Category Archives: verse and worse

Amy Replies

Written upon learning that Tennyson’s Locksley Hall (or its successor, Loxley), is now “occupied by a Staffordshire County Council special school for boys with learning difficulties.”

As you cease to babble, man, about my forehead and my cheek,
Once my ear finds surcease from the wordy cataract you speak,

Then I turn my thought to the future; I peer far as an eye can see,
And I trace successive branches of our august family tree.

With each generation, daughters appear less bound to duty,
Wriggling free of what you'd call their debt to men--their beauty.

I watch the public purse fill with funds for a war on poverty.
The revenue, from taxes on this very kind of property.

Loxley Hall, a council school for teenagers with special needs.
That is the vision, cousin, I descry once your voice recedes.

Locksley! our fruitful land, our ivied walls, our portion of the shore,
Where curlews cry and moorlands meet the hollowed ocean's roar.

My vision conjures the final squire, possessions in his boot.
A receipt for his old feudal seat has made his tax bill moot.

An administrator takes his place, perhaps a she or a them,
Born in the eastern lands, I imagine, whence you say you come.

Not in vain does the future beckon us; onward must we move.
The great world spins forever and it's our burden to improve.

Answering “Locksley Hall,” although Tennyson may also disparage his narrator. See also: three endings for Christabel; “For Gerard Manley Hopkins

Red Line

The decrepit T lurches into motion,
Its doors having taken--each--a full bite
Of the human mass that pushes through the tubes
Of Downtown Crossing. Damp, tense, tired, late,
The crowd flows under Tremont Street: so many!

I'm sitting on my buttoned wallet pocket,
Clutching the laptop hidden in my bag.
We fix our eyes on our own pairs of feet
Or on screens that, down here, cannot connect.

After Park (without an r), the pace picks up.
I remember to close my eyes. On each side,
An anonymous shoulder presses mine.
The only sound: that familiar patter
Of wheels' steel on track: tha-thump, thumpy-clack.
It’s been in my ears since cigarette smoke
Still billowed in trains and settled on seats.

It brings to mind that turbid ebb and flow
That Arnold heard as human misery.
Maybe, but it's one pulse for all of us.
As we clatter over the rain-lashed river,
The breath of all the invisibles who ride
With me merges and thickens into one.

See also: sighs, short and frequent, were exhaled; Martha’s Vineyard, August 2009; Robert Lowell at the Indian Killer’s Grave


I am so lucky: near the finish line
With no tragedies. My three sons are fine.
I may never have to open the door
To wrenching news or the grim stench of war.

I sleep all right these days, now that lust is less
A master, and guilt, that dogged hunter,
Lets me burrow in a secret shelter
Where I tell myself I deserve success.

When I heard Socrates had come down here,
I sent a boy to stop him. My knees are such
I cannot walk uphill to Athens much.
I hate to miss the clever talk, and I fear
The wise and famous will forget Cephalus.

It was like old times; we quoted lovely lines.
But I knew he'd start to press: “What do you mean,
Cephalus? Doesn't that come in different kinds?”
The more we examine hope, the more hope declines.
I left Socrates to my son, exited the scene,
And, wearing my silly wreath, resumed my place,
Performing prayers in the marketplace.

Cf. Plato, Republic 331d: “‘Very well,’ said Cephalus, ‘I will turn the whole argument over to you. For now is the time when I must take charge of the sacrifices.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘Aren’t I, Polemarchus, the heir to everything you have?’ ‘Certainly,’ he laughed, and he went at once to the sacrifices.” See also: Pindar on hope; philosophy and self-help; shelter

Pindar on hope

Cephalus says: “For if, looking at his own life, [an old man] identifies many wrong acts, then he often awakens from his sleep, as children do, in fear and bad hopes, but if he observes no injustice in himself, then pleasant hope is always nearby as a good caregiver, as Pindar says–for he puts it gracefully, Socrates, when he says of a person who gets through life justly and piously:

Sweetness in the heart,
Fosterer and elder-carer:
Hope, the best pilot of the thought
Of oft-twisted mortals

Cephalus adds: “Oh, how wonderfully well he says that …”

But then Socrates breaks the mood by asking what justice is, making Cephalus–a contented old man–wonder whether he has ever really known it.

If I read the Pindar verses correctly, the two main words in the second line refer to the care (respectively) of children and the elderly. Indeed, the course of a human life is a prevalent theme at the beginning of The Republic, from which I have taken this passage (331a). At the very outset, Socrates, an older adult, is physically stopped on the road by a “child,”* who has been sent by an old man, Cephalus. One of the attractions that Socrates is promised, if he agrees to stay, is an opportunity for dialogue with “young men” (328a). But Socrates asks Cephalus to report on what it’s like to be old.

Although The Republic is about justice, the entree to that discussion is the question of how to age well. A major question is why one should have to think about justice at all, and an answer suggested here is that knowing justice allows one to have hope in old age. One irony is that Cephalus is happy because he only thinks he knows justice; a second irony is that Cephalus’ sons will later be cruelly treated by the unjust. In both respects, his hope may be misplaced.

*I drafted this post while preparing for a reading group discussion, and a colleague with infinitely better Greek than mine said that this use of the word pais is unspecific about age. Here, it’s a patronizing word for slave. Cf. Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, p. 54. (The quoted verse is denoted Pindar Frag. 214, Loeb. Translations are mine.)

Cuttings 2.0 by Peter Levine, cover

Cuttings version 2.0: a book about happiness

I began blogging on this site on Jan 8, 2003: 21 years ago. I’ve posted more than 4,000 times so far.

To celebrate last year’s 20th anniversary, I selected about 70 posts on a general theme: whether and how to pursue happiness. I edited and organized those posts so that the juxtapositions intrigued and pleased me.

Some entries are short philosophical essays, usually responding to a quotation from a classic work. Some respond instead to literary texts, especially poems. Some are translations; a few offer original verse. The entries are meant to relate to each other, but the transitions are loose and suggestive.

I used the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism as a scaffold for the whole work, even as some of the entries explicitly challenge some of those theses. The text is meant to represent gradually increasing wisdom and equanimity. Unfortunately, that arc does not describe the real me. I didn’t write the entries in the order they appear. Ethical or spiritual growth is a literary conceit, not an autobiographical report.

I did not seek to publish Cuttings 1.0, because I saw it as a work in progress. As planned, I am now celebrating 21 years of blogging by issuing version 2.0. I have added and subtracted substantial amounts of material and reorganized and edited the whole text to produce this new version. I plan to do the same again in the future.

You could download a PDF version of Cuttings 2.0, click to view a Google doc version, or download an .epub version, which requires an e-reader like iBook or Kindle and provides the best experience. If you want an .epub version emailed to a regular email address or directly to a Kindle, please enter that address here.

The new cover art, which is in the public domain, is a still life by the Master of the Vanitas Texts, ca. 1650. I chose it because it illustrates “cuttings” from both plants and texts. Although those snipped things are now dead, we might coax them to regenerate.

As always, comments–including critical ones–are appreciated and are really the best reward.

(By the way, this anniversary might be an appropriate moment to advertise that you can subscribe to this blog as a weekly email, just like a Substack, or follow it on Mastodon, Threads, BlueSky, or Twitter.)