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. ***************************
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.