Monday, June 20, 2016

Well, be glad there's nothing worse - Edwin Arlington Robinson's Shakespeare

As much as  I have enjoyed Edwin Arlington Robinson’s books, and as good as The Man against the Sky (1916) is, it may be time for me to switch to his Selected Poems.  Robinson is becoming more abstract; I am becoming more baffled.

Some of the abstraction is a move to an attempt to describe feelings or ideas at a more character-free level – at least I often can’t figure out who the characters are supposed to be – and some of it is a natural side effect of pared-down Robert Browning-like monologues.  I am supposed to be doing a lot of the work, I get that.

Begin with the title of “Bokardo.”  It is a term from formal logic, pure gibberish to me, given as a name to a man stricken with remorse and guilt to the point where he has perhaps attempted suicide.  He is confessing or complaining to the poet, who is unsympathetic.  The 120 lines are the poet’s ironic dismissal of Bokardo’s self-pity:

There’s a debt now on your mind
    More than any gold?
And there’s nothing you can find
    Out there in the cold?
Only – what’s his name? – Remorse?
And Death riding on his horse?
Well, be glad there’s nothing worse
    Than you have told.

Those last lines are brutal, as are a number of others.  It is possible that Bokardo is meant to be Robinson’s brother, who sold the family home at a loss and etc. etc., some list of irritating but petty nonsense that explain nothing about the poem, nor add anything to its imagery or moves toward wisdom:

They that have the least to fear
Question hardest what is here;
When long-hidden skies are clear,
    The stars look strange.

The great treat for me in this collection was the least abstract poem, “Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford,” a 25-page monologue of one great poet talking about a greater.  Jonson is having a drink with a Stratfordian:

And I must wonder what you think of him –
All you down there where your small Avon flows
By Stratford, and where you’re an Alderman.

Nominally, he is grilling his guest about Shakespeare and his mysteries – Jonson presents Shakespeare as something of a cipher – but Jonson ends up doing all the talking.  This is all entirely plausible.

I gather something happened in his boyhood
Fulfilled him with a boy’s determination
To make Stratford all ‘ware of him.

The time of the poem is around Shakespeare’s retirement form playwriting, and he is given some kind of crisis of mortality:

“No, Ben,” he mused; “it’s Nothing.  It’s all Nothing.
We come, we go; and when we’re done, we’re done;
Spiders and flies – we’re mostly one or t’other –
We come, we go; and when we’re done, we’re done.”

Jonson suggests that Shakespeare get a dog, and dang it get his plays published (“what he owes to Gutenberg”).

He’ll do it when he’s old, he says.  I wonder.
He may not be so ancient as all that.
For such as he, the thing that is to do
Will do itself.

Just a wonderful tribute to “this mad, careful, proud, indifferent Shakespeare!” and to Jonson, too.  “I love the man this side idolatry.”

No post tomorrow.


  1. It's all a world where bugs and emperors

    Go singularly back to the same dust

    That's a heck of a poem.

  2. Robinson gets all the voices right, including his own, in that one.

  3. Thank you for sharing that wonderful poem about Jonson and Shakespeare. Such a good idea, Jonson and Shakespeare, over drinks (see here for another take, The Craftsman:

    Once, after long-drawn revel at The Mermaid,
    He to the overbearing Boanerges
    Jonson, uttered...
    How at Bankside, a boy drowning kittens
    Winced at the business; whereupon his sister--
    Lady Macbeth aged seven--thrust 'em under,
    Sombrely scornful.

    How on a Sabbath, hushed and compassionate--
    She being known since her birth to the townsfolk--
    Stratford dredged and delivered from Avon
    Dripping Ophelia...

  4. The seven year-old Lady Macbeth is awesome.

  5. Seeing how E. A. Robinson and Kipling have written poems about Jonson and Shakespeare, I thought that it would be fun to have one about Cervantes and Lope de Vega, (or Moliere and Racine).

    We used to be such good friends
    Until Lady Envy kissed his soul.
    After that he ceaselessly wanted
    to surpass my works, copy them,
    all the way to his very last book,
    always aping Peregrino en su Patria.

    My Entremes de los Romances' plot
    he stole for his Don Quixote, a book
    so bad no one could read and praise
    -still a lot better than his Galatea
    or his Persiles, books no one reads . -
    he only had imitation spices to sell.

    I wrote a second part to this theft
    to pay him back, just because I could.
    And yet his dying in pain and penury
    brings no joy. I recall him telling me
    about ants flocking to his urine; his teeth
    falling like Don Quixote's at battle;

    Of this Moorish girl, Duriyea or Durriya,
    beautiful like a dark pearl, who used
    to wash the clothes of the captives
    at his prison in Algiers; of his dreams
    of a Northern princess traveling south,
    and losing her blond hair, green eyes,

    clear skin, until Auristela became his Duriyea

  6. Lope as author of the false Don Quixote - all right!

  7. Yeah, I tried to include a few little known facts about Cervantes: Diabetes killed him; he died poor, he borrowed the initial plot for DQ (man reads too many books, goes crazy, thinks he's a champion of justice, gets beaten up) from a little play called Comedy of the Novels, attributed to Lope; scholars agree that Lope was the author of at least the prologue of Avellaneda's DQ; Cervantes' Persiles is based upon the model of Lope's Pilgrim in his Own Country; finally, the anime named Northern Princess Auristela is one of Cervantes' most lovable characters.

  8. This goes so far beyond anything I know about Cervantes. The annotated edition is helpful.