Death and the Lady

This ballad is structured as a dialogue between Death and a woman, and is clearly intended for moral instruction. The implication is that the woman has led an extravagant, sinful life, and death has caught her before she has had the chance to reflect and pursue a more Christian lifestyle. The fact that this heavy-handed lesson is aimed specifically at women illustrates the Calvinist, paternalistic, sometimes misogynistic moral codes that prevailed in Scottish society of the time.

Early ballads were dramatic or humorous narrative songs derived from folk culture that predated printing. Originally perpetuated by word of mouth, many ballads survive because they were recorded on broadsides. Musical notation was rarely printed, as tunes were usually established favourites. The term ‘ballad’ eventually applied more broadly to any kind of topical or popular verse.

This ballad was printed by J. Deacon sometime between 1683 and 1700. It was printed as The Great Messenger of Mortality, or a Dialogue betwixt Death and a Lady. The The Dance of Death (conversations between Death and his victims) was a popular theme throughout the 14th and 15th centuries and again in the 18th century.

Death:

‘Fair Lady, throw those costly robes aside,
No longer may you glory in your pride;
Take leave of all your carnal vain delight,
I’m come to summon you away this night.’

Lady:

What bold attempt is this? Pray let me know
From whence you come, and whither I must go.
Shall I, who am a lady, stoop or bow
To such a pale-faced visage? Who art thou?’

Death:

Do you not know me? I will tell you then:
I am he that conquers all the sons of men,
No pitch of honour from my dart is free,
My name is Death! Have you not heard of me?’

Lady:

‘Yes; I have heard of thee, time after time;
But, being in the glory of my prime,
I did not think you would have come so soon;
Why must my morning sun go down at noon?’

Death:

‘Talk not of noon! you may as well be mute;
There is no time at all for vain dispute,
Your riches, gold, and garments,jewels bright,
Your house, and land, must on new owners light.’

Lady:

‘My heart is cold; it trembles at such news!
Here’s bags of gold, if you will me excuse
And seize on those; and finish thou their strife,
Who wretched are, and weary of their life.

Are there not many bound in prison strong
In bitter grief? and souls that languish long,
Who could but find the grave a place of rest
From all their grief; by which they are opprest.

Besides there’s many with a hoary head
And palsied joints; from whom all joy is fled
Release thou them whose sorrows are so great,
And spare my life until a later date!’

Death:

‘Though thy vain heart to riches is inclined
Yet thou must die and leave them all behind.
I come to none before their warrant’s sealed,
And, when it is, they must submit, and yield.

Though some by age be full of grief and pain,
Till their appointed time they must remain;
I take no bribe, believe me,this is true.
Prepare yourself to go; I’m come for you.’

Lady:

‘But if, oh! if you could for me obtain
A freedom, and a longer life to reign,
Fain would I stay, if thou my life wouldst spare.
I have a daughter, beautiful and fair,
I wish to see her wed, whom I adore;
Grant me but this, and I will ask no more?’

Death:

‘This is a slender frivolous excuse!
I have you fast! I will not let you loose!
Leave her to Providence, for you must go
Along with me, whether you will or no!

If Death commands the King to leave his crown
He at my feet must lay his sceptre down;
Then, if to Kings I do not favour give
But cut them off, can you expect to live
Beyond the limits of your time and space?
No! I must send you to another place.’

Lady:

‘Ye learned doctors, now exert your skill,
And let not Death on me obtain his will!
Prepare your cordials, let me comfort find,
My gold shall fly like chaff before the wind!’

Death:

‘Forbear to call! that skill will never do;
They are but mortals here as well as you.
I give the fatal wound, my dart is sure,
And far beyond the doctors’ skill to cure.

Flow freely you can let your riches fly
To purchase life, rather than yield and die!
But,while you flourished here with all your store,
You would not give one penny to the poor.

Though in God’s name they sue to you did make
You would not spare one penny for His sake.
My Lord beheld wherein you did amiss,
And calls you hence, to give account of this!’

Lady:

‘Oh! heavy news! must I no longer stay?
How shall I stand at the great Judgement Day?’
Down from her eyes the crystal tears did flow,
She says, ‘None knows what I now undergo!

Upon my bed of sorrow here I lie!
My selfish life makes me afraid to die!
My sins are great, and manifold,and foul;
Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on my soul!

Alas! I do deserve a righteous frown!
Yet pardon, Lord, and pour a blessing down!’
Then with a dying sigh her heart did break,
And did the pleasures of this world forsake.

Thus may we see the mighty rise and fall,
For cruel Death shews no respect at all
To those of either high or low degree.
The great submit to Death as well as we.

Though they are gay, their life is but a span,
A lump of clay, so vile a creature’s Man!
Then happy they whom God hath made his care,
And die in God, and ever happy are!

The grave’s the market place where all must meet
Both rich and poor, as well as small and great;
If life were merchandise, that gold could buy,
The rich would live — only the poor would die.

Nobody-But-Yourself – e.e. cummings

“Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.

To be nobody-but-yourself-in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else-means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

~ e.e. cummings

Alone – by Maya Angelou

Alone

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

~ Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

Confessional Poetry

Confessional poetry is the poetry of the personal or “I.” This style of writing emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s and is associated with poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. Lowell’s book Life Studies was a highly personal account of his life and familial ties and had a significant impact on American poetry. Plath and Sexton were both students of Lowell and noted that his work influenced their own writing.

The confessional poetry of the mid-twentieth century dealt with subject matter that previously had not been openly discussed in American poetry. Private experiences with and feelings about death, trauma, depression and relationships were addressed in this type of poetry, often in an autobiographical manner. Sexton in particular was interested in the psychological aspect of poetry, having started writing at the suggestion of her therapist.

The confessional poets were not merely recording their emotions on paper; craft and construction were extremely important to their work. While their treatment of the poetic self may have been groundbreaking and shocking to some readers, these poets maintained a high level of craftsmanship through their careful attention to and use of prosody.

One of the most well-known poems by a confessional poet is “Daddy” by Plath. Addressed to her father, the poem contains references to the Holocaust but uses a sing-song rhythm that echoes the nursery rhymes of childhood:

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time–
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal

Another confessional poet of this generation was John Berryman. His major work was The Dream Songs, which consists of 385 poems about a character named Henry and his friend Mr. Bones. Many of the poems contain elements of Berryman’s own life and traumas, such as his father’s suicide. Below is an excerpt from “Dream Song 1”:

All the world like a woolen lover
once did seem on Henry’s side.
Then came a departure.
Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
I don’t see how Henry, pried
open for all the world to see, survived.

The confessional poets of the 1950s and 1960s pioneered a type of writing that forever changed the landscape of American poetry. The tradition of confessional poetry has been a major influence on generations of writers and continues to this day.

Sources: Poets.org

Mad Poet’s Society: McLean Hospital, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton

In suburban Massachusetts, on 240 acres of peaceful grounds, is a literary legend—of sorts. McLean Hospital, with its long history of treating the blue bloods of Boston, has become an unlikely poetry landmark after providing both recuperation and inspiration to Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton.

Plath was the first of the three to stay at McLean. In 1953, during a summer at home before her senior year in college, Plath swallowed a bottle of pills and crawled beneath her house. Her failed suicide attempt led to months of treatment at McLean and began her long relationship with the psychiatrist Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse. While there, Plath received insulin-shock therapy, anti-psychotic drugs, and ultimately electroshock therapy. The experience surfaced years later in her poem, “The Hanging Man,” which begins, “By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me / I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.”

Lowell was admitted to McLean in 1958, though his infamous manic outbursts had already resulted in numerous stays at other mental institutions. Over eight years, he stayed there four times, correspondeding frequently from his hospital address, and sending letters to Theodore Roethke, Ezra Pound, and even Jackie Kennedy. Written about his first stay at McLean, his poem “Waking in the Blue” mentions Bowditch Hall and was pasted on the wall of the nurse’s station there for years.

Highly competitive with Plath, Sexton tried for years to be admitted to McLean, but her therapist, aware of the high cost, refused to admit her. Sexton first entered McLean as a teacher. In 1968, she was invited to lead a weekly poetry seminar in the hospital, providing Sexton with her first teaching experience, after which she became a professor at Boston University. In 1973, a year before her death by suicide, Sexton achieved her wish and was admitted to McLean for a five-day examination.

Plath and Sexton both attended a poetry seminar taught by Lowell at Boston University in 1959. They were each inspired by his confessional poetry and the appreciation for madness that he cultivated. In “Elegy in the Classroom,” Sexton wrote about Lowell: “I must admire your skill. / You are so gracefully insane.” Through his encouragement, they began to turn their personal experiences into verse—a quality that would mark their later work.

Plath discovered she could mine her McLean experiences for literary inspiration. She wrote in her journal, “There is an increasing market for mental-hospital stuff. I am a fool if I don’t relive, recreate it.” Thus she began her famous novel, The Bell Jar. Years later, in his introduction to Plath’s posthumous poetry collection Ariel, Lowell said, “Everything in these poems is personal, confessional, felt, but the manner of feeling is controlled hallucination, the autobiography of fever.”

Source: poets.org

One need not be a chamber to be haunted – Emily Dickinson

One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.

Far safer, of a midnight meeting
External ghost,
Than an interior confronting
That whiter host.

Far safer through an Abbey gallop,
The stones achase,
Than, moonless, one’s own self encounter
In lonesome place.

Ourself, behind ourself concealed,
Should startle most;
Assassin, hid in our apartment,
Be horror’s least.

The prudent carries a revolver,
He bolts the door,
O’erlooking a superior spectre
More near.

~ Emily Dickinson

Waking in the Blue – By Robert Lowell

The night attendant, a B.U. sophomore,
rouses from the mare’s-nest of his drowsy head
propped on The Meaning of Meaning.
He catwalks down our corridor.
Azure day
makes my agonized blue window bleaker.
Crows maunder on the petrified fairway.
Absence! My hearts grows tense
as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
(This is the house for the “mentally ill.”)

What use is my sense of humour?
I grin at Stanley, now sunk in his sixties,
once a Harvard all-American fullback,
(if such were possible!)
still hoarding the build of a boy in his twenties,
as he soaks, a ramrod
with a muscle of a seal
in his long tub,
vaguely urinous from the Victorian plumbing.

A kingly granite profile in a crimson gold-cap,
worn all day, all night,
he thinks only of his figure,
of slimming on sherbert and ginger ale–
more cut off from words than a seal.
This is the way day breaks in Bowditch Hall at McLean’s;
the hooded night lights bring out “Bobbie,”
Porcellian ’29,
a replica of Louis XVI
without the wig–
redolent and roly-poly as a sperm whale,
as he swashbuckles about in his birthday suit
and horses at chairs.

These victorious figures of bravado ossified young. 

In between the limits of day, 
hours and hours go by under the crew haircuts 
and slightly too little nonsensical bachelor twinkle 
of the Roman Catholic attendants. 
(There are no Mayflower 
screwballs in the Catholic Church.) 

After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning. Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor’s jersey
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases,
twice my age and half my weight.
We are all old-timers,
each of us holds a locked razor.

~ Robert Lowell, from Life Studies, 1959

Paradise Lost, Book II Excerpt

“Into this wild abyss,
The womb of nature and perhaps her grave,
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the almighty maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds,
Into this wild abyss the wary fiend
Stood on the brink of hell and looked a while,
Pondering his voyage . . .”

~ John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book II

#FavoriteQuotes #JohnMilton #ParadiseLost

Mad Girl’s Love Song – Sylvia Plath

A short poem for women’s History month by Sylvia Plath:

Mad Girl’s Love Song

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan’s men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you’d return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)
~ Sylvia Plath.