Monday, April 18, 2005

Poetry Cavalcade: Pre-1800

So far in my poetry posts I've covered somewhat of a broad linguistic and geographical base, but outside of Whitman I've stayed almost completely in the 20th and 21st centuries.

So here are some poems I love from the more distant past (from the Metaphysical poets to the early Romantics, and including Wheatley and two of the greatest Japanese poets, Bashô and Issa) that I've encountered over the years.

The Triple Fool

by John Donne (1572-1631)

I am two fools, I know—
For loving, and for saying so
In whining poetry;
But where's that wiseman that would not be I,
If she would not deny?
Then, as th' earths inward narrow crooked lanes
Do purge sea waters fretful salt away,
I thought, if I could draw my pains
Through rhymes vexation, I should them allay.
Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For he tames it that fetters it in verse.

But when I have done so,
Some man, his art and voice to show,
Doth set and sing my pain,
And, by delighting many, frees again
Grief, which verse did restrain.
To Love and Grief tribute of verse belongs,
But not of such as pleases when 'tis read;
Both are increased by such songs,
For both their triumphs so are published;
And I, which was two fooles, do so grow three;
Who are a little wise, the best fools be.

Sonnet 30 (When to the sessions of sweet silent thought)

by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancell'd woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish'd sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

Love (III)

by George Herbert (1593-1633)

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack,
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack'd anything.

A guest, I answer'd, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and tast me meat:
So I did sit and eat.

Don't Imitate Me

by Bashô Matsuo (1644-1694)

Don't imitate me;
it's as boring
as the two halves of a melon.

Stay, Shadow of My Love

by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695)

Stay, shadow of my love, untamed,
reflection of the charm I treasure most,
illusion beautiful by which entranced I die,
sweet fraudulence by which in pain I live.

If to the powerful magnet of your gifts
my breast becomes submissive steel,
why cast your coaxing spell on me
then teasingly take to heel?

No bending to your despotic sway
can nurse your swaggering content;
for though you mock the closest tie

that bonded your imagined form,
it little counts to dodge my breast and arms
when once you're in the irons my dream forged.

Translation © by Michael Smith

To S. M. a young African Painter, on seeing his Works.

by Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)

To show the lab'ring bosom's deep intent,
And thought in living characters to paint,
When first thy pencil did those beauties give,
And breathing figures learnt from thee to live,
How did those prospects give my soul delight,
A new creation rushing on my sight?
Still, wond'rous youth! each noble path pursue,
On deathless glories fix thine ardent view:
Still may the painter's and the poet's fire
To aid thy pencil, and thy verse conspire!
And may the charms of each seraphic theme
Conduct thy footsteps to immortal fame!
High to the blissful wonders of the skies
Elate thy soul, and raise thy wishful eyes.
Thrice happy, when exalted to survey
That splendid city, crown'd with endless day,
Whose twice six gates on radiant hinges ring:
Celestial Salem blooms in endless spring.
Calm and serene thy moments glide along,

And may the muse inspire each future song!
Still, with the sweets of contemplation bless'd,
May peace with balmy wings your soul invest!
But when these shades of time are chas'd away,
And darkness ends in everlasting day,
On what seraphic pinions shall we move,
And view the landscapes in the realms above?
There shall thy tongue in heav'nly murmurs flow,
And there my muse with heav'nly transport glow:
No more to tell of Damon's tender sighs,
Or rising radiance of Aurora's eyes,
For nobler themes demand a nobler strain,
And purer language on th' ethereal plain.
Cease, gentle muse! the solemn gloom of night
Now seals the fair creation from my sight.

In This World

by Issa Kobayashi (1763-1828)

In this world
we walk on the roof of hell,
gazing at flowers.

The Presence of Love

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

And in Life's noisiest hour,
There whispers still the ceaseless Love of Thee,
The heart's Self-solace and soliloquy.

You mould my Hopes, you fashion me within ;
And to the leading Love-throb in the Heart
Thro' all my Being, thro' my pulses beat ;
You lie in all my many Thoughts, like Light,
Like the fair light of Dawn, or summer Eve
On rippling Stream, or cloud-reflecting Lake.
And looking to the Heaven, that bends above you,
How oft ! I bless the Lot, that made me love you.


by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly! -yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost for ever:

Or like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings
Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
One mood or modulation like the last.

We rest. -- A dream has power to poison sleep;
We rise. -- One wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:

It is the same! -- For, be it joy or sorrow,
The path of its departure still is free:
Man's yesterday may ne'er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but Mutablilty.

On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer

by John Keats (1795-1821)

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific--and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise--
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.


  1. woah. these are beautiful. will have to take more time with them. but i can't believe how basho moves me without fail.

  2. MLO, I agree with you. He packs so much into so few words it's remarkable. I also go back to Herbert a lot; he sometimes writes whole poems in chains of metaphors, and was experimenting with form (in terms of concrete poetry, with "Easter Wings") hundreds of years before it once again became a vital form. Wheatley's exclamations always excite me; I had a prof once claim that Whitman was the first and O'Hara the second to do this, but he obviously hadn't read (or reread) the ecstatic lyrics by which the "attestated" poet set down her praise. Where would be without her?