I thought I would compare these two poems as they are about similar subjects and their different tones – and they are very different tones. But first I wanted to give a bit of biography on both poets – I do think that it is important to understand who poets are in order to understand what they are writing about.
So First up is Countee Cullen. He a lesser known poet (well, less known than Robert Frost or William Blake). A black poet who wrote in and during the Harlem Renaissance. According to his Wikipedia page not much is known of his early life, but most agree that he was born around 1903 and some say in Kentucky while others claim in New York. He was brought to Harlem when he was nine and later adopted by an Episcopal Minister after his grandmother, his caretaker died. He went to New York University where he wrote poetry and won many poetry contests (once losing out to Langston Hughes). His poems focus on the struggle of black people in America and social injustice. “Written…in a traditional style, the work celebrated black beauty and deplored the effects of racism.” (from his Wikipedia page, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Countee_Cullen) He cites Wordsworth and Blake as his influences though their romantic sonnets are “far from the plight in a racist society.” (Wikipedia)
Marvell is a lesser known English poet who was born in 1621. He’s known as a metaphysical poet: a category of lyric poets “whose work was characterized by the inventive use of conceits, and by speculation about topics such as love or religion.” (Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metaphysical_poets) Yeah, I don’t know what that means either. Anyhow! He sat on the House of Commons and associated with the likes of John Donne, George Herbert and John Milton. He attended Trinity College and Cambridge and seems to have been abroad during the English Civil War. He later became a support of Cromwell (probably how he got his position) and detractor of the Anglican Church (he being pro-Catholic). Though he was not Catholic, he is described by his Wikipedia page as “a notable English Italo-Machiavellian.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Marvell)
Now, we have two very different poets, but two similar poems. I picked these two on the suggestion of the textbook which compares the two in tone. Can you tell the difference?
For A Lady I Know
by Countee Cullen
She even thinks that up in heaven
Her class lies late and snores,
While poor black cherubs rise at seven
To do celestial chores.
To His Coy Mistress
by Andrew Marvell
Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Should’st rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on they forehead gaze,
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest.
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your hear.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near,
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor in they marble Vault shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity,
And your quaint honor turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on they skin like morning glew
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
Since Marvell was a contemporary of Shakespeare, he needs a bit of translation. Here’s the word key provided by the textbook. Coyness = modesty, reluctance, complain (line 6) = sing sad songs, vegetable = vegetative, flourishing, state (line 17) = pomp, ceremony, glew = glow, instant (line 36) = eager, slow-chapped = slow-jawed, thorough (line 44) = through
I said earlier that there two poems were similar, and it’s true they are both a very special dedication to a woman; it’s just that one is a love poem with his desire to “love you ten years before the Flood” of a love that would grow “vaster than empires” and the other poem is… not.
Here is my attempt at poetry (though I daresay, I gave up on meter, but it does rhyme).
Winter in the City
Nothing like the midnight star is so very bright,
clouds quietly part like scoundrels in the night,
fear of night relinquishes to wonder,
cold crystal air enhance your eager light.
Sidewalks with trash transformed to ornaments aglitter.
The city a twinkling field of stars caught in the hills glimmer.
Through your wondrous Winter’s night.
The a mirror of ice lake reflect you back, though you are a bit trimmer.