Tag Archives: Poetry

Sándor Petőfi: Wilt thou, who now dost on my breast repose, not kneel, perhaps, to morrow o’er my tomb?

27 Oct

Today I wanted to share my new poetic discovery: Sándor Petőfi, a Romantic Hungarian poet and a revolutionary whose national fervour and patriotism eventually led him to his doom, but also to his glory. Romanticism arrived a bit late to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was closely tied to patriotism and national revival; each country in the vast empire sought to define its individuality; its national history and traditions. Petofi fits the theme of central European Romanticism and the two of his main poetic themes are romantic love and love for his country. He was of Slovak or Serbian ancestry, but he wrote in Hungarian and fought for the Hungarian language to be the language of the theatre and literature instead of German. As a true Romantic hero, he led a short and turbulent life and went missing at the age of twenty-six after the Battle of Segesvár in 1849; he was presumed dead but who knows when he actually died… His poems are the mirrors of the politically turbulent times he lived in and he died in the very manner he wished, as expressed in his poem “The Thought Torments Me”:

When every nation wearing chains
Shall rise and seek the battle-plains,
With flushing face shall wave in fight
Their banners, blazoned in the light:
“For liberty!” Their cry shall be;
Their cry from east to west,
Till tyrants be depressed.
There shall I gladly yield
My life upon the field;
There shall my heart’s last blood flow out,
And I my latest cry shall shout.

In 1846, in Transylvania he met an eighteen year old maiden Júlia Szendrey and, charmed by the beauty of her countenance which matched the beauty of her mind and soul, Petofi instantly fell in love and they married the same year. His parents didn’t approve and their marriage was short anyway. Like her husband, Júlia was also a poet, and a writer and translator. She spoke a few foreign languages, loved the poetry of Heinrich Heine and the writings of George Sand, loved dancing and playing the piano but she was also a private and modest person who didn’t like sharing her talents with the world. They seem like a perfect Romantic couple, with the perfectly short, intense and tragic marriage ended by a mysterious disappearance in battle and probable death. It sounds like a story one would read in a work of Schiller or Lermontov.

Giuseppe Molteni, Desolate at the Loss of her Lover, 1850

Poem “At the End of September” is written in a truly Romantic manner because it ties the themes of love and death that all Romantics loved so much. In the first stanza Petofi slowly introduces the theme of transience through a visual imagery of the changing of seasons, and even compares the arrival of winter to his hair slowly turning grave. The transience of spring and summer goes hand in hand with the passing of his youth, and the arrival of winter is tied with the impedimence of his death. I love how melancholy and melodramatic he is, wanting to know whether his beloved will weep over his grave, but then the poetic imagery turns a darker mood and we see the poet returning from the death’s vale at midnight… These poems satisfy all my poetic needs. Just seeing the words and expressions in the poem such as “broken heart”, “bleeding heart”, “tomb”, “weep”, “tears”, “death”, “mournful”, makes me swoon!

At the End of September

The garden flowers still blossom in the vale,

Before our house the poplars still are green;

But soon the mighty winter will prevail;

Snow is already in the mountains seen.

The summer sun’s benign and warming ray

Still moves my youthful heart, now in its spring;

But lo! my hair shows signs of turning gray,

The wintry days thereto their color bring.

This life is short; too early fades the rose;

To sit here on my knee, my darling, come!

Wilt thou, who now dost on my breast repose,

Not kneel, perhaps, to morrow o’er my tomb?

O, tell me, if before thee I should die,

Wilt thou with broken heart weep o’er my bier?

Or will some youth efface my memory

And with his love dry up thy mournful tear?

 

If thou dost lay aside the widow’s vail,

Pray hang it o’er my tomb. At midnight I

Shall rise, and, coming forth from death’s dark vale,

Take it with me to where forgot I lie.

And wipe with it my ceaseless flowing tears,

Flowing for thee, who hast forgotten me;

And bind my bleeding heart which ever bears

Even then and there, the truest love for thee.

Matthew James Lawless, Dead Love, 1862

“Wilt thou, who now dost on my breast repose,

Not kneel, perhaps, to morrow o’er my tomb?”

Petofi’s poems often bring to mind romantic imagery, typically romantic themes of love and death mingle freely in his verses and I decided to illustrate the poem with the drawing “Dead Love” from 1862. Victorian era artist Matthew James Lawless is little known today because he died young, at the age of twenty-seven, and his career never had a chance to take off. The drawings that he left definitely show a talent and a romantic imagination which ties him to the Pre-Raphaelites, and therefore I think the mood of his drawing fits the mood of Petofi’s poem. And now a poem which continues with the theme of love but here love is tied with another motif Petofi loves: fighting for liberty.

My Wife and My Sword

Upon the roof a dove,
A star within the sky,
Upon my knees my love,
For whom I live and die;
In raptures I embrace
And swing her on my knees,
Just as the dewdrop sways
Upon the leaf of trees.

But why, you’ll surely ask,
Kiss not her pretty face?
It is an easy task
To kiss while we embrace!
Many a burning kiss
I press upon her lip,
For such a heavenly bliss
I cannot now let slip.

And thus we pass our day,
I and my pretty wife,
Beyond all rare gem’s ray
Is our gay wedded life.
A friend, my sword, it seems,
Does not like this at all,
He looks with angry gleams
Upon me from the wall.

Don’t look on me, good sword,
With eyes so cross and cold,
There should be no discord
Between us, friends of old.
To women leave such things,
As green-eyed jealousy:
To men but shame it brings,
And you a man must be!

But then, if you would pause
To think who is my love,
You’d see you have no cause
At all me to reprove.
She is the sweetest maid,
She is so good and true;
Like her God only made,
I know, but very few.

If thee, good sword, again
Shall need our native land,
To seek the battle-plain
Will be my wife’s command.
She will insist that I
Go forth, my sword, with thee,
To fight, if need to die,
For precious liberty!

Sandor’s wife Julia Szendrey (1828-1868).

Poetry of Catullus – Let Us Live and Love

25 Jun

These days I was enjoying the poetry of the Roman poet Catullus (84-54. B.C) who wrote in the neoteric style of poetry, that is, the style of his poems was emotional, intimate, relatable and full of ardour, and he chose to focus, not on heroes and gods as was the norm, but on his personal life, often mentioning his friends in his poems. Poems such as his 5th Poem are written for and about a woman he loved called Clodia Metelli whom Catulus calls “his Lesbia” out of affection. Catullus’ poems follow the path of his falling in love, from the first ardour to disappointment and bitterness. This mix of lyrical beauty and honest emotions is what gives Catullus’ poetry a lasting appeal; after he was rediscovered in the Middle Ages other poets such as Petrarca and later even the Romantics loved his poetry. As a visual companion to Catullus’ poetry, these softly sensual paintings by John William Godward come to my mind; the warm colours, the Medditeranean shrubs and flowers, the cypresses, oleanders and the sea, the curves of female body stretched on marble and fur, these indolent girls with gorgeous long hair and flimy see-through gowns and the dolce far niente mood is just captivating. I must also add how much the line “bright were the suns that shone once for you” from Poem 8 reminds me of these lines “Once, if I remember well, my life was a feast where all hearts opened and all wines flowed” from Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell”; both is a lament for the old good times.

John William Godward, Dolce Far Niente, 1906

Poem 5

“Let us live and love, my Lesbia.
Here’sa copper coin for the criticism
of elderly men with exalted morals.
Suns have the power to set and return.
Our light is brief and once it fails,
we have to sleep in the dark forever.
Give me a thousand kisses, a hundred,
another thousand, a second hundred,
a thousand again, a hundred more
until we ourselves lose track of the score,
confusing the kissing count as a sly
method of thwarting the evil eye.”

John William Godward, Girl in Yellow Drapery, 1901

Poem 8

“Poor Catullus, stop playing the fool!
Seeing that something has died, deem it dead.
Bright were the suns that shone once for you,
the times you followed the girl everywhere.
No girl will ever be loved more than she.
Many amusing things happened then,
things you wished and the girl never spurned.
Suns most certainly shone bright for you.
Now she turns her back. Do the same!
Give up your hopeless pursuit! End your grief !

Endure with a resolute mind. Steel yourself.
Girl, Catullus has now steeled himself.
Farewell! Rejected, he makes no appeal.
But you’ll be sorry when all courtship ends.
What kind of life, you whore, waits for you?
What man will come and sing beauty’s praise?
Whom will you love and whose girl be called?
Whom will you kiss? For whom bite the lips?
But you, Catullus, be firm. Steel yourself.”

Santoka Taneda – The Sound of Waves…

14 Mar

I stumbled upon this poem by Santoka Taneda and it struck a chord with me because it is profound and touches on the topic of transience. The poet compares the constancy of the waves, caressing the sandy shore then withdrawing again, in an everlasting rhythm, with the fleeting nature of our human life and the lyrical subject wonders: how much of his life remains? Santoka Taneda (1882-1940), an eccentric drunkard turned Zen priest, wrote many meditative poems and remains famous for writing in a free verse haiku style. Regardless of Taneda’s innovative haiku style “far more important are the special Zen qualities of simplicity (wabi), solitude (sabi), and impermanence (mujo) conveyed in a modern setting by his haiku.” (Mountain Tasting, Poetry of Santoka Taneda, translated by John Stevens) I think these elements make the poem so deep and I look forward to reading more of his poetry.

Paul Gauguin, La Vague, 1888

“The sound of waves
Now distant, now close;
How much of my life remains?”

Rimbaud – No One’s Serious at Seventeen

12 Nov

Today I thought I’d share a poem called “Novel” by a French poet Arthur Rimbaud. I’ve loved the poem for years now and then I also noticed it was recited in the film “Young and Beautiful” (Jeune & Jolie, 2013) which I also love. The poem instantly transports me to a summer evening in June when the scent of linden trees fills the night air and the pavements are littered with its tiny golden flowers, in those summer evenings the scent of the linden trees, the fireflies and the stars above give the illusion that everything is possible. It’s a heavenly feeling and this poem gives me that feeling, even though it’s misty and drab November.

Still from the film Jeune & Jolie (2013)

I

We aren’t serious when we’re seventeen.

—One fine evening, to hell with beer and lemonade,

Noisy cafés with their shining lamps!

We walk under the green linden trees of the park

 

The lindens smell good in the good June evenings!

At times the air is so scented that we close our eyes.

The wind laden with sounds—the town isn’t far—

Has the smell of grapevines and beer . . .

 

II

—There you can see a very small patch

Of dark blue, framed by a little branch,

Pinned up by a naughty star, that melts

In gentle quivers, small and very white . . .

 

Night in June! Seventeen years old! —We are overcome by it all

The sap is champagne and goes to our head . . .

We talked a lot and feel a kiss on our lips

Trembling there like a small insect . . .

 

III

Our wild heart moves through novels like Robinson Crusoe,

—When, in the light of a pale street lamp,

A girl goes by attractive and charming

Under the shadow of her father’s terrible collar . . .

 

And as she finds you incredibly naïve,

While clicking her little boots,

She turns abruptly and in a lively way . . .

—Then cavatinas die on your lips . . .

 

IV

You are in love. Occupied until the month of August.

You are in love. —Your sonnets make Her laugh.

All your friends go off, you are ridiculous.

—Then one evening the girl you worship deigned to write to you . . . !

 

—That evening, . . . —you return to the bright cafés,

You ask for beer or lemonade . . .

—We’re not serious when we are seventeen

And when we have green linden trees in the park.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette, 1876

*Translation found here.

This is the autumn: it — just breaks your heart!

19 Oct

A poem by Nietzsche published in 1884, and the original draft written in 1877.

Antoon Van Welie, Douleur, 1895

In German November

This is the autumn: it — just breaks your heart!
Fly away! fly away! —
The sun crawls along the mountain
And rises and rises
And rests with every step.
How the world became so withered!
Upon worn, strained threads
The wind plays its song.
Hope fled —
He soughs to her.

This is the autumn: it — just breaks your heart.
Fly away! fly away!
Oh fruit of the tree,
Shaken, you fall?
What lone secret did the night
Teach you,
That icy horror upon your cheeks,
Upon your crimson cheeks? —

You are silent, do not answer?
Who still speaks? — —

This is the autumn: it — just breaks your heart.
Fly away! fly away! —
“I’m not beautiful”
— That’s what the starflower says —
“But I love people
And I comfort people —
They should see flowers now,
Bend down to me
Alas! and break me —
Memory then shines
In their eyes,
Memory of things more beautiful than I: —
— I see it, I see it — and thus die.” —

This is the autumn: it — just breaks your heart!
Fly away! fly away!

Translation and the German original both found here.

Rainer Maria Rilke: Only the Maidens Question Not the Bridges That Lead to Dream

22 Sep

As autumn approaches, the heart begins to dream and Rilke’s poems are on my mind….

Max Švabinský, The Confluence of Souls, 1896

MAIDENS. I

Others must by a long dark way
Stray to the mystic bards,
Or ask some one who has heard them sing
Or touch the magic chords.
Only the maidens question not
The bridges that lead to Dream;
Their luminous smiles are like strands of pearls
On a silver vase agleam.

The maidens’ doors of Life lead out
Where the song of the poet soars,
And out beyond to the great world—
To the world beyond the doors.

Gaston La Touche, A Maiden in Contemplation, 1893

MAIDENS. II

Maidens the poets learn from you to tell
How solitary and remote you are,
As night is lighted by one high bright star
They draw light from the distance where you dwell.

For poet you must always maiden be
Even though his eyes the woman in you wake
Wedding brocade your fragile wrists would break,
Mysterious, elusive, from him flee.

Within his garden let him wait alone
Where benches stand expectant in the shade
Within the chamber where the lyre was played
Where he received you as the eternal One.

Henri Martin, Mystic Scene, 1895

Go! It grows dark—your voice and form no more
His senses seek; he now no longer sees
A white robe fluttering under dark beech trees
Along the pathway where it gleamed before.

He loves the long paths where no footfalls ring,
And he loves much the silent chamber where
Like a soft whisper through the quiet air
He hears your voice, far distant, vanishing.

The softly stealing echo comes again
From crowds of men whom, wearily, he shuns;
And many see you there—so his thought runs—
And tenderest memories are pierced with pain.

Charles Bukowski – Stay out of the clutches of mediocrity

16 Aug

German-American writer, poet and novelist Charles Bukowski was born on this day in 1920 and since I love the stuff he wrote and luckily I haven’t read all of his novels so I am in for a treat when I do read his other books, I thought why not share some of his poetry. I know some people consider it bad poetry, but what I’ve read, I enjoyed! I love his realism, brutal honesty and cynicism; sometimes you just need a dose of that. I especially love these lines from “No Leaders, Please”: “stay out of the clutches of mediocrity” and “change your tone and shape so often that they can never categorize you”. I love the poem “my cats” because I have cats two and I am a victim of their feline charms as well. The last lines in “Throwing away the alarm clock” are poignant and sad, especially having in mind the novel “Ham on Rye.”

John William Godward – When the heart is young

10 Aug

The sweetest thing on earth is …. to do nothing and enjoy it! Late Victorian British painter John William Godward was born on 9th August 1861 and his life ended by a suicide in 1922 because, as he stated in a note that he left, “the world is not big enough for myself and Picasso”. His perception seemed to be that Picasso was so superior a painter that he had to reside from the position of the painter and from planet earth. A very sad ending to a life devoted to art.

John William Godward, When the heart is young, 1902

“you came and I was crazy for you
and you cooled my mind that burned with longing”

(Sappho, translation by Anne Carson)

“When the heart is young” is one of my favourite painting by Godward, perhaps even the favourite one. There’s just something about it that lures me to it, again and again. Perhaps it is the sweet indolence that speaks to my heart the most. I just love the warmth, sensuality and clear, vibrant in this painting. Every detail about it is perfect and precise and no element of the painting seems superfluous. A beautiful and dreamy dark haired young woman occupies the central place in the painting and everything around her; the marble bench and floor, a peacock fan, animal skin, flowers and the sea in the background all serve to accentuate the idleness and luxury that she is oozing. She is lazing around on a sunny summer day and has the luxury to do so; daydreaming and allowing the minutes and hours to pass by without any guilt or concern, for being idle is not a crime. Gorgeous masses of her black hair are seductively falling over her head, her large dark eyes are full of desire and dreams and her flushed cheeks speak of desires unspoken in words. She seems to exist on a diet of sunlight’s caresses, sweet summer wines and thoughts of love. The curvy line of her body stretched on the fuzzy warm fur is as seductive as the yellowish line that separates the azure blueness of the sea from that of the sky. I can imagine the soft, summery breeze rustling the distant cypresses, kissing the poppies and bringing the salty scent of the sea to the woman’s nose. And now some more of Sappho’s verses because they fill so well with the mood of idleness and undisturbed ripe and juicy fig sweetness:

“Come to me now: loose me from hard
care and all my heart longs
to accomplish, accomplish. You
be my ally.

here to me from Krete to this holy temple
where is your graceful grove
of apple trees and altars smoking
with frankincense.
And in it cold water makes a clear sound through
apple branches and with roses the whole place
is shadowed and down from radiant-shaking leaves
sleep comes dropping.
And in it a horse meadow has come into bloom
with spring flowers and breezes
like honey are blowing….”

(Sappho, translated by Anne Carson)

John William Godward, Dolce Far Niente, 1904

Marble and draped gowns worn by the indolent women in Godward’s paintings bring to mind the similar work of Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Godward was the protégé of Alma-Tadema and their styles hold similarities; they both drew inspiration from the imagined luxury of the Greek world, Ancient Roman Empire and the warm, rich, fragrant, mood of the Mediterranean, they both painted in a Neoclassical style with fine, elegant brushwork resembling that of Ingres, especially when the subject is that of a female body; both made paintings full of light and vibrancy. Paintings “When the Heart is Young” and “Dolce far niente” both show elegantly dressed women doing nothing, being sweetly idle in beautiful settings and thus they fall into the “dolce far niente” genre of painting. ‘Dolce far niente’ is a wonderful Italian expression meaning ‘sweet doing nothing’, and it illustrates the dreamy, hedonistic, self-indulgent nature of indolence, and the enjoyment of it. In the late 19th and early 20th century, in the artistic climate influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and Aesthetic movement with its ‘cult of beauty’, popularity of this genre of paintings grew. Artists such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema, John William Godward and John William Waterhouse dared to tackle the subject and painted numerous vibrant and beautiful paintings of this theme.

There’s a certain pattern of beauty in all of these ‘dolce far niente’ paintings: a beautiful idle woman dressed in her finery, lazing around in sumptuous surroundings, doing nothing, gazing in the distance or at the viewer. Usually they’re presented in luxurious and idealised settings, aesthetically inspired by the Roman empire, lounging on animal skin, dressed in gorgeous diaphanous fabrics. Certain motifs appear in all of these paintings: finely painted marble balustrades or just marble in general, balconies overlooking the sea glistening underneath a perfectly blue sky with a few clouds, animal skin, clothes and hairstyles inspired by the styles of the Ancient world, flowers and flower pots, lush Mediterranean vegetation and plants such as oleander, lavender, cypresses, orange trees, even poppies, thyme, basil etc.

Reinaldo Arenas – Viejo Niño

19 Jul

Wonderful Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas was born on 16th July 1943 and I celebrated his birthday by thinking about him and his amazing autobiography called “Before Night Falls” which has been my source of inspiration and strength ever since I read it three summers ago. His poem called “Viejo Niño” was written in 1989, just a year before Arenas died on 7th December 1990, and it portrays his childhood so well, in a direct, sincere and amusing way; a childhood of poverty and magic, spent in the Cuban countryside, with a single mother, her family and the all pervading awareness of the mother’s sadness and yearning for the man who had left her soon after they married and Reinaldo, a little boy sitting on her lap, was a reminder of that. A childhood of fascination with all things of nature, mud and rains, chasing roosters and playing with other children under the vast treetops, hiding from the burning sun of the Caribbean. Arenas was all too aware of how unlovable and unwanted he was, but it never stopped him from enjoying the little wonders his childish eyes saw around him.

Egon Schiele, Young Boy, 1918, 45.5×27 cm, gouache, pencil, watercolor on paper

Viejo Niño

I am that child with the round, dirty face

who on every corner bothers you with his

“Can you spare a quarter?”

 

I am that child with the dirty face

no doubt unwanted

that from far away contemplates coaches

where other children

emit laughter and jump up and down considerably

 

I am that unlikeable child

definitely unwanted

with the round dirty face

who before the giant street lights or

under the grandames also illuminated

or in front of the little girls that seem to levitate

projects the insult of his dirty face

 

I am that angry and lonely child of always,

that throws you the insult of that angry child of always

and warns you:

if hypocritically you pat me on the head

I would take that opportunity to steal your wallet.

 

I am that child of always

before the panorama of imminent terror,

imminent leprosy, imminent fleas,

of offenses and the imminent crime.

I am that repulsive child that improvises a bed

out of an old cardboard box and waits,

certain that you will accompany me.