John Keats (1795-1821)

When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,

Before high-piled books, in charactery,

Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;

When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,

Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,

And think that I may never live to trace

Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance,

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,

That I shall never look upon thee more,

Never have relish in the faery power

Of unreflecting love;—then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think

Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.


John Keats (1795-1821)

Lines on the Mermaid Tavern

Souls of poets, dead and gone,

What Elysium have ye known,

Happy field or Mossy Cavern,

Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?

Have ye tippled drink more fine

Than mine host’s Canary wine?

Or are fruits of paradise

Sweeter than those dainty pies

Of venison? O generous food!

Drest as though bold Robin Hood

would, with his maid Marian,

Sup and bowse from horn and can. [sic]

I have heard that on a day

Mine host’s sign-board flew away,

Nobody knew whither, till

An astrologer’s old quill

To a sheepskin gave the story,

Said he saw you in your glory,

Underneath a new-old sign

Sipping beverage divine,

And pledging with contented smack

The Mermaid in the Zodiac.

Souls of poets, dead and gone,

What Elysium have ye known,

Happy field or Mossy Cavern,

Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?


Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

Man and the Sea1

Free Man, yes, you will always love the sea.

The ocean is your mirror; you see your soul

like breakers infinitely crest and roll;

your mind, a gulf, flows not less bitterly.

You like to dive into that glass; you hold

its motions by your arms, your eyes; your heart

is charmed from its own murmur as a part

of you to hear that plaint, untamed, wild, bold!

You both are shadowy, discreet, and deep;

for none has plumbed the truths of your dark pools,

O man; none knows, O sea, your wealth, your jewels,

so jealous are you of the lore you keep.

And yet for countless ages you’ve defied

each other, ruthless brothers, without sense,

both loving greatly death and violence,

eternal strugglers, pitiless, with pride.


Catharine Savage Brosman*

Pat Curating His Library

It started with Tom Sawyer, from a generous aunt,

of foreign birth but knowing all the better

what the use of books might be for this bright boy,

determined, eager. Decades later, his collection

held a dozen copies, maybe more, comprising

gifts and other favorites, some well-worn:

critical editions, boxed sets with Huckleberry Finn

(numerous duplicates of that likewise, in sundry

printings), and translations into German, French,

and other tongues. Plus all the rest of Twain,

Pat’s fellow “Show Me” from Missouri, each

a river-man (though Pat, fourteen, was merely

an apprentice deck hand). He bought commentaries

and biographies—enormous tomes—and Twain’s own

ramblings, later called “autobiography.” All that

made a cluster, never separated in Pat’s moves,

until the move of death and scattering of many books

—ashes of the mind. Other clusters: T. E. Lawrence,

Faulkner, Irving, RLS, Wolfe, Lindbergh, various

odd specimens. Mostly men’s authors. But lots

of poetry as well, hard-bound, great names

both British and American, some French, and poets

of our time—Heaney, of course, Sylvia Plath

(hardly in my view, whatever others think, a worthy

name to stand with those of Wordsworth, Byron,

Tennyson, Poe, Eliot, Yeats). And history,

explorers! whether on foot, by horse, by sea: the Orient,

America, the equatorial latitudes, Near East, the poles.

Otherwise, Pat’s shelves were in no order—never,

perhaps; or such as had obtained once was undone.

He had two books out, always, sometimes

three, in different rooms and chairs. New items,

many, were at hand, but for the older—valued

differently—he often had to search; in doing so,

he rearranged some, made discoveries (!),

found what he had not wanted, necessarily,

but might be just as good, or better. So I see him

standing there, before a bookshelf, reading

sideways down the spines, or taking out

a first book, then a second, checking or comparing,

rectifying misalignment, laying aside a jacket

to be mended or discarded (though he held them

always in a high regard and preserved them carefully

for years—they also should be read, a paratexte).

Sometimes I’d ask him for a book, one

we knew he owned—or I would help him look,

turning here, then there. “What’s its color?” “Which

edition?”—or he’d find a substitute. I am bereft

of curator, you see, of one who cared tremendously—

for books, for me—but would have sacrificed

the whole collection for my sake. Now,

I return the favor as I can, bestowing on him

fresh creations—full of his own Irish spirit, often.

I select a gorgeous book of his, leaf through,

and find the makings of new poems and the reason

I should make them, writing, shaping tombs in words.

 

1 Translation from the French, from Catharine Savage Brosman, A Memory of Manaus, © Mercer University Press, 2017. Used by permission.

* Catharine Savage Brosman is professor emerita of French at Tulane University; [email protected]. Her forthcoming book, Arm-in-Arm: Poems, is set to appear in spring-summer 2022 from Mercer University Press.


Recommended citation: Catherine Savage Brosman, ''For Poems: Then and Now,'' Academic Questions 34, no. 3 (Fall 2021). https://www.nas.org/academic-questions/34/3/four-poems-then-and-now.


Photo by Alfons Morales on Unsplash

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