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April 22, 2009

Earthy Topics

Happy Earth Day everyone. Earth Day is celebrated in the U.S. on April 22nd and internationally on the Spring Equinox. (in March in the northern hemisphere). If I was doing a good job of keeping up with my schedule (instead of gardening and playing Wii Tennis with Alex), I’d have all of the Nature-related parts of the Subject Index updated.

Sorry, not there yet. But we can at least look at a poet whose works celebrated nature in striking and memorable ways. That would be Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit priest whose unusual rhymes and sprung rhythms are best appreciated when read aloud. Some, like Inversnaid may take a few practice runs before you can say recite them and stay in rhythm. The overall effect is excellent though, and the last two pleading couplets are especially topical on Earth Day:



THIS darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.
Degged with dew, dappled with dew,
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

How would this be for a English class assignment – write a poem about things with dots. From Hopkins we get a short piece - a prayer and a sonnet that celebrates nature with images and alliterations and a basket full of synonyms titled Pied Beauty: This is a ‘Curtal Sonnet’ by the way – a format condensed by Hopkins to 10 ½ lines.


Pied Beauty

GLORY be to God for dappled things,
For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow,
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls, finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced, fold, fallow and plough,
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange,
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim.
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change;
Praise him.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

The purpose of Earth day was to recognize that our perceived human progress comes at a price, and we should stop and give thought to what we do, and just how much impact it has on the world around us. Here is a poem about deforestation (on a small and personal scale), from a small village where Hopkins like to walk, along the river near Oxford:


Binsey Poplars


MY aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, all are felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering
weed-winding bank.
O if we knew but what we do
When we delve or hew--
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch her, being so slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even when we mean
to mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.

Gerard Manley Hopkins



April 05, 2009

April is National Poetry Month

April is National Poetry Month in the U.S. and Canada (although Great Britain celebrates it in October) so we will continue to emphasize what is going on in the poetry collection.  March 21st is actually the UNESCO World Poetry Day.

The month starts out with significant additions to our collection of poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar.  Dunbar is one of those poets whose conciseness and clarity of style often makes poetry seem effortless. As is always the case, it takes great effort to be both succinct and memorable. In his short life (he died from Tuberculosis at age 33) he generated a fairly large body of work covering a wide range of topics. 

Dunbar wrote both short and long works whose language is quite readable today.  You’ll find him far easier to read and appreciate than many poets of his time. Dunbar wrote books and essays as well as poems, including novels with depth and arguments on political, economic, and racial issues. Dunbar could write biting satire – like Theology for instance,

          THERE is a heaven, for ever, day by day,
          The upward longing of my soul doth tell me so.
          There is a hell, I'm quite as sure; for pray
          If there were not, where would my neighbours go?

And he could also write poems that would easily be mistaken for other noted American or European authors – a good example is Sunset, which ends with:

While in the south the first faint star
Lifts to the night its silver face,
And twinkles to the moon afar
Across the heaven's graying space,
    Low murmurs reach me from the town,
    As Day puts on her sombre crown,
    And shakes her mantle darkly down.

He could also write a very smooth song lyric, and many of his songs, both in and out of dialect, are still effective today even without the musical setting. Here is the first stanza from Discovered:

     SEEN you down at chu'ch las' night,
          Nevah min', Miss Lucy.
     What I mean? oh, dat's all right,
          Nevah min', Miss Lucy.
     You was sma't ez sma't could be,
          But you could n't hide from me.
     Ain't I got two eyes to see?
          Nevah min', Miss Lucy.

Writing in dialect, by the way, is not easy to do – particularly in English, where our options for annotation are limited. In his many works written in dialect, Dunbar captures regional accents, personalities, and emotions as well as anyone.

About 40 new works by Dunbar have been added, mostly in bookshelf editions of Lyrics of Lowly Life (http://theotherpages.org/poems/books/dunbar/dunbar06.html) and Lyrics of the Hearthside (http://theotherpages.org/poems/books/dunbar/dunbar05.html). Dunbar’s works were initially self published, then after some success, published in several ‘overlapping’ volumes. This makes updating the author index a little messy. The dates cited may not always be the earliest publishing dates, but they are the editions from which the Poets’ Corner text was taken.




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