From the odes of Derbyshire

[Posted 2:34 PM by John Derbyshire]

I offer the following widow’s mite to help AVQ celebrate its anniversary. It’s not much, but it’s mine.

(Aren’t you tempting fate, by the way, putting Juno at only $15 but Venus at $5,000? The Queen of Heaven will not be pleased -- she still hasn’t recovered from the Judgment of Paris. If you find yourselves being "tossed and harried over all the seas," you will have only yourselves to blame.)

All right, here’s the offering. An exceptionally diligent fan, browsing in my personal archives, has dug out the following from an article on medieval Chinese poetry that I published a couple of years ago in *Parnassus*.

"[A]t an investment bank I worked for once in New York I found enough like-minded souls to help organize a Grand Corporate Sestina-Off, which I won with a loose adaptation from Horace’s Odes 2-iii."

The reader wonders if that sestina survives. I regret to say that it does. I reproduce it below.

Now, I freely confess that this poem is not very good. The sestina is an extremely challenging form, though, and even first-rank poets have been unable to do much with it. They all have a go at it sooner or later; but I think it is significant that not many poets attempt more than one... As with Dr. Johnson’s lady preacher, a completed sestina is "like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprized to find it done at all." I claim only this: that my sestina is superior to the ones students turn in at the end of the average poetry workshop.

[Louis Untermeyer, in *The Forms of Poetry* (1926) takes a page and a half to desscribe the sestina, starting off with: "The sestina is, by all odds, the most complicated of the French forms. It is so lengthy and its technical construction so involved that it is almost impossible to condense an outline of its construction here. Suffice it to say that the sestina is composed of six stanzas of six lines each, the lines of the six verses ending with *the same six words*, and the arrangement of these six terminal words following a definite and extremely complicated rule. To make the matter still more difficult, there is a final stanza of three lines in which *all* of the six words must be used..."]

--- Horatian Sestina ---
(Loosely adapted from *Odes* 2-iii)

Into one vast urn -- by whose hand
Shaped, moulded by what forgotten art,
None can know -- our lots are cast.
All life can hold, all sufferings that we bear,
All joy and feasting, all are but the play
Of happenstance, since from the crib we rose

Unto the tomb, from which none ever rose.
Remember, when the world is close at hand,
Remember, while relaxing at the play,
Or captured by the operatic art,
These pleasures light make easier to bear
The knowledge that some weightier die is cast.

Yet though for us that dreadful die is cast,
For whom but us comes forth the blushing rose?
Why should the earth its teeming wonders bear
If not to grow in meaning by Man’s hand --
If not to furnish substance for our art?
For whom but us do lambs in clover play?

And we -- for whom is staged *our* little play?
While pebbles lightly into fortune’s pool we cast,
While bent to study courtship’s specious art
(Amorous flowers, the too-soon-faded rose),
The Sisters pass dark threads from hand to hand,
Behind the sky, beyond the seven-starred Bear.

Antigonus was eaten by a bear,
Great Caesar murdered (in another play).
Through this we’re shown, by Shakespeare’s subtle hand
This world’s a stage, ourselves the strutting cast.
But comes the end, no petals from the rose
Bestrew our stage, no plaudits greet our art.

All must die. Though there’s relief in art,
The darkness falls at last. How few can bear
This truth! The beauty courted with a rose;
The dozing beggar; wastrels at their play;
High or low, no matter in what role we’re cast --
The urn will tremble, shaken by a mighty hand.

To Fate belongs the hand. She respects no art.
From out her urn is cast what all must bear:
The finis to our play, the withering of our rose.