Saturday, March 21, 2015

On Poetry in the Norton Anthology of English Literature

Today is World Poetry Day, so in its honor I resurrect this post on poetry I was reading in 2009.

I did a lot of studying for the Subject GRE in English. A lot. I read (okay, mostly skimmed) over 6,000 pages of works by English authors. The whole GRE experience was nuts, but reading centuries of poetry was enlightening. I'd go so far to say it was even FUN sometimes. Sometimes. 

Writers are brilliant. Plain and simple. Here's a sampling of what I read, and thoroughly enjoyed, from Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume One.

Astrophil and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney
Come sleep! O sleep the certain knot of peace,
the baiting place of wit, the balm of woe,
The poor man’s wealth; the prisoner’s release,
Th’ indifferent judge between the high and low;
--Isn't it true? Everyone sleeps! Rich, poor, high class, low class, old and young? I love the depiction of sleep as an equalizer.

To Virgins, to Make Much of Time by Robert Herrick
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may go marry:
For having lost but once your prime
You may forever tarry.
--Hell yeah, you supposedly prudish 17th-Century poet. Use those four stanzas to encourage promiscuity!

Upon the Nipples of Julia's Breast by Robert Herrick
He devotes the poem to his lover Julia's nipples. Ultimate compliment? My favorite metaphor for nipples: "strawberries half-drowned in cream."

The Imperfect Enjoyment by John Wilmot
Although the title doesn't give it all away up front, this poem is all about male impotence. HA. Okay, sorry. Who would ever write about that now? Best metaphor: " the all-dissolving thunderbolt below."

The Disappointment by Aphra Behn
This poem was Aphra Behn's response to The Imperfect Enjoyment. HAHA again. Love it. There was a big battle of the sexes going on in this period.

The Lady's Dressing Room by Jonathan Swift
You may recognize the name Jonathan Swift, for he is the author of the lovely "Gulliver's Travels." Anyhoo, he wrote this poem, and reading the title you wouldn't expect it to be what it is: a revelation that a woman's dressing room is a pigsty and that she is not all sparkles and rainbows. Here, a man is invited into his lover's dressing room where he discovers that she, in fact, releases excrement: "Repeating in his amorous fits/ Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!" Looks like that girls-don't-poop mentality goes way back.

John Gay's Epitaph
Life is a jest, and all things show it;
I thought so once, but now I know it.
--Love it! Just love it.

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia by Samuel Johnson
Johnson writes of the source of discontent in basic human nature: "the hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life" and which lures us to "listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope." Amazing. I never knew words could accurately describe this.

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