Category Archives: odd poems

Odd poem: William Faulkner, ‘After Fifty Years’

Her house is empty and her heart is old,
And filled with shades and echoes that deceive
No one save her, for still she tries to weave
With blind bent fingers, nets that cannot hold.
Once all men’s arms rose up to her, ‘tis told,
And hovered like white birds for her caress:
A crown she could have had to bind each tress
Of hair, and her sweet arms the Witches’ Gold.

Her mirrors know her witnesses, for there
She rose in dreams from other dreams that lent
Her softness as she stood, crowned with soft hair.
And with his bound heart and his young eyes bent
And blind, he feels her presence like shed scent,
Holding him body and life within its snare.

William Faulkner began writing poetry at an early age; and in his late 20s he published his first book, a collection of poems titled ‘The Marble Faun’. Though much of the fiction for which he won the 1949 Nobel Prize carries a heavy southern accent or is written in stream of consciousness, it is engaging to see that he could be meditative in the iambic pentameter of a regular sonnet if he chose.

Photo: “William Faulkner’s Typewriter 2” by visitmississippi is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Opposing poems: Ronald Knox on Berkeleyism

There once was a man who said “God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the Quad.”

This limerick by the English priest and Sherlock Holmes fanatic Ronald Knox plays with the belief of Bishop George Berkeley that matter doesn’t exist – in the 18th century he wrote and preached that matter is only the product of mind and ideas, and needs to be observed in order to exist. Einstein, quantum physics and Schrodinger’s cat may lead us in that direction these days, but at the time it was radically new in the West. (In the East, ideas about the illusory nature of matter have been around for millennia.) It picked up the derisive name of “immaterialism“. And in his ‘Life of Samuel Johnson’, James Boswell recounts their hearing Berkeley preach:

“After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — ‘I refute it thus‘.”

Philosophically, Johnson’s response is considered a logical fallacy, now called the “appeal to the stone“.

Ronald Knox, the 20th century priest, limerick author and Sherlockian, is probably also the author of this limerick that opposes the first one:

Dear Sir,
Your astonishment’s odd.
I am always about in the Quad.
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by
Yours faithfully,
God

Perhaps we can think of the whole issue like this: if you play a strategy game like Civilization on the computer, you can only see part of the world at any one time. You move the cursor up, down or sideways, and you bring other parts of the world to the screen. What’s on the screen exists visually for you because that’s the part of the game world you can see; but the rest of the game world doesn’t exist visually – it exists as pure data in a program, and only materialises when you move the cursor to look at it. Berkeley suggests the physical world behaves similarly and, despite Samuel Johnson, this can’t be disproved. In that case, God would not cause the unobserved world to materialise – God would be the program, the organising principle for the data which would remain immaterial until observed…

Colour me Agnostic.

Photo: “Bishop Berkeley” by Infidelic is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Opposing poems: Alexander Pope and J. C. Squire

Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.

Pope’s “Epigram on Sir Isaac Newton” stood as a definitive statement until the 20th century, when J.C. Squire produced his “Answer to Pope’s Epitaph for Sir Isaac Newton”

It did not last: the Devil howling “Ho!
Let Einstein be!
” restored the status quo.

There is something very charming about an epigrammatic poem being answered by a poet with an opposite view. Some weeks ago I posted such a pair about 17th century Oxbridge rivalry, with Joseph Trapp referencing events of 1714 in six lines of verse to demonstrate Oxford’s superiority, answered by William Browne taking four lines to use the same events to argue for Cambridge. There are other such pairs… this obviously needs more research…

Illustration: “Alexander Pope” by immugmania is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Odd poem: ‘The Siege of Belgrade’, alliterative abecedarian poem by Alaric Alexander Watts

An Austrian army, awfully arrayed,
Boldly by battery besieged Belgrade.
Cossack commanders cannonading come,
Dealing destruction’s devastating doom.
Every endeavour engineers essay,
For fame, for fortune fighting – furious fray!
Generals ‘gainst generals grapple – gracious God!
How honours Heaven heroic hardihood!
Infuriate, indiscriminate in ill,
Just Jesus, instant innocence instill!
Kindred kill kinsmen, kinsmen kindred kill.
Labour low levels longest, loftiest lines;
Men march ‘mid mounds, ‘mid moles, ‘mid murderous mines;
Now noxious, noisy numbers nothing, naught
Of outward obstacles, opposing ought;
Poor patriots, partly purchased, partly pressed,
Quite quaking, quickly “Quarter! Quarter!” quest.
Reason returns, religious right redounds,
Suwarrow stops such sanguinary sounds.
Truce to thee, Turkey! Triumph to thy train,
Unwise, unjust, unmerciful Ukraine!
Vanish vain victory! vanish, victory vain!
Why wish we warfare? Wherefore welcome were
Xerxes, Ximenes, Xanthus, Xavier?
Yield, yield, ye youths! ye yeomen, yield your yell!
Zeus’, Zarpater’s, Zoroaster’s zeal,
Attracting all, arms against acts appeal!

Belgrade was besieged nine times between 1440 and 1806. It is right on the edge of the area the Ottoman Turks were able to wrest from the Christians, and control went back and forth. This poem is about the 1789 Siege of Belgrade, when the Austrians showed up in mid September with 120,000 troops and 200 siege guns to try to take control of the Belgrade fortress that was held by 9,000 Ottoman troops with 456 cannon. On 6th October the Austrians began a devastating bombardment. Two days later, in exchange for the surrender of Belgrade, the Ottoman garrison was given a free passage with their personal and private possessions to Orșova; a prisoner exchange was also arranged between the combatants.

The poem was written by British journalist and poet Alaric Alexander Watts (1797-1864) and published in 1828. There are a couple of versions floating about on the internet, with various spellings and typos, and with and without the ‘Just Jesus’ line which deteriorates from J’s to I’s. The rhyme pairing isn’t perfect, the metre is imperfect, the syntax is stretched in places, and meanings and references are sometimes obscure. (‘Suwarrow’ for instance is the brilliant Russian general Alexander Suvorov who, though instrumental in winning battles with Turkey and others in the late 18th century, was not present at the 1789 Siege of Belgrade. He was defeating the Turks elsewhere at the time, but how can you ignore a general credited with winning 63 major battles, and never losing one?)

My initial impression is that the metre is an easy-to-read, easy-to-recite ‘four beats to the bar’, but the number of syllables varies with the needs of the alliteration:

An AUStrian ARmy, AWfully arRAYED, × / × × / × / × × × /
BOLDly by BATTery beSIEGED BelGRADE / × × / × × × / × /

But then it dawns on me that the poem is actually in iambic pentameter, with five beats… but the first line is so technically weak that it’s misleading: it has eleven syllables instead of ten unless you pronounce the second word ‘Austrin’, and also requires the ‘-ly’ of ‘awfully’ to be a stressed syllable. But once you reinterpret the rhythm of that line, the poem settles down properly. (There is a good lesson in poetics here: the technical purity of your opening line is super important!)

Anyway, I think we can cut Watts some slack: I don’t know of any other alliterative abecedarian poem at all, though surely there must be some. Wikipedia quotes this fragment from the Harper Handbook to Literature:

An abecedarius always alliterates
Blindly blunders, but blooms:
Comes crawling craftily, cantering crazily,
Daring, doubtless, dark dooms.

but I’m still looking for something more…

Photo: “Cossack Mannequin” by sarmoung is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Odd poem: ‘Changsha’ by Mao Zedong

Alone I stand in the autumn cold
On the tip of Orange Island,
The Xiang flowing northward;
I see a thousand hills crimsoned through
By their serried woods deep-dyed,
And a hundred barges vying
Over crystal blue waters.
Eagles cleave the air,
Fish glide under the shallow water;
Under freezing skies a million creatures contend in freedom.
Brooding over this immensity,
I ask, on this bondless land
Who rules over man’s destiny?
I was here with a throng of companions,
Vivid yet those crowded months and years.
Young we were, schoolmates,
At life’s full flowering;
Filled with student enthusiasm
Boldly we cast all restraints aside.
Pointing to our mountains and rivers,
Setting people afire with our words,
We counted the mighty no more than muck.
Remember still
How, venturing midstream, we struck the waters
And the waves stayed the speeding boats?

Mao Zedong wrote this poem in 1925, when he was 31. He had previously spent five years in Changsha at university, young, bold and enthusiastic. Now he returned, reflected, remembering his student days, pondering the land’s immensity and the nature of destiny, and he wrote his poem. And today the young Mao gazes again at the river from Orange Island… or would, if it wasn’t just a stone statue of his head.

Despite his revolutionary tendencies in other areas, Mao wrote in Classical Chinese verse. ‘Changsha’ is annotated “to the tune of Chin Yuan Chun”, marking it as belonging to the type of verse called tzu. The tzu originated in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) as lines sung to certain tunes. Each tune prescribes a strict tonal pattern and rhyme scheme, with a fixed number of lines of a standardised varying length. Obviously, a translation into a European language is going to lose the structural form inherent in the original. Mao may not be one of the best Chinese poets, but his poems are generally considered to have literary quality. Arthur Waley, the eminent British translator of Chinese literature, however, described Mao’s poetry as “not as bad as Hitler’s paintings, but not as good as Churchill’s.”

Photo: “A young Chairman Mao” by timzachernuk is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Odd poem: Frederick the Great’s erotic poem for a male lover

‘La Jouissance’, translated as ‘The Ecstacy’ or ‘The Orgasm’

This night, vigorous desire in full measure,
Algarotti wallowed in a sea of pleasure.
A body not even a Praxitiles fashions
Redoubled his senses and imbued his passions
Everything that speaks to eyes and touches hearts,
Was found in the fond object that enflamed his parts.
Transported by love and trembling with excitement
In Cloris’ arms he yields himself to contentment
The love that unites them heated their embraces
And tied bodies and arms as tightly as laces.
Divine sensual pleasure! To the world a king!
Mother of their delights, an unstaunchable spring,
Speak through my verses, lend me your voice and tenses
Tell of their fire, acts, the ecstasy of their senses!
Our fortunate lovers, transported high above
Know only themselves in the fury of love:
Kissing, enjoying, feeling, sighing and dying
Reviving, kissing, then back to pleasure flying.
And in Knidos’ grove, breathless and worn out
Was these lovers’ happy destiny, without doubt.
But all joy is finite; in the morning ends the bout.
Fortunate the man whose mind was never the prey
To luxury, or grand airs, one who knows how to say
A moment of climax for a fortunate lover
Is worth so many aeons of star-spangled honour.

The poem may not be world-shaking, but the backstory is intriguing: Frederick, the oldest son of the King of Prussia, was gay which his ultramasculine father didn’t like. In his teens one lover, his father’s page, was exiled to an unpopular regiment on the Dutch border; another lover, a tutor, was executed–Frederick was forced to watch the beheading. At 21 he was married to a relative of the Habsburg dynasty although, as he wrote to his sister “there can be neither love nor friendship between us.” When he became King at age 28 he prevented his wife from visiting the Court. He set her up with a palace and with Berlin apartments, saw her rarely and never showed her any affection.

The poem above was written in French, Frederick’s preferred language, in July 1740, shortly after he became King. (The translation is by Giles MacDonogh.) Frederick had just been joined at Court by his Italian friend the philosopher Francesco Algarotti who had apparently made disparaging comments about the lack of passion in northern Europeans. Frederick wrote to Voltaire that the poem was a response to the charge; physical passion between Frederick and Algarotti was clearly part of the issue. Algarotti’s manuscript of the poem, headed ‘From Königsberg to Monsieur Algarotti, Swan of Padua‘, was discovered in archives in Berlin in 2011.

Frederick ruled for 46 years, his reign notable for military successes and Prussian expansion, and for his patronage of the Arts and support for the Enlightenment. He died at age 74 in 1786, childless of course.

Photo: “Frederick the Great Bust” by mrsmecomber is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Odd poem: French Verse on painting, by Winston Churchill

La peinture á l’huile
Est bien difficile,
Mais c’est beaucoup plus beau
Que la peinture á l’eau.

The translation: “Oil painting / Is certainly hard, / But it’s much lovelier / Than watercolour.” For reasons unknown, Winston Churchill came up with what is almost a Clerihew in style, but in French, as a comment in his little 1948 book ‘Painting as a Pastime‘.

Churchill first took up painting in 1915 at age 40 when he was removed as First Lord of the Admiralty. His fall was a result of the disastrous Dardanelles and Gallipoli attacks on Turkey that he had organised.

He took up painting for distraction, but it became increasingly a part of his life. He didn’t have hopes of making money from his “daubs”, and didn’t consider he had mastered the art. As he wrote in that slim book, “When I get to heaven I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so to get to the bottom of the subject.” Early on he submitted and exhibited under pseudonyms as a way of assessing his abilities without the influence of his name. In 1921 he exhibited at Galerie Druet in Paris under the pseudonym Charles Morin and sold six paintings for £30 each. In 1947 he submitted paintings to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition under the name David Winter, and was successful with two of them.

He continued to paint for over 40 years, landscapes when the weather was obliging, still lifes when stuck indoors. Wherever he travelled–Morocco and Egypt, France and Italy, Jamaica, Canada and the US–his easel, brushes and paints went with him and were put to use. He produced at least 500 paintings, giving many away and not keeping records of them. You can see several of his paintings here if you scroll to the bottom.

‘Photo: Churchill painting a view of the Sorgue river in 1948, photographer unknown

Odd poem: Integral limerick by Betsy Devine and/or Joel E. Cohen, perhaps

Which should be read as:

Integral z-squared dz
from 1 to the cube root of 3
times the cosine
of three pi over 9
equals log of the cube root of ‘e’.

Note that this limerick relies for its rhyme on the American pronunciation of “z” as “zee”. For the “z = zed” half of the world, you can substitute in another letter such as “t”. What it all means is beyond me… however much I had of this in school is long forgotten. I’m much happier with the Mathematical limerick in an earlier blog post.

This limerick appears in a book by Devine and Cohen, ‘Absolute Zero Gravity‘, but it is not clear that any of the poems, jokes and puzzles collected in it actually originate with the authors, as they are all “collected” but unattributed.

Odd poem: Mathematical limerick by Leigh Mercer

That may not look like a limerick to you, but if you read correctly it can be!

A dozen, a gross, and a score
Plus three times the square root of four
Divided by seven
Plus five times eleven
Is nine squared and not a bit more.

Leigh Mercer was a very odd character. Born the son of a Church of England pastor in 1893, he said “I have been taught to regard myself as the fool of the family, a professional ne’er-do-well.” From 1910 to 1959 he held between 60 and 85 different jobs: in the engineering shops of 30 motor car companies including Rolls-Royce and Ford, as a nurse to a wealthy invalid, as a Post Office Savings Bank clerk, a pavement artist, a carnival sideshow assistant, an English tutor in Paris…

He loved puzzles and wordplay, especially palindromes. He is best known for creating “A man, a plan, a canal – Panama.” There is an 8-page biography of him here, including 100 palindromes. Leigh Mercer died in 1977.

Odd poem: King Canute’s spontaneous song

Merie sungen the Muneches binnen Ely,
Tha Cnut ching reu ther by.
Roweth, cnites, noer the land,
and here we thes Muneches saeng.

King Canute, on a journey by water to Ely, heard the chanting of monks and at once–according to the 12th century Liber Eliensis, but translated out of the original Latin and Old English–“With his own mouth expressing the joy he felt in his heart, he composed a song in English, in these words, which begins thus:

Merrily sang the monks of Ely
As Canute the king rowed there by.
Row, knights, nearer the land,
And hear we these monks’ song,

and the rest that follows, which to this day is sung at dances among the people and remembered in popular sayings.”

After a rocky beginning, the Danish-born Canute (or Cnut) became a well-loved King of England. Canute’s father Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark, had invaded England twice. The first time was in 1003 to avenge the death of his sister Gunhilde in the St. Brice’s Day general massacre of Danes ordered by the Wessex King Æthelred the Unready (the massacre itself being in response to years of slaughter and pillage by raiding Danes). The second time was in 1013, when he overthrew Æthelred. Sweyn died in 1014, and Æthelred resumed his rule. Sweyn’s son Canute invaded in 1015, Æthelred died in 1016, and Canute the Great ruled England (and Denmark, and latterly Norway) until 1035.

First misconception: Æthelred the Unready doesn’t mean he was ill-prepared. The “red” or “rede” in both his name and his nickname means “advice”, and his pun of a nickname makes him “King Well-Advised the Ill-Advised”.

Second misconception: King Canute wasn’t being foolish in the story of his ordering the incoming tide to stop. He did it to shut up the flattering courtiers who told him he was all-powerful and could do anything. He had his chair set up on the beach and ordered the tide to go back; when the sea soaked him and his courtiers, he made it clear that he wanted truth and not flattery from his advisers.

Canute married King Æthelred the Unready’s widow Emma, perhaps for political reasons and as a way for Emma to protect her sons; it seems that the marriage grew to be very affectionate. Canute was very happy in England, and increasingly relied on the Anglo-Saxon nobility rather than on imported Danes for his control, taxation and administration of the country. Two of his sons followed him as kings of England, and for a while it looked like England might become a permanent part of Scandinavia. And personally, as an Anglo-Dane, I regret this didn’t happen.

Picture: “The Wisdom of Knut” by spratmackrel is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0