27 October 2006


I remember long ago, being given by a teacher, Donald Davie, two elegies for Algernon Charles Swinburne, and being asked to determine which was the better poem. One was by Ezra Pound: SALVE O PONTIFEX!: To Swinburne; an hemichaunt. The other was by Thomas Hardy: A SINGER ASLEEP (Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1837-1909). One thing I remember is the graduate students (I was an undergrad then) protesting that they had never been trained or asked to argue the merits of one poem over another. The other is that there was just, clearly, no question. The Pound poem is overwritten, bombastic, and just very very young. Still, lyrically, there are some things to recommend Pound's poem, and I wouldn't discourage anyone from reading it. But the Hardy poem is terrific, as is much of his work, which I knew nothing at all about before that exercise.

Since I haven't done a lot of blogging this week (just the Linh Dinh note), I thought I'd put the Hardy poem here. You'll have to find the Pound poem for yourself (it begins on p. 40 of Collected Early Poems of Ezra Pound, pub. New Directions in 1976). Hardy's not so much talked about as one of the great poets, but to me, he is — particularly of that time that might be considered just before modernism. And in some ways, his poems predict that modernism more than the earliest poems of Pound or the contemporary poems of Yeats. Here's the Hardy poem.

(Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1837-1909)


In this fair niche above the unslumbering sea,
That sentrys up and down all night, all day,
From cove to promontory, from ness to bay,
The Fates have fitly bidden that he should be
Pillowed eternally.


- It was as though a garland of red roses
Had fallen about the hood of some smug nun
When irresponsibly dropped as from the sun,
In fulth of numbers freaked with musical closes,
Upon Victoria's formal middle time
His leaves of rhythm and rhyme.


O that far morning of a summer day
When, down a terraced street whose pavements lay
Glassing the sunshine into my bent eyes,
I walked and read with a quick glad surprise
New words, in classic guise, -


The passionate pages of his earlier years,
Fraught with hot sighs, sad laughters, kisses, tears;
Fresh-fluted notes, yet from a minstrel who
Blew them not naively, but as one who knew
Full well why thus he blew.


I still can hear the brabble and the roar
At those thy tunes, O still one, now passed through
That fitful fire of tongues then entered new!
Their power is spent like spindrift on this shore;
Thine swells yet more and more.


- His singing-mistress verily was no other
Than she the Lesbian, she the music-mother
Of all the tribe that feel in melodies;
Who leapt, love-anguished, from the Leucadian steep
Into the rambling world-encircling deep
Which hides her where none sees.


And one can hold in thought that nightly here
His phantom may draw down to the water's brim,
And hers come up to meet it, as a dim
Lone shine upon the heaving hydrosphere,
And mariners wonder as they traverse near,
Unknowing of her and him.


One dreams him sighing to her spectral form:
"O teacher, where lies hid thy burning line;
Where are those songs, O poetess divine
Whose very arts are love incarnadine?"
And her smile back: "Disciple true and warm,
Sufficient now are thine." . . .


So here, beneath the waking constellations,
Where the waves peal their everlasting strains,
And their dull subterrene reverberations
Shake him when storms make mountains of their plains -
Him once their peer in sad improvisations,
And deft as wind to cleave their frothy manes -
I leave him, while the daylight gleam declines
Upon the capes and chines.



At 1:43 PM, Blogger K. Silem Mohammad said...

This is interesting, Charles. I wish I had Pound's poem handy to compare it to, but I agree that Hardy is often overlooked as an important poet. The same difficulties face a modern reader in his work, I think, as in Emerson: there is so much to admire on the level of graceful expression and complex content, the latter often anticipating specifically modern concerns, but there is also that sense of tetheredness to a conservative formal apparatus. Both poets are wonderfully flexible within the confines of that form (Hardy somewhat more), but they're still confined in it. Then again, the chief appeal of poetry to some readers is precisely that effect of sure navigation within a constraining frame--certainly that seems to me to have been Davies' aesthetic. Would you say that he had a considerable impact on your own thinking about poetry? I love reading his criticism even when his concerns and mine are at opposite ends of the park.

At 9:12 PM, Blogger charles said...

k. silem,

thanks, and I agree with you, although I think in some poems the toughness of Hardy's rhythm make me think he shows some struggle within that gracefulness, and moves a bit away from the poem as a kind of polished gem. of course, davie liked the accomplishment, and the relative "plain"-ness, of Hardy's poetry.
I really admired Davie when I was a student, but I can't say his practice as a poet and his ideas were all that influential on me, except to be aware of everything going on in the poem. In a class on late 18th Century poetry, Davie read a poem by Ed Dorn one day (he really admired Dorn, and they were friends), and that act led me to read Dorn, which led me to Olson and more, much of which would not have received Davie's approval. And a few years later, when I started publishing my own work in journals and started a press and got interested in Mac Low and, almost immediately thereafter, language poetry, I knew I was in territory that Donald Davie would have found rather distasteful.
Still, he helped me read carefully, and read thoroughly, and it was in his classes that I began to feel confident about my own sensibilities with regard to poetry. And besides Dorn and Hardy, I can thank him for bringing Christopher Smart to my attention, and for an abiding and deep concern for Wordsworth (at least the early Wordsworth), though it really wasn't until a couple of years ago that I realized I did care so much for W.

At 1:13 PM, Blogger Tim Peterson said...

Charles, that's fascinating to hear that Davie admired Dorn. Which aspects of the work appealed to him?

I can see how that notion of paying close attention to sounds and gestures in language is easily morphed into readings of more avant-garde work. I've spoken to various people about similarities I've seen at times between the Language poets and the new critics, and this would be one of them in addition to things like a move away from examining the self in poetry, looking more directly at both the formal aspects and connotations of the language.

At 8:56 PM, Blogger charles said...


The poem I remember Davie liking and reading in a class is "Ledyard: The Exhaustion of Sheer Distance," which would have appealed to anyone who wants a poem to include history, in this case details from the experiences of John Ledyard, an 18th Century American explorer. In a way, it expresses something of America, the desire for movement over space.

And I imagine Davie liked much of Dorn's work pre-Gunslinger. I'm not sure he'd go any farther than that. He might have enjoyed the later epigraphic work, though. Its tough satire and quick wit would likely have appealed to Davie. There's a certain kind of conservatism in both of them, I think.

At 7:13 AM, Blogger jim said...

Thanks for posting this Hardy. I need to go back and read some more.

At 11:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...



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