Thursday, December 29, 2011

English Interlude - An Epitaph, Now with Puns

As regular readers know (hey dad!), I've been pulling pieces of paper out of my Milwaukee Brewers hat and those pieces of paper have been telling me what part of the British Canon I need to read next--that meant I spent much of my holiday season thinking about World War I.

Well, I finished Vol. F and felt triumphant, then a little perplexed, then mildly lonely, ecstatic, persnickety, peckish, and finally inspired to cut up more prophetic little slips of paper. So I now have a couple dozen in that old hat, each corresponding to a piece of literature from Volume E (The Victorian Age).

Today I read some Ernest Dowson (1867-1900)--who seems to have coined the phrase "days of wine and roses," and I also took in a spot of William Ernest Henley (1849-1903), who wrote a poem called "Invictus." There was a footnote on the title that suggested that "Invictus" meant "medicated bandages." Hmm, I thought, audibly, and then spent a couple seconds figuring out how the movie Invictus, which I have not seen, could have possibly been about medicated bandages.

Maybe that Rugby team of Matt Damon's was like a medicated bandage for South Africa. Yeah, that's it. I was satisfied.

Of course, as my eight years of Latin (and my toddler's logic) should have made clear to me, "Invictus" means "Unconquered." I'd mixed up the footnotes (Henley's poem "In Hospital," situated above, references "Plasters").

That's the most interesting thing I can think of to write about Henley, who is troublingly jingoistic. I'm troubled by troublingly jingoistic British poems (cf. my late immersion in World War I literature).

N.B.: Two other things I learned today which my eight years of Latin should have made clear to me. 1) I.e. means id est, "that is." 2) Cf. comes from conferre, and means "bring together." (I already knew what N.B. means).

Dowson and Henley having been consumed, I turned to Michael Field, who I assumed to be a straightforward, straight-laced Victorian poet writing about work/god/godlessness/fairies and the like. Turns out "Michael Field" was two women--Katherine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper (1846-1914; 1862-1913). Ironic enough? Not in the least. These pseudonyminous ladies, who were also romantically attached, were more than pseudo-related! Finding out about this aunt-niece pair shocked me into reading all of their poems.

They insist that they will never be ones "to take heed" of judgment. They want to continually dwell with those who are "Indifferent to heaven and hell."

Even wearing my aesthete, continental, moral-relativist hat, my best analysis of their poetic arrangement is still "ick."

After I considered these relations, I moved to a heavy hitter--Christina Rossetti.

Rossetti's poem "Song" could fit on a gravestone or come out of the mouth of a sedated Fozzy Bear. Such is the moroseness. Such are the puns:

"When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming
through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget."

"Wilt" in the first stanza makes us think of the green grass just above it but also of the archaic "will," and perhaps even "will it." It seems like the speaker wants to leave her beloved with two messages: 1) be comforted by forgetting me; 2) don't you dare forget me. 1) Be as natural as the grass, and happy. 2) Be so obsessed with me, and grief-stricken, that you become the grass above my grave.

The second stanza turns on "haply," which I can't help reading "happily." But, literally, the last two lines mean "maybe at the point of death I'll have enough left to think about you and my life, and maybe I won't." But with the pun, that double-message of the first stanza seems to resonate. The speaker seems worried that she will have consciousness and worried that she won't at the same time.

You can still be you, offers death. Only, you'll be dying and then in the ground.

Or, you can be absolutely nothing, no one will remember you, and/but/so you won't even know any better

Both would have their happinesses, Rossetti seems to suggest, with the help of some wordplay. Wokka, Wokka, Wokka!

(This reminds me of Thomas Hardy's poem, "Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?")

Meanwhile, CR got quite a little bit happier in her poem "A Birthday," during which her "heart is gladder [. . . / ] Because my love is come to me."

The following is just a terrific evocation of loveuphoria, and I can sense Rossetti about to burst into a musical number as she writes (The British are always sitting at a desk on the left side of my imagination, windows at the right, and it's always 11am).

Despite what follows, Rossetti never married, having turned down two proposals for religious reasons. Still, one day when she was around 27, she felt like this:

"Raise me a dais of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me."

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