This is a poem to all of you who feel low and suffering from a poor self esteem and illness. But even if pain is present there is hope. The poet is W.E Henley (1849-1903) and he was in the hospital having his leg amputated as these lines came to him. It’s about the human spirit overcoming the deepest of pain and inner troubles. It ends with the following promising lines: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
Cleopatra VII Philopator (Greek: Κλεοπάτρα Φιλοπάτωρ; 69-30 BC), known to history simply as Cleopatra, was the last active ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt, briefly survived as pharaoh by her son Caesarion. After her reign, Egypt became a province of the recently established Roman Empire. Her title in Greek philopátōr means the one who loves the father. On the etymology of her given name wikipedia informs Cleopatra is derived from the Greek name Κλεοπάτρα (Kleopatra) which meant “she who comes from glorious father” or “glory of the father” in the feminine form, derived from κλέος (kleos) “glory” combined with πατήρ (pater) “father” (the masculine form would be written either as Kleopatros (Κλεόπατρος), or Patroklos (Πάτροκλος). She was a member of the Ptolemaic Dynasty who ruled Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great. Unlike her Ptolemaic predecessors who spoke Greek only; Cleopatra also learned the Egyptian language. She married her biological brother which was custom but didn’t produce any offspring until she met Julius Caesar.
B. THE POEM
Horace on Cleopatra and his Ode
Horace or Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 BC. – 8 BC), was on of the most famous Roman poets. He achieved great fame through his Odes [Carmina] but wrote also in Hexameter. He’s considered to be the first person who wrote an autobiography since he talks so much about himself through his poetry. According to English wikipedia: “Horace left Rome, possibly after his father’s death, and continued his formal education in Athens,[…] The Academy was now dominated by Epicureans and Stoics, whose theories and practises made a deep impression on the young man from Venusia.” The Odes were developed as a conscious imitation of the short lyric poetry of Greek originals – Pindar, Sappho and Alcaeus are some of Horace’s models.
The poem is a praise and celebration over the defeat of Cleopatra who comitted suicide and Egypt was then taken over by the Roman Empire. The news of her death likely reached Horace in Rome in the Autumn 30 BC. There are many interpretations of this poem. I quote John Cornington’s interpretation of Ode 1:37, published for the first time in 1882:
Now drink we deep, now featly tread
A measure; now before each shrine
With Salian feasts the table spread;
The time invites us, comrades mine.
‘Twas shame to broach, before today,
The Caecuban, while Egypt‘s dame
Threaten’d our power in dust to lay
And wrap the Capitol in flame,
Girt with her foul emasculate throng,
By Fortune’s sweet new wine befool’d,
In hope’s ungovern’d weakness strong
To hope for all; but soon she cool’d,
To see one ship from burning ‘scape;
Great Caesar taught her dizzy brain,
Made mad by Mareotic grape,
To feel the sobering truth of pain,
And gave her chase from Italy,
As after doves fierce falcons speed,
As hunters ‘neath Haemonia’s sky
Chase the tired hare, so might he lead
The fiend enchain’d; she sought to die
More nobly, nor with woman’s dread
Quail’d at the steel, nor timorously
In her fleet ships to covert fled.
Amid her ruin’d halls she stood
Unblench’d, and fearless to the end
Grasp’d the fell snakes, that all her blood
Might with the cold black venom blend,
Death’s purpose flushing in her face;
Nor to our ships the glory gave,
That she, no vulgar dame, should grace
A triumph, crownless, and a slave.
Horace. The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace. John Conington. trans. London. George Bell and Sons. 1882.
For the Latin version of Horace’s ode; published by wellesley.edu, please visit this link.
Context: GEOFFREY CHAUCER (ca. 1340—1400) is the undisputed father of English poetry. Chaucer wrote in continental accentual-syllabic meter, a style which had developed since around the 12th century as an alternative to the alliterative Anglo-Saxon metre. A man of affairs as well as literature, he served as a diplomat and customs officer; when he died, his burial in Westminster Abbey inaugurated Poets’ Corner. This poem is a love ballad dedicated to a lady named Rosamunde.
Themes: Love, maiden, beauty, courtship. Pay attention to the line “Never was pike so imbued in galantine”; it is an allusion to the 15th-century habit of drenching the fish in sauce.😀 There are also references to the epic Tristan and Isolde. The narrator identifies himself as Tristan. Notice how he signs the Ballad with his own name, sweet.
Madame, you are a shrine of all beauty,
As far encircling as the map of the world.
For you shine as the glorious crystal,
And your round cheeks are like Ruby.
Therewith you are so merry and so jocund,
That at a revel when that I see you dance;
It is an ointment unto my wound,
Though you, to me, do no dalliance.
For though I weep a basin of tears,
Yet may that woe not confound my heart.
Your seemly voice that you so delicately bring forth,
Make my thoughts, in joy and bliss, abound.
So courteously I go, with love bound
That, to myself, I say in my penance,
“Suffer me to love you Rosemounde;
Though you, to me, do no dalliance”.
Never was pike so imbued in galantine
As I in love, am imbued and wounded.
For which I very oft, of myself, deign
That I am true Tristam the Second.
My love may not be cooled nor sunk,
I burn in an amourous pleasance.
Do what you like, I bid you find your thrall
Though you, to me, do no dalliance.
Context: Amy Lowell (1874-1925) was one of the early Modernists in American poetry. At school she was remembered as outspoken by her classmates. Growing up in the early 1900s she never went to college because her parents didn’t want her to do so (education was no use to a woman). She came from a well to do middle class family as started to collect books and educate herself on various topics. She was also allowed to travel and at age 28 she went to see a performance in Europe by Eleonora Duse. After this experience she started to write poetry. She helped introduce imagism1 in American Literature and begun to publish her works in the 1910s. She also wrote some works on Literary Criticism and commented on several French poets and John Keats.
Lowell received the Pulitzer Price for Poetry posthumously, 1926.
Theme: “The Starling” is an introspective poem as the narrator explains her inner feelings. She’s a bit moody and feeling blue. Reading how she describes herself one gets hint she’s feeling trapped and holds herself back. The poem ends with the lines: “I weary for desires never guessed, For alien passions, strange imaginings, To be some other person for a day.” It’s sad to notice she feels she wish to become another person to fulfill her passions.
Forever the impenetrable wall
Of self confines my poor rebellious soul,
I never see the towering white clouds roll
Before a sturdy wind, save through the small
Barred window of my jail. I live a thrall
With all my outer life a clipped, square hole,
Rectangular; a fraction of a scroll
Unwound and winding like a worsted ball.
My thoughts are grown uneager and depressed
Through being always mine, my fancy’s wings
Are moulted and the feathers blown away.
I weary for desires never guessed,
For alien passions, strange imaginings,
To be some other person for a day.
Imagism was a movement in early 20th-century Anglo-American poetry that favored precision of imagery and clear, sharp language. ↩