The Imperfect Enjoyment

Here’s something you don’t see every day — a 17th century poem about premature ejaculation. After stumbling upon this in a bookstore, I became enamored with the work of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. A witty poet whose unrepentant rock star lifestyle in the court of King Charles II led to an early death of syphillus at the age of 33, Wilmot’s life bears similarity to England’s 19th century version of a notorious, witty, oversexed poet — Lord Byron, who died at age 36.

Johnny Depp starred in a movie about him, called The Libertine — a movie, which, in pains me to say, I cannot recommend. Despite the film-friendly subject matter, and the presence of John Malkcovich (as England’s king and Wilmot’s father figure, complete with prosthetic nose), the movie is a failure. Don’t let this trailer fool you!

I know, it looks good, but trust me — it’s not worth it. As he says in the trailer: “You will not like me.”

Back to the Imperfect Enjoyment…

I urge you first to give this sexually explicit poem a read and then consult the bottom of this page for footnotes. (For example, the word “swive” is an old, dirty word for f#ck, and “strangury” is a disease characterized by slow and painful urination.) While I was stunned at the time to find a poem this smutty and antique, the footnotes of the Penguin Classic edition startled me with this bit of context:

A poem on the premature ejaculation mishap was almost an obligatory exercise for the Restoration poet. George Etherege, Aphra Behn, William Congreve, and three anonymous poets cranked out examples, but Rochester’s is the funniest.

Thank goodness Rochester managed to crank one out. The Roman authors Ovid and Petrarch, I later read, served as models for these poets, since they too addressed the timeless and embarrassing topic of early arrival.

Rochester himself borrowed some inspiration from Thomas Otway’s poem, The Perfect Enjoyment, which I shared earlier in my post, 17th Century Sex Poetry. That sexual situation ended on a positive note — after climaxing and falling asleep, “Thus lying in a trance for dead, Her swelling breasts bore up my head,” the narrator receives a dirty (make that angry) look from his lover: “I saw her killing eyes, which in fiery glances seem to say, now Coelia dies!” (References to death and dying, mind you, refer to orgasm.) Anyway, round two commences, and his girl Coelia, not wanting to “die” alone, crys out, and the happy pair have a simulateous orgasm, hence the title of the poem. The following enjoyment does not end in such bliss, but it’s very funny. Read it to a friend:

The Imperfect Enjoyment

Naked she lay, clasped in my longing arms,
I filled with love, and she all over charms;
Both equally inspired with eager fire,
Melting through kindness, flaming in desire;
With arms, legs, lips close clinging to embrace,
She clips me to her breast and sucks me to her face.
Her nimble tongue, (Love’s lesser lightning), played
Within my mouth and to my thoughts conveyed
Swift orders that I should prepare to throw
The all-dissolving thunderbolt below.
My fluttering soul, sprung with the painted kiss,
Hangs hovering o’er her balmy brinks of bliss.
But whilst her busy hand would guide that part
Which should convey my soul up to her heart,
In liquid raptures I dissolve all o’er,
Melt into sperm, and spend at every pore.
A touch from any part of her had done’t,
Her hand, her foot, her very look’s a cunt.
Smiling, she chides in a kind murmuring noise,
And from her body wipes the clammy joys,
When, with a thousand kisses wandering o’er
My panting bosom, “Is there then no more?”
She cries, “All this to love and rapture’s due;
Must we not pay a debt to pleasure too?”
But I, the most forlorn, lost man alive,
To show my wished obedience vainly strive,
I sigh, alas, and kiss, but cannot swive.
Eager desires confound my first intent,
Succeeding shame does more success prevent,
And rage at last confirms me impotent.
Ev’n her fair hand, which might bid heat return
To frozen age, and make cold hermits burn,
Applied to my dead cinder, warms no more
Than fire to ashes could past flames restore.
Trembling, confused, despairing, limber, dry,
A wishing, weak, unmoving lump I lie.
This dart of Love, whose piercing point, oft tried,
With virgin blood ten thousand maids have dyed;
Which nature still directed with such art
That it through every cunt reached every heart —
Stiffly resolved, ‘twould carelessly invade
Woman or boy, nor ought its fury stayed:
Where’er it pierced, a cunt it found or made —
Now languid lies in this unhappy hour,
Shrunk up and sapless like a withered flower.
Thou treacherous, base deserter of my flame,
False to my passion, fatal to my fame,
By what mistaken magic dost thou prove
So true to lewdness, so untrue to love?
What oyster, cinder, beggar, common whore
Didst thou e’er fail in all thy life before?
When vice, disease, and scandal lead the way,
With what officious haste dost thou obey!
Like a rude, roaring hector in the streets
Who scuffles, cuffs, and justles all he meets,
But if his king or country claim his aid,
The rakehell villain shrinks and hides his head;
Ev’n so thy brutal valour is displayed,
Breaks every stew, does each small whore invade,
But when great Love the onset does command,
Base recreant to thy prince, thou dar’st not stand.
Worst part of me, and henceforth hated most,
Through all the town a common fucking post,
On whom each whore relieves her tingling cunt
As hogs do rub themselves on gates and grunt,
May’st thou to ravenous chancres be a prey,
Or in consuming weepings waste away.
May strangury and stone thy days attend;
May’st thou ne’er piss, who did refuse to spend
When all my joys did on false thee depend.
And may ten thousand abler pricks agree
To do the wronged Corinna right for thee.

To Roxie

Why do you sigh and furrow your brow?
What burdens your canine soul?
Is this sigh mere sympathy
Or do you share my deep ennui?
My kindred spirit, we live too easily
We suffer from domesticity
Come off this couch
Let us depart!
Not to hunt, but just to walk.

© 2013 copyright by c.d. keimling –

photo (16)



I caress you with my lightest touch
You grant me eyes for seeing
The world anew, my love is such
We are but single being
In darkest night when I arise
I feel a clammy fear
When a search with eager eyes
Reveals that you aren’t near
You screen no thoughts from me
Upon your glowing face
Your spell electric catches me
One hand’s a full embrace
When you beckon I respond
A world remains ignored
Nothing comes between our bond
Your frame embodies knowledge stored
This love of mine, I must confide
Is it all too much?
You connect. And you divide.
My Phone, iPhone, I touch.

– © 2013 copyright by c.d. keimling –

The Dark Tower

I’ve decided to take a break from my Childe Harold Project and instead write about a different childe, Childe Roland.

Robert Browning’s haunting poem is as nightmarish as it is ambiguous, and I’m reading it from the Penguin Classics Edition (PCE), which offers some helpful footnotes. I’ve also defined some of the less common words and offered some of my own amateur speculation as to the poem’s meaning. Your comments are welcome. For more, see my previous post Approaching the Dark Tower

Childe Harold to the Dark Tower Came

My first thought was, he lied in every word,
That hoary cripple, with malicious eye
Askance to watch the working of his lie
On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford
Suppression of the glee, that pursed and scored
Its edge, at one more victim gained thereby.

What else should he be set for, with his staff?
What, save to waylay with his lies, ensnare
All travellers who might find him posted there,
And ask the road? I guessed what skull-like laugh
Would break, what crutch ‘gin write my epitaph
For pastime in the dusty thoroughfare,

If at his counsel I should turn aside
Into that ominous tract which, all agree,
Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiescingly
I did turn as he pointed: neither pride
Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,
So much as gladness that some end might be.

A “childe” if you recall, is a candidate for knighthood; a knight-in-training who has not yet won his spurs.

The “hoary” cripple (hoary meaning white or grey with age) is a sinister figure. He serves to usher Roland into the hellscape that that hides the Dark Tower. Precisely what lies does he tell? At first, I thought the old man is merely in the habit of giving false directions, but Roland already seems to know the way, when he says, “If at his counsel I should turn aside into that ominous tract which, all agree, hides the Dark Tower.” Roland knows he’s getting warmer, even if he’s unaware of exactly where within the “ominous tract” (a tract is an indefinite strech of land) he will find the tower. The cripple ensnares travellers, perhaps, by convincing them to take the path of no return. He reminds me of Charon, the boatman, who ferries souls across the river Styx into Hades.

The demented glee of the old man looking at Roland through the corner (askance) of his “malicious eye,” his “skull-like” laugh, and the words like “ensnaring” and “waylay” (to waylay is to ambush) create a memorable image. Roland is fully aware he is walking into a trap, and the old man laughs at his doom.

For, what with my whole world-wide wandering,
What with my search drawn out through years, my hope
Dwindled into a ghost not fit to cope
With that obstreperous joy success would bring,—
I hardly tried now to rebuke the spring
My heart made, finding failure in its scope.

As when a sick man very near to death
Seems dead indeed, and feels begin and end
The tears and takes the farewell of each friend,
And hears one bid the other go, draw breath
Freelier outside, (“since all is o’er,” he saith,
“And the blow fallen no grieving can amend;”)

While some discuss if near the other graves
Be room enough for this, and when a day
Suits best for carrying the corpse away,
With care about the banners, scarves and staves,
And still the man hears all, and only craves
He may not shame such tender love and stay.

obstreperous — means “stubbornly resistant to control: unruly.”

“…finding failure in its scope” — Perhaps I’m reading this wrong, but its seems like Roland feels good about finding failure, which makes me recall George Orwell, writing of his experiences with poverty:

“It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs – and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.”
― George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

I think this is analogous to what Roland is experiencing. He’s finally arrived.

staves — verses (of the funeral psalm) [according to Penguin Classic Edition].

A recurring subject of the poem is Roland’s weariness. The object of his quest no longer matters as much as its conclusion. He only wants his protracted journey to end. Like “a sick man very near to death” he doesn’t want to linger at the threshold of death’s door.

Thus, I had so long suffered, in this quest,
Heard failure prophesied so oft, been writ
So many times among “The Band”—to wit,
The knights who to the Dark Tower’s search addressed
Their steps—that just to fail as they, seemed best.
And all the doubt was now—should I be fit?

So, quiet as despair, I turned from him,
That hateful cripple, out of his highway
Into the path he pointed. All the day
Had been a dreary one at best, and dim
Was settling to its close, yet shot one grim
Red leer to see the plain catch its estray.

For mark! no sooner was I fairly found
Pledged to the plain, after a pace or two,
Than, pausing to throw backward a last view
O’er the safe road, ’twas gone; gray plain all round:
Nothing but plain to the horizon’s bound.
I might go on; nought else remained to do.

I want to point out the geography here — the cripple is stationed on a “thoroughfare” or “highway,” a “safe road.” Roland, at the cripple’s counsel, turns aside, “into that ominous tract.” I can’t help getting the sense that Roland is departing from a well-beaten path, and I leave you to interpret that as you wish. The word estray is interesting, it is a legal term for stray animal [according to the PCE]. I wonder — is Childe Roland straying from the straight and narrow, deviating into darkness, or is he bravely leaving the herd, struggling to find a goal seemingly impossible to attain? Knights and quests usually have positive associations, so why does a cloud of damnation seem to hang over Roland? Why have so many others — to wit, The Band — failed to find the Dark Tower? What exactly are they searching for, and why are they so obsessed? I have no idea.

Now Roland enters a mysterious, barren realm, filled with grotesque sights:

So, on I went. I think I never saw
Such starved ignoble nature; nothing throve:
For flowers—as well expect a cedar grove!
But cockle, spurge, according to their law
Might propagate their kind, with none to awe,
You ’d think; a burr had been a treasure trove.

No! penury, inertness and grimace,
In the strange sort, were the land’s portion. “See
Or shut your eyes,” said Nature peevishly,
“It nothing skills: I cannot help my case:
’Tis the Last Judgment’s fire must cure this place,
Calcine its clods and set my prisoners free.”

If there pushed any ragged thistle-stalk
Above its mates, the head was chopped; the bents
Were jealous else. What made those holes and rents
In the docks harsh swarth leaves, bruised as to baulk
All hope of greenness? ’Tis a brute must walk
Pashing their life out, with a brute’s intents.

The “gray plain” Roland finds himself in is nearly devoid of life. No flowers. No cockles or spurge. (Cockles are a type of weed, spurge is “any of a family of widely distributed herbs, shrubs and trees often with a bitter milky juice.”)
penury — “a cramping and oppressive lack of resources (as money); esp.: severe poverty” or “extreme and often niggardly frugality.”
calcine — “burn to ashes, utterly consume, with the additional sense of refine, purge” [PCE]
bents — coarse grasses
docks — “any of certain coarse weedy plants with long taproots…”
Nature herself objects to the scene. This is isn’t a just desert — this is a sickly, unwholesome, spiritually polluted place. Life itself has been pashed (smashed) out by unseen brutes. It’s the antithesis of a well-cultivated garden.

As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair
In leprosy; thin dry blades pricked the mud
Which underneath looked kneaded up with blood.
One stiff blind horse, his every bone a-stare,
Stood stupefied, however he came there:
Thrust out past service from the devil’s stud!

Alive? he might be dead for aught I know,
With that red, gaunt and colloped neck a-strain,
And shut eyes underneath the rusty mane;
Seldom went such grotesqueness with such woe;
I never saw a brute I hated so;
He must be wicked to deserve such pain.

stud — a stable where studs are kept.
This is one of the most grotesque images of the poem: An skeletal red horse. The “colloped neck” description proves difficult to understand. A collop can mean a slice of meat ; the PCE speculates that by “colloped”, Browning means “raw-looking,” like meat. A collop can also mean a fold of fat flesh, which wouldn’t quite make sense. Perhaps Browning mistakenly chose this word, intending to mean a neck with folds of excess skin hanging from it. That’s my own speculation. I’ve never seen a starved horse.

What does the horse, symbolize, if anything? Horses and knights are linked. Perhaps the horse is a reflection of Roland, a blind, starved creature, not quite dead or alive. Like the horse, he shuts his eyes:

I shut my eyes and turned them on my heart.
As a man calls for wine before he fights,
I asked one draught of earlier, happier sights,
Ere fitly I could hope to play my part.
Think first, fight afterwards—the soldier’s art:
One taste of the old time sets all to rights.

Not it! I fancied Cuthbert’s reddening face
Beneath its garniture of curly gold,
Dear fellow, till I almost felt him fold
An arm in mine to fix me to the place,
That way he used. Alas, one night’s disgrace!
Out went my heart’s new fire and left it cold.

Giles then, the soul of honor—there he stands
Frank as ten years ago when knighted first.
What honest man should dare (he said) he durst.
Good—but the scene shifts—faugh! what hangman-hands
Pin to his breast a parchment? His own bands
Read it. Poor traitor, spit upon and curst!

Better this present than a past like that;
Back therefore to my darkening path again!
No sound, no sight as far as eye could strain.
Will the night send a howlet or a bat?
I asked: when something on the dismal flat
Came to arrest my thoughts and change their train.

Roland, horrified by the sight of the undead horse, tries in vain to conjure up images of a happier past. He vividly sees his old army buddies, but instead of nostalgia, he remembers their crimes. There’s Cuthbert — “Alas, one night’s disgrace” — what did he do? And then there’s his friend Giles, who was hanged as a traitor. If these members of the band are guilty, what burdens Roland?
howlet — owl

A sudden little river crossed my path
As unexpected as a serpent comes.
No sluggish tide congenial to the glooms;
This, as it froth’d by, might have been a bath
For the fiend’s glowing hoof—to see the wrath
Of its black eddy bespate with flakes and spumes.

So petty yet so spiteful! All along,
Low scrubby alders kneeled down over it;
Drench’d willows flung them headlong in a fit
Of mute despair, a suicidal throng:
The river which had done them all the wrong,
Whate’er that was, rolled by, deterred no whit.

Which, while I forded,—good saints, how I feared
To set my foot upon a dead man’s cheek,
Each step, or feel the spear I thrust to seek
For hollows, tangled in his hair or beard!
—It may have been a water-rat I speared,
But, ugh! it sounded like a baby’s shriek.

Roland seems an untrustworthy narrator from the very beginning. After his encounter with the unaccountably evil cripple, he walks “a pace or two” and looks back, only to find that he’s disappeared. As the landscape shifts from mere unnatural sickliness to something more lurid and hellish, Roland’s imagination seems increasingly hyperactive and hallicinatory. It’s not clear what’s real and what isn’t. Is he superimposing his thoughts on his surroundings, as I suspect? Or has he crossed over into hell? After thinking about his fellow knights condemned for unspecified crimes, perhaps he is now contemplating his own damnation. To me, he is the dark, grim opposite of the idealistic Don Quixote.

Glad was I when I reached the other bank.
Now for a better country. Vain presage!
Who were the strugglers, what war did they wage
Whose savage trample thus could pad the dank
Soil to a plash? Toads in a poisoned tank,
Or wild cats in a red-hot iron cage—

The fight must so have seemed in that fell cirque.
What penned them there, with all the plain to choose?
No foot-print leading to that horrid mews,
None out of it. Mad brewage set to work
Their brains, no doubt, like galley-slaves the Turk
Pits for his pastime, Christians against Jews.

presage — prediction
plash — marshy pool
cirque — amphitheatre
mews — cage

Where are the bodies? What explains the absence of footprints, going to or from this seeming battlefield? Is his mind playing tricks on him?

And more than that—a furlong on—why, there!
What bad use was that engine for, that wheel,
Or brake, not wheel—that harrow fit to reel
Men’s bodies out like silk? with all the air
Of Tophet’s tool, on earth left unaware,
Or brought to sharpen its rusty teeth of steel.

furlong — 220 yards
Tophet — a biblical name for hell, although sadly, it was inspired by an actual place:

“In the Hebrew bible Tophet or Topheth … was a location in Jerusalem, in the Valley of Hinnom, where worshipers influenced by the Canaanite Pantheon sacrificed children to the gods Moloch and Baal by burning them alive.” – wikipedia.

Roland’s imagination is in overdrive, it seems. In place of conventional rusty farming equipment, he envisions a device from hell. A harrow is “a cultivating implement set with spikes, spring teeth, or disks and used primarily for pulverizing and smoothing the soil.” A “brake” is a machine; but according to PCE, it can also mean “trap” or “cage.” After the trampled battlefield, this image perhaps is meant to be a metaphor for war, a machine that grinds up fields of men with its teeth of steel.

Then came a bit of stubbed ground, once a wood,
Next a marsh, it would seem, and now mere earth
Desperate and done with; (so a fool finds mirth,
Makes a thing and then mars it, till his mood
Changes and off he goes!) within a rood—
Bog, clay, and rubble, sand and stark black dearth.

Now blotches rankling, colored gay and grim,
Now patches where some leanness of the soil’s
Broke into moss or substances like thus;
Then came some palsied oak, a cleft in him
Like a distorted mouth that splits its rim
Gaping at death, and dies while it recoils.

Roland notes a changing landscape that seems ravaged by man: “so a fool finds mirth, makes a thing and then mars it.” A “rood” is a British unit equal to a quarter acre. Browning, by having Roland note distances (a furlong and a rood) and mundane details about the ground’s composition (bog, clay, rubble, sand) is perhaps trying to make us retain trust in his sanity. But then the landscape resumes its foreboding aspect: a cleft in a tree becomes a mouth “gaping at death.” Previously, he interpreted the sight of trees as a crowd of suicides flinging themselves into a river. I can’t help but think of Satan in Paradise Lost, when he realizes that hell is not so much a place as a state of mind:

“Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.”
― John Milton, Paradise Lost

And just as far as ever from the end,
Nought in the distance but the evening, nought
To point my footstep further! At the thought,
A great black bird, Apollyon’s bosom-friend,
Sailed past, nor beat his wide wing dragon-penned
That brushed my cap—perchance the guide I sought.

More hellish imagery — according to PCE: “Apollyon in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a ‘foul fiend’ with wings like a dragon, named after the ‘angel of the bottomless pit.’ ”

Christian's Combat With Apollyon

For, looking up, aware I somehow grew,
Spite of the dusk, the plain had given place
All round to mountains — with such name to grace
Mere ugly heights and heaps now stolen in view.
How thus they had surprised me, — solve it, you!
How to get from them was no clearer case.

Yet half I seemed to recognize some trick
Of mischief happened to me, God knows when
In a bad dream perhaps. Here ended, then,
Progress this way. When, in the very nick
Of giving up, one time more, came a click
As when a trap shuts—you ’re inside the den.

Roland finally acknowledges the dream-like state he has found himself in, and invites the reader to explain it! The jarring changes of scenery (a disappearing cripple, a river that crosses his path like a snake, and now mountains that suddenly surround him like thugs in an alley) make sense in this context. Roland is fully aware of his delirium and his entrapment. What’s strange is that he recognizes his destination, but only when he is in the midst of it, and only after years of searching, where others have failed.

Burningly it came on me all at once,
This was the place! those two hills on the right,
Couched like two bulls locked horn in horn in fight,
While, to the left, a tall scalped mountain … Dunce,
Dotard, a-dozing at the very nonce,
After a life spent training for the sight!

What in the midst lay but the Tower itself?
The round squat turret, blind as the fool’s heart,
Built of brown stone, without a counterpart
In the whole world. The tempest’s mocking elf
Points to the shipman thus the unseen shelf
He strikes on, only when the timbers start.

dotard — a person in his or her dotage, that is, “a state or period of senile decay marked by decline of mental poise and alertness.”
nonce — the one, particular, or present occasion, purpose, or use <for the nonce>
turret — a little tower
blind as the fool’s heart — The PCE mentions Pslam 14:1: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.”

Not see? because of night perhaps?—Why, day
Came back again for that! before it left,
The dying sunset kindled through a cleft:
The hills, like giants at a hunting, lay,
Chin upon hand, to see the game at bay, —
“Now stab and end the creature—to the heft!”

Not hear? when noise was everywhere! it tolled
Increasing like a bell. Names in my ears
Of all the lost adventurers my peers, —
How such a one was strong, and such was bold,
And such was fortunate, yet each of old
Lost, lost! one moment knelled the woe of years.

There they stood, ranged along the hill-sides, met
To view the last of me, a living frame
For one more picture! in a sheet of flame
I saw them and I knew them all. And yet
Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,
And blew “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.”

Roland is reuinited with the soldiers. Do they share the same fate as him? Or have these ghostly spirits arrived to cast judgement? Ranged along the hillsides, elevated above him, gives me the sense that they have come to judge him. His blowing of the horn seems to be an act of defiance. Who knows?

footnote from PCE: “slug-horn A horn used in battle or to sound a challenge (Browning’s mistake, following Chatterton; the word is in fact a form of Anglo-Saxon ‘slogan’, battle-cry.) The context recalls another Roland, the hero of Charlemagne’s time and subsequent legend, who sounded his horn (too late) at Roncevalles.”

“in a sheet of flame” — backlit by the rising sun, I’m guessing, but the description fits with the overall atmosphere of damnation.

The unassuming appearance of the tower is also curious — round, squat, brown — without windows. Is this an entrance to the underworld?

Coming soon: More reflections on the meaning of Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came

Approaching the Dark Tower

“Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”

H.P. Lovecraft called the poem “hideous,” and meant that as a compliment. Stephen King, inspired by it, wrote a series of books, entitled The Dark Tower. Robert Browning, its author, explained that “Childe Roland came upon me as a kind of dream.”

Indeed, Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came offers perhaps the best depiction of a nightmare landscape ever put to paper. The vivid and baffling images of the poem only enhance its effect, leaving us with questions. What does the dark tower symbolize? What happens when the world-weary knight, Roland, wandering through a blighted, barren land, finally finds the elusive tower and blows his horn? We don’t know, because that’s where the poem ends — as if someone blew a horn to rouse Browning from his slumbers.

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came painted b...

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came painted by Thomas Moran in 1859. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Browning claimed he had no conscious intent of writing an allegory — a seemingly evasive statement that can be defended if one considers that dreams can have meanings that elude the wakened mind. In performing its nightly dredging of the subconscious, the mind pulls up things from the depths that are often unexplained. And even as we wake, the night visions leak from our heads like a sieve, slipping back into the deep waters from which they came. A glimpse of the subconscious is often the best we can hope for. The symbols don’t make sense, but haunt us nevertheless.

A footnote in the Penguin Classics edition (Robert Browning Selected Poems) advises against allegorical interpretation: “readers who wish to try their hand should be warned that the enterprise strongly resembles carving a statue out of fog.”

Next: we approach the tower — with caution.

Yesterday, I saw a man die

No one has drowned at Barton Springs, a popular spring-fed swimming pool in Austin, Texas, for over twenty years. Yesterday, I watched as lifeguards furiously attempted to revive a young man who had drowned rather mysteriously. He had jumped in the water with his friends, and died. He was 21.

As the commotion unfolded, sunbathers on the adjacent grassy hillside rose from their beach towels. Everyone was asked to step back. Lifeguards had to shout and blow whistles repeatedly to get a few single-minded lap swimmers out of the pool, even as the boy’s body remained ominously motionless on the cement walkway. All I could see was his bathing suit, and a pair of legs that refused to move, as the seconds turned to minutes. Two or three attempts at CPR failed.

Everyone reluctantly exited the area as instructed, as approaching sirens were heard. As I walked to the back gate, turning and lingering every few steps, I remember seeing one solitary man, still seated, book in hand, reading away and seemingly oblivious to what was happening. Eventually he got up. I’m sure he felt inconvenienced.

Outside the chain link perimeter of the park and out of view of the pool, I waited for something to happen, but the two ambulances remained parked by the entrance, in no hurry. Nearby, I watched a man and woman chatting under a tree, their smiles and body language indicating mutual attraction. Another girl looked through the fence, and leaned against her boyfriend for comfort. I noted I was alone. I felt vaguely disappointed in myself for not feeling more emotion, and furrowed my brow slightly because it seemed the appropriate face to wear. I wandered toward a gray-haired gentleman, who was playing the role of pundit, offering speculation to a young man. In a field close by, boys played soccer.

I circled around the perimeter of the park to get a better view, following the chain-link fence as it descended down the hill. This time, a kneeling EMS worker thrust his hands without pause, trying to bring a torso back to life.

I watched from a distance. In the foreground, squirrels chased each other. The waters lay gilded with a golden, early evening glow. The scene, with the curve of an aged oak on one side, would make a curious painting. The natural setting remained peacefully indifferent to death. I wrote a brief post for Facebook to document the event, but I forgot to mention where I was.

Finally a gurney took the body away. The application of an IV bag and an oxygen mask provided some false hope, but I knew otherwise. Too much time had passed.

Momus, Critic of the Gods

Momus is the Greek god of satire. To me he is an obscure yet fascinating figure. You have to admire a minor god who gets kicked out of Olympus for constantly mocking the immortals. He calls Zeus a violent god and a horny womanizer, and tells Aphrodite that her sandals squeak and she talks too much. I always wanted to find the god of comedy, and it seems I’ve found him. Unfortunately, he has a dark side as well, being subject to accusations of unfair criticism and envy. He certainly sounds like a comedian.

Sophocles, the famous Greek tragedian, wrote a satyr play called Momos, now almost entirely lost. Satyr plays “featured choruses of satyrs… and were rife with mock drunkenness, brazen sexuality (including phallic props), pranks, sight gags, and general merriment.” What fun! It’s nice to see that Sophocles can lighten the mood a bit and offer some bawdy, burlesque comedy. This is the same playwright who horrified us with the story of Oedipus, who if you recall, inadvertently murdered his father, married his mother, and stabbed his own eyes out.

Let us end with a fine tale about Momus:

“According to an ancient legend, the first man was made by Jupiter, the first bull by Neptune, and the first house by Minerva. Upon completion of their labors, a dispute arose as to which had completed the most perfect work. They agreed to appoint Momus as judge and abide by his decision. Momus, however, being very envious of the handicraft of each, found fault with all. He first blamed the work of Neptune because he had not made the horns of the bull below his eyes so he might better see where to strike. He then condemned the work of Jupiter, because he had not placed the heart of man on the outside, that everyone might read the thoughts of the evil disposed and take precautions against the intended mischief. And lastly, he inveighed against Minerva because she had not contrived iron wheels in the foundation of her house, so its inhabitants might more easily remove if a neighbor proved unpleasant. Jupiter, indignant at such inveterate fault-finding, drove him from his office of judge, and expelled him from the mansions of Olympus.”

— from Aesop’s Fables, “Jupiter, Neptune, Minerva and Momus”; Collins Classics edition.

Momus or Momos (μῶμος) was in Greek mythology the personification of satire, mockery, censure; a god of writers and poets; a spirit of evil-spirited blame and unfair criticism. His name is related to μομφή, meaning ‘blame’ or ‘censure’. He is depicted in classical art as lifting a mask from his face. — Wikipedia (the main source of information for this post).

“Muses bright and Muses pale;
Sombre Saturn, Momus hale,
Laugh and sigh, and laugh again,
Oh! The sweetness of the pain!”

– From Keats’ poem, Welcome Joy, Welcome Sorrow

Keats – On Joy and Sorrow

Fragment: Welcome Joy, and Welcome Sorrow

“Under the flag
Of each his faction, they to battle bring
Their embryo atoms.”

Welcome joy, and welcome sorrow,
Lethe’s weed, and Hermes’ feather,
Come to-day, and come to-morrow,
I do love you both together!
I love to mark sad faces in fair weather,
And hear a merry laugh amid the thunder;
Fair and foul I love together;
Meadows sweet where flames burn under;
And a giggle at a wonder;
Visage sage at Pantomime;
Funeral and steeple-chime;
Infant playing with a skull;
Morning fair and storm-wreck’d hull;
Night-shade with the woodbine kissing;
Serpents in red roses hissing;
Cleopatra, regal drest,
With the aspics at her breast;
Dancing Music, Music sad,
Both together, sane and mad;
Muses bright and Muses pale;
Sombre Saturn, Momus hale,
Laugh and sigh, and laugh again,
Oh! The sweetness of the pain!
Muses bright and Muses pale,
Bare your faces of the veil,
Let me see, and let me write
Of the day, and of the night,
Both together, – let me slake
All my thirst for sweet heart-ache!
Let my bower be of Yew,
Interwreath’d with Myrtles new,
Pines, and Lime-trees full in bloom,
And my couch a low grass tomb.

This poem, composed in 1818, was not published during Keats’ lifetime. I’ve also found it titled “A Song of Opposites.”

Keats opens with a misquotation from Milton’s Paradise Lost. The scene is from Book II, lines 899-901. Satan confronts Sin and Death, who guard the Gates of Hell, only to find that Sin is his daughter, and Death is his son. After Sin unlocks the nine gates, they gaze upon Chaos, depicted as a roiling, clashing mix of elements.

Before their eyes in sudden view appear [ 890 ]
The secrets of the hoary deep, a dark
Illimitable Ocean without bound,
Without dimension, where length, breadth, & highth,
And time and place are lost; where eldest Night
And Chaos, Ancestors of Nature, hold [ 895 ]
Eternal Anarchy, amidst the noise
Of endless Wars, and by confusion stand.
For hot, cold, moist, and dry, four Champions fierce
Strive here for Mastery, and to Battle bring
Their embryon Atoms; they around the flag [ 900 ]
Of each his faction, in their several Clans…

Lethe — one of the rivers of Hades, the Greek underworld. Here is Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book II, in which he describes the five rivers of hell, ending with a description of Lethe:

Far off from these a slow and silent stream,
Lethe the River of Oblivion rules
Her watery Labyrinth, whereof who drinks,
Forthwith his former state and being forgets, [ 585 ]
Forgets both joy and grief, pleasure and pain.

“Lethe’s weed, and Hermes’ feather” — “The contrast is between dull obliviousness and mercurial sharpness” – Oxford World’s Classics edition footnote. Hermes is the swift and clever messenger of the gods in Greek mythology (known as Mercury by the Romans).

night-shade — Following the pattern of the poem, Keats is likely referring to deadly nightshade, or belladonna, a highly poisonous plant. According to Wikipedia: “Most parts of the plant, its leaves, its berries are known to be very poisonous. Children have died from eating as little as three berries. One leaf contains enough poison to kill an adult. The root usually contains the most poison.”

wood-bine –commonly called honeysuckle; a flowering plant.

aspic — obsolete spelling of asp

asp — Anglicized form of aspis, the name used in classical antiquity for a venomous snake, probably the Egyptian cobra (Naja haje). The asp was the symbol of royalty in Egypt, and its bite was used for the execution of criminals in Greco-Roman times. Cleopatra is said to have killed herself with an asp. (Although this is disputed by a German scholar, who argues that she opted for a more effective method of suicide.)

Death of Cleopatra

Death of Cleopatra (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Momus — God of Satire. Momus is so interesting that I’m going to have to post about him.

Hale — having exceptional health and vigor

Wanted: a poem celebrating life-long monogamy

“For a man to be a poet he must be in love, or miserable.”  – Lord Byron

I defy you, dear reader, to find one poem by a major poet — one poem — that celebrates lifelong monogamy. Hallmark anniversary cards do not count. Why is there such a yawning void when it comes poems addressing this subject? Perhaps because poets understand the transitory nature of love more fully than most. Poets celebrate love, not love’s longevity. Poetry will help you woo your woman, but after that… good luck.

Please understand, I support marriage, as I support modern civilization. That doesn’t mean it isn’t problematical for a whole host of reasons. And I’m not a complete cynic. When I see old couples dancing, it makes me believe. Couples can love each other, with mutual respect, with rewarding emotional initimacy and affection, for many years. But love — passion and giddiness — you’re not going to retain. The best you can hope for is a warm glow that flares up now and again on rare occasions — and that’s if you’re compatible and properly devoted.

But enough of what I think. Let’s hear what Lord Byron has to say on the topic. He slept with quite a number of married women, so he knows what he’s talking about. I give you two stanzas from Canto III, from his best work, Don Juan:


‘Tis melancholy, and a fearful sign
Of human frailty, folly, also crime,
That Love and Marriage rarely can combine,
Although they both are born in the same clime;
Marriage from Love, like vinegar from wine —
A sad, sour, sober beverage — by Time
Is sharpened from its high celestial flavour
Down to a very homely household savour.


There’s doubtless something in domestic doings
Which forms, in fact, true Love’s antithesis;
Romances paint at full length people’s wooings,
But only give a bust of marriages;
For no one cares for matrimonial cooings,
There’s nothing wrong in a connubial kiss:
Think you, if Laura had been Petrarch’s wife,
He would have written sonnets all his life?

connubial = of or relating to the married state : conjugal <connubial relations>

Coming soon… who is Petrarch?

Tuscan poet and literary figure Petrarch

Tuscan poet and literary figure Petrarch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)