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Cat in an Empty Apartment -- Wislawa Szymborska

Guest poem sent in by John K. Taber
(Poem #1608) Cat in an Empty Apartment
 Die—you can't do that to a cat.
 Since what can a cat do
 in an empty apartment?
 Climb the walls?
 Rub up against the furniture?
 Nothing seems different here,
 but nothing is the same.
 Nothing has been moved,
 but there's more space.
 And at nighttime no lamps are lit.

 Footsteps on the staircase,
 but they're new ones.
 The hand that puts fish on the saucer
 has changed, too.

 Something doesn't start
 at its usual time.
 Something doesn't happen
 as it should.
 Someone was always, always here,
 then suddenly disappeared
 and stubbornly stays disappeared.

 Every closet has been examined.
 Every shelf has been explored.
 Excavations under the carpet turned up nothing.
 A commandment was even broken,
 papers scattered everywhere.
 What remains to be done.
 Just sleep and wait.

 Just wait till he turns up,
 just let him show his face.
 Will he ever get a lesson
 on what not to do to a cat.
 Sidle toward him
 as if unwilling
 and ever so slow
 on visibly offended paws,
 and no leaps or squeals at least to start.
-- Wislawa Szymborska
        (Translated from the Polish by Joanna Maria Trzeciak)

In newsgroups devoted to pets, the passing of a beloved cat is often
mentioned to a lot of sympathy. But often it is the owner who dies while the
cat is the survivor, though this eventuality has never been posted to my

This is a wonderful poem by one of my favorites, Wyslawa Szymborska, the
Polish poet who won the Nobel a few years ago. It is just like her to take
an unexpected point of view, a little thing perhaps, and open a whole world.

Add this to the latest poems on cats.



Biography of Szymborska

and of Trzeciak:

Lament for Thomas MacDonagh -- Francis Ledwidge

Guest poem sent in by a contributor who wishes to remain anonymous
(Poem #1607) Lament for Thomas MacDonagh
 He shall not hear the bittern cry
 In the wild sky, where he is lain,
 Nor voices of the sweeter birds
 Above the wailing of the rain.
 Nor shall he know when loud March blows
 Thro' slanting snows her fanfare shrill,
 Blowing to flame the golden cup
 Of many an upset daffodil.
 But when the dark cow leaves the moor,
 And pastures poor with greedy weeds,
 Perhaps he'll hear her low at morn
 Lifting her horn in pleasant meads.
-- Francis Ledwidge
As there are no Francis Ledwidge poems on your page, I thought that I would
send this one on to you. Ledwidge was an Irish nationalist, from a quite
poor background who, notwithstanding his nationalist feelings, joined the
British army in the First World War. He felt bitterly let down when, in the
middle of that war, in the aftermath of the Easter Rebellion in Dublin in
1916, the British authorities executed the leaders of this rebellion, one of
whom was his friend, the poet Thomas MacDonagh. Notwithstanding his
disillusion, he returned to the Front and was killed himself at the age of
29 in the Battle of Ypres in Belgium.

The Easter Rising gave rise to an extraordinary amount of poetry. One of the
most moving has been run previously, Padraic Pearse’s "The Mother" [Poem
written by one of MacDonagh’s fellow rebels and poet on the eve of his own
execution.  Yeats’ poem, "Easter 1916" [Poem #1011] was also written about the
same event.

I first came across this poem in school, and like very much the sound of the
first lines. Apart from the beauty of this testament to a slain friend, the
appropriateness of wailing, lamenting, tearlike rain as a metaphor for the
grief associated with death, the arrival of spring representing the hope
perhaps of something better to follow, the poem (and in particular, the
first two verses) conjure up for me a vivid image of the weather, the feel
and the look of the Irish countryside.  The dark cow leaving the moor,
supposedly, is a metaphor for Ireland. I think that this is the poet’s hope
that when things get better for his country that his executed friend will
somehow become aware of this and know that his own death has not been in


  On Ledwidge: and

[broken link],F/life.htm

  On MacDonagh: and

Frost at Midnight -- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Guest poem sent in by Mark Penney

All this Romantic poetry brought me back to my favorite Romantic poet of
them all, particularly since it's really cold here tonight:
(Poem #1606) Frost at Midnight
 The frost performs its secret ministry,
 Unhelped by any wind.  The owlet's cry
 Came loud--and hark, again! Loud as before.
 The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
 Have left me to that solitude, which suits
 Abstruser musings: save that at my side
 My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
 'Tis calm indeed! So calm, that it disturbs
 And vexes meditation with its strange
 And extreme silentness.  Sea, hill, and wood,
 This populous village!  Sea, and hill, and wood,
 With all the numberless goings-on of life,
 Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
 Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
 Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,

 Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
 Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
 Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
 Making it a companionable form,
 Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
 By its own moods interprets, every where
 Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
 And makes a toy of Thought.

                But O! how oft,
 How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
 Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
 To watch that fluttering stranger! and as oft
 With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
 Of my sweet birth-place and the old church-tower,
 Whose bells, the poor man's only music, rang
 From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
 So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
 With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
 Most like articulate sounds of things to come!
 So gazed I, till the soothing things I dreamt,
 Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams!
 And so I brooded all the following morn,
 Awed by the stern preceptor's face, mine eye
 Fixed with mock study on my swimming book:
 Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
 A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
 For still I hoped to see the stranger's face,
 Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
 My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!

 Dear babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
 Whose gentle breathings heard in this deep calm,
 Fill up the interspersed vacancies
 And momentary pauses of the thought.
 My babe so beautiful! It thrills my heart
 With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
 And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
 And in far other scenes!  For I was reared
 In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim,
 And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
 But thou, my babe! Shalt wander like a breeze
 By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
 Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
 Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
 And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
 The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
 Of that eternal language, which thy God
 Utters, who from eternity doth teach
 Himself in all, and all things in himself.
 Great universal teacher! He shall mould
 Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

 Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
 Whether the summer clothe the general earth
 With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
 Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
 Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
 Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
 Heard only in the trances of the blast,
 Or if the secret ministry of frost
 Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
 Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.
-- Samuel Taylor Coleridge
One of the great things about the Romantics is their spectacular reinvention
of blank verse.  You could read "Frost at Midnight" almost without the
awareness that there was conscious effort put into the meter. It's just a
guy, looking out the window, watching his world freeze over, admiring its
beauty, and then letting his mind wander from there.  And yet it's in this
most astoundingly beautiful and perfect, yet conversational, blank verse.

Coleridge notes that films in one's grate are referred to as "strangers,
supposed to portend the arrival of some absent friend."

This poem captures the perfect beauty and stillness of a cold winter night
better than any other poem I know.  It's so still that the frost actually
represents action; it's practically a living thing, performing its secret
ministry.  And then it's something so small and quiet as the motion of the
film in the grate that starts Coleridge's own mind working--quietly too, in
its own way.  A masterpiece.



Minstrels has run three Coleridge poems before, but none since 2000;
none of the previous posts contain anything at all in the way of
biography.  I'm not the Britannica, but here goes:  Coleridge
(1772-1834) was a contemporary and close friend of Wordsworth's; in 1798
the two poets wrote and published the seminal book Lyrical Ballads,
which is generally regarded as the founding document of English
Romanticism.  (The full text is online in several places; go read it!)
Coleridge is also notable as a literary critic and theorist; his
Biographia Literaria is the seminal work in that area.  The most famous
Coleridge poems are undoubtedly Kubla Khan, The Rime of the Ancient
Mariner, and this one.

[Links] has another biography and a
selection of Coleridge's works

The Masque of Anarchy (extract) -- Percy Bysshe Shelley

We don't often run two consecutive poems by the same poet, but after my
commentary yestarday, Amulya was moved to offer this in
defense of Shelley:
(Poem #1605) The Masque of Anarchy (extract)

 "Men of England, Heirs of Glory,
 Heroes of unwritten story,
 Nurslings of one mighty mother,
 Hopes of her, and one another,


 "Rise, like lions after slumber,
 In unvanquishable number,
 Shake your chains to earth like dew,
 Which in sleep had fall'n on you.


 "What is Freedom? Ye can tell
 That which Slavery is too well,
 For its very name has grown
 To an echo of your own.


 "'Tis to work, and have such pay,
 As just keeps life from day to day
 In your limbs, as in a cell
 For the tyrants' use to dwell:


 "So that ye for them are made,
 Loom, and plough, and sword, and spade;
 With or without your own will, bent
 To their defense and nourishment.


 "'Tis to see your children weak
 With their mothers pine and peak;
 When the winter winds are bleak:
 They are dying whilst I speak.


 "'Tis to hunger for such diet,
 As the rich man in his riot
 Casts to the fat dogs that lie
 Surfeiting beneath his eye.


 "'Tis to let the Ghost of Gold
 Take from toil a thousand fold,
 More than e'er its substance could
 In the tyrannies of old:


 "Paper coin--that forgery
 Of the title deeds, which ye
 Hold to something of the worth
 Of the inheritance of Earth.



 "'Tis to be a slave in Soul,
 And to bold no strong controul.
 Over your own wills, but be
 All that others make of ye.


 "And at length when ye complain,
 With a murmur weak and vain,
 'Tis to see the tyrant's crew
 Ride over your wives and you:
 Blood is on the grass like dew.


 "Then it is to feel revenge,
 Fiercely thirsting to exchange
 Blood for blood-and wrong for wrong:


 "Birds find rest in narrow nest,
 When-weary of the winged quest;
 Beasts find fare in woody lair,
 When storm and snow are in the air.

 E 2


 "Asses, swine, have litter spread,
 And with fitting food are fed;
 All things have a home but one:
 Thou, oh Englishman, hast none!


 "This is Slavery-savage men,
 Or wild beasts within a den,
 Would endure not as ye do:
 But such ills they never knew.


 "What art thou, Freedom? Oh! could Slaves
 Answer from their living graves
 This demand, tyrants would flee
 Like a dream's dim imagery.


 Thou art not, as impostors say,
 A shadow soon to pass away,
 A superstition, and a name
 Echoing from the eaves of Fame.


 "For the labourer thou art bread,
 And a comely table spread,
 From his daily labour come,
 In a neat and happy home.


 "Thou art clothes, and fire, and food
 For the trampled multitude:
 NO-in countries that are free
 Stich starvation cannot be,
 As in England now we see.


 "To the rich thou art. a check;
 When his foot is on the neck
 Of his victim; thou dost make
 That he treads upon a snake.


 "Thou art Justice--ne'er for gold
 May thy righteous laws be sold,
 As laws are in England:--thou
 Sheild'st alike the high and low.

 "Thou art Wisdom-Freedom never
 Dreams that God will damn for ever
 All who think those things untrue,
 Of which priests make such ado


 "Thou art Peace-never by thee
 Would blood and treasure wasted be,
 As tyrants wasted them, when all
 Leagued to quench thy flame in Gaul,


 "What if English toil and blood
 Was poured forth-, even as a flood!
 It availed,--oh Liberty!
 To dim --- but not extinguish thee.


 "Thou art Love--the rich have kist
 Thy feet, and like him following Christ,
 Give their substance to the free,
 And through the rough world follow thee.


 "Oh turn their wealth to arms, and make
 War for thy beloved sake,
 On wealth and war and fraud: whence they
 Drew the power which is their prey.


 "Science, and Poetry, and Thought,
 Are thy lamps; they make the lot
 Of the dwellers in a cot
 So serene, they curse it not.


 "Spirit, Patience, Gentleness,
 All that can adorn and bless,
 Art thou: let deeds, not words, express
 Thine exceeding loveliness.


 "Let a great assembly be
 Of the fearless, of the free,
 On some spot of English ground,
 Where the plains stretch wide around.


 "Let the blue sky overhead,
 The green earth, on which ye tread,
 All that must eternal be,
 Witness the solemnity.


 "From the corners uttermost
 Of the bounds of English coast;
 From every but, village, and town,
 Where those who live and suffer, moan
 For others' misery and their own:


 "From the workhouse and the prison,
 Where pale as corpses newly risen,
 Women, children, young, and old,
 Groan for pain, and weep for cold;


 "From the haunts of daily life,
 Where is waged the daily strife
 With common wants and common cares,
 Which sow the human heart with tares;


 "Lastly, from the palaces,
 Where the murmur of distress
 Echoes, like the distant sound
 Of a wind alive around;


 "Those prison-halls of wealth and fashion,
 Where some few feel such compassion
 For those who groan, and toil, and wait,
 As must make their brethren pale;


 "Ye who suffer woes untold,
 Or to feel, or to behold
 Your lost country bought and sold
 With a price of blood and gold;


 "Let a vast assembly be,
 And with great solemnity
 Declare with measured words, that ye
 Are, as God has made ye, free!


 "Be your strong and simple words
 Keen to wound as sharpened swords,
 And wide as targes let them be,
 With their shade to cover ye.


 Let the tyrants pour around
 With a quick and startling sound,
 Like the loosening of a sea,
 Troops of armed emblazonry.


 "Let the charged artillery drive,
 Till the dead air seems alive
 With the clash of clanging wheels,
 And the tramp of horses' heels.


 "Let the fixed bayonet
 Gleam with sharp desire to wet
 Its bright point in English blood,
 Looking keen as one for food.



 "Let the horsemen's scimitars
 Wheel and flash, like sphereless stars,
 Thirsting to eclipse their burning
 In a sea of death and mourning.


 "Stand ye calm and resolute,
 Like a forest close and mute,
 With folded arms, and looks which are
 Weapons of an unvanquished war.


 "And let Panic, who outspeeds
 The career of armed steeds,
 Pass, a disregarded shade,
 Thro' your phalanx indismay'd.

 [The next three stanzas are italicised]


 "Let the laws of your own land,
 Good or ill, between ye stand,
 Hand to hand, and foot to foot,
 Arbiters of the dispute.


 "The old laws of England--they
 Whose reverend heads with age are grey,
 Children of a wiser day;
 And whose solemn voice must be
 Thine own echo--Liberty!


 "On those who first should violate
 Such sacred heralds in their state,
 Rest the blood that must ensue,
 And it will not rest on you.


 "And if then the tyrants dare,
 Let them ride among you there;
 Slash, and stab, and maim, and hew;
 What they like, that let them do.


 "With folded arms and steady eyes,
 And little fear and less surprise,
 Look upon them as they stay
 Till their rage hasdied away:


 "Then they will return with shame,
 To the place from which they came,
 And the blood thus shed will speak
 In hot blushes on their cheek,


 "Every woman in the land
 Will point at them as they stand
 They will hardly dare to greet
 Their acquaintance in the street:


 "And the bold, true warriors,
 Who have hugged Danger in wars,
 Will turn to those who would be free
 Ashamed of such base company:


 "And that slaughter to the nation
 Shall steam up like inspiration,
 Eloquent, oracular,
 A volcano heard afar:


 "And these words shall then become
 Like Oppressions thundered doom,
 Ringing through each heart and brain,
 Heard again--again--again.


 Rise like lions after slumber
 In unvanquishable NUMBER!
 Shake your chains to earth, like dew
 Which in sleep had fall'n on you:

-- Percy Bysshe Shelley
This is an extract from The Masque of Anarchy, Percy Bysshe Shelley's
response to the Peterloo massacre of English workers.  Just offering the
obvious balance to the fey Shelley stuff so far [1] - because I think it's
rather unfair to a poet who (along with Blake), exemplified the defiant,
incendiary spirit of the Romantics.  A poet who 'erred on the side of the
profane'[2] , an aristocrat who dreamt of a day when people would be 'equal,
unclassed, tribeless, and nationless' [3], a writer who saw art as a hammer
to legislate change.  As Richard Holmes writes, Shelley possessed 'a sense
of greater design, an acute feeling for the historical moment and an
overwhelming consciousness of his duty as an artist...' Hard finding a poem
of comparable moral weight (Pablo Neruda's The People?).

I agree that his work is extremely erratic, like many other writers whose
reach exceeds their grasp.  He's produced some highly sappy,
self-dramatizing stuff... 'I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!'[4] .

But sometimes he is the poetic equivalent of lightning.

        Rise like Lions after slumber
        In unvanquishable number.
        Shake your chains to earth like dew
        Which in sleep had fallen on you:
        Ye are many -- they are few.

Is that not truly tremendous?


[1] In Matthew Arnold's withering, and ass-backwards assessment - 'a
    beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous
    wings in vain'.
[2] Borrowing Rushdie's wonderful phrase
[3] From Prometheus Unbound.
[4] A bit of fine frenzy from Ode To The West Wind


The entire poem is available, complete with historical notes, at
  [broken link]

One Sung of Thee who Left the Tale Untold -- Percy Bysshe Shelley

Rounding out Parker's "Trio of Lyrical Treats"
(Poem #1604) One Sung of Thee who Left the Tale Untold
 One sung of thee who left the tale untold,
    Like the false dawns which perish in the bursting;
 Like empty cups of wrought and daedal gold,
    Which mock the lips with air, when they are thirsting.
-- Percy Bysshe Shelley
       from "Percy Bysshe Shelley, Posthumous Poems", ed. Mary Shelley (1824)

   1. Ingenious and complex in design or function; intricate.
   2. Finely or skillfully made or employed; artistic.
         (after Daedalus, who "gave his name eponymously to any Greek artificer
   and to many Greek contraptions that represented dextrous skill."

This is one of the "many short fragments from Shelley's MSS. published by
Mary Shelley, his wife, in her editions of 1824 and 1839", says
Representative Poetry Online, going on to note that she entitles this poem "A
Tale Untold". To my mind, these short fragments are some of the best, or at
least the most enjoyable stuff that Shelley produced, little gems that
reveal his genius for imagery without being dragged down to earth by his
rather uncertain ear for euphony.[1]

Too, I enjoy the "fragment" as a poetic form in its own right - a little
snatch of verse that is patently not a complete poem, but which nevertheless
stands very well on its own - often so well that an attempt to "complete" it
or work it into a larger poem would only dilute its impact. (See Tennyson's
"The Eagle" [Poem #15] for the best example I can think of). All in all, I
am distinctly grateful to Mary Shelley for preserving these gems of
Shelley's - Shelley is so widely acclaimed a poet that I always feel that I
am missing out on something in my dislike for the majority of his work.


[1] to see what I mean, try reading "The Cloud"
[] - there were
several wonderful bits in there, but the poem as a whole I had to force
myself to finish

Ode on a Grecian Urn -- John Keats

Guest poem sent in by Aseem
(Poem #1603) Ode on a Grecian Urn
 Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness!
 Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
 Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
 A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
 What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
 Of deities or mortals, or of both,
 In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
 What men or gods are these? What maidens loath?
 What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
 What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

 Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
 Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
 Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
 Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
 Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
 Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
 Bold Lover, never, never, canst thou kiss,
 Though winning near the goal - yet, do not grieve;
 She cannot fade, though thou have not thy bliss,
 For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

 Ah, happy, happy, boughs! that cannot shed
 Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
 And happy melodist, unwearied,
 For ever piping songs for ever new;
 More happy love! more happy, happy love!
 For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
 For ever panting and for ever young;
 All breathing human passion far above,
 That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd
 A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

 Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
 To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
 Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
 And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
 What little town by river or sea shore,
 Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
 Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?
 And, little town, thy streets for evermore
 Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
 Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

 O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
 Of marble men and maidens overwrought
 With forest branches and the trodden weed;
 Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
 As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
 When old age shall this generation waste,
 Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
 Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' - that is all
 Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
-- John Keats
If we are on the subject of grand old poems that have slipped through the
Minstrels net - I can't think of a more startling omission than this one.
For sheer lyricism, Keats is hard to beat. Byron is wittier, I'll grant you,
and certainly more conversational, but nowhere (except perhaps in
Shakespeare) is the English tongue so ravishingly beautiful.

Ode on a Grecian Urn, is, of course, one of those established classics about
which it's difficult to say something without having about half a million
Eng Lit undergrads breathing down one's neck. What I love about it is its
almost solipsistic brilliance - the way the poem, in some sense contains its
own meaning (a distinction it shares with Shakespeare's "Not marble, nor the
gilded monuments" [Poem #1575] - a poem that makes interesting reading with
this btw). For nowhere is the truth of "Beauty is Truth, Truth beauty" more
evident than in this poem.

It's a stunning achievement really - a poem so incredibly sensuous, so
amazingly rich and pleasing to the ear, that manages at the same time to not
only paint with exquisite precision a series of delicate images (so that
reading it you can almost imagine this great mythic vase) but also to be a
direct and compelling statement of Keats' overall aesthetic philosophy. If
you want poetry at its purest, its most classical - this is it.

It's ironic perhaps, and also one of the greatest joys of this poem that
much of what Keats says of the Urn is as true today of his own poetry. "When
old age shall this generation waste / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other
woe / Than ours, a friend to man." If that isn't true of John Keats, I don't
know what other poet it's true of.


P.S. Another interesting read to go along with this poem is of course Yeats'
Byzantium [Poem #60] - two great poets, saying, in a way, the same thing,
yet so very different!

Sonnet XXIII: Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint -- John Milton

Guest poem submitted by Mark Penney :
(Poem #1602) Sonnet XXIII: Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint
 Methought I saw my late espoused saint
 Brought to me, like Alcestis from the grave,
 Whom Jove's great son to her glad husband gave,
 Rescu'd from death by force, though pale and faint.
 Mine, as whom wash'd from spot of child-bed taint
 Purification in the old Law did save,
 And such as yet once more I trust to have
 Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint,
 Came vested all in white, pure as her mind;
 Her face was veil'd, yet to my fancied sight
 Love, sweetness, goodness in her person shin'd
 So clear as in no face with more delight.
 But oh! As to embrace me she inclin'd,
 I wak'd, she fled, and day brought back my night.
-- John Milton
You ask for old poems, I deliver.  This one got missed somehow; the other
famous Milton sonnet we're missing is "How soon hath Time," but I don't like
that one.

This one I've always loved, ever since I first encountered it in high
school. It helps to know that the "saint" in question is Milton's second
wife, whom he'd married when he was already blind.  So the dream in which he
says he sees her is doubly miraculous; it also adds that extra punch to "day
brought back my night."

I love that last line, by the way.  It's one of those lines that happen
every so often that make Milton, despite all the attendant aggravations of
reading him, more than worth the trouble.  The poem creates this shimmering,
white, pure vision of the unseen wife, just beyond reach like a Tantalus
torture.  That last line makes so clear the agony of loss, which he probably
experiences over and over again every time he wakes without her.  On the
flip side, however, we see that heaven is (in the mean time) attainable for
Milton in the form of his dreams.

Obligatory form geekery:  Milton preferred Petrarchian to Shakespearian
sonnet form: the rhyme scheme is abba abba cdc dcd, which is a slight
variation on the usual Petrarchian form for the sestet (cde cde or cde dce).
Unusually for Milton, there's not a real clear change of mood or subject
between the eight and the six.

The Classical reference to Alcestis: she died but was stolen from Hades by
Hercules and restored to her husband Admetus.  The Biblical reference is to
the Levitical purification rite after childbirth; also, with the white robe,
a further reference to the purification of the Resurrection (!).


From Beppo -- George Gordon, Lord Byron

(Poem #1601) From Beppo

 But to my tale of Laura, --- for I find
 Digression is a sin, that by degrees
 Becomes exceeding tedious to my mind,
 And, therefore, may the reader too displease ---
 The gentle reader, who may wax unkind,
 And caring little for the author's ease,
 Insist on knowing what he means, a hard
 And hapless situation for a bard.


 Oh that I had the art of easy writing
 What should be easy reading! could I scale
 Parnassus, where the Muses sit inditing
 Those pretty poems never known to fail,
 How quickly would I print (the world delighting)
 A Grecian, Syrian, or Assyrian tale;
 And sell you, mix'd with western sentimentalism,
 Some samples of the finest Orientalism!


 But I am but a nameless sort of person,
 (A broken Dandy lately on my travels)
 And take for rhyme, to hook my rambling verse on,
 The first that Walker's Lexicon unravels,
 And when I can't find that, I put a worse on,
 Not caring as I ought for critics' cavils;
 I've half a mind to tumble down to prose,
 But verse is more in fashion --- so here goes.
-- George Gordon, Lord Byron
A reader recently complained (and quite rightly) that the Minstrels pendulum
had swung too far in the direction of modern poetry, to the detriment of the
tried and true. In the ensuing, and interesting exchange of email, it turned
out that what he missed was poetry about "traditionally poetic" subjects,
and that he was not too fond of what he felt was a modern tendency to
poetize the mundane and trivial - I'm not too sure I *agree* with him, but I
can definitely see his point. However, my thoughts ran in a different
direction, and I realised that we've been running fewer poems where much of
the delight lay in the verse itself. It is this imbalance that today's
poem addresses.

I know of few poets with Byron's easy facility for perfectly metrical and
rhyming verse - the likes of Kipling and Gilbert, perhaps, but their verse
looks more impressive than effortless. Byron definitely tends towards the
effortless side, and that effortlessness (or the illusion thereof) extends
itself to the reading. His extended works like Don Juan and Beppo need
no conscious shift to a "poetry reading" mode; they flow along as easily and
as entertainingly as the most straightforward of prose, but with the added
bonuses of rhyme and metre.

On top of that, I loved the self-referential aspect of today's excerpt -
reminiscent, perhaps, of Chaucer's Franklin, who assured his audience that

  I never studied rhetoric, that's certain;
  That which I say, it must be bare and plain.
  I never slept on Mount Parnassus, no,
  Nor studied Marcus Tullius Cicero.

but far more polished and entertaining. And I laughed out loud at the
'punchline' - the timing and delivery were just perfect.


Exequy on his Wife -- Henry King

Guest poem sent in by Aditi Balasubramaniam
(Poem #1600) Exequy on his Wife
 Accept, thou shrine of my dead saint,
 Instead of dirges, this complaint;
 And for sweet flowers to crown thy hearse,
 Receive a strew of weeping verse
 From thy grieved friend, whom thou might'st see
 Quite melted into tears for thee.

 Dear loss! since thy untimely fate
 My task hath been to meditate
 On thee, on thee; thou art the book,
 The library whereon I look,
 Though almost blind. For thee, loved clay,
 I languish out, not live, the day,
 Using no other exercise
 But what I practise with mine eyes;
 By which wet glasses I find out
 How lazily time creeps about
 To one that mourns; this, only this,
 My exercise and business is.
 So I compute the weary hours
 With sighs dissolvëd into showers.

 Nor wonder if my time go thus
 Backward and most preposterous;
 Thou hast benighted me; thy set
 This eve of blackness did beget,
 Who wast my day, though overcast
 Before thou hadst thy noon-tide past;
 And I remember must in tears,
 Thou scarce hadst seen so many years
 As day tells hours. By thy clear sun
 My love and fortune first did run;
 But thou wilt never more appear
 Folded within my hemisphere,
 Since both thy light and motïon
 Like a fled star is fall'n and gone;
 And 'twixt me and my soul's dear wish
 An earth now interposëd is,
 Which such a strange eclipse doth make
 As ne'er was read in almanac.

 I could allow thee for a time
 To darken me and my sad clime;
 Were it a month, a year, or ten,
 I would thy exile live till then,
 And all that space my mirth adjourn,
 So thou wouldst promise to return,
 And putting off thy ashy shroud,
 At length disperse this sorrow's cloud.

 But woe is me! the longest date
 Too narrow is to calculate
 These empty hopes; never shall I
 Be so much blest as to descry
 A glimpse of thee, till that day come
 Which shall the earth to cinders doom,
 And a fierce fever must calcine
 The body of this world like thine,
 My little world. That fit of fire
 Once off, our bodies shall aspire
 To our souls' bliss; then we shall rise
 And view ourselves with clearer eyes
 In that calm region where no night
 Can hide us from each other's sight.

 Meantime, thou hast her, earth; much good
 May my harm do thee. Since it stood
 With heaven's will I might not call
 Her longer mine, I give thee all
 My short-lived right and interest
 In her whom living I loved best;
 With a most free and bounteous grief,
 I give thee what I could not keep.
 Be kind to her, and prithee look
 Thou write into thy doomsday book
 Each parcel of this rarity
 Which in thy casket shrined doth lie.
 See that thou make thy reck'ning straight,
 And yield her back again by weight;
 For thou must audit on thy trust
 Each grain and atom of this dust,
 As thou wilt answer Him that lent,
 Not gave thee, my dear monument.

 So close the ground, and 'bout her shade
 Black curtains draw, my bride is laid.

 Sleep on, my love, in thy cold bed,
 Never to be disquieted!
 My last good-night! Thou wilt not wake
 Till I thy fate shall overtake;
 Till age, or grief, or sickness must
 Marry my body to that dust
 It so much loves, and fill the room
 My heart keeps empty in thy tomb.
 Stay for me there, I will not fail
 To meet thee in that hollow vale.
 And think not much of my delay;
 I am already on the way,
 And follow thee with all the speed
 Desire can make, or sorrows breed.
 Each minute is a short degree,
 And ev'ry hour a step towards thee.
 At night when I betake to rest,
 Next morn I rise nearer my west
 Of life, almost by eight hours' sail,
 Than when sleep breathed his drowsy gale.

 Thus from the sun my bottom steers,
 And my day's compass downward bears;
 Nor labor I to stem the tide
 Through which to thee I swiftly glide.

 'Tis true, with shame and grief I yield,
 Thou like the van first tookst the field,
 And gotten hath the victory
 In thus adventuring to die
 Before me, whose more years might crave
 A just precedence in the grave.
 But hark! my pulse like a soft drum
 Beats my approach, tells thee I come;
 And slow howe'er my marches be,
 I shall at last sit down by thee.

 The thought of this bids me go on,
 And wait my dissolutïon
 With hope and comfort. Dear, forgive
 The crime, I am content to live
 Divided, with but half a heart,
 Till we shall meet and never part.
-- Henry King
        (Bishop of Chichester)

  exequy: A funeral rite (usually in the plural); the ceremonies of burial
  calcine: To undergo calcination (a chemical change caused by heating to a
    high temperature)

Henry King (1592-1669) wrote this verse in mourning after the death of his
young wife. To me, what makes this poem something more than a maudlin tribute
to the poet's wife is the following lines, and the unusual use of literature as
a metaphor for love.

        Dear loss! Since thy untimely fate
        My task hath been to meditate
        On thee, on thee! Thou art the book,
        The library, whereon I look
        Though almost blind.


[Martin adds]

When I read Aditi's commentary, I was surprised to find that I could not indeed
think of another use of that particular metaphor. Anyone?


  [broken link]

Two Songs Of A Fool -- William Butler Yeats

Guest poem submitted by Deepak Srinivasan:
(Poem #1599) Two Songs Of A Fool

 A speckled cat and a tame hare
 Eat at my hearthstone
 And sleep there;
 And both look up to me alone
 For learning and defence
 As I look up to Providence.

 I start out of my sleep to think
 Some day I may forget
 Their food and drink;
 Or, the house door left unshut,
 The hare may run till it's found
 The horn's sweet note and the tooth of the hound.

 I bear a burden that might well try
 Men that do all by rule,
 And what can I
 That am a wandering-witted fool
 But pray to God that He ease
 My great responsibilities?


 I slept on my three-legged stool by the fire.
 The speckled cat slept on my knee;
 We never thought to enquire
 Where the brown hare might be,
 And whether the door were shut.
 Who knows how she drank the wind
 Stretched up on two legs from the mat,
 Before she had settled her mind
 To drum with her heel and to leap?
 Had I but awakened from sleep
 And called her name, she had heard.
 It may be, and had not stirred,
 That now, it may be, has found
 The horn's sweet note and the tooth of the hound.
-- William Butler Yeats
When I read this poem in my wanderings I was struck by a strange unease on
reading it. For whatever reason, this poem has dark elements in it. Song I,
I think, tells a tale of fatalism and acceptance of what the future may
hold. It is one that would probably be a folk tale. There is little of edge
in it. And suddenly in song II we are drawn into the world where risks have
fearful consequences. A more real world and not so idyllic as the first.
"drinking the wind" - isn't that what people who live on the edge do? Those
who are in strange alleys in the night, or those who are fighting a war
below the radar of the common man? I don't know. There is some magnetism
about it, and, of course among the two animals which else but the hare would
be drawn to it. Not the quiet, cautious, cunning cat!! Maybe I am reading
too much into it and perhaps there are better interpretations to be sure. I
just get the feeling that I am on the brink peering into a Lord of the Rings
trilogy that, it seems, few cultures evoke as effectively as those of the
islands off the continent. Not only does this poem stir up strange feelings
and hint at forgotten experiences, but also does so with a cadence and rhyme
that makes it roll off the tongue so easily. How much more can one ask for?


To Mrs. Professor in Defense of My Cat's Honor and Not Only -- Czeslaw Milosz

Guest poem submitted by Nisha Susan:
(Poem #1598) To Mrs. Professor in Defense of My Cat's Honor and Not Only
 My valiant helper, a small-sized tiger
 Sleeps sweetly on my desk, by the computer,
 Unaware that you insult his tribe.

 Cats play with a mouse or a half-dead mole.
 You are wrong, though: it's not out of cruelty.
 They simply like a thing that moves.

 For, after all, we know that only consciousness
 Can for a moment move into the Other,
 Empathize with the pain and panic of a mouse.

 And such as cats are, all of Nature is.
 Indifferent, alas, to the good and the evil.
 Quite a problem for us, I am afraid.

 Natural history has its museums,
 But why should our children learn about monsters,
 An earth of snakes and reptiles for millions of years?

 Nature devouring, nature devoured,
 Butchery day and night smoking with blood.
 And who created it?  Was it the good Lord?

 Yes, undoubtedly, they are innocent,
 Spiders, mantises, sharks, pythons.
 We are the only ones who say: cruelty.

 Our consciousness and our conscience
 Alone in the pale anthill of galaxies
 Put their hope in a humane God.

 Who cannot but feel and think,
 Who is kindred to us by warmth and movement,
 For we are, as he told us, similar to Him.

 Yet if it is so, then He takes pity
 On every mouse, on every wounded bird,
 Then the universe for him is like a Crucifixion.

 Such is the outcome of your attack on the cat:
 A theological, Augustinian grimace,
 Which makes difficult our walking on this earth.
-- Czeslaw Milosz
I found an anthology called "The Poetical Cat" recently and peeped in with
quite a bit of suspicion. It might have turned out to be one of those mulchy
last-minute-gift collections. But happily, it was a set of witty and
unfamiliar cat poems from across the world. And it had this lovely Milosz.

It is easy to be a Milosz fan. You can approach any one of his poems weighed
down by angsty questions of "What goes by the name of poetry in this
millenium? What is the role of poetry? Have the criteria for great poetry
changed? Is greatness itself unfashionable?". Then the intelligence, heart
and elegance of Milosz's poems make great writing tangible again. And this
is despite my gratitude for being born in an age when there is the
cleverness of Wendy Cope or the madness of  Ondaatje's Elimination Dance.

In this poem Milosz takes the tiresome squabble between cat people and
non-cat people and actually uses it to critique Christian morality. And this
elevated argument is woven with such grace that it is embarrassing to think
of the mechanics of writing. You are forced to think that this poem was
born, like mangoes were born.

My favourite thing about Milosz is that every poem has a big, robust, fully
flowered idea holding it together. This is of course obvious in classics
like "Ars Poetica" [1]. He is unafraid of taking a stand and equally
unafraid of being in two minds about the Big Questions. In "A Poem For the
End of the Century" [2] he angrily condemns our ability to forget suffering
in pursuit of the feel good factor. In "Conversation with Jeanne" [3] he
does a neat volte face and argues in favour of the beauty of the moment. His
craft is so extraordinary that the poems in conjunction only comfort all of
us who swing from righteous indignation to happy amnesia.

Here is a nice bio of the Nobel Prize winner:
 [broken link]

And lots of poems:

Nisha Susan.

[2] [broken link]
[3] [broken link]

Voyages - I -- Hart Crane

Guest poem submitted by Mark Penney:
(Poem #1597) Voyages - I
 Above the fresh ruffles of the surf
 Bright striped urchins flay each other with sand.
 They have contrived a conquest for shell shucks,
 And their fingers crumble fragments of baked weed
 Gaily digging and scattering.

 And in answer to their treble interjections
 The sun beats lightning on the waves,
 The waves fold thunder on the sand;
 And could they hear me I would tell them:

 O brilliant kids, frisk with your dog,
 Fondle your shells and sticks, bleached
 By time and the elements; but there is a line
 You must not cross nor ever trust beyond it
 Spry cordage of your bodies to caresses
 Too lichen-faithful from too wide a breast.
 The bottom of the sea is cruel.
-- Hart Crane

The archives have strangely neglected Hart Crane; there's been just one of
his poems before.  He died very young (32) and his oeuvre is small -- the
Complete Poems of Hart Crane is just 250 pages -- but still, it seems weird
to ignore one of the seminal poets of the first half of the 20th century.

Crane is one of those people (Sylvia Plath is another, Rimbaud too) where
knowing the poet's biography hugely changes the way you read the poetry.
But ignore what you know about HC for a moment (if you know anything at all,
that is), because this is a great poem even without reading Crane's life
into it.  I love the way this poem captures the fundamental innocence of
children playing on the beach, while simultaneously pointing out the
inherent lack of innocence in the scene.  Even the kids' play itself is less
than innocent: "conquest," "scattering," "crumble," etc.; and they're
playing with sticks "bleached by time and the elements."  The surf and the
sun, normally pleasant images, are transformed by Crane into a thunderstorm.
The third stanza, of course, gives you the reason for all this
transformation of a happy day at the beach into a grim foreboding:  "there
is a line you must not cross," for the sea will seduce you and then drown

"The bottom of the sea is cruel" has a grim certainty about it that
contrasts mightily with the fluidity of all the imagery that comes before
it.  It's almost like the poem is betraying you, in the same way that the
speaker says that the sea will.

Is the speaker of the poem being overprotective?  Overly worried about these
kids?  How, after all, can he know from experience that "the bottom of the
sea is cruel"?  Or is the sea being used as a metaphor for lost innocence in
a larger sense?  I love the ambiguities in this poem.

And then there's the fact that when Crane wrote the "Voyages" sequence (this
poem and five others that follow it) he was having an affair with a Danish
sailor.  "There is a line you must not cross"?  Oodles of ink have been used
up, in academic circles, arguing about what "Voyages" might or might not
have to say on the subject of homosexuality.  And then there's the eerie
fact that Crane committed suicide by jumping off a ship . . . You see what I
mean about how the biography changes the poem.


I Met a Lady in the Wood -- Patrick Barrington

Guest poem submittedy by William Grey:
(Poem #1596) I Met a Lady in the Wood
 I met a lady in the wood.
   No mortal maid, I knew, was she;
 She was no thing of flesh and blood,
   No child of human ancestry.

 Her beauty held my eyes in thrall.
   I spoke to her sweet words, soft-toned.
 She answered me no word at all,
   But only looked at me and moaned.

 I spoke to her about Exchange,
   Of Sterling and its recent rise.
 The subject was beyond her range;
   She stared at me with haunting eyes.

 I touched upon the price of Rye
   And its effect upon the Pound.
 She walked beside me silently,
   Like one that treads on charméd ground.

 She witched me with her elfin grace.
   I spoke of Wages and the Dole
 And briefly sketched for her the case
   For International Control.

 She gazed upon me as I talked;
   Some elfin thing she seemed to be.
 I knew her, by the way she walked,
   A creature of the Faëry.

 Through green and leafy glades we went,
   Knee-deep among the dewy ferns;
 I touched upon the Law of Rent
   And of Diminishing Returns.

 And, as we wandered through the wood
   Mid oaks and elm-tree boles rotund,
 Explained to her as best I could
   The workings of a Sinking Fund.

 I said that Rubber was depressed
   By recent rumours from Malay.
 She only moaned and beat her breast
   And cried aloud, 'Alack-a-day!'

 I said my brokers had foreseen
   A rise in Oil, and asked her view
 As to the trend of Margarine,
   She only answered 'Willaloo!'

 I took her to a green-lit glade
   Where tall trees twined their branches high
 And a moss-muted streamlet made
   Unmeditating melody;

 And there I paused awhile; and there
   I offered her my heart and hand,
 And bade her take me in her care
   To dwell with her in Fairyland.

 I said I was a Whale-oil King,
   With gold and goods and gear in plenty.
 She said she was a Mrs. Byng
   And had a family of twenty.

 She turned and left me where I stood.
   While round her elfin pipes were fluting
 She walked away into the wood,
   And I walked home to Lower Tooting.
-- Patrick Barrington

Edward Lear (1812-1888) was an early pioneer of nonsense poetry, a genre
developed further by the Rev Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, (alias Lewis Carroll,
1832-1898), and more recently by Spike Milligna (the well-known
typing-error, 1918-2002). Barrington (1909-1990) is a golden link in this
brilliant chain of absurdists.

Like many of Barrington's poems the comic effect is generated by an
absurdity of juxtapositions -- perhaps most absurdity comes to that, one way
or another. In this masterpiece of inspired nonsense Barrington juxtaposes
Arcadian romance with economic and commercial discourse. The denouement --
when the identity of the elfin companion is exploded -- is vintage
Barrington. As usual, Barrington's romantic narrative is unconsummated.
(Barrington never married.)

The poem was published in 'Songs of a Sub-Man' (London: Methuen & Company
Limited, 1934). The title of the collection presumably parodies Nietzsche's
"ubermensch" ("overman"). Barrington sketches more than one credible

William Grey.

Still Falls the Rain -- Edith Sitwell

Guest poem submitted by Aseem Kaul:
(Poem #1595) Still Falls the Rain
   The Raids, 1940. Night and Dawn.

 Still falls the Rain---
 Dark as the world of man, black as our loss---
 Blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails
 Upon the Cross.

 Still falls the Rain
 With a sound like the pulse of the heart that is changed to the hammer-beat
 In the Potter's Field, and the sound of the impious feet
 On the Tomb:

         Still falls the Rain

 In the Field of Blood where the small hopes breed and the human brain
 Nurtures its greed, that worm with the brow of Cain.

 Still falls the Rain
 At the feet of the Starved Man hung upon the Cross.
 Christ that each day, each night, nails there, have mercy on us---
 On Dives and on Lazarus:
 Under the Rain the sore and the gold are as one.

 Still falls the Rain---
 Still falls the Blood from the Starved Man's wounded Side:
 He bears in His Heart all wounds,---those of the light that died,
 The last faint spark
 In the self-murdered heart, the wounds of the sad uncomprehending dark,
 The wounds of the baited bear---
 The blind and weeping bear whom the keepers beat
 On his helpless flesh... the tears of the hunted hare.

 Still falls the Rain---
 Then--- O Ile leape up to my God: who pulles me doune---
 See, see where Christ's blood streames in the firmament:
 It flows from the Brow we nailed upon the tree

 Deep to the dying, to the thirsting heart
 That holds the fires of the world,---dark-smirched with pain
 As Caesar's laurel crown.

 Then sounds the voice of One who like the heart of man
 Was once a child who among beasts has lain---
 "Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood, for thee."
-- Edith Sitwell
Continuing the trend of poets I don't care for.

This was the first Sitwell poem I ever read, and it impressed the hell out
of me. Some of the lines in it are (IMHO) truly spectacular. The first
stanza is pure genius, for instance, and I love the image of the baited
bear. And I love how spectacularly visual the poem is - how vividly the
image of dark night turning to crimson dawn comes across. And I love the
sound of it - the repetition of the single line, the restless, switching
rhyme patterns, the ebb and flow of the stanzas that makes this a poem that
cries to be read aloud. But most of all, I love the sheer relentlessness of
it, the way that one repeated line is like a  great hammer striking deep
into the poem again and again, the sense of stopping in utter defeat and
then starting up again, despairing but not defeated. There's a tone to this
poem that both reminds me of Hopkins and seems, sometimes, to anticipate
Sexton and Plath.

Unfortunately nothing else that Sitwell ever wrote comes, in my opinion,
even close to this (after I read this poem I went out and bought the
selected works - I was bitterly disappointed). See for example the other
Sitwell entry on Minstrels (Poem # 849, Sir Beelzebub) - it's not that it's
a bad poem, exactly, but it's a poem that it's easy to be indifferent to -
one that is interesting to read (at least the first time) but packs no real
emotional punch. And Sir Beelzebub is one of her BETTER poems!


As Kingfishers Catch Fire -- Gerard Manley Hopkins

Guest poem submitted by Sarah Kunjummen:
(Poem #1594) As Kingfishers Catch Fire
 As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
 As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
 Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
 Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
 Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
 Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
 Selves -- goes itself; _myself_ it speaks and spells,
 Crying _What I do is me: for that I came_.

 I say more: the just man justices;
 Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
 Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is --
 Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
 Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
 To the Father through the features of men's faces.
-- Gerard Manley Hopkins
           Published in 1918.

This site has a pretty good representation of Hopkins' poetry already, but
one of my favorites was missing, so I couldn't resist sending it in.  This
poem is based on his personal philosophy of inscape, which, if I understand
rightly, is the inner essence or meaning which every created thing has;
somewhat like a platonic ideal, except that each object's inscape is an
intrinsic part of itself. It celebrates a nature which, though perhaps
fallen, is still marvelous in being what it is so exuberantly and

In the second part of the sonnet, Hopkins extends this idea to mankind.  The
just show in their every action an inner character and grace that reflects
the character of God, and in doing so are beautiful to God himself.  The
last four lines hold echoes of Christian doctrines of justification and
sanctification. I love Hopkins's vision of even the most insignificant
things (stones, dragonflies, humans, etc.) having a meaning and beauty
uniquely their own.

The poem is a sonnet, with an abbaabba cdcdcd rhyme scheme, but instead of
the traditional sonnet meter, employs sprung rhythm, a more Germanic type of
poetry in which only emphasized syllables are counted.  In view of this
difference, the strong meter of this poem never fails to surprise me.

Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Jesuit priest, coming into the Catholic church
in the Oxford movement and received by Cardinal Newman.  His poetry was not
published in his lifetime; in fact, he was very far out of the mainstream of
Victorian poetry.  While no information is really necessary to enjoy his
poetry, I think there's a much more extensive bio attached to Poem #606,
"God's Grandeur."


Tao Te Ching: Verse 57 -- Lao-Tzu

Guest poem sent in by Arun Sripati
(Poem #1593) Tao Te Ching: Verse 57
 If you want to be a great leader,
 you must learn to follow the Tao.
 Stop trying to control.
 Let go of fixed plans and concepts,
 and the world will govern itself.

 The more prohibitions you have,
 the less virtuous people will be.
 The more weapons you have,
 the less secure people will be.
 The more subsidies you have,
 the less self-reliant people will be.

 Therefore the Master says:
 I let go of the law,
 and people become honest.
 I let go of economics,
 and people become prosperous.
 I let go of religion,
 and people become serene.
 I let go of all desire for the common good,
 and the good becomes common as grass.
-- Lao-Tzu
 (translated by Stephen Mitchell)

I have discovered - and rediscovered - wonderful poetry on minstrels.  But I
am truly delighted to be able to share a verse from the Tao Te Ching, which
is not represented on this list. As the saying goes, "you don't find a good
book, a good book finds you" - I have known for sometime about the Tao Te
Ching, but when I actually read it recently - the timing was perfect. :-)

Suffice it to say that Tao means "the way", and as verse 1 tells us: "The
tao that can be told/ is not the eternal Tao". The meaning is known in
context; through experience - as we understood things as children.  Life is
replete with opposing elements in balance, and the text seems to express
profound (seemingly contradictory) truths in a really concise manner.

Many verses in the Tao Te Ching are concerned with leadership, like this
one. How difficult it is to "achieve something", especially when it involves
people! We try to impose rules, constitutions, laws, prohibitions - and we
think that we can keep things under control. Yet, is nature like that? Does
nature have fixed rules and categories? We find that the laws that govern
nature readily give rise to a rich and bewildering variety - perhaps we
"impose" order at a level far more superficial than nature does? Maybe the
"letting go" that the Tao Te Ching advises us to do is really a call to
discover that deeper order.


 Full text:

 Wikipedia on the Tao Te Ching:

from The Estranging Sea -- Derek Walcott

(Poem #1592) from The Estranging Sea

 You want to know why?
 Go down to the shacks then,
 like shattered staves
 bound in old wire
 at the hour when
 the sun's wrist bleeds in
 the basin of the sea,
 and you will sense it,

 or follow the path
 of the caked piglet through
 the sea-village's midden,
 past the repeated
 detonations of spray,
 where the death rattle
 gargles in the shale,
 and the crab,
 like a letter, slides
 into its crevice,
 and you may understand this,

 smell the late, ineradicable reek
 of stale rags like rivers
 at daybreak, or the dark corner
 of the salt-caked shop where the cod
 barrel smells of old women
 and you can start then,

 to know how the vise
 of horizon tightens
 the throat, when the first sulphur star
 catches the hum
 of insects round the gas lantern
 like flies round a sore.
 No more? Then hang round the lobby
 of the one cinema too early

 in the hour between two illusions
 where you startle at the chuckle
 of water under the shallop
 of the old schooner basin,
 or else it is still under all
 the frighteningly formal
 marches of banana groves,
 the smell from the armpits of cocoa

 from the dead, open mouths
 of husked nuts
 on the long beach at twilight,
 old mouths filled with water,
 or else with no more to say.


 So you have ceased to ask yourself,
 nor do these things ask you,
 for the bush too is an answer
 without a question,
 as the sea is a question, chafing,
 impatient for answers,
 and we are the same.
 They do not ask us, master,
 do you accept this?
 A nature reduced to the service
 of praising or humbling men,
 there is a yes without a question,
 there is assent founded on ignorance,
 in the mangroves plunged to the wrist, repeating
 the mangroves plunging to the wrist,
 there are spaces
 wider than conscience.

 Yet, when I continue to see
 the young deaths of others,
 even of lean old men, perpetually young,
 when the alphabet I learnt as a child
 will not keep its order,
 see the young wife, self-slain
 like scentful clove in the earth,
 a skin the colour of cinnamon,
 there is something which balances,
 I see him bent under the weight of the morning,
 against its shafts,
 devout, angelical,
 the easel rifling his shoulder,
 the master of Gregorias and myself,
 I see him standing over the bleached roofs
 of the salt-streaked villages,
 each steeple pricked
 by its own wooden star.

 I who dressed too early for the funeral of this life,
 who saw them all, as pilgrims of the night.
-- Derek Walcott
(From Another Life; part IV, The Estranging Sea)

Nobody writes about the sea as well as Walcott. As we struggle to come to
terms with the horror of the tsunami, as we come face to face with these
"spaces wider than conscience" and find the basic order of things that we
depend on suddenly, horifically overturned ("when the alphabet I learnt as a
child will not keep its order"), his is the voice I find myself turning to
for comfort.

One reason I love this poem is because the landscape Walcott so skillfully
paints here is at once vividly familiar and strangely hostile- the poem both
captures the sights and smells of a small coastal fishing village and turns
it into something darker, more sinister. It is, I feel, the right landscape
for the hour.

More importantly, however, I think the poem echoes the sense of confused
loss that we have all felt over the last few weeks. The poem starts
aggressively, but the question raised there is never quite answered, and
Walcott is barely able to maintain this balance between a view of the world
as haphazard and contrary and the glimpse he has of a tired yet still
dominant figure behind all this sorrow. It would be easy (and somewhat
trite) to offer words of understanding here, but Walcott gives us something
deeper: the struggle to understand.


P.S. Another poem that is sadly apt is Marianne Moore's the Grave [Poem #986]

One Cigarette -- Edwin Morgan

Guest poem sent in by Deepak Srinivasan
(Poem #1591) One Cigarette
 No smoke without you, my fire.
 After you left,
 your cigarette glowed on in my ashtray
 and sent up a long thread of such quiet grey
 I smiled to wonder who would believe its signal
 of so much love. One cigarette
 in the non-smoker's tray.
 As the last spire
 trembles up, a sudden draught
 blows it winding into my face.
 Is it smell, is it taste?
 You are here again, and I am drunk on your tobacco lips.
 Out with the light.
 Let the smoke lie back in the dark.
 Till I hear the very ash
 sigh down among the flowers of brass
 I'll breathe, and long past midnight, your last kiss.
-- Edwin Morgan
After reading your selection of Edwin Morgan's poetry (yet again) I continue to
be amazed by the simplicity of the work and yet the intense sense of feelings
that his poems seem to generate. This poem (I respectfully submit) stands among
them for its fineness in depiction of a different kind of nonsmoke without a
fire (in Faulkner speak).  It is good. Very good. From the first to the last.


Big River -- Zachary Richard

Guest poem sent in by Matt Chanoff
(Poem #1590) Big River
 Water's on the river rising
 More water come than float away
 People from Catahoula down to Burway Bay
 They've got no place left to stay
 When the water's coming out the basin
 There ain't nothing waterproof
 Standing on the levee with the river raging
 I've got nothing left to lose

 Big river
 Big river on the rise
 Big river gonna overflow
 Big river is going to wash us to the sea

 Back in 1927
 Six feet of water in Evangeline
 Now the government trying to tell us
 Said that the levee's going to hold next time

 Big river
 Big river on the rise
 Big river is gonna overflow
 Big river is gonna wash us to the sea

 I've seen the water come under the levee
 Boiling up from a crawfish hole
 And before the sun was setting
 Four feet of water in my front door
 Big river
 Big river on the rise
 Big river gonna overflow
 Big river, Oh mighty Mississippi on the rise
 Oh mighty Mississippi is gonna overflow
 Big river
 Gonna wash us to the sea.
-- Zachary Richard
Today's poem is by Zachary Richard, one of the greatest Zydeco singers
around. It's a heartbreaking song -- though you have to hear him sing it for
the full effect. The reason to run it now is painfully obvious.

It's one an album called "Zach's Bon Ton" You can read about Richard at
[broken link]

Matt Chanoff

Epitaph for the Race of Man: X -- Edna St Vincent Millay

(Poem #1589) Epitaph for the Race of Man: X
 The broken dike, the levee washed away,
 The good fields flooded and the cattle drowned,
 Estranged and treacherous all the faithful ground,
 And nothing left but floating disarray
 Of tree and home uprooted, -- was this the day
 Man dropped upon his shadow without a sound
 And died, having laboured well and having found
 His burden heavier than a quilt of clay?
 No, no. I saw him when the sun had set
 In water, leaning on his single oar
 Above his garden faintly glimmering yet...
 There bulked the plough, here washed the updrifted weeds...
 And scull across his roof and make for shore,
 With twisted face and pocket full of seeds.
-- Edna St Vincent Millay
 Part X of the sonnet sequence "Epitaph for the Race of Man".
 Published in the collection "Wine From These Grapes" (1934).
 Form: Petrarchan sonnet.
 Rhyme scheme: abba abba cdcede.


 Poetry can offer consolation in the darkest of times. War, famine and
pestilence; flood, fire and drought -- poets have responded to terrible
events with works of power and passion, and readers have found in these
works new reserves of strength and determination.

 Different poets, of course, have different approaches. For example, Dylan
Thomas' magnificent defiance in the face of death [1] contrasts dramatically
with the quiet acceptance of his namesake R. S. Thomas [2], and they each
have little in common with the heartfelt sorrow of W. H. Auden [3]. Yet each
of their poems speaks powerfully to something basic in human nature; our
experience is the richer for having them put our feelings into words.

 Today's poem offers yet another response to tragedy: that even in the
depths of despair, life (symbolized by the "pocket full of seeds") goes on.
Flooded fields can be drained; trees replanted; homes rebuilt. It's true
that we cannot bring back the lives that have been lost, but what we can do,
we will. It is this that makes us human; it is this that makes us great.
This is Millay's theme, and it is both heartbreakingly sad and profoundly


[1] Poem #38, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night -- Dylan Thomas
[2] Poem #392, Good -- R. S. Thomas
[3] Poem #256, Funeral Blues -- W. H. Auden

 [And finally]

 Poetry can console, but for those most affected by the terrible events of
last week, mere words may not be enough. We urge readers of the Minstrels to
contribute generously to various tsunami relief efforts; the following
website has a comprehensive set of donation links:

 Incidentally, Martin, Sitaram and myself all come from south India, and we
each have family and friends there; fortunately, none of our near and dear
were hurt in the cataclysm. We thank all those who wrote in to express their

At a Lecture -- Joseph Brodsky

Guest poem sent in by Aseem
(Poem #1588) At a Lecture
 Since mistakes are inevitable, I can easily be taken
 for a man standing before you in this room filled
 with yourselves. Yet in about an hour
 this will be corrected, at your and at my expense,
 and the place will be reclaimed by elemental particles
 free from the rigidity of a particular human shape
 or type of assembly. Some particles are still free. It's not all dust.

 So my unwillingness to admit it's I
 facing you now, or the other way around,
 has less to do with my modesty or solipsism
 than with my respect for the premises' instant future,
 for those afore-mentioned free-floating particles
 settling upon the shining surface
 of my brain. Inaccessible to a wet cloth eager to wipe them off.

 The most interesting thing about emptiness
 is that it is preceded by fullness.
 The first to understand this were, I believe, the Greek
 gods, whose forte indeed was absence.
 Regard, then, yourselves as rehearsing perhaps for the divine encore,
 with me playing obviously to the gallery.
 We all act out of vanity. But I am in a hurry.

 Once you know the future, you can make it come
 earlier. The way it's done by statues or by one's furniture.
 Self-effacement is not a virtue
 but a necessity, recognised most often
 toward evening. Though numerically it is easier
 not to be me than not to be you. As the swan confessed
 to the lake: I don't like myself. But you are welcome to my reflection.
-- Joseph Brodsky

It's so rare to find a truly great poet who's not represented on
Minstrels, that discovering that you don't have a single Brodsky poem
was an almost electric shock of opportunity. And so, like water pouring
into a plug suddenly pulled, this poem.

One reason, perhaps, that Brodsky doesn't feature on Minstrels is that
most of his best poems are too long to fit on the site (see for example
'A part of speech' or 'Strophes' or 'Lullaby on Cape Cod' or the
incredible 'Gorbunov and Gorchakov') - finding something short enough
proved quite a task.

This poem, written in English in 1995, will do nicely though. For one
thing, it expresses brilliantly the sense I always have while reading
Brodsky of listening to someone older and infinitely wiser talk - an
urge to just shut up and listen. Not that Brodsky ever talks down or
lectures (self-effacement, as the poem suggests, is a common theme in
his work) but because his words have such an aching yet simple ring of
truth that one wishes one could memorise them forever just as one is
sure one will have forgotten them tomorrow. Brodsky is not a poet who
can be remembered or quoted - his voice is not so easily trapped (In A
Part of Speech he writes: "Hence all rhymes, hence that wan flat voice
/ that ripples between them like hair still moist / if it ripples at
all). And yet to read him is to experience a sense of quiet and
half-cynical longing that stays with you long after the words of the
poem are forgotten.

That's why I think the last line of this poem captures Brodsky exactly.
To read him is to be a mirror to a truly great intellect, holding on to
his images for as long as one can, knowing that once they leave the
world will seem strangely blank.


        Joseph Brodsky died on January 28, 1996.

Six Significant Landscapes -- Wallace Stevens

Guest poem sent in by Cristina Gazzieri
(Poem #1587) Six Significant Landscapes
 An old man sits
 In the shadow of a pine tree
 In China.
 He sees larkspur,
 Blue and white,
 At the edge of the shadow,
 Move in the wind.
 His beard moves in the wind.
 The pine tree moves in the wind.
 Thus water flows
 Over weeds.

 The night is of the colour
 Of a woman's arm:
 Night, the female,
 Fragrant and supple,
 Conceals herself.
 A pool shines,
 Like a bracelet
 Shaken in a dance.

 I measure myself
 Against a tall tree.
 I find that I am much taller,
 For I reach right up to the sun,
 With my eye;
 And I reach to the shore of the sea
 With my ear.
 Nevertheless, I dislike
 The way ants crawl
 In and out of my shadow.

 When my dream was near the moon,
 The white folds of its gown
 Filled with yellow light.
 The soles of its feet
 Grew red.
 Its hair filled
 With certain blue crystallizations
 From stars,
 Not far off.

 Not all the knives of the lamp-posts,
 Nor the chisels of the long streets,
 Nor the mallets of the domes
 And high towers,
 Can carve
 What one star can carve,
 Shining through the grape-leaves.

 Rationalists, wearing square hats,
 Think, in square rooms,
 Looking at the floor,
 Looking at the ceiling.
 They confine themselves
 To right-angled triangles.
 If they tried rhomboids,
 Cones, waving lines, ellipses --
 As, for example, the ellipse of the half-moon --
 Rationalists would wear sombreros.
-- Wallace Stevens
I have often worked with classes of students on this poem, and I like doing
it because each class, when discussing and interpreting it make it a very
peculiar poem; I have tried to gather the different interpretations my
students and I have been giving to the poem and to unite them . The titles
has, of course, influenced all class discussions. If these are "Six
Significant Landscapes" we have always started from the effort to visualize
them and then to attribute them meaning.  What has emerged is, more or less

 |Stanzas|Continents| Types         |Themes           |Messages           |
 |I      |Asia      |The philosopher|Time vs. Eternity|Man can acquire    |
 |       |          |               |                 |wisdom to          |
 |       |          |               |                 |appreciate what is |
 |       |          |               |                 |valuable (water)   |
 |       |          |               |                 |and what is not    |
 |       |          |               |                 |(weeds)            |
 |II     |Africa    |The dancer     |The fascination  |Man can appreciate |
 |       |          |               |and sensuality of|and enjoy the      |
 |       |          |               |natural life.    |fascination of     |
 |       |          |               |                 |life.              |
 |       |          |               |                 |                   |
 |III    |-         |The poet       |Awareness of the |Man must judge     |
 |       |          |               |ego, in          |himself and        |
 |       |          |The man        |comparison with  |collocate himself  |
 |       |          |               |nature and other |in the universe and|
 |       |          |               |people.          |in society         |
 |IV     |America   |The divinity   |Ideality,        |It is also         |
 |       |          |               |spiritual        |pleasant/important |
 |       |          |               |elevation        |to cultivate       |
 |       |          |               |                 |dreams.            |
 |V      |Europe    |-              |Art vs. nature   |Nature is the most |
 |       |          |               |                 |appealing form of  |
 |       |          |               |                 |art. (however      |
 |       |          |               |                 |suggestive art     |
 |       |          |               |                 |could be)          |
 |VI     |-         |Rationalists   |The self-imposed |Man should look    |
 |       |          |               |limits of        |beyond the limits  |
 |       |          |               |rationalism.     |of any kind of     |
 |       |          |               |                 |ideology           |

This is only a limitative synthesis of all that this poem has suggested,
but, in general, when we come to the last stanza of the poem we have often
found, or felt that to interpret the poem simply as "rationalism is a limit"
was disqualifying the poem. Personally, I think that the final message is
that a "complete" man should have all these "landscapes" in himself, and,
especially, he should try to look afar, beyond the boundaries suggested by
his own continent, language, religion, natural background, social status,
cultural background ... trying to perceive or create more and more
landscapes of the soul.


The Explorer -- Rudyard Kipling

(Poem #1586) The Explorer
 "There's no sense in going further -- it's the edge of cultivation,"
   So they said, and I believed it -- broke my land and sowed my crop --
 Built my barns and strung my fences in the little border station
   Tucked away below the foothills where the trails run out and stop:

 Till a voice, as bad as Conscience, rang interminable changes
   On one everlasting Whisper day and night repeated -- so:
 "Something hidden.  Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges --
   "Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and wating for you. Go!"

 So I went, worn out of patience; never told my nearest neighbours --
   Stole away with pack and ponies -- left 'em drinking in the town;
 And the faith that moveth mountains didn't seem to help my labours
   As I faced the sheer main-ranges, whipping up and leading down.

 March by march I puzzled through 'em, turning flanks and dodging shoulders,
   Hurried on in hope of water, headed back for lack of grass;
 Till I camped above the tree-line -- drifted snow and naked boulders --
   Felt free air astir to windward -- knew I'd stumbled on the Pass.

 'Thought to name it for the finder: but that night the Norther found me --
   Froze and killed the plains-bred ponies; so I called the camp Despair
 (It's the Railway Gap to-day, though). Then my Whisper waked to hound me: --
   "Something lost behind the Ranges.  Over yonder! Go you there!"

 Then I knew, the while I doubted -- knew His Hand was certain o'er me.
   Still -- it might be self-delusion -- scores of better men had died --
 I could reach the township living, but.... He knows what terror tore me...
   But I didn't... but I didn't. I went down the other side.

 Till the snow ran out in flowers, and the flowers turned to aloes,
   And the aloes sprung to thickets and a brimming stream ran by;
 But the thickets dwined to thorn-scrub, and the water drained to shallows,
   And I dropped again on desert -- blasted earth, and blasting sky....

 I remember lighting fires; I remember sitting by 'em;
   I remember seeing faces, hearing voices, through the smoke;
 I remember they were fancy -- for I threw a stone to try 'em.
   "Something lost behind the Ranges" was the only word they spoke.

 I remember going crazy. I remember that I knew it
 When I heard myself hallooing to the funny folk I saw.
 'Very full of dreams that desert, but my two legs took me through it...
 And I used to watch 'em moving with the toes all black and raw.

 But at last the country altered -- White Man's country past disputing --
   Rolling grass and open timber, with a hint of hills behind --
 There I found me food and water, and I lay a week recruiting.
   Got my strength and lost my nightmares.  Then I entered on my find.

 Thence I ran my first rough survey -- chose my trees and blazed and ringed 'em
   Week by week I pried and sampled -- week by week my findings grew.
 Saul he went to look for donkeys, and by God he found a kingdom!
   But by God, who sent His Whisper, I had struck the worth of two!

 Up along the hostile mountains, where the hair-poised snowslide shivers --
   Down and through the big fat marshes that the virgin ore-bed stains,
 Till I heard the mile-wide mutterings of unimagined rivers,
   And beyond the nameless timber saw illimitable plains!

 'Plotted sites of future cities, traced the easy grades between 'em;
   Watched unharnessed rapids wasting fifty thousand head an hour;
 Counted leagues of water-frontage through the axe-ripe woods that screen 'em
   Saw the plant to feed a people -- up and waiting for the power!

 Well, I know who'll take the credit -- all the clever chaps that followed --
   Came, a dozen men together -- never knew my desert-fears;
 Tracked me by the camps I'd quitted, used the water-holes I hollowed.
   They'll go back and do the talking. They'll be called the Pioneers!

 They will find my sites of townships -- not the cities that I set there.
   They will rediscover rivers -- not my rivers heard at night.
 By my own old marks and bearings they will show me how to get there,
   By the lonely cairns I builded they will guide my feet aright.

 Have I named one single river? Have I claimed one single acre?
   Have I kept one single nugget -- (barring samples)? No, not I!
 Because my price was paid me ten times over by my Maker.
   But you wouldn't understand it. You go up and occupy.

 Ores you'll find there; wood and cattle; water-transit sure and steady
   (That should keep the railway rates down), coal and iron at your doors.
 God took care to hide that country till He judged His people ready,
   Then He chose me for His Whisper, and I've found it, and it's yours!

 Yes, your "Never-never country" -- yes, your "edge of cultivation"
   And "no sense in going further" -- till I crossed the range to see.
 God forgive me! No, I didn't. It's God's present to our nation.
  Anybody might have found it, but -- His Whisper came to Me!
-- Rudyard Kipling
I can never read this poem without feeling an answering thrill in my heart,
without the hairs on my arms rising in response and a shiver running down my
spine. This is Kipling at his best, and his best - as I keep on
rediscovering - is very, very good indeed. And while today's poem is perhaps
not one of his "famous" ones, while it may never attain the prominence of
"Tommy" or "East and West", its subject is clearly one that was dear to
Kipling's heart, that he returned to again and again in poetry and prose.

And it is that passion that sparkles through the poem, that infuses it with
all the romance of exploration - "Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost
and wating for you. Go!" - and the relentless purity of the drive:

   Have I named one single river? Have I claimed one single acre?
     Have I kept one single nugget -- (barring samples)? No, not I!
   Because my price was paid me ten times over by my Maker.
     But you wouldn't understand it. You go up and occupy.

Most of Kipling's best work is set in the turbulent borderland between
civilisation and wilderness; today's poem definitely deserves a place in
that number.