Though Regions Far Divided by Aurelian Townshend (1583-1649) – Poem of the Week #46

Lachrymae by Frederic Leighton

As much as the metaphysic poets’ linguistic inventiveness should appeal to a modern taste, I have previously tried to point out how underappreciated they really are. I personally discovered how vast their current was fairly recently and quite by accident: I wanted to read some of the more obscure figures of the Elizabethan and Tudor period and was rather amazed at the wealth of poetry I encountered in these “men of learning…who to show their learning was their whole endeavour.”

Up until that point I assumed naively (but rather conventionally) that the value of the metaphysics was pretty much confined to an exclusive circle of Donne, Marvell, Herbert and…well, that’s about it. How wrong I was.

The contemporary reader has therefore a large responsibility in casting light on its undeservedly obscured figures. Samuel Johnson’s dismissive attitude of their work (he is source of the quote above) casts a long shadow yet and the likes of an Aurelian Townshend, among others, are by and large to rise from it.

Though Regions Far Divided

Though regions far divided
And tedious tracts of time,
By my misfortune guided
Make absence thought a crime;
Though we were set asunder
As far as east from west
Love still would work this wonder,
Thou shouldst be in my breast.

How slow alas are paces
Compared to thoughts that fly
In moment back to places
Whole ages scarce descry.
The body must have pauses;
The mind requires no rest;
Love needs no second causes
To guide thee to my breast.

Accept in that poor dwelling,
But welcome, nothing great,
With pride no turrets swelling,
But lowly as the seat;
Where, though not much delighted,
In peace thou mayst be blest,
Unfeasted yet unfrighted
By rivals, in my breast.

But this is not the diet
That doth for glory strive;
Poor beauties seek in quiet
To keep one heart alive.
The price of his ambition,
That looks for such a guest
Is, hopeless of fruition,
To beat an empty breast.

See then my last lamenting:
Upon a cliff I’ll sit,
Rock constancy presenting,
Till I grow part of it;
My tears a quicksand feeding,
Whereon no foot can rest;
My sighs a tempest breeding
About my stony breast.

Those arms, wherein wide open
Love’s fleet was wont to put
Shall laid across betoken
That haven’s mouth is shut.
Mine eyes no light shall cherish
For ships at sea distressed,
But darkling let them perish
Or split against my breast.

Yet if I can discover
When thine before it rides,
To show I was thy lover
I’ll smooth my rugged sides,
And so much better measure
Afford thee than the rest,
Thou shalt have no displeasure
By knocking at my breast.


Seven stanzas of eight lines each rhyming ABABCDCD. The final line of each stanza is a loose refrain. Notice the pattern of alternating masculine/feminine rhymes: this is something much more typical of poetry in the German or Scandinavian languages where stress of the penultimate syllable is very frequent. 


For all their erudition, I find that the metaphysic poets present two contradictions. The first has to do with subject matter. In this, their poetry is not pedantic, but conventional and uncomplicated. The poem at hand is on the subject of amorous longing, as established in the second stanza:

Though regions far divided
And tedious tracts of time,
By my misfortune guided
Make absence thought a crime;
Though we were set asunder
As far as east from west,
Love still would work this wonder,
Thou shouldst be in my breast.

The second contradiction–and the more poignant one, I feel–is how sensual, worldly and carnal their poetry is. There is certainly a presence of philosophical meditation and jargon here (note the description of love as a kind of prime mover in stanza two–not needing any “second causes”) but is never immaterial. The tangible world is always with us here–it feels totally necessary. It is meta without forgetting the physic:

Accept in that poor dwelling,
But welcome, nothing great,
With pride no turrets swelling,
But lowly as the seat;
Where, though not much delighted,
In peace thou mayst be blest,
Unfeasted yet unfrighted
By rivals, in my breast.

Once the subject is presented, note how each stanza in this poem really is distinct from the others. Either it turns a new thought or borrows new motifs to express the overarching mood. For example, stanza four contrasts love with heroic struggle:

But this is not the diet
That doth for glory strive;
Poor beauties seek in quiet
To keep one heart alive.

Stanza five is a lamentation on slow and silent longing, accentuated using images of a geological nature throughout it:

See then my last lamenting:
Upon a cliff I’ll sit,
Rock constancy presenting,
Till I grow part of it;
My tears a quicksand feeding,
Whereon no foot can rest;
My sighs a tempest breeding
About my stony breast.

And stanza six harps on the emotional torment of separation by using the image of ships riding the tempest. The metaphor of the belovéd’s embrace being an bsent harbour is so wonderfully metaphysic:

Those arms, wherein wide open
Love’s fleet was wont to put
Shall laid across betoken
That haven’s mouth is shut.
Mine eyes no light shall cherish
For ships at sea distressed,
But darkling let them perish
Or split against my breast.

The ending is somewhat difficult. The first two lines are conditional/temporal, referring to a future moment when they will be reunited:

Yet if I can discover
When thine before it rides

And that when that time comes, the poet will get his act together to prove he is the worthiest candidate of her affection, should she be willing to accept it:

To show I was thy lover
I’ll smooth my rugged sides,
And so much better measure
Afford thee than the rest,
Thou shalt have no displeasure
By knocking at my breast.

Tolstoy is being cancelled in Russia

Starting several weeks ago, I noticed that I had stopped receiving traffic from the Great Nation of Russia, when in the past I regularly had Russian readers coming in. I decided to get to the bottom of my suspicions was actually quite flattered to out that:

But seriously? How bad could their censorship be when the ministry of internal affairs blacklists apolitical literary websites with an average readership of 150 people a day? I wondered what such a decision could have been based on and then my suspicions fell on a trilogy of posts I wrote a couple of years ago in the wake of the Russian invasion special military operation in Ukraine. I mentioned that I was first inspired to write them by reflecting on what the perhaps greatest example of Russian genius would have made of it all had he lived today, but other than that and briefly slandering the religious hypocrisy of that scoundrel the Patriarch of Moscow, I didn’t write at all about ongoing political events, only about Tolstoy.

How often aren’t the works of the greats a part of the great ideological melée taking place in the present though? I wrote those posts because I felt that Tolstoy’s authority and perspicacity were as relevant as ever and as such my suspicion was that Tolstoy’s philosophical-religious work, founded on his Christian anarchism and pacifism and running in such a contrary motion to the flow of events in his native country, would either be banned by official decree or surreptitiously disappear from bookshelves. Not being in Russia, I don’t know if that is true or not, but the banning of this website on those grounds would certainly be some evidence for it.

And so if there is no hope for Looking to Leeward in Russia, what hope could there be, if any, for works like The Kingdom of God is WIthin You? A Confession, What I Believe or Tolstoy’s moral tales? If guilty to the crime of common authorship, perhaps we should be just as fearful for War and Peace and Anna Karenina too?

Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” is Religious Art of the Highest Degree

This is an essay that might suit the audiovisual format better. In that case, it can be viewed/listened to here:

I cannot pretend to be a some kind of cineaste. From Sight and Sound’s 2022 list of the greatest films of all time I have seen a measly fifty-two of them (pitiful, I know–especially for someone who has intellectual pretensions). But if there were one film that I feel I could perhaps write something of value about–glean something that could contain at least a granule of truth–then it would be the film ranked number 133 on that list: a film I have seen at least a dozen times because it is a great favourite of mine: namely, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life from 1946.

The film is based on a short story published in 1943 called The Greatest Gift by the now little-known author Philip van Doren Stern. While credit has to be given for this progenesis, further comparisons between the two are hardly warranted: firstly because van Doren Stern’s work is artistically atrocious and secondly because of the major plot differences. Whereas most of Capra’s film is concerned with narrating George’s life up until his suicide attempt, The Greatest Gift starts off right at the bridge with George ready to jump into the freezing waters below.

Capra’s decision to let us spend over an hour becoming acquainted with George and the other characters surrounding his life was a wise one because in being launched in medias res into The Greatest Gift there is not much sympathy to be held towards anyone in its story. Many of the things that underpin George’s heroism in the film: his unrequited sacrifices, the Building and Loan bank keeping the town from collapse and the monstrous antagonism of a villain in the form of Henry F. Potter–are all missing here. 

And conversely, there are details in the short story that are entirely absent in the film. For example, in The Greatest Gift, the guardian angel (who is nameless) has instructed George to act like a furniture brush salesman in order to gain access to people’s homes. When he sees that the people who are supposed to be most dear to him don’t recognise him there is almost no dismay on George’s part: the interaction is so unsympathetic and cold that George in the end comes across as almost being more interested in selling the god-damned brushes than anything else. Here we see it in the scene where he goes to visit his mother-who-never-was:

His mother, who was waiting in the hallway, obviously did not recognize him. George opened his sample kit and grabbed the first brush that came to hand. “Good evening, ma’am,” he said politely. “I’m from the World Cleaning Company. We’re giving out a free sample brush. I thought you might like to have one.” 

Politely aloof. She tells George that his wife-who-never-was, Mary, has married and had two children with a formal rival (another major digression from the film, where Mary has become an old maid). The sigh he lets out upon hearing this has no pain in it whatsoever–it could just as well be one of joyful relief for all I know:

I remember a girl named Mary Thatcher. She married Art Jenkins, I heard. You must know them.”
“Of course,” his mother said. “We know Mary well.”
“Any children?” he asked casually.
“Two—a boy and a girl.”
George sighed audibly.

And just take a look at his careless reaction immediately after hearing from her that his brother Harry has died:

“I’m sorry,” he said miserably. “I guess I’d better go. I hope you like the brush. And I wish you both a very Merry Christmas.” 

Now compare that with the same scene in the film. The sequence here is despairingly nightmarish: from the first tender “Mother” that George utters, to her meanness and suspicion, to the framing of George’s frantic expressions and the eeriness of the music: Capra captures so strongly what must only be the maddening anguish of realising that you are trapped in a world where your very essence has ceased to exist:

The Religion of It’s a Wonderful Life

There are many ludicrous interpretations of this film out there that seem pay not only total disregard to the film itself but also one of Capra’s comments that he made about it: that with it he wanted “to combat a modern trend toward atheism.”  I think there is a whole lot to be unpacked in that remark and it is my sincere belief that It’s a Wonderful Life ought to go down as one of the great religious works of art from the twentieth century. 

Yet in spite of the angels, the Christmas setting and the miraculous intervention to save George’s life, the film is not explicitly Christian or even religious for that matter. We risk confounding the film by juxtaposing it alongside works we otherwise think of when hearing the term “religious art”: works like paintings, music or poems that come in the form of biblical depiction, worship or mystical experience. The “atheism” that Capra laments here is not a lament for a decline in church attendence or a statistical change in the answers registered during the last U.S. census, but rather a complaint against a society for whom he feels life, and the individual life in particular, is no longer meaningful and therefore, sacred. 

Over a year ago I posted a series of three essays on Leo Tolsoy’s non-fiction, in the last of which I went through his radical theory on art. For Tolstoy the highest manifestation of the arts was the religious, which for him did not signify doctrinal exhibition or divine adoration, but was rather contained in works that express the virtues of humility, self-renunciation and the affirmation of the universal brotherhood of man: religious because they affirm the divinely intended purpose of life: pointing upward in pointing down to what will help usher in the kingdom of God here on earth.

Under such criteria, Tolstoy notoriously rejected most works of art ever produced (including the novels he himself wrote). It’s a Wonderful Life however is a film that explores such themes and has a morally profound message of real urgency. What he gets at when talking about religious art is what I feel It’s a Wonderful Life is, and as such I would imagine that had he lived long enough to be able to watch it, then it would have made the cut.

The Gospel of Bailey

While I above all want to stress George Bailey’s human, everyman qualities–his virtues and shortcomings–one cannot deny that he overall comes across as a Christ-like figure in the film. Like the gospels, It’s a Wonderful Life is broadly the story of a man carrying a cross not chiefly burdened with personal woes but with those of an entire community and a story preoccupied with the suffering that he goes through because of this sacrifice. The most climactic scene depicting this anguish comes towards the end, when the bank he runs has lost 8000 dollars and George, having taken leave of his family after a fit of rage, finds himself in Martini’s bar, praying to find some way out of his dire predicament:

Compare this with Christ’s agony in Gethsemane as depicted in the Gospel of Mark (14:32-36). The similarities between the two scenes can hardly be coincidential (the prescient sense of death, the hopelessness, the desperation of the prayer immediately answered in the negative: Christ being delivered to the authorities, George being knocked down to the floor)

32 They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. 34 “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”

35 Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. 36 “Abba Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

And just as the gospels build up to the central event of Jesus’ death and resurrection, so does It’s a Wonderful Life work towards one focal point: George’s death and resurrection-like experience of getting to see what the world would have looked like had he never lived.

Resist not Evil

The film spans over two decades of George’s adult life, and while the filmmakers have done their best to depict the ageing of the characters over time, George and Mary look more or less the same at the end as parents to four children as they did when they were youngsters dancing the Charleston at the high school ball. While such a minor defect is easily overlooked, the agelessness of one of the characters in particular is completely fitting: that of the villain, Henry F. Potter. This is what he looks like back in 1919 (when George is still a child):

and this is what he looks like three decades letter, in 1945:

There have been no attempts to make him look older whatsoever.

I cannot think of any more contemptible antagonist in a film that I have seen. There is nothing good in him and as such, nothing human–since there’s nothing human, nothing that could age–nothing even that should die. When I initially saw this film I saw in him an inhuman monstrosity–a vampire of sorts–but the more I watch it the more of an abstraction he becomes–the more he seems like the embodiment of the idea of evil. Besides his agelessness, there are other details that suggest this. As we saw in the first of the extracts above, he has no family, he has no children and he has no need or use of material possessions. His contribution In World War II is as head of the draft board and therefore the one most responsible for sending young men to their death in war. He delights only in what ought not to be: he puts a price on human life and is the one who directly goads George into committing suicide by pointing out that his life has no value:

His abstractness is further supported by the fact that no one can lay hands on him. Potter is an old invalid–it would not to be hard for someone to wring his neck or plunge a knife in his chest–George himself could have done it and spared the town of his persistent torment–yet no-one touches him–it is as though they physically couldn’t because he is only the embodiment of something that never perishes and the more I watch this film the more I think that he will surely outlive all the characters in the story. Is it not so significant therefore that Potter is undefeated at the film’s end? As heartwarming and life-affirming as that ending is, we must remember that the very next day Potter will be going back to hanging over George and the town like a plague again.

And in its relationship to the concept of evil, embodied by Potter, It’s a Wonderful Life can be seen as offering a Christian perspective. How should one confront evil? By not resisting it–by turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:39)–by loving one’s enemies (Matthew 5:43-44). While George has many heated arguments with Potter throughout the film, he comes to practice the Christian ethic most perfectly at the end when he has been given his life back. Bear in mind that Potter has just driven him to the verge of suicide and issued a warrant for his arrest, and how does George respond? By banging on the window to his office and crying out:

Hark! The Kingdom Cometh!

With the exception of the first scene where the angels talk to each other, the first three-quarters of the film or so (up until Clarence intervenes to save George’s life) are very realistic. They not only accurately depict certain historical events (the Depression and World War II), but the story and the grievances of the characters are very mundane–common to any community. What’s so clever about this is that it makes the fantastical, supernatural, and even at times facetious aspects of the final part perfectly believable:

From that final sequence I want to focus on the very famous last scene. One thing that is strange about it is that it is hardly a resolution of the central problem presented throughout the film: that is, of George’s inability to follow his dreams. Were this your typical plot, then George as the protagonist ought to finally get what he has always wanted and Potter as the antagonist receive his comeuppance. None of that happens. What is instead unravelled is a moral revelation that negates–that forgives, perhaps?–everything that has happened. This film is not a comment on the American Dream and its possibility–if it does say anything about it then it is only that it was entirely misguided from the get-go. Life is a wonderful thing not because it can be a means of self-enrichment and aggrandisement, but because it fundamentally means something for other people.

Though it ought only be George who has had this epiphany at the end, it is as though the whole town has had it too, and in the magic of the last scene it feels as though a new world–a new order is welcomed into being: where man embraces man in universal love and where the institutions of authority and oppression have been dissolved. One of the most touching details in this scene and in all the film for me is when the bank examiner leaves money at the collection basket and above when the district attorney’s sheriff tears up George’s arrest warrant. That would be a serious criminal offense on his part, but it is fitting because it is as though all these tools for domination and control–both fiscal and judiciary–have become totally irrelevant in the world-to-be:

Yes, the town does come together to bail George out (and then some!) but at this point money is of no value to him anymore. George couldn’t care less about the 8000 dollars–he has just shaken the bank examiner and the sheriff’s hands crying out:

The wonder of life is beyond a price tag and so the mention of ‘riches’ mentioned by George’s brother Harry in one the final lines of the film, is certainly not meant a literal sense:

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all!

An Appreciation of The Task by William Cowper (1731-1800) – Poem of the Week #45

Old Cottages at Tiller by Helen Allingham

The paucity of great long poems in any given language (in English there are very probably less than ten of them–the one under examination being one) is evidence that the composition of poetry is hardly an act of a poet’s mere will. Were it so every language would be teeming with thousands of them, for what poet does not dream of putting his pen to one sustained work where the full flourish of his artistic acumen can be put on display?

And for anyone that has seriously tried their hand at writing verse, you will understand how much the poetry you want to write is rarely the one you commit to paper–understand how often the fire of inspiration transmutes into frigid ash–understand how often the slightest push of a thought or an impression informs the lines that you are in the end most content with.

As such I have a hard time imagining a poet like Milton envisioning the Paradise Lost or Dante conceiving the Commedia at the onset. Rather, I fancy those poems probably started out like any other verse of theirs (long or short, success or failure) and only revealed their full potential as the labour went on: their authors’ geniuses being ones perspicacious enough to seize the opportunity that presented itself–acute enough to sense the first subtle tow of what turned out to be a mighty current.

And for any detractors to this conjecture, I would present the poem at hand as more concrete evidence for the involuntary nature of the artistic process. Its origin was a kind of poetic challenge offered to the poet (hence its title, The Task): to write a heroic parody on an object of utter banality, namely a sofa. The mock-Miltonic beginning reads:

I sing the Sofa. I, who lately sang
Truth, Hope, and Charity, and touched with awe
The solemn chords, and with a trembling hand,
Escaped with pain from that advent’rous flight,
Now seek repose upon a humbler theme:
The theme though humble, yet august and proud
The occasion—for the Fair commands the song.

From Book I: The Sofa

I should point out that this does not set the tone for the rest of the poem, at all. Very shortly after this, Cowper goes on to relate how the sofa would be good for somebody convalescing from gout but since he does not suffer from it he is free to stand up and walk outside–which is just what he does. What results is one of the most extraordinary works in the language: a perambulation of Cowper’s genius over the space of some 150 pages (depending on the edition you read). And what happens? Scarcely more than an inconspicuous ramble through the English countryside: its scenic impressions interrupted at every vicissitude by the poet’s reflections on life, the world and the eternal. The purpose is not narrative–the utter lack of which is underscored by the very ordinary titles of its six separate parts: The Sofa, The Timepiece, The Garden, The Winter Evening, The Winter Morning Walk and The Winter Walk at Noon.

All this is certainly not to say that the work is petty or disjointed, for this is the great didactical poem in English, whose every digression can be seen as united in a grander scheme of things in seeking an answer to the age-old question of how one ought to live a happy, meaningful life. A large part of the poem is therefore concerned with moral judgments on a variety of topics, many of which have their root in for Cowper contemporary issues. The most notable one probably being that of slavery. In a world still coming to terms with racial division and inequality this should still read as relevantly as ever: 

                                   The natural bond
Of brotherhood is severed as the flax
That falls asunder at the touch of fire.
He finds his fellow guilty of a skin
Not coloured like his own, and having power
To enforce the wrong, for such a worthy cause
Dooms and devotes him as his lawful prey.
Lands intersected by a narrow frith
Abhor each other.  Mountains interposed
Make enemies of nations, who had else
Like kindred drops been mingled into one.
Thus man devotes his brother, and destroys;
And worse than all, and most to be deplored,
As human nature’s broadest, foulest blot,
Chains him, and tasks him, and exacts his sweat
With stripes, that mercy, with a bleeding heart,
Weeps when she sees inflicted on a beast.
Then what is man?  And what man, seeing this,
And having human feelings, does not blush
And hang his head, to think himself a man?
I would not have a slave to till my ground,
To carry me, to fan me while I sleep,
And tremble when I wake, for all the wealth
That sinews bought and sold have ever earned.

From Book II: The Timepiece

And so one wonders why Cowper is so neglected today. Perhaps it is because we are too allergic to moral nay-saying? Who knows? The answer would certainly not be want of artistic skill, however, for Cowper’s mastery of blank verse is as good as any, his imagery potently down-to-earth, his moralising unsuperciliously authoritative and his pathos candid. Moreover, his grievances are far from anachronistic but, as I pointed out, often as pertinent to our own times as they were for his. Here we see it on the subject of animal welfare: 

                                To make him sport,
To gratify the frenzy of his wrath,
Or his base gluttony, are causes good
And just in his account, why bird and beast
Should suffer torture, and the streams be dyed
With blood of their inhabitants impaled.
Earth groans beneath the burden of a war
Waged with defenceless innocence, while he,
Not satisfied to prey on all around,
Adds tenfold bitterness to death by pangs
Needless, and first torments ere he devours.
Now happiest they that occupy the scenes
The most remote from his abhorred resort,
Whom once as delegate of God on earth
They feared, and as His perfect image loved.

From Book VI: The Winter Walk at Noon

Perhaps the main thing that he rails against however is human vanity and its many manifestations (material greed, excesses of dress, hunger for fame, etc). None of these lead to happiness or a permanent fulfillment because they make of life a farcical pageant: they are things that lead man away from his natural condition. He takes particular aim at cities as being the greatest agglomerations of such vice:

Ambition, avarice, penury incurred
By endless riot, vanity, the lust
Of pleasure and variety, despatch,
As duly as the swallows disappear,
The world of wandering knights and squires to town;
London engulfs them all.  The shark is there,
And the shark’s prey; the spendthrift, and the leech
That sucks him.  There the sycophant, and he
That with bare-headed and obsequious bows
Begs a warm office, doomed to a cold jail
And groat per diem if his patron frown.
The levee swarms, as if in golden pomp
Were charactered on every statesman’s door,
‘Battered and bankrupt fortunes mended here.’
These are the charms that sully and eclipse
The charms of nature.  ’Tis the cruel gripe
That lean hard-handed poverty inflicts,
The hope of better things, the chance to win,
The wish to shine, the thirst to be amused,
That, at the sound of Winter’s hoary wing,
Unpeople all our counties of such herds
Of fluttering, loitering, cringing, begging, loose
And wanton vagrants, as make London, vast
And boundless as it is, a crowded coop.

From Book III: The Garden

As such, rural life is portrayed in a far more favourable light. That is not to say that Cowper shies away from pointing out its hardship–the pains of which he sympathises greatly with–but he points out that even in its ailing poverty and toil it comes much closer to what life is and how the world works:

Between the upright shafts of whose tall elms
We may discern the thresher at his task.
Thump after thump resounds the constant flail,
That seems to swing uncertain and yet falls
Full on the destined ear.  Wide flies the chaff,
The rustling straw sends up a frequent mist
Of atoms, sparkling in the noonday beam.
Come hither, ye that press your beds of down
And sleep not: see him sweating o’er his bread
Before he eats it.—’Tis the primal curse,
But softened into mercy; made the pledge
Of cheerful days, and nights without a groan.

By ceaseless action, all that is subsists.
Constant rotation of the unwearied wheel
That Nature rides upon, maintains her health,
Her beauty, her fertility.  She dreads
An instant’s pause, and lives but while she moves.
Its own revolvency upholds the world.
Winds from all quarters agitate the air,
And fit the limpid element for use,
Else noxious: oceans, rivers, lakes, and streams
All feel the freshening impulse, and are cleansed
By restless undulation: even the oak
Thrives by the rude concussion of the storm:
He seems indeed indignant, and to feel
The impression of the blast with proud disdain,
Frowning as if in his unconscious arm
He held the thunder.

From Book 1: The Sofa

The work is not just a series of opprobria though. When not occupied with censure, for example, Cowper can show himself to be a real master of portraying landscape:

‘Tis morning; and the sun, with ruddy orb
Ascending, fires the horizon; while the clouds,
That crowd away before the driving wind,
More ardent as the disk emerges more,
Resemble most some city in a blaze,
Seen through the leafless wood.  His slanting ray
Slides ineffectual down the snowy vale,
And, tingeing all with his own rosy hue,
From every herb and every spiry blade
Stretches a length of shadow o’er the field,
Mine, spindling into longitude immense,
In spite of gravity, and sage remark
That I myself am but a fleeting shade,
Provokes me to a smile.

From Book V: The Winter Morning Walk

This down-to-earth idiom and the sympathetic portrayal of the rural/natural world make comparisons with Wordsworth obvious. In fact, I cannot think of any other author who could have had such a great stylistic influence on Wordsworth as Cowper in his Task did. How could lines such as these not be the direct progenitors to similar ones in poems like Tintern Abbey or The Prelude?

                                      …scenes that soothed
Or charmed me young, no longer young, I find
Still soothing and of power to charm me still.
And witness, dear companion of my walks,
Whose arm this twentieth winter I perceive
Fast locked in mine, with pleasure such as love,
Confirmed by long experience of thy worth
And well-tried virtues, could alone inspire—
Witness a joy that thou hast doubled long.
Thou know’st my praise of Nature most sincere,
And that my raptures are not conjured up
To serve occasions of poetic pomp,
But genuine, and art partner of them all.

From Book I: The Sofa

There are big differences between the two, however–the greatest one perhaps being ideological. Whereas Wordsworth was at his artistic height thoroughly unchristian, Cowper can be read as an artistic embodiment of the currents of religious awakening that were going on in England at the time. Here he allegorically relates the story of his “born-again” experience that came about after a period of deep psychological anguish and spiritual longing:

I was a stricken deer that left the herd
Long since; with many an arrow deep infixed
My panting side was charged, when I withdrew
To seek a tranquil death in distant shades.
There was I found by one who had himself
Been hurt by the archers.  In his side he bore,
And in his hands and feet, the cruel scars.
With gentle force soliciting the darts
He drew them forth, and healed and bade me live.
Since then, with few associates, in remote
And silent woods I wander, far from those
My former partners of the peopled scene,
With few associates, and not wishing more.
Here much I ruminate, as much I may,
With other views of men and manners now
Than once, and others of a life to come.
I see that all are wanderers, gone astray
Each in his own delusions; they are lost
In chase of fancied happiness, still woo’d
And never won.  Dream after dream ensues,
And still they dream that they shall still succeed,
And still are disappointed: rings the world
With the vain stir.  I sum up half mankind,
And add two-thirds of the remaining half,
And find the total of their hopes and fears
Dreams, empty dreams.  The million flit as gay
As if created only, like the fly
That spreads his motley wings in the eye of noon,
To sport their season and be seen no more.

From Book III: The Garden

Being a didactical poem, it is natural for Cowper that Christianity should also to a great extent be a kind of practical relationship to all creation. Even when not explicit (and most often it isn’t), one senses that his moral judgments are rooted in an ideology that is religiously predicated: 

I venerate the man whose heart is warm,
Whose hands are pure, whose doctrine and whose life,
Coincident, exhibit lucid proof
That he is honest in the sacred cause.
To such I render more than mere respect,
Whose actions say that they respect themselves.
But, loose in morals, and in manners vain,
In conversation frivolous, in dress
Extreme, at once rapacious and profuse,
Frequent in park with lady at his side,
Ambling and prattling scandal as he goes,
But rare at home, and never at his books
Or with his pen, save when he scrawls a card;
Constant at routs, familiar with a round
Of ladyships, a stranger to the poor;
Ambitions of preferment for its gold,
And well prepared by ignorance and sloth,
By infidelity and love o’ the world,
To make God’s work a sinecure; a slave
To his own pleasures and his patron’s pride.—
From such apostles, O ye mitred heads,
Preserve the Church! and lay not careless hands
On skulls that cannot teach, and will not learn.

From Book II: The Timepiece

Unlike Wordsworth, Cowper did not endorse the revolutionary currents unfolding in Europe at the time. However, he was sympathetic towards a lot of their objectives and it is in quite a romantic vein that he expresses a love toward the concept of freedom. It is not above all freedom in a political sense, however, but a Christian one–the truth that shall set you free–it is a kind of capacity to discern of the truth and beauty of the world–and it’s a freedom not even the fiercest tyrant can lay claim to:

The soul that sees Him, or receives sublimed
New faculties or learns at least to employ
More worthily the powers she owned before;
Discerns in all things what, with stupid gaze
Of ignorance, till then she overlooked,
A ray of heavenly light gilding all forms
Terrestrial, in the vast and the minute
The unambiguous footsteps of the God
Who gives its lustre to an insect’s wing
And wheels His throne upon the rolling worlds.
Much conversant with heaven, she often holds
With those fair ministers of light to man
That fill the skies nightly with silent pomp
Sweet conference; inquires what strains were they
With which heaven rang, when every star, in haste
To gratulate the new-created earth,
Sent forth a voice, and all the sons of God
Shouted for joy.—“Tell me, ye shining hosts
That navigate a sea that knows no storms,
Beneath a vault unsullied with a cloud,
If from your elevation, whence ye view
Distinctly scenes invisible to man
And systems of whose birth no tidings yet
Have reached this nether world, ye spy a race
Favoured as ours, transgressors from the womb
And hasting to a grave, yet doomed to rise
And to possess a brighter heaven than yours?
As one who, long detained on foreign shores,
Pants to return, and when he sees afar
His country’s weather-bleached and battered rocks,
From the green wave emerging, darts an eye
Radiant with joy towards the happy land;
So I with animated hopes behold,
And many an aching wish, your beamy fires,
That show like beacons in the blue abyss,
Ordained to guide the embodied spirit home
From toilsome life to never-ending rest.
Love kindles as I gaze.  I feel desires
That give assurance of their own success,
And that, infused from heaven, must thither tend.”

From Book V: The Winter Morning Walk

Being so varied, it might be hard to sum up what Cowper practically means by a meaningful and happy life, but I suppose one way of seeing it would be as a kind of retired, introspective existence content with simplicitudes. It is certainly not one burdened by human vanity–the fruitless chasing of things on which we may win fame and recognition of others:

                                       Stillest streams
Oft water fairest meadows; and the bird
That flutters least is longest on the wing.
Ask him, indeed, what trophies he has raised,
Or what achievements of immortal fame
He purposes, and he shall answer—None.
His warfare is within.  There unfatigued
His fervent spirit labours.  There he fights,
And there obtains fresh triumphs o’er himself,
And never-withering wreaths, compared with which
The laurels that a Cæsar reaps are weeds.
Perhaps the self-approving haughty world,
That, as she sweeps him with her whistling silks,
Scarce deigns to notice him, or if she see,
Deems him a cipher in the works of God,
Receives advantage from his noiseless hours
Of which she little dreams.  Perhaps she owes
Her sunshine and her rain, her blooming spring
And plenteous harvest, to the prayer he makes
When, Isaac-like, the solitary saint
Walks forth to meditate at eventide,
And think on her who thinks not for herself.

From Book VI: The Winter Walk at Noon

The poem would warrant far more appreciation than I have given room for hare, as there is a lot that I have not included here. I hope above all that I might have encouraged somebody to read the whole thing. It can conveniently be found by clicking here.

Karlfeldt dansar hambo – Veckans dikt #44 – Sång efter skördeanden av Erik Axel Karlfeldt (1864-1931)

Midsommarnatt av Anders Zorn

En essä som lämpar sig för såväl skörde- som Nobeltider.

Jag har inte mycket till övers för de motiveringsfraser som Svenska Akademien författar vid utnämnandet av litteraturpriset. Jag säger inte detta för att klandra Akademien på något sätt eller för att mena att de skulle kunna göra ett bättre arbete–de vet mycket väl att man omöjligen kokar ner en hel livsgärning till en enda mening. Ändå gör man det. Och nu när traditionen fortgått i bra över ett sekel kan man inte bara sluta.

Nej, jag har inte mycket till övers för Nobelkommitténs motiveringsfraser–med ett undantag: den som tillskrevs Erik Axel Karlfeldts postuma tilldelning år 1931. Han erhöll priset för

Erik Axel Karlfeldts diktning.

Fyra ord. Inget predikat. I dess kalhet dess betydelse, och en utmanande sådan då den ålägger läsaren att förstå dess betydelse blott genom att läsa hans verk. Om Nobelpriset i litteratur är en hyllning till det unika konstnärliga snillet (vilket jag anser att det bör vara) är denna mening mycket mer betydelsefull än den sedvanligt vaga panegyriken som påklistras övriga mottagare. Blott denna mening sammanfattar vinnarens författaranda. Blott denna mening fångar det särskilt Karlfeldtska hos Karlfeldt.

Sång efter skördeanden

Här dansar Fridolin, 
han är full av det söta vin, 
av sin vetåkers frukt, sina bärmarkers saft, 
av den vinande valsmelodin. 
Se, med livrockens väldiga skört på sin arm 
hur han dansar var flicka på balen varm 
tills hon lutar – lik vallmon på slokande skaft –  
så lycksaligen matt mot hans barm. 

Här dansar Fridolin,
han är full av minnenas vin.
Här hugsvalades far och farfar en gång 
av den surrande bondviolin.
Men nu soven I, gamle, i högtidens natt,
och den hand, som gned strängarna då, är nu matt, 
och ert liv samt er tid är en susande sång,
som har toner av sucksamt och glatt.

Men här dansar Fridolin!
Sen er son, han är stark, han är fin,
och han talar med bönder på böndernas sätt 
men med lärde män på latin.
Och hans lie går skarp i er nyodlings gull, 
och han fröjdas som I, när hans loge står full, 
och han lyfter sin mö som en man av er ätt 
högt mot höstmånens röda kastrull.


Tre åttaradiga strofer av varierande radlängd. I regel är versmåttet stigande och de dominerande versfötterna är anapester. Rimschemat lyder AABACCBC.


Karlfeldt räknas bland det svenska Nittiotalet–en litterär strömning som tog avstånd från realismens och naturalismens storstadsförankring och istället skildrade med kärleksfull blick landsbygdens folklighet. Det är dock en förenkling att betrakta strömningen som ett enkelt idealiserande eller en klyschig nationalromantik. Några av Sveriges finaste diktare verkade i dess anda och skapade däri en livskraftig och innovativ poesi.

Vederbörande dikt utspelar sig i den klara höstskymningen och skildrar ungdomar som dansar efter skörden. Centralfiguren är unge herr Fridolin som av allt att bedöma är balens mest eftertraktade kavaljer. Han besitter en slags manlig urkraft: den beskrivs som något väldigt jordlig: full av “vetåkerns frukt” och “bärmarkens saft”. Denna kraft är ju också till stor del erotisk och Karlfeldt författar här en av de mest erotiskt vackra liknelser som jag känner till i det svenska språket när han beskriver hur varenda flicka som dansar med Fridolin “lutar lik vallmon på slokande skaft”. 

Den andra strofen skildrar det urtidiga i dansen. Fridolin förkroppsligar sina förfäder när han dansar på samma sätt och till samma musik som de en gång gjorde efter liknande skördar. Deras öden, om än förgångna i köttet, lever dock vidare här i “den susande sång” som spelas till dansen.

I denna skildring av det tidlösa finns det dock något vemodsfullt och poetens ambivalenta sinnesstämning återspeglas av musiken “som har toner av sucksamt och glatt”. Denna kluvenhet accentueras vidare när vi får veta att Fridolin är en figur som till viss del tillhör den moderna världen–samtidigt som hans “lie går skarp i nyodlingens gull” och “han talar med bönder på böndernas sätt” är han också någon som utbildat sig i staden och kan tala “med lärde män på latin.”

Men med diktens avslut vill Karlfeldt ändå betona det tidlösa, det nästan odödliga i dansen. Den sista bilden av Fridolin som “lyfter sin mö som en man av er ätt/högt mot höstmånens röda kastrull” blir liksom en förevigad gestaltning av dansens primordiala kraft och Fridolins väldiga virilitet.

För att läsa fler dikter av Karlfeldt, var god och klicka här.

An Un-explanation and De-analysis of “Tintern Abbey” by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) – Poem of the Week #43

The Hay Wain by John Constable

This poem is perhaps a little too long to post here, so if anybody would like to read it together with other fine poems by Wordsworth, click here.

I am a bit cloven as to how or even if the reading of poetry, and high-quality poetry in particular, ought to be a part of school curricula. It probably is the most effective way of diffusing it en masse, yes, but when reducing its experience to a formulaic regurgitation for the purpose of attaining a grade, I can almost only feel revulsion–and of a particularly animated kind at that.

I begin thus because the poem at hand, as great as any penned in the English language, must evidently be part of some state syllabus in India, judging by the thousands of pages and videos yielded from the subcontinent when searching “Tintern Abbey + analysis” on the internet. And yet how their readings, though gleaning the superficial substance, miss its dimensions entirely! What’s worse, they take what is living and palpable and all but strangle and sepulture it–rendering it into some kind of taxidermied cadaver.

And I would almost be surprised, in all honesty, if there were any students at all with whom a poem like Tintern Abbey still resonated after such treatment. If the true, qualitative experience of poetry has to thus be destroyed, one really must ask whether reading it in the first place is worth it at all.

And in that way I suppose I count myself lucky to have not first encountered this poem in a classroom–either at secondary school or university–lest it had thereby been tainted for me forever. For in the end, the only way to read a poem is nakedly–coming to it as naïvely as a child and without any goal in mind other than gleaning its author’s intention and delighting in the passion that he or she has poured into it.

And if one, smitten by such passion, wishes to retransmit it to others through a personal analysis and explanation, that is all well and good, but when it becomes a means of scoring points on a test or worse, promoting some bogus political ideology or cultural theory, one does more than miss the mark–one all but destroys it.

And so, if the words “analysis” and “explanation” have started to sour for any school-tired reader because they associate with them the things I have lamented against above, then as some kind of contrarians may we aim for a  “de-analysis” or an “un-explanation” of the poem at hand. I think in any case that that is what Wordsworth would have preferred.

I still vividly remember the moment I first read Tintern Abbey and reflecting on it now is almost like reminiscing on an episode of falling in love. It was cold and clear outside, and I was half lying on my bed, my upper back languidly pressed against a wall and the first edition of Lyrical Ballads on my raised lap in a manner that my senescent sinews would scarcely be capable of today. I had almost made up my mind that it was a rather mediocre collection of verse until I got to the very last poem, and oh, the electrification:

Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur…

How can I analyse the quality of this? How can I break it down? There is nothing particularly interesting in the language but how doesn’t it soar! How pregnant is it not with meaning–as though uttered into existence by the tongue of a divine creator! This is a poem that is all soul–not a grandiose exhibition of its power though, but a fine tracing of its beauty–and one so slight at times that it requires a particularly acute mind not to miss it. In this subtlety lies its grandeur–and it is one altogether freed from the schoolmaster’s pedantry.


Blank verse. But how much doesn’t this monologue, like all good blank verse, invite to dramatic variation? This is a poem that is anything but rigid and it should certainly not be read as such.


The full title sums up the poem in a very unpoetic fashion: Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798. If there is any key word here, however, it would be “revisiting”–for this is broadly speaking a poem about memory. It was published when Wordsworth was twenty-eight years old and though still young I suppose one can say that he had by that time experienced relatively much of the world: he had long since finished his studies at Cambridge and had spent a significant amount of time touring Europe–particularly Italy, Switzerland and France, in the last of which he fathered a child and became profoundly influenced by the ideological currents surrounding the French revolution. In 1795 he had moved to Dorset in southern England with his sister, Dorothy, who also figures in this poem. There they both felt a longing back to their childhood Lake district in the north and this sets the scene for the poem at hand, as William and Dorothy return after a five-year absence. Nothing in particular in the landscape has changed:

Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
‘Mid groves and copses. 

What has inevitably changed, however, is the poet, who goes on to describe how important the memories of these places have been as he has gone out into the world. They have been a kind of consolation in moments of despair:

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;

and more importantly, they have unconsciously been as some kind of glimpse into something greater–a partial answer at least to an eternal longing and meaning beyond the mere temporal, the significance of which will perhaps only be fully revealed to us in death when the soul is liberated from its body and returns to its source:

    Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

Remember how subtle I said this poem could be? The ‘intimations of immortality’ (to cite the title of another Wordsworth poem) are always just glints and silent suggestions: look at the choice of words in the passage above: the “sublime” is “serene”, it leads us “gently”, and its “power of harmony” is “quiet”. There is no sturm, there is no drang here: the great beginning of English romanticism ironically enters with a meek step forward and a gentle sense of composure.

Wordsworth could just as well have made this poem into a clichéd wistfulness for childhood, but he avoids this, noting how even now, in this moment, the sensual impressions of what he sees are being imprinted in his mind for the future:

And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years.

He nonetheless holds a great reverence for childhood as a time in life when one is more in tune with the spiritual essence of the natural world. Although childhood memories remain, he admits that he cannot ever enter the child’s mind again: 

when like a roe
I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all.—I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, nor any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.

Yet he avoids the other cliché of nostalgically idealising the past, noting how he in posterity has had “abundant recompense” and has in some intellectual sense been able to tap into and in his poetry express the deeper meaning manifested in the natural world. Here the orchestration of the verse launches into one of its finest crescendoes:

     That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense. For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. 

Once again, look at how delicate it all is: nature’s music is “sad” and “still” and its power “chastens” and “subdues”. Although he would in later life become a devout, high-church Anglican, judging both by the contents and the ingenuous power of the verse, Wordsworth seems nothing short of a pantheist here:

Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.

In the final stanza Wordsworth addresses his sister who is also with him in this moment. Both she and the poet become some physical extension of memory and there is a consolation that in their mutual presence they can and will be able to revisit what once was:

For thou art with me here upon the banks
Of this fair river; thou my dearest Friend,
My dear, dear Friend; and in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart, and read
My former pleasures in the shooting lights
Of thy wild eyes. Oh! yet a little while
May I behold in thee what I was once,
My dear, dear Sister!

And even if they will not be in each other’s presence, they will nonetheless be able to revisit each other by thinking back on times spent together–moments like the very one they find themselves in now:

Nor, perchance—
If I should be where I no more can hear
Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams
Of past existence—wilt thou then forget
That on the banks of this delightful stream
We stood together; and that I, so long
A worshipper of Nature, hither came
Unwearied in that service: rather say
With warmer love—oh! with far deeper zeal
Of holier love. Nor wilt thou then forget,
That after many wanderings, many years
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake!

Den svenska litteraturens kronjuvel – Frithiofs saga av Esaias Tegnér (1782-1846) (veckans dikt #42)

Jag har svårt att föreställa mig något annat land i Europa där man påträffar en sådan bred ignorans gentemot den egna litteraturhistorien som man finner i Sverige. Att Goethe och Schiller måste läsas i den tyska gymnasieskolan, att frasen la langue de Molière (sv. “Molieres språk”) är en synonym på den moderna franskan eller att det finns en italiensk tidskrift som enbart ägnar sig åt Dantestudier ter sig inte särskilt underligt i sina respektive länder. Även om man på många håll må ifrågasätta dessa figurer och deras arv genom nya kulturella synvinklar blir den kritik som uppstår därav ändå ett uttryck för hur väldiga och betydelsefulla de är.

Men kan man dra några liknande paralleller i Sverige?–ett land där flera av våra genom tiden främsta författares verk är idag ur tryck?–ett land där bibliotekens klassikerhyllor har ofta vittrats ner till obetydlighet?–ett land där man kan ta sig igenom hela gymnasieskolans svenskundervisning utan att läsa ett enda skönlitterärt verk?

En förklaring skulle kunna vara att Sverige helt enkelt inte haft några motsvarande personligheter. Men detta, vill jag hävda, är inte sant och en stor del av den möda som jag har lagt ner på denna webbplats har ägnats åt att bevisa just motsatsen. En annan, troligen mer vanlig utläggning, är att dessa författare har helt enkelt överträffats av sina samtida motparter som lyckats gestalta en värld och förmedla idéer som är mer känsliga och relevanta för våra egna tider.

I sådana omständigheter framstår individen som läser klassikerna–i detta fall vår protagonist–som en ganska lustig typ: något slags hobbyist–någon som av avvikande personligt intresse fascineras av historien och dess ovidkommande, dammiga artefakter.

Men för den klassiska litteraturens sysslare ter sig saker och ting helt annorlunda, förstås. Hon läser klassikerna (såväl gamla som nya manifesteringar av dem) av inga andra skäl än att hon finner att de är de mest rörande, roliga och ja–angelägna verken som finns. Camilla Läckberg, Athena Farrokhzad och Jan Guillou må väl avskissa 5G-samhällets skiftningar mellan avgas och hopplöshet, men hur mycket mer främmande och avlägsna framstår de inte i jämförelse med vår kära hobbyists sanna själafränder–med dem som skildrar det evigt mänskliga? Och hur synd finner hon egentligen inte att känna sig manad att belysa för andra det redan utstrålande, det redan självklara: alltså, deras storhet och dess betydelse?

Så anser jag är fallet med Frithiofs saga av Esaias Tegnér: mästerverket av en skald som en gång i tiden ansågs av många vara Sveriges främsta författare och därtill den moderna svenska lyrikens stamfader. Han var dessutom den förste svensken att vinna stor beröm utanför Norden och detta redan under hans livstid.

Men vad lever kvar av detta rykte i dag? Frithiofs saga, en värdig kandidat till Sveriges största litterära verk är numera i tryck hos endast (mig veterligen) två små förlag i Sverige och jag skulle vilja slå vad om att de flesta lokalbiblioteken inte har några av hans andra verk ute i sina hyllor.

Sagan om Frithiof Thorstensson

Att känna till handlingen i Frithiofs saga kan hjälpa till att uppskatta de utdrag som jag kommer att citera och diskutera nedan. Spoilers till trots skulle jag vilja framhäva att verkets styrka ligger inte i narrativets utredning–berättelsen är ju inte ens Tegnérs utan en fornnordisk saga som dessutom är ganska enkel i sin utformning. Det sanna konstnärliga värdet i Frithiofs saga, som i all diktning, ligger snarare i språkets retoriska briljans och poesins sentimentala snille.

Frithiof Thorstensson och Ingeborg, kung Beles dotter, är förälskade i varandra. Frithiof är den starkaste och modigaste kämpen i riket men ej av adlig börd och därför en olämplig make till en kungadotter. Förhoppningen att upprätthålla ett kärleksförhållande försvåras ytterligare när Bele dör och tronen delas mellan hans två inkompetente söner, Helge och Halvdan, Ingeborgs bröder, vilka tvingar Ingeborg att på heltid vistas i Baldershagen–en helig plats där all kärlek och lust är förbjuden.

Ingeborg och Frithiofs affär fortgår i hemlighet tills Frithiof i rikets tjänst skickas till Orkneyöarna för att upphämta skatt. När han återvänder hoppas han visa sig vara värdig Ingeborgs hand men får istället veta att hans gård bränts ned och att Ingeborg gifts bort med den föråldrade Kung Ring.

Frithiof konfronterar Ring och Ingeborg under en offerrit i Balderstemplet. Under tumultet bränns templet ned och Frithiof blir tvungen att gå i landsflykt. Efter flera år av lukrativt sjöröveri känner han dock hemlängtans kall och återvänder förklädd till Rings hov. Frithiof vinner Rings erkännande och när de är ute på jakt en dag uppstår dramats höjdpunkt: Frithiof befinner sig ensam med den sovande Ring och har alltså chansen att döda den slumrande kungen och ta tillbaka Ingeborg men äran och plikten vinner samvetskvalets övertag. Ring vaknar, berättar att han genomskådat Frithiofs förklädnad och att allt detta varit ett karaktärsprov.

Ring erbjuder Frithiof Ingeborgs hand och verket avslutas med att Frithiof bygger ett nytt Balderstempel, vilken i Tegnérs berättelse också blir en symbol för den kristna tro som kommer att ersätta den nordiska hedendomen.


Det stilistiskt mest uppenbara särdraget i Frithiofs saga är att varenda en av dess 24 sånger är formmässigt annorlunda: i dem ryms allt ifrån homerisk hexameter och alexandriner till blankvers och ottava rima med allahanda versfotsmönster däremellan. De stilistiska variationerna gör verket mindre enhetligt än de flesta jämförbara epos och fastän detta kan leda till en viss kvalitativ ojämnhet mellan de olika sångerna skulle jag verkligen inte vilja påstå att det utgör något slags oberättigat jippo. Mer än en utomordentlig versmakare var Tegnér en stor poet och sålunda har han arbetat för att låta formen anpassa sig efter den handling och sinnesstämning som de olika sångerna vill ge uttryck för.

Ett tydligt exempel på denna samklang kan läsas i den nionde sången, vilken utgörs av Ingeborgs klagan över att Frithiof skickats till Orkney och inte kommer att kunna återvända till henne. De korta versraderna, det återupprepade mönstret av växlande maskulina-feminina rim och de fallande daktylerna som dominerar versen liksom böljar fram och kraschar likt vågor i det tomma, kalla havet som breder ut sig framför henne:

   Nu är det höst,
stormande häver sig havets bröst.
Ack, men hur gärna jag sute
ändå därute!

   Länge jag såg
seglet i väster, det flög på sin våg.
Ack! Det är lyckligt, får följa
Frithiof på bölja.

   Bölja, du blå,
sväll ej så högt, det går fort nog ändå.
Lysen, I stjärnor, och sägen
seglaren vägen.

Jämför det vemodsfulla och bryska i ovanstående versmelodi med den som vi finner i del XV. Nu har Frithiof, i landsflykt, gått i viking och befinner sig också med havet i bakgrunden. Nu är det dock äventyr, mod och stridslystnad som styr såväl handling som skandering i de längre radernas upptrummande anapester:

Nu han svävade kring på det ödsliga hav, han for vida, som jagande falk;
men för kämpar ombord skrev han lagar och rätt. Vill du höra hans vikingabalk?

“Ej må tältas å skepp, ej må sovas i hus: inom salsdörr blott fiender stå;
viking sove på sköld och med svärdet i hand, och till tält har han himlen, den blå.

Kort är hammarens skaft hos den segrande Tor, blott en aln långt är svärdet hos Frej.
Det är nog; har du mod, gå din fiende när! och för kort är din klinga då ej.

När det stormar med makt, hissa seglen i topp! det är lustigt på stormande hav:
låt det gå, låt det gå! den som stryker är feg; förr’n du stryker, gå hellre i kvav!

Den medeltida romantiken

Bland Frithiofs sagas allra mest kända hedrare var Johann Wolfgang von Goethe som prisade det “gamla, kraftiga, gigantiska och barbariska” i Tegnérs diktarstil. Goethes kommentar vill troligen återspegla en bedömning att Tegnér lyckats bevara den hedniska och medeltida stämningen av originalet (eller så var han kanske färgad av den gamla fördomen att vi skandinaver ännu inte är mycket mer än vagt civiliserade vildningar–vem vet?). Otidsenliga motiv förekommer i verket, exempelvis i verkets inledning där en ek och en ros får företräda Frithiofs och Ingeborgs öden. Det påminner om medeltida allegorier, framförallt den avslutande symboliken i Tristan och Isolde.

Där växte uti Hildings gård
två plantor under fostrarns vård.
Ej Norden förr sett två så sköna,
de växte härligt i det gröna.

Den ena som en ek sköt fram,
och som en lans är hennes stam;
men kronan, som i vinden skälver,
liksom en hjälm sin rundel välver.

Den andra växte som en ros,
när vintern nyss har flytt sin kos;
men våren, som den rosen gömmer,
i knoppen ligger än och drömmer.

Men stormen skall kring jorden gå,
med honom brottas eken då,
och vårsol skall på himlen glöda,
då öppnar rosen läppar röda.

Så växte de i fröjd och lek,
och Frithiof var den unga ek;
men rosen uti dalar gröna
hon hette Ingeborg den sköna.

Och de superlativa beskrivningarna av mannamod och krigskonst kan lika gärna ha kommit från Homeros:

Viking lämnade svärdet till Thorsten, sin son, och från Thorsten
gick det till Frithiof i arv: när han drog det, sken det i salen
liksom flöge en blixt därigenom eller ett norrsken.
Hjaltet var hamrat av guld, men runor syntes på klingan,
underbara, ej kända i Nord, men de kändes vid solens
portar där fäderna bott förrn Asarne förde dem hitupp.
Matta lyste de runor alltjämt när fred var i landet,
men när Hildur begynte sin lek, då brunno de alla
röda som hanens kam när han kämpar: förlorad var den som
mötte i slaktningens natt den klingan med lågande runor.
Svärdet var vida berömt, och av svärd var det ypperst i Norden.

Men det vore fel att betrakta verket som något slags antikposering. På ett mycket mer modernt håll är det Tegnérs egensinniga bildspråk och komplexa utvecklande av de mindre krigiska teman där Frithiofs saga faktiskt når sin patetiska kulmen. Här genomsyrar den Ingeborgs farväl till Frithiof från del 8: 

Ser jag åt sjön, där sam din köl och skar
i skum sin väg till längterskan på stranden.
Ser jag åt lunden, där står mången stam
med Ingborgs runor ristade i barken.
Nu växer barken ut, mitt namn förgås
och det betyder döden, säger sagan.
Jag frågar Dagen var han såg dig sist,
jag frågar Natten, men de tiga still,
och havet själv som bär dig, svarar på
min fråga endast med en suck mot stranden.
Med aftonrodnan skall jag skicka dig
en hälsning när hon släcks i dina vågor,
och himlens långskepp, molnen, skola ta
ombord en klagan från den övergivna.
Så skall jag sitta i min jungfrubur,
en svartklädd änka efter livets glädje,
och sömma brutna liljor uti duken,
tills en gång Våren vävt sin duk, och sömmar
den full med bättre liljor på min grav.
Men tar jag harpan för att sjunga ut
oändlig smärta uti djupa toner,
då brister jag i gråt, som nu–

Frithiofs och Ingeborgs förbjudna kärlek–inte äventyrens strapatser–är det som manar fram verkets drama och spänning och liknelser med Shakespeare’s behandling av temat är allt annat än sammanträffanden, här i Frithiof och Ingeborgs avsked från sång VII

“Tyst, det är lärkan.” Nej, en duva
i skogen kuttrar om sin tro.
Men lärkan slumrar än på tuva
hos maken i sitt varma bo.
De lyckliga! dem skiljer ingen
när dagen kommer eller far,
men deras liv är fritt som vingen
som bär i skyn det glada par.

“Se, dagen gryr.” Nej, det är flamman
av någon vårdkas österut.
Ännu vi kunna språka samman,
än har den kära natt ej slut.
Försov dig, dagens gyllne stjärna,
och morna sen dig långsamt till.
För Frithiof må du sova gärna
till Ragnarök, om så du vill.

Tegnér är kanske Sveriges romantiker par excellence och det är viktigt att understryka att verket är rotat i tidens anda. Titta på hur han exempelvis låter naturen gestalta det övernaturliga i följande avsnitt där Frithiof kväder över sin faders gravhög:

Du tiger, fader! Hör du, vågen klingar,
ljuvt är dess sorl, lägg ner ditt ord däri!
Och stormen flyger, häng dig vid hans vingar,
och viska till mig, som han far förbi!
Och västern hänger full av gyllne ringar,
låt en av dem din tankes härold bli!
Ej svar, ej tecken för din son i nöden
du äger, fader! O, hur arm är döden!” 

Och solen släcks, och aftonvinden lullar
för jordens barn sin vaggsång utur skyn,
och aftonrodnan körer opp och rullar
med rosenröda hjul kring himlens bryn.
I blåa dalar, över blåa kullar
hon flyger fram, en skön Valhallasyn.
Då kommer plötsligt över västervågor
en bild framsusande i guld och lågor.

Och det romantiska antyds till och med i verkets nationalistiska drag. Dessa må kanske inte vara lika explicita som i andra Tegnérdikter men på många sätt är förhärligandet av och längtandet tillbaka till ett idealiserat Norden densamma. Här läser vi den i Frithiofs hemlängtan efter åratal i exil:

“På den hög där min fader är lagd har jag satt en lind, månn hon lever ännu?
Och vem vårdar den späda? Du jord, giv din must, och din dagg, o! du himmel, giv du!

Dock, vi ligger jag längre på främmande våg och tar skatt, och slår mänskor ihjäl?
Jag har ära alltnog, och det flammande guld, det lumpna, föraktar min själ.

Där är flagga på mast, och den visar åt norr, och i norr är den älskade jord:
jag vill följa de himmelska vindarnas gång, jag vill styra tillbaka mot Nord.”

Ett kristet budskap

Tegnérs största avvikelse från originalberättelsen förekommer i slutet av verket då ett uttryckt kristet budskap träder fram. Många läsare må reagera med ett slags avsmak för detta, inte nödvändigtvis för att de hyser ett ogillande av kristendomen i sig men för att det på sätt och vis undergräver Frithiofs karaktär och hans kamp under handlingens gång. Frithiof har genom sin styrka och ära vunnit tillbaka Ingeborg och räddat riket men nu liksom överger han allt detta för att bli ett slags salig, fredsälskande härold för Guds stundande rike. Om inte explicit kristen ännu känns den sinnesro som han erfar i verkets sista sång allt annat än hednisk:

Och som en blodig skugga sjönk hans vikingsliv,
med alla sina strider, sina äventyr,
en blomsterkransad bautasten på deras grav.
Och allt som sången växte, höjde sig hans själ
från jordens låga dalar upp mot Valaskjalf;
och mänsklig hämnd och mänskligt hat smalt sakta hän,
som isens pansar smälter ifrån fjällets bröst,
när vårsol skiner; och ett hav av stilla frid,
av tyst hänryckning göt sig i hans hjältebarm.
Det är, som kände han naturens hjärta slå
emot sitt hjärta, som han ville trycka rörd
Heimskringla i sin broderfamn och stifta frid
med varje skapat väsen inför gudens syn. –

Om än handlingsmässigt oföljdriktigt är det här ypperlig poesi och när Baldertemplets överpräst sedan kommer till tals blir hans profetia uttalat kristen:

I Södern talas om en Balder, jungfruns son,
sänd av Allfader att förklara runorna
på nornors svarta sköldrand, outtydda än.
Frid var hans härskri, kärlek var hans blanka svärd,
och oskuld satt som duva på hans silverhjälm.
From levde han och lärde, dog han och förlät,
och under fjärran palmer står hans grav i ljus.
Hans lära, sägs det, vandrar ifrån dal till dal,
försmälter hårda hjärtan, lägger hand i hand
och bygger fridens rike på försonad jord.
Jag känner ej den läran rätt, men dunkelt dock
i mina bättre stunder har jag anat den;
vart mänskligt hjärta anar den ibland, som mitt.
En gång, det vet jag, kommer hon och viftar lätt
de vita duvovingar över Nordens berg.
Men ingen Nord är längre till för oss den dag,
och eken susar över de förgätnas hög.
I lyckligare släkten, I som dricken då
strålbägarn av det nya ljus, jag hälsar er!
Väl eder, om det jagar bort var sky, som hängt
sitt våta täcke hittills över livets sol.
Förakten likväl icke oss, som redligt sökt
med oavvända ögon hennes gudaglans!
En är Allfader, fastän fler hans sändebud.

För att läsa Frithiofs saga i dess helhet eller flera andra av Esaias Tegnérs dikter, var god och klicka här.

Poem of the Week #41 – Snow-flakes by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

Winter landscape by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)


Out of the bosom of the Air,
      Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
      Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
            Silent, and soft, and slow
            Descends the snow.

Even as our cloudy fancies take
      Suddenly shape in some divine expression,
Even as the troubled heart doth make
      In the white countenance confession,
            The troubled sky reveals
            The grief it feels.

This is the poem of the air,
      Slowly in silent syllables recorded;
This is the secret of despair,
      Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded,
            Now whispered and revealed
            To wood and field.

I know there has been a slight sleep in the posting of these small essays on the blog. This website has by no means been abandoned though, it is simpy that in these periods my energies tend to be directed elsewhere.

Nonetheless, at a certain point the guilt for not dedicating time to the blog reaches a point of meltover and I feel like something has to be done, so here it is: a short look at a short poem–another one of those perfectly rounded and shining little pearls that stud the panoply of English poetry.

Longfellow’s legacy, one of the most popular poets of his day, has been in the wane for many decades. Even that bulwark of all things neutral, Wikipedia, slyly suggests that he ought to be seen as a relic–too occupied with crafting a verse of imitation and sentimentality rather than original substance. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this though–we are a bit too obsessed with innovation in the West–and the fact of the matter is that having penned this one great poem here is grounds enough for immortalisation.


Three stanzas with six lines each. The rhyme scheme reads ABABCC. The meter is roughly iambic, with the first four in tetrameter, the fifth in trimeter and the final in dimeter. Note how clever the syllabic tightening is (together with the visual impression of the shortening of the indentation)–it mimics the subject matter at hand of snowflakes slowly floating to the ground.


The first stanza is a brief description of snow falling over a silent, still and because of the winter, colourless landscape. The source of the snow is the personified “Air”-shaking it out of her clothes.

With the second stanza comes Longfellow’s meditation: how often doesn’t the weather impress and affect our mood? Here it is as though the grey skies themselves though become an artistic expression of their own mourning. Just as our emotions create external signs, so do those of nature:

Even as our cloudy fancies take
      Suddenly shape in some divine expression,
Even as the troubled heart doth make
      In the white countenance confession,
            The troubled sky reveals
            The grief it feels.

This idea is further developed in the final stanza–the grief of the sky is a “poem” told in “syllables”. Yet for all its immensity it is subtle–“whispered” only to those of a keen enough sensibility–that of the “wood” and “field”. The suggestion is here the “secret” that the sky hoards is and expresses for the landscape is also unattainable to human beings–nothing but a suggestion of it can be gleaned by the poet.

American, Woman, Metaphysic? Poem of the Week #40 – Before the Birth of One of Her Children by Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672)

Early Puritans of New England Going to Worship by George Henry Boughton

Before the Birth of One of Her Children

All things within this fading world hath end,   
Adversity doth still our joys attend;
No ties so strong, no friends so dear and sweet,   
But with death’s parting blow is sure to meet.   
The sentence past is most irrevocable,   
A common thing, yet oh inevitable.

How soon, my dear, death may my steps attend,   
How soon’t may be thy lot to lose thy friend,   
We are both ignorant, yet love bids me   
These farewell lines to recommend to thee,   
That when that knot’s untied that made us one,   
I may seem thine, who in effect am none.   

And if I see not half my dayes that’s due,
What nature would, God grant to yours and you;   
The many faults that well you know I have  
Let be interred in my oblivious grave;   
If any worth or virtue were in me,   
Let that live freshly in thy memory.   

And when thou feel’st no grief, as I no harms,   
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms.
And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains   
Look to my little babes, my dear remains.   
And if thou love thyself, or loved’st me,
These to protect from stepdames injury.

And if chance to thine eyes shall bring this verse,
With some sad sighs honour my absent hearse;   
And kiss this paper for thy love’s dear sake,
Who with salt tears this last farewell did take.

Anne Bradstreet was born in England in 1612 and arrived in the Puritan colony in Massachusetts at the age of 18. She remained in America for the rest of her life and the new geographic location no doubt fed into her work, but to call her as American as any other “American” poet (let alone apple pie) would nonetheless be a bit of a stretch, not to mention confusing. It would be like calling her colonial contemporary Sor Juana Inèz de la Cruz (1648-1695) a Mexican poet–one to a certain extent sequestered from the political and cultural influence of the Spanish Golden Age–for beside the fact that Bradstreet spent her formative years in the Old World, she also wrote in a period when the very notion of American national independence and the even semblance of an American national myth simply did not exist.

On a purely literary level, it is also impossible to divide Bradstreet from the poetic undercurrents of her natal soil. Linguistic archaisms aside, how much don’t some of the metaphoric complexities and the richness of contrasts in the poem above read like the late flourishings of the English metaphysics? I have written a couple of posts about the metaphysics before, wanting to highlight how underappreciated they are as a whole is and I highly encourage my readers to compare Bradstreet’s poems with other poets of the school such as Sir Henry Wotton, Sir Robert Aytoun, John Donne, Aurelian Townshend, Edward Herbert, Sir Francis Kynaston, Henry King, Francis Quarles, George Herbert, Thomas Carew, James Paulin, Richard Crashaw, Thomas Philipot or Andrew Marvell.

The really lamentable result of having discouraged women from artistic pursuits throughout history is that we have such a relatively small corpus of good works that properly express the joy and suffering of the female experience–poems like the one above. I admire the feminist pursuit of going back in history in order to resurface forgotten works produced by women but feel they have been largely unsuccessful in bringing to light pieces of real quality. Ironically, they have often done a fair bit to diminish the work of women of true artistic power, like Anne Bradstreet, obfuscating their quality by juxtaposing them alongside writers of little skill such as Aphra Behn or the Duchess of Newcastle.

Gender, as any peruser of modern poetry will know, is a red-hot topic among contemporary poets, and has been for some time. Yet the irony is that, having largely been weaponised as a political pursuit (which on a purely political level I can often sympathise with), I scarcely find a single work that is artistically successful in capturing the personal passion of the likes of the poem featured here. On a qualitative level, can we justly say that the current state of poetry written by women is in any better shape?


Five rhymed stanzas in iambic pentameter. The first four are sestets and the final a quatrain. The rhymes are all in couplets.


The title reveals very well what the poem is about, yet the first stanza is a more general meditation on the human condition and how close to us death is. Writing in a time when childbirth claimed the lives of many women, Bradstreet had all the reason to be contemplating her departure from this world. In the second stanza there is a narrowing however, as Bradstreet addresses someone–one can read this as an address to the baby in her womb or even to the reader, yet the terms of endearment hint that this is her husband that she is speaking to:

How soon, my dear, death may my steps attend,   
How soon’t may be thy lot to lose thy friend,   
We are both ignorant, yet love bids me   
These farewell lines to recommend to thee,   
That when that knot’s untied that made us one,   
I may seem thine, who in effect am none.   

The idea that this is her husband she is writing to is made more obvious in the succeeding stanza, in which she talks of what he will remember of her when she is gone:

The many faults that well you know I have  
Let be interred in my oblivious grave;   
If any worth or virtue were in me,   
Let that live freshly in thy memory.   

In the next stanza it is almost as though Bradstreet is certain that she will predecease her husband. What comes next is almost as cold as a will–a message for when grief has died and her husband reasonably be allowed to remarry, that he will protect the poet’s children from a mean stepmother:

And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains   
Look to my little babes, my dear remains.   
And if thou love thyself, or loved’st me,
These to protect from stepdames injury.

Yet the personal suffering packs a punch in the final stanza. Once again, it really feels like Bradstreet is convinced she is going to die giving birth to her baby, and she wants to use this poem as a means of bidding farewell:

And if chance to thine eyes shall bring this verse,
With some sad sighs honour my absent hearse;   
And kiss this paper for thy love’s dear sake,
Who with salt tears this last farewell did take.

Svenska språkets sorgligaste dikt? – Veckans dikt #39 – Vaggvisa för min son Carl av Carl Michael Bellman

Giuseppe Maria Crespi – La Madonna col bambino

Vaggvisa för min son Carl

Lilla Carl, sov sött i frid! 
Ty du får tids nog vaka, 
tids nog se vår onda tid 
och hennes galla smaka. 
Världen är en sorgeö: 
bäst man andas skall man dö 
och bli mull tillbaka.

En gång, där en källa flöt 
förbi en skyl i rågen, 
stod en liten gosse söt 
och spegla sig i vågen: 
bäst sin bild han såg så skön 
uti böljan, klar och grön, 
straxt han inte såg’en.

Så är med vår levnad fatt, 
och så försvinna åren: 
bäst man andas gott och glatt, 
så lägges man på båren. 
Lilla Carl skall tänka så, 
när han ser de blommor små, 
som bepryda våren.

Sove lulla, lilla vän! 
Din välgång alla gläda. 
När du vaknar, sku vi sen 
dig klippa häst och släda; 
sen små hus av kort – lull lull – 
sku vi bygga, blåsa kull 
och små visor kväda.

Mamma har åt barnet här 
små gullskor och gullkappa, 
och om Carl beskedlig är, 
så kommer rätt nu pappa, 
lilla barnet namnam ger… 
Sove lulla! Ligg nu ner 
och din kudde klappa.

En dag råkade den spanske poeten Fernando Garcia Lorca höra en andalusisk kvinna sjunga en vaggvisa för sitt spädbarn och han slogs av den väldiga sorg som både ord och melodi gav uttryck för. Hur kunde en mor vilja lulla sitt barn på sådant ledsamt vis? funderade han. Som svar drog han den spekulativa men jag tror ganska sanna slutsatsen att vaggsånger inte alltid är menade för barnets skull, utan snarare är ett sätt för föräldern att bearbeta den oro och den sorg som han eller hon erfar gentemot sina barn. Med tanke på att barnadödlighet historiskt sett var något som de flesta föräldrar kanske fick erfara (och detta ända in på Lorcas tid–för mindre än ett sekel sedan) är detta inte en helt vilseledd slutsats.

Och man känner att detta måste onekligen ha varit bakgrunden till veckans dikt–Carl Michael Bellmans vaggvisa för sin son Carl. Dikten ska ha skrivits år 1787, bara ett par veckor efter Bellmans äldre son Elis bortgång, och oron för den nyfödde Carls öde måste ha varit oerhörd. Den genomsyrar vartenda ord här och jag kan knappt tänka på en annan dikt i det svenska språket som uttrycker en sådan deprimerande föreställning av människoödets hopplöshet—men också en som visar en sådan ömsint kärlek. Texten hade slukats helt av en nattsvarthet om den inte också frälstes av den intima kärleken som samtidigt bär upp dikten och vilken gestaltas genom just den oro som endast en förälder känner för sina barn.

Som ni ser ovan har jag, som dryg poesiinfluencer, också varit så fräck och våghalsig att stryka de två sista stroferna från dikten. Jag hoppas dock att mina läsare kan ha viss överseende för detta och hålla med mig om att de känns lite främmande i stil och stämning, för att inte tala om konstnärligt sämre, i jämförelse med de första tre, vilka å andra sidan känns mycket mer kraftfullt enhetliga. Det är väl så att Bellman menade att dessa skulle vara här men förklaringen bakom detta kan jag inte riktigt förstå: de första tre är liksom djupa reflektioner kring livets ovisshet medan de sista två handlar om hur Carl ska leka tillsammans med sina föräldrar när han är vaken. I vilket fall som helst skulle det inte förvåna mig om man i ett tidigt utkast av denna dikt fann att den endast bestod av de första tre stroferna.

Och nu till veckans riktigt kontroversiella uttalande: jag vill uttrycka att det här är kanske den enda bra dikten som Bellman skrev. Det är åtminstone den enda bra Bellmandikten som jag läst. Dikter som är bland hans mest populära och antologiserade tycks mig vara, bortsett från en teknisk och verbal versatilitet (ingen kan förneka att Bellman var en skicklig versmakare), av ganska ringa värde–de tycks mig vara ytliga och sakna den sentimentala kraft som vederbörande dikt kanske ensamt har. Och allt detta utan att nämna den moraliska förkastligheten som belamrar många av hans populära verk. Verser som Så lunka vi så småningom, Gubben Noak och Nå, skruva fiolen–bland hans allra mest kända–når ungefär samma konstnärliga komplexitet och intellektuellt snille som Helan går och de som påstår att dessa dikter egentligen hyllar någonting annat än fylleri gör en övertolkning, anser jag.

Tre strofer innehållande sju rader vardera. Rimschemat lyder ABABCCB. Rader ett, tre, fem, sex och sju är skrivna i fallande versfötter och rader två och fyra i stigande.

Diktens intimitet är där redan från de första två orden—poeten talar till sin son Carl från sängkanten och ber honom att sova för tillfället eftersom han i framtiden onekligen kommer att behöva konfrontera och genomlida världens mer eländiga sidor. Genom att karaktärisera världen som en “ö” menar Bellman att det finns ingen utväg från detta–sorg, lidande och jämmer är för alla levande varelser på denna plats oundvikliga.

Världen är en sorgeö: 
bäst man andas skall man dö 
och bli mull tillbaka.

I nästa strof gestaltar Bellman världens förgänglighet genom att måla upp en bild av ett barn som betraktar sin spegelbild i ett vattendrag men där bilden plötsligt försvinner i böljans skiftning. Kontrasten mellan strofens naturliga skönhet och referensen till döden i den sista raden är mycket kraftfull:

En gång, där en källa flöt 
förbi en skyl i rågen, 
stod en liten gosse söt 
och spegla sig i vågen: 
bäst sin bild han såg så skön 
uti böljan, klar och grön, 
straxt han inte såg’en.

Och sista strof förklarar allegorin från den föregående. Människolivets sköna fragilitet, vilken gestaltas av den söte lille gossen i strof två överförs här till de blommor som bepryder våren. Så fort som Carl kommer att beundra deras skönhet kommer han också att förstå deras och därmed mänsklighetens dödlighet:

bäst man andas gott och glatt, 
så lägges man på båren. 
Lilla Carl skall tänka så, 
när han ser de blommor små, 
som bepryda våren.

Och hela detta porträtt av barnet som betraktar det förgängliga och kortlivade i det sköna är fantastiskt djupt–barnet är i själva verket inte Carl i första hand–det är ju Bellman själv som är barnet och som i skrivande stund beskådar samma bedårande och tragiska skörhet från sin gosses sängkant.