This week’s choices reflect Valentine’s Day, reminding us of the lightness we feel on this day devoted to love, and warning us of the pitfalls.
John Donne offers a cynical view of the opposite sex with “Song: Go and Catch a Falling Star”; Andrew Marvell writes “To His Coy Mistress”, urging her to seize the moment and return his loving advances, and Robert Browning’s Duke of Ferrara speaks of “My Last Duchess” in chilling fashion.
Poem 142. Song: Go and Catch a Falling Star
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,John Donne (1572—1631)
Or to keep off envy’s stinging
Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil’s foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy’s stinging,
Serves to advance an honest mind.
If thou be’st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights
Til age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return’st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
Lives a woman true and fair.
If thou find’st one, let me know,
Such a pilgrimage were sweet,
Yet do not—I would not go,
Thou at next door we might meet,
Though she were true when you met her,
And last til you write your letter,
False ere I come, to two or three.
This poem has a very cynical narrator, who says to his friend that they are more likely to achieve anything on the list of impossibilities given at the start of the poem than to find “a woman true and fair” on their journeys. It seems clear that the narrator has not had a successful (or perhaps any) love life and has adopted a jaundiced view of women, as evidenced by the assertion of the last stanza: even if the narrator should choose to go in search of this ideal woman, she would have courted two or three others before he even arrives at her door.
I do feel there are hints that the narrator is not completely committed to misogyny: he suggests that the search for this ideal woman would be a sweet pilgrimage before retreating to his cynical posture. I also sense that the early line of the poem “Teach me to hear mermaids singing, or to keep off envy’s stinging” suggests that the narrator does love someone, but they are perhaps uninterested in him or are committed to another, so his love has become envy.
This is another poem I remember listening to Richard Burton recite, he enunciated the words beautifully.
- Listen to Richard Burton’s reading on YouTube.
Poem 143. To His Coy Mistress
The grave’s a fine and private place,Andrew Marvell (1621—1678)
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
This poem is a love letter to the intended, cajoling and wheedling her to be more amorous before time sweeps them both away. It is described as a ‘Carpe Diem’ poem, meaning ‘Seize the day’: grasp your opportunity before it is lost.
The narrator begins by describing how he and his beloved might behave if there was no limit to the time afforded them, she walking by the Ganges and finding rubies by its side; he complaining by the Humber (seems like a worthwhile use of time) from “ten years before the Flood” until “the Conversion of the Jews” (presumably to Christianity, an event as impossible now as it was in the seventeenth century). He dwells on the length of time he would like to devote to each part of her: thousands of years or “an age”—a period he considers appropriate to properly appreciating her beauty.
As if recalled from his reverie by the tolling of a bell, he goes on to emphasise that nothing lasts forever and once Death claims us, we have no more time for beauty, modesty, honour, and love.
In the third part of the poem, the narrator really urges his sweetheart to seize the moment and join him, sporting “like am’rous birds of prey” so that all sense of time is lost and, “though we cannot make our Sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run.”
Several phrases from the poem have been alluded to by other writers, as outlined in its Wikipedia article. One reference not caught by the article (at the time of writing) is a parody in Terry Pratchett’s “Unseen Academicals” when the protagonist is deliberating which masterpiece he should use as an inspiration for the love poem he’s writing on his boss’s behalf and chooses “Robert Scandal’s famous poem, ‘Oi! To his Deaf Mistress’.”
- Read about the poem on Wikipedia.
Poem 144. My Last Duchess
Sir, ’twas notRobert Browning (1812—1899)
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek; perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat.” Such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—which I have not—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse—
E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretense
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!
This poem is written as if spoken by the Duke of Ferrara, who symbolises a caste of Italian magnates as well known for their proud natures as for their patronage of the arts. He is speaking to a visitor who he has brought to a private area in his home as if to demonstrate his love of art but has an ulterior motive which we discover at the end of the poem.
He praises the artist’s skill in capturing the happy young woman who is the subject of the portrait and moves on to speak of his wife but in a rather cold and objective way, less effusively than he speaks of the artist.
He tells us quite a lot about her, and it seems she was a charming woman who was amiable to everyone and this was her downfall (“she had a heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad”)—that he and his ancient name meant no more to her than anything else (“she ranked my gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name with anybody’s gift”). The painter, the mule she rode, the cherries picked for her by “some official fool”—all these were as one with his high estate. This clearly rankled and he strove to make her act in accordance with his will but this was in vain and rather darkly he concludes “I gave commands; then all smiles stopped together. There she stands as if alive.” This dreadful man clearly had his first wife killed because she wouldn’t treat him any differently than the meanest peasant.
The poem then moves on to an even more sinister tack: he addresses his visitor who, it seems, is an envoy from another nobleman—a Count—who has a daughter of marriageable age. The Duke clearly desires the Count’s money more than his daughter, who is only mentioned as a footnote to his observations on the dowry, underlining the repellent Duke’s attitude to women.
I suppose this is an odd choice for the theme of Valentine’s Day but it demonstrates the person who is only interested in the opposite sex as a means to an end—the dark side of the fun and joy that this day of love should bring.