A Cento is a  poetic form in which all of the lines are taken from other poems. For example, I can make up a rather silly and meaningless one by grabbing a volume of poetry at hand:
“A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Let murderers, bigots, fools, unclean persons, offer new propositions!
Man superannuates the horse;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Dissolve me into ecstasies
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
Spitting–from lips once sanctified by hers.
Say not the struggle naught availeth.”

That’s a matter of opening pages of “Lives of the Poets” more or less at random and grabbing a line without thought to meaning, to grammar, to sense. You see Whitman follow Pope and Coleridge segue into Browning into Clough.

It takes true merit to come up with a clever and meaningful Cento and contemporary poet RS Gwynn has done so using Wallace Stevens, Pope, Keats, Hopkins, Frost, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Yeats, Robinson, Eliot, and others.  What distinguishes  his “Cento” is that is makes sense as a reverie on time passing and human ageing, and death.   Well-known lines out of context remind me of the fragmentation of life and how easily connections can be broken.  New connections are not as strong as the old ones simply because they are new.  roygbiv***************************

Approaching a Significant Birthday, He Peruses the Norton Anthology of Poetry.

All human things are subject to decay.
Beauty is momentary in the mind.
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
And somewhat of a sad perplexity.
Here take my picture, though I bid farewell;
In a dark time the eye begins to see

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall–
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet bird sang.
What but design of darkness to appall?
An aged man is but a paltry thing.

If I should die, think only this of me:
Crass casualty obstructs the sun and rain
When I have fears that I may cease to be,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain

And hear the spectral singing of the moon
And strictly meditate the thankless muse.
The world is too much with us, late and soon
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze.

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil.
Again he raised the jug up to the light:
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.

Downward to darkness on extended wings,
Break, break, break on thy cold gray stones, O Sea,
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
–RS Gwynn

Author: Gubbinal

Bookish, tea-drinking cat-lady who loves great poetry and music and is in the midst of dying

6 thoughts on “Cento”

  1. Just brilliant ! Other Centos I’ve read might have succeeded in making sense, but this one is deeply clever for the meter and rhyme as well, and very enjoyable. It is a testament not so much to taking things out of context as to suggesting the existence of a greater context that includes all. Thank you for posting it.

    (I admire your bookshelf for being nicely alphabetized. Don’t laugh, but the several hundreds of books in my poetry collection have fallen away from that system into one I might call ” six degrees of bedfellows strange but true”….a rubric likely unfathomable to anyone but me. Still I know I will always fetch and return Wallace Stevens next to T.S. Eliot, next to Kingsley Amis… Kobayashi Issa next to Adelaide Crapsey next to H.D. next to Ezra Pound..etc…etc.. so counter-organized..but I do visit them often, and it seems to work for me.)


    1. Thank you, Cynthia! Part of the reason Gwynn succeeds is that his selections are all iambic pentameter–with the exception of the Hopkins’s: “It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze.”

      I did take a photo of the alphabetized poetry bookshelf but I actually have three book shelves of poetry and the others are quite harem scarem–there are anthologies and I glance around and see Wallace Stevens making love to Elizabeth Jennings who is snuggling with Rupert Brooke on the other side. Then we suddenly have a novel by Iris Murdoch. The second picture was my attempt to have a roygbiv bookshelf, but orange book spines are difficult to find.

      That’s the 20th century book shelf and it has a little red and often read book which is an Encyclopedia of Cats my parents gave me when I was 7 years old.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a lovely post. Thanks for sharing both your cento and Gwynn’s. Once I get caught up with my writing, I might attempt a cento myself using the poets on my Classics Club list.


    1. Thank you! That’s a great idea. I was not serious in my cento, however. I was trying to demonstrate how difficult it is to pull off successfully in order to highlight how nicely RS Gwynn managed to do it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I understand and I admire the demonstration. 🙂

        One regular feature of my blog is my attempts to learn about a writer’s techniques by trying on their forms. It helps me appreciate the great writers even more by seeing for myself the difficulties in what they make seem effortless. And it’s fun! Feel free to join me if I get to a poet you know and admire.


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