Tuesday, April 29, 2008

William Shakespeare

Dear Everybody:

The other day, I kicked around the A. E. Housman rather harshly for making his poetry over-"poetic," and suggested the reason so much rhymed-and-scanned poetry of the twentieth century was bad was that it was written by second-rate poets. Second-rate poetry is not a new phenomenon. Take a look at this great extract I just now pulled from the Web:

If he be learned, and that he be able to write a verse, then his pen must ply to paint his mistress's praise; she must be a Pallas for her wit, a Diana for her chastity, a Venus for her face; then she shall be praised for her proportion: first her hairs are wires of gold, her cheeks are made of lilies and red roses, her brows be arches, her eyes sapphires, her look lightnings, her mouth coral, her teeth pearls, her paps alabaster balls, her body straight, her belly soft, from thence downward to her knees, I think, is made of sugar candy, her hands, her fingers, her legs, her feet and all the rest of her body shall be so perfect, and so pure, that of my conscience, the worst part they will leave in her, shall be her soul.

-- Barnaby Rich (1578)

I don't know who Barnaby Rich was, but the man was a mean satirist. Well-griped, BR! Now here's a take on the same phenomenon by Billy-the-Kid Shakespeare, who was quite a decent poet and (his contemporaries all agreed) a fast man with a comeback. From his sonnets:

My Mistress' Eyes
by William Shakespeare

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go:
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Props to the Big Shake. The sonnet functions simultaneously on two levels. Secondly it's a critique of bad poetry. First and foremost, it's a great love poem, neatly calculated to soften a woman's eyes and resolve. Which is, let's never forget, one of the reasons poets get into the business in the first place. (When asked why she became a minister, our friend Pastor Marcia wryly said, "I got in it for the money." And poets can only envy a minister's salary.) Here are all the cheapjack things a lesser poet would throw at you, he says; I tell no lies, have no illusions, see you exactly as you are, and love you truly. Tell me that wouldn't work.

So why was Shakespeare's poem so much better than Housman's were? Because he was looking directly at what he wanted to say and using words to further the purpose. Housman let the words push him around. "The question is," as Humpty Dumpty said, addressing this very question of author versus words, "which is to be the master -- that's all."

Lewis Carroll, though "only" a satirist, was a good enough poet to get into all the definitive anthologies. So, okay, tomorrow we'll have something from him.

All best,


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