Sunday, October 03, 2010

`Life Is a Top Which Whipping Sorrow Driveth'

“Fulke Greville, servant to Queen Elizabeth, counsellor to King James, friend to Sir Philip Sidney.”

So reads the self-composed epitaph of the poet born on this day in 1554. When he died Sept. 30, 1628, only a few of Greville’s poems and a pirated edition of a play had been published. He was known not as a poet but as treasurer of the navy, chancellor of the exchequer and commissioner of the Treasury. Only in the twentieth century was his accomplishment as a writer of austerely passionate verse, the peer of Herbert, Donne and Shakespeare, truly weighed.

Some of the credit goes to the late Thom Gunn who in 1968 edited Selected Poems of Fulke Greville. A new edition recently published by the University of Chicago Press includes Gunn’s original introduction and a new afterword by Bradin Cormack, “In the Labyrinth: Gunn’s Greville.” It’s an essential book for admirers of either poet. Consider one of the poems Gunn includes, Sonnet LXXXVI from Caelica:

“The earth, with thunder torn, with fire blasted,
With waters drowned, with windy palsy shaken,
Cannot for this with heaven be distasted,
Since thunder, rain, and winds from earth are taken.
Man, torn with love, with inward furies blasted,
Drowned with despair, with fleshly lustings shaken,
Cannot for this with heaven be distasted:
Love, fury, lustings out of man are taken.
Then man, endure thyself, those clouds will vanish.
Life is a top which whipping Sorrow driveth,
Wisdom must bear what our flesh cannot banish,
The humble lead, the stubborn bootless striveth :
Or, man, forsake thyself, to heaven turn thee,
Her flames enlighten nature, never burn thee.”

“Distasted” here means “offended, disgusted,” Gunn notes. “Life is a top which whipping Sorrow driveth” mingles a child’s toy with earthly unhappiness and is a conceit worthy of King Lear. The notion that man, tormented by self-created desires, is like the storms blasting the earth is strikingly Hobbesian and modern. Gunn writes in the opening lines of “In Time of Plague” (The Man With Night Sweats, 1992):

“My thoughts are crowded with death
And it draws so oddly on the sexual
That I am confused
Confused to be attracted
By, in effect, my own annihilation.”

It’s Greville’s modernity, his occult kinship with us, with Gunn, Cunningham and Larkin, that drives me to read him more deeply and often even than Donne. To read him is like knowing a brother. Consider this passage from his Life of Sir Philip Sidney:

“For my own part, I found my creeping genius more fixed upon the images of life than the images of wit and therefore chose not to write to them on whose foot the black ox had not already trod, as the proverb is, but to those only that are weather-beaten in the sea of this world, such as having lost the sight of their gardens and groves, study to sail on a right course among rocks and quicksands; and if, in thus ordaining, and ordering matter and form together for the use of life, I have made those tragedies no plays for the stage, be it known, it was no part of my purpose to write for them, against whom so many good and great spirits have already written.”

ADDENDUM: Thom Gunn writes in the final sentence of his introduction to Yvor Winters: Selected Poems (Library of America, 2003): "For all his respect for the rules of poetry, it is not the Augustan decorum he came to admire but the Elizabethan , the energy of Nashe, Greville, Gascoigne, and Donne, plain speakers of little politeness."


William A. Sigler said...

Ah, the gift of a new poet—a Tudor at that! This is a frighteningly regular occurrence on your munificent blog. Lord Greville seems to be, as was yesterday’s birthday celebrant, a philosophical poet in the true sense of the word, in that philosophy’s particulars of truth and poetry’s deep longings are strangely brewed together to partake of both without really being either, but something different. Such an approach at its best reminds us that some thoughts are too deep for philosophy and some feelings are too strong for poetry.

In the sonnet you posted we feel him struggle for the strength to reconcile spiritual wisdom in the face of the wreckage wrought by time passing, loves lost, people hurt. It is modern to see love, lust and anger reduced to Sorrow. I couldn’t help read on to other sonnets in the Caelica series, and found closure of sorts in Sonnet LXXXVI:

"A Quintessence of Passions overthrowne,
Rais'd above all that change of objects carry,
A Nature by no other nature knowne:
For Glorie's of eternitie a frame,
That by all bodies else obscures her name

This is a poetical feeling rendered with a precision rare in poetry: it is because all passions are vital expressions of the divine that they must be overthrown, not just negative ones like lust or anger, for all emotions like all human creations hide the true nature of divine love. This is the kind of thinking the Puritans did before breakfast. It’s the inevitability of the process that seems to interest Greville most.

Greville’s precision causes him to risk a certain awkwardness in his verse, which creates an almost syncopated effect that does remind me, now that you mention it, of Larkin. I look forward to reading more.

Cynthia Haven said...

Happy birthday from all three of us, then, as well as Robert Pinsky, Thom Gunn, & Yvor Winters: