Something for St. Valentine’s Day

I used to read a lot more poetry than I do now. Tastes shift and change, and experience brings the perspective to realise that a lot of sentiments expressed through poems have either (a) already been written, far better, by someone else, (b) are completely unrealistic (poets seldom wax rhapsodic about the mortgage, or the insurance), or (c) have already been co-opted by the evil empire that is the greetings card industry. It was either Douglas Adams or a general sort of cliché which once propounded the notion that a poet is someone who can’t get out of bed without writing a song about it, and over the years, I’ve come to feel that the accusation isn’t entirely unjust. I feel on safe ground in saying this, as I used to write some (incredibly bad) poetry myself. Fortunately, those notebooks are long destroyed (don’t bother looking for them), for the good not only of my reputation, but for the general future of human civilisation. The stuff that I wrote may or may not have been as good as Vogon poetry; I will certainly never tell.

grigson_faber_bk_love_poems

The Faber Book of Love Poems, Edited by Geoffrey Grigson (Faber & Faber, 1973 – paperback, 1983)

All that being said, a love poem done well is a thing worth celebrating, and this morning before settling down to work, I pulled out my old favourite collection on the subject, The Faber Book of Love Poems, edited Geoffrey Grigson. The Faber books of verse were a staple of my early poetry reading, with their authoritative voices and their whimsical cover design (the distinctive “ff” pattern), these books got anthologies right, in a way I haven’t really seen since. There are 401 poems in this volume, with a percentage in French, and several containing sections in Latin (if you are a fan of poetry in French or Latin, I would also suggest looking into the relevant books published by Oxford University Press).

The selection in The Faber Book of Love Poems is idiosyncratic, but Grigson was clearly a man who knew his poetry, and loved it well. The earliest English and French poems are mediaeval, but the contents span the centuries up to the middle part of the 20th century, with poets like Robert Graves and A.E. Housman represented. Women are not heavily represented, although Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti both get a look in. This may make the collection too old-fashioned for some tastes, but I would defend it with the somewhat trite observation that good poetry is good poetry, no matter.

The poems are roughly divided into topics: Love Expected, Love Begun, The Plagues of Loving, and so on. Grigson also provided the customary index of first lines, and an index of poets and poems, so you can easily find out if your personal favourites are included. For me, that check includes old familiar standards from the likes of Thomas Campion, Victor Hugo, Paul Verlaine, Robert Graves, John Donne, Thomas Wyatt, and John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester.

One of the more whimsical entries that struck me on dipping back into the collection was a surprisingly modern-sounding poem from John O’Keefe (1747-1833), which may be familiar to some, and just makes me laugh every time I read it:

“Amo, Amas, I love a lass
As a cedar tall and slender;
Sweet cowslip’s grace is her nominative case,
And she’s of the feminine gender.

Rorum, Corum, sunt divorum,
Harum, Scarum divo;
Tag-rag, merry-derry, periwig and hat-band
Hic hoc horum genitivo.

Can I decline a Nymph divine?
Her voice as a flute is dulcis.
Her oculus bright, her manus white,
And soft, when I tacto, her pulse is.

Rorum, Corum, sunt divorum,
Harum, Scarum divo;
Tag-rag, merry-derry, periwig and hat-band,
Hic hoc horum genitivo.

O, how bella my puella,
I’ll kiss secula seculorum.
If I’ve luck, sir, she’s my uxor,
O dies benedictorum.

Rorum, Corum, sunt divorum,
Harum, Scarum divo;
Tag-rag, merry-derry, periwig and hat-band
Hic hoc horum genitivo.

— p. 81

Grigson, who died in 1985, was a poet himself, and produced one of the most charming entries in the book, which I’ll again give here in full. It’s called “Bibliotheca Bodleiana:”

Edwardus Comes Clarendoniae,
Clamped to his niche by an iron brace
Lifts to the white mercy of sparrows
His foppish foolish face.

Primus Angliae Cancellarius,
He’s joined the face of stone.
I belong still to your race
Of warm mouth and bone.

Bibliotheca Bodleiana,
My library is love for a while.
O Illuminatio mea, I wait
For your entering smile.

— p. 187-8

For lovers of books, lovers of libraries, or anyone who’s ever waited in a library for a glimpse of that special someone (whether at Oxford’s Bodleian or not), that last stanza simply rings true.

So if you’re hoping to celebrate Valentine’s Day with a glass of wine and some good poetry, you could do far worse than The Faber Book of Love Poems. I won’t say that the world could use a little more love, especially right now, as that would be trite, and I would lose all of my painfully accumulated “street credibility.” But the world could certainly do with more people who read poetry, that much I’m certain of.

When I originally considered writing this piece, I intended to do something whimsical set around Poe’s story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” but on refreshing my memory of the text it seemed a bit dark, even for such a commercially overwhelming holiday. But I did find a few lines from one of his poems, which appears in both The Faber Book of Love Poems and The Viking Portable Poe. From the poem, “To Helen:”

“On desperate seas long wont to roam,
thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece,
The grandeur that was Rome.”

— p. 181

Enjoy the day, everyone.

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About Bill Bibliomane

Reader and writer, collector and cataloguer. Amateur mineralogist, astronomer, numismatist, philatelist: I have too many hobbies. I'm somewhat compulsive when it comes to book shopping. Fortunately for my budget, there are no bookshops near to my home. Unfortunately, I've discovered the Internet. I started out reviewing books for my own amusement. Now I've decided to assemble them on my own site.
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