Sunday, July 23, 2017

A Dream. Or Not.

Ah, the dreams of felicity that we carry around inside us!  Who knows where they come from?  Who knows how we go about contriving them? And where do we find the materials for these dreams?

Consider, for instance, the dream of the cottage.  A nest.  The small, clear space of tranquility, serenity, and contentment that we long for.  At long last, peace and quiet.

Were I a king, I could command content.
     Were I obscure, unknown should be my cares.
And were I dead, no thoughts should me torment,
     Nor words, nor wrongs, nor loves, nor hopes, nor fears.
A doubtful choice, of three things one to crave,
A kingdom, or a cottage, or a grave.

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), in Norman Ault (editor), Elizabethan Lyrics (Longmans 1925).  The poem is untitled.

"A kingdom, or a cottage, or a grave."  Is this indeed "a doubtful choice"?  I think not.  Obscurity is a good thing.  "Happy were he could finish forth his fate/In some unhaunted desert, most obscure/From all societies, from love and hate/Of worldly folk; then might he sleep secure . . ."  What could be better than living an obscure life in an obscure cottage?

                       The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

W. B. Yeats, The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics (Unwin 1892).

As I have noted here before, I am unapologetically enamored of the cape-wearing Yeats of the 1890s, the Celtic Twilight Yeats.  This is no doubt the result of coming across his early poems in my impressionable youth.  But I see no reason to change my feelings.  "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" will always remain dear to me.

Of course, even before he replaced his capes with fur coats and began delivering imperious, patronizing speeches in the Irish Senate about the small-mindedness of "the middle-class," the thought of Yeats hand-building a cabin and cultivating nine rows of beans was a risible one.  Still, he was entitled to dream.  As are we all.  To wish to abide where "peace comes dropping slow" is not, and never will be, an idle dream.

Charles Ginner (1878-1952)
"Through a Cottage Window, Shipley, Sussex"

Is the cottage dream nothing more than a "fond dream," "a lie, . . . a kindly meant lie"?  Modern ironists would think so, and would add what they consider to be the killing epithet:  "a sentimental dream."  However, the poets think otherwise, from the epigrammatists of The Greek Anthology to T'ao Ch'ien and Wang Wei, from the Japanese haiku poets to William Wordsworth and John Clare, from Horace to Norman MacCaig and George Mackay Brown.  I attend to the poets.

                    The Old Cottagers

The little cottage stood alone, the pride
Of solitude surrounded every side.
Bean fields in blossom almost reached the wall;
A garden with its hawthorn hedge was all
The space between.  --  Green light did pass
Through one small window, where a looking-glass
Placed in the parlour, richly there revealed
A spacious landscape and a blooming field.
The pasture cows that herded on the moor
Printed their footsteps to the very door,
Where little summer flowers with seasons blow
And scarcely gave the eldern leave to grow.
The cuckoo that one listens far away
Sung in the orchard trees for half the day;
And where the robin lives, the village guest,
In the old weedy hedge the leafy nest
Of the coy nightingale was yearly found,
Safe from all eyes as in the loneliest ground;
And little chats that in bean stalks will lie
A nest with cobwebs there will build, and fly
Upon the kidney bean that twines and towers
Up little poles in wreaths of scarlet flowers.

There a lone couple lived, secluded there
From all the world considers joy or care,
Lived to themselves, a long lone journey trod,
And through their Bible talked aloud to God;
While one small close and cow their wants maintained,
But little needing, and but little gained.
Their neighbour's name was peace, with her they went,
With tottering age, and dignified content,
Through a rich length of years and quiet days,
And filled the neighbouring village with their praise.

John Clare, in Edmund Blunden and Alan Porter (editors), John Clare: Poems Chiefly from Manuscript (Cobden-Sanderson 1920).

I am no doubt simple-minded or easily impressed (or both), but my love for the poem turns upon eight words:  "Green light did pass/Through one small window."  No explanation or explication or commentary is necessary.

(An aside:  Clare's ten-line apostrophe on birds is wonderful.  How typical of him.  Does any poet exceed him in the love of birds?  A further aside:  the passage brings to mind the final line of "Happy were he could finish forth his fate":  "Where harmless robin dwells with gentle thrush.")

Kathleen Wilson (d. 1936), "Thatched Cottages"

On a recent evening, I stood at the kitchen sink, looking out the window at the branches of a camellia tree that stands beside the house.  If I open the window, I can reach out and touch the leaves.  The camellia and I have kept each other company for 22 years.  In each of those years, I have seen its red flowers bloom, turn rusty brown, and fall away.  How could I have paid so little attention to it through all of those vanished seasons?  "The blossoms did not betray me.  I betrayed the blossoms."

Dear readers, we each have it within us to live the cottage life.  It is not a mere dream.  I have said this in the past, and I will say it again:  at this moment, we live in Paradise.

                            A Cool Retreat

Boughs with apples laden around me whisper;
Cool the waters trickle among the branches;
And I listen dreamily, till a languor
                                          Stealeth upon me.

Sappho (translated by Percy Osborn), in Percy Osborn, The Poems of Sappho (Elkin Matthews 1909).  As is the case with nearly all of Sappho's recovered poetry, this is a fragment of a lost poem.  Osborn added the title.

Another translation of the same fragment:

. . . about the cool water
the wind sounds through sprays
of apple, and from the quivering leaves
slumber pours down. . . .

Sappho (translated by Kenneth Rexroth), in Kenneth Rexroth, Poems from the Greek Anthology (University of Michigan Press 1962).

Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979), "The Cottage Window"

Friday, July 14, 2017

Past Lives

Looking back into your past, you may see someone who resembles you, but who no longer exists.  Yet, despite doubts and misgivings ("Who is that person?"), there is no getting around it:  that vaguely familiar stranger is indeed you.

I recall a windy, bright blue and gold autumn morning on the Isle of Skye. Another life ago.  I followed as someone dear to me walked ahead across a wide green field toward a grey stone crumbling castle on the edge of a cliff. Beyond the castle lay the deep-blue of the Little Minch, white-capped.  Am I imagining it, or did she turn and smile?

                    The Occultation

When the cloud shut down on the morning shine,
     And darkened the sun,
I said, "So ended that joy of mine
     Years back begun."

But day continued its lustrous roll
     In upper air;
And did my late irradiate soul
     Live on somewhere?

Thomas Hardy,  Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (Macmillan 1917).

Stephen McKenna, "Foliage" (1983)

Of course Hardy would think this way!  It is he who wrote:  "I believe it would be said by people who knew me well that I have a faculty (possibly not uncommon) for burying an emotion in my heart or brain for forty years, and exhuming it at the end of that time as fresh as when interred."  Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), page 408.  (How like Hardy -- so conversant with, and so fond of, graveyards and tombs and revenants -- to use the words "burying," "exhuming," and "interred" in this context.)

"Irradiate":  "illumined; made bright or brilliant."  OED.

We may not now recognize those strangers of our past lives, but how lovely, and how comforting, to think that their irradiate souls live on somewhere.

Still there, somewhere:
the moon off behind the mist
     traversing the night.

Shōhaku (1443-1527) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 307.

Richard Eurich, "The Road to Grassington" (1971)

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Peace And Quiet

"All I want is a little peace and quiet."  A plaint from time immemorial.  We mustn't make the mistake of believing that our particular moment in time is unique in its clamor, chaos, harriedness, and horrors.  It has always been thus in the distracted world of human beings ("distracted from distraction by distraction"), and will forever be thus.  No wonder we long for tranquility and silence.

                 Peace at Noon

Here there is peace, cool peace,
Upon these heights, beneath these trees;
Almost the peace of sleep or death,
To wearying brain, to labouring breath.

Here there is rest at last,
A sweet forgetting of the past;
There is no future here, nor aught
Save this soft healing pause of thought.

Arthur Symons, Silhouettes (Leonard Smithers 1892).

An argument can be made that the cultivation of peace and quiet is a duty that we owe both to ourselves and to others.  Why add to the cacophony?

"More than half a century of existence has taught me that most of the wrong and folly which darken earth is due to those who cannot possess their souls in quiet; that most of the good which saves mankind from destruction comes of life that is led in thoughtful stillness.  Every day the world grows noisier; I, for one, will have no part in that increasing clamour, and, were it only by my silence, I confer a boon on all."

George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (Constable 1903), pages 13-14.

There is perhaps an echo of Pascal in Gissing's passage:  "I have often said, that all the misfortune of men proceeds from their not knowing how to keep themselves quiet in their chamber."  Blaise Pascal (translated by Joseph Walker), Pensées (1670).

Bertram Priestman, "Wooded Hillside" (1910)

"Every day the world grows noisier."  True.  Yet, as noisy (and noisome) as our current world may be, serenity is always available to us.  The first step is to ignore the siren song of the 24/7/365 distraction industry, the empty world of "news," politics, and entertainment.  Contrary to what the purveyors of distraction would have us believe, our lives can be lived perfectly well without them, thank you.  The choice is ours.

               Llananno

I often call there.
There are no poems in it
for me.  But as a gesture
of independence of the speeding
traffic I am a part
of, I stop the car,
turn down the narrow path
to the river, and enter
the church with its clear reflection
beside it.
                 There are few services
now; the screen has nothing
to hide.  Face to face
with no intermediary
between me and God, and only the water's
quiet insistence on a time
older than man, I keep my eyes
open and am not dazzled,
so delicately does the light enter
my soul from the serene presence
that waits for me till I come next.

R. S. Thomas, Laboratories of the Spirit (Macmillan 1975).

The closing lines of John Drinkwater's "The Wood" come to mind:

And haunting the lucidities of life
That are my daily beauty, moves a theme,
Beating along my undiscovered mind.

The "theme" of which Drinkwater speaks has nothing whatsoever to do with the world of distraction.  Rather, it belongs to the world of peace and quiet, the world of "the serene presence" that patiently waits for us to arrive.

Bertram Priestman, "The Sun-Veiled Hills of Wharfedale" (1917)

I have no name for "the serene presence," but I sometimes experience a fleeting sense of it (a sense that glimmers and then vanishes) when I behold the World's beautiful particulars.  Thomas's "the water's/quiet insistence on a time/older than man" hints at the nature of this abiding presence.  But there is also an element of timelessness, of eternity in the present moment, involved.

Say, for instance, the timelessness of flowing water, ever-present and ever-departing.  "The flecked river,/Which kept flowing and never the same way twice, flowing/Through many places, as if it stood still in one."  (Wallace Stevens, "This Solitude of Cataracts.")  Ah, the urge to freeze the World in a state of permanent beauty!  But that would be the death of beauty, wouldn't it?

           The River

Stir not, whisper not,
Trouble not the giver
Of quiet who gives
This calm-flowing river,

Whose whispering willows,
Whose murmuring reeds
Make silence more still
Than the thought it breeds,

Until thought drops down
From the motionless mind
Like a quiet brown leaf
Without any wind;

It falls on the river
And floats with its flowing,
Unhurrying still
Past caring, past knowing.

Ask not, answer not,
Trouble not the giver
Of quiet who gives
This calm-flowing river.

Patrick MacDonogh, Poems (edited by Derek Mahon) (The Gallery Press 2001).

Thomas speaks of "the serene presence;" MacDonogh speaks of "the giver of quiet":  there is always an urge to put a name on things, and these are lovely descriptions.  But words are ultimately not sufficient.  The "calm-flowing river" -- the wordless movement itself -- is what matters.  It is there that serenity is found.

Bertram Priestman, "Suffolk Water Meadows" (1906)

There is an outer and an inner dimension to the peace and quiet that we seek.  The goal, as Gissing suggests, is "life that is led in thoughtful stillness," a life in which we strive to "possess [our] souls in quiet." However, living in this manner does not entail an abandonment of the World.  "But there is the rustle of branches in the morning breeze; there is the music of a sunny shower against the window; there is the matin sound of birds.  Several times lately I have lain wakeful when there sounded the first note of the earliest lark; it makes me almost glad of my restless nights."  George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, page 72. These are "the lucidities of life/That are my daily beauty" that John Drinkwater speaks of in "The Wood."

I built my hut in a zone of human habitation,
Yet near me there sounds no noise of horse or coach.
Would you know how that is possible?
A heart that is distant creates a wilderness round it.
I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge,
Then gaze long at the distant summer hills.
The mountain air is fresh at the dusk of day;
The flying birds two by two return.
In these things there lies a deep meaning;
Yet when we would express it, words suddenly fail us.

T'ao Ch'ien (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918).  The poem is untitled.

T'ao Ch'ien's poem is clear:  tranquility is a matter of the heart, but it develops and unfolds within a concrete world of chrysanthemums, green summer hills, and birds flying home in pairs at dusk.  It is telling that the line "I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge" has often been intentionally echoed in subsequent Chinese poems, as well as in Japanese haiku and waka:  following T'ao Ch'ien, the poets remind us that the attainment of serenity takes place amidst the commonplace, beautiful particulars of the World.

     In my hut this spring,
There is nothing, --
     There is everything!

Sodō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 34.

Bertram Priestman, "Kilnsey Crag, Wharfedale, Yorkshire" (1929)

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Wind

Is there anything as peaceful and as pleasurable as the soft buffeting of a warm wind in your ears as you walk abroad on a sunny day?  A steady, yet gentle and enfolding, wind.  A blue and gold day in late spring, summer, or early autumn.  There is no reason to pine for a future Paradise:  we abide within it now.

Late in his life, A. E. Housman declared:  "In philosophy I am a Cyrenaic or egoistic hedonist, and regard the pleasure of the moment as the only possible motive of action."  A. E. Housman, letter to Houston Martin (March 22, 1936), in Archie Burnett (editor), The Letters of A. E. Housman, Volume II (Oxford University Press 2007), p. 528.  "In a world of steel-eyed death and men who are fighting to be warm," there is something to be said for Housman's philosophical inclinations.  The word "hedonism" has taken on a pejorative cast in modern times:  it has come to imply licentiousness or immorality.  But, after all, it simply means (according to The Oxford English Dictionary) "the doctrine or theory of ethics in which pleasure is regarded as the chief good, or the proper end of action."

When it comes to the beautiful particulars of the World, I am an unapologetic hedonist.  But I would hope that my pleasure is not "egoistic" (or "egotistic" either).  And I do my best (subject to constant failure) to combine my pleasure with gratitude.

Hence, for instance, the wind.

            Nobody Knows

Often I've heard the Wind sigh
     By the ivied orchard wall,
Over the leaves in the dark night,
     Breathe a sighing call,
And faint away in the silence,
     While I, in my bed,
Wondered, 'twixt dreaming and waking,
          What it said.

Nobody knows what the Wind is,
     Under the height of the sky,
Where the hosts of the stars keep far away house
     And its wave sweeps by --
Just a great wave of the air,
     Tossing the leaves in its sea,
And foaming under the eaves of the roof
          That covers me.

And so we live under deep water,
     All of us, beasts and men,
And our bodies are buried down under the sand,
     When we go again;
And leave, like the fishes, our shells,
     And float on the Wind and away,
To where, o'er the marvellous tides of the air,
          Burns day.

Walter de la Mare, Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes (Constable 1913).

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "A Castle in Scotland"

But hedonism remains at the surface of things.  Whereas, as de la Mare says, "we live under deep water."  This is where immanence comes in: glimmers and glimpses and inklings of something within, behind, and beyond all of those beautiful surfaces.

One either has this sense of the World or one does not.  I do not say this in a judgmental fashion, nor do I claim that those who have this sense are "wiser" or more "enlightened" than those who do not.  How we find ourselves in the World is, for each of us, a matter of mystery.  It is not a case of true or false or of right or wrong.

De la Mare again:  "Nobody Knows."  Exactly.  No explanations are necessary.  Nor are they forthcoming.  We should leave it at that.

In the meantime, we have the wind.  And poems about the wind.

                    Providence

White roses shatter, overblown,
by the breath of a little wind undone,
yet the same air passing scarcely stirs
the tall dark green perpetual firs.

John Hewitt, Scissors for a One-Armed Tailor: Marginal Verses 1929-1954 (1974)

"Providence" feels like a haiku:  a report on experience.  (To borrow from Edmund Blunden.)  However, a word such a "providence" would likely be avoided by a haiku poet.  Too subjective.  Of course, I am completely open to the possibility that what the wind does may well be "providence":  I am not in any way criticizing Hewitt's use of the word.

Hewitt, like a good haiku poet, tells us exactly what he saw.  The difference is that he gives us a hint.  A haiku poet would leave us to draw our own conclusions.  Or, better yet, would leave us to draw no conclusions at all, but only see the World as it is, or, perhaps more accurately, as the haiku poet saw it in a moment of passing time.

Enough of that.  I do not wish to create the impression that I am quibbling about "Providence":  I think it is a lovely poem.  As is this, another poem about the wind of Ireland.

                              Afterpeace

This wind that howls about our roof tonight
And tears live branches screaming from great trees
Tomorrow may have scarcely strength to ruffle
The rabbit's back to silver in the sun.

Patrick MacDonogh, Poems (edited by Derek Mahon) (The Gallery Press 2001).

James McIntosh Patrick,"Boreland Mill, Kirkmichael" (1950)

Of course, poets cannot help but bring humans into their apostrophes about the wind.  Thus, for instance, they say that the wind "sighs" or "moans" or "cries."  This is to be expected.  All poetry, all art, is an attempt to place ourselves into the World in the hope of making sense of things, however briefly.  It is not surprising that, in doing so, we see ourselves (or come upon ourselves) in the World.

Moreover, we mustn't forget that the beautiful particulars of the World include human beings.  The wind.  People.

            The Wind Shifts

This is how the wind shifts:
Like the thoughts of an old human,
Who still thinks eagerly
And despairingly.
The wind shifts like this:
Like a human without illusions,
Who still feels irrational things within her.
The wind shifts like this:
Like humans approaching proudly,
Like humans approaching angrily.
This is how the wind shifts:
Like a human, heavy and heavy,
Who does not care.

Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (Alfred A. Knopf 1923).

We are the wind and the wind is us.  The wind is us and we are the wind.

But we mustn't go too far.  Despite the pretensions of the so-called "Age of Enlightenment" (also, risibly, known as "the Age of Reason"), we are not the measure of the World.  Our conceit may be boundless and shameless, but we are not in a position to make claim to the wind.

This past winter and spring have been, even for this damp part of the world, unseasonably rainy.  As a consequence, the wild grasses in the meadows are more than four feet tall in places, taller than I have ever seen them.  As I pass by them on a breezy day, I am inclined to think that they are whispering as they sway, falling and rising, in the wind.  But the beauty of that sound has absolutely nothing to do with the name I place upon it.

            Thesis and Counter-Thesis

-- Love of God is love of self.
The stars and the seas are filled by precious I
Sweet as a pillow and a sucked thumb.

-- It would be most unflattering for adoring men
If the grasshopper chirping in the warm grass
Could glorify that attribute called Being
In a general manner, without referring it to his own persona.

Czeslaw Milosz, City Without a Name (1969).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Downie Mill" (1962)

As I suggested here recently, wisdom does not necessarily come with age.  I can attest to that.  But growing old does provide an opportunity to pare your life down to essentials.  Think of all the things you once thought were important and that now mean nothing.  The length of that list will depend upon the length of your time upon the earth, dear reader.

One day you will realize, out of the blue, that you have lived more years than the number of years that remain to you.  On that day, life becomes simpler.  You may turn your attention to the wind.

                                                    Autumn

Cathedral of my enchantments, autumn wind, I grew old giving thanks.

Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Braes o' Lundie"

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Present

I often feel that I have spent most of my life sleepwalking or daydreaming.  Asleep at the switch.  Nearly everything has escaped me.  But each moment offers the possibility of redemption:  a new opportunity to be awake and to be present.  "Begin afresh, afresh, afresh."

Fortunately for us, the beautiful particulars of the World are boundlessly and endlessly merciful.  Every day, without fail, they gently shake us by the shoulders and whisper in our ear:  "Wake up!  Look over here.  Listen to this."  Not in so many words, of course.  The World is wordless.  Yet it is not reticent.  Nor is it impassive.  Hence, immanence.

                            The Wood

I walked a nut-wood's gloom.  And overhead
A pigeon's wing beat on the hidden boughs,
And shrews upon shy tunnelling woke thin
Late winter leaves with trickling sound.  Across
My narrow path I saw the carrier ants
Burdened with little pieces of bright straw.
These things I heard and saw, with senses fine
For all the little traffic of the wood,
While everywhere, above me, underfoot,
And haunting every avenue of leaves,
Was mystery, unresting, taciturn.
          .          .          .          .          .
And haunting the lucidities of life
That are my daily beauty, moves a theme
Beating along my undiscovered mind.

John Drinkwater, Loyalties (Sidgwick & Jackson 1919).  The ellipses appear in the original.

George Allsopp, "Wharfdale Landscape" (1960)

My daily walk takes me past a row of a dozen or so big-leaf maples that stand along the edge of a large meadow.  Old, tall, and stately, several of them have trunks that are three- to four-feet in diameter.  I have been walking past the maples for more than twenty years.  However, it was not until earlier this spring that I noticed how beautiful their thick grey trunks are when set against the deep green of the wild grasses that cover the meadow.

I have been seeing that grey-against-green for years now.  Yet the beauty of it had eluded me.  Where had I been all that time?  Ah, but the World is patient with sleepwalkers and daydreamers.  For that I am grateful.  Those trees and that meadow will now never be the same for me.

                              Moonlit Apples

At the top of the house the apples are laid in rows,
And the skylight lets the moonlight in, and those
Apples are deep-sea apples of green.  There goes
     A cloud on the moon in the autumn night.

A mouse in the wainscot scratches, and scratches, and then
There is no sound at the top of the house of men
Or mice; and the cloud is blown, and the moon again
     Dapples the apples with deep-sea light.

They are lying in rows there, under the gloomy beams;
On the sagging floor; they gather the silver streams
Out of the moon, those moonlit apples of dreams,
     And quiet is the steep stair under.

In the corridors under there is nothing but sleep,
And stiller than ever on orchard boughs they keep
Tryst with the moon, and deep is the silence, deep
     On moon-washed apples of wonder.

John Drinkwater, Tides (Sidgwick & Jackson 1917).

As is always the case with the beauty and truth of the World, one thing leads to another.  A few days ago, I walked past another spring meadow, newly-mown and bright green, sloping upward toward a grey stone wall. Seven black crows were scattered across it.  Black-against-green, grey-against-green . . . and so it goes while we are here.

The one looking --
he also lends some color
     to the moonlight.

Shinkei (1406-1475) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 295.

Samuel John Birch, "Nancledra: Old Cornish Village" (1931)

These revelations of beauty and truth necessarily occur within the time in which we find ourselves.  And each modern age is contrived to turn us into somnambulists, whether the "modern age" is today, a century ago, or a millennium ago.  Thus, William Wordsworth in 1802:

"For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor.  The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies."

William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802).

Or John Drinkwater in 1921:

"The breaking down of all barriers of space has opened up imposing vistas of imperial activity, of which the benefits are well known to Ministers of State; it has also, we learn, shown us the way to a brotherhood of man, on the principle, it may be supposed, that the domestic virtue of brotherly affection is best fostered by not staying at home.  Of these rhetorical blessings I do not feel that I am qualified to speak; I see them in misty prospect, and am unmoved.  From the manner and character of their prophets they are, at least, suspect in my mind.

"But as to one result of this merely mechanical extending of an horizon I am clear, and clear that it is spiritually injurious to man.  The growing tendency of a world where means of instantaneous communication and rapid transit and the ever-widening ramifications of commercial interests more and more make everybody's business everybody's business, is to breed a shallow and aimless cosmopolitanism in all of us at the expense of an exact and intimate growth in our knowledge of ourselves and our neighbours and the land of our birth."

John Drinkwater, "The World and the Artist," The Bookman's Journal and Print Collector, Volume V, No. 1 (October 1921), page 8.

As for us?  Long-time readers of this blog know my feelings about the false gods of our own time:  Progress, Science, and disingenuous, malevolent, and dehumanizing utopian political schemes.  I will not rehearse my objections again.

Nothing ever changes, does it?  But, withal, the beauty and truth of the World abide within the chimerical emptiness of each successive "modern age."  The choice is ours.

                                   History

Sometimes, when walls and occupation seem
A prison merely, a dark barrier
Between me everywhere
And life, or the larger province of the mind,
As dreams confined,
As the trouble of a dream,
I seek to make again a life long gone,
To be
My mind's approach and consolation,
To give it form's lucidity,
Resilient form, as porcelain pieces thrown
In buried China by a wrist unknown,
Or mirrored brigs upon Fowey sea.

Then to my memory comes nothing great
Of purpose, or debate,
Or perfect end,
Pomp, nor love's rapture, nor heroic hours to spend --
But most, and strangely, for long and so much have I seen,
Comes back an afternoon
Of a June
Sunday at Elsfield, that is up on a green
Hill, and there,
Through a little farm parlour door,
A floor
Of red tiles and blue,
And the air
Sweet with the hot June sun cascading through
The vine-leaves under the glass, and a scarlet fume
Of geranium flower, and soft and yellow bloom
Of musk, and stains of scarlet and yellow glass.

Such are the things remain
Quietly, and for ever, in the brain,
And the things that they choose for history-making pass.

John Drinkwater, Loyalties.

Hubert Wellington, "Overhanging Branch, Frampton Mansell" (1915)

At this time of year, at the tip of each pine tree twig, bright yellow-green tufts of new needles emerge.  The needles are delicate, and soft to the touch. After the spectacular spring show of the fruit tree blossoms, with all of its bittersweet beauty, all of its passing and vanishing, there is something endearing and reassuring about the simple loveliness of these unfolding tufts.

What are we to make of these wordless communions?

                         Reciprocity

I do not think that skies and meadows are
Moral, or that the fixture of a star
Comes of a quiet spirit, or that trees
Have wisdom in their windless silences.
Yet these are things invested in my mood
With constancy, and peace, and fortitude,
That in my troubled season I can cry
Upon the wide composure of the sky,
And envy fields, and wish that I might be
As little daunted as a star or tree.

John Drinkwater, Tides.

William Birch (1895-1968), "Morning in June, the Vale of Dedham"

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Days

Do we grow wiser with age?  Well, let's not get too carried away.  Speaking for myself, the only piece of wisdom that I can provisionally claim in my seventh decade above ground (and within hailing distance of a return to the dust) is this:  I realize, on a daily basis, that I am profoundly ignorant.

Yet, being aware of, and at peace with, one's ignorance is a good thing.  It is certainly not cause for self-recrimination or despair.  It relieves us of the great weight of trying to "figure things out," of trying to solve the mysteries of where we came from, why we are here, and where we are headed.  It frees us up to do what we ought to have been doing from the start:  loving, and being unceasingly grateful for, the World and all of its beautiful particulars.

Come to think of it, a strong argument can be made that living a life of love and gratitude is exactly why we are here.  All else takes care of itself.  But this is not an abstract proposition:  it is a day-to-day way of being, a matter of striving to cultivate attention and repose throughout each of our fleeting and priceless days.

                    Candles

Days to come stand in front of us
like a row of lighted candles --
golden, warm, and vivid candles.

Days gone by fall behind us,
a gloomy line of snuffed-out candles;
the nearest are smoking still,
cold, melted, and bent.

I don't want to look at them:  their shape saddens me,
and it saddens me to remember their original light.
I look ahead at my lighted candles.

I don't want to turn for fear of seeing, terrified,
how quickly that dark line gets longer,
how quickly the snuffed-out candles proliferate.

C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard) (Princeton University Press 1992).

Cavafy was horrified at the prospect of death and did not take growing old well.  Hence the tone of "Candles."  The Japanese haiku poets are, like Cavafy, aware of the situation in which we find ourselves.  However, they tend to have a more equable view of things.

     Slow days passing, accumulating, --
How distant they are,
     The things of the past!

Buson (1716-1784) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 46.

Francis Le Maistre (1859-1940), "Seascape with Two Women"

Rather than imagining that we might acquire wisdom with age, perhaps a better approach is to become adept at letting things go.  As the years and (alas!) decades speed by (populated by days), we are well-advised to disabuse ourselves of certain notions and to abandon certain conceits.  If, by some point in our life (before it is too late), we have not begun to identify and jettison these notions and conceits, all hope is lost.  Something along these lines is required:

                                                Learning

To believe you are magnificent.  And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent.  Enough labor for one human life.

Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog (translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998).

While this lifelong project is underway, the days come and go.  There's no stopping them.

               Dream Days

'When you stop to consider
The days spent dreaming of a future
And say then, that was my life.'

For the days are long --
From the first milk van
To the last shout in the night,
An eternity.  But the weeks go by
Like birds; and the years, the years
Fly past anti-clockwise
Like clock hands in a bar mirror.

Derek Mahon, Selected Poems (Penguin/The Gallery Press 1991).

As Mahon observes, the days are indeed long -- "an eternity."  (Do you remember all of those never-ending afternoons in the schoolroom?)  The Japanese haiku poets, whose art is aimed at presenting a vanishing instant of experience that embodies the whole of the World and the whole of a human life, are ever aware that our fate is played out each day, moment-by-moment.

     Calm days,
The swift years
     Forgotten.

Taigi (1709-1771) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring, page 42.

 Kathleen Wilson (d. 1936), "Thatched Cottages"

Like Cavafy, Philip Larkin was terrified of death.  But this did not prevent him from creating poems that are full of Beauty and Truth, and which celebrate the wonder and joy of being alive -- in their own Larkinesque way, of course.  Do not believe those who caricature Larkin as a dour, cranky misanthrope.  Anybody who holds this view has not taken the time to actually read Larkin's poems (or his prose).

            Days

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings (Faber & Faber 1964).

Larkin being Larkin, the second stanza is required.  But consider the first stanza.  Some may say that the line "They are to be happy in" is intended to be mordant or ironic.  It is not.  Others may say that the entire stanza is nothing more than a truism, a cliché.  In fact, it is a simple statement of truth.  An aversion to the articulation of essential truths is endemic amongst ironic moderns.

The modern urge to over-complicate life puzzles me.  "Days are where we live."  Look around.  Everything is right there in front of you.

     A night of stars;
The cherry blossoms are falling
     On the water of the rice-seedlings.

Buson (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring, page 170.

Is there anything more beautiful and true than this?

John Anthony Park (1880-1962), "The Harbour, Polperro, Cornwall"

Another poet who is also unfairly caricatured as a dour, cranky misanthrope has this to say about how we ought to spend our days: "Life is not hurrying//on to a receding future, nor hankering after/an imagined past."  (R. S. Thomas, "The Bright Field.")  As I have noted here before, when I set out on my afternoon walk, I often remind myself:  "Stop thinking.  Just look and listen."  An abandonment of the past and the future is implicit in this admonition.  However, apart from a few fugitive moments, I always fail miserably.

                      Days and Moments

The drowsy earth, craving the quiet of night,
Turns her green shoulder from the sun's last ray;
Less than a moment in her solar flight
Now seems, alas! thou fleeting one, life's happiest day.

Walter de la Mare, Inward Companion and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1950).

Yes, all of this daily passing and vanishing is bound to provoke an "Alas!" now and then.  Yet it seems to me that our diurnal existence is where, from moment to moment, Paradise lies.  Still, we tend to long for something more:  passing and vanishing can be hard to accept.  Here's a thought:  "If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Proposition 6.4311 (1921) (translated by C. K. Ogden).  An alternative translation is:  "If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present."  Ibid (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).

Who needs Eternity?  One day is enough.

     All the long day --
Yet not long enough for the skylark,
     Singing, singing.

Bashō (1644-1694) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring, page 195.

Giffard Hocart Lenfestey (1872-1943), "Evening, the Stream"

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Blossom

Ah, spring!  Season of timelessness and transience, hope and heartbreak, arrivals and departures.  The story of our life in a few swift weeks.  Yet it is certainly not a season of grief.  Wistfulness and bittersweetness, yes, but not grief.

Spring beautifully -- and gently -- counsels us to be mindful of our mortality.  This is sound advice.  In fact, we are well-advised to consider our mortality on a daily basis, through all the seasons.  I am not suggesting that we should brood over "the strumble/Of the hungry river of death" from morn to eventide.  But an awareness of the shortness of our stay here provides a sense of perspective, and reminds us that we ought to be continually grateful for what the World bestows upon us, without our asking, each day.

Spring (like all the other seasons) teaches us gratitude, though the gratitude may at times have a wistful and bittersweet cast.

               To Blossoms

Fair pledges of a fruitful tree,
          Why do ye fall so fast?
          Your date is not so past;
But you may stay yet here a while,
          To blush and gently smile;
                         And go at last.

What, were ye born to be
          An hour or half's delight;
          And so to bid goodnight?
'Twas pity Nature brought ye forth
          Merely to show your worth,
                         And lose you quite.

But you are lovely leaves, where we
          May read how soon things have
          Their end, though ne'r so brave:
And after they have shown their pride,
          Like you a while:  They glide
                         Into the grave.

Robert Herrick, Poem 467, Hesperides (1648).

"Death is the mother of beauty."  (Wallace Stevens, "Sunday Morning.") What do blossoms do?  They "stay yet here a while,/To blush and gently smile;/And go at last."  What do "lovely leaves" do?  "They glide/Into the grave."  This is how the World works, and there is no reason to brood or to grieve.  Our response should be gratitude.  Gratitude and acceptance.

"Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene."

Epictetus, The Enchiridion, Section VIII (translated by W. A. Oldfather, 1928).

Lucien Pissarro, "The Garden Gate, Epping" (1894)

Alas, in this part of the world the daffodils and the tulips have nearly passed their prime.  Many of the daffodils (golden yellow and creamy white) have begun to droop.  Here and there, fallen tulip petals -- brightly-colored, sad things -- lie on the lawns and the sidewalks.

Still, as I have noted here in the past, the World has a way of providing us with compensations for its departures and losses.  As the tulips and the daffodils begin to vanish, the leaves have begun to uncurl and open on the trees.  From a distance, the stands of trees in the park that I walk through each day are enveloped in a light green haze of just-born leaves.

               To Daffadills

Fair daffadills, we weep to see
     You haste away so soon:
As yet the early-rising sun
     Has not attain'd his noon.
                              Stay, stay,
     Until the hasting day
                              Has run
     But to the Even-song;
And, having pray'd together, we
          Will go with you along.

We have short time to stay, as you,
     We have as short a Spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
     As you, or any thing.
                              We die,
     As your hours do, and dry
                              Away,
     Like to the Summer's rain;
Or as the pearls of morning's dew
          Ne'r to be found again.

Robert Herrick, Poem 316, Hesperides.  "Daffadill" was the spelling used in Herrick's time.

Does the World perfectly balance itself?  Do its compensations make up for its losses?  That is not our concern.  And, in any case, it is beyond our ken. Which is perfectly fine, and as it ought to be.  However, as Herrick once again reminds us, there is at least one thing of which we can be sure.

     Divination by a Daffadill

When a daffadill I see,
Hanging down his head t'wards me;
Guess I may, what I must be:
First, I shall decline my head;
Secondly, I shall be dead;
Lastly, safely buryed.

Robert Herrick, Poem 107, Ibid.

It is indeed a daffodil life that we live.  This is something to remind ourselves of, but not lose sleep over.  Gratitude, not grief.

"Trouble not yourself with wishing that things may be just as you would have them; but be well pleased that they should be just as they are, and then you will live easy."

Epictetus, The Enchiridion, Section VIII (translated by George Stanhope, 1741).

Lucien Pissarro, "Rade de Bormes" (1923)

Spring is not spring without a visit to this:  "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now/Is hung with bloom along the bough . . ."  I would only add that we mustn't forget the blossoms of the plum, pear, and apple:  all equally breathtaking in their beauty, all equally heartbreaking in their transience.

The pale, delicate blossoms of fruit trees in spring and the brilliant leaves of autumn:  it is through these gifts that I have arrived at my sense of life and of the World.  I have no idea how this happened.  Perhaps it is nothing more than an affinity for particular qualities of light and for particular colors.  But, from these blossoms and leaves, I have come to know this:  we live in a World of immanence.  There is something that lies behind them and beyond them, reticent yet articulate, untouchable yet all-embracing.
           
            To Cherry Blossoms

Ye may simper, blush, and smile,
And perfume the air a while:
But (sweet things) ye must be gone;
Fruit, ye know, is coming on:
Then, Ah! Then, where is your grace,
When as cherries come in place?

Robert Herrick, Poem 189, Hesperides.

Today I walked upon a white carpet of fallen petals.  Six months from today I will walk upon a red, orange, and yellow carpet of fallen leaves.  The path is the same.

"Require not things to happen as you wish; but wish them to happen as they do happen, and you will go on well."

Epictetus, The Enchiridion, Section VIII (translated by Elizabeth Carter, 1759).

Lucien Pissarro, "April, Epping" (1894)

Consider this:  we live in a World in which white and pink petals flutter around us like snow.  Where else would we wish to be?

     Simply trust:
Do not also the petals flutter down,
     Just like that?

Issa (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 363.

On a blue-sky and white-cloud afternoon last week, as I came to the end of my walk, I heard a lone bird singing.  It suddenly occurred to me:  while I had been walking, wherever I had been, birds had been singing and chattering all around me the entire time.  I was once again reminded:  we live in Paradise.

"Don't seek that all that comes about should come about as you wish, but wish that everything that comes about should come about just as it does, and then you'll have a calm and happy life."

Epictetus, The Enchiridion, Section VIII (translated by Robin Hard, 2014).

Lucien Pissarro, "Mimosa, Lavandou" (1923)

Saturday, April 8, 2017

For Edward Thomas

Tomorrow will be the 100th anniversary of the death of Edward Thomas at the Battle of Arras.  In 1917, April 9 fell on Easter Monday.

Thomas wrote the following poem on April 6, 1915:  two days after Easter Sunday.  He enlisted three months later.

               In Memoriam (Easter, 1915)

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

Edward Thomas, in Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 2008).

At times, Thomas's poetry sounds like an anticipatory, exploratory elegy for himself.  Which is not to say that his poetry is "confessional" or self-obsessed.  Rather, it is simply the case that he had an elegiac view of the World:  he was always  aware that he was a small part of a World that is ceaselessly passing and vanishing.  He was forever saying farewell.

             How at Once

How at once should I know,
When stretched in the harvest blue
I saw the swift's black bow,
That I would not have that view
Another day
Until next May
Again it is due?

The same year after year --
But with the swift alone.
With other things I but fear
That they will be over and done
Suddenly
And I only see
Them to know them gone.

Edward Thomas, Ibid.

This is a variation upon "First Known When Lost," which he wrote a year and a half earlier:  "I never had noticed it until/'Twas gone . . ."

John Nash (1893-1977), "A Gloucestershire Landscape" (1914)

I suspect that more poems have been written about Edward Thomas than about any other English poet.  Elected Friends: Poems for and about Edward Thomas (compiled by Anne Harvey) (Enitharmon Press 1991) collects 80 poems about him by 69 different poets.  As one might expect, the most affecting of these poems were written by those who knew him.

                    To E. T.: 1917

You sleep too well -- too far away,
     For sorrowing word to soothe or wound;
Your very quiet seems to say
     How longed-for a peace you have found.

Else, had not death so lured you on,
     You would have grieved -- 'twixt joy and fear --
To know how my small loving son
     Had wept for you, my dear.

Walter de la Mare, Motley and Other Poems (Constable 1918).

Thomas and de la Mare were close friends.  I find this poem to be particularly moving and beautiful because it poignantly conveys, in a short space, both the intense grief felt by de la Mare (and his family) at the loss of Thomas and the essence of Thomas:  that combination of melancholy, sensitivity, kindness, charm, and unbridgeable solitariness.

Also quite revealing is this:  "had not death so lured you on."  De la Mare knew Thomas well.

            Out in the Dark

Out in the dark over the snow
The fallow fawns invisible go
With the fallow doe;
And the winds blow
Fast as the stars are slow.

Stealthily the dark haunts round
And, when a lamp goes, without sound
At a swifter bound
Than the swiftest hound,
Arrives, and all else is drowned;

And star and I and wind and deer
Are in the dark together, -- near,
Yet far, -- and fear
Drums on my ear
In that sage company drear.

How weak and little is the light,
All the universe of sight,
Love and delight,
Before the might,
If you love it not, of night.

Edward Thomas, in Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems.

"Out in the Dark" is Thomas's penultimate poem.  He wrote it on Christmas Eve, 1916.  He departed for France on January 29, 1917.

John Nash, "Ripe Corn" (1946)

Like many people, I came to know Edward Thomas through "Adlestrop," which I happened upon in an anthology in the early 1980s.  "Adlestrop" is wonderful, of course.  (It is one of those poems you know by heart after reading it two or three times, without setting out to memorize it.)  However, the poem that made me realize I had found an essential companion for life was this:

            The New House

Now first, as I shut the door,
I was alone
In the new house; and the wind
Began to moan.

Old at once was the house,
And I was old;
My ears were teased with the dread
Of what was foretold,

Nights of storm, days of mist, without end;
Sad days when the sun
Shone in vain:  old griefs, and griefs
Not yet begun.

All was foretold me; naught
Could I foresee;
But I learnt how the wind would sound
After these things should be.

Edward Thomas, in Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems.

As I noted in my March 12 post on E. K. Chambers's poem in memory of Thomasine Trenoweth, the realization that one is in the presence of unforgettable beauty is, for me at least, accompanied by physical and emotional reactions:  a catch of breath, a feeling of being gently knocked back in one's chair, and, finally, a shaking of the head in wonder and delight.  This is what happened to me the first time I read "The New House."  And it still happens each time I read it.

John Nash, "Dorset Landscape" (c. 1930)

When one becomes acquainted with the poetry and prose of Edward Thomas, it is natural to feel affection for him as a person, and to grieve at the tragedy of his death at too young an age.  It is thus understandable that a great deal of biographical attention has been paid to him in recent years. However, I fear that a preoccupation with the particulars of his life may carry us away from his writing, which ought to be our primary focus.

It is a difficult balance to strike, for, as John Bayley observes in the following passage, the relationship between Thomas's life and his writing is significant:

"The poet who adds a new world to our experience -- as Auden does, as Larkin does -- is for that reason the kind of poet who really counts.  Such a poet is naturally unaware of what he is doing because he is becoming himself in his poetry, his true and involuntary self, not making and remaking himself, by the poetic will, as Yeats did, and as Frost did.  Yeats and Frost are great poets of course, but their greatness is of a quite different kind.  They do not bring a new sort of poetic world, the world of themselves, involuntarily into being."

John Bayley, "The Self in the Poem," in Jonathan Barker (editor), The Art of Edward Thomas (Poetry Wales Press 1987), page 40.

The intertwining of Thomas's life and poetry, and how that intertwining affects us, is captured in this lovely poem by W. H. Auden.

                                        To E. T.

Those thick walls never shake beneath the rumbling wheel
     No scratch of mole nor lisping worm you feel
          So surely do those windows seal.

But here and there your music and your words are read
     And someone learns what elm and badger said
          To you who loved them and are dead.

So when the blackbird tries his cadences anew
     There kindles still in eyes you never knew
          The light that would have shone in you.

W. H. Auden, Juvenilia: Poems, 1922-1928 (edited by Katherine Bucknell) (Princeton University Press 1994).  The poem, in Auden's handwriting, is found on "the blank leaf facing the last poem" in Auden's copy of the 1920 edition of Thomas's Collected Poems.  Ibid, page 100.  It was likely written in the summer of 1925, when Auden was 18 years old.  Ibid.

John Nash, "The Cornfield" (1918)

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Absence

My favorite poems from The Greek Anthology are the epitaphs and the elegies.  The best of them combine graceful, noble simplicity with deeply-felt, but restrained, emotion.  E. K. Chambers's poem in memory of Thomasine Trenoweth, which appeared in my previous post, prompted me to return to this lovely poem by Callimachus:

Their Crethis, with her prattle and her play,
The girls of Samos often miss to-day:
Their loved workmate, with flow of merry speech,
Here sleeps the sleep that comes to all and each.

Callimachus (c. 310 B.C. - c. 240 B. C.) (translated by A. H. Bullen), in      A. H. Bullen, Weeping-Cross and Other Rimes (Sidgwick & Jackson 1921).

This four-line poem accomplishes something remarkable in a brief space: it captures the essence of Crethis, of the personality which made her belovèd among her friends; it articulates, in a non-histrionic fashion, the grief of those friends upon losing her; and, finally, it places all of this within a context which embraces each of us, and which reminds us of a reality, often avoided, that we all must come to terms with, sooner or later.

Crethis, young prattler, full of graceful play,
Vainly the maids of Samos seek all day;
Cheerfullest workmate; ever talking; -- she
Sleeps here, -- that sleep, from which none born can flee.

Callimachus (translated by "F. H."), in The Classical Journal, Volume XXXIII (March and June, 1826), page 9.

Because I have no knowledge of Greek, I am not qualified to opine on the accuracy and fitness of the three translations that appear here.  I will only note that, despite the differences in the English words chosen by each of the translators, the emotional tenor of all three versions is quite consistent: we feel the charming vivacity of Crethis, and we also feel the aching and breathless sense of absence when a bright life is cut short.

The Samian maidens oft regret their friend,
     Sweet Crethis, full of play and cheer,
     Whose gossip lightened toil.  But here
She sleeps the sleep they all will sleep at end.

Callimachus (translated by Edward Cook), in Edward Cook, "The Charm of The Greek Anthology," More Literary Recreations (Macmillan 1919), page 317.

Algernon Cecil Newton (1880-1968), "The Avenue" (1944)

"All poetry is in a sense love-poetry."  Edward Thomas makes this suggestion at the end of a paragraph in which, discussing the unique power of poetry, he states:  "If what poets say is true and not feigning, then of how little account are our ordinary assumptions, our feigned interests, our playful and our serious pastimes spread out between birth and death. . . [Poetry] is the utterance of the human spirit when it is in touch with a world to which the affairs of 'this world' are parochial."  Edward Thomas, Feminine Influence on the Poets (Martin Secker 1910), pages 86-87.

I think that these are wonderful, and true, observations.  But might it not also be said that all poems are elegies?  This may be a case of six of one, half a dozen of the other:  an elegy is an expression of love (a greater or a lesser love, depending upon the nature of the relationship between the elegist and the departed).  There are various types and degrees of love, and the potential objects of our love are innumerable.  But what all love has in common is this:  the belovèd may leave us.  Hence, love poems.  Hence, elegies.  Edward Thomas again:  "First known when lost."

                           The Evening Star
     in memory of Catherine Mercer, 1994-96

The day we buried your two years and two months
So many crocuses and snowdrops came out for you
I tried to isolate from those galaxies one flower:
A snowdrop appeared in the sky at dayligone,

The evening star, the star in Sappho's epigram
Which brings back everything that shiny daybreak
Scatters, which brings the sheep and brings the goat
And brings the wean back home to her mammy.

Michael Longley, The Weather in Japan (Jonathan Cape 2000).  In a note, Longley explains that "dayligone" (line 4) is a "Scots (or Ulster Scots)" word which means "twilight, dusk."  Ibid, page 68.

"The evening star, the star in Sappho's epigram" likely refers to a two-line fragment by Sappho, which may be translated into prose as follows: "Evening, thou that bringest all that bright morning scattered; thou bringest the sheep, the goat, the child back to her mother."  Sappho (translated by Henry Thornton Wharton), in Henry Thornton Wharton, Sappho:  Memoir, Text, Selected Renderings, and a Literal Translation (David Stott 1887), page 131.

In Greek mythology, Hesperus (Venus) is the evening star.  Lord Byron adapts Sappho's lines, and links them to Hesperus, in Book III, Stanza 107, of Don Juan:

O Hesperus!  thou bringest all good things --
     Home to the weary, to the hungry cheer,
To the young bird the parent's brooding wings,
     The welcome stall to the o'erlaboured steer;
Whate'er of peace about our hearthstone clings,
     Whate'er our household gods protect of dear,
Are gathered round us by thy look of rest;
Thou bring'st the child, too, to the mother's breast.

A. E. Housman also incorporates the spirit of Sappho's lines (and Hesperus) into the third stanza of "Epithalamium":

     Happy bridegroom, Hesper brings
All desired and timely things.
All whom morning sends to roam,
Hesper loves to lead them home.
Home return who him behold,
Child to mother, sheep to fold,
Bird to nest from wandering wide:
Happy bridegroom, seek your bride.

A. E. Housman, Last Poems (Grant Richards 1922).

Algernon Cecil Newton, "The House by the Canal" (1945)

One  afternoon this past week, a heavy rain squall passed through about fifteen minutes before I headed out for my daily walk.  My course took me through a long avenue of trees.  By then, the sky had mostly cleared, and the green fields and bare trees glowed in the sunshine.

Wide puddles left by the just-departed storm ran continuously along both sides of the asphalt lane down which I walked.  As I have noted here in the past, to see the World reflected in a puddle, however small, is a wondrous thing.  But this was a replicated World of an entirely different magnitude: for two hundred yards or so the blue sky, the passing white clouds, and the intricate empty branches of the trees accompanied me, reflected in two bright ribbons of water.

As I walked, paused to gaze, and then walked on again, I was aware of the evanescence of the clear and brilliant World laid out at my feet.  Ripples, moving in tiny waves from south to north, occasionally disturbed the surface of the water as the wind gusted.  The blue sky and the white clouds and the tree branches reappeared when the wind subsided.  This bright and haunting World came to an end when the lane came to an end.  I could hear the rain water slowly gurgling into the storm drains.

"It is a commonplace of life that the greatest pleasure issues ultimately in the greatest grief.  Yet why -- why is it that this child of mine, who has not tasted half the pleasures that the world has to offer, who ought, by rights, to be as fresh and green as the vigorous young needles of the everlasting pine -- why must she lie here on her deathbed, swollen with blisters, caught in the loathsome clutches of the vile god of smallpox.  Being, as I am, her father, I can scarcely bear to watch her withering away -- a little more each day -- like some pure, untainted blossom that is ravished by the sudden onslaught of mud and rain.

"After two or three days, however, her blisters dried up and the scabs began to fall away -- like a hard crust of dirt that has been softened by melting snow.  In our joy we made what we call a 'priest in a straw robe.'  We poured hot wine ceremoniously over his body, and packed him and the god of smallpox off together.  Yet our hopes proved to be vain.  She grew weaker and weaker and finally, on the twenty-first of June, as the morning glories were just closing their flowers, she closed her eyes forever.

"Her mother embraced the cold body and cried bitterly.  For myself, I knew well it was no use to cry, that water once flown past the bridge does not return, and blossoms that are scattered are gone beyond recall.  Yet try as I would, I could not, simply could not, cut the binding cord of human love.

                              The world of dew
                         is the world of dew.
                              And yet, and yet -- "

Kobayashi Issa (prose translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa; haiku translated by Robert Hass), from A Year of My Life (1819), in Robert Hass, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa (The Ecco Press 1994), pages 227-228.

Visiting his daughter's grave a month after her death, Issa wrote this haiku:

Wind of autumn!
And the scarlet flowers are there
That she loved to pluck.

Kobayashi Issa (translated by Lewis Mackenzie), in Lewis Mackenzie, The Autumn Wind: A Selection from the Poems of Issa (John Murray 1957), page 100.

Here is another translation of the same haiku:

The red flower
you always wanted to pick --
now this autumn wind.

Kobayashi Issa (translated by Sam Hamill), in Kobayashi Issa, The Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku (translated by Sam Hamill) (Shambhala 1997), page 78.

Algernon Cecil Newton, "Landscape"

A lovely thought by William Cowper comes to mind:

"But it is a sort of April weather life that we lead in this world.  A little sunshine is generally the prelude to a storm."

William Cowper, letter to Walter Bagot (January 3, 1787), in James King and Charles Ryskamp (editors), The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, Volume III: Letters 1787-1791 (Oxford University Press 1982), pages 5-6.

Yüan Chen (779-831) wrote a series of poems after the death of his wife. This is one of them.

          Bamboo Mat

I cannot bear to put away
the bamboo sleeping mat --

that first night I brought you home,
I watched you roll it out.

Yüan Chen (translated by Sam Hamill), in Sam Hamill, Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (BOA Editions 2000), page 191.

It is often the small things that matter, and that are not forgotten, as long as we remain here.  But they are not small things at all, are they?

Algernon Cecil Newton, "The Surrey Canal, Camberwell" (1935)

Sunday, March 12, 2017

A Life

A few months ago, I discovered a lovely and moving poem.  I have a little story to tell about how this discovery came about, but the poem itself is entitled to center stage.

'In memory of Thomasine Trenoweth, aged 23.'

The little meadow by the sand,
Where Tamsin lies, is ringed about
With acres of the scented thyme.
The salt wind blows in all that land;
The great clouds pace across the skies;
Rare wanderers from the ferry climb.
One might sleep well enough, no doubt,
        Where Tamsin lies.

Tamsin has sunshine now and wind,
And all in life she might not have,
The silence and the utter peace
That tempest-winnowed spirits find
On slopes that front the western wave.
The white gulls circle without cease
        O'er Tamsin's grave.

E. K. Chambers, Carmina Argentea (1918).

I suspect that many moderns will find the poem to be too old-fashioned and too sentimental, too unironic, for their tastes.  Not I.  As I have noted here in the past, I consider sentimentality to be a perfectly acceptable human emotion.  Further, I am firmly in favor of anything that is deemed to be "old-fashioned."  Moreover, I believe that self-regarding, soulless irony is the bane of our times.  In short, I do not consider myself to be a "modern."

I find the poem to be absolutely beautiful.

Ernest Ehlers, "Sea Pinks, Porth Joke, Cornwall, May 1898" (1898)

Edmund Kerchever Chambers (1866-1954) was a civil servant in what was then known as the Board of Education.  In addition (and on the side), he was a leading scholar of English literature and, in particular, of the English theatre.  His most important works were The Mediaeval Stage (two volumes) and The Elizabethan Stage (four volumes).  He also prepared updated editions of several of Shakespeare's plays, the poems of John Donne, and the poems of Henry Vaughan.

In January, I posted two poems by Vaughan.  To confirm the text, I consulted Chambers's edition of Vaughan's poems on the Internet Archive. In doing so, I noticed a link to a book by Chambers titled Carmina Argentea.  I was not familiar with the book, so I opened the link.  I discovered a 32-page pamphlet that was, according to the title page, "Printed for the Author" in 1918.  The pamphlet contains poems written by Chambers.  He likely distributed copies of the pamphlet to his family and friends.

An "Envoi" at the start of the collection provides context.  It begins:  "A sorry sheaf of verse to bring/For fifty years of wayfaring/About the waste fields and the sown,/Where harvest of the Muse is grown!"  The "Envoi" concludes:  ". . . let them rest,/Poor relics of a broken quest."  In the United Kingdom of Chambers's time, literate men and women were wont to turn their hand to verse when sufficiently moved, even if the writing of poetry was not their primary vocation.  Carmina Argentea ("Silver Poems" or "Silver Songs") preserves twenty-one poems written by Chambers over "fifty years of wayfaring."

I began to read the poems.  They consisted of reflections on the city and the country, nature and the turn of the seasons, love and life.  All pleasant enough.  However, everything suddenly changed when I arrived at page 22, where I came upon 'In memory of Thomasine Trenoweth.'  As I read the poem, I immediately realized that this was something of an entirely different order.  How did I know?  As in all such cases, the signs of being in the presence of beauty were physical and emotional:  a catch of breath, a feeling of being gently knocked back in my chair, and, as the poem came to an end, a shaking of the head in wonder and delight (together with, I confess, misty eyes and a lump in the throat).

Robert Borlase Smart, "Cornish Cliffs, Zennor" (1923)

Of course, I was curious about Thomasine Trenoweth, and how she came into the life of E. K. Chambers.  My internet researches led me nowhere.  I did discover that the poem was given the title "Lelant" (with "In Memory of Thomasine Trenoweth, aged 23" appearing under the title) when it was republished in 1922 in the anthology Poems of To-Day: Second Series. Lelant is a village in Cornwall on the Hayle Estuary, a few miles southeast of St Ives.  However, I could find nothing about Chambers's connection with Lelant in particular, or with Cornwall in general:  he was born in Berkshire, attended Oxford, spent his working life in London, and retired to a village in Oxfordshire.  Cornish locations are mentioned in three other poems collected in Carmina Argentea.  Perhaps Chambers took his holidays in Cornwall?

But I have decided that it is best to leave Thomasine Trenoweth a mystery. Chambers's affectionate shortening of her name to "Tamsin" from "Thomasine" tells us something about her.  As does:  "Tamsin has sunshine now and wind,/And all in life she might not have."  And there is this as well:  "The silence and the utter peace/That tempest-winnowed spirits find/On slopes that front the western wave."  She was a person who once walked through the World.  Her departure was an occasion of sadness.  But she was not forgotten.

The following haiku by Bashō appeared here earlier this year, and it comes to mind again.

At the news of the nun Jutei's death

never think of yourself
as someone who did not count --
festival of the souls

Bashō (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 393.

Byron Cooper (1850-1933)
"Hayle Estuary, Cornwall (The Shadow of a Cloud)"

In my previous post, I repeated one of my poetic precepts (for which I claim no originality):  "It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet." Chambers's poem in memory of Thomasine Trenoweth is a perfect instance of what I had in mind.  In his day, no one thought of Chambers as a poet. Yet he was moved by his feelings to preserve in a poem the memory of someone he affectionately referred to as "Tamsin," and to wish her a peaceful sleep.  "Parta Quies."

The poem saw the light of day in 1918, surfaced again in 1922, and then essentially disappeared.  But the poem -- and Tamsin -- have been there all along.  They now return in a new century.  This tells us something about the wondrous and patiently circuitous workings of life, art, and the World.

We meet only to part,
Coming and going like white clouds,
Leaving traces so faint
Hardly a soul notices.

Ryōkan (translated by John Stevens), in John Stevens, Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryōkan (Shambhala 1996), page 91.

Samuel John Lamorna Birch (1869-1955), "A Cornish Stream"