I’m back to work on my poetry propaganda mission. My friend L. is still not convinced. So I’m going old-school. Forget the comic and the witty, let’s try pure lyrical beauty. You gotta love the 17th century. I first read this poem by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) in high school, and several of the lines have stuck with me since then – the part about the grave being a fine and private place bubbles to the surface of my mind at inopportune times. See what you think:
To His Coy Mistress
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness lady were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges side
Should’st rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber wold complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood:
And you should if you please refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze.
Two hundred to adore each breast:
But thirty thousand to the rest.
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For lady you deserve this state;
Now would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I alwaies hear
Time’s winged charriot hurrying near:
And yonder all before us lye
Desarts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found:
Nor, in they marble vault, shall sound
My ecchoing song: then worms shall try
That long preserv’d virginity:
And your quaint honour turn to dust:
And into ashes all my Lust.
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hew
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am’rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapt pow’r.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball:
And tear our pleasures with rough strife,
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
Is that the stuff or what? Isn’t it gorgeous? And yet so mind-bogglingly old. I feel comforted when I read works like this, about such human subjects as a guy trying to impress a lady. I feel more connected to humanity. Centuries later, men are still trying to get women to sleep with them. But isn’t it so much lovelier to hear this language. Isn’t it somehow nobler to talk about “time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” than to say, “hey, clock’s ticking, sister.”
Reading the old classics does more than bring fond nostalgia for a more chivalrous time. We live in an era where so much is ugly – television, the internet, the newspaper, even the view out the car window is often just a reminder of humanity’s folly. There was a time when poets only had lofty subjects: truth, beauty, love, God. While I love to read modern poets who have taken the everyday and elevated it to the heights reserved for the old standards (yes, we’ll get to William Carlos Williams), sometime I chafe against the backlash against the old school beauty. Take the brilliant C.K. Williams, the darling of the New Yorker and other cutting edge poetry schools of thought. Here’s a clip from one of his poems, The Dog.
The limp leash coiled in her hand, the woman would be pro-
filed to the dog, staring into the distance,
apparently oblivious, those breasts of hers like stone, while he,
not a step away, laboring,
trying to eject the feeble, mucus-coated, blood-flecked chains
that finally spurted from him,
would set himself on tiptoe and hump into a question mark,
one quivering back leg grotesquely lifted.
Um…no? While I can appreciate some of Williams’ long-lined genius and graphic word painting, this just doesn’t appeal. Yeah, sure, it’s not fair to put it against Marvell, but I’m not writing an academic paper here. I’m just trying to show that sometimes we just want to read something lovely, the way we want to look at a beautiful landscape, hear a sweet song, eat a perfect peach. That’s what Marvell’s poem is to me. When I want a gritty true look at a snapshot of life – then I’ll nod along through the Holocaust films, read the New Yorker fiction, try to see the beauty in an urban slum, read Williams’ poem. But Marvell serves a different purpose.
On another note, I really hope Marvell’s coy mistress put out after this poem. He earned it. I had a guy in college whose attempt at wooing was a late night invitation back to his dorm room “to look at his poster collection.” Perhaps he would have had a better chance of sporting like amorous birds of prey if he’d spoken of the youthful hew on my dewey cheeks. Or mentioned that it was but a short time on this earth before I was buried in a marble vault with nothing but the worms for lovers. (OK, maybe better he skipped that). But still. You gotta give the guy points for effort.