Category Archives: Poetry

Metamorphosis

Metamorphosis
By C. Thomen-Brown

I am not here to be your label;
To fit inside your box

I am not here to change my colors;
To a hue you understand

I am not here to accept the comfort;
You offer from behind your protective glass

I am not here to be pinned against your wall;
My body on display

I am not here to be wrapped up in your blankets of security;
Which reek with your fear of the different and unknown

I will shed your perfectly maintained preconceptions;
Breaking away from your claustrophobic cage

I will burst forth as a mosaic of colors;
Every unique piece creating the beautiful whole of my wingspan

I will stand shivering and bare;
For the world to see

And I know that I am free;
Moving from the water to the sky
To fly.
To grow.
To be.

Vermont Pride was virtual this year, as were most pride celebrations. That meant even the Pride Magazine that Vermont Pride publishes and hands out each year was also virtual. The above poem came from their Prize Zine 2020. I really liked the poem and wanted to share it with you, but I know nothing about the poet C. Thomen-Brown. When I tried to search for more of their poetry, the only person I came across was an independently licensed clinical social worker named Camille Thomen-Brown at the Vermont Center for Anxiety Care located in Burlington, Vermont. I am guessing that this is the same person who wrote the poem. It was just such a lovely poem about being yourself and embracing your diversity.


Lament/Klage

Lament
By Rainer Maria Rilke

(English Translation by Horst A. Scholz)*

O how far away everything is
And long since gone.
I think that the star
From which I receive radiance
Has been dead for thousands of years.
I think, from the boat
Drifting past,
I heard some frightening words.
Inside the house a clock
Has struck …
In which house? …
I would like to step out of my heart
To walk under the immense sky.
I would like to pray.
And one of all these stars
Must surely still exist.
I think I might know
Which alone of them,
Endures –
Like a white city,
Standing in the heavens at the end of the ray …

Klage
By Rainer Maria Rilke

(In original German)

O wie ist alles fern
und lange vergangen.
Ich glaube, der Stern,
von welchem ich Glanz empfange,
ist seit Jahrtausenden tot.
Ich glaube, im Boot,
das vorüberfuhr,
hörte ich etwas Banges sagen.
Im Hause hat eine Uhr
geschlagen …
In welchem Haus? …
Ich möchte aus meinem Herzen hinaus
unter den großen Himmel treten.
Ich möchte beten.
Und einer von allen Sternen
müßte wirklich noch sein.
Ich glaube, ich wüßte,
welcher allein
gedauert hat, –
welcher wie eine weiße Stadt
am Ende des Strahls in den Himmeln steht …

*Text and translation provided courtesy of Oxford Lieder (www.oxfordlieder.co.uk)

About the Poet:

René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke (4 December 1875 – 29 December 1926), better known as Rainer Maria Rilke, was a Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist. He is “widely recognized as one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets.” He wrote both verse and highly lyrical prose. Several critics have described Rilke’s work as inherently “mystical”. His writings include one novel, several collections of poetry, and several volumes of correspondence in which he invokes haunting images that focus on the difficulty of communion with the indefinable in an age of disbelief, solitude, and profound anxiety. These deeply existential themes tend to position him as a transitional figure between the traditional and the modernist writers.

The earliest poems by Rilke mainly featured two topics: religion and nationalism. While the very first poems show strong adherence to the canon of Christian stories, later poems take Christianity on a whole different journey. Later in his career, Rilke moved ever further away from his Christian roots, starting to bring Greek mythological characters into his stories. Transformed into Christian symbology, these Greek characters offered a whole new world for Rilke, in which he dove willingly. However, true to the romantic spirit of his time, religion and mythology did not stay the only topics on which he focused. From the middle of his career until his death, his poetry was mainly focused on the emotional description of true events. Two main areas of interest are evident during this period. The first is nature and the will of nature to survive. The second is the human struggle. Rilke put his focus mainly on individuals, expressing his points of view through the eyes of fictitious individuals. In general, most of Rilke’s poetry should be understood through the lens of his time and physical location. The struggles of the multicultural state of Austria-Hungary, which would be dissolved in his lifetime, play a pivotal role within his poetry and often individual poems make more sense seen this way. 

About the Poem:

Berlin in the early 1900s was a hotbed for ‘art for art’s sake.’ Put simply, this expresses the belief that writers and artists needed no justification for their art. Their work did not need to serve political, moral, or any other end. Artists, especially those of Aestheticist and Romanticist conviction, had begun to discover progressive modernism, with its penchant for avant-garde art, fueled by inner creativity alone. Rilke found himself caught in this rise of modernism, with its conflict between the burden of tradition and a desire to break free of it. Rilke’s poetic development is a key example of this tension at work. For example, his poem ‘Klage’ likens the failure of creative power to the destruction of a tree by a storm. 

The poem opens by expressing a longing for something passed. It captures the sense of distance and time which separates each of us from those we have lost. The line “under the immense sky” depicts the poet’s wishes to be outside himself, a part of the greater cosmos where perhaps he may be able to lose himself. As with the notion of loss, one must contemplate the loss of self as well, thinking of stepping out from our own hearts into a time and place in which the physical appearance is not an adequate definition of things. The last section of the poem conjures something which is “like a white city” only found at the end of the radiant universe. It is a call to a longing from the heart. Life beyond mere life, an experience that cannot be held as an ordinary experience. Rilke wishes and believes “something” still exists, after all is said and done. 


September 1, 1939

September 1, 1939
By W. H. Auden – 1907-1973

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

“September 1, 1939,” as its title signals, was written by W.H. Auden in the days immediately following Germany’s invasion of Poland, which marked the start of World War II. Auden had left his native England and moved to New York City some nine months earlier, and the famous opening lines of the poem are rooted in the dingy geography of his new home.

This poem achieved great resonance after the events of September 11, 2001—it was widely reproduced, recited on NPR, and interpreted with a link to the tragic events of that day. But it captured Auden’s reaction to the outbreak of World War II. The poem expresses anger and sadness towards those events, and it questions the historical and mass psychological process that led to the war. It focuses on the political psychosis of the German people, echoing a few lines of Nietzsche (“Accurate scholarship can / Unearth the whole offence / From Luther until now / That has driven a culture mad”). It then turns to the effect that this war will have on the world and its people, again with psychological overtones.

The poem was first published on 18 October 1939 in the American magazine, the New Republic. Auden had arrived in New York with his friend and fellow writer Christopher Isherwood. The two men quickly established themselves on the US literary scene: schmoozing, partying, making contact with editors, and undertaking speaking and lecturing engagements. In April 1939, Auden had met an 18-year-old, Chester Kallman, 14 years his junior, who was to become his life partner: in the new world, Auden was making a new life for himself. Back in Europe, meanwhile, the storm clouds were gathering.

W. H. Auden wrote the poem while visiting the father of his lover Kallman in New Jersey. Dorothy Farnan, Kallman’s father’s second wife, in her biography Auden in Love (1984), wrote that it was written in the Dizzy Club, an alleged gay bar in New York City, as if the statement in the first two lines, “I sit in one of the dives / On Fifty-second Street,” were literal fact and not conventional poetic fiction (she had not met Kallman or Auden at the time). Auden later clarified that the poem’s beginning in Manhattan, “in one of the dives on Fifty-second Street,” was, in fact, the Dizzy Club at 62 West 52nd Street.

Auden hated the poem and believed it to be of poor quality. Despite this, the poem became famous and widely popular. E. M. Forster wrote, “Because he once wrote ‘We must love one another or die’ he can command me to follow him” (Two Cheers for Democracy, 1951). Soon after writing the poem, Auden began to turn away from it, apparently because he found it flattering to himself and his readers. In 1957, he wrote to the critic Laurence Lerner, “Between you and me, I loathe that poem” (quoted in Edward Mendelson, Later Auden). He resolved to omit it from his further collections, and it did not appear in his 1966 Collected Shorter Poems 1927–1957.

In the mid-1950s, Auden began to refuse permission to editors who asked to reprint the poem in anthologies. In 1955, he allowed Oscar Williams to include it complete in The New Pocket Anthology of American Verse but altered the most famous line to read, “We must love one another and die.” Later, he allowed the poem to be reprinted only once, in a Penguin Books anthology Poetry of the Thirties (1964), with a note saying about this and four other early poems, “Mr. W. H. Auden considers these five poems to be trash which he is ashamed to have written.”


The Blind Men and the Elephant

The Blind Men and the Elephant

By John Godfrey Saxe

A Hindoo Fable

I.

IT was six men of Indostan 
To learning much inclined, 
Who went to see the Elephant 
(Though all of them were blind), 
That each by observation 
Might satisfy his mind.

II.

The First approached the Elephant, 
And happening to fall 
Against his broad and sturdy side, 
At once began to bawl: 
“God bless me!—but the Elephant 
Is very like a wall!”

III.

The Second, feeling of the tusk, 
Cried: “Ho!—what have we here 
So very round and smooth and sharp? 
To me ‘t is mighty clear 
This wonder of an Elephant 
Is very like a spear!”

IV.

The Third approached the animal, 
And happening to take 
The squirming trunk within his hands, 
Thus boldly up and spake:

“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant 
Is very like a snake!”

V.

The Fourth reached out his eager hand, 
And felt about the knee. 
“What most this wondrous beast is like 
Is mighty plain,” quoth he; 
“‘T is clear enough the Elephant 
Is very like a tree!”

VI.

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear, 
Said: “E’en the blindest man 
Can tell what this resembles most; 
Deny the fact who can, 
This marvel of an Elephant 
Is very like a fan!”

VII.

The Sixth no sooner had begun 
About the beast to grope, 
Than, seizing on the swinging tail 
That fell within his scope, 
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant 
Is very like a rope!”

VIII.

And so these men of Indostan 
Disputed loud and long, 
Each in his own opinion 
Exceeding stiff and strong, 
Though each was partly in the right, 
And all were in the wrong!

MORAL.

So, oft in theologic wars 
The disputants, I ween, 
Rail on in utter ignorance 
Of what each other mean, 
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

About the Poem and the Parable of the Blind Men and an Elephant:

The parable of the Blind Men and an Elephant originated in the ancient Indian subcontinent, from where it has been widely diffused. It is a story of a group of blind men who have never come across an elephant before and who learn and conceptualize what the elephant is like by touching it. Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant’s body, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then describe the elephant based on their limited experience and their descriptions of the elephant are different from each other. In some versions, they come to suspect that the other person is dishonest, and they come to blows. The moral of the parable is that humans have a tendency to claim absolute truth based on their limited, subjective experience as they ignore other people’s limited, subjective experiences which may be equally true.

An alternate version of the parable describes sighted men, experiencing a large statue on a dark night, or feeling a large object while being blindfolded. They then describe what it is they have experienced. In its various versions, it is a parable that has crossed between many religious traditions and is part of Jain, Hindu and Buddhist texts of 1st millennium CE or before. The story also appears in 2nd millennium Sufi and Bahá’í lore. The tale later became well known in Europe, with 19th century American poet John Godfrey Saxe creating his own version as a poem, with a final verse that explains that the elephant is a metaphor for God, and the various blind men represent religions that disagree on something no one has fully experienced. Natalie Merchant sang this poem in full on her Leave Your Sleep album (Disc 1, track 13). The story has been published in many books for adults and children and interpreted in a variety of ways.

About the Poet:

John Godfrey Saxe was born on June 2, 1816, in Highgate, Vermont. He was born on his family’s farm, Saxe’s Mills, to Peter Saxe, a miller and judge, and Elizabeth Jewett. In 1835, Saxe went to Wesleyan University. After only a year, he transferred to Middlebury College, where he graduated in 1839. In 1841, he married Sophia Newell Sollace, whom Saxe had met through a classmate. Together they had a son, John Theodore Saxe.

In 1843, Saxe was admitted to the Vermont bar association. Saxe continued to work in the legal field in Franklin County. In 1850, he became the state’s attorney for Chittenden County. From 1850-1856, Saxe served as the editor of the Sentinel in Burlington, Vermont, and in 1856, he served as the attorney-general of Vermont. Legal work did not hold Saxe’s attention through this period, however. He began publishing poems for a literary magazine in New York, The Knickerbocker. His poems gained the attention of a Boston publishing house, Ticknor and Fields, and his first volume of poetry ran for ten reprintings.

His poetry also could be serious and somber, such as a ballad he wrote about the sad death of the man who ran the sawmill on his father’s property. Probably Saxe’s most notable achievement as a poet was introducing western audiences to the fable of “The Blind Men and The Elephant.” In total, he published nine volumes of his poetry, and it was collected and republished many times. He died in 1887 in Albany, N.Y.

Saxe became a highly sought-after speaker. He toured and wrote prolifically throughout the 1850s. In 1859, Saxe ran for governor of Vermont. He lost due to his Democratic learning, particularly on issues of slavery and his support of “popular sovereignty.” Following his defeat, he left Vermont for Albany, New York, in 1860, where he continued to contribute articles for Harper’sThe Atlantic, and The Knickerbocker. After moving to New York, his life suffered from a series of tribulations.

The death of his oldest brother in 1867 made Saxe’s already unsteady temperament even more erratic. His son took control of the family’s finances and business interests. Starting the 1870s, Saxe experienced a series of unfortunate events. In the earlier part of the decade, his youngest daughter died of tuberculosis. In 1875, he suffered head injuries from which he never fully recovered. Over the next several years, his two oldest daughters, his oldest son, and his daughter-in-law also died of tuberculosis. In 1879, his wife died from a burst blood vessel in her brain. Saxe began to suffer from a deep depression. Saxe eventually died in 1887. The New York State Assembly, sympathizing with the poet’s swift decline, ordered Saxe’s likeness to be chiseled into the “poet’s corner” of the Great Western Staircase in the New York State Capitol.


The Backwards Poem

Back when I was in school, it was very popular for teachers to make students memorize poetry. I had to memorize “Because I could not stop for death” by Emily Dickinson, Mark Antony’s Speech “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and numerous other poems and speeches I can no longer remember. The two mentioned, I can still at least recite the first few lines. When I was teaching, the other English teacher at my school required her English Lit class to memorize and recite the first stanza of the “General Prologue” of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer in Middle English with the correct pronunciation. This assignment is one of the toughest memorization assignments I know, and I too learned part of it when I was producing a play called The Canterbury Tales or Geoffrey Chaucer’s Flying Circus by Burton Bumgarner, which was a cross between The Canterbury Tales and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The only poem that I ever actually memorized and retained was one that I learned in second grade called “The Backwards Poem.” I cannot find an author from it, and I remember that it was supposedly Anonymous. This is the version I memorized and can still remember today:

Backwards Poem
By Anonymous

One bright day, in the middle of the night,
Two dead boys got up to fight.
Back to back, they faced each other,
Drew their swords and shot each other.
A deaf policeman heard the noise,
And came and shot the two dead boys.
If you don’t believe this lie is true,
Ask the blind man; he saw it, too.

In spite of clearly remembering the poem for decades, I one day decided to look up the poem and learn more about it. I was working on a skit for my drama club and thought this poem would be a funny one to act out.  So, I decided to look it up on the Internet to see if I remembered the poem correctly and to find out who the author was.

It turns out that it’s an anonymous “folk” poem, one that has innumerable versions and has probably been around for at least a century and many different versions exist. It is also a much longer poem than I originally learned. One key point about folk poetry is that it invariably rhymes, so variations that have the odd non-rhyming line are personalized versions of it.  

The poem is essentially a sandwich-style story, but with only one slice of bread.  If a narrator is brought in at the end, there should be one at the beginning, too.  The main story starts well.  It provides a brief description of the setting for context and then plunges into the action.  Except that there is no follow through.  A story consists of series of events, not just one.  So, what happens next?  Surely there would be consequences to something that results in two dead people.  But most damning of all, where did the blind man come from?  You can’t just throw in a brand-new character right at the end to help you wrap up a story. Further research allowed me to piece together the complete poem. I also learned the poem is most often known as “Two Dead Boys” or “One Fine Day.”  

One Fine Day
By Anonymous

Ladies and gentlemen skinny and scout
I’ll tell you a tale I know nothing about
The admission is free so pay at the door
Now pull out a chair and sit on the floor

On one bright day in the middle of the night
Two dead boys got up to fight
Back to back they faced each other
Drew their swords and shot each other

The blind man came to see fair play
The mute man came to shout “Hooray!”
The deaf policeman heard the noise
And came and shot the two dead boys

He lived on the corner in the middle of the block
In a two-story house on a vacant lot
A man with no legs came walking by
And kicked the lawman in his thigh

He crashed through a wall without making a sound
Into a dry creek bed and suddenly drowned
A long black hearse came to cart him away
But he ran for his life and is still gone today

I watched from the corner of the table
The only eyewitness to facts of my fable
If you don’t believe this lie is true,
Ask the blind man; he saw it, too.

With the exception of the addition of the first stanza, I like the version I memorized better. Therest of the poem seems to muddle things even further and, in my opinion, breaks up the flow of the poem.


Untitled Poem

Untitled Poem

When wit, and wine, and friends have met
And laughter crowns the festive hour
In vain I struggle to forget
Still does my heart confess thy power
And fondly turn to thee!

But Octavia, do not strive to rob
My heart, of all that soothes its pain
The mournful hope that every throb
Will make it break for thee!

—attributed to Edgar Allan Poe

Octavia Walton Le Vert

Octavia Walton Le Vert was born at her maternal grandmother’s home, Belle Vue, near Augusta, Georgia. She spent her early years in Georgia and was educated by her mother and paternal grandmother. In 1821, her family moved to Pensacola, Florida, where Le Vert learned French, Spanish, and the local Seminole dialect. During her father’s long tenure in Florida, her mother frequently took the children on tours along the Eastern Seaboard. Historians and literary scholars believe that it was during one of these trips in the late 1820s that Octavia Walton Le Vert encountered Edgar Allan Poe, with whom she continued correspondence until his death. After her death the poem above, the text of which was authenticated as being written in Poe’s hand, was found in one of her personal albums. The date “May 1, 1827” was written in her hand on the poem. While traveling with her mother and brother in 1832, Le Vert shared an Alabama stagecoach with writer Washington Irving, who encouraged her to begin keeping a journal. The following year, she made her social debut in Washington, D.C. She also attended Congressional debates and became friends with Senator Henry Clay.

In 1835, Le Vert’s family moved from Pensacola to Mobile, Alabama, and she met and married a local doctor, Henry Strachey LeVert. Dr. LeVert spelled his last name as one word, but Octavia soon changed that and began having people call her Madame Le Vert. While in Mobile, she became known as the “Countess of Mobile,” because of her reputation as one of the nation’s leading socialites during the 1850s. The couple entertained widely, including in their circle theatrical and literary figures. As the quintessential Southern hostess who reigned over Mobile society before the Civil War, Le Vert held lavish parties in her mansion downtown on Government Street and entertaining notables from America and Europe.

Madame Le Vert’s pen pals included Henry Clay, Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe and General P.G.T. Beauregard. She was so close to Clay, who visited her in Mobile in 1844, that she wrote a eulogy for his funeral, for which Irving commended her. Le Vert made two trips to Europe in the mid-1850s. Some of her letters about her experiences were published in newspapers, and Le Vert was persuaded by friends to create a book from her letters and journal entries. Souvenirs of Travel was published in 1857. Millard Fillmore, the 13th U.S. president, was her escort at some of her appearances at parties in Europe. During her travels, she was presented to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in London. She joined the guests at the court of Napoleon III in Paris and attended the New York ball in honor of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. She was also a guest of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Florence.

Le Vert’s mansion on Government Street in Mobile

During the Civil War, the citizens of Mobile became suspicious of Mobile’s leading socialite believing she sympathized with the Yankees. At the very least, she was known to be opposed to secession and slavery. Le Vert was far more cosmopolitan and educated than many of her peers in Mobile, which I am sure caused some jealousy. As the city received news of Appomattox, Le Vert committed a major faux pas when she ran to the nearby home of Admiral Raphael Semmes to cheer about General Robert E. Lee’s surrender. Legend has it that Semmes’ daughter angrily asked her to leave the premises. Her attempts to befriend the occupying troops only made things worse; her neighbors were horrified when she entertained Yankee officers in her home. For this, Le Vert was ostracized by Mobile society, and she soon left to visit friends in the North. 

Along with many other wealthy Southerners, she became destitute after the war – her husband had died in 1864. In 1869, she moved to Augusta, Georgia to live with relatives in her birthplace, Belle Vue. Le Vert spent several years in the mid-1870s traveling as a public lecturer, but she returned to Belle Vue in 1876 and she died there of pneumonia the following year.

I first came across the story of Octavia Walton Le Vert when I was conducting dissertation research at the Alabama Department of Archives and History. I was searching for Alabamians who had traveled to Italy and left behind firsthand accounts. During this research I came across Le Vert’s diary from 1846-1860. The diary contained descriptions of Le Vert’s travels in Italy and other places in Europe. Her European experiences made a lasting impression on her. The poverty and misery experienced by European working women led her to work for the welfare of women working in sweat shops, cotton fields, and theatre troupes, as wells as those pioneering new fields for women. Le Vert is largely forgotten today, and her home in Mobile was demolished. She was a very interesting woman who spoke many languages and travelled widely. Too bad more people don’t know about her.


An Elegy Wrote in a Country Churchyard

Warning: This is a long poem, but one of the most famous of the eighteenth century. The importance of this poem and the reason for choosing it is in the comments below.

An Elegy Wrote in a Country Churchyard

By Thomas Gray

The Curfeu tolls the Knell of parting Day,
The lowing Herd wind slowly o’er the Lea,
The Plow-man homeward plods his weary Way,
And leaves the World to Darkness, and to me.

Now fades the glimmering Landscape on the Sight,
And all the Air a solemn Stillness holds;
Save where the Beetle wheels his droning Flight,
And drowsy Tinklings lull the distant Folds.

Save that from yonder Ivy-mantled Tow’r
The mopeing Owl does to the Moon complain
Of such, as wand’ring near her sacred Bow’r,
Molest her ancient solitary Reign.

Beneath those rugged Elms, that Yew-Tree’s Shade,
Where heaves the Turf in many a mould’ring Heap,
Each in his narrow Cell for ever laid,
The rude Forefathers of the Hamlet sleep.

The breezy Call of Incense-breathing Morn,
The Swallow twitt’ring from the Straw-built Shed,
The Cock’s shrill Clarion, or the echoing Horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly Bed.

For them no more the blazing Hearth shall burn,
Or busy Houswife ply her Evening Care:
No Children run to lisp their Sire’s Return,
Or climb his Knees the envied Kiss to share.

Oft did the Harvest to their Sickle yield,
Their Furrow oft the stubborn Glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their Team afield!
How bow’d the Woods beneath their sturdy Stroke!

Let not Ambition mock their useful Toil,
Their homely Joys, and Destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful Smile,
The short and simple Annals of the Poor.

The Boast of Heraldry, the Pomp of Pow’r,
And all that Beauty, all that Wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable Hour.
The Paths of Glory lead but to the Grave.

Forgive, ye proud, th’ involuntary Fault,
If Memory to these no Trophies raise,
Where thro’ the long-drawn Isle and fretted Vault
The pealing Anthem swells the Note of Praise.

Can storied Urn or animated Bust
Back to its Mansion call the fleeting Breath?
Can Honour’s Voice provoke the silent Dust,
Or Flatt’ry sooth the dull cold Ear of Death!

Perhaps in this neglected Spot is laid
Some Heart once pregnant with celestial Fire,
Hands that the rod of Empire might have sway’d,
Or wak’d to Extacy the living Lyre.

But Knowledge to their Eyes her ample Page
Rich with the Spoils of Time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble Rage,
And froze the genial Current of the Soul.

Full many a Gem of purest Ray serene
The dark unfathom’d Caves of Ocean bear:
Full many a Flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its Sweetness on the desart Air.

Some Village-Hampden, that with dauntless Breast
The little Tyrant of his Fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his Country’s Blood.

Th’ Applause of list’ning Senates to command,
The Threats of Pain and Ruin to despise,
To scatter Plenty o’er a smiling Land,
And read their Hist’ry in a Nation’s Eyes,

Their Lot forbad: nor circumscrib’d alone
Their growing Virtues, but their Crimes confin’d;
Forbad to wade through Slaughter to a Throne,
And shut the Gates of Mercy on Mankind;

The struggling Pangs of conscious Truth to hide,
To quench the Blushes of ingenuous Shame,
Or heap the Shrine of Luxury and Pride
With Incense, kindled at the Muse’s Flame.

Far from the madding Crowd’s ignoble Strife,
Their sober Wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d Vale of Life
They kept the noiseless Tenor of their Way.

Yet ev’n these Bones from Insult to protect
Some frail Memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth Rhimes and shapeless Sculpture deck’d,
Implores the passing Tribute of a Sigh.

Their Name, their Years, spelt by th’ unletter’d Muse,
The Place of fame and Elegy supply:
And many a holy Text around she strews,
That teach the rustic Moralist to die.

For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious Being e’er resign’d,
Left the warm Precincts of the chearful Day,
Nor cast one longing ling’ring look behind!

On some fond Breast the parting Soul relies,
Some pious Drops the closing Eye requires;
Even from the Tomb the Voice of Nature cries
Awake, and faithful to her wonted Fires.

For thee, who, mindful of th’ unhonour’d Dead,
Dost in these lines their artless Tale relate;
If chance, by lonely Contemplation led,
Some hidden Spirit shall inquire thy Fate,

Haply some hoary-headed Swain may say,
“Oft have we seen him at the Peep of Dawn
Brushing with hasty Steps the Dews away
To meet the Sun upon the upland Lawn.

“There at the Foot of yonder nodding Beech
That wreathes its old fantastic Roots so high,
His listless Length at Noontide wou’d he stretch,
And pore upon the Brook that babbles by.

“Hard by yon Wood, now smiling as in Scorn,
Mutt’ring his wayward Fancies he wou’d rove;
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
Or craz’d with Care, or cross’d in hopeless Love.

“One Morn I miss’d him on the custom’d Hill,
Along the Heath and near his fav’rite Tree;
Another came; nor yet beside the Rill,
Nor up the Lawn, nor at the Wood was he.

“The next with Dirges due in sad Array,
Slow thro’ the Church-way Path we saw him born.
Approach and read (for thou can’st read) the Lay,
Grav’d on the Stone, beneath yon aged Thorn.”

THE EPITAPH.
Here rests his Head upon the Lap of Earth
A Youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown:
Fair Science frown’d not on his humble Birth,
And Melancholy mark’d him for her own.

Large was his Bounty, and his Soul sincere,
Heav’n did a Recompence as largely send:
He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a Tear:
He gain’d from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a Friend.

No farther seek his Merits to disclose,
Or draw his Frailties from their dread Abode,
(There they alike in trembling Hope repose)
The Bosom of his Father and his God.

About the Poem

Thomas Gray’s famous poem “An Elegy Wrote in a Country Churchyard” was written in 1750. The poem was composed at a time of change within English poetry when poets were trying to move away from the influence of John Milton and Edmund Spenser. While Gray avoids obvious imitation, there is no mistaking the Spenserian tone of a sober melancholy. The Elegy became the single most popular eighteenth-century poem, endlessly reprinted and eventually memorized by millions of schoolchildren. 

The poem’s origins are unknown, but it is believed to have been partly inspired by Gray’s thoughts following the death of the poet Richard West in 1742. Gray wrote a number of poems to West, expressing his love and his increasing agony over his sexuality. Both men were homosexual in a time when being a “sodomite” carried a possible death sentence if convicted. Critics have said that the depressive quality of the Elegy, which oddly makes it so pleasant to many readers, stems not merely from Gray’s specific grief at the loss of West (the “friend” of the epitaph) some fifteen years earlier, but also from the ongoing suppression of his homosexual identity. The nature of the speaker’s “sensibility” has come under renewed scrutiny, as several critics have argued that the term was virtually code for “homosexuality” at this time, and that the Elegy’s speaker finds in the unrealized potential of the dead a parallel for his own homosexual desires.

I chose this poem today because I have been reading Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King by Thomas J. Balcerski. The book looks at the friendship of the bachelor politicians James Buchanan (1791-1868) of Pennsylvania and William Rufus King (1786-1853) of Alabama which has excited much speculation through the years. Why did neither marry? Were they gay? Or was their relationship a very intimate, but not a romantic friendship. I am only about a third of the way through the book, but the life of King definitely seems suspicious.

King was one of the founders of Selma, Alabama, the state’s first U.S. Senator, and Vice President of the United States in 1853, a position he held for only 45 days. He is the only Vice President to take the oath of office outside of the United States and to never serve as Vice President in Washington. King was ill with tuberculosis and had traveled to Cuba in an effort to regain his health. Because of this, he was unable to make it back to Washington for the inauguration. Shortly after taking the oath of office, he returned to his home near Selma, where he died before returning to Washington to assume the vice presidency.

Like the poet Thomas Gray, King never married. Neither even seems to have formed any meaningful attachments to women. King always said that he had loved but once and could never love again. The story goes that in 1816, he became the Secretary of the Legation for William Pinkney during Pinkney’s appointment as Minister to Russia and special diplomatic mission in Naples. While at the Court of St. Petersburg, King claimed that when he set his eyes on the future Czarina Maria Feodorovna, he instantly fell in love and almost committed a diplomatic faux pas when, as the King family tradition has it, he passionately kissed the hand of the future czarina, a risky move that could have landed him in serious jeopardy. This instance is the only time he admitted to having any romantic feelings for a woman, and it occurred halfway around the world where no one could confirm or deny the story. He would often relate this story when his bachelorhood was questioned.

King and Buchanan lived together for a number of years but separated when King became the U.S. Minister to France. King wrote Buchanan from Paris: “I am selfish enough to hope you will not be able to procure an associate who will cause you to feel no regret at our separation. For myself, I shall feel lonely in the midst of Paris, for here I shall have no Friend with whom I shall commune as with my own thoughts.”

Around the same time, Buchanan wrote a letter to a friend complaining about being alone and not being able to find the right gentleman partner:

“I am now ‘solitary and alone,’ having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone; and should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.”

While Buchanan at times did try to find a wife, it appears that King never did. King was known to be one of the most fashionable and handsome men in Washington. He was also known to be very fastidious in his appearance. King was a lover of literature and often quoted poetry in his letters. In one such letter, he quoted the poem above. Being well versed in literature, King was likely to have known the same-sex desires alluded to in Gray’s “An Elegy Wrote in a Country Churchyard.” Rumors have circulated for nearly two hundred years that William Rufus King was gay, and I suspect there is some truth to the rumors. Buchanan on the other hand may have been bisexual, or he simply pursued women to further his political aspirations. However, both men were politicians in a Washington that had few women and bachelorhood was seen as an advantage because a man did not have a family to worry about at home. It was not until Andrew Jackson’s presidency that women began to come with their husbands to Washington and create an exclusive social atmosphere for the women of Washington’s political elite, an event that took many years to come to fruition.

Whether King and Buchanan were lovers or merely very intimate friends, they certainly turned heads at the time and fostered a great deal of speculation. Much of their letters to one another were destroyed by family members; however, the length and intimacy of the surviving letters illustrate the affection of a special friendship between King and Buchanan, with no way to know for certain whether it was a romantic relationship.


Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (Sonnet 18)
By William Shakespeare – 1564-1616

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
     So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
     So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


The Song of the Chattahoochee

The Song of the Chattahoochee
By Sidney Lanier – 1842-1881

Out of the hills of Habersham,
Down the valleys of Hall,
I hurry amain to reach the plain,
Run the rapid and leap the fall,
Split at the rock and together again,
Accept my bed, or narrow or wide,
And flee from folly on every side
With a lover’s pain to attain the plain
Far from the hills of Habersham,
Far from the valleys of Hall.

All down the hills of Habersham,
All through the valleys of Hall,
The rushes cried ‘Abide, abide,’
The willful waterweeds held me thrall,
The laving laurel turned my tide,
The ferns and the fondling grass said ‘Stay,’
The dewberry dipped for to work delay,
And the little reeds sighed ‘Abide, abide,
Here in the hills of Habersham,
Here in the valleys of Hall.’

High o’er the hills of Habersham,
Veiling the valleys of Hall,
The hickory told me manifold
Fair tales of shade, the poplar tall
Wrought me her shadowy self to hold,
The chestnut, the oak, the walnut, the pine,
Overleaning, with flickering meaning and sign,
Said, ‘Pass not, so cold, these manifold
Deep shades of the hills of Habersham,
These glades in the valleys of Hall.’

And oft in the hills of Habersham,
And oft in the valleys of Hall,
The white quartz shone, and the smooth brook-stone
Did bar me of passage with friendly brawl,
And many a luminous jewel lone
— Crystals clear or a-cloud with mist,
Ruby, garnet and amethyst —
Made lures with the lights of streaming stone
In the clefts of the hills of Habersham,
In the beds of the valleys of Hall.

But oh, not the hills of Habersham,
And oh, not the valleys of Hall
Avail: I am fain for to water the plain.
Downward the voices of Duty call —
Downward, to toil and be mixed with the main,
The dry fields burn, and the mills are to turn,
And a myriad flowers mortally yearn,
And the lordly main from beyond the plain
Calls o’er the hills of Habersham,
Calls through the valleys of Hall.

About the Poet

The Montgomery County Board of Education voted last Tuesday night to change the names of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Sidney Lanier High Schools — each named after men who were members of the Confederacy. I agree that Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee High Schools needed to be changed, but I’m not so sure it is appropriate to change the name of Sidney Lanier High School. Established in 1910 on the southern outskirts of downtown Montgomery, Alabama, the school was named for a Southern poet, Sidney Lanier, who lived in Montgomery during 1866–67. The school has one of its focuses on the arts, and Lanier (February 3, 1842 – September 7, 1881) was far more famous for being a poet and a musician than being a private in the Confederate army, where he spent most of his time as a prisoner of war. While being held in prison, Lanier contracted tuberculosis. The disease eventually killed him at age 39. Lanier was mostly forgotten for decades after his death until, in the 1920s the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) worked to enhance Lanier’s posthumous reputation and succeeded in making him a symbol of the Lost Cause. The UDC called him the “Poet of the Confederacy.”

The connection with Lanier and the Lost Cause is a sad epilogue to his career. Lanier was a young man of 19 when the war broke out, and he was a southerner and a product of his time. I don’t think his legacy should be tarnished because of that. During his lifetime, Lanier published an anti-war novel about his war experiences, Tiger Lilies (1867), as well as a collection of poems, a series of adventure stories for children, and a work of criticism. His Poems (1877) brought him renown and led to his appointment as lecturer at Johns Hopkins University in 1879. He died just two years later. Lanier was considered a minor poet in his own times, and although his fame has steadily risen in recent years, he remains obscure in comparison to the giants of the 19th century such as Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Nonetheless, Lanier is a notable poet in the American canon because his style of writing poetry is so utterly distinct from almost every other English-language author of his era. Greatly influenced by the Anglo-Saxon poets of the Old English period, Lanier gradually developed a style of poetry written in a loose imitation of Anglo-Saxon meter that utilized extremely creative and musical alliteration and sound effects to create poetry unlike anything else written in America.

About the Poem

Lanier composed “Song of the Chattahoochee” in November 1877 for a small paper in West Point, Georgia. At the time he considered it the best poem he had ever written, and critics have generally agreed that it is one of his finer efforts. Originally from Macon, Georgia, Lanier travelled much in Georgia, Maryland, Florida, and North Carolina for employment and for his health. Lanier was able to see much of the South’s natural beauty, and he found much religious and spiritual significance in it. “Song of the Chattahoochee” is primarily a musical poem whose words flow very much like the river that is its speaker. The river’s aim is to do its duty, answering the call of God.

“Song of the Chattahoochee” describes the Chattahoochee River which begins in Georgia, has a significant portion which divides Alabama and Georgia, and empties into the Gulf of Mexico in the Florida Panhandle. The poem describes for readers the river’s journey, from its headspring in Habersham county to its end in Georgia’s East Gulf coastal plains, where, in Lanier’s time, it fed into another river that led to the Gulf of Mexico. Lanier’s style in this poem copies the rushing, shifting, gurgling motion of a true river, giving readers a little bit of the experience of following the water on its journey. He gives the river a human personality, ascribing to it human motivation. This helps to make this natural phenomenon more understandable to people who are not familiar with it and to make readers who are familiar with rivers experience the feeling of them anew.

The river is introduced as being on a mission, to water the dry fields of Georgia and to turn the water wheels that power the grain mills. Similarly, the other natural objects that the Chattahoochee passes seem to have a human motivation. They all want the river to stop, or “abide.” Most of the natural objects in the poem are presented as calling for the river to stop its motion. The waterweeds hold the river, the trees command “pass not,” the gemstones try to lure it to stay with them, etc. Nature, in general, is presented as favoring passive behavior over action. The river is presented here as an exception to nature, as being almost unnatural in its rush to keep on moving. This idea is supported by the fact that the river’s “Duty” (which is capitalized in the poem, to show its connection to God’s will) is not to aid nature, but to aid humanity in the commercial enterprises of farming and milling. The river, though natural, rushes like a human in order to fulfill its human responsibilities.


We Wear the Mask

We Wear the Mask
By Paul Laurence Dunbar

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

“We Wear the Mask” was written by African American poet and novelist Paul Laurence Dunbar in 1895. Like much of Dunbar’s work, “We Wear the Mask” is a reaction to the experience of being black in America in the late 19th century, following the Civil War—a period when life seemed to have improved for black Americans yet in reality was still marked by intense racism and hardship. Dunbar compares surviving the pain of oppression to wearing a mask that hides the suffering of its wearer while presenting a more joyful face to the world.

The poem itself does not specifically mention race; its message is applicable to any circumstance in which marginalized people are forced to present a brave face in order to survive in an unsympathetic, prejudiced society. The poem begins with the speaker stating that “We,” a reference to all of humankind, put on masks. We wear them and others use them to ignore the problems that exist in modern society. They have a deep impact on our understanding of ourselves and others. Hearts are changed through tearing and mouths contain endless expressions.

“We Wear the Mask” talks about hiding behind masks to disguise our true selves, much like the LGBTQ community and the closet. Today, it feels like it could have a different meaning. Wearing a mask to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 tells us a lot about others. Those who don’t wear them are not only putting themselves at risk but also those around them. By not wearing a mask, they are committing a selfish act. By wearing a mask, we not only protect ourselves, but we show we have compassion for those around us. While politicians and their supporters fight over the topic of wearing masks, a growing number of scientific studies support the idea that masks are a critical tool in curbing the spread of the coronavirus.

Wearing a mask doesn’t take the place of other important COVID-19 prevention protocols, such as social distancing and handwashing. You can go out in public areas without a mask only if there is no one nearby. Otherwise, regardless if it’s close quarters or spaced out, you should wear a mask with others around. This is precaution and courtesy to yourself and those nearby you. Medical experts tell us that during the first wave of the pandemic, those countries that implemented masking early were more successful than others at reducing the spread of the virus. Wearing a mask doesn’t mean that you are weak or afraid or a coward. Not wearing it however tells those around you how selfish you are. It’s a way to protect the vulnerable around you. It’s our duty to keep each other healthy. So, please wear your masks.