16 October 2014

Fall break

I've written elsewhere about why I'm not writing much anywhere . . .

But I am reading. A lot. And (so far, so good) I am more or less on track reading through The New Oxford Book of English Verse. This morning again my reading took me to another art. This cross-over from poetry is no real surprise, but it is a pleasure to come across it unlooked for.

There is of course the famous "colossal wreck, "Ozymandius" (Shelley), and Keats' "Grecian Urn," each dealing with artifacts from antiquity. And my favorite memory of a poem read aloud in a high school lit class, "My Last Duchess" (Browning). The inspiring work of art in this poem is a painting by the fictional Fra Pandolf. My friend Randy declined several times to read this aloud, and when finally he gave in to the teacher's persistence, he read it in a sing-song voice that completely undercut the underlying menace of the poem. Randy had (has!) a rich baritone voice, and clearly our lit teacher wanted him especially to read this poem. Randy finished, the teacher glared, there was a tense silence, and then she said, "You have just destroyed the most beautiful poem in the English language." Or maybe she said, ". . . my favorite poem . . ." Randy later remarked, "I told her I didn't want to read it!" Coming across the poem again this year (No. 616 in the anthology at hand) I found myself reading it aloud in a pirate accent. Oh, the brain, what won't it do to us?

But more recently, and more to the point, I have come across poems previously unknown to me, and from them taken side trips into other arts. The first was whilst still in the Browning section, No. 624, "A Toccata of Galuppi's." I assumed that Baldassaro Galuppi, like Fra Pandolf, was a fiction created by Browning. With my musicology background, I am embarrassed to say that I had not heard the composer's name before. Well, here he is, and Browning has given me a gift beyond his words. Not that I'll spend much time with B. G., but the poet's description of early 18th-century Venice, complete with a stodgy old Baroque form to bore a poet . . . and probably everyone else in the room!

This morning it was James Thomson, "The City's Queen" from the larger work The City of Dreadful Night. Early in this section it is clear that the poet is looking at a work of art, and then in the third stanza he writes, "but all men know/That solemn sketch the pure sad artist wrought/Three centuries and threescore years ago/With phantasies of his peculiar thought." OK, so that sounds like something that exists (compared to Browning's Fra Pandolf painting on the wall). Sure enough, the "pure sad artist" was Albrecht Duerer, and the painting (identified by name in stanza six) is "Melancolia."

So, it's a good start to a short fall break from teaching. I got to stay indoors on a cold, gray, drizzly morning,read a little poetry, see a little Renaissance art, and be thankful for an undeserved life of leisure pursuits.

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