Friday, March 18, 2005

The Raven

ONCE upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door --
Only this, and nothing more."

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; -- vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow -- sorrow for the lost Lenore --
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore --
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me -- filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
"'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door --
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; --
This it is, and nothing more,"

Presently my heart grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you" -- here I opened wide the door; --
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore!"
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word "Lenore!"
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
"Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore --
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; --
'Tis the wind and nothing more!"

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not an instant stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door --
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door --
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
"Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "art sure no craven.
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore --
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!"
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning -- little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door --
Bird or beast above the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as "Nevermore."

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered -- not a feather then he fluttered --
Till I scarcely more than muttered "Other friends have flown before --
On the morrow will he leave me, as my hopes have flown before."
Then the bird said, "Nevermore."

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
"Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore --
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of 'Never-nevermore.'"

But the Raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore --
What this grim, ungainly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking "Nevermore."

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet violet lining that the lamp-light gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by angels whose faint foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee - by these angels he has sent thee
Respite - respite and nepenthe from the memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!"
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! -- prophet still, if bird or devil! --
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted --
On this home by Horror haunted -- tell me truly, I implore --
Is there -- is there balm in Gilead? -- tell me -- tell me, I implore!"
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!' said I, "thing of evil! -- prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us -- by that God we both adore --
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels named Lenore --
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels named Lenore?"
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

"Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!" I shrieked upstarting --
"Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! -- quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!"
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted -- nevermore.
Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe composed The Raven in 1844. The first publication date was February of 1845 in his Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe and it is still as satisfying and entertaining to read today as it must have been 157 years ago. That's probably the most important thing about this poem and why it had stood the test of time.

However, one scholar relates that Poe was completely misunderstood. What Mr. Poe meant to focus on was the sadness of the lover, while almost everyone else was caught up in his terror. Even though he intended as to get across as grief and its symptoms, readers became embroiled in Poe's bizarre and unearthly ideas. He went on to explain himself in his The Philosophy of Composition. Mr Bob Blair at The Poet's Corner relates his opinion about Poe and his Philosophy of Composition:

    Poe became famous with the publication of The Raven and later claimed it was all intentional. In 1846 he published an essay, The Philosophy of Composition which details the supposed care with which he crafted a poem that was bound to succeed. I don't believe him. The Raven is just as likely -- I would say much more likely -- to have been the serendipitous result of the right poet, in the right mood, writing for what chanced to be the right audience.
I thought it might make for better enjoyment of reading The Raven so here are some passages. In his Composition Poe writes:
    I select 'The Raven' as most generally known. It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition- that the work proceeded step by step, to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem...

    The sound of the refrain being thus determined, it became necessary to select a word embodying this sound, and at the same time in the fullest possible keeping with that melancholy which I had pre-determined as the tone of the poem. In such a search it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word "Nevermore." In fact it was the very first which presented itself....

    Of course I pretend to no originality in either the rhythm or metre of the "Raven." The former is trochaic- the latter is octametre acatalectic, alternating with heptametre catalectic repeated in the refrain of the fifth verse, and terminating with tetrametre catalectic. Less pedantically the feet employed throughout (trochees) consist of a long syllable followed by a short, the first line of the stanza consists of eight of these feet, the second of seven and a half (in effect two-thirds), the third of eight, the fourth of seven and a half, the fifth the same, the sixth three and a half. Now, each of these lines taken individually has been employed before, and what originality the "Raven" has, is in their combination into stanza; nothing even remotely approaching this has ever been attempted. The effect of this originality of combination is aided by other unusual and some altogether novel effects, arising from an extension of the application of the principles of rhyme and alliteration...

    I had now to combine the two ideas of a lover lamenting his deceased mistress and a Raven continuously repeating the word "Nevermore." I had to combine these, bearing in mind my design of varying at every turn the application of the word repeated, but the only intelligible mode of such combination is that of imagining the Raven employing the word in answer to the queries of the lover. And here it was that I saw at once the opportunity afforded for the effect on which I had been depending, that is to say, the effect of the variation of application. I saw that I could make the first query propounded by the lover- the first query to which the Raven should reply "Nevermore"- that I could make this first query a commonplace one, the second less so, the third still less, and so on, until at length the lover, startled from his original nonchalance by the melancholy character of the word itself, by its frequent repetition, and by a consideration of the ominous reputation of the fowl that uttered it, is at length excited to superstition, and wildly propounds queries of a far different character- queries whose solution he has passionately at heart- propounds them half in superstition and half in that species of despair which delights in self-torture- propounds them not altogether because he believes in the prophetic or demoniac character of the bird (which reason assures him is merely repeating a lesson learned by rote), but because he experiences a frenzied pleasure in so modelling his questions as to receive from the expected "Nevermore" the most delicious because the most intolerable of sorrows.

He goes to on account what many thought as to whom Poe's "the lost Lenore" was. Blair believes that Poe was referring to the impending death of his wife Virginia who was terminally ill with tuberculosis at the time, she died three years later in 1847. While others mention that Lenore is 'not based on a person but linked to literary heroines by their shared name. Poe's "Lenore" is a lament for the same woman.' Taking a closer look at the imagery behind many of the words Poe used there is evidence along that line of thought as well. Here are a few explanations and definitions for comparison of some of the lines and words used:
  • flirt: quick movement.
  • mien: manner.
  • Pallas: Minerva, the goddess of wisdom.
  • Plutonian: that region belonging to the Greek god of the underworld
  • gloated o'er: possibly "reflecting" as well as the more common meaning.
  • tufted: carpeted with a fluffy soft threaded material
  • nepenthe: a drink made by the gods to relieve human grief.
  • is there balm in Gilead?: "Behold the voice of the cry of the daughter of my people because of them that dwell in a far country: Is not the Lord in Zion? is not her king in her? Why have they provoked me to anger with their graven images, and with strange vanities? The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved. For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt; I am black; astonishment hath taken hold on me. Is there no balm in Gilead? is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?" (Jeremiah 8.19-22).
  • Aidenn: Biblical Eden, in which the garden paradise of Adam and Eve was found.
Scattered with frightful images yet, richly sensuous with musical phrases, the rhyme builds against the background of the increasingly distraught reactions of the narrator; scheme and metre along with the way the different line lengths are balanced are crafted from polysyllables that , rather than sounding pretentious work together astonishingly well. This lends the poem marvelously to parody, and several excellent ones have been written. You may want to read BaronCarlos's The Server for his adroit rendition of Poe's Raven, there is also Abort, Retry, Ignore and a few others have been collected on line at

Poe's best known stories are of ratiocination, in particular The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Purloined Letter which initiated the modern detective story. Poe influenced such authors of distinction as Algernon Charles Swinburne, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Conan Doyle, and the French symbolists. He admired Shakespeare and Alexander Pope. Yet much of the influence of his work has been attributed to the influence of the occult on Romanticism along with the mergence of his own fevered dreams. By creating the plausible out of the implausible with an atmosphere of unrestrained objectivity his work became a uinque combination of his own detailed style and phantasy. Being such a dramatic storyteller it created a wide audience that Poe enjoyed during his lifetime.

    The outstanding fact in Poe's character is a strange duality. The wide divergence of contemporary judgments on the man seems almost to point to the coexistence of two persons in him. With those he loved he was gentle and devoted. Others, who were the butt of his sharp criticism, found him irritable and self-centred and went so far as to accuse him of lack of principle. Was it, it has been asked, a double of the man rising from harrowing nightmares or from the haggard inner vision of dark crimes or from appalling graveyard fantasies that loomed in Poe's unstable being?

    The Wondering Minstrels

So much of his work deals with sadness and terror in the ordinary life settings, many found him to be a great man of letters, as well as a pleasant friend with an enjoyable sense of humor. Poe had a keen wit and frequently commented on the art of writing among his contemporaries. He even apologized to visitors for not keeping a pet raven. Very revealing is the duality of his nature and his infamous ability to present an environment by focusing on the minutest details, it overshadows many of his other works. He was just as capable of writing angelic poetry with suggestions of sumptuous beauty on the one hand, while on the other he could put to paper scenes of unrelenting morbidity or compose a problem of gruesome psychology in a hard and dry style. Undoubtedly, Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven numbers among the best known poems in the American literature.


Selected Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

Blair, Bob

Public Domain text of the poem taken from the Poet's Corner

Public Domain text for Poe's Philosophy of Composition

The Wondering Minstrels

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Fifteen Men on a Dead Man's Chest

    "Fetch aft the rum, Darby!"
    The last words of Captain Flint
    Treasure Island

The original title of this poem was Derelict and written by a Kentucky poet in 1891. Young E. Allison (1853-1932), of Louisville published his long and gory impression of a rhyme from a popular novel of the day in the Louisville Courier-Journal. He promoted Derelict as "a reminiscence of Treasure Island" the adventure novel penned by Robert Louis Stevenson.

As the authors original title points out, the verse is about a ship found adrift at sea. The crew have all done each other in and left behind a ship laden with plunder. The discoverers of this shipwreck of flotsam and jetsam have tossed the dead overboard with a Yo-Heave-Ho! and a fare-thee-well then taken the loot for themselves. By the way Yo heave ho is a seaman's chant is that was commonly employed to synchronize oar work or hauling activities of the gang crew with everyone working together on the word heave Stevenson liked the rhythmical phrase so much that he turned it into the now familiar Yo ho ho colloquialism.

Young E. Allison was a writer, editor, poet and insurance executive of Louisville, Kentucky. His various works include song lyrics, opera scores, biographical essays, editorials and news stories, historical treatises, articles on insurance topics, speeches, and entertaining sketches. He had a wife, Margaret Tarrant Allison and a son and daughter, Young E. Allison, IV and Margaret Allison Nightingale. One expert Skip Henderson researches and annotates English language sea shanties and maritime music as a hobby. He also volunteers at Hyde St. Pier, in San Francisco for the National Maritime Historic Park Service. Mr. Henderson explains:

    Fifteen Men on the Dead Man's Chest was a poem ...describing the fate of the crew on a ship wrecked on the infamous Dead Man's Chest, a reef close to the island of Tortola in the eastern Caribbean, east of Puerto Rico, in the British Virgin Islands. Allison used the lines from Stevenson's Treasure Island story to retell the folk legend. The tune was used by several professional musical organizations recording an approximate melody, most notably the Roger Wagner Chorale on a cassette tape called SEA CHANTIES (RW 029-C). The most accurate tune from the early San Francisco shanty days was performed by A.L.Ekstrom of Sausalito,CA.

During the 1500's Dead Man's Chest was an island rendezvous in the Caribbean of buccaneers and smugglers and it's where Stevenson set the scene for Treasure Island. It was while drawing a map with a young boy named Lloyd that Stevenson came up with the idea of writing the novel and whether this was a traditional sea shanty or a fictional creation by Robert Louis Stevenson remains uncertain. The A pirate story}classic story revolves around the relationships of respectful gentlemen and carefree buccaneers. In it Stevenson cleverly refuses to define these opposing moral forces. It was the Stevenson's pirate ditty that appears in Chapter 1 on page ten of his novel that Allison expanded on:

    "Fifteen men on the dead man's chest-- Yo-ho-ho, and
    a bottle of rum! Drink and the devil had done for the rest--
    Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!"

Stevenson intended the rhyme as a forewarning of the events in his tale. In the novel the sailors sing about a dead man's chest before the adventure has even begun, and almost all of them by the end are quite dead. Good and bad are entwined together and at the heart of it all is the relationship between the dastardly pirate Long John Silver and the novel's honorable young hero, Jim Hawkins. Silver's "two-hundred-year-old" parrot, screeching dead men's words and "Pieces of Eight, Pieces of Eight" gives Long John his now classic aura of uncertain malevolence.

Stevenson conjures up doubts of fulfillment for many of his characters. The treasure map leads to an empty hole, which becomes figurative of how one can lose their soul in the pursuit of some imagined treasures. Gluttony and senselessness lead only to fatality, failures, and frustration.

Repeated throughout the adventure novel the rhyme remains one of the best-known legacies of Treasure Island. It evokes the sensations of wild glamour associated with pirate's along with "drink, death, and wickedness." The "bottle of rum" summons ups the perpetual state of drunkenness of Silver's ragged group of rouges and drinking becomes responsible for the "dead men" as the buccaneers' drunkenness leads to calamity and casualties and their ultimate collapse. The "dead man's chest" is represented in Stevenson's narrative as both Billy Bones's sea chest and to the dead pirate Flint's hidden upon this "Treasure Island."

Poet Allison creates plenty of violent and gruesome images within his musings of Treasure Island:

    Fifteen men on a dead man's chest
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum
    Drink and the devil had done for the rest
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
    The mate was fixed by the bosun's pike
    bosun brained with a marlinspike
    And cookey's throat was marked belike
    It had been gripped by fingers ten;
    And there they lay, all good dead men
    Like break o'day in a boozing ken
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

It's the break of day over what was once a boozing ken or sea tavern on the shores of West Indies island used as a regular hideout by buccaneers during piracy days. Bosun is a spelling variant for a Boatswain and a bosun's pike was a weapon that belonged to this a petty officer who was in charge of hull maintenance and related work. A marlinspike was a long pointy tool handy for untying knots and braining pirates.

    Fifteen men of the whole ship's list
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
    Dead and be damned and the rest gone whist!
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
    The skipper lay with his nob in gore
    Where the scullion's axe his cheek had shore
    And the scullion he was stabbed times four
    And there they lay, and the soggy skies
    Dripped down in up-staring eyes
    In murk sunset and foul sunrise
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

The whole ship's list refers to the muster or list of sailors aboard and the captain's nob is of course the state of his poor head left by the scullion. A scullion is the cook's, or in this case, "cookey's" assistant who did KP duty. After a dark sunest with rain and overcast skies the sun comes up to reveal a fetid sight. Aptly enough the nautical term for foul refers to " piece of equipment that is jammed or entangled, or dirtied." One can just imagine the tangle of bodies lying overnight upon the lifeless deck.

    Fifteen men of 'em stiff and stark
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
    Ten of the crew had the murder mark!
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
    Twas a cutlass swipe or an ounce of lead
    Or a yawing hole in a battered head
    And the scuppers' glut with a rotting red
    And there they lay, aye, damn my eyes
    Looking up at paradise
    All souls bound just contrawise
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

Ten of the crew had the murder mark! Avast! Out of fifteen men, ten had been branded as killers! Who or what had the temerity to kill these terrible men? A cutlass was a short curving sword used by sailors during the 1500's on warships and scuppers are the all the drains on deck. Grisly and flooded with blood as it drained down into the bottom of the ship.

    Fifteen men of 'em good and true
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
    Ev'ry man jack could ha' sailed with Old Pew,
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
    There was chest on chest of Spanish gold
    With a ton of plate in the middle hold
    And the cabins riot of stuff untold,
    And they lay there that took the plum
    With sightless glare and their lips struck dumb
    While we shared all by the rule of thumb,
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!

Spanish gold was also called pieces of eight and a ton of plate in this sense means a piece of silver; partly from Old Spanish plata meaning a ton of silver coins. Between 1519 and 1617, when the Calusa Indians were at the height of their trading power, the King of Spain's plate fleets transported millions in New World gold, silver and precious stones.

Jack is a general term for sailor and Old Pew is the only character from Treasure Island that Allison makes a direct comment about. He is an old deformed, blind beggar and apparently a harmless pirate. In Stevenson's story Pew gives Billy a black spot, an ultimatum to give up the sea chest's contents to the pirate gang. To "place the Black Spot" on another is to sentence him to death, to warn him he is marked for death, or sometimes just to accuse him of a serious crime before other pirates. Billy does indeed breath his last breath soon after Pew's visit, and Pew get killed in a carriage accident. Pew can be seen as an angel of death since he foreshadows many of the pirate deaths in the book.

    More was seen through a sternlight screen...
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum
    Chartings undoubt where a woman had been
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
    'Twas a flimsy shift on a bunkercot
    With a dirk slit sheer through the bosom spot
    And the lace stiff dry in a purplish blot
    Oh was she wench or some shudderin' maid
    That dared the knife and took the blade
    By God! she had stuff for a plucky jade
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

A jade in this instance is "a flirtatious girl" and this verse is Allison's acknowledgement of the ancient Grecian myth that women are bad luck on a sailing vessel. The myth has its beginnings in the legends of the Sirens described as huge birds with the heads and voices of women who sang irresistible songs luring sailors and their ships that came near them to their deaths on the rocks off the shores of Sicily. The only man to ever hear their songs and survive was the Greek hero Odysseus who had his men lash him to the mast of his ship to prevent him from jumping to his death.

    Fifteen men on a dead man's chest
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum
    Drink and the devil had done for the rest
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
    We wrapped 'em all in a mains'l tight
    With twice ten turns of a hawser's bight
    And we heaved 'em over and out of sight,
    With a Yo-Heave-Ho! and a fare-you-well
    And a sudden plunge in the sullen swell
    Ten fathoms deep on the road to hell,
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!

A hawser is a large rope for towing, mooring, or securing a ship and the poet ends his grim tale with a rather fitting burial at sea, wrapped in sail cloth and bound with rope and, like Stevenson moral seems to say, it doesn't matter what kind of intentions one paves the road with it still leads to the same place.

Out of these two productions has sprung the well known idiom "Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!" and popular consciousness had re=titled Allison's poem to Fifteen Men on a Dead Man's Chest. Other variations on the title are "Bottle of Rum," "Fifteen Men," and "Dead Man's Chest." Author and pirate enthusiast Kage Baker tells more about how Allison's poem has made its way into the mainstream:

    Stevenson only ever wrote the fragment above. In 1900, a sometime librettist from Kentucky named Young Allison wrote a bloodcurdling long version titled "The Derelict" for a musical version of Treasure Island. The composer was one Henry Waller, about whom I have been able to find out only that he was an American, that he studied under Dvorak, and that he collaborated with Allison on several more musicals and composed at least one opera before vanishing like a shadow into obscurity...

    It's never quite the same from one film to another. The Wallace Beery/ Jackie Cooper version(s) (1934 and 1950) differs by a few notes from the one used in the Robert Newton TV series (1955). The Jolly Rogers recorded a rip-roaring version of "The Derelict" with another tune variation. Possibly this is to avoid paying royalties, or simply artistic liberty?

And the beat goes on in the 1985 song Jockey Full Of Bourbon adding one man to this dead man's tale with the line "Sixteen men on a dead man's chest..."

Young Ewing Allison added his gruesome lyrics in 1891, and a Broadway musical version of Treasure Island opened in 1901 with an extended version of the song credited to Allison and Henry Waller. There is a a scan of the 1901 lyrics broadsheet at the Bounding Main website. In 1967 writers for Walt Disney, Xavier Atencio and George Bruns merged the song and story into the ever-popular sea ditty Yo Ho (A Pirate's Life for Me). Anyone who's ever traversed the Pirates of the Caribbean ride has heard the tune that retells Stevenson's saga, what thrilling memories it conjures up to hear "Dead Men Tell No Tales!" as an Ahoy there! homage to the Derelict and Treasure Island. Here's to three generations and more to come of legends about pirates that went "Arrr" and "Yo Ho Ho!"

Many thanks to Rowan Lipkovits who contributed several ideas and sources.


Allison (Young Ewing) Papers, 1878-1943
Accessed Jun 26 2003

Bounding Main -- Sea Shanties and Songs of the Sea
Accessed Jun 26 2003

ClassicNotes: Treasure Island Character List
Jun 26 2003

Fifteen Men
Accessed Jun 26 2003

Jockey(1) Full Of Bourbon
Accessed Jun 26 2003

Modern Drunkard Index
Accessed Jun 26 2003

Night Shade Books Discussion Area: Baker, Kage: A contest for musicologists.
Google cache retrieved on Nov 18, 2004.

Accessed July 19,2005

Public domain text taken from ...And a Bottle of Captain Morgan!
Accessed Jun 26 2003

Accessed Jun 26 2003

Yo Ho Ho
Accessed Jun 26 2003

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Great Figure

The Great Figure

AMONG the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
moving tense
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city

William Carlos Williams (1883 - 1963)

What did you think of when you read this title? I thought of a woman standing in a mid western wheat field , probably because the last poem I read by William Carlos Williams was The Red Wheelbarrow. A second thought was maybe a prominent political figure of the day since it was published in 1921 .....maybe World War I, but the author surprised me by deliberately focusing on something from entirely his point of view.
What I saw when I finished reading the poem is the figure 5 in gold, a named number the conception put there by the author, sketched it in full color and organized with the crystalline concrete language of imagery from clamoring chaos. The number 5 decked in gold riding off to save the day in the supervehicle of urban heroes. It became more than an image by opening the door of my imagination just enough I get an introspective glimpse of my own youthful late night summers of reading comic books under the bed covers with a flashlight. The gold 5 is the letter S emblazoned on a red cape crusader.
This poem was originally published in a colletion titled Sour Grapes(1921). Keeping to his familiar idea from his words in Machine Made of Words Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is the machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. (--William Carlos Williams, from "Authors Introduction to The Wedge") There is no meaning other than one of a visual perception where one post modern poet appropriately calls Williams work a portrait of 'blueberry America'.
Reflective of some of the basic tenets of Imagism by artfully using line length as key to the reading and rhythm of the poem. The lines become insistent with rhythm, as insistent to attention as is the sound of the fire truck wending its way through the city focused on a single and the important but easily ignored image, a fire truck's identification number. He has set it in a context tremendously well by focusing on simple objects or seemingly common occurrences by attending meaning -- tense- unheeded--to the most unlikely of objects. A most recognizable as well as intriguing aspects of his work. Williams writes about what inspired the piece in the Autobiography:
Once on a hot July day coming back exhausted from the Post Graduate Clinic, I dropped in as I sometimes did at Marsden's studio on Fifteenth Street for a talk, a little drink maybe and to see what he was doing. As I approached his number I heard a great clatter of bells and the roar of a fire engine passing the end of the street down Ninth Avenue. I turned just in time to see a golden figure 5 on a red background flash by. The impression was so sudden and forceful that I took a piece of paper out of my pocket and wrote a short poem about it.
A fire, a fire truck, this poem and some years later came a painting "I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold" (1927) all because Williams watched an unheeded fire truck clanging and howling by on a rainy night in Manhattan.

Scan of artwork by Charles Demuth

It became the title of a painting by Williams' friend Charles Demuth, painter and member of the Precisionist School calling it "the most distinguished American painting that I have seen in years." by setting the great figure five in the midst of the abstract of a tense and moving urban landscape, frenzied gold howls against against red. In an unpublished letter to Henry Wells in 1955 Williams pointed to this larger meaning, explaining:

" In the case of The Great Figure I think you missed the irony of the word great, the contemptuous feeling I had at that moment for all 'frear figures' (sic) in public life compared with that figure 5 riding in state with full panoply down the streets of the city ignored by everyone but the artist."
By making a simple object into something greater in nature this is perhaps one of the greatest challenges of poetry in deciding what makes a poem truly great.

Charles On The Great Figure
Public domain text taken from The Poets' Corner Posted by Hello

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The Lonely Street

Sour Grapes (1921)
William Carlos Williams

The Lonely Street

    School is over. It is too hot
    to walk at ease. At ease
    in light frocks they walk the streets
    to while the time away.
    They have grown tall. They hold
    pink flames in their right hands.
    In white from head to foot,
    with sidelong, idle look--
    in yellow, floating stuff,
    black sash and stockings--
    touching their avid mouths
    with pink sugar on a stick--
    like a carnation each holds in her hand--
    they mount the lonely street.


Public domain text taken from The Poets' Corner

Light Hearted Author

Sour Grapes (1921)
William Carlos Williams

Light Hearted Author

    The birches are mad with green points
    the wood's edge is burning with their green,
    burning, seething--No, no, no.
    The birches are opening their leaves one
    by one. Their delicate leaves unfold cold
    and separate, one by one. Slender tassels
    hang swaying from the delicate branch tips--
    Oh, I cannot say it. There is no word.
    Black is split at once into flowers. In
    every bog and ditch, flares of
    small fire, white flowers!--Agh,
    the birches are mad, mad with their green.
    The world is gone, torn into shreds
    with this blessing. What have I left undone
    that I should have undertaken?

    O my brother, you redfaced, living man
    ignorant, stupid whose feet are upon
    this same dirt that I touch--and eat.
    We are alone in this terror, alone,
    face to face on this road, you and I,
    wrapped by this flame!
    Let the polished plows stay idle,
    their gloss already on the black soil.
    But that face of yours--!
    Answer me. I will clutch you. I
    will hug you, grip you. I will poke my face
    into your face and force you to see me.
    Take me in your arms, tell me the commonest
    thing that is in your mind to say,
    say anything. I will understand you--!
    It is the madness of the birch leaves opening
    cold, one by one.

    My rooms will receive me. But my rooms
    are no longer sweet spaces where comfort
    is ready to wait on me with its crumbs.
    A darkness has brushed them. The mass
    of yellow tulips in the bowl is shrunken.
    Every familiar object is changed and dwarfed.
    I am shaken, broken against a might
    that splits comfort, blows apart
    my careful partitions, crushes my house
    and leaves me--with shrinking heart
    and startled, empty eyes--peering out
    into a cold world.

    In the spring I would be drunk! In the spring
    I would be drunk and lie forgetting all things.
    Your face! Give me your face, Yang Kue Fei!
    your hands, your lips to drink!
    Give me your wrists to drink--
    I drag you, I am drowned in you, you
    overwhelm me! Drink!
    Save me! The shad bush is in the edge
    of the clearing. The yards in a fury
    of lilac blossoms are driving me mad with terror.
    Drink and lie forgetting the world.

    And coldly the birch leaves are opening one by one.
    Coldly I observe them and wait for the end.
    And it ends.


Public domain text taken from The Poets' Corner

Light Hearted William

Sour Grapes (1921)
William Carlos Williams

Light Hearted William

    Light hearted William twirled
    his November moustaches
    and, half dressed, looked
    from the bedroom window
    upon the spring weather.

    Heigh-ya! sighed he gaily
    leaning out to see
    up and down the street
    where a heavy sunlight
    lay beyond some blue shadows.

    Into the room he drew
    his head again and laughed
    to himself quietly
    twirling his green moustaches.


Public domain text taken from The Poets' Corner

The Widow's Lament in Springtime

Sour Grapes (1921)
William Carlos Williams

The Widow's Lament in Springtime

    Sorrow is my own yard
    where the new grass
    flames as it has flamed
    often before but not
    with the cold fire
    that closes round me this year.
    Thirtyfive years
    I lived with my husband.
    The plumtree is white today
    with masses of flowers.
    Masses of flowers
    load the cherry branches
    and color some bushes
    yellow and some red
    but the grief in my heart
    is stronger than they
    for though they were my joy
    formerly, today I notice them
    and turn away forgetting.
    Today my son told me
    that in the meadows,
    at the edge of the heavy woods
    in the distance, he saw
    trees of white flowers.
    I feel that I would like
    to go there
    and fall into those flowers
    and sink into the marsh near them.

Reality is encountered reaching a decisive point. The persona here is a widow and the reader can plainly gather she has lost her husband of thirty five years. She experiences an overwhelming of whiteness in the blossoming trees. The flaming "cold fire" predicates as paradox against the new green grass and foreshadows a life gone drab against the bright yellows and reds in her courtyard. The whiteness smothers the flame physically and emotionally and words progress; "formerly" and "before" to "this year" and "today," all bring into focus the immediacy of her loss. Emotional and descriptive, Williams positions metaphors with the care of an artist where the discerning can readily watch the sacramental white flowerings parallel the blankness of her sorrow and a foundering death wish.

Simple and poignant scholars have regarded The Widow's Lament in Springtime as:

  • "A white that rouses the desire to merge with it and get lost in it is experienced as an extreme: Oppositions fuse, ecstasy leads to oblivion and annihilation, the color of joy turns - as in China - into the color of mourning."

    Peter Halter

  • "'(c)rowds are white,' the sea is dark: immersion in either gives relief, a union with One, but halts the cyclic process of renewal."

    James E. Breslin

  • "White is a symbol of a world from which all colors as material attributes have disappeared. The world is too far above us for its structure to touch our souls. There comes a great silence which materially represented is like a cold, indestructible wall going on into the infinite. White, therefore, acts upon our psyche as a great, absolute silence, like the pauses in music that temporarily break the melody.... White has the appeal of nothingness that is before birth"

    Wassily Kandinsky

A noder whispered: Thanks for noding the "Sour Grapes" stuff. I sometimes wonder what a life without tears would be like but it only makes me sad....curses to WCW for making me sob with the widow.


On "The Widow's Lament in Springtime"

Public domain text taken from The Poets' Corner

Monday, March 14, 2005


Sour Grapes (1921)
William Carlos Williams


    I stopped the car
    to let the children down
    where the streets end
    in the sun
    at the marsh edge
    and the reeds begin
    and there are small houses
    facing the reeds
    and the blue mist in the distance
    with grapevine trellises
    with grape clusters
    small as strawberries
    on the vines
    and ditches
    running springwater
    that continue the gutters
    with willows over them.
    The reeds begin
    like water at a shore
    their pointed petals waving
    dark green and light.
    But blueflags are blossoming
    in the reeds
    which the children pluck
    chattering in the reeds
    high over their heads
    which they part
    with bare arms to appear
    with fists of flowers
    till in the air
    there comes the smell
    of calmus
    from wet, gummy stalks.


Public domain text taken from The Poets' Corner