Sunday, July 3, 2016

Robert Frost and Sarangapani: Cynical, realistic, or pragmatic?

As readers of poetry know, there are various types: romance, epic, nature, philosophical . . . There is also another that might be seen, depending on the eye of the beholder, as cynical, practical, realistic, or pragmatic.  As is true of all poetic themes, this is also found across various cultures and eras. Here are two examples I thought you might be interested in

Provide, Provide

The witch that came (the withered hag)
To wash the steps with pail and rag,
Was once the beauty Abishag.

The picture pride of Hollywood.
Too many fall from great and good
For you to doubt the likelihood.

Die early and avoid the fate.
Or if predestined to die late,
Make up your mind to die in state. 

Make the whole stock exchange your own!
If need be occupy a throne,
Where nobody can call you crone.

Some have relied on what they knew;
Others on being simply true.
What worked for them might work for you.

No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard,
Or keeps the end from being hard.

Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all.  Provide, provide!

-- Robert Frost --

The Madam to the Young Courtesan

Grab whatever cash he has,
that Venugopala,
and think nothing of the rest.

As they say about lentils,
don't worry
abut the chaff.

Des it matter
to which woman he goes,
or how late he stays there?

Just pass the days
saying yes and no,
til the month is over

                 and grab the cash

What is it to you
if he runs into debt
or if he has an income?

Quietly, tactfully,
lie in wait
like a ca on a wall

               and grab the cash

What if he makes love
to her
and only then to you?

What's there
to be jealous abut?
When youth passes,
nothing will go your way,..

                so grab the cash

-- Sarangapani --
18th century India
from World Poetry
trans by A. K.  Ramanujan,  Velcheru Narayana Ran, and David Shulman

 How would you classify these poems?  Cynical?  Practical?  Realistic? Pragmatic?


  1. pragmatic, certainly; also cynical: the authors apparently have experience disappointment in their lives, as have most, but they've been motivated-by resentment?- to warn younger persons about the inconsequence and/or meaningless of any high ethical ambitions. i like "grab the cash" from the 1700's; in India, yet! the more things change the more they stay the same, as my boss used to say...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      Or they've seen what happens to others?

      I wonder if the particular situations mentioned have anything to do with the advice.

  2. I won't attempt classification or label, but I read the poems and think of fairy tales. I wonder why.

    1. ha, yes..., part of that ineffability you were referring to earlier... the unpronounceable awe that permeates what we call consciousness; that lurks in our subconscious...

    2. Fairy tales? My mind is a strange place, and witches sent me into its strange crannies. Tis no rhyme or reason beyond, and nothing sensible except reaction rather than analysis..

  3. Questions are so difficult :)

    It seems that The Madam to the Young Courtesan falls squarely into the category of cynical. I think that I would say playfully cynical.

    1. Brian Joseph,

      Yes, "grab the cash" is a bit playful, but underlying it?

  4. Pragmatic: I think Robert Frost anticipates the movie star who ended up washing floors as a late-life career. I forget who it was---one of the famous pin-up girls. His use of triplets is close to terza rima, but is much more confined and claustrophobic because each one is an entity of its own. It's so true, however, that old age is no country for the poor and unpopular.

    1. sunt_lacrimae_rerum,

      I think I have read about a number of actors and actresses who died poor and forgotten.

      In Jane Austen's EMMA, Mr. Knightly scolds Emma for her cruel comment about Miss Bates for the very reason that she is old and poor and no longer enjoys the status she once had.