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Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Breughel's Icarus
About mistakes they were never wrong, the old masters. How well they understood their poetic position! Take Keats, for instance. In the sestet of "On . . . Chapman's Homer" (actual clipping Nabokov found & stuck into Pale Fire: "Red Sox Beat Yanks 5-4 On Chapman's Homer") if Keats had correctly said "stout Balboa" instead of "stout Cortez," he would've fucked everything up. Take the end of "To Autumn": "And gathering swallows twitter in the skies." "Gathering" at evening, "twittering"--you don't hafta be an ornithologist to suspect he's really talking about chimney swifts, but "gathering chimney swifts twitter in the skies" doesn't fit the pentameter, so he went with "swallows," figuring nobody'd notice.* Even Eliot. Look at the opening of "Prufrock": "Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon table . . . ." Is there any chance in the universe that T. S. fucking Eliot didn't know that it should have been "you and me"? I mean, the clause is appositive to "us," isn't it? And "us" is there instead of "we" 'cause it's in the hortative subjunctive mood (ok, fine, imperative, if you absolutely must). But "Let us go, then, you and me, / When the evening is spread out against the sky"--no, sorry. Eliot knew when to relent. For him it was not an important failure.

Then there's when the young masters take you by surprise and don't make the mistake you expect. Like when Richard Butler sings, "There's only you, and only I, bang, bang, bye-bye" or when Ian Anderson demonstrates admirable nimbleness with pronoun cases while complaining about his parents: "It was they who were wrong / And for them here's a song."

Vive les snoots. . . .

(Now, that I'd be willing to call third-person plural imperative)

*Am I the only girl in the world who thinks that Stevens' pigeons at the end of "Sunday Morning"owe a pretty hefty debt to Keats's chimney-swift/swallows in "To Autumn"? ("Downward to darkness, on extended wings"). But just don't get me started on pigeons and extended wings. If there's one bird in the entire avian order that is widely known for never seeming to really extend its wings, it's a pigeon. They mostly hold their wings in a dihedral (v-shape) or slightly curved back like a scimitar . . . .

I also hear the beginning of the last stanza of Keats' "Psyche" in the lines just before the pigeons enter. Maybe Stevens was just reading a lot of Keats.

Obla Di, Obla Da
Here's a link to a sensitive explication of "Musée des Beaux Arts," inviting the reader to consider how a celebrated tragic meditation by Paul "Freedom" McCartney reformulates Auden: "The basic premise of the poem is response to tragedy, or as the song goes 'Obla Di, Obla Da, Life Goes On.'"
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