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Tinker

Beauty by Abraham Cowley

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Beauty by Abraham Cowley (1618-1667)

Beauty, thou wild fantastic ape,
Who dost in ev're county change thy shape!
Here black, here brown, here tawny, and there white;
Thou flatterer which compli'st with every sight!
Thou Babel which confound'st the eye L5

With unintelligible variety!
Who hast no certain What, nor Where,
But vari'st still, and dost thy self declare
Inconstant, as thy she-possessors are.

Beauty, love's scene and masquerade, L10
So gay by well-placed lights, and distance made!
False coin, with which th' impostor cheats us still;
The stamp and color good, but metal ill!
Which light, or base we find, when we
Weigh by enjoyment, and examine thee! L15
For though thy being be but show,
'Tis chiefly night which men to thee allow:
And choose t' enjoy thee, when thou least art thou.

Beauty, thou active, passive ill!
Which diest thy self as fast as thou dost kill! L20
Thou tulip, who thy stock in paint dost waste,
Neither for physic good, nor smell, nor taste.
Beauty, whose flames but meteors are,
Short-liv'd and low, though thou wouldst seem a star,
Who dar'st not thine own home descry, L25
Pretending to dwell richly in the eye,
When thou, alas, doest in the fancy lie.

Beauty, whose conquests still are made
O'er hearts by cowards, kept, or else betray'd!
Weak victor! Who thy self destroy'd must be L30
When sickness storms, or time besieges thee!
Thou unwholesome thaw to frozen age!
Thou strong wine, which youth's fever dost enrage,
Thou tyrant which leav'st no man free!
Thou subtle thief, from whom nought safe can be! L35
Thou murth'rer which has kill'd, and devil which wouldst damn me.

I wrote an explication of this poem for a Poetry Class I took many years ago on-line. I had forgotten about it. Today someone suggested I google my own name and see all the stuff there is out there on me and I was blown out of the water when I did. This explication that I wrote for the class is one of the things I found.

Summary: The poem is a satirical ode to Beauty. The poem begins light, playful but as the poem goes on, gets darker and almost angry.

Structure   The framed elements of Beauty are: 

  1. stanzaic, written in four, nine line stanzas
  2. rhymed, rhyme scheme of aabbccddd.
  3. metric, the lines fluctuate between pentameter and tetrameter. Each stanza begins with trochaic tetrameter then the poem falls, for the most part, into a more dominant iambic pentameter with an occasional iambic tetrameter or trochaic tetrameter thrown in. This gives the poem a prosey feel to it, more like normal speech of that time.
  4. The last line is an Alexandrine line 6 metric feet with a caesura dividing it equally.This is a feature of the Spenserian Stanza. Here is the influence of Spenser that I found in the poets’ bio.
  5. appears to be written in modified Spenserian Stanzas, which are written in 9 line stanzas, 8 lines written in iambic pentameter and the 9th is an Alexandrine line ( iambic hextameter with caesura).with a rhyme scheme of ababbcbcc. . But the last stanza of this poem is the only stanza that has an Alexanrine line and of course the rhyme and meter are slightly different..

Meaning and Themes: The poem is about the negative side of "beauty".

Speaker: The narrator is one who appears to have been disillusioned or hurt by someone who would be called beautiful.

Tone: The tone begins playful, teasing but quickly turns dark almost angry.

Title: Beauty is the victim of this satire. Once I began reading the poem, I felt the title Beauty is almost sarcastic. It is misleading as to the content of the poem.

Texture: This poem uses words that have an almost musical quality. (wild fantastic ape / so gay by well placed lights / whose flames but meteors are/

Muscle: There is a rich assortment of adjectives and adverbs, the words are lighter earlier in the poem ape, babel, tawny, masquerade, and get darker as the poem moves on, passive ill, O’er hearts by cowards kept, when sickness storms, unwholesome thaw.

Sound Patterns, The musical sound of the poem is enhanced by occasional alliteration = black/brown, what/where, assonance = enjoyment / examine, consonance = self/declare

Surprise: The poem begins with a surprising metaphor for beauty, a wild fantastic ape.

Kinship, This poem is written in old English which makes it more difficult to discern how things were actually said in the 17th century. But the placement of words is very clever like L18 “And choose t' enjoy thee, when thou least art thou” . I love the thees and the thous..

Imagery: Cowley is very clear in the images he creates. The setting isn’t in nature, nor does it have something concrete to describe, yet the metaphors set up concrete images in color and shape and action.

The Poet: Abraham Cowley (1618-1667) Cowley, called "writer of the couplet", a 17th century English poet born 2 years after the death of Shakespeare. He was said to be most influenced by the writings of Spenser and John Donne. Cowley was considered one of the foremost poets of his time but his fame and influence dissipated quickly after his death. Most biographies of him discuss his academic life (his first published poem was written at the age of 10), throw in a smattering of his political life, (for a short time he was a Royalist spy), but for the most part reveal little about him. In Samuel Johnson's The Lives of Poets, it is said Cowley was "at one time too much praised and too much neglected at another." The poem "Beauty" is not considered one of his more important works and was difficult to find within the various sites posting his poetry and essays. If you would like to read more, here are a couple of URL's for your convenience. Cowley , Abraham Cowley

Beauty (line by line analysis)
1

Beauty, thou wild fantastic ape,
The poem opens with a surprise, beauty as wild and also fantastic are simple to accept but an ape? The poet is letting the reader know from the beginning this isn’t going to be a poem enthralled by “beauty”

Who dost in ev're county change thy shape!
For me, “beauty in every county changes shape” is saying beauty is in the eye of the beholder, standards for beauty change from place to place.

Here black, here brown, here tawny, and there white;
This line is reinforcing L2, preference changes from place to place, in this case using color to illustrate the point.

Thou flatterer which compli'st with every sight!
The narrator accuses the “flatterer” of sucking up to whoever comes along.

Thou Babel which confound'st the eye L5
Babel is associated with language, yet it confuses vision,

With unintelligible variety!
I am not sure, but for some reason I get the image in my mind of Miss Universe contest with all of these beautiful girls of a multitude of ethnic origins, how does one pick the prettiest… it is like comparing apples, oranges and mangos.

Who hast no certain What, nor Where,
beauty originates from no specific place or being

But vari'st still, and dost thy self declare
but varies and names itself beautiful

Inconstant, as thy she-possessors are.
fickle like the women who possess “beauty”
2

Beauty, love's scene and masquerade, L10
This stanza is connecting love and beauty, beauty is loves setting and its trickery

So gay by well-placed lights, and distance made!
beautiful because of good lighting and placement far enough away to not be able to see the flaws.

False coin, with which th' impostor cheats us still;
Here the narrator is getting down and dirty, calling beauty counterfeit

The stamp and color good, but metal ill!
the outer appearance looks good but it is no good inside… phony

Which light, or base we find, when we
the counterfeit weight and feel is discovered

Weigh by enjoyment, and examine thee! L15
when one quits playing around and look closer

For though thy being be but show,
because you are nothing but pretend

'Tis chiefly night which men to thee allow:
it is usually night when men seek out this phony beauty

And choose t' enjoy thee, when thou least art thou.
and choose to access this “beauty” when she is at her phoniest. I can’t help but attach a she to beauty maybe because of the reference to L9 she possessors or also L17 refers to men seek this beauty, so it has to be a she.

3
Beauty, thou active, passive ill!
I thought this metaphor very original. active, passive ill …. An oxymoron is that a Sound Pattern or the Muscle? I think it is Muscle… weird, I think I get it but I can’t explain it.

Which diest thy self as fast as thou dost kill! L20
The active, passive ill dies as fast as it kills… beauty devours itself just as it devours its victims. I don’t know, but it sounds good to me.

Thou tulip, who thy stock in paint dost waste,
Ok, here is a flower, specifically a tulip, each tulip bulb produces 1 flower only each season, the stock is thick and straight, I played around with this everyway, and I could only come up with paint as make up and the narrator is saying that even make up won’t help this tulip or beauty…

Neither for physic good, nor smell, nor taste.
not for physical enhancement, nice scent, nor sweet flavor…

Beauty, whose flames but meteors are,
A simile comparing beauty to a meteor

Short-liv'd and low, though thou wouldst seem a star,
fast and low, burning out quickly when ones sees beauty on thinks it long lasting like a star

Who dar'st not thine own home descry, L25
this temporary beauty dares not say from where it came

Pretending to dwell richly in the eye,
pretending to be more beautiful than she is

When thou, alas, doest in the fancy lie.
when she is in her element…

4
Beauty, whose conquests still are made
This is pretty straight forward and is what it says

O'er hearts by cowards, kept, or else betray'd!
cowards, kept gives me the impression courtesans kept by less than honorable men or betrayed by them

Weak victor! Who thy self destroy'd must be L30
being kept is not a victory even though I suppose it was the goal of the courtesan. To be kept the woman must give up herself and be at the whim of the keeper, Just a guess…

When sickness storms, or time besieges thee!
the kept woman is pretty much on her own when bad things happen

Thou unwholesome thaw to frozen age!
and of course, the kept woman cannot age, or she will be cast off

Thou strong wine, which youth's fever dost enrage,
now beauty is strong wine, heady, influencing the inexperienced

Thou tyrant which leav'st no man free!
no man is oblivious to beauty

Thou subtle thief, from whom nought safe can be! L35
another metaphor, beauty the thief, stealing men’s hearts and minds

Thou murth'rer which has kill'd, and devil which wouldst damn me.
Another metaphor, beauty the murderer and devil, damning the narrator…

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my response in haiku

beauty’'s other face
betrays with false illusion
distrust left behind
             ~~Judi Van Gorder

 

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