The Wife’s Complaint

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I make a point of reading English or American poetry more than translation, more than anything to find how fluent my own native language can get. Nonetheless, there are a few books in translation which are among my favorites. These include the Bible above all else, and Kenneth Rexroth’s translations, and the volume this poem is drawn from, Michael Alexander’s Earliest English Poems.

Indeed Alexander’s translations here have a great eloquence, gravity through their form, and sadness in their seriousness.  He holds to a faithfulness of form. The diction is rooted in Old English Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. And in some poems, though not here, the Old English bardic metric formula is kept. That meter has four stresses per line. At least three of them are alliterative. There is also a heavy pause between the two halves of the line, during which some propose a drum or other instrument could have been struck. The impact of this meter could hardly be more heavy and emphatic on the key words, yet it retained vitality by the flexibility of the unstressed syllables, the alternation of alliterative sounds every line, and the unremitting vigor of the subject matter. Click on this link to open The Wife’s Complaint.

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Wilfred Owen’s Spring Offensive

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Spring Offensive

Halted against the shade of a last hill,
They fed, and, lying easy, were at ease
And, finding comfortable chests and knees
Carelessly slept. But many there stood still
To face the stark, blank sky beyond the ridge,
Knowing their feet had come to the end of the world.

Marvelling they stood, and watched the long grass swirled
By the May breeze, murmurous with wasp and midge,
For though the summer oozed into their veins
Like the injected drug for their bones’ pains,
Sharp on their souls hung the imminent line of grass,
Fearfully flashed the sky’s mysterious glass.

Hour after hour they ponder the warm field —
And the far valley behind, where the buttercups
Had blessed with gold their slow boots coming up,
Where even the little brambles would not yield,
But clutched and clung to them like sorrowing hands;
They breathe like trees unstirred.

Till like a cold gust thrilled the little word
At which each body and its soul begird
And tighten them for battle.  No alarms
Of bugles, no high flags, no clamorous haste —
Only a lift and flare of eyes that faced
The sun, like a friend with whom their love is done.
O larger shone that smile against the sun, —
Mightier than his whose bounty these have spurned.

So, soon they topped the hill, and raced together
Over an open stretch of herb and heather
Exposed.  And instantly the whole sky burned
With fury against them; and soft sudden cups
Opened in thousands for their blood; and the green slopes
Chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space.

Of them who running on that last high place
Leapt to swift unseen bullets, or went up
On the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge,
Or plunged and fell away past this world’s verge,
Some say God caught them even before they fell.

But what say such as from existence’ brink
Ventured but drave too swift to sink.
The few who rushed in the body to enter hell,
And there out-fiending all its fiends and flames
With superhuman inhumanities,
Long-famous glories, immemorial shames —
And crawling slowly back, have by degrees
Regained cool peaceful air in wonder —
Why speak they not of comrades that went under?

James Joyce’s Chamber Music

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These are sections 3-30 of James Joyce’s long poem, Chamber Music, which comprised his first book. Published in 1907, Joyce of course became famous for his novels and short stories and his poetry has unfortunately been largely forgotten.

The Poetry Foundation has written that Chamber Music was noticed by Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, “and included in Pound’s influential Imagist Anthology of 1914. Pound wrote of Chamber Music: “the quality and distinction of the poems in the first half…is due in part to their author’s strict musical training…the wording is Elizabethan, the metres at times suggesting Herrick.’ Known as a lyric poet, Joyce based some of his poems on songs. His poems have been set to music by composers including Geoffrey Moyneux Palmer, Ross Lee Finney, Samuel Barber, and Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, as well as the group Sonic Youth.”


Chamber Music
Sections 3-30 of 36 total

III

At that hour when all things have repose,

O lonely watcher of the skies,

IV

When the shy star goes forth in heaven

All maidenly, disconsolate,

V

Lean out of the window,

Goldenhair,

VI

I would in that sweet bosom be

(O sweet it is and fair it is!)

VII

My love is in a light attire

Among the apple-trees,

VIII

Who goes amid the green wood

With springtide all adorning her?

IX

Winds of May, that dance on the sea,

Dancing a ring-around in glee

X

Bright cap and streamers,

He sings in the hollow:

XI

Bid adieu, adieu, adieu,

Bid adieu to girlish days,

XII

What counsel has the hooded moon

Put in thy heart, my shyly sweet,

XIII

Go seek her out all courteously,

And say I come,

XIV

My dove, my beautiful one,

Arise, arise!

XV

From dewy dreams, my soul, arise,

From love’s deep slumber and from death,

XVI

O cool is the valley now

And there, love, will we go

XVII

Because your voice was at my side

I gave him pain,

XVIII

O Sweetheart, hear you

Your lover’s tale;

XIX

Be not sad because all men

Prefer a lying clamour before you:

XX

In the dark pine-wood

I would we lay,

XXI

He who hath glory lost, nor hath

Found any soul to fellow his,

XXII

Of that so sweet imprisonment

My soul, dearest, is fain–

XXIII

This heart that flutters near my heart

My hope and all my riches is,

XXIV

Silently she’s combing,

Combing her long hair

XXV

Lightly come or lightly go:

Though thy heart presage thee woe,

XXVI

Thou leanest to the shell of night,

Dear lady, a divining ear.

XXVII

Though I thy Mithridates were,

Framed to defy the poison-dart,

XXVIII

Gentle lady, do not sing

Sad songs about the end of love;

XXIX

Dear heart, why will you use me so?

Dear eyes that gently me upbraid,

XXX

Love came to us in time gone by

When one at twilight shyly played