Victorian Poets Doing Trump

image by WLM3

Every spring I teach Victorian poetry, Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, and Hopkins.

Like a turreted mansion, ornamental to the max, Victorian verse can seem to us more than a little too too much.

Take Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott.“

 

On either side the river lie

Long fields of barley and of rye,

That clothe the wold and meet the sky;

And thro’ the field the road runs by

To many-tower’d Camelot;

The yellow-leaved waterlily

The green-sheathed daffodilly

Tremble in the water chilly

Round about Shalott.

If you recite that out loud, you want to sing it, wonder if there  might  be an accompanying melody. Not only do we have the singsong meter, but the rhymes are also laid on as thick as marmalade.

I suspect that our president, though not old-fashioned, would like Tennyson — that is, if someone were to read Lord Alfred out loud to him. President Trump has a soft spot for rococo, admires elaborate wainscoting gilded with gold. I read recently that he wants to ride in a gold carriage when he travels to the UK to meet the Queen.

Tennyson just might be Trump’s cup of tea.

 

At Mar-a-Lago, West Palm Beach

The nuclear code within his reach

His hair the color of a peach,

the mighty Donald Trump.

With his golf clubs by his side

In a cart he takes a ride

With a guest he can’t abide,

The mighty Donald Trump.

Robert Browning, on the other hand, is easier on our ears. Although the mad men in his gallery of monologists employ rhyme, the pauses in the middle of the lines – caesura is the technical term – and the fact that a line often tumbles without pause onto the next line – enjambment – mean that the reader swallows the rhymes, softening them.

Here is one of Browning’s characters making sure his lover will be spending the night.

 

That moment she was mine, mine, fair,

Perfectly pure and good: I found

A thing to do, and all her hair

In one long yellow string I wound

Three times her little throat around,

And strangled her.

As Lord Byron might put it, “So soft, so calm, yet eloquent.”

Let’s give Robert Browning a shot at the Donald:

 

I’ll make things so great, so great,

You’ll grow way tired of winning.

I promise, I can’t overstate

The good that I will do. Spinning

Jobs back from China. Building

A wall. We’ll have reason to celebrate!

Matthew Arnold, though a far lesser poet, is like Tennyson, depressive. If Arnold were alive today, he’d be a frequent contributor to Pantsuits Nation.

 

Listen! you hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,

At their return, up the high strand,

Begin, and cease, and then again begin,

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring

The eternal note of sadness in.

Published post-Darwin in 1867, “Dover Beach” describes a world where, like the pebbles flung to and fro, we are subject to elemental forces beyond our puny control.

If he were alive, Arnold might lament

 

Oh, progressives, let us not stay home

Or vote Green next election, for time

Is running out as the planet warms

And oceans and tensions rise.

Alas, we are here as on a hijacked plane,

Piloted by a churl devoid of shame,

Loving only his riches and his fame.

Hopkins doesn’t sound Victorian, though he is. He sounds like he’s tripping on two-way windowpane while getting sucked through a wormhole to another dimension.

 

My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief

Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —

Then lull, then leave off.

 

Warning: Hopkins is hard to imitate.

 

His tweets, tangerine-tinted, trumpet, tattle, boast, brood,

product of that last-saw-show, skit or pundit.

The idle swamp pump defunct, stagnant-

water, gator-crawling, serpent-rich, shit-flood flowing.

My great aunts on my father’s side were Victorians, majestic, bejeweled, sherry-sippers who considered procreation a necessary evil. So I dedicate this silly post to them – Tallulah and Lila – and to those porches upon which we sat so long ago.[1]

Down their carved names the raindrop plows.


[1] Both were grammar mavens and big on table manners.

 

A Waste of Breath

Harry Holland, “Falling from Grace

 

eyes opened wide by wind

James Dickey, “Falling”

To experience something, you don’t necessarily

have to see it or to do it.

 

For example, that immediate pang of regret after stepping off

the ledge.

 

The failed parachute of your skirt

fluttering above your waist.

 

The screams you cannot hear below

as heads turn away

 

to avoid witnessing the horrible mess

you’ve made of your life.

Desolation Be-Bop

illustration by WLM3 from sampled images: Wallhaven, Roy Eldridge Got His Finest Chord by Loal Lonli, and Street Dance by Pedro Alvarez

 

Swing, swang, cut the rug, sweetie pie,

swirl, smirking as you spin,

your skirt defying gravity,

spinning like a top tilting

after three too many

Singapore slings.

 

Step up the syncopation.

Manhandle that trumpet, Roy.

Shriek a long drawn-out high C.

Shatter glasses, dislodge the earwax of

the bald-domed ogling codger

sitting in the corner sipping.

 

Stop clock, your tick-tocking.

Let the night remain forever young.

Allow no morning Sabbath sunbeam to stab

dyspeptic these jitter-bugging beboppers.

In the name of Bacchus, don’t ever stop,

but keep keeping the beat, let the sweat drops drip.

 

Wesley’s Inferno, Canto 4

 

 

Canto 4

 

Once we disembarked

and reached the summit of a barren ridge,

a vista of innumerable parked

 

cars lay below. We drove through clouds of midges

swarming and stinging,

the cars’ occupants, naked and wedged

 

so tightly they couldn’t move their arms or legs, facing

a gigantic movie screen on which dead-eyed

chancre riddled junkies were forever fucking.

 

“This is my home circle,” Catullus said, “where I reside

when not giving tours. These Monicas and Bills must eternally endure

the stab of insects and the touch of flesh they can’t abide.

 

“During my earth time, I too was sex-obsessed. Nothing could cure

my cravings for Lesbia, Nihil sit, satis.

So now with them for my sins I must endure

 

the punishment of these stabbing stings, this looping film.” Catullus

then emoted a theatrical B-movie sigh.

“These punishments seem ludicrous,

 

“way over the top for a loving God,” I cried.

He broke into a sardonic laugh.

“Haven’t you read Nietzsche? God ain’t alive!

 

Literalism ain’t where it’s at!

Think of this night as a soul engendered hallucination,

Not a product of a bearded God’s wrath;

 

Think of it as a sort of game; think Play Station.”

“But this contradicts what you said before about reprieve!”

“Think of this as a trip,” he said, “a psychedelic vacation.”

 

Wesley’s Inferno, Canto 3

 

Canto 3

 

Charon chided Catullus as the cab

pulled into a line labeled LUST.

Waving arms, speaking Latin, babbling,

 

Catullus flashed credentials. Trust me;

Charon was one ugly dude. Liberace crossed

with Elephant Man, plus a dash of Jackie Gleason,

 

snot running down his nose, the grossest

shit I’d ever seen. As we rolled onto the one-car ferry,

it occurred to me that here there was no rest,

 

no coffee breaks, no take five, no reprieves.

The river, appropriately hellish, polluted,

frothing, malodorous, reeking

 

of industry and death. I recruited

all my strength, closed my eyes, the screech

of machinery assaulting unabated.

 

I passed out, my sense driven beyond the reach

of enduring. A thunderclap awakened me

after what seemed centuries. “That’ll teach

 

you,” Catullus, said enigmatically,

apropos of zilch. “When’s the last time

you’ve been to a drive in?” he asked. “See,

 

bro you, bout to get dipped into some slime,

awful porno, meet punishment for the lustful,

who squandered earth-time

 

always seeking sex, overdoing it, never fulfilled.”

The ferry approached a dimly lit dock,

An oily humidity had replaced the river’s dank chill.

Wesley’s Inferno, Canto 2

 

 

Canto 2

 

Outside the cab colors swirled,

like a miasmic kaleidoscope,

obscuring the street. The whorl

 

eventually dissipated. A sign. “Abandon all hope,

you poor pathetic bastards.” A guard

nodded to Catullus, unhooked a rope,

 

and we drove on past, through a junkyard

of cars stuck in an epic traffic jam.

“We call this Limbo Boulevard,”

 

Catullus said. “Hollow men and women stranded;

You know the Eliot poem. These nobodies

In life never took a stand, didn’t

 

vote, etc., Not bone fide sleazes,

per se, so this is their punishment.

“Can they one day cop a plea?”

 

I asked. “Make atonement?”

“Naw, but this ain’t nothing,

not having no movement.

 

“What you bout to see on the other side will wring

your heart, if you think this here is hell.

Like, I said, tain’t nothing.”

 

Looking in the cars it was hard to tell

any of the passengers apart. We drove past,

swerved left, through a dell

 

towards the car ferry, the last

stop in Limbo. We took our place in the line

of cars. Across the river lightening flashed.

 

You can read/listen to “Canto 1” here.

 

Lunch at a Truck Stop with Wallace Stevens

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Lunch at a Truck Stop with Wallace Stevens

We are the mimics. Clouds are pedagogues.

A big but delicate man,

he doesn’t flirt with the waitress,

a comely gal in calico,

but orders brusquely:

meat loaf, mashed potatoes, sweet peas,

piping hot biscuits fresh from the oven.

 

The fluttering napkin looks small in his hand

as it parachutes upon his lap.

When the grub arrives, he bows his head,

Closes his eyes, and says,

“Tink a tank a tunk a tunk tunk.”

Opens those eyes, raises that head,

and smiles amid the clatter of saucers and cups.

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