Thursday, November 30, 2006

Two favorite poems

I forgot to mention the other day, poems I loved at age twelve or thirteen and probably knew by heart at one point and don't anymore but still would call favorites.

First, Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess". This one's quite excellent--in retrospect I see I liked it not just because of the language, though you can certainly taste every word here in the way that you always can with a good poem (I can't read poetry without wanting to feel the shape of the words in my mouth), but because of (a) the appeal of the whole sort of Machiavellian Italian Renaissance thing, it went along with my love of Jacobean tragedy and revenge plays in particular (really this is a dramatic monologue rather than a lyric) and (b) what would turn out to be a lifelong interest in unreliable narrators esp. of the sinister but compelling kind.

Here it is, anyway (I still never figured out how to do the "after the cut" link on Blogger, but there is something in any case satisfying though impractical about pasting in a long and indispensable poem):

That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will't please you sit and look at her? I said
"Frà Pandolf" by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myselfthey turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not
Her husband's presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say "Her mantle laps
Over my Lady's wrist too much," or "Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat": such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart -- how shall I say? -- too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 'twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace -- all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men, -- good! but thanked
Somehow -- I know not how -- as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech -- (which I have not) -- to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, "Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark" -- and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
--E'en then would be some stooping, and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master's known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

(". . . and I choose / never to stoop"!)

Second (this thought was prompted by some Pope-reading this morning), there is no doubt that my particular favorite poem by Alexander Pope (though of course
"The Rape of the Lock" is a work of total genius) is "Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady" about which there is something delightfully novelistic and gothic on the small scale. I was first tipped off to this poem by Edmund Crispin's Frequent Hearses (not Crispin's best, but the best ones are absolutely sublime--I think my demented favorite is The Moving Toyshop--that title also is drawn from Pope--but I have a deep passion for the late over-the-top Fen novel Glimpses of the Moon).

In fact much time during my teenage years was spent using classic British detective fiction as a kind of reading guide: Nicholas Blake (aka Cecil Day-Lewis)'s Thou Shell of Death directed me to Webster and his Head of a Traveler to Housman's "Fragment of a Greek Tragedy" (which age thirteen or fourteen I found more or less incomprehensible--how would you know where to follow down the references?!?--but still irresistibly appealing and funny); and Gaudy Night to Elizabethan songs and The Anatomy of Melancholy and Thomas Lovell Beddoes' "Death's Jest Book".

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