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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Number 321: Anonymous; May Colvin

May Colvin

 False Sir John a-wooing came,
    To a maid of beauty rare;
May Colvin was the lady’s name,
    Her father’s only heir.

He wooed her indoors, he wooed her out,
    He wooed her night and day;
Until he got the lady’s consent
    To mount and ride away.

Go fetch me some if your father’s gold
   And some of your mother’s fee,
And I’ll carry you to the far Northland
   And there I’ll marry thee.”

She’s gone to her father’s coffers,
   Where all his money lay;
And she’s taken the red, and she’s left the white,
   And lightly she’s tripped away.

She’s gone down to her father’s stable,
    Where all his steeds did stand;
And she’s taken the best and left the worst,
    That was in her father’s land.

He rode on, and she rode on,
    They rode a long summer’s day,
Until they came to a broad river,
    An arm of a lonesome sea.

“Leap off the steed,” says false Sir John;
    “Your bridal bed you see;
For it’s seven fair maids I have drowned here,
    And the eighth one you shall be.

Cast off, cast off your silks so fine,
    And lay them on a stone,
For they are too fine and costly
    To rot in the salt sea foam.”

“O turn about, thou false Sir John,
    And look to the leaf o’ the tree;
For it never became a gentleman
    A naked women to see.”

He’s turned himself straight round about
   To look to the leaf o’ the tree,
She’s twined her arms about his waist,
    And thrown him into the sea.

“O hold a grip of me, May Colvin,
    For fear that I should drown;
I’ll take you home to your father’s gates,
    And safe I’ll set you down.”

“O safe enough I am, Sir John,
   And safer I will be;
For seven fair maids have your drowned here,
    The eighth shall not be me.

“O lie you there, thou false Sir John,
    O lie you there, said she,
“For you lie not in a colder bed
    Than the one you intended for me.”

So she went on her father’s steed,
    As swift as she could away;
And she came home to her father’s gates
    At the breaking of the day.

Up then spake the pretty parrot:
    “May Colvin, where have you been?
What has become of false Sir John,
    That wooed you yestere’en?”

“O hold your tongue, my pretty parrot,
    Nor tell no tales on me;
Your cage will be made of beaten gold
    With spokes of ivory.”

Up then spake her father dear,
    In the chamber where he lay:
“What ails you, pretty parrot,
    That you prattle so long ere day?”

“There came a cat to my door, master,
    I thought ‘twould have worried me;
And I was calling on May Colvin
   To take the cat from me.”

--Author Unknown (Traditional Ballad)

Hap Notes: I thought after Browning's ill-fated Duchess it might be good to see a woman who could take care of herself.  "May Colvin" is a traditional story ballad that has many variations;  May Colleen, May Colzean, False Sir John, The Water o' Wearies' Well,  Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight,  The Outlandish Knight, The Treacherous Knight,  Heer Halewijn, The Willow Tree and more. It is said that various verse and song versions of the situation in this poem are in almost every culture in the world. In some versions the knight (False Sir John) is an elf or a priest. It has also been linked with the tale of Bluebeard which is French and dates from the 1600s.  It is somewhat reminiscent of the story of Judith in the Apocrypha. So the tale is an old one, with many, many facets. It is a mytheme and, as such, dates back a ways.

The one we have today is familiar to the British isles. When she takes the "red" and leaves the "white" she is taking the gold and leaving the silver. In some of the versions the False Sir John asks her to take off her jewels first, then her dress, then her Holland smock ( a shift worn beneath the dress). The striptease in our poem is not nearly as titillating. Seems he just want to get to the drowning part. (Some Sir Johns are more sadistic/perverse than others.)  It's interesting that he is staring at the leaves, the first apparel of Adam and Eve. 

Our girl, who has been charmed by this guy at first, uses her wit and drowns the guy (who, in some versions, actually has the cojones to beg her for help.)  He must be a pretty enchanting fella to lure the girl, her father's only child, from her home. I actually have a story that sort of relates to this. My mother was originally married to a fella who, while in the army, decided he wanted out of the marriage. She was pregnant with me at the time. She went to the military base in Florida (far from her home in the Midwest) to talk with him. She told me that he drove her out to a remote swampy location in the dead of night. She was shaking like a leaf and did nothing. They just sat there silently for about an hour in the humid blackness. He turned the car around and took them back to the base. (I've always wished she'd pushed him into the swamp – just sayin,' although it's nice to think that he took the high road, more or less.) 

But the best part of this poem, to me, is the presence in many of the versions of a parrot. A talking parrot, no less, who is bribed by a pretty cage.  A talking parrot who is bribed by a pretty cage who thinks on his feet, coming up with a good lie to cover for May. How long had parrots been kept as pets? Well, actually, quite a while– they are present in Egyptian hieroglyphs, the ancient Greeks and Romans had them, Alexander the Great had one, Native Americans in the Southwest had them (around 900 A.D.), Columbus brought them back from the New World, Henry VIII had an African Grey, Marie Antoinette and Mozart both had parrots, Martha Washington had one, okay...I'm gettin' carried away- just saying, yep, parrots have been pets for hundreds and hundreds of years. (One more bit of trivia and I'll stop; Queen Victoria's Aftican Grey could sing "God Save the Queen." Oh, and George Washington didn't much care for Martha's parrot and vice-versa.)

As with many ballads, there is a great deal going on in this poem. The "False Sir John" is often called "the outlander" so it's a cautionary tale about anyone not from one's own region. It's also a warning to women that charming men can be dangerous and when they ask for dad's money they're up to no good. It's also worth noting that even though False Sir John has killed seven other women, May still doesn't want to say that she's killed a man. Why? Is it her reputation she's worried about? Is she worried about upsetting her father? Women who killed men were often strangled or burnt or both- was that it? One would think this was justifiable homicide, yes? In some of the poems, May shows no mercy when he says he'll take her back home if she "saves" him.  Our poem does not feature this. Maybe she feels like an idiot being duped by this guy. Your guess is probably better than mine.

Here's the Lady Isabel/May Colvin song with lots of verses (30!) which really sews up the story:

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Number 320: Robert Browning; "My Last Duchess"

My Last Duchess


That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will 't please you sit and look at her? I said
'Frà 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, 't was not
Her husband's presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
Frà 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, 't was 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!

–Robert Browning

Hap Notes: First off, this is a dramatic monologue and it begs to be read aloud. It may help when reading it to imagine an actor with the right stuff reciting it. Basil Rathbone, George Sanders, Rupert Everett or Alan Rickman come to mind, somebody who can sound cold, educated and effete. 

The speaker is the Duke of Ferrara talking to a representative/marriage broker of a Count whose daughter he wishes to marry. The broker is silent although the Duke alludes to what the broker is saying to him. The Duke is showing this broker guy around his villa and pointing out his various possessions. From the git-go Browning is telling us how this Duke views his last wife as a possession from the title "MY Last Duchess." We don't even know her name. that's all he calls her. 

The Duke complains that she had a heart "too soon made glad." She smiles at everyone no matter their station in life. She enjoys little compliments from the painter of her portrait (Fra Pandolph- a fictional painter) as she sits for him with a blush, she appreciates the sunset, a bough of cherries, a ride on a white mule. She's alive with joy.

The Duke doesn't think she appreciates the honor of him giving her a 900 year old name (her own maiden name, it's implied, is not so old or venerated). He says even if he would have explained what was wrong with her behavior to her so she could learn to correct her "flaws" he would not have because it would have been beneath him. He would not stoop to help her. And how about the false modesty he exhibits when he says " Even had you skill/In speech -- (which I have not)." He seems to have plenty of skill in speech, does he not?

So, orders are given and she's gone. Browning said that his intent was that she was either murdered or sent to a convent. I've always thought she was bumped off from the tone of all this– this Duke doesn't seem to me like the type who likes to have any loose ends. He seems a trifle too obsessive to send her to a convent.

Remember, too, that he pulls aside a curtain to show this broker the painting of the former Duchess. In other words, she only smiles for the Duke when he wants to see her. He still cannot endure anyone seeing that smile without his allowing it. And while it is a portrait of her she is, by being covered with a curtain, out of the picture, so to speak. Until he chooses to see her.

Note, too, how the bronze he points out (by Claus of Insbruck– another fictitious artist) is of Neptune taming a seahorse. This is an interesting and telling parallel piece with the God of the sea trying to tame a little, charming, wild, sea creature (and why would he bother–seems sort of harsh on Neptune's part doesn't it?)

Now, there is a story similar to this one on which it is believed Browning based the poem. The marriage of the young Lucretia de Medici and the Duke d'Este in the 16th century is very similar. Lucretia's family had money, the Duke had the name. She was very young, 14 or 15. She was dead by the time she was 17. It was suspected that she was poisoned. (Sort of ironic considering the history of the de Medicis and poison, huh?) The Duke then arranges for another wealthy bride.

Browning is brilliant as a monologist and his rhymes never interfere with the poem but serve to give it an almost sinister meticulousness and chilly feel. Can't you just see this Duke and Duchess, feel their daily life and alarm at her untimely end? Think what a different poem this would be if it were written from the viewpoint of the Duchess or the broker. Why do you think Browning chose the Duke? 

On the masthead are two Duchesses. The one on the left is Lucretia de Medici, the girl from the real story. On the right is a painting by Frank Cadogan Cowper called "Molly, Duchess of Nona" and illustrates a character from Maurice Howlett's 'Little Novel of Italy." It looks more to me like a Duchess with some verve and life.

 Here is where we have talked about Browning before:

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Number 319: The Limited Edition Platinum Barbie: Denise Duhamel

The Limited Edition Platinum Barbie

Ever since Marilyn Monroe
bleached her hair so it would photograph better                         
under the lights, Bob Mackie
wanted to do the same for Barbie.
Now here she is, a real fashion illustration,
finally a model whose legs truly make up
more than half her height. The gown is white,
and the hair more silver than Christmas,
swept up in a high pouf of intricate twists.
Less demanding than Diana Ross
or Cher, Barbie has fewer flaws to hide.
No plastic surgery scars, no
temper tantrums when Mackie's bugle beads
don't hang just right. Calvin Klein
won't design certain styles
for any woman larger than size eight.
He "doesn't do upholstery" is the way
he likes to put it. So imagine Bob Mackie's thrill
of picking up this wisp of a model,
Barbie weighing less than a quart of milk.
Imagine him dressing her himself.
The eight thousand hand sewn sequins
which would have easily been eight million
if he had to design this gown for a bulky human.
Yes, Barbie is his favorite client– poised,
ladylike, complying.  As he impales her
on her plastic display stand, Mackie's confident
she won't ruin any effect by bad posture.
Collectors can pay in four monthly installments
of $38.50 and have Barbie delivered to their home.
Others can go to Mackie's display at FAO Schwartz's,
the most expensive toy store in New York,
to remind themselves of who they'll never be,
of what they'll never have.

– Denise Duhamel

Hap Notes: It may seem like a dizzying jump from Ulysses to Barbie but, that doll is part of most every living American woman's story in some way– Barbie can stand in for our cyclops, our charybdis, our Circe, in contemporary culture. The journey that a woman makes from Barbie to well-balanced woman is an odyssey. Some of us make it to the shores of other adventures; some of us are still with the lotus-eaters.

Yes, the Barbie analogy has been raked over and over again but no one has done it with more droll wit, acidity and humanity than Duhamel, whose 1997 book Kinky is a series of poems about Barbie which are as alarmingly sad as they are hilarious. The series includes a variety of thought-provoking circumstances including Barbie in therapy (with Dr. Midge– which just brings up more ironies),  Barbie as a cunning extra-terrestrial, Barbie at an AA meeting and Barbie filling out a job application. The book is a storm of stand-up wise-cracking, smoking anger and confused heartache. And, as Shakespeare so succinctly put it; the gravest things are said in jest.

Bob Mackie is a pop culture name that has dissolved in the precipitate of newer designers, the parade of which passes through the culture for their moment in the sun until they are over shadowed by a new one. Mackie created many famous glitzy outfits for Cher, Liz Minnelli, Whitney Houston etc. etc. His clients were legion in the entertainment industry and even included David Bowie.  The Barbie dolls Duhamel mentions in the poem were begun in 1990 and have escalated in value over the years so that the doll in question, once available for three installments of $38.50, are now worth upwards of $600. This has as much to do with the Barbie story as it has to do with Mackie. (Breaking off to say that using the word "Mackie" so much puts me in mind of Mack the Knife from Weill and Brecht's Three Penny Opera- don't know that the poet thought of this but I wouldn't put it out of her reach.)

My Barbie stories are not particularly interesting as my mother took the first Barbie I got as a gift for my 9th birthday and put it away (giving it back to me when I was close to 12) saying that it was "too mature" for me. I painted shoes on her arched foot because the shoes were so dreadfully flimsy, cut her hair and did not take the ladylike care of her as so many of my contemporaries did.  My Barbie was always a little wild-looking, a feral Barbie, if you will. BUT it was still a Barbie- still part of that beauty culture that we all must face.

Duhamel is the author of over a half dozen books of poetry. She got her BFA at Emerson and her MFA at Sarah Lawrence. She teaches creative writing and literature at Florida International University. Here she is reading some of her work:

In today's poem, just before you dismiss it as something just telling you something about the Barbie culture that you already know, think about why the poet says Barbie "weighs less than a quart of milk." Barbie weighs less than a quart of anything– why does the poet specifically say milk? And what about "impaling" that Barbie on a stand?

Here's a good Duhamel quote: "I believe it's impossible to write good poetry without reading. Reading poetry goes straight to my psyche and makes me want to write. I meet the muse in the poems of others and invite her to my poems. I see over and over again, in different ways, what is possible, how the perimeters of poetry are expanding and making way for new forms."

Here's the full interview:

More Duhamel is available for reading here:

And just for fun, here are the most expensive Barbies with pictures:

The masthead today is, from left to right: Mackie's Platinum Barbie, Mackie's first limited edition Barbie, and Duhamel.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Number 318: Alfred, Lord Tennyson: "Ulysses"


   It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
Life to the lees. All times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone on sore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea. I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known– cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honored of them all–
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy,
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains; but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

   This is my son, mine own Telemachus
To whom I leave the scepter and the isle–
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill
This labor, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centered in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

   There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me–
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads– you and I are old.
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs;
The deep moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulf will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are–
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

–Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Hap Notes:
   First off, let's get one thing clear: Ulysses is the Latin form of the name Odysseus- this used to flummox me as a kid when reading so I'm telling you something you may know, but Ulysses and Odysseus are the same guy. This is a monologue of the aging Ulysses/Odysseus. So this is the guy who thought up the Trojan Horse in the Iliad (among other things) and on his way home from the Trojan War encountered and blinded the cyclops, ran into Circe, the Sirens, Calypso etc. etc. In other words, this guy had some heart-pounding adventures for some fifteen years of his life. (It helps if you've read both The Iliad and The Odyssey, both of Homer's classics are a constant reference in movies, books, video games, music and more)

Another thing to bear in mind is that although this poem speaks of Ulysses in his older age and seems to be a remarkable and stirring admonition to keep on striving through your retirement years (and can be seen as such) Tennyson wrote this when he was 24 years old. Not exactly an aged old guy. So there's something in this poem for all ages.

I could write a book about this poem (I'm not saying it would be a good book, but certainly chatty) so I'll try to keep this as short as possible since I really want you to read the poem and glean your own gems from it.

In the beginning of the poem, Ulysses is pretty much bored by regular life after having so many adventures. He comes home to rule his people (he was the King of Ithaca) and finds that administrative duties are tiresome and necessary. The "lees" that he wants to drink life to are the dregs in the bottom of a cask of wine, in other words, he wants to drink all of life and its experiences down. This is probably not the profile of a good bureaucrat (breaking off briefly to say that there have certainly been political sex scandals that would put the lie to that statement.)

But the upshot is that Ulysses has seen a lot of the world so his return home to a full-grown son and an older wife is not exactly the happy event he thought it would be as he struggled his way back. Ulysses is an adventurer. He started out by fighting the Trojan War and ends up becoming used to struggle, battle and fresh challenges at every turn. The regular rhythms of home life, after all those years of striving, seem flat to him.  His wife, Penelope, has been famously true to him, yet we should also consider that Ulysses had some go-rounds with some mighty hot goddess chicks. I don't think he's out for more conquests (I think Harold Bloom calls him something like a "sea-faring womanizer") but I do think he's saying that his wife's age reflects on him and he sees his age more clearly (hence all the older guys that dump their wives for their cute secretaries.) He's looking for adventure– new worlds–new knowledge.

His son, Telemachus (which is the Greek for "far from battle") does a fine job with the administrative and domestic chores. He is a different sort of man than his father, who loves him very much but probably doesn't quite relate to him. As he says "He works his work, I mine." Their lives are so different– his son has always been literally far from battle.

Tennyson wrote this poem not long after the death of his best bud, Arthur Hallam. Tennyson came from an odd family, was a sensitive fellow and was physically large (he was well over 6 feet tall) and shy. Tennyson was the fourth of 12 children in his family, which had a good deal of drinking, drug trouble and depression. He was prone to depression himself. He wrote a small volume of poetry with his brother in 1827 which attracted the attention of a literary group of students at Trinity College, Cambridge, called "the Apostles".

Arthur Hallam was the leader of the Apostles who got together every Saturday night and discussed religion, politics and literature over cups of coffee and anchovy sandwiches (eww!) Hallam had gone to Eton where he became friends with (future Prime Minister) William Gladstone. He was supportive of the shy Tennyson's efforts from the git-go. This friendship and devotion to his talent was moving to Tennyson who came from a rather noisy household. They were best pals who laughed together and read aloud and were sympathetic to each other. Hallam was engaged to Tennyson's sister. Tennyson and his wife named their first child Hallam after his beloved friend. Many of Tennyson's greatest poems are written to the memory of his first and truest friend. Hallam was only 22 when he died of a stroke.

Now it's worth noting that Ulysses mentions Achilles. Remember that Achilles goes a little crazy with grief and anger when his friend Patroclus is killed by Hector. Of course Achilles doesn't write a poem about this, he hunts down Hector, kills him and drags the body behind his chariot. In the Iliad, anyway, Ulysses is clever and thoughtful, Achilles is a bit of an angry hothead.

In more recent years, an argument has been leveled that this poem makes Ulysses look like an irresponsible thrill seeker. I suppose there's a certain amount of that in this poem that is undeniable. But remember that once a person finds their calling, all other forms of living look like merely breathing. Ulysses wants to keep exploring and boldly go where no man has gone before (so to speak), even if it kills him. It's preferable to die trying that to give up.

Tennyson himself said he wrote the poem as his own "need of going forward and braving the struggle of life" after losing his best friend and companion. He felt that this poem, even more than his famous "In Memoriam A.H.H." ( a book length poem he worked on for 17 years devoted to Hallam) encapsulated his weary sadness; "though much is taken, much abides."

As to this blank verse poem's effective wording, it's hard to find a spot to excerpt for me since I think the whole poem is a work of incredible art. Even T. S. Eliot said it was almost a perfect poem.

I do hope you'll read it aloud- that's when it comes to life.

The picture is Ulysses on the left and a young Tennyson on the right. 

Here's where we have covered Tennyson before: