BREAK, BLOW, BURN
Camille Paglia gave us close readings of forty-three poems written in English which she could "wholeheartedly recommend to general readers". To everyone's surprise but Paglia's, her book BREAK, BLOW, BURN was a best-seller.
She spent five years looking for the poems she wanted to include -
"Once launched on the task of gathering possible entries, I was shocked and disappointed by what I found. Poem after poem, when approached from the perspective of the general audience rather than that of academic criticism, shrank into inconsequence or pretension."
Not so those by Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, Marvell, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley and Coleridge who provide her first sixteen poems. (Donne's extraordinary Holy Sonnet XIV provides the title of her book.)
I was glad to see that Paglia included Shakespeare's Sonnet 29, which has comforted me in troubled times - though not as troubled as those experienced or imagined by the author. My heart lifts as the last five lines rise like the lark -
When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love rememb'red such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Paglia likes precision in language, and burning contrasts - Blake's bleak "London" is the hellish opposite of Wordsworth's mellow "Composed upon Westminster Bridge". She doesn't include any poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins or Ted Hughes, but Hughes includes "Inversnaid" by Hopkins in his School Bag collection. It could almost be read as a riposte to Paglia's project -
. . .What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
Paglia believes that great poetry can make us new.