A Hymn to God the Father and Other Poems

The plan is to read (at least) one poem every day through 2015 and then once a week, or as quickly as possible thereafter, write a blog post containing the name of the poem (and poet), the line that stood out most for me and a brief explanation why.

15th January 2015
“A Hymn to God the Father” (text)
Ben Jonson

Sin, Death, and Hell
His glorious name
Quite overcame,
Yet I rebel
And slight the same.

I don’t think I will ever see Ben Jonson as anything other than the man who got drunk with Shakespeare just before Shakespeare got dead. I know, I know – that’s bad English and also bit unfair to Jonson. He was about much more than just beer. This poem proves that well. It is a lovely piece of religious verse – short in line and length, to the point and honest. I chose to quote the above five lines for the latter reason. From the Christian perspective, how funny it is that God does what He does and yet we still rebel against Him. (I don’t mean funny ha-ha but funny peculiar).

16th January 2015
“Break of Day” (text)
John Donne

‘Tis true, ‘tis day, what though it be?
O wilt thou therefore rise from me?
Why should we rise because ‘tis light?
Did we lie down because ‘twas night?
Love, which in spite of darkness brought us hither,
Should in despite of light keep us together.

I am, I’m afraid, a sucker for romantic verse. That’s why I chose to quote these particular lines. When I first read this poem, I thought to myself ‘But night is exactly why we go to bed!’. But then I read lines five and sixth and my heart melted. I immediately forgave Donne the other poems he has written that I didn’t quite understand and declared him to be a capital fellow after all.

17th January 2015
“Lo! The Bat with Leathern wing” (text)
William Blake

. . . . . . .
. . . . . . .

Now, you may be thinking – What has happened to MJM, here? Has he gone potty? Dots upon a page do not constitute poetry. Indeed, reader, they do not. Nevertheless, if you click on ‘text’ above you will see that they are indeed part of the poem. What’s going on? The obvious answer is that the poem is a long one and for reasons best known to myself I have decided to quote the ellipses rather than actual words. How very contrary of me. It’s true that the poem that begins Lo! The bat is part of a longer work but this portion of it is only a few lines in length. And neither are these dots ellipses. They are, in fact, a cover up. I’m afraid to say that they hide rather coarse imagery. I’m not going to repeat it here as that would be deeply vulgar but in the very unlikely event that you would like to see what Blake wrote, click here. I take no responsibility for any young woman who does so and faints or for any young man who does so and turns into a bounder.

😉

18th January 2015
“At the Wedding March” (text)
Gerard Manley Hopkins

God with honour hang your head,
Groom, and grace you, bride, your bed
With lissome scions, sweet scions,
Out of hallowed bodies bred.

Had I organised myself better, I would have read this poem the day before John Donne’s. For just as his poem gives us the lover and beloved in bed together, Hopkins’ takes us back to the day of their marriage. For the avoidance of doubt, I know JD and GMH aren’t talking about the same people – consider it poetic licence. Anyway, as a general point, I can’t tell you how much I love Gerard Manly Hopkins’ use of language. It seems completely chaotic but is never without meaning and order. And here, it has a beautiful meaning and a beautiful order. How could it not? He’s talking about sex, and -notwithstanding western culture’s attempts to cheapen it – that is a beautiful thing.

19th January 2015
“She Walks in Beauty” (text)
Lord Byron

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;

Here’s another example of my disorganisation. The 22nd of Jan was the anniversary of Lord Byron’s birth in 1788. Had I realised that on the 19th I would have kept this poem till then.

I chose She Walks because I like the way Byron subverts my image of what constitutes beauty. If you had collared me in the street and said ‘MJM, what is beauty to you?’ I would undoubtedly have said ‘My dear chap, please let go of my collar and I’ll tell you.’ I’m not sure what I would have said if you were a woman; I think I would be too surprised to answer – grabbing people by the collar is not an activity I associate with members of the fairer sex. To be sure, I don’t know any men who do it, either, but I digress. After collecting myself, I would have continued, ‘What is beauty to me? Why, anything that radiates light, whether of its own account or in reflection, is beautiful – or at the least has beauty if the two can be separated.’. Byron, however, is having none of that. The woman at the centre of this poem is beautiful ‘like the night’. True, it is a starry one but Byron does not compromise. Darkness as well as light are visible ‘in her aspect and her eyes’. I’m sure the image of the woman who is dark and yet beautiful has been used by other poets (memo to self: read Shakespeare’s Dark Lady sonnets) but the only other person I can think of who used it is Tolkien for Lúthien.

20th January 2015
“The Eve of St Agnes” (text)
John Keats

Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.

On the 20th, I finally got my act together. On that day, while reading my Twitter timeline (find me at @hailearendel), I discovered that it was St Agnes’ Eve. In consequence, John Keats’ poem The Eve of St Agnes was getting a few mentions. Keats is in my first rank of Favourite Poets so I looked for The Eve on-line, happily found it and even more happily read it (out loud, too; it is always a great blessing to be able to do that). I chose the above lines simply because, as a Catholic, I rather liked them. JK’s imagery is second to none (I particularly like the ‘frosted breath’ as ‘pious incense’) but I would expect nothing less of him.

21st January 2015
“Cat and Mouse” (text)
Ted Hughes

On the sheep-cropped summit, under sun,
The mouse crouched, staring out the chance
It dared not take.

I chose these lines because they speak to us humans and the way we often prefer to stay in our comfort zones. Like the mouse, we do so even though it might not be the best thing for us to do. I’m saying ‘we’ a lot here but if I’m being honest, I mean me. It’s silly, and rather a shame. What opportunities is the mouse, us, me missing out on because we stare out the chance and do no more?

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This entry was posted in Eighteenth Century Poetry, Nineteenth Century Poetry, Seventeenth Century Poetry, Sixteenth Century Poetry, Twentieth Century Poetry and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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