The beautiful Robert Burns wrote love songs. He battles homely Auden in the North.
W.H. Auden takes on Bobby Burns as the 2013 Scarriet Poetry March Madness Tournament rolls on.
Auden, a 20th century “Romantic” poet, is the no. 6 seed in the North, and takes on no. 11 seed Robert Burns, the 18th century Scottish song-writer and balladeer. Auden, who wrote opera librettos, also wrote plenty of ballads, a form we’re sure can survive all.
What is the link between romantic love and sex? Surely there’s a fine line between them, which Freud managed to blur thoroughly.
We might say that as love is to sex, mental health is to bodily health.
One might even say that sex is where body and mind meet rather harshly, and love is where body and mind meet more delicately.
Freud, the doctor, is taken seriously as such, as Auden the poet, in this ballad, warns that childless women will get cancer.
Auden’s ballad, “Miss Gee:”
Let me tell you a little story
About Miss Edith Gee;
She lived in Clevedon Terrace
At number 83.
She’d a slight squint in her left eye,
Her lips they were thin and small,
She had narrow sloping shoulders
And she had no bust at all.
She’d a velvet hat with trimmings,
And a dark grey serge costume;
She lived in Clevedon Terrace
In a small bed-sitting room.
She’d a purple mac for wet days,
A green umbrella too to take,
She’d a bicycle with shopping basket
And a harsh back-pedal break.
The Church of Saint Aloysius
Was not so very far;
She did a lot of knitting,
Knitting for the Church Bazaar.
Miss Gee looked up at the starlight
And said, ‘Does anyone care
That I live on Clevedon Terrace
On one hundred pounds a year?’
She dreamed a dream one evening
That she was the Queen of France
And the Vicar of Saint Aloysius
Asked Her Majesty to dance.
But a storm blew down the palace,
She was biking through a field of corn,
And a bull with the face of the Vicar
Was charging with lowered horn.
She could feel his hot breath behind her,
He was going to overtake;
And the bicycle went slower and slower
Because of that back-pedal break.
Summer made the trees a picture,
Winter made them a wreck;
She bicycled to the evening service
With her clothes buttoned up to her neck.
She passed by the loving couples,
She turned her head away;
She passed by the loving couples,
And they didn’t ask her to stay.
Miss Gee sat in the side-aisle,
She heard the organ play;
And the choir sang so sweetly
At the ending of the day,
Miss Gee knelt down in the side-aisle,
She knelt down on her knees;
‘Lead me not into temptation
But make me a good girl, please.’
The days and nights went by her
Like waves round a Cornish wreck;
She bicycled down to the doctor
With her clothes buttoned up to her neck.
She bicycled down to the doctor,
And rang the surgery bell;
‘O, doctor, I’ve a pain inside me,
And I don’t feel very well.’
Doctor Thomas looked her over,
And then he looked some more;
Walked over to his wash-basin,
Said,’Why didn’t you come before?’
Doctor Thomas sat over his dinner,
Though his wife was waiting to ring,
Rolling his bread into pellets;
Said, ‘Cancer’s a funny thing.
‘Nobody knows what the cause is,
Though some pretend they do;
It’s like some hidden assassin
Waiting to strike at you.
‘Childless women get it.
And men when they retire;
It’s as if there had to be some outlet
For their foiled creative fire.’
His wife she rang for the servant,
Said, ‘Don’t be so morbid, dear’;
He said: ‘I saw Miss Gee this evening
And she’s a goner, I fear.’
They took Miss Gee to the hospital,
She lay there a total wreck,
Lay in the ward for women
With her bedclothes right up to her neck.
They lay her on the table,
The students began to laugh;
And Dr. Rose the surgeon
He cut Miss Gee in half.
Dr. Rose he turned to his students,
Said, ‘Gentlemen if you please,
We seldom see a sarcoma
As far advanced as this.’
They took her off the table,
They wheeled away Miss Gee
Down to another department
Where they study Anatomy.
They hung her from the ceiling
Yes, they hung up Miss Gee;
And a couple of Oxford Groupers
Carefully dissected her knee.
Now we move from Auden’s Dr. Rose to Bobby Burns’ “Red, Red Rose,” a ballad which does not lack “creative fire”:
O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.
As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry:
Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.
And fare thee well, my only Luve
And fare thee well, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.
There is no way to adequately explain the greatness of this little poem; it is like beauty or love itself: it has a truth beyond words.
Shakespeare, in his Sonnets, famously mocked the whole idea of simile, of metaphor, the whole notion of equating X and Y, of saying that this was “like” that. One only has to think of Sonnet 130, “My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun,” or Sonnet 18, “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day,” both of which imply all comparison is odious, false, misleading, and tedious: my love’s eyes like the sun? Uh…not really. If I compare you to a summer’s day, will that work? Nope.
Burns seems to run right into this falsehood with “my love is like a red, red rose,” but one only has to reverse the stanzas in Burns’ ballad, putting the comparison stanza last, to see how the stanzas of action “I will come again,” are more important and are properly placed at the end. Burns’ poem moves quickly from the sight-oriented “red red rose” to the ideality of “in tune,” and “I will luve thee still,” to the final “And I will come again, tho’ it were…” It is not ostentatious, but the poem does have a movement: the simile of the rose is the pretty introduction, not the heart of the poem.
Just as the Auden ballad explicitly warns that standing water breeds disease (childless women get cancer), the Burns ballad implicitly champions movement and action (the lover’s pledge eclipses the rose simile).
Can it be these two very different poems from different eras have the same message?
In another North battle, we have this exquisite match-up: “Delight In Disorder” by Herrick (7th Seeded) v. “I Knew A Woman” by Roethke (10th Seeded). Holy Cow!
Here’s “Delight in Disorder:”
A SWEET disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness :
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction :
An erring lace which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher :
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbons to flow confusedly :
A winning wave (deserving note)
In the tempestuous petticoat :
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility :
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.
And “I Knew A Woman:”
I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek.)
How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin:
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing did we make.)
Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved.)
Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I’m martyr to a motion not my own;
What’s freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways.)
Like Auden/ Burns, these two poems from different eras are very similar; although the Roethke ‘gets more into it,’ the Herrick says the same thing: “she moved more ways than one,” as the Roethke puts it.
This is a memorability issue: the Roethke is richer, but the Herrick sticks in the mind: who can forget, “Is too precise in every part.”So who do you give it to?And to finish first round North action: Wallace Stevens faces William Blake: “Peter Quince” (8th seeded) v. “How Sweet I Roamed” (9th seeded).
William Blake’s poem, the older one, has that quotable memorableness which so often more complex modern poems lack. It shines, this poem—it’s bright to look at:
How Sweet I Roam’d
How sweet I roam’d from field to field,
And tasted all the summer’s pride
‘Til the prince of love beheld
Who in the sunny beams did glide!
He shew’d me lilies for my hair
And blushing roses for my brow;
He led me through his garden fair,
Where all his golden pleasures grow.
With sweet May dews my wings were wet,
And Phoebus fir’d my vocal rage
He caught me in his silken net,
And shut me in his golden cage.
He loves to sit and hear me sing,
Then, laughing, sports and plays with me;
Then stretches out my golden wing,
And mocks my loss of liberty.
The beauty of Love contrasted with the poet’s “loss of liberty” is sweetly, swiftly and deliciously rendered; Blake’s exhuberance knocks one over. No poet rages within formal convention like Blake—there’s a lesson in that alone.
Stevens, to our ears, gets the sound of Romanticism in places, and the sense of it in other places, but rarely gets it all at once. This poem has the feel of a jaded jingler, a soul not quite believing in song, even as it wishes to sing. Quince reminds us of Eliot’s Sweeney—and Eliot’s Mrs. Porter section from The Waste Land.
PETER QUINCE AT THE CLAVIER
Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,
Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna;
Of a green evening, clear and warm,
She bathed in her still garden, while
The red-eyed elders, watching, felt
The basses of their beings throb
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.
In the green water, clear and warm,
The touch of springs,
For so much melody.
Upon the bank, she stood
In the cool
Of spent emotions.
She felt, among the leaves,
Of old devotions.
She walked upon the grass,
The winds were like her maids,
On timid feet,
Fetching her woven scarves,
A breath upon her hand
Muted the night.
She turned —
A cymbal crashed,
Amid roaring horns.
Soon, with a noise like tambourines,
Came her attendant Byzantines.
They wondered why Susanna cried
Against the elders by her side;
And as they whispered, the refrain
Was like a willow swept by rain.
Anon, their lamps’ uplifted flame
Revealed Susanna and her shame.
And then, the simpering Byzantines
Fled, with a noise like tambourines.
Beauty is momentary in the mind —
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.
The body dies; the body’s beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of winter, done repenting.
So maidens die, to the auroral
Celebration of a maiden’s choral.
Susanna’s music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death’s ironic scraping.
Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.
Here are the results:
Burns defeats Auden 66-60
Herrick defeats Roethke 69-63
Blake defeats Stevens 80-72