Monday 29 July 2019

Porter, Osborne, Temple, Swift

Having noticed Peter Porter's Collected Poems (Oxford, 1983) languishing on the charity shop shelf, what could I do but buy its freedom (for £1.50!) and give it a good home and a new life on my bedside bookshelf? I've been dipping into it ever since, and yesterday found this quiet little gem:

Dorothy Osborne in the Country

Watching the doves in the drowned park,
Every leaf dripping its colourless wax,
The shine of water over the world's face,
I envy the slightest fish in its cold pond.
I shall take the waters of Epsom for my spleen
Among high ladies and their little dogs:
Boredom is like the great clock in the hall,
It writes the hours with unchanging face.

My suitors' wheels turn upon the drive:
Sir Entail and Sir Gravitas approach –
The one owns all a lake and half a shire,
The other is tone deaf and keeps a choir.
The wet birds still sing and dare to love.
Easy to arm against melancholy,
Hard to be true hearted at midnight
Alone in England under uncertain stars.

Fortune is a horse that must be ridden,
Fear a curtain to be pushed aside.
Birds build in soundest branches,
Percepts of love hang all about my eyes.
In a field a boy fights the wind
Whipping his kite to a corner of the sky,
The string still holds and the proud frame
Turns its cheek upon the dangerous air.

Like many of Porter's endlessly allusive poems, this could do with notes. Here's all you need to know...
Dorothy Osborne, in love with the diplomat Sir William Temple, steadfastly resisted all attempts by her disapproving family to marry her to one of her other suitors. Eventually she got her wish, and she and Sir William were happily married until her death in 1695. The spirited and witty letters she wrote to Temple during their enforced separation in the 1650s are (or were) justly famous. She and the poet Thomas Gray are the subjects of David Cecil's joint biography Two Quiet Lives.
Dorothy and Sir William lived at Moor Park in Surrey, where the young Jonathan Swift was Temple's secretary. While in his service, he wrote The Battle of the Books, and acted as tutor and mentor to Esther Johnson ('Stella'), who was eight years old when he met her, and was to become – if such a term can be applied to a man as strange as Swift – the love of his life. 

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