During the pandemic, I had the leisure to read more poetry, and revisit some poems that I have enjoyed over the years. Here’s a small selection: they’re mostly about love, for it is the most pleasant subject of poetry and something that philosophy isn’t capable to treat seriously (see Poetry as philosophy in action.)
We’ll start by English poets, with Lord Byron, a giant of poetry (where I came to by way of Stendhal):
6.Lord Byron – Epistle to Augusta
Perhaps the workings of defiance stir
Within me—or perhaps a cold despair,
Brought on when ills habitually recur,
Perhaps a kinder clime, or purer air
(For even to this may change of soul refer,
And with light armour we may learn to bear),
Have taught me a strange quiet, which was not
The chief companion of a calmer lot.
One word is too often profanedI can give not what men call love,
For me to profane it,
One feeling too falsely disdained
For thee to disdain it;
One hope is too like despair
For prudence to smother,
And pity from thee more dear
Than that from another.
But wilt thou accept not
The worship the heart lifts above
And the Heavens reject not,—
The desire of the moth for the star,
Of the night for the morrow,
The devotion to something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow?Percy Bysshe Shelley – To —
Between English and American poetry stands W.H. Auden, who I discovered through Shoshana Zuboff, who made beautiful introduction to chapters using his Sonnets From China. This piece is a beautiful reflection on what society has to lose if it doesn’t care for the natural world:
2.A small grove massacred to the last ash,
A well-kempt forest begs Our Lady’s grace;
Someone is not disgusted, or at least
Is laying bets upon the human race
Retaining enough decency to last;
The trees encountered on a country stroll
Reveal a lot about a country’s soul.
An oak with heart-rot, give away the show:
This great society is going to smash;
They cannot fool us with how fast they go,
How much they cost each other and the gods.
A culture is no better than its woods.W.H Auden – Bucolics
I’m a tranquilizer.I know how to handle misfortune,
I’m effective at home.
I work in the office.
I can take exams
on the witness stand.
I mend broken cups with care.
All you have to do is take me,
let me melt beneath your tongue,
just gulp me
with a glass of water.
how to take bad news.
I can minimize injustice,
lighten up God’s absence,
or pick the widow’s veil that suits your face.
What are you waiting for—
have faith in my chemical compassion.You’re still a young man/woman.
It’s not too late to learn how to unwind.
you have to take it on the chin?Let me have your abyss.
I’ll cushion it with sleep.
You’ll thank me for giving you
four paws to fall on.Sell me your soul.
There are no other takers.There is no other devil anymore.Wisława Szymborska – Advertisement
I recently discovered Adam Zagajewski (another Polish poet) who plays with imagery and split thoughts with an exacting precision:
I haven’t written a single poemAdam Zagajewski – Transformation
I’ve lived humbly, reading the paper,
pondering the riddle of power
and the reasons for obedience.
I’ve watched sunsets
I’ve heard the birds grow quiet
and night’s muteness.
I’ve seen sunflowers dangling
their heads at dusk, as if a careless hangman
had gone strolling through the gardens.
September’s sweet dust gathered
on the windowsill and lizards
hid in the bends of walls.
I’ve taken long walks,
craving one thing only:
As an epilogue on love, here’s a poem from Browning that I have cherished for many years:
I thought once how Theocritus had sungElizabeth Barrett Browning – Sonnets from the Portuguese
Of the sweet years, the dear and wished for years,
Who each one in a gracious hand appears
To bear a gift for mortals, old or young:
And, as I mused it in his antique tongue,
I saw, in gradual vision through my tears,
The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years,
Those of my own life, who by turns had flung
A shadow across me. Straightway I was ‘ware,
So weeping, how a mystic Shape did move
Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair,
And a voice said in mastery, while I strove, …
Guess now who holds thee?’—Death,’ I said. But there,
The silver answer rang … Not Death, but Love.’