Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


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Monday, December 1, 2014

An Armenian Family in Bordeaux

We had just arrived in Bordeaux and we were taking public transportation (as is our custom) into town. We took a bus and then were waiting at a tram stop to continue when Patricia began to chat with a fellow passenger. She was speaking to a middle-aged woman who knew no English but to whom our imperfect French was no impediment. After only a few minutes of conversation she was making sleeping gestures, inviting us to stay at her apartment rather than a hotel. We thanked her but demurred, telling her we had already booked a hotel She asked which one. Then began insisting we come at least for dinner. Patricia did her best to put our new friend off, to leave her with a polite "peut-être," but she pressed ever harder. The woman gave Patricia her telephone number and asked her to call. "Peut-être," said Patricia. I confess to a wisp of wonder about just what was going on. We parted with her repeated wishes that she might entertain us. It certainly seemed a bit fishy. Though we communicated only with difficulty, it was clear that she ardently wished to see us again. We left the tram and located our hotel not far away, checked in and went to our room. The telephone rang. It was our new friend -- she had made her way to the hotel . She said that she merely wanted to be sure that we had found the address. When we continued our polite regrets, she said that we should let her know once we have decided to come. Ah, but we had no telephone. Instantly she had her cellphone out and was pressing it on us. Though we managed to refuse the phone, we found ourselves capitulating by way of compromise and agreeing to meet her at four the following afternoon. Her eagerness was so urgent it was a bit off-putting.

Terez, for that was her name, which she spelled in this rather than the French way, did come by the next day to conduct us to her home in Merignac. She had a pass for the tram, but the system required single-ride passengers to pay before boarding, and none of us had the proper change for the vending machine. She urged us to get on anyway as there was no ticket-taker, though fellow passengers could see that we had not stamped a ticket or flashed a card. Feeling conspicuous and vulnerable, we learned a bit more about our hostess. She had immigrated from Armenia some decades earlier. She and her husband were both on disability and her younger son Émile was a secondary school student while an older son Achot drove trucks, though he found himself at the moment unemployed. Her husband was in the hospital for shoulder surgery. After a time we were relieved to arrive at our stop, but then dismayed to find we had a bus yet to take, again conspicuously ticketless and now with a visible driver. By the time we reached Terez’s place, doubtless a welfare apartment but well-maintained and adequate, we were co-conspirators, anarchist comrades, fellow scroungers after life.

She immediately poured wine and gestured toward the coffee table, laden with chocolates and fruits and cheeses and pastries. Her younger son was a bit timid at first, but warmed to his role as the family member with the closest thing to some knowledge of English. After a short time her older son appeared with his family. His wife Milena (who had lived in Moscow for some years) was gracious, and their children Iliana and Mike were pleasant. What a fine family, and all welcoming us as though we had been relatives while grinning across the linguistic gap. Achot occasionally enlisted his telephone to turn our French into Russian.

There wasn't an inch to spare on the dinner table as well, though the principal dishes were as yet unpresented. The repast turned out to be gargantuan: baked pork chops, a casserole of ground meat, eggs, and potatoes, a plateful of fresh coriander stalks, olives, pickled peppers, creamed spinach, a cabbage salad, charcuterie including salami and a preparation of cooked lard (pure white, looking like benign slices of cheese), and half a dozen beverage options beyond the wine. This was eventually succeeded by a grand variety of fresh fruit (including excellent persimmons), cheese, fruits, and hitherto unseen pastries. Fond as we are of cooking, we could not imagine staging a feast on this scale.

Achot gave us a lift back to the hotel as his mother was asking if we didn’t want to stay the night, and, when disappointed, offering hospitality to us and our relatives for all time to come. We felt still a bit dazed, unable to process the experience as a whole. The family had doubtless been influenced by their alienation in France. “It is hard here for an immigrant,” Achot said, and we later were told that Armenians are considered by some in Western Europe as the next thing to Gypsies. Armenian custom surely played a role as well, and, most of all, Terez’ innate great-heartedness. With such slight acquaintance it is difficult to discern or even to speculate meaningfully about motive. Her liberality was not unique in my experience. I thought of the schoolteacher in a small Algerian town who heard we had been stranded there and turned up suddenly in his car to offer us a bed and a dinner at which he kept urging, "Mangez, mangez!" while we wondered whether his wife and children would have anything to eat after we had left the table with him. And the woman from the German embassy in Phnom Penh where she did what struck even this cynic as humanitarian work, who spread for us a tasty table in her apartment in a towering building overlooking the lights of the city and we ate together and discussed philosophy and art as though time did not exist and we knew we would never meet again. Then there was the ten-year-old boy in Khajuraho who tailed us until we tired of shooing him and in the end he brought us into his home where Patricia sat on the dirt floor with his smiling mother and made parathas. This Muslim and agnostic and Hindu would have understood the millennia-old Hebrew injunction, “The stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:34)

The encounter still seems a bit mysterious. I had been reading Céline's Death on the Installment Plan and relishing his profound pessimism, his disgust with humanity. He is like Henry Miller but lacking Miller's ebullient brand of joy. What carries Céline through the day I do not know, yet he has such propulsive energy in his revulsion that he goes on and on as though he must anticipate something coming of it all in the end. In spite of his fascism and misogyny he seems to me like Swift in his fierce and biting vision (not to mention his scatology), bitter because he cares so much. And even in the riot of vices detailed there, the hatred, lust, irresponsibility, wanton violence, utter selfishness, and absurd arrogance, there is the figure of Uncle Edouard, with no selfish end whatever, trying tirelessly to see that his wild nephew manages to launch himself in life. Such kindness, like other miracles, need not be constant or even frequent. It need not even be wholly pure in motive. It is enough that, now and then, along our progress, be it a day that seems a stroll, a hike, or a laborious trudge, someone look our way with uncalculating love. Surely this is the only grace there is, but if we are fortunate it will suffice.

The Lyricism of the Ugly: Céline's Mort à Crédit


Page references to quotations from Death on the Installment Plan are enclosed in parentheses and refer to the Signet edition, New American Library, 1966. Numbers in brackets refer to endnotes.


The twentieth century was the great age of irony. One of the period’s masterworks, Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Mort à Crédit (expertly translated by Ralph Manheim [1] with the title Death on the Installment Plan) seems built largely of inversions and conundrums. For the author, the ugly is beautiful. According to Céline, “That's what Death on the Installment Plan is, symbolically, the reward of life being death. Seeing as . . . it's not the good Lord who rules, it's the devil. Man. Nature's disgusting, just look at it, bird life, animal life.” [2] The book resembles comedy in its depiction of everyman’s worst sins and faults and failings and in its emphasis on the physical with particular focus on shit and vomit, yet the tone is anything but light. It seems an autobiography, yet the book's protagonist is far more filthy and incompetent than the author, his relationships with family and others far more dysfunctional. We tend to call pictures of the seamy side “realistic,” yet the book is highly fanciful and full of hallucinations, delusions, and visions. The author’s celebrated ellipses, which one might expect to slow the narrative to a contemplative pace, instead accelerate it in a relentless onslaught on the reader's sensibilities. Much of the book’s early notoriety arose from its apparent perverse reveling in the nastiness of people and in their surroundings.

Contradictions extend into the political realm. Céline was a committed fascist and a vicious anti-Semite, whose opinions, far from private, were published in inflammatory pamphlets before and during the Nazi occupation [3] yet my popular Signet edition from 1966 features blurbs from both Trotsky and Gide (a Communist at the time of the book’s publication). The author (like Heidegger) saw no contradiction in consistently maintaining Jewish friends and lovers while calling for the ruination of “international Jewry” and later drew the admiration of Allen Ginsberg [4] and Philip Roth who called him, pointedly, “a great liberator.” It helps little that even the Nazis were uncomfortable with Celine as an ally. [5] While he consistently portrays the common people as vicious and ignorant, he spent his medical career treating them in what amounted to charity clinics. He had an abiding sympathy for the poor and an anarchist’s distaste for bosses, police, and other authorities. He ridicules father Auguste in the novel for his paranoia in which Jews and Freemasons are responsible for his family’s suffering, yet he practiced precisely the same sort of ignorant scapegoating himself.

In his narratives people act as though blind, doing their blundering best to pursue self-interest but helplessly in thrall to exploiters, who, though more comfortable, are no less benighted. His everyman is subject to an inexorable torrent of experience which will never slow sufficiently for one to gain a firm footing and which threatens at any moment to overflow in a riot of chaos. The tone is clear from the outset. The book begins as bleakly as anything in Beckett : “Here we are, alone again. It’s all so slow, so heavy, so sad . . .I’ll be old soon. Then at last it will be over.” (15) But this emptiness soon turns into a plenitude that boils over out of control. Before long he is having sex with Mireille in the Bois de Boulogne (39) and all hell breaks loose as countless spectators gather, requiring twenty-five thousand police to clear the area in a fully Rabelaisian scene. This hallucination is rationalized as a fever, but similar eruptions recur again and again. When the family attempts to have a nice vacation in England, the project collapses in disaster on the passage over with everyone is slipping and sliding in each other’s vomit (124-5) in what seems more a diabolical rite of passage than a catharsis. Angry crowds descend more than once on des Pereires’ Genitron offices just as multitudes of vermin erupt from his sorry attempt at a scientific potato garden.

Céline’s political derangement had in common with Pound’s a revulsion with modernity, including that cash nexus that forms the basis for human relationships under modern capitalism. In his Paris Review interview he says “I really saw the world was ruled by the Golden Calf, by Mammon!” Ferdinand’s parents cannot adapt to a changing world. In his mother’s shop she sells lace of an outmoded style. In an attempt to keep up with contemporary fashion, she buys boleros, only to see them fall out of favor. Des Pereires is an inventor of the old school, an individual fiddling about in his workshop, clinging to his lighter-than-air balloon, a universal genius able only to devise one hare-brained scheme after another in the manner of Bouvard and Pécuchet.

The hopeless despair of Céline’s world is only heightened and rendered poignant by occasional strange unearthly rays of light. Gazing at the nightlights of Paris from des Pereires’ suburban home, it seems a great appetitive beast, “an enormous animal, sprawled across the horizon . . . they eat . . . every day . . .yes, indeed, they eat . . . It makes a sad sound, a soft rumbling.” (468) Fellowship appears briefly and obliquely, but only to lament the inability of holding on to time, of stopping the rush of reality if only momentarily: “He was bound to be someplace, chasing after his pittance . . .and his fun.” “Ah, it’s an awful thing . . .and being young doesn’t help any . . .while you notice for the first time . . .the way you lose people as you go along . . . buddies you’ll never see again . . . never again . . . when you notice that they have disappeared like dreams . . .that it’s all over . . . finished . . . that you too will get lost someday . . . a long way off but inevitably . . . in the awful torrent of things and people . . . of the days and shapes . . . that pass . . . that never stop.” “They’re in a dream with the others.” (392)

The tenderness of that unpreventable loss reminds the reader of Villon. [6] Several relatives also seem almost redemptive in their kindness. The narrator’s mother Clémence strives with unfailing will-power but diminishing strength to sustain her family and mollify her husband. “She did all she could to keep me alive. I just shouldn’t have been born.” This model of dogged maternal love is never modified by set-backs, fatigue, or mixed motives. ( 55) During Ferdinand’s teen-age years his Uncle Édouard repeatedly rescues him, offering him a refuge and resources in spite of the boy’s repeated failures.

Perhaps most suggestive of the book’s acts of love, each more precious for its rarity, is Ferdinand’s grandmother Caroline’s gift to the child of a copy of lllustrated Adventure Stories in which he reads tales of King Krogold that inspire him to invent his own fairy stories as an alternative to an unacceptable reality. The painting done by the narrator’s father is a similar haven, as, one suspects, Céline’s tumultuous and fevered prose is as well, as Greek tragedy had been for an earlier age, a way to keep living even after realizing with Camus, that that task alone is Sisyphean.

Earlier writers had so whitewashed the grim and nasty human situation that Céline thought it took a new language to reveal it. His claim that “I've slipped the spoken word into print” contains both a bit of a boast and a measure of truth. He influenced Henry Miller, the Beats, hard-boiled fiction, Genet, Queneau, Robbe-Grillet, and Bukowski who called him “the greatest writer of 2,000 years.” [7] “For me,” Céline says, “you only had the right to die when you had a good tale to tell. To enter in, you tell your story and pass on.” The reader can have no doubt that his story is sufficiently good to warrant a pass into Elysium, a sort of immortality.


1. John H. P. Marks had done a version in 1938. Manheim (whose translation was published in 1966) had begun his career with an edition of Mein Kampf preserving even awkwardness and solecisms in Hitler’s prose. He later did important translations of Brecht, Günter Grass, Martin Heidegger, Hermann Hesse, Novalis, and others as well as transcripts of Eichmann’s trial, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” which was illustrated by Maurice Sendak and Henry Corbin's work Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi.

2. Paris Review,” The Art of Fiction #33,” winter spring 1964 issue, no. 31. Subsequent quotations from Céline not identified by page reference in the novel are from the same interview.

3. Bagatelles pour un massacre (Trifles for a Massacre) (1937), L'École des cadavres (The School of Corpses) (1938) and Les Beaux draps (The Fine Mess) (1941).

4. According to Ginsberg Voyage a la bout de la nuit was “the first genius international beat twentieth-century picaresque novel written in modern classical personal comedy prose."

5. While WWII was still in progress, he came to believe that both Adolf Hitler and Pope Pius XII must both be Jewish imposters since they were failing to defend the white race with sufficient energy.

6. I think of the “Ballade Des Dames Du Temps Jadis,” “Les Regrets De La Belle Heaulmière,” the Testaments, and many other pieces. Villon also resembles Céline in his literary use of slang and underworld argot.

7. In Notes of a Dirty Old Man.

Every Reader's Wyatt

This is the second of a series of essays meant to engage non-specialists, indeed, non-English majors, with the work of important poets. In spite of my own inclination toward the abstruse I mean to limit my focus to the discussion of only three or four of each writer’s best-known works while providing a bit of context and biography. I vow to avoid tempting byways and to include no footnotes whatsoever.


Like other sixteenth century poets, Wyatt might be said to be an incidental author. None of his poetry was published until fifteen years after his death. He spent his life as a courtier, beginning with the post of Sewer Extraordinary to Henry VIII (nothing to do with waterworks) and serving in such roles as Marshal of Calais, Sheriff of Kent, Ambassador to Spain, and factotum. Proximity to power was not only rewarding, but dangerous as well; Wyatt was three times imprisoned. He very narrowly avoided the fate of his contemporary Surrey, famed as the perfect courtier, and the later Raleigh, both of whom were executed.
A courtier in Wyatt’s day was a soldier and a statesman, but he was also expected to be a cultivated man with musical and artistic accomplishments and a mastery of elegant and sophisticated flirtation and love. Palace intrigues were erotic and personal as well as political, and, under the rule of an almost absolute monarch, each of these activities had its perils. In 1536 Wyatt fell under suspicion of adultery with Anne Boleyn and was imprisoned in the Bell Tower at the Tower of London. From his window he witnessed her execution and that of five of her reputed lovers. Surely only through the influence of powerful friends did the poet avoid the same scaffold. Anne Boleyn is commonly regarded as the subject of one of his most lovely and haunting poems.


Who so list to hount I know where is an hynde
but as for me helas I may no more,
the vayne travaill hath weried me so sore.
I ame of theim that farthest cometh behind;
yet may I by no meanes my weried mynde
drawe from the Deere but as she fleeth afore,
faynting I folowe. I leve of therefor.
sithens in a nett I seke to hold the wynde.
Who list her hount I put him owte of dowbte,
as well as I may spend his tyme in vain;
and graven with Diamondes in letters plain
There is written her faier neck rounde abowte;
noli me tangere, for Caesar's I ame;
and wylde for to hold though I seme tame.


Thomas Wyatt (and Surrey) introduced the sonnet in English sometimes using what came to be called the English rhyme scheme. This poem is in part derived from Petrach’s 190th sonnet, “Una candida cerva,” but it is far from a translation. The initial ambiguity of love as hunting (like love as war) is balanced and heightened by the poet’s fruitless exhausted devotion, the picture of the Ovidian or courtly lover. To him joy in love is as unlikely as seeking to hold the wind in a net. The Latin tag “do not touch me” is often regarded as evidence that the beloved lady is already claimed by the king, but many lovers far from royal courts might experience the same frustration. Another might express similar sentiments as, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” The original use of “noli me tangere” spoken by Christ to Mary Magdalene in the Latin Bible in a scene painted by Fra Angelico, Botticelli and many others, is complicated by its use (according to Solinus) as a warning to poachers against taking Caesar’s deer. The concluding line is a beautiful expression of the fierce emotion that necessarily accompanies tender feelings.

Wyatt in another poem delineating the subtle ambivalences of desire figures the beloved as a wild beast once more. The mysterious evocative power of those lovers who “with naked foot” “stalked in my chamber” is outdone by the straightforwardness of the natural encounter of the second stanza. The lady, her gown falling off her shoulder in “a pleasant manner,” kisses the poet and asks “How like you this?” To me the conclusion, which lapses into a mild resentment, is anticlimactic, but the first two stanzas are sublime.


They fle from me that sometyme did me seke
With naked fote stalking in my chambre.
I have sene theim gentill, tame, and meke
That nowe are wyld and do not remembre
That sometyme they put theimself in daunger
To take bred at my hand; and nowe they raunge
Besely seking with a continuell chaunge.

Thancked be fortune it hath ben othrewise
Twenty tymes better, but ons in speciall,
In thyn arraye after a pleasaunt gyse,
When her lose gowne from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her armes long and small,
Therewithall swetely did me kysse,
And softely said "dere hert, howe like you this?"

It was no dreme: I lay brode waking.
But all is torned thorough my gentilnes
Into a straunge fasshion of forsaking;
And I have leve to goo of her goodeness,
And she also to vse new fangilnes.
But syns that I so kyndely ame served,
I would fain knowe what she hath deserved.


These are the poems I most remember, though Wyatt’s importance as a translator and importer of Continental forms and conventions to England had immense historical consequences. His first publisher Tottel said the country owed to him and Surrey “that our tong is able in that kynde [the French or Italian style] to do as praiseworthy as ye rest.” Tottel was speaking of what amounted to nearly the last gasp of courtly love, yet when Thomas Sackville, Earl of Dorset, memorialized Wyatt, he mentioned only his translations of the Psalms. To Thomas Warton he was the “first polished English satirist,” and his most “pleasing” work was moralizing on “the felicities of retirement” as in “Mine owne John Poynz” (a poem of over a hundred lines appended to this essay). If Wyatt’s love poetry represents a late efflorescence of the troubadour tradition, the lines addressed to John Poynz look forward to the measured pentameters of Dryden and then the masterful Pope.

Like many another writer of sublime love poetry, Wyatt could also advocate an abstemious withdrawal. When obliged to leave the court he expressed what might be regarded as admirable detachment (philosophic or, in terms of poetry, Horatian, perhaps) though he had no hesitation about returning as soon as he was able. Assuredly a literary convention – he sticks fairly close to Luigi Alamanni’s tenth satire and uses the Italian’s terza rima (the first instance in English) – the praise of a life of retirement is doubtless also true, at least as true as the same man’s delight in the complex rivalries and games he here ridicules. One thinks of the magnificent Chinese poems reflecting on the civil service and, for some, the greater wisdom of a solitary life in the mountains, not for fear of losing innocence, but because one is sated and yet not satisfied with having had altogether too much of court life. The Wyatt who wrote these lines would have understood Yuán Méi, who at the age of thirty-two, resigned his post and spent the remainder of his career writing books of poetry and travel and cooking. If Wyatt is expressing sour grapes over his involuntary rustication, he has made as fine a wine of it as he had done with the sweets of love.


Myne owne John Poynz, sins ye delight to know
The cause why that homeward I me drawe,
And fle the presse of courtes wher soo they goo,
Rather then to lyve thrall, under the awe
Of lordly lokes, wrappid within my cloke,
To will and lust learning to set a lawe;
It is not for becawse I skorne or moke
The powar of them, to whome fortune hath lent
Change over us, of Right, to strike the stroke:
But true it is that I have allwais ment
Lesse to estime them then the common sort,
Of outward thinges that juge in their intent,
Withowt regarde what dothe inwarde resort.
I grawnt sumtime that of glorye the fyar
Dothe touche my hart: me lyst not to report
Blame by honour and honour to desyar.
But how may I this honour now atayne
That cannot dy the coloure blak a lyer?

My Poynz, I cannot frame me tune to fayne,
To cloke the trothe for praisse withowt desart,
Of them that lyst all vice for to retayne.
I cannot honour them that settes their part
With Venus and Baccus all theire lyf long;
Nor holld my pece of them allthoo I smart.
I cannot crowche nor knelle to do so grete a wrong,
To worship them, lyke gode on erthe alone,
That ar as wollffes thes sely lambes among.
I cannot with my wordes complayne and mone,
And suffer nought; nor smart wythout complaynt,
Nor torne the worde that from my mouthe is gone.

I cannot speke and loke lyke a saynct,
Use wiles for witt and make deceyt a pleasure,
And call crafft counsell, for proffet styll to paint.
I cannot wrest the law to fill the coffer
With innocent blode to fede my sellff fat,
And doo most hurt where most hellp I offer.
I am not he that can alow the state
Off highe Cesar and dam Cato to dye,
That with his dethe dyd skape owt off the gate
From Cesares handes (if Lyve do not lye)
And wolld not lyve whar lyberty was lost:
So did his hert the commonn wele aplye.
I am not he suche eloquence to boste,
To make the crow singing as the swane,
Nor call the lyon of cowarde bestes the moste
That cannot take a mows as the cat can:
And he that dithe for hunger of the golld
Call him Alessaundre; and say that Pan
Passithe Apollo in muske manyfolld;
Praysse Syr Thopas for a nobyll talle,
And skorne the story that the knyght tolld.
Praise him for counceill that is droncke of ale;
Grynee when he laugheth that bereth all the swaye,
Frowne when he frowneth and grone when he is pale;
On othres lust to hang boeth nyght and daye:
None of these pyntes would ever frame in me;
My wit is nought--I cannot lerne the waye.
And much the lesse of thinges that greater be,
That asken helpe of colours of devise
To joyne the mene with eche extremitie,
With the neryst vertue to cloke always the vise:
And as to pourpose like wise it shall fall,
To presse the vertue that it may not rise;
As dronkenes good felloweshippe to call;
The frendly ffoo with his dowble face
Say he is gentill and courtois therewithall;
And say that Favell hath a goodly grace
In eloquence; and crueltie to name
Zele of justice and chaunge in tyme and place;
And he that suffreth offence withoute blame
Call him pitefull; and him true and playn
That raileth rekles to every mans shame.
Say he is rude that cannot lye and fayn;
The letcher a lover; and tirannye
To be the right of a prynces reigne.
I cannot, I. No, no, it will not be.
This is the cause that I could never yet
Hang on their slevis that way as thou maist se
A chippe of chaunce more then a pownde of witt.
This maketh me at home to hounte and to hawke
And in fowle weder at my booke to sitt.
In frost and snowe then with my bow to stawke,
No man doeth marke where so I ride or goo;
In lusty lees at libertie I walke,
And of these newes I fele nor wele nor woo,
Sauf that a clogg doeth hang yet at my hele:
No force for that for it is ordered so,
That I may lepe boeth hedge and dike full well.
I ame not now in Ffraunce to judge the wyne,
With saffry sauce the delicates to fele;
Nor yet in Spaigne where oon must him inclyne
Rather then to be, owtewerdly to seme.
I meddill not with wittes that be so fyne,
No Fflaunders chiere letteth not my sight to deme
Of black and white, nor taketh my wit awaye
With bestylnes, they beeste do so esteme;

Nor I ame not where Christe is geven in pray
For mony, poison and traison at Rome,
A commune practise used nyght and daie:
But here I ame in Kent and Christendome
Emong the muses where I rede and ryme;
Where if thou list, my Poynz, for to come,
Thou shalt be judge how I do spend my tyme.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Truckin'

This essay is followed by the texts of Blind Boy Fuller’s "She's a Truckin' Little Baby," Ted Koehler’s “Truckin’,” Big Bill Broonzy’s “Truckin’ Little Woman,” Garcia, Lehr, Lesh, and Hunter’s “Truckin’, Hot Tuna’s” Keep On Truckin’,” and Eddie Kendricks’ “Keep on Truckin’.”


The Symbolist poets realized that images can be strengthened by underdetermination, that is, by giving the reader insufficient information to decode a term precisely, opening a route to associations and connotations that might otherwise be excluded. Furthermore, the implications of every image are conditioned by the tradition, such that a range of earlier usages may suggest allusive reference either strongly or weakly, expanding the semantic field in complex and subtle ways rather than limiting it as a definition would do. In addition, all figures of speech might be said to be imprecise in that the vehicle (in I.A. Richards’ term) applies only in part to the tenor. Paradoxically, what might seem inexactness provides the ability to formulate new significations, far more densely laden with information than ordinary discourse. Meaning becomes considerably more complex once the reader surveys a variety of texts by different authors. The use of the word “trucking” in American popular music indicates the vigor and elasticity of a term that gains in power with each novel turn in usage.

Thanks to R. Crumb and, in his wake, the Grateful Dead, “truckin’” has entered common vernacular usage, yet long before the fame of Mr. Natural and Jerry Garcia, the expression had a place in American song lyrics. In "She's a Truckin' Little Baby," recorded in 1936 by Blind Boy Fuller (Fulton Allen), [1] the word is nothing more than rhyming slang, a euphemism for fucking (like both “jazz” and “rock and roll”). The singer warns rivals, “Catch you truckin' with her, I'm gonna sure shoot you down,” and celebrates his beloved in familiar hyperbole.


Keep on truckin' mama, truckin' my blues away, yeah
Keep on truckin' baby, truckin' my blues away
Make a lame man run, make a blind man see
Sure gets good when she truckin' with me.


This usage is not surprising from Fuller, a Piedmont street musician whose repertoire included a number of outrageous hokum songs such as “I Want Some of Your Pie,” “ What’s That Smell like Fish,” and “Let Me Squeeze Your Lemon.” The genre, reveling in double entendre, arose from minstrel show comedy to popularity on “race” (black) and sometimes on “old-time” (white country) recordings as well in the 1930s.

A number of other artists further exploited this vein, including John Jackson, another Piedmont musician, who performed in the 1940s but never recorded until the 60s. Jackson’s “Trucking Little Baby” opens with the words, “That little girl, she's a-named Irene./ Got good jelly but she's stingy with me.” Bill Bill Broonzy recorded “Trucking Little Woman” in 1938 which notes that “She can look up as long as you can look down.” Decades later John Hammond used the same sort of ribald lyrics in his “Trucking Little Boy” as did Hot Tuna for their version of “Keep on Truckin’” on the Splashdown album in 1984.

The term trucking, however, doubtless due to an extension of the same euphemistic usage, was also familiar to Fuller’s audience as a dance step popular since the late 1920s. [2] Though much couple dancing may be seen as formalized sexual intercourse, and some dance moves are clearly erotic, this one is instead descended from the struts or cake-walks, conventionalized moves indicating confidence and ebullient joy. Considered by some a decorative elaboration on the Lindy Hop, the dancers lift and lower their shoulders while waggling a pointing forefinger in the air. The program of the 1935 Cotton Club Parade show includes a number titled “Truckin’” credited to Ted Koehler which is free from sexual innuendo. Like many other dance craze lyrics, the words simply announce the new vogue, saying everyone’s doing it.

From the dance usage, perhaps via marathon dance competitions, the term came to have the more common contemporary meaning of persisting or carrying on despite difficulties. The phrase “Keep on trucking” seems to have been unrecorded until Crumb’s images to accompany Fuller’s words in 1967, though some trace it plausibly to usage decades earlier among Pullman car porters or long-haul truckers. It can hardly surprise one that the phrase emerged in African-American vernacular to indicate persistence, “keeping on keeping on,” in a hostile racist world. In the three word phrase the erotic implications are often subdued though not out of place. Love-making was always a recreation and solace available to the poor as well as the rich.

In the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’,” an account of the band’s road trips, the sense of restless traveling, of moving forward predominates. Against a background of poker imagery (a modern version of the wheel of fortune) and the evocation of Crumb’s “do-dah man” [4] The song opens with a collage of various cities, though to the singer they seem “all on the same street.” The theme of love is included in passing with these lines.


Most of the cast that you meet on the streets speak of true love,
Most of the time they're sittin' and cryin' at home.
One of these days they know they better get goin'
Out of the door and down on the streets all alone.


Eddie Kendricks, once of the Temptations, had a number one solo hit with “Keep On Truckin’.” Here the sexual metaphor returns with fierce intensity, while the propulsive, “traveling,” implications of the word are also exploited. With his incoherent moans and exclamations, the singer enacts sexual pleasure. His “love jones” has set him “on fire.” Though saying it’s a “double shame” to be so helplessly enraptured, he continues to “keep trucking” toward “good loving.” Kendricks then explicitly evokes the image of a truck on the highway with his references to “diesel-powered” and the “red ball express.” [3] Lines such as “Ain't nothin' holdin' me back nothin'/ I'll keep right on, right on truckin'” might refer equally to love-making or to life in general.

As T. S Eliot said in his immensely influential “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” tradition involves far more than “blind or timid adherence” to earlier models. According to Eliot the appreciation of any writer necessarily involves “the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.” Thus the addition of every new work requires the alteration “of the whole existing order.” The meaning of Kendricks’ song includes the previous meanings, not only of the word trucking, but indeed of every word in his lyrics. He depends as do all poets, on the competence of the reader (or listener) to understand his language in the context of his tradition. For the word trucking, this includes well-established implications of sexual desire and dogged determination, both associated with the energy of a fully loaded semi barreling down the road. In his song’s final word, “truckin’,” the listener can hear a symphony of allusions to generations of earlier poets.



1. Fuller also recorded “Long Time Trucker” which adds little to my analysis. The song is more concerned with his concern about his lover’s black cat bone.

2. The dance has been variously attributed to Dewey "Pigmeat" Markham and to Cora LaRedd of the Cotton Club, but most authorities agree that it was largely a renaming of previously existing moves, some of which had been featured in nineteenth century minstrel shows.

3. Soldiers on the historic Red Ball Express convoys following D-Day were mainly African-American.

4. Do-dah (or its variations) most readily alludes to the chorus of Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races,” though baby boomers will think also of Disney’s “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from Song of the South. In fact the syllables occur as far back as the minstrel show favorite “Ole Zip Coon.” In Thomas Birch’s 1834 version the chorus is “O Zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day.” In fact, due to its jocular nonsense sound, doo-dah has been used as a slang term with such varied referents as cocaine, breasts, penis, and the city of Wichita as well, I suspect, as others of which I am unaware.


"She's a Truckin' Little Baby" Blind Boy Fuller (Fulton Allen)

I got a gal here in this town, she's the best lookin' brown around
I got a gal in this town, best lookin' brown around
She's a-strictly tailor-made, she ain't no hand-me-down
Catch you truckin' with her, I'm gonna sure shoot you down
Keep on truckin' mama, truckin' my blues away
Truckin' my blues away

Keep on truckin' mama, truckin' my blues away
Keep on truckin' mama, girl you truck my blues away
I got a gal she's little and neat
When she's starts to truckin', man it's so sweet
Keep on truckin' mama, truckin' my blues away
Truckin' my blues away

Keep on truckin' baby, truckin' my blues away, yeah
Keep on truckin' baby, truckin' my blues away
I know a gal she's long and tall
When she starts to truckin' make a little man squall
Keep on truckin' mama, truckin' my blues away
I mean, truckin' my blues away, yeah

do be dee be da....zee za za etc.

Keep on truckin' baby, truckin' my blues away
Keep on truckin' mama, truckin' my blues away
She has a dance she call biddle-um-bum
Sure missin' somethin' if you don't truck some
Keep on truckin' mama, truckin' my blues away
Truckin' my blues away

Keep on truckin' baby, truckin' my blues away
Keep on truckin' mama, truckin' my blues away, yeah
You don't have to hurry, don't have to go
Wait a little while you might wanna truck some more
Keep on truckin' baby, truckin' my blues away
Truckin' my blues away

Keep on truckin' mama, truckin' my blues away, yeah
Keep on truckin' baby, truckin' my blues away
Make a lame man run, make a blind man see
Sure gets good when she truckin' with me
Keep on truckin' baby, truckin' my blues away


“Truckin’” Ted Koehler

Listen you rhythm rounders,
Harlem is talking now
You know the truck bug got you,
But you never knew just how.

That’s what I want to tell you,
I’ve got it figured out.
Now if you want the lowdown,
Here’s how it came about.

We had to have something new,
a dance to do up here in Harlem,
so someone started Truckin’
as soon as the news got round.

The folks downtown came up to Harlem.
Everybody Truckin’. It didn’t take long
Before the High Hats were doin’ it,
Park Avenue nuin’ it, All over town,
You’ll see them Scufflin’, Shufflin’, Truckin’ along.
It spread like a forest blaze, became a craze
and thanks to Harlem now everybody’s Truckin’.


"Trucking Little Woman" William Lee Conley Broonzy (Big Bill Broonzy)

See that woman, her hands up over her head?
Did you hear me, what I said?

She's a truckin' little woman, don't you know.
She's a truckin' little woman, don't you know.
She's a truckin' little woman, here from Tennessee.

Wake up, boys. Don't you be no fool.
This little gal here, she's just from school.
She got plenty sense. She ain't no fool.
Got big eyes 'cause she's stubborn as a mule, but

She's a truckin' little woman, don't you know.
She's a truckin' little woman, don't you know.
She's a truckin' little woman, here from Tennessee.

This little gal that I'm singin' about
Is strictly tailor-made and it ain't no doubt.
She's built up round, right on the ground.
She can look up as long as you can look down, 'cause

She's a truckin' little woman, don't you know.
She's a truckin' little woman, don't you know.
She's a truckin' little woman, here from Tennessee.

I's just wonderin' what's that Annie got?
Where does she keep it, an' in what drawer?
Where did she get it? How much it cost?
Eyes like a big motor with a double exhaust, 'cause

She's a truckin' little woman, don't you know.
She's a truckin' little woman, don't you know.
She's a truckin' little woman, here from Tennessee.

See that woman goin' down the road,
Jumpin' an' jackin' like a model-T Fo'd.

She's a truckin' mother for you, don't you know.
She's a truckin' mother for you, don't you know.
She's a truckin' mother for you, here from Tennessee.


"Truckin'" Grateful Dead (Garcia,Weir, Lesh, and Hunter)

Truckin' got my chips cashed in. Keep truckin', like the do-dah man
Together, more or less in line, just keep truckin' on.

Arrows of neon and flashing marquees out on Main Street.
Chicago, New York, Detroit and it's all on the same street.
Your typical city involved in a typical daydream
Hang it up and see what tomorrow brings.

Dallas, got a soft machine; Houston, too close to New Orleans;
New York's got the ways and means; but just won't let you be, oh no.

Most of the cast that you meet on the streets speak of true love,
Most of the time they're sittin' and cryin' at home.
One of these days they know they better get goin'
Out of the door and down on the streets all alone.

Truckin', like the do-dah man. Once told me "You've got to play your hand"
Sometimes your cards ain't worth a dime, if you don't lay'em down,

Sometimes the light's all shinin' on me;
Other times I can barely see.
Lately it occurs to me What a long, strange trip it's been.

What in the world ever became of sweet Jane?
She lost her sparkle, you know she isn't the same
Livin' on reds, vitamin C, and cocaine,
All a friend can say is "Ain't it a shame?"

Truckin', up to Buffalo. Been thinkin', you got to mellow slow
Takes time, you pick a place to go, and just keep truckin' on.

Sittin' and starin' out of the hotel window.
Got a tip they're gonna kick the door in again
I'd like to get some sleep before I travel,
But if you got a warrant, I guess you're gonna come in.

Busted, down on Bourbon Street, Set up, like a bowlin' pin.
Knocked down, it gets to wearin' thin. They just won't let you be, oh no.

You're sick of hangin' around and you'd like to travel;
Get tired of travelin' and you want to settle down.
I guess they can't revoke your soul for tryin',
Get out of the door and light out and look all around.

Sometimes the light's all shinin' on me;
Other times I can barely see.
Lately it occurs to me What a long, strange trip it's been.

Truckin', I'm a goin' home. Whoa whoa baby, back where I belong,
Back home, sit down and patch my bones, and get back truckin' on.
Hey now get back truckin' home.


“Keep on Truckin’” Hot Tuna


Well, now keep on truckin' mama
Truck my blues away

Well I say, keep on truckin' mama
Truck my blues away

Here you come baby big as sin
Tell what you been doin' by the shape you're in

So keep on truckin' mama
Now truck my blues away

If you been doin' like I think you been doin'
I can't do that 'round here
I said, you been doin' like I think you been doin'
I can't do that 'round here

Here you come mama big as hell
Tell you knew by way you smell

So keep on truckin' mama
Truck my blues away

Now what's that smell like fish oh babe
I really would like to know
And tell me, what's that smell like fish pretty mama
I really would like to know

That ain't puddin' baby, that ain't no pie
It's the stuff that I got you by

So keep on truckin' mama
Truck my blues away

Now yes you gotta leave my house this mornin'
Get your yas yas outta my door
Well I said, yes you gotta leave my house this mornin'
Get your yas yas outta my door

Ashes to ashes baby, dust to dust
Whatcha gonna do when that damn thing rusts

So keep on truckin' mama
Truck my blues away


“Keep on Truckin’” Eddie Kendricks


Ooh...
Ooh...
Ooh...

Keep on truckin', baby
I got to keep on truckin'
Got to get to your good lovin'
Huh...huh...huh...huh...huh...

Shame
A double shame on me, yeah
Love
Love, I let it control me, yeah

From just one kiss I am inspired
To lovers in time there's a fire

And I'll keep on truckin', baby
I got to keep on truckin'
I got to get to your good lovin'
Huh...huh...huh...huh...

Baby, its bad
It's so hard to bear
Yes, babe
You're hard to bear

I've got a fever rising with desire
It's my love jones and I feel like I'm on fire

And I'll keep on keep on truckin', baby
I got to keep on truckin'
Got to get to your good lovin'
Huh...huh...huh...huh...

Feelin' good
No, you can't stop the feelin'
No, you can't stop the feelin'
No, not now

Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh

Keep on truckin' on
Keep on truckin' on
Keep on truckin'

Keep on truckin' on
Keep on truckin'

Yes, I've got a fever rising with desire
It's my love jones and I feel like I'm on fire

And I'll keep on keep on truckin', baby

I'm the red ball express of lovin'
Diesel-powered straight to you, I'm truckin'
In old Temptation's rain, I'm duckin'
For your love through sleet and snow, I'm truckin', ooh

I'm the red ball express of lovin'
Diesel-powered straight to you, I'm truckin'
In old Temptation's rain, I'm duckin'
For your love through sleet and snow, I'm truckin'

Ain't nothin' holdin' me back nothin'
I'll keep right on, right on truckin'
Ain't nothin' holdin' me back nothin'
I'll keep right on, right on truckin'

Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, truckin'
Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, truckin'

Every Reader’s Shelley

This is the first of a series of essays meant to engage non-specialists, indeed, non-English majors, with the work of important poets. In spite of my own inclination toward the abstruse I mean to limit my focus to the discussion of only three or four of each writer’s best-known works while providing a bit of context and biography. I vow to avoid tempting byways and to include no footnotes whatsoever.


Shelley was a poetic bad boy, sharing something of the notoriety of latter day rock and rollers. Denounced, often with good grounds, for subversive and irreligious opinions and for practicing an immoral lifestyle to match, Shelley was a counter-cultural campaigner since his youthful expulsion from Oxford for his pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism. He attacked monarchy, meat-eating, and pollution, and his active support for Irish independence brought him to the attention of royal investigators. He called for sexual freedom and acted on his convictions. Yet in his work this hostility toward much of what the world believes is overwhelmed by the enthusiastic afflatus of his neo-Platonism, capable of carrying readers aloft to dizzying heights. When he is not ecstatic, however, he can be subject to self-pity as in the exclamation “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” Such language set an influential pattern for histrionic poetry whose continuing sway is evident in coffee house readings yet today.

Still “Ode to the West Wind,” the poem in which these lines appear, is powerful indeed, addressing the wind as a deity, both “Destroyer and Preserver.” Rather than viewing the autumn foliage as merely picturesque, like “leaf-peepers” who peer out the windows of New England tour buses, Shelley sees instead “pestilence-stricken multitudes.” As the lines tumble over each other in expert terza rima, he welcomes the tumultuous change of season as a Romantic visionary, not with fear or an unrealistic desire to halt time, but with exhilarated exultation, as a dazzling display of energy, awesome as a cataract, grand as a rugged peak, inspiring uneasy awe.

He then enlarges his view from the leaves themselves to storms, violent yet surpassingly beautiful, “angels of rain and lightning, “bright hair uplifted from the head/Of some fierce Mænad.” The past year is being most grandly buried in a “vaulted” and “vast sepulcher,” which inspires the poet’s awe. He imagines the wind sweeping over the ancient resort of Baiæ where with the almost neurasthenic sensibility he cultivated, he says the flowers are ”so sweet, the sense faints picturing them.” (One might imagine the secondary school scenes the young poet endured in which -- while gaining an excellent classical education -- he suffered the brutality of the British public school system with corporal punishment from the faculty and “fagging” by older students, in his case intensified into daily bullying his school-mates called “Shelley-bashing.”)

Identifying with the wind as one inherently “tameless, and swift, and proud,” the poet feels “chain'd and bow'd” by “a heavy weight of hours” to the point that he can only envy the uncontained force of nature. His neo-Platonic impetus toward the ideal abstract, toward a sort of ill-defined yet numinous impersonal divinity is marked by his use of that ugly word he so favored “skiey.” Like an ancient invocation, the poem ends with his prayer to the wind to be his spirit as well. Magical incantation as well as prayer, serving not only a mystical longing but poetic ambition as well, he asks that his words be the cause of “a new birth,” prophetic “ashes and sparks” “to quicken” the world in the continuing cosmic cycle.

Shelley’s radicalism is foregrounded in “England in 1819,” surely one of the fiercest sonnets ever composed. What can be said after the unforgettable first line: “An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King”? George III, by this time in his eighties and eight years into the regency of his reasonably sane yet irresponsible son, serves as an excellent, if cruel, image for the superannuated feudal system. To Shelley aristocrats are parasites, “leeches” as the poem says, consuming the people’s blood. Yet the poem ends, as does the Ode to the West Wind” with a prophetic expectation of an apocalypse to come, bringing out of “graves” a new and more enlightened order of society. Ferment was certainly in the air. Eighteen-nineteen was the year of the Peterloo Massacre in which the cavalry charged a demonstration of sixty to eighty thousand citizens who had gathered in Manchester to demand some reform in the direction of universal suffrage. The current assumption that most poets, artists, and intellectuals are likely to take a radical position dates from the period of Romantics like Shelley and, indeed, to my mind, there is far too contemporary a sound to his denunciation of the ruling class. The leaders are out of touch; the people are betrayed and suffer from want; the army is an instrument of oppression; the church itself “Christless, Godless.” Blake had expressed a similar protest in his “London” in 1794.

“Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni” is a rather grand articulation of Shelley’s views on nature, poetry, and the divine. With Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads clearly in mind, he described the poem as having come to him “under the immediate impression of the deep and powerful feelings excited by the objects which it attempts to describe: and as an undisciplined Overflowing of the soul, rests its claim to approbation on an attempt to imitate the untamable wildness and inaccessible solemnity from which those feelings sprang." To the poet the river Arve which begins mysteriously deep in the high peaks and then rolls ever stronger downward resembles his own ever-changing consciousness through which flows “the everlasting universe of things.”

In conscious contrast to Coleridge whose "Hymn before Sun-rise, in the Vale of Chamouni” in which the same view inspires “prayer” and “worship of “the Invisible alone,” and which concludes "Earth, with her thousand voices, praises God,” to Shelley the spectacle is unsettling. He uses adjectives like “wandering,” “unfathomable,” “hideous,” “rude,” and “awful.” It is populated by predators like wolves and eagles, yet it induces a “trance sublime and strange.” The closest approach to resolution is his claim that “Poesy” is a “witch” who seeks in these “wild thoughts” some “ghost” of truth.
Human senses mediate reality such that even direct experience can provide only a phantasmagoria of phenomena, “many-colored, many-voicéd” (the reader recalls the characterization in “Adonais” of life as “a dome of many-coloured glass,/ [which] Stains the white radiance of Eternity). The glacier and the river suggest some grand Truth. Magnificent though they are, their significance arrives only with the engaged human eye of the observer.


The secret Strength of things
Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome
Of Heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!
And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind's imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?


Shelley shaped generations of poetry since his day with his philosophic flights to the sublime, his passion for social justice, and his self-dramatizing poses. In his influential “Defence of Poetry” he elaborates on Aristotle with his claim that the poet records “actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature, as existing in the mind of the Creator, which is itself the image of all other minds.” If Shelley lacks the sweet concreteness of Keats, the plain language of Wordsworth, and the wit of Byron, he provides instead ample passion, verbal dexterity and lofty themes to engage virtually all readers.

In Praise of Bias

People often speak as though a writer’s bias is an undesirable thing, indicating a beclouded vision. Yet surely the only unbiased person would be one who has never had a thought or made an observation. In fact “bias” is what enables significance and instills meaning into what would otherwise be mere information. Far from warning readers to beware, an openly confessed bias promises well-thought-out conclusions and the active engagement of the author.

In fact bias is universal. Perhaps the writer who pretends to objectivity might be honestly unaware of bias, leading the reader to wonder how much else he or she might be in the dark about. A great proportion of our intellectual blind spots arise because certain assumptions strike us as so self-evident or natural that they seem raw data rather than conclusions. It is just such ideas, often the idées reçues of an entire culture, that an original author will seek to interrogate or at any rate to reinforce in an original manner. As Max Friedländer noted in commenting on the case of forger Han Van Meegeren , “Forgeries must be served hot,” since the tell-tale stylistic nuances, the assumptions characteristic of each age are invisible to viewers at first, but inevitably emerge as obvious with the passage of time. The very same principle applies to reasoning and logic.

Worse but less insidious is the intentional concealing of bias. The consciously deceitful propagandist need not concern us. Everyone will find such a fraud offensive (with the exception of sophistic rhetoricians to whom falsity may present an opportunity for a more dazzling epideixis). In such cases the writer, aware of the deception, can only be thought to consider a legitimate case unconvincing. Such arguments are far from insignificant – they are the very stuff of advertising and political discourse -- but such biases are less likely to hoodwink the alert reader or listener if they cannot deceive their own creator.

This principle emerged clearly during the late 1960s when many concluded that it was impossible to be apolitical. Passivity in the face of injustice came to be regarded as tantamount to endorsement of the status quo (particularly when combined with other clues such as the pursuit of income), while such transgressive practices as dope-smoking and gay sex naturally, though not inevitably, situated people in the opposition , and poverty implied integrity. These are, of course, biases and less than absolutely predictive, yet they possess both meaning and analytical value. Like other prejudices, stereotypes, and clichés, they were found to be quite often true.

Some, but not all biases, are also value judgments. I recognize my bias against Western movies and musicals as individual and subjective; I would not argue the inherent superiority of who-dun-its, but I would not voluntarily spend an evening watching John Wayne drawl as he rides through the sagebrush. Likewise, my fondness for ancient Skeptics, medieval troubadours, and early modern avant-gardists is not prescriptive, nor is my coolness toward Chinese traditional music or the Grand Ole Opry. I recognize my unfortunate sluggishness to appreciate the work of artists and writers younger than myself. Most blues music is for me good, while all polkas with the exception of those written by Chopin are not.

Yet I do not deny that I hold biases about biases. Father Arrupe’s “preferential option for the poor” is a good bias to me as is affirmative action while sexism, racism, and homophobia are bad ones. These preferences may be traced to morality, but the association is not necessary. If I encounter an individual with a prejudice in favor of bland food, I will prejudge that person’s other values as dubious, while I will be predisposed in favor of the attitudes of a cook with an ample spice cabinet. I would be more likely to agree with the judgment of a leftist opera buff than a reactionary Nascar fan. The fact is that biases are so potent in human social relations that I never encounter a Nascar fan in my social circles. Such an event would be as unlikely as dinner with Republicans. (A radical car racer might be an interesting character; a conservative lover of La Traviata sounds boring.)

Intelligence is no safeguard against bias. Indeed the research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Twersky has indicated that intelligent people are not only fallible like everyone else, but that they are in fact slightly more likely to make erroneous decisions based on bias.

The word itself derives through French, Provencal, and Latin from the Greek epikarsios meaning “athwart, crosswise, at an angle,” and that is the basis for its applications in tailoring and the sport of crown green bowls. The quality of obliqueness it shares with metaphor and other rhetorical figures is what opens biased judgments to significance based on connotation, association, and implication. Such ambush on a question from an angle other than warp or woof often releases insight. Biases are instrumental in weaving a texture of meaning that may be decoded (not always accurately) like a poem, a profile, or a tone of voice.

My biases include a preference for black over blue, red wine over white, pinot noir over cabernet, for lamb over beef, pork over chicken, for spinach over chard, cauliflower over broccoli, cherries over grapes, pears over apples, hazelnuts over Brazil nuts, and, I must confess, peanuts over all tree nuts. Bring me a heap of beans rather than of meat. I like Victorian houses rather than modern ones, cities over suburbs, San Francisco over Los Angeles, Iowa over New Jersey, but the Northeast over the South. I have a bias in favor of traveling anywhere outside of my own country such that I have never seen the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone Park. Talk is more pleasant than television, the fall preferable to the spring, and the mountains to the seashore. I would never ever dye my hair. I always wore a tie while teaching. Though biased against church-going Christians, fundamentalists, and hierarchies, I feel sympathetic toward Meister Eckhart, Quakers, and the Catholic Worker movement. I like Plato rather than Aristotle, the Greeks in general more than the Romans, the Nibelungenlied better than Roland, troubadours before trouvères, Wyatt before Surrey, Lear before Hamlet, Keats better than Shelley, Pound more than Eliot. The early poems of Gary Snyder and Robert Bly are far superior, I think, to their later work.

The value of biases need not arise from their truth. Naming a few among my myriad biases sketches my nature with greater precision and accuracy than the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. To eliminate my biases would be to erase the host of specifics that define me far more than my physical features. The fact is that bias cannot be avoided. There is no escaping the perspective through the holes in the front of the skull. Even a physicist contemplating subatomic particles must view the spectacle of existence using all-too-human eyes and a brain full of assumption derived from teachers and words and the chances of grants and fashions in science, but, far from lamentable, these limitations give a point to science as they do to art and to life.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Two Early Ballad Tales of Robin Hood

The story of Robin Hood is remarkable for its longevity. The films and television shows based on the medieval outlaw have proliferated to the present day, not to mention such phenomena as the Robin Hood Foundation (whose goal is to “end poverty in New York”), Robinhood (a “zero-commission stock broker”), the Robin Hood Brewing Company, and the like. These latter-day uses of his name only emphasize the unsurprising fact that the meanings of stories about him have varied over the years.

Some of those that might appear to be firmly rooted in history are in fact of fairly recent origin. For instance, the association of Robin Hood with the virtuous King Richard against the villainous John and with the Saxon nobility who resent domination by tyrannical Norman lords gained currency only with Scott’s immensely popular Ivanhoe (1820). [1] Late versions often credit him with noble birth (such as the 17th century broadside of “Robin Hood and Maid Marian” which calls Robin the Earl of Huntington), though the earlier texts regularly exhibit hostility to the gentry. Two of the earliest ballad tales, “Robin Hood and the Monk” and “A Gest of Robyn Hode,” both extant in manuscripts dated to the mid-fifteenth century but recording older songs, suggest an archaic background of myth, ritual, and magic against which complaints arise against the wealthy aristocracy and clergy.

The stories are, like all folk tales, first of all entertainment. They regularly feature suspense and reversals while, in the popular manner, always ending in the defeat of the bad guys. Robin’s role as a trickster figure resembles countless figures worldwide. Disney was not only complying with “funny animals” conventions when he portrayed Robin Hood as a fox in his 1973 film. Readers had long noticed similarities between the tales of Renard and those of Robin Hood. The most popular trickster figure of the Middle Ages is particularly appropriate for the subversive elements of Robin Hood’s story. As an outlaw guile and cunning are essential to his cause. Disguise and trickery play a markedly greater role than force. In “Robin Hood and the Monk,” Robin behaves rather churlishly toward Little John, refusing to pay a bet which he had himself proposed. When he is captured after attending mass alone, [2] his party manages to free their leader by impersonating the monk and page (whom they had killed) before the king and then acting as the king’s emissaries toward the sheriff. In “A Gest of Robin Hood” the entire tone is light-hearted (in spite of deaths) and several characters employ subterfuges. Robin anticipates a victim as though he were awaiting a dinner guest. (“Gest,” 24) Little John manages to find service with the sheriff and later the king himself (named as Edward) dresses as a monk to locate the band of thieves and finds himself striking Robin after besting him at archery.

Robin Hood, like Renard, provided a vehicle for social protest. In many ways he is a prime example of what Hobsbawn called “social bandits.” [3] The “Gest” concludes with the lines “For he was a good outlawe,/And dyde pore men moch god.” (1823-4) He will steal neither from yeomen nor men who have little nor from any company that includes women. He exempts as well small farmers and even knights and squires should they be “gode felawe[s].” (“Gest,” 53, 973, 39-40, 51, 55-6) Indeed, he will give or lend money to those in need. An early 15th century clerical author refers to him as “much praised," [4] yet various judicial records use his name to indicate a dangerous miscreant or a murderer. He enumerates his local foes as “bisshoppes” and “archebishoppes,” as well as “the hye sherif of Notyingham.” ( “Gest” 56, 58)

The early ballads assume a very specific social focus. Their authors and presumably their audiences identify as yeomen, not as peasants or bourgeois. Though “yeoman” was an elastic term in the fifteenth century [5], Robin’s animus against the wealthy is evident. He demands payment from the knight (“Gest” 148) yet gives him money when he finds him poor. His sympathy multiplies when it turns out that the knight has been impoverished by a “ryche abbot.” (215) In “Monk” Robin is fingered by a “grete-hedid [i.e. arrogant] munke” (75) who later is decapitated unceremoniously in the safety of the greenwood. (203)

Robin Hood is, however, very conventional in his piety and in his loyalty to the crown. He endows a chapel to Mary Magdelene and goes on pilgrimage. (“Gest,” 1757, 1767) In “Monk” he is described as one who “has servyd Oure Lady many a day,” (133) and he is apprehended only because he insists on attending Mass (and refusing to take an adequate company). In the “Gest” he is said to attend mass daily (32) and to be especially devoted to Mary. (35) The Marian emphasis acquires an edge in “Gest” however, when he indulges in considerable play over the concept that the loan he made to the poor knight has been cosigned by the Virgin Mary, entitling him to collect the purse from any passing monk. (“Gest,” 259, 940) Surely in his era his religiosity, if not his witty (seemingly cynical) elaboration of it, would be a natural concomitant with virtue in general.

The Robin Hood texts are meant for a popular audience (the story-teller addresses his listeners on occasion), Robin has some courtly characteristics, though these early poems have no love interest. “Robyn coud his courteysy.” (1539) In certain ways he follows the rules of his culture more scrupulously than do his antagonists. He is captured in “Monk” only because his enemies ignored the tradition of sanctuary within a church (83-86), while the Sheriff in the “Gest” is said to violate such civilized rules as those governing hospitality (1186).

In spite of the fact that he identified as a “traytur” (“Monk,” 91) He regularly expresses his obedience to the nation’s leader and falls to his knees when he recognizes the king. (“Gest,” 1620) Indeed, he reconciles with the crown and is pardoned. Declaring loyalty to his sovereign, he lives for a short while in town. The king even decides he would like some outfits of Lincoln green for his own men. (“1669 ff.) After a time he notices he is spending money and his archery skills are in decline. (1741) Given a week away, he does not ever return and apparently lives in the forest for twenty-two years. It is as though his essential wildness was not possible to contain for more than a short while.

The archaic mythic layer of the Robin Hood stories is signaled by the emphasis on the wild forest setting which acquires an almost numinous quality in the tales. Robin is clearly associated with “green man” or “wild man of the woods.” [6] The “Monk” begins “In somer, when the shawes be sheyne,” and the date turns out to be Whitsun or Pentecost, an important springtime holiday for the Middle Ages closely paralleling the pagan Beltane, which included a fair, festivals, dancing, and the rule of a King and Queen of the May. [7] These figures, themselves derived from more ancient pagan deities and among the clearest vestiges of pre-Christian survivals were replaced in many villages by Robin Hood and Maid Marian. [8] The forest’s green, adopted by the band of thieves for their costume (Lincoln green, produced from woad and weld [9]) is mentioned repeatedly in an almost incantatory refrain. Surely the passage in which Robin is called a green “ryght fayre harte,” a “mayster-herte” (“Gest,” 738, 752) sounds like a reference to a theriomorphic deity obscured by time. Since Thomas Wright’s speculations in early Victorian essays, Robin Hood has been linked to the Celtic Cernunnos, the Greek Pan, even the Germanic Odin, while to Margaret Murray he was the high priest of a witches’ coven. [10] The cliché of the “merry men” was still novel in the fifteenth century. Flush with the joy of nature and the reverdie of the springtime Robin’s men are lifted by a sort semi-divine afflatus.


Hit befel on Whitson
Erly in a May mornyng,
The son up feyre can shyne,
And the briddis mery can syng.

"This is a mery mornyng," seid Litull John,
"Be Hym that dyed on tre;
A more mery man then I am one
Lyves not in Cristianté.
“Monk,” 9-16


Surely this joyful and sensual impression of the gathering energies of the organic world about them underlies the nature introductions of a thousand medieval poems. Telling tales of such an inspiriting flush of élan vital doubtless acted as a sort of mild recreational sympathetic magic for the medieval audience.
Though Robin Hood was yet to acquire a lover or an aristocratic pedigree, these early texts provide powerful examples of the character’s potential for expressing social discontent against the rich and criticism of the religious hierarchy not long after the era of the Peasant’s Revolt and of Wyclif. Much of the brooding, if belated, numinous glow the ancients saw in the natural world survives in these lively and colloquial tales.



1. The dating to Richard’s realm derives from William Stukeley, the eighteenth century divine and antiquary who studied Stonehenge so long he began to fancy himself a druid. Scott may also have been influenced by the Scots role in the United Kingdom (Union was hardly more than a hundred years earlier and the battle of Colloden less than that). Was it a similar sympathy for the underdog that was expressed in Ivanhoe’s highly sympathetic depiction of the Jews Isaac of York and his daughter Rebecca?

2. Robin was alone because he insisted on entering town accompanied only by Little John who left him after his leader churlishly refused to pay a bet he had proposed and lost. The hero is not portrayed as a perfect valorous and powerful fighter. His lapses in judgment often generate action and early ballads show him defeated in scuffles with random tradesmen and acting unfairly to his own followers.

3. See Eric Hobsbawm Primitive Rebels 1959 and Bandits 1969. In the introduction of the former Hobsbawm refers to “the classic Robin Hood who was and is essentially a peasant rebelling against landlords, usurers, and other representatives of what Thomas More called ‘the conspiracy of the rich.’” (page 4)

4. Andrew of Wyntoun's Orygynale Chronicle says they were “commendit gud.”
5. Deriving from the simple expression “young man,” the term originally meant an attendant on a nobleman. According to the OED, it came to be used for a “mediocre” individual, neither aristocracy nor peasant, but it was not commonly used for the bourgeois residents of cities engaged in trade or professions. I am reminded of the American phenomenon in which virtually everyone considers him or herself “middle-class.”
6. See Lady Raglan’s article in The Folklore Journal coined the term "Green Man" in her March 1939 article "The Green Man in Church Architecture"(no. 50, pages 45–57). A related figure is the “jack of the green” of May day festivities.

7. Whitsuntide was one of three week-long holidays for medieval peasants. Whit Monday continues to be a holiday in Franced, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and many other countries, as it was until 1967 in the U.K., 1973 in Ireland, and 2004 in Sweden.

8. Marian is unmentioned in the early texts. It seems clear that she was imported through the influence of Adam de la Halle’s late thirteenth century Jeu de Robin and Marion though the play is a dramatized pastourelle in which Robin is simply a shepherd. The coincidence of the name must have been irresistible, though Robin was sometimes used as a generic male name as a modern American might use Joe or Mac.

9. The color was no literary fancy. In Spenser’s Faerie Queene a “woodman” is described as "clad/ Of Lincolne Greene, belay'd with silver lace." (VI, 2, stanza 5)
10. See Essays on Subjects Connected with Literature, Popular Superstitions, and the History of England (1846). Wright had published on the topic of Robin Hood as early as 1837. Margaret Murray’s argument for Robin as god and priest is included in The God of the Witches (1937).

Notes on Recent Reading 22 [Waugh, Belloc, Okakura]

When the Going Was Good [Waugh]

I am generally intolerant of abridgments, but I can recommend this volume, made of five long continuous excerpts from the four travel books Waugh wrote between 1929 and 1935. Waugh, whose portrait by Henry Lamb elegantly if casually dressed with a pipe and a drink, insouciantly held, manages in these works of his youth to alternate comedic and satiric episodes reminiscent of Mark Twain with anecdotes detailing the sort of weird disoriented experience the traveler often encounters. He is, in these latter moments, kin to Robert Byron and Bruce Chatwin and, I would venture, a late and dry descendent of Smollett’s “sentimental” traveler.

He’s just fine on Istanbul and Cairo, but the book excels in the tropical boondocks. Describing his visits to British Guiana and in “Abyssinia,” where Waugh attended first for Haile Selassie’s coronation and later reported on the Italian invasion, he provides an excellent report of both the discomforts he underwent from climate and insects and the total dysfunction of government and, indeed, most aspects of life. He relays accurately the sensations of the outsider passing through, but, at the same time, these stories plant a suspicion that one’s own world might be at bottom little different than these remote places.

If Waugh’s own vision was tinged with shadow, this dark side was emphasized by the final piece reporting on the coming of Italian fascism to a hapless African state and the devastating world-wide war that followed. His calling these pre-war books When the Going Was Good reflects not just a nostalgia for his younger days, but also a sense that the wholesale destruction from years of war, accented by the unprecedented horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, had aged not just the author but the world as a whole which never could be the same again.


The Road to Rome (Belloc)

Belloc’s account of his pilgrimage on foot from Lorraine to Rome is clever, imaginative, and provocative. The book is embellished with his landscape drawings (he says he cannot draw people and includes these sketches for “fun”). A spirited stylist and a wit, he is perfectly willing to sound as often uncharitable or even harsh as he is sympathetic and generous-spirited. Though the Latin tags and religious musing had their own appeal, I read the book as a road chronicle, thinking of Jack London and Jack Kerouac as Belloc describes his disreputable appearance from days of walking and sometimes sleeping rough. His contemptuous dismissal of socialist and anarchist ideas recalled to me his fondness for fascism (though he had a peculiar variant of his own in Distributism as Pound did in Social Credit)and his easy expression of the most commonplace and thoughtless anti-Semitism. These interfered with my own appreciation no more than his odd and absolute notions of Catholicism, to him definitive of European culture. He runs the risk of all more or less accurate travel journal of dry patches (that need not correspond at all to what seemed tiresome in lived experience). Indeed he comments on the problem more than once in amusing dialogues between auctor and lector.


The Ideals of the East (Okakura)

Kakuzo Okakura played a critical role in mediated cultural relations between the Far East and the West a hundred years ago. His Book of Tea popularized Buddhist and Taoist thought in the U.S. and Europe. This exponent of Asian art was himself profoundly bicultural. After attending mission schools, he was trained by Ernest Fenellosa (who meant so much to Pound) at Tokyo Imperial University. He wrote his most significant work in in English and, after founding the Japan Art Institute, headed the Asian arts division of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Associated with Heidegger, Tagore, Vivekenanda and other non-Japanese, he sought to define Asian art in broadest and most ambitious view.

Though we are all familiar with the traditional presentation of European art that traces concepts and practices from origins in Greece and Rome through to the present, I think I have never before read a book that sought to present Asian culture as a whole from India to Japan. While Okakura’s book may be seen as an early attempt to explain Asia to the Occident, it is also an assertive statement of national pride. Okakura subtitles his work “with Special Reference to the Art of Japan,” and his nationalism along with his bias toward ethnic explanations seem to arise from the recent successes of the Japanese military against the Russians and to point ominously forward to the militarists who were to invade China and bomb Pearl Harbor a few decades after this 1904 work. This tendency is heightened in his The Awakening of Japan a few years later. It is also possible read these ideas backward to the influence of Hippolyte Taine and his “race, milieu, moment.”

Axiology and Subjectivity

Should any reader turn to this page expecting a philosophical discussion, I wish to declare at the outset that I am not competent to paraphrase leading ideas in axiology, far less to comment on them or to criticize. Indeed, that inability is in a way my point, for I wish to suggest that value of all sorts is, like other aspects of reality, always and inevitably subjective, though that fact does not mean that value judgments are arbitrary or without significance.

In pragmatic decision-making, some, however, may seen hardly disputable: if one wishes to turn a screw, a screwdriver is good, because it does the job efficiently; a city map is good if one wishes to find the train station; food is good since it is required for life. Yet even these include an implied subjectivity. One cannot assume that turning the screw is desirable, or finding the train, or even continuing to live. Each of these consequences is a concrete result. When no such observable cause and effect is involved as in theoretical ethics and even more so in aesthetics, a demonstration of value becomes exceedingly obscure.

If a critic prefers the novels of Samuel Richardson to those of Henry Fielding (as Leavis does), he may provide ample reasoning and bolster his arguments with supporting evidence from the books in question, yet he cannot, like a scientist, present a compelling “objective” case. Literature and criticism have histories, to be sure, yet it is difficult to conceive of those histories as recording incremental progress over the centuries. The same might be said for all aesthetic judgments. To one individual opera provides the most moving and powerful experience of beauty while another may react only with snores in the manner of George McManus’s comic strip character Jiggs.

Indeed the situation is no different with all acknowledged matters of taste. Not only art, but food, clothing, style in general is highly subjective. Is Greek retsina wine tasty? Are tattoos becoming? Is a huge SUV beautiful? There is no reasonable way to convince either opponents or proponents to change their attitudes.

While some would be willing to concede that aesthetic judgments are not subject to proof, many would consider moral and ethical decisions a different matter. Most commonly, due to religious teachings which specifically resist rational investigation, requiring instead faith, people of various traditions claim an absolute, “revealed” certainty in their ethical precepts. Here is a clear case of the power of subjectivity. For internal intuitive reasons that cannot be conveyed to an unbeliever, the faithful accept dogmatic teachings.

The fact is that, contrary to the claims of some religionists, an entirely adequate system of morality can be elaborated from a simple principle of self-interest. By a secular application of the Golden Rule the entire legal code can be constituted. But my own preference to shrink from theft in order not to worry about my neighbor’s thieving from me, while compelling in practical terms to govern my behavior, is not in fact universal. A considerable share of people do, in fact, steal. Plenty of medieval knights went campaigning for booty. Big businessmen steal from us all while thinking they are exemplary and “successful.” Further, these last examples point out the fact that individuals, ages, and cultures may have significant differences in their definition of theft. Even such an apparently self-evident and natural conclusion as the evil of slavery was never recognized by Moses, Plato, Aristotle, or Christ.

Furthermore, ethics is clearly a matter between human beings, a social issue, not one related to Ultimate Reality in any way. The cosmos is indifferent to my conduct and any view that looks beyond the human sphere will see that morality does not exist in the Milky Way, only magnificent grandeur. The regulation of human behavior, though a critical element in making life livable, is wholly functional; it exists to accomplish a purpose and not for its own sake.

Yet, if I might be considered in some ways to display “good behavior,” my motive is not to protect myself. In fact my actions are most generally shaped by a desire to look good if only in my own eyes. Base behavior is ugly; to act in a degraded fashion diminishes oneself. Generous-hearted and compassionate behavior, on the other hand, is beautiful; to act nobly is to become more comely. With eyes open to the phantasmagoria of this world, I selfishly seek to spend my time in the best possible way, keeping myself healthy, learning constantly, bathing in art, trying to deal sympathetically and magnanimously with the people I encounter. And for no other reason than that it feels right to me, it seems the more beautiful choice. I feel as though I react spontaneously and naturally to each choice. While I am quite aware that I have been taught a code of moral response to various situations, I nonetheless experience each decision as a fresh mover expressing my nature. Awareness of my earlier training does not eliminate or invalidate it, though I experience my moral, aesthetic, and culinary decisions as expressing myself, not replicating a formula.

This should be hardly surprising. It is impossible to escape the subjectivity of our experience of reality. The images on my retina are transformed by strange and elaborate codes translating the activities of all those sub-atomic particles hovering in my office and looking so settled and inert as desks and books and rugs. It means nothing to ask what is real when one’s human consciousness cannot escape setting the parameters of the investigation.

So we muddle on, making constant value judgments, almost always without conscious consideration, making fallible predictions, feeling our way through the darkness of our general ignorance. If one acquits oneself well, the reward must be in the performance, a graceful turn, a beneficent influence, a settled sense of self at day’s end. Just as some people define themselves through their postings of products on Pinterest, others may turn to Homer, but who is to say which is “best”? We can object if a stranger treads on our toes, but we cannot prescribe a code of morality as though it had absolute value.

In this way ethical, gastronomic, and aesthetic decisions have much in common. Should a constellation formed of caritas and Beaujolais and Charlie Parker, one evening at a dinner party, cross that of mind-your-own-business and IPAs and Verdi, the two might cross-fertilize like the joyful reshuffling of genes or the vast drifting of galaxies and produce wholly new configurations.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Herrick the Divine


For me and for most readers, Herrick is the poet of an elegant sensuality heightened by the transience of things. This tone, reminiscent of ancient Greek lyric, is unforgettably expressed in several of the most-anthologized lyrics in the English canon: "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time," “Delight in Disorder,” “To Live Merrily, and to Trust to Good verses,” and a few others. We think first of the “blossoms, birds and bowers” of his “Argument,” though he later includes hell and, more puzzlingly, “times trans-shifting“ among his themes. His metrical facility is admirable, lending captivating music to his words, and, apart from his masterful handling of complex forms, he undertook fruitful experiments such as shape poetry and the use of iambic monometer.

Herrick’s small collection of religious poems Noble Numbers has received comparatively little attention, and, indeed, to most commentators while the poems may be noble, they are neither as graceful nor as powerful as what he labeled his “jocund” pieces, his “unbaptized rhymes.” (“His Prayer for Absolution”) [1] The fact that two of the poems in the group are pieces for royal performances suggests that political as well as religious gain may have motivated the author. [2] Yet the charms of Herrick’s masterful prosody are no less evident in Noble Numbers; his experimentation has free rein (as in the concrete poem "This crosstree here”). “An Ode of the Birth of our Saviour” is an entire chamber concerto in sound effects. Further, the spiritual sentiments of this rural vicar little deserve condemnation or excuse as partisan works. Approached with a sympathy similar to that readers bring to Donne’s religious work undeterred by the “licentious” poems composed in his youth before he converted to the Established Church and became a prominent preacher, Herrick’s Noble Numbers will imply a perfectly coherent religious view as well as rewarding the reader aesthetically .

The collection begins with a “His Confession,” apologizing for his earlier work in a way reminiscent of Chaucer’s “Retraction.” As if this opening were insufficient to guarantee his sincerity , the second poem (“His Prayer for Absolution”) repeats the theme, asking God to blot out each line that falls short of the divine. One might be uncertain whether he (and Chaucer, Andreas Capellanus, and others who employ the same convention) had experienced a change of heart or were simply trying to better their eternal odds by recording such pious sentiments. In either case these poems gracefully indicate an ambivalence that must be universal.

Having thus made the transition from secular to holy, Herrick begins grandly with a tour de force of metaphor.

TO FIND GOD.
by Robert Herrick

WEIGH me the fire ; or canst thou find
A way to measure out the wind ;
Distinguish all those floods that are
Mix'd in that watery theatre ;
And taste thou them as saltless there
As in their channel first they were.
Tell me the people that do keep
Within the kingdoms of the deep ;
Or fetch me back that cloud again,
Beshiver'd into seeds of rain ;
Tell me the motes, dust, sands, and spears
Of corn, when summer shakes his ears ;
Show me that world of stars, and whence
They noiseless spill their influence :
This if thou canst, then show me Him
That rides the glorious cherubim.

In “To Find God” Herrick spins out a series of images for impossibility reminiscent of those in Donne’s celebrated “Song” (“Goe and catche a falling starre”). Here, however, rather than the fruitless search for a woman both “faire” and “true,” the poet’s object is the Godhead. When this spiritual theme becomes explicit in the final line, it is with a surge of fancy analogous to cinematic special effects as one is asked to visualize the ineffable mounted atop a cherub, like Vishnu riding Garuda. The shift from glorious elaboration of the futility of words to the emphatic closing affirmation which stretches faith to its limit (or beyond) is could hardly be more dramatic.

Similarly, even for Christians accustomed to the eucharist, Herrick’s imagination may seem to strain with “To his Saviour. The New Year’s Gift.” In which he presents Christ with his bleeding heart as though his god were Huitzilopochtli, and then expects in return a piece of bloody foreskin. In “To Keep a True Lent” he recommends that the Christian “circumcise thy life.” It is as concrete and physical a faith as Crashaw’s sensibility. Yet while Crashaw was hyperemotional, Herrick is cool and measured even while deploying daring imagery. His use of mistletoe, for instance, in “To God” as an image of dependence is original but wholly orthodox and coherent, gaining added weight as a revision of the plant’s pre-Christian associations. It is as though he dares doubt by using extravagant language.

Such figurative language is a natural consequence of the attempt to describe what the poet has already characterized as indescribable, unlike any other entity. The unique category occupied by Christ in which all usual assumptions may be overturned is implied by his exceedingly brief lyric “On Christ’s Birth.” Thus not only the apocalyptic reversals (the lowly made high, death is life) occur, but even worldly categories are turned upside down. Herrick the aesthete celebrates the humble, the low, and the common in “An Ode of the Birth of our Saviour,” “A Thanksgiving to God, for his House,” “The New-Year's Gift,” and “His Wish to God.” In the last he wishes he might live in an almshouse possessionless so that he might more rigorously focus on Jesus. Surely poverty would be the appropriate penance for a lover of the pleasurable and the beautiful.

These thoughts occur only within the orthodox teachings and practice of the church. Herrick would not venture to speculate on the divine. “To Find God,” however, goes further and positively asserts his unknowability. Now, of course, the negative characterization of deity is a sophisticated and world-wide form of theology. Called apophatic in the Christian tradition or associated with the term via negative it has played a role, often closely associated with mysticism and the direct experience of the divine since the earliest times. The Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Johannes Scotus Eriugena are among the most influential Christian thinkers in this tradition, but similar thoughts appear in many other systems, including Maimonides’ Judaism and the Hinduism associated with the phrase “neti neti.” Far from associated Herrick with these names as a religious thinker, it seems that he simply judged God to be beyond the reach of language, perhaps beyond the limits of his imagination as well, and thus concluded that it was best to simply accept the mores of his own timed and place rather than trying to develop his own notions about a topic fundamentally imponderable. His acceptance of the Established Church led to the loss of his living during the years of Cromwell’s Protectorate which implies something beyond opportunism. [3]

Yet, as with thorough-going skepticism, the believer in a deity that can in no significant way be described might be at a loss as to what to do next. Herrick did not hesitate. He simply assented to what his society accepted as religious truth. The triple rhymes of “His Litany to the Holy Spirit,“ the ringing rhymes of the carols to the king, the satisfying stanzas of “An Ode of the Birth of our Saviour,” each ending in a snap, these musical effects remain the reason we read Herrick, but we have as much reason to read the Noble Numbers as the rest of his most melodic verses.


1. Leah Sinanoglou Marcus Herrick ‘s “Noble Numbers and the Politics of Playfulness” in English Literary Renaissance no. 1, 1977, 1-8-126 provides a good summary of such negative judgments and proceeds to justify Herrick’s religious poems on the grounds of both his defense of the Established Church and his pastoral care for a remote and largely uneducated congregation. My own interest is more toward the aesthetic and, unlikely as it may sound, the mystic potential of Herrick’s religious writing.
2. “A Christmas Carol Sung to the King in the Presence at Whitehall” and “The Star-Song : A Carol to the King Sung at White-Hall.”
3. The same cannot be said for Donne’s convenient conversion.

A Mixed Bag of German Translations

These move basically back in history. Most have brief historical notes attached which in some cases have only the most tenuous reference to the poem that follows.


1. During the Soviet era, Uwe Kolbe published a poem in a government-sanctioned anthology which contained an acrostic undetected by censors: "EUREM HELDENTUM WIDME ICH EINEN ORGASMUS / EUCH MÄCHTIGE GREISE ZERFETZE DIE TÄGLICHE REVOLUTION" ("To your heroism I dedicate an orgasm/ you powerful greybeards the daily revolution shall slash").


Museum Day in Sofia


The poet’s holiest parts
were preserved in a vitrine:
pale organs between two panes.
How my heart beat when I saw his
in the glass, and how my mind
confronted his! until . . .
all at once I found myself
old and at peace and ready to die.



2. Joachim Ringelnatz (the pen name of Hans Bötticher) was condemned by the Nazis already in 1933 as a degenerate artist.


Kassel

They’ve got them in the shop
in an intimate tank.
There they may bathe
outwardly a bit frazzled, a little raggedy,
but innardly they seem
ever so much alive.
They murmur magic-worker’s spells
(as though they could thereby clean their water).
Quiet they masticate mayonnaise in their muzzles
and dream of being shaved against the grain,
and then cleaned and killed and heated and garnished
on a silver dish.
They end up in rich men’s bellies,
where the funniest of their bones
may go down the wrong way.
Their souls, I think,
are just like wood-lice
doing deep knee bends.
Yes and in Kassel there was very little else
either to excite or trouble me.



3. Georg Trakl’s poem about a site of slaughter takes a place by Wilfred Owens’ horrifying WWI poems. After attending the soldiers in Grodek, Trakl tried to shoot himself. Though he was prevented, he died shortly thereafter from a cocaine overdose.


Grodek

Evenings, the autumn forests ring
with the death-guns’ sound, the golden meadows
and blue lakes over which the sun
darkly passes, till night embraces
the dying fighters, the mad moans
of their lacerated mouths.
But in silence! over the cow-pasture!
a red cloud gathers, wherein dwells a furious god.
The spilt blood itself. The coolness of moonshine.
Every street is turning to black putrefaction!
Under the golden branches of the night and stars
her sister’s shadow shimmies through the silent grove
to greet the spirits, the heroes, the bloody heads,
and faintly the reed’s tones, autumn’s darkling flute.
O proud mourning! For the altars you once had
the hot flame of the mind feeds today a monstrous pain,
the descendants yet unborn.



4. Carl Zuckmayer was a WWI veteran, who came to the US as an exile and returned to Europe in the fifties.


To the red wine stains on the tablecloth of a French restaurant

I look at you with gravity and joy,
and push the plate aside that tried to hide
you and toast with my first drink
the man that dined before me in this seat.

From the wine’s furthest lilac reach
your soft daydreamy drinker’s gaze looks out;
the shape’s a silhouette of a place abroad,
Madagascar maybe, or Mozambique.

My place is strewn with golden crumbs
of bread he mindfully broke and ate.
You land of lovely sounds and Burgundy’s bouquet,
are you still like that kingdom that once was,
whose people paid their tax in kegs of wine?

You land of latter days whose evening sun slips low
whose light breaks bright through a ripe tongue’s prism!
Where geniuses and shamans and customs men make art,
till god himself forgets where heaven is.

I saw you stuck with steel and dripping blood,
I lay against your body in fear and pain –
It may have been this amiable overweight sommelier
that tried so hard to shoot me.

Did I not drink at your fountain of tears?
I underwent with you pain unto death.
Sister land, I kneel down at your door,
and kiss each stain of blood and wine.

He pours me more. It glitters at the bottle’s mouth.
So, drink, tablecloth! Drink up this offering!
A foreigner salutes this charming hour,
and then heads off northward, toward the fog.



5. From the immortal Christian Morgenstern.


A Knee

A lone knee through the landscape went.
It’s just one knee and nothing else!
It’s not a tree! It’s not a tent!
It’s just one knee and nothing else!

In war one time a man was shot,
shot up from toe to face.
The knee alone remained unhurt –
as if it were a sign of grace.

And then through all the world it went
It’s just one knee and nothing else!
It’s not a tree! It’s not a tent!
It’s just one knee and nothing else!



6. Heinrich Heine published several poems, including Die schlesischen Weber, in Karl Marx's journal Vorwärts.


Sunset

The lovely sun
has sunk in peace into the sea;
the water’s waves have only the hue
of the dark night,
though sunset strews yet
some golden sparks,
and the roar of tidal force
pushes white waves to the shore.
They frisk so happy and so fast
like woolly herds of lambs
driven home at night
by a shepherd boy with a song.

“The sun, it is so fine!”
So said my friend after standing silent long,
the one that walked the beach with me,
and half-laughing and half-sad,
he insisted this was so: “The sun,” he said,
“is a lovely lady. She married the old sea-god
for convenience’ sake.
She wanders every day in joy
through heaven’s heights, resplendent in purple,
glittering with diamonds,
beloved by all, admired by every
creature of the earth,
for all earth’s creatures love
the glory, the warmth of her gaze,
though at night, depressed and driven,
she enters again
the wet house, the barren arms
of her aged spouse.”

“Believe me,” added then my friend,
and laughed and sighed and laughed again,
“they have down there the tenderest of marriages.
They’re sleeping there or else they squabble,
So that the sea must bubble up on top,
And the seaman hears in the sounds of the waves
The old one shouting at his wife:
‘You big fat cosmic whore,
beaming bitch,
the whole day-long you’re bright for all the rest,
and at night for me, you’re cold and dropping with fatigue.’
And after such a talking-to,
you’ll understand, that proud sun
breaks into tears, and she laments her wretchedness,
and she laments so loud and long, the sea-god
gives up all hope, jumps from his bed,
swims swiftly up to ocean’s top,
some air and maybe sense as well to grab.”

“Last night I caught a sight of him myself,
emerged from the sea down to his breast.
He wore a yellow flannel jacket,
a lily-white night-cap,
and a wrinkled face.”



7. Edward Mörike was a leading Romantic who wrote lyrics so popular many were made into songs in both popular and concert hall stylings.


It’s here!

Spring lets loose its pennants of blue –
they fly again in the wind –
sweet and well-known scents drift too
suggestive on the land.
Violets in dreams are wound –
tomorrow their blooms will bring..
Listen! The far-off harper’s sound!
You’re it – o spring!
It’s you I hear!