A scare-crow for lovers

I walked into my bodega some weeks ago — I didn’t say I wasn’t warned — and it was papered with red paper hearts with lacy edges. It’s the time appointed for love to seethe and burn at the edges. By the fifteenth the steam and grease rising from the griddle will’ve warped and spotted the red paper hearts with the lacy edges. The candy’ll cede its prominence to shamrocks and we’ll forget that we forgot to get flowers.

            Valentine’s Day has it right; professions of love should be acute; who could stand more? Propertius is as good a poet as any to take as our first warning: his love for his Cynthia is from the start confounded and oppressive:

tum mihi constantis deiecit lumina fastus
et caput impositis pressit Amor pedibus
donec me docuit castas odisse puellas (I.1.3-5)

then he cast my steady arrogant gaze down
and Love squashed my head with his feet
till he taught me to spurn chaste girls

Pound saw and seized this in his Homage to Sextus Propertius (London: Faber & Faber, 1934):

The harsh acts of your levity! Many and many.
I am hung here, a scare-crow for lovers. (XI.1.1-2)

Love-poems, love stories — the real fictitious ones, not these mythic letters from lovers — are catalogues of misery. My bitterness aside, this is a reality: the great majority of writing on love proffers failures of love, failures to love. Why, take our current president, who fell in line with his fascist forebear to boast of amorous failure: “I moved on her, and I failed. I’ll admit it… I did try and fuck her… I moved on her very heavily… I moved on her like a bitch. But I couldn’t get there.”

            Even when we get there — when Salome’s seven veils rise and fall in front of us — there is misery. Wilde makes his Herod choke with gory lust (Salome. London: Elkin Mathews & John Lane; Boston: Copeland & Day, 1894):

Ah, thou art to dance with naked feet!  ’Tis well! ’Tis well! Thy little feet will be like white doves. They will be like little white flowers that dance upon the trees…. No, no, she is going to dance on blood! There is blood spilt on the ground. She must not dance on blood. It were an evil omen… What is it to me? Ah! look at the moon! She had become red. She has become red as blood… (53)

The murderous king overlooks the monstrous menstruation before he is brought low to pay for his want.

            Blood seems to bubble up in the face of love. Take the tragic love of Jack and Ennis in “Brokeback Mountain” (Annie Proulx. Close Range. London: Fourth Estate, 1999).

Proulx. Close Range. Title.jpg

No need to recount the spit and grunting in the tent, rather the reunion in

“the fourth summer since Brokeback Mountain came on”: “they seized each other by the shoulders, hugged mightily, squeezing the breath out of each other, saying, son of a bitch, son of a bitch, then, as easily as the right key turns the lock tumblers, their mouths came together, and hard, Jack’s big teeth bringing blood, his hat falling to the floor, stubble rasping, wet saliva welling, and the door opening and Alma looking out for a few seconds at Ennis’s straining shoulders and shutting the door again…” (294-5).

Jack dies changing a tire (no need to look for metaphor) and “by the time someone came along he had drowned in his own blood” (311).

            From blood we come, naturally, to the end, to death. Patti Smith’s Just Kids (New York: Ecco, 2010) opens with Robert Mapplethorpe’s death: “I was asleep when he died” (xi). Smith promised Mapplethorpe on his death-bead she’d write the collection of memoirs. The whole thing is tinted grey. We learn about Mapplethorpe’s infected nipple. In the final chapter, “Holding Hands with God,” Smith tells us that when she heard on the telephone that Mapplethorpe had been hospitalized with AIDS-related pneumonia, “I drew my hand instinctively to my belly and began to cry” (265). She was pregnant. Later she recalls a story told her by Mapplethorpe’s patron Sam Wagstaff, who also died with AIDS:

“‘Peggy Guggenheim once told me that when you made love with Brancusi, you absolutely were not allowed to touch his beard.’” (269)

These moments of levity in the face of hideous decline are all printed in violet ink. The book is studded with Mapplethorpe’s photos. Smith calls them “the corporeal body of the artist”(ix). His self-portraits are little moments of love that is, at last at least, requited.

Lord Byron: Sex God

Despite his club-foot, Lord Byron really got around (apologies). I don’t know whether he was a genuinely accomplished lover, but it hardly matters in his designation as an erotic deity; the man knew how to write a love-poem.

Byron, Lord George Gordon Noel. Hebrew Melodies. London: John Murray, 1815. First edition, first printing. 

The first poem in the collection need only be quoted in part:

She walks in beauty, like the night
  Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And of all that’s best of dark and bright
  Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow’d to that tender light
  Which heaven to gaudy day denies. (B2r)

How could any one resist such lines? Change, if you will, “She” to “He”, “her” to “his” – it doesn’t do too much damage to the sonority – and you have a poem that can be recited to your love, wherever on the gender spectrum he or they may sit. What happens next, which is not the purview of this flimsy Web-log, is up to you, but the saying will ennoble and enflame both you and your audient(s).

Of further interest – doubtless after the chocolate soufflé that you must remember to order before the entrée has fallen – is the provenance of our copy: it belonged to Francis L. Randolph, Byron’s bibliographer. Randolph used it as an exemplar of the first state (i.e., first edition, first printing) of the collection. Included with the volume is a type-script of Randolph’s notes with some manuscript annotations.


The Hebrew Melodies are true lyric poems, having been set to the music of Isaac Nathan in April of 1815; the lyrics, as it were, were published in the present item in summer of the same year (as the date of the advertisements at rear confirms). Convinced by Lady Caroline Lamb, his mistress, to collaborate with Nathan, Byron attributes the decision to write the poems to his friend (and banker) the Hon. Douglas Kinnaird. If you have a good clear voice, sing it to your love.


Octavo (8 3/4” x 5 9/16”, 222mm x 142mm). binder’s blank, A4 B-D8 E4 F4 G2, binder’s blank; 38 leaves; pp. [8], 53, blank, [10], [4]; half-title A1r, title A2r, note A3r, contents A4r, half-title B1r, Murray advertisements E4r-v, half-title for  Works of the Right Hon. Lord Byron. printed by T. Davison F1r, title for The Works of the Right Hon. Lord Byron Vol. I published by Murray F2r, half-title for Works… (identical to F1r) F3r, title for The Works… Vol. II F4r, Murray advertisements (dated “June, 1815.”) G1-2.

ODE. Mr. Cowley's Book presenting it self to the University Library of Oxford.

Hail Learnings Pantheon! Hail the sacred Ark
Where all the World of Science does embarque!
Which ever shall withstand, and hast so long withstood,
    Insatiate times devouring Flood.

Hail Tree of Knowledge, thy leaves Fruit! which well
Dost in the midst of Paradise arise,
    Oxford and the Muses Paradise,
From which may never Sword the blest expell.
Hail Bank of all past Ages! where they lie
T’inrich with interest Posterity!
    Hail Wits illustrious Galaxy!
Where thousand Lights into one brightness spread;
Hail living Univers’ty of the dead!


Unconfus’d Babel of all Tongues, which e’r
The mighty Linguist Fame, or Time, the mighty Traveller,
    That could speak, or this could hear.
Majestick Monument and Pyramide,
Where still the shapes of parted Souls abide
Embalm’d in verse, exalted Souls which now
Enjoy those Arts they woo’d so well below,
    Which now all wonders plainly see,
    That have been, are, or are to be
    In the mysterious Librarie,
The Beatifick Bodley of the Deitie.



Will you into your Sacred throng admit
    The meanest British wit?
You Gen’ral-Council of the Priests of Fame,
    Will you not murmur and disdain,
    That I place among you claim,
    The humblest Deacon of her Train?
Will you allow me th’ honourable chain?
    The chain of Ornament which here
    Your noble Pris’ners proudly wear;
A Chain which will more pleasant seem to me
Than all my own Pindarick Libertie:
Will ye to bind me with those mighty names submit,
    Like an Apocrypha with holy Writ?
Whatever happy Book is chained here,
No other place or People need to fear;
His Chain’s a Passport to go ev’ry where.



    As when a seat in Heaven,
Is to an unmalicious sinner given,
    Who casting round his wond’ring eye
Does not but Patriarchs and Apostles there espy;
    Martyrs who did their lives bestow,
    And Saints, who Martyrs liv’d below,
With trembling and amazement he begins,
To recollect his frailties past, and sins,
He doubts almost his Station there,
His soul says to it self, How came I here?
It fares no otherwise with me
When I my self with conscious wonder see,
Amidst this purify’d elected Companie.
    With harship they, and pain,
Did to this happiness attain;
No labour I nor merits can pretend,
I think Predestination only was my friend.



Ah that my Author had been ty’d like me
To such a place and such a Companie!
Instead of sev’ral Countreys, sev’ral Men,
    And business which the Muses hate,
He might have then improv’d that small Estate
Which nature sparingly did to him give,
And settled upon my his Child, somewhat to live,
’T had happier been for him as well as me,
    For when all, (alas) is done,
We Books I mean, You Books will prove to be
The best and noblest conversation.
    For though some errors will get in,
    Like tinctures of Original sin:
    Yet sure we from our Fathers wit
    Draw all the stength and sp’rit of it:
Leaving the grosser parts for conversation,
As the best blood of Man’s imploy’d in generation.

–Abraham Cowley, The Works of Mr Abraham Cowley. Consisting of Those which were formerly Printed: And Those which he Design’d for the Press, Now Published out of the Author’s Original Copies. To this Edition are added several Commendatory Copies of Verses on the Author, by Persons of Honour. As also a Table to the whole Works, never before printed. London: Printed by J.M. [John Macock] for H. Herringman, 1688. Eee3v-Eee4v.

Folio in 4s (11 1/2” x 7 5/16”, 293mm x 186mm). Binder’s blank, A2(–A2) a-c4 B-C4 C∗4 D-Ccc4 Ddd2 Eee-Yyy4 Zzz2 [$2], binder’s blank. 285 leaves, pp. [26], [3], blank, [12], [8], 41, [1], 1-2 3-80, [4], 1-58 61-70, 1-2 3-154, 1-23, blank, 1-148 [=l, 520]. Engraved portrait frontispiece, signed “W. Faithorne Sculp. 1687.”

Prior's prior Byronism

Matthew Prior (1664-1721) was a diplomat first and a poet second; at least that’s what his mother used to say to her friends. Somehow he found the time to write copious occasional poetry.  He excelled at French and so accompanied the English ambassador to France. His political acumen was imperfect, it would seem, as Robert Walpole had him impeached from his ambassadorial post, resulting in his house arrest from 1715-1717. His fortune thus diminished, the printer Jacob Tonson arranged for his popular Poems on Several Occasions, which had been originally published in 1707, to be printed in folio, and his fortune was restored; the list of subscribers to the 1718 edition contained over 1,000 names.

What struck me in reading through this edition was how remarkably Byronic his poetry sounded, albeit a century early. A brief quotation will serve to illustrate:

Richard, who now was half a-sleep,
Rous’d; nor would longer Silence keep:
And Sense like this, in vocal Breath
Broke from his twofold Hedge of Teeth.
Now if this Phrase too harsh be thought;
Pope, tell the World, ’tis not my Fault.
Old Homer taught us thus to speak:
If ’tis not Sense; at least ’tis Greek.     (p. 359; Alma, canto III)

Prior here mocks the Homeric formula “the fence of his teeth” (ἕρκος ὀδόντων), a reference sure to make his more erudite readers chuckle, their egos having been tickled. Byron was, I think, a little fonder of Pope than was Prior. The mode of humor, though, abstracting and digressing from the story to make a punning literary reference, is as Byronic as it gets. Did Byron read Prior? I don’t have Cochran’s catalogue of Byron’s library to hand. Even more intriguing is the prologue to Solomon, another of the long poems in the Poems on Several Occasions, in which Prior discussed the refraction of heroism through the epics from Homer to Vergil to Milton (and including Gerusalemme Liberata); doubtless Byron’s Don Juan sits in that same line. I suppose we’ll just have to wait for Dr. Camilleri’s forthcoming book on the subject…



Folio (13 7/16” x 8 1/2”, 343mm x 214mm). π2 A2 a-c2 d2(–d2) e-i2 B-6O2 [$1; –3R1; +3R2]. 277 leaves, pp. blank, frontispiece, title, blank, [38], 1 2-51 52-53 54-132 133 134-154 155 156-182 183 184-199 200 201-214 215 216-244 245, blank, 247-249, blank, 251 252-308 309 310-315, blank, 317, blank, 319 320-381, blank, 383, blank, 385-395, blank, 397 398-425, blank, 427-429, blank, 431 432-468 469-471, blank, 473 474-506, [6]. With an engraved frontispiece and several engraved initials and head- and tail-pieces.