THE LONG PUBLIC LIFE OF A SHORT PRIVATE POEM by Peter Murphy

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Back in April, I posted a link to a Poetry Off the Shelf discussion between Helena de Groot and the author of this book.

https://seasonalreading.com/2020/04/15/poetry-off-the-shelf/

Well, it took some time but I finally got my hands on the book. It was not available for purchase through my library, so I took advantage of the inter-library loan program. A couple of weeks ago I got notice that the book was waiting for me at the library. It had come all the way from Allentown, PA.

This, this is a very interesting book. It is quite scholarly and there were times, admittedly, I got a little glassy eyed. But it is held together by Peter Murphy’s insatiable curiosity and passion for his subject. While it is, technically, the history of this nearly 500 year old poem, it is so much more. The poem essentially serves as a scaffolding to explore the evolution of poetry across the centuries and its place and purpose within culture and society. Which is a pretty big subject.

The poem has an incredible history. Originally hand written in a personal book, it found its way to a private library, where it was undisturbed for nearly 200 years. Keep in mind that at this time, and for many years to come, there were no public libraries. And private libraries, for the most part had no system of organization or record keeping. That the book was found when it was, is itself remarkable. The poem was known and had been printed in several collections in the middle and late 16th century. It was usually altered – much like Emily Dickinson’s work – to fit the tastes of the editor and supposed reading public. For years, it was considered among the poet’s lesser works due to it’s opaqueness and irregular rhythm. Eventually, it came to be lauded for those very same reasons. It comes to us now, as originally written, only because of a long line of people obsessed with the poem and its study.

The poem fascinates, and with updated spelling feels surprisingly modern. But I was also really intrigued by how poetry’s cultural position has changed over time. When this poem was written it was part of court culture, the writing of it and forms used exclusive to the cultural elite. As the centuries unspool, it is the study of poetry that becomes the purview of the elite and, in fact, the structures around the study of literature which began in the early 20th century, were based on this supposition. Studying poetry and literature become a way of gaining access to the elite.

Ultimately, what moves me most deeply about this book are two things. The first, that this 500 year old book exists – that it survived time and changes in ownership; that the perception of its value changed over time, that it was used and written in and written over and doodled in by successive generations; that somehow it was protected all these centuries and is now preserved as an historical record. Though even still, a mystery. The second thing I ponder deeply is language, language and how we use it, perceive it. Thomas Wyatt wrote this poem as a member of Henry VIII’s court. The world we inhabit today couldn’t be more different. And yet the poem still speaks to us. The language, though beautifully opaque in its usage, carries meaning to us over the years. And though there have been times and people who thought they got to decide what the poem really means, thought they got to determine a right and wrong way to interpret it, we know that isn’t true. The words come into our minds as we read the poem and they enter a web of personal knowledge and experience. Thomas Wyatt has been dead since 1542, we can’t ask him his intent, but his poem allows us to let the language enter, enter and simmer after nearly five centuries.

5 comments on “THE LONG PUBLIC LIFE OF A SHORT PRIVATE POEM by Peter Murphy”

  1. Amazing to think of all the treasures lost to the sands of time — great find, JNaz — I need to think more on this before I comment further 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the lovely review of Peter Murphy’s work. I fell in love with Murphy after listening to the above interview. Lots to think about. And you got the book from Allentown, Pennsylvania–about 165 miles east of State College!

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  3. This is strikingly lovely language, JNaz. It sent me away and back to Hilary Mantel’s world of Cromwell and Henry VIII. It also reminded me of a virtual lecture sponsored by the Meadows Museum that I heard two weeks ago, the subject of which was The Silos Apocalypse (dated 1109). The lecture series is called “Curator’s Choice.” Curators from various institutions choose one piece from each of their institutions that has a connection to Spain to discuss. This manuscript was the choice of the curator from the British Library. Its production–text and still vivid illuminations–was an act of devotion. The curator talked about his favorite illustrated pages. If you’re interested, you can peek at it here: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/beatus-world-map. I very much like the Noah’s Ark page. It made me think of how much Ocean Vuong loves that story.

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