Love and Sleep — or I re-examine Swinburne, with a little sex in it

I have to hand it to the Victorians — when it came to the names of some of their poets, they seemed to know how to roll right through the evocative, and tumble ass over teakettle into camp.*  This project has touched on the Pre-Raphaelites, those 19th century hipsters with their love for the middle-parts of the Middle Ages, and one of their leading lights Dante Gabriel Rossetti had a moniker that seemed to mix angels and demons with some flowery notes. Or then there’s the pioneering Canadian poet who decided to flesh out Sappho’s fragments with his own poetry: Bliss Carmen. But let’s suppose you’re writing a comic novel set then. You want a character name that’s really, really over the top. If so, you might then independently invent the name Algernon Charles Swinburne.

Sorry, already taken.

I can remember first running into the name in a poetry anthology while a teenager. I laughed out loud at its outrageousness. Algernon had been dead for a bit more than 50 years, but as we shall see, I doubt he minded my noting that. Honestly, I laughed for myself, but of course as a teenager who liked poetry I may have needed to laugh at that name out loud too. Young men in my place and time weren’t much for poetry, but I could suppose a name like John Keats could slip under the radar. Algernon Charles Swinburne, on the other hand, could have written poetry like Robert W. Service and he’d still have such a foppish name.

I went to read his poems anyway. Or I tried to. They didn’t seem outrageous to me — their effect was more at ornate, over-decorated boredom. And his poetry seemed to have nothing to say other than its fancy dress. In the years since, I’ve occasionally looked at a few Swinburne poems, and nothing has changed that opinion.

Algernon_Charles_Swinburne,_1862

Portrait of Swinburne by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Let’s forget poetry for a moment, what product does he use for that much body?

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This year while reading some accounts and memoirs of early poetic Modernists I did notice something odd. More than a few of them went through a Swinburne phase.**  I had known that the Pre-Raphaelites (Swinburne knew and was associated with them) and their “Forward Into the Past” revivalism of earlier literary and visual styles was an influence on some Modernists, but the things they sought to revive tended to be simpler than the mainstream Victorian style: old ballads, flatter painting, hand-hewn furniture, that sort of thing. Swinburne just seemed rococo through and through.

But there was another element that may have attracted them. Swinburne’s poetry was considered in the late 19th century to be, well, hot stuff, erotic, even transgressive. Swinburne’s contemporaries thought that Swinburne if anything reveled in those characterizations. Oscar Wilde (here we go again with the Victorian names) might be thought as someone comfortable with this, but more than one article I’ve read notes that Wilde said of Swinburne “A braggart in matters of vice, who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestialiser.”

School poetry anthologies skipped over that part, but Swinburne’s indirection in his poetic diction isn’t going to cause me to create a “radio edit” of today’s piece, his love sonnet “Love and Sleep.***”

So, what’s going on in this poem? S-E-X of some kind, though the down and dirty details are hard to suss out. A lot of what you may “see” in it is portrayed by implication and connotation. The “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” elements of the famous Monty Python sketch can be invoked in close readings here. I don’t want to play the Eric Idle character from that sketch for you, but I must risk being a mixture of risqué and ridiculous if I’m going to talk about what the poem does with language and imagery. Here’s a link to the complete text of Swinburne’s poem that I used for today so you can follow along as I go through the sonnet line by line.

  1. Classic mechanical clocks of that era might strike to mark the hours of nighttime. They don’t stroke. Make of this what you will.
  2. The lover, or perhaps some dream, imagining, or otherwise non-corporeal manifestation of them arrives at the poet’s bed.
  3. Flowers are invoked. Georgia O’Keefe, Judy Chicago, and Cardi B have yet to be born. Details in Swinburne’s imagery sometimes seem contradictory in a way I find hard to read. Something “pale as the duskiest lilly’s leaf” is hermetic. Is what is being viewed pale or dark?
  4. Erotic nibbling, or call for Van Helsing? You decide.
  5. Skin. Bare skin. Victorians are getting hot and bothered now. A lot of care in trying to describe the skin’s tone that just confused me. Wan (pale again) yet…
  6. “Without white or red.” Is Swinburne color blind? Is this night-vision gray? Even readers who are POC are getting confused here. One reading informed by those bestiality rumors: cephalopods. Students who find this post later: don’t put this in your essay, it will not help your grade.
  7. Well, the lover appears to be female, and she’s going to be allowed to speak. Thanks patriarchy!
  8. She speaks like a veddy veddy proper lady too — but apparently interested in “Delight.” Is that what the kids are calling it now?
  9. “Her face” is honey. Good, let’s keep this PG.
  10. Her body is “pasture” which borders on Surrealist de-humanizing imagery, though by implication this may be portraying the poet as a horny ruminant — so equality! If then: several stomachs. He can go all night.
  11. English poets love the word lithe. I’m not sure why, other than to prove they can enunciate without lisping. I don’t think Victorian English winter heating systems were well-ranked, and even in modern Minnesota we have our own personal erotic frissons with hands far from warm. Anyway, in Swinburne’s poem, the hands are “hotter than fire.” Let’s hope the beloved wasn’t chopping jalapenos in the kitchen before coming to bed.
  12. “Quivering flanks.” Good, someone’s having fun. “Hair smelling of the south.” In the mid-19th century Swinburne was living with William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti in a house in Chelsea just north of the Thames. Luckily for poetic romance, this was a few years after this smell that would have come from the south.
  13. Feet. Thighs. More skin. Swinburne may have had trouble describing it, but he knows it’s sexy.
  14. “Glittering eyelids of my soul’s desire.” The arrival of Mark Bolan is prophesized by Mr. Swinburne. Get it on! Bang a gong. Get it on!

The poem’s title may be an indication this is a dream or imagining. Those on the material plane could suggest it’s a report of the great lover Swinburne, post quivering flanks.

Now, can singing help this text out? That’s plausible, as song lyrics can escape close examination and play to Swinburne’s strengths in meter and rhyme.**** And absurdity and mutual laughter are not enemies of eroticism. I give you a testimonial, available with a player gadget below for some of you, or where that’s not seen, this highlighted hyperlink which will open a player in a new tab window so you can hear my performance of “Love and Sleep.”  A couple rough spots for the acoustic guitar track I had to throw down quickly, but I love the C# minor11 chord I throw in at the end, even if I don’t know what color its skin is.

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*By the 20th century Americans were much more straightforward with their name-branding. “Robert Frost” is the best name for that poet of New England’s cool stoicism. Ironic, what with the Anti-Semitism, but then what’s a better name for the poetic force that sought to revive the freshness of poetry’s texts, carefully weighing his words, than Ezra Pound. And for someone who would grow up to like the most honest poetry of the New York School, I can thank my family for Frank Hudson.

**As late as The Sixties, the anarchist and sex-very-positive  musical group The Fugs would perform a Swinburne poem just as they would perform Ginsberg and Charles Olson. Not suitable for the easily, or even not so easily, offended, The Fugs usually skipped the euphemism in their name, and as far as looseness in performance and vocal perfection they could make The Replacements sound like The Captain and Tennille. Don’t blame them, but they were a big influence on Dave and myself forming a band.

***Once again, I have to thank the Fourteen Lines blog for bringing this poem to my attention. This summer he’s had me look again at Joyce Kilmer, and now Swinburne. Well worth reading and following if you are interested in shorter poetry forms and expression. Like this project, Fourteen Lines doesn’t limit what they present to the poets they like the most.

****After all, pace Mr. Bolan: what the heck is “I’m just a Jeepster for your love” mean anyway? Did it seem exotic Americana to Marc? Just easier to scan than “I’m a Humbler Super Snipe for your love?” Perhaps, just as Paul  Éluard would have it, the beloved makes you “Speak without having a thing to say.”

The Entire “The Fire Sermon” from T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”

Part of the ongoing adventure of doing this project over the years has been the performance of a section of the English Modernist poetic landmark “The Waste Land”  each April as part of our celebration of National Poetry Month. So far I’ve done three large sections, one each year.

My first preference in this has been to separate these larger “Waste Land”  sections into smaller pieces, lasting 2 to 6 minutes to match the usual length of other audio pieces here, but then each year as a “previously, on ‘The Waste Land”  recap I also present a combined audio file of the whole section that I’d done the previous April.

That means it’s time to present the third and longest section of Eliot’s poem, “The Fire Sermon.”  That’s a sizeable chunk of stuff just from the weighty nature of Eliot’s long poetic threnody on the disillusionment of post-WWI western civilization, his own experience of depression, and search for spiritual and cultural consolation—but I also wanted to fully combine my experience of it with the entire range of musical expression that I’ve used here over the years, which means that I haven’t tried to hurry things along in order to stuff “The Waste Land”  squirming and squealing into a smaller sack.

So, today’s rollup of the whole Fire Sermon section is about the length and experience of an entire vinyl LP record’s side, just a bit less than 21 minutes long. What kind of LP would it be then? Perhaps it’s the second side of a “Progressive Rock” album where the band is going to stretch out in a linked suite. At one time that seemed a fresh thing for the popular music consumer from The Sixties, who had been primed by a few years of short 3-minute singles that were masterpieces of varied kinds of expression. Could one group weave that variety themselves? Could these shorter pop music forms become movements like longer orchestral music made use of?

Lets listen to some LPs

Long ago people playing long playing records. The merman in the lower left mixes expansive rock with Blonde on Blonde and Lenny Bruce’s caustic spoken word take on sex and the culture, which may not be to far off today’s slab of vinyl.

 

Of course these cycles were, are, cyclical. Less than a decade later the short sharp stab of 3 minutes of squall in a singular mode was back in hip style again. And now? Perhaps we’re progressive suite makers clicking in Spotify or Apple Music, or consumers of Peel-ing playlists in our each streaming perfumed garden of earbuds.

In these we lose this once particular 20-minute-magic. For today’s piece “The Entire Fire Sermon”  was created in one period of time, and not just by one group of musicians, but by one person. I wrote the music, played all the instruments, and recorded it myself to create this. I don’t say this to brag*—it was more a matter of practicality—but to call your attention to an essential part of this, as it’s an essential part of “The Waste Land.”  All the voices, all the modes of expression in that poem are played by T. S. Eliot. The men. The women. Tiresias, the at-least-sometimes narrator who is both genders. Yes, there are elements of memoir as poetry in this; yes, there are places where Eliot’s representing himself, his particular culture, the early 20th century man who went from growing up white upper middle class in St Louis to Harvard to France to London before he was 30. If Tiresias is a prophet, he is also blind and cursed by error. Eliot has all these things in him too, just as you or I do.

“The Waste Land”  is a harrowing work. If Keats hopes art, as his urn, is a “friend to man,” this friend Eliot made is telling you about the parts of life where hope has to struggle to come out. This section, like other parts of “The Waste Land”  has a reputation for misogyny. In my current reading of it, I’m relieved to not have to figure out a way around that, because I don’t share that reading, even if it may be part of the artist. What it is, particularly here and in the previous section, is the complete opposite of sex-positive. There is absolutely no joy or consolation in desire. Sex acts are referenced, but there’s no love made or even pleasure, only bad deals on unequal terms.

Since I’m asking to take up 20 minutes of your time to listen to “The Entire Fire Sermon”  I’m not going to say more about “The Waste Land”  today. If you’ve come here for homework help or because you have a nagging question about “what’s that thing on about” these sites will help with notes on the many, many references in this poem that is in effect sampling and collaging dozens of myths and other works: here, here, here, and here. And last spring, in March and April, I wrote about the individual sections as I presented them anyway.

Another way to experience it is to just let it wash over you as the dirty water of an urban river. Relax between your speakers, put your headphones/ear buds on and let it flow until the side ends. You drop the needle by clicking on the player gadget below. I’ll be back soon with some shorter work by another poet from St. Louis.

 

 

*Listening back to it as I made this combined file today, I am reasonably proud of what I did with the music, though I the composer wish I the performer was a more skilled singer.

Tiresias

Each April, as part of National Poetry Month I’ve been recording a performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  and presenting it here in serial fashion. This year we’re performing the third section of the poem, “The Fire Sermon.”

When we last left “The Fire Sermon”  we were by the not-so-sweet Thames river where (as elsewhere in the poem) voices and diction were constantly changing. We don’t know who, or how many “whos,” were speaking in that segment, but the narrator in today’s section identifies himself as Tiresias. As we’ll soon see, Tiresias is as shape-shifting in body as the poem has been in voices.

Tiresias’ has many characteristics in the various mythological tales told of him. He’s able to predict the future, and he does this by studying birds (augury) and in particular by studying birdsong.*  He’s blind but is able to perceive things anyway through second sight and acute hearing. He’s said to have been given the gift (or curse) of an extra-long life. He also has the ability to talk to the dead, and in some stories talk to the living after his death. But perhaps the most remarkable part of the Tiresias story is that he was transformed from a man to a woman, and back again.

Tiresias_striking_the_snakes

Tiresias as he is transformed into a woman by Hera because he killed a female snake.

 

We open not with Tiresias introducing himself, but with his encounter with a merchant, who seeks some kind of meetup with the narrator. There are some who tell us the meetup locations suggested indicate that the narrator is being propositioned for a homosexual tryst. If so, this would be consistent with the closing song in the “Sweet Thames”  section, referring to heterosexual prostitutes and that section’s opening in some kind of any-affiliation “after the party” ennui by the river. And so the theme is set: “The Fire Sermon”  is going to talk about sex and what passes for love.

Now Tiresias introduces himself, and his sexual fluidity, as he begins to tell what seems at first a straightforward story: a typist has come home to her small  apartment. Hers is a low-paid job in the early 20th century business/bureaucracy, one often filled by the new “working woman.” She’s taking care of after-work household necessities, including collecting her drying laundry scattered across the room’s couch (which also serves as her bed), and fixing a meal.

Tiresias tells us he already knows what’s going to happen, and since mythologically he’s told the fortunes of kings and heroes, he’s sort-of over-qualified to tell this story.

And sure enough, Tiresias tells us a young man (carbuncular, i.e. covered with zits) arrives. He’s another wage slave, a clerk, who affects a silk hat that he thinks makes him look like a wealthier man. The typist and the clerk have a meal the typist has cooked and then he, hurriedly, unromantically, and with no real consent, jumps her bones.

And here Tiresias tells us he’s not just seen this all before (in both senses of the phrase, as someone who can predict the future, but also as a demi-immortal for whom this story only changes costumes and scenery as it repeats) but that he’s experienced it as both genders.

And then it gets weirder. That back-story of Tiresias’ own history with sexual exploitation is told in a long compound sentence in parenthesis. Today’s section then ends with an unstated someone who “bestows one final patronizing kiss, and gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit” out of the apartment. Is that the young man carbuncular, or Tiresias, or are they one in the same? And for that matter what of the woman, the typist?

As they used to say in serials, tune in tomorrow, as our story continues. To listen to my performance of this segment of “The Waste Land”  use the player below.

 

 

 

 

*And birdsong acts as a bridge between our first segment of “The Fire Sermon”  and this one.

**There are a great many interpretations of “The Waste Land”  and its sections. Mine is far from the most learned. I could use footnotes to try to explain every reference and connection in the poem—at least until my learning and research ran out—but I’m choosing to resist cataloging all the connections and references, so that we can appreciate the poem as an impressionistic, imagistic, musical suite of scenes, voices, and songs. If you’d like to read along, here the whole poem.