Week 448: From ‘The White Devil’ by John Webster

‘The White Devil’ is a play by Shakespeare’s contemporary John Webster (1584-1634). Featuring a convoluted plot and a cast of murderous Italians, it might seem unlikely to have much appeal for a modern audience, and yet, come to think of it, those same ingredients didn’t stop the TV drama ‘The Sopranos’ from being a runaway success, and certainly the twentieth century saw a renewed appreciation of Webster’s dark poetry. One thing’s for sure: he had that Elizabethan knack of handling a strong, flexible blank verse line in a way that has never been surpassed or indeed equalled since. Here is the Italian nobleman Giovanni in conversation with his uncle Francisco de Medici, Duke of Florence, lamenting the death of Giovanni’s murdered mother Isabella.

Giov.   What do the dead do, uncle? do they eat,
  Hear music, go a-hunting, and be merry,
  As we that live?

Fran.   No, coz; they sleep.

Giov.   Lord, Lord, that I were dead!
  I have not slept these six nights.  When do they wake?

Fran.   When God shall please.

Giov.   Good God, let her sleep ever!
  For I have known her wake an hundred nights,
  When all the pillow where she laid her head
  Was brine-wet with her tears.  I am to complain to you, sir;
  I’ll tell you how they have us’d her now she ‘s dead:
  They wrapp’d her in a cruel fold of lead,
  And would not let me kiss her.

John Webster

Week 447: Scents, by David Sutton

Some time ago my wife lost her sense of smell. Nothing to do with Covid: it seems the condition, known as anosmia, can strike without apparent cause: sometimes the sense spontaneously comes back after a while, but in this case it hasn’t. But at least, unlike many Covid victims who have suffered the same fate, she can still taste things as normal.

Naturally I provide such husbandly comfort as I can, pointing out, for example, how much worse it would be for her if she were a dog. And I suspect most would agree that if you are going to lose one of your senses, smell is the one you are going to miss least. Even so, I find it a bit sad, when I think of all the odours that have given me pleasure in life, and continue to do so. And it has moved me to reflect that the sense of smell is really very little celebrated in poetry; in fact I have failed to think offhand of any poem in which it can be said to take centre stage, which has reduced me to presenting one of my own as this week’s offering…

Scents

Tonight the rain in summer dark
Releases scents of leaf and bark:
The fumy reek of resined trees
And currant’s sweet acridities.

Those aromatic compounds fit
Some membranous receptive pit
And trigger in my waiting brain
The memory of other rain.

I learnt my seasons from no class:
My summers were wild rose and grass,
A velveted and honeyed air.
Tonight I know: the past is there

And lies, so little does it need
To live again, in bush and weed
A yard or two beyond my door.
I am the child I was before.

Odours of earth, like love they came
Before the word, before the name.
The gates of time swing wide for these
Primaeval analeptic keys.

Then let me keep, though all depart,
These strange familiars from my start:
As in my first, in my last air,
Most potent molecules, be there.

David Sutton

Week 446: In A Disused Graveyard, by Robert Frost

So it seems that the tide of the coronavirus epidemic may finally be ebbing from our British shores at least, leaving us with a lot of life to catch up on and a lot of death to remember. Some cause for cautious euphoria, but of course, I reflect, it’s not as if we are now going to stop dying of this and that: it just won’t be in such an obsessively media-monitored way. Which brings to mind this poem by Robert Frost. I like it, even if I feel the sentiment of the last stanza doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny: I don’t see any sense in which can stones be said to believe or not believe anything. And yet how seductive is the pathetic fallacy, especially in the hands of such a master of cadence.

In a Disused Graveyard

The living come with grassy tread
To read the gravestones on the hill;
The graveyard draws the living still,
But never any more the dead.
 
The verses in it say and say:
‘The ones who living come today
To read the stones and go away
Tomorrow dead will come to stay.’
 
So sure of death the marbles rhyme,
Yet can’t help marking all the time
How no one dead will seem to come.
What is it men are shrinking from?
 
It would be easy to be clever
And tell the stones: Men hate to die
And have stopped dying now forever.
I think they would believe the lie.

Robert Frost

Week 445: Bluebells, by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Just for a week or two each year, at the end of April into early May, my Chiltern countryside is at its spring perfection, and once again I have been walking in Rushmore Wood, along the broad track speckled with the first fall of cherry petals, the wooded slope dropping away to my left, thick with bluebells: pools, lakes, rivers, waterfalls of blue cascading down the slope, and the misty Oxfordshire plain below, glimpsed through a light screen of young beech leaves. Housman, of course, was good on bluebells: ‘And like a skylit water stood/The bluebells in the azured wood’, but when it comes to the detail it is hard to beat Gerard Manley Hopkins. I sometimes feel that Hopkins is putting more of a strain on the language than it can readily bear, but you have to admire his sincerity and passion. Here he is in his journal engaging all his senses in an attempt to define the flower’s peculiar lovely ‘inscape’.

‘In the little wood opposite the light they stood in blackish spreads or sheddings like spots on a snake. The heads are then like thongs and solemn in grain and grape-colour. But in the clough through the light they come in falls of sky-colour washing the brows and slacks of the ground with vein-blue, thickening at the double, vertical themselves and the young grass and brake-fern combed vertical, but the brake struck the upright of all this with winged transoms. It was a lovely sight. – The bluebells in your hand baffle you with their inscape, made to every sense. If you draw your fingers through them they are lodged and struggle with a shock of wet heads; the long stalks rub and click and flatten to a fan on one another like your fingers themselves would when you passed the palms hard across one another, making a brittle rub and jostle like the noise of a hurdle strained by leaning against; then there is the faint honey smell and in the mouth the sweet gum when you bite them’.

There is also this quatrain in his poem ‘May Magnificat’:

‘And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
 ……And magic cuckoocall
 ……Caps, clears, and clinches all—‘

Sadly it is many years since I heard a cuckoo in these parts.