Past posts on poetry have been naked cheating on my part. In all cases, they have been poems I know well, and have known for years. Now, I have a slightly new system, and challenge for myself. From time to time, I’m going to open an anthology of poetry at random, find a poem I haven’t read before (and which is short enough to quote in its entirety) and write on it.
The first contender is by Walter Savage Landor, and takes its name from the first line:
Past ruined Ilion Helen lives,
Alcestis rises from the shades;
Verse calls them forth; ’tis verse that gives
Immortal youth to mortal maids:
Soon shall Oblivion’s deepening veil
Hide all the peopled hills you see,
The gay, the proud, while lovers hail
In distant ages you and me.
The tear for fading beauty check,
For passing glory cease to sigh;
One form shall rise above the wreck,
One name, Ianthe, shall not die.
‘Ianthe’ was Landor’s pet-name for Sophia Jane Smith (later the Countess de Morlandé), with whom Landor had a long affair. I’m no biographer, but I think it’s a safe bet that sexual frustration wasn’t one of Landor’s problems after Sophia read this poem.
Isn’t the tetrameter of this set of three quatrains delightfully terse and muscular? You can see it flexing – sure of itself, alive with a sense of its own power. That’s not a bad trick to pull off with tetrameter: our old friend R F Brewer warns us that this is an ‘octosyllabic measure, witch is of dangerously easy construction, and very apt to degenerate into sing-song’. It’s far from being sing-song here. And if you fudge through ‘Oblivion’s deepening’ is completely consistent all the way.
Landor reprises a rather common theme of love poetry here: the idea that the poet has the power to grant his beloved eternal life. Shakespeare liked this trick too, and used it most famously in his eighteenth sonnet (‘But thy eternal summer shall not fade/Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st/Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade/When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st’), and you have to admit it’s not a bad little compliment.
Ancient Greek allusions are everywhere in this poem: Helen of Troy (the Latin name for Troy is Ilium) celebrated as the most beautiful woman who ever lived; Aclestes (who sacrificed herself for her husband and was rescued from the underworld by Hercules) and finally Ianthe. Ianthe was a girl who was so beautiful and beloved of the gods that they caused purple flowers to surround her grave.
Tell me that the Helen and Ianthe references wouldn’t loosen the knickers of any woman with a classical education.
The second stanza is my favourite, I think. I love ‘Soon shall Oblivion’s deepening veil/Hide all the peopled hills you see’. Stunning. I’m a fan of the neat alliteration in the second line and sibilance holding the first and final words together.
Why doesn’t anyone ever write poetry like this about me?