I Wish Not What

Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837 – 1909)\

Body and spirit are twins: God only knows which is which.

Algernon Charles Swibure

 

A Series of Sonnets on the Death of Browning
VI
 
by Algernon Charles Swinburne
 
What secret thing of splendour or of shade
       Surmised in all those wandering ways wherein
       Man, led of love and life and death and sin,
Strays, climbs, or cowers, allured, absorbed, afraid,
Might not the strong and sunlike sense invade
       Of that full soul that had for aim to win
       Light, silent over time’s dark toil and din,
Life, at whose touch death fades as dead things fade?
O spirit of man, what mystery moves in thee
That he might know not of in spirit, and see
       The heart within the heart that seems to strive,
The life within the life that seems to be,
       And hear, through all thy storms that whirl and drive,
       The living sound of all men’s souls alive?
 
 

 
Swinburne had an eccentric reputation as a young man in London’s middle class drinking establishments.   An Oxford educated spectacular drunk, he cultivated an image of hyper-sexuality and depravity, which if it was believed likely would have landed him in jail, but because nobody did, just added to his muddled mystique. (Don’t ask about the story about the monkey….)  Short, slight, sickly in appearance, with a head too large for his body, Swinburne physically was a caricature of a bon vivant.   His temperament was erratic, his mental health disposed to what today might be diagnosed as bi-polar and he suffered from seizures and chronic clumsiness that altogether often left him bruised and bloodied in appearance.  Combine all of that with his tendency towards excessive intake of alcohol, it is remarkable he was productive as a poet at all.  But productive he was and his talent had fans, most notably Theodore Watts-Dunton, his friend and literary agent, who intervened at a time when Swiburne was dangerously ill.  Watts-Dunton took him in his early 40’s and helped him to sobriety.  The two forged a remarkable friendship, with Swinburne living with him in relative calm for the next three decades.   It was said that Watts-Dunton saved the man, but killed the poet, as Swinbure published very little in the following years.  
 
I find Swinburne’s poetry erratic, not a surprise based on that history.   But there are some  lovely poems and given his ill health, his love poems are all the more charming in my mind.
 

 
 

Love and Sleep

By Algernon Charles Swinburne 
 
Lying asleep between the strokes of night
    I saw my love lean over my sad bed,
    Pale as the duskiest lily’s leaf or head,
Smooth-skinned and dark, with bare throat made to bite,
Too wan for blushing and too warm for white,
    But perfect-coloured without white or red.
    And her lips opened amorously, and said –
I wist not what, saving one word – Delight.
 
And all her face was honey to my mouth,
    And all her body pasture to mine eyes;
         The long lithe arms and hotter hands than fire,
The quivering flanks, hair smelling of the south,
    The bright light feet, the splendid supple thighs
         And glittering eyelids of my soul’s desire.
 

Losses Restored And Sorrows End

DSC04543
Lester Loam – Minnesota’s State Soil

Sonnet 30

by William Shakespeare

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.
Then can I drown an eye unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan th’ expense of many a vanished sight.
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored, and sorrows end.


Loss is the unflinching gift and mantle of time, unforgiving, unstoppable and inevitable.  I have been surrounded by loss the past few weeks.  It can feel overwhelming and strangely rejuvenating at the same time.

Loess soils are some of the most productive soils in North America.  Loess soils are  found in the corn belt from Nebraska to Ohio and Missouri to Minnesota.  These soils were formed over millions of years by deposition of small particles from the wind.  These particles originated from erosion caused by wind, rain, freeze/thaw, glaciers, the grinding and wearing down that our environment imposes on even the stoutest of mountains.  Loess is a sedimentary deposit of mineral particles which are finer than sand but coarser than dust or clay, it slowly accumulates to as much as 6 feet of depth and loess is formed. Loess often develops into extremely fertile agricultural soil. It is full of minerals, has good internal structure and drains water well, all the things plants require to prosper.

Loss and Loess are phonetically identical.  Do you find it interesting that soil scientists  have categorized the soils of the most productive farmland in the world as the accumlation of the unpredictable and random deposition of the debris of the surrounding environment?  Is there a metaphor there for the human condition?  Is our loss less the wearing down of our beings, but rather the creation of fertile soil from which we will sprout new life…

A Sequence of Sonnets on the Death of Robert Browning

By Algernon Charles Swinburne

VI
What secret thing of splendour or of shade
Surmised in all those wandering ways wherein
Man, led of love and life and death and sin,
Strays, climbs, or cowers, allured, absorbed, afraid,
Might not the strong and sunlike sense invade
Of that full soul that had for aim to win
Light, silent over time’s dark toil and din,
Life, at whose touch death fades as dead things fade?
O spirit of man, what mystery moves in thee
That he might know not of in spirit, and see
The heart within the heart that seems to strive,
The life within the life that seems to be,
And hear, through all thy storms that whirl and drive,
The living sound of all men’s souls alive?