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Archive for the ‘Sonnet’ 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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I think I should have loved you presently,
And given in earnest words I flung in jest;
And lifted honest eyes for you to see,
And caught your hand against my cheek and breast;
And all my pretty follies flung aside
That won you to me, and beneath your gaze,
Spread like a chart my little wicked ways.
I, that had been to you, had you remained,
But one more waking from a recurrent dream,
Cherish no less the certain stakes I gained,
And walk in your memory’s hall, austere, supreme,
A ghost in marble of the girl you knew
Who would have loved you in a day or two.

I can still remember the book I copied this out of.  It was on the shelves at a host family I stayed with in Washington, DC.  I had liked Edna St. Vincent Millay before, but this slim volume of her sonnets was new to me.  I was moving on in a day or two, but I copied this and a few others into my notebook to take with me.

Some of the impact of this poem comes from its form.  Millay wrote in a time before it was quite acceptable to discard rhyme and meter.  Her discipline shines through the careful word choice, and fitting of the subject matter into the sonnet form.  I don’t know if this is an Augustan or Sheakespearean sonnet (it’s been a long time since English Lit Junior year of high school when I learned the difference) but it doesn’t matter.  Millay is the master (mistress?) of the form.  She even hits the turning of the sonnet smack on.  The poem rings true as a bell, with no false note anywhere.  The heroic couplet at the end especially zings, set lightly at the end as the capstone that seals and finishes the piece.  It’s a beautiful thing.

The subject matter is also very interesting: attraction and a relationship that never gets off the ground.  The speaker is denying herself from the would-be beloved.  She shows how close she came to falling in love before some defect in the lover (his going away from her) brought her to her senses.  Love is a battle, a struggle.  In other poems Millay portrays herself as the besieged, but in this one she is the besieger who would have herself become ultimately vulnerable in the laying aside of her stratagems, but who has emerged triumphant by not giving in.

This poem is also significant for me personally.  Love and relationships have often been a struggle.  Sooner or later most people become cautious about who they allow themselves to love.  We approach the giving of ourselves in a relationship with care.  I can still remember the first time I was able to consciously decide not to fall in love with someone I was attracted to.  I know that too many times I have edged towards that brink, only to discover that the other person wasn’t really available or suitable or interested.  There can be a sense of, “Well, I would have loved you with all my heart, but now you don’t get me because you don’t really deserve me.”  This poem captures that sort of slightly outraged petulance very well.

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