Christina Rossetti’s take on “The Last Rose of Summer”

Today’s text is a poem that works in the common garden using another poet’s central image. Christina Rossetti’s “An October Garden”  is three lines in when she reveals that her garden isn’t growing nervous grazing watermelons—that what she observes there is the last rose of summer.

Irish poet Thomas Moore seems to be the writer who first struck that coinage, or at the least popularized it. His 1805 short poem called “The Last Rose of Summer” was soon set to music based on a traditional Irish harper’s tune, and the words and sentiments with the associated music has been sticking around ever since.*   Moore’s poem is both dark and sentimental, a combination of ingredients that continues to impress audiences. Summarized to its core outlook, it’s a poem about surrendering (at least metaphorically) to loss.

Here’s a link to the text of Thomas Moore’s poem and then the text of Christiana Rossetti’s that I’ll perform below.

Chistina Rossetti Skull and Roses

Writing down to the bones & roses: “When the last rose of summer pricks your finger…”

 

What distinguishes Christina Rossetti’s use of the image from Thomas Moore’s? Rossetti’s is a bit shorter. It’s an unusual form sonnet, just 14 lines, vs. Moore’s 24. Rossetti’s sonnet form is neat: a pair of equal 7-line stanzas and an ABBAACC rhyme scheme. But furthermore, her take on the image is somewhat ambiguous. For one thing she notes there are other, more hardy flowers still around too, but her eye’s on that last rose, and however puny and forlorn it might be, she’s one for the roses and not them. Although no one would confuse her poem with a Modernist poem in the Imagist style, her presentation of the rose is more objective and there are fewer “feeling” words, and in their place: more observational words.

If one abandoned the structure she used, one could “translate” Rossetti’s poem into a free-verse Imagist poem fairly easily. But let me note one more thing about the structure: one could easily think that a need for rhymes has forced some word choices. The last rose “which cold winds balk” reads to me first and last as a forced rhyme. The literal sense is that the winds are still holding-back against this puny but still budding rose, but that’s not a strong statement (absence of the cold winds is less concrete than their presence). The other possibly forced rhyme is repeated twice:** “rosebud which uncloses.” This one is so awkward that I am still evaluating how it works. What a weird way to say what one could say simply “opens.”

There’s a dirty little secret about rhymes. More times than poets will admit, the need to make a rhyme will force a poet into a choice they otherwise wouldn’t make. There are times that rhyming need works like Surrealist tactics such as “exquisite corpse” or randomization techniques, it throws chaos and noise into one’s intent. When the result fails to set off sparks, it’s experienced as forced, a failure—but when it does work, the poem or phrase takes on a new freshness.

So which is “uncloses?” I’m still not sure. If one allows the oddity of the word, and asks what it could say that’s different than “open,” it’s saying that the last rose is making a choice in blooming, knowing that colder fall and then winter to come will make its feeble bloom even shorter. It suggests it’s choosing to not stay closed or to not close back up against the cold and bleak.

Musically I doubt my setting will do for Rossetti’s poem what music did for Thomas Moore’s, but it did give an excuse to break out the Mellotron sounds again. Musical instruments can accumulate associations, and for me nothing says sitting in an English garden like this wobbly keyboard instrument that tried to imitate orchestral instruments; and while failing in verisimilitude, succeeded in sounding like a memory of them.

My performance of Rossetti’s “An October Garden”  is available with the player gadget below. If you don’t see the player, you can find all the audio performances here on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or most other podcast sources. You can find them at such places by searching for “Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet.”

 

 

 

 

*In that Wikipedia page that I linked above for the text of “The Last Rose of Summer”  I draw your attention to the lower sections where the extraordinarly wide range of use and allusion the tune and the text has had is listed. A personal favorite is Robert Hunter’s grief-filled variation “Black Muddy River.”

**There’s an old Jazz improvisor’s trick that when a player flubs a note or makes a wrong choice when improvising, that a way out is to repeat it, or even make it a motif.

Higginson’s June

Here’s another post in our informal series “The Roots of Emily Dickinson.” Now a title like that may lead some to think I’m some sort of Dickinson scholar—which would be a fine thing to be, but I’m not. Frankly, when I started this project a few years back I assumed I’d present some Emily Dickinson poems. After all, not only do they famously fit well to music, but she was part of the poetry canon that I was raised on. Then something unexpected happened.

When I started to dig into Dickinson poems they grew mysterious, not just the elusive mystery of their intent or even their true subject, but the somewhat more external mystery of how they came to be written in the mid-19th century in a town in rural Massachusetts without any sure models for Dickinson’s new kind of poetry.

We know how many other writers assembled their machines and what fueled them. Shakespeare and Bob Dylan worked within successful entertainment enterprises, even if they were to reshape them. T. S. Eliot had a scholar’s interest in a wide range of art and spirituality across history, and after the trauma of WWI a significant part of the culture was waiting for someone to reassemble it however dolefully, even if it was in his Cubist collage. The Surrealists were crystal-clear about their influences and the impact of Freud and psychoanalysis. The G.I. Bill after WWII and the following post-war American prosperity introduced large numbers to colleges and college towns, including some who would likely not have attended before the war. This fueled not only the Beats, but the more academic-associated American poets of my youth. The 20th Century urban migration of Afro-Americans and the Talented Tenth tactics of the early 20th century U.S. Civil Rights movement encouraged the Harlem Renaissance and similar artists.

Emily Dickinson? It’s just not so clear to me. My best guess remains that she was a Transcendentalist of some sort in a household dominated by a father that wasn’t. Transcendentalism, staunchly individualist in it’s outlook has no mandatory dogma, but the sense that the intense, even visionary study of nature reveals the deepest spiritual truths seem to me to be its core. Received truths, any established customs and traditions, are to fall before this apprehension.

However individualist in philosophy, the Transcendentalists and the Boston publishing and cultural nexus were intimately connected socially in a way that Dickinson was not.

One incident, often judged as a quasi-accident* closed this circuit. In 1862 as the 31-year-old Dickinson had begun her extraordinary five years or so of white-hot poetic composition, she wrote Thomas Wentworth Higginson and enclosed a few of her poems. A string of correspondence ensues, and eventually the two met in person.

Dickinson’s letter is conventionally seen as a “cold call” prompted by Higginson writing a magazine article in The Atlantic “A Letter to a Young Contributor.”  That article is largely unremarkable if sensible, the subject one that is covered over and over wherever there are editors who accept written submissions. Submit clean, legible copy. Re-writing is as important as writing. Remember your audience and take pity on them. Hey, the editor is on your side—they, like the writer, want to produce good work.

And here we come to the next beat in the story as it’s usually told. Higginson is often portrayed as something of a doofus, the archetypal mansplainer who can’t understand Dickinson’s greatness. He suggests Dickinson write more conventionally and doesn’t think her work is suitable for publication. Presented with one of the founding geniuses of Modern poetry, he’s blind and hesitant.

Is that so? Well, there’s a lot we don’t know. First, we only have letters from Dickinson’s side of the correspondence. I’ve delayed this post so that I could at least read some of Higginson’s writing on other contemporaries of his and Dickinson, and one thing stands out from his later 19th century accounts of his life and times: he’s the soul of discretion (obscuring names for embarrassing incidents), generous even to his opponents, and extraordinarily hesitant in claiming credit for any of the things he may have been instrumental in. As an editor and literary critic, he seems to have a fairly good and objective eye, and he does not shy from pointing out shortcomings in writers he admires. I read his essay on Emerson written shortly after Emerson’s death, and his admiration for the man and his intellect does not keep him from agreeing with judgements about the faults of Emerson’s poetry. It therefore seems likely he could have suggested changes to Dickinson in his correspondence.

How artistically wrong would those suggestions have been? How harmful might they have been to the isolated Dickinson? Even if he was “wrong” could he have been tactically right about what mid-19th century audiences would tolerate? Here we don’t know the devilish details, but we know some things otherwise: Dickinson wrote most of her nearly two thousand revolutionary highly condensed poems as this correspondence was initiated. If Higginson squelched her or convinced her to temper her individuality, he must have been bad at it. If, on the other hand, what he said encouraged and kept her going, that would be consistent with what occurred.

Here’s something else we know objectively: in 1890 he was instrumental in getting Dickinson’s posthumous-published-career off the ground.**  He did not prevent and may have agreed with the conventionalizing of Dickinson’s punctuation, adding of titles to title-less poems, and so on—but historically those editions sold well right from the start and gained Dickinson a reading public. He added his prestige to the launch with the book’s introduction where he framed her (not yet knowing how well Dickinson would sell) as a sort of art brut phenomenon:

“In many cases these verses will seem to the reader like poetry torn up by the roots, with rain and dew and earth still clinging to them, giving a freshness and a fragrance not otherwise to be conveyed.”

This may be false, even if it’s an accurate advertisement for the impact reading Dickinson for the first time may have on a reader. Yes, Dickinson was likely a more conscious and careful artist than this impression leaves us with. But it worked! Remember, there was no Dickinson tradition to be misinterpreted when he did this. To a large degree, the reason we have an on-going debate about Dickinson that more than a handful of graduate students and eccentrics like me care about is because of his work in insuring that original edition.

Now for a surprise. I did not know that Higginson had written poetry until I came upon this poem by accident while looking for June poems. I can find nothing about it, but in the absence of knowledge I’ll speculate it might be from Higginson’s college-age youth. Here it is:

June

I may be full of perplexing thought even if this June day isn’t

 

It’s a graceful sonnet. I’m not in love with the slightly over-egged consonance of the “Lieth the lustre of her lovely life” line, but I’d suspect other readers would point it out with appreciation. On the other hand, the vowels of the preceding line “All the long day upon the broad green boughs” are pleasing to me. And the poem’s fine opening line, referring to June’s summer overture, “She needs no teaching,—no defect is hers” is hard for me to not read, whenever it was written, as the proper way to approach Emily Dickinson’s genius. The ending of the octet “While too much drugged with rapture to carouse/Broods her soft world of insect-being rife” is a truly strange one, half awkward “poetic diction” perhaps necessary to make the rhyme, and half a striking William Burroughs a-century-too-early image of June on the narcotic nod as summer’s insect-being is partly suppressed for the moment.

The sestet is not as distinctive, and I wonder if “zone” was chosen for its rhyme rather than being the best word at the end of the 12th line, but overall more interesting than most 19th century American sonnets. In his “Young Contributor”  article Higginson sagely notes that duality of the critic who’ll offer criticism when they themselves are not accomplished in the arts they criticize. “People criticize higher than they attain” he says.

After all that, here’s Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s sonnet “June”  and my performance of it. The player gadget to hear it is below.

 

 

 

*The writer of the standard Dickinson biography Richard Sewell believed that regular Atlantic  reader Emily Dickinson was attracted to Higginson’s nature articles which he’d published in The Atlantic  prior to the “Young Contributor.”  Early Dickinson biographer Genevieve Taggard speculates that George Gould (which she identifies as Dickinson’s ex-fiancé) may have suggested Dickinson write Higginson.

**I’m still underinformed on all the details of how we got to the 1890 publication of the first large batch of Dickinson poems. Originally, Dickinson’s sister looked to Sister-in-Law and intimate friend Susan Gilbert Dickinson to shepherd the publication. Susan Dickinson said (after the successful Higginson-introduced 1890 edition) that she had a big idea for presenting Dickinson in a fuller way from the start, but the project didn’t seem to get off the ground in the mind of Dickinson’s sister who was legally the rights holder. In an example of the multivalent family dynamics of the Dickinson family, the mistress of Susan Gilbert Dickinson’s husband (Emily’s brother, Austin) Mabel Todd Loomis, was then brought in as well as Higginson to edit and arrange for the first publication of Emily Dickinson’s work. Where Higginson comes in within this series of connections and who selected who, I don’t know, but seeing the book to completion and getting it published and launched with notice and eventual surprising sales has to be presumed to be largely Higginson’s work. He was the man with the connections, track record and prestige after all.

Frederick Douglass

Today’s piece uses words by Robert Hayden, who was a 20th Century American poet who often wrote about that essential American subject, Afro-American history. He was born just before WWI, and was writing poetry both before and after WWII, during the rise of the New Criticism, which held that the poem exists as a thing created as a conscious work by an author but is best judged irrespective of who that author is.

Douglass and Hayden

Frederick Douglass used the power of the charismatic portrait as well as his  powerful words
Robert Hayden had to rely more on the words alone, but what words they are!

To the degree that this theory was actually practiced, it solves a number of problems. One of them are the issues of discrimination, old-boy networks, and literary log-rolling where who you know or where you are in the social and academic order pre-emptively decree the worth of writing. It helps deal with thorny problems, like having poetic Modernism’s great progenitor Ezra Pound becoming a Fascist propagandist during wartime. If it was still in vogue, it might assist in considering issues around artists in our time who’ve committed heinous acts or supported political opinions we judge to be beyond the pale.

There’s a saying: in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice; but in practice, there is. Historically, the New Criticism as a critical movement didn’t consistently break down cultural barriers, though things like the post WWII GI Bill certainly did. Extra-academic movements like the Beats and their successors, and the Black Arts Movement did so as well. Great cultural shifts such as the civil rights movement have literary impact. In the end, the New Criticism seemed to restrict itself to giving students and academics a framework to discuss literature without the need to refer to the problems in their authors lives.

Perhaps too, it’s just easier to judge works based on friendship, affinity groups, or cultural and political stances. Even for an artist, how much can we live in an artistic world separated from the daily, inescapable effects of the political and economic world?

But let’s not be too unfair to the New Critics. They cared about the work as it exists, treating art not as inessential decoration for something else. They offered open structures, criteria that were open to any to master. When Robert Hayden, born in the crowded Detroit ghetto swelling with southern migrants looking for industrial work, mastered those structures, he (eventually) earned a place in the culture of his time. How did this play out as my generation, born after WWII, came of age? Let’s look at the tape.

15 minutes from a Robert Hayden interview in 1975.

This is a time capsule from over 40 years ago, yet it could be longer for all the patina of time. The monochrome of the film makes the impassive white interviewer, the smoke from his constant cigarette, and the later-life Hayden all look gray. You see the coke-bottle glasses on Hayden’s face, but not the tint of his skin that would have born him instant misjudgments throughout his life, misjudgments that he would have to have dealt with along with his art. You will hear him make the claim I made to describe him at the beginning of this: that he’s an American poet who will write about Afro-American subjects, and hear him begin to make the case as to why this distinction is important. I can clearly hear how important he believes this is.

Around 10 minutes in, he’s asked to engage with the separatist strain in Afro-American culture, and he offers his full-throated disagreement with what he thinks are their goals. That’s too big a subject to deal with here, but apparently at the point at which he was finally achieving some recognition for his poetry, some aligned with the Black Arts Movement saw him as an assimilationist. Some might view this part as a “damn kids, get off my lawn” generational moment.

Also, in the film Hayden reads two poems. One is probably his most well-known work “Those Winter Sundays,” and the other is today’s piece, “Frederick Douglass.”   In the later, using only the eloquent words in his sonnet, Hayden makes that argument that he could write a political statement timeless and yet incisive, and in the former, he writes a poem of gratitude to his foster father, an unpoetic man who made it possible for him to be a poet.

“Those Winter Sundays”  will be featured this month on Poetry In America on PBS. It’s a fine poem, and I’ll be interested in seeing what they do with that poem’s details, things that one needs to linger a bit to see. I, on the other hand, had already chosen to present “Frederick Douglass”  for my first Robert Hayden poem here. If you take the poems together, you’ll see two arguments for paying attention to Hayden. One the universalist for liberation (a political theory Hayden shared with Frederick Douglass) and the other the argument for gratitude to those, however imperfect, that helped us.

When I first read Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass”  this year I was immediately struck by the poem’s uncanny details, laid in-between the eloquent flow. It was written over 50 years ago, but it’s more current than that B&W film from 1975. Perhaps you’ll hear them too if you attend to them: freedom that can be beautiful and terrible, hunted aliens, metal statues more valued than lives made possible.

Here’s my performance of Hayden’s words about Douglass. Use the player to hear it.

Thanks to the publisher for permission to perform this. “Frederick Douglass”  is Copyright © 1966 by Robert Hayden. From COLLECTED POEMS OF ROBERT HAYDEN by Robert Hayden edited by Frederick Glaysher. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Company

Conlon Nancarrow

A great deal of what you hear me play here is made possible by a 1983 invention, MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), a standard for communicating musical commands. MIDI lets me create piano parts I can’t play with my non-pianist fingers. I tell MIDI what to play, and MIDI then instantly responds by playing those notes on an instrument so I can see if they fit.

Given MIDI, I as the composer can have the equivalent of a pair or more of pianists willing to play as simply or complexly as I want them to, and not only are my MIDI pianists totally compliant, they can be preternaturally skilled as well, willing to play odd rhythmic displacements or impossible fingerings.

In the years between WWI and WWII, a young musician of no great wealth or social background was studying composition in Boston. He was said to have crossed paths with some of the giants of 20th Century music there, including Walter Piston, whose Harmony  book I once started many decades ago, and Nicolas Slonimsky whose book on scales later became a huge influence on John Coltrane and Frank Zappa.

However, the titanic forces of world events would soon sweep him away from all this. In the 1930s he joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Americans who volunteered to fight the Fascist forces seeking to overthrow a republic in Spain during a war that served as a beta-test for World War II. This was a complex event, but all we need to know for our young man is that the anti-Fascist coalition was defeated, and the survivors who had fought for the Spanish Republic ended up as men without a country.

Earlier this year I was reading some 1939 writing by Herbert Read where he was appealing for support for a plan to transport these Spanish war survivors from French refugee camps to Latin America. Our young man, who’d hobnobbed with key musical theorists before becoming a “premature anti-Fascist,” soon found himself in Mexico City, perhaps as a result of this plan.

It was there our exiled young man took a technological step as a composer. He chose to write his music using “player pianos.” Player pianos, also called “reproducing pianos,” were a home entertainment fad from the era before better quality electronic recordings. An elaborate clockwork rolled a scroll of punched paper across mechanical sensors inside the piano which then drove the hammers to strike the piano strings. Scrolls of piano music, some recorded and played by the famous performers of the early 20th Century could be purchased, and when inserted into the home player piano, and played back with musical fidelity.

Our young man’s name was Conlon Nancarrow. Over the next few decades he exploited the player piano, not for parlor entertainment, but to create striking Modernist music of otherwise unplayable complexity. He was hip to new varieties of rhythm and harmony not only from other 20th Century “serious composers,” but from Jazz too—and the mathematical structures of Bach-like cannons were well suited to the looping scrolls he would punch himself. He wasn’t reproducing music someone played, he was producing music he conceived and punched into the controlling scrolls.

In the first few decades of his work Nancarrow had no funds, no grants, no copyist/assistants, no local orchestral resources to realize his musical ideas; but this one artist, a player piano, and his own score-roll punching could produce work needing only himself and his ideas to sound inside his small Mexican apartment.

Except for it’s painstaking, mechanical, cuckoo-clock handwork, what Nancarrow did is schematically like how one can use MIDI today. In a tip to this heritage, MIDI scores are still shown on the lit-up computer screen like player piano scrolls.

Nancarrow Piano Part MIDI score

“Stuck in holes which once were dots”
One of the piano parts for today’s piece shown in MIDI “piano roll” notation

 

In 1969, using the high-fidelity home entertainment media of its age, an LP record of Nancarrow’s works was issued on a major, well-distributed record label (Columbia, the record company of Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap). That’s when I first heard him. Acclaim in avant-garde music circles, and some grants and touring followed until his death in 1997.

In some ways the typical Nancarrow piece sounds like an artist who when finding out the vast capabilities of his new technology decides to use all of them. At once. A lot. Typical tempos sound like someone playing a recording at the wrong speed—and backwards. The number of simultaneous notes can be overwhelming, the intervals jarring, the rhythms insane. It’s challenging you to understand it, and it’s not a matter if you want to, you likely cannot. As with some avant-garde music, repeated listening (if one allows it) can increase comprehension of the ideas, but Nancarrow is never going to be shoving Billy Joel off the piano bench in popularity.



“Punched polyphony in a row” A Nancarrow scroll plays.

 

No, the reason I wrote this to celebrate Nancarrow isn’t because I think you’ll like his music, or even because he’d figure in any Desert Island Discs episode in my future (though through castaway days one might find the time to try to untie all the knotted ideas in a Nancarrow piece). No, it’s because I admire that kind of audacity and perseverance.

I originally wrote music of an acoustic guitar “folk song” sort, even though the poem sought to make use of eccentric meters and a tricky rhyme scheme to reference some of Nancarrow’s ideas. Today’s version has new music I wrote which fits the words better. Using MIDI-controlled pianos, it’s sort of “Nancarrow-lite” musically. To hear my audio piece for “Conlon Nancarrow,”  use the player below.

 

Ruined Refrigerator

Cleverness in poetry or writing can be a mixed blessing. While poetry without cleverness can be bland and unexciting, poetry with too much of it can seem a show-offy exercise exhibiting the most exorbitant self in self-expression.

Unlike my pleasant puzzlement with H. D.’s “The Pool”  last time, I can speak with authority about the author’s intent on today’s piece “Ruined Refrigerator,”  because I wrote this set of words. A short aside for those that are new here: this isn’t the way the Parlando Project generally works, we’re normally about “Other people’s stories,” our audio encounters with other author’s words.

But since I wrote this I can say a bit about how this worked with “Ruined Refrigerator.”  This started out as a sonnet I wrote in 1978. I’ve always been attracted to the 14-liner. It’s just about the perfect size to develop a point with a turn or even two, while still asking for concision. The 14 lines can be divided in many eccentric ways into stanzas, sections, and rhyme schemes. And since Shakespeare used it for his best poetry, you have a mighty model to measure up against.

The problem with the sonnet and Shakespeare as a model is that it can fall into clever complexity. Shakespeare was intoxicated with flowery language, language that loves using extra words and similes to express itself. Given the youthful vigor of the mostly modern English of Shakespeare’s day, and Shakespeare’s genius, this is not as tiresome in his best poems as it would too often be in those that were written after him.

Artists already have too much to worry about, but perhaps we should be more careful when we invent something, as any imitators will exploit all the faults in the invention—and so, eventually Shakespeare’s poetics can descend into “poetic language” that violates the call to concision that lyric poetry should heed, and to merely clever works that exercise the skills but not the aims and ends of great poetry.

I can tell you that as an author, writing clever poetry is great fun. Finding what you believe is a new way to say something is wonderful. Engaging in the music of thought where a theme emerges in a surprising and even mysterious way is as great a joy in words as it is when composing music. Fitting the stuff of a poem into the puzzle of meter and rhyme and stanza forms takes effort, but like any number of enjoyable crafts, it’s satisfying. The dance of metaphor as it leaps back and forth from the compared thing to the thing can feel in creation almost God-like.

These things have degrees of difficulty and achievement, yes, but the greater difficulty is engaging an audience for them. What is enjoyable and satisfying to the author is not necessarily the same to the reader or listener. Too little cleverness and the result is bland, too much and the reader will decide: too much effort for too little reward. Or they may read on and decide that it’s much ado about nothing. What the author thinks is clever, based on their effort and self-evaluation, seems mundane to the more sophisticated reader or obtusely obscure to the naïve one. Audiences don’t love or hate cleverness, they just want it to be worth their while.

were_only_in_it_for_the_money_bottom

Subliminal inspiration? Lower section the “We’re Only In It for the Money” album cover
created by Calvin Schenkel, Frank Zappa and Jerry Schatzberg 1967.

 

“Ruined Refrigerator”  may suffer from these issues, from failed attempts at cleverness. I wrote a complete draft around 40 years ago*, and I must have liked the “deep ecology” idea enough that I revised it 15 years ago. So far (small) audiences haven’t cared for it much. Maybe that’s my failing, or maybe it’s the audiences’—though I believe the audiences were good ones. Maybe on the first day of spring in a time when global warming is on more minds this will make more of a connection?

As an artist, you can negotiate a treaty with that failure, knowing that all artists fail—sometimes, depending on the audience. Artists can succeed with some audiences by making the choices that will certainly cause them to fail with others. One can always choose to fail better or differently. The important thing is to try, in the way you think best to try.

Here’s my performance and try of “Ruined Refrigerator.”

 

 

*A note on the 2004 draft I have of this says the first draft (lost) was from 1978. But I also recall stealing the germ of the idea from a Gary Larson “The Far Side” one-panel cartoon, though I have not been able to find that cartoon, and “The Far Side” was first published in 1980.

My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun

Last time we made some fun of Shakespeare’s honest love poem, his Sonnet 130, “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun.”  Well today, let’s give it it’s due.

The fun was that if was a poem meant to attract or hold a lover, it’s, well, not complementary—but there’s no evidence internal to the poem or external to what little we know about its writing, that says that was its intent. It’s one of Shakespeare’s sonnets that was written to “the Dark Lady.” Great title that. We may feel put off if the meaning of a poem isn’t clear to us right away, but in love and biography, most of us love a mystery. Let’s examine that mystery a bit.

First bit of mystery: it’s not clear exactly how autobiographical the typical Elizabethan poet, such as Shakespeare, intended their poetry to be. The idea of art as a mode of direct self-expression has become increasingly more common in the past 200 years, but it wasn’t necessarily the mode of the 16th Century poet. Showing off one’s language skills and elaborate allegorical metaphors while speaking of popular and entertaining subjects scored points in the game then, and it was less about biography that rhymed.

Poets of that era liked to revisit the same subject over and over, because playing on the same topical court let them measure themselves against each other. And so it was when writing a series of sonnets about love troubles.

But no author can avoid the personal entirely. This has lead to the detective game to identify the “Dark Lady.”

A leading solution is Emilia Bassano Lanier. Like a lot of Elizabethans, a fascinating character of which only scattered but intriguing facts are known. She may have been Jewish, North African, or Italian. Family described as “black” in Elizabethan times. Had connections to the same theater and artistic world that Shakespeare did in London. Musical family. Her father helped Queen Elizabeth with her lute when she was a young girl. Emilia wrote the first book of poetry published by an Englishwoman, and she seems remarkably independent and kick-ass. She even makes it onto the lists of the people who “really wrote Shakespeare.”

Nicholas Hillard possible Emily_Bassano
This may be a portrait of Emilia Bassano Lanier

Shakespeare wouldn’t be the first writer to use a person they knew as a model for a literary character as an in-joke that his crowd would get, or just as a handy way to gather a matrix of characteristics. And yes, Shakespeare and Lanier might have been a thing.

It’s fairly clear that Sonnet 130 is another answer record/dis cut like our dueling shepherd poems from the same era. However biographical or invented, the poet is telling us that as far as his love is concerned, all the bullcrack about white skin, golden hair, and rosey cheeks doesn’t get his motor running. There is that breath “reeks” thing in his poem, but I’m not sure it was automatically funky in Shakespeare’s time. The word comes from the Middle English word for smoke or steam—so not necessarily stinky breath, just not literally like perfume.

Elsewhere in the “Dark Lady” sonnets Shakespeare praises “black beauty.” Was the Dark Lady Black in the modern sense of the term? I don’t know if we can say for sure. Sub-Saharan Africans were in England in those times, including a trumpeter who was part of Elizabeth’s father’s court.

Meeting of Henry VIII and King Francis 1 c1520 with John Blanke shown

Birth of the Crewel? Henry VIII and the king of France take in a WWF tag team match.
In the upper left of this tapestry, on trumpet, is John Blanke, also spelled Blak

Was Shakespeare “answering” one particular poem? One doesn’t have to look far for targets, but some point to a poem set to music by William Byrd “Of Gold All Burnished:”

Of gold all burnished, brighter than sunbeams,
Were those curled locks upon her noble head
Whose deep conceits my true deserving fled.
Wherefore mine eyes such store of tears outstreams.
Her eyes, fair stars ; her red, like damask rose ;
White, silver shine of moon on crystal stream ;
Her beauty perfect, whereon fancies dream.
Her lips are rubies ; teeth, of pearls two rows.
Her breath more sweet than perfect amber is ;
Her years in prime ; and nothing doth she want
That might draw gods from heaven to further bliss.
Of all things perfect this I most complain,
Her heart is rock, made all of adamant.
Gifts all delight, this last doth only pain.

The poem’s 9th line might be a mondegreen, as it makes sense if the last words aren’t “amber is,” but the perfume “ambergris.” Who wrote the words? That’s not stated in the book which published Byrd’s piece in 1589, but a modern musician and relative of Emilia has put forth the idea it’s a poem by Emilia Bassano Lanier, though I can’t access any cite for his evidence.

Maybe I should have tried to make a lute sound here for the music, but it’s 12-string guitar, bass, a small string section and just a bit of recorder back in the mix for Sonnet 130. To hear it, use the player.

Already a Broken Heart

Are there more poems about love than any other topic? I’ve done no study, but I think that’s likely.

Now, are the majority of the most prestigious poems about love? I strongly suspect they are not. If one looks at the top of the list compiled from mostly American modern poetry anthologies completed by Emily Temple for LitHub, less than a quarter are love poems—and this is so even if one loosely counts poems like “Prufrock” as love songs on the misdirection of the title.

Another thing I would expect to find, if one focusses on the poems concerning love, is that most that remain are about how love has gone wrong.

Perhaps that can be laid to the principle in Tolstoy’s famous line about families “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Perhaps there is more varied material in love’s absences and discontents.

The Lovers by René Magritte

Why yes, I agree these pillowcases seem to have adequately high thread count, but I was shopping for a duvet cover.

 

Can this relative rarity have other causes? Could it also be that it’s harder to write a good love poem? Mere gushing has its limits, as true as it may be to love’s initiation. Honest love poems have their dangers, as they ride on a delicate balance point. My favorite episode of the BBC Elizabethan-era sitcom “Upstart Crow” has Shakespeare trying to explain that sonnet 130 “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” is a good love poem. Sitcom Shakespeare explains:

“Conventionally, love sonnets are ridiculously flattering. They make absurdly overblown claims for the beauty of their subjects. Well, we wouldn’t want that, would we? The love I show you in my startlingly innovative 130th sonnet is greater, because it recognizes your flaws.”

“Next time bring me sweets.”

No spoilers here. “Who The Bard! Me the Bard!”

 

And then there’s the episode’s ending when Kit Marlowe defends Shakespeare on a morals charge with a surprising legal defense. I won’t spoil that.

“Already a Broken Heart”  is my own attempt at an honest love poem/love song. If even sitcom Shakespeare has troubles with honest love sonnets, I won’t claim success. Furthermore, I’m hesitant about the performance, as I’m asking my singing voice, the only one I have available in my production process, to do things it’s not good at. Sometimes I hear it as honest, and other times I hear it as insufficient. A better singer or singers could do much more with this.

Use the player below to hear “Already a Broken Heart.”