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« "7500 km" [by Roald Hoffmann] | Main | On John Ashbery (July 28, 1927 – September 3, 2017) [by Geoffrey Young] »

September 02, 2022


Although "Ozymandias" impresses like a revelation, and I do love "Ode to the West Wind" too. this line of Shelley's from the latter has always raised an eyebrow:

"Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud! I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!....."

If one pictures this image in the mind's eye,the effect seems improbable, even metaphorically.

Sometimes a wonderful style can be pushed a bit too far. Call it, Romantic over-reach...

I’ll play. It’s really two equally bad lines, either will do. Cringeworthy.

My life is an endless maze and I am
always searching for the path that bears my name.

The scream of cicadas concealed by a scrim.

"I want to know a butcher paints,
A baker rhymes for his pursuit,
Candle-stick maker, much acquaints
His soul with song, or, haply mute,
Blows out his brains upon the flute."
-- Browning

With respect to the baker, Empson glosses this to mean "something like: 'I want to know that a member of the class of butchers is moderately likely to be a man who paints, or at any rate that he can do so if he wishes.'" Whatever we make of such a longing (foolish? transcendental? elitist? futile?), we may extend it to encompass to the other two celebrated tradesmen.

We may appreciate the parallels between blowing glass and blowing a flute, to the point of allowing that the latter is something at which a candle-stick maker might, given his unique skills, be especially good. And the dual meanings of flute, as instrument and wine glass, afford an opportunity for bridging the two ideas in a manner which, if not exactly sparkling, one finds at least cordial.

But would it not have been better to have stopped there rather than have him 'blow out his brains'? What would lead us to want or expect either the making of glass or the making of music to deserve such a morbid outcome? To insist on a jocular, non-literal understanding ('blowing for all he's worth') seems more than a little strained -- perhaps especially when we take into account a third contemporary meaning of flute as referring to a pistol, or to the notion that death comes to those who have taken their last breath.

We may even be justified in finding 'haply mute' to be an incongruous (if not egregious) choice. It is one thing, after all, to understand 'haply' as mere happenstance; it is another, and less comfortable matter, to be unable to dismiss the closely-allied sense of the word as meaning something propitious, a good outcome. As when Claudius conspires with Polonius to exile Hamlet: "Haply the seas and countries different...shall expel this something-settled matter in his heart, whereon his brains still beating puts him thus from fashion of himself." (If our candle-stick maker "acquaints his soul with song" does he also put himself 'thus from fashion of himself' -- to the point of extinction?)

In sum, I submit that Browning's longing for a candle-stick maker-cum-musician yielded lines that deserve, at least, an honorable (?) mention for the mauvais vers prize.

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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