“And every life became a brilliant breaking of the bank”

ANNUS MIRABILIS
~ by Philip Larkin

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me) —
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Up till then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Then all at once the quarrel sank.
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unloseable game.

So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) —
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

##

Philip Larkin, a balding, horn-rimmed librarian and an “anti-social” loner, was in his early forties when the first fires of the sex revolution of the Sixties began to burn, and even he got in on some of the skirmishes.

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“So this is where you are!”

A SICK CHILD
~ by Randall Jarrell

The postman comes while I am still in bed.
“Postman, what do you have for me today?”
I say to him. (But really I’m in bed.)
Then he says– what shall I have him say?

“This letter says that you are president
Of this world here, it’s a republic.”
Tell them I can’t answer right away.
“It’s your duty.” No, I’d rather just be sick.

Then he tells me there are letters saying everything
That I can think of that I want for them to say.
I say, “Well, thank you very much. Good-bye.”
He is ashamed, and turns and walks away.

If I can think if it, it isn’t what I want.
I want…I want a ship from some near star
To land in the yard, and beings to come out
And think to me, “So this is where you are!

Come.” Except that they won’t do,
I thought of them….Yet somewhere there must be
Something that’s different from everything.
All that I’ve never thought of– think of me!

“Thou shalt not covet, but tradition approves all forms of competition”

THE LATEST DECALOGUE
~ by Arthur Hugh Clough

Though shalt have one god only, who
Would be at the expense of two?
No graven images may be
Worshipped, except the currency.
Swear not at all, for, for thy curse
Thine enemy is none the worse.
At church on Sunday to attend
Will serve to keep the world thy friend.
Honor thy parents, that is all
From whom advancement may befall.
Thou shalt not kill, but needst not strive
Officiously to keep alive.
Do not adultery commit,
Advantage rarely comes of it.
Thou shalt not steal, an empty feat,
When it’s so lucrative to cheat.
Bear not false witness, let the lie
Have time on its own wings to fly.
Thou shalt not covet, but tradition
Approves all forms of competition.

“Say to the court it glows and shines like rotten wood”

THE LIE
~ by Sir Walter Raleigh

Go, Soul, the body’s guest,
Upon a thankless errand.
Fear not to touch the best,
The truth shall be thy warrant.
Go, since I needs must die,
And give the world the lie.

Say to the court it glows
And shines like rotten wood.
Say to the church it shows
What’s good, and doth no good.
If court and church reply,
Then give them both the lie.

Tell potentates they live
Acting by others’ action,
Not loved unless they give,
Not strong but by a faction.
If potentates reply,
Give potentates the lie.

Tell men of high condition
That manage the estate,
Their purpose is ambition,
Their practice only hate.
And if they make reply,
Then give them all the lie.

Tell them that brave it most,
They beg for more by spending,
Who, in their greatest cost,
Seek nothing but commending.
And if they make reply,
Then give them all the lie.

Tell zeal it wants devotion,
Tell love it is but lust,
Tell time it is but motion,
Tell flesh it is but dust.
And wish them not reply,
For thou must give the lie.

Tell age it daily wasteth,
Tell honor how it alters,
Tell beauty how she blasteth,
Tell favor how she falters.
And as they shall reply,
Give everyone the lie.

Tell wit how much it wrangles
In tickle points of niceness.
Tell wisdom she entangles
Herself in over-wiseness.
And when they do reply,
Straight give them both the lie.

Tell physic of her boldness,
Tell skill it is pretension,
Tell charity of coldness,
Tell law it is contention.
And as they do reply,
Then give them all the lie.

Tell arts they have no soundness,
But vary by esteeming.
Tell schools they want profoundness,
And stand too much on seeming.
If arts and schools reply,
Give arts and schools the lie.

Tell faith it fled the city,
Tell how the country erreth.
Tell manhood shakes off pity,
Tell virtue least preferreth.
And if they do reply,
Spare not to give the lie.

So when thou hast, as I
Commanded thee, done blabbing–
Although to give the lie
Deserves no less than stabbing–
Stab at thee, he that will,
No stab the soul can kill.

“Heidegger was a boozy beggar who could think you under the table”

THE PHILOSOPHERS’ SONG
~ by Eric Idle

Immanuel Kant was a real piss ant
Who was very rarely stable.

Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
Who could think you under the table.

David Hume could out-consume
Georg Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel.

Wittgenstein was a beery swine
Who got just as schloshed as Schlegel.

There was nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya
‘Bout the raising of the wrist.

Socrates himself was permanently pissed.

John Stuart Mill, of his own free will,
On half a pint of shandy, got particularly ill.

Plato, they say, could stick it away,
Half a crate of whiskey every day.

Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle,
Hobbes was fond of his dram.

Rene Descartes was a drunken fart.
“I drink, therefore I am.”

Socrates himself is particularly missed,
A lovely little thinker, but a stinker when he’s pissed.

##

Immanuel Kant, a transcendental idealist, believed the universe was a stable system. He himself was chronically wobbly.

John Stuart Mill was very concerned with an individual’s freedom of choice. His shandy was a weak mix of lemonade and beer– but it kicked his butt, despite his robust Victorian will.

A dram is a small measure of Scotch in a liquer glass, yet it knocked Thomas Hobbes on his ass.

Yes, it’s true, most of our great thinkers were sloshed. Certainly explains their writing styles! Good thing these fellows weren’t in engineering.

In a drinking-song sketch on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Eric Idle portrays a cynical, hard-drinking philosophy professor who describes the “greats” as a bunch of drunks.

Idle has perhaps written his masterwork in Not The Messiah, a comedic oratorio based on the film, The Life of Brian, and he wrote the songs for the musical comedy, Spamalot.

“Is not your last act harsh and violent, as when a plough a stony ground does rend?”

THE COMPARISON
~ by John Donne

As the sweet sweat of roses in a still,
As that from which chafed muskrats’ pores do trill,
As the Almighty’s balm of the early East,
Such are the sweat drops of my Mistress’ breast.
And on her brow such luster sets,
They seem no sweat drops, but pearl coronets.

Rank sweaty froth thy Mistress’ brow defiles,
Like spermatic issue of ripe menstruous boils,
Or like the scum, by which, need’s lawless law
Enforced, Sanserra’s starved men did draw
From parboiled shoes and boots, and all the rest
Which were with any sovereign fatness blessed,
And, like vile lying stones in saffroned tin,
Or warts, or weals, they hang upon her skin.

Round as the world’s her head, on every side,
Like to the fatal ball that fell on Ide,
Or that whereof God had such jealousy,
As for the ravishing thereof we die.

Thy head is like a rough-hewn statue of jet,
Where marks for eyes, nose, mouth are yet scarce set,
Like the first chaos, or flat-seeming face
Of Cynthia, when the earth’s shadows her embrace.

Like Prosperine’s white beauty-keeping chest,
Or Jove’s best fortune’s urn, is her fair breast.

Thine’s like worm-eaten trunks clothed in sealskin,
Or grave, that’s dust without and stink within.

And like that slender stalk, at whose end stands
The woodbine quivering, are her arms and hands.

Like rough-barked elm boughs, or the russet skin
Of men late scourged for madness or for sin,
Like sun-parched quarters of the city gate,
Such is thy skin’s lamentable state.
And like a bunch of ragged carrots stand
The short swollen fingers of thy gouty hand.

Then like the chemist’s masculine equal fire,
Which in the alembic’s warm womb does inspire
Into the earth’s worthless dirt a soul of gold,
Such cherishing heat her best loved part does hold.

Thine’s like the dread mouth of a fired gun,
Or like hot liquid metals newly run
Into clay molds, or like to that Aetna
Where ’round about the grass is burnt away.

Are not your kisses then as filthy, and more,
As a worm sucking an invenomed sore?
Does not thy fearful hand in feeling quake
As one which, gathering flowers, fears a snake?
Is not your last act harsh and violent,
As when a plough a stony ground does rend?

So kiss good turtles, so devoutly nice
Are priests in handling reverend sacrifice,
And such, in searching wounds, the surgeon is
As we, when we embrace, or touch, or kiss.

Leave her, and I will leave comparing thus,
She and comparisons are odious.

##

“That which from chafed  muskrats pores’ do trill” describes the collection of musk for perfume. Similarly, “the sweet sweat of roses” are distilled for scent-making. The “Almighty’s balm of the early East” indicates dew, I should think. “Vile lying stones in saffroned tin” refer to paste jewelry. The “chemist’s equal, masculine fire which in the alembic does inspire into earth’s worthless dirt a soul of gold” depicts alchemy’s aim of transmuting base minerals to treasure. “Alembic” is the heated vessel in which distillation transpires.  “Aetna” is a storied volcano in Sicily. “So kiss good turtles” alludes to turtle doves. Early 17th Century spellings were modernized for this reading. Also, I separated the two objects of address within the poem — the ideal and the profane– where Donne wrote this as one continuous skein of couplets. I wanted the piece to be more accessible to modern readers. For a scholarly edition of this poem see Complete Poetry And Selected Prose Of John Donne, edited by Charles M. Coffin, Modern Library.

“For, even as he besought her, she slid into the water”

HIPPOPOTAMOTHALAMIUM
~ by John Hall Wheelock

A hippopotamus had a bride
Of rather singular beauty,
When he lay down at her side
‘Twas out of love, not duty–
Hers was an exceptional beauty.
Take, oh take those lips away, etc.

He met her in Central Nigeria,
While she was a resident there,
Where life is distinctly superior,
And a hippo can let down her hair–
And, God, but she was fair!
Take, oh take those lips away, etc.

She was coming up from her morning swim
When first they chanced to meet:
He looked at her, she looked at him
And stood with reluctant feet
Where mud and river meet.
Take, oh take those lips away, etc.

Their eye-beams, twisted on one thread,
Instantaneously did twine,
And he made up poetry out of his head,
Such as, Dear heart, be mine–
And he quoted, line for line,
Hail to thee, blithe spirit, etc.

Now, hippopotamoid courtesy
Is strangely meticulous–
A beautiful thing, you will agree,
In a hippopotamus–
And she answered, briefly, thus:
Hail to thee, blithe spirit, etc.

Perhaps she was practicing the arts
That grace Old Hippo’s daughter,
The coquetries that win all hearts,
For, even as he besought her,
She slid into the water.
Out, out, brief candle, etc.

Now, on the borders of the wood,
Whence love had drawn him hither,
He paces in an anguished mood,
Darting hither and thither
In a terrific dither.
Out, out, brief candle, etc.

The course of true love never yet
Ran smooth, so we are told,
With thorns its pathway is beset
And perils manifold,
So it was from of old.
Out, out, brief candle, etc.

Yet soon a happier morning smiles,
The marriage feast is spread–
The flower girls were crocodiles,
When hippopotamus led
Hippopotamus, with firm tread,
A bride to the bridal bed.
Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour.

##

“Take, oh take those lips away” is from Measure For Measure, Act IV, Scene I, by William Shakespeare. “Eye-beams twisted…” is from The Ecstasy by John Donne. “Hail to thee, blithe spirit!” is from To A Skylark by Percy Bysshe Shelley. “Dear Heart…” perhaps echoes “Dear Heart, how like you this?” in They Flee From Me by Thomas Wyatt. “The arts that grace Old Hippo’s daughter” alludes, I believe, to a woman of antiquity, Hippo, depicted by Bocaccio as legendary for chastity. “Out, out, brief candle!” is from a soliloquy in Act V, Scene V of Macbeth by Shakespeare, Macbeth lamenting Lady Macbeth’s demise. “The course of true love never yet ran smooth” is from Act I, Scene I of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Shakespeare. Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour” is from London, 1802 by William Wordsworth.  

And, very zanily, “the flower girls were crocodiles,” seems plainly to allude to the animated film Fantasia.  (John Hall Wheelock published this poem in 1961.) Epithalamium is a poem of the bride on her way to the marital chamber, thus “Hippopotamothalamium” is .. well, you know what it is.  When I first found this piece by Wheelock I went to look for more light verse by him, but he apparently wrote few such pieces. Indeed, he was known for a sort of pious neo-Wordsworthian verse, polished and learned, but not so much fun.  Near the end of his career Wheelock said this piece was one of his favorites.  I think he may have been inspired to write this work by the hilariously looney Hippo Ballet sequence of the Walt Disney film. Thank God something cracked him up!