Poet's Pick April 8
Barnabe Googe: "Of Money"
Selected by John Foy
National Poetry Month 2016

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John Foy's Poetry Month Pick, April 8, 2016

"Of Money"
by Barnabe Googe (1540-1594)

Give money me, take friendship whoso list,
For friends are gone, come once adversity,
When money yet remaineth safe in chest,
That quickly can thee bring from misery;
Fair face show friends when riches do abound;
Come time of proof, farewell, they must away;
Believe me well, they are not to be found
If God but send thee once a lowering day.
Gold never starts aside, but in distress,
Finds ways enough to ease thine heaviness.

 

* John Foy Comments:
This short poem, written by Barnabe Googe about 440 years ago, puts us in England in the sixteenth century. It was composed at a time when English poetry, between Sir Thomas Wyatt and Sir Philip Sidney, was still finding its feet and looking for a sandal that might fit naturally. The perfect fit would be found later, most notably and completely in Shakespeare (who was 30 years old when Googe died at age 53) and in John Keats (about 200 years beyond that), but with Googe the poetic line was still making its way down the lane in clogs. That said, there is much to admire in these 10 lines. The contrarian poet and critic Yvor Winters (American, 1900-1968) championed Googe, helping to revive his reputation and arguing that this poem should be ranked in the canon of Tudor lyrics. Winters held it up as a model of the native, alliterative tradition. It is written in what literary historians call the plain style: simple in diction, direct in phrase. It stands in opposition to the more florid, highly wrought Petrarchan style, which was practiced in the sixteenth century most famously by Sidney and carried into the next by Thomas Campion.

Despite the greater reputation of the Petrarchan style, I have always preferred the plain, which turns away from the mannered and the ornate to give an illusion of honesty and earthiness. No exaggerated metaphor here – in fact, no metaphor all:

Gold never starts aside, but in distress,
Finds ways enough to ease thine heaviness.

“Of Money” is not interested in decorative display but in thinking. This is another way of saying that it doesn’t want to make things pretty; it wants to make them clear. As with many poems in this tradition, it deals with a serious subject in a sober way. The message – not very original or unique, but rather a commonplace – is that money is more reliable than friendship in times of adversity. I do not agree with the adage, but I do admire the execution. This poem is governed by a savage economy, and herein lies its beauty, which comes from efficiency and balance. Yvor Winters in this regard points out that the poet expresses “a feeling restrained to the minimum required by the subject; a rhetoric restrained to a similar minimum, the poet being interested in his rhetoric as a means of stating his matter as economically as possible, and not, as are the Petrarchans, in the pleasures of rhetoric for its own sake.” 1

In terms of lexicon, syntax and meter, the poem is pared down to only what is required for its message. In 10 lines (76 words altogether), there are only three adjectives (“fair,” “lowering” and “enough”). Seventy-five percent of the words are only one syllable long, including most of the verbs. The diction is plain, the phrasing is simple. The syntax is arranged so that the lines end at exact grammatical joints that are also natural junctures of speech:

Fair face show friends when riches do abound;
Come time of proof, farewell, they must away…

There is no fancy enjambment or phrasal gymnastics. When the lines are read, they feel on the tongue as though they fit the natural intonations of a real speaking voice. This is thanks to the  careful phrasing and use of meter. Speaking to this point, the literary scholar John Thompson in The Founding of English Metre explains how the “control of language through metre causes the language to appear with the effect of a real voice; the realization of experience through style means giving to the words all the complexities of intonation that a speaker uses to express his feelings.” 2 In his poem, Googe is bringing four elements into alignment: grammatical segments, syntactic units, speech rhythms and his abstract metrical pattern. The life is in the alignment. The meter is basically iambic pentameter, though Googe may not have known to call it that. The stressed syllable in almost every foot is heavily stressed, and the unstressed syllable is notably unstressed. This metric regularity (except for the expressive wobble in line 7) creates an undeniable and irresistible forward movement, which imparts greater persuasive power to what Googe is asking us to believe as he works through the cynical logic of his argument.

Finally, there is the question of subtext. While Googe makes his point about the comfort of cold, hard cash, he implies the sad converse realization that friendship may not be enough. One can only believe that money is superior if one has failed in friendship. But the poem doesn’t weep over this or ask for sympathy. It just speaks quietly and precisely. That’s why I admire the plain style, in the right hands. There is rhetorical power to be had from understatement and metrical control.

Googe, for me, is a relief these days. We live in a time of narcissistic display and gross “self-expression” that run counter to the austerity of the plain style. “Give money me, take friendship whoso list” is an antidote, or at least a stiff drink. Let me end with a thought from Winters on Googe and poets like him:

Only a master of style can deal successfully in a plain manner with obvious matter: we are concerned here with a type of poetry which is… direct and economical, a poetry which permits itself originality, that is the breath of life, only in the most restrained and refined of subtleties in diction and in cadence, but which by virtue of those subtleties inspires its universals with their full value as experience. 3

How interesting it would be to know what Walt Whitman, Hart Crane or Allen Ginsberg thought of these lines by Barnabe Googe. Is there any record of it? If you know, please tell me.

Notes:

1 Poetry, LII (1939), pp. 258-72, excerpted in Paul. J. Alpers (ed): Elizabethan Poetry. Modern Essays in Criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967. Page 95.

2  The Founding of English Metre, by John Thompson. Colombia University Press, New York, 1961. Page 66.

3 Poetry, LIII (1939), p. 263, “The 16th Century Lyric in England.”


John Foy:
John Foy’s new book, Night Vision, won The New Criterion Poetry Prize and will be published later this year by St. Augustine’s Press. His first book is Techne’s Clearinghouse (Zoo Press/University of Nebraska Press). His poems are featured in the Swallow Anthology of New American Poets, The Raintown Review Anthology and Rabbit Ears, an anthology of poems about TV. They have appeared widely in journals and online, including most recently The Hudson Review, The Village Voice, American Arts Quarterly, The Dark Horse, The Yale Review and The Hopkins Review. He has been a guest-blogger for The Best American Poetry. Visit him at www.johnffoy.net


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