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Archive for the ‘formal poetry’ Category

Dear father and dear mother: Let me crave
Your loving kindness there beyond the grave
For my Erotion, the pretty maid
Who bears these lines. Don’t let her be afraid!
She’s such a little lassie – only six –
To toddle down that pathway to the Styx
All by herself! Black shadows haunt those steeps
And Cerberus the Dread who never sleeps.
May she be comforted, and may she play
About you merry as the live long day,
And in her childish prattle often tell
Of that old master whom she loved so well.
Oh earth, bear lightly on her! ‘Tis her due;
The little girl so lightly bore on you.

Poetry in translation is always interesting.  I wish I had the original Latin to compare this to it.  I wonder if it was in sonnet for too, and if so, how many liberties the translator had to take with the text to make it fit into the sonnet form again.  As a sonnet it’s a wonderful example of the form.  It hits the turn dead on, and the heroic couplet at the end is gorgeous.

Quite a bit of the poem’s charm, however, comes from the subject matter, the charming Erotion herself.  Poetry about children can be sickeningly sentimental.  While this is definitely sentimental, it is not poisonously sweet or cloying.  This is even more remarkable because it is speaking of the child’s death.  That the poet loves her very much is clear.  His grief shines through in every line, even to the heartbreaking plea to the earth to weigh lightly upon her buried body, and his fear that she might be frightened on her long journey by the monsters that guard the underworld.  Much of the poem’s power comes from the words the poet uses to describe Erotion.  She is a “pretty maid,” a “little lassie,” who is “only six.”  She “toddles,” and the poet hopes that she may “play” and “prattle.”  She is “merry,” and she loved her master, the poet.  Through this, we can see the beautiful child whom the poet will miss dreadfully.

Another interesting aspect of this poem is that the child whom the poet so lovingly describes is the poet’s slave.  It is easy to think of slavery as uncompromisingly evil.  However, slavery in the ancient world could be more complex.  Depending on the size of the household or the traditions of the family, slaves could be something much more like family than property.  One of the ways a female slave could sometimes achieve freedom was through marriage to her master.  It is hard to imagine a 19th century American slave owner writing such a poem about a slave child.  But then, the ancients did not indulge in philosophical claptrap about inferior races (barbarians were quite another thing).  Regardless, it does make me wonder about the politics of the translator.

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Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since, to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

There are two trees in front of my across-the-street neighbors that are completely covered in white at the moment.  They are not cherry trees (I have no idea what they are), but the loveliness of them sooths my heart and makes me glad to live where I do, to be alive at this moment seeing the white glowing under the bright sunshine against the blue of the springtime sky.  This poem captures so beautifully the sweet satisfaction and wonder of witnessing something so gratuitously beautiful.  This is part of its enduring charm, and part of why it is consistently included in anthologies and textbooks, making it widely known even in our poetry-phobic world.

This poem is also an example of rhyme done right.  I have read too many poems (and written too many too) in which the rhyme scheme is forced and artificial.  The poem becomes written for the rhyme, rather than the rhyme supporting the poem.  In my opinion conventions like rhyme and meter should be almost invisible.  They should disappear into the poem, reinforcing the theme and structure, but so unobtrusively that it seems that the lines end with a particular word because that is the word it naturally should end with, not because it fits into a rhyme scheme.  For me, that is the mark of a truly successful rhyme scheme, and it awes and impresses me the way a really well-done Lindy swingout only impresses other Lindy dancers.  This poem impresses me no end.

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