13 June 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/24

Poor, fond deluded heart!

Poor, fond deluded heart! wilt thou again
     Listen, enchanted, to the siren song
     Of treacherous Pleasure? Ah, deceived too long,
Cease now at length to throb with wishes vain!
Ah, cease her paths bewildering to explore!
     Betrayed so oft! yet recollect the woe
     Which waits on disappointment; taught to know
By sad experience, wilt thou not give o'er
To rest, deluded, on the fickle wing
     Which Fancy lends thee in her airy flight,
     But to seduce thee to some giddy height,
And leave thee there a poor forsaken thing.
     Hope warbles once again, Truth pleads in vain,
     And my charmed soul sinks vanquished by her strain.

Mary Tighe

It's not surprising that a poet would be led astray by the power of imagination, but this does seem like a universal problem: lecturing ourselves on the need to learn from our past experience while being seduced once again by the hope that this time it will be different. What is Pleasure here? It could easily be read just as romantic feelings (or a euphemism for sexual ones): the poet starts by addressing her heart, her fond deluded heart (in the early nineteenth century, when this sonnet was written, fond still retained some of the aura of its earlier meaning, foolish). She speaks of throbbing, siren songs, seduction, and flying, all of which tend to have erotic connotations. But when I first read this poem I thought of going to plays and concerts, which is how I spend many of my evenings, despite the inconvenience and expense and (more often than I'd like) the disappointment. Pleasure can be any of those little treats we arrange for ourselves in the hopes of making the grind of life varied, interesting, and enjoyable.

The tight structure of a sonnet (fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, with a strict rhyme scheme) makes it seem that this is an argument the poet has made with herself many times before, rather than a spontaneous effusion. She begins by asking her heart if she will, again, be enchanted by the siren song of Pleasure, which she already knows to be treacherous (a sense reinforced by the reference to the sirens, whose lovely songs drew sailors to their deaths). She reminds herself of the disappointment and unhappiness that, experience has shown her, inevitably ensue when she follows the bewildering byways of Pleasure. As we switch from the octave to the concluding sestet, she continues to argue with herself, but in terms which make clear how appealing is the thing she's warning herself against. She wants herself to give over (give up) resting, deluded, on the fickle wing but despite deluded and fickle there is a basic appeal in the ideas of resting and of soaring, and the position of to rest at the beginning of the line subtle separates and highlights the concept from the questioning injunction wilt thou not give o'er. And, especially for a poet, why shouldn't Fancy (imagination) take precedence over experience? She may well be abandoned on a giddy height, but where would she be otherwise?

Her sestet ends with a couplet that neatly summarizes and amplifies the poem: Hope warbles once again, Truth pleads in vain, / And my charmed soul sinks vanquished by her strain. Warbles connects back to the siren song mentioned in the second line and with the birds implicit in the mentions of wings and flying. Truth, which Tighe is using to mean one's past experience, pleads, and pleads in vain. It might be wiser, but also sadder, to ignore warbling in favor of pleading. Her charmed soul sinks, seduced. Charmed connects back to enchanted in the second line; both suggest some kind of suspicious magic at work. Now instead of her heart it is her soul that is at stake; her soul sinks and is vanquished, both of which, when applied to the soul, suggest a kind of moral peril underlying her surrender. She (or rather her Fancy, her imaginative capacity) has depicted Pleasure to herself in a way that makes its appeal to us as well, but there is a stinging little reminder as we reach the end that the result might be not only some pain but also the loss of one's soul (that is, oneself) – the familiar phrase amusing ourselves to death might come to mind.

The poem is from A Century of Sonnets: The Romantic-Era Revival, edited by Paula R. Feldman and Daniel Robinson.

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