Saturday, March 07, 2009

"The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd"--(Sir) Walter Ralegh

It's been a while since I first and most intently thought on this so I am going to refer to the notes I scratched in my crumbling Norton Anthology of English Literature, the 1962 edition, which I believe was the first, which I bought for $7.50 on a very hot afternoon in the summer of 1993 at the old Rock Creek Book Store in Washington, D.C. for $7.50, which store was one of those that you had to go up a flight of stairs to get in, and the literature section I think was even one or two more stories up. It was all air-conditioned, though. I have had the book with me a lot since that time. I had it in a little room I rented when I only had about ten or so other books in my possession, and I took it with me to Prague too. Now it is falling apart. I could get it rebound, I suppose, but I am fond of the endpapers, "A Literary Map of England" and "London: With Points of Literary and Historical Interest From Chaucer to the Victorians", which in the days when I was comparatively print-deprived were a source of much minor entertainment and delight to me, so I shouldn't like to lose them.

"It is like an exercise of poetry," I wrote of the Ralegh, "with its basic versification, ruminations on time, romance, nature imagery. All of the elements are in place. It is wistful, natural, humane above all." This doesn't tell us much. I am starting to worry that these mellifluous Elizabethans don't say anything to me. The words I circled in the poem as striking me with the most significance, whether with regard to position or suggestive meaning, were "If", "young", "truth", "might", "Time", "wanton", "reckoning", "honey", "fancy's", "wither", "forgotten", and "might" again, the 2 mights being verbs, in the first and last stanzas, and leading into the nearly identical sequences "might (me) move/To live with thee and be thy love". Much of the history of lyric poetry consists of a continual tension between the pastoral tradition, or impulse, which is clearly very dear, as well as instinctive, to a wide strain of the human sensibility, and the more clear-headed species of attitude that perceives death and decay and the comparative weakness and fleetingness of individual will and emotion to be the primary truths, the real driving forces in human existence. Most of the history of poetry, like most of the history of anything, is rather boring in itself to anyone who is not borderline fanatical in his interest. It has been a frequent theme of mine in this diary that any interest one has in esoteric subjects are of little account unless he is well-respected and has acquitted himself admirably in some field, and preferably several, of more widely accepted importance, so I won't go into it too much here. But in short, a person's interest in anything is only interesting so far as he is interesting, and plays a part in the life of the world that is interesting. I understand that it thus must appear contradictory for me to continue maintaining a blog, or to write at all or try to make sense of the history of poetry, but I am not a well man, I am delusional, I am in every sense the last person who should be writing and the first, or one of the first, to put pen to paper as it were.

The Elizabethans were the high tide of English poetry, I do not see that there can be much doubt of it. It is clear to me that well-educated people, and people of that temperament, thought in poetic form, that they were always taking their impressions and imagined conversations and rebut and condensing and cropping them to fit lines of pentameter, the unit of thought. The choices of words and the presentation of images even in minor poets are rarely overlabored or strike the reader--or the listener--as unnatural. That they are minor poets is due more to the lesser power of their images and ideas, not the poetic sensibility on display. That Ralegh of course was a man whose poetic gift was usually noted in his lifetime as his fourth or fifth most distinguishing attribute I have commented on elsewhere. It is illustrative of the attitude that existed at the time that being a writer of verses was a part of being a properly developed man, that it would be part of such a person's nature.

But all that said, what is special about this poem? For special it is in some respect, as it is in nearly every comprehensive anthology of English poetry, and the one I have before me calls it the "best" of the replies to Marlowe. I suppose it rather cleverly refutes one by one all of the promises and wild declarations that Marlowe's shepherd makes, and Ralegh demonstrates some admirable skill in alliteration, balancing his lines, and the choice of words such as make the images of the poem move rapidly and at the same time in a circle. It is hard to explain because it seems very simple--I think it actually is that simple, or something like it, and that therefore I don't have the language, or the relation to language, to really understand such a conception of the world as such use of language entails. That is 60 or 70% of getting at the crux of what all great poems are about, is that sort of becoming comfortable with the language and where it is coming from, and I find that very difficult to do with the Elizabethans, and I don't really know why.

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