Rev: Selected Poems of Fulke Greville

Issue #110
Winter 2009-10

Selected Poems of Fulke Greville, edited with an introduction by Thom Gunn, with a new afterword by Bradin Cormack (University of Chicago Press): Before I left the Midwest in 1986 for the graduate program at Berkeley, I dropped-in on a class taught there by one of the two poets I hoped to work with, Thom Gunn’s undergraduate course on Renaissance lyric. The day I visited Wheeler Hall, Gunn was lecturing on Fulke Greville, a poet I knew only by the few poems in the Norton Anthology and Gunn’s introduction to an edition reprinted in his book of essays, The Occasions of Poetry (1982)—the edition of Greville’s Selected Poems (1968) itself had disappeared from my university library, and had long been out of print. (Eventually, I found a fine copy for $25, at Moe’s Books—it’s worth more than seven times that now).

Gunn, with deliberate clarity and a gentle forcefulness that seemed part of his very physical bearing in the classroom, was trying to get the students to apprehend something typically elusive to young readers of poetry 400 years old—the difference between a plain and an ornate style. Because all poetry of the past sounds ornate to them, Gunn was carefully isolating passages of Petrarchan elaboration in contrast to others of direct bald statement and aphoristic concision. Gunn’s point in emphasizing Greville’s style was twofold—style may make the man, but it also makes the moment. “Greville came of age,” he writes in the introduction to this welcome re-issue from Chicago, “when English poetry was already vigorous, self-conscious, and mature.” Born in the middle of the 16th century, Greville belongs to a generation that includes Spenser, Sidney, and Raleigh, and he stands with those three in importance. Wyatt and Gascoigne are behind him; in front of him are Marlowe, Shakespeare, Donne, and Ben Jonson. And Greville is a key player on the poetry court. With his powerful intelligence and his gift for striking images and pungent abstractions, he brings forward the virtues of a native plain style to temper the ornate style imported from Europe, that flourishes in Spenser and Sidney. In Greville, the two styles live together.

To hear the two styles working in concert to exemplary effect, one can do no better than look at poem lvi, “All my senses, like beacon’s flame,” from Caelica, the sequence of 109 poems that, complete, comprise most of Gunn’s edition. (The other poet I sought out at Berkeley, Robert Pinsky, recently featured this poem on Both he and Gunn were students of Yvor Winters, whose important 1939 essay on 16th century poetry and decades of teaching at Stanford kept Greville in the conversation). Caelica is not a sonnet sequence, like Astrophil and Stella, though it contains poems in sonnet and sonnet-like form, and other forms as well. This one tells a failed seduction story in 54 lines of tetrameter. The speaker is a kind of lover-warrior whose senses “like beacons’ flame / Gave alarum to desire / To take arms in Cynthia’s name, / And set all my thoughts on fire.” Thus enflamed, the speaker sees many “wonders,” including the vision of himself as a god; “giving reins to this conceit,” he wants to take Cynthia sexually, but her chastity is a torture to him, and he finds his amorous hope wracked “on the wheel of lust.”

I stepp’d forth to touch the sky,
I a god by Cupid dreams,
Cynthia who did naked lie,
Runs away like silver streams;
Leaving hollow banks behind,
Who can neither forward move,
Nor if rivers be unkind,
Turn away or leave to love.

His fantasies, heavenly if not sacred, distract from the desired earthly body that escapes him, running like reflected starlight streaming away. What a fantastic image! He is now a hollow bank, a dry bed, abandoned by the river. Such imagery—elaborate, complex, intellectual, sexual—shows off Greville’s Petrarchan chops. The streaming verse line carries him away, however, from such twisting banks into a severe moral censure:

There stand I like men that preach
From the execution place,
At their death content to teach
All the world with their disgrace.

The style has shifted to sententia, dry, hard, straight forward, clear, without a scrap of pomposity. From the starry “Milken Way / Way unto that dainty throne, / Where . . . all the gods would play,” the speaker falls, thereby discovering the bitter wisdom that “none can well behold with eyes / But what underneath him lies.” The paradox is especially rich, because the subject is explored through the problem of style itself: the ornate style celebrates verbal play; but such play, when it overreaches and becomes gratuitous, obscures reality; and Greville’s love poetry is, by and large, committed to dramatizing the hard psychological realities of desire that follow fanciful intoxication.

Caelica has a kind of loose plot, that develops from complaints against fickle Cupid and the objects of a frustrated desire to a serious spiritual seeking; “from the paradox of love,” Gunn writes, “to the paradox of Christianity.” The problem is not strictly theological, but rather dramatized in Greville as another kind of devastating emotional loss, a fall from God’s grace rather than the affections of the beloved. Where C.S. Lewis heard in Greville’s great late poems of spiritual despair the strains of Pascal and Kierkegaard, Gunn finds repellent political implications in Greville’s searching for authority in a state of absence and deprivation—he’s no Camus! (More like Yeats!) But such Calvinist attitudes are also part of an admirable refinement of style as Greville looks beyond the mutable world of flesh and Nature to a more abstract but “ugly centre of infernal spirits; / Where each sin feels her own deformity, / In those peculiar torments she inherits” (xcix). Gunn admires the seriousness with which “the grave, strong, agonized mind is exercised to the full, working with the feeling throughout” these late meditations. Gunn hears “the personal grief behind the public utterance. It is still a grief, however, that can sharply analyze: Greville never allows his feeling to eliminate his mind.” One need only remember Gunn’s own key figure from his last book Boss Cupid (2000) to hear how important Greville remained to him throughout his writing life, “the intellect as powerhouse of love.”

Greville’s importance to us should be no less. The poems are magnificent, ripped with language muscle, rich in music and metaphor, impressive with powerful summation. And Gunn’s edition, too long out of print, returns the poems to us, again, in a handsome, sturdy, affordable paperback reissued by Chicago. With the added afterword, a brilliant one, by Renaissance scholar, Bradin Cormack, readers have a new context for considering this essential body of work, not just in itself, but also as it inflects Gunn’s own drive to “measure the reality of sexual desire.” The more we read Greville beside Gunn, the more we hear how the figures of the past continue to create our own moment, how “love makes the mutability of the world seem surmountable, before making it, for that very reason, all the more deeply felt.” Gunn’s ideal, Bradin reminds us, was social, secular, embodied; not stoic, not religious, not abstract. Yet the logic and the realism is a point of association that remains highly charged for American poetry now. “Alas poor soul,” writes Greville, “think you to master love, / With constant faith; do you hope true devotion / Can stay that god-head, which lives to move, / And turn men’s hearts, like vanes, with outward motion.” The motion that moves us in the moment of the poem is, of course, the poem itself; and though Thom Gunn has moved on, his own poems move with us, and his Greville is back. —Joshua Weiner is the editor of At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn (Chicago, 2009), and the author of two books of poetry, The World’s Room and From the Book of Giants.