Thursday, September 21, 2017

Asleep

I am easy to please.  Or so I like to think.  Perhaps this is merely a matter of growing old, evidence of a fond mind.  "Or else I'm gettin' soft."  Recently, for instance, I have spent a fair amount of pleasurable time mulling over various English translations of a six-line fragment (all that has been recovered) of a Greek poem written by Alcman, who lived in the late 7th century B. C., and who may or may not have been from Sparta.  Mind you, my preoccupation has not been a scholarly endeavor:  I find the lines lovely, and I have been loath to quickly leave them.

The mountain-summits sleep, glens, cliffs and caves,
     Are silent -- all the black earth's reptile brood --
     The bees -- the wild beasts of the mountain wood;
In depths beneath the dark red ocean's waves
     Its monsters rest, whilst wrapt in bower and spray
     Each bird is hush'd that stretch'd its pinions to the day.

Alcman (translated by Thomas Campbell), in Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule (editors), The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1995).  The poem was originally published in 1821 in The New Monthly Magazine.

Walter John James (1869-1932), "Troughend near Otterburn"

I am always bemused and puzzled when I hear someone proclaim that our age is one in which we are witnessing "the death of poetry" or, more broadly, "the death of culture."  How can poetry and culture be in their death throes if we can read Alcman or Simonides today, Bashō or Saigyō tomorrow, Robert Herrick or Thomas Hardy the day after that, and T'ao Ch'ien or Wang Wei the day after that?  Enough of this death business.

In fact, the creation and preservation of Beauty and Truth by means of poetry and other works of art has always been -- and will always be -- a near run thing.  At any given time in the history of humanity, the survival of Beauty and Truth has depended upon the love and good offices of a few thousand, a few hundred, or even a few dozen people.  These people are not saints, nor are they in any way superior to their fellow human beings.  They have simply (to their surprise and delight) stumbled upon something of the greatest importance.

                              Night

The far peaks sleep, the great ravines,
The foot-hills, and the streams.
Asleep are trees, and hivèd bees,
The mountain beasts, and all that dark earth teems,
The glooming seas, the monsters in their deeps:
And every bird, its wide wings folded, sleeps.

Alcman (translated by H. T. Wade-Gery), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1938).  Wade-Gery added the title "Night" to the fragment.

There you have it:  by reading six lines of verse written over 2,500 years ago, you have prevented the death of poetry.  All is now well with the World.

George Reid (1841-1913), "Evening" (1873)

Please bear with me as I state the obvious:  the best poetry is timeless. When I read Alcman's fragment, I do not feel that I am reading something that is alien to the World as I know it.  And here is something marvelous:  a good poem's timelessness is directly related to the fact that it is the product of a fleeting moment of revelation.  "Now is the all-sufficing all/Wherein to love the lovely well,/Whate'er befall."  By virtue of poetry, a vanished moment becomes imperishable.

"In old-fashioned novels, we often have the situation of a man or a woman who realizes only at the end of the book, and usually when it is too late, who it was that he or she had loved for many years without knowing it.  So a great many haiku tell us something that we have seen but not seen.  They do not give us a satori, an enlightenment;  they show us that we have had an enlightenment, had it often, -- and not recognized it."

R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 322.

Although Blyth's observation relates to haiku in particular, I would suggest that it is applicable to all forms of poetry, in all ages and in all places.

The mountain-tops are asleep, and the mountain-gorges,
     Ravine and promontory:
Green leaves, every kind of creeping things
     On the breast of the dark earth, sleep:
Creatures wild in the forest, wandering bees,
Great sea-monsters under the purple sea's
Dark bosom, birds of the air with all their wings
     Folded, all sleep.

Alcman (translated by Walter Headlam), in Walter Headlam, A Book of Greek Verse (Cambridge University Press 1907).

Walter John James, "Evening" (1913)

As I was thinking about poetry as enlightenment or revelation, as the product of an evanescent moment, this appeared out of the blue:

   Dust of Snow

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

Robert Frost, New Hampshire (Henry Holt 1923).  (A word of caution:  I am not suggesting that "Dust of Snow" is "about" poetry.  I am merely reporting its unexpected arrival on the scene.)

But let us return to a night in Greece two millennia ago.  Which is tonight.

                                     Vesper

Now sleep the mountain-summits, sleep the glens,
The peaks, the torrent-beds; all things that creep
On the dark earth lie resting in their dens;
Quiet are the mountain-creatures, quiet the bees,
The monsters hidden in the purple seas;
And birds, the swift of wing,
Sit slumbering.

Alcman (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas (editor), Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951).  Lucas added the title "Vesper."

Reginald Brundrit (1883-1960), "Nightfall"

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Two Linnets, A Dove, And A Lark

When I am out on my daily walk, I often hear brief rustlings, chirpings, or wing-flutterings from within the bushes on either side of the path, or from off in the dim light of the thick evergreen woods that lie beyond the bushes. This heard but unseen activity provides a comforting reminder of the unceasing life that goes on around us as we fret and fume in our human world, at a far remove from the vitality of such beautiful particulars, our minds ticking and humming along.  These hidden birds, they pay us no mind.

               The Linnet

Upon this leafy bush
     With thorns and roses in it,
Flutters a thing of light,
     A twittering linnet,
And all the throbbing world
     Of dew and sun and air
By this small parcel of life
     Is made more fair:
As if each bramble-spray
     And mounded gold-wreathed furze,
Harebell and little thyme,
     Were only hers;
As if this beauty and grace
     Did to one bird belong,
And, at a flutter of wing,
     Might vanish in song.

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

De la Mare makes a wonderful point:  the linnet graces the World (and, by doing so, gives us an unasked-for gift of beauty), yet, simply by being what it is, it also enhances and completes the World:  "And all the throbbing world/Of dew and sun and air/By this small parcel of life/Is made more fair."  These innumerable, tiny pieces (not a single one of them insignificant) all fit together.  (But, please, do not attempt to solve the puzzle.)  Where would the World be without linnets?

        Tenebris Interlucentem

A linnet who had lost her way
Sang on a blackened bough in Hell,
Till all the ghosts remembered well
The trees, the wind, the golden day.

At last they knew that they had died
When they heard music in that land,
And some one there stole forth a hand
To draw a brother to his side.

James Elroy Flecker, Thirty-Six Poems (Adelphi Press 1910).  An ignorant layperson's (i.e., my) translation of "tenebris interlucentem" (or "tenebris inter lucentem") might be "shining amid the dark" or "light amid the darkness."

"The trees, the wind, the golden day."  That is our World in a nutshell, isn't it?  One could go on and on, of course:  The sound of a river of wind in the leaves, the ever-changing kaleidoscope of light and shadow overhead, a blue and green paradise . . .  But, no, this is enough:  "The trees, the wind, the golden day."

Michael Garton (1935-2004), "Woodland Clearing"

This past spring, I had the pleasure of listening to an unseen dove (or was it doves?) cooing just outside the window of the room in which I am typing this, a room which also serves as a library.  Perhaps I am not sufficiently curious, but I never went out into the garden to investigate.  Was it a male cooing to attract a mate?  Or was it a nesting pair?  I will never know, for I didn't think it was right to intrude.

I felt the same way about the murmuring of the doves as I do about the small sounds I hear from the bushes and the woods while I am out walking:  the cooing seemed to me to be the vital spirit of the World, a World of which we are a part, and which is a part of us.  The presence of the cooing made the garden something different.  It made me something different.

"Bird of good omen, you are at home wherever you travel.  You perch here or there, or you fly for a short time; perhaps at night you fly farther afield, but whatever you do, it is as if nothing were lacking, as if you were the voice that moves up and down the rungs of the world, between earth and sky, never beyond, always in the infinite globe, free but inside it, over there, close at hand, where the silvered branches fork, awaiting nothing, fleeing nothing, traveller whom a second's joy, for no reason at all, steals from the journey's movement and leaves perched, at a halt . . . where?  in the light of the leaves that are soon to fall and give way to the sky, in golden October, dressed in air, suddenly unable to understand any word like going, leaving, frontier, foreigner.  Blessed, clothed in your native light."

Philippe Jaccottet, from "The Collared Dove," in Landscapes with Absent Figures (translated by Mark Treharne) (Delos Press/Menard Press 1997), pages 43-44.

John Pearce, "Blackberries in August, Muswell Hill, London" (1980)

"Could you have said the bluejay suddenly/Would swoop to earth?" (Wallace Stevens, "The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man.")  This is how the World reveals itself to us:  in an unending series of miraculous and beautiful commonplaces.  (By the way, I never use the word "commonplace" in a pejorative sense.)

A few months ago, I was walking along a path between two rows of big-leaf maples:  one of my favorite tree tunnels.  Large open meadows of wild grass lie on either side of the path.  My attention moved between the shifting blue and green of the boughs overhead and the shifting patches of light and shadow on the path before me.  "The trees, the wind, the golden day."  As I walked, my eyes looking skyward, then earthward, then skyward again, I was suddenly surrounded by swallows, criss-crossing the path just above the ground as they dived and curved from meadow to meadow, going about their afternoon feeding.  Commonplaces.

               Lark Descending

A singing firework; the sun's darling;
     Hark how creation pleads!
Then silence:  see, a small gray bird
     That runs among the weeds.

Edmund Blunden, Choice or Chance (Cobden-Sanderson 1934).

Patrick Symons, "Oak Arch Grey (Wimbledon Common)" (1981)

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Eclipse

"Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily."  La Rochefoucauld (translated by Stuart Warner and Stéphane Douard), Réflexions ou Sentences et Maximes Morales (1665).  A wise observation, particularly when an eclipse comes your way.  Alas, "the path of totality" passed two hundred miles to the south of us, but we did experience 92 percent totality here in Seattle.

I had no desire to view the event through eclipse glasses.  Instead, as the time arrived, I walked out into the back garden to see how dark it would become.  It never became dark, only slightly dim:  an unusual smoky, dusky honey-gold yellow light.  As it turned out -- and to my surprise, never having experienced a solar eclipse before -- it was the ground, not the sky, that proved to be of greatest interest.

 Seattle Partial Eclipse:
Leaf-Veiled Light (Apple And Cherry) On Garden Stones

Does beauty most often make itself known in "the half colors of quarter-things"?  In crescents of wavering light on garden stones?  Or in the bright corona of an obscured sun?

He who has lived in sunshine all day long,
                    His happy eyes
From too much light defending,
                    He cannot duly prize
One gleam of light at the day's ending.

Mary Coleridge, in Theresa Whistler (editor), The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (Rupert Hart-Davis 1954).  The poem is untitled.

Seattle Partial Eclipse:
Leaf-Veiled Light (Japanese Maple) On Pathway

I apologize for being too self-referential, but earlier this month I said this of the sun (not having the eclipse in mind at all):  "we come to know our star through its revelations, emanations, and creations."  My memory of the Great Eclipse of 2017 will be of lovely crescents of light strewn across the grey granite stones and pathways of the garden, set beside patches of green.

            The Brave Man

The sun, that brave man,
Comes through boughs that lie in wait,
That brave man.

Green and gloomy eyes
In dark forms of the grass
Run away.

The good stars,
Pale helms and spiky spurs,
Run away.

Fears of my bed,
Fears of life and fears of death,
Run away.

That brave man comes up
From below and walks without meditation,
That brave man.

Wallace Stevens, Ideas of Order (Alfred A. Knopf 1936).

Seattle Partial Eclipse:
Leaf-Veiled Light (Apple And Cherry) On Garden Stones

Saturday, August 19, 2017

A Life

In March of this year, I shared E. K. Chambers's lovely poem written in memory of Thomasine ("Tamsin") Trenoweth.  I was reminded of Tamsin, rest her soul, when I came across this a few days ago:

Short is my say, O stranger.  Stay and read.
Not fair this tomb, but fair was she it holds.
By her name her parents called her Claudia.
Her wedded lord she loved with all her heart.
She bare two sons, and one of them she left
On earth, the other in the earth she laid.
Her speech was pleasing and her bearing gracious.
She kept house:  span her wool.    I have said.    Farewell.

Anonymous (translated by F. L. Lucas), in Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule (editors), The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1995).  The translation first appeared in an essay by Lucas that was published in The New Statesman on May 10, 1924.

The lines are a Latin funerary inscription that was discovered in Rome.  It is believed to date from approximately 135 to 120 B.C.  The inscription was engraved on a tablet or pillar, which has now disappeared.  E. H. Warmington, Remains of Old Latin, Volume 4: Archaic Inscriptions (Harvard University Press 1940), page 13.

Mary Hunter (1878-1936), "Hyacinths"

After discovering the inscription in the morning, I encountered the following single-sentence notebook entry by Philippe Jaccottet in the evening:

"The imperceptible movement of an invisible soul and the enormous sun."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), Seedtime: Notebooks 1954-1979 (Seagull Books 2013), page 159.  Jaccottet made the entry in October of 1967.

It is often best to simply place two things beside each other and leave them be.

Fred Stead (1863-1940), "River at Bingley, Yorkshire"

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Sun: A Brief Addendum

It's funny how these things work.  My most recent post, on Monday, was a paean of sorts to the sun.  On the following day, for no apparent reason, I felt the urge to return to the poetry of James Elroy Flecker, a few of whose poems have appeared here in the past.  (For instance, here, here, and here.) After visiting a couple of favorites, I discovered this, which was new to me:

               A Western Voyage

My friend the Sun -- like all my friends
     Inconstant, lovely, far away --
Is out, and bright, and condescends
     To glory in our holiday.

A furious march with him I'll go
     And race him in the Western train,
And wake the hills I used to know
     And swim the Devon sea again.

I have done foolishly to tread
     The footway of the false moonbeams,
To light my lamp and call the dead
     And read their long black printed dreams.

I have done foolishly to dwell
     With Fear upon her desert isle,
To take my shadowgraph to Hell,
     And then to hope the shades would smile.

And since the light must fail me soon
     (But faster, faster, Western train!)
Proud meadows of the afternoon,
     I have remembered you again.

And I'll go seek through moor and dale
     A flower that wastrel winds caress;
The bud is red and the leaves pale,
     The name of it Forgetfulness.

Then like the old and happy hills
     With frozen veins and fires outrun,
I'll wait the day when darkness kills
     My brother and good friend, the Sun.

James Elroy Flecker, in John Squire (editor), The Collected Poems of James Elroy Flecker (Secker and Warburg 1946).

The poem was first published in 1910 in Flecker's Thirty-Six Poems.  In August of that year, he had become ill, and he soon learned that he had contracted tuberculosis.  In September he was admitted to a sanatorium in the Cotswolds.  He died on January 3, 1915, at the age of 30.  In view of these circumstances, the poem perhaps takes on a different aspect, particularly the final stanza and this line:  "And since the light must fail me soon."

Stanley Roy Badmin (1906-1989), "Bolton Abbey, Wharfedale"

But serendipity was not finished with me yet.  The past month I have been reading poems in The Greek Anthology and in other collections of Greek lyric poetry.  Last night, I came upon this:

I love delicate ease and softness;
     Born desire is mine
To behold things fair and lovely
     And the bright sun-shine.

Sappho (translated by Walter Headlam), in Walter Headlam, A Book of Greek Verse (Cambridge 1907).

Yes, "there's nothing like the sun till we are dead."

James McIntosh Patrick, "A City Garden" (1940)

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Sun

Dear readers, you have heard me say this before (and you will no doubt hear me say it in the future):  Life is far simpler than we make it out to be.  It is nothing more (and nothing less) than an all-too-brief gambol in the sun. Edward Thomas is exactly right:

No day of any month but I have said --
Or, if I could live long enough, should say --
"There's nothing like the sun that shines today."
There's nothing like the sun till we are dead.

These lines bring to an end a twenty-line poem, and, as is so often the case with Thomas, his conclusion contains a qualification:  "Or, if I could live long enough, should say . . ."  ("The poetry of almost infinitely-qualified states of mind," as Philip Larkin so perfectly puts it.  The influence of Robert Frost's equivocal, self-reversing poetic conclusions on Thomas cannot be discounted either.  Or did Thomas influence Frost?  Kindred spirits, in any case.)  The qualification is wholly understandable:  Thomas wrote the poem in November of 1915 at Hare Hall Camp, Essex, where he was serving as a map-reading instructor.  Still, the overall tone is one of joy and celebration, as it should be when one speaks of the sun.

          De Sole
      after Ficino

If once a year
the house of the dead
stood open
and those dwelling
under its roof
were shown the world's
great wonders, all
would marvel beyond every other thing at
the sun

Charles Tomlinson, The Shaft (Oxford University Press 1978).

I presume that the poem is Tomlinson's version of a prose passage from Liber de Sole ("The Book of the Sun") (1493) by Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499).

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

"The colossal sun,/Surrounded by its choral rings":  it is not a thing to be stared at.  Instead, we come to know our star through its revelations, emanations, and creations.  I am not speaking of scientific knowledge.

One recent warm afternoon, an afternoon on which, as we are wont to say, "there was not a cloud in the sky," I heard bird conversations coming from high overhead as I walked beside a large meadow.  There were no trees nearby.  The chirping and chattering and twittering came from out of the empty air of the blue-interwoven-with-gold sky.  But, of course, the air was not empty.  The swallows were going about their afternoon feeding, curving and sweeping and diving just above the dry grass and the pink-purple sweet peas of the meadow, then disappearing into the overarching brightness.

                       Solar Creation

The sun, of whose terrain we creatures are,
Is the director of all human love,
Unit of time, and circle round the earth

And we are the commotion born of love
And slanted rays of that illustrious star
Peregrine of the crowded fields of birth,

The crowded lanes, the market and the tower
Like sight in pictures, real at remove,
Such is our motion on dimensional earth.

Down by the river, where the ragged are,
Continuous the cries and noise of birth,
While to the muddy edge dark fishes move

And over all, like death, or sloping hill,
Is nature, which is larger and more still.

Charles Madge, The Disappearing Castle (Faber and Faber 1937).

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

The manner in which unsolicited and unwanted human-created images insinuate themselves into our mind, heart, and soul can be alarming.  At this point in my short remaining time above ground, I have decided that poems, paintings, and other works of art are welcome, subject to my arbitrary standards of admission (Beauty and Truth), which are applied in an unsystematic and idiosyncratic fashion.  On the other hand, images and messages from the political, entertainment, and media worlds are not welcome, and are avoided as much as possible.  "News" is forbidden.

But, of course, it is the real World that matters, not merely images of that World, however beautiful and true they may be.  What I have in mind, for instance, is the large, blooming lavender bush that I recently passed while walking through the neighborhood on a hot, sunny afternoon.  The bush was covered with dozens of bumblebees, hovering at the constellated flowers, abuzz.  "Makings of the sun."  The beginning and the end.

               Solar

Suspended lion face
Spilling at the centre
Of an unfurnished sky
How still you stand,
And how unaided
Single stalkless flower
You pour unrecompensed.

The eye sees you
Simplified by distance
Into an origin,
Your petalled head of flames
Continuously exploding.
Heat is the echo of your
Gold.

Coined there among
Lonely horizontals
You exist openly.
Our needs hourly
Climb and return like angels.
Unclosing like a hand,
You give for ever.

Philip Larkin, High Windows (Faber and Faber 1974).

Stanley Roy Badmin (1906-1989), "Stormy Evening, Glencoe"

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"