Stanzas in My Head: Hayden, Raleigh, and Browning

Robert Browning

Robert Browning

Robert Hayden

Robert Hayden

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses,
   Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten–
   In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

(In other words, “I’ll choose my own life, Mister.” Marlowe’s shepherd painted a lovely portrait of a life for two, but he didn’t ask the nymph for her input until he was finished. That’s why I find the feminism of Raleigh’s nymph so appealing.)

No one has ever asked me to recite the fourth stanza of “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” by Sir Walter Raleigh. But my brain is constantly preparing itself for the task. Often I’m riding my bicycle when those twenty-seven marvelously collocated words decide to flow across my consciousness.

How long do I stretch out the three soons? (Listen to how Nancy Wickwire does it) How long do I pause after break and wither? How much sarcasm can I pack into the first syllable of reason? How long do I pause after reason and how hard do I hit the first syllable of rotten?

In one year they sent a million fighters forth
   South and North,

And they built their gods a brazen pillar high
   As the sky,

Yet reserved a thousand chariots in full force–
   Gold, of course.

Oh HEART! oh blood that freezes, blood that BURNS!
   Earth’s returns

For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin!
   Shut them in,

With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
   Love is best.

Love or war, which is better? It seems like such an easy question. So why do we waste so much of ourselves making war when we could be making love? The final stanza of Robert Browning’s “Love Among the Ruins” reminds us how absurd our priorities can be.

I love the way Steven Pacey reads “Love Among the Ruins.” He emphasizes the word heart as a hinge upon which the entire poem turns. He also emphasizes burns at the end of the line. Browning’s exclamation points suggests this reading is correct.

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
WHAT did I know, what did I KNOW
of love’s AUStere and LONEly offices?

So e.e.cummings isn’t the only poet whose father moved through dooms of love.

In marked contrast to Pacey’s reading of “Love Among the Ruins,” Robert Hayden’s rendition of “Those Winter Sundays” is subtle. In the penultimate line he emphasizes What a little bit and know even less. Hayden also breathes a little extra heart into the first syllables of austere and lonely in the last line.

by Richard W. Bray

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One Response to “Stanzas in My Head: Hayden, Raleigh, and Browning”

  1. Seven Ways of Looking at a Line of Poetry | Laughter hope sock in the eye's Blog Says:

    […] Death and disruption at an early age hurt Theodore Roethke into poetry, as W. H. Auden suggests “mad Ireland” hurt W.B. Yeats into poetry. And oh what prodigious poetry Roethke did make! I’m going to spend a little bit of time talking about how to say the third line of a villanelle Roethke wrote called “The Waking” because my brain spends a lot of time thinking about such things. […]

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