Showing posts with label poetry. Show all posts
Showing posts with label poetry. Show all posts

Saturday, 20 May 2017

'Hamlet's Soliloquy: Imitated’ - Richard Jago

To print, or not to print — that is the question.
Whether 'tis better in a trunk to bury
The quirks and crotchets of outrageous Fancy,
Or send a well-wrote copy to the press,
And by disclosing, end them.

‘Hamlet's Soliloquy: Imitated’
Richard Jago
(1715-1781)

Whether or not you're a fan of Shakespeare (or a 'Bardolater' as the 20th century playwright George Bernard Shaw termed the most zealous Shakespeare enthusiasts), you've probably heard something of the famous soliloquy from his play Hamlet.  Even if you don't know off the top of your head where it's from or what it's about, the opening lines will probably strike a chord: 

'To be or not to be, that is the question.
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing, end them.'
(Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1…and yes, I’m afraid I did basically type it from memory!)

And having read that, I'm sure you'll see at once what Jago is doing with his 'Imitation'.  Although there might be a serious side to his reworking, it's difficult to see Jago's soliloquy as anything other than a huge, hilarious joke.

Richard Jago 1715-1781
Just to start by clarifying the jargon here, a 'soliloquy' is a speech in a play delivered by one character talking to themselves, rather like someone thinking out loud.  In the original Shakespeare play, the famous speech is said by Hamlet as he debates whether or not he should attempt to bring his uncle to justice for the murder of his father and usurpation of his and his father's crown (through marriage to Hamlet's mother) - the 'sea of troubles' he considers 'tak[ing] arms against'.  Jago replaces this with an author’s dilemma – ‘To print, or not to print’ (line 1).  ‘To print’, Jago wittily argues, is ‘to doubt / No more’ (lines 5-6), since once a manuscript is committed to print it cannot be changed and the ‘head-ach, and […] thousand natural shocks / Of scribbling frenzy’ are over (lines 7-8): as my very dear brother once rather wittily quipped, ‘novels are never finished, they just get sent to the publisher’.

The next section – still mimicking the original structure of Shakespeare’s immortal words – continues with the pros and, more importantly, the cons of publishing.  The aspiring writer’s work might ‘beam / From the same shelf with [Alexander] Pope, in calf [leather] well bound’ (lines 9-10), one of the finest satirical poets of the eighteenth-century and an enviable bookshelf companion for any author.  Or, more realistically the aspiring work may ‘sleep, perchance, with Quarles – Ay, there’s the rub’ (line 11).  The ‘sleep’ of which Shakespeare’s Hamlet speaks is the sleep of death, but here it is the probable fate of the millions of forgotten authors who ‘sleep’ in disregarded silence.  Francis Quarles (1592-1644) was an English religious poet whose popularity does not seem to have extended very far beyond his own lifetime.  On one of the rare occasions when his name is mentioned in the latter half of the eighteenth century it is in a letter to the popular journal The Gentleman’s Magazine, in which the correspondent bemoans the fact that ‘[p]oor sleeping Quarles is at length disturbed’ by critics such as William Jackson who discussed the poet’s work favorably in his Thirty Letters on various subjects.  The threat of infamy here is very real, and one to strike fear into the heart of every aspiring author.

Detailing the numerous disadvantages of being a published author Jago also includes ‘th’impatient thirst of fame’ (line 16), i.e. the longing for continued popularity after even the smallest taste of it; and ‘[t]he tedious importunity of friends’ (line 18), doubtless hectoring for details of the next great work.  The ‘undiscover’d country’ of Shakespeare’s soliloquy is the unseen land of death, but here Jago redirects the term to refer to the mystic ‘Parnassus’ hill’ (line 22), in Greek mythology the home of the nine Muses who serve as guardians and inspirations of the arts.  Once again, however, it is the fear of criticism that is the strongest deterrent, as Jago writes of how preferable it is to ‘bear to live unknown, / Than run the hazard to be known, and damn’d’ (lines 25-6).  It is this fear which makes ‘the healthful face of many a poem’ sicken within the pages of ‘a pale manuscript’ (lines 28 & 29) and that deters many writers from sending their work to publishers such as the famous Robert Dodsley (1704-1764) that Jago here mentions by name.  We can only be thankful that this fear didn’t deter Jago himself!

Happy Reading!!

You can find this poem:

(eighteenth century poetry archive – a fantastic new resource of freely available poetry by all our favourite eighteenth-century poets, and quite a few less well-known ones too! 

You can find out more about Richard Jago:

(Wikipedia!! Always a useful starting point…)

(If you’re lucky enough to have access to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography then this gives a more sophisticated account of Jago’s life.)

Sources:
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bardolater

Sharp, ‘Letter’ in The Gentleman’s Magazine: and historical chronicle, 56.6 (Dec 1786), p. 1106.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

'Ode to Wisdom' - Elizabeth Carter

When Fortune drops her gay parade,
When Pleasure’s transient roses fade,
And wither in the tomb;
Unchang’d is thy immortal prize,
Thy ever-verdant laurels rise
In undecaying bloom.
 
‘Ode to Wisdom’
Elizabeth Carter (1717-1806)
(Published in Poems on Several Occasions, 1762)
 
Wisdom: it’s something the world could do with more of.  Evidently Elizabeth Carter felt the same way in the early eighteenth century.  Her ‘Ode to Wisdom’ is a powerful, personal expression of both praise and longing for wisdom.  It begins with ‘The solitary bird of night’ (the owl), a creature associated with the classical Greek deity of wisdom, the goddess Pallas Athene.  Using the first stanza to set the scene, Carter creates an atmospheric image of an owl, having roosted alone all day in some ruinous ‘time-shook tow’r’ now flying through the mysterious darkness of the night. 
 
The persona of the poem hears the ‘solemn sound’ of the owls flight, and via this symbolic link to classical wisdom, she offers obeisance to the imagined throne of Wisdom.  In the third stanza, therefore, the opening pronoun ‘She’ now functions as a personification of Wisdom founded upon the Greek image of Pallas Athene: the owl is, after all, referred to as the ‘Fav’rite of Pallas’.  Wisdom, Carter writes, ‘loves the cool, the silent eve, / Where no false shews of life deceive’.  Here the darkness of night-time is used as a visual and moral leveller, a time when truth can no longer be disguised. 
 
The fourth stanza continues the praise of Pallas, identifying her, and therefore also wisdom, as the ‘queen of ev’ry art, / That glads the sense, and mends the heart’.  It is wisdom, Carter claims, that is the ‘source of purer joys’.  The longing of the poetic persona to achieve true wisdom is then crystallised in the subsequent stanza, in which she figures herself as a ‘modest suppliant’ whose ‘vow’ to Pallas Athene is more of a request to be ‘taught by thy [Pallas’s] unerring rules, / To shun the fruitless wish of fools’ and to instead aim at ‘nobler views’.

 

In the pursuit of this wisdom, the poet rejects ‘Fortune’s gem, Ambition’s plume’ and ‘Cythrea’s fading bloom’ (in case you’re wondering Cythrea is just another name for Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love).  All of these goals are simply ‘glitt’ring toys’, childish trinkets far beneath the aspirations of this poet who seeks instead ‘Each moral beauty of the heart, / By studious thoughts refin’d’.  The only ‘Power’ this poet hopes for is ‘An empire o’er the mind’.
 
To express the transience of material triumph, Carter then examines the effects of time upon these competing qualities:
 
When Fortune drops her gay parade,
When Pleasure’s transient roses fade,
And wither in the tomb;
Unchang’d is thy [wisdom’s] immortal prize,
Thy ever-verdant laurels rise
In undecaying bloom.
 
By choosing Wisdom as her moral specialism, the poet will be ‘protected’ from the ‘ignorance and spite’ of those who seek to mock through the ‘pointed ridicule / Of undiscerning wit’.  A means of escaping ‘From envy, hurry, noise and strife’, embracing wisdom enables the poet to rest in ‘the peaceful groves’ where only the spirits of clever philosophers such as Plato may be found.  The following stanza continues in praise of Plato, referencing his ‘philosophick theme / Of Perfect, Fair, and Good’.  Upon arrival in Athens, this philosophy ‘Reclaim’d, her [the city’s] wild licentious youth’ as under the influence of wisdom ‘The Passions ceas’d their loud alarms’. 
 
Returning once more to addressing wisdom directly, the poet lists how:
 
Thy breath inspires the Poet’s song,
The Patriot’s free, unbiass’d tongue,
The Hero’s gen’rous strife’
 
But before the poet gets too carried away in praise of classical deities – at a time when Christianity was the predominant European religion – she adds a deft and subtle twist upon the classical model.  ‘No more to fabled Names confin’d’, she writes, ‘To the supreme all-perfect Mind / My thoughts direct their flight’.  Obliquely indicating her acknowledgement of Pallas Athene as a ‘fabled Name’, she now identifies wisdom as the ‘gift’ of ‘the supreme all-perfect Mind’ (an implicit allusion to the Christian God).  Thus it is also with an address to this ‘supreme all-perfect Mind’ that the poem ultimately concludes, as Carter bids this power to ‘send her [wisdom’s] sure, her steady ray, / To regulate my doubtful way’.  For it is:
 
Beneath her clear discerning eye
The visionary shadows fly
Of Folly’s painted show:
She sees thro’ ev’ry fair disguise.
That all but Virtue’s solid joys
Are vanity and woe. 

Happy Reading!


You can find this poem:
http://www.eighteenthcenturypoetry.org/works/o5154-w0420.shtml
(This fantastic free copy of the poem is the source of the quotations given in this blogpost, and a superb resource!! Definitely worth having a shufty around the rest of the site too!!)

(Was recently introduced to this site by a senior academic, and it’s absolutely fab! Follow this link and find Carter’s ‘Ode to Wisdom’ on page 84.  Or you could just start at the beginning if you’re enjoying her poetry!)

You can find out more about Elizabeth Carter:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Carter
(Wikipedia!!!)

(Another shockingly short biography for such an influential writer.  It does have all the main dates and events of her life, though, so a useful starting point at least)

(this page has a short bibliography of references to Carter in published

Saturday, 21 May 2016

'Death and the Doctor' - David Garrick

‘As Doctor ** musing sate,
Death saw, and came without delay:
Enters the room, begins the chat
With, “Doctor, why so thoughtful, pray?”’

‘Death and the Doctor’
David Garrick
(published 1763)

Even today, the name of David Garrick has a glamorous magic: perhaps the most famous actor of the eighteenth-century, the dramatic painting of him in the role of Richard III is for many (myself included) one of the great highlights of a visit to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.  As an actor, he was famed for the bewitching power of his voice, and his ability to portray a broad register of different emotions on-stage, but he was also a writer of both plays and poetry.  Sometimes the latter would take the form of poetic prologues or epilogues to be spoken before or after a theatrical performance by one of the actors in character.  Today’s offering is simply a standalone narrative, but it is also a splendid example of Garrick’s sly, witty brilliance.

The subtitle provides all the background the reader needs:  this is a defensive poem, ‘Occasioned by a Physician’s lampooning a Friend of the Author’.  If you’ve never encountered this term before, to lampoon is to ‘Publicly criticize (someone or something) by using ridicule, irony, or sarcasm’ (the definition is from Oxford Dictionaries, the free version!).  Call me a sentimentalist if you will, but I think it’s rather sweetly loyal of him to have gone to so much effort to support his friend as the construction of a whole poetic narrative!  Even the title is a bit of a clever put-down, since in saying ‘Death and the Doctor’ Garrick places gives Death the priority by placing it first in the sentence.  As the great Sir Ian McKellen said recently in a programme to celebrate 400 years of Shakespeare, who would want to play Romeo if the play was called ‘Juliet and Romeo’?

In the poem, the scene starts somewhat theatrically with the doctor sitting and thoughtfully ‘musing’; Death notices this, and hurries at once to investigate.  At first, the doctor is a bit startled (who wouldn’t be if the grim reaper suddenly appeared in the living room wanting a chat?).  He ‘started from his place’ in a manner that again seems to evoke the spirit of theatrical performance.  Perhaps more surprisingly, the pair soon ‘more familiar grew’ and fall into conversation about such a conventional everyday topic as the state of the Doctor’s practice.  Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think I’d feel comfortable talking shop with Death; yet in a sense this is a subtle way of beginning to discredit the anonymous Doctor, by suggesting he has a rather mercantile and desensitised personality.  A few minutes after meeting Death, the ultimate arch-enemy of humanity, he is gloomily complaining that ‘trade was low and friends were few’.

Death of course takes a rather more practical view.  ‘Away with fear’ he cries, advising the doctor to at once ‘mend [his] trade’ for, he says, ‘we both are losers if you fail’.  There is no indication that the Doctor sees anything odd about this statement, though the reader will notice the huge irony in the idea that a lack of business for a doctor would mean Death losing out on victims.  The business of Doctors should, after all, be to bring people back to health.  Though the joke about doctors killing off their patients was by no means new at this point, Garrick makes it fresh through the argument that follows.  For it is not through conventional medical treatment that Death suggests the Doctor would be able to furnish him with a steady supply of victims.  Rather, it is through the poisonous nature of his satirical scribbling.  ‘Go write’, suggests Death, disregarding the quality of such compositions as he claims that it is ‘No matter, whether smart, or true’. Advocating the dispersion of these writings among the doctor’s friends, Death suggests that this will inevitably make all readers ‘grow sick’ and dependent upon the doctor’s (somewhat dubious) services.  The final joke comes as Death claims that this will help them both, for this way he says ‘you are sure to have your fees, / And I am sure to have your friends.”’  Splendid, isn’t it?  Without directly insulting the doctor at all, Garrick neatly manages to completely demolish the physician’s whole credibility.  Whoever this man is, he is no longer to be regarded as a serious medical professional, but rather as a money-minded charlatan, ready to stoop to any low trick to conjure business for himself.  The true wit here is not the doctor with his character-assassinating writings, but Garrick. 
Happy reading!!

You can find this poem:
 
http://www.eighteenthcenturypoetry.org/works/o5154-w0530.shtml
(A wonderful new site loaded with free editions of obscure eighteenth-century verse.  Go on, you know you want to look…)

More about the lovely David Garrick:

(I didn’t want to reproduce this image directly in case of copyright issues, but do follow the link to the Walker Art Gallery website.  Hogarth’s ‘Garrick as Richard III’ is one of the iconic masterpieces of 18th century art, and an absolute must-see!! And while you’re at it, why not visit the Walker and come see all the other lovely 18th century paintings at one of the absolute best art galleries in the country?)

(Wikipedia, for details about this fascinating chap’s exciting life!)

(And to cross reference, why not check out Encyclopaedia Britannica?  This could be the most interesting thing you read all day!!)

(And if you’re really getting into this by this point, why not look at the info about him at the Twickenham Museum?  Looks like it could be a good day out folks…)

(Ok, by this point you’ve probably realised that Garrick is still quite a popular guy… If you want to get even more detail the links on this page are definitely for you!!)

http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history/people/david-garrick
(Fab image of, and info about, the memorial to Garrick in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey!)

Saturday, 14 May 2016

'A Description of a City Shower' - Jonathan Swift


‘Careful observers may foretell the hour
(By sure prognostics) when to dread a shower:
While rain depends, the pensive cat gives o’er
Her frolics, and pursues her tail no more.’

‘A Description of a City Shower’
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)
1710

Familiar to many as the author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift was in fact a writer of many and various talents.  It might be his tiny Lilliputian people that has secured him a place in popular culture, but in the realm of eighteenth-century literature Swift is an absolute giant.  A member of the Scriblerus Club, he was friends with some of the most influential writers and politicians of the early eighteenth century, including Alexander Pope, Dr. John Arbuthnot, Thomas Parnell, John Gay, and the Earl of Oxford, Robert Harley (who effectively headed Queen Anne’s government for a time). 

In this poem, Swift seems to be in one of his merrier moods.  Originally published in a periodical journal by Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, The Tatler (1709-1711), this is a poem about one of the simplest and most ordinary occurrences: a shower of rain in town.  It starts in a delightfully gloomy manner: ‘Careful observers may foretell the hour / (By sure prognostics) when to dread a shower’.  It’s so deliciously melodramatic, with its heightened sense of ‘dread’.  Then Swift details these ‘prognostics’, such as ‘the pensive cat’ who, with that innate sense animals seem to have of changes in the weather, has stopped playing and probably found somewhere cosy and sheltered to sit.  The ‘sink’ that is next alluded to refers to the local cesspool, which possibly smells stronger because of the increased humidity in the air.  Then comes the warning: ‘If you be wise, then go not far to dine; / You’ll spend in coach hire more than save in wine’.  This assumes of course that the most obvious reason for the reader to eat out is to dine at his friends’ expense; the threatening rain would negate this benefit because the mercenary diner would then have to pay to hire a coach home afterwards.  Next come more traditional signs of changing air pressure as ‘Old aches throb’.  The ‘Dulman’ seen sauntering in the coffeehouse is simply an instance of the splendid practise of naming a character after their character-type: ‘Dulman’ is exactly what he sounds like. 

The second section of the poem brings the approaching rain a step closer, as the personified ‘South’ comes sweeping in ‘with dabbled wings’.  It’s just typical Swift that after this beautiful image he brings the whole thing crashing back to earth again with the much less attractive image of the ‘sable cloud’ as a drunkard ‘That swilled more liquor than it could contain’ and yes, you guessed it, ‘gives it up again’.  Fortunately, we can hurry on swiftly (pun absolutely intended) to the image of the maid who ‘whips her linen from the rope’ as the rain finally arrives.  At the moment, it is only a slight shower, ‘Such is that sprinkling which some careless quean / Flirts on you from her mop, but not so clean’.  Here ‘quean’ also refers to a maid, here flicking dirt from a mop onto a passerby. Gritty realism continues as Swift describes the ‘dust’ and dirt from the street getting muddled with the rain.  Relating this in terms of a conflict, this dust ‘aided by the wind, fought still for life’ until ‘’Twas doubtful which was rain and which was dust’.  The hapless passerby is simply caught in the crossfire, whilst ‘dust and rain at once his coat invade’.  The practical effect of this is to ruin his only coat by leaving dirty stains. 

And now we really get to the rainstorm, ‘Now in contiguous drops the flood comes down’.  No place for understatement here, as the idea of the rain ‘Threatening with deluge this devoted town’ creates an impression of a downpour of Biblical proportions.  The humour is maximised by positioning this grandiose image just before the description of the ‘daggled females’ rushing into shops to hide from the rain (as they ‘Pretend to cheapen goods, but nothing buy’).  The ‘Templar spruce’ mentioned next is a similarly grand way of referring to a law student who, ‘while ev’ry spout’s abroach’ with rain water, lingers indoors, only ‘seem[ig] to call a coach’.  This series of wet-weather vignettes is continued with the depiction of a ‘sempstress’ hurrying along beneath the cover of an umbrella.  Elsewhere the rain serves to dissolve social boundaries as ‘various kinds, by various fortunes led, / Commence acquaintance underneath a shed’.  Here, members of the two opposing political parties of the time, Tories and Whigs, have ‘join[ed] to save their wigs’, the obvious satire being that, when both are threatened with the destruction of their fashionable gear in the rain, they are content to ‘Forget their feuds’ and share the shelter.  The ‘chair’ in which the ‘beau’ (fashion-conscious young man) sits is a Sedan chair, quite literally boxed in on every side and carried by two chairmen.  Inside, the beau can hear the ‘frightful din’ of the rain on the leather roof of his vehicle, and ‘he trembles from within’.  Once more, Swift splices the everyday with the epic, as he likens the chair-men to the Trojans, carrying the wooden horse loaded with Greek soldiers into Troy at the end of the Trojan War. 

In the last section, Swift builds rapidly to the climax.  The ‘kennels’ alluded to are not dog houses, but open gutters running down the street and which are now overloaded with rainwater.  Like most gutters, they are also the lowest level of the street to which all the rubbish has descended: the ‘trophies’ which are carried along in the water.  With grim fascination, Swift almost admiringly notes how the ‘Filth of all hues and odors seem to tell / What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell’.  It’s gritty, unpleasant reading, designed to make the reader wince after having laughed at the scurrying gentry in the previous section.  The sense of unity that was cultivated there is here compounded, as various locations are listed to convey the course of the ‘torrent’, including Smithfield, Snow Hill ridge and Holborn Bridge.  I’m not a native Londoner, but I imagine these locations would probably mean something to those who are (not that I’m casting any aspersions upon the condition of the gutters in any of these places which, I am sure, has been vastly improved since the early 1700s).  The final three lines delineate the precise nature of the rubbish that is being swept along and ‘come tumbling down the flood’. Apologies to dog and cat lovers: this poem is not for the faint-hearted.  In a version of the poem published in 1735 a note was added stating that ‘These three last lines were intended against that licentious manner of modern poets, in making three rhymes together, which they call triplets.[…] They were the mere effect of haste, idleness and want of money; and have been wholly avoided by the best poets, since these verses were written’.  Perhaps, then, we can forgive Swift these last few lines, if it was in fact a satire against inartistic poetry rather than a frankly indulgent exploration of eighteenth-century garbage.

Distasteful imagery aside, there’s an immediacy to this poem that is simply magic.  For rather than narrating an epic tale or a mythological story, Swift takes an everyday occurrence and transforms it into something special purely through the way in which he describes it.  Pure genius!

Happy reading!

You can find a copy of this poem:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/180932
(Free copy of the poem online!!)

(This is a lovely annotated edition of the poem, but I’m afraid I have no idea who did the annotations as I found the pdf through Google; hats off to them anyway, it’s a lovely edition of the poem!!  Information from this edition was also used in the composition of the above blogpost.)

You can find out more about Swift:
 
(this poem is so famous it even has its own Wikipedia page!)

(Britannica!! Like Wikipedia…only makes you sound ever so much more intellectual when you quote from it at parties and quizzes!)

Resources about Swift:

(This looks new and very exciting!!  Still seems to be a work in progress, but very much worth a look!! Go on, you know you want to…)

 

 

 

Sunday, 13 March 2016

'An Elegy, On the Glory of her Sex, Mrs. Mary Blaize' - Oliver Goldsmith

‘She strove the neighborhood to please
With manners wondrous winning;
And never follow'd wicked ways--
Unless when she was sinning.’

‘An Elegy, On the Glory of her Sex, Mrs. Mary Blaize’
Oliver Goldsmith
(1748)


Oliver Goldsmith was a bit of an all-rounder: a playwright (She Stoops to Conquer, 1771), novelist (The Vicar of Wakefield, 1766), and poet, he also compiled one of the first major scientific studies of the natural world in English, A History of the Earth and Animated Nature (1774).  This poem, however, sees him in a rather more playful mood.

Ostensibly this is an elegy, a sad, reflective poem dedicated to the memory of the eponymous Mrs. Mary Blaize (‘eponymous’ is the correct way to refer to a character named in the title; some people use ‘titular’, but this is not quite the same thing).  It begins with a proclamation of sorrow – ‘Good people all, with one accord, / Lament for Madam Blaize’.  The next two lines are a little strange but no more than confusing at this point: ‘Who never wanted a good word - / From those who spoke her praise’.  It seems like a compliment…except that it’s also a rather meaningless statement.  All it translates to is that anybody who praised Mrs. Blaize…well, they said nice things about her!  It doesn’t actually tell the reader whether anyone did praise her though.

This clever wordplay becomes still more apparent in the next stanza.  Here it is proudly asserted that ‘She freely lent to all the poor – ’; but after the dash, the final qualifying line rather diminishes the compliment since it reveals that she only lent to those of the poor ‘Who left a pledge behind’.  A pledge in this sense means some form of security that they would repay, though whether this is intended to mean simply a promise or to indicate some more practical form of security is left to the generosity of the reader’s interpretation.

My own personal favourite stanza is the next one, in which the pattern of this poem becomes still more obvious through the declaration that the deceased Mrs. Blaize ‘never follow’d wicked ways - / Unless when she was sinning’.  It is a pattern of continual assertion and contradiction, all combining to construct an elegiac tribute that actually reveals remarkably little about the deceased subject.  Even the apparent claim that she received the admiration of the King, when it is said that ‘The King himself has follow’d her’ is undone by somewhat more prosaic explanation that he only does so ‘When she has walk’d before’ him in the street.



He might not look a cheerful chap, but he's a total
genius! This painting of Goldsmith is by Sir Joshua
Reynolds and is, er, borrowed, from the mighty
Wikipedia - for which, many thanks!
The poem’s appeal as a comedic novelty is owing entirely to the matter-of-fact way in which the information is presented.  It isn’t trying to be insulting or nasty.  There may perhaps be a slight satiric edge implied by the adulation of the title, since the admiring declaration that Mrs. Blaize was 'the Glory of her Sex' receives no support from the fatuous and superficial praise offered in the poem.  The satire is more against the convention of proclaiming empty or senseless compliments upon the recently deceased and, certainly by eighteenth-century standards, it is only ever the lightest of satires.  Included in A Nonsense Anthology, edited by Carolyn Wells in 1915, this poem is easily identified as a simple nonsense work, since there seems no point to the poem.  However, it is definitely not ‘nonsense’ in the sense that something like Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ is nonsense (a poem also included in the same anthology).  Goldsmith’s ‘An Elegy on the Glory of Her Sex, Mrs. Mary Blaize’ is a simple poem, achieving humour through the blunt presentation of statements so true that nobody but a comedian would think of saying them.  As always, Goldsmith proves himself to be a consummate literary genius.


You can find this poem:

(Poetry Archive – an exciting website I’ve only recently discovered – definitely worth having an explore!)

(Project Gutenberg is an absolutely fantastic free collection of 51,368 ebooks.  If you follow this link, it will take you to an illustrated edition of Goldsmith’s ‘Elegy’, published in the nineteenth century by Frederick Warne & Co., the same publisher who brought to the world Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit and Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies)
 
You can find out more about Oliver Goldsmith:

(Wikipedia! A great place to start finding out about this clever chap!)

(Encyclopædia Britannica – a bit like Wikipedia, only a bit more sophisticated.  This also has links to articles about some of Goldsmith’s other works!)

Information for this blogpost was discovered in:

Glynis Ridley, Clara’s Grand Tour (London: Atlantic Books, 2004)
(This book is about the first rhinoceros to make a grand tour of Europe, way back in the eighteenth century…and yes, it is every bit as awesome as it sounds!  This book really drew my attention to the connection between Goldsmith and Natural History – I already knew he was a literary genius, but this revealed to me how brilliant a scientific mind he had too!  Seriously, check this book out!!)

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

'To Memory' - Elizabeth Singer Rowe


To Memory
 
   Best Gift that Heav’n’s Indulgence could bestow!
To Thee our surest Happiness we owe;
Thou all the flying Pleasures dost restore,
Which but for Thee, blest MEM’RY! were no more;
For we no sooner grasp some frail Delight,
But ready for its everlasting Flight,
E’er we can call the hasty Bliss our own,
If not retain’d by Thee, it is for ever gone.
Thou to the kind successful Lover’s Heart,
A Thousand melting Raptures dost impart,
When yet more lovely than herself, and kind,
Thou bring’st his fancy’d Mistress to his Mind
The flatt’ring Image wears a livelier Grace,
A softer Mien, and more inticing Face.
   Thou from the flying Minutes dost retrieve,
The Joys CLORINDA’s Wit and Beauty give;
Those Joys which I had once possess’d in vain,
Did not the dear Remembrance still remain,
Methinks she speaks, and all my Soul inspires,
Brightens each Thought, and gives my Muse new Fires;
‘Tis she who lends my daring Fancy Wings,
Softens my Lyre, and tunes its warbling Strings.
   Thou only to the Guilty art severe,
Who the Review of their past Actions fear;
But to the Innocent and Virtuous Mind,
Art still propitious, smiling still, and kind,
To Thee we all those charming Pleasures owe,
The Pleasures which from gen’rous Actions flow,
They’re still the Noblest we possess below.  

Elizabeth Singer Rowe
(published in 1737 in Philomela: or, poems by Mrs. Elizabeth Singer, (Now Rowe,) Of Frome in Somersetshire.)

My first introduction to Elizabeth Rowe occurred only recently, whilst sharing a train carriage with Jessica Clement, a PhD student at the University of York whose thesis focuses upon Rowe’s poetry.  Her enthusiasm was extremely contagious, & I couldn’t wait to get hold of some of Rowe’s poetry to read it for myself; when I did, I wasn’t disappointed!
 
Simple, elegant, and often highly poignant, Rowe’s poetry certainly deserves more attention than has traditionally been given to it.  Musing upon the abstract concept of memory in the poem above (for once reproduced in its entirety owing to the almost impossibility of finding a reliable copy online), Rowe delicately yet powerfully points out the sheer wonderment of this attribute that so many of us are so used to taking for granted.

Beginning by praising heaven for this ‘Best gift’, Rowe then notes the ability of remembrance to preserve the ‘flying Pleasures […] / Which but for Thee, blest MEM’RY! were no more’.  She then proceeds to provide examples of the usefulness and worth of memory, presenting her reader with the image of the lover who is able to use memory to bring ‘his fancy’d Mistress to his Mind’; that he furnishes her with ‘a livelier Grace, / A softer Mien, and more inticing Face’ in the process is simply an added bonus, and also a sly reference to the fallibility of remembrance and the way in which it may appear altered through the distorting lens of the rememberer’s own perspective.

Reference is then made to ‘Clorinda’, presumably a friend (or perhaps a classical pseudonym for a friend’s name) who would appear to have died.  The ‘Joys’ of her friendship, Rowe notes, would have been ‘possess’d in vain’ were it not for the fact that she can still remember them and thus receive both pleasure and instruction from her friend even after death.  It is the remembrance of this friendship that also provides Rowe with creative inspiration now, as she writes that the memory of her friend ‘lends my daring Fancy Wings’. 

Completing her survey of memory, Rowe then turns to those who might not find remembrance such a pleasurable experience.  Personifying memory with the pronoun ‘Thou’, she states that ‘Thou only to the Guilty art severe, / Who the Review of their past Actions fear’; that this is morally just is emphasised by her subsequent return to ‘the Innocent and Virtuous Mind’ to whom Memory is ‘still propitious, smiling still, and kind’.

A Note About the Text

The transcription of the poem ‘To Memory’ was taken from the Eighteenth-Century Collections Online digital copy of Elizabeth Singer Rowe’s poems printed in 1737.  I hope that its inclusion here will persuade others to uncover more about this fascinating poet, and to subscribe to what is undisputedly the best digital resource for the study of eighteenth-century literature, the Eighteenth-Century Collections Online database.

You can find out more about Elizabeth Singer Rowe:

(Wikipedia! A useful means of finding information about a writer who currently doesn’t seem to have an entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica online.  Wikipedia certainly has its uses…)

Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)
(Yep, this one again – includes a nice little bit about Rowe’s life as well as a few more of her poems)

Saturday, 30 January 2016

'On Viewing Herself in the Glass' - Elizabeth Teft

“Was Nature angry when she formed my clay?
Or, urged by haste to finish, could not stay?
Or dressed with all her store some perfect she,
So lavish there, she’d none to spare for me?”

'On Viewing Herself in the Glass'
Elizabeth Teft
(1747)

It’s not a new thing, the experience of looking in a mirror and feeling somewhat dissatisfied with the view.  But in this wonderful mid-eighteenth-century sonnet, Elizabeth Teft succinctly constructs the perfect self-affirming response. 

It all begins with a blunt rhetorical question (that’s a question addressed to nobody, just like when you talk to your mirror in the morning): ‘Was Nature angry when she formed my clay?’  Basically, she’s trying to think of some reason why she doesn’t look as great as she’d like.  I especially enjoy the image of a kind of pre-life production line, with ‘Nature’ personified as some kind of creative artist who, having ‘dressed with all her store some perfect she’, has nothing pretty left in her workshop to give to the poet. 

There is an attempt at indifferent impartiality in the next line – ‘I oft converse with those she’s deemed to grace’ – or is she just being ever so slightly bitchy there?  Nature has, after all, only been ‘deemed to grace’ these women ‘With air and shape, fine mien, and charming face’.  The mirror, or glass, is personified here as it is able to hear these women address their own reflections with the rather affected exclamation that they are ‘strange, unpolished thing[s]’.  The poet is restrained though – she never ‘once upraid[s]’ because (here comes the slightly catty part again folks) ‘Conscious I am that transient charms will fade’.  In all fairness, though, she does allow that their ‘beauty gives delight’ and that it is ‘wond’rous pleasing to the sight’. 

Ultimately, the final couplet makes up for any peevish envy.  Since her looks are ‘defective’, she prays, please ‘Heaven, be so kind / With never-fading charms to dress my mind’.  And this is really what makes this such a perfect poem, as the poet accepts that even if she was beautiful it wouldn’t last forever, and through that acceptance learns to seek the higher and much more important goal of beautifying her mind.  In the tradition of sonnets, there is usually a change of tone after either the eighth or the twelfth line (technically known as the volta).  Here, the definite change before the final couplet becomes also a question of shifting the discussion from women’s bodies to a woman’s own individual journey to improve her mind.  Timeless, isn’t it?

You can read this poem:

(Poetry Nook – a nice, free, online source of poetry.  Here’s where to start if you want to get reading this poem real fast!  This site also features some of Teft’s other poetry, all well worth a read!)

(You can read two of Elizabeth Teft’s other poems here, though not the one the blog post is about)

Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)
(available from numerous book shops online and on the high street: an truly masterful volume! Difficult to say how much I enjoy this book… ) 

About Elizabeth Teft

I was going to put a bit of biographical info here, but sadly, as Roger Lonsdale writes, ‘Little is known of “Elizabeth Teft of Lincoln’, except that she published Orinthia’s Miscellanies in London in 1747’.  But hey, that’s what researchers are for!  Maybe one day more information will be uncovered about this talented writer.

Monday, 18 January 2016

'A Night-Piece on Death' - Thomas Parnell


‘How deep yon azure dyes the sky,
Where orbs of gold unnumbered lie,
While through their ranks in silver pride
The nether crescent seems to glide.
The slumb’ring breeze forgets to breathe,
The lake is smooth and clear beneath,
Where once again the spangled show
Descends to meet our eyes below.’
(lines 9-16)
 
A Night-Piece on Death
Thomas Parnell (1679-1718)
(published 1722)
 
Surely the eighteenth century was the great age for poetic descriptions of landscape: in just a few lines Thomas Parnell captures his reader and takes them out by the hand to wander through a cool, still night.  This is not a long poem, but it has a lot to say.  It also has a lot of really splendid images: when he begins by describing ‘the blue taper’s trembling light’ (line 1), for example, we can instantly see inside his cosy little study, and see the frail quiver of the candle flame.  Parnell writes that ‘No more I waste the wakeful night’ (line 2), and he doesn’t waste words either. 
 
The poem starts off late at night in a study; the poet has been reading the works of ‘The schoolmen and the sages’ (line 4), trying to find the path to wisdom.  But ‘at best’, he decides, such books can only ‘point […] the longest way’ (line 6).  The real way to understand the world here ‘below’ the heavens, is to go outside and experience it first hand: ‘How deep yon azure dyes the sky, / Where orbs of gold unnumbered lie’ (lines 9-10).  Beautiful, isn’t it?
 
Thomas Parnell.  Image courtesy of
Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Then as he walks he sees ‘a place of graves’ (line 19), and gently the poem grows more solemn.  Another subtle shift here is that the poem suddenly begins to address the reader (or, to use the jargon, talking in the second person):
 
‘There pass, with melancholy state,
By all the solemn heaps of fate,
And think, as softly-sad you tread
Above the venerable dead,
“Time was, like thee they life possessed,
And time shall be, that thou shalt rest.”’
(lines 23-28)
 
Ok, so it sounds a little gloomy perhaps; but it’s also a fair point.  It’s also interesting that Parnell is now addressing his reader directly.  Somewhat paradoxically, he has now become like the ‘schoolmen and sages’ whose books he had been reading, as he now begins to write about the knowledge and wisdom he has gained through his midnight ramblings.  (Needless to say, late-night wanderings around graveyards are NOT recommended for today’s readers!)
 
To Parnell, the graves are a symbol of labour at rest.  Once again his delightful turn of phrase produces such poignant images as ‘The flat smooth stones that bear a name, / The chisel’s slender help to fame’ (lines 33-34).  As is frequently the case with graveyard poetry in the eighteenth-century, the emphasis is firmly upon death as a social leveller – in this graveyard are the poor, the ‘middle race of mortals’, and those who ‘in vaulted arches lie’ (lines 37 & .  40). The rich and great might try to preserve their fame after death through elaborate tombs, but as Parnell neatly notes they are those ‘Who, while on earth in fame they live, / Are senseless of the fame they give’ (lines 45-6).  The ‘they’ in the second line here refers to the ‘Arms, angels, epitaphs and bones’ (line 43) that adorn the graves of the rich.  In other words, while alive, these people paid little or no attention to the fame of their ancestors, proclaimed in the same manner in which they themselves have since attempted to proclaim theirs.  It’s a bit of a sweeping swipe at the aristocracy, but all the same rather cleverly put.
 
Then things get a bit more spooky, as he imagines the ghosts rising up from their graves as ‘pale Cynthia fades’ (line 47); Cynthia here refers to the moon, via Greek mythology.  The poet hears ‘a voice begin’ (line 55), and the lines between imagination and the supernatural become delightfully blurred.  The voice is that of Death, the ‘King of Fears’ (line 62), but the words he speaks are rather less terrifying than might be expected.  According to this voice, ‘Death’s but a path that must be trod, / If man would ever pass to God’ (lines 67-8).  Mocking the traditional eighteenth-century funeral fare of ‘flowing sable stoles, / Deep pendant cypress, mourning poles’ (lines 71-2) and so on, the voice then proceeds to paint a rather cheery picture of death that draws upon Christian religious belief in rebirth and resurrection.  Accordingly, the voice suggests that life is like a long prison sentence from which worthy souls may ‘Spring forth to greet the glitt’ring sun’ after death, and ultimately ‘mingle with the blaze of day’ (lines 82 & 90).  Certainly a very upbeat ending for a poem that is, essentially, all about death!
 
Thomas Parnell (1679-1718)
 Thomas Parnell was ordained as a deacon in 1700, and installed as a minor canon of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin in 1704, so perhaps it is not surprising that his poem takes religious belief as its centrepoint.  At St Patrick’s, Parnell met Jonathan Swift, and both men were later members of the informal social grouping known today in academic circles as the Scriblerus Club.  Although this grouping included some of the most acclaimed literary figures of the early eighteenth-century (such as Alexander Pope and John Gay), Parnell’s poetry was not published until 1722, four years after his death.
 
If you want to find out more about Thomas Parnell:
(Encyclopaedia Britannica – a bit like Wikipedia, but sounds more intellectual!)
 
You can find this poem:
(Can’t wait to start reading?  Know how you feel… Check out this free copy online at the Poetry Foundation!)
 
(English Poetry 1579-1830: a fascinating database of poetry with a healthy smattering of notes and commentary.  Compiled by David Hill Radcliffe, Virginia Tech.  Great stuff!!)
 
David Fairer & Christine Gerrard (eds), Eighteenth-Century Poetry: An Annotated Anthology 3rd ed. (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2015)  pp. 66-67.
(Want a copy you can hold in your hand?  This anthology has this poem and loads more inside! It’s often used as a student text, so check for second-hand copies on eBay or similar before purchasing if you’re shopping on a budget!)
 
Information for this blogpost came from the following source:
Bryan Coleborne, ‘Parnell, Thomas (1679-1718), poet and essayist’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/21390> [accessed 18 Jan 2016]
(If you are fortunate enough to have a subscription to this database, or to study at an institution that does, do have a read: it’s a fascinating little article!)
 

Thursday, 12 November 2015

'An Old Cat's Dying Soliloquy' - Anna Seward

‘O'er marum borders and valerian bed
Thy Selima shall bend her moping head,
Sigh that no more she climbs, with grateful glee,
Thy downy sofa and thy cradling knee;
Nay, e'en at founts of cream shall sullen swear,
Since thou, her more loved master, art not there.’

(lines 39-44)

An Old Cat’s Dying Soliloquy
Anna Seward
(1792)

If you like cats, and if you have a favourite feline, you will probably want to give it a hug after reading this poem.  Not that it is as morbid as the title implies; in fact, it is really quite sentimental.  In its simplest terms, this is a poem about the affection between a cat and its owner. 

The poem is narrated from the perspective of the cat, who has lived for years in the home of her owner, Acasto.  The narration then gets distracted a little as the cat spends time describing herself, demonstrating typically feline self-appreciation through her claim to being ‘The gentlest, fondest of the tabby race’, with ‘The snowy whisker and the sinuous tail’ (lines 2 & 8).  Yet this immodesty is tempered by the cat’s subsequent acknowledgement of her own limitations – ‘pain has stiffened these once supple limbs’ (line 10).  The cat feels old, and that she has almost run out of her lives: ‘Fate of eight lives the forfeit gasp obtains, / And e'en the ninth creeps languid through my veins’ (lines 11-12).  Yet still the cat feels her future has ‘Much sure of good […] in store’ (line 13), when she finishes the last of her lives and floats off to cat-heaven. 

In the cat’s imagination, heaven is a place ‘where the fish obligingly lie on the shore and birds have no wings’, as Katherine Rogers so succinctly puts it (p. 89).  If you were just beginning to feel a bit tearful over the ailing cat, this wonderful piece of humor should give you a much-needed lift; personally, the only cats I have ever known have been quite attached to the occupation of hunting, and would probably be quite sad to have the whole thing made so easy and effortless.  Fortunately, this cat at least seems rather keen on the idea; yet still she wants ‘Some days, some few short days, to linger here’ (line 30).  And this is where the really sweet part comes, because the reason for wanting to linger is so that, through the ‘softest purrs’ (line 32) she can try to convey to her owner the simple truth that heaven would not be perfect without him.  Preferring the scraps of food from her masters’s table to the beautiful ‘golden fish and wingless bird’ of heaven (line 38), she wants somehow to let him know that, even in heaven, ‘Thy Selima shall bend her moping head, / […] / Since thou, her more loved master, are not there’ (lines 40 & 45).

If you have a cat, you will probably want to give it a hug now. 

Happy reading!

You can find this poem:-

http://www.poetrynook.com/poem/old-cats-dying-soliloquy
(free online copy of the poem!! Purrfect to get reading right away!!)

Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 319-20.
(yes, I’m going on about this one again…but it really is a very fascinating book!!  Perhaps this is a good time to mention that I’m really not on commission…)

You can find out more about Anna Seward here:-
 
(this is a shockingly short entry, but still conveys something of her life)

The following book was used in this blogpost:-

Katherine M. Rogers, The Cat and the Human Imagination: Feline Images from Bast to Garfield (University of Michigan Press, 2001)

Sunday, 18 October 2015

'An Unanswerable Apology for the Rich' - Mary Barber

‘His income’s regularly spent,
He scarcely saves to pay his rent.
No man alive would do more good,
Or give more freely, if he could.
He grieves, whene’er the wretched sue,
But what can poor Castalio do?’

‘An Unanswerable Apology for the Rich’
Mary Barber
(1734)

Looks serious, doesn’t it?  ‘He scarcely saves to pay his rent’ (line 36).  Poor Castalio, you might think.  But don’t forget the title; the title gives a huge clue about how this poem is actually meant to be read.

Mary Barber began writing poetry as a way of educating her four children ‘by making precepts easier to memorize’ (Lonsdale, p. 118), and the integral purpose of this verse seems to be to explain how a wealthy man might believe he has no spare income to devote to charity.  The ironical approach of the poem lends a humorous touch that makes it enormously memorable, and indeed it is a beautiful example of eighteenth-century satirical social comment.

Throughout the poem, the whole situation is presented from the perspective of our wealthy hero, Castalio (I’m using the term hero very loosely here…).  He is praying, imploring heaven to make it possible for him to ‘have the power to bless, / And raise up merit in distress?’ (lines 3-4).  In other words, he wants to be able to spread his bounty amongst the deserving poor, the ones whose ‘merit’ deserves raising above the level of ‘distress[ing]’ poverty.  So far so good.  He seems a fair, moral sort of chap, eh?

The next line is key to the educational value of the poem – ‘How do our hearts deceive us here!’ (line 5). Immediately, the plural pronoun ‘our’ includes everyone involved in this poem within its moral compass: Castalio, the writer of the poem, and most importantly the reader. 

‘How do our hearts deceive us here!
He gets ten thousand pounds a year.’ (lines 5-6)

For anyone unacquainted with the glittering merits of ten thousand pounds a year in the eighteenth century, suffice to say that it was a fantastic heap of cash!  If you are familiar with Jane Austen’s novels, then you might remember that this is the level of income enjoyed by her extremely eligible hero Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.  Our Castalio is therefore being placed firmly within the ranks of the landed gentry.  To imagine that he has no spare income with which to fulfil his wish of alleviating the sufferings of the poor is, frankly, ludicrous.  How can he so deceive himself? the poem asks.

The answer is simple of course: ‘one must live as others do’ (line 15).  Castalio is a hypocrite; yet again there is a very strong sense here that he is not alone.  He is spending his income in a way that is entirely consistent with the way in which his contemporaries are spending theirs.  There are certain luxuries that it is simply expected for a member of the gentry to have, such as ‘A coach-and-six to take the air, / Besides a chariot and chair’ (lines 31-2).  (The ‘chair’ most probably referring to a sedan chair; if you’ve never seen one, it’s basically a small portable chair, boxed in on all sides and designed to be carried by two servants).  Once again, the point is underlined: these are ‘Calls of necessity, not pride’ (line 34): in other words, these are not extravagant luxuries, but things that every respectable gentleman is supposed to have. 

But the final couplet dispels any shred of sympathy that we might still have had for 'poor' Castalio:
 
‘Would Heaven but send ten thousand more,
He’d give – just as he did before.’ (lines 41-2)

That is, not at all.  What Castalio is doing is making excuses for himself; what Mary Barber has done in her poem is to take us inside Castalio’s mind, to show us how he has constructed those excuses.  The reader is ultimately allowed to laugh with Barber at Castalio’s absurd self-delusion…to laugh but then afterwards to reflect.  For had she not been writing about how ‘our hearts deceive us here’?

This is such an intriguing poem, one that makes genuine excuses for morally questionable behaviour, but which also peels aside those excuses to examine the complacent hypocrisy that lies behind.  This is a poem which does not so much satirise an individual, but rather human weakness itself.

Happy reading!!!

You can find this poem:
http://www.eighteenthcenturypoetry.org/works/pba35-w0070.shtml
(a handy free version of the poem!  Useful for those who can’t wait to get reading…)

Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990) pp. 121-2
(available from numerous book shops online and on the high street: an excellent volume!!  Beautifully edited, with brief bios of all the writers included!) 

I've uploaded a reading of this poem on youtube.  It's not perfect (technical limitations!) but hopefully good fun!


You can find out more about Mary Barber:

(Wikipedia!! On this occasion the only useful online resource I could actually find.  If any literary academics are reading this, please feel free to contribute more resources if you know of any!
Lonsdale’s book is also, as mentioned above, an exceedingly valuable resource in this regard.)

Information for compiling this blogpost was taken from:

Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)

Sunday, 4 October 2015

'To Autumn' - John Keats


‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;’
(lines 1-4)
 
‘To Autumn’
John Keats
(written 1819)
 
It’s a poem often quoted around this time of year, and it’s not hard to see why.  Right from its first few lines, Keats’ glorious ode ‘To Autumn’ epitomises everything that is so wonderful about the season, not just the misty days and glowing fruit but also the sense of warm friendship inherent in the cultivation and distribution of harvest bounty. 
 
The poem is divided into three stanzas (posh term for ‘verses’), and, to me, this has always seemed to reflect the three distinct phases through which a British autumn appears to pass.  First there is the abundance of life, the almost celebratory culmination of the year’s growth, exemplified here through the sun ‘budding more, / And still more, later flowers for the bees, / Until they think warm days will never cease’ (lines 8-10). 
 
Just because I thought this needed some autumn leaves...
Photo taken at Ness Gardens, 21/9/2013, © C.J. Readioff
In the second stanza, it is the drowsy rest after activity that is depicted and celebrated.  When I first read this poem (many years ago now!), this section actually rather confused me, but the clue is in the opening rhetorical question: ‘Who hath not seen thee oft amidst thy store?’ (line 12).  The ‘thee’ here addresses autumn as if it were an individual capable of joining in a conversation; yet this also slides neatly into the next ‘thee’ which refers to a farm worker ‘sitting careless on a granary floor’ (line 14), exhausted after bringing in the harvest.  Essentially, what Keats is suggesting is that the spirit of autumn is embodied and personified by characters such as the tired harvester lying ‘on a half-reaped furrow, sound asleep’ (line 16).
 
The final stanza shifts the tone still further.  This is the end of autumn now, and there is a definite sense that winter is just around the corner.  The images created now are bleaker, as ‘full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn’, and the ‘gathering swallows twitter in the skies’, ready for their seasonal migration to sunnier climbs (lines 30 & 33).  Indeed, it is perhaps this sense of departure more than anything else that contributes towards the commonly held view that this poem is, at least to some extent a metaphor for the progression of life.  The Encyclopaedia Britannica entry claims that ‘the question of transience is hardly raised’, yet for me it is actually the transience of life and the unstoppable continuum of the seasons which Keats celebrates here.  The sense of passing time is subtle, but it is there.  The bees ‘think warm days will never cease’; it is the poignantly reflective ‘think’ that is important here.  This transience is not necessarily a bad thing however, as he writes: ‘Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they? / Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,-’ (lines 23-4).
 
To me, this is one of the most beautiful and perfect poems in the English language.  Autumn has always been my favorite season – a time of new beginnings (academically speaking), and of plotting new projects for the winter, a time of cosying into warm woolly jumpers and of crunching through heaps of brown-gold leaves.  The beauty of Keats’ poem is that it remains understated, and thus simply yet powerfully creates a succession of images that effectively   encapsulate the natural environment of the season, and thus everything that really makes autumn. 
 
You can find this poem: -
 
(a free online version of the text at Poetry Foundation!)
 
(an Oxford World’s Classics anthology of some of Keats’ best loved poetry; if, like me, you don’t want to stop at Autumn, this is the book for you!)
 
N.B. ‘To Autumn’ is a poem of such profound fame that it is frequently reproduced in popular poetry anthologies.  If you have any collections of ‘nation’s best-loved poems’ lurking on your bookshelves, have a root around: you’ll probably find this one tucked away somewhere!
 
You can find out more about Keats:
 
(Wikipedia!!!)
 
(a fascinating biography of Keats’ sadly short life; Encyclopaedia Britannica looks a lot like Wikipedia in layout, but is more accurate, and also sounds more intellectual in dinner conversation!)
 
(the website of the house in Rome where Keats died in 1821, which is now a museum; if you are lucky enough to be going to Rome anytime soon, this looks as if it would be very much worth having a look at)
 
(the website of the Keats-Shelley association)