Poem: Villon
Poet: Basil Bunting
Link: Villon

“Vision is lies,” Basil Bunting says near the start of “Villon,” and indeed it is, for one in conditions such as these:

To the right was darkness and to the left hardness
below hardness darkness above
at the feet darkness at the head partial hardness
with equal intervals without
to the left moaning and beyond a scurry.

Bunting (or is it Villon?) is in a dark cell, imprisoned for refusing compulsory military service. The poem is his prison-ballad, on the model of, and with frequent reference to, the 15th century French poet-criminal François Villon’s own famous prison-ballad, “Ballade des dames du temps jadis.” Bunting captures extremely well the disorientation of his experience, in several ways.

To begin at the beginning, then, here is the first stanza:

He whom we anatomized
‘whose words we gathered as pleasant flowers
and thought on his wit and how neatly he described things’
to us, hatching marrow,
broody all night over the bones of a deadman.

The use of pronouns here immediately creates ambiguity. Who is “He”? Well, Villon, obviously. (The quote that takes up the second and third lines is from the preface to a 16th century edition of Villon’s poems.) But what is Villon doing? Well, he “speaks,” despite having been “anatomized”—despite being dead. And further still, he is “broody all night over the bones of a deadman.” In a sense, however, it is precisely Bunting who, in his cell, is brooding over Villon. Bunting is alive and speaking. Villon is dead. And yet the stanza makes perfect sense. There is a sense in which Bunting, in his cell, is dead (though alive), and in recalling Villon is nurtured back to some kind of life (think here on the double meaning of “broody”).

The result of this is a partial indistinguishability of the two poets. Bunting tells he us that he is dead and Villon alive, and that Villon nurtures him. Yet we know that Bunting is literally alive, and Villon literally dead, and that it is Bunting who is “hatching marrow” from Villon’s bones. Perhaps this explains the other curious pronoun in this stanza: “us,” not “me.”

The disorientation also stretches to the poem’s style. The first section shifts, abruptly, from wholly non-metrical (≠ non-rhythmical) free verse to an almost jaunty song in iambic quatrains, a song that goes on for nine stanzas:

Remember, imbeciles and wits,
sots and ascetics, fair and foul,
young girls with little tender tits,
that DEATH is written over all.

And so on. But even here, Bunting never lets it get too jaunty. The rhyme scheme constantly varies: the above is ABAB (with B as an off-rhyme), the next is ABAB (with A as an off-rhyme), and after that is ABAC. And then there is the fourth stanza of the song, with perfect ABAB lines, which Bunting counteracts by making the lines rhythmically lumpy (though they scan just fine):

Three score and ten years after sight
of this pay me your pulse and breath
value received. And who dare cite,
as we forgive our debtors, Death?

Bunting also varies line lengths. Most are in iambic tetrameter, but there are a few wild cards: “is Death’s collateral” and “die, die in pain,” for instance. And, lastly, the penultimate stanza of the song is not a quatrain at all, but only three lines (rhymed ABA) that bleed directly into the final stanza.

It is, all told, a strange song. Is it full of life, or just demented? Perhaps both. That is appropriate for the song that a prisoner sings himself in the dark.

The poem’s second section makes the opposite shift, in a manner even more disorienting. After ten non-metrical lines, it again slips back into rhymed iambic tetrameter (couplets now), again with just enough off-rhymes and non-rhymes and other deviations to keep from pure jaunt. And then it goes off somewhere wholly other, an almost ecstatic ode to the collectors of individual data (“O anthropometrics!” and later, “O Bertillon!”), culminating in these haunting lines:

Homer? Adest. Dante? Adest.
Adsunt omnes, omnes et
Blacked by the sun, washed by the rain,
hither and thither scurrying as the wind varies.

The poets are all present, all accounted for, in Bunting’s cell.

All the while, Bunting has kept up the ambiguity between himself and Villon. The aforementioned quatrains that end part one of the poem mix characters from Villon’s ballad (e.g. Helen, as well as Abelard and Eloise), as if Bunting were rewriting that poem, with characters from Bunting’s own experience (e.g. the dancers Genée and Lopokova). And this merging of Bunting with Villon is made more or less explicit in the quasi-refrain of part two: “Whereinall we differ not.”

The poem ends in open air, but not exactly in freedom. The opening lines of this part are deliberately enjambed at grammatically awkward points, as if Bunting is stumbling as he walks:

Under the olive trees
walking alone
on the green terraces
very seldom
over the sea seldom
where it ravelled and spun
blue tapestries white and green
gravecloths of men…

He is free of the prison’s bars, but not of its hold. And this is captured in the poem’s miserable, perfect final lines:

How can I sing with my love in my bosom?
Unclean, immature and unseasonable salmon.

At the start of this year, I wrote up some delusions about what I might read in 2017. Now that the halfway point is past, I am in the mood to find out how I have done.

Here is what I have read from that list, with associated posts:

Homer – Odyssey (Lombardo, trans.) – post
Virgil – Aeneid (Lombardo, trans.) – posts (collected)
Robert Frost – A Boy’s Willpost
Fernando Pessoa ­– The Book of Disquietpost1, post2, post3, post4, post5
Wu Yubi – The Journal of Wu Yubi – [no posts]
Henri Cole – Nothing to Declare – [contemporary poetry] [no posts]

Not altogether terrible, though certainly less than half of what I predicted. As I knew would happen, my reading took me down other rabbit holes. I give the highlights below; the full list would be a bore.

Pessoa’s succulent nihilism brought me to read A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe (Zenith, trans.), the Penguin Classics collection of his poetry. Whereas The Book of Disquiet is all in one voice (that of Bernardo Soares), the poetry here is in four voices: Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos, and Fernando Pessoa himself. Of these, I felt the closest kinship with Reis, the melancholy Epicurean, whose compact odes find joy even in their resignation. Reis works in bulk: no single poem stands out, but together they form a powerful collection. In contrast, de Campos is a poet of the single poem, most especially the dazzling “Maritime Ode,” which defies description. At 31 pages, it is too long to leave here, so I leave instead the much more compact “Ah, a Sonnet…”—also by de Campos:

Ah, a Sonnet…

My heart is a mad admiral
Who quit his life at sea
And remembers it little by little
At home, pacing, pacing…

With this motion (the mere thought
Of which makes me shift in my seat)
The seas he once sailed still toss
In his muscles bored of inactivity.

Nostalgia’s in his legs and arms.
Nostalgia pours out of his brain.
His boredom turns into raving.

But if, for God’s sake, the heart
Was my theme, why is this poem dealing
With an admiral instead of with feeling?

I can never read enough translations of Virgil’s Aeneid, so, a couple months after finishing up Lombardo’s fine rendition, I began Sarah Ruden’s, which I think may be my favorite of the five I have read (Ruden, Lombardo, Fitzgerald, Mandelbaum, Fagles). It is a line-by-line, mostly blank verse translation—the sort of thing that will either succeed or fail on a large scale. It is hard to imagine such an attempt being middling. Ruden’s, happily, succeeds. Her lines are terse and forceful, and lack the somewhat stiff grandiosity that occasionally characterizes the blank verse translations of Fitzgerald and Mandelbaum. The compact lines serve Virgil better than the loose lines of Fagles, and she avoids Fagles’ tendency toward being too colloquial. Lombardo’s translation is the freest (though highly musical), and makes a nice pairing with Ruden.

The introduction to the Lombardo translation was written by W. R. Johnson. It was sufficiently insightful that it induced me to buy Johnson’s book Darkness Visible, a classic work of Virgil scholarship. Johnson’s book does exactly what I ask for from a book of criticism: it makes me a better reader. Johnson’s central concern in the work is to elucidate the way in which the world of the Aeneid constants hovers around darkness and chaos, always threatening to fall fully under their sway. He shows this by comparing passages in Virgil to passages in earlier authors, especially Homer. He convincingly demonstrates that where Homer’s passages are characterized by brilliant clarity, Virgil’s re-envisionings of these same passages make them deliberately, carefully murky. Thus Virgil captures a world beyond our comprehension and beyond our control. I had sensed this in my reading of Virgil—it is a major part of why I prefer Virgil to Homer—but I could not have articulated it without having read Johnson. I cannot recommend Darkness Visible highly enough.

Leaving behind poetry, I have been reading a number of the classics of Chinese Philosophy: Confucius’ Analects (Chin, trans.), the book of Mengzi (Lau, trans.), and the book of Zhuangzi (Palmer, trans.). Confucius and Mengzi make a nice contrast. Where Confucius is flexible, emphasizing situationally appropriate conduct (guided but not rigidly determined by the rites), Mengzi is rigid, the sort who might never talk to you again if you bow to him the wrong way. Even if I disagree with Confucius about the general shape of his program, I can feel the deeply humane impulse behind it. In Mengzi that impulse is more difficult to find. But I should be fair to Mengzi. Especially near the start of his work, Mengzi develops certain interesting philosophical themes. Concerning, for instance, the motivation to be ethical, he attempts to start from our natural sympathy for friends and families and to extend this as far as possible. This, I think, is a more plausible solution to the problem of moral motivation than that of the Mohists, who begin with universal love as an imperative. And, as Republicans in the Senate work to savage our healthcare system, Mengzi’s stern moral stance seems especially apt: “Is there any difference between killing a man with a knife and killing him with misrule? There is no difference.”

The real treasure, however, is Zhuangzi, whose laughter still resonates today. He is a relentless puncturer of pretensions, and as pretense is an eternal temptation of the human soul, Zhuangzi will never cease to be relevant. The book that accrued around his name is a hodge-podge, a collection of vignettes and perspectives that do not resolve into any single clearly articulable theme. One imagines Zhuangzi would not have it any differently. I leave, from this work, the following beautiful passage. I might have chosen any number of others.

Words are like the ebb and flow of the wind-blown seas: the purpose of them can become overwhelmed. The wind and seas are easily stirred, and what was attempted can be swamped and lost. (ch. 4)

Enough said about where I have been. Where am I going? I have no interest in predicting the remainder of this year in detail. I will only sketch a few paths that lay within my sight.

I have been reading, with great pleasure, The Poetics of the New American Poetry, a collection of commentaries on the aim and nature of poetry by American poets associated with the volume The New American Poetry 1945-1960 (which I have not read). The volume captures the ferment that surrounded the birth and development of vers libre, both their negative program of throwing off the shackles of forms that were imposed a priori and their positive programs, which were many and resist easy summation. I imagine that I will, upon concluding this volume, be drawn to further explore the poetry of this period, of which I have little firsthand experience. Already, H.D.’s Trilogy, The Selected Poems of Federico García Lorca, and Basil Bunting’s Complete Poems lie before me, and Bunting I have even begun. His “Villon” is a marvelous poem. Perhaps I will write about it here.

On a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest, I returned home with a number of used books (I visited at least eight bookstores in my six-day trip). Among these was Jay Garfield’s translation of and commentary on Nāgārjuna’s The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. I find the Buddhist notion of emptiness intriguing and appealing, and what I have read of this volume already suggests that it may tally with conclusions I have independently reached in my professional work in the philosophy of science. Such concordance may prove to be nothing in the end, but I am sure I will enjoy finding out, one way or the other.

On this same trip I also acquired a copy of Susan Howe’s new book, Debths. It is a short book (though >100 pages, much of each page is white space), and I have already made a first pass through it. But it will require more time. I expect I will be writing about it, one way or another, so I will not say more here. Happily, this will get me closer to meeting my goal of reading four works of contemporary poetry.

And beyond that? My shelves overflow with unread books—perhaps I will make some dents in this. I will not speculate as to the precise locations of these dents.

Book: A Boy’s Will
Poet: Robert Frost
Text: at archive.org (PDF)

I read Robert Frost’s first book, A Boy’s Will, at perhaps the perfect time. As the title suggests, the poems here come from a specifically youthful perspective (though Frost was not himself young when he published it). And this means a certain combination of doubt and braggadocio, of exuberance and overeagerly embraced sadness, that I recognize—not so much in myself (though they are not wholly absent) but in the person I was between, say, 18 and 22. (I am 26 now.) Why is this the perfect time? I cannot wholly enter these poems, yet I remember the version of myself that could, and as I read, I am reading not just the poems but also my past, with my own combination of enthusiasm and nostalgia.

Here, for instance, is the first poem of the volume, “Into My Own”:

Into My Own

One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.

I should not be withheld but that some day
Into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.

I do not see why I should e’er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.

They would not find me changed from him they knew–
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

The narrator romanticizes isolation, and regrets a world that does not afford it. It is not that he is isolated (the trees are, after all, the merest mask of gloom, no more), but that he imagines that he might become so. And if he did (the youthful hope)—and if he did, others would find him “only more sure of all I thought was true.” The youth feels his precarious position, feels the blows of an external world that would bend him to its demands, and protests against this corruption by dreaming of escape.

This recourse to such dreams, I know well. I look on it now with a more mature (I do not say ‘mature’ without qualification) eye, recognizing that this fantasy is something effete, unreal—mere dream in just the way the trees are the merest mask of gloom. Yet this is not an unkind judgment: I begrudge neither myself nor Frost’s youth our vanities.

Sorrow, like isolation, is equally romanticized by the youth, as in “My November Guest”, the volume’s third poem:

My November Guest

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted gray
Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.

Where the last poem is easier to “dismiss” (that is not quite the right word) as merely a youthful fancy, this poem sticks, by which I mean that I still find myself able to enter into it somewhat naïvely, and make myself the speaker. The speaker who formerly dreamed of physical isolation now (I imagine) finds himself still in society, but nonetheless isolated, and so sorrowful. (In my own case, at least, the dream of physical isolation is often a wistful hope to escape the isolation I so often feel in crowds.) And yet he embraces this sorrow, and finds that in its own way it enhances the beauty of a certain sort of gloomy day. (On this point, Frost is entirely correct.)

What makes this poem something more than mere youthful faux-misery is the youth’s guile, as seen in the last stanza. It is not just that the sorrow makes the days beautiful, but that Sorrow, personified, praises them. And even though he has come to understand her praise, he hides this from her, does not let her know that he has been persuaded, so that she will continue to praise the “bare November days.” It is this image of the youth struggling with his sorrow, trying to outwit her and to subvert her to his own benefit, that escapes youth. I, at least, have not found the need for such guile to diminish with age. (But then, I am not old.)

One last poem to illustrate what I find so rewarding about this volume:

Love and a Question

A Stranger came to the door at eve,
And he spoke the bridegroom fair.
He bore a green-white stick in his hand,
And, for all burden, care.
He asked with the eyes more than the lips
For a shelter for the night,
And he turned and looked at the road afar
Without a window light.

The bridegroom came forth into the porch
With, ‘Let us look at the sky,
And question what of the night to be,
Stranger, you and I.’
The woodbine leaves littered the yard,
The woodbine berries were blue,
Autumn, yes, winter was in the wind;
‘Stranger, I wish I knew.’

Within, the bride in the dusk alone
Bent over the open fire,
Her face rose-red with the glowing coal
And the thought of the heart’s desire.
The bridegroom looked at the weary road,
Yet saw but her within,
And wished her heart in a case of gold
And pinned with a silver pin.

The bridegroom thought it little to give
A dole of bread, a purse,
A heartfelt prayer for the poor of God,
Or for the rich a curse;
But whether or not a man was asked
To mar the love of two
By harboring woe in the bridal house,
The bridegroom wished he knew.

The poem and its beauty speak for itself. What I want to point out is simply what I take to be an important element of it: that the narrator is not married. I suppose I do not know this, but the emphasis on isolation in the volume suggests it. In any event, if we accept that the youth is not married, then we are forced to conclude that this poem is sheer imagination: the youth is inventing the scene of his wedding night, and is worried that it will be interrupted by the various sorrows he feels. As someone who is happily married, I can say that the fear is a justified one. The sense of isolation can strike even when one is among the closest and most trusted of friends.

Reading the poem, I get a sense of self-absorption on the part of the youth. I say this without judgment (lest I be judged). The bride is left in the background, neglected, while the youth is occupied with his care. Even though he says he “wished he knew” whether or not to admit this guest, he does not really have a choice: he has already invited him in, has neglected his bride for the sake of his care.

What we get with this poem, therefore, is a youth imagining a scenario about which he knows little firsthand (marriage) and placing into that scene a character—the only character—about whom he knows a great deal (himself). The result is a mix of fancy and realism, not exactly accurate, but believable enough, and a reasonable fear. It is this mix that so attracts me to the poem. The youth still knows little enough of the material realities of life to invent these realities after his own image, and so we learn the contours of that image—as does he.


Well, I am reading the Aeneid again (Ruden, this time). I was struck, as I read the fourth book, by a similarity that at first struck me as interesting though likely incidental, but that, as I read, came to seem more and more deliberate on Virgil’s part. In brief, I think Aeneas is, for Dido, a sort of Trojan horse.

Virgil gives the story of the Trojan horse in the second book. The Greeks build a massive wooden horse, with Greek soldiers hidden inside, then pretend to leave (in fact they hide on a nearby island). The Trojans, thinking the Greeks gone, come out to examine the horse, rightly suspecting some sort of ploy. Laocoön even throws a spear into the horse, eliciting a strange groaning sound. But a Greek youth is captured and brought before Priam. Pleading that he has escaped the Greeks, who wished to offer him as a sacrifice, he tells a fantastic tale that convinces the Trojans that the last thing the Greeks want is for the Trojans to take the horse to their citadel. Indeed, the Greeks made the horse so big precisely to prevent it from fitting through the entrances to Troy. This story is apparently confirmed when two snakes emerge from the sea and eat Laocoön and his sons, apparently a divine punishment for striking the horse with the spear. So the Trojans “cut the walls” (2.234) and bring the horse inside. At nightfall, of course, Troy goes up in flames, finished forever.

Abstractly put, the Trojans trust an apparent exile. On the basis of this trust, they weaken their defenses, taking into their city the very cause of their downfall.

What happens to Dido in book four? Just the same, more or less. Aeneas arrives at her city, and Jove softens Dido’s heart so that she accepts him. He tells, for two whole books, the sad story of his exile. The effect is to make Dido fall in love with him. Here we must back up, and revisit events from book one. There, we learned that Dido’s former husband was murdered, and that she has sworn never to love again, a vow she has until this point kept. Behind the scenes, however, Venus has swapped out Ascanius (Aeneas’ son) for Cupid, who breaches Dido’s defenses and makes her come to love Aeneas. Returning now to book four, Dido, against her better judgment, allows Aeneas into her hurt. But Fate impels him onward, and when he leaves, it drives her to suicide.

Abstractly put, Dido trusts an exile. On the basis of this trust, she weakens her defenses, taking into her heart the very cause of her downfall.

Are these mere loose parallels? At a high enough level of abstraction, anything can be made to seem similar to anything. What reason is there to think that Virgil intended these similarities? Or, if one distrusts intentionalism in interpretation, what reason is there to think that these similarities are salient to understanding Virgil’s poem?

For one thing, the similarities are not merely abstract. Dido’s struggle between the choices of loving Aeneas or squelching that love mirrors the discussion among the Trojans over what to do with the horse. In both cases, better judgment appears to have the upper hand. Dido emphatically rejects her passion:

But let the earth first gape to its foundation,
Or the all-powerful father’s lightning drive me
To the pale shades of Erebus and deep night,
Before I shamefully break Honor’s laws.
The man who first was part of me has taken
My love. He ought to keep it where he’s buried. (4.24-29)

But this resolve is weakened when her sister, Anna, points out to her the advantages of having Aeneas and the Trojans as allies. Carthage is in a precarious position, and could use the strength. This doesn’t convince Dido (she doesn’t love Aeneas for his soldiers, as it were), but it does make “the spark of passion blaze” (4.53).

Even still, this might not be enough. Dido does not “marry” (she and Aeneas rather disagree over the appropriateness of this word) Aeneas until their encounter in the cave, to which they were driven by “the all-powerful father’s lightning.” Just as in the case of Sinon, mere words from mere mortals do not suffice. Divine intervention is needed.

Moreover, the very terms in which Virgil describes Dido’s succumbing to her passion—Anna’s words “made the spark of passion blaze”—foreshadow her downfall. For when she kills herself, and when Rumor spreads the news throughout the city, Virgil makes this comparison:

Long-drawn-out shrieks of grief and women’s keening
Brimmed from the buildings. Anguish filled the sky,
As if invading troops brought Carthage down—
Or ancient Tyre were sacked—and flames were scaling
The rooftops of the houses and the temples. (4.667-71)

After this passage, there can be no doubt that we are to read the fall of Dido as akin to the fall of Troy.

Of course, there are differences. Sinon is a liar, an extension of Ulysses’ trademark Greek cunning. He is in on the trick. In the case of Dido, however, Aeneas is unaware of Venus’ plot, and unaware that Dido loves him against her will. He is, in this sense, innocent. (In other senses, he is manifestly not.) We may sympathize with Aeneas in a way we perhaps don’t with Sinon, though, in my view, this scene should make us at least somewhat more understanding of Sinon: we should not dismiss him simply because his interests do not match up with the interests of the Trojans.

Regardless of how book four reflects on our assessment of Sinon, however, it certainly forces us to recognize an inherent terribleness in Fate, and even more so an inherent injustice in the way the gods set about ensuring that Fate. And that recognition is essential to Virgil’s method throughout the Aeneid. As much as he makes Aeneas admirable, he never makes him unambiguously so, and he certainly never makes Aeneas’ fate unambiguously good. It is merely Fate: good for Aeneas because he is the immediate beneficiary, good for the Romans because they are the long-term beneficiaries, terrible, and unjustly so, for nearly everyone else.