Monday, February 28, 2011

Edwin Muir

Edwin Muir (1887–1959) was born in the Orkney Islands at the northern extremity of Scotland. When he was 14, his family went through a move — which was traumatic for Edwin — from their farm in Orkney to industrial Glasgow. He later described it as like being expelled from Eden into the fallen world — and the journey felt like setting out in 1751, before the industrial revolution, and arriving in Glasgow in 1901. Over the next few years his father, two brothers and his mother would all die.

Muir saw his life as echoing the loss of Eden and a gradual regaining of it — a lifelong spiritual journey. He struggled with the harsh Calvinism of his upbringing — and briefly abandoned faith altogether. Becoming conscious of immortality was an important early step back. He wrote many poems relating to faith and the scriptures. “The Killing” for example paints a picture of the crucifixion:
-------------That was the day they killed the Son of God
-------------On a squat hill-top by Jerusalem.
-------------Zion was bare, her children from their maze
-------------Sucked by the dream of curiosity
-------------Clean through the gates. The very halt and blind
-------------Had somehow got themselves up to the hill...

In the early 1950s Muir was Warden of Newbattle Abbey College near Edinburgh. He became a significant influence and encouragement to the poet George Mackay Brown (also from Orkney) who was a mature student there. In 1955 Edwin Muir became Norton Professor of English at Harvard.

During his lifetime he published seven separate volumes of poetry. In 1965 T.S. Eliot edited and wrote an introduction to Edwin Muir’s Selected Poems.

They could not tell me who should be my lord


They could not tell me who should be my lord,
But I could read from every word they said
The common thought: Perhaps that lord was dead,
And only a story now and a wandering word.
How could I follow a word or serve a fable,
They asked me. `Here are lords a-plenty. Take
Service with one, if only for your sake,
Yet better be your own master if you're able.'
I would rather scour the roads, a masterless dog,
Than take such service, be a public fool,
Obstreperous or tongue-tied, a good rogue,
Than be with those, the clever and the dull,
Who say that lord is dead; when I hear
Daily his dying whisper in my ear.

Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: www.dsmartin.ca

Monday, February 21, 2011

John Donne

John Donne (1572–1631) was praised in his own time, yet his significance as a major poet was not clearly acknowledged until the twentieth century. His poetry is quite different than that of those who went before, or even of his contemporaries — abandoning the flowery cliché conceits of the Elizabethans for more intellectual and concentrated images. He is associated with other “metaphysical poets” who followed him, such as George Herbert and Henry Vaughan.

Born and raised in an English Catholic family, he chose to shift his allegiance to the Anglican church in the 1590s. He was appointed dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1621 — a post which he held until his death.

Besides his poems, John Donne is admired for his sermons and meditations — such as Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624). Number 17, from this series, is the source of the famous lines “no man is an island” and “for whom the bell tolls” which Ernest Hemingway selected as the title of his novel.

As can be seen within much of his poetry, Donne was obsessed with death. He preached his own funeral sermon “Death’s Duel” shortly before he died. He also posed in a shroud for a painting which was completed a few weeks before his death. This painting was the model for the effigy which was later completed of him. When I visited St. Paul’s, I could clearly see the scorch marks at the bottom of this statue, from the great fire of London in 1666.

The following poem is from his Holy Sonnets.

XIV

Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end,
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue,
Yet dearly’I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy,
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: www.dsmartin.ca

Monday, February 14, 2011

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861) was a prominent English Victorian poet. She had been a prodigy who, while still young, became enthusiastic for the study of classic literature and devoted to Christian faith. At about age 20, she began battling long-term illness which troubled her for the rest of her life.

Even though her domineering father’s income came partly from slave labour on Jamaican plantations, she was opposed to slavery — and wrote poems against it. When abolition came, in the 1830s, it undermined the family’s wealth. She also wrote The Cry of the Children (1842) which condemned child labour, and helped promote reform.

Her popular 1844 book, Poems, prompted Robert Browning to write a letter of admiration. By 1845 he had come to visit her, where she lived as an invalid in her father’s home. This began, perhaps, the most famous literary romance of all time. By 1846 the Brownings secretly married and eloped to Italy, where her health greatly improved; her father never forgave her, even though their marriage was happy.

Her famous sequence — Sonnets from the Portuguese — records the stages of her love for Robert Browning; the most famous of these is the following sonnet:

Sonnet #43

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, — I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! — and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

The Meaning of the Look

I think that look of Christ might seem to say—
`Thou Peter! art thou then a common stone
Which I at last must break my heart upon
For all God`s charge to his high angels may
Guard my foot better? Did I yesterday
Wash thy feet, my beloved, that they should run
Quick to deny me `neath the morning sun?
And do thy kisses, like the rest, betray?
The cock crows coldly.—GO, and manifest
A late contrition, but no bootless fear!
For when thy final need is dreariest,
Thou shalt not be denied, as I am here;
My voice to God and angels shall attest,
Because I KNOW this man, let him be clear.`

Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: www.dsmartin.ca

Monday, February 7, 2011

Geoffrey Hill

In June 2010, Geoffrey Hill was overwhelmingly elected the 44th Professor of Poetry at Oxford University — a post established in 1708, that has been held by such celebrated poets as Matthew Arnold, W.H. Auden and Seamus Heaney. Until now, he has been conspicuously passed over for such honours. The witty name of his 2006 collection Without Title, has now lost its punch.

Hill’s poetry has often been criticised for being deliberately allusive, complex, and full of red-herrings, partly because he uses foreign words (untranslated) and obscure references (unfootnoted). In this he has often been compared with T.S. Eliot. According to Gregory Wolfe of Image, “The subjects that preoccupy Hill” are “the mystery of sin, our forgetfulness of the past, the enormous responsibility that rests on those who use words in the public realm, and the triumph of vanity and superficiality in contemporary culture”.

The following excerpt is from the book-length poem, The Triumph of Love (1998). It consists of 150 sections — perhaps reflecting the number of Psalms in the Old Testament — and like the Psalms it is both penitential and accusational. One target of the poem is the error of World War II and its sad aftermath; here he also wrestles with finding an appropriate poetic voice for expressing the horrors of the war and the postwar period.

from The Triumph of Love XVII

If the gospel is heard, all else follows:
the scattering, the diaspora,
the shtetlach, ash pits, pits of indigo dye.
Penitence can be spoken of, it is said,
but is itself beyond words;
even broken speech presumes. Those Christian Jews
of the first Church, huddled sabbath-survivors,
keepers of the word; silent, inside twenty years,
doubly outcast: even so I would remember—
the scattering, the diaspora.
We do not know the saints.
His mercy is greater even than his wisdom.
If the gospel is heard, all else follows.
We shall rise again, clutching our wounds.

Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: www.dsmartin.ca