larryhammer: Tara from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" with Sappho painted on her back - label: "Greek poetry is sexy" (greek poetry is sexy)
[personal profile] larryhammer
Reading, reading, reading -- almost all of it narrative poems. It is, apparently, what I'm needing.

Finished:

Charmides by Oscar Wilde, his longest poem and apparently his only sustained narrative in verse -- for he was a poet before turning novelist and then playwright. The descriptions are awesomely lush (he learned a lot from Keats) and the decadence amusing (ditto from Swinburne), and the stanza looks to be deliberately evoking Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis. I am delighted by Wilde's ability to carry sentences across multiple stanzas -- I think one managed to go on for eight. Whether it works as a story probably depends on whether the lush and the decadent work for you, as well as how you feel about dubcon. (Other content warnings: ravishment (for lack of a better word) of a statue of Athena; necrophilia.)

The Witch of Atlas by Percy Shelley in a sportive mood. How gender-bendy and otherwise non-straight is this? Well, for starters, the witch herself is beautiful enough she brings all the nymphs as well as satyrs to her yard, is asexual, and creates an intersex companion (called Hermaphroditus) who's just as ace -- and I'm sure I'm missing stuff. The story itself is fluff, the verse is as beautiful as the best of Shelley's works, and the tale ends without the promised continuing adventures (hmph!). Mary didn't like it, and apparently almost didn't publish it with his posthumous poems (?!).

Lamia by John Keats -- hrm. Well then. It's been a while since I read this -- and the disjoint between remembered and present experience was stronger than usual. The casual noncon is par for the course with Greek mythology, but Lamia's deliberately throwing a nymph under that bus is, um, unsympathetic. The plot's otherwise okay, but the craft, not so much. It's not just that the pacing is as wonky as a gimbal with a chip on one edge -- the verse is also not under his control, especially the rhythm, to the point that some lines, his meter is discordantly rocky. Many of his words used in not-quite-standard ways aren't successful -- done well and to deliberate effect, such coinages can be dazzling (see Keats's best stuff) but here they weren't, often enough to be distracting.

The Eve of St. Agnes by John Keats, which was a good corrective example of his best stuff. The coinages here work well (except the "agues in her brain"), and more importantly, he rides like a master the rhythm and pace of each stanza. It's like he was at a stage where blank verse or couplets didn't give him enough constraint to work against (see also: Endymion). The pace of story is, stanza-by-stanza, languid, but that matches the tone of this admittedly rather thin story.

The Culprit Fay by Joseph Rodman Drake, a talented Romantic poet who, like Keats, died too young. A century ago, this was still a known, popular poem (it had been added to American high school curricula as an unembarrassing native work) but it's largely forgotten now, more's the pity. The tale itself is a quest fantasy using European fairy lore charmingly nativized to the Hudson River valley, with delightful details and a decent adventure. Fair warning: the first half of the quest, with the hero working on his own, is better than the second half, which is furthered by an unjustified unrequited love-interest. (Unfair warning: possibly this should not be read soon after The Loves of the Angels.)

Admetus by Emma Lazarus (hat tip to [personal profile] sovay for pointing me to this and the next), a blank verse narrative that would have been better named "Alcestis," as she's the real focus of the story: a relatively straight-up telling of her myth with a few interesting touches. The verse uses a very plain style, and as poem goes on the transitions get more abrupt and elliptical, and the narrative turns to almost pure dialog -- to the point I suspect that if I didn't know the original tale I'd have a hard time following the resolution. Interestingly, there's a somewhat defensive note at the end of the next poem explaining that they were both written before William Morris published his versions in The Earthly Paradise, and so not plagiarized from him -- which invites unfortunate comparisons, and Morris is overall (for all his flaws) a stronger talespinner as well as versifier, as far as this is concerned. (Reviewers at the time commented that the note wasn't needed as anyone with an ear could tell she hadn't cribbed from Morris.)

Tannhäuser by Emma Lazarus, also blank verse but in a lusher style appropriate for the subject matter: Tannhäuser's easy seduction by Venus and repentance after his return from under Venusberg. In the comparison with Morris invited by the end-note, Lazarus fares better -- this is much stronger than Admetus. (Neither of them hold a candle to Swinburne's Laus Veneris, mind, as ACS attempts -- and largely succeeds at -- something more ambitious than either Lazarus or Morris.) I can't help but think that ambivalence over Lazarus's Jewishness worked fruitful tensions into this story of Christianized Paganism, and also that parts of this are actually aimed at critiquing "Thomas the Rhymer." (That last seems a bit of a leap, as I write this now, but that was my reaction while reading.) I especially liked the small touch of Venus's motivation. OTOH, the touches of moralizing aimed at Tannhäuser during his disenchantment are the main discordant note.

Ongoing:

More bug poems.

DNF:

Andromeda by Charles Kingsley -- while retconning the inhabitants of the coast of Libya into not following the gods of Olympus is laudable, his dactylic hexameters were too grating to stay with it. Only Longfellow and Clough, that I've met, have managed that line well enough to read at length. (If anyone gets far enough into it, let me know how his female characters are.)

Next:

More of this stuff, I suspect.

(Is it time to reread The Earthly Paradise? It may be time to reread The Earthly Paradise.)

---L.

Subject quote from "Lamia," John Keats, who still rang out great lines in problematic poems.
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