Sunday, 2 June 2019

On alien science

In his book The Fabric of Reality, David Deutsch makes the case that science is about coming up with good and true explanations, with all other considerations being secondary. This clashes with the more conventional view that the goal of science is to allow us to make accurate predictions - see for example this quote from the Nobel prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg:
“The important thing is to be able to make predictions about images on the astronomers’ photographic plates, frequencies of spectral lines, and so on, and it simply doesn’t matter whether we ascribe these predictions to the physical effects of gravitational fields on the motion of planets and photons [as in pre-Einsteinian physics] or to a curvature of space and time.”

It’s true that a key trait of good explanations is that they can be used to make accurate predictions, but I think that taking prediction to be the point of doing science is misguided in a few ways.

Firstly, on a historical basis, many of the greatest scientists were clearly aiming for explanation not prediction. Astronomers like Copernicus and Kepler knew what to expect when they looked at the sky, but spent their lives searching for the reason why it appeared that way. Darwin knew a lot about the rich diversity of life on earth, but wanted to know how it had come about. Einstein was trying to reconcile Maxwell’s equations, the Michelson-Morley experiment, and classical mechanics. Predictions are often useful to verify explanations, but they’re rarely the main motivating force for scientists. And often they’re not the main reason why a theory should be accepted, either. Consider three of the greatest theories of all time: Darwinian evolution, Newtonian mechanics and Einsteinian relativity. In all three cases, the most compelling evidence for them was their ability to cleanly explain existing observations that had previously baffled scientists.

We can further clarify the case for explanation as the end goal of science by considering a thought experiment from Deutsch’s book. Suppose we had an “experiment oracle” that could predict the result of any experiment, but couldn’t tell us why it would turn out that way. In that case, I think experimental science would probably fade away, but the theorists would flourish, because it’d be more important than ever to figure out what questions to ask! Deutsch’s take on this:
“If we gave it the design of a spaceship, and the details of a proposed test flight, it could tell us how the spaceship would perform on such a flight. But it could not design the spaceship for us in the first place. And even if it predicted that the spaceship we had designed would explode on take-off, it could not tell us how to prevent such an explosion. That would still be for us to work out. And before we could work it out, before we could even begin to improve the design in any way, we should have to understand, among other things, how the spaceship was supposed to work. Only then would we have any chance of discovering what might cause an explosion on take-off. Prediction – even perfect, universal prediction – is simply no substitute for explanation.”

The question is now: how does this focus on explanations tie in to other ideas which are emphasised in science, like falsifiability, experimentalism, academic freedom and peer review? I find it useful to think of these aspects of science less as foundational epistemological principles, and more as ways to counteract various cognitive biases which humans possess. In particular:
  1. We are biased towards sharing the beliefs of our ingroup members, and forcing our own upon them.
  2. We’re biased towards aesthetically beautiful theories which are simple and elegant.
  3. Confirmation bias makes us look harder for evidence which supports than which weighs against our own beliefs.
  4. Our observations are by default filtered through our expectations and our memories, which makes them unreliable and low-fidelity.
  5. If we discover data which contradicts our existing theories, we find it easy to confabulate new post-hoc explanations to justify the discrepancy.
  6. We find it psychologically very difficult to actually change our minds.

We can see that many key features of science counteract these biases:
  1. Science has a heavy emphasis on academic freedom to pursue one’s own interests, which mitigates pressure from other academics. Nullius in verba, the motto of the Royal Society (“take nobody’s word for it”) encourages independent verification of others’ ideas.
  2. Even the most beautiful theories cannot overrule conflicting empirical evidence.
  3. Scientists are meant to attempt to experimentally falsify their own theories, and their attempts to do so are judged by their peers. Double-blind peer review allows scientists to feel comfortable giving harsher criticisms without personal repercussions.
  4. Scientists should aim to collect precise and complete data about experiments.
  5. Scientists should pre-register their predictions about experiments, so that it’s easy to tell when the outcome weighs against a theory.
  6. Science has a culture of vigorous debate and criticism to persuade people to change their minds, and norms of admiration for those who do so in response to new evidence.

But imagine an alien species with the opposite biases:
  1. They tend to trust the global consensus, rather than the consensus of those directly around them.
  2. Their aesthetic views are biased towards theories which are very data-heavy and account for lots of edge cases.*
  3. When their views diverge from the global consensus, they look harder for evidence to bring themselves back into line than for evidence which supports their current views.
  4. Their natural senses and memories are precise, unbiased and high-resolution.
  5. When they discover data which contradicts their theories, they find it easiest to discard those theories rather than reformulating them.
  6. They change their minds a lot.

In this alien species, brave iconoclasts who pick an unpopular view and research it extensively are much less common than they are amongst humans. Those who try to do so end up focusing on models with (metaphorical or literal) epicycles stacked on epicycles, rather than the clean mathematical laws which have actually turned out to be more useful for conceptual progress in many domains. In formulating their detailed, pedantic models, they pay too much attention to exhaustively replaying their memories of experiments, and not enough to what concepts might underlie them. And even if some of them start heading in the right direction, a few contrary pieces of evidence would be enough to turn them back from it - for example, their heliocentrists might be thrown off track by their inability to observe stellar parallax. Actually, if you’re not yet persuaded that this alien world would see little scientific progress, you should read my summary of The Sleepwalkers. In that account of the early scientific revolution, any of the alien characteristics above would have seriously impeded key scientists like Kepler, Galileo and others (except perhaps the eidetic memories).

And so the institutions which actually end up pushing forward scientific progress on their world would likely look very different from the ones which did so on ours. Their Alien Royal Society would encourage them to form many small groups which actively reinforced each other’s idiosyncratic views and were resistant to outside feedback. They should train themselves to seek theoretical beauty rather than empirical validation - and actually, they should pay much less attention to contradictory evidence than members of their species usually do. Even when they’re tempted to change their minds and discard a theory, they should instead remind themselves of how well it post-hoc explains previous data, and put effort into adjusting it to fit the new data, despite how unnatural doing so seems to them. Those who change their minds too often when confronted with new evidence should be derided as wishy-washy and unscientific.

These scientific norms wouldn’t be enough to totally reverse their biases, any more than our scientific norms make us rejoice when our pet theory is falsified. But in both cases, they serve as nudges towards a central position which is less burdened by species-contingent psychological issues, and better at discovering good explanations.


* Note that this might mean the aliens have different standards for what qualifies as a good explanation than we do. But I don’t think this makes a big difference. Suppose that the elegant and beautiful theory we are striving for is a small set of simple equations which governs all motion in the solar system, and the elegant and beautiful theory they are striving for is a detailed chart which traces out the current and future positions of all objects in the solar system. It seems unlikely that they could get anywhere near the latter without using Newtonian gravitation. So a circular-epicycle model of the solar system would be a dead end even by the aliens’ own standards.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

24 poems

After about a decade of collecting and appreciating poems, I’ve decided to put together an anthology of my favourites, along with some commentary on what I like about each. My tastes lean towards short poems, and ones with an immediate poignancy or beauty to them - with a few notable exceptions which you’ll see below. I’m now 24, so it seemed appropriate to include 24 poems, in three sections. In general, poems are only ever about love or loss, and usually both, so the first two sections deal with those two themes. The third section consists of those rarest of creatures: non-romantic poems which are actually (mostly) happy. I hope you enjoy all of them as much as I have.

Love poems:
  1. since feeling is first, by e e cummings
  2. No second Troy, by William Butler Yeats
  3. Marrysong, by Dennis Scott
  4. How do I love thee, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  5. A quoi bon dire, by Charlotte Mew
  6. La figlia che piange, by T. S. Eliot
  7. He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, by William Butler Yeats
  8. Jenny Kiss’d me, by Leigh Hunt
  9. When in the chronicle of wasted time, by William Shakespeare
Poems about death and loss:
  1. When I have fears that I may cease to be, by John Keats
  2. The Waste Land, by T. S. Eliot
  3. What lips my lips have kissed, by Edna St. Vincent Millay
  4. Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae, by Ernest Dowson
  5. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, by T. S. Eliot
  6. The trees are down, by Charlotte Mew
  7. i sing of Olaf glad and big, by e e cummings
  8. If only we had taller been, by Ray Bradbury
  9. pity this busy monster, manunkind, by e e cummings
Happy poems:
  1. As kingfishers catch fire, by Gerard Manley Hopkins
  2. On his seventy-fifth birthday, by Walter Savage Landor
  3. High flight, by John Magee
  4. Lake isle of Innisfree, by William Butler Yeats
  5. My heart leaps up, by William Wordsworth
  6. Bread dipped in olive oil and salt, by Theo Dorgan
Poems about love

since feeling is first, by e e cummings
My favourite love poem. e e cummings (as he styled himself) was a 20th-century poet whose unconventional use of punctuation, structure and words themselves made him controversial. In this, one of his more ‘normal’ poems, there’s a delicious tension between cummings’ words and his actions: although he claims that love is about being swept away (and many of his poems are about passionate love) he also planned every word, every space, and every punctuation mark meticulously. The overall effect is of unabashed sincerity of emotion. His warning against over-intellectualising emotions ends on a darker note - I’ve spent a long time trying to decipher the last line. Perhaps, though, it’s not meant to be deciphered; maybe the poem is just a joyous celebration of life which, as always, ends abruptly in death.


since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you; wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
--the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says
we are for each other: then laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph
And death i think is no parenthesis

No second Troy, by William Butler Yeats

Too often, love poems portray their female subject as no more than a meek, gentle object of admiration. No second Troy is the opposite: a poem dedicated to a woman’s intensity and hauteur. The narrator is in awe, and it shows: he pictures her as some near-mythical classical ideal, despite (or maybe because of) her callousness towards him. She is a revolutionary, a firebrand - yet out of place in this relatively civilised and calm era. Of course the narrator overstates his case: Helen did not burn Troy herself. She merely inflamed the hearts of men until they were senseless - just as the narrator feels.

Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?

How do I love thee, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

I hesitated to put this in, because it’s become a little worn from overuse. But really, nothing compares to it as an outpouring of love. Not just passionate, it’s also a beautifully-constructed poem which tells the speaker’s own story through her choice of phrases.


How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

A quoi bon dire, by Charlotte Mew

The title translates to something like: what’s the good of saying? And maybe it belongs in the section of poems about death and loss - but the poignant beauty of the last stanza means I can’t think of it except as a statement of unwavering love.


Seventeen years ago you said
Something that sounded like Good-bye;
And everybody thinks that you are dead,
But I.

So I, as I grow stiff and cold
To this and that say Good-bye too;
And everybody sees that I am old
But you.

And one fine morning in a sunny lane
Some boy and girl will meet and kiss and swear
That nobody can love their way again
While over there
You will have smiled, I shall have tossed your hair.

Marrysong, by Dennis Scott

Like No second Troy, Marrysong portrays a narrator in thrall to a tempestuous yet bewitching woman. The long years which the narrator spends on his exploration of her mind contrast with the short, sharp sentences showing his lover’s changes: “He charted. She made wilderness again.” One can almost picture the narrator’s bewilderment as his wife’s love waxes and wanes - and yet there’s something beautiful in his never-ending pursuit, something which would be missing from a more conventional relationship. Why is it a song of marriage? Perhaps because the author thinks that even after our lives settle down, they should still capture this spirit of adventure.

He never learned her, quite. Year after year
That territory, without seasons, shifted
under his eye. An hour he could be lost
in the walled anger of her quarried hurt
on turning, see cool water laughing where
the day before there were stones in her voice.
He charted. She made wilderness again.
Roads disappeared. The map was never true.
Wind brought him rain sometimes, tasting of sea -
and suddenly she would change the shape of shores
faultlessly calm. All, all was each day new;
the shadows of her love shortened or grew
like trees seen from an unexpected hill,
new country at each jaunty helpless journey.
So he accepted that geography, constantly strange.
Wondered. Stayed home increasingly to find
his way among the landscapes of her mind.

La figlia che piange, by T. S. Eliot

This is a tricky poem to interpret. The title: “Young girl weeping”. The epigraph: “Maiden, by what name shall I address you?” Ostensibly, the speaker is narrating a scene viewed from a third-person perspective - but his transitions between that and a first-person perspective betray that it’s actually about him leaving his own lover. It’s a framing which highlights his startling detachment. The breakup is, to him, little more than a piece of art, “a gesture and a pose” - except during his “troubled midnight”, when emotion seeps through. I guess it’s ironic that, in selecting this poem, I’ve made the same mistake as the narrator: letting aesthetics displace sincerity. But it’s so aesthetic!


O quam te memorem virgo…

Stand on the highest pavement of the stair—
Lean on a garden urn—
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair—
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise—
Fling them to the ground and turn
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.

So I would have had him leave,
So I would have had her stand and grieve,
So he would have left
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,
As the mind deserts the body it has used.
I should find
Some way incomparably light and deft,
Some way we both should understand,
Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.

She turned away, but with the autumn weather
Compelled my imagination many days,
Many days and many hours:
Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.
And I wonder how they should have been together!
I should have lost a gesture and a pose.
Sometimes these cogitations still amaze
The troubled midnight and the noon’s repose.

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, by William Butler Yeats

This poem and the next embody the simplicity and sincerity of the very best love poems. In this one, note the use of repetition and colour. In fact, the whole poem repeats old cliches, and there’s reason to think that Yeats intended it to be slightly ironic. But I prefer to interpret it as a reminder that love and devotion, and the ways they are expressed, are timeless.


Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Jenny Kiss’d me, by Leigh Hunt

Here’s to innocent, joyful love - what more could we ask for?


Jenny kiss’d me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have miss’d me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
Jenny kiss’d me.

When in the chronicle of wasted time, by William Shakespeare

I find most of Shakespeare’s sonnets a bit bland in their endless adoration of a generic lover, but the narrative of this one stands out. While praising ‘beauty’ alone is rather outdated, the conceit of all past lovers and poets leading up to this point is a clever and powerful one. There’s also the amusing irony of Shakespeare bemoaning his inarticulacy in verse that has lived on for centuries, and will do so for centuries more.

When in the chronicle of wasted time
I see descriptions of the fairest wights,
And beauty making beautiful old rhyme
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights,
Then, in the blazon of sweet beauty's best,
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,
I see their antique pen would have express'd
Even such a beauty as you master now.
So all their praises are but prophecies
Of this our time, all you prefiguring;
And, for they look'd but with divining eyes,
They had not skill enough your worth to sing:
For we, which now behold these present days,
Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.

Poems about death and loss

When I have fears that I may cease to be, by John Keats

This poem, more than any other I know, captures a sense of wonder and longing which is often absent from our day-to-day lives - for which we turn to poetry, and art, and nature. Although it’s technically addressed to Keats’ lover, her appearance in the poem is fleeting: Keats is concerned with human insignificance in the face of the universe and the grand ‘romance’ being played out in the cosmos (mentioned in what is probably my favourite line from any poem). And yet, despite the pessimistic topic, the poem ends on a note of ambiguity: if the narrator has thought away his concern for love and fame espoused in body of the poem, what’s left? Is there not something intrinsically worthwhile in art - in this poem itself? Is his work not the ‘grain’ of his life? But even if so, it’s not ‘full-ripened’: Keats himself died tragically young.


When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

The Waste Land, by T. S. Eliot

This is the masterpiece of 20th century poetry, a lament for the spiritual drought of the modern age which leaves us living in a ‘waste land’ (a powerful idea also conveyed in Yeats’ The Second Coming). It’s a poem which rewards careful reading and re-reading. Littered with classical allusions, Hindu mythology and snatches of foreign languages, its subtleties could barely be explored in a book, let alone this short paragraph. Unfortunately, at 434 lines in five parts, it’s also too long to reproduce in full here. I’ve therefore excerpted about a third of the poem, consisting of the first half of part I and then parts IV and V in their entirety.

            I. The Burial of the Dead
 April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

 What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

             IV. Death by Water

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
                               A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
                               Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

             V. What the Thunder Said

 After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses
                                  If there were water
  And no rock
  If there were rock
  And also water
  And water
  A spring
  A pool among the rock
  If there were the sound of water only
  Not the cicada
  And dry grass singing
  But sound of water over a rock
  Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees
  Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
  But there is no water

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London
Unreal

A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.

In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,
Dry bones can harm no one.
Only a cock stood on the rooftree
Co co rico co co rico
In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust
Bringing rain

Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves
Waited for rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Himavant.
The jungle crouched, humped in silence.
Then spoke the thunder
DA
Datta: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms
DA
Dayadhvam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, aethereal rumours
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus
DA
Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands
                                I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
              Shantih shantih shantih

What lips my lips have kissed, by Edna St. Vincent Millay

There’s not much to say about this poem: here, Millay is word-perfect. I often think about how the transience of memory carves away parts of us over time, leaving a nostalgia for what “sings no more”. For another excellent poem on a similar theme, see Tennyson’s Tears, Idle Tears.


What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.

Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae, by Ernest Dowson

Dowson’s specialty was making English sound like a Romance language, and making it flow off the tongue. The title is taken from Horace - “I am not as I was in the reign of good Cynara” - and the poem echoes this sense of wistfulness as it describes a man who struggles to move on from his lover. The poem’s most famous line - “I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind” - inspired the title of the classic American novel. It is ironic that, despite the narrator claiming he’s forgotten so much, her memory still has such a hold on him - throughout the poem, her name is emphasised with an exclamation mark every time it appears, making it seem an impassioned plea directly to her.


Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was grey:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind,
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, by T. S. Eliot

Perhaps my favourite poem. The epigraph is from Dante’s Inferno, and describes a damned soul who only speaks because he knows his tale will never be reported. The poem is filled with allusions to Hamlet and the Bible, amongst other works - fitting, since Prufrock’s indecisiveness is second only to Hamlet’s. Brilliant turns of phrase - “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”; “to squeeze the universe into a ball” - frame Prufrock’s all-important question. Is it a marriage proposal? Or the start of a romance? Or a visit to a brothel, as some critics interpret it? It’s remarkable that Eliot wrote this poem whilst only 22: although the narrator is hesitant, his musings form an exquisitely-constructed portrait of lonely middle-age.

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma percioche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question ...
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
              So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
              And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
              And should I then presume?
              And how should I begin?

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? ...

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep ... tired ... or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head
              Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
              That is not it, at all.”

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
              “That is not it at all,
              That is not what I meant, at all.”

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old ... I grow old ...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

The trees are down, by Charlotte Mew

A lyrical poem which, in simple language, evokes the glory of nature in contrast to the irreverence of humanity. The poem starts off conversational, but by the end strong rhythm and rhyme schemes have crept in as the poet becomes more passionate. Notice also the use of sound: the “whoops” and the “whoas”, the “grate” and the “swish”, the sound of sparrows flying... The essence of Spring is something which can’t be pinned down except by gesturing to the world around us - it’s in the trees, and the birds, and the rats, and something great which is slowly toppling.


—and he cried with a loud voice:
Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees—
(Revelation)

They are cutting down the great plane-trees at the end of the gardens.
For days there has been the grate of the saw, the swish of the branches as they fall,
The crash of the trunks, the rustle of trodden leaves,
With the ‘Whoops’ and the ‘Whoas,’ the loud common talk, the loud common laughs of the men, above it all.

I remember one evening of a long past Spring
Turning in at a gate, getting out of a cart, and finding a large dead rat in the mud of the drive.
I remember thinking: alive or dead, a rat was a god-forsaken thing,
But at least, in May, that even a rat should be alive.

The week’s work here is as good as done. There is just one bough
  On the roped bole, in the fine grey rain,
         Green and high
         And lonely against the sky.
               (Down now!—)
         And but for that,   
         If an old dead rat
Did once, for a moment, unmake the Spring, I might never have thought of him again.

It is not for a moment the Spring is unmade to-day;
These were great trees, it was in them from root to stem:
When the men with the ‘Whoops’ and the ‘Whoas’ have carted the whole of the whispering loveliness away
Half the Spring, for me, will have gone with them.

It is going now, and my heart has been struck with the hearts of the planes;
Half my life it has beat with these, in the sun, in the rains,   
         In the March wind, the May breeze,
In the great gales that came over to them across the roofs from the great seas.
         There was only a quiet rain when they were dying;
         They must have heard the sparrows flying,   
And the small creeping creatures in the earth where they were lying—
         But I, all day, I heard an angel crying:
         ‘Hurt not the trees.’

i sing of Olaf glad and big, by e e cummings

This is the one poem that struck me hardest after first reading it. For the next few days, I just kept coming back and back, like a spectator at a car crash, horrified yet entranced. I did consider replacing it with one of the classic war poems, but actually I think this one speaks much better to the nature of modern war. It’s not for the faint of heart, though.


i sing of Olaf glad and big
whose warmest heart recoiled at war:
a conscientious object-or

his wellbelovéd colonel(trig
westpointer most succinctly bred)
took erring Olaf soon in hand;
but--though an host of overjoyed
noncoms(first knocking on the head
him)do through icy waters roll
that helplessness which others stroke
with brushes recently employed
anent this muddy toiletbowl,
while kindred intellects evoke
allegiance per blunt instruments--
Olaf(being to all intents
a corpse and wanting any rag
upon what God unto him gave)
responds,without getting annoyed
“I will not kiss your fucking flag”

straightway the silver bird looked grave
(departing hurriedly to shave)

but--though all kinds of officers
(a yearning nation’s blueeyed pride)
their passive prey did kick and curse
until for wear their clarion
voices and boots were much the worse,
and egged the firstclassprivates on
his rectum wickedly to tease
by means of skilfully applied
bayonets roasted hot with heat--
Olaf(upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
“there is some shit I will not eat”

our president,being of which
assertions duly notified
threw the yellowsonofabitch
into a dungeon,where he died

Christ(of His mercy infinite)
i pray to see;and Olaf,too

preponderatingly because
unless statistics lie he was
more brave than me:more blond than you.

If only we had taller been, by Ray Bradbury

It’s not the most artful poem, but this one really speaks to me, because it’s filled with my own longings. Bradbury read it at a celebration of NASA's Mariner 9 mission to Mars: it's one of a far-too-small corpus of poems celebrating scientific progress. I rather like John Salvatier’s commentary on it. Other poems which share its anti-death message: Thomas’ Do not go gentle into that good night and Owen’s The Next War.


The fence we walked between the years
Did balance us serene
It was a place half in the sky where
In the green of leaf and promising of peach
We'd reach our hands to touch and almost touch the sky
If we could reach and touch, we said,
'Twould teach us, not to, never to, be dead

We ached and almost touched that stuff;
Our reach was never quite enough.
If only we had taller been
And touched God's cuff, His hem,
We would not have to go with them
Who've gone before,
Who, short as us, stood as they could stand
And hoped by stretching tall that they might keep their land
Their home, their hearth, their flesh and soul.
But they, like us, were standing in a hole

O, Thomas, will a Race one day stand really tall
Across the Void, across the Universe and all?
And, measured out with rocket fire,
At last put Adam's finger forth
As on the Sistine Ceiling,
And God's hand come down the other way
To measure man and find him Good
And Gift him with Forever's Day?
I work for that

Short man, Large dream
I send my rockets forth between my ears
Hoping an inch of Good is worth a pound of years
Aching to hear a voice cry back along the universal mall:
We've reached Alpha Centauri!
We're tall, O God, we're tall!

pity this busy monster, manunkind, by e e cummings

Another cummings - this one about the “comfortable disease” of modern life. My concerns are not quite the same as his, but the spirit is the same: the bigness of our littleness, the meaninglessness of our busyness.


pity this busy monster, manunkind,

not. Progress is a comfortable disease:
your victim (death and life safely beyond)

plays with the bigness of his littleness
--- electrons deify one razorblade
into a mountainrange; lenses extend
unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish
returns on its unself.
                         A world of made
is not a world of born --- pity poor flesh

and trees, poor stars and stones, but never this
fine specimen of hypermagical

ultraomnipotence. We doctors know

a hopeless case if --- listen: there's a hell
of a good universe next door; let's go

Happy poems

As kingfishers catch fire, by Gerard Manley Hopkins

It’s not so much that this poem is about happiness, as that reading it out loud is a joyous experience. Try it! Hopkins, like Dowson, managed to beautify the English language, with phrases that chase each other along with such rhythm and music that afterwards, you’re astonished to find out they actually make sense (with a bit of creative license). While reading, note that the accents are Hopkins’ way of indicating stressed syllables.


As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

On his seventy-fifth birthday, by Walter Savage Landor

A classic. It doesn’t quite fit my own philosophy, but there’s a quiet dignity here which commands respect.


I strove with none, for none was worth my strife:
Nature I loved, and, next to Nature, Art:
I warm’d both hands before the fire of Life;
It sinks; and I am ready to depart.

High flight, by John Magee

Just as How do I love thee is the purest expression of love I’ve seen, this poem is the purest outpouring of joy that I’ve ever read.


Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, --and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of --Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air...
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew --
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Lake isle of Innisfree, by William Butler Yeats

This poem, even more relevant now than when it was written, is about the longing for simplicity and peace. Yeats characterises the island of Innisfree with exquisite care: the honey-bees’ hive, the linnets’ wings, the colour of the sky. A simple life is lived in details and moments. Through the portrait he builds up, the reader begins to share his sense that there is something special about such a life, something about it which might be calling to us “night and day”, if only we were listening.


I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

My heart leaps up, by William Wordsworth

Joy in nature is Wordsworth’s constant theme - I think this poem best captures the essence of that, starting from childhood and lasting throughout a life whose days are “bound each to each”. Compare his contemporary Keats’ worry in Lamia that knowledge of science will “unweave the rainbow” and destroy its beauty.


My heart leaps up when I behold
  A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
  Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

Bread dipped in olive oil and salt, by Theo Dorgan

An ode to the Mediterranean life! Again, it’s about simplicity. But what I really love in this poem is the idea of continuity across time: story opening story, over and over again. As Watchmen had it: “Nothing ends… nothing ever ends.” Here’s hoping for that.

Bread dipped in olive oil and salt,
a glass of rough dry white.

A table beside the evening sea
where you sit shelling pistachios,
flicking the next open with the half-
shell of the last, story opening story,
on down to the sandy end of time.

The stars coming out on the life that I call mine