Friday, December 31, 2010

"They feel least cold and pain who plunge at once into it" - Abraham Cowley faces up to a New Year

Two melancholy New Year poems. Cowley indulges his usual affectation of being afflicted by love, though he’s a better poet when he addresses getting older, the plangent theme of the second stanza, and the very rational fears of life simply getting sadder (stanza three) – “uncleanly poverty”, as the poem puts it with unsparing accuracy, might arrive in the New Year. The final stanza turns round on the whole endeavour of trying to look forward, imagining what misery it would be if we could look forward at all. The poem finally resolves to just plunge into the New Year – the second stanza was about having no choice but to do otherwise.

Abraham Cowley, ‘To the New Year’


Great Janus, who dost sure my Mistris view
With all thine eyes, yet think’st them all too few:
If thy Fore-face do see
No better things prepar’d for me
Then did thy Face behind,
If still her Breast must shut against me be
(For 'tis not Peace that Temple’s Gate does bind)
Oh let my Life, if thou so many deaths a-coming find,
With thine old year its voyage take
Born down, that stream of Time which no return can make.


Alas, what need I thus to pray?
Th’old avaritious year
Whether I would or no, will bear
At least a part of Me away.
His well-horst Troops, the Months, and Days, and Hours,
Though never anywhere they stay,
Make in their passage all their Prey.
The Months, Days, Hours that march i'th'Rear can find
Nought of Value left behind.
All the good Wine of Life our drunken youth devours;
Sourness and Lees, which to the bottom sink,
Remain for latter years to Drink.
Until some one offended with the taste
The Vessel breaks, and out the wretched Reliques run at last.


If then, young year, thou needs must come,
(For in Times fruitful womb
The Birth beyond its Time can never tarry,
Nor ever can miscarry)
Choose thy Attendants well; for 'tis not Thee
We fear, but 'tis thy Company,
Let neither Loss of Friends, or Fame, or Liberty,
Nor pining Sickness, nor tormenting Pain,
Nor Sadness, nor uncleanly Poverty,
Be seen among thy Train,
Nor let thy Livery be
Either black Sin, or gaudy vanity;
Nay, if thou lov’st me, gentle Year,
Let not so much as Love be there:
Vain fruitless Love, I mean; for, gentle Year,
Although I fear,
There’s of this Caution little need,
Yet, gentle Year, take heed
How thou dost make
Such a Mistake.
Such Love I mean alone
As by thy cruel Predecessors has been shown,
For though I’have too much cause to doubt it,
I fain would try for once if Life can Live without it.


Into the Future Times why do we pry,
And seek to Antedate our Misery?
Like Jealous men why are we longing still
To See the thing which only seeing makes an Ill ?
'Tis well the Face is vail’d ; for 'twere a Sight
That would even Happiest men affright,
And something still they’d spy that would destroy
The past and Present Joy.
In whatsoever Character
The Book of Fate is writ,
'Tis well we understand not it -
We should grow Mad with little Learning there.
Upon the Brink of every Ill we did Foresee,
Undecently and foolishly
We should stand shivering, and but slowly venter
The Fatal Flood to enter,
Since willing, or unwilling we must do it,
They feel least cold and pain who plunge at once into it.

Tennyson’s uncanny poem has far less of mind and resolution in it: no plunging forward into the future for him. He can’t believe in the spirit he claims one can hear, but then again, neither can he personify with Cowley’s utter lack of restraint, so it’s just a spirit who might be ‘Time’, or ‘Death’, or the Old Year, senile and demented. The heavily aspirated refrain makes anyone speaking the poem breathe out to their last bit of breath. The sunflower, the now immobile former heliotrope no longer follows the sun, but looks only down into the earth, Hamlet-like. The suggestion of the coffin below in the ‘fading edges of box beneath’ in this ill-tended parterre, and hanging on syntactically at the end of it all, ‘the year’s last rose’ – all these things could not be bettered. Wild, melancholy, indulgent Tennyson! The flowers just die, or have been hanged like some innocent in the 19th century penal system. A hollyhock produces masses of seed: “the seed is of a quick spirit and cometh up the sixth day” (if you collect and sow in March) notes Stephen Blake in his The compleat gardeners practice of 1664. So does the sunflower. But Tennyson resists all the suggestions of a natural cycle, the old flowers have their own sexton preparing them for their graves.


A spirit haunts the year’s last hours
Dwelling amid these yellowing bowers:
To himself he talks;
For at eventide, listening earnestly,
At his work you may hear him sob and sigh
In the walks;
Earthward he boweth the heavy stalks
Of the mouldering flowers:
Heavily hangs the broad sunflower
Over its grave i’the earth so chilly;
Heavily hangs the hollyhock,
Heavily hangs the tiger-lily.


The air is damp, and hush’d, and close,
As a sick man’s room when he taketh repose
An hour before death;
My very heart faints and my whole soul grieves
At the moist rich smell of the rotting leaves,
And the breath
Of the fading edges of box beneath,

And the year’s last rose.

Heavily hangs the broad sunflower
Over its grave i’the earth so chilly;
Heavily hangs the hollyhock,
Heavily hangs the tiger-lily.

I couldn't find a Tennysonian garden today, but took my photograph in some river sallows near Hambleden.

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