Sometimes a poem thrills with a subject that might have seemed slight, or unlikely, or impossible. Some poets give the feeling they can make a memorable poem about anything at all. For this month’s Classic Poem, here are a couple of examples, involving aristocratic shoplifting and senile memory loss.
A 19th-century Englishman, possibly the poet Byron or his friend Trelawny, stole some strands of hair from a museum in Milan. The hair was supposed to be that of the sexy, scandalous 15th-century Italian Lucrezia Borgia. Did the English poet steal from the too-trusting Italian curators? Or did the Italian curators present a fraudulent relic to the gullible, upper-class English tourist? (I like to picture them chuckling as they dig into a drawer and put another lock of hair into the display case.)
Those questions, though interesting, are less important than the memorable four-line poem about the hair, by Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864):
Click the arrow on the audio player below to hear Robert Pinsky read Walter Savage Landor's poem "On Seeing a Hair of Lucretia Borgia." You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.
"On Seeing a Hair of Lucretia Borgia"
Borgia, thou once wert almost too august
And high for adoration;—now thou'rt dust!
All that remains of thee these plaits unfold—
Calm hair, meandering with pellucid gold!
The fourth line, to my ear, is gorgeous beyond analysis: A coiled near-stillness at the beginning of the line drives it through rapids and decelerations. The line's rhythm generates a lot of variation in a small space. That sense of much in little corresponds to the poem's awed meditation on how the fine, bright little length of hair is what remains of the celebrated, great, and powerful Borgia. The word “august,” with its overtones of Augustus and maybe of augury, makes a wonderful pair with “dust.” The different kinds of display in “unfold” and “gold” also make an interesting duality. (Another, more hidden pair, is “unfold” with “enfold”—the poem was published in Landor's lifetime with different vowels at different times—the “un-” and “en-” implying something like opposite processes of showing and concealing.)
An occasion of a quite different kind from that shining hair impels another poem by Landor. He lived, and kept writing, into his 90s and wrote some remarkable poems about being old. Writing powerfully about his loss of powers, Landor makes a simple, but heartbreaking image, more pedestrian but maybe more penetrating than the “pellucid gold” of Borgia's purported hair: When he sets out to write a letter to a friend, the word Dear “hangs on the upper verge,” waiting for the unremembered name. The conventional word of the salutation (in email, largely supplanted by “Hi” for some reason), hanging above the blank page, takes on a great charge of feeling: As with the lock or purportedly historical hair, much in little.
Some contemporary readers may find Landor's language fusty, old-fashioned, with its lofty, Latinate “vernal” and “autumnal” for times of year; but the idea that early friendships and late are equally vulnerable to oblivion has a lot of force—and maybe all the more force because the poem's mixture of recognizably plain language and lofty or unfamiliar language embodies the fact that our idiom, language itself, is vulnerable to time along with our memories and our loves.
The mother of the Muses, we are taught,
Is Memory: she has left me; they remain,
And shake my shoulder, urging me to sing
About the summer days, my loves of old.
Alas! alas! is all I can reply.
Memory has left with me that name alone,
Harmonious name, which other bards may sing,
But her bright image in my darkest hour
Comes back, in vain comes back, called or uncalled.
Forgotten are the names of visitors
Ready to press my hand but yesterday;
Forgotten are the names of earlier friends
Whose genial converse and glad countenance
Are fresh as ever to mine ear and eye;
To these, when I have written, and besought
Remembrance of me, the word Dear alone
Hangs on the upper verge, and waits in vain.
A blessing wert thou, O oblivion,
If thy stream carried only weeds away,
But vernal and autumnal flowers alike
It hurries down to wither on the strand.