Saturday, December 10, 2011
The picture today is a popular image by an artist known for his “genre” paintings, small works of art depicting everyday life and surroundings. Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885) is a German Romantic painter and poet whose work often expresses a gently humorous satirical point of view.
The Poor Poet depicts a man in a garret. (Click on the image to see an enlarged version.) We can guess that he is not well off. He had tried to replace the coal with pages from a manuscript but the stove is now cold enough for a top hat to hang from the pipe. To stay warm, he keeps his nightcap and cravat on as he huddles under a blanket on a mattress on the floor. The frayed umbrella keeps him dry from rain falling through leaks in the ceiling.
But he does try to keep up appearances: he has a good coat, sturdy leather boots, a walking stick, and that top hat.
We can also guess that he is a poet. He is surrounded by the requisite heavy books of reference and many pages of manuscripts tied into bundles. And he is counting on his fingers the meters of the words he is putting to paper as he holds a quill in his mouth.
The directions are clear if you want to compose your own sonnet. Just follow Billy Collins’s instructions below. The Petrarchan sonnet begins with an octave setting out the question and then makes a turn into a sestet with the answer. The Elizabethan sonnet keeps to three quatrains and a concluding couplet.
But wait — Collins is ignoring the rules governing the rhyme and rhythm of this form of poetry. Is this just another occasion of “do as I say, not as I do” or, could it be an example of how “the exception proves the rule”?
All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
and after this one just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love’s storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos¹ must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here while we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura² will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.
~ Billy Collins, born 1941, American poet, appointed poet laureate, 2001-2003
¹ iambic bongos – iambic is the foot or pair of syllables that establishes the rhythm or meter of traditional verse and verse drama. Each foot is expressed with a pair of short/long or unstressed/stressed syllables, for example, four-TEEN. Iambic pentameter, made up of five such feet, totaling ten syllables, is the rhythm favored in traditional verse and verse in drama in English.
² Laura – the poet Petrarch’s love for her was actually unrequited; Laura married another man