Proem.

I only knew one poet in my life.
— BROWNING.
I have not known a poet but myself,
If I'm indeed one, as I ought to be,
Considering how these many years I've made
The Muse now such a woman in my life.
No flesh and blood could put to proof the art
With which I wooed her; ay, and woo her still,
Though, as I deem, ere this she has been won.
I have not known another, as I say,
Who could be called a poet, or has been
Acclaimed such by the not too wise in wit
Who label literature's itinerants
Professed discerners (as in every art
With sheer cock-surety there be those who
Deem their diploma Fame's own warranty);
Who in this journal or in that take stock
O' the issue of thought's making — song at best
A poor result, not to much tending (or if
Esteemed, good, e'en though flawed in some way still).
So these crumb-gatherers for the multitude
Still dole their wit or wisdom week by week,
‘Piece out our imperfections,’ choose, elect
In this or that craft him or her as first,
Second, or third, whatever the degree
Arrived at in the inkling of a whim;
And so with their diploma set the seal
To the rank world's preferment, failing which,
Mere poets must have a bad time of it!
Or haply some one in song's craft himself
Elects himself the chief musician, and
The other nine and ninety jugglers, who
Jig ape-like in the halo of his vogue.
'Tis then song does become ridiculous,
And the proud name of poet poor indeed.
Proud name? Alas! the power of pride is gone,
And the dull world's humility is theirs;
The new bards who, unlike the old, gauge not
The grandeur of the office they fulfil
The old knight-errantry of Song who rode
Triumphant with God's targe in the world's eye,
Emblazoned with the heraldry of soul
In this wise or in that — the squires of Truth,
Love's worshippers or Beauty's votaries,
Whose mere life was the melody of all.
It may, in fact, be song at best is but
The rind of this life's apple, not its core,
And the chief singers still but mendicants
Of the world's love; and yet it is in sooth
The one thing sweet to its own votary;
As to the painter his art, too, is all,
And to the sculptor his. Ay, though but rinds
At best, allowed, of our life's apples here,
Yet the rind, no less than the core, is part
O' the perfect fruit — more toothsome than the core,
So the white flesh is eaten with it — so
Song includes life, as life, including song,
Retains the sweetness of its strength, and yields
To all sustainment and fruition too;
Though, as within the earthy fruit, thought's pulp
Is th' first thing still, and failing which indeed
The eater then deems his enjoyment null:
Song without life is such a withered fruit.
Ah! but thou sayest that song's subserviency
To life, the mere foot on the daily fact
Treading, not the imaginary air,
But the mire of the actual, breeds alloy
Too gross for beauty; that 'tis not in these
The soilure of the animal, the slag
Of the material, or custom's pack, —
Ay, not in these the effluent wings dilate,
The breath diviner has its issue, nor
Spirit to heaven finds the nearest way!
And rightly sayest: Life in these is all,
And has with these its ending too; but song,
That more than life of which the poet sings
With power authentic in each syllable,
As the moon sends a gleam down watery glooms
To hint of heaven — song, as it were, unwraps
All the dense folds of life, one by one, so
To find a spark of the divine; or tears
The bodily vesture from the breathing man,
And on the soul's escape pursuing sings
Of th' more than life, which 'neath the earthy rags,
For years it may be blind and deaf and dumb,
Was so uncognisant that God was near —
That heaven was possible, and the escape
So easy when His sesame was said!
As thou, I then on song this value set,
That it can leaven life, — a yeast of soul
So quickening us, we are not mere dough, but
Dough with a resurrection in it here,
And capable of any miracle! —
At that we'll let it stand; sometime elsewhere
With other eyes and other ears we may
Perceive a higher meaning in it all;
Song-perfect then, or so life-perfect, we
Shall be the song, not make it any more.

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Robert Crawford

Robert Crawford FRSE FBA is a Scottish poet, scholar and critic. He is currently Professor of English at the University of St Andrews. more…

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"Proem." Poetry.net. STANDS4 LLC, 2019. Web. 7 Dec. 2019. <https://www.poetry.net/poem/30731/proem.>.

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