Diverted by the worst voluptuousnes, which is an Hydroptique immoderate desire of humane learning and languages

From John Donne’s Letters (number 43):

To Sir H. Goodere


EVERY tuesday I make account that I turn a great hour-glass, and consider that a weeks life is run out since I writ. But if I aske my self what I have done in the last watch, or would do in the next, I can say nothing; if I say that I have passed it without hurting any, so may the Spider in my window. The primitive Monkes were excusable in their retirings and enclosures of themselves: for even of them every one cultivated his own garden and orchard, that is, his soul and body, by meditation, and manufactures; and they ought the world no more since they consumed none of her sweetnesse, nor begot others to burden her. But for me, if I were able to husband all my time so thriftily, as not onely not to wound my soul in any minute by actuall sinne, but not to rob and cousen her by giving any part to pleasure or businesse, but bestow it all upon her in meditation, yet even in that I should wound her more, and contract another guiltinesse: As the Eagle were very unnaturall if because she is able to do it, she should pearch a whole day upon a tree, staring in contemplation of the majestie and glory of the Sun, and let her young Eglets starve in the nest. Two of the most precious things which God hath afforded us here, for the agony and exercise of our sense and spirit, which are a thirst and inhiation after the next life, and a frequency of prayer and meditation in this, are often envenomed, and putrefied, and stray into a corrupt disease: for as God doth thus occasion, and positively concurre to evill, that when a man is purposed to do a great sin, God infuses some good thoughts which make him choose a lesse sin, or leave out some circumstance which aggravated that; so the devill doth not only suffer but provoke us to some things naturally good, upon condition that we shall omit some other more necessary and more obligatory. And this is his greatest subtilty; because herein we have the deceitfull comfort of having done well, and can very hardly spie our errour because it is but an insensible omission, and no accusing act. With the first of these I have often suspected my self to be overtaken; which is, with a desire of the next life: which though I know it is not merely out of a wearinesse of this, because I had the same desires when I went with the tyde, and enjoyed fairer hopes then now: yet I doubt worldly encombrances have encreased it. I would not that death should take me asleep. I would not have him meerly seise me, and onely declare me to be dead, but win me, and overcome me. When I must shipwrack, I would do it in a Sea, where mine impotencie might have some excuse; not in a sullen weedy lake, where I could not have so much as exercise for my swimming. Therefore I would fain do something; but that I cannot tell what, is no wonder. For to chuse, is to do: but to be no part of any body, is to be nothing. At most, the greatest persons, are but great wens, and excrescences; men of wit and delightfull conversation, but as moalls for ornament, except they be so incorporated into the body of the world, that they contribute something to the sustentation of the whole. This I made account that I begun early, when I understood the study of our laws: but was diverted by the worst voluptuousnes, which is an Hydroptique immoderate desire of humane learning and languages: beautifull ornaments to great fortunes; but mine needed an occupation, and a course which I thought.  I entred well into, when I submitted my self to such a service, as I thought might imploy those poor advantages, which I had. And there I stumbled too, yet I would try again: for to this hour I am nothing, or so little, that I am scarce subject and argument good enough for one of mine own letters: yet I fear, that doth not ever proceed from a good root, that I am so well content to be lesse, that is dead. You, Sir, are farre enough from these descents, your vertue keeps you secure, and your naturall disposition to mirth will preserve you; but lose none of these holds, a slip is often as dangerous as a bruise, and though you cannot fall to my lownesse, yet in a much lesse distraction you may meet my sadnesse, for he is no safer which falls from an high tower into the leads, then he which falls from thence to the ground: make therefore to your self some mark, and go towards it alegrement. Though I be in such a planetary and erratique fortune, that I can do nothing constantly, yet you may finde some constancy in my constant advising you to it.

Your hearty true friend
J. Donne

Here lie two flamens, and both those, the best

By Thomas Carew out of Herbert Grierson’s Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century.

I’m feeling the need for a splash more irreverence – in both senses –  in my reading these days.

An Elegy upon the Death of the Dean of Paul’s, Dr. John Donne
Can we not force from widow’d poetry,
Now thou art dead (great Donne) one elegy
To crown thy hearse? Why yet dare we not trust,
Though with unkneaded dough-bak’d prose, thy dust,
Such as th’ unscissor’d churchman from the flower
Of fading rhetoric, short-liv’d as his hour,
Dry as the sand that measures it, should lay
Upon thy ashes, on the funeral day?
Have we no voice, no tune? Didst thou dispense
Through all our language, both the words and sense?
‘Tis a sad truth. The pulpit may her plain
And sober Christian precepts still retain,
Doctrines it may, and wholesome uses, frame,
Grave homilies and lectures, but the flame
Of thy brave soul (that shot such heat and light
As burnt our earth and made our darkness bright,
Committed holy rapes upon our will,
Did through the eye the melting heart distil,
And the deep knowledge of dark truths so teach
As sense might judge what fancy could not reach)
Must be desir’d forever. So the fire
That fills with spirit and heat the Delphic quire,
Which, kindled first by thy Promethean breath,
Glow’d here a while, lies quench’d now in thy death.
The Muses’ garden, with pedantic weeds
O’erspread, was purg’d by thee; the lazy seeds
Of servile imitation thrown away,
And fresh invention planted; thou didst pay
The debts of our penurious bankrupt age;
Licentious thefts, that make poetic rage
A mimic fury, when our souls must be
Possess’d, or with Anacreon’s ecstasy,
Or Pindar’s, not their own; the subtle cheat
Of sly exchanges, and the juggling feat
Of two-edg’d words, or whatsoever wrong
By ours was done the Greek or Latin tongue,
Thou hast redeem’d, and open’d us a mine
Of rich and pregnant fancy; drawn a line
Of masculine expression, which had good
Old Orpheus seen, or all the ancient brood
Our superstitious fools admire, and hold
Their lead more precious than thy burnish’d gold,
Thou hadst been their exchequer, and no more
They each in other’s dust had rak’d for ore.
Thou shalt yield no precedence, but of time,
And the blind fate of language, whose tun’d chime
More charms the outward sense; yet thou mayst claim
From so great disadvantage greater fame,
Since to the awe of thy imperious wit
Our stubborn language bends, made only fit
With her tough thick-ribb’d hoops to gird about
Thy giant fancy, which had prov’d too stout
For their soft melting phrases. As in time
They had the start, so did they cull the prime
Buds of invention many a hundred year,
And left the rifled fields, besides the fear
To touch their harvest; yet from those bare lands
Of what is purely thine, thy only hands,
(And that thy smallest work) have gleaned more
Than all those times and tongues could reap before.
         But thou art gone, and thy strict laws will be
Too hard for libertines in poetry;
They will repeal the goodly exil’d train
Of gods and goddesses, which in thy just reign
Were banish’d nobler poems; now with these,
The silenc’d tales o’ th’ Metamorphoses
Shall stuff their lines, and swell the windy page,
Till verse, refin’d by thee, in this last age
Turn ballad rhyme, or those old idols be
Ador’d again, with new apostasy.
         Oh, pardon me, that break with untun’d verse
The reverend silence that attends thy hearse,
Whose awful solemn murmurs were to thee,
More than these faint lines, a loud elegy,
That did proclaim in a dumb eloquence
The death of all the arts; whose influence,
Grown feeble, in these panting numbers lies,
Gasping short-winded accents, and so dies.
So doth the swiftly turning wheel not stand
In th’ instant we withdraw the moving hand,
But some small time maintain a faint weak course,
By virtue of the first impulsive force;
And so, whilst I cast on thy funeral pile
Thy crown of bays, oh, let it crack awhile,
And spit disdain, till the devouring flashes
Suck all the moisture up, then turn to ashes.
         I will not draw the envy to engross
All thy perfections, or weep all our loss;
Those are too numerous for an elegy,
And this too great to be express’d by me.
Though every pen should share a distinct part,
Yet art thou theme enough to tire all art;
Let others carve the rest, it shall suffice
I on thy tomb this epitaph incise:
         Here lies a king, that rul’d as he thought fit
         The universal monarchy of wit;
         Here lie two flamens, and both those, the best,
         Apollo’s first, at last, the true God’s priest.

Habitants délicats des forêts de nous-mêmes

By Jules Supervielle from Gravitations (I think – definitely somewhere in my Pléiade complete works but I lost my marker):

Rien qu’un cri différé qui perce sous le cœur
Et je réveille en moi des êtres endormis.
Un à un, comme dans un dortoir sans limites,
Tous, dans leurs sentiments d’âges antérieurs,
Frêles, mais décidés à me prêter main forte
Je vais, je viens, je les appelle et les exhorte,
Les hommes, les enfants, les vieillards et les femmes,
La foule entière et sans bigarrures de l’âme
Qui tire sa couleur de l’iris de nos yeux
Et n’a droit de regard qu’à travers nos pupilles.
Oh ! population de gens qui vont et viennent,
Habitants délicats des forêts de nous-mêmes,
Toujours à la merci du moindre coup de vent
Et toujours quand il est passé, se redressant.
Voilà que lentement nous nous mettons en marche,
Une arche d’hommes remontant aux patriarches
Et lorsque l’on nous voit on distingue un seul homme
Qui s’avance et fait face et répond pour les autres.
Se peut-il qu’il périsse alors que l’équipage
A survécu à tant de vents et de mirages?

Jonah’s prodigy of ponderous misery drags him drowning down to sleep

From chapter 9 of Moby-Dick, Father Mapple’s sermon on Jonah:

All dressed and dusty as he is, Jonah throws himself into his berth, and finds the little state-room ceiling almost resting on his forehead. The air is close, and Jonah gasps. Then, in that contracted hole, sunk, too, beneath the ship’s water-line, Jonah feels the heralding presentiment of that stifling hour, when the whale shall hold him in the smallest of his bowels’ wards.

“Screwed at its axis against the side, a swinging lamp slightly oscillates in Jonah’s room; and the ship, heeling over towards the wharf with the weight of the last bales received, the lamp, flame and all, though in slight motion, still maintains a permanent obliquity with reference to the room; though, in truth, infallibly straight itself, it but made obvious the false, lying levels among which it hung. The lamp alarms and frightens Jonah; as lying in his berth his tormented eyes roll round the place, and this thus far successful fugitive finds no refuge for his restless glance. But that contradiction in the lamp more and more appals him. The floor, the ceiling, and the side, are all awry. ‘Oh! so my conscience hangs in me!’ he groans, ‘straight upwards, so it burns; but the chambers of my soul are all in crookedness!’

“Like one who after a night of drunken revelry hies to his bed, still reeling, but with conscience yet pricking him, as the plungings of the Roman race-horse but so much the more strike his steel tags into him; as one who in that miserable plight still turns and turns in giddy anguish, praying God for annihilation until the fit be passed; and at last amid the whirl of woe he feels, a deep stupor steals over him, as over the man who bleeds to death, for conscience is the wound, and there’s naught to staunch it; so, after sore wrestlings in his berth, Jonah’s prodigy of ponderous misery drags him drowning down to sleep.

Some men a forward motion love, But I by backward steps would move

Henry Vaughan’s The Retreate

Happy those early dayes! when I
Shin’d in my Angell-infancy.
Before I understood this place
Appointed for my second race,
Or taught my soul to fancy ought
But a white, Celestiall thought,
When yet I had not walkt above
A mile, or two, from my first love,
And looking back (at that short space,)
Could see a glimpse of his bright-face;
When on some gilded Cloud, or flowre
My gazing soul would dwell an houre,
And in those weaker glories spy
Some shadows of eternity;
Before I taught my tongue to wound
My Conscience with a sinfull sound,
Or had the black art to dispence
A sev’rall sinne to ev’ry sense
But felt through all this fleshly dresse
Bright shootes of everlastingnesse.
O how I long to travell back
And tread again that ancient track!
That I might once more reach that plaine,
Where first I left my glorious traine,
From whence th’Inlightned spirit sees
That shady City of Palme trees;
But (ah!) my soul with too much stay
Is drunk, and staggers in the way.
Some men a forward motion love,
But I by backward steps would move,
And when this dust falls to the urn
In that state I came return.

Well, if a good laugh and a jovial word Could bridle age which blew bad humours forth, That were a kind of help, too!

From Robert Browning’s Balaustion’s Adventure (1600-1800).  I can’t say how much I’ve enjoyed his translation-commentary-retelling of Alcestis.  The genius is the setup – creating a frame narrative from which a character then reports the play while both  commenting on performance elements and adding interpretational arguments (often Browning’s rebuttals to period criticism of Euripides vs. Sophocles and Aeschylus).

Wherewith, the sad procession wound away,
Made slowly for the suburb sepulchre.
And lo, — while still one’s heart, in time and tune,
Paced after that symmetric step of Death
Mute-marching, to the mind’s eye, at the head
O’ the mourners — one hand pointing out their path
With the long pale terrific sword we saw,
The other leading, with grim tender grace,
Alkestis quieted and consecrate, — ⁠1610
Lo, life again knocked laughing at the door!
The world goes on, goes ever, in and through,
And out again o’ the cloud. We faced about,
Fronted the palace where the mid-hall-door
Opened — not half, nor half of half, perhaps —
Yet wide enough to let out light and life,
And warmth, and bounty, and hope, and joy, at once.
Festivity burst wide, fruit rare and ripe
Crushed in the mouth of Bacchos, pulpy-prime,
All juice and flavour, save one single seed ⁠1620
Duly ejected from the God’s nice lip,
Which lay o’ the red edge, blackly visible —
To wit, a certain ancient servitor:
On whom the festal jaws o’ the palace shut,
So, there he stood, a much-bewildered man.
Stupid? Nay, but sagacious in a sort:
Learned, life-long, i’ the first outside of things,
Though bat for blindness to what lies beneath
And needs a nail-scratch ere ‘t is laid you bare.
This functionary was the trusted one ⁠1630
We saw deputed by Admetos late
To lead in Herakles and help him, soul
And body, to such snatched repose, snapped-up
Sustainment, as might do away the dust
O’ the last encounter, knit each nerve anew
For that next onset sure to come at cry
O’ the creature next assailed, — nay, should it prove
Only the creature that came forward now
To play the critic upon Herakles!

“Many the guests” — so he soliloquized ⁠1640
In musings burdensome to breast before,
When it seemed not too prudent, tongue should wag —
“Many, and from all quarters of this world,
The guests I now have known frequent our house,
For whom I spread the banquet; but than this,
Never a worse one did I yet receive
At the hearth here! One who seeing, first of all,
The master’s sorrow, entered gate the same,
And had the hardihood to house himself.
Did things stop there! But, modest by no means, ⁠1650
He took what entertainment lay to hand,
Knowing of our misfortune, — did we fail
In aught of the fit service, urged us serve
Just as a guest expects! And in his hands
Taking the ivied goblet, drinks and drinks
The unmixed product of black mother-earth,
Until the blaze o’ the wine went round about
And warmed him: then he crowns with myrtle sprigs
His head, and howls discordance — two-fold lay
Was thereupon for us to listen to — ⁠1660
This fellow singing, namely, nor restrained
A jot by sympathy with sorrows here —
While we o’ the household mourned our mistress — mourned,
That is to say, in silence — never showed
The eyes, which we kept wetting, to the guest —
For there Admetos was imperative.
And so, here am I helping make at home
A guest, some fellow ripe for wickedness,
Robber or pirate, while she goes her way
Out of our house: and neither was it mine ⁠1670
To follow in procession, nor stretch forth
Hand, wave my lady dear a last farewell,
Lamenting who to me and all of us
Domestics was a mother: myriad harms
She used to ward away from every one,
And mollify her husband’s ireful mood.
I ask then, do I justly hate or no
This guest, this interloper on our grief?”

“Hate him and justly!” Here’s the proper judge
Of what is due to the house from Herakles! ⁠1680
This man of much experience saw the first
O’ the feeble duckings-down at destiny,
When King Admetos went his rounds, poor soul,
A-begging somebody to be so brave
As die for one afraid to die himself —
“Thou, friend? Thou, love? Father or mother, then!
None of you? What, Alkestis must Death catch?
O best of wives, one woman in the world!
But nowise droop: our prayers may still assist:
Let us try sacrifice; if those avail ⁠1690
Nothing and Gods avert their countenance,
Why, deep and durable the grief will be!”
Whereat the house, this worthy at its head,
Re-echoed “deep and durable our grief!”
This sage, who justly hated Herakles,
Did he suggest once “Rather I than she!”
Admonish the Turannos — “Be a man!
Bear thine own burden, never think to thrust
Thy fate upon another, and thy wife!
It were a dubious gain could death be doomed ⁠1700
That other, yet no passionatest plea
Of thine, to die instead, have force with fate;
Seeing thou lov’st Alkestis: what were life
Unlighted by the loved one? But to live —
Not merely live unsolaced by some thought,
Some word so poor — yet solace all the same —
As ‘Thou i’ the sepulchre, Alkestis, say!
Would I, or would not I, to save thy life,
Die, and die on, and die for ever more?’
No! but to read red-written up and down ⁠1710
The world ‘This is the sunshine, this the shade,
This is some pleasure of earth, sky or sea,
Due to that other, dead that thou may’st live!’
Such were a covetable gain to thee?
Go die, fool, and be happy while ‘t is time!”
One word of counsel in this kind, methinks,
Had fallen to better purpose than Ai, ai,
Pheu, pheu, e, papai, and a pother of praise
O’ the best, best, best one! Nothing was to hate
In king Admetos, Pheres, and the rest ⁠1720
O’ the household down to his heroic self!
This was the one thing hateful: Herakles
Had flung into the presence, frank and free,
Out from the labour into the repose,
Ere out again and over head and ears
I’ the heart of labour, all for love of men:
Making the most o’ the minute, that the soul
And body, strained to height a minute since,
Might lie relaxed in joy, this breathing-space,
For man’s sake more than ever; till the bow, ⁠1730
Restrung o’ the sudden, at first cry for help,
Should send some unimaginable shaft
True to the aim and shatteringly through
The plate-mail of a monster, save man so.
He slew the pest o’ the marish yesterday:
To-morrow he would bit the flame-breathed stud
That fed on man’s-flesh: and this day between —
Because he held it natural to die,
And fruitless to lament a thing past cure,
So, took his fill of food, wine, song and flowers, ⁠1740
Till the new labour claimed him soon enough, —
“Hate him and justly!”

True, Charopé mine!
The man surmised not Herakles lay hid
I’ the guest; or knowing it, was ignorant
That still his lady lived — for Herakles;
Or else judged lightness needs must indicate
This or the other caitiff quality:
And therefore — had been right if not so wrong!
For who expects the sort of him will scratch
A nail’s depth, scrape the surface just to see ⁠1750
What peradventure underlies the same?
So, he stood petting up his puny hate,
Parent-wise, proud of the ill-favoured babe.
Not long! A great hand, careful lest it crush,
Startled him on the shoulder: up he stared,
And over him, who stood but Herakles?
There smiled the mighty presence, all one smile
And no touch more of the world-weary God,
Through the brief respite! Just a garland’s grace
About the brow, a song to satisfy ⁠1760
Head, heart and breast, and trumpet-lips at once,
A solemn draught of true religious wine.
And, — how should I know? — half a mountain goat
Torn up and swallowed down, — the feast was fierce
But brief: all cares and pains took wing and flew,
Leaving the hero ready to begin
And help mankind, whatever woe came next.
Even though what came next should be nought more
Than the mean querulous mouth o’ the man, remarked
Pursing its grievance up till patience failed ⁠1770
And the sage needs must rush out, as we saw,
To sulk outside and pet his hate in peace.
By no means would the Helper have it so:
He who was just about to handle brutes
In Thrace, and bit the jaws which breathed the flame, —
Well, if a good laugh and a jovial word
Could bridle age which blew bad humours forth,
That were a kind of help, too!

I do not care about the wealth of Gyges

One of the Anacreonta (number 8 in the Loeb Greek Lyric 2 volume by David Campbell).  They’re marginally prettier in Greek than English and better in both for the atmospheric ethos than expression.  This one’s opening pulls from Archilochus 19 (οὔ μοι τὰ Γύγεω τοῦ πολυχρύσου μέλει).

οὔ μοι μέλει τὰ Γύγεω,
τοῦ Σάρδεων ἄνακτος·
οὐδ᾿ εἷλέ πώ με ζῆλος,
οὐδὲ φθονῶ τυράννοις.
ἐμοὶ μέλει μύροισιν
καταβρέχειν ὑπήνην,
ἐμοὶ μέλει ῥόδοισιν
καταστέφειν κάρηνα·
τὸ σήμερον μέλει μοι,
τὸ δ᾿ αὔριον τίς οἶδεν;
ὡς οὖν ἔτ᾿ εὔδι᾿ ἔστιν,
καὶ πῖνε καὶ κύβευε
καὶ σπένδε τῷ Λυαίῳ,
μὴ νοῦσος, ἤν τις ἔλθῃ,
λέγῃ, ‘σὲ μὴ δεῖ πίνειν.’

I do not care about the wealth of Gyges, lord of Sardis: I have never envied him, and I have no grudge against tyrants. I care about drenching my beard with perfumes, I care about garlanding my head with roses; I care about today: who knows tomorrow? So while skies are still cloudless drink, play dice and pour libation to Lyaeus, lest some disease come and say, ‘You must not drink.’

That disease for me is called high blood pressure.

Wisdom and wilderness are here at poise

Two from Yvor Winters on Herman Melville:

To a Portrait of Melville in My Library

O face reserved, unmoved by praise or scorn!
O dreadful heart that won Socratic peace!
What was the purchase-price of thy release
What life was buried, ere thou rose reborn?
Rest here in quiet, now. Our strength is shorn.
Honor my books! Preserve this room from wrack!
Plato and Aristotle at thy back,
Above thy head this ancient powder-horn.

The lids droop coldly, and the face is still:
Wisdom and wilderness are here at poise,
Ocean and forest are the mind’s device,
But still I feel the presence of thy will:
The midnight trembles when I hear thy voice,
The moon’s immobile when I meet thine eyes.


To Herman Melville in 1951

Saint Herman, grant me this: that I may be
Saved from the worms who have infested thee.

Or thrust and parry in bright monostich, / Teaching Euripides to Syracuse

From Robert Browning’s Balaustion’s Adventure lines ~125-180- a sunnier version here of the fate of the remnants of the Athenian expedition against Sicily:

So were we at destruction’s very edge,
When those o’ the galley, as they had discussed
A point, a question raised by somebody,
A matter mooted in a moment, — “Wait!”
Cried they (and wait we did, you may be sure)
“That song was veritable Aischulos,
Familiar to the mouth of man and boy,
Old glory: how about Euripides?
The newer and not yet so famous bard,
He that was born upon the battle-day
While that song and the salpinx sounded him
Into the world, first sound, at Salamis —
Might you know any of his verses too?”

Now, some one of the Gods inspired this speech:
Since ourselves knew what happened but last year —
How, when Gulippos gained his victory ⁠
Over poor Nikias, poor Demosthenes,
And Syracuse condemned the conquered force
To dig and starve i’ the quarry, branded them —
Freeborn Athenians, brute-like in the front
With horse-head brands, — ah, “Region of the Steed”! —
Of all these men immersed in misery,
It was found none had been advantaged so
By aught in the past life he used to prize
And pride himself concerning, — no rich man
By riches, no wise man by wisdom, no ⁠
Wiser man still (as who loved more the Muse)
By storing, at brain’s edge and tip of tongue,
Old glory, great plays that had long ago
Made themselves wings to fly about the world, —
Not one such man was helped so at his need
As certain few that (wisest they of all)
Had, at first summons, oped heart, flung door wide
At the new knocking of Euripides,
Nor drawn the bolt with who cried “Decadence!
And, after Sophokles, be nature dumb!” ⁠
Such, — and I see in it God Bacchos’ boon
To souls that recognized his latest child,
He who himself, born latest of the Gods,
Was stoutly held impostor by mankind, —
Such were in safety: any who could speak
A chorus to the end, or prologize,
Roll out a rhesis, wield some golden length
Stiffened by wisdom out into a line.
Or thrust and parry in bright monostich,
Teaching Euripides to Syracuse — ⁠
Any such happy man had prompt reward:
If he lay bleeding on the battle-field
They staunched his wounds and gave him drink and food;
If he were slave i’ the house, for reverence
They rose up, bowed to who proved master now,
And bade him go free, thank Euripides!
Ay, and such did so: many such, he said,
Returning home to Athens, sought him out,
The old bard in the solitary house,
And thanked him ere they went to sacrifice. ⁠
I say, we knew that story of last year!