Thursday, July 30, 2015

Echoes And Reflections

As I have observed here before, the older I get, the simpler Life seems to become.  I'm dumbfounded at the amount of extraneous luggage my mind carried around for years.  All those eventualities that never materialized, good or bad.  Scores of roundabouts and dead-ends, all bound for nowhere.

Yesterday afternoon -- the sky absolutely clear -- I walked through a tunnel of trees, beneath a canopy of interwoven branches.  Overhead, a thousand shades of green, shot through with blue and yellow.  "Life is too short," I thought, "for anything but this."

Cosmic trivia
we all are, but none of us
are unessential.

W. H. Auden, from "Shorts I," Epistle to a Godson and Other Poems (Random House 1972).

In the early 1960s, Auden began to write short poems in imitation of haiku: seventeen syllables in three lines.  He usually, but not always, used the traditional number of syllables per line: 5-7-5.  The poems by Auden in this post are all in this form.  Auden's "haiku" tend to be more philosophical and less imagistic than traditional haiku.  But he captures well the coy, oblique directness of the form.  No "symbols" or "metaphors" or "allegories," mind you.  But depth upon depth of implication.

Reading Auden's short poems, I began to think of Robert Herrick, and then of Basho.

      Upon Prew His Maid

In this little urn is laid
Prewdence Baldwin (once my maid)
From whose happy spark here let
Spring the purple violet.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides, Poem 782 (1648).  A side-note:  Herrick was fond of his maid Prewdence (or Prudence), and wrote several poems about her.  This "epitaph" was actually written, with affection, while she was alive.  In fact, she outlived Herrick by four years.

     In the midst of the plain
Sings the skylark,
     Free of all things.

Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 1: Eastern Culture (Hokuseido Press 1949), page 26.

Christopher Sanders, "Sunlight through a Willow Tree at Kew" (1958)

All of us are walking the same paths, aren't we?  Just as each human being has been doing for millennia.  No wonder that a poet from the 20th-century and two poets from the 17th-century sometimes seem to echo each other.

Thoughts of his own death,
like the distant roll
of thunder at a picnic.

W. H. Auden, from "Marginalia," City Without Walls and Other Poems (Random House 1969).  An aside:  this is one of the "haiku" in which Auden uses the requisite 17 syllables, but alters the syllable count in each line to a non-traditional 5-5-7.

      After Autumn, Winter

Die ere long I'm sure, I shall;
After leaves, the tree must fall.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides Poem 1058.

     Ill on a journey;
My dreams wander
     Over a withered moor.

Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 288.

Alfred Munnings (1878-1959), "Willows at Flatford, Suffolk"

Each "modern" era's self-flattering belief that it embodies the cutting-edge of humanity's "progress" is quaint and risible.  As I have noted on more than one occasion:  "Progress?  What progress?"  I suspect that your experience is similar to mine:  if you turn on the television after the latest outrage has occurred somewhere in the world, a panel of "experts" will be expressing incredulity at the atrocity, and will be debating (with shock on their faces) how this sort of thing can be "explained" given the advanced state of enlightenment in which we now live.

Do poets live in a simpler world?

A signpost points him out his road:
But names no place,
Numbers no distance.

W. H. Auden, from "Symmetries and Asymmetries," About the House (Random House 1965).

               Man's Dying-Place Uncertain

Man knows where first he ships himself; but he
Never can tell, where shall his landing be.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides, Poem 468.

     Along this road
Goes no one,
     This autumn eve.

Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 1: Eastern Culture, page 179.

Robert Ball, "Mrs Barclay's Pond, Harborne" (1949)

Looking at the poems that appear in this post, I notice that there is no shortage of musing over our mortality.  But how could it be otherwise? Poetry, unlike "progress," is about the individual human soul.  The soul, unless distracted by the noise around it, is concerned with Love and Death. "All poetry is in a sense love-poetry."  So says Edward Thomas.  But I would respectfully and deferentially add this:  elegiac love-poetry.

What is Death?  A Life
disintegrating into
smaller simpler ones.

W. H. Auden, from "Shorts I," Epistle to a Godson and Other Poems.

                         On Himself

Some parts may perish; die thou canst not all:
The most of thee shall scape the funeral.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides, Poem 554.

     A clear waterfall;
Into the ripples
     Fall green pine needles.

Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 90.

Thomas Corsan Morton (1859-1928), "Sunny Woodlands"

Friday, July 24, 2015


I am, as the saying goes, "a dog person."  But I have been extremely fond of quite a few cats in my time.  For instance, there is George, the orange cat who lives down the block.  Three or four evenings a week he strolls through the back garden at around seven o'clock, feigning (or is he feigning?) indifference.  If his presence is not noticed and acknowledged, he will quietly sit outside the French doors, staring inside, until he is duly greeted for the evening.  After a brief conversation, he will go his way, leaving no promises in his wake.

Thus, it is not an either/or matter for me.  I am unashamedly sentimental about the dogs and cats I have known.  Anthropomorphism bothers me not when it comes to these wonderful beings.  And I am perplexed by, and wary of, anyone who expresses indifference to them.

As W. H. Auden suggests, each occupies a distinctive place in our lives.

Dog    The single creature leads a partial life,
            Man by his mind, and by his nose the hound;
            He needs the deep emotions I can give,
            I scent in him a vaster hunting ground.

Cats    Like calls to like, to share is to relieve  
            And sympathy the root bears love the flower;
            He feels in us, and we in him perceive
            A common passion for the lonely hour.

Cats    We move in our apartness and our pride
            About the decent dwellings he has made:
Dog    In all his walks I follow at his side,
            His faithful servant and his loving shade.

W. H. Auden, Poem V in "Ten Songs," Collected Poems (Random House 1976).  The poem is untitled.  It was written in 1939.

Duncan Grant, "Girl at the Piano" (1940)

The contemplative detachment of cats is one of their attractive characteristics.  Again, whether this is feigned or not, I am not able to say. While dogs are certainly capable of contemplation, detachment is not one of their strong suits.

Imagine the word "dog" substituted for "cat" in the following haiku.  It just doesn't feel right.

     The peony;
A silver cat;
     A golden butterfly.

Buson (1716-1784) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 295.

Likewise, a dog wouldn't fit in a tableau such as this.

     The Cat and the Sea

It is a matter of a black cat
On a bare cliff top in March
Whose eyes anticipate
The gorse petals;

The formal equation of
A domestic purr
With the cold interiors
Of the sea's mirror.

R. S. Thomas, Poetry for Supper (Rupert Hart-Davis 1958).

Philip Connard (1875-1958), "Jane, Evelyn, James and Helen" (1913)

There comes a time in each of our lives when we turn to our faithful companion, feline or canine, and say something along the lines of:  "Well, at least you love me."  Or:  "Well, at least you understand me."  And your companion will look directly into your eyes and say, wordlessly:  "Of course I do."

     The Cat Says --

The Cat says,
And so say I,
Love is a winter fire,
And a summer lawn.
Love is a sharp claw,
Love is a pricked ear,
Love is a strong wind blowing at night
And a light sleep without fear.

I say,
And the Cat says too,
Love is a warm plumage
And a scented wine.
Love is a mackerel sky,
Love is the moon in a well,
Love is a feather the midnight owl lets fall,
And all oceans in a shell.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, New Collected Poems (edited by Claire Harman) (Fyfield Books/Carcanet 2008).

Some among us may find this sort of thing preposterous, sentimental, childlike.  Not I.  I suppose one's views depend upon how many dogs and cats one has been acquainted with.  I'm reminded of something that Arthur Symons wrote about his dog Api:  "It is enough to say that the eyes would be human, if human beings could concentrate so much of themselves into their eyes."

John Aldridge (1905-1983), "Lady with Cat"

This last part is difficult, for the memories of past companions come rushing.  "At first we seek to forget sorrow, to drown it in noise or oblivion; but gradually it comes back and takes hold of us and becomes our guest. Unbidden, we accept it, and recollection sits down with it by our hearth, an old friend."  Arthur Symons, "For Api," Collected Works, Poems: Volume Three (1924).

Yes, so one hopes, but still . . .

     Parting from a Cat

Whoever says farewell,
Has, for acquaintance, Death:
Small death, maybe, but still
Of all things dreaded most.
Yesterday I lost
An old, exacting friend
Who for ten years had haunted
My labours like a ghost,
Making my days enchanted
With feline airs and fancies.
Time, no doubt, will send
Some solace; and I know
Memory enhances
The half-companionship
Which is the most that can
Exist between cat and man.
But even so, I mourn
With a miniature grief
That won't relax its grip
Whichever way I turn,
Seeking to forget
My unimportant pet,
And that all life is brief.

Richard Church, The Inheritors: Poems 1948-1955 (Heinemann 1957).

Edward Bawden, "Roses and Rue" (1986)

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Horses Of Achilles

I suspect that my recommending Matthew Arnold's On Translating Homer (a series of lectures he delivered at Oxford in 1860) is not likely to move it to the top of your reading list.  I, too, resisted it for years.  But I relented after coming across a passage of The Iliad translated by Arnold.  He included the passage in one of the lectures in order to illustrate his views on Homeric translation.

                      Zeus and the Horses of Achilles

And with pity the son of Saturn saw them bewailing,
And he shook his head, and thus addressed his own bosom: --
     "Ah, unhappy pair, to Peleus why did we give you,
To a mortal?  but ye are without old age and immortal.
Was it that ye, with man, might have your thousands of sorrows?
For than man, indeed, there breathes no wretcheder creature,
Of all living things, that on earth are breathing and moving."

Matthew Arnold, On Translating Homer (1861), pages 94-95.  The passage appears in Book 17 of The Iliad at lines 509-516.

Zeus gave two immortal horses (Balius and Xanthus) to Peleus as a wedding gift when Peleus married the goddess Thetis.  Peleus and Thetis were the parents of Achilles.  Peleus in turn gave the horses to Achilles, who took them with him to Troy.  Achilles permitted his friend Patroclus to use the horses in the battle that led to Patroclus's death at the hands of Hector.

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

In On Translating Homer, Arnold compares his translation of the passage with those of George Chapman, Alexander Pope, and William Cowper. Arnold finds that Chapman's version lacks Homer's "nobleness," that Pope's is "too artificial," and that Cowper's is "too slow."

I am not qualified to comment on the niceties of Homeric translation given my lack of Greek, ancient or modern.  I hasten to add that Arnold does not claim that his own is the best.  Rather, his aim is to identify those distinctive characteristics of Homer that a translator ought to capture.  To wit:

"When I say, the translator of Homer should above all be penetrated by a sense of four qualities of his author; -- that he is eminently rapid; that he is eminently plain and direct, both in the evolution of his thought and in the expression of it, that is, both in his syntax and in his words; that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is, in his matter and ideas; and, finally that he is eminently noble; -- I probably seem to be saying what is too general to be of much service to anybody.  Yet it is strictly true that, for want of duly penetrating themselves with the first-named quality of Homer, his rapidity, Cowper and Mr. Wright have failed in rendering him; that, for want of duly appreciating the second-named quality, his plainness and directness of style and diction, Pope and Mr. Sotheby have failed in rendering him; that for want of appreciating the third, his plainness and directness of ideas, Chapman has failed in rendering him; while for want of appreciating the fourth, his nobleness, Mr. Newman, who has clearly seen some of the faults of his predecessors, has yet failed more conspicuously than any of them."

Matthew Arnold, On Translating Homer, pages 9-10.

Dear reader, I fear that I may be transporting you, against your will, to a stuffy lecture-hall in nineteenth-century Oxford, dust-motes swirling in the sleep-inducing afternoon sunlight that seeps through the high windows. So you'll have to take my word for it:  there is a great deal to be learned about Homer, and about the art of translation, from Arnold's lectures.

Whatever one feels about Arnold's opinions, we must remember that he is motivated by admiration and love:

"For Homer's grandeur is not the mixed and turbid grandeur of the great poets of the north, of the authors of Othello and Faust; it is a perfect, a lovely grandeur.  Certainly his poetry has all the energy and power of the poetry of our ruder climates; but it has, besides, the pure lines of an Ionian horizon, the liquid clearness of an Ionian sky."

Matthew Arnold, Ibid, page 104.

Algernon Cecil Newton, "A Gleam of Sunlight" (1966)

But enough of that.  It is the weeping immortal horses and Zeus's apostrophe on the sorrows of humanity that bring me here.  Given his keen sense of the antique world (he seems to dwell simultaneously in the present and in a vanished past -- though not vanished at all for him), together with his instinct for emotionally revelatory moments, it comes as no surprise that C. P. Cavafy would fasten upon this particular scene in The Iliad.

                    The Horses of Achilles

When they saw Patroklos dead
-- so brave and strong, so young --
the horses of Achilles began to weep;
their immortal nature was upset deeply
by this work of death they had to look at.
They reared their heads, tossed their long manes,
beat the ground with their hooves, and mourned
Patroklos, seeing him lifeless, destroyed,
now mere flesh only, his spirit gone,
defenseless, without breath,
turned back from life to the great Nothingness.

Zeus saw the tears of those immortal horses and felt sorry.
"At the wedding of Peleus," he said,
"I should not have acted so thoughtlessly.
Better if we hadn't given you as a gift,
my unhappy horses.  What business did you have down there,
among pathetic human beings, the toys of fate.
You are free of death, you will not get old,
yet ephemeral disasters torment you.
Men have caught you up in their misery."
But it was for the eternal disaster of death
that those two gallant horses shed their tears.

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

Cavafy's poem closely parallels Homer's text, but it is not intended to be merely a translation.  There is -- I'm sorry that I cannot come up with a better description -- a Cavafian feel to it (which is evident even in an English translation of Cavafy's modern Greek interpretation of Homer's ancient Greek).

Algernon Cecil Newton, "Moor Scene with Rock Face" (1910)

I confess that what interests me in The Iliad are the eddies and the asides to the main action, not the battles and the oratory, not the "epic" storytelling. Perhaps this shows that I don't correctly appreciate Homer.

"He that's well tinctur'd with philosophy needs but a short receipt:  a common cordial will keep up such a man's spirits, and expel the cold from his heart.  A verse or two out of Homer will serve for a hint, and do his business.  Let the poet speak.

Men are like leaves in verdure and decay,
As Spring supplies what Autumn blows away,
So mortals fade, and flourish in their turns.

You see how slenderly humane felicity is put together, your children are but leaves upon the matter, a little blast may take them from you.  The freshest laurels wither apace, and the echoes of fame are soon silenced; and which has some comfort, so is censure and reproach too.  All these matters like leaves have their Spring for growing, then a puff of wind sends them packing, and quickly after the wood is new furnish'd again."

Marcus Aurelius (translated by Jeremy Collier), Meditations, Book X, Section 34, in Jeremy Collier, The Emperor Marcus Antoninus, His Conversation with Himself (1702), page 199 (italics in original).

The source of the passage from Homer is Book 6 of The Iliad.  These lines were the subject of a post last October, in which I included translations by Pope and Cowper.  I was delighted to discover Marcus Aurelius putting the lines to use in such a lovely fashion.

I am certainly no Marcus Aurelius, but I do understand how this aspect of Homer appeals to him.  It is the small, simple things that matter.  In Homer, as in all else.

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

Sunday, July 12, 2015

"The Buried Life"

On the one hand, there is Matthew Arnold the quintessential Victorian of caricature:  the school inspector of high-minded sentiments and of strict societal and critical judgments.  Culture and Anarchy and all that.  Wholly admirable, by the way:  he saw what was coming, and he tried to warn us. Well, here we are.

On the other hand, there is Matthew Arnold the poet, who vanished in 1867 or so, twenty-one years before the prosaic Arnold died of a heart attack in Liverpool.  I claim no originality in calling attention to this split in his life:  a great deal of ink has been spilled trying to account for it.

Who knows what happened?  One way of looking at it is that Arnold applied his exacting critical standards to his own poetry and found it wanting.  Consider, for instance, something that Arnold wrote in an essay about Wordsworth:

"I remember hearing [Wordsworth] say that 'Goethe's poetry was not inevitable enough.'  The remark is striking and true. . . . But Wordsworth's poetry, when he is at his best, is inevitable, as inevitable as Nature herself. It might seem that Nature not only gave him the matter for his poem, but wrote his poem for him."

Matthew Arnold, "Wordsworth," Essays in Criticism, Second Series (1888), page 155.

Benjamin Leader (1831-1923), "A Surrey Sandpit" (1890)

In the end, though, I suspect that the division in Arnold's life is a matter of passion:  what is poetry without passion?  Except in a few great instances (Hardy, Yeats, Stevens) poetic passion is in the main a matter of youth. (Fortunately, this applies to the writing of poetry, but not to the reading of it.)  Perhaps Arnold recognized that he had lost his passion, so he stopped. (An aside:  in our times, we confer academic degrees in the writing of poetry, certifying that someone is a poet.  How's that for passion?)

But, before he stopped, Arnold wrote poetry that is as passionate (and as inevitable) as anything that has ever been written.  For that we should be grateful.  We need not dissect his life.


The thoughts that rain their steady glow
Like stars on life's cold sea,
Which others know, or say they know --
They never shone for me.

Thoughts light, like gleams, my spirit's sky,
But they will not remain;
They light me once, they hurry by,
And never come again.

Matthew Arnold, Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems (1852).

The following poem, which is one of the handful of poems that Arnold wrote after 1867, gets to the heart of his internal struggle.

Below the surface-stream, shallow and light,
Of what we say we feel -- below the stream,
As light, of what we think we feel -- there flows
With noiseless current strong, obscure and deep,
The central stream of what we feel indeed.

Matthew Arnold, in Kenneth Allott (editor), The Poems of Matthew Arnold (Longmans 1965).  The poem was published in The Cornhill Magazine in November of 1869.  Arnold did not include it in any of the collections of his poetry that were published during his lifetime.

Benjamin Leader, "Betws-y-Coed Church" (1863)

The notion of a "central stream" flowing within us -- our true self, untouched -- haunted Arnold.

"Deep suffering is the consciousness of oneself -- no less than deep enjoyment.  The disease of the present age is divorce from oneself."

Matthew Arnold, from "The Yale Manuscript," quoted in G. Robert Stange, Matthew Arnold: The Poet as Humanist (Princeton University Press 1967), page 192, footnote 18.

I would only suggest:  isn't divorce from oneself the disease of every age? Just a thought.

The stream image first appeared in Arnold's "The Buried Life":  "The unregarded river of our life . . . The buried stream."  (Lines 39 and 42.)  In the same poem, he writes:

But often, in the world's most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us -- to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves.

Matthew Arnold, "The Buried Life," lines 45-60, Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems (1852).

This prose passage parallels lines 57 through 60 of "The Buried Life":

"We have been on a thousand lines and on each have shown spirit[,] talent[,] even geniality but hardly for an hour between birth and death have we been on our own one natural line, have we been ourselves, have we breathed freely."

Matthew Arnold, from "The Yale Manuscript," quoted in Kenneth Allott (editor), The Poems of Matthew Arnold (Longmans 1965), page 274.

The influence of Stoic philosophy is evident in Arnold's poetry, and he wrote an admiring essay about Marcus Aurelius.  (The essay may be found in his Essays in Criticism, First Series.)  One can see why Arnold might find some comfort in the thought of the Stoics.  For example, his talk about the difficulty of pursuing "our own line" brings to mind this:

"If, therefore, now that you are near your exit, you quit thought about other things, and honour only that governing and divine part within you, and dread not the ceasing to live, but the not commencing to live according to nature; you will become a man, worthy of that orderly universe which produced you, and will cease to be as a stranger in your own country; both astonished, with what happens every day, as if unexpected; and in anxious suspense about this and t'other thing."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book XII, Section 1, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742), pages 279-280.

Benjamin Leader, "An English Hayfield" (1878)

At times, the passion (there is no other word for it) of Arnold's preoccupation with the fear that he is missing his own life leads to something near despair.


Why each is striving, from of old,
To love more deeply than he can?
Still would be true, yet still grows cold?
-- Ask of the Powers that sport with man!

They yoked in him, for endless strife,
A heart of ice, a soul of fire;
And hurled him on the Field of Life,
An aimless unallayed Desire.

Matthew Arnold, Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems (1852).

I am reminded of this:  "And we are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night." ("Dover Beach.")  As for "the Powers that sport with man":  Thomas Hardy sounds the same note with his "Crass Casualty," "dicing Time," and "purblind Doomsters."  ("Hap," in Wessex Poems and Other Verses.)

Pretty dire stuff.  We all know the feeling though.  But, ah, Matthew (and Thomas), there is another way of looking at things.  And how we live our life lies somewhere in between.

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

Issa (1763-1828) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 1: Eastern Culture (Hokuseido Press 1949), page 229.

Benjamin Leader, "At Evening Time It Shall Be Light" (1897)

Monday, July 6, 2015

No Surprise

I tend to be surprised by things like a caterpillar deciding to cross a street. Or a hummingbird suddenly appearing to look in at me from the other side of a window.  As for life as we human beings lead it, I'm afraid that nothing we do takes me aback any longer.  I am saddened, yes.  Surprised, no.  Not that I claim to possess any wisdom about how to live, mind you. It's just that we have never changed and we never will.

"How unacquainted is that man with the world, and how ridiculous does he appear, that makes a wonder of anything he meets with here?"

Marcus Aurelius (translated by Jeremy Collier), Meditations, Book XII, Section 13, in Jeremy Collier, The Emperor Marcus Antoninus, His Conversation with Himself (1702), page 229.

Here is another translation:

"How ridiculous, and like a stranger is he, who is surprised at anything which happens in life!"

Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742), page 285.

                 Things Ended

Possessed by fear and suspicion,
mind agitated, eyes alarmed,
we desperately invent ways out,
plan how to avoid the inevitable
danger that threatens us so terribly.
Yet we're mistaken, that's not the danger ahead:
the information was false
(or we didn't hear it, or didn't get it right).
Another disaster, one we never imagined,
suddenly, violently, descends upon us,
and finding us unprepared -- there's no time left --
sweeps us away.

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

Fairlie Harmar (1876-1945), "The Bridge at Monxton" (1916)

For Marcus Aurelius and the other Stoics, Do not be surprised is not a justification for pessimism or cynicism.  Instead, it goes hand-in-hand with another injunction:  carpe diem.  (Which we heard about from Horace earlier this year.)  And carpe diem is not a justification for licentiousness or hedonism:  the Stoics had no time for ignoble behavior.

Still, how many of us can live up to the ideals of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus?  I know that I can't.

                    Yorkshiremen in Pub Gardens

     As they sit there, happily drinking,
their strokes, cancers and so forth are not in their minds.
     Indeed, what earthly good would thinking
about the future (which is Death) do?  Each summer finds
     beer in their hands in big pint glasses.
     And so their leisure passes.

     Perhaps the older ones allow some inkling
into their thoughts.  Being hauled, as a kid, upstairs to bed
     screaming for a teddy or a tinkling
musical box, against their will.  Each Joe or Fred
     wants longer with the life and lasses.
     And so their time passes.

     Second childhood; and 'Come in, number 80!'
shouts inexorably the man in charge of the boating pool.
     When you're called you must go, matey,
so don't complain, keep it all calm and cool,
     there's masses of time yet, masses, masses . . .
     And so their life passes.

Gavin Ewart, Selected Poems: 1933-1988 (1988).  A side-note:  Philip Larkin included this poem in the Poetry Supplement anthology that he compiled on behalf of The Poetry Book Society for Christmas of 1974.  Now that's something I'm not surprised at:  it sounds like a poem that Larkin could have written himself.  A second side-note:  on men in charge of boating pools calling out one's number, please have a look at Derek Mahon's "September in Great Yarmouth" (which has appeared here previously): "The boatman lifts his megaphone:/'Come in, fifteen, your time is up.'"

It goes without saying (but I will say it anyway):  we are all Yorkshiremen in pub gardens.

Fairlie Harmar, "L'Aveyron" (c. 1932)

Yorkshiremen in pub gardens.  Or drifting on a peaceful pond, waiting for the boatman to call our number.  A perfectly reasonable way to live.  We all have something to bear in mind, but not to obsess over.  A gentle reminder from the Stoics:

"Manage all your actions and thoughts in such a manner as if you were just going to step into the grave."

Marcus Aurelius (translated by Jeremy Collier), Meditations, Book II, Section 11, in Jeremy Collier, The Emperor Marcus Antoninus, His Conversation with Himself (1702), page 21.

        A Commuter's Tale

A little late, but still in time
For the end of Z Cars,
After a drink in town with a friend,
On the last lap
The road downhill from the Tube,
Puffing at your pipe, puffing
Too at yourself.

Just at the bend, and almost home,
A -- what? -- a curious behaviour
In the chest, a rush-hour press
And stab of bodies, elbows, feet.

Well, at your age not unheard of
(Nor unread of, every morning),
Yet oddly, no embarrassment
(Must thank the drink for that)
At what portends a sorry solecism,
An exhibition you were brought up
Not to make,
But even some amusement
(Childish, suited to a childish mood)
As you remember:
Your season ticket, it expires today.

D. J. Enright, Sad Ires and Others (Chatto and Windus 1975).  Larkin also selected this poem for his 1974 Poetry Supplement Christmas anthology.

Fairlie Harmar, "Garden Gate" (c. 1921)

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Becoming A Poem

Those who have departed often return unexpectedly.  One then feels ashamed for having failed to properly attend to one's memories of them. This is not a matter of ghosts or of spirits, but of full-bodied presences in the mind's-eye:  when they return, they are right there in front of us.  Silent.

          Last Poem

Stand at the grave's head
Of any common
Man or woman,
Thomas Hardy said,
And in the silence
What they were,
Their life, becomes a poem.

And so with my dead,
As I know them
Now, in his
And her
Long silences;
And wait for, yet a while hence,
My own silence.

F. T. Prince, Collected Poems: 1935-1992 (The Sheep Meadow Press 1993).

Here is the lovely inspiration for Prince's poem:

"The most prosaic man becomes a poem when you stand by his grave at his funeral and think of him."

Thomas Hardy, notebook entry for May 29, 1872, in Richard Taylor (editor), The Personal Notebooks of Thomas Hardy (Macmillan 1978).

I'm surprised that Prince uses "common" rather than Hardy's "prosaic": the transition from "prosaic" to "poem" is wonderful.  I'd wager that Hardy would have described himself as prosaic.  Aren't we all?  And "common" as well.  Anyone who thinks otherwise hasn't faced the facts.

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "Midsummer, East Fife" (1936)

The following passage perhaps provides a roundabout instance of what Hardy has in mind.

Thus did he speak.  "I see around me here
Things which you cannot see:  we die, my Friend,
Nor we alone, but that which each man loved
And prized in his peculiar nook of earth
Dies with him, or is changed; and very soon
Even of the good is no memorial left."

William Wordsworth, "Book First: The Wanderer," lines 469-474, The Excursion, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume V (Oxford University Press 1949), page 24.

The lines are spoken by "the Wanderer."  "The Author" has found him drowsing in the sun, "the shadows of the breezy elms above/Dappling his face."  Ibid, lines 440-441.  The Excursion is a diffuse poem, with a tendency towards the long-winded, but one of the things that Wordsworth may be getting at is that we all have it in us to live, like the Wanderer, in our own "peculiar nook of earth."  But does that nook indeed die with us?  Is there "no memorial left" of how we have lived?

Hardy suggests that each of us ("prosaic" though we are), together with our peculiar nook, becomes a poem.  It certainly seems that way when the departed return to visit us.  A sentimental notion, I concede.  But I have no quarrel with sentimentality.

James McIntosh Patrick, "A Castle in Scotland"

I suspect that the subject matter of this post may be traceable to the fact that I have been visiting Thomas Hardy's poetry over the past few weeks.  As I have noted in the past, communings with the departed are a matter-of-fact occurrence in Hardy's poetry.  Things are seen out of the corner of one's eye.  There are tappings on windows and whispers in the boughs of trees. But these signals are never a cause for alarm.  Hardy -- sunk in the past as he was -- treats them as commonplaces.  Who does not think of the dead? And who's to say they are not thinking of us?

Hardy admired the poetry of Charlotte Mew, and he, along with others, helped procure a Civil List Pension for her when she was in financial straits.  The departed are plentiful in her poetry as well.

                              Here Lies a Prisoner

               Leave him:  he's quiet enough:  and what matter
               Out of his body or in, you can scatter
The frozen breath of his silenced soul, of his outraged soul to the winds
          that rave:
Quieter now than he used to be, but listening still to the magpie chatter
                                   Over his grave.

Charlotte Mew, Complete Poems (edited by John Newton) (Penguin 2000).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Downie Mill" (1962)

In the end, we all return to silence, don't we?

       The Best Thing to Say

The best thing to say is nothing
And that I do not say,
But I will say it, when I lie
In silence all the day.

C. H. Sisson, Collected Poems (Carcanet 1998).

"The Best Thing to Say" is one of Sisson's harrowing final poems, a selection of which appeared here five years ago.  He doesn't present a pretty picture.  Thus, it falls upon Thomas Hardy -- the purported "pessimist" -- to provide us with hope.  Yes, each of us returns to silence.  But we each become a poem.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Braes o' Lundie"

Thursday, June 25, 2015

"That Man Couldn't Look Out Of A Window Without Seeing Something That Had Never Been Seen Before"

To state the obvious (and to sound high-falutin' at the same time):  a successful work of art is the product of the keen observation of minute particulars transformed by a receptive, contemplative imagination.  This thought is prompted by a visit to Thomas Hardy's poetry this past week.

People who met him, and recorded their impressions, nearly always mention two things:  his eyes and his quiet, kind, and diffident manner.

"I could scarcely imagine those steady eyes 'in a fine frenzy rolling'; nor would I have expected their calm gaze either to conjure up the beauty of Tess or to read the mind of Napoleon.  But if Hardy did not wear his Muse upon his sleeve, there was yet in the very inconspicuousness of his appearance something unobtrusively impressive.  This impression deepened as I watched him.  The high, broad forehead was very fine; the expression in the initiated, resigned eyes, unforgettable.  They looked as if nothing could ever surprise them again.  They were sad eyes -- very sad -- but unflinching, as though, after long sorrow, a certain serenity had been arrived at.

It was about four o'clock when [J. M.] Barrie and I arrived at Max Gate, and we sat talking over the tea-table until seven.  I had been told that Hardy was the most unassuming, the least pretentious of talkers.  He certainly was an uncompetitive talker.  He seemed to have no desire to impress, persuade, or even amuse, but just to like uncontentiously to exchange ideas in the simplest possible words.  Yet he never said anything that was not to the point, and you could not fail to become more and more aware of his extraordinary perceptivity.  'That man,' Barrie had said of him on our journey down, 'couldn't look out of a window without seeing something that had never been seen before.'"

Cynthia Asquith, "Thomas Hardy at Max Gate," quoted in Martin Ray (editor), Thomas Hardy Remembered (Ashgate 2007), pages 243-244.

                                        Lying Awake

You, Morningtide Star, now are steady-eyed, over the east,
     I know it as if I saw you;
You, Beeches, engrave on the sky your thin twigs, even the least;
     Had I paper and pencil I'd draw you.

You, Meadow, are white with your counterpane cover of dew,
     I see it as if I were there;
You, Churchyard, are lightening faint from the shade of the yew,
     The names creeping out everywhere.

Thomas Hardy, Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres (1928).

Henry Justice Ford (1860-1941)
"A View of Church Hill from the Mill Pond, Old Swanage, Dorset"

When it comes to Hardy, I am wholeheartedly with Philip Larkin:  "may I trumpet the assurance that one reader at least would not wish Hardy's Collected Poems a single page shorter, and regards it as many times over the best body of poetic work this century so far has to show?"  Philip Larkin, "Wanted: Good Hardy Critic," Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 (Faber and Faber 1983), page 174.

Make that two readers (at least).  Larkin wrote those words in 1966.  Time has now shown that his final comment holds true for the 20th century as a whole.

"He was a great man, if a sign of that is simplicity and modesty so surprising that they might be childish innocence. . . .[T]he little old man himself, as he entertained us, might have been the youngest and most innocent of us all.  He appeared content to talk of the habits of owls, and of the signs of the weather, of local inns and queer characters, and of the strangeness of hearing in Dorchester by wireless telephony the dancers' feet when an orchestra was playing at a London festival.  Trivial life interested him.  Little things amused him.  Little things, you could see, often had for him a significance which a clever listener failed to grasp.
* * *
Hardy, too, had so innocent a guess into people and their motives that sometimes when talking to him you felt this child was as old as humanity and knew all about us, but that he did not attach importance to his knowledge because he did not know he had it.  Just by chance, in the drift of the talk, there would be a word by Hardy, not only wide of the mark, but apparently not directed to it.  Why did he say it?  On the way home, or some weeks later, his comment would be recalled, and with the revealing light on it.
* * *
If our talk gave out, then there were the reflections of the lively fire playing on the face of the old poet, who contemplated the bright logs, his eyebrows raised, his legs stretched out, his hands between his knees.  That seamed face lost sight of the visitors for a while, and its nervous interest in the gossip changed to the compassionate look of a man who had brooded for long on the world, but was not sure he had made out what it all meant, or could do it the good he desired for it.  It may be true that as a man thinks so is he, and that may be why Hardy's head was satisfying with expected beauty. . . . [W]hen Hardy was in repose his face was that of a seer.  There was no doubt then, no need to wonder what special privilege had admitted him to so close a knowledge of his fellows."

H. M. Tomlinson, "One January Morning," Out of Soundings (1931).

                 Paying Calls

I went by footpath and by stile
     Beyond where bustle ends,
Strayed here a mile and there a mile
     And called upon some friends.

On certain ones I had not seen
     For years past did I call,
And then on others who had been
     The oldest friends of all.

It was the time of midsummer
     When they had used to roam;
But now, though tempting was the air,
     I found them all at home.

I spoke to one and other of them
     By mound and stone and tree
Of things we had done ere days were dim,
     But they spoke not to me.

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

Ernest Waterlow (1850-1919), "On the Dorset Coast"

Is each of Hardy's 900-plus poems a masterpiece?  Of course not.  But each of them tells a truth -- however small, however humble -- about what it means to be a human being and about how we make our way through the world.  Call me old-fashioned, but what I find in Hardy's poetry is that rare thing:  wisdom combined with compassion.

"Presently I found myself seated near a good log fire.  A little white dog lay stretched on the hearthrug. Near the chimney-piece I noticed the portrait of Shelley, and on the top of the bookshelf a small bust of Sir Walter Scott.  He came in at last, a little old man (dressed in tweeds after the manner of a country squire) with the same round skull and the same goblin eyebrows and the same eyes keen and alert.  What was it that he reminded me of?  A night hawk? a falcon owl? for I tell you the eyes that looked out of that century-old skull were of the kind that see in the dark."

Llewelyn Powys, in Edmund Blunden, Thomas Hardy (1941), page 159.

  In Time of "The Breaking of Nations"

Only a man harrowing clods
     In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
     Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame
     From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
     Though Dynasties pass.

Yonder a maid and her wight
     Come whispering by:
War's annals will cloud into night
     Ere their story die.

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

Hardy dated the poem "1915," but it had its genesis in something that Hardy had observed, and felt, 45 years earlier.

"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.  For instance, the poem entitled 'The Breaking of Nations' contains a feeling that moved me in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war, when I chanced to be looking at such an agricultural incident in Cornwall. But I did not write the verses till during the war with Germany of 1914, and onwards.  Query:  where was that sentiment hiding itself during more than 40 years?"

Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work and Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), page 408.

"I loved a thing he told about young trees when first planted -- how, the instant their roots came in contact with the ground, they begin to sigh."

William Rothenstein, Men and Memories: Recollections of William Rothenstein 1872-1900 (1931), quoted in Martin Ray (editor), Thomas Hardy Remembered, page 109.

Bernard Priestman, "Wareham Channel, Dorset" (1910)

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Golden Mean

In a recent post I opined that, as one ages, things drop away.  For instance, the daily news of the world gives us plenty to be alarmed and incensed about, but it no longer seems worth the trouble.  The catalogue of horrors and absurdities has ever been thus:  not just last week or last year, but for centuries, millennia.  Why expend energy on it?  Our putative "progress" as a species is a nice fairy tale.  Mind you, this is not an argument for cynicism or misanthropy.  That the world is a madhouse does not relieve us of our duty to behave decently.

And, of course, there is still the matter of getting through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon.  Perhaps this is why I have become fonder and fonder of Horace and Robert Herrick in my senescence.  They are both oases of beautifully conveyed good sense.

Wise they, that, with a cautious fear,
Not always thro' the ocean steer,
Nor, whilst they think the winds will roar,
Do thrust too near the rocky shore:
To those that choose the golden mean
The waves are smooth, the skies serene;
They want the baseness of the poor's retreat,
And envy'd houses of the great.
Storms often vex the lofty oak,
High mountains feel the thunder's stroke;
And lofty towers, when winds prevail,
Are ruin'd with a greater fall:
A breast prepar'd in either state
Or fears or hopes a change of Fate;
'Tis Jove the same that winter brings
And melts the frost by pleasing springs:
Tho' Fortune now contracts her brow,
And frowns, yet 'twill not still be so:
Apollo sometimes mirth pursues,
His harp awakes his sleepy muse,
Nor always bends his threatening bow:
When Fortune sends a stormy wind,
Then show a brave and present mind;
And when with too indulgent gales
She swells too much, then furl thy sails.

Horace (translated by Thomas Creech), Odes, Book II, Ode 10, in Thomas Creech, The Odes, Satires, and Epistles of Horace (1684).

"The golden mean."  This sort of thing is regarded as a cliché by soi-disant sophisticated moderns.  Old, unironic, sentimental stuff.  Too obvious to bear repeating.  But would I rather read the poetry of Horace or a contemporary novel?  Next question.

Charles Parsons Knight, "Ramsey Island, Off Pembrokeshire" (1876)

I have also become increasingly fond of sea-faring metaphors for life, which are abundant in Horace and Herrick.  My time on various bodies of water has been limited to rowboats, an occasional canoe, and car ferries, but there is something about the notion of life as a sea-voyage that strikes my fancy.  Perhaps it is the timelessness of the image.  Last year I spent a great deal of time musing over the numerous lovely funereal epigrams for drowned mariners that one finds in The Greek Anthology.  And then there is this sort of thing:  "Run out the boat, my broken comrades . . . Run up the sail, my heartsick comrades . . . Put out to sea, ignoble comrades . . ." (Louis MacNeice, "Thalassa.")


He, who has suffer'd ship-wrack, fears to sail
Upon the seas, though with a gentle gale.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides (1648).  This has been identified as a translation of line 8 in Poem 7, Book II, of Ovid's Epistulae ex Ponto.  Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume II (Oxford University Press 2013), page 685.

                            Safety on the Shore

What though the sea be calm?  Trust to the shore:
Ships have been drown'd, where late they danced before.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides.  It has been suggested that the source of the poem is a passage in Epistle IV of Seneca's Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales: "Do not trust her calm; in a moment the sea is in turmoil.  The same day the ships dance in the games, they are engulfed."  Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume II, page 577.

Charles Parsons Knight, "Falmouth Harbour" (1883)

Not surprisingly, there are echoes of Horace throughout Herrick's poetry. Thus, for example, the following poem by Herrick is reminiscent of the ode by Horace that is set forth above.

      Good Precepts, or Counsel

In all thy need, be thou possest
Still with a well-prepared breast:
Nor let the shackles make thee sad;
Thou canst but have, what others had.
And this for comfort thou must know,
Times that are ill won't still be so.
Clouds will not ever power down rain;
A sullen day will clear again.
First, peals of thunder we must hear,
Then lutes and harps shall stroke the ear.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides.

"Times that are ill won't still be so" (line 6) may have its source in Horace's lines translated by Creech as:  "Tho' Fortune now contracts her brow,/And frowns, yet 'twill not still be so."  Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume II, page 706.  "First, peals of thunder we must hear,/Then lutes and harps shall stroke the ear" (lines 9 and 10) may show the influence of Horace's "Apollo sometimes mirth pursues,/His harp awakes his sleepy muse,/Nor always bends his threatening bow."  Ibid.

Charles Parsons Knight, "Cawsand Bay" (1877)

Finally, out of nowhere comes this:

         Waiting Both

A star looks down at me,
And says:  "Here I and you
Stand, each in our degree:
What do you mean to do, --
          Mean to do?"

I say:  "For all I know,
Wait, and let Time go by,
Till my change come." -- "Just so,"
The star says:  "So mean I: --
          So mean I."

Thomas Hardy, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles (1925).

I suppose that pursuing the golden mean is to a great degree a matter of waiting.

"Everything which seems to perish merely changes.  Since you are destined to return, you ought to depart with a tranquil mind.  Mark how the round of the universe repeats its course; you will see that no star in our firmament is extinguished, but that they all set and rise in alternation.  Summer has gone, but another year will bring it again; winter lies low, but will be restored by its own proper months; night has overwhelmed the sun, but day will soon rout the night again.  The wandering stars retrace their former courses; a part of the sky is rising unceasingly, and a part is sinking."

Seneca (translated by Richard Gummere), Epistle XXXVI, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales.

Charles Parsons Knight, "The Kyles of Bute" (1893)