Apr 9, 2009

Two Poems by Philip Pain

Winters wrote a few times about the critical ability of finding the best poems. So important was this, he opposed the gist and theories of the criticism of several other specific writers in his essays (and almost all modern literary culture in general) on the grounds that those specific critics under discussion were, in his judgment, unable to discern which poems are truly great.

One of the discoveries Winters made of great poetry, a finding often considered bizarre by the few who know of it, was a small poem by an almost wholly unknown colonial American Philip Pain (who wrote in the 17th century), "Meditation 8" ("Scarce do I pass a day”), which Winters chose for the Winters Canon. I notice, nonetheless, that this sharp poem was chosen for the Oxford Book of Short Verse, which offers many strong and insightful works (but no J.V. Cunningham -– the editors must be kidding!). Some years back I read all of Pain’s other verse, which is small in volume as we have it. Here are two poems from the Meditations, which closely match the theme of "Meditation 8":

Meditation 54

The sons of men are prone to forget Death,
And put it farre away from them, till breath
Begins to tell them they must to the grave,
And then, Oh what would they give but to have

One year of respite? Help me, Lord, to know
As I move here, so my time moves also.

Meditation 56

The time will be, when we shall be
no more:
Where will our World be then? 'Twill be
no more.
Where will our Comforts be? They'll be
no more.
Where will our Friends be then? They'll be
no more.

Lord, grant me then thy grace, lest that
no more,
Do seize upon me, and I be
no more.

No More!
O solemn sound: this night I may
Be struck by Death, and never see the day.

These are well-struck pieces. In my opinion, they are, roughly, as good as most of the poetry in Pain’s Meditations. Also in my judgment, it seems clear that it is only the poem that Winters singled out as great (or perhaps nearly great**) that truly stands as one of our best. Here it is again, as given in Winters’s 1968 anthology Quest for Reality:

Meditation 8

Scarce do I pass a day, but that I hear
Some one or other's dead, and to my ear
Me thinks it is no news. But oh! did I
Think deeply on it, what it is to die,

My pulses all would beat, I should not be
Drowned in this deluge of security.

What do you see here? "Meditation 8" is very good stuff, better than the other work, which I believe is still pretty good poetry. In what lies the difference, the measure of greatness or near-greatness? That’s something no writer or critic has bothered to comment on since Winters wrote. It’s about time. In #56, in contrast to #8, Pain seems all too aware of Death -- what with those rather insistent and almost hysterical italics. The whole of the collection is an interesting study of the waxing and waning of that awareness.

** NOTE: I will re-asses the merit of "Meditation 8" some day as I work through my reƫvaluation of the Winters Canon on this blog. I have no idea how long that might take.

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