Book Review: Astrophil and Stella

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Astrophil and Stella is the first sonnet sequence in English. Even Shakespeare drew inspiration from him. Shakespeare’s Sonnets have a number of references to Sidney according to the notes supplied by Katherine Duncan-Jones. But while Shakespeare raises the game in rational poetry, (where imagination builds castles of praise for his beloved through rhetoric), Sidney is really the pure poet of the lyric. Sir Philip Sidney was a courtier, and for a time the cup-bearer of Queen Elizabeth, and also a war-minded man who felt duty to his country, but if the sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella can be taken as a fair record of his heart, at bottom his only concern was his love affair.

It was a storybook love which hardly knew touch. Sidney claims Stella too virtuous to give away the love that dwells inside her, but in real life, in the end, she marries another man. At one point Sidney thought he had her, or thought he was on the verge, and even stole a kiss while she was asleep, and the throes of ecstasy and doubt about that kiss register as credible to me. The first two thirds or so of the book swoon with his lover’s praise of Stella. When she ultimately rejects him, Astrophil falls very hard, (in the Fifth Song) in a poem resembling a Miltonic Satanic rebellion against the divine. He recovers and preserves his pure love. But he has lodged the word of his death knell.

In the Fifth Song he says,

The name of ‘murderer’ now on thy forehead sitteth;
And even while I do speak, my death wounds bleeding be,
Which, I protest, proceed from only cruel thee.

And as early as the second poem Sidney also writes,

Not at first sight, nor with dribbed shot,
Love gave the wound which while I breathe will bleed.

[There “dribbed” means ineffectual or random.]

These lines are prophetic because not long later Sir Philip Sidney, fighting in his second encounter, was shot in the thigh and died of the wound.

This sonnet sequence is full of steady bursts of pure passion aimed always straight at Stella. In Shakespeare’s Sonnets though the first 120 or so sonnets are focused on the youth explicitly, because they contain very little detail relating to the boy other than his physical appearance, I believe they are more an occasion for versification and establishing a new style of praise. The last 30 or so of Shakespeare’s sonnets veer in a different direction in which he suffers the horrifying consequences of his failed relationship with the youth. At that point Shakespeare really opens up terrain through drama and plotting of emotions closer to his soliloquies and closer to religious drama I suspect.

In a somewhat similar way, the early part of Astrophil and Stella is essentially lover’s praise, but when she rejects him and he is so thoroughly shaken the entire course of the sonnet project begins really what is a desperate search for mercy and pity. And in this dark final section (22 sonnets and 6 songs) Sidney also calls on much ingenuity in the plotting of the sequence. This run of poems brings out in the author wrath at her alleged betrayal (though she had made no promises); deepest grief; a restoration of her fond image in his heart; the rejection of all other potential lovers (this is a love which buried Sidney); and a final meeting when the two exchange very touching oaths but she rejects him again.

We also see Sidney alone and not always with his sweet blissful thoughts. So for instance he writes letters to the river Thames (fortunate to carry Stella), to a “dead glass” which did not afford a sight of Stella, we see him with insomnia, and avoiding the company of other women. Also shortly before this section, he addresses a poem to the highway where she travels. All these different approaches allow Sidney variety of experience but again, aside from Stella, for him, there is darkness.

Here is one sonnet shortly before the dark final section, the pivotal fifth song, and two more amazing sonnets after From Astrophil and Stella. Here you can read a post on Philip Sidney’s Sonnet 42   .

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Book Review: Rexroth Translations

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Kenneth Rexroth had a complex life and career; just look at what he was doing as a teenager:

“Orphaned at fourteen, Rexroth moved to live with his aunt in Chicago, where he was expelled from high school. He began publishing in magazines at the age of fifteen [in 1920]. As a youth, he supported himself with odd jobs—as a soda jerk, clerk, wrestler, and reporter. He hitchhiked around the country, visited Europe, and backpacked in the wilderness, reading and frequenting literary salons and lecture halls, and teaching himself several languages.” (According to poets.org)

This longer Poetry Foundation Bio is also excellent. In this article I just want to recommend three volumes of Japanese short verse which Rexroth translated, mostly letting samples speak for their excellence.

The volumes mostly consist of tanka, which is a five line form, made of alternating 5 and 7 syllable lines – like haiku, but with 2 extra lines. As someone said, simplicity is the greatest elegance, and these tanka transform the world in a handful of sounds.

The three volumes are: One Hundred Poems From The Japanese; One Hundred More Poems From The Japanese; and Love Poems From The Japanese. The volume of love poems can fit in a shirt pocket, but a fair amount of it’s material overlaps the other two volumes. The original 100 is the strongest collection, and I’ll rely only on it these Tanka Excerpts, with one marked exception.

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Browning’s Sonnets

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Lately I’ve been wondering how difficult it is to find sincere Christian poets of high caliber. Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was a priest in Victorian England, who is acknowledged today as a bold and brilliant poet is one. But in a three part series of posts called Books Unfit To Read, (see Books Unfit to Read (part 1)) I address the domination of culture by anti-Christian elements. In my opinion this leads the world to heresy in both subtle and overt ways, despite the fact that the world is admittedly furnished thereby with culture, (say what you will).

Elizabeth Barrett Browning appears to be part of the answer to my prayers. She was a Christian poet with intensely ethical concerns. Because of physical illness, (a lung disease since 14, a spinal injury since 15), Elizabeth was a chronic invalid during much of her formative years. In her youth she learned, largely on her own, Hebrew, Greek, classical literature, Shakespeare, and much else; she was very well read in literature. Almost confined to bedrest, she became heavy with grief, especially after her favorite brother died in a drowning accident. Her aspirations and work were literary, and she didn’t really hope for happiness in this world.

Despite the fact that Elizabeth was a slow blooming poet, her writing projects were exciting from an early age. At ten she wrote an epic poem about war. At twenty she wrote “An Essay On Mind” a poem which according to The Poetry Foundation was “a pretentious and frigid effort to survey in some eighty-eight pages the history of science, philosophy, and poetry, from ancient Greece to the present.” About the age of 27 she made a translation of Prometheus Bound, which she considered on hindsight a failure. However she later revised it greatly and apparently honed it into something outstanding.

It was in her thirties Browning first became famous for two volumes of poems. Popular with critics and the public, she was considered one of England’s leading poets. And she thereby came to the attention of Robert Browning, an American poet whom she had praised in a poem. This literary contact sparked a real life romance which in turn became immortalized in these poems, “Sonnets From The Portuguese” written before their marriage, but published after the couple had eloped to Italy.

These “Sonnets From The Portuguese” are the extremely candid and tender-hearted revelation of a woman profoundly grateful to find love when she had written it out of possibility. They also express her care to secure this love. She almost worships Robert in these poems, which is in the sonnet tradition, true, but elicited my own protective instincts because of the extremes of her gratitude. Robert Browning was six years her junior, but certain in his love, and had wooed her, despite her physical disability, and despite the fact that her father tried to prevent his children from marrying. These poems concern the rehabilitation of a heart, moving from grief and isolation slowly, bit by bit, to a love contained by security and hope.

Here are Two Poems from Sonnets From The Portuguese.

The volume is very strong, and conveys so much feeling that it seemed to flow directly off the page. The Sonnets are ahead of their time in their liveliness of meter and enjambment. Though Browning fought in her writing against the domination of women, (as she fought against slavery and the abuse of children,) she believes in patriarchy. Her marriage makes a kind of case for righteous patriarchy, in which love and respect are both reciprocal and Biblical. “Sonnets From The Portuguese” I suspect is a breakthrough in its candor and real intimacy. Other Romantic poets (Browning was considered a Romantic) wrote with candor and vitality, but I don’t remember finding such vulnerability in them, things so important and unguarded in the heart.

I very much enjoyed this volume and hope you will too. A few weeks ago I did a close read of Browning’s most famous poem, Sonnet 43, which you can read here.

Book Review: A Classic On Poetic Form

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Philip Hobsbaum, an English poet and critic, in his book “Metre, Rhythm, and Verse Form”, has in expertise not succumbed to pedantry, and kept my attention almost undivided (a feat) for the duration.  He does this in part by staying under two hundred pages and diving into great poetry at every turn, teaching how to scan meter, and what psychological impact a tiny alteration in form can have.  He really opened my eyes on elements of form that don’t come easily to me, discussing the nuances of various feet, like the iamb, as well as the length of line, blank verse, the length of vowels and syllables (thus the speed of lines), maintaining a fixed number of syllables per line (syllabics), and the loosening of meter through sprung rhythm.  He also defines three kinds of free verse: free blank verse, cadenced verse, and pure free verse.  Hobsbaum explores the use of rhyme and partial rhyme.  And he is always going back to the subject of how all these matters, and a few more affect the final rhythm, which he points out is a different animal from a fixed form like iambic pentameter.  At the end of the book, Hobsbaum runs through a number of popular verse forms.

One of the most interesting things about this book is how we are given access to the historical origin and development of certain types of stanzas (such as the ballad and hymn and elegiac stanza) and how their potential was discovered over time in significant usages.

To poets who want to gain more conscious understanding of the nuances of meter and form I recommend this volume wholeheartedly.