“lavishing honey light at her auburn feet”: George Elliott Clarke’s “Discourse on Pure Virtue”


I live in Massachusetts. Usually, the autumn is  annoyingly brief here, bookended by humid heat and frigid cold on either end, but this year it’s truly ridiculous: the temperature is supposed to hit 84 today.

Which is a roundabout way of explaining why I found this week’s poem, with its heady and yet unoppressive warmth, so appealing.

Naomi at Consumed by Ink has more than once recommended to me the poetry of George Elliott Clarke, who is currently serving as Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate, and while I despair at finding one of his collection at a bookstore near me (the poetry section at the bookstore closest to my house is anemic when it comes to Americans, let alone anyone else), I did find a few of his poems online.

This week I’m reading “Discourse on Pure Virtue.” It’s a response, in a way, to Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”; in Mr. Clarke’s poem, “All these pleasures will we prove” immediately recalls the famous “Come live with me and be my love / and we will all the pleasures prove” of Marlowe’s. However,  this is not a direct reply, as is Ralegh’s “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” (you can read both of these poems here); instead, it’s more of a response, or a riff.

Marlowe’s poem is a seduction, wherein the speaker tries to woo the nymph with promises of pastoral pleasures. In “Discourse on Pure Virtue,” it is the speaker who is seduced by the beauty of “The brown girl, golden, sable-eyed.” Just look at all the words used to describe her and her features: exuberant, august, individualized, warm, light-dark. She’s “flowering yellow hibiscus”; her smile shows her “warm, sun-dyed, terracotta lips”; her sari is “lushly brocaded gold silk.”

I love the way the poem luxuriates in these radiant details; it’s a summoning of “virtue” completely antithetical to the way I think of the word visually (Pilgrim portraits, conduct books, grim New England winters). Similarly, “discourse” in the title suggests a certain Enlightenment-era orderly recitation of facts in service to an argument. Instead the poet gives us boundless joy.

What do you think of the poem? And what other poems are you reading this week?