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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Friday, May 1, 2015

Skip James’ Blues Imagery

Texts of all songs discussed are appended to the essay.


During the summer of 1964 I traveled with a friend east from Chicago without stopping until we reached Greenwich Village where we attended a show at the Gaslight hard by Izzy Young’s Folklore Center and the Kettle of Fish. Sleeping in his parents’ car, we toured the Northeast visiting folk clubs as we went. In a coffee house one evening in Cambridge Massachusetts with perhaps a half dozen people in the audience we heard Skip James perform, his wife by his side. As reluctant a performer at the end of his life as he had been when young, [1] James has nonetheless produced a powerful oeuvre which has exercised a strong influence through the fifty years since I heard him including versions by Jimi Hendrix, the Cream, and others.

His distinctive fingerpicking with open D minor tuning (which he called “cross-note”) to accompany his falsetto voice produced a unique sound often described as spooky, otherworldly, or ethereal. His repertoire helped shape the expressive and beautiful system of images in the Delta blues. Quintessentially poetic in that their significations provide rich detailed information that could not be encoded without metaphor, they shed light on the techniques of all poetry. The body of classic blues songs, like the comparable systems in Troubadour lyric or the Elizabethan sonnet, is particularly revealing about convention. Frequently misunderstood as clichéd or automatized expressions characteristic of second-rate writers, convention is, in fact, a dynamic process in which every occurrence is unique and the meaning of which deepens and transforms through intertextuality. The understanding of American readers of Chinese poetry is often limited by their lack of familiarity with the image conventions of Chinese poetry. The blues aficionado, however, is in a position to see the often complex and revealing interrelations of text to text.

As a rural Southern genre, the blues made use of the imagery people knew best including the barnyard rooster, the catfish, and the cow. As a source of milk cows are female (as authors of children’s books know) and singers developed a complex of ideas in which the beloved is represented as a cow. [2] A milk cow was a relatively expensive investment and require substantial care, yet she might provide rich cream and butter, a striking analogy for the delights of love. The most common use of such bovine imagery is to signify the longing the owner feels when a cow has been lost. [3] Among the more familiar lines in the blues are the following.


If you see my milk cow, please, drive her on home
'Cause I ain't had no milk and butter
Since my cow's been gone.


In James’ “Little Cow And Calf Is Gonna Die Blues” (see song 1 appended) James is primarily the cow itself, searching for love as the animal whose offspring is missing would devote all her efforts to “just tryin' to find, my calf, again,” paralleling his own search for his “used-to-be.” With the same poignant attachment of so much ancient Greek poetry to love and sex, only heightened by recognition of the evanescence of pleasure, James notes that all potential affective relationships are conditioned by mortality. “Every cow and calf, I believe was born to die,” and “I ain't gonna be here long.” Thus the listener to his song, if competent in the signifying codes of the blues, will respond first at the mere mention of a cow with a train of associations with the elements of voluptuous pleasure and well-being which simultaneously involves the opposite, the fear of painful loss. Since the speaker would ordinarily be the cow’s owner, the altered perspective here, the trope or twisting of the convention adds wit and ingenuity while recalling to the mind the costly loss of livestock, lovers, money, happiness, and health, and life itself. By loving one always puts oneself at risk of suffering. The entire figure resembles the Wheel of Fortune in which success prefigures failure.

Another term that recurs repeatedly in the blues is the “killing floor.” Though the popularity of the expression has been identified with the slaughterhouses of Chicago’s stockyards, [4] James used it in his 1931 “Hard Time Killing Floor,” (see song 2) one of the rare blues songs that directly comments on politics. The song, which often burst through intelligibility into moans and sighs, depicts life itself as enacted on a killing floor. The Depression is the immediate cause of suffering (“Hard time's is here.”) so great as to be all but lethal (“these hard times gon' kill you”), but the song’s continuous appeal suggests that life itself is a killing floor. The infernal stink and blood and suffering that characterizes the abattoir might serve a medieval monk as an apt picture of life here below and it seems equally apposite to the Southern sharecropper or farm laborer. The suggestions of joy and fulfilment, even luxury, inherent in the dairy cow image is absent; the vision could hardly be bleaker.

James’ “Devil Got my Woman”(song 3) is a complaint against the woman’s fickleness. Surely the devil has led her, after she had left another to be with the singer, to then change her mind and returned to the original lover. In the approximate center of this straightforward, if mellifluous and eloquent, lament is a striking image, placed like a jewel on a necklace. “But my mind got to rambling/ Like a wild geese from the west.” It is not the woman who “rambles,” though this particular word is often used for free-wheeling sexual habits; it is the speaker’s own unruly mind. The image of wild geese is common in Chinese poetry where it connotes sadness, exile, loss, and separation, [5] though James’ listeners would hardly have known this. It occurs only rarely in blues songs and with different associations. [6] The restless wandering character of the birds and their piercing cries are parallel to a train in the distance with its “lonely” whistle. Perhaps they are “from the west” primarily for the sake of the rhyme, but the phrase can only contribute to their air of wildness as they appear over a bleak landscape. The goose image is an example of the growth of the inventory of images available to the singer, as some are added and others fall away over the years.

James may seem to deliver a dubious compliment when he says of his woman in “Lorenzo Blues,” (song 4) “You know, she's stutters in her speech/ An she wiggle and she wobble,” but the image has many precedents both out and in the blues idiom. The scintillating movement of a body in motion ravishes the singer just as it had dazzled Robert Herrick (who in “Upon Julia’s Clothes” had noted the “liquefaction” and “brave vibration, each way free”) and Theodore Roethke (who wrote “I'm martyr to a motion not my own “ in “I knew a woman lovely in her bones”). The classic statement in the blues is


I got a big fat woman, meat shakin' on her bone
I say, hey, hey, meat shakin' on her bone [7]


The whole poem in fact is a systematically constructed string of compliments rather like the convention of the blason, common in the Middle Ages but never thereafter vanishing altogether. The woman oddly named Lorenzo has a Coke bottle shape and “a likeness” that’s “outta this world,” and apparently her speech impediment only intensifies the dizzying impact of her charm.

In a song titled “Forty Four” included in Thomas W. Talley's 1922 collection Negro Folk Rhymes: Wise & Otherwise the number refers first to a handgun and then to a Bible verse. Roosevelt Sykes' popular “.44 Blues" in 1929 elaborates this process of wit by cleverly using the same number to refer first to a gun, then to a train, and finally to a home address (presumably in prison). James, however, in his 1931 “22-20 Blues” (song 5) accompanied by his excellent piano playing ignores such ingenuity and focuses (as Robert Johnson was later to do in his “32-20 Blues”) on pure aggression. The weapon, and such shocking lines as “I cut that woman half in two,” express in the strongest terms the speaker’s distress at his “unruly” lover.

Simple though the situation may seem, it is presented with considerable ambiguity. Who is the mysterious “Mr. Crest” who appears at the outset? Has violence been done, or is it merely threatened? At the end the singer pictures himself out on the highway, on the pilgrimage of this life, as one might say, holding the gun that he has said is “burnin’ hell,” but declaring that he has harmed no one yet, though he says he means to “raise some sand” (start a fight) before heading on down the line. Experts seem to disagree on just what gun is meant, but the speaker makes it clear that he is weighing all options and selecting the one that reflects his despair. This indeterminacy contrasts sharply with the fatalistic directness in murder ballads such as “Little Sadie,” for James’ song is not narrative, but is primarily lyrical, defining through concrete terms the persona’s state of mind. The audience would here the song, even in its earliest versions, in a context of others’ use of similar imagery, against which the singer/poet seeks to define a new turn to the familiar convention.

In each of these cases the listener responds to a whole complex of images. I have elsewhere explained [8] that every recognizable convention immediately spawns a host of variations which require competence in the tradition to perceive. In Skip James’ beautiful and expressive lyrics the strands of intertextuality may take a number of forms. In “Little Cow And Calf Is Gonna Die Blues” the singer provides an original twist to a familiar image, keeping the word fresh and the meaning original. In “Hard Time Killing Floor” a formula is used in a very standardized way, but signifying an intense and upsetting reality. The goose image in “Devil Got my Woman” is nonetheless suggestive for being innovative, but neither is it for that reason superior. Though the song concerns a missing lover, the image on which I focused in “Lorenzo Blues” celebrates women’s beauty. Equally intense, the weapon image of “22-20 Blues” takes its place among a lineage of songs referring to specific models.

One may note significant patterns in the artist’s oeuvre as his reality is organized in a set of ever-changing symbolic forms. For Skip James the texts surveyed here emphasize the delights of love (in the cow and the wiggling), the feeling of love-longing (in the geese), and the terrible truths of aggression and suffering (in the killing floor and the gun). In every case the only amelioration or (temporary) elimination of pain is through fulfilled love. The images themselves portray a world-view more accurately (including emotional tone) than prose would be likely to do. These rural American songs deploy the stratagems of image usage in ways as artful (and artificial) as any sonneteer or mandarin.


1. James (born Nehemiah Curtis) had refused to record for Okeh in 1927, perhaps because his illegal activities, notably dealing in moonshine, seemed at once more lucrative and a good reason not to draw attention to himself. After he began performing again after his rediscovery by John Fahey, Bill Barth, and Henry Vestine he felt constrained both by failing health and his commitment to church music. James told a biographer that, while he was willing to play blues with his “thinkin' faculties,” he refused to “put my heart in it.” See Stephen Calt, I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues.

2. Compare the standard Homeric epithet “ox-eyed Hera.” My wife tells me that, while growing up in North Carolina, her sister was told by a high school boyfriend that she “had pretty eyes, like a cow.”

3. Among the very numerous occurrences of this topos in work by Son House, Big Bill Broonzy, Kokomo Arnold, Robert Johnson, Elvis Presley and others, two are of particular, if passing interest here. In Sara Martin’s 1928 recording “Mean Tight Mama” she sings “the cow that black and ugly has often got the sweetest milk.” In Sleepy John Estes 1930 “Milk Cow Blues” the convention is well enough established that a cow is never mentioned except in the title. The tone of yearning loneliness is evoked in a narrative of fleeing love snatched while the “slow consumption” does her in “by degrees.”

4. Hubert Sumlin says that for Howlin’ Wolf the term had particular reference to an incident in which he was shot by a jealous woman and, when downed, saw himself as on the killing floor according to Debra Devi. See her The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu.

5. As far back as the Confucian Classic of Poetry (the Shijing) geese symbolize the suffering people in the poem Hong Yan. Geese appear prominently as emblems of what might be called the blues often connoting longing for an absent friend or lover in many later poets including Du Fu and Su Shi.

6. See “Wild Goose Blues” and “Blue Goose Blues.” “Cry of the Wild Goose” by the folk-style singer/composer Terry Gilkyson who recorded with the Weavers was a hit for first Frankie Laine and then Tennessee Ernie Ford.

7. From Blind Boy Fuller “Meat Shakin’ Woman,” but see many others including Ida Cox’s “Four Day Creep” and Tommy Johnson’s “Big Fat Mama Blues.”

8. See my “Transformation of Convention” article posted in August of 2013 for the most general statement of this idea.




Song 1

Little Cow And Calf Is Gonna Die Blues

Hey hey-hey-hey-hey, hey hey hey hey hey
Hey hey-hey-hey-hey, hey hey hey hey...
And every cow and calf, I believe was born to die

I'm a-milk my heifer, milk her in a churn
I'll milk my heifer, I'll milk her in a churn
If you see my rider, tell her it ain't a darn thing doin'

I wringed my hands, baby, and I wanted to scream
I wringed my hands, honey, and I wanted to scream
And when I woke up I thought it was all a dream

Hey hey-hey-hey-hey, hey hey hey hey
Hey hey-hey-hey-hey, hey hey hey hey...
And every cow and calf, I believe was born to die
Hey hey-hey, I ain't gonna be here long
Hey hey-hey, pretty mama, I ain't gonna be here long
That's the reason why you hear me singin' my old lonesome song

Hey, hey-hey-hey-hey-hey, hey hey hey hey
Hey hey-hey-hey-hey, hey hey hey hey hey
And every cow's calf, honey, got to be dyin'

I walked the levee from end to end
I walked the levee, honey, from end to end
I was just tryin' to find, my calf, again

I'm feelin' back to my used-to...
I feel a notion, back to my used-to-be
I have a pretty mama, she don't care for me


Song 2

Hard Time Killing Floor

Hard time's is here
An ev'rywhere you go
Times are harder
Than th'ever been befo'

Um, hm-hm
Um-hm
Um, hm-hm
Um, hm-hm-hm

You know that people
They are driftin' from do' to do'
But they can't find no heaven
I don't care where they go

Um, hm-hm
Um-uh-hm
Mm-hm-hm
Um, hm-hm-hm

People, if I ever can get up
Off a-this old hard killin' flo'
Lord, I'll never get down
This low no mo'

Um, hm-hm-hm
Hm, um-hm
Hm, hm-hm
Hm, hm-hm-hm

Well, you hear me singin'
This old lonesome song
People, you know these hard times
Can't last us so long

Hm, hm-hm
Hmm, hmm
Hm, hm-hm
Hm, hm-hm, oh Lord

You know, you'll say you had money
You better be sho'
But these hard times gon' kill you
Just drive a lonely soul

Um, hm-hm
Umm, hmm
Umm, hm-hm
Hm, hm-hm-hm

Umm-hm
Hmm-hm-hm
Umm-hm
Hm-hm-hm
Hmm, hm-hm-hm


Song 3

Devil Got my Woman

You know, I'd rather be the ol' devil
Well, I'd rather be the devil
Then to be that woman' man
You know, rather be the devil
Than to be that woman' man
You know, I'm so sorry
You know, so sorry
That I ever fell in love wit' you-ooo-hoo-oo
Because you know you don't treat me
Baby, like you used ta do-hoo
You know, I laid down last night
You know, I laid down last night
And I thought to take me some rest
But my mind got to rambling
Like a wild geese from the west
You know the woman that I love
The woman that I love
I stol't her from my best friend
But you know he done got lucky
An he done got her back, again
You know, I used to cut your kindleing
You know, I used to cut your kindleing
Baby, then I made you some fire
Then I would tote all your water
Way, way, way, from the bogy brier
You know, my baby she don't drink whiskey
My baby, she don't drink no whiskey
An I know she ain't crazy about wine
Now, it was nothin' but the ol' devil
He done changed my baby's mind
You know, I could be right
You know, I could be right
Then again, I could be wrong
But it was nothin' but the ol' devil
He done got my baby
Now he done gone


Song 4

Lorenzo Blues

I wonder has anybody here
Seen my lovin' Lorenzo, today?
I wonder has anybody here
Seen my lovin' Lorenzo, today?
You know, we had a nice time Christmas
But she left me on New Year's Day

Oh, you got to know her
When you see her
'Cause she's so different
From any other girl
Oh, you've got to know her
When you see her
From any other girl
Because she's made up
Like a Coke-Cola bottle
An she got a likeness
It's outta this world, alright

You know, she's stutters in her speech
An she wiggle and she wobble
When she walk
She's stuttered in her speech
An she wiggle an a-wobble
When she walk
Yes, an she got three gold teeth
An she got deep dimples in her jaw, yeah

I say, 'Hello, Lorenzo, Lorenzo
How in the world come you treat me this-a-way?'
I say, 'Lorenzo, Lorenzo
How in the world come you treat me this-a-way?'
Darling, you know that you was gonna leave me
But you didn't tell me you was goin' to stay

Now, if I can make a half a million
I declare, I'm 'on give it all, to the hoodoo man
I declare, if I can make a half a million
I'm 'on give it all, to the hoodoo man
Just after he promise me that he will
Bring my lovin' Lorenzo, back home to me, again
An I want her back ho-oh-ome, to me again.


Song 5

22-20 Blues

Oh, Mr. Crest, Mr. Crest
How in the world you
Expect for me to rest?
Oh, Mr. Crest, Mr. Crest
How in the world you
Expect for me to rest?
You've got my 22-20
Layin' up across my breast

Oh, if I send for my baby
An she act a fool
An she don't never come
If I send for my baby
She act a fool
An she don't never come
All the doctors in New York City
I declare, they can't help her none

You know, sometimes she gets unruly
An she act like she just don't wanna do
Sometimes she gets unruly
An she act like she just don't wanna
But I get my 22-20
I cut that woman half in two

Oh, your.38 Special
Buddy, it's most too light
Your .38 Special
Buddy, it's most too light
But my 22-20
Will make ev'rything, alright

Ah-or, your .44-40
Buddy, it'll do very well
Your .44-40
Buddy, it'll do very well
But my .22-20
I declare you, it's a-burnin' hell

I was stranded on the highway-hi
With my 22-20 in my
I was standin' on the highway
With my 22-20 in my
They got me 'cused for murder
I declare, I never have harmed a man

Lord, oh I measured my gun
An it's just a-long as my right arm
I measured my gun
An it's just a-long as my right
I'm gon' raise me some sand
And back down the road, I declare.

Local Politics


With the aim of being a good citizen, I have consistently expressed love of community by striving to do my individual’s bit to support the general good. I have had very little to do, however, with electoral politics due to America’s two major parties’ fatal entanglement with monied interests. Thus, since my adolescence I have considered myself part of the extra-parliamentary opposition, that is to say, I will join all righteous demonstrations. Apart from union activism, my involvement has been primarily with national and international issues; however, perhaps because of my staying in one place for twenty-five years, I have become active in two local causes. One might think that county government could be freer of corruption than state or federal where, under the cash-dominated American system, no successful candidate can avoid soliciting corporate contributions that amount to nothing more than bribes. My experience in Orange County, New York has convinced me that even on this small-scale stage the contending forces parallel those on higher levels, and our local experience is exemplary of what happens in state capitols and Washington D.C. While those who do not live in my own Hudson Valley community may legitimately take little interest in the details of our political battles, their general traits may be indicative of what is happening in a great many other jurisdictions. So far as I am concerned in each case the public good is pitted against the most selfish and rapacious greed.

The current county-run nursing home was founded in 1831 and has always served the aged and indigent. In recent years a top-rated rehabilitation center has been added and the facility as a whole has maintained the highest standards operating with a stable and professional unionized staff in contrast to many similar institutions (both for profit and private “not-for-profit”) that focus on the bottom line instead of patient care and employ casual and unqualified minimum-wage workers. In the past the place sometimes showed a small profit, sometimes a modest deficit, but no one questioned the social responsibility of caring for the vulnerable residents. Something over ten years ago Republican politicians to whom profits are sacred decided our nursing home was an egregious example of socialism and began to undermine it. After receiving campaign contributions from interested parties, they hired a management firm with the proviso that, should the county home be sold to private interests, this company would have the first option. These villains then operated the facility in such a slipshod way as to cause unprecedented deficits year after year, until the politicians took up their next lines in the script and argued that it was too costly to run and that it must be sold. They did not explain why buyers, including their own sweetheart firm, were eager to buy a concern that regularly lost money. They also did not explain why this excellent nursing home was an unacceptable expense while the county’s two golf courses and airport for private planes, in effect subsidized services for the well-to-do, each of which costs a substantial amount annually, were untouchable.

As it happened, the law requires a two thirds vote to close a county department, but the party of greed had only a majority. (I should mention that one lone Republican with integrity stood against his caucus on both this issue and the other I mean to discuss. Bravo for him for following the principles of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt rather than the vicious and bigoted party leaders of today! It is also true that a Democrat or two was lured somehow to the dark side.) Undaunted, the right-wing majority created an Industrial Development Agency, unelected and unresponsive to the public, to whom to give the nursing home. This agency, they thought, could then proceed with the illegal sale. By pure good fortune our community has a very talented and progressive attorney who took up the case and blocked the IDA.

Meanwhile the workers had accepted givebacks and the administration that was driving the home into the ground was ousted. Immediately the balance sheet recovered. This year it looks like it might turn a small profit. I have no doubt that the backward politicians will resume their efforts as soon as they think they have the votes, so the battle is not over, and their appeal of the initial decision continues to work its way through the courts. For the moment, though, due in the end to the chance of the people’s having a disinterested friend to file suit on behalf of all of us, it looks as though we have won.
There could scarcely be a clearer example of social good than this nursing home. The only possible reason to sell is to enrich a soulless corporation. The only reason for elected officials to push for a sale is to enrich themselves through campaign contributions and perhaps sinecures later on. It’s people against profits.

The second issue is our county Government Center, a striking structure built in the 60s to a design by Paul Rudolph, one of the era’s most celebrated architects. This building, recognized by the state and national Registers of Historic Places, is now on the endangered list of the World Monuments Fund since the county executive wants to destroy it and build a new and utterly boring structure instead.

The hostility of the local philistines to this building dates back a good many years. Hoping to justify its demolition, our political leaders failed to properly maintain it, neglecting the roof, for instance, in the hope that it would eventually be wrecked. Four years ago following Hurricane Irene the county executive saw his chance. He declared that the building was damaged beyond repair and posed for photos wearing a protective mask he claimed to be against mold, though none of his aides, the press or others, had any need for protection. Subsequent investigation by engineers found little damage apart from that caused intentionally (and no mold). Exactly as in the case of the management team called in for the nursing home, a deal was reached with one architecture company which, in return for lucrative contracts, would say whatever they were told.

The details are readily available online, but in essence, the county legislature voted to renovate the existing structure, though the Republican leaders continued to insist on destroying this structure, recognized worldwide as a masterpiece. Then a remarkable development occurred. A prominent New York architect, primarily motivated by a desire to preserve the building, offered to purchase it, repurpose it as a center for the arts and design a new government office complex on the land behind. Though this would have saved at least thirty million dollars, while stimulating the local economy, the reactionaries and their hired designers remained obdurate. Incrementally, through executive decisions alone without another vote, the “renovation” turned into an eight-five percent destruction. Two firms that had been subcontractors on the project resigned due to ethical considerations, yet the fat cats maintained their control. On the eve of destruction, the same attorney entered the lists. His claim that the demolition of the building would be illegal remains to be tested in court.

The exemplary value of these incidents of local politics lies in the fact that in case balanced the public good against the profits of a greedy few. In the one case, supporters of the nursing home urged continuing the tradition almost two hundred years old of caring for the county’s elderly in a first-rate facility from which no one would be barred for financial reasons and, in the second, they advocated saving money and stimulating the local economy while preserving a landmark building recognized around the world. The only opponents of these righteous causes were conservative politicians and those in the corporate world with whom they connive, yet the struggle seemed from the start unequal. Had it not been for our white knight in the legal profession, the people would have been readily defeated. As long as the one per cent governs through campaign contributions and corrupt backroom deals the interests of the nine-nine will regularly be defeated in spite of a façade of political democracy. I have always thought that a political ideology can be useful only if it explains the events in the daily newspaper. Following the money offers the only satisfactory explanation of the treacherous behavior of those who were elected to serve the people. Until the entire social system is reoriented to serve us all, the best we can do is to hold off the thugs in business suits where we can. The cause of the people should not depend, as it has in my own county, on a single enlightened advocate and the integrity of a few judges to restrain those in power from looting the public treasury for themselves and their corporate friends.

Every Reader’s Pope

This is the fourth of a series of essays meant to introduce (or re-introduce) readers to the work of important poets. In this series I 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, eschewing most byways and all footnotes.



Alexander Pope is a very great poet, but one like Horace in whom many nonacademic readers find little pleasure today. Even to those with some acquaintance with literary history, the eighteenth century is a dull spot between the Metaphysicals and the Romantics. Yet his mastery of the music of words, what Pound called melopoeia, is outstanding, and the wit he exercised in both sententiae and satire remains a marvel. Hazlitt’s description of him as a master of “the artificial style of poetry” is just and need not in itself imply a lower rank in the poetic big leagues. A further hurdle is that many readers today think of poetry as necessarily lyric since narrative, philosophical, topographical, and a dozen other sorts have virtually vanished since the Romantic Era, and these days most everyone is one sort of Romantic or another. Pope wrote long poems, long enough that I present only excerpts here.

Pope’s Essay on Man is composed in the most well-wrought verse, its flow of heroic couplets an example (like tragic choruses) of literary form redeeming what might seem the cruel chaos of reality. It is unsurprising that the poet, who aimed, after all, for popular success, includes no distinctly Catholic dogma in his effort to “vindicate the ways of God to man,” but, in fact, he sounds little like a Christian. Many critics have concluded he was a deist as were many intellectuals of his era, but the point remains disputed. To me he sounds almost like a monist, even a Vedantist Hindu, in his explanation of the radical unity that underlies the Great Chain of Being.


IX. What if the foot, ordained the dust to tread,
Or hand, to toil, aspired to be the head?
What if the head, the eye, or ear repined
To serve mere engines to the ruling mind?
Just as absurd for any part to claim
To be another, in this general frame:
Just as absurd, to mourn the tasks or pains,
The great directing Mind of All ordains.
All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God the soul;
That, changed through all, and yet in all the same;
Great in the earth, as in the ethereal frame;
Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees,
Lives through all life, extends through all extent,
Spreads undivided, operates unspent;
Breathes in our soul, informs our mortal part,
As full, as perfect, in a hair as heart:
As full, as perfect, in vile man that mourns,
As the rapt seraph that adores and burns:
To him no high, no low, no great, no small;
He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all.
X. Cease, then, nor order imperfection name:
Our proper bliss depends on what we blame.
Know thy own point: this kind, this due degree
Of blindness, weakness, Heaven bestows on thee.
Submit. In this, or any other sphere,
Secure to be as blest as thou canst bear:
Safe in the hand of one disposing Power,
Or in the natal, or the mortal hour.
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, whatever is, is right.


The explosion of duality in such lines as “changed through all, and yet in all the same,” the pantheism of the divine soul that “Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees,” the universal wisdom of the single imperative “submit,” all lead toward the conclusion that soothed so many in Pope’s day and since: “whatever is, is right.” In spite of Dr. Johnson’s sniffing, "Never were penury of knowledge and vulgarity of sentiment so happily disguised," the poem was widely read on the Continent as well as in Britain.

Pope has been suspected of the deism so popular among intellectuals of his day yet he never publically disclaimed his family’s Roman Catholicism which under the Test Acts of his day forbade Nonconformists of all sorts from university enrollment, voting, holding office, and even living in London. Since his adolescence he suffered from Pott’s disease which left him stunted, hunchbacked, and subject to numerous pains and problems. Still he made his way with his wit and his translations of Homer were successful enough for him to purchase his Twickenham property which he elaborated with gardens, grottoes, curious geological specimens, and a camera obscura, all as artfully planned as his poetry.

Apart from the masterful and self-conscious craftsmanship of his own poetry, Pope wrote one of the greatest works of criticism in his Essay on Criticism. His ingenuity is particularly evident in the passage discussing sound effects and clichés. A veritable primer of poetic effects, the passage exemplifies each effect while commenting on it -- the pedestrian sound of “ten low words” or the interminable twelve syllables of the Alexandrine. Too few modern writers can even attempt to make the sound “seem an Eccho to the Sense,” while Pope does it so deftly his words bring a feeling of discovery and delight at every reading.


These Equal Syllables alone require,
Tho' oft the Ear the open Vowels tire,
While Expletives their feeble Aid do join,
And ten low Words oft creep in one dull Line,
While they ring round the same unvary'd Chimes,
With sure Returns of still expected Rhymes.
Where-e'er you find the cooling Western Breeze,
In the next Line, it whispers thro' the Trees;
If Chrystal Streams with pleasing Murmurs creep,
The Reader's threaten'd (not in vain) with Sleep.
Then, at the last, and only Couplet fraught
With some unmeaning Thing they call a Thought,
A needless Alexandrine ends the Song,
That like a wounded Snake, drags its slow length along.
Leave such to tune their own dull Rhimes, and know
What's roundly smooth, or languishingly slow;
And praise the Easie Vigor of a Line,
Where Denham's Strength, and Waller's Sweetness join.
True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance,
'Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense.
Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;
But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,
The hoarse, rough Verse shou'd like the Torrent roar.
When Ajax strives, some Rocks' vast Weight to throw,
The Line too labours, and the Words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain,
Flies o'er th'unbending Corn, and skims along the Main.
Hear how Timotheus' vary'd Lays surprize,
And bid Alternate Passions fall and rise!
While, at each Change, the Son of Lybian Jove
Now burns with Glory, and then melts with Love;
Now his fierce Eyes with sparkling Fury glow;
Now Sighs steal out, and Tears begin to flow:
Persians and Greeks like Turns of Nature found,
And the World's Victor stood subdu'd by Sound!
The Pow'rs of Musick all our Hearts allow;
And what Timotheus was, is Dryden now.


The heirs of Romantic “spontaneous overflow” including Ginsberg with his dictum of “first thought, best thought” have lost Pope’s faith in imitation of classic models and indeed in the premise that had seemed self-evident in all the arts and crafts, expressed here in a persuasive simile: “True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,/ As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance.”

Pope was well-known for fierce and biting satire in works like The Dunciad. So many of his targets have faded into obscurity that the import of Pope’s lines is now evident only with rafts of footnotes. Indeed, those without a classical education will fail to appreciate much of the play in his mock-heroic narrative The Rape of the Lock, but other passages require less mediation and provide greater immediate reward. Pope compliments the courtly ladies of his day, imagining them to be attended by groups of sylphs, a thoroughly unclassical concept. The term arose in Paracelsus’ alchemy and was popularized by Pope who asserts the whimsical proposition that deceased women can by no means have given up due to mere death their fondness for such “Vanities” as fancy carriages and card games. He details the various fates of those who had erred though bad temper, excessive complaisance, or prudery, noting the “light Coquettes,” apparently those who played their social role by the rules, “aloft repair,/ And sport and flutter in the Fields of Air.” From this vantage point they can defend the female against “the treach'rous Friend, and daring Spark,/ The Glance by Day, the Whisper in the Dark.” People, Pope says, may call their behavior “Honour,” but it is in fact due to the sylphs.


Know then, unnumbered Spirits round thee fly,
The light Militia of the lower Sky;
These, tho' unseen, are ever on the Wing,
Hang o'er the Box, and hover round the Ring.
Think what an Equipage thou hast in Air,
And view with scorn Two Pages and a Chair.
As now your own, our Beings were of old,
And once inclos'd in Woman's beauteous Mold;
Thence, by a soft Transition, we repair
From earthly Vehicles to these of Air. [1.50]
Think not, when Woman's transient Breath is fled,
That all her Vanities at once are dead:
Succeeding Vanities she still regards,
And tho' she plays no more, o'erlooks the Cards.
Her Joy in gilded Chariots, when alive,
And Love of Ombre, after Death survive.
For when the Fair in all their Pride expire,
To their first Elements the Souls retire:
The Sprights of fiery Termagants in Flame
Mount up, and take a Salamander's Name. [1.60]
Soft yielding Minds to Water glide away,
And sip with Nymphs, their Elemental Tea.
The graver Prude sinks downward to a Gnome,
In search of Mischief still on Earth to roam.
The light Coquettes in Sylphs aloft repair,
And sport and flutter in the Fields of Air.
Know farther yet; Whoever fair and chaste
Rejects Mankind, is by some Sylph embrac'd:
For Spirits, freed from mortal Laws, with ease
Assume what Sexes and what Shapes they please. [1.70]
What guards the Purity of melting Maids,
In Courtly Balls, and Midnight Masquerades,
Safe from the treach'rous Friend, and daring Spark,
The Glance by Day, the Whisper in the Dark;
When kind Occasion prompts their warm Desires,
When Musick softens, and when Dancing fires?
'Tis but their Sylph, the wise Celestials know,
Tho' Honour is the Word with Men below.


Not only, it seems, is the credit given women for chaste behavior really due to their sylphs, the same aery creatures are equally the cause of infidelity. At their prompting, the ladies drift from one beau to another, as though all society were constantly changing partners in some grand dance figure, and Pope manages in his description at the same time to parody the well-known lines from his own version of Homer that Dr. Johnson had quoted in his Dictionary. The same acceptance the “Essay on Man” had recommended quite seriously (“Whatever is, is right.”) here reappears in comic restatement: “with Heav'n who can contest?”

So naturally that the reader scarcely notices, Pope turns then to a wide-ranging satire on the theme of the moon’s inventory of lost objects. The sophisticated society of the beau monde which could appreciate The Rape of the Lock is also capable of manifold foolishness, and Pope sprays out a scattergun attack. In a single line the poet devastates heroic literature and the modern effete beaux of lesser wit than he. He proceeds to targets such as “Death-bed Alms” (presumably less meritorious than earlier donations) and “Sick Man's Pray'rs” which mean no more than the “Smiles of Harlots.” He then takes a rather metaphysical leap to conclude the list with “Cages for Gnats, and Chains to Yoak a Flea” and “Dry'd Butterflies” before coming in for a heavy landing with “Tomes of Casuistry.” The thorough cynicism is levitated by his humor and delight, and the rueful and the ridiculous become one.


There Heroe's Wits are kept in pondrous Vases,
And Beau's in Snuff-boxes and Tweezer-Cases.
There broken Vows, and Death-bed Alms are found,
And Lovers Hearts with Ends of Riband bound;
The Courtiers Promises, and Sick Man's Pray'rs,
There Heroe's Wits are kept in pondrous Vases,
And Beau's in Snuff-boxes and Tweezer-Cases.
There broken Vows, and Death-bed Alms are found,
And Lovers Hearts with Ends of Riband bound;
The Courtiers Promises, and Sick Man's Pray'rs,
The Smiles of Harlots, and the Tears of Heirs, [5.120]
Cages for Gnats, and Chains to Yoak a Flea;
Dry'd Butterflies, and Tomes of Casuistry., and the Tears of Heirs, [5.120]
Cages for Gnats, and Chains to Yoak a Flea;
Dry'd Butterflies, and Tomes of Casuistry.
Oft when the World imagine Women stray,
The Sylphs thro' mystick Mazes guide their Way,
Thro' all the giddy Circle they pursue,
And old Impertinence expel by new.
What tender Maid but must a Victim fall
To one Man's Treat, but for another's Ball?
When Florio speaks, what Virgin could withstand,
If gentle Damon did not squeeze her Hand?
With varying Vanities, from ev'ry Part,
They shift the moving Toyshop of their Heart; [1.100]
Where Wigs with Wigs, with Sword-knots Sword-knots strive,
Beaus banish Beaus, and Coaches Coaches drive.
This erring Mortals Levity may call,
Oh blind to Truth! the Sylphs contrive it all.
With such a Prize no Mortal must be blest,
So Heav'n decrees! with Heav'n who can contest?
Some thought it mounted to the Lunar Sphere,
Since all things lost on Earth, are treasur'd there.
There Heroe's Wits are kept in pondrous Vases,
And Beau's in Snuff-boxes and Tweezer-Cases.
There broken Vows, and Death-bed Alms are found,
And Lovers Hearts with Ends of Riband bound;
The Courtiers Promises, and Sick Man's Pray'rs,
The Smiles of Harlots, and the Tears of Heirs, [5.120]
Cages for Gnats, and Chains to Yoak a Flea;
Dry'd Butterflies, and Tomes of Casuistry.
But trust the Muse — she saw it upward rise,
Tho' mark'd by none but quick Poetic Eyes:
(So Rome's great Founder to the Heav'ns withdrew,
To Proculus alone confess'd in view.)
A sudden Star, it shot thro' liquid Air,
And drew behind a radiant Trail of Hair.
Not Berenice's Locks first rose so bright,
The heav'ns bespangling with dishevel'd light. [5.130]
The Sylphs behold it kindling as it flies,
And pleas'd pursue its Progress thro' the Skies.


The piece concludes then as a summer concert on some holiday shore might with pyrotechnics as Belinda’s lock soars aloft, a miraculous comet of hair, an elegant and fanciful compliment that must have made the lady smile. The author was obliged to use an iron frame to sit upright in his last years, gamely joking about the picture he presented, and he jokes for us all, though we may be at present less discomfited. Pope indeed redeemed himself with taste and wit and language, proving not just his intelligence but his spirit as well, borne on high by imagination and force of will. His words may be so smooth as to seem glib or second-hand, but inscribed within Pope’s wonderful verses is the steady conviction that the stakes are high because the stakes are always high even while whiling away the day with pastimes such as the fooling with words called poetry.