by Gregory Spicer

“Death and taxes” bemoan us now, as ever. Yet as I bask in the fading embers of Christendom’s most sentimental season, my mind freshly equips itself for the new year by conjoining three of the most extraordinary poems of yesteryear. The “ladies first” ideal has me wanting the gentle reader to feast their eyes on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s (1806-1861) very first of her famous Sonnets From The Portuguese:

I thought once how Theocritus had sung
Of the sweet years, the dear and wished for years,
Who each one in a gracious hand appears
To bear a gift for mortals, old or young:
And, as I mused it in his antique tongue,
I saw, in gradual vision through my tears,
The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years,
Those of my own life, who by turns had flung
A shadow across me. Straightway I was ‘ware,
So weeping, how a mystic Shape did move
Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair;
And a voice said in mastery while I strove:-
“Guess now who holds thee?”-“Death,” I said. But there
The silver answer rang: “Not Death, but Love.”

Oh how that ringing silver answer races the pulse! What timid soul could waste a precious moment fretting about the hereafter or the looming calendrical menace of April 15th after reading such a verse by a hot blooded pent up Victorian poetess? Not I. Nay, any toff worth even a tepid damn will be transfixed, mouth agape, by the vivid sauciness with which Love itself seizes Mrs. Browning’s hair! No wonder Mr. Browning was so smitten!

Also, I guarantee that some of 2019 will have yours truly investigating that Theocritus chap. Just what was the deal with him? One thing always leads to another in poetry country. It is a small world and I bet I find a link between Mrs. Browning, Theocritus, and my next guest, the wonderful Ben Jonson’s (1572-1637) poem:

Though I am young, and cannot tell
Either what Death or Love is well,
Yet I have heard they both bear darts,
And both do aim at human hearts.
And then again, I have been told
Love wounds with heat, as Death with cold;
So that I fear they do but bring
Extremes to touch, and mean one thing.
As in a ruin we it call
One thing to be blown up, or fall;
Or to our endlike way may have
By a flash of lightning, or a wave;
So Love’s inflamed shaft or brand
May kill as soon as Death’s cold hand;
Except Love’s fires the virtue have
To fright the frost out of the grave.

Here again Love is the star of the show and, like The Human Torch of comic book fame, is superpowered enough “To fright the frost out of the grave.”

Both of these poems suggest that the Grim Reaper has met his match in some fashion whenever he encounters the power of Love.
I daresay that modern laboratory-based sceptic, a Dr. Buzz Kill, will no doubt call all of this a pile of sentimental drivel, yet a knowledgeable toff understands that chicks dig that sort of thing and therefore learns not only to “roll with it” but to actively promote it to an aesthetically sterile world. Sterile, I say, for having turned its back on all sentiment when it should have at least kept up with the tastier bits of it.

At least now the toff has a purpose, perhaps best summed up by this gem of a poem by Thomas Moore (1779-1852):

An Argument

I’ve oft been told by learned friars,
That wishing and the crime are one,
And Heaven punishes desires
As much as if the deed were done.
If wishing damns us, you and I
Are damned to all our heart’s content;
Come, then, at least we may enjoy
Some pleasure for our punishment!

Well that’s as top notch as a New Year’s Eve Champagne toast is ever apt to get! Bravo!

And so, dear reader, take the advice of this poetic collective and be sure to cheerfully embrace a robust share of wholesome sentiment before paying your taxes or perishing so that you too may defrost your grave someday.



A sonneteer who lives in Sifton, Washington, Gregory Spicer was born in Portland, Oregon in 1963 and graduated from Clark College In Vancouver, Washington in 1989.

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2 Responses

  1. James A. Tweedie

    I enjoyed the wit and humor of your essay. I also enjoyed reading Browning’s sonnet, one I do not recall having read before.

    Vive la difference!

  2. Monty

    Until now, Greg, I never realised that the word ‘mused’ could be used the way it is in the 5th line of Browning’s piece: “And, as I mused it . .” I always assumed that one could only muse OVER something, or UPON something, or ABOUT something: but not ‘muse something’.

    I obviously can’t question said usage, ‘cos it’s staring at me from a published poem by a renowned poet (from a time, unlike today, when the slightest grammatical-error would never get past a proofreader); but I can’t say it sits comfy with me as correct english-usage. If I was giving a friend an interesting essay to read, I might say: “Here’s something for you to muse upon/over” . . so I’m mildly alarmed to learn that I could correctly say to the friend: “Muse this”!

    I find myself curious . .


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