apropos of ‘The Threads’ by E. Mantyk

I fell into a radiant sleep;
Thereon into dream and seeing:
A paradise seemed me to keep;
In its walls, the seeds of being.

Thus thrown into this strange-sweet place,
Sauntered I about, unknowing
What ought I do with this rich grace
Action seemed on me bestowing.

I moved as spirit through the land
Whilst my body slept in study;
I moved not by own strength, nor hand:
Rather grace that is sur-body.

I stopt. A stillness shocked the air:
Then a sense there held me still;
Felt spirit glimmered everywhere,
As my soul with fears ‘gan fill.

Sweet goddess Providence descended,
Soft to me therewith inditing,
‘I bring good news; your woes are ended;
Fear not (Charles) for I’m arighting.

‘Although the art today displease,
And perhaps the worst is verse
(We would this poet-aster cease,
Wishing he had been more terse;

‘We would that this pretender more
Had said, so we knew what they
Had meant; and this one leaves us sore
In the ear; and this the eye;

‘This poet we rather enjoy,
In fact, knowing not he’s funny;
This too-stern one forgets that joy
Is the key to vatic honey),

‘Do not despair, yet rather see:
Artful grows the general text,
For with the loom of history
Spin I past things and things next.

‘I am Arachne-like in this:
She whom Lydian people loved,
Whose swift-deft fingers’ seeming kiss
On the fabric her skill proved;

‘She whom the nymphs and naiads left
Groves and worlds of water for;
Who made Minerva grieved, bereft,
By her skill, as told before.

‘Yet though she wove “amor deorum”,
Painting gods with mortals fled,
I (unlike her) show decorum,
Weaving happy scenes instead.

‘Yea, a comedy a downward turn
Needs, and some catastrophe,
To joy in order to return,
Marriage, and felicity.

‘Meanwhile then, Charles, put you the pen
Paperwards, and work; the eye
To fine, old works, where fancy’s seen
Blossoming and creeping high:

‘Where works begin inspired,
Built on knowledge and with skill,
Poets by poets together fired,
Libraries with love to fill.’

With this the goddess swift ascended,
Leaving me with verses glowing;
If, missing her, my heart distended,
Yet it joyed by this rare knowing.

 

Charles Eager is a scholar, teacher, and poet in Yorkshire, England. He is co-author of the poetry volume Synkronos (2017) with Vlad Condrin Toma. Although sold-out, it is available to be read freely online. His poetry has been published by EPIZOOTICS! and The Society of Classical Poets. His coming projects include a book on Shakespeare’s gods; books on Wordsworth and Dickens’s religion; compositions for classical guitar; a book on distinctions; and poetry, translated and original.
@sircharleseager
c.eager@leeds.ac.uk


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10 Responses

  1. C.B. Anderson

    I don’t wish to hurt your feelings, Charles, but this poem was fraught with syntactic infelicities, including manifold awkward grammatical inversions and assaults on normative diction. A line-by-line analysis is not appropriate here, because nearly every line is a poetic disaster. What were you thinking? Your classical references were lost in the haze of incoherence. Although I am sure you meant to say something, in the end you have said nothing, because no Anglophone will grasp what it was you were trying to get at. In summation, this poem might be the most appalling example of incompetent prosody I’ve ever tried to read.

    I’ve noticed that my compatriots here have declined to comment, and I attribute that to the fact that most readers are averse to posting negative comments. In my opinion that’s shameful, and I would exhort them to serve no master but the truth.

    Reply
    • Charles Eager

      Thank you for your thoughts, Mr. Anderson – I am always eager (by name, so by nature) to receive negative as well as positive criticism, and my admiration for your work adds, for me, weight and authority to your remarks. All I shall say in my defence is simply that what makes an infelicity remains subjective, as we see by how opinions change over time on this matter. The poem is throughout grammatically and metrically correct, as a slow and careful examination will demonstrate, and constructed with great attention paid to sound and sense. Perhaps our difference of opinion stems from a difference of reading. When I wrote this poem, I had just finished three months of intensive teaching (and thus re-reading) in Renaissance poetry and, given my medieval and early modern subject in this poem (the dream vision being medieval, the vision of Providence early modern), an approach to English like that used so often in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries seemed appropriate, so that style might answer subject. I might also add that, as a young person, I have perhaps more of a tolerance for the experimental and perhaps even the distasteful than some more conservative conceptions of what makes good poetry; but I do feel vindicated by the reflection that poets such as Donne and Hopkins were seen as harsh abusers of their language in their day, but now are admirably studied when more cautious poetries have ceased to awaken the interests of subsequent generations. The poem is also not entirely serious, and so a more exalted, straightforward style would undo the humour and parody, whereas a slightly tortured English helps to bring this out. Finally, do feel free to offer examples of what moved you so; although I expect we shall agree to disagree, I shall (all the same) be very happy to learn all I can from your insights, admirer of your poetry as I am.

      Reply
  2. David Watt

    I have also had a close look at this poem, and in particular, found that the grammatical inversions are detrimental to a natural flow.

    I took one stanza (shown below) and have attempted to suggest one possible improvement as an example.

    ‘We would that this pretender more
    Had said, so we knew what they
    Had meant; and this one leaves us sore
    In the ear; and this the eye;

    We wish that this pretender more
    Had said, to learn purpose meant;
    For then, what ear and eye found sore
    Could soothe through balm of intent.

    The poem’s theme is worthy, but in my opinion, requires revision to enable clarity and flow.

    Reply
    • Charles Eager

      Thank you, Mr. Watt, for your thoughtful response, which I very much appreciated. For my full thoughts on the general subject of clarity, obscurity, and grammatical inversion, see my reply to Mr. Anderson, above. Your remarks do raise the difficult question of what a ‘natural’ flow is (as opposed to, say, an unnatural flow) and what we can and ought to expect poetry to do and be—a worthwhile debate, I think, which I would be happy to have with you.

      For now I shall simply say that, although I do not dislike your emendations, you do not satisfactorily keep the trochaic metre in the odd-numbered lines. Mr. Mantyk’s use of this regularly occurring trochaic in his original poem, ‘The Threads’, was indeed one of the chief attractions in my writing a reply, since it is much more difficult to write a series of convincing trochaic lines in English than a series of convincing iambics. With this in mind, I might recommend to you, to Mr. Anderson, and to the other readers of this poem, that it be read as an étude. We are all, after all, always learning.

      I might also add that your suggested phrase ‘to learn purpose meant’ is hardly a more natural and idiomatic English than my ‘so we knew what they | Had meant’, which is simpler and clearer. Furthermore, your emendation here also repeats the ‘meant’ from a few lines above, and any poet who knows his Catullus ought to know to be very sensitive to and cautious in using repetition without significance, given repetition’s function as a structuring device.

      Finally, in reply to both criticisms on the basis of grammatical inversion, I must say there are only a very few inversions in this poem, and that most clauses simply proceed using English’s usual ‘subject, verb, object’ structure. Perhaps the real source of your and Mr. Anderson’s dislike is the brevity of some of Providence’s clauses, which creates a halting counter-rhythm which clashes with the metrical flow (an effect somewhat like polyrhythm in music); or perhaps it is the generous use of enjambement, which again can create dissatisfaction when a reader is desirous of a sonorous close of sound and sense in a typical end-stopped line.

      Again, here I have to thank (or blame) the influence of the great Renaissance poets—Donne, Sidney, Shakespeare, Spenser, etc.—who are so admirably sensitive to the power latent in the difference between the end-stopped and enjambed line. One sees this eminently in The Faerie Queene, where narrative is consistently interspersed with speech and the two are differentiated partly by these means. Another reading of ‘Providence and Poetic Tradition’ will show that I end-stop consistently whilst narrating (i.e., in the first five stanzas and the last), but, in quoting Providence, I have largely enjambed her lines in order to give the speech a dramatic quality, almost as though she were reciting blank verse on the Renaissance stage (indeed, my source for the theophany of Providence is from the Renaissance play Clyomon and Clamydes). Any reader of Shakespeare, for example, will see that, in his early work, end-stopped lines tend to reduce the sense of ‘realism’ in his work, and that he later moved towards a style which used almost constant enjambement and, indeed, rougher metre, when trying to communicate the feeling of realistic speech.

      I hope that these remarks somewhat clarify this difficult poem (and its reception) for any readers and critics and, should anyone wish to discuss the issues raised, please feel free to do so here or privately by email (which is listed at the bottom of my poem’s entry).

      Reply
      • C.B. Anderson

        Charles, you have caught me on my high horse, as have many others, and I applaud your poise and your sense of self-worth in in the face of acute animadversion. I disagree that “infelicity remains subjective.” It may well be that it is historical, but today, passages such as:

        … unknowing
        What ought I do with this rich grace
        Action seemed on me bestowing.

        Come across as nonsense. If you are hoping that literary historians in the distant future will somehow find reversions to already antiquated modes of writing interesting, then I would refer you to a (rather crude) saying from the American Southwest: Piss in one hand and hope in the other, then see which hand fills up first. In short, clarity is a virtue in all places and at all times. In S4, L4 ” “‘gan” leaves me bewildered. And why “stopt” in S4? Let me guess: It thwarted expectations.

        My advice, for what it’s worth, is to say what you mean to say in the idiom of your intended readers and not aspire to become a faux Dylan Thomas. And BTW, your meter is not as “correct” as you claim it to be.

  3. Charles Eager

    Thank you, Mr. Anderson, for the more detailed criticism. I must admit that, although the poem is disliked, I am somewhat delighted that it has found two careful and attentive commentators, and am glad it has not become a mere object of indifference. However, I would like to offer a little bit more defence—with some concession, since I do not think you are wrong, but merely of a different opinion, and I do not claim that this poem is perfect or a masterpiece, although I do believe that it is basically well-crafted and meaningful.

    You deny the subjectivity of the infelicitous, but do not make any argument for it. On the contrary, the evidence seems to be on my side of the argument here. Certain works are thought to be infelicitous and later esteemed great, and the reverse, and some fine works remain forever obscure, and some lousy pieces are bewilderingly famed forever.

    Do the lines you quoted come across as nonsense? They make grammatical sense (simply using some elision to accommodate the metre). They clearly say that my narrator did not know what to do with the rich grace which seemed to be bestowed on him by the personified Action. He is expressing the wonder typical of the dreaming poet.

    Although I like the earthy wisdom of the proverb you quoted, I must deny its truth: indeed it is a proverb of greater style than substance, we might say. Hope is integral to every action we take in life: why write poems? In the hope we might write a good one. Why get out of bed on any given morning of one’s life? In the hope that, by the time we get back into it at the day’s end, the getting out will have been in some respect worthwhile. I mean to say that hope is not only integral, but necessary to even the smallest actions, and on these grounds I respectfully disregard the wisdom of the proverb.

    I think there is plenty of evidence for the value of historical pastiche. Spenser was criticised (by Sidney in the Apology for Poetry) for using antiquated, medieval words, since there was no precedent for this in Virgil. Lo and behold, today Spenser’s status as one of English’s greatest poets is not in question and, wonderfully, Sidney’s criticism is still also seen as legitimate, but just one view of the many that one has the liberty to take on the matter. There are other fine examples: Mozart’s imitation of Lutheran chorale in The Magic Flute; eminently, the Greek tragedians’ borrowing of Homeric language and idiom; and Dante’s imitation of the Provençal poets (marvellously, in the Provençal language) in Purgatorio.

    Why does “‘gan” leave you bewildered? It is obvious that it means ‘began’, and so the meaning is clear. This was clearly for metrical reasons, whereas the spelling “stopt” I wrote simply when writing the poem in shorthand and left it in in a spirit of playfulness, which I always employ in my writing. But there is substance here too: it signals to the reader visually to look out for the t-sounds in “stillness” and “shocked” later in the line. It is also an abrupt, short sentence, consisting simply of pronoun and verb, and abrupt spelling does not strike me as an unsuitable complement, emphasising the sense of dramatic shift in the moment narrated. In a sense, the spirit of the word “shocked” is written into the spelling of the word “stopt”, each underlining the other’s significance. I might also add that, to my knowledge, it is not an historical spelling, just a personal, playful idiosyncrasy, and (again) perfectly clear in its meaning.

    I disregard the Thomas remark, since that was not my intention and I do not know his poetry well. I do freely confess that there are some metrical liberties towards the end of the poem. “Yea, a comedy a downward turn” is, strictly, hypermetrical (at nine syllables), but the interjection (“Yea”) is allowed in verse drama since it is not, strictly, part of the sequence of words, and therefore not of the metre, but rather a significant sound, signalling a structural change. “Where works begin inspired” (6 syllables) allows a missing foot as Providence’s speech reaches its climax, which is nicely reflected in this slight skip in the metre—again, a technique used by many composers for greater expression, and not unprecedented in poets such as Donne, Spenser, and most famously Virgil’s half-lines.

    Finally, I shall just reiterate that, although I defend the above poem, I do not want to claim that it is perfect, or a masterpiece, though I do believe that it is basically well-crafted. It is not my best poem, and my best poem is not as good as many writers’ worst. However, I love poetry, and this love makes me write. I also love bad poetry, in which one can almost see the poet’s soul struggling for heights for which they have not (yet) the skill or vision. Poetry is a banquet, and I think we should be grateful for its great variety. It is not the exclusive territory of the genius, but a communal space, in which each can write what he or she likes in order to please, first and foremost, him or herself, and then share it in hope that someone else may derive some enjoyment from it, too—even if it is merely the enjoyment of hating a bad poem (in some sense, the subject of the above poem). Leopardi said that he ultimately did not care about the reception of his poems, and that they existed as a comfort and joy to him in his private re-reading of them.

    Poetry is a wonderful free world, in which everyone has the liberty to write what is in their heart, mind, and experience, and in which the readership is free to love, hate, like, dislike, or remain indifferent to each poem according to their poetic experience and beliefs. I respect your exaltation of clarity and comprehensibility, and indeed share your admiration for them. I think they are here in this poem, and that a careful reading reveals the meanings quite easily, and I do insist that each line is rich with meaning. I might also add at this point that, just because I have done one poem in a (slightly) historical manner, does not mean that all my attempts are like this. Indeed, with each new poem I tend to try a new technique, idea, metrical scheme, or vision. The two short lyrics I offered to the Society along with this poem (which have not been published) were short and clear. This is just to say that we usually understand a writer by a range of his or her works, not one, exceptional example.

    I might finally say that, just as poetry is a wonderfully free terrain, so is the English language. I am in awe of its range of expression, and I think our main point of contention concerns where to set the boundaries of what is useable. I would probably not use Old English from the time of Beowulf, although I might use a rich word which derives from that time with knowledge of its historical significance, much as Shakespeare does for the ‘weyard Sisters’ in Macbeth (our modern word “weird” coming from OE “wyrd”, fate). I did once write a brief, comical, playful imitation of Chaucer (unpublished), but would probably not use a Chaucerian word unless it were sufficiently obvious what it meant and unless it were richly significant. Jacobean English, however, given Shakespeare’s works and the Authorised Version of the Bible, is amongst the best known, and offers such a vast world of expression that I think we are at almost complete liberty to use it, except perhaps where the meaning of a word has changed completely in the intervening centuries. Indeed, for someone like me, who reads a lot of it each day, it is as current, modern, and vital as twenty-first-century English, and indeed more so, since we have the misfortune of living in an age of slogans, split infinitives, abbreviations, and clichés from which the richer Jacobean (and Elizabethan) language might save us. The past is a treasury; I think we should use it.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      Uncle! I cannot compete with the breadth and the depth of your scholarship. I can only repeat Robert Frost’s apothegm that “too much explanation ruins a poem.” I stand with Mr. Watt in insisting that a good poem should exhibit demotic accessibility and not be the subject of endless deciphering. Watt did not say that exactly, but, if pressed, I’m fairly sure he would own that opinion. In any event, I look forward to any future works of yours posted on this site, if only to see whether or not you have moved on from byzantine syntactical constructions. And split infinitives are not, by a long mile, the worst abuse of our common language.

      Reply
      • Charles Eager

        I do not disagree with you or Frost (or, if indeed he shares this opinion, Mr. Watt), Mr Anderson. But I do think the apothegm’s implications are, in practice, somewhat naïve, as evidenced by the masses of commentary on the richest literary texts—scripture, Shakespeare, Dante. We seem, I think, to need commentary. You yourself have started the commentary on ‘Providence’! Indeed, it is likely that, in a few centuries, Frost will require annotations aplenty in order to be adequately understood, simply because language constantly changes and things drop in and out of common use.

        I think my poem quite plain and easy to understand, but I suppose a scholar would think so. You may be intrigued to learn that I actually never wanted to be a scholar-poet (if this is what I am); indeed, this was the opposite of what I wanted. I was born a poet, but became a scholar. And, in a cruel turn, I became a scholar in trying to be a better poet. I think there is an interview with Larkin in which, responding to the criticism that he is a “Welfare State poet” (whatever that means), he says that one simply writes the poetry one writes, and indeed writes the poetry one has to write.

        I should actually have three short translations, which won the Third Prize, published here soon. I wrote these around the same time as the above poem, and I do not think you will like my expressive use of word order. However, translation is so strict, perhaps you will allow me some indulgence, or at least allow that the first comment on my new publication not be an accusation of ‘poetic disaster’ in almost every line, which, as you might imagine, makes my subsequent sharing of the publication with family, friends, and colleagues rather embarrassing.

        When it comes down to it, it seems that we simply have different poetic models to which we aspire. I think this is a good thing: I am happy to let you have your different vision of what poetry should be, but I would just ask that I not be attacked for mine. To write how I like, how to my ear sounds most musical, brings me some happiness, and what is wrong with that?

        Anyway, you brought up important issues, and we are not the first writers to have such debates. It would be good, one day, to talk about all this fully, I think. Let’s stay in touch.

  4. David Watt

    Hello Mr. Eager. Thank you for your response to my comments.

    The assessment of ‘natural’ flow is certainly subjective to a large extent. I must admit that at times I struggled in reading the meter, and that the inversions (although few in number) caused me to pause. Your generous enjambment no doubt also played a part in forming my comment. I hasten to add that I have nothing against enjambment per se. Lastly, the word ” ‘gan”seemed out of place to me, as it also does for Mr. Anderson.
    My emendation was far from perfect in conforming to your intended meter. The intention I had in focussing on this stanza was to bring greater clarity. Whether my attempt achieves greater clarity is open to debate.
    Your detailed response has provided me with valuable insight into the background leading up to the composition of your poem, including those factors influencing your choice of language.

    In any case, I look forward to reading more of your work.

    Reply
    • Charles Eager

      Thank you for your response, Mr. Watt – I feel as though it has been a productive exchange, even if we part ways in some degree of disagreement. As I say above, I should have some translations, which won the Third Prize, up on this site in due course. They do also feature inverted word order but 1) this may be partly excused by the nature of the inflected languages from which I am translating them and 2) the poems are by much greater poets than me, so perhaps some of the original quality can shine through what I freely acknowledge are imperfect translations.

      P.S. You may disregard what I said on the subject of repetition in my earlier reply to you. I mistakenly saw a repetition where there was none. Apologies for this error.

      Reply

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