“Today, only great poetry shares with satire the need for retelling. The poem asks to be memorized so that it can be recited before others. And when this happens, when we listen and allow the poem to take hold of us, we enter into a world as different from ordinary life as the play world of laughter. This is the world of solemnity, formality, and grandiloquence … When all life is ordinary life, la vie et rien d’autre [“life and nothing but”], when life’s poetry and drama are forgotten, then a community of high culture has disappeared.”
So writes F.H. Buckley in The Morality of Laughter. I would add that a poem might also “ask to be memorized” so that it can be recited before one’s self. There’s much solace in the solitary speaking of poems from memory:
“O wearisome condition of humanity!
Born under one law, to another bound;
Vainly begot and yet forbidden vanity;
Created sick, commanded to be sound.
What meaneth nature by these diverse laws?
Passion and reason, self-division cause.”
These are the only lines written by Fulke Greville I know by heart -- the opening of the “Chorus Sacerdotum” from his closet drama Mustapha (1609). Ten years Shakespeare’s senior, he outlived him by 12 and is probably best known as the biographer of his friend Sir Philip Sidney. I love Greville’s verse and resolve to commit more of it to memory, a job made easier by the University of Chicago Press which recently published a new edition of Selected Poems of Fulke Greville, edited by the late Thom Gunn and first published in 1968. It includes Gunn’s original introduction and a new afterword by Bradin Cormack, “In the Labyrinth: Gunn’s Greville.” It’s an invaluable book for admirers of either poet. It’s the one I used almost 40 years ago to memorize the lines from Mustapha.
Since learning of Rachel Wetzsteon’s death by suicide I’ve been reading two of her books of poems – Home and Away (1998) and Sakura Park (2006). In the former is an elegy for a master elegist, “In Memory of W.H. Auden,” including lines that suggest any poet’s grateful celebration of a poetic forbear, as Gunn with Greville:
“You have taught us
not how to follow in your footsteps, but
“how to carve out paths for ourselves, and if I
had my way with the elements, I’d have you
know you are gone, but not forgotten:
tender, impudent, cynical, joyful
“silent as a tidal wave, safe from the sands
of time, twenty years later you still show us
not a room, but a way to light it,
not a goal, but a way of arriving.”