True criticism

In the end, it’s misleading, and perhaps false, to speak of reviews as ‘negative’ or ‘positive’. A good review should contain both elements, judiciously balanced. We live in an age of shameless puffery. A good critic, a just judge, will resist this. But let’s face it: in the case of poetry (and of the novel, too, I suspect, though I’ve never written one), a wayward element can intervene, in the form of a sudden caprice, an unexpected impulse—perhaps even what Edgar Allen Poe named ‘the imp of the perverse’—and this gratuitous and quite unbidden whim can take a poem in startling directions. It can make a dull poem shine but it can also make a good poem falter. What at first appears queer or off-kilter or even downright loopy may be transformed over time into something unsuspected, unrecognized, before. The critic has to be alert to this possibility, rare as it is; has to allow, that is, that all his fine judgment, his confident logic, his unerring taste, may prove pointless. Our judgments may—and probably will—prove as perishable as the books they judge. This requires a special kind of humility: despite our best efforts, if the work is truly good, something will always elude our analysis. There’s a mystery here I don’t pretend to understand. Perhaps Emily Dickinson expressed it best:

Surgeons must be very careful
When they take the knife!
Underneath their fine incisions
Stirs the Culprit—Life!

Eric Ormsby, from “Fine Incisions: Reflections on Reviewing”, p. 120 in Fine Incisions: Essays on Poetry and Place (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2011)

A Private Prayer of the Rev. Blacklock

Lord, if I preferred the fine degrees
Of Thy justice to the antipodes
Of mercy, count it not a fault.
Judgment may not with love’s vehemence assault
Thy multiple mansion, yet count me,
Count me among the just.

Count me with those who must renounce a mind
By its own infinity.
The pollen of the Law I buzzed among I reckon dust
Yet number me
Not with the worms that sting, not with the flies,
O number me among the bees of paradise.

Eric Ormsby, “Two Private Prayers of the Rev. Blacklock”, 2. From Time’s Covenant: Selected Poems.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost, 1922

The Poetry Foundation hosts a video of Robert Frost reading the poem here. The way he reads “The woods are lovely, dark and deep” is breathtaking. He seems to slip out of his rote recitation for a moment, his voice touching on something of the feeling of that moment that inspired the poem all those years ago when he was a farmer on the way home one night, pausing in the woods, affected by that primeval beauty.

I post this because I drove with some friends past Derry in New Hampshire on Sunday, where Frost wrote this poem. Passing so very quickly by the woods there along the highway, I thought (how could you not?!) of that line “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep”, because they were. I’m looking forward to a snowy night walk of my own this winter, here in New England.

“Spiritus Dei”

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
      Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what Thou dost love,
      And do what Thou would’st do.

Breath on me, Breath of God,
      Until my heart is pure,
Until with Thee I will one will,
      To do and to endure.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
      Blend all my soul with Thine,
Until this earthly part of me
      Glows with Thy fire divine.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
      So shall I never die,
But live with Thee the perfect life
      Of Thine eternity.

Edwin Hatch, Towards Fields of Light: Sacred Poems (Hodder & Stoughton, 1890)

Edwin Hatch was the author of, amongst other things, The Hatch-Redpath Concordance to the Septuagint, still a useful tool in Septuagint studies. It remained incomplete at his untimely death in 1889, and was completed by his younger colleague Henry Redpath. His book of his religious poetry, Towards Fields of Light: Sacred Poems, was published in the year following his death. It is another example, and there are many, of the devotion of a renowned scholar to the Cause of all.

All Saints

They have brought gold and spices to my King,
      Incense and precious stuffs and ivory;
O holy Mother mine, what can I bring
      That so my Lord may deign to look on me?
They sing a sweeter song than I can sing,
      All crowned and glorified exceedingly:
I, bound on earth, weep for my trespassing,–
      They sing the song of love in heaven, set free.
Then answered me my Mother, and her voice
      Spake to my heart, yea answered in my heart:
‘Sing, saith He to the heavens, to earth, Rejoice:
Thou also lift thy heart to Him above:
      He seeks not thine, but thee such as thou art,
For lo His banner over thee is Love.’

Christina Georgina Rossetti, 20 January 1852

Deir El Bahari: Temple of Hatshepsut

How did she come here, when it was new and sparkling,
White and immaculate against the huge and spongy cliffs,
The great Queen, how did she come, in the cool of winter,
To review her voyages, perhaps, or admire her politics?
Not like the tourist, with his camera and serious weary step,
Not like the dragoman, with his sideways twist, poised in a revelatory date,
Not like the archaeologist, brisk, with a fly whisk . . .

Grand destination, deserving a green and pleasant air-field,
Or a royal station, garnished with banners and carpets–
How did she arrive, the peaceful Queen, to smile discreetly over her portraits–
Her masculine beard, being man, or her marvellous birth, being god?
To study her exotic wonders, the Red Sea fishes, the fat queen of Punt?
Not like the tourist, homesick on a hell-bred donkey,
Not like the dragoman, informed yet obsequious,
Not like the archaeologist, in a jeep, with new theories . . .

How did she reach here? Kohl-eyed and henna-stained?
Across her breast the whip and the crozier? The desert
Is old and democratic, rude and unpolished the rocks.
The figures of this landscape? During the season,
Gentlemen in shorts and sun-glasses, ladies with tweeds and twisted ankles,
And all the year, the little denizens, with leather feet and tattered gallabiehs,
The wide-striding village women, their drab and dusty dress . . .

But what of a Queen, and one who built this temple, so clean and deep and sure,
Curling inside the clenched and hanging cliff? What magic carpet
Drawn by bright and flying lions? What cloudburst of gold dust?
Between her treasures, incense trees and ivory, panther skins and ebony–
What laid her gently upon those sculptured steps?

D. J. Enright. From The Laughing Hyena and Other Poems (1953), available in Collected Poems 1948-1998 (Oxford University Press, 1998)


I watched a rosebud very long
     Brought on by dew and sun and shower,
     Waiting to see the perfect flower :
Then, when I thought it should be strong,
     It opened at the matin hour
And fell at evensong.

I watched a nest from day to day
     A green nest full of pleasant shade,
     Wherein three speckled eggs were laid :
But when they should have hatched in May,
     The two old birds had grown afraid
Or tired, and flew away.

Then in my wrath I broke the bough
     That I had tended so with care,
     Hoping that its scent should fill the air;
I crushed the eggs, not heeding how
     Their ancient promise had been fair :
I would have vengeance now.

But the dead branch spoke from the sod,
     And the eggs answered me again :
     Because we failed dost thou complain?
Is thy wrath just? And what if God,
     Who waiteth for thy fruits in vain,
Should also take the rod?

Christina Georgina Rossetti. 7 January 1849.

The Prophet

Athirst in soul for truth and grace
In desert gloom I walked alone,
And there a six-winged seraph shone
Upon the night before my face.
He touched my eyes with fingers light
And soft as sleep at eventide;
My eyes became with vision wide,
Alarmed as eagles in the night.
He touched my ears, I heard around
Me far and wide a tide of sound:
I heard a tremlbling fill the sky,
I heard the angel wings on high,
I heard the sap in grass and trees,
And reptiles moving ‘neath the seas.
He leaned above my mouth awhile,
And tore from me my tongue of guile,
And took from me my pride and lust,
And with his bloody hand he thrust
Between my dead lips withering
The serpent’s sharp and su’btle sting.
And with his sword he clove my breast,
And plucked the heart that trembled there,
And in my bosom rived and bare
A coal of living fire he pressed.
I fell upon the waste as dead.
And God spake unto me and said:
“Arise, O prophet! Hear and see!
Fulfill my will! Go forth again,
And, wayfaring, on land, on sea,
Burn with my words the hearts of men!”

Alexander Pushkin, 1826. Translated by Eugene Mark Kayden.