Friday, April 01, 2005

To His Coy Mistress

To His Coy Mistress

    HAD we but world enough, and time,
    This coyness Lady were no crime.
    We would sit down and think which way
    To walk, and pass our long love's day.
    Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
    Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
    Of Humber would complain. I would
    Love you ten years before the flood,
    And you should, if you please, refuse
    Till the conversion of the Jews.
    My vegetable love should grow
    Vaster than empires and more slow;
    An hundred years should go to praise
    Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
    Two hundred to adore each breast,
    But thirty thousand to the rest;
    An age at least to every part,
    And the last age should show your heart.
    For, lady, you deserve this state,
    Nor would I love at lower rate.
    But at my back I always hear
    Times winged chariot hurrying near;
    And yonder all before us lie
    Deserts of vast eternity.
    Thy beauty shall no more be found;
    Nor, in thy marble vault shall sound
    My echoing song; then worms shall try
    That long preserved virginity,
    And your quaint honor turn to dust,
    And into ashes all my lust:
    The grave's a fine and private place,
    But none, I think, do there embrace.
    Now therefore while the youthful hue
    Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
    And while thy willing soul transpires
    At every pore with instant fires,
    Now let us sport us while we may,
    And now, like amorous birds of prey,
    Rather at once our time devour
    Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
    Let us roll all our strength and all
    Our sweetness up into one ball,
    And tear our pleasures with rough strife
    Thorough the iron gates of life:
    Thus, though we cannot make our sun
    Stand still, yet we will make him run.
    Andrew Marvell

Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) was one of the chief wits and satirists of his time as well as being a Puritan and a public defender of individual liberty. Better known as a politician than a poet in his own time, Marvell's poetry was largely forgotten until it was popularized by T.S. Eliot in the early years of last century.

    The Waste Land
    Part II
    Lines 141, 152, 165, 168, 169

    "Hurry up please, it's time" would be a typical call from a bartender to indicate that the bar is closing. Compare these "Hurry up" lines with the following lines' allusions to Andrew Marvell's 21st and 22nd lines in To His Coy Mistress:

    • 185) But at my back in a cold blast I hear
    • 186) The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.

    • 196) But at my back from time to time I hear
    • 197) The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring
    • 198) Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.
The son of a clergyman marvell attended Trinity College, Cambridge where he must have garnered an excellent education because John Milton the poet, who was not easily impressed remarked that he was well read in the Greek and Latin classics. Around 1650 he began to tutor Mary Fairfax, daughter and heiress of Sir Thomas Fairfax. Owners of several large estates the Fairfaxes invited Marvell to a place called Nun Appleton. It was there where he wrote Upon Appleton House. He wrote only for his friends and his own entertainment in the best fashion of the Renaissance.

Leaving Fairfax in the early 1650's, where most critics believe he wrote his best poems, Marvell became tutor to Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector and essentially dictator of England. By 1657 he was the assistant to John Milton aiding him in carrying out his duties as Latin Secretary to the Council of the state because he was blind. After King Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, Marvell managed somehow by way of influence with the Royalists to save Milton's life. Without Marvell there may have never been a Paradise Lost. Under Charles II Marvell served in politics until he died. It was at this point that he began to publish verse satires and prose pamphlets against political opponents. Yet his lyric poems remained in written manuscripts until after his death when his housekeeper claimed to be his wife, Mary Marvell, sold them to a publisher. The volume appeared in 1681 called Miscellaneous Poems made no impression at the time since styles of poetry had changed and his witty ingenious metaphors may have been regarded as old and out dated to the readers of the day who were fans of the rational lucid works of John Dryden and other writers of the Restoration. Several of his poems are under the surface deep and thoughtful similar to John Donne and George Herbert. Many scholars hail him as the "most major" poet of all the minor poets in English.

To His Coy Mistress is one poem that appeared in Miscellaneous Poems. An "invitation to love" poem, the speaker entreats a woman to give herself to him with a seize the day urgency. Soon he reasons they will lose the prime of their lives and they will become old, unattractive; finally dead. Marvell has pulled his theme from an ancient one of Roman custom where a human skull was often a part of the decorations at their wild parties. Using clever literary devices the scene is set for a playful and powerful debate of morality versus mortality and his goal, seduction. It's done by uniting elements of form, rhetoric, and imagery into a subtle argument with which the speaker attempts to convince a reluctant lady. Broken into sections Marvell uses a logical form called a conditional statement with some fairly common images from his day like "vegetable love" and "time's winged chariot". He begins his argument in the first verse with Tempus fugit or time flies. If they had all the time in the world, her coyness would not matter she could preserve her virginity and he would sing mournful songs of rejection while waiting through the ages. He would fill it with his love; dividing it up into periods to adore each part of her. The mistress's 'heart', her very being, would be revealed to him at the end and he assures her that she deserves this treatment Memento Mori; time is swift, begins his second verse and includes an Hegelian argument. Eternity he says is long and dreary; beauty and desire and love will not exist in the grave and thus begins the groundwork for his third argument. Carpe diem or to seize the day while they have youth and energy they should join together. He reasons that this allows them the ability to take control of their lives rather than simply be victims; that to defeat time they should give in to their desires.

Taken as a whole it is fresh and thoughtful with the occasional peculiar contrasts. It's easy to be caught off guard by the lines "The grave's a fine and private place, / But none, I think, do there embrace." Marvell employs a device traditionally used for the proof of a hypothesis or a philosophical statement. The poem has a thesis, a statement; an antithesis, a counter statement; and a synthesis, a resolution. In the first two sections 'I' and 'me' flatters first then warnings appear of dire consequences. By the last verse it has become 'we' as he confesses with heroic passion. This is what is defined as syllogism: deductive statements like ' if x is y then y must be z.' Anyone who was educated in Renaissance England would have this kind of rhetoric drummed into them. The effect of this is bizarre: akin to a legal argument, the syntax is dominated by 'if's and 'would's and 'then's and 'therefore's, but instead of anchoring the poem they cast it into a complex state of conditional non-existence.

I'm not sure if it's a good idea to dwell on death in the hopes of seducing someone but the ideas are a masterful union of idealism and realism; both the idea of perfect and joyful love and the awareness of mortal constraints on love. Although the poem has a strong regulated meter the pace picks up in the final twelve lines as if to convince her that they do have some control over time. In the first verse he puts her on an exotic river in India gathering gems while he adores from the less sublime Humber that runs beside Hull where Marvell lived as a boy and returned later to serve as a Member of Parliament. Maintaining he would love her through the spans of time:

    ...I would
    Love you ten years before the Flood,
    And you should, if you please, refuse
    Till the conversion of the Jews.
A period from ten years before the flood occurring in Genesis some time after creation until the conversion of the Jews which was to happen at Armageddon referring to what Christians once held that all Jews would become Christians just before the end of the world. Vegetable love means that of his "vegetable" soul; having the power to grow very large perhaps an image is of an all conquering vine which insidiously works its way through a forest or field, overtaking incredible spaces until it becomes "vaster than empires." Line thirty four originally read as glew, which has been determined to meaning glow. Slow-chapp'd would indicate time's slowly devouring jaw. Altogether he cannot wait. Eloquently pointing out that the cares of the moment do not matter as time is slowly absorbing them both, as it does all things. The final two stanzas:
    Thus, though we cannot make our sun
    Stand still, yet we will make him run.
refers to Joshua 10:13 where the Lord heeds pleas of the oppressed:
    The sun stopped in midheaven,
    and did not hurry to set for about a whole day.

    There has been no day like it before or since,
    when the LORD heeded a human voice;

    for the LORD fought for Israel.

    On the day the sun stood still, "The Lord fought for Israel."

In Renaissance England calling a woman mistress did not always imply a sexual affair with a man, she could be, and almost always was, just a friend, as he portrays in this poem. At the same time it's much deeper than similar poetry of its kind. John Dryden once wittily described John Donne's love poetry as calculated to "perplex the mind of the fair sex." Part of the pleasure of the witticism, of course, lies in its cutting edge and are thought to be pitched quite above the heads of the lady or ladies to whom they claim to be addressed. Beneath the surface of impassioned courtship, Marvell's urgings in this poem are so charming and funny that nobody has poked around old records to discover if it was autobiographical. Teeming with overwrought similes and outsized conceits the title means; "To his cold, stand offish girlfriend," that is a strategic withholding of information one can gather by the obvious third person possessive in the title of the poem. However, in stark contrast the body of the poem is written in the first and second person and the speaker addresses the lady directly. And yet in the title of the poem, he coolly acknowledges another audience. This man wants this woman by George, but the reader must ponder now for a moment, for whose amusement is this lady being wooed? Using majestic endurance Marvell dwells deeply and refutes the details of human morality with extreme and moribund frustrations entreating the woman to listen to him, even perhaps feel that even, he argues, immoral behavior while she still lives is preferred to being good, yet dead. The poem remains, like the mistress it celebrates, imaginary. The conclusion is in fact so deeply ambiguous one can't help but wonder if he was successful. So it seems have others.

    "Let us roll all our strength and all
    Our sweetness up into one ball,"
"And after all, would it have been worth while, amid such trivialities, "to have squeezed the universe into a ball", as Marvell proposed to do with his "Coy Mistress"....The argument starts again, and the question is once more raised: should he have dared? And again the same answer: "Would it have been worth while?"-- for the lady, turning towards the window, could say: "That is not it at all, That is not what I meant at all"--T.S. Eliot

Selected Sources:

Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) To His Coy Mistress

Blair, Bob

Dendrys: "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell

Public Domain text taken from The Poet's Corner

To His Coy Mistress

Thursday, March 31, 2005


I HEARD one who said: "Verily,
What word have I for children here?
Your Dollar is your only Word,
The wrath of it your only fear.

"You build it altars tall enough
To make you see but you are blind;
You cannot leave it long enough
To look before you or behind.

"When Reason beckons you to pause,
You laugh and say that you know best;
But what it is you know, you keep
As dark as ingots in a chest.

"You laugh and answer, 'We are young;
Oh, leave us now, and let us grow:'
Not asking how much more of this
Will Time endure or Fate bestow.

"Because a few complacent years
Have made your peril of your pride,
Think you that you are to go on
Forever pampered and untried?

"What lost eclipse of history,
What bivouac of the marching stars,
Has given the sign for you to see
Milleniums and last great wars?

"What unrecorded overthrow
Of all the world has ever known,
Or ever been, has made itself
So plain to you, and you alone?

"Your Dollar, Dove, and Eagle make
A Trinity that even you
Rate higher than you rate yourselves;
It pays, it flatters, and it's new.

"And though your very flesh and blood
Be what the Eagle eats and drinks,
You'll praise him for the best of birds,
Not knowing what the eagle thinks.

"The power is yours, but not the sight;
You see not upon what you tread;
You have the ages for your guide,
But not the wisdom to be led.

"Think you to tread forever down
The merciless old verities?
And are you never to have eyes
To see the world for what it is?

"Are you to pay for what you have
With all you are?"--No other word
We caught, but with a laughing crowd
Moved on. None heeded, and few heard.
Edwin Arlington Robinson

Cassandra was the daughter of Priam of Troy, and Hecuba a priestess of Apollo. The god gave her the gift of prophecy, but later, offended by her, fated her never to be believed. She forecast what would happen if the Wooden Horse were let in the walls of Troy and was ignored.

This was the eventual downfall for Troy and the misunderstood Cassandra. Both paid a tremendous price. Afraid that her foretelling were making things worse, Priam hid Cassandra in a prison where she was guarded as a madwoman.

Cassandra's curse of disbelief by others came to a climax after her prophesy about the colossal wooden horse, given as a gift by the Greeks, contained enemy soldiers, her claim fell on deaf ears and Troy was sacked. Cassandra sought safety at the temple of Athena, but was captured and violated by the Locrian, Ajax, breaking one of the strongest commandments in ancient religion: the inviolable sanctuary of the temple. As the spoils of Troy were divided, Cassandra was given to Agamemnon. He wasted no time impregnating her with twins, Teledamus and Pelops, before finally returning with her to his homeland, Mycenae.

Upon their arrival at Mycenae Agamemnon 's wife Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus, lay in wait with a murderous plan. Cassandra's life ended in a final storm of tragedy-- Agamemnon was murdered by his wife and her lover; Cassandra was killed by the jealous Clytemnestra; and the twins were slain by Aegisthus. Many writers have sought to express this tragedy through many vehicles and ideas. In Aeschylus' play, Agamemnon, Cassandra foresees her own death, yet her audience, the chorus, does not believe her. The curse of Apollo remains with Cassandra to the end. Edwin Arlington Robinson's(1869-1935) Casandra in dotc write up; Robinson uses the long measure as a vehicle to get his own story about her across to the reader. Each stanza consists of 4 lines each having 4 stresses and is typically used in shorter poems since the repetitive quatrains can quickly lose interest. Learning the discipline of writing in a metered form seems to tune a poet's ear. "If free verse is as easy to write as it is hard to read," Robinson remarked once, "I'm not surprised there's so much of it." Even before E.E. Cummings created the freer, more radical forms he's famously known for, began his career by composing his poetry using the simple verse. Robinson wrote according to classic forms in this manner as well, then in more complex forms and in the end he educated his ear to hear the rich sounds of English and built an enormous vocabulary before he gravitated toward blank verse which dominated his later epic poetry.

His Cassandra poem was published in 1916 in The Man against the Sky and in it Robinson condemns the human race with his Cassandra by totaling the human sin of trading self esteem and spiritual values for the material:

    "Your Dollar, Dove and Eagle make
    A Trinity that even you
    Rate higher than you rate yourselves;
    It pays, it flatters and it's new.
Her bitter complaint is met with the derisive laughter from the crowd, "None heeded, and few heard." The multitudes who pray to the new Trinity do so at their dire peril, Robinson admonishes an American society of early 1900's whom he considered to be belligerent or uneducated to these consequences.

With a critical eye he uses allegory as the cautionary voice and the dull measure as emphasis to the ignorability of his lecture. A post-modern dilemma of resistance toward society's politic view of both physical and human nature.


About Robinson's Poetry:

Cassandra and Her Impact on Greek Art and Culture:

EA Robinson

Edwin Arlington Robion'son Post-Modern Attitude of Resistance Toward Nature :

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Cinnamon Peeler

The Cinnamon Peeler is a poem from a book that goes by the same name, a collection written between 1963 and 1990 by Michael Ondaatje and published in early 1997.

On the surface the poem is a tale of marital seduction teeming with richly sensual images seen through the eyes of a man. The poetical hand paints across the backdrop his focus; a woman's body streaked with vital, spirited and many-hued aromas. Enriching scents are nearly palpable in the yellowed-gritty dust as his light touch drenches her becomong clamorous; demanding possession. He drifts through a recount of their courtship. Suffused, she replies with surrender--and an imperative.

    If I were a cinnamon peeler
    I would ride your bed
    and leave the yellow bark dust
    on your pillow.

One must know a little about the history of the poet's first home, Sri Lanka in order to understand the poem in a different light. Cinnamon is a spice made from the dried bark of the tree Cinnamomum of the Laurel family. The best known and most sought after spice of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is the species, (C. zeylancium) native to Sri Lanka; it's now cultivated in many other tropical countries in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, but the cinnamon that is grown in Sri Lanka remains superior in taste. When the bark of the tree begins to turn brown it is harvested or peeled off and as it dries it forms rolls or quills. Smaller rolls are inserted into larger ones and then several are combined into sheaths to be sent of to the marketplace. Yellowish brown, cinnamon possesses a unique fragrance and aroma combined with a pungent and sweetish taste. Used since antiquity to scent soap, flavor candy and as a culinary spice, it's also used in some medicines.

The Dutch, unlike the Portuguese before them, vastly extended the area under their control. In 1795 the Dutch capitulated to British rule and by 1798 Sri Lanka, formerly know as Ceylon was established as a crown colony. This period of British rule was marked by periods of abortive native rebellions. Tea, rubber, and cinnamon estates were formed and all the native peoples struggled continuously for a representative government and national freedom. One of these castes of people was the cinnamon peeler. The first substantial victory was in 1931, when Great Britain proffered a new constitution granting semiautonomous control with the indigenous people over national affairs. By February 4th, 1948 the colony became an independent member of the Commonwealth of Nations.

Michael Ondaatje was born just a few years prior to Sir Lanka's independence in 1948 and grew up in the midst of a rebellion against colonialism. His parents were both native to Sri Lanka of Tamil and Singhalese descent. At school, he learned to admire the strange arrangements of history: "We began with myths and later included actual events." Ondaatje's childhood memoir, Running In The Family, explains his early years, the child of a strong-willed mother and a brilliant, maniacally eccentric father.

Sri Lankan settings are ripe with exotic and mythic scope, added to the warm distinctive aroma Ondaatje believes "(colonist) came originally and overpowered the land obsessive for something as delicate as the smell of cinnamon." He goes on to tell, "captains would spill cinnamon onto the deck and invite passengers on board to `smell Ceylon' before the island even came into view," Ondaatje uses metaphors such as the seduction of a woman to represent his views on colonialism throughout Sri Lanka's past.. This inspires the scene for Ondaatje's objections about not only colonialism, but foreigners as well, he even states, "I am the prodigal who hates the foreigner...Ceylon always did have too many foreigners". Referring to the ethnic diversity of Ceylon, he writes, "The English were seen as transients, snobs, and racists, and were quite separate form those who had intermarried and who lived here permanently...The island seduced all of Europe...And so it's name changed, as well as it's shape, -Serendip, Ratnapida (`island of gems'), Taprobane, Zeloan, Zeilan, Seyllan, Ceilon, and Ceylon - the wife of many marriages, courted by invaders who stepped ashore and claimed everything."

    Your breasts and shoulders would reek
    you could never walk through markets
    without the profession of my fingers
    floating over you. The blind would
    stumble certain of whom they approached
    though you might bathe
    under rain gutters, monsoon.

Clearly the poet uses the desire for cinnamon as a metaphor creating parallels out of the desire for the spice with that of a woman. Under this guise he retells the saga of the colonizing of his beloved homeland. Ondaatje himself as native son, yearns to be The Cinnamon Peeler by blanketing the woman with his alluring scents that trail behind her wherever she may go. At once she belongs to the cinnamon peeler, but also spreads the sweet, alluring smell so that all, even blind men will notice.

    Here on the upper thigh
    at this smooth pasture
    neighbor to your hair
    or the crease
    that cuts your back. This ankle.
    You will be known among strangers
    as the cinnamon peeler's wife.

The Dutch saw cinnamon as "the bride round whom they all danced in Ceylon." The landscape of the woman's body forms the backdrop for Sri Lanka's driving passion and cinnamon is the force behind its inevitable colonization.

    -- your keen nosed mother, your rough brothers.
    I buried my hands
    in saffron, disguised them
    over smoking tar,
    helped the honey gatherers...

The "pleasing honeyed and woody scent, which is delicate and intense at the same time;" so powerful is the allure of cinnamon, Ondaatje is taken aback and observes:

    You climbed the bank and said
    this is how you touch other women
    the grass cutter's wife, the lime burner's daughter.
    And you searched your arms
    for the missing perfume
      and knew
    what good is it
    to be the lime burner's daughter
    left with no trace
    as if not spoken to in the act of love
    as if wounded without the pleasure of a scar

A university professor remarks: "She (Sri Lanka) cannot escape being tampered with, mapped, and designated according to the culturally implanted expectations and desires of gazing man. His perception and his language trap her in a fixed position that reduces her to body and to her sex alone"

While one could think the phrase lime burner is evocative of burning limes and the strong citric odor afire that would still be over come by the strong woody scent of cinnamon. I understood this verse in the sense of the word, lime as meant to imply the powerful and acrid scented corrosive chemical used as a bleach, disinfectant, or deodorant. It seems more in line with reflecting Ondaatje's strong anti-colonialist views of how the island's spices were so appealing that her color washed away as she was overrun; eroded with war and strife for love and pleasure.

    You touched
    your belly to my hands
    in the dry air and said
    I am the cinnamon
    peeler's wife. Smell me.

Sri Lanka, the lime burner's daughter, is the cinnamon peeler's wife; the driving factor behind the tale is due to cinnamon's affect on its tumultuous history; her aroma still lingers. Ondaatje has woven a rich tapestry of images of longing and desire, a layered montage of profoundly beautiful language that displays all the richness of imagery and the piercing emotional truth. Culture falls away in the juxtaposition of an individual's sense of loss, grief, and remembrance. A thoroughly enjoyable read of anticipation and pleasure The Cinnamon Peeler is a delicate and powerful narrative-- about love, landscape, and the sweep of history.


Authorview :

Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Cinnamon," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.

Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Sri Lanka," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.

Colonialism Through The Eyes of "The Cinnamon Peeler"

Monday, March 28, 2005

Christopher Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe

    CROWNED, girdled, garbed and shod with light and fire,
    Son first-born of the morning, sovereign star!
    Soul nearest ours of all, that wert most far.
    Most far off in the abysm of time, thy lyre
    Hung highest above the dawn-enkindled quire
    Where all ye sang together, all that are,
    And all the starry songs behind thy car
    Rang sequence, all our souls acclaim thee sire.
    "If all the pens that ever poets held
    Had fed the feeling of their masters' thoughts,"
    And as with rush of hurtling chariots
    The flight of all their spirits were impelled
    Toward one great end, thy glory -- nay, not then,
    Not yet might'st thou be praised enough of men.
    Algernon Charles Swinburne(1837-1909)

Christopher Marlowe, dramatist and free-thinker, born in 1564, the son of a shoemaker was fatally stabbed in Deptford on May 30 in 1593. This piece can be found in Sonnets of English Dramatic Poets (1590-1650) published in 1882.

May 30th is one of the most important dates in English literature. After the evening meal on that fateful night at an inn Deptford, playwright Christopher Marlowe was murdered. Time has obscured the circumstances and many theories today declare that Marlowe wasn't murdered at all. Some claim that he faked his death in order to escape enemies, to escape prosecution for atheism, (which was punishable by death during the 16th century) or to go undercover in the Queen's service. Marlowe is considered among the premiere of Elizabethan dramatists primarily for Tamburlaine, Dr. Faustus and Edward II. His entire writing career spanned less than seven years and he is greatly praised for his proficiency with plot and diction.

What's interesting about this sonnet is Swinburne's clever application of Marlowe's own blank verse in the poem. The first two lines of the sestet come from the fourth act of the first part of Tamburlaine:

What is beauty saith my sufferings, then?
If all the pens that ever poets held
Had fed the feeling of their masters' thoughts,
And every sweetness that inspired their hearts,
Their minds, and muses on admired themes:
If all the heavenly quintessence they still
From their immortal flowers of Poesy,
Wherein as in a mirror we perceive
The highest reaches of a human wit;
If these had made one poem's period,
And all combined in beauty's worthiness,
Yet should there hover in their restless heads
One thought, one grace, one wonder at the least,
Which into words no virtue can digest.

Algernon Charles Swinburne, poet and critic said: "Of English blank verse, one of the few highest forms of verbal harmony, or poetic expression, Marlowe was the absolute and divine creator. He is the greatest discoverer, the most daring and intrepid pioneer, in all our poetic literature. After his arrival the way was prepared ... for Shakespeare." Producing prolific studies of such writers as Lord Byron, William Blake, Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire; it was his work on Shakespeare and his contemporaries which is most memorable as a critical influence today.


Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)

Swinburne, Algernon

The Marlowe Society

The Poet's Corner

Public domain text taken from The Poets' Corner