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Great Poems

"In night when colors all to black are cast": Fulke Greville's Great Sonnet

Fulke Greville

In night when colors all to black are cast,
Distinction lost, or gone down with the light;
The eye a watch to inward senses placed,
Not seeing, yet still having powers of sight,

Gives vain alarums to the inward sense,
Where fear stirred up with witty tyranny,
Confounds all powers, and thorough self-offense,
Doth forge and raise impossibility:

Such as in thick depriving darknesses,
Proper reflections of the error be,
And images of self-confusednesses,
Which hurt imaginations only see;

And from this nothing seen, tells news of devils,
Which but expressions be of inward evils.

Now read it a second time. The key word appears to be "inward." What governs the "inward sense"? Let's take it one step at a time. It is possible to have the power to see and be blind; that paradox we can figure out. But who has "placed" the eye there as "a watch?" Is there an appeal to a belief system the reader is presumed to understand and identify on the basis of the language and probable date of composition? The second stanza raises the possibility that "the inward sense" singular may be different from the "inward senses." And both are corrupt and susceptible to panic and fear. The eye can at least give a "proper reflection of the error." What's there is nothing, "the nothing that is," as Wallace Stevens would have it. And the news confirms the neuroses. The devil is a manmade expression of "inward evils" based on illusory images. And yet, saying all this, one feels one has left out something crucial to the poem: the darkness, the night, and the power of sight to see error or to see erroneously.

The late Edward Tayler, professor at Columbia, did his best to promote the English Renaissance poet Fulke Greville, Tayler believed that Greville's importance was on a par with that of Sir Thomas Wyatt, Ben Jonson, John Donne, George Herbert, and Andrew Marvell. For a final paper Tayler had us analyze this sonnet. A piece of cake it ain't.

Aldous Huxley chose the following lines by Fulke Greville as the epigraph for the 1928 novel Point Counter Point:

Oh, wearisome condition of humanity!
Borne under one Law, to another bound,
Vainely begot and yet forbidden vanity:
Created sick, commanded to be sound.
What meaneth Nature by these diverse laws –
Passion and reason, self-division’s cause?

-- DL

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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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