Dust & Shadow

“Pulvis et umbra sumus”

— We are but dust and shadow.

Horrace
Adversity reveals genius, prosperity conceals it.”

Ode I, 5: To Pyrrha


What slender youth, bedew’d with liquid odors,
Courts thee on roses in some pleasant cave,
Pyrrha? For whom bind’st thou
In wreaths thy golden hair,
 
Plain in thy neatness? O how oft shall he
Of faith and changed gods complain, and seas
Rough with black winds, and storms
Unwonted shall admire!
 
Who now enjoys thee credulous, all gold,
Who, always vacant, always amiable
Hopes thee; of flattering gales
Unmindful. Hapless they
 
To whom thou untried seem’st fair. Me, in my vow’d
Picture, the sacred wall declares t’have hung
My dank and dropping weeds
To the stern god of sea.


— Translated by John Milton

^ Horace’s “Ode to Pyrrha” can be interpreted in many ways… Read more about the life and works of Horace, including some pretty detailed literary analysis of the ode above:

PoetsHorace

Tittle-Tattle

Telltale Tit /
Your tongue shall be slit
• • •

There was a time when I would walk & talk
the veneration was captivating
in those halcyon days, I’d silk and milk
the politicking was everything
 
Statecraft through court intrigue (my modes were old)
Machiavelli gave the manuscript
my words writ power plays (and paid me gold)
yet Cromwell showed, class can never be stripped
 
Tittle-Tattle, the cut of the devil
— time and tome tell us the weak will relent
Telltale Tit, most will be nowt but evil
— there ain’t no doubt that the meek will repent
 
Not I, Adversity… I’ll catch stars;
for you, my dearest, I’ll spar yet with Mars.


Thomas Cromwell
Thomas Cromwell
By Hans Holbein (1533)
* See too, p. 88 of Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up the Bodies” (2012).

• • • and all the dogs in the town
/ Shall each be fed a little bit

No Second Troy

— W. B. Yeats (1916)

The_Love_of_Paris_and_Helen_by_Jacques-Louis_David
The Love of Paris and Helen
By Jacques-Louis David (1788)

Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?

— W. B. Yeats

This twelve-line poem is addressed to Maud Gonne, who, to Yeats’s great distress, married John MacBride in 1903 (she’d rejected a number of Yeats’s marriage proposals). After Yeats received Maud’s final emphatic and shattering rejection, he wrote “No second Troy.” It is in no small part a poem of unrequited love and it articulates the moment in a tortured love affair when the unrequited lover, at their wits’ end, opens up emotionally — and sends a ‘flamer’ — in a spasm of candid and brutal honesty.

However, it doesn’t only focus on love’s destructiveness on a personal level, it considers this at the level of the state (Irish) and the mythological level too. We can say it is a truism that love and politics when mixed, shaken and stirred, will be an irresistible combination. So, alongside this poem’s clear references to Helen and Paris, think too of the enduring nature of troubled love stories such as Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet. So here, while Yeats clearly criticises Maude’s political strategies (but not her goals) he seems to do so in a way to emphasis the larger point about being debilitated by love and the destructive power of beauty. The tightened bow referenced in the poem suggests an inherent tension in heroic beauty that necessarily results in destructiveness.

I view the switch from personal to political as Yeats somehow giving in, conceding defeat, he’s not prepared to destroy Maude’s marriage to MacBride. He doesn’t, metaphorically speaking, raise another Troy to the ground. Instead, he throws in the towel, he controls his passions and consoles himself by demeaning her political strategies as being rather naïve and exploitative of the uneducated common man. As an afterthought, I’d like to say I’d do the same but I fear that an inner fire would burn so searingly that my honed placidity and pacificity would soon shed and, my abyss-borne nihilistic self, with fire & fury, would hunt down and crush completely any sudden suitor for my version of Maude.

Helene & Paris (detail)
Paris and Helen [Detail]
By Jacques-Louis David (1788)

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.

— Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus

The mythic Helen of Troy, who, 2,500 years ago, set off a war that “launched a thousand ships,” need not be real, but the obsession with female beauty as blessing and curse surely is.* However, we must ask ourselves, was Helen a victim of her beauty or a free agent in full command of her power? As a stand-in for female beauty and sexual power, the myth of Helen and the ancient texts written about the Trojan War — Iliad and Odyssey by Homer and Aeneid by Virgil — are suggestive of male attitudes on control of women and what constitutes heroism.


p.s.

Charnel house
A building or vault in which corpses or bones are piled; a place associated with violent death.


Flamer
[informal]
A person who directs a vitriolic or abusive message at someone on the Internet or via email. — “Dr Bun sent a flamer to his peers and the email went viral; he lives to regret it every day.”


Misogynistic
To be strongly prejudiced against women. — “In most parts of the world there are deeply ingrained misogynistic attitudes.”


Trope
[1] A figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression.
[2] A significant or recurrent theme; a motif.
— A literary trope is the use of figurative language, via word, phrase or an image, for artistic effect such as using a figure of speech. The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works. The phrase, ‘Stop and smell the roses,’ and the meaning we take from it, is an example of a trope. Derived from the Greek word tropos, which means, ‘turn, direction, way,’ tropes are figures of speech that move the meaning of the text from literal to figurative.


Wit’s end
— The idiom at wits’ end means to be very upset, or at the limits of one’s emotional or mental limitations. It’s commonly spelled at wit’s end, but we say at the end of my wits, not at the end of my wit, so at wits’ end makes more sense.

* Readers beware! If we blame Helen for the Trojan War, what does it say about us? I am pasting here the opening paragraphs of a 2014 eye-opening article by Emilie Wilson published in The New Republic. The article is a review of Blondell’s 2013 book, Helen of Troy: Beauty, Myth, Devastation

Émile Zola’s gripping novel Nana (1880) evokes the rise, fall, and early death of a sexy blonde teenager, a celebrity actress and prostitute, who takes all of Paris by storm. She destroys every man who crosses her path before herself dying a dismal death of smallpox, portending the fall of the Second Empire. The novel is part of Zola’s series on urban industrialisation and its threat to traditional family life. Nana, although theoretically human, is a destructive and powerful machine, the engine of the new civilization as well as the motor of Zola’s novelistic plot. Her sexual allure, figured as an irresistible scent, is in the end transformed into, or revealed as, the seeping putrefaction of the charnel house. This is one of the most powerful modern versions of a far more widespread misogynistic trope. Heterosexual male desire for an exceptionally attractive woman tends to be projected onto the woman herself, who is then presented as particularly lustful. Since male desire can be experienced as mysterious, bewildering, and overwhelming, the woman herself must be destructive and deceptive, perhaps possessed of magical witch-like powers.
 
In ancient Greek mythology, one of the female characters who fits this general model is Pandora, the female sent by Zeus to punish humans for Prometheus’s theft of fire and to end the Golden Age, when she opens the jar of death, pain, and other evils upon the world. This is a relatively straightforward presentation of the beautiful woman as a mechanism for disaster—a mere instrument of divine vengeance. But Hesiod adds that Pandora herself had agency, “strength,” a “mind,” and a “voice,” allowing her to “devise” evils for humanity, when she made the fateful choice to open the jar—an action that, as Ruby Blondell rightly notes in, Helen of Troy: Beauty, Myth, Devastation, has obvious sexual overtones. The problem with Pandora, as with all beautiful women in a patriarchal society, is that she is “more than a statue. And there’s the rub.” The urge to objectify a desirable woman is undermined by the acknowledgment that she might be human; at the same time, her capacity for agency and choice only reinforces her desirability (and makes her seem all the more dangerous).
 
I provide the full article here: The Shaming Helen of Troy

Love me little, love me long

— Robert Herrick (1591–1674)


YOU say, to me-wards your affection’s strong;
Pray love me little, so you love me long.
Slowly goes far: the mean is best: desire,
Grown violent, does either die or tire.

||

Love me little, love me long,
Is the burden of my song:
Love that is too hot and strong
Burneth soon to waste.
I am with little well content,
And a little from thee sent
Is enough, with true intent,
To be steadfast friend.
Love me little, love me long,
Is the burden of my song.

Say thou lov’st me while thou live,
I to thee my love will give,
Never dreaming to deceive
While that life endures:
Nay, and after death in sooth,
I to thee will keep my truth,
As now when in my May of youth,
This my love assures.
Love me little, love me long,
Is the burden of my song.

Constant love is moderate ever,
And it will through life persever,
Give to me that with true endeavor.
I will it restore:
A suit of durance let it be,
For all weathers, that for me,
For the land or for the sea,
Lasting evermore.

Love me little, love me long,
Is the burden of my song.

Of Love: A Sonnet

How love came in I do not know,
Whether by the eye, or ear, or no;
Or whether with the soul it came
(At first) infused with the same;
Whether in part ’tis here or there,
Or, like the soul, whole everywhere,
This troubles me: but I as well
As any other this can tell:
That when from hence she does depart
The outlet then is from the heart.

Robert Herrick (1591-1674) was an English poet best known for Hesperides: Or, The Works Both Humane & Divine (1648), a book of poems. This includes the carpe diem poem “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.”

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
To-morrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And, while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

^ In the genre of carpe diem

Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May, by John William Waterhouse
‘Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May’ by British Pre-Raphaelite artist, John William Waterhouse (1909).

11 weeks (i.e., 77 days)

Monuments to the Moment

For me, I’d say the greatest poetry is sometimes written by those who pine away hopelessly; by those who are devoted to and/or obsessed by someone who will (almost certainly) never (be able to) return their affections — that which waxes poetic about unrequited love (saudade). This is so from Sappho and Catullus through the medieval courtly love tradition; through Shakespeare and Spenser; through the latter-day Romantics, to the recent British poet laureates.


01. —

This is one take on unrequited love by the poet W. H. Auden. “If equal affection cannot be,” pens Auden, “Let the more loving one be me.”

The More Loving One
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

— W. H. Auden


02. —

Stevie Smith’s “Pad, Pad” is penned by one of the twentieth century’s most eccentric poets. It is spoken by someone whose lover sat down and told them that they no longer love them. The animal suggestion of padding rather than walking, as well as the ‘tigerish crouch’ of the departing lover, are typical of the way Smith writes and, as many have argued before me, make this poem all the more affecting.

Pad Pad
I always remember your beautiful flowers
And the beautiful kimono you wore
When you sat on the couch
With that tigerish crouch
And told me you loved me no more.

What I cannot remember is how I felt when you were unkind
All I know is, if you were unkind now I should not mind.
Ah me, the power to feel exaggerated, angry and sad
The years have taken from me. Softly I go now, pad pad.

— Stevie Smith


03. —

Carol Ann Duffy’s “Warming Her Pearls” is narrated by a maid who clearly harbours a secret love and burning desire for her mistress. It is very sensual and talks to us of unrequited or impossible to fulfil love. Might though the Lady one day entertain and sate her maid’s desires? This is not an inconceivable outcome, she can’t but not know about her desires for her — the parting of the red-lips — and maybe she’s somehow not being fulfilled sexually herself I like to imagine a lesbian Lady Chatterley type tryst here. But whatever to my digressions read it and breath in and soak up the kind of desire that keeps one wide awake in the depths of night.

Warming Her Pearls
Next to my own skin, her pearls. My mistress
bids me wear them, warm them, until evening
when I’ll brush her hair. At six, I place them
round her cool, white throat. All day I think of her,

resting in the Yellow Room, contemplating silk
or taffeta, which gown tonight? She fans herself
whilst I work willingly, my slow heat entering
each pearl. Slack on my neck, her rope.

She’s beautiful. I dream about her
in my attic bed; picture her dancing
with tall men, puzzled by my faint, persistent scent
beneath her French perfume, her milky stones.

I dust her shoulders with a rabbit’s foot,
watch the soft blush seep through her skin
like an indolent sigh. In her looking-glass
my red lips part as though I want to speak.

Full moon. Her carriage brings her home. I see
her every movement in my head…. Undressing,
taking off her jewels, her slim hand reaching
for the case, slipping naked into bed, the way

she always does…. And I lie here awake,
knowing the pearls are cooling even now
in the room where my mistress sleeps. All night
I feel their absence and I burn.

— Carol Ann Duffy

✍🏻 twenny.4..7

i think *only* of YOU

  It is non-stop my dear mate
  It’s ridiculous… i know
  —
   You’ve long gone, i know
   You’ve moved on, i know
  —
   my words no longer enchant you; my kisses no longer entrance you
  —
   i’m evidently obsessive,
   purgatory’s primary pariah,
   cast adrift yet, inescapably chained.


Greek ‘n’ Roman love

6 love blinds / love binds 9

“Love, bittersweet and inescapable, creeps up on me and grabs me once again”

Such heartfelt words expressing personal emotion by the Greek poet Sappho led to a mode of poetry in addition to the histrionic and impersonal epic: a focus on the self. The power of the words used by Roman poet Catullus to describe his heartfelt longing and love (and obsession?) are palpable:-

“…as many as the stars, when night is still,
gazing down on secret human desires:
as many of your kisses kissed
are enough, and more, for mad Catullus”

Together, Catullus and Sappho provide the inspiration for many of the articulations on, and metaphors for, love that have been seen time and again in prose and poetry throughout the ensuing centuries, by way of Shakespeare and Spenser et al., to the present day (e.g., Sergei Yesenin and E. E. Cummings).

In the audio file below (lasting around 28 minutes), academics discuss Greek and Roman love poetry, focusing on Sappho and her erotic descriptions of romance on Lesbos and, the love-hate poems of Catullus.

Greek & Roman Love Poetry
In Our Time, BBC (2007):

1280px-Sir_Lawrence_Alma-Tadema_-_The_Meeting_of_Antony_and_Cleopatra
Antony and Cleopatra by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1885)
fe
Greece 🇬🇷 and Italy 🇮🇹
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Triumph of the Marine Venus by Sebastiano Ricci (c. 1713)
1863_Alexandre_Cabanel_-_The_Birth_of_Venus
The Birth of Venus by Alexandre Cabanel (1875)


p.s.

Palpable
1. (of a feeling or atmosphere) so intense as to seem almost tangible. — “A palpable sense of loss.”
2. Able to be touched or felt.

Tangible
Perceptible by touch. — “The atmosphere of neglect and abandonment was almost tangible.”

Intangible
Something that is unable to be touched; not having physical presence. — “The rose symbolised something intangible about their relationship.”