which if you go by the Latin origin, means “to lay myself out flat”. So that’s why it’s difficult.
By the way, when I re-posted the last batch of poems, they somehow lost the gaps between the verses and also a distinctive layout for one poem (“Wolf”). I’ve now restored these features. For “Wolf” especially, it makes the poem a lot easier to read and understand. If the same problem occurs here (it looks OK from what I can see) I’ll correct it as soon as I can.
Some more old posts with more comments here:
THE BLUE-BLACK SLOES
The queen has made a laurel wreath
For the new champion to wear
So he will not grow old and weak
The whisper of the brittle leaves
Is of a people falling down
And of a king that cannot breathe
The blue-black sloes have gathered round,
The blackberry and scarlet hip
They twine about the king’s own crown
Inside the castle nothing moves
The guests are frozen to the walls
And spears of ice hang from the roof
The withered wreath has taken root
And pressing through the embroidered cloth
Will resurrect the warmth and doubt.
A bit of variety in scansion can be effective: I personally really like that line “For the new champion to wear”.
The poem is about the seasons, made myth. The champion is I think a reference to the annual magic king in “The Golden Bough”, someone who is fresh, strong and young in spring but old by autumn. The second and third verses take us to autumn (sloe, blackberry and hip are autumn berries in England, though blackberries may ripen in late summer and sloes and hips can be seen still in midwinter). The autumn is colourful but ominous. The fourth verse represents the height of winter, with life frozen, and the fifth shows life beginning to stir again. Obviously this sequence can be applied to many other things than the actual seasons.
“That this is my North-West discoverie:
Per fretum febrae, by these straights to die”
“Oh, my America, my new found land”
– John Donne
Palace is built
From fragile weave
Of dreamt formulae
On the mathematician’s
With a walk like the waft
Of a branch in the breeze
Comes a woman whose eyes
Are pools in a cave
That a diver might brave
With no light to return
In the day to farm and fashion
In the dark to watch and wonder
At the dawn to remember
Where the sea and the sky blur together
There are havens and reefs for the sailor
What land lies over
Those silent hills?
Wastelands where black bats gibber
Or cradling a silent river,
Valleys of song?
Officials make inventory
Of all the goods the travellers pack
And plans for drought or for attack
Are hammered out while song and story
Buy off the devils along the track
Trapped in the hills and hunted down
By hidden bog and avalanche
By haunting wind and wolf, survivors
Stumble beside a clattering stream
Down to the valley of their dream
Where cupping hands bring out bright gold
Trees offer fruit of no known tang
And vivid song as no bird sang
Wakens the travellers from the cold
They name the valley, import the skills
To mine the gold and lay the roads
Till someone heads for other hills.
When no dark ridge is left, the wise
Explore the forests of the mind
And stare in one another’s eyes
Now out of mist on broken lands
What new and treacherous hills will rise?
This is about exploration, both actual discovery of new lands and other kinds of risk-taking and discovery. It’s largely from the explorers’ point of view, but noting how their discovery leads to big (often negativ) changes in the environment.
When John Donne wrote, exploration was at the front of many European minds and he uses this figuratively. The first quote was comparing death to a voyage of discovery, complete with a pun on “straights” (hard circumstances, or a narrow sea-passage). The second might seem to be about North-east Canada, but in the poem he’s addressing his mistress undressing!
I struggle to explain the first two verses, though I find the first has a weird power for me. I suppose it’s referring to the risk and excitement of scientific discovery and to a meeting of art and science, while the second is about risky romantic love. Both could be pictures of exploration. The third verse refers to the productiveness of consciousness/day and the creativity of unconsciousness/night: we create if we can link the two (remember the night in the day). I have doubts about the fourth verse and might cut it. Thoughts?
The rest of the poem describes a group of explorers surviving various dangers to find the new land. They wonder at so many new and beautiful things. But the excitement does not last and as the land is “opened up” some move on. When there are no new lands to explore, we explore ourselves. The lands we’ve discovered are “broken” and the prospect of new challenges is exciting, but the far hills are “treacherous” – offering danger to us, or doom to themselves?