Poems

Analysis of Ronsard’s poem “Qui voudra voir comme un dieu…”

This is the first poem in Le Premier Livre des Amours by Ronsard. An English translation can be found here.

Poem
Qui voudra voir comme un dieu me surmonte,
Comme il m’assaut, comme il se fait vainqueur,
Comme il renflamme et renglace mon coeur,
Comme il se fait un honneur de ma honte,

Qui voudra voir une jeunesse prompte
A suivre en vain l’objet de son malheur,
Me vienne lire: il verra ma douleur
Dont ma déesse et mon dieu ne font compte.

Il connaîtra qu’amour est sans raison,
Un doux abus, une belle prison,
Un vain espoir qui de vent nous vient paître.

Et connaîtra que l’homme se décoit
Quand plein d’erreur un aveugle il reçoit
Pour sa conduite, un enfant pour son maître.

Analysis
The 16th-century poet Ronsard is most known for his sonnets and odes. His sonnets are inspired by Petrarch and his odes by Pindar and Horace. The Petrarchan sonnet is made up of 2 quatrains and 2 tercets. The quatrains use enclosed rhyme (ABBA).

This poem is a Petrarchan sonnet. It is a description of furor poeticus, or poetic furor. The poet is powerless and senseless before the object of his love (cf. the title character of Orlando Furioso by Ariosto). In the two quatrains, Ronsard urges the person who wants to understand this phenomenon to read in order to see. The child-god Cupid enjoys assaulting and humiliating our poet; he enflames and cools his victim’s heart as he pleases. Thus, love is a form of suffering. Thus, the lover cannot influence the object of his love (here, Cassandra). Yet, he also cannot refrain from pursuing her because Cupid has complete control of his emotions.

Who is the “me” in “me vienne livre” of the second quatrain ? Who is speaking to the reader? Ronsard, or his poem? Although the first strophe suggests that the poet is the speaker, the second strophe invites the reader to read him (“Qui voudra voir une jeunesse prompte […]/ Me vienne lire”). Perhaps, the ambiguity of subject is deliberate. Ronsard identifies himself so fully with his poetry that reading his poem is equivalent to reading his heart. When, in the final line of the second quatrain, Ronsard refers to Cassandra as a heartless goddess, he suggests that she is not only an object of his love but also its agent.

The two tercets describe in greater detail what the reader will understand once he has read the poet/poem. The order of verbs is important: lire -> voir -> connaitre. Reading leads to seeing, which finally leads to an understanding of love. The reader will understand that love is a sweet abuse (“un doux abus”) and a beautiful prison (“une belle prison”). The contradiction in connotation between doux/belle and abus/prison evokes the conflicting feelings the poet has toward Cassandra. Love is at once pleasant and painful. The rhetorical slippage is most apparent in French (Amour/ à mort). Love and death are closely related to each other. Love may be sweet, but it is also futile. It is a vain hope that nourishes itself from wind. Ronsard’s love for Cassandra is unrequited.

The final tercet is a warning and a moral. Man deceives himself when he invites Cupid into his heart. A blind child cannot lead man from his errors: « Quand plein d’erreur un aveugle il reçoit / Pour sa conduite, un enfant pour son maître ». Thus, the final tercet somewhat contradicts the first quatrain. Ronsard is not entirely innocent. He invited Cupid into his heart.

Poems

Analysis of Mallarmé’s 1885 sonnet “Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui”

1885 Sonnet

Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui
Va-t-il nous déchirer avec un coup d’aile ivre
Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre
Le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui !

Un cygne d’autrefois se souvient que c’est lui
Magnifique mais qui sans espoir se délivre
Pour n’avoir pas chanté la région où vivre
Quand du stérile hiver a resplendi l’ennui.

Tout son col secouera cette blanche agonie
Par l’espace infligée à l’oiseau qui le nie,
Mais non l’horreur du sol où le plumage est pris.

Fantôme qu’à ce lieu son pur éclat assigne,
Il s’immobilise au songe froid du mépris
Que vêt parmi l’exil inutile le Cygne.

My favorite English translation is Elizabeth Cook’s: https://litallover.com/2016/09/28/le-bel-aujourdhui-a-translation-walkthrough-of-mallarmes-le-cygne/ However, my commentary will be based on the original French.

Introduction
As with all of Mallarmé’s poems, his 1885 sonnet resists a straightforward reading. The rules and expectations of classical poetry are put aside. Words and images rarely conform to reader expectation. Reversals and contradictions abound. Therefore, I will not attempt a clear, unequivocal reading of this poem. My reading is one of many possible readings. The sonnet’s words guide and circumscribe my commentary.

In his 1897 prose poem “Crise de vers”, Mallarmé writes,

L’œuvre pure implique la disparition élocutoire du poète, qui cède l’initiative aux mots, par le heurt de leur inégalité mobilisés ; ils s’allument de reflets réciproques comme une virtuelle traînée de feux sur des pierreries, remplaçant la respiration perceptible en l’ancien souffle lyrique ou la direction personnelle enthousiaste de la phrase.
[The pure work implies the disappearance of the poet speaking, who yields the initiative to words, through the clash of their ordered inequalities; they light each other up through reciprocal reflections like a virtual swooping of fire across precious stones, replacing the primacy of the perceptible rhythm of respiration or the classic lyric breath, or the personal feeling driving the sentences] (trans. Barbara Johnson, in Divagations, p.208).

Mallarmé announces the death of the poet – prefiguring Roland Barthe’s death of the author. The reader of Mallarmé’s poems is invited to privilege words over everything else, to notice the patterns and ruptures produced by the poem’s very words. According to Mallarmé, poetic language should distinguish itself from the language of journalism. He believed that words had been cheapened by the rise of mass media. The creation of poetry was therefore an act of resistance. The reader of Mallarmé’s poetry cannot be a consumer. A multiplicity of readings emerges from our sonnet’s ambiguity of meaning and syntax, but only if the reader allows the words to speak for themselves.

Analysis
The overall structure of the poem is a sonnet (2 quatrains and 2 tercets). It has an enclosed rhyme scheme (ABBA for the quatrains and ABA for the tercets).

In the first stanza, a wing breaks through the icy surface of a hard lake. There is a tense shift between lines 2 and 4 (“va-t-il nous déchirer”/ le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui”. The grammatical tense of “va-t-il nous déchirer” is the near future (futur proche). It suggests a finality. The subject (“le vierge, le vivace et le bel”) is going to tear us apart. Here, the three elements are represented by the third person singular pronoun “il”.

The first word of the second stanza (“cygne”) recalls the wing and flights of the first stanza. The only other time that a swan is mentioned by name is in the final tercet (“l’exile inutile le Cygne”), yet, bird imagery is the most prominent imagery in the sonnet (“pour n’avoir pas chanté”, “à l’oiseau qui le nie”, “où le plumage est pris”). It’s perhaps noteworthy that the swan is only mentioned by name in the second quatrain and the second tercet.

Along with being a symbol of the poet in classical poetry, “cygne” (swan) is also a homophone of “signe” (sign). The sterility and agony of ice and winter also evoke the blank page. “Le plumage”, a pen.

But let’s return to the dynamics of the poem. The first stanza shifts between future and past, hope and disappointment. A wing will break through the frozen lake, yet in the last line we discover that some flights didn’t escape from beneath the transparent ice (“le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui”).

There is also a mix of tenses in the second quatrain: past and present. The swan of another era (“d’autrefois”) remembers (“se souvient”) and delivers itself (“se déliver”), yet notice that “vivre” is not conjugated. It is a pure action. The final line of the second quatrain can be read in two different ways (in my mind): “Quand du stérile | hiver a resplendi l’ennui” or “Quand du sterile hiver | a resplendi l’ennui”. In the first, winter sparkled boredom (Baudelaire’s Spleen) out of sterility (“du stérile). In the second, boredom sparkled from a sterile winter. In either case, there is a contradiction in connotation between the verb resplendir and the words “stérile” and “l’ennui”. “Resplendi” is an explosion / a rupture, not unlike the presence of an infinitive in a stanza of conjugated verbs. Therefore, despite the swan’s apparent regret for not having sung about his region, the second quatrain is not without hope.

The two tercets are entirely in the present or future tenses. There is no past tense anywhere.

In the first line of the first tercet, the swan’s collar will shake off this white agony. The futur “secouera” evokes hope. But there is something that he will not be able to shake off: “mais non l’horreur du sol où le plumage est pris”. The final line of this stanza evokes the imagery in the final line of the first stanza (“des vols qui n’ont pas fui”). The feathers caught in transparent ice will continue to haunt our swan.

Horror returns in “Fantôme”, the first word of the final stanza. Its presence is also an explosion. It’s a pure burst of energy. If “cygne” sounds like “signe”, “assigne” in line one of the final tercet sounds like “à signe”. What is this phantom that disrupts sign/language? It remains frozen before the “songe froid du mépris” that the swan wears. “Vêt” (wears) goes along with “col” (collar). The swan will shake off the white agony (perhaps snow) that weighs it down but it will always be haunted by the past. Between sign, swan, and poet, “le Cygne” is a liminal image. It represents the tension between poetic freedom and the conventions of classical poetry.

The swan must take up the pen. His exile is useless. Yet he will always be haunted by the failures of past poets as well as of his own. He will always be haunted by the transparent ice “où le plumage est pris”.

The swan acts and is acted upon. The mixture of pessimism and optimism suggests to me that the swan’s regrets are productive. His regret, disgust, and boredom will contribute to his future. A ghost represents the past (the spirit of the dead) but it appears among the living so as to influence future behavior.

My conclusion
Mallarmé’s 1885 sonnet describes the conflicting feelings of a poet caught between a desire to liberate poetry from classical conventions and sterility and a feeling of powerlessness in face of his own fragility and the failures of past poets/poems.

Poems, Reflections

La Fontaine’s “The Wolf and the Lamb” (Le Loup et L’Agneau)

I’ve been having a hell of a time finding something to blog about. But a few minutes ago, it occurred to me that I have never discussed my favorite La Fontaine fable “The Wolf and the Lamb” on my blog. Although “The Crow and the Fox” is the most famous French fable, “The Wolf and the Lamb” is my favorite because it gets at a disturbing social dynamic.

I am including both the original poem and an English translation.

                         Le Loup et L’Agneau
La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure :
Nous l’allons montrer tout à l’heure.
Un Agneau se désaltérait
Dans le courant d’une onde pure.
Un Loup survient à jeun qui cherchait aventure,
Et que la faim en ces lieux attirait.
Qui te rend si hardi de troubler mon breuvage ?
Dit cet animal plein de rage :
Tu seras châtié de ta témérité.
— Sire, répond l’Agneau, que votre Majesté
Ne se mette pas en colère ;
Mais plutôt qu’elle considère
Que je me vas désaltérant
Dans le courant,
Plus de vingt pas au-dessous d’Elle,
Et que par conséquent, en aucune façon,
Je ne puis troubler sa boisson.
— Tu la troubles, reprit cette bête cruelle,
Et je sais que de moi tu médis l’an passé.
— Comment l’aurais-je fait si je n’étais pas né ?
Reprit l’Agneau, je tette encor ma mère.
— Si ce n’est toi, c’est donc ton frère.
— Je n’en ai point.
— C’est donc quelqu’un des tiens :
Car vous ne m’épargnez guère,
Vous, vos bergers, et vos chiens.
On me l’a dit : il faut que je me venge.
Là-dessus, au fond des forêts
Le Loup l’emporte, et puis le mange,
Sans autre forme de procès.

                         The Wolf and the Lamb
The reason of those best able to have their way is always the best:
We now show how this is true.
A lamb was quenching its thirst
In the water of a pure stream.
A fasting wolf came by, looking for something;
He was attracted by hunger to this place.
—What makes you so bold as to meddle with my drinking?
Said this animal, very angry.
You will be punished for your boldness.
—Sir, answered the lamb, let Your Majesty
Not put himself into a rage;
But rather, let him consider
That I am taking a drink of water
In the stream
More than twenty steps below him;
And that, consequently, in no way,
Am I troubling his supply.
—You do trouble it, answered the cruel beast.
And I know you said bad things of me last year.
—How could I do that when I wasn’t born,
Answered the lamb; I am still at my mother’s breast.
—If it wasn’t you, then it was your brother.
—I haven’t a brother.—It was then someone close to you;
For you have no sympathy for me,
You, your shepherds and your dogs.
I have been told of this.I have to make things even.
Saying this, into the woods
The wolf carries the lamb, and then eats him
Without any other why or wherefore.
-Trans. Eli Siegel

Admittedly, this is a pretty pessimistic fable. But which Aesop or La Fontaine fable isn’t? French fables do not teach children how the world should be but how it really is. Consequently, children are forced to confront the injustices of the world from a young age.

In most La Fontaine fables, the first line is the moral. The first line of Le Loup et L’Agneau is “La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure”. A literal translation is “The reason of the strongest [person] is always the best.” The fable beneath tells the story of a wolf who chastises a lamb for troubling his water supply. Never mind that the lamb has done absolutely nothing to deserve the wolf’s wrath. The two animals are so far from each other that the lamb is not at all in the way. Nevertheless, the wolf claims that he is.

The wolf’s complaint is far from reasonable. The lamb was already at the stream before the wolf arrived. When the lamb defends himself, the wolf’s accusations become even more ludicrous. He claims that the lamb insulted him the previous year, even though the lamb hadn’t even been born.

So why is the wolf’s reason (ie. the reason of the strongest) the best? It’s certainly not the best because it is the most logical. It’s the best because the wolf has the power to get what he wants. The lamb, on the other hand, lacks the power to escape from the wolf; nothing he might say can prevent him from being eaten.

Thus, the reason of the strongest is the best because the strongest always wins. The irony of the moral points to an unpleasant social reality. Those with the power to get what they want, will.

Many scholars believe that La Fontaine’s moral was an allusion to the case of Nicolas Fouquet, the Superintendent of Finance under Louis XIV. Fouquet was an ambitious administrator and an extravagant spender. He built himself the castle of Vaux-le-Vicomte, which eventually became the model for Louis XIV’s Versailles. Indeed, King Louis was so afraid that a subordinate might become a Richelieu-type premier ministre that he imprisoned Fouquet and confiscated his castle. Fouquet ended his days in prison.

Fouquet may have been one of the wealthiest men in King Louis XIV’s court, but his wealth could not save him. Nor could the reasoning of his friends and acquaintances. Of course, calling Fouquet a lamb is more than a little disingenuous. He certainly acquired his wealth through unjust means. Nevertheless, the moral of the fable holds true: “The reason of those best able to have their way is always the best” (trans. Eli Siegel).

People who get away with saying and doing the most ludicrous things are those who have the most power in our society.

Poems

A Song for Matthew Shepard

Image result for a song for matthew shepardIt may be surprising that I started the year with such a depressing book, but I felt ready today to read this poetry pamphlet. Lesléa Newman delivered these poems at the University of Wyoming five days after Matthew Shepard’s murder.

Matthew Shepard is to the LGBTQ movement what Emmett Till was to the Civil Rights Movement. Shepard was kidnapped and tortured by two boys on the night of October 6, 1998. He was found tied to a fence by a cyclist who mistook the body for a scarecrow.

The poems in October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard are told from a variety of perspectives – some inanimate. Each section begins with a poem from the fence’s perspective, and most of the poems begin with a quote from one of the actual people involved in the case. According to the pamphlet, Newman was heavily inspired by the structure of “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams.

I was the most moved by the poems that addressed the national response to Shepard’s murder. “A Chorus of Parents”, “Then and Now”, and “The Drag Queen” were my favorite in the collection.

Not all of the poems were brilliant. A few were frankly pretty trite. But overall, I felt that Newman captured well Shepard’s influence on the Gay Rights Movement. We must not forget the son, student, and lover behind the involuntary martyr.

Then I was a guy
Now I am a ghost

Then I was a student
Now I am a lesson.

– from “Then and Now”

Goethe, Plays, Poems

Review of Faust, Part I by Goethe

Image result for faust philip wayneWhat was it about?

Heinrich Faust’s desire for knowledge is so great that he makes a pact with the devil to attain it. The more he reads the more he feels in despair. He doesn’t want any kind of knowledge. He wants the knowledge that is only proper to God. At the start of the play, Faust contemplates suicide, but the sound of bells ringing stays his hand. As he is returning to his study on Easter day, he notices that a small dog is following him. He tries to get rid of the dog but to no avail. In his study, the dog transforms into Mephistopheles (i.e. the devil), and Faust sells his soul. The two go on adventures throughout Leipzig. Mephistopheles calling the shots, and Faust obeying. It is all fun and games until Faust meets Gretchen. Faust, Part I by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is a cautionary tale about one man’s lust for knowledge.

What did I think of it?

Faust is a poem in two parts, but the actual story is in the first part. I have not read the second part yet, but when I do I will review it here. Although Faust takes place during Easter, it is perfect for the winter holidays. There is magic everywhere. The play takes place in Heaven, Hell, and on earth. Mephistopheles and Faust participate in ceremonies and celebrations. I would love to see this play performed on stage. It reminded me a lot of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, perhaps because they both are moral tales.

Part I is not very philosophical. Most of the emphasis is on the action. Faust makes a pact with the devil and decides to seduce a woman. The reader is, however, dazzled by an array of really odd characters. Everything is so dramatic. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy the translation. Philip Wayne tried to preserve the rhyme pattern found in the original German, but that just ended up compromising the poem’s lyricism. I feel like a lot was lost in translation. I hope to purchase a new edition in 2017 before reading Part II. Still, I loved the magic of the story and the character of Mephistopheles. I assume that Faust’s character (whom we don’t learn much about in Part I) will be explored in more detail in Part II.

Favorite Quote

[Mephistopheles]:
You are, when all is done – just what you are,
Put on the most elaborate curly wig,
Mount learned stilts, to make yourself look big,
You still will be the creature that you are.

[Faust]:
I know. In vain I gathered human treasure,
And all that mortal spirit could digest:
I come at last to recognize my measure,
And know the sterile desert in my breast.
I have not raised myself one poor degree,
Nor stand I nearer to infinity.

Poems

The Second Coming – W.B. Yeats

This poem seems particularly relevant today.

 THE SECOND COMING

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Poems

The Tuft of Flowers by Robert Frost

Happy New Year everyone! 

My prayer for this year is that people everywhere can acknowledge each other better. Our lives and actions are so interconnected.

The Tuft of Flowers

I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the levelled scene.

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,—alone,

As all must be,’ I said within my heart,
Whether they work together or apart.’

But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a ‘wildered butterfly,

Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night
Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.

And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

I left my place to know them by their name,
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
Whether they work together or apart.’

– Robert Frost

Poems

Nativity by John Donne

Nativity

Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov’d imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod’s jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith’s eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.

Berry, Wendell, Poems

The Silence by Wendell Berry

The Silence

Though the air is full of singing
my head is loud
with the labor of words.

Though the season is rich
with fruit, my tongue
hungers for the sweet of speech.

Though the beech is golden
I cannot stand beside it
mute, but must say

“It is golden,” while the leaves
stir and fall with a sound
that is not a name.

It is in the silence
that my hope is, and my aim.
A song whose lines

I cannot make or sing
sounds men’s silence
like a root. Let me say

and not mourn: the world
lives in the death of speech
and sings there.