Monday, May 03, 2010

`Short and Nimbly-Lofty'

“Poetry should be rather like a coranto, short and nimbly-lofty, than a dull lesson of a day long.”

There’s a sentence I wish I had written. “Coranto” has unjustly evaporated from the language. It entered English the year of Shakespeare’s birth, from the French courir, “to run,” and referred to early precursors of newspapers. (Two-hundred year later, au courant – “with the current” – made the leap from French unmodified.) Corantos were one-page collections of news items, often reprinted from foreign journals, and their name survives on the masthead of the Hartford Courant.

Our author is Owen Feltham (or Felltham, c. 1602-1668), a poet best known for an eccentric collection of brief prose essays, Resolves: Divine, Morall, Politicall (1623). I found the Edward Lear-like sentence above in “Of Poets and Poetry,” and the first poet it called to mind was Kay Ryan, whose poems are “short and nimbly-lofty” -- brief, agile, sublime -- such as “Great Thoughts” (from Say Uncle, 2000):

“Great thoughts
do not nourish
small thoughts
as parents do children.

“Like the eucalyptus,
they make the soil
beneath them barren.

“Standing in a
grove of them
is hideous.”

Here are Feltham’s sentences following the one above:

“Nor can it be but deadish, if distended; for when ’tis right, it centers conceit, and takes but the spirit of things, and therefore foolish poesy is of all writing the most ridiculous. When a goose dances and a fool versifies, there is sport alike. He is twice an ass, that is a rhyming one. He is something the less unwise, that is unwise but in prose.”

Feltham’s prose feels natural yet utterly original, never straining after self-conscious oddity. In another essay from Resolves, “Of the Soul,” he defines the conscience as “a shoot of everlastingness.” Henry Vaughan liked the phrase enough to adopt it as his own in “The Retreat”:

“Before I taught my tongue to wound
My conscience with a sinful sound,
Or had the black art to dispense
A several sin to every sense,
But felt through all this fleshy dress
Bright shoots of everlastingness.”

1 comment:

zmkc said...

I feel a patriotic duty to defend eucalypts, which may possibly make ground outside their native climes barren but do not do so at home. That adjective 'hideous' was a bit of a blow to the chest.