How poets like Walter Raleigh reported on the quick flickers and sudden changes in emotional life.
A compliment among jazz musicians, delivered after a killer solo, is “You were really going somewhere.” That kind of improvised performance, at its best, is not just a stack of impressive phrases or a show of virtuosity: It makes a shape in time, purposeful from beginning to destination. It discovers and reveals a feeling.
The words of a poem, too, unfold in time to create an emotion: style as a motor, not upholstery. The poem enacts a journey or process, a movement of the soul. A poem is (among other things) something that happens.
Sometimes the movement is subtle, twisty, or arcane, but sometimes—as in this poem by Walter Raleigh, with its emphatic, central change from one mood to another—the movement is nearly violent. Raleigh begins with stock materials of love poetry, familiar stuff deployed with ravishing, expert verbal music: a narrative about the characters Love and Nature, with praise of a lady's parts—her lips like jelly and her violet breath “and of the softest down her belly.” The vowels and consonants, the deft rhymes, are as sensuous as their subject.
The verse is so tuneful, the sounds of words so seductively strummed across the sentences, it hardly matters that these opening lines are conventional. The sentence ends, however, with a turn that goes beyond the conventional: “As for her inside, he'd have it/ Only of wantonness and wit.” As a definition of what Raleigh desires in a perfect lover, this is both droll and, I think, lightly self-mocking, since “her inside” is sort of an afterthought as well as a climax. As a description of what the ideal lover should have as inner qualities, “wantonness and wit” is both apt and funny.
This initially playful, almost smirking narrative dances around the standard, even trite, image of the “heart of stone.” Here, too, though, Raleigh’s cadences, lines, and sentences enliven the generic phrase—or maybe even laugh at it, and at the entire, formulaic drama of the cruel beauty and her helpless admirer.
Then, abruptly, everything slows down and gets darker. The language becomes more sober; the rhymes, no longer two-syllable flutings, become heavier. The grim second half of this poem tells the story of mortality in (quite literally) words of one syllable: steel and rust and milk and silk and—above all and after all—dust. The attractive materials of the first stanzas, including wantonness and wit, are debunked. The poem turns boldly from the courtly, imaginative, and rather giddy games of Love and Nature to a sober assessment of that all-conquering, heartless character Time.
The midpoint reversal from light to dark, airy to weighty, quick to deliberate, is audaciously sudden, an effect of speed that is exhilarating as well as fearsome. The poem moves, and it is moving.
Click the arrow on the audio player below to hear Robert Pinsky read Walter Raleigh's "“Nature, That Washed Her Hands in Milk.” You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.
“Nature, That Washed Her Hands in Milk”
Nature, that washed her hands in milk
And had forgot to dry them,
Instead of earth took snow and silk
At Love's request, to try them
If she a mistress could compose
To please Love's fancy out of those.
Her eyes he would should be of light,
A violet breath, and lips of jelly,
Her hair not black nor over‑bright,
And of the softest down her belly:
As for her inside, he'd have it
Only of wantonness and wit.
At Love's entreaty, such a one
Nature made, but with her beauty
She hath framed a heart of stone,
So as Love, by ill destiny,
Must die for her whom Nature gave him,
Because her darling would not save him.
But Time, which Nature doth despise,
And rudely gives her love the lie,
Makes hope a fool and sorrow wise,
His hands doth neither wash nor dry,
But, being made of steel and rust,
Turns snow and silk and milk to dust.
The light, the belly, lips and breath,
He dims, discolors, and destroys,
With those he feeds (but fills not) Death
Which sometimes were the food of Joys:
Yea, Time doth dull each lively wit,
And dries all wantonness with it.
O cruel Time, which takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, and all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust;
Who in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days.
Slate Poetry Editor Robert Pinsky will be joining in discussion of Walter Raleigh's "Nature, That Washed Her Hands in Milk" this week. Post your questions and comments on the work, and he'll respond and participate. For Slate's poetry submission guidelines, click here. Click here to visit Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project site. Click here for an archive of discussions about poems with Robert Pinsky in "the Fray," Slate's reader forum.