A Bargain with the Light: Poems after Lee Miller
Hercules Editions | £10.00
Sonnets from Elizabeth’s
Grey Suit Editions | $12.00
Poetry Salzburg | 40 pp | £5.00 $8.50
By ANTHONY HOWELL.
We only need the coming of a Satirist–no man of genius is rarer–to prove that the heroic couplet has lost none of its edge since Dryden and Pope laid it down. As for the sonnet I am not so sure. But the decay of intricate formal patterns has nothing to do with the advent of vers libre. It had set in long before. Only in a closely-knit and homogeneous society, where many men are at work on the same problems, such a society as those which produced the Greek chorus, the Elizabethan lyric, and the Troubadour canzone, will the development of such forms ever be carried to perfection.
— T. S. Eliot, “Reflections on Vers Libre“, The New Statesman, 3 March 1917.
I ENJOY THIS article by T. S. Eliot. What a great sense of humour he had! But I can’t say I agree with this observation. Satire employing the heroic couplet reads simply as a throwback to the eighteenth century – even a writer as talented as Clive James cannot bring it off. The column of satirical couplets is just too much of a cliché. However, intricate formal patterns continue to intrigue poets, whether of a modernist or of a traditionalist persuasion, and the sonnet is enjoying a revival, but has it ever failed to secure its adherents?
MY spotless love hovers, with purest wings,
__About the temple of the proudest frame;
__Where blaze those lights, fairest of earthly things,
__Which clear our clouded world with brightest flame.
The elevated tone that gathers us up in the first line of Samuel Daniel’s twelfth sonnet to Delia may serve to remind us of the mastery of the form achieved in the sixteenth century. These courtly miniatures in verse made ladies into icons, according them a worship that was a variance with the general practice of marrying off twelve year old girls to old codgers (in many cases) who they may not have met before their wedding night.
The Cathars of the Languedoc, who pioneered “courtly love”, were wiped out by the Albigensian Crusade which began in 1208. It was led by the Simon de Montfort. Like all crusades, it was a war declared by the Pope, and backed with promises of the remission of sins and a guaranteed place in heaven. A few survivors managed to make it to Northern Italy, where the poetry of the language of “Oc” was appreciated by Dante. The troubadours provided the kernel of his “sweet new style” – the dolce stil novo – which ensured that courtly love and its significant appreciation of women was not buried by patriarchal attitudes and a callous piety.
But while it might have been a step in the right direction, this was still essentially a poetics for the privileged few. Dante, and the poets who shared his aesthetic, such as Calvalcante and Petrarch, worshipped their ladies from afar, as emblems of femininity, or as a feminine principal of inspiration, rather than as flesh-and-blood women. Often they were married to someone other than their “saint”. However, an acquaintance of Dante’s, one Cecco Angiolieri, saw things rather differently. C. H. Scott and Anthony Mortimer have done an excellent verse translation of Cecco’s sonnets, accompanied by their Italian originals, with informative accompanying observations:
So bitterly indeed have I lamented
To have kept loving when my love was spurned,
That like a heavy stone at last I’m turned,
Although too late I’ve probably repented.
Had I foreseen how I’d be discontented,
I might have bought such wisdom at less cost;
For while so much of blood and breath I’ve lost,
It’s very sure my honour’s not augmented.
But anyhow the moral’s clear as day,
To love those only who are fond of me:
Henceforward in this view I’m firmly anchored.
And, for whoever thinks the other way
(Unless he changes quickly), it will be
A miracle if his whole life’s not cankered.
“To love those only who are fond of me” sounds like common sense. Unfortunately, Cecco is in love with an ungrateful slut called Becchina. He’s too broke to woo her successfully. His father wears a cassock and has become a member of a religious order known as the “joyful friars” (sounds a bit as if he had become a “born again” Christian). He’s a mean old bastard, far from joyful, and he keeps his son short of cash. Cecco has a sonnet in which he wishes him dead. Unlike the courtly sonnets, with their Aristotelian sense of a unified ideal – a relationship of shared virtue – Cecco’s work has its roots in a more vulgar style:
The poetry of Angiolieri has some of its roots in the old medieval Latin Goliardic tradition still familiar to many readers through Helen Waddell’s The Wandering Scholars (1926) or through the lyrics that Carl Orff set to music in Carmina Burana. The addiction to “woman, the tavern and a game of dice” (LXXXVII), the denunciation of poverty as the worst of ills and the frequent juxtaposition of religious imagery with decidedly secular sentiments – these were already the stock-in-trade of the Archpoet and his contemporaries more than a century before Angiolieri exploited them in the new vernacular… His work needs to be seen in the context of a whole current of thirteenth-century poetry that Italian criticism labels as “comic”, “realist” or “burlesque”…
—Sonnets, “Extra Material”
This burlesque way of writing derives from the entertainments of the underprivileged, from the belly laugh, slapstick, the routines of street and fair. It is verse as removed from the court as music hall antics are from ballet. It provides us with an example of how there has always been a “Satyricon” to offset some essay on the sublime. The topic is well articulated by Mikhail Bakhtin in his work on Rabelais and His World (Indiana University Press, 1984). There are generally two currents – an elite, and fastidious, expression and a fart-punctuated, peasant earthiness generating something altogether less sophisticated – and this binary aspect of culture should always be born in mind when considering high flown expressions of “perfect love”.
Along with Sir Philip Sidney, but in a slightly later context, one of the greatest engineers of the sonnet, is a Scot – William Drummond of Hawthornden. In his informative book The Italian Element in Milton’s Verse (Oxford, at the Clarendon Press, 1954), F. T. Prince traces the emergence of formal patterns such as the sonnet and the madrigal through Italian poets and critics – starting with Pietro Bembo’s analysis of the work of Petrarch and moving on through the poetic inventiveness of Giovanni Della Casa and the theories of Torquato Tasso. He goes on to identify Drummond (1585 – 1649) as a pioneer who developed Italian innovation in English poetry:
Alexis, here she stayed; among these pines,
Sweet hermitress, she did alone repair;
Here did she spread the treasure of her hair,
More rich than that brought from the Colchian mines;
She set her by these muskéd eglantines.—
The happy place the print seems yet to bear;—
Her voice did sweeten here thy sugared lines,
To which winds, trees, beasts, birds, did lend their ear:
Me here she first perceived, and here a morn
Of bright carnations did o’erspread her face;
Here did she sigh, here first my hopes were born,
And I first got a pledge of promised grace;
But ah! what served it to be happy so,
Sith passéd pleasures double but new woe?
Drummond seems ahead of his time. I am sure John Keats appreciated his sonnets as there are turns of phrase in Keats which echo Drummond. Reading Drummond is to be bathed in a romantic sensuousness, a love of lovely words for the sake of savouring them, which is subtly different to the ornamental but very formal syntax employed earlier by Sidney and his contemporaries. Drummond is fond of stacking up nouns or verbs in a single line – as with line 8 in the sonnet above.
In the footsteps of John Ashbery, I enjoy getting off the beaten track and exploring what he called “The byways of literature”. Ben Jonson considered it worth walking to Scotland to visit Drummond at his castle – Hawthornden – and regaled his host with gossip from the capital, which Drummond duly noted down, though it’s moot whether he was sober enough to be sure that his jottings were accurate. At one point Jonson asserts that Sidney’s daughter was just as strong a poet as her father. Now while Mary Sidney, Duchess of Pembroke, was a formidable literary figure, engaged in translation and collaborating with her father on poetic versions of the psalms, the assertion does not hold up. However, if Jonson meant to say “niece” rather than “daughter”, then that does give pause for thought.
Sir Philip’s niece was Lady Mary Wroth (1587-1652). She assiduously kept the Sidney tradition alive, and in emulation or response to The Duchess of Pembroke’s Arcadia – the rambling novel by Sir Philip with its wonderfully elaborate sentences interspersed with sonnets and eclogues, Wroth wrote The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania – the first novel in English written by a woman. The language is simpler, the action transpires more swiftly than in the Arcadia, but as with her uncle’s novel, there are poems to be found within its pages. In numerous cases her odes employ trochaic metre rather than the iambics which are prevalent in English verse. We favour iambs because our articles and pronouns so often preface noun or verb, and starting on an (unstressed) upbeat gives a lunging syncopation to our verse, like a dance ball-change: and right and right and right. Trochees, starting with the emphasis, or downbeat, produce a march-like rhythm: left and right and left and right.
Does the trochaic, a militant rarity compared to iambic verse, appeal to poets who happen to be women? Elizabethan women seemed to have a penchant for it. It is tempting to call this an ‘ironic’ use, and risk accusations of sexism. However in the mainstream of so many previous centuries women have been seen as filling a role other than war-like, so there is an irony about this, even if it is historical. Of course, in the pastoral undercurrent, idyllic Arcadias and Uranias abound in helmeted heroines, fierce huntresses, companions of Diana. When Wroth takes up the trochaic mode, I sense an almost suffragette emphasis: Yes, I’m a woman, and yes, I’ve got strong opinions. This is what the metre says to me.
Love peruse me, seeke, and finde
How each corner of my minde
Is a twine
Woven to shine.
Not a Webb ill made, foule fram’d,
Bastard not by Father nam’d,
Such in me
—Lyric from Urania
Art and literature as often evolve when some time-honoured element is jettisoned as when some novelty is installed. A key development in the sonnet, prompted by the abandoning of an element, was the decline of the lute during the seventeenth century – which enabled formal poetry to go forward in its own right. In the Elizabethan age, a lyric poem was sung – to the accompaniment of this instrument (which had its origins in the Arabic “oud”). Thomas Campion’s song-books contain fine poems which all have tunes, so that they can be sung. He died in 1620, and the song-books for lute and voice had all but disappeared some eighty years later. The Puritan aesthetic which swept in with the Civil War (1642-51) incorporated a distaste for the courtly, profane lyrics sung in the times of Charles I. Declamatory poetry was of course already thriving on the stage, as it was in satires and elegies where rhyming couplets provided columns of verse; however, it is with John Donne that one senses that the lyric poem has been liberated from the need for a musical complement, though musical accompaniment may have persisted with the lyrics of Robert Herrick.
Lady Mary Wroth danced with Anne of Denmark, consort of James I, as one of the twelve Ethiopian princesses in Jonson’s The Masque of Blackness – performed at the Stuart Court in the Banqueting Hall of Whitehall Palace on Twelfth Night, 6 January 1605. This masque commissioned by the Queen was ultimately to lead to actresses appearing on the English stage in 1629, though it took another thirty years before a representation of Othello could take place in which the role of Desdemona was performed by a woman. The full length portrait of Lady Mary in Penshurst Place shows her with an archlute practically as tall as she is, so she came of age at a time when the lyric poem was still accompanied by the instrument. However, one senses that by the time the seventeenth century had established itself, the new “metaphysical” poetry of John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Andrew Marvell and Richard Crashaw, and indeed the sonnets of Lady Mary herself, no longer required accompaniment.
Thomas Mace has the instrument complain in The Decline of the Lute in England after 1660, eight years after Wroth’s death:
Lute: Despair I doe.
Old Dowland he is Dead; R. Johnson too;
Two Famous Men; Great Masters in My Art;
In each of Them I had more than One Part,
Or Two or Three; They were not Single-Soul’d,
As most our Upstarts are, and too too bold.
Soon after them, that Famous man Gotiere
Did make me grateful in each Noble Ear;
He’s likewise gone: I fear me much that I
Am not Long-liv’d, but shortly too shall Dye.
Wroth always rhymes the two quatrains of a sonnet with just two rhyme sounds, so the “word music” is of great importance to her. She is not alone in this practice, Sir Philip did this also, and Drummond, as can be seen in his sonnet above. But her thought is denuded of those ornaments which her uncle might have used. She was born fifteen years after Donne, and for all her admiration of her uncle, she employs a simple vocabulary limited to its key words, while her thought has all the twists and quiddities which epitomise that new age of lawyers and divines rather than courtiers, and this suggests a deepening preoccupation with ideas, and a waning of the obligation to create syntactic patterns, in sentences that were figures that aptly balanced each other, while utilising a decorative vocabulary that leant itself to song.
There is also the effort that can be put into making the whole poem more difficult to bring off – an extension of asprezza – making the easy hard. Wroth’s “hard” rhyming of these first two quatrains means that she has to rhyme four times on one word. Now Terza rima – ABA BCB CDC – the stanza structure favoured by Dante, which rhymes three times on any end word, is far more difficult to do in English than it is in Italian. So four-words-a-rhyme is serious virtuosity. We can feel the same level of virtuosity in a villanelle, if all its rules are rigorously adhered to, as in William Empson’s “Missing Dates“. The difficult rhyme scheme and the Petrarchan construction – two quatrains and two tercets – is so much less vulgar than Shakespeare’s three quatrains and a couplet (which makes scant musical sense). Her thought reminds me of those Japanese trees twisted into weird angularities by constriction. Wroth also has a metaphysical enjoyment of esoteric metaphor:
Love like a juggler, comes to play his prise,
And all minds draw his wonders to admire,
To see how cuningly hee, wanting eyes,
Can yett deseave the best sight of desire:
The wanton child, how hee can faine his fire
So pretely, as none sees his disguise!
How finely doe his tricks, while wee fooles hire
The badge, and office of his tirannies,
For in the end, such jugling hee doth make
As hee our harts, in stead of eyes doth take
For men can only by theyr slieghts abuse
The sight with nimble, and delightful skill;
Butt if hee play, his gaine is our lost will:
Yett childlike, wee can nott his sports refuse.
There are also some pithy expressions:
Yet this, Sir God, your boyship I dispise;
Your charms I obey, but love not want of eyes.
Once a favourite of Queen Anne but married stressfully to one of those suspicious husbands who are jealous not just of lovers (in all likelihood she was faithful to him) but of the company you keep – Wroth had been brought up in a milieu of cultivated conversation – she was given the cold shoulder by Royalty after the death of her husband, and then went on to define her own morality by having two illegitimate children with her first cousin, William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, who was something of a ne’er-do-well. This led to further social ostracization and she fell on hard times, as can be felt from this sonnet from Pamphilia to Amphilanthus:
My paine, still smother’d in my grieved brest,
Seekes for some ease, yett cannott passage finde
To bee discharg’d of this unwellcome guest;
When most I strive, more fast his burdens bind,
Like to a ship, on Goodwines cast by wind
The more she strives, more deepe in sand is prest
Till she bee lost; so am I, in this kind
Sunk, and devour’d, and swallow’d by unrest,
Lost, shipwrackt, spoyl’d, debar’d of smallest hope
Nothing of pleasure left; save thoughts have scope,
Which wander may: Goe then, my thoughts, and cry
Hope’s perish’d; Love tempest-beaten; Joy lost
Killing dispaire hath all thes blessings crost
Yett faith still cries, Love will nott falsefy.
Note the Drummond-like stacking up of verbs used adjectivally. Wroth also wrote a fascinating sequence of autobiographical sonnets (which appear in her Urania) and a corona of sonnets “dedicated to love”. It was Sir Philip who introduced this form in English with a sequence of ten linked dizains. The corona, or crown, is of Italian origin. In this form, the last line of one sonnet serves as the first line of the next. So, the last line of Wroth’s fourteenth sonnet – “In this strange labourinth how shall I turn” is also the first line of the entire sequence. Josephine A. Roberts has edited Wroth’s poems with a useful introduction and notes (published 1983, Louisiana State University Press).
I WAS INTRIGUED by Jacqueline Saphra’s If I Lay on My Back I Saw Nothing but Naked Women – a prose poem from the Emma Press with illustrations by Mark Andrew Webber – a coolly designed chap-book of seemingly surreal poetic insights into parents and step-parents which surprise us when we realise that many of the images are literal rather than surreal. Now she offers another book that is strongly designed: A Bargain with the Light: Poems after Lee Miller (Hercules Editions 2017). This is also a corona – a sequence of fourteen sonnets, the last line of one serving as the first line of the next, as with the Wroth corona. I will quote two sonnets in the sequence to give the idea:
A world apart, how did you come to this,
little German nurse? Once, you mattered: now
there’s poison on the table, family kissed
by oblivion. Your neck, Fraulein,
so soft and white it could be mine. I’ll shoot
your mouth half open: ah, those pretty teeth,
your dynasty extinguished. Swooning beauty,
waxen, dusty Nazi, who’s left to grieve
but me? Not quite tragic nor grotesque,
you draw me close. I’m used to this: I grope
towards an understanding, try to find some hope:
you’re free. Your father’s poisoned at his desk
your mother’s dead. I want to wake you, but
you’re gone. I shut my mouth. I must not spit.
I’m gone. I shut my mouth. I must not spit
nor wince, not whine, not scream. Ruined; not
the girl I was, the girl in white who smiled
and simply meant it. There she sits and gleams.
Hard to believe that I was once that child.
My mother sluices me. I can’t be clean
but who’s to know? Shhhh. It’s only pain.
I’ll learn to play both naked and concealed.
I’m strong: I run the gauntlet of the world,
parade in nothing but my skin and feel
unreachable. If I shut out the man
and never speak his name, I can be healed.
If only. The light stutters and the camera,
loose-eyed, lewd, he doesn’t give a damn.
Each of these sonnets takes a photo by or associated with Lee Miller as its starting point, and the relevant image is shown opposite its sonnet, so in this case, “A World Apart” shows Miller’s photo of The Bürgermeister’s Daughter, Town Hall, Leipzig, Germany, April 1945. The young girl looks innocently asleep, but one realises she has committed suicide. “I’m Gone, I Shut my Mouth” shows an image by a professional photographer: Frederick A Smith, Elizabeth (Lee) Miller aged 7 with her mother Florence, Poughkeepsie, New York, USA, 1914. Naturally, the sonnet that follows this begins, “loose-eyed, lewd, he doesn’t give a damn.”
Saphra’s sequence is one of the best fusions of verse and image that I have come across. Just fourteen images, but what images! By her father, by Miller herself, by Man Ray and others, they epitomise a life, and the sequence brilliantly captures the essence of that life. The sonnets are all fourteen lines long without a formal rhyme scheme but with subtle rhymes impacting on the sound at key intervals or at conclusions. I love the way the work reveals itself – touching on abuse, glamour, tyranny and effort. The sonnets incorporate a narrative thread that takes us through a linked series of notions about the extraordinary woman Miller was – a beauty who was an inspiration for the artists of her time (surely the Modigliani nude in the Courtauld is Lee Miller), a woman who became a ruthlessly honest war photographer with a sense of the surreal that charges each of her documentary images.
Introductory essays by Patricia Allmer and Saphra herself give us the background. Saphra does not “close the crown” – possibly feeling that circularity was not appropriate to the wandering thread of Miller’s experiences. Instead, a fifteenth sonnet is made up of the first lines of the others in the sequence. These sonnets are great to read aloud, and they bring us to an understanding of pain and devastation which may be personal or part of a wider spectrum of chaos; but also very often they make us aware of the wit informing that surrealism in uniform. Bloody brilliant!
SINCE IT IS so appropriate to my theme here, I am unashamedly going to put in a plug for Sonnets from Elizabeth’s – a sequence of 44 sonnets by Rosanne Wasserman after Elizabeth Barret Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese. Wasserman is a well-respected poet, writing in New York, and for several years doing us all a service by looking out for John Ashbery, until his passing. She is late ‘New York School’, to my mind, as I am; as interested in Edwin Denby and his powerful sonnets as in the abstract writing also to be found in that New York Anthology edited by Padgett and Shapiro back in 1970. It is fun reading Sonnet XVIII, say, by Browning, which begins I never gave a lock of hair away/To a man, Dearest, except this to thee…with Wasserman’s Sonnet 18: I’ve left a few short and curlies in other/men’s beds in my time, but not/any more…
Sonnets from Elizabeth’s is a chap-book from Grey Suit Editions, which I publish with my co-editor Kerry Lee Powell, who has them printed for us, very handsomely indeed, we think, in Canada.
KEITH HUTSON IS a new force on Helicon. He wrote for Coronation Street, and also wrote material for Les Dawson and Frankie Howard. Now he is writing sonnets inspired by music-hall stars and band leaders of the past:
Joe Loss, dapper as a cat, pivots from
his band to face a crowd as uniform,
together, but less polished, more fatigued.
Servicemen, he beams, now I’m going to lead
you in a singalong. Then he tells them
all to clear their throats, like this, a-hem!
Proof positive of patronizing twat
comes with Can everybody manage that?
Yes Sir! This flank of damaged lads, who took
their doctorates in coughing at Dunkirk,
launch all they’ve left into a repertoire
of phlegm-evacuation. Half an hour
of bronchial a cappella, mucus morse
code. Rough interpretation: Kiss my arse.
The sonnet comes from a collection of his sonnets titled Routines, which is published in the Poetry Salzburg Pamphlet Series (2016). Hutson’s knowledge of the freaky world of variety acts is exhaustive, from Burlington Bertie to George Gorin and his Pedalling Princesses. But besides the bizarre nature of much of this material – he gave us an impression of a frog/slowly waking up – Hutson is a maker, an assured poet sprung fully formed on us, to any poetry lover’s delighted surprise. He has a wonderful touch when it comes to comedy, as must have been appreciated by Dawson and Howard, but he has a deep knowledge of the history of these acts that inspire him, and a deft sense of rhyme as well, and there is a musicality in these flexibly formal sonnets that adds terrific charm to the amusement.
Among UK poets, at the moment, Saphra and Hutson would be who would get my prizes.
Anthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).