Lilies

lilies.JPG
Madonna lilies have made it into flower, despite the winds and weather, 16 June

Thinking about poems as puzzles/unexploded bombs and the pleasure I used to have, in the early days of my reading life, of simply cracking what seemed to me the code, which yesterday I called ‘getting it’. The process starts from ‘don’t get it!’ which – at school, college and university – always used to feel angry, as if I was being deliberately excluded from the meaning. Then is goes on to working through the poem line by line, bit by bit, until some kind of understanding is arrived it. Then ‘I get it!’ One of the first poems I remember having this experience with was Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94, ‘They that have power to hurt and will do none’.

It was in an ‘A’ level literature class at Liverpool Community College, with Ken Moss, Head of English, a great teacher. I don’t recall if this was the first poem he brought us for Practical Criticism but it may have been the first one that really got me.

What is that feeling of being outside the text? I remember it not only from poems and  other works of literature I found hard as a student, but also from childhood when trying to read something  beyond me – Our Mutual Friend, say, at the age of  eight or nine, which I just couldn’t understand, though I could read. It was too hard. Perhaps,  although I could read the words, I couldn’t think the thoughts?

Sometimes when we look at poem we aren’t reading it, we’re scanning. The scan happens and your brain computes: I can’t take all this in. A resistance is set up, you stop trying. The poem moves away. There’s a distance. For me there is then a period of re-gathering, I have to read the poem aloud, and I have to go very slowly, not ‘deconstructing’, but reconstructing! I build a little unit of meaning  and then build the next. When I look back now to Sonnet 94, it feels far-off and meaningless at first. I have to reignite my sense of it by slow reading, andI’m looking for tonal clues as I read the first time – what’s it about?

Sonnet 94

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

There’s an odd mix of  tone –  whoever is referred to as ‘they’ – do I trust them? At first it seems as though I should because they will do no harm, but later I see they are ‘as stone,/
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow’ – that doesn’t sound like someone you’d want to do with. So why do they ‘inherit heaven’s graces?’ and – actually- what does that mean? These people are ‘the lords and owners of their faces’. Are we talking about control here?

I’m aware all the time I’m tussling with the opening lines that there is the strong couplet at the end and I am heading towards it –

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Lilies, as you can see from today’s photograph, are really very lovely looking things. And they smell gorgeous, until they ‘fester’ when the odour becomes rank. Are we talking about people who look good but may not be? I read again:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;

Some kinds of people (‘they’) have power and don’t use it. I’m thinking that’s a good thing but I wonder if it makes any difference what I think about it – Shakespeare’s describing something, a kind of person. Perhaps one person? (Various things are known about the Sonnets, and all that can easily be discovered, but for me principally, a key fact is that this one of a longer run of poems and they have  connections between them – it doesn’t quite stand alone. You might want to bring the Sonnets that go before and after along too…)

You have to ask, what state is the writer in?

Say I said, in modern English it means something like – some people have power but wont use it, look good but are covered over, hiding their real feelings, people who make me feel powerful feelings but feel nothing themselves, those people, yep! they are the lucky ones, they  having blessings showered on them… Shakespeare seems in a bad way, liking or loving or attracted to someone who doesn’t reciprocate, and yet for Shakespeare  that’s not just felt as rejection, but as a kind of weird – slightly bitter? – honouring. Cyncical, bitter?

The second part seems angry or even in someway threatening. Perhaps stomping about ranting, perhaps worrying in a corner. Is something wrong with this person who uses his/her face as a mask?  The summer’s flower doesn’t seem to know what it is doing – to itself it ‘only live and die’ – whereas to everything round it – the summer – it is ‘sweet’. Do people like this know what they are doing to other people? The gorgeous who don’t acknoledge the effect their gorgousness has on others…And if they don’t know what they are, and what they might do, might they do something bad?

We get to ‘deeds’ in the end.  Looks, outward appearances, and in the end, what is done.

The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Now I notice that the verb ‘do’ is in the first line: ‘They that have power to hurt and will do none,’… in fact the word ‘do’ appears four times in the first two lines!

But I am out of time, must dash… what a weird poem. Makes me want to read the Sonnets again.

One thought on “Lilies

  1. A C.M.H.P., H.V., V.H.A. June 18, 2017 / 7:19 pm

    Hi Jane,

    Really enjoyed this poem,
    to me the 1st part seems to be about self control and other people’s inability to deal with what is considered the “normal” situational response. “They that have power to hurt, but do none…” Surley having control over your powers (good or bad) is a good, yet it gives the impression of wrongness by refusing to conform to the expected reality norm.

    One being ever so slightly au fait with the sin nickel fill loss sew furs. The phrase
    ” I’m so right, I’m wrong.”
    Keeps coming to mind.

    But given the current situation in the boroughs ( Royal or otherwise) perhaps the phrase should read
    ” I’m so right, I’m right, your falsely constructed normal reality is wrong.”
    ( Just a thought one hopes one is not wandering to far).

    As for the 2nd part of poem initially​ I thought that two sections were a bit schizophrenic or disjointed or something.

    But after some reflection is it possible that the second verse is warning that if the “high ideals” explored in the first part are not tended to the will wither and be overcome by “baseness”.
    I was also struck by the difference between Herbert’s The Flower: which we read at your reading group. In which the falling petals returned to and reinvigorated the plant as in this the Lillie is overwhelmed by the weeds from below.

    Currently​ reading:
    The politics of obedience:
    Discorse of voluntuary servitude.
    By Ettiene de la Boetie

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