X is for XX

A favorite sonnet from my favorite sonnet sequence, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese: 

XX

Beloved, my Beloved, when I think
That thou wast in the world a year ago,
What time I sat alone here in the snow
And saw no footprint, heard the silence sink
No moment at thy voice, but, link by link,
Went counting all my chains as if that so
They never could fall off at any blow
Struck by thy possible hand,--why, thus I drink
Of life's great cup of wonder!  Wonderful,
Never to feel thee thrill the day or night
With personal act or speech,--nor ever cull
Some prescience of thee with the blossoms white
Thou sawest growing!  Atheists are as dull,
Who cannot guess God's presence out of sight.

~ Elizabeth Barrett Browning
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What I’m Reading: Elizabeth Barrett Browning

From Sonnets from the Portuguese:

VII

The face of all the world is changed, I think,
Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul
Move still, oh, still, beside me, as they stole
Betwixt me and the dreadful outer brink
Of obvious death, where I, who thought to sink,
Was caught up into love, and taught the whole
Of life in a new rhythm.  The cup of dole
God gave for baptism, I am fain to drink,
And praise its sweetness, Sweet, with thee anear.
The names of country, heaven, are changed away
For where thou art or shalt be, there or here;
And this . . . this lute and song . . . loved yesterday,
(The singing angels know) are only dear
Because thy name moves right in what they say.


~ Elizabeth Barrett Browning


Daunt Books, John Updike, and Sainte-Chapelle.

This week, my last in Europe, I spent a few days in London where, per the recommendation of a lovely and knowledgeable friend, I visited Daunt Books for Travellers, a fantastic bookshop on Marylebone High Street. If you’d like to visit without shelling out for airfare, you can take a virtual tour of the shop at their website, http://www.dauntbooks.co.uk/.

I spent a happy hour and fifteen minutes there before leaving with several gifts for friends, a new Daunt Books linen bag (free, with a 20£ purchase, so essentially impossible for me to have left without one) and a slim volume of poetry called Endpoint and Other Poems, the last collection of poems by American writer John Updike, who passed away in January of 2009. While on the Eurostar back to Paris, I read the whole collection, which included this sonnet, called “Evening Concert, Sainte-Chapelle”:

Evening Concert, Sainte-Chapelle

The celebrated windows flamed with light
directly pouring north across the Seine;
we rustled into place. Then violins
vaunting Vivaldi’s strident strength, then Brahms,
seemed to suck with their passionate sweetness,
bit by bit, the vigor from the red,
the blazing blue, so that the listening eye
saw suddenly the thick black lines, in shapes
of shield and cross and strut and brace, that held
the holy glowing fantasy together.
The music surged; the glow became a milk,
a whisper to the eye, a glimmer ebbed
until our beating hearts, our violins
were cased in thin but solid sheets of lead.

~ John Updike

The poem struck me the first time I read it with the power of its imagery, the fantastic mixture of senses, the rhythm and forceful, corporeal precision of its observations. Today, after waiting in a tremendously long queue, I visited Sainte-Chapelle, on l‘île de la Cité, and just by chance happened to have Updike’s book with me in my bag. Remembering the sonnet, I pulled it out and read it again, beneath the fantastic vitreaux he is writing about, surrounded at some moments by shush-induced silence, at others by rising voices and laughter.

The stunning vitreaux of Sainte-Chapelle, in Paris. [Photo: thorinside]

I think this is a great sonnet. Sainte-Chapelle is truly gorgeous and Updike masterfully integrates the visual experience of the stained-glass windows with the aural experience of music. He captures the power and weight of the vitreaux’s structure and the many black bars of lead which hold the thousands of panes of glass in place, and melds this with the simultaneous flow and structure of music, and the sheets of the black bars and notes which  underlie the glorious sounds of Vivaldi and Brahms. Within the sonnet,  all this melts together into a singular, magnificent and nearly frightening sensual experience, evoking both the grandeur and the limitations of the soul. But I wax unduly poetic where the poem–and the vitreaux–speak better for themselves.  Enough from me! Bonne Nuit.

What I’m Reading: Sonnet 35

Sorry for the long hiatus! More coming very very soon.

Sonnet 35

No more be grieved at that which thou hast done:
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud:
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authorizing thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are;
For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense,
Thy adverse party is thy advocate,
And ‘gainst myself a lawful plea commence:
Such civil war is in my love and hate,
That I an accessory needs must be,
To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.

~ William Shakespeare