Thursday, March 06, 2008

Poem of the Day: Harry Mathews, "The Maoist's Regrets"

A cento (pronounced with a soft c -- "sento") is a poem made up entirely of lines from other poems. (One I like is Tom Disch's "There is An Index of First Lines", from his collection Dark Verses & Light.)

A perverse is a line of verse created by crossing two preexisting lines of verse. (Unlike "cento", which indeed is a common term you will find in dictionaries, "perverse" is, I believe, a coinage from the French literary group the Oulipo; I got it from the best English-language introduction to their work, the Oulipo Compendium.)

Naturally, a poem made up of perverses is also a cento -- albeit a cento of a certain type.

The following is a Cento by Oulipo member Harry Mathews; it too comes from the Oulipo Compendium (p. 78 of the recent second edition).
The Maoist's Regrets

Shall I compare thee, China, to Peru?
That is no country! Amid the alien corn,
The wood's decay, the yielding place to new,
The old order changeth: blow his wreathed horn!
They that have the power to (men, lend me your ears!)
Could to my sight that plods his weary way
Rage, rage, against the lie too deep for tears,
The feathered glory of an April day.
That's my last Duchess dying of the light --
Put out the light and gaze towards paradise,
A thing of beauty loved not at first sight
(The uncertain glory from her loosening thighs...)
Something there is that is a joy forever.
Friends, "Romans", country? Never, never, never.

-- Harry Mathews
To my ear, it is, in fact, a good poem -- and certainly one which required a fair amount of creativity to put together, albeit creativity of a somewhat different sort than writing an original sonnet would take. But you could say something similar of all transformative art.

Obviously the play with the borrowed words -- changing their meaning with the context, etc. -- is a part of the pleasure here.

Both halves of the lines Mathews's borrows are used in six cases -- split up and used in different lines of "The Maoist's Regrets", but still both halves are used. Sixteen other sources are used only once, i.e. only half the line is used at all.

Most of these half lines will be familiar to anyone with any familiarity with English-language poetry. Nevertheless, in case anyone is interested in the sourcing, here is Mathews' poem again, this time with hyperlinks:
The Maoist's Regrets

Shall I compare thee, China, to Peru?
That is no country! Amid the alien corn,
The wood's decay, the yielding place to new,
The old order changeth: blow his wreathed horn!
They that have the power to (men, lend me your ears!)
Could to my sight that plods his weary way
Rage, rage, against the lie too deep for tears,
The feathered glory of an April day.
That's my last Duchess dying of the light --
Put out the light and gaze towards paradise,
A thing of beauty loved not at first sight
(The uncertain glory from her loosening thighs...)
Something there is that is a joy forever.
Friends, "Romans", country? Never, never, never.

-- Harry Mathews
My first thought was that the first half of the tenth line was from this Frost poem -- but it can't be, since that leaves the "and" unaccounted for. So Othello it must be.

A far more complicated case is the second half of the first line -- "China to Peru". In the linked version above, I cited it to Samuel Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes" (1749):
Let observation with extensive view,
Survey mankind, from China to Peru;
But Bartlett's familiar quotations notes that the same phrase appears in Thomas Wharton's "Universal Love of Pleasure":
All human race, from China to Peru,
Pleasure, howe’er disguis’d by art, pursue.
-- Since I don't know the date of the Wharton poem, it's not to me clear which came first; most likely the Johnson, but Wharton was twenty-one in 1749, so it's just possible that his poem came first.

But then, the phrase might have been original with neither of them. In a letter to the April, 1907 edition of Modern Language Notes (p. 126), one W. M. Tweetie of Mt. Allison College writes:
The following example of the above phrase may be of interest. It occurs in Sir William Temple's Miscellanea, Part 11 ("Of Poetry " : last paragraph but one):

"...what honour and request the ancient poetry has lived in, may not only be observed from the universal reception and use in all nations from China to Peru, from Scythia to Arabia, but from the esteem of the best and the greatest men as well as the vulgar."

This reads somewhat as if it were a stock phrase. Bartlett in his Familiar Quotations, refers, under Dr. Johnson, only to Thomas Warton.
A similar point was made more recently by Laura Brown in a footnote to Fables of Modernity (2001). At any rate, my suspicion is that Harry Matthews got it from Samuel Johnson.

1 comment:

OR said...

I believe the "China to Peru" reference is to W.B. Yeats'
"A Model for the Laureate" ("On thrones from China to Peru
All sorts of kings have sat"). Mathew's uses Yeats' work many times in "The Maoist's Regrets" and it seems like a logical conclusion that this is just another reference to Yeats.