October 28, 2005

H is for Hope

H is hard. I wanted to write about Gerard Manley Hopkins' "sprung meter", and about the time I went mountain biking in the dappled light of a forest and his Pied Beauty came to life around me. I wanted to write about the sweetness of Leigh Hunt's poem to Jane Carlyle, Jenny Kissed Me, which inspired one of the very first poems I was ever brave or foolhardy enough to post online. I even wanted to write about A.E. Housman, whose subjects range from cherries in blossom to bad poetry.

Another longtime favorite poet has had occasion to bring himself to my attention over the last few days, though, so I'll write about him instead.

is for A. D. Hope.

The thing that astounds me most about Hope is that he is a he. The first thing of Alec Derwent Hope's that rocked my formative years was his Advice to Young Ladies, possibly in a high-school anthology, back when I was myself a young lady, a feminist from toddlerhood and furious at the idea that anyone might limit me because of my gender. Postumia's fate made me furious, but it's the last verse that is most eye-opening:

Advice to Young Ladies

A.U.C. 334: about this date, For a sexual misdemeanour which she denied, The vestal virgin Postumia was tried; Livy records it among affairs of state.

They let her off: it seems she was perfectly pure;
The charge arose because some thought her talk
Too witty for a young girl, her eyes, her walk
Too lively, her clothes too smart to be demure.

The Pontifex Maximus , summing up the case,
Warned her in future to abstain from jokes,
To wear less modish and more pious frocks.
She left the court reprieved, but in disgrace.

What then? With her the annalist is less
Concerned than what the men achieved that year:
Plots, quarrels, crimes, with oratory to spare-
I see Postumia with her dowdy dress,

Stiff mouth and listless step; I see her strive
To give dull answers. She had to knuckle down.
A vestal virgin who scandalized that town
Had fair trial, then they buried her alive;

Alive, bricked up in suffocating dark;
A ration of bread, a pitcher if she was dry,
Preserved the body they did not wish to die
Until her mind was quenched to the last spark.

How many the black maw has swallowed in its time!
Spirited girls who would not know their place,
Talented girls who found that the disgrace
Of being a woman made genius a crime.

How many others, who would not kiss the rod,
Domestic bullying broke or public shame?
Pagan or Christian, it was much the same:
Husbands, St. Paul declared, rank next to God.

Livy and Paul, it may be, never knew
That Rome was doomed; each spoke of her with pride.
Tacitus, writing after both had died,
Showed that whole fabric rotten, through and through.

Historians spend their lives and lavish ink
Explaining how great commonwealths collapse
From great defects of policy - perhaps
The cause is sometimes simpler than they think. 40

It may not seem so grave an act to break
Postumia's spirit as Galileo's, to gag
Hypatia as crush Socrates, or drag
Joan as Giordano Bruno to the stake.

Can we be sure? Have more states perished, then,
For having shackled the enquiring mind,
Than those who, in their folly not less blind,
Trusted the servile womb to breed free men?

Despite the evidence of Postumia and of his reply From his Mistress to Andrew Marvell

To say the least, the scene you paint
Is, what you call my honour, quaint!
And on this point what prompted you
So crudely, and in public too,
To canvass and , indeed, make free
With my entire anatomy?
Poets have licence, I confess,
To speak of ladies in undress;
Thighs, hearts, brows, breasts are well enough,
In verses this is common stuff;
But -- well I ask: to draw attention
To worms in -- what I blush to mention,
And prate of dust upon it too!
Sir, was this any way to woo?

Hope isn't primarily thought of (by people other than me) as a feminist poet; he wrote about love and sex, being human and about his country, Australia. And before he died in 2000, his country recognized him as a great poet.

Posted by dichroic at October 28, 2005 01:21 PM
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