Wednesday, September 28, 2022

'A Precipitation of Water to the Eyes'

A reader tells me he has discovered Bryan Appleyard’s 2007 essay “Poetry and the English Imagination” and my response, “A Nation of Poets.” Bryan articulates a notion I had been carrying around since I was a teenager: “The English do poetry.” For some of us English poetry, Shakespeare in particular, permeates our lives. Ask my wife about my spontaneous footnotes while we’re watching a movie. Last night a character said, “Perchance to dream.” 

To emphasize what ought to be obvious, Bryan’s conclusion has nothing to do with xenophobia or ultra-nationalism. He writes:


“It is unfashionable to speak of national characteristics. Queasy types think it is akin to racism. But the truth is that nations are definably different. Most importantly, they differ in what they do best. No nation has produced better essayists than France, none has produced better composers that the Germans, better painters than the Italians, nor better novelists than the Russians. America invented jazz and still masters the form and, though some may dissent, her record in film is unsurpassed.”


Who else, when it comes to poetry, might have a claim to the poetry title? Foremost, the Italians, followed by the Russians and French. But my American heart belongs to the English. Lately I’ve been wallowing in Auden while reading poets Bryan doesn’t mention – Swift, Housman, MacNeice. In his 1933 Leslie Stephen Lecture,“The Name and Nature of Poetry,” Housman famously says that a good line of poetry can make his beard bristle as he shaves. He adds that it might send a shiver down his spine, or trigger “a constriction of the throat” or “a precipitation of water to the eyes.” See if you experience any of these symptoms when you read this quatrain by Housman published posthumously in Additional Poems (1939):


“When the bells justle in the tower

     The hollow night amid,

Then on my tongue the taste is sour

     Of all I ever did.”


John Dieffenbach said...

Your reference to Auden and the stirring quatrain you shared sparked in my mind another quatrain of longing and regret from one of my favorite poems:

'O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you've missed.

Montez said...

I agree, nations do differ in “what they do best,” or at least that’s the safest, sanest way to define their special characteristics. The trouble is agreeing in what they do best exactly. Spanish poetry and its innovations have been greatly undervalued due to the infamous Black Legend and a sort of cultural Stockholm syndrome resulting from French propaganda. (I’d rate it a close second to English, perhaps surpassing it by the 20th century in sheer quality and quantity.) Of course, we all have or biases but the point is the contention itself. I love it all because we must be in a wealth of great literature to have so many claims to so many thrones.

slr in tx said...

Which puts me in mind of Hardy's -

"Whenever I plunge my arm like this,
In a basin of water, I never miss.
The sweet sharp sense of a fugitive day
Fetched back from its thickening shroud of gray.

further on...

"And why gives this the only prime
Idea to you of a real love-rhyme?
And why does plunging your arm in a bowl
Full of spring water, bring throbs to your soul?"

We could probably go on like this for some time...

Busyantine said...

P.G. Wodehouse What Ho, Jeeves: I don't want to wrong anybody, so I won't go so far as to say that she actually wrote poetry...

Thomas Parker said...

I carry this Houseman with me always, and the shiver it gives me is undiminished, as potent as the first time I read it many years ago.

Stars, I have seen them fall,
But when they drop and die
No star is lost at all
From all the star-sown sky.
The toil of all that be
Helps not the primal fault;
It rains into the sea,
And still the sea is salt.