Tag Archives: muse

“To Horror” by Robert Southey

Southey

Dark HORROR, hear my call!
Stern Genius hear from thy retreat
On some old sepulchre’s moss-cankered seat,
Beneath the Abbey’s ivied wall
That trembles o’er its shade;
Where wrapt in midnight gloom, alone,
Thou lovest to lie and hear
The roar of waters near,
And listen to the deep dull groan
Of some perturbed sprite
Borne fitful on the heavy gales of night.

Or whether o’er some wide waste hill
Thou mark’st the traveller stray,
Bewilder’d on his lonely way,
When, loud and keen and chill,
The evening winds of winter blow
Drifting deep the dismal snow.

Or if thou followest now on Greenland’s shore,
With all thy terrors, on the lonely way
Of some wrecked mariner, when to the roar
Of herded bears the floating ice-hills round
Pour their deep echoing sound,
And by the dim drear Boreal light
Givest half his dangers to the wretches sight.

Or if thy fury form,
When o’er the midnight deep
The dark-wing’d tempests sweep
Watches from some high cliff the encreasing storm,
Listening with strange delight
As the black billows to the thunder rave
When by the lightnings light
Thou seest the tall ship sink beneath the wave.

Dark HORROR! bear me where the field of fight
Scatters contagion on the tainted gale,
When to the Moon’s faint beam,
On many a carcase shine the dews of night
And a dead silence stills the vale
Save when at times is heard the glutted Raven’s scream.

Where some wreck’d army from the Conquerors might
Speed their disastrous flight,
With thee fierce Genius! let me trace their way,
And hear at times the deep heart-groan
Of some poor sufferer left to die alone,
His sore wounds smarting with the winds of night;
And we will pause, where, on the wild,
The Mother to her frozen breast,
On the heap’d snows reclining clasps her child
And with him sleeps, chill’d to eternal rest!

Black HORROR! speed we to the bed of Death,
Where he whose murderous power afar
Blasts with the myriad plagues of war,
Struggles with his last breath,
Then to his wildly-starting eyes
The phantoms of the murder’d rise,
Then on his frenzied ear
Their groans for vengeance and the Demon’s yell
In one heart-maddening chorus swell.

Cold on his brow convulsing stands the dew,
And night eternal darkens on his view.

HORROR! I call thee yet once more!
Bear me to that accursed shore
Where round the stake the impaled Negro writhes.

Assume thy sacred terrors then! Dispense
The blasting gales of Pestilence!
Arouse the race of Afric! holy Power,
Lead them to vengeance! and in that dread hour
When Ruin rages wide
I will behold and smile by MERCY’S side.

Although I love the English Romantic Writers, I confess that I had not read any of Southey’s works before. This poem works well for me though and captures what I find fascinating about the horror genre.

In this poem, HORROR is a dark muse that inspires the writer. HORROR is the source of powerful yet dark emotions and thoughts. Southey describes the various manifestations of HORROR in the physical world. As he meditates on these horrors, he is able to move into the darker nether regions of his psyche and draw poetic inspiration.

What I found the most intriguing about this piece is the way it works as an incantation. Southey is summoning the dark muse, seeking to manifest HORROR before him. He summons HORROR three times, drawing on the mystical power of the number three to bring something into being. For each of these calls, he includes a descriptor: Dark HORROR, Dark HORROR, and Black HORROR. Then Southey does something interesting; he summons HORROR a fourth time.

HORROR! I call thee yet once more!
Bear me to that accursed shore
Where round the stake the impaled Negro writhes.

This kind of puzzled me a bit. Why would he call on the dark muse a fourth time if it has already manifested? My conclusion is that, once HORROR was evoked, the fourth call was to invite HORROR inside his consciousness, to rend his sanity and unlock the hidden realms of his psyche. Once this occurs, he is able to draw artistic inspiration from the darker aspects of his subconscious and express the shadowy beauty that lurks within.

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“Lines to a Beautiful Spring in a Village” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Apollo and the Muses by Jan van Balen

Apollo and the Muses by Jan van Balen

Once more, sweet stream! with slow foot wand’ring near,
I bless thy milky waters cold and clear.
Escaped the flashing of the noontide hours,
With one fresh garland of Pierian flowers
(Ere from thy zephyr-haunted brink I turn)
My languid hand shall wreath thy mossy urn.
For not thro’ pathless grove with murmur rude
Then soothest the sad wood-nymph, solitude:
Nor thine unseen in cavern depths to well,
The hermit-fountain of some dripping cell!

Pride of the vale! thy useful streams supply
The scattered cots and peaceful hamlet nigh.
The elfin tribe around thy friendly banks
With infant uproar and soul-soothing pranks,
Released from school, their little hearts at rest,
Launch paper navies on thy waveless breast.
The rustic here at eve with pensive look
Whistling lorn ditties leans upon his crook,
Or starting pauses with hope-mingled dread
To list the much-loved maid’s accustom’d tread:
She, vainly mindful of her dame’s command,
Loiters, the long-filled pitcher in her hand.

Unboastful stream! thy fount with pebbled falls
The faded form of past delight recalls,
What time the morning sun of hope arose,
And all was joy; save when another’s woes
A transient gloom upon my soul imprest,
Like passing clouds impictured on thy breast.
Life’s current then ran sparkling to the noon,
Or silvery stole beneath the pensive moon:
Ah! now it works rude brakes and thorns among,
Or o’er the rough rock bursts and foams along!

Upon first reading of this poem, it appears to be a pastoral work extolling the beauty of a stream as it flows through a small village. Having visited the Lake District of England several times, I can envision the scene that Coleridge is describing. But there are several metaphors in here that lead me to believe that the stream in this poem is really a symbol for poetic inspiration, a flowing stream of consciousness that feeds his psyche with images and emotion from which his poetry springs.

The first clue appears in the second line, where he describes the stream’s water as both milky and clear. We have an oxymoron here. I suspect that he uses the image of milkiness to symbolize the nurturing effect that the stream is having upon him. As a young child being fed milk from his mother’s breast, Coleridge is being fed by his muse and nurturing milk is what causes him to develop as a poet. It also brings clarity of vision, especially his inner vision, hence the stream is also described as clear. Just like in “Kubla Khan,” the poet has drunk the milk of Paradise and received divine inspiration.

The next clue to the poem’s symbolism is the reference to Pierian flowers. This is a mythological reference to the Pierian spring which was in Macedonia and was considered sacred to the Muses. The waters from the Pierian spring were believed to provide poetic inspiration (source: English Romantic Writers – David Perkins). Here, Coleridge is establishing a connection between the stream he sees running through the village and the mythological spring which was associated with the Muses.

The rest of the poem is easy enough to interpret. The stream evokes memories of his past, both joyful and painful. He experiences an array of emotions, all of which are inspiration for his poems.

Personally, I really enjoyed this poem, enough to read it twice before drafting this post. Coleridge was truly an inspired individual and a master of crafting words. Cheers!

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“The Blessing” by Charles Baudelaire

Baudelaire

Whenever I read Baudelaire, I’m reminded about why I am so fascinated by his poetry. His poems are dark and light, beautiful and hideous, spiritual and earthly, all at the same time.

This morning I read “The Blessing,” which is the opening poem in Bile and the Ideal. It’s a fairly long poem so I am only including sections of it in this post. There are several good translations available online. The translation I read is by David Paul and is included in the print version of The Flowers of Evil edited by Marthiel and Jackson Mathews.

The poem opens with the poet’s birth into a world of ennui. He is immediately rejected and cursed by his mother, who directs her anger at God for bringing this child into the world. She sees his birth as punishment for giving in to her sexual desires.

When, by decree of the sovereign power,
The poet makes his appearance in a bored world,
With fists clenched at the horror, his outraged mother
Call on a pitying God, at whom these curses are hurled:

“Why was I not made to litter a brood of vipers
Rather than conceive this human mockery?
My curses on that night whose ephemeral pleasures
Filled my womb with this avenging treachery!

She resolves herself to taking out her anger on the child poet, punishing him for what she sees as a curse from God.

I will torture this stunted growth until its bent
Branches let fall every blighted bud to the ground!

What is most interesting about this image is that the blighted buds may fall to the ground, but it is implied that from them new growth will spring, and this new growth is Baudelaire’s poetry. His poems are the beautiful which rise from the sick and the suffering.

As the poet grows, he finds himself the focus of people’s disdain. He sees beauty in the sickness of the world around him, and as a result, those with whom he associates try to poison his mind and drag him down to the place of despair where they are trapped.

They mix ashes or unspeakable filth with the bread
And the wine of his daily communion, drop
Whatever he may have touched with affected dread,
And studiously avoid wherever he may step.

The poet then discovers his muse, which is essentially his soul, his subconscious, and his anima. He refers to her as his mistress, implying that there is a sexual passion associated with the act of creating art. But as is the case with most artists and poets, the real demons and the torture are all internal. For Baudelaire, he is tortured by his inner self. Like a harpy, his mistress threatens to rend his heart and rip out whatever joy remains.

And when I am sick to death of trying not to laugh
At the farce of my black masses, I try the force
Of the hand he calls ‘frail,’ my nails will dig a path
Like harpies’, to the heart that beats for me, of course!

Like a nestling trembling and palpitating
I will pull that red heart out of his breast
And throw it down for my favourite dog’s eating
–Let him do whatever he likes with the rest!

The poet, realizing that his soul is as corrupt as the world around him, turns his gaze from within and looks to Heaven for inspiration. He envisions a realm of intense beauty and ecstasy, which he can only reach through his poetic genius. He sees that only through art can one express and grasp the true beauty and essence of life and of the Divine.

A serene piety, lifting the poet’s gaze,
Reveals heaven opening on a shining throne,
And the lower vision of the world’s ravening rage
Is shut off by the sheet lightnings of his brain.

“Be blessed, oh my God, who givest suffering
As the only divine remedy for our folly,
As the highest and purest essence preparing
The strong in spirit for ecstasies most holy.

I know that among the uplifted legions
Of saints, a place awaits the Poet’s arrival,
And that among the Powers, Virtues, Dominations
He too is summoned to Heaven’s festival.

I know that sorrow is the one human strength
On which neither earth nor hell can impose,
And that all the universe and all time’s length
Must be wound into the mystic crown for my brows.

While I concede that suffering is not the only source of artistic inspiration, it is certainly a powerful one. For me, poetry is one of the best ways to convey deep emotions that are difficult to express through other means. Baudelaire explored his emotions, which were associated with sickness, decay, and suffering, and used those feelings as inspiration to create something beautiful and inspiring. This poem gives us insight into his creative process, which provided us with a wealth of amazing poetry.

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“Dejection: An Ode” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge

I had not read this poem since college and reading it this time I confess that I was completely blown away. Not only is the imagery and symbolism so powerful, but the language and musical cadence is nothing short of exhilarating. I feel like I have just come off an emotional rollercoaster after finishing this.

It is a fairly long poem, so I am not going to include all of the text in this post, but for those who need, here is a link to an online version.

Poetry Foundation

The poem is comprised of eight stanzas and I will look at each stanza separately. In addition to the eight stanzas, the poem is prefaced with a quote from the “Ballad of Sir Patrick Spence.”

Stanza I

In Stanza I, the emphasis is on dreams and inspiration. Coleridge is awake at night and his mind is wandering, thoughts drifting through and playing upon his mind like the wind upon the Aeolian lute. But he has a sense of foreboding; that a storm is coming.

 For lo! the New-moon winter-bright!
And overspread with phantom light,
(With swimming phantom light o’erspread
But rimmed and circled by a silver thread)
I see the old Moon in her lap, foretelling
The coming-on of rain and squally blast.
And oh! that even now the gust were swelling,
And the slant night-shower driving loud and fast!

There is some very interesting imagery here, particularly the New-moon shining brightly. The New Moon does not shine; it is dark. So we get a sense that he is slipping into the realm of the unseen, a place of “phantom light.” I see this as symbolic of his inner self, the part of him that is not visible to the world.

Stanza II

In the second stanza, Coleridge expresses emotional grief. His pain runs deep and is preventing him from being able to express himself artistically.

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
In word, or sigh, or tear—

He gives himself over to silent contemplation, observing the space around him. There is a strong emphasis on vision in this stanza. His attention is focused on the sensory as opposed to the emotional.

I see them all so excellently fair,
I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!

Stanza III

Here Coleridge has a realization that the symbols and forms that populate the world around him are inadequate metaphors for what is inside him. It seems that he has been relying upon images from Nature to express his spiritual being.

I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.

Stanza IV

As the realization sets in, Coleridge expounds upon the idea of inspiration and enlightenment coming from within, and not from without.

O Lady! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live:
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!
And would we aught behold, of higher worth,
Than that inanimate cold world allowed

Artistic inspiration and spiritual enlightenment, which would have been similar in Coleridge’s view, is not bestowed upon us from Nature, but exist within us as the spark of divinity. Nature is but a reflection of the divine essence within us. It is the outward manifestation of the godlike soul that resides in our mortal shell.

Stanza V

In this stanza, Coleridge experiences a moment of spiritual rapture. He realizes that art and poetry is within him, and that poetry is the pure expression of his soul. This triggers a feeling of ecstasy. He realizes that by becoming pure of heart, he is able to connect with the muse that resides within himself, thereby becoming one with his creative side in a moment of sheer bliss.

O pure of heart! thou need’st not ask of me
What this strong music in the soul may be!
What, and wherein it doth exist,
This light, this glory, this fair luminous mist,
This beautiful and beauty-making power.
Joy, virtuous Lady! Joy that ne’er was given,

Stanza VI

Here Coleridge reflects back upon how he used to draw his inspiration from suffering.

There was a time when, though my path was rough,
This joy within me dallied with distress,
And all misfortunes were but as the stuff
Whence Fancy made me dreams of happiness:

He then elaborates how his physical illness has demonstrated that suffering is the wrong path to take in the pursuit of artistic inspiration. Coleridge commits to explore the pathway of joy instead. He affirms that one must seek to connect with one’s inner joy in order to truly become artistically inspired.

Stanza VII

This was my favorite stanza. Here we see the darker phantoms of the mind resurge. Coleridge experiences an inner struggle between the light and the darkness. As the conflicting emotions clash within, it seems like he is grappling with his sanity.

Hence, viper thoughts, that coil around my mind,
Reality’s dark dream!
I turn from you, and listen to the wind,
Which long has raved unnoticed. What a scream
Of agony by torture lengthened out
That lute sent forth! Thou Wind, that rav’st without,
Bare crag, or mountain-tairn, or blasted tree,
Or pine-grove whither woodman never clomb,
Or lonely house, long held the witches’ home,
Methinks were fitter instruments for thee,
Mad Lutanist! who in this month of showers,
Of dark-brown gardens, and of peeping flowers,
Mak’st Devils’ yule, with worse than wintry song,
The blossoms, buds, and timorous leaves among.

Stanza VIII

In the final stanza, we have an expression of resignation.

‘Tis midnight, but small thoughts have I of sleep:
Full seldom may my friend such vigils keep!
Visit her, gentle Sleep! with wings of healing,
And may this storm be but a mountain-birth,
May all the stars hang bright above her dwelling,
Silent as though they watched the sleeping Earth!

It is now midnight, a transitional time. Coleridge comes to a point of acceptance that although his muse sleeps, he will be kept awake by the storm of thoughts within his mind. But during this period, his muse will rest, and when she awakens, she will be refreshed and will bestow upon him new inspiration. And this inspiration will flow from within himself into the world around him, not the opposite way. Henceforth, his poetry will be an expression of the divine soul within.

I have always loved Coleridge’s poetry, but I guess I never gave this poem the consideration it deserves. I now feel that it is one of his finest works and I am certain that I will be reading it again. I never tire of great poetry and this is without a doubt great poetry.

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“On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again” by John Keats

KeatsI was flipping through my copy of English Romantic Writers when I came upon this sonnet. I had underlined parts, so I assume I read it in college, but honestly, I don’t remember. Anyway, I read through it a couple of times so that I could get a deep sense of the poem.

O golden-tongued Romance with serene lute!
Fair plumed Syren! Queen of far away!
Leave melodizing on this wintry day,
Shut up thine olden pages, and be mute:
Adieu! for once again the fierce dispute,
Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay
Must I burn through; once more humbly assay
The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit.
Chief Poet! and ye clouds of Albion,
Begetters of our deep eternal theme,
When through the old oak forest I am gone,
Let me not wander in a barren dream,
But when I am consumed in the fire,
Give me new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire.

I must confess that I really wanted to like this poem more than I actually did. I mean, it’s John Keats writing about King Lear—it has to be good, right? This was one of the reasons I read it twice in the sitting; I couldn’t help thinking that it was better than I thought and I therefore must be missing something.

As I think about it now, it was all the exclamations that turned me off. It just felt like forced ostentation, like he was intentionally trying to be showy. One, maybe two exclamations would have been OK, but five is just overkill.

While I didn’t care for the poem’s style, the emotion and ideas contained in the poem were interesting for me. Keats is setting aside his urge to create poetry to indulge himself in one of Shakespeare’s greatest works. But more importantly, he seems to be replacing his muse with Shakespeare. Instead of supplicating to some divine entity for inspiration, he turns to the works of another human. I think this is pretty major, especially since Keats seemed to be obsessed with ideals: Truth, Beauty, etc. To seek these in the works of man as opposed to the divine was quite a change.

I found the ending of the poem to be the most thought-provoking part. Not only did I picture Lear wandering, lost, suffering the repercussions of his choices, but I also pictured Dante in the woods, abandoning all hope as he enters into the Inferno. Then, after the flames burn away the sins and regrets of mortal life, Keats longs to rise from the ashes and have his soul become one with his desire, which is the divine source of Truth and Beauty.

Overall, it is not a bad poem, just not as good as it could have been. And again, what I didn’t like about it was very subjective. Others may like it. Feel free to share your thoughts. Cheers!!

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“Ephemera” by William Butler Yeats

WBYeatsReading Yeats is challenging. He draws on a lot of symbolism and mythology, so there is always work involved in getting at the meaning of one of his poems. Before continuing, you should take a couple of minutes and read the poem at least once (click here to read it online).

The word ephemera is defined as “any transitory written or printed matter not meant to be retained or preserved. The word derives from the Greek, meaning things lasting no more than a day.” (source: Wikipedia) So the title implies that whatever Yeats is describing is something fleeting.

Upon my first pass, the poem appears to describe two lovers who are nearing the end of their lives. Their passion is fading as a result of their age. They stand together by a lake and reminisce about their past, which seems distant. There is imagery of autumn and falling leaves, adding to the sense of aging. Also, the comparison of the leaves to “faint meteors in the gloom” adds to the overall sense of the ephemeral.

I knew there had to be more to the poem than what was on the surface, so I read the poem a couple more times and thought about it. The first thing that struck me was the possibility that the man and woman in the poem might be Adam and Eve. My reason for considering this symbolism lies in the following lines:

Turning, he saw that she had thrust dead leaves
Gathered in silence, dewy as her eyes,
In bosom and hair.

I considered that the hair might be pubic, and if that is the case, then she could be covering her nakedness. This is what lead me to consider the possibility that Yeats was referring to the Adam and Eve story. But I still felt like I was missing something , so I reread it and thought about it some more. Then, it came to me.

I began to see the man as a poet and the woman as his muse. The passion between them is the creative spark, the inspiration for writing poetry. That inspiration, like a meteor, is bright, yet fleeting. Then we have the leaves, faded and yellowed with age, which represent the pages of old poems written in the past. So not only is the inspiration ephemeral, but the actual poems themselves are nothing but ephemera, destined to fade.

The poem ends on a somewhat positive note, as the poet realizes that as he nears the end of his life and has lost his inspiration to write, he faces the prospect of the next plane of existence and the new inspiration that potentially hides behind the veil of death.

‘Ah, do not mourn,’ he said,‘That we are tired, for other loves await us,
Hate on and love through unrepining hours.
Before us lies eternity; our souls
Are love, and a continual farewell.’

For me, there is something really gratifying about uncovering the hidden meaning in a poem like this. I suspect, knowing Yeats as I do, that there are probably other meanings hidden and woven in to the poem. If you see something else, I would love to hear about it. Thanks for visiting my blog, and keep on reading!

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Ode to the West Wind: The Most Pretentious Poem Ever

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Let me start by saying that I love the English Romantic poets and I also really like Shelley’s works. That said, I’d be lying if I failed to confess that I find “Ode to the West Wind” to be the most pretentious poem I have ever read.

Before I slam this poem, let me state what I like about this poem. I think the concept of the poem is great. Essentially, Shelley is expressing the importance of suffering and experiencing life as a way to draw inspiration in the creation of poetry. I get that and I am in complete agreement. So the main idea is fine, it’s the language that Shelley uses that I have an issue with.

The first three sections of the poem end with the phrase “O hear!” I understand that he is using this as a refrain and a way to encourage people to listen to the poetic muse, but it just makes me cringe. It seems pompous to me, almost like he’s preaching from upon a dais to those uneducated folk who don’t quite understand the transcendent power of poetry. How different the tone would be if he had quietly encouraged readers to “Listen” instead.

The fourth section contains a line that for me is the epitome pretentious poetry:  “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” I am so glad that this was not the first poem I read, because if it was, I don’t think I would have ever read poetry again. I would venture to assert that this line could ruin anyone’s interest in poetry.

The fifth and final section begins with the following stanza:

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own?
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

While I like this final section the best, I am also annoyed by the fact that Shelley seems to be borrowing ideas from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, specifically from the poem “The Eolian Harp.” (Click here to read my review of that poem.) Not only did Coleridge employ the metaphor first, he did it much better, in my opinion.

It’s a shame that this poem seems to be a part of every English class that covers the Romantic period, because Shelley wrote much better poems. In fact, “Ozymandias” is one of my all-time favorites. (Click here to read my review of “Ozymandias.”) Still, I guess it does kind of sum up the ideologies that influenced the writers of that period.

Click here to read “Ode to the West Wind” online.

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