh itself, blending an elusive sense of joy with
an ancient fatigue.



There's a biography of Angelou at poem #383

Patterns -- Amy Lowell

Guest poem submitted by Yvette R Sangiorgio
(Poem #644) Patterns
 I walk down the garden-paths,
 And all the daffodils
 Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.
 I walk down the patterned garden-paths
 In my stiff, brocaded gown.
 With my powdered hair and jeweled fan,
 I too am a rare
 Pattern.  As I wander down
 The garden-paths.
 My dress is richly figured,
 And the train
 Makes a pink and silver stain
 On the gravel, and the thrift
 Of the borders.
 Just a plate of current fashion,
 Tripping by in high-heeled, ribboned shoes.
 Not a softness anywhere about me,
 Only whalebone and brocade.
 And I sink on a seat in the shade
 Of a lime tree.  For my passion
 Wars against the stiff brocade.
 The daffodils and squills
 Flutter in the breeze
 As they please.
 And I weep;
 For the lime-tree is in blossom
 And one small flower has dropped upon my bosom.

 And the splashing of waterdrops
 In the marble fountain
 Comes down the garden-paths.
 The dripping never stops.
 Underneath my stiffened gown
 Is the softness of a woman bathing in a marble basin,
 A basin in the midst of hedges grown
 So thick, she cannot see her lover hiding,
 But she guesses he is near,
 And the sliding of the water
 Seems the stroking of a dear
 Hand upon her.
 What is Summer in a fine brocaded gown!
 I should like to see it lying in a heap upon the ground.
 All the pink and silver crumpled up on the ground.

 I would be the pink and silver as I ran along the paths,
 And he would stumble after,
 Bewildered by my laughter.
 I should see the sun flashing from his sword-hilt and the buckles on his shoes.
 I would choose
 To lead him in a maze along the patterned paths,
 A bright and laughing maze for my heavy-booted lover.
 Till he caught me in the shade,
 And the buttons of his waistcoat bruised my body as he clasped me,
 Aching, melting, unafraid.
 With the shadows of the leaves and the sundrops,
 And the plopping of the waterdrops,
 All about us in the open afternoon--
 I am very like to swoon
 With the weight of this brocade,
 For the sun sifts through the shade.

 Underneath the fallen blossom
 In my bosom,
 Is a letter I have hid.
 It was brought to me this morning by a rider from the Duke.
 "Madam, we regret to inform you that Lord Hartwell
 Died in action Thursday se'nnight."
 As I read it in the white, morning sunlight,
 The letters squirmed like snakes.
 "Any answer, Madam," said my footman.
 "No," I told him.
 "See that the messenger takes some refreshment.
 No, no answer."
 And I walked into the garden,
 Up and down the patterned paths,
 In my stiff, correct brocade.
 The blue and yellow flowers stood up proudly in the sun,
 Each one.
 I stood upright too,
 Held rigid to the pattern
 By the stiffness of my gown.
 Up and down I walked,
 Up and down.

 In a month he would have been my husband.
 In a month, here, underneath this lime,
 We would have broke the pattern;
 He for me, and I for him,
 He as Colonel, I as Lady,
 On this shady seat.
 He had a whim
 That sunlight carried blessing.
 And I answered, "It shall be as you have said."
 Now he is dead.

 In Summer and in Winter I shall walk
 Up and down
 The patterned garden-paths
 In my stiff, brocaded gown.
 The squills and daffodils
 Will give place to pillared roses, and to asters, and to snow.
 I shall go
 Up and down
 In my gown.
 Gorgeously arrayed,
 Boned and stayed.
 And the softness of my body will be guarded from embrace
 By each button, hook, and lace.
 For the man who should loose me is dead,
 Fighting with the Duke in Flanders,
 In a pattern called a war.
 Christ!  What are patterns for?
-- Amy Lowell
I would like to submit one of my favorite poems first read in high school.
The title is accented in the fabric of the words, evoking a rich and varied
visual pattern. The cry of the poem evoked similar emotions, especially the
desire to break free of patterns.  Yet, as one matures, the special
significance of the poem is highlighted.  We cannot completely free
ourselves of the pattern of our lives, even though we rebel against it.
What do you think?


[Martin adds: Lovely poem. There's a compelling rhythm underlying the
apparently unmetred verses, reinforced by the brilliantly irregular rhyme
scheme (seldom have I seen that done better). Very appropriate in a poem
about Patterns, which was doubtless the effect Lowell was trying for.]


There's a Lowell biography at poem #102

The Man in the Moon Came Down Too Soon -- J R R Tolkien

Guest poem submitted by Reed C. Bowman:

Allow me to present my single favourite Tolkien poem, and one of his
greatest inventions. His preface is all that is needed, and it, and the poem
(or song) itself sufficiently show the genius of its invention:

At the inn called the Prancing Pony in Bree, Frodo, as a visitor from the
Shire, is asked to sing a song the guests haven't heard before. "For a
moment Frodo stood gaping. Then in desperation he began a ridiculous song
that Bilbo had been rather fond of (and indeed rather proud of, for he had
made up the words himself). It was about an inn; and that is probably why it
came into Frodo's mind just then. Here it is in full. Only a few words of it
are now, as a rule, remembered."
(Poem #643) The Man in the Moon Came Down Too Soon
 There is an inn, a merry old inn
   beneath an old grey hill,
 And there they brew a beer so brown
 That the Man in the Moon himself came down
   one night to drink his fill.

 The ostler has a tipsy cat
   that plays a five-stringed fiddle;
 And up and down he saws his bow
 Now squeaking high, now purring low,
   now sawing in the middle.

 The landlord keeps a little dog
   that is mighty fond of jokes;
 When there's good cheer among the guests,
 He cocks an ear at all the jests
   and laughs until he chokes.

 They also keep a hornéd cow
   as proud as any queen;
 But music turns her head like ale,
 And makes her wave her tufted tail
   and dance upon the green.

 And O! the rows of silver dishes
   and the store of silver spoons!
 For Sunday there's a special pair,
 And these they polish up with care
   on Saturday afternoons.

 The Man in the Moon was drinking deep,
   and the cat began to wail;
 A dish and a spoon on the table danced,
 The cow in the garden madly pranced
   and the little dog chased his tail.

 The Man in the Moon took another mug,
   and then rolled beneath his chair;
 And there he dozed and dreamed of ale,
 Till in the sky the stars were pale,
   and dawn was in the air.

 Then the ostler said to his tipsy cat:
   'The white horses of the Moon,
 They neigh and champ their silver bits;
 But their master's been and drowned his wits,
   and the Sun'll be rising soon!'

 So the cat on the fiddle played hey-diddle-diddle,
   a jig that would wake the dead:
 He squeaked and sawed and quickened the tune,
 While the landlord shook the Man in the Moon:
   'It's after three!' he said.

 They rolled the Man slowly up the hill
   and bundled him into the Moon,
 While his horses galloped up in rear,
 And the cow came capering like a deer,
   and a dish ran up with the spoon.

 Now quicker the fiddle went deedle-dum-diddle;
   the dog began to roar,
 The cow and the horses stood on their heads;
 The guests all bounded from their beds
   and danced upon the floor.

 With a ping and a pang the fiddle-strings broke!
   the cow jumped over the Moon,
 And the little dog laughed to see such fun,
 And the Saturday dish went off at a run
   with the silver Sunday spoon.

 The round Moon rolled behind the hill,
   as the Sun raised up her head.
 She* hardly believed her fiery eyes;
 For though it was day, to her surprise
   they all went back to bed!
-- J R R Tolkien
* Elves (and Hobbits) always refer to the Sun as She. [Tolkien's footnote]


After Tolkien, it has become not uncommon for people to write alternative
histories, prehistories, legendary histories, and mythologies, that
synthesize or make a new and different sense of the old stories and legends.
Tolkien's books are so magical because they are so successful in
incorporating these stories into a creation of his own, woven with such
mastery of the old stories, and rendered with such linguistic and
storytelling acumen that his retelling of the world is both wholly new and
apparently inevitable.

This particular poem brings his world closer to ours than was his wont, but
because of that it points up exactly the craft he was employing in his
creation. Here he has taken a short nonsense poem from Mother Goose, a
charming one that absolutely everyone knows, and given it a history. Finding
short nonsense rhymes that once were part of longer, more sensible poems and
songs (often mnemonics) is not infrequent in the study of language's
history. So he made up the sort of poem "Hey-diddle-diddle, the cat and the
fiddle" could have come from. Bilbo's song serves to "explain" why we have
this peculiar nonsense rhyme in common usage today. Of course, when you get
right down to it, the original is nonsense, too, but at least things are
explained one step better, and all the characters have achieved at least a
one-dimensional existence.

Beyond this, the poem works quite remarkably well to show the style of poem
Hobbits like (fun and frivolous), reveals in an unserious way a small
portion of their former mythology (the Moon is a chariot containing a Man,
drawn by horses, the Sun is female - masculine Moon and feminine Sun are to
be found in Germanic languages, including Old English, though now we are
more accustomed to the Romance interpretation which switches them), and of
course shows off Tolkien's ability to create marvellously amiable poetry as
well as prose.

One last observation (it is getting late as I write): essential to all
Tolkien's writing is his deep and nuanced understanding of the roots of the
English language (as well as of the legends, and the deeply meshed
connection between language and legend). It is his precise control of a
vocabulary heavily weighted to the Old English, Germanic roots that creates
his particular style both in prose and poetry. His use of alliteration (even
in prose) is much heavier than most poets', yet his poetry is not borne down
by the weight of it; this is because he knows how to make it valuable, by
modelling his usages on ancient styles, and not too often placing foreign
(Romance) words in constructions calling for Old English feel. It is worth
reading Tolkien word by word to see how he does these things; it's even
worth learning Old English to read him, if you ask me...


The Poetics of Desire -- Rina Singh

Guest poem sent in by P. G. Murthy
(Poem #642) The Poetics of Desire
 Throw away your papers tonight
 put aside your pen
 let your fingers
 write on my body,
 an empty page
 a word,
 a sentence,
 write a poem
 if your syntax hurts my skin
 if I sigh, if I moan
 just tighten your embrace
 if your fingers stammer
 dip them in darkness
 and start again
 fill up my margins
 suffocate me with your grammar
 proofread the madness
 you have created
 erase with your lips
 any mistakes
 your fingers make
 read to me
 what you have written
 see the pages of my life
 come alive
 in your fingers
-- Rina Singh
Reading this poem one feels the words changing to music much like the
run of the fingers on piano keys. A beautiful poem where the poet
invites the reader, as it were, to leave alone the unidimensional
monochromatic world of words and move over to the speechless reality of
existence where life vibrates in truth and beauty. The poet asks the
reader to abandon language and words as the vehicle of communication and
get on with life and living.

Rina Singh is M.A. in Creative Writing an a teacher in Canada.

- P. G. Murthy


There's a short biography at [broken link]

The Road at My Door -- William Butler Yeats

It's been ages since I visited Yeats...
(Poem #641) The Road at My Door
 An affable Irregular,
 A heavily-built Falstaffian man,
 Comes cracking jokes of civil war
 As though to die by gunshot were
 The finest play under the sun.

 A brown Lieutenant and his men,
 Half dressed in national uniform,
 Stand at my door, and I complain
 Of the foul weather, hail and rain,
 A pear-tree broken by the storm.

 I count those feathered balls of soot
 The moor-hen guides upon the stream.
 To silence the envy in my thought;
 And turn towards my chamber, caught
 In the cold snows of a dream.
-- William Butler Yeats
... but not ages since we last ran him on the Minstrels. The reason is
tolerably obvious - whenever I sharpen my pencil for a commentary on the
master, I find myself pre-empted by a guest submission. Not this time,
though - this time I'm determined to do the pre-empting myself.

First, some background: today's poem forms part of a sequence titled
'Meditations in Time of Civil War'. George Macbeth writes: "Irish history
and Irish politics came alive to Yeats through the doings of people he knew
and loved. His best work is a commentary on the history of a whole country
at the establishment of its freedom, a period of agonising crisis seen
through the eyes of a particularly sensitive and involved member of it.
Ireland was still small enough in the early twentieth century for one man to
feel its problems personally and mould great poetry out of them. No English
poet has been able during the last fifty or sixty years to do this for more
than one particular region. This more than anything else establishes Yeats'
preeminence" [1].

I find the phrase "no English poet" in the above passage especially
noteworthy. For Yeats is _not_ an English poet; he's an Irish poet, and
therein lies all the difference. It's impossible to read his work without
taking into cognizance the people, places and politics that gave rise to it,
the distinctly Irish concerns that inform it. What's especially remarkable
is the way this concentration of vision [2] never degenerates into mere

Another (somewhat related) point: the ability to move effortlessly between
the specific instance and the overarching theme is one of the defining
qualities of Yeats' work; today's poem (written during the Irish upheavals
of the 1920s, when Yeats was in his sixties) exhibits this ability in
buckets. The anecdote told is straightforward enough, but Yeats does more
than just tell a story: he touches upon the themes of death and glory (and
their undeniable attraction even to an old man like himself) and contrasts
them with the peace and stability and, well, homeliness exemplified by the
moor-hen's chicks.

The final couplet bears repeating:
        "And turn towards my chamber, caught
         In the cold snows of a dream."
It bespeaks yet another change in the poem's direction: this time, into the
realms of poignancy and loss, the 'saddest words of tongue and pen'[3]. The
shift in tone is almost palpable...


PS. I need hardly mention (this being Yeats) that the language is never
short of brilliant... utterly simple, yet it captures the moods he wishes to
evoke to a nicety. I wish I knew how he did it - I can't even begin to
explain the magic of his spell.

[1] 'Poetry 1900-1975', ed. George Macbeth, pub. Longman. Highly
[2] Political vision, that is. His spiritual, romantic and philosophical
themes are another matter entirely: although they're equally 'concentrated',
they showcase a width and range rarely matched and almost never exceeded.
[3]     For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
        The saddest are these: "It might have been!"
                -- John Greenleaf Whittier, from the poem 'Maud Muller'
The poem as a whole is unmemorable, but these two lines have (justly)
attained immortality. The idea of 'possibility', especially as symbolized by
the open road, has been covered before on the Minstrels; see the links
section below.


You want Yeats poems? You've got 'em. Click on
[broken link]
and scroll down to near the end.

Interestingly enough, of the 17 Yeats poems run so far (including today's),
8 have been guest submissions, 8 have been my own choices, and 1 is due to

Poems about the idea of "The Road at My Door":
Tolkien, "The Road Goes Ever On", poem #4
Millay, "The Unexplorer", poem #49

Martin once did a theme on roads:
Rossetti, "Uphill", poem #47
Frost, "The Road Not Taken", poem #51
and the Millay mentioned above.

I'm sure there are more, but nothing springs to mind at the moment.

[Statistics Update]

(You really really need to know this stuff. I kid you not.)

The most popular poets on the Minstrels are
0. Anon: 19 poems
1. William Butler Yeats: 17 (including today's poem)
2. William Shakespeare: 15
3. Rudyard Kipling: 13
4. T. S. Eliot: 11
5. W. H. Auden: 10
6. Robert Browning: 10
7. Dylan Thomas: 10
8. J. R. R. Tolkien: 9
Six out of the above eight made their first appearance within 20 days of our
starting the list (no surprise there); the exceptions are Auden (almost two
months) and Browning (two and a half).

The most popular first name is William (58), which is streets ahead of John
(37), Robert (34) and Thomas (30).

There are no less than four poems on the Minstrels titled 'Untitled'.

The most popular adjective on the Minstrels is _not_ 'evocative', despite
what some people would have you think <grin>.

Fairies -- Marchette Gaylord Chute

A followup of sorts to the recent Dorothy Parker poem...
(Poem #640) Fairies
 You can't see fairies unless you're good.
 That's what Nurse said to me.
 They live in the smoke of the chimney,
 Or down in the roots of a tree;
 They brush their wings on a tulip,
 Or hide behind a pea.

 But you can't see fairies unless you're good,
 So they aren't much use to me.
-- Marchette Gaylord Chute
Amidst the plethora of insipid, saccharine or just-plain-dull children's
poems, it was refreshing to come across one as unexpectedly and delightfully
subversive as 'Fairies'.

Of course, there are a lot of brilliant poems out there too, but too many
writers seem to take writing for children as a license to churn out the most
awful dreck. Sturgeon's law apart, I can't help but feel that some writers
take distinct advantage of the fact that their target audience and their
target *market* are entirely separate.

Today's piece is a clear dig at the preachy variety of poem - starting off
with a solemn moral injunction, throwing in a few cliches about fairies, and
then delivering the unrepentant punchline. Took me totally by surprise - I
laughed out loud.


 B. 08-16-1909, Marchette Gaylord Chute - UK author. MC broke the retelling
 mode of historical writers and did actual source research. She is best
 known for With Shakespeare of London (1950) and Geoffrey Chaucer of England
    --  [broken link]


The Dorothy Parker poem referred to: poem #638

We've run several children's poems on Minstrels, but nothing particularly
reminiscent of today's.


One Art -- Elizabeth Bishop

Guest poem submitted by Pavithra Krishnan:
(Poem #639) One Art
 The art of losing isn't hard to master;
 so many things seem filled with the intent
 to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

 Lose something every day.  Accept the fluster
 of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
 The art of losing isn't hard to master.

 Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
 places, and names, and where it was you meant
 to travel.  None of these will bring disaster.

 I lost my mother's watch.  And look! my last, or
 next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
 The art of losing isn't hard to master.

 I lost two cities, lovely ones.  And, vaster,
 some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
 I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

 ---Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
 I love) I shan't have lied.  It's evident
 the art of losing's not too hard to master
 though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
-- Elizabeth Bishop
 The concept of loss has long been favoured by the poets. In their turns
they have variously bemoaned the loss of beauty, youth, fame, life -- and
love. The poetry of loss is a genre unto itself. Immediately poignant by its
implications of tragedy. Freighted with an irrevocable absence. Often
shadowed by pain, sadness.

 ... yeah, I think loss works pretty darn well in verse. And I'm also
certain Elizabeth Bishop understood all this. Perhaps better than she might
have cared to. There is a courageous pretense built into this poem that I
like. Bishop is wry, funny and flippant and very determined not to sound
weepy-eyed. The fierce repetition of the line "the art of losing's not hard
to master" makes you wonder how far and fast she's had to lose. To me Bishop
is valiantly attempting to make believe for awhile that the experience of
loss may be impersonalised into perfection by practising it as an art (take
a breather). That she succeeds in convincing neither herself nor her reader,
hurts her verse not the least.


Song of Perfect Propriety -- Dorothy Parker

Guest poem submitted by Zenobia Driver:
(Poem #638) Song of Perfect Propriety
 Oh, I should like to ride the seas,
   A roaring buccaneer;
 A cutlass banging at my knees,
   A dirk behind my ear.
 And when my captives' chains would clank
   I'd howl with glee and drink,
 And then fling out the quivering plank
   And watch the beggars sink.

 I'd like to straddle gory decks,
   And dig in laden sands,
 And know the feel of throbbing necks
   Between my knotted hands.
 Oh, I should like to strut and curse
   Among my blackguard crew....
 But I am writing little verse,
   As little ladies do.

 Oh, I should like to dance and laugh
   And pose and preen and sway,
 And rip the hearts of men in half,
   And toss the bits away.
 I'd like to view the reeling years
   Through unastonished eyes,
 And dip my finger-tips in tears,
   And give my smiles for sighs.

 I'd stroll beyond the ancient bounds,
   And tap at fastened gates,
 And hear the prettiest of sound-
   The clink of shattered fates.
 My slaves I'd like to bind with thongs
   That cut and burn and chill....
 But I am writing little songs,
   As little ladies will.
-- Dorothy Parker
Ever since I was a kid, I've been hearing those awful words, "Ladies don't
do such things". I hate that sentence. I hate walking daintily, speaking
softly and giggling with a gentle tinkling noise. Which is why I find Parker
brilliant. She professes utterly nasty, unladylike emotions - ooooooooooooo
I love it - and then ends with two soft little ladylike lines. The contrast
is hilarious.


The Hug -- Thom Gunn

Guest poem submitted by Maddie Close:
(Poem #637) The Hug
 It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
   Half of the night with our old friend
     Who'd showed us in the end
   To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
     Already I lay snug,
 And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.

 I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,
     Suddenly, from behind,
 In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:
     Your instep to my heel,
   My shoulder-blades against your chest.
   It was not sex, but I could feel
   The whole strength of your body set,
       Or braced, to mine,
     And locking me to you
   As if we were still twenty-two
   When our grand passion had not yet
     Become familial.
   My quick sleep had deleted all
   Of intervening time and place.
     I only knew
 The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.
-- Thom Gunn
The imagery in the poem is powerful; I could almost see the body pressed
against the narrator and feel the embrace. I particularly like the four
lines at the end. First, Gunn describes the first bewildering moments of
waking up - a complete deletion of "intervening time and place", the
unawareness of surroundings. Then, into the unconsciousness, comes a single
clue: the "secure firm dry embrace". The first instinct of a sleeper upon
waking up is to cement where he is. He seeks out clues, from the sound of
cars or sounds from the kitchen,to determine the surroundings. The narrator
has only this embrace, this tactile clue: in this moment, symbolically, this
person - his lover, presumably - is his world.

This expression of the bond between the two is powerful. They have been
together long enough to remember when they were young and passionate, and,
together still, their love has taken on ever greater importance: no longer
fiery passion but an all-encompassing embrace of each other.

A little bit about Thom Gunn: "Thom Gunn is a poet known for his daring
subject matter. In the mid '50s, after leaving his native England for the
American West Coast, he composed strictly rhymed lyrics about Elvis Presley
and biker gangs. In his 1972 book Moly, he wrote explicitly of experiences
with LSD. In a volume 10 years later, Passages of Joy, he described the
"sexual Jerusalem" of the gay scene in New York and San Francisco. But
Gunn's poems have never fallen to mere sensationalism. Instead, by using
unpredictable subjects that challenge his reader's assumptions and his own,
he's raised the stakes of his artwork" (from an article by Peter Campion,
The Boston Phoenix).


Aaron Stark -- Edwin Arlington Robinson

Inspired by yesterday's poem...
(Poem #636) Aaron Stark
 Withal a meagre man was Aaron Stark, --
 Cursed and unkempt, shrewd, shrivelled, and morose.
 A miser was he, with a miser's nose,
 And eyes like little dollars in the dark.
 His thin, pinched mouth was nothing but a mark;
 And when he spoke there came like sullen blows
 Through scattered fangs a few snarled words and close,
 As if a cur were chary of its bark.

 Glad for the murmur of his hard renown,
 Year after year he shambled through the town, --
 A loveless exile moving with a staff;
 And oftentimes there crept into his ears
 A sound of alien pity, touched with tears, --
 And then (and only then) did Aaron laugh.
-- Edwin Arlington Robinson
Robinson has written a large and diverse body of poetry; however, when I
think of him what I mostly light upon are his devastating little character
sketches. Today's poem is somewhat less famous than the biting 'Miniver
Cheevy' or the haunting 'Richard Cory'[1], but no less enjoyable - the
caricature is overexaggerated, true, but it's a deft caricature for all of

As in yesterday's Browning monologue, we are treated to the always-enjoyable
spectacle of a despised person being vilified in verse - I shall not attempt
to analyse the attraction of such a spectacle, but attraction there
definitely is[2].

The character assassination is not untempered with sympathy, though - in
fact, that is one of the things I enjoy about Robinson's sketches. They
appear overly simplistic, and yet there is always the feeling that Robinson
has truly gotten into the mind of the character, the suggestion of both
perceptiveness and sympathy that colour the poem and flesh out the starker
ink lines of caricature.

[1] which shall make its appearance on Minstrels - watch this space
[2] if done well, of course - if not, the results are exceedingly painful.


 withal (adv): Along with the rest; in addition; besides; moreover;
 likewise; as well. Often in the collocations

 chary (adj): Careful not to waste or part with, frugal, sparing (of).
        -- OED


The aforementioned Browning poem: poem #635

'Miniver Cheevy', and a biography of Robinson: poem #234

And here's the other Robinson poem we've run: poem #300

We've done several other character sketches, by a variety of poets, but I'm
too tired to look for them :)


Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister -- Robert Browning

(Poem #635) Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister
 GR-R-R--there go, my heart's abhorrence!
   Water your damned flower-pots, do!
 If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence,
   God's blood, would not mine kill you!
 What? Your myrtle-bush wants trimming?
   Oh, that rose has prior claims--
 Needs its leaden vase filled brimming?
   Hell dry you up with its flames!

 At the meal we sit together;
   _Salve tibi_! I must hear
 Wise talk of the kind of weather,
   Sort of season, time of year:
 "Not a plenteous cork-crop: scarcely
   Dare we hope oak-galls, I doubt:
 What's the Latin name for parsley?"
   What's the Greek name for swine's snout?

 Whew! We'll have our platter burnished,
   Laid with care on our own shelf!
 With a fire-new spoon we're furnished,
   And a goblet for ourself,
 Rinsed like something sacrificial
   Ere 'tis fit to touch our chaps--
 Marked with L. for our initial!
   (He-he! There his lily snaps!)

 _Saint_, forsooth! While Brown Dolores
   Squats outside the Convent bank
 With Sanchicha, telling stories,
   Steeping tresses in the tank,
 Blue-black, lustrous, thick like horsehairs,
   ---Can't I see his dead eye glow,
 Bright as 'twere a Barbary corsair's?
   (That is, if he'd let it show!)

 When he finishes refection,
   Knife and fork he never lays
 Cross-wise, to my recollection,
   As I do, in Jesu's praise.
 I the Trinity illustrate,
   Drinking watered orange-pulp--
 In three sips the Arian frustrate;
   While he drains his at one gulp!

 Oh, those melons! if he's able
   We're to have a feast; so nice!
 One goes to the Abbot's table,
   All of us get each a slice.
 How go on your flowers? None double?
   Not one fruit-sort can you spy?
 Strange!--And I, too, at such trouble,
   Keep them close-nipped on the sly!

 There's a great text in Galatians,
   Once you trip on it, entails
 Twenty-nine distinct damnations,
   One sure, if another fails;
 If I trip him just a-dying,
   Sure of heaven as sure can be,
 Spin him round and send him flying
   Off to hell, a Manichee?

 Or, my scrofulous French novel
   On gray paper with blunt type!
 Simply glance at it, you grovel
   Hand and foot in Belial's gripe;
 If I double down the pages
   At the woeful sixteenth print,
 When he gathers his greengages,
   Ope a sieve and slip it in't?

 Or, there's Satan!--one might venture
   Pledge one's soul to him, yet leave
 Such a flaw in the indenture
   As he'd miss till, past retrieve,
 Blasted lay that rose-acacia
   We're so proud of! Hy, Zy, Hine ...
 'St, there's Vespers! _Plena gratia
   Ave, Virgo_! Gr-r-r--you swine!
-- Robert Browning
This is my favourite of Browning's dramatic monologues, and has been so ever
since I first read a snatch of it -
    "There's a great text in Galatians,
       Once you trip on it, entails
     Twenty-nine distinct damnations,
       One sure, if another fails;"
in Kipling's brilliant school story, 'Stalky & co.' [1]. I read the rest of
the poem much later, and I must say it has more than lived up to the promise
of that first excerpt.

Browning's monologues are never easy, though, and today's is no exception. A
major part of the difficulty (and one that has been commented on before on
the Minstrels; see Poem #526) is that his speakers are far removed from the
heroic 'I' who bestrides the world of the earlier Romantics - indeed, more
often than not they're villains of the first order. This makes it necessary
to peel away several layers of self-justification and empty rhetoric
(combined with the occasional overt glorying in wickedness) in order to
arrive at the 'truth' of the situation, i.e., the poet's own view of the

In today's poem, for example, the speaker is a monk, working in the garden
of a monastery (the Spanish cloister of the title); in his (silent)
monologue, all the pent-up frustrations and petty jealousies arising from
years of confinement in the company of the hated Brother Lawrence boil forth
in righteous indignation. But (and the irony here is delicious) the
speaker's many arguments serve merely to convict himself of the crimes he
lays at Lawrence's doorstep. For instance: his description of brown Dolores
and her lustrous, blue-black tresses reflects, not Lawrence's roving eye,
but his own; his rebuke of Lawrence's 'impious' table manners illustrates
the tawdry nature of his own faith; his wild accusations of heresy ought to
draw the Inquisitor's attention, not to Lawrence, but to himself. The
malicious cataloguing of vices goes on; the reductio ad absurdum is reached
when the speaker plans to corrupt the good Lawrence by tempting him with his
own copy of a salacious French novel - and then has the gall to accuse the
latter of the sin of Lust!

Questions of casuistry apart, the Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister also
showcases Browning's remarkable technical skills. His mastery of what I like
to call 'the speaking voice' is as effortless as it is absolute: today's
monologue is perfectly rhymed and perfectly metrical, yet it does not seem
the least bit stilted or unnatural. And as always, his poetry is imbued with
a wonderful richness of texture [2] - the simultaneous threads of gardening
and Church politics that are woven into the soliloquy put the speaker firmly
into context, both locally and within the warp and weft of history on a
larger scale.

I could go on and on about this poem, but I think that's enough for the day.


[1] The lines are quoted by 'that mad Irishman', McTurk. Stalky's memorable
response is, "Browning's an ass". McTurk replies by quoting from another
Browning monologue, 'Caliban upon Setebos':
    "Setebos, Setebos and Setebos
     Thinketh he liveth in the cold of the moon"
Sadly, the rest of the Caliban poem isn't quite as good as this (utterly
brilliant) couplet.

[2] This too has been commented on before on the Minstrels; see Poem #526 in
our archives.


As I mentioned in my commentary above, Browning uses a number of phrases and
expressions that confirm the monastic setting of the poem. Herewith, a brief

Salve tibi - Good health to thee.

Arian -  a follower of the doctrine of Arius, a presbyter of Alexandria in
the 4th century, who denied the divinity of Christ and hence (implicitly)
denied the Trinity. His opinions were embraced by large sections of
Christendom, and the dissensions by which the church was rent lasted for
nearly a century. (OED)

Manichee - An adherent of a religious system widely accepted from the third
to the fifth century, composed of Gnostic Christian, Mazdean and pagan
elements. The special feature of the system which the name chiefly suggests
to medern readers is the dualistic theorogy, according to which Satan was
represented as being co-eternal with God. (OED)

Belial - The spirit of evil personified; used from early times as a name for
the Devil or one of the fiends, and by Milton as the name of one of the
fallen angels. (OED)

Hy, Zy, Hine  - perhaps the beginning of a necromantic spell for summoning

Vespers - The sixth of the Canonical hours of the breviary, said or
celebrated towards evening; evensong. (OED)

Plena gratia ave Virgo - Hail, Virgin, full of grace, a version of opening
lines of the Ave Maria, an invocation to the Virgin Mary.

Galatians - Paul's epistle to the Galatians, from the New Testament. The
passage that the speaker is referring to is probably this, from the fifth
chapter of the letter:
"[19] Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: Adultery,
fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, [20] idolatry, witchcraft, hatred,
variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, [21]envyings,
murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like."


Both Martin and myself (not to mention several list subscribers, judging
from our guest poem submissions) happen to like Browning; as a result
there's a fair bit of his work in the Minstrels archive:

Home Thoughts From Abroad, Poem #65
My Last Duchess, Poem #104
The Lost Leader, Poem #130
Song, from Pippa Passes, Poem #133
The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Poem #242
My Star, Poem #352
The Patriot, Poem #364
Memorabilia, Poem #425
A Toccata of Galuppi's, Poem #526

Of these, only the second and the last can properly be called dramatic
monologues, though nearly all share some (if not all) of the qualities I
talked about in my commentary.

Click on [broken link] to see a list
of all the poems in our archive, sorted by poet name. You might also want to
check out the works of Browning's wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning - their
love for each other produced some of the most celebrated romantic lyrics
ever written.

Phyllis is my only joy -- Sir Charles Sedley

(Poem #634) Phyllis is my only joy
 Phyllis is my only joy,
      Faithless as the winds or seas;
 Sometimes coming, sometimes coy,
      Yet she never fails to please;
 If with a frown
 I am cast down,
 Phyllis smiling,
 And beguiling,
 Makes me happier than before.

 Though, alas! too late I find
      Nothing can her fancy fix,
 Yet the moment she is kind
      I forgive her all her tricks;
 Which, though I see,
 I can't get free;
 She deceiving,
 I believing;
 What need lovers wish for more?
-- Sir Charles Sedley
I have no idea how seriously to take today's poem <g>. The ending is a
wonderful piece of irony, but it is a pointed irony that highlights how
perceptively the poem captures the pattern of many a relationship, so that I
have to wonder how much of bitterness the poet's humour was infused with,
and where exactly it falls along the spectrum from light to biting satire.
'Tongue in cheek' is the phrase that springs to mind, but I'd hesitate to
apply it.

Either way, though, I like it - it's a delightful poem, particularly the
last three lines, which have that unmistakable ring of a poet having found
precisely the right words. Quotable to a fault.

  Sedley, Sir Charles, 4th Baronet
  b. March 1639, Aylesford, Kent, Eng.
  d. Aug. 20, 1701, Hampstead, London
  English Restoration poet, dramatist, wit, and courtier.

  Sedley attended the University of Oxford but left without taking a degree.
  He inherited the baronetcy on the death of his elder brother. After the
  Restoration (1660) he was a prominent member of the group of court wits.
  Charles II delighted in his conversation. The dramatists John Dryden and
  Thomas Shadwell were among his friends, and Dryden introduced him into his
  essay Of Dramatick Poesie under the name of Lisideius. Sedley was an
  active supporter of William and Mary at the time of the 1688 revolution.
  In later life he seems to have become a serious legislator. He sat in all
  the parliaments of William III as member for New Romney, and his speeches
  were considered to be thoughtful and sensible.

  Sedley's plays span the period 1668-87; notable among them is Bellamira
  (1687), a racy, amusing rehandling of the theme of the Eunuchus of the
  Roman playwright Terence. Sedley's literary reputation, however, rests on
  his lyrics and verse translations. His best lyrics, such as the well-known
  "Phillis is my only Joy," have grace and charm. His verse translations of
  the eighth ode of Book II of Horace and the fourth Georgic of Virgil have
  been highly praised. The first collected edition of his works was
  published in 1702; a later one, edited by Vivian de Sola Pinto, in two
  volumes, was published in 1928 with a study of the author.

  Sedley's son predeceased him, and the baronetcy became extinct upon
  Sedley's death.

        -- EB

Links and such:

I am reminded of Parker's 'Unfortunate Coincidence':
  [broken link]

Read more of Sedley's poems at the Poets' Corner:
  [broken link]


Odes: Book 1, Verse 11 -- Horace

Guest poem submitted by Divya Sampath:
(Poem #633) Odes: Book 1, Verse 11
 Stop these efforts to learn - knowing is banned - what will be my, and
 final god-given end, Leuconoe, cease Babylonian
 divination by stars. Better by far: all that will come, endure!
 Whether Jupiter grants many a long winter, or this our last,
 which now tires, against pumice-strewn shores lying below us, that
 vast Tyrrhenian Sea. Learn to be wise, strain out the wine, and prune
 lavish hopes to the quick. While we converse, envious time will have
 vanished: harvest today, placing the least credence on what's to come.
-- Horace
Or, in the original:

 "Carmina, Liber Primus, XI"

 Tu ne quaesieris (scire nefas) quem mihi, quem tibi
 finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios
 temptaris numeros. Vt melius quicquid erit pati!
 Seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
 quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare
 Tyrrhenum, sapias, uina liques et spatio breui
 spem longam reseces. Dum loquimur, fugerit inuida
 aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

        -- Q. Horatius Flacci


I quote the Latin, because there is a definite music in Horace, especially
when read aloud. It's amazing, the vivid imagery he conjures, in the
sparest, most economical phrases.

The translation above is by Steven J. Willett. He is Professor of English
and Cultural Studies at the University of Shizuoka. This is excerpted from
his published translation of excerpts from Horace's Odes at Diotima:

My attachment to this particular verse stems, I confess, from the oft-quoted
last line :-)

[On the Odes]

Horace portrayed himself as a poetic craftsman working in the tradition of
Greek lyric poetry as it was practiced about 600BC on the island of Lesbos
by the Greek poets Alcaeus and Sappho. However, rather than any similarity
of emotion, tone, or content, what the Odes reflect are the meter of the
Greek poets. Of the 103 odes, 37 are Alcaic and 25 Sapphic. (The rhythms of
both Greek and Latin poetry are based on the absolute quantitative length of


1. Babylonians were held to be diviners and mystics of repute. Their skills
in Astrology were well known in Rome, though Horace deprecates them here.
2. Jupiter - the supreme god in the Roman pantheon, often equated with the
Greek Zeus, but more probably finding his roots in the Etruscan
Patriarch-God, Tin/Tinia. The Romans worshipped him as Jupiter Optimus
Maximus - Jupiter, Best and Greatest. Most often associated with Juno and
3. Tyrhennian=Etruscan.


 b. December 65 BC, Venusia, Italy
 d. Nov. 27, 8 BC, Rome

QUINTUS HORATIUS FLACCUS (Horace): outstanding Latin lyric poet and satirist
under the emperor Augustus. The most frequent themes of his Odes and verse
Epistles are love, friendship, philosophy, and the art of poetry. Horace was
probably of the Sabellian hillman stock of Italy's central highlands. His
father had once been a slave but gained freedom before Horace's birth and
became an auctioneer's assistant. In about 46 BC Horace went to Athens,
attending lectures at the Academy. After Julius Caesar's murder in March 44
BC, the eastern empire, including Athens, came temporarily into the
possession of his assassins Brutus and Cassius, who could scarcely avoid
clashing with Caesar's partisans, Mark Antony and Octavian (later Augustus),
the young great-nephew whom Caesar, in his will, had appointed as his
personal heir. Horace joined Brutus' army and was made tribunus militum, an
exceptional honour for a freedman's son.

In November 42, at the two battles of Philippi against Antony and Octavian,
Horace and his fellow tribunes (in the unusual absence of a more senior
officer) commanded one of Brutus' and Cassius' legions. After their total
defeat and death, he fled back to Italy--controlled by Octavian--but his
father's farm at Venusia had been confiscated to provide land for veterans.
Horace, however, proceeded to Rome, obtaining, either before or after a
general amnesty of 39 BC, the minor but quite important post of one of the
36 clerks of the treasury (scribae quaestorii). Early in 38 BC he was
introduced to Gaius Maecenas, a man of letters from Etruria in central Italy
who was one of Octavian's principal political advisers. He now enrolled
Horace in the circle of writers with whom he was friendly. Before long,
through Maecenas, Horace also came to Octavian's notice.

After Octavian had defeated Antony and Cleopatra at Actium, off northwestern
Greece (31 BC), Horace published his Epodes and a second book of eight
Satires in 30-29 BC. Then, while the victor, styled Augustus in 27 BC,
settled down, Horace turned, in the most active period of his poetical life,
to the Odes, of which he published three books, comprising 88 short poems,
in 23 BC. Horace, in the Odes, represented himself as heir to earlier Greek
lyric poets but displayed a sensitive, economical mastery of words all his
own. He sings of love, wine, nature (almost romantically), of friends, of
moderation; in short, his favourite topics. Some of the Odes are about
Maecenas or Augustus: although he praises the ancient Roman virtues the
latter was trying to reintroduce, he remains his own master and never
confines an ode to a single subject or mood. At some stage Augustus offered
Horace the post of his private secretary, but the poet declined on the plea
of ill health. Notwithstanding, Augustus did not resent his refusal, and
indeed their relationship became closer.

The best poems, Horace thought, edify as well as delight; the secret of good
writing is wisdom (implying goodness); the poet needs teaching and training
to give of his best. In 8 BC  Horace died, after naming Augustus as his
heir. He was buried on the Esquiline Hill near Maecenas' grave.

        -- EB


I Wrote A Good Omelet -- Nikki Giovanni

Guest poem submitted by Tiffany Mork:
(Poem #632) I Wrote A Good Omelet
 I wrote a good omelet...and ate a hot poem...
 after loving you

 Buttoned my car...and drove my coat the
 after loving you

 I goed on red...and stopped on green....floating
      somewhere in between...
 being here and being there...
 after loving you

 I rolled my bed...turned down my hair...slightly
      confused but...I don't care...
 Laid out my teeth...and gargled my gown...then I stood
      ...and laid me down...
 to sleep...
 after loving you
-- Nikki Giovanni
This poem has been a favorite of mine since high school, when a mentor, in a
desperate bid to keep me out of trouble, introduced me to Ms. Giovanni's
works and then Ms. Giovanni herself. The jumbled cliches and mixed up
phrases of everyday life so completely evoke the jumbled and mixed up
emotions of finding new love and being swept away with it, that one just
simply smiles and nods, understanding it completely.

Ms. Giovanni is currently a Professor of English at Virgina Polytechnic
Institute and State University; there's more biographical information at
[broken link]

Tiffany Mork.

Mean Mr. Mustard / Polythene Pam -- John Lennon

Twenty years on, and the loss is still palpable...
(Poem #631) Mean Mr. Mustard / Polythene Pam
 Mean Mister Mustard sleeps in the park
 Shaves in the dark trying to save paper
 Sleeps in a hole in the road
 Saving up to buy some clothes
 Keeps a ten-bob note up his nose
 Such a mean old man
 Such a mean old man.

 His sister Pam works in a shop
 She never stops, she's a go-getter
 Takes him out to look at the Queen
 Only place that he's ever been
 Always shouts out something obscene
 Such a dirty old man
 Dirty old man.

 Well you should see Polythene Pam
 She's so good-looking but she looks like a man
 Well you should see her in drag dressed in her polythene bag
 Yes you should see Polythene Pam.
 Yeah yeah yeah!

 Get a dose of her in jackboots and kilt
 She's killer-diller when she's dressed to the hilt
 She's the kind of a girl that makes the 'News of the World'
 Yes you could say she was attractively built.
 Yeah yeah yeah!
-- John Lennon

 Officially attributed to John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
 Unofficially accepted as Lennon's work.
 Composed (probably) in India, some time in the summer of 1968.
 Recorded July 1969, Abbey Road Studios, London.
 Lead vocals: John Lennon.
 Released as part of the album "Abbey Road", 1969.


John Lennon, a poet? Yes indeed. In his twenties, young Winston dabbled
quite extensively in verse, going so far as to publish two volumes of highly
idiosyncratic excursions into the form - "In his Own Write" and "A Spaniard
in the Works". Titles such as 'I sat belonely down a tree' and 'The Faulty
Bagnose' serve to illustrate the charming whimsicality of his style, and my
original inclination (when planning this tribute) was to run one of the two

I changed my mind, though: I chose, instead, to go with his equally quirky
description of two human oddities, Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam [2].
Further comment is superfluous; I'll just add that (imho) this passage is,
in its own way, every bit as surreal and nonsensical as anything Lear or
Carroll ever wrote.


[1] Those are the only two I have at hand right now, thanks to their
inclusion in the chapter titled 'Sense and Nonsense', in Douglas
Hofstadter's wonderful collection of essays, "Metamagical Themas".

[2] The fact that the two songs form what is possibly my favourite sequence
in what is almost definitely my favourite album of all time, may have had
something to do with that decision <grin>.


John Winston Lennon was assassinated on the night of December 8th, 1980 -
twenty years ago to this day. May his spirit rest in peace.

To Walter de la Mare -- T S Eliot

My thanks to Anustup Datta for introducing me to this poem, a long time ago:
(Poem #630) To Walter de la Mare
 The children who explored the brook and found
 A desert island with a sandy cove
 (A hiding place, but very dangerous ground,

 For here the water buffalo may rove,
 The kinkajou, the mungabey, abound
 In the dark jungle of a mango grove,

 And shadowy lemurs glide from tree to tree -
 The guardians of some long-lost treasure-trove)
 Recount their exploits at the nursery tea

 And when the lamps are lit and curtains drawn
 Demand some poetry, please. Whose shall it be,
 At not quite time for bed? ...

                            Or when the lawn
 Is pressed by unseen feet, and ghosts return
 Gently at twilight, gently go at dawn,
 The sad intangible who grieve and yearn;

 When the familiar is suddenly strange
 Or the well known is what we yet have to learn,
 And two worlds meet, and intersect, and change;

 When cats are maddened in the moonlight dance,
 Dogs cower, flitter bats, and owls range
 At witches' sabbath of the maiden aunts;

 When the nocturnal traveller can arouse
 No sleeper by his call; or when by chance
 An empty face peers from an empty house;

 By whom, and by what means, was this designed?
 The whispered incantation which allows
 Free passage to the phantoms of the mind?

 By you; by those deceptive cadences
 Wherewith the common measure is refined;
 By conscious art practised with natural ease;

 By the delicate, invisible web you wove -
 The inexplicable mystery of sound.
-- T S Eliot
Written for inclusion in 'A Tribute to Walter de la Mare' (Faber & Faber
Ltd., 1948), a book presented to him on his seventy-fifth birthday.

In recent days we've been exploring various dream-worlds, and I can think of
no better way to conclude the theme than with this homage to the master
dream-weaver, Walter de la Mare. He'll never be counted a great poet;
perhaps he won't even be remembered as a good one (his verse does suffer
from sentimentality and an overly lush Romanticism); but to all those who
(like me) have grown up with his poetry, voyaging in the far seas of his
magnificent imagination, he's unforgettable.

Let it be said, also, that there are very few writers with de la Mare's
wonderful mastery of _atmosphere_: Yeats and Kipling spring to mind, though
the immortal John Keats is perhaps the only poet who can unequivocally be
called his superior in this regard [1]. Even the normally staid Eliot is not
unmoved by it; he talks about "the inexplicable mystery of sound" in terms
approaching awe.

As a matter of fact, Eliot does very well indeed in capturing the quiddity
of de la Mare's art; his tribute describes - no, _explores_ various corners
of the latter's wonderful, mysterious universe with great felicity; his
verse is almost equally evocative [2], equally delicate and equally
refined... today's poem is truly one of those rare occasions where sense,
structure and intent come together in one happy whole.


PS. "two worlds meet, and intersect, and change" - mmm. Lines like that
ought to be savoured for hours on end, don't you think?

[1] I _like_ Keats. Yes, he's a Romantic, and I tend to dislike the
Romantics, but still. Keats was something special.

[2] Damn, and I was doing so well, too. Sometimes I think I'll never be free
of the tyranny of the E word <grin>.

[Minstrels Links]

Dream poems:
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "The Slave's Dream", Poem #628
Laurence Hope, "Reverie of Mahomed Akram", Poem #627
Wilfred Gibson, "The Ice-Cart", Poem #622
and further back, a host of others, all of which you can read at

de la Mare poems:
"The Listeners", Poem #2
"Napoleon", Poem #272
"Breughel's Winter", Poem #483

Eliot poems: a whole bunch of them, which you can browse at
[broken link]

[Random Ramblings]

(Sorry, it's three in the morning and I'm really sleepy).