“The poet’s business is not to save the soul of man but to make it worth saving.”
Sometimes, I plan poetry posts well in advance. This isn’t one of those.
This is a post about one of the ways I find poetry . . . or vice versa.
On my way to lunch Monday, I grabbed a Kerry Greenwood mystery off the shelf for companionship. It was a Phryne Fisher, Queen of the Flowers, set about ten books ahead of where I’m currently in the series. I didn’t care—there were a few characters I didn’t know, yet, but Ms. Greenwood’s talent is such that when she drops you into something, you stay dropped for the duration and then go back happily to fill it all in, so it didn’t really matter.
What did matter was the poem fragments she also dropped into the last half of the book:
We who with songs beguile your pilgrimage
And swear that Beauty lives though lilies die,
We Poets of the proud old lineage
Who sing to find your hearts, we know not why, –
What shall we tell you? Tales, marvelous tales
Of ships and stars and isles where good men rest,
Where nevermore the rose of sunset pales,
And winds and shadows fall towards the West:
And there the world’s first huge white-bearded kings
In dim glades sleeping, murmur in their sleep,
And closer round their breasts the ivy clings,
Cutting its pathway slow and red and deep.
And how beguile you? Death has no repose
Warmer and deeper than the Orient sand
Which hides the beauty and bright faith of those
Who make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.
And now they wait and whiten peaceably,
Those conquerors, those poets, those so fair:
They know time comes, not only you and I,
But the whole world shall whiten, here or there;
When those long caravans that cross the plain
With dauntless feet and sound of silver bells
Put forth no more for glory or for gain,
Take no more solace from the palm-girt wells.
When the great markets by the sea shut fast
All that calm Sunday that goes on and on:
When even lovers find their peace at last,
And Earth is but a star, that once had shone.
The main character was told that the poem was called “The Golden Journey to Samarkand”* and I immediately decided I wanted to know who wrote it and what else he’d done—even before I found out who had kidnapped the missing girl.
Most of you who live on the other side of the Atlantic just said, yeah, that’s James Elroy Flecker, famous guy, quoted all over the place, where have you been? Clearly, I’ve been on this side of the Atlantic, though that’s probably not much of an excuse, considering how badly I’ve hidden my Anglophilia.**
I really don’t know how I missed him, but I did, and I’m trying to make up for lost time.
Y’all are perfectly capable of googling the man and I couldn’t do much more in a day and a half—or not in the day and a half I just had—so I won’t bother with a bio, except to say that a lot of very good poets have died far too soon, and seem unusually susceptible to respiratory disease.***
I’m not doing any kind of in-depth analysis, either, since I haven’t had more than a taste or two of his stuff, but a lot of it seems to have a sort of Oh, yeah? tone to it, a kind of manly defiance that reminds me a bit of Ernest Hemingway, for some reason:
Don Juan in Hell
(James Elroy Flecker)
The night Don Juan came to pay his fees
To Charon, by the caverned water’s shore,
A beggar, proud-eyed as Antisthenes,
Stretched out his knotted fingers on the oar.
Mournful, with drooping breasts and robes unsewn
The shapes of women swayed in ebon skies,
Trailing behind him with a restless moan
Like cattle herded for a sacrifice.
Here, grinning for his wage, stood Sganarelle,
And here Don Luis pointed, bent and dim,
To show the dead who lined the holes of Hell,
This was that impious son who mocked at him.
The hollow-eyed, the chaste Elvira came,
Trembling and veiled, to view her traitor spouse.
Was it one last bright smile she thought to claim,
Such as made sweet the morning of his vows?
A great stone man rose like a tower on board,
Stood at the helm and cleft the flood profound:
But the calm hero, leaning on his sword,
Gazed back, and would not offer one look round.
Mr. Flecker seems to have had an aversion to the idea of growing old and—he assumes—complacently useless. He also sports a few cynical opinions about the longevity of love once the bloom is off the rose.
(James Elroy Flecker)
I had a friend who battled for the truth
With stubborn heart and obstinate despair,
Till all his beauty left him, and his youth,
And there were few to love him anywhere.
Then would he wander out among the graves,
And think of dead men lying in a row;
Or, standing on a cliff observe the waves,
And hear the wistful sound of winds below;
And yet they told him nothing. So he sought
The twittering forest at the break of day,
Or on fantastic mountains shaped a thought
As lofty and impenitent as they.
And next he went in wonder through a town
Slowly by day and hurriedly by night,
And watched men walking up the street and down
With timorous and terrible delight.
Weary, he drew man’s wisdom from a book,
And pondered on the high words spoken of old,
Pacing a lamplit room: but soon forsook
The golden sentences that left him cold.
After, a woman found him, and his head
Lay on her breast, till he forgot his pain
In gentle kisses on a midnight bed,
And welcomed royal-winged joy again.
When love became a loathing, as it must,
He knew not where to turn; and he was wise,
Being now old, to sink among the dust,
And rest his rebel heart, and close his eyes.
Yeah, he had me until that last paragraph. It would have been interesting to see if Mr. Flecker might have changed his mind, had he lived past thirty.^
But then, just when I’m shrugging, he turns around and does something like this:^^
(James Elroy Flecker)
When the words rustle no more,
And the last work’s done,
When the bolt lies deep in the door,
And Fire, our Sun,
Falls on the dark-laned meadows of the floor;
When from the clock’s last time to the next chime
Silence beats his drum,
And Space with gaunt grey eyes and her brother Time
Wheeling and whispering come,
She with the mould of form and he with the loom of rhyme,
Then twittering out in the night my thought-birds flee,
I am emptied of all my dreams:
I only hear Earth turning, only see
Ether’s long bankless streams,
And only know I should drown if you
Laid not your hand on me.
And this one, which is apparently quoted everywhere I haven’t been looking:
To A Poet A Thousand Years Hence
(James Elroy Flecker)
I who am dead a thousand years,
And wrote this sweet archaic song,
Send you my words for messengers
The way I shall not pass along.
I care not if you bridge the seas,
Or ride secure the cruel sky,
Or build consummate palaces
Of metal or of masonry.
But have you wine and music still,
And statues and a bright-eyed love,
And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
And prayers to them who sit above?
How shall we conquer? Like a wind
That falls at eve our fancies blow,
And old Mæonides the blind
Said it three thousand years ago.
O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young.
Since I can never see your face,
And never shake you by the hand,
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you. You will understand.
Hang on for a second, I’m reading these last two again. Slowly . . .
It’s no wonder the man has the reputation I didn’t know he had—or that the quote at the top of this post belongs to him.
I’m like a kid in an electronics store over this man. And I would have missed him—or delayed our meeting—if I hadn’t snagged a random mystery^^^ off a shelf two days ago.
Poetry is found by serendipity, y’all.
I’m off to read more. You?
*Ms. Greenwood used the Prologue—the rest of the work seems to be a play in verse and might generate its own post later.
**If you’re snickering, it doesn’t mean what you think it means. And I’m not the Royals Rule! Kind of Anglophile, either—I’m more of a literary fangirl and BBC worshipper . . .
***1915 also appears to have been particularly dangerous for them as well, even if they didn’t go to war. Mr. Fletcher and Rupert Brooke in the same year? Yeesh.
^Not that he couldn’t be romantic and even a bit erotic in the longing, I think, but so far, he’s still tacking on those last lines that make me sigh in the wrong way:
We That Were Friends
(James Elroy Flecker)
We that were friends to-night have found
A sudden fear, a secret flame:
I am on fire with that soft sound
You make, in uttering my name.
Forgive a young and boastful man
Whom dreams delight and passions please,
And love me as great women can
Who have no children at their knees.
^^Lyra, I immediately thought of your last post when I saw this, but selfishly kept it for myself.
^^^If not a random author—Kerry Greenwood is good.