11 April 2012

National Poetry Month: 11

Yesterday's poem was in some ways about seizing the moment before it's too late, a theme central to a huge body of poems (for example, any poem that mentions cherry blossoms. . . ). This theme is also sometimes named after Horace's phrase, carpe diem, or Robert Herrick's phrase, gather ye rosebuds while ye may. Here is Herrick's poem:

To the Virgins, to make much of Time

Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious Lamp of Heaven, the Sun,
The higher he's a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he's to setting.

That Age is best, which is the first,
When Youth and Blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst,
Times, still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time;
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

– Robert Herrick (1591 - 1674)

It's surprisingly difficult to find a good complete edition of Herrick's poems. After years of searching I finally found a semi-complete Oxford edition from 1921, reprinted in 1936, at Moe's Used Books in Bekeley. I say it's "semi-complete" because the "prefatory note" by Percy Simpson primly notes that since the edition has been prepared, "not for the scholar, but for the lover of poetry, it omits almost entirely the 'Epigrams' . . . ". Noting in somewhat indirect terms that Herrick's epigrams derive via Ben Jonson from the scabrous classical style of poets like Martial, our Percy considers them a "monotonous and, on the whole, pointless series of poems on merely nauseous themes" and notes that publication of this volume offers a "welcome opportunity of clearing away these weeds from the flower-garden. . . ". Oh, thanks. You shouldn't have. No, really. I mean it: You shouldn't have. I wonder if Percy lived to see the eventual twentieth-century triumph and vindication of "merely nauseous themes." I also wonder what was unacceptable, if something called "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" was considered OK.

Many of the carpe diem poems take the form of Herrick's, in which a young man urges a young woman to have sex with him before she gets old and boys lose interest in her. Put that way, it seems like a somewhat dubious philosophy of life. Here's another poem on the theme, only this one was written by a woman, and not just any woman, but Gloriana the Virgin Queen herself, Elizabeth I of England:

When I was fair and young, then favor graced me.
Of many was I sought their mistress for to be.
But I did scorn them all and answered them therefore:
Go, go, go, seek some other where, importune me no more.

How many weeping eyes I made to pine in woe,
How many sighing hearts I have not skill to show,
But I the prouder grew and still this spake therefore:
Go, go, go, seek some other where, importune me no more.

Then spake fair Venus's son, that proud victorious boy,
Saying: You dainty dame, for that you be so coy,
I will so pluck your plumes as you shall say no more:
Go, go, go, seek some other where, importune me no more.

As soon as he had said, such change grew in my breast
That neither night nor day I could take any rest.
Wherefore I did repent that I had said before:
Go, go, go, seek some other where, importune me no more.

– Elizabeth I (1533 - 1603)

It's interesting to reflect that there was a time (not that long ago, as times go) in which it was considered suitable and actually prestigious for a monarch to be up on all the latest learning, and to be not only a patron of artists, but able to produce art him- or herself.

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