Remember High School English? They made you read poetry and demanded that you like it (I did). What poets or poems do you remember: Robert Frost (The Road Not Taken), Carl Sandburg (Chicago), Shakespeare (Sonnets), Marvell (To His Coy Mistress), John Keats (Upon First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer), John Donne (For Who the Bell Tolls)? I remember how naughty Andrew Marvell and the now so clichéd theme of Carpe Diem seemed then, being a child of the ’50s.
To His Coy Mistress
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
Shouldst 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 thy 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 heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour 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 thy skin like morning dew,
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
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
That was pretty heady stuff for most young students and their wriggling hormones. We’d watch Eisenhower on a black & white television wheeled into our Social Studies class and then smolder in a later English class reciting “My vegetable love should grow.” And you can image the squirming that created a reading of George Herrick’s To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.
Speaking of gathering rosebuds, we can jump four hundred years ahead and see what a more contemporary poet might write about seduction. Here is e. e. cummings:
may i feel said he
may i feel said he
(i’ll squeal said she
just once said he)
it’s fun said she
(may i touch said he
how much said she
a lot said he)
why not said she
(let’s go said he
not too far said she
what’s too far said he
where you are said she)
may i stay said he
(which way said she
like this said he
if you kiss said she
may i move said he
is it love said she)
if you’re willing said he
(but you’re killing said she
but it’s life said he
but your wife said she
now said he)
ow said she
(tiptop said he
don’t stop said she
oh no said he)
go slow said she
ummm said she)
you’re divine! said he
(you are Mine said she)
It’s been sixty years since I first read these poems. The wriggling has subsided but I still feel the rush that poetry pumps through my senses. I must quickly read some Keats or maybe Wordsworth.