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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, February 4, 2007

What does it mean to "hear" a poem? Simply to pay attention? Or does hearing involve technical matters: scansion, Greek names for patterns of sound, precise meanings for "stress," "accent," "duration," "pitch"? Or does hearing entail professional performance: Is it best to hear some expert -- an actor or a rapper or the author -- read a poem? Hearing poetry can be plainer, more central and more immediate than any of that. Listen to "Nature, That Washed Her Hands in Milk," by Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618), as it comes out in your own actual or imagined voice. Don't stop for the rhymes -- they will take care of themselves. Just hear the words you say:

Nature, that washed her hands in milk

And had forgot to dry them,

Instead of earth took snow and silk

At Love's request, to try them

If she a mistress could compose

To please Love's fancy out of those.

Her eyes he would should be of light,

A violet breath, and lips of jelly,

Her hair not black nor over-bright,

And of the softest down her belly:

As for her inside, he'd have it

Only of wantonness and wit.

At Love's entreaty, such a one

Nature made, but with her beauty

She hath framed a heart of stone,

So as Love, by ill destiny,

Must die for her whom Nature gave him,

Because her darling would not save him.

But Time, which Nature doth despise,

And rudely gives her love the lie,

Makes hope a fool and sorrow wise,

His hands doth neither wash nor dry,

But, being made of steel and rust,

Turns snow and silk and milk to dust.

The light, the belly, lips and breath,

He dims, discolors, and destroys,

With those he feeds (but fills not) Death

Which sometimes were the food of Joys:

Yea, Time doth dull each lively wit,

And dries all wantonness with it.

O cruel Time, which takes in trust

Our youth, our joys, and all we have,

And pays us but with age and dust;

Who in the dark and silent grave,

When we have wandered all our ways,

Shuts up the story of our days.

The silk, snow, milk are sweet, as are the violet breath, the lips of jelly and that belly soft as down. Love's droll recipe for the perfect lover's "inside" -- nothing but "wantonness and wit" -- is delicious. But at the midpoint, Time's dust and rust bring worldly knowledge. Raleigh was himself worldly, a political and military figure and also a poet. Not incongruous skills: Elizabeth I and Abraham Lincoln both wrote good verses. Seeing from more than one angle characterizes skillful politicians and poets. That skill is related to the delight in hearing changes of tone, as in this poem's dramatic reversal: from its opening dance to its relentless final march. Writing your way along an effective route from that beginning to that ending might make a good test for aspiring poets or speechwriters. Raleigh manages it well; he had a good ear.

(Raleigh's poem can be found in "English Renaissance Poetry: A Collection of Shorter Poems from Skelton to Jonson," edited by John Williams. Univ. of Arkansas Press. © 1990 by John Williams.)

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