Category Archives: Poetry

Drinking Alone by Moonlight

Drinking Alone by Moonlight
By The Poet Li Po, also known as Li Bai (AD 701-762)
Translated by Arthur Waley in 1918

1.

A cup of wine, under the flowering-trees:
I drink alone, for no friend is near.
Raising my cup, I beckon the bright moon,
For he, with my shadow, will make three men.
The moon, alas! is no drinker of wine:
Listless, my shadow creeps about at my side.
Yet with the moon as friend and the shadow as slave
I must make merry before the Spring is spent.
To the songs I sing the moon flickers her beams;
In the dance I weave my shadow tangles and breaks.
While we were sober, three shared the fun;
Now we are drunk, each goes his way.
May we long share our odd, inanimate feast,
And meet at last on the Cloudy River of the Sky.

2.

In the third month the town of Hsien-yang
Is thick-spread with a carpet of fallen flowers.
Who in Spring can bear to grieve alone?
Who, sober, look on sights like these?
Riches and Poverty, long or short life,
By the Maker of Things are portioned and disposed.
But a cup of wine levels life and death
And a thousand things obstinately hard to prove.
When I am drunk, I lose Heaven and Earth;
Motionless, I cleave to my lonely bed.
At last I forget that I exist at all,
And at that moment my joy is great indeed.

3.

If High Heaven had no love for wine,
There would not be a Wine Star in the sky.
If Earth herself had no love for wine,
There would not be a city called Wine Springs.
Since Heaven and Earth both love wine,
I can love wine, without shame before God.
Clear wine was once called “a Saint;”
Thick wine was once called “a Sage.”
Of Saint and Sage I have long quaffed deep,
What need for me to study spirits and hsien?
At the third cup I penetrate the Great Way;
A full gallon–Nature and I are one….
But the things I feel when wine possesses my soul
I will never tell to those who are not drunk.

Moonlight by Edvard Munch, oil on canvas, 93 × 110 cm (36.6 × 43.3 in), 1895, National Gallery of Norway, Oslo

Moonlight by Edvard Munch, oil on canvas, 93 × 110 cm (36.6 × 43.3 in), 1895, National Gallery of Norway, Oslo

 

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In Unconsciousness by Alice Dunbar Nelson

Alice Dunbar-NelsonThere was a big booming in my ears, great heavy iron bells that swung to-and-fro on either side, and sent out deafening reverberations that steeped the senses in a musical melody of sonorous sound; to-and-fro, backward and forward, yet ever receding in a gradually widening circle, monotonous, mournful, weird, suffusing the soul with an unutterable sadness, as images of wailing processions, of weeping, empty-armed women, and widowed maidens flashed through the mind, and settled on the soul with a crushing, o’er-pressing weight of sorrow.

Now I lay floating, arms outstretched, on an illimitable waste of calm tranquil waters. Far away as eye could reach, there was naught but the pale, white-flecked, green waters of this ocean of eternity, and above the tender blue sky arched down in perfect love of its mistress, the ocean. Sky and sea, sea and sky, blue, calm, infinite, perfect sea, heaving its womanly bosom to the passionate kisses of its ardent sun-lover. Away into infinity stretched this perfectibility of love; into eternity, I was drifting, alone, silent, yet burdened still with the remembrance of the sadness of the bells.

Far away, they tolled out the incessant dirge, grown resignedly sweet now; so intense in its infinite peace, that a calm of love, beyond all human understanding and above all earthly passions, sank deep into my soul, and so permeated my whole being with rest and peace, that my lips smiled and my eyes drooped in access of fulsome joy. Into the illimitable space of infinity we drifted, my soul and I, borne along only by the network of auburn hair that floated about me in the green waters.


But now, a rude grasp from somewhere is laid upon me, pressing upon my face. Instantly the air grows gloomy, gray, and the ocean rocks menacingly, while the great bells grow harsh and strident, as they hint of a dark fate. I clasp my hands appealingly to the heavens; I moan and struggle with the unknown grasp; then there is peace and the sweet content of the infinite Nirvana.

Then slowly, softly, the net of auburn hair begins to drag me down below the surface of the sea. Oh! the skies are so sweet, and now that the tender stars are looking upon us, how fair to stay and sway upon the breast of eternity! But the net is inexorable, and gently, slowly pulls me down. Now we sink straight, now we whirl in slow, eddying circles, spiral-like; while at each turn those bells ring out clanging now in wild crescendo, then whispering dread secrets of the ocean’s depths. Oh, ye mighty bells, tell me from your learned lore of the hopes of mankind! Tell me what fruit he beareth from his strivings and yearnings; know not ye? Why ring ye now so joyful, so hopeful; then toll your dismal prophecies of o’er-cast skies?

Years have passed, and now centuries, too, are swallowed in the gulf of eternity, yet the auburn net still whirls me in eddying circles, down, down to the very womb of time; to the innermost recesses of the mighty ocean.


And now, peace, perfect, unconditioned, sublime peace, and rest, and silence. For to the great depths of the mighty ocean the solemn bells cannot penetrate, and no sound, not even the beatings of one’s own heart, is heard. In the heart of eternity there can be nothing to break the calm of frozen æons. In the great white hall I lay, silent, unexpectant, calm, and smiled in perfect content at the web of auburn hair which trailed across my couch. No passionate longing for life or love, no doubting question of heaven or hell, no strife for carnal needs,—only rest, content, peace—happiness, perfect, whole, complete, sublime.

And thus passed ages and ages, æons and æons. The great earth there in the dim distance above the ocean has toiled wearily about the sun, until its mechanism was failing, and the warm ardor of the lover’s eye was becoming pale and cold from age, while the air all about the fast dwindling sphere was heavy and thick with the sorrows and heartaches and woes of the humans upon its face. Heavy with the screams and roar of war; with the curses of the deceived of traitors; with the passionate sighs of unlawful love; with the crushing unrest of blighted hopes. Knowledge and contempt of all these things permeated even to the inmost depths of time, as I lay in the halls of rest and smiled at the web floating through my white fingers.


But hark! discord begins. There is a vague fear which springs from an unknown source and drifts into the depths of rest; fear, indefinable, unaccountable, unknowable, shuddering. Pain begins, for the heart springs into life, and fills the silence with the terror of its beatings, thick, knifing, frightful in its intense longing. Power of mind over soul, power of calm over fear avail nothing; suspense and misery, locked arm in arm, pervade æonic stillness, till all things else become subordinate, unnoticed.

Centuries drift away, and the giddy, old reprobate—earth, dying a hideous, ghastly death, with but one solitary human to shudder in unison with its last throes, to bask in the last pale rays of a cold sun, to inhale the last breath of a metallic atmosphere; totters, reels, falls into space, and is no more. Peal out, ye brazen bells, peal out the requiem of the sinner! Roll your mournful tones into the ears of the saddened angels, weeping with wing-covered eyes! Toll the requiem of the sinner, sinking swiftly, sobbingly into the depths of time’s ocean. Down, down, until the great groans which arose from the domes and Ionic roofs about me told that the sad old earth sought rest in eternity, while the universe shrugged its shoulders over the loss of another star.

And now, the great invisible fear became apparent, tangible, for all the sins, the woes, the miseries, the dreads, the dismal achings and throbbings, the dreariness and gloom of the lost star came together and like a huge geni took form and hideous shape—octopus-like—which slowly approached me, erstwhile happy—and hovered about my couch in fearful menace.


Oh, shining web of hair, burst loose your bonds and bid me move! Oh, time, cease not your calculations, but speed me on to deliverance! Oh, silence, vast, immense, infuse into your soul some sound other than the heavy throbbing of this fast disintegrating heart! Oh, pitiless stone arches, let fall your crushing weight upon this Stygian monster!

I pray to time, to eternity, to the frozen æons of the past. Useless. I am seized, forced to open my cold lips; there is agony,—supreme, mortal agony of nerve tension, and wrenching of vitality. I struggle, scream, and clutching the monster with superhuman strength, fling him aside, and rise, bleeding, screaming—but triumphant, and keenly mortal in every vein, alive and throbbing with consciousness and pain.


No, it was not opium, nor night-mare, but chloroform, a dentist, three obstinate molars, a pair of forceps, and a lively set of nerves.

Anne_Vallayer-Coster

Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744–1818), Still-Life with Tuft of Marine Plants, Shells and Corals, oil on canvas, Height: 130 cm (51.2 in). Width: 97 cm (38.2 in), 1769, Louvre Museum, Paris

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August 1914

Stanley Spencer, Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916, oil on canvas, 1828 mm x 2184 mm, 1919, Imperial War Museum, London

Stanley Spencer, Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916, oil on canvas, 1828 mm x 2184 mm, 1919, Imperial War Museum, London

August 1914
By Isaac Rosenberg

What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
The much we shall miss?

Three lives hath one life—
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone—
Left is the hard and cold.

Iron are our lives
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields,
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.

Paul Nash, Wire, watercolour, chalk, and ink on paper, 73.5 x 86 cm, 1918, Imperial War Museum, London

Paul Nash, Wire, watercolour, chalk, and ink on paper, 73.5 x 86 cm, 1918, Imperial War Museum, London

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The Seven Thrones of Jami

The Haft Awrang, or Seven Thrones, is a classic of Persian literature that spans seven books and was written by poet Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami between 1468 and 1485. In the mid sixteenth century, Prince Sultan Ibrahim Mirza commissioned an illuminated version of the work which became a masterpiece of Persian miniature painting. Referred to as the Freer Jami, it now resides in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

Scene from The Haft Awrang by Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami, opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper, folio: 35.9 x 23.2 cm, 1556-65, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Scene from The Haft Awrang by Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami, opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper, folio: 35.9 x 23.2 cm, 1556-65, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Scene from The Haft Awrang by Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami, opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper, folio: 35.9 x 23.2 cm, 1556-65, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Scene from The Haft Awrang by Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami, opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper, folio: 35.9 x 23.2 cm, 1556-65, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Scene from The Haft Awrang by Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami, opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper, folio: 35.9 x 23.2 cm, 1556-65, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Scene from The Haft Awrang by Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami, opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper, folio: 35.9 x 23.2 cm, 1556-65, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Book…

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Zibaldone

Portrait of Giacomo Leopardi by A. Ferrazzi c. 1820

Portrait of Giacomo Leopardi by A. Ferrazzi, ca. 1820

Giacomo Leopardi (b. June 29, 1798 Recanati, Italy – d. June 14, 1837 Naples) was a nineteenth century Italian poet, essayist, scholar, philosopher, philologist, and atheist. He has been ranked alongside Dante as one of the most important Italian literary figures, and praised by Schoepenhauer, Leopardi’s influence can be seen in modern modes of thought such as nihilism and existentialism. Though revered by Italians as one of their greatest thinkers, Leopardi has remained relatively obscure elsewhere. Among his important works are his Canti, a collection of poems completed in 1835, Operette Morali or “Small Moral Works”, and the Zibaldone.

Published in seven volumes in 1898, over a half century after his death, the Zibaldone is essentially a very large miscellany of observations, personal thoughts, essays, literary criticism, and philological writing. It wasn’t until 1937 when the work was republished that it became widely known as Zibaldone. Among its themes are pessimism, the human condition, and our excesses against nature. The first English translation of the work was published in Britain and America in the summer of 2013, and is over two thousand pages long.

 

From the Zibaldone (p. 2118 of Leopardi’s original manuscript, p.920 of the new English translation, FSG 2013):

It is pleasurable to be the spectator of vigorous, etc. etc., actions of any sort, not only those relative to man. Thunder, storm, hail, a strong wind, seen or heard, and its effects, etc. Every keen sensation in man brings with it a vein of pleasure, however unpleasurable it is within itself, however terrible, or painful, etc. I heard a farmer whose land was often severely damaged by a nearby river say that nonetheless the sight of the flood was a pleasure as it advanced, rushing swiftly toward his fields, with a thunderous noise, and carrying with it a great mass of rocks, mud, etc. And such images, while ugly in themselves, always turn out to be beautiful in poetry, in painting, in eloquence, etc.

 

The Zibaldone Project…

 

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Tilia

Tilia, otherwise known as lime trees, limewood trees, linden trees, or basswood are prevalent throughout the history of art and literature, in both its uses and depiction. Albrecht Dürer was probably in his twenties when he painted his famous Linden Tree on a Bastion.

Albrecht Dürer, Linden Tree on a Bastion, watercolor, gouache on parchment, 34.3 × 26.7 cm (13.5 × 10.5 in), circa 1489-1490, Musée Boymans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Albrecht Dürer, Linden Tree on a Bastion, watercolor, gouache on parchment, 34.3 × 26.7 cm (13.5 × 10.5 in), circa 1489-1490, Musée Boymans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

The wood of Tilia trees was also a popular painting surface during the Renaissance.

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553), A Stag Hunt with the Elector Friedrich the Wise, oil on linden wood, 80.2 × 114.1 cm (31.6 × 44.9 in), 1529, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553), A Stag Hunt with the Elector Friedrich the Wise, oil on linden wood, 80.2 × 114.1 cm (31.6 × 44.9 in), 1529, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


 
Limewood was a favorite carving material of sculptors in Renaissance Germany. Tilman Reimenschneider is perhaps the most famous of these artists, and his masterpiece, The Holy Blood Altar in St. Jacob’s Church is a great example.

Holy Blood Altar, sculpture limewood; shrine work fir, overall height 900 cm, (1499-1505) by Tilman Riemenschneider in the St. Jacob church, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Bavaria, Germany, photo by Berthold Werner

Holy Blood Altar, sculpture limewood; shrine work fir, overall height 900 cm, (1499-1505) by Tilman Riemenschneider in the St. Jacob church, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Bavaria, Germany, photo by Berthold Werner

There are also many literary references to the tree. In Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, the love-stricken Werther eventually commits suicide and is buried under a linden tree.

I have implored your father to protect my remains. At the corner of the churchyard, looking toward the fields, there are two lime-trees—there I wish to lie. Your father can, and doubtless will, do this much for his friend. Implore it of him. But perhaps pious Christians will not choose that their bodies should be buried near the corpse of a poor, unhappy wretch like me. Then let me be laid in some remote valley, or near the highway, where the priest and Levite may bless themselves as they pass by my tomb, whilst the Samaritan will shed a tear for my fate.

In Mythology, Ovid tells the story of Baucis and Philemon who accept Jupiter and Mercury into their home, and in return for their kindness they are transformed, she into a linden tree and he into an oak, at the end of their lives.

From Henry T. Riley’s translation of The Metamorphoses of Ovid (other editions), 1893:

Then, the son of Saturn uttered such words as these with benign lips: ‘Tell us, good old man, and thou, wife, worthy of a husband so good, what it is you desire?’ Having spoken a few words to Baucis, Philemon discovered their joint request to the Gods: ‘We desire to be your priests, and to have the care of your temple; and, since we have passed our years in harmony, let the same hour take us off both together; and let me not ever see the tomb of my wife, nor let me be destined to be buried by her.’ Fulfilment attended their wishes. So long as life was granted, they were the keepers of the temple; and when, enervated by years and old age, they were standing, by chance, before the sacred steps, and were relating the fortunes of the spot, Baucis beheld Philemon, and the aged Philemon saw Baucis, too, shooting into leaf. And now the tops of the trees growing above their two faces, so long as they could they exchanged words with each other, and said together, ‘Farewell! my spouse;’ and at the same moment the branches covered their concealed faces.

Books about linden trees…

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Earth’s Answer

Blake's illustration and print of "Earth's Answer" in Copy B of Song's of Innocence and Experience, 1789, 1794, The British Museum

Blake’s illustration and print of “Earth’s Answer” in Copy B of Song’s of Innocence and Experience, 1789, 1794, The British Museum

Earth’s Answer by William Blake
from Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, 1794

 

EARTH’S ANSWER

Earth raised up her head
From the darkness dread and drear,
Her light fled,
Stony, dread,
And her locks covered with grey despair.

Prisoned on watery shore,
Starry jealousy does keep my den
Cold and hoar;
Weeping o’er,
I hear the father of the ancient men.

Selfish father of men!
Cruel, jealous, selfish fear!
Can delight,
Chained in night,
The virgins of youth and morning bear.

Does spring hide its joy,
When buds and blossoms grow?
Does the sower
Sow by night,
Or the ploughman in darkness plough?

Break this heavy chain,
That does freeze my bones around!
Selfish, vain,
Eternal bane,
That free love with bondage bound.

 

Books by or about William Blake

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Sakasa-bashira

Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, aka Koizumi Yakumo, 1889, from photograph by Frederick Gutekunst (1831–1917)

Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, aka Koizumi Yakumo, 1889, from photograph by Frederick Gutekunst (1831–1917)

 

Famous for his writings on Japan and its folklore, some of Lafcadio Hearn’s best pieces are ghost stories. His most well-known collection of strange tales is Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, which, besides ghost stories, also includes a short piece on insects. Born in Greece and raised in Ireland, Hearn lived in and wrote about Cincinnati, New Orleans, and the West Indies before eventually moving to Japan where he started a family, became a citizen, and took the name Koizumi Yakumo. For further reading on Lafcadio Hearn, I recommend the biography Wandering Ghost: The Odyssey of Lafcadio Hearn (library) by Jonathan Cott.

 

The following piece is from the 1905 collection The Romance of the Milky Way and Other Studies & Stories, from the section entitled “Goblin Poetry”.

 

 

SAKASA-BASHIRA

 

Toriyama Sekien, Sakabashira from the Gazu Hyakki Yakō, circa 1781

Toriyama Sekien, Sakabashira from the Gazu Hyakki Yakō, circa 1781

The term Sakasa-bashira (in these kyōka often shortened into saka-bashira) literally means “upside-down post.” A wooden post or pillar, especially a house-post, should be set up according to the original position of the tree from which it was hewn,—that is to say, with the part nearest to the roots downward. To erect a house-post in the contrary way is thought to be unlucky;—formerly such a blunder was believed to involve unpleasant consequences of a ghostly kind, because an “upside-down” pillar would do malignant things. It would moan and groan in the night, and move all its cracks like mouths, and open all its knots like eyes. Moreover, the spirit of it (for every house-post has a spirit) would detach its long body from the timber, and wander about the rooms, head-downwards, making faces at people. Nor was this all. A Sakasa-bashira knew how to make all the affairs of a household go wrong,—how to foment domestic quarrels,—how to contrive misfortune for each of the family and the servants,—how to render existence almost insupportable until such time as the carpenter’s blunder should be discovered and remedied.

 

   Saka-bashira

Tatéshi wa tazo ya?

   Kokoro ni mo

Fushi aru hito no

Shiwaza naruran.

 

    [Who set the house-pillar upside-down? Surely that must have been the work of a man with a knot in his heart.]

 

   Hidayama we

Kiri-kité tatéshi

   Saka-bashira—

Nanno takumi no

Shiwaza naruran?

 

    [That house-pillar hewn in the mountains of Hida, and thence brought here and erected upside-down—what carpenter’s work can it be? (or, “for what evil design can this deed have been done?”)]

 

   Uë shita wo

Chigaëté tatéshi

   Hashira ni wa

Sakasama-goto no

Uréï aranan.

 

    [As for that house-pillar mistakenly planted upside-down, it will certainly cause adversity and sorrow.

 

   Kabé ni mimi

Arité, kiké to ka?

   Sakashima ni

Tateshi hashira ni

Yanari suru oto!

 

    [O Ears that be in the wall! Listen, will ye? to the groaning and the creaking of the house-post that was planted upside-down!]

 

   Uri-iyé no

Aruji we toëba,

   Oto arité:

Waré mé ga kuchi wo

Aku saka-bashira.

 

    [When I inquired for the master of the house that was for sale, there came to me only a strange sound by way of reply,—the sound of the upside-down house-post opening its eyes and mouth! (i.e. its cracks).]

 

   Omoïkiya!

Sakasa-bashira no

   Hashira-kaké

Kakinishit uta mo

Yamai ari to wa!

 

    [Who could have thought it!—even the poem inscribed upon the pillar-tablet, attached to the pillar which was planted upside-down, has taken the same (ghostly) sickness.]

More by or about Lafcadio Hearn…

 

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Frederick Goddard Tuckerman

Frederick Goddard Tuckerman American (February 4, 1821 – May 9, 1873) Engraving c. 1835-1850 Photograph, taken on 06-30-2009, of engraving, reprinted in Eugene England's 1991 critical biography of Tuckerman entitled Beyond Romanticism -- the only known surviving image of the poet

Frederick Goddard Tuckerman American (February 4, 1821 – May 9, 1873) Engraving c. 1835-1850
Photograph, taken on 06-30-2009, of engraving, reprinted in Eugene England’s 1991 critical biography of Tuckerman entitled Beyond Romanticism — the only known surviving image of the poet

 

Two sonnets from American poet, Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, from the only collection published during his lifetime, Poems (1860).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AN UPPER CHAMBER IN A DARKENED HOUSE

An upper chamber in a darkened house,
Where, ere his footsteps reached ripe manhood’s brink,
Terror and anguish were his cup to drink,—
I cannot rid the thought, nor hold it close;
But dimly dream upon that man alone;—
Now though the autumn clouds most softly pass;
The cricket chides beneath the doorstep stone,
And greener than the season grows the grass.
Nor can I drop my lids, nor shade my brows,
But there he stands beside the lifted sash;
And, with a swooning of the heart, I think
Where the black shingles slope to meet the boughs,
And—shattered on the roof like smallest snows—
The tiny petals of the mountain-ash.

 

SOMETIMES I WALK WHERE THE DEEP WATER DIPS

Sometimes I walk where the deep water dips
Against the land. Or on where fancy drives
I walk and muse aloud, like one who strives
To tell his half-shaped thought with stumbling lips,
And view the ocean sea, the ocean ships,
With joyless heart: still but myself I find
And restless phantoms of my restless mind:
Only the moaning of my wandering words,
Only the wailing of the wheeling plover,
And this high rock beneath whose base the sea
Has wormed long caverns, like my tears in me:
And hard like this I stand, and beaten and blind,
This desolate rock with lichens rusted over,
Hoar with salt-sleet and chalkings of the birds.

 

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Night Scenes, Joanna Baillie

Befitting the season, here is a dramatic, ghostly poem from Scottish poet and playwright,
Joanna Baillie. It was originally published in her collection, Poems, from 1790.

Engraving of Joanna Baillie by H. Robinson after a portrait by Sir William Newton

Engraving of Joanna Baillie by H. Robinson after a portrait by Sir William Newton

NIGHT SCENES OF OTHER TIMES
A Poem in Three Parts by Joanna Baillie

PART I

“The wild winds bellow o’er my head,
And spent eve’s fading light;
Where shall I find some friendly shed
To screen me from…

 

 

 

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