How poetry works: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73

Many rank this as Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet. It is certainly a masterpiece of imagery and sentiment as well as demonstrating Shakespeare’s complete mastery of the Sonnet form. Here it is in the original as published in quarto format by Thomas Thorpe in 1609, no doubt without the author’s permission. This was private writing not meant for public consumption.

sonnet-73

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

This is the English sonnet, as distinct from the Italian (or Petrarchan) Sonnet or the Spenserian Sonnet. The English sonnet has the simplest form consisting of 3 quatrains (sets of four lines) of alternating rhyme and a couplet (two lines) at the end. Sonnet 73 is a brilliant example of the way Shakespeare exploits this form and uses it to tie the imagery and the meaning of the poem together.

In the first quatrain

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

Shakespeare uses six separate metaphors in this first quatrain. The first is the idea of the yellow leaves hanging on the trees.

leaves or few

This is linked to the idea of the flesh hanging to the limbs of the ageing poet.

In passing, it is worth commenting on the sheer brilliance of the second line of this sonnet and the way that Shakespeare describes the yellow leaves. Having introduced the idea of the yellow leaves hanging on the bough, he turns the image around with a simple phrase “one none” and then qualifies that again with “or few” and then links that phrase with an internal rhyme to “do hang”. The rhythm of the final six monosyllabic words captures the barren and ruined nature of the bough and the poet with absolute brilliance.

The second two metaphors that Shakespeare uses are the least explicit. The first is the underlying metaphor of the poet’s ageing body. Shakespeare links the idea of ageing to third and fourth metaphors: that of the tree where “yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang” and that of the ruins of the church “Bare ruined choirs”. These metaphors are linked through the idea of the boughs and the poet’s limbs shaking against the cold.

Sweet birds have sung in the boughs of the trees, the sweet birds or choristers sung in the church and the the sweet birds of passion have sung in the poet’s limbs.

J. M. W. Turner, The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking Towards the East Window, 1794

J. M. W. Turner, The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking Towards the East Window, 1794

Bare ruined choirs

Bare ruined choirs

In the second quatrain, Shakespeare links the ideas of ruin and decay in nature with the ideas of the death and sleep, which is “Death’s second self”.

In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest

The idea of the similarity between death and sleep is a common one in Shakespeare:

Hamlet: To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to

Hamlet (Act 3, Scene1 64-67)

Macbeth: the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life

Macbeth (Act 2, Scene 2, 47-49)

Prospero: We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep

The Tempest (Act 4, Scene 1, 156–158)

The image of approaching night and death is embedded in

the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west

sunset fading

The image of twilight and the sunset is a visual link to the yellow and red colours of fading leaves and in the final quatrain this is linked to the idea of fire.

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was by.

glowing of such fire, That on the ashes of his youth doth lie

The final quatrains by far the most difficult. The book tells his lover that the glow of twilight is like the glowing embers of the fire of his life. Now he lies on “the ashes of his youth” as if he were on his deathbed. His passion for life has consumed him just as it has nourished him.

The Sonnet ends as sonnets must, with a couplet:

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

The technique that Shakespeare uses here is called a volta or turn and is common to most sonnets. The volta constitutes the point at which the poet turns the meaning, the tone or the imagery of the poem in a different direction. Here the poet stops describing his own situation and turns again to address his young lover to whom the poem is dedicated. It also links to the very first line in the poem which is also addressed to the younger lover:

thou mayst in me behold”

The brilliance of this particular poem rests in the dazzling visual imagery that runs throughout. The complex image of the poet’s body, the leaves on the tree and the choir of the church in the first quatrain must rank as one of the most brilliant in English literature. This initial image of the autumn leaves is then linked to the images of sunset and fire and the death of passion.

The true greatness of this poem lies in combining its brilliantly detailed imagery with the great themes of love and death. A true masterpiece.

Another transmission from political Lala land

The Muddle-headed Wombat of Lala land, would-be Grand Poobah, Clive Palmer has been in full control of the media circus over the last couple of days with his pronouncements on the repeal of the Carbon Tax. The difficulty with Clive is that, as Michael Pascoe said in The Age: One of the problems with Clive is working out what he’s saying, what he might think he’s saying and what he actually means. They can all be quite different things.

But his real coup was appearing on television with Al Gore, talk about Dracula and the Head of the Blood Bank! This really took the cake.

Gore and Palmer: who's a clever boy? Certainly not Al.

Gore and Palmer: who’s a clever boy? Certainly not Al.

You’d like to think that someone with the political smarts of Al Gore would realise that appearing on television with Palmer was the equivalent of receiving honorary citizenship of Lala land. But he did, and it gave Palmer yet another chance to substitute stand up vaudeville for the serious political discussion. Eventually, someone is going to explain to Clive that simply putting the words “Australian families” in a sentence doesn’t turn it into a policy.

Palmer’s latest bid to hog the limelight was to suggest that his tame senators will not support the repeal of the Carbon Tax. Later in the day, it appeared that Palmer was only going to make repealing the bill dependent upon the savings in electricity prices being passed on to the Australian consumers. I wonder if Clive realises that the repeal is not going to be retrospective and he will probably still have to pay the tax that his company has not paid.

One can only assume that he wants Tony Abbott to promise that the savings will be passed on. Clive is probably only person in Australia who believes that a promise from Tony Abbott is worth more than the hot air that surrounds it. Apart from this act of staggering political naiveté, Palmer’s statement demonstrates how little he understands about the role of government in the Australian economy.

How does he think that the government is going to ensure that power companies pass savings from the repeal of the Carbon Tax on to consumers? Why, it’s simple. The government will do it the same way that it ensures that the banks pass on interest rate cuts to mortgage holders.

The political debate that we really need in this country is the way that we reform the electoral system to ensure that the unrepresentative swill don’t make decisions on issues for which they have no mandate and do not understand

Two war paintings by Arthur Streeton

Arthur Streeton joined the Royal Army Medical Corps (British Army) and reached the rank of corporal. Later he was made an Australian Official War Artist with the Australian Imperial Force, holding the rank of Honorary Lieutenant.

P03451.001

His wartime painting Mount St Quentin is immediately recognisable work by the great Australian landscape artist. In a letter to Sir Baldwin Spencer Arthur Streeton observed that “True pictures of Battlefields are very quiet looking things. There’s nothing much to be seen – everybody & thing is hidden & camouflaged – it is only in the Illustrated papers one gets a real idea of Battle as it occurs in the mind of the man whose never been there”. This is certainly true in this case.

MountStQuentinByArthurStreeton

The centre of the painting is dominated by large block of “the sunburned country” which characterise so much of his Australian paintings.

Golden_Summer_Eaglemont_Arthur_Streeton

Arthur_Streeton_-_At_Templestowe_-_Google_Art_Project

Towering above the golden landscape is a huge column of smoke arising from the bombardment on the other side of Mount St Quentin. This huge column of cloud is flanked by two darker clouds which threatened to dominate the entire skyscape. The fog of war is beginning to close out the light. As it does so, far darker shadows begin to creep across a landscape, enveloping the foreground and the ruined village.

sd

On the skyline, there is what appears to be the ruins of a small village set in the remains of a clump of trees.

town

The outlines of the trees are strangely like crucifixes as seen in Philips Wouwerman’s A View of Mount Calvary with the Crucifixion, 1652

calavary

In Wouwerman’s painting, the bodies of Christ and the two thieves hang on the crosses mourned by his mother, Mary, Mary Magdalene and possibly Mary of Clopas while the soldiers ride away oblivious to the suffering. The burnt out crosses of Streeton’s painting are devoid of any Christian symbolism of Christ dying for this sins of the world. All hope has been devastated by the ravages of war.

Another of Arthur Streeton’s war paintings is The Somme valley near Corbie, a large landscape showing the opening stages of the third battle of the Somme.

ART03497

This is a far more sombre painting. Again, the battle rages in the distance. As in the painting of Mount St Quentin, the shadows of the clouds of war are beginning to encroach on the small village in the foreground and the countryside in the middle ground.

The compositional structure of Streeton’s painting echoes some of his earlier work, in particular Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide painted in 1890.

glides

and The purple noon’s transparent might painted in 1896.

streeton_purple

The painting is an understated testimony to the horror of war in contrast to the more dramatic work of artists like John Singer Sargent whose Gassed depicts the aftermath of a mustard gas attack during the First World War, with a line of wounded soldiers walking towards a dressing station.

Sargent,_John_Singer_(RA)_-_Gassed_-_Google_Art_Project

Singer’s painting also echoes The Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Brueghel the Elder not only in subject material, but also in the compositional rhythm of the figures moving across the canvas.

bruegel_blinden_grt

David Hamilton and the sexuality of the nymphet (ii)

David Hamilton’s work did much to glamorise the sexual transition of the nymphet to the butterfly. His is not the world of pimples and awkwardness but of fabulously long-legged and beautiful young blondes floating around the etherial French countryside bathed in soft light and muslin dresses. Over time, his work underwent a series of subtle transitions: the muted erotic images of his early work gave way to more voyeuristic views of his young models. The emphasis moved subtlety from their beautiful faces to their rather less attractive genitalia. There was also a move towards sexualising the young women as the imagery moved from innocent young women exploring their surrounds to young lesbians exploring each other.

His early work was characterised by the wonderful photographs of the two young women in the French countryside.

bicycle 2

These were wonderful compositions that captured the innocence of the young woman in the idealised countryside. They also showed the budding and blossoming of young friendships, as well as of young bodies.

hamilton_12

The blossoming of the friendships was never free of erotic overtone. In many ways, the young subjects of Hamilton’s photography appeared to be non-existent outside their own sexuality.

Couples 7

Couple 7

David Hamilton - Souvenirs de vacances 4

david-hamilton bicycle 1

The carefree gambolling and bicycle rides in the countryside appeared to be a thing of the past as Hamilton increasingly explored the developing sexuality and lesbian relationships between his subjects.

composite

David_Hamilton-064-kitty-en-classe

So the question arises: When does the celebration of the transition of young girl to young woman become male-oriented voyeurism? The photograph above must be getting close to that borderline. The issue is the extent to which Hamilton’s portrayal of these young women continues to be a celebration of the nymphet or has simply become a sexualisation of their obvious beauty.

Hamilton recalls an incident when he was young. He goes to visit a young woman he is attracted to and looks at the front door of her apartment:

She was naked on her bed; lying on her back, one leg outstretched and the other bent over. A lovely picture—a painting by Bonnard come to life. I looked at her for a moment, then realised that she was not alone; a man slept next to her, he too was naked. I left the rose for her. In my mind’s eye the image remains; the girl asleep in that beautiful position, the sheets in disarray; it is a favourite pose, which I have used many times in my photographs.

From this account, Hamilton makes it clear that this was an extremely sexually charged experience for him and he returns to this particular image again and again.

David-Hamilton-Napping-South-of-France-1988

Early 2

These images and this experience are important because they provide a very clear connection between the sexual nature of the relationship between the photographer and the model. It also shows the way an artist can return to sets of central themes in the composition of his photographs.

Pleasure 2

Pleasure 1

Bed composite 2

There is an element of Hamilton’s work that consists of pictures of very young nudes, possibly as young as 10. Set in the context of Hamilton’s consistent sexualising of his models, this takes is work to an area which may be increasingly discomforting for his audience. Many serious photographers have taken photographs of naked children: Bill Henson, Jock Sturges and Sally Mann and none have been free of controversy. Looking at the work of these three artists, it is possible to see the limitations of Hamilton’s work and the way in which these limitations are imposed by the relatively narrow nature of his vision of young girls. It is difficult to imagine Hamilton taking a photograph like Sally Mann’s evocative Candy Cigarette, 1989

candy-cigarette-1969-by-sally-mann

Or a photo like Jock Sturges Estelle et Mylene, Montalivet, France where the subjects seem far less constrained by the photographers view of them and direct a quizzical and slightly confrontational gaze towards the camera.

Sturges

Every photographer develops their own style and Hamilton was no exception. His photographs are immediately recognisable but it is his inimitable style which makes his photographs so beautiful but which ultimately serves as a limitation to the range and depth of his work.

The final photograph bears all the hallmarks of Hamilton’s handling of light and of the compositional strength of his photographs.

Hair

More on David Hamilton

David Hamilton’s soft porn images inspire new novel “The Merkin Chronicles

Greens come of age

It’s great to see that my bloke in Parliament, Adam Bandt, and his mates have finally grown up and become a political party.

Their decision to oppose the Fuel Excise in the Senate initially appears to run contrary to everything one would have expected from a party that is concerned about the environment and in particular, the consumption of carbon-based fuels.

I would have expected them to support the fuel excise as a matter of principle because it could be argued that any increase in the price of petrol is likely to lead to a decline in consumption. But they have opposed it because there is a systemic argument that makes it bad policy from an environmental perspective. In the course of doing this, they may appear to be running contrary to some fundamental green principles. But a careful examination indicates that this is not the case and this is good policy and good politics.

Nonetheless, well done guys, welcome to the real world. Down and dirty at last. Their argument is an interesting one. The increase in the fuel excise will be used to build more roads and building more roads means more cars using more petrol. It’s a nice little systems argument.

Fuel Excise

The hub of this is that more excise means more roads, more cars, more petrol consumption and then more excise. It’s a reinforcing loop, things only get worse and there is a lot to suggest that in the three deteriorating situation with climate change this is exactly what’s happening.

It certainly constitutes a more thoughtful and systemic approach to the issue than simply saying that a tax on carbon consumption is always laudable. In this case, the Greens are looking at the systemic impact of fuel excise being directed into road construction. If Abbott had been halfway smart, and he’s not, he would have seen this coming and directed the money to hospitals or better still, clean energy, and assured himself of the Green vote.

There is of course a counterargument that the government will certainly make: That the fuel excise will lead to improved infrastructure and a higher rate of economic activity. More roads to mines, more coal dug out of the ground, more steel production and hence more pollution. They’ll never learn.

We have to understand that one of the major problems facing us in controlling climate change is the unthinking commitment to growth in both population and industrial output. Until we get over these particular ideologies, there is really no hope.

The terrible cost of the Kennett privatisations

During the dark period of the Kennett administration much of Victoria’s publicly owned assets were sold off. This was done under the incessant and-wrongheaded mantra that competition was a good thing and would drive prices down. Why does anybody believe this nonsense? If autility has a monopoly, such as the SEC had and it sold to private enterprise, private enterprise then requires a profit to provide a return to investors. This effectively building the need for profits where a breakeven situation was acceptable and even desirable. This could only ever mean that the prices were going to go up. Surprisingly, the predictions that competition would drive the price down have proved to be tightly ill-founded. In fact the price of electricity has risen faster than anything else.

But we are now seeing a more sinister element of this unthinking rush towards privatisation. We have now seen some of the most devastating bushfires in Victoria’s history caused by the failure to maintain the power lines. It is a natural consequence of private enterprise that there will be a drive to minimise costs and often this is done by maintaining equipment and infrastructure at the minimal and possibly even sub-minimal level rather than at a level of excellence that is failsafe.

Maintenance failure and cost-cutting: the price of privatisation

Maintenance failure and cost-cutting: the price of privatisation


There is no argument to be made that the bushfires and a devastating effect was a direct result of the privatisation policies of the Kennett government.

Every summer, our privatised rail system buckles under the Australian heat. Competition has seen no improvement in the level of service and in the cases of some line to services actually declined.

Why trains don't run on hot days

Why trains don’t run on hot days

Now we are beginning the enquiry, as we did in the case of the bushfires, into the disastrous fire at the Hazelwood power station. The evidence to date suggests that the owner, GDF SUEZ Australian Energy, a subsidiary of GDF Suez, which owns 72% share was unprepared for what is a foreseeable, and not infrequent, occurrence in this industry. It was a disaster in every aspect. Not only was it an environmental catastrophe for the inhabitants of Morwell, it cost the Victorian taxpayer in excess of $30 million to put it out, a cost that GDF SUEZ doesn’t think it should make a contribution towards.

Hazelwood fire: an economic, social, environmental and political disaster

Hazelwood fire: an economic, social, environmental and political disaster

One of the tragedies for Victoria is that this particular omelette cannot be unscrambled. We are stuck with the mess that Kennett and Stockdale (who now works for a significant remuneration for those who profited from the privatisation) created.

Rallying call for racism and bigotry

The disturbing events in Bendigo where councillors who approved the building of a mosque have been harassed by an anonymous group of bigots show that racism is not far below the surface in Australian society. It may be a small group of unpleasant bottom feeders but they can exert an influence far beyond their importance, particularly when it comes to the anonymous threats made to people who have supported the mosque. It is not long since we witnessed the appalling violence at Cronulla with the usual right-wing radio rabble serving as cheerleaders.

Last night on television, we had the unedifying spectacle of the Prime Minister of Australia claiming that he had “stop the boats” and now would “stop Jihadists”. What he doesn’t realise is that is exactly what the bigots of Bendigo think they are doing and he’s effectively providing a rallying call for them. This kind of stupidity is clearly meant for local consumption, as Australia is in no position to make an impact on the sectarian violence flaring in Iraq. The Prime Minister should be ashamed that he is fanning the flames of the worst aspects of bigotry in Australian society.

The terrible thing about all this is that he probably doesn’t realise what he’s doing. Everything is an unthinking gut reaction. As soon as there is criticism of the seven dollar medical levy, Abbott dons a lab coat and rushes off to show that he’s really a scientist working to find a cure for the cancer. He can’t resist a dress up. He doesn’t realise that the grown-ups think this is all just a bit childish.

David Hamilton and the sexuality of the nymphet (i)

Like Humbert Humbert, Nabokov’s narrator in Lolita who says “Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic”, Hamilton acknowledges “some rare beings who are able to exert a powerful erotic attraction upon certain much older men”. and that “It seems to me that their femininity is revealed sooner than that of their contemporaries. A femininity too mature for their age, an animal instinct that they already know to be right for them”

He goes on to say “It is true, the rare delicacy of their physical appearance sets them apart, and everyone knows how much it costs to be different in this world These young girls take refuge in dreams which they have wished me to bring into reality.”

There is certainly a strong theme of the precocious sexuality of Hamilton subjects running through his work.

s22

This sexuality is captured in a number of ways. This portrait appears to be of quite a young girl who radiates a sexuality well beyond her years and Hamilton has documented such young women extensively in his work.

Montage 3

However, his claim that “These young girls take refuge in dreams which they have wished me to bring into reality” needs to be examined. To argue that young girls of this age are as aware of the incipient sexuality that these pictures would suggest, is perhaps stretching the point. The latent sexuality in these pictures is a reflection of the photographers view of the subject and the interpretation that the viewer brings to the photograph, which will be true regardless of the quality of the work.

It would also be true and fair to say that Hamilton certainly extends his view of the sexuality of the nymphet beyond the photographs above. There is a series of photographs of young woman bathing in the farmhouse in France. In this series of photos the models appear rather more engaged with each other than they do in previous photographs.The first is a beautifully composed piece. The left of the photograph there are three separate elements, in ascending size, the water jug, the girl doing the washing and the girl being washed. The more compact image of the first girl serves to emphasise the slender beauty of the naked girl. The shadows on the wall, and in particular subtle line between the nude’s knee and the red towel provides a visual transition to the shadows on the wall to the right of the picture. It is Hamilton at his best.

bath copy

In the second photograph, the girl in the background is typically self absorbed in typically Hamiltonesque fashion. But against the composition of the photo that is so stunning. The light flows in from the window and between the chair and the young subject seated in the window and then spills onto the floor. It illuminates the nude standing in the bath tub is body is otherwise in relative shadow. The light in this picture binds together the four key compositional elements of the photograph: girl in the window, that chair with the clothes resting on it, the water jug and the girl in the bath tub.

bath

The final study is again of two girls but this time it’s in black and white. Again, the composition is striking. The light from the window highlights elements of the two young nudes and a vase of flowers provides a visual link down over the head of the seated model to the bath where the light on the end of the bath creates a visual connection between the seated model and the towel that is draped over the bath.

bathers 3

There is also some tension in the photo. The model who is standing is looking down and a slightly exasperated and annoyed manner at her companion who is avoiding her gaze. Perhaps it’s an argument about who is going to have second bath.

David Hamilton’s soft porn images inspire new novel “The Merkin Chronicles

More on David Hamilton

David Hamilton’s vision of young women

Much of the discussion on the use of young women and girls as models in photography that purports to capture the delicate transition between childhood and adulthood is not only bedevilled by his accusations of pornography (often not supportable) but also discussions of the impact that the photograph has on the subject. Part of this argument is that the young subjects are not able to understand the implications of the photo being taken and published and that ultimately this will be detrimental.

However, none of Bill Henson’s subjects reported that they had suffered ill effects from being in his photographs. In looking at the photographs of Bill Henson and David Hamilton, it is clear that they both have have their own unique focus on their subjects. Henson’s photographs of children are dark, both literally and metaphorically.

Henson's subjects inhabit a dark world

Henson’s subjects inhabit a dark world

They appeared to inhabit a stygian netherworld where bliss and torment seem to be closely related. By contrast Hamilton’s live in a dream world of soft pastels and delicate light. While Hensons subjects appear to enjoy moments of ecstatic, almost adult, pleasure, Hamilton’s subjects appear to have little sense of enjoyment of their surroundings or of each other’s company. In the montage below, none of the subjects really seems to be enjoying being photographed.

Bored and unhappy, Hamilton's models have also got younger

Bored and unhappy, Hamilton’s models have also got younger

The wistful dreamy look of the early works has been replaced by one of boredom. You find yourself wishing that one of them would smile. And it shows that simply having very beautiful subjects is not a surefire recipe for producing interesting, challenging or novel photography Gone also is the models’ air of wistful detachment that made the early works so appealing and which is shown brilliantly in this beautifully composed picture of the two young lovers.

David_Hamilton-074

There is also a palpable sense of pleasure that the photographer is getting in his work. He has taken a group of very beautiful young woman and produced exceptionally beautiful photographs of them and part of the appeal is the often casual disdain and disinterest that the subjects appear to show the process of being photographed.

DIstain

It is interesting, if somewhat unfair, to look at some other photographs of children by a photographer who was well out of David Hamilton’s league: Henri Cartier Bresson. Some of his photographs of children are amongst the masterpieces of the 20th century.

The joy of childhood caught in the

The joy of childhood caught in the “decisive moment”

What is noticeable in all of Cartier Bresson’s work is that, because he was essentially a street photographer, his photographs are set in a social context and that gives them a great richness. His photograph of the French boy carrying home two bottles of wine with the look of satisfied self-importance on the young boy’s face brilliantly balanced by the slightly out of focus young girl in the background who appears to be applauding some just-completed act of wonderfulness must rank as one of the great masterpieces of child photography.

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The comparison between these two photographers serves to highlight what is Hamilton’s great strength but what is ultimately the limitation on the nature of’s photographic vision. The dreamy wistfulness and detachment of the young models in the early photographs, and their incredible beauty, is what made Hamilton’s work so exceptional in its time. But eventually this way is thin and was later work even this quality was lost. It goes to show that is just so much you can do with beautiful young models and a French farmhouse.

David Hamilton’s soft porn images inspire new novel “The Merkin Chronicles

More on David Hamilton

The man and his muse (ii): Robert Graves and the White Goddess

English poet Robert Graves gave much serious thought to the role of the young woman as Muse particularly in poetry. His work is an exploration of this relationship. Graves believed that the White Goddess, the goddess of Birth, Love and Death, was the source of poetic inspiration and that “true” or “pure” poetry is inextricably linked with her ancient cult-ritual.

The young Robert Graves as an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers in the First World War

The young Robert Graves as an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers in the First World War

She was the Moon-goddess who inspired, and demanded that, man should pay woman spiritual and sexual homage. Graves believed that the function of poetry is religious invocation of the Muse; its use is the experience of mixed exaltation and horror that her presence excites and that “unswerving and absolute devotion to her is the poet’s only path.”

All saints revile her, and all sober men
Ruled by the God Apollo’s golden mean—
In scorn ofwhich I sailed to find her
In distant regions likeliest to hold her
Whom I desired above all things to know,
Sister of the mirage and echo.

But I am gifted, even in November
Rawest ofseasons, with so huge a sense
Of her nakedly worn magnificence
I forget cruelty and past betrayal,
Careless of where the next bright bolt may fall.

The Goddess/Muse would visit the poet, often as a lover but a heedless and unfaithful one. She would, as Graves said, “find it impossible to sustain the love of a poet and allies herself with a pretended poet who she knows is not a real one. Someone she can mother.”

For the poet, the departure of the muse is as painful as the departure a lover.

Graves captured this beautifully in The Hung Wu Vase

With women like Marie no holds are barred.
How do they get the gall? How can they do it?

She stormed out, slamming the hall door so hard
That a vase on a gilt shelf above – you knew it,
Loot from the Summer Palace at Pekin
And worth the entire contents of my flat –
Toppled and fell …
I poured myself a straight gin,
Downing it at a gulp. ‘So that was that!’

The bell once more … Marie walked calmly in,
Observed broken red porcelain on the mat,
Looked up, looked down again with condescension,
Then, gliding past me to retrieve a glove
(Her poor excuse for this improper call),
Muttered: ‘And one thing I forgot to mention:
Your Hung Wu vase was a phony, like your love!’

How can they do it? Where do they get the gall?

He also records the beginning of a relationship with one of his muses, presumably Laura Riding, in How it Started

It started, unexpectedly of course,
At a wild midnight dance, in my own garden,
To which indeed was not invited:
I read: “teen-agers only.”

In the circumstances I stayed away
Until you fetched me out on the tiled floor
Where, acting as an honorary teen-ager,
I kicked off both my shoes.

Since girls like you must set the stage always,
With lonely men for choreographers,
I chose the step, I even called the tune;
And we both danced entranced.

Here the narrator pauses circumspectly,
Knowing me not unpassionate by nature
And the situation far from normal:
Two apple-seeds had sprouted….

Recordable history began again
With you no longer in your late teens
And me socially (once more) my age –
Yet that was where it started.

These beautiful little poems are typical of Graves, based on an immediate and recognisable situation and shot through with the reflection of the older poet looking back on previous experiences.

He also visits this situation in Beatrice and Dante

He, a great poet, fell in love with her.
She, a mere child, felt deep in love with love
And, being a child illumined his whole heart.

From her clear conspect rose a whispering
With no hard words in innocency held back –
Until the day that she became a woman.

Failing to find her love imposed upon:
A new world beating out in her own image –
For his own deathless glory.

Graves' Muse, the poet Laura Riding

Graves’ Muse, the poet Laura Riding