Jan 082003

A friend of mine bet his girlfriend he could write a sonnet in an hour — Keats is supposed to have written “On Chapman’s Homer” in an hour — and foolishly sent me the result. The first twelve lines limp along in correct enough pentameter, but he concludes with:

For even if these foes produce a battle won,
A sight so simple as her smile doth make them one.

This is about the best straight line I’ve been fed for a while; I sent him back this couplet from Pope:

A needless alexandrine ends the song,
That like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.

(Update: Nobody, not even Seablogger, who dissects it line by line, appears to have remarked of Andrew Motion’s bit of doggerel that the second line is an alexandrine, dragging its slow length along.)

Jan 032003

(To the tune of “Maria,” from The Sound of Music)

He builds a nuke without rebuke
Then asks for foreign aid.
He thumbs his nose at those who will
Clean up the mess he’s made.
Amassing troops at the border,
Dear Leader’s not an asset to world order.

He’s always breaking treaties,
But his penitence is real.
If things have worked out badly
He’ll just make another deal.
I hate to have to say it
But I very firmly feel
Dear Leader’s not an asset to world order!

I’d like to say a word in his behalf.
Dear Leader makes me laugh!

How do you solve a problem like Korea?
How do you reason with the barking mad?
How do you find the words for our Dear Leader?
A cineaste! A communist! A cad!

Sep 302002

To a Dead Journalist

Behind that white brow
now the mind simply sleeps —
the eyes, closed, the
lips, the mouth,

the chin, no longer useful,
the prow of the nose.
But rumors of the news,

cling still among those
silent, butted features, a
sort of wonder at
this scoop

come now, too late:
beneath the lucid ripples
to have found so monstrous
an obscurity.

–William Carlos Williams

Sep 262002


No word, no lie, can cross a carven lip;
No thought is quick behind a chiselled brow;
Speech is the cruel flaw in comradeship,
Whose self-bemusing ease daunts like a blow
Though unintended, irrevocable!
For wound, a mere quip dealt, no salve is found
Though poet be bled dry of words to tell
Why it was pointed! How it captured sound!
Charmed by mere phrases, we first glean their sense
When we behold our Helen streaming tears.
Give me dry eyes whose gaze but looks intense!
The dimpled lobes of unreceptive ears!
A statue not a heart! Silence so kind,
It answers love with beauty cleansed of mind.

–T. Sturge Moore

Sep 092002

My spirit will not haunt the mound
Above my breast,
But travel, memory-possessed,
To where my tremulous being found
Life largest, best.

My phantom-footed shape will go
When nightfall grays
Hither and thither along the ways
I and another used to know
In backward days.

And there you’ll find me, if a jot
You still should care
For me, and for my curious air;
If otherwise, then I shall not,
For you, be there.

–Thomas Hardy

Aug 312002

In Hamlet the pompous old windbag Polonius sends his son Laertes off with this speech:

And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel,
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatched unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel; but being in,
Bear’t that th’opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice:
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgement.
Costly thy habir as thy purse can buy,
But not expressed in fancy; rich, but not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man;
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are more select and generous in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

This speech consists wholly of platitudes, platitudes intended by Shakespeare as platitudes, platitudes then and platitudes now. It’s kitchen-sampler stuff. It is delivered by one of the least attractive characters in all of the plays, one who lacks the virtue to be a hero and the brio to be a villain and can’t even manage to snoop without getting himself stabbed. Yet after “To be or not to be” it is probably the most often-quoted speech in Shakespeare, and always seriously. This is not a happy reflection on the state of literary culture.

Jun 282002

My Picture Left in Scotland

I now think Love is rather deaf than blind,
For else it could not be
That she
Whom I adore so much should so slight me,
And cast my love behind.
I’m sure my language to her was as sweet,
And every close did meet
In sentence of as subtle feet
As hath the youngest he
That sits in shadow of Apollo’s tree.

Oh, but my conscious fears
That fly my thoughts between,
Tell me that she hath seen
My hundreds of gray hairs,
Told seven and forty years,
Read so much waste, as she cannot embrace
My mountain belly and my rocky face;
And all these through her eyes have stopped her ears.

–Ben Jonson