Friday, November 25, 2011

Our Puritan Ancestors and Metaphysical Poetry

Stay with me, please. I know that the very word “poetry” is off-putting for many, but today, the first day after the annual Tryptophan-high, is a perfect day to remember Founding Fathers and Mothers, the Puritans in particular. We owe them a great debt, and it should be paid now and then in something other than turkey and dressing.

The Puritans valued education and intellectual exercise; they challenged themselves with complicated, tightly organized sermons and poems that compete with the best Mensa puzzles. The Puritans and their seventeenth-century peers wrote lyric poetry of the metaphysical kind.

First, consider the word “metaphysical,” a word that describes matters transcendent, beyond the physical senses. Metaphysical matters include divinity, art, and love, topics frequently undertaken by metaphysical poets. With strikingly unusual comparisons and irony, metaphysical poets tackle serious subjects in ways that jar our imaginations and challenge traditional ways of thinking.

Second, remember that the seventeenth century has two different heartbeats vying for the nation’s pulse. One heartbeat is quite secular so poets with such a heartbeat often wrote sensual, sometimes sardonic, frequently naughty metaphysical poetry. The other heartbeat is the Puritan one, the one that conquers Britain for a time with Oliver Cromwell at the helm. These Puritan poets developed more sacred, nicer subjects.

Still with me? I hope so as we turn our attention to actual metaphysical poems, one naughty by Andrew Marvell and one nice by Anne Bradstreet, a Puritan.

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell

HAD we but world enough, and time,

This coyness, Lady, were no crime

We would sit down and think which way

To walk and pass our long love's day.

Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide

Of Humber would complain. I would

Love you ten years before the Flood,

And you should, if you please, refuse

Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow

Vaster than empires, and more slow;

An hundred years should go to praise

Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;

Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;

An age at least to every part,

And the last age should show your heart.

For, Lady, you deserve this state,

Nor would I love at lower rate.
  But at my back I always hear

Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near;

And yonder all before us lie

Deserts of vast eternity.

Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound

My echoing song: then worms shall try

That long preserved virginity,

And your quaint honour turn to dust,

And into ashes all my lust:
The grave 's a fine and private place,

But none, I think, do there embrace.

  Now therefore, while the youthful hue

Sits on thy skin like morning dew,

And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,

Now let us sport us while we may,

And now, like amorous birds of prey,

Rather at once our time devour

Than languish in his slow-chapt power.
Let us roll all our strength and all

Our sweetness up into one ball,

And tear our pleasures with rough strife

Thorough the iron gates of life:

Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Marvell’s poem is an argument in three sections. First, in lines 1-20, the speaker, a man, flatters the lady with hyperbolic praise, but leaves no room for doubt about the virtues he admires. He says nothing about her mind or character; he merely promises to spend one entire era contemplating her forehead and four more eras for her breasts. A full “thirty thousand” years will go to the rest, and we may assume, he means that which lies below the breasts since he has ticked off her upper most parts (forehead), then moved down to her bosom. (Yes, he’s “checking her out!”) The speaker suggests that he would wait as long as the expanse of time between Noah’s flood and the conversion of the Jews (hyperbole) before collecting his due. In other words, he would wait forever to win her trust and love if, if only. . . .

Section two (lines 21-32) begins with “But,” a word that reverses the argument, sending it in opposite directions. Indeed, our lover declares that he would wait as long as it takes except “Time’s winged chariot” races toward him. He cannot ignore the truth of human existence: Time is not ours forever; we are mortal. He theorizes that love-making is useless in eternity, portrayed as a “vast desert” where worms, not the speaker, will enjoy the lady’s virginity. He has waxed morbid and engages in fear-mongering to urge the lady to give up being coy. Instead, she should satisfy the speaker’s lust.

The third section (lines 33-46) is the conclusion, the logical deduction from the argument set forth in the preceding two sections, developed as follows: if only I had all the time in the world, I would court you until I win your heart, but alas, you and I are mortal so . . . .  Having set out his “If/then” premise, he presents his logical result, beginning with “Therefore” and continues, saying: let’s waste no time, let’s not waste your “youthful hue,” and let’s act like “amorous birds of prey” today, now, this very second.

The “strikingly unusual” images include the ones used in the second section. Mixing graphic details about the state of the flesh after death with matters of love is indeed “jarring,” “challenging.” Such images throughout the poem give it power as it moves from plaintiff to frightening to animalistic.

The end result of this poem is, of course, the same as the one Robin Williams teaches in Dead Poet’s Society: carpe diem. Seize the day. (Let go your silly reservations, Girl, and get with me now!)

The nice metaphysical poem, “The Author to Her Book” by Anne Bradstreet, follows.

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,                                                      2
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view,                                                      4
Made thee in rags, halting to th' press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).                                                      6
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,                                                      8
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight;                                                                        10
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.                                                                        12
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.                                                      14
I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run'st more hobbling than is meet;                                                      16
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save homespun cloth i' th' house I find.                                    18
In this array 'mongst vulgars may'st thou roam.
In critic's hands beware thou dost not come,                                                      20
And take thy way where yet thou art not known;
If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;                                                      22
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.                                                      24

The title is a clue to the meaning of the poem. This poem’s speaker is an author, and the other person in the conversation is the author’s book, released for publication before the author/mother was ready to place her book/child before the discerning, critical public eye. Her book is the child of a mind that the author describes as “feeble,” suggesting she is embarrassed by what her mind bore. She grew to dislike her child, this book, because it is not perfect, and she set it aside, never intending for others to read it.

This mother’s dislike of her own child—not literally, of course—is the “strikingly unusual” image that “jars” the reader’s imagination. We believe in loving our children, blemishes and all, but when we imagine our own flawed writing as our child, exposed to the scrutiny of others, we can more easily imagine the challenge of being a writer who publishes.

Reading Challenge:

A second Puritan metaphysical poem, “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” by Anne Bradstreet follows. Trace the images that prove her devotion to her husband and her faith.

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee.                                                                        2
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.                                                                        4
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.                                                                        6
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.                                                      8
Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.                                                                        10
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,
That when we live no more, we may live ever.

A second secular example of metaphysical poetry follows. It is “The Flea” by John Donne. Once again, the speaker propositions the maiden and tries to convince her to surrender her virtue. Follow the complicated images that compare a flea bite to intercourse.

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,   
How little that which thou deniest me is;   
Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;   
Thou know’st that this cannot be said                                                                        5
A sin, or shame, or loss of maidenhead,
    Yet this enjoys before it woo,
    And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
    And this, alas, is more than we would do.

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,                                                                        10
Where we almost, nay more than married are.   
This flea is you and I, and this
Our mariage bed and mariage temple is;   
Though parents grudge, and you, we are met,   
And cloisterd in these living walls of jet.                                                      15
    Though use make you apt to kill me,
    Let not to that, self-murder added be,
    And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?                                                        20
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?   
Yet thou triumph’st, and say'st that thou   
Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;
    ’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:                                                      25
    Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,
    Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.

Writing Challenge:

As beginning or developing writers, we can sympathize with Anne Bradstreet’s plight expressed in “The Author to her Book.” Invent a different analogy for your written work and speak to your work, in poetic form or prose, communicating how you feel when others examine your work, especially if it is work about which you are not confident.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

Observe that the titles of all poems referenced in this post are inside quotation marks. Only epic poems (really long and vast in scope) such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf, or Paradise Lost must be treated the same way as the titles for books and films—with italics or underlining.