Saturday, August 22, 2015

#231 Ode

To that Boring Shit James Thompson, Seasonal

Now gently rail on Henry Pussycat,
for he did bad, and punisht he must be,
by them, & by them, & by all.
He’ll lose his place (in the book) and each thing that
ever he valued. He’ll lose his minstrelsy.
Vainly will topics call 

for cunning putting to who smashed his lyre,
drowned his harmonica, covered with foes,
and coughed with horror, & gave uts.
One word of them: (he’ll lose his scholar ire,
pereant qui . .) a voyeur, O and those
the slob’s associates 

the aggressive tease shockfull of malice, the dead-end
out-of-conflict father, the clever brother & the dull,
the nosey Jesuit.
A tribe to lose to: I lost my right hand,
she lost the honour of her word, ah well
Henry fell among .  . it.

James Thompson was a Scottish poet, born in 1700, lived in England, and was well-regarded in his day for a four-poem cycle titled The Seasons. “Spring,” “Summer,” etc. (I’ll leave you to guess the other two…) It’s described in an online article as having “sweep and poignancy.” The sweep and poignancy of the early 18th century doesn’t sweep too well into the early 21st, I’m afraid, though the loss is probably poignant enough. You get stuff like this in it, about caged songbirds: 

            Be not the Muse asham’d, here to bemoan
Her Brothers of the Grove, by tyrant Man
Inhuman caught, and in the narrow Cage
From Liberty confin’d, and boundless Air.
Dull are the pretty Slaves, their Plumage dull,
Ragged, and all its brightening Lustre lost;
Nor is that sprightly Wildness in their Notes,
Which, clear and vigorous, warbles from the Beech. 

I was an English major, and I took the British survey course like everybody else, and I loved almost all of it—Chaucer, Milton, Spenser, all of it. But this is still fairly brutal stuff. And I genuinely love Wordsworth and Shelley and Blake, from a century further on. But this puts me to sleep. Sorry. And it’s about birds too. In fact, from what I can see this entire snippet from “Spring”, almost two-hundred lines worth, is about birds.

Boring shit, though? I do have to admit that it would take an extraordinarily committed Anglophile these days to maintain her or his attention through a full sitting of Thompson’s The Seasons. We do need to remember that it was meant to be read aloud to a small gathering of bored aristocrats, with tea and fig-cakes, as their evening’s entertainment. I could probably get into that—hair gathered at the base of my neck, a fine velvet coat with long tails, lacy shirt, knee breeches and tall socks, tall windows, chandelier with whale-oil candles, enormous oil paintings of the ancestors sneering, servants and the butler, all that kind of thing. PBS throws a British-produced simulation our way fairly often, but those are still modern tales crafted with a modern sense of conflict and timing, in period costume. There truly was conflict and poignancy all over the place in those days, of course, but I do believe things moved a bit more slowly, so that “Be not the muse asham’d” has the space to work its poignancy in the ready breast there receiving. Anyway, B. isn’t bored by the poetry, he’s bored by the birds—you can count on it.

What this DS 231 poem is really about, though, might be another exercise in narcissistic self-pity, I suspect. I say “suspect” because I’m not 100% sure what it is about. These obscure Dream Songs are a lot more fun than the flat, hospitalized ones, but they’re tricky. Since the poem is titled “Ode” and is dedicated to a particular historical boring shit, once might assume that the “he” in trouble in the first stanza is the good James Thompson. But this gets knocked down right away: “He’ll lose his place (in the book) and each thing that / ever he valued. He’ll lose his minstrelsy.” James Thompson, born 1700, knew nothing whatsoever about minstrelsy and would thus have no opinion on whether or not it mattered if it was taken from him. This is Henry, palming his forehead, saying, now what’d I do? His long term reputation (in the book) has been jeopardized. As to what the actual screw up was this time? Who knows. Some scholar, I have no doubt, tracked it down, but I’m not going there, not tonight at any rate. It’s all about what Henry has suffered and stands to lose. I would like to eventually learn who the “slob” was, though.

So why the dedication and the title? Search me. Seeing the facsimile of B.’s work for the first time the other day, done on a scrap of paper, no revision, just thrown down on a napkin and pushed out to a rapturous world, makes me a just a touch less in awe of the whole Dream Song project. He’s quite likely to have started this one with all the intention in the world to write an ode to that boring shit, James Thompson, and B. gets some English prof points for even knowing who he was—I never heard of Thompson until I looked him up about an hour ago—but he might have decided it was too hard, or he was a bit, you know, liquored up and lost the thread a quarter of the way down the napkin, or he just slipped back into a more comfortable default whining mode. That’s okay. I’m pretty much done looking for wisdom from this cat. I learn a lot through peeking through and around the edges of the work, though, such as why being self-absorbed is so boring to other people, for example—but try convincing a self-absorbed person of that.


  1. I guess B never wondered what it would be like to sit through a reading of all the DSs.

  2. Happening back on this one, and reading it and my response fresh, I would bet that B. was criticized by some people--who he obliquely calls out but stops short of naming--for his incomprehensibility, his obscurity, his self-absorption, something along those lines. Maybe they criticized him for not writing about nature enough! He sarcastically throws Thompson back in their face as an example of what they apparently value, calling him and by extension them a bunch of boring shits. It's actually pretty funny. He sometimes does honestly berate himself and wallows in regret, but I was wrong in my comment earlier: He's being sarcastic here. I think it's a hoot.

    1. One more thing, just for the record: My original comment is so far off it's almost worthless. The poem didn't come into focus first time through. This Dream Song is an exercise in sarcasm, and like I say, it's pretty funny. Note to self: Don't be such a flathead, okay?