Thursday, August 14, 2008

Pretty, Lovely, Ruthless...

Dear Everybody:

Okay! Today we have a serious poem, and thank God for that. Before you read it, you should know that the proverb (sometimes attributed to Chaucer) mentioned was:

Better is it to suffer and fortune abide 
Than hastily to climb and suddenly to slide

Also that "Nother" means "Neither," that to tarry the tide means to bide your time (sailing ships could only leave port when the tide flowed outward, remember), and abiding speed means continuing success, so that when Wyatt writes "And with abiding speed well ye may" he's saying, "Easy for you to say!" Oh, and "I wot alway" means "forever, for all I know."

Here's the poem:

I Abide and Abide and Better Abide
by Sir Thomas Wyatt

I abide and abide and better abide,
And after the old proverb, the happy day;
And ever my lady to me doth say,

"Let me alone and I will provide."

I abide and abide and tarry the tide,

And with abiding speed well ye may.

Thus do I abide I wot alway,
Nother obtaining nor yet denied.
Ay me! this long abiding

Seemeth to me, as who sayeth,
A prolonging of a dying death,

Or a refusing of a desir'd thing.
Much were it better for to be plain
Than to say "abide" and yet shall not obtain.

In brief: You say "wait" and I wait and suffer and nothing ever happens. Better you rejected me ("be plain" in your meaning) than tell me to wait for something that never comes.

We all know someone in this guy's situation, don't we? So I'm not going to discuss the meaning, but the poet. Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) wrote the first sonnets in English. Why "in English" you ask? Because England was still something of a backwater in the sixteenth century, and its literature was largely derived from Italian models. The sonnet is an Italian invention.

A sonnet is (and here I check my handy Columbia-Viking Desk Encyclopedia) a poem of 14 lines, usually in iambic pentameter, in certain definite rhyme schemes. The Petrarchan sonnet is an octave and sestet (8 lines and 6 lines) rhymed abbaabba cdecde and the Shakespearean sonnet is three quatrains and a couplet, rhymed abab cdcd efef gg.

Take a second here, see which lines rhyme and tell me what we've got. Don't everybody raise your hands at once. That's right: abbaabba cddcee. Which is to say, a variant on the Petrarchan sonnet.

So what's the big fuss about sonnets? They're long enough make a logical argument, short enough to memorize, and the words are arranged in a way very natural to the English language, so that delivered smoothly, as an actor might, they sound like speech.

And this is important because?

Picture this: There's a man and a woman. She says, "Be patient, Fred. I'm just not ready for a serious relationship."

“You keep saying that," he replies. "And I keep waiting. Sir Thomas Wyatt was right."

“Huh?" she says.

And he leans forward and lets rip this poem. She's stunned. She's going to feel pretty damned foolish saying, "Yeah, but still. I mean, I kinda think we should, you know, wait," after that glorious torrent of words and emotion. The ball's in her court. She's only got two choices now: To lean forward and kiss him, or to say, "Oh, all right, fuck off if that's how you feel." Either of which leaves her suitor better off than he was ten minutes before.

But now you object that, really, this poem is just an advanced formed of verbal bullying. Well, yeah. What did you think love poetry is? Pretty to look at, lovely to hear, and absolutely ruthless in its intentions.

If you doubt me, read John Donne.

All best,


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