Category Archives: notes on poems

Shelley: England in 1819

England in 1819

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
A people starved and stabbed in th' untilled field;
An army, whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

This is one sentence. Minus the adjectives and adjectival phrases, it says: “A king, princes, rulers, people, army, laws, religion, and senate are graves from which a phantom may burst to illumine our day.” (It’s interesting that one phantom will arise from all these separate graves.)

The “king” is George III, suffering by now from advanced dementia. He has seven surviving sons, which would be the narrowest definition of “princes.” But Shelley could mean a broader category–“princes” in the sense of the crowned heads of Europe. They are back on their thrones after Waterloo, erecting a system of reactionary absolutism that will last until 1830.

“Rulers” would mean the whole government, starting with the Prime Minister, Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, who suspended civil liberties from 1817-19. The “people” are suffering from the Corn Laws (which prohibit importation of grain) and early industrialization. The “army” refers to the cavalry who charged a peaceful demonstration for parliamentary reform (the Peterloo massacre of August 16). The “senate” is parliament, although I don’t quite follow how that noun relates to “Time’s worst statute.” And the “Phantom” is something like liberty.

The situation is bad but unsustainable. The rulers may be evil, but they “drop, blind in blood, without a blow.” The army wields a two-edged sword, liable to slice its own bearer. The people, however, seem passive: they think and do nothing in particular but are “starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field.” The Phantom may (or may not) burst forth; it’s not clear that the people can decide that.

The poem is a sonnet: fourteen 10-syllable lines, rhymed, with a final couplet that answers the question posed by the rest of the poem: What will happen? However, the form is not strictly conventional. Shelley uses just four endings (-ing, -ow, -ield, and -ay) in an ABABAB CDCD CC scheme.

Christopher Spaide says that the poem was too radical to publish in 1819. By the time Mary Shelley included it in Shelley’s posthumous Poetical Works (1839), she thought it needed an explanation, since the “younger generation … cannot remember the scorn and hatred with which the partisans of reform were regarded some few years ago.” In other words, the sonnet went from revolutionary to quaint in 20 years–not because an actual revolution ensued in Britain, but because the political situation mellowed as reforms eased the crises of the day. No Phantom burst, but the laws arguably became less sanguine and the people less likely to be starved and stabbed.

See also Brecht, To Future Generations.

“the body of us all”: Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay”

Anne Carson’s long poem entitled “The Glass Essay” relates how the narrator, having been dumped by her romantic partner, goes home to Canada to visit her mother (a difficult-sounding person–prone to rehashing old criticisms) and her father, now suffering from Alzheimer’s. Being a scholar, this narrator takes with her

… lot of books—

some for my mother, some for me
including The Collected Works Of Emily Brontë.
This is my favourite author.

She thinks about Emily and Charlotte Brontë, about herself, about her father and her mother. She feels strong emotions. For example:

Anger travels through me, pushes aside everything else in my heart,
pouring up the vents.
Every night I wake to this anger,

the soaked bed,
the hot pain box slamming me each way I move.
I want justice. Slam.

I want an explanation. Slam.
I want to curse the false friend who said I love you forever. Slam.
I reach up and switch on the bedside lamp. 

But the poem moves toward something that I can only call transcendence. The narrator concludes with a perspective and a moral concern that goes infinitely beyond herself and her own circumstances.

But how can you transcend your circumstances if you are a modernist writer who favors concrete images and objective correlatives? How can you transcend earthly pain if you cannot invoke God? (“I am uneasy with the compensatory model of female religious experience and yet ….”) How can you transcend the injustices you have faced if you believe that your identity as a woman matters–that not everyone has the same problems, that differences are important?

One answer, Anne Carson suggests, is time. “Days passed, months passed and I saw nothing.” She finally attains insight, but only after a long wait. Another answer is hard thinking. The narrator probes herself, nature, and other people. She asks the hard questions and debunks her own answers.

Most importantly, you need the courage to believe and say things that are un-ironic, explicitly ethical, and close to cliché:

I saw a high hill and on it a form shaped against hard air.

It could have been just a pole with some old cloth attached,
but as I came closer
I saw it was a human body

trying to stand against winds so terrible that the flesh was blowing off the bones.
And there was no pain.
The wind

was cleansing the bones.
They stood forth silver and necessary.
It was not my body, not a woman’s body, it was the body of us all.
It walked out of the light.

This is moving because it is so hard-won.

See also: on the moral dangers of cliché and on the proper use of moral clichés.

notes on John Ashbery, Paradoxes and Oxymorons

A “plain” is a level place. Some plains are places that were leveled. Isaiah 40:4: “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.”

A “level” is a device for seeing whether things are flat. It helps us put different objects on the same level or on the same plane.

If you “level” with people, you give them the plain facts, no playing around.

“Play”: an activity conducted for enjoyment, not for a practical purpose. It is activity without an end. Two people can play, which requires cooperation as well as competition. You can be played. “To play”: to turn written music into sound. A play is also a thing with an opening and an ending.

“Attitude” is the orientation of an object, such as an airplane, relative to the level ground. A level would be needed to measure a plane’s attitude. If you were trying to hit a target with a plane, a level would help you keep the attitude right so that you wouldn’t miss it.

If you Google “division of grace,” the first hit is Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, First Part of the Second Part, Question 111, “The division of grace,” which begins, “Whether grace is fittingly divided into sanctifying grace and gratuitous grace?” Part of his answer: “gratuitous grace … is bestowed on a man … not to justify him, but rather that he may cooperate in the justification of another …” Aquinas proves this point with authorities and reasons.

John Ashbery didn’t have Google. I have no idea whether these obscure puns that I found by searching the Web were on his mind. But he already lived in a world of words, excessive words, words that referred to each other, that demanded attention, that bored, that confused. “It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters.”

(“It?” There is literally a missing word “it” in the phrase “And before you know /It gets lost …” What gets lost? “It” is so lost that it’s not even printed in the poem.)

A poem is just a string of words. That is all it is at a “plain level.” We are deluged with words. Most text is not poetry, but even poems are enormously common, and most of them are worth very little. To write something that qualifies as a poem is easy–you just type. You make a keyboard chatter until you have rows of words. Unless your name is John Ashbery, chances are low that anyone will read those lines.

Still, if you’ve poured yourself into those words, you want someone to follow them, to play with them, to concentrate on their levels of meaning, including the levels that were plain and the ones you never noticed. You don’t want them looking out a window and fidgeting. (Let alone pretending to fidget! Who pretends to fidget?)

A poem and you are like possible lovers, but the poem doesn’t have much of a chance; there are so many other words that you could notice instead. The poem will be sad if you don’t play with it.

But suddenly, in the final stanza, you and the poem are joined by a third party. “And the poem / Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.” Who is this “me”?

As long as the story is about a poem wanting to connect and feeling sad, it’s all fun and games: wordplay. But when you realize that the poem is the voice of a human being who wants to connect with you, suddenly it’s not just play but also love.

“Paradoxes and Oxymorons” from Shadow Train by John Ashbery. Copyright © 1980, 1981 by John Ashbery. Source. See also “signal” and “a poem should.”

Billy Collins, The Night House

Thanks to my friend Sterling Speirn, here is a wise poem about the relationship between the private life and the public life (“the grass of civics, the grass of money”). It’s by Billy Collins.

Collins interprets civic and economic life as work, presumably in the dignified, creative sense of that word. It’s the use of tongs, needles, and pens. Meanwhile, the inner life has many aspects and they like to spend a little time by themselves, not working. They are “voices”–the soul even sings–but they can be quiet, too.

The self is free at night and works all day. But the voices that dominate our dreams talk “to each other or themselves / even through the heat of a long afternoon,” and sometimes they interrupt our work to demand attention.

Some online commentators presume that the narrator is female. I’m not sure about that. The body is “its,” and its heart and soul are “she’s.” The mind has no gendered pronouns. The author’s name is “Billy.” I’m inclined to think that the gender is multiple.

Yarbough (2011) notes that Collins uses prominent phrases from very famous 20th-century American poems–such anthologists’ favorites as Frost’s “Mending Wall,” Eliot’s “Prufrock,” Bishop’s “the Fish,” and Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West.” Yarbough suggests that Collins wants to depict the self as a conversation. I would add that this internal discussion involves strong, possibly overbearing characters. It’s because we have all these famous voices in our heads that sometimes we have to put down our tools “to stare into the distance, / to listen to all its names being called.”

(Scott D. Yarbrough (2011) “Poetic Allusions in Billy Collins’s The Night House,” The Explicator, 69:1, 35-37) See also: introspect to reenchant the inner lifethe importance of the inner life to moral philosophy; and a poem should.

The Cliff-Top Monastery by A.B. Jackson

If you want a 20-line respite from the fascinating train wreck of American politics (on which my eyes are riveted, like everyone else’s), I recommend A.B. Jackson’s “The Cliff-Top Monasteryin the May issue of Poetry Magazine. A whole short story unfolds in five stanzas. At first, the characters seem to be on a cruise in the modern Aegean, jumping off a yacht, perhaps, to “doggy-swim ashore / and surf the scree slopes in buoyant uproar.” But it would have been wise to notice the epigraph: “The Voyage of Saint Brendan.” These men must be medieval Irish monks on a northern sea. The story quickly turns holy–and then spooky.

As far as I can tell, Jackson’s sources are chapters XII and XV of the Voyage of St. Brendan (written down ca. 900), which relate the saint’s discovery of the Island of St. Ailbe and his return there after numerous adventures. (The raven, however, is spliced in from other Brendan legends.) The original text is fairly didactic, encompassing sermons or lectures by the abbot of the Cliff-Top Monastery. Jackson has extracted the spooky (pagan?) core of the story and made the island a place to flee in haste.

(See also the scholar and his dogSeamus Heaney’s Beowulf. )