Tuesday, May 3, 2016


The azaleas and the rhododendrons are in full bloom in my neighborhood. There are dozens of varieties on display, none of which I know by name. No matter:  the colors leave you speechless.  As I walked among them yesterday afternoon -- a sunny day, the scent of newly-mown grass in the air -- the meaning of life suddenly became clear to me:  our souls are placed upon the earth in order to watch the trees and flowers bloom each spring.

It makes perfect sense.  Consider the alternatives.  Have our souls been quickened so that we may watch television news shows on a daily basis?  Is the purpose of our existence to vote in elections?  Having emerged from eternity, and sensing that our time here is short, should we make a beeline to the nearest shopping mall?


To walk abroad is, not with eyes,
But thoughts, the fields to see and prize;
          Else may the silent feet,
                    Like logs of wood,
Move up and down, and see no good,
          Nor joy nor glory meet.

Ev'n carts and wheels their place do change,
But cannot see, though very strange
          The glory that is by:
                    Dead puppets may
Move in the bright and glorious day,
          Yet not behold the sky.

And are not men than they more blind,
Who having eyes yet never find
          The bliss in which they move?
                    Like statues dead
They up and down are carried,
          Yet neither see nor love.

To walk is by a thought to go,
To move in spirit to and fro,
          To mind the good we see,
                    To taste the sweet,
Observing all the things we meet
          How choice and rich they be.

To note the beauty of the day,
And golden fields of corn survey,
          Admire each pretty flow'r
                    With its sweet smell;
To praise their Maker, and to tell
          The marks of his great pow'r.

To fly abroad like active bees,
Among the hedges and the trees,
          To cull the dew that lies
                    On ev'ry blade,
From every blossom, till we lade
          Our minds, as they their thighs.

Observe those rich and glorious things,
The rivers, meadows, woods, and springs,
          The fructifying sun;
                    To note from far
The rising of each twinkling star
          For us his race to run.

A little child these well perceives,
Who, tumbling in green grass and leaves,
          May rich as kings be thought:
                    But there's a sight
Which perfect manhood may delight
          To which we shall be brought.

While in those pleasant paths we talk
'Tis that towards which at last we walk;
          For we may by degrees
                    Wisely proceed
Pleasures of love and praise to heed,
          From viewing herbs and trees.

Thomas Traherne (1636-1674), in H. I. Bell (editor), Traherne's Poems of Felicity (Oxford University Press 1910).  I have modernized the spelling. The italicized words are in the original.

William Dyce (1806-1864), "Sketch of a Doorway with a Water Barrel"

At the heart of A. E. Housman's poetry is an unassuageable grief.  For this reason, there are those who feel that his poetry is "gloomy," or that it lacks "variety."  I respectfully disagree.  By the time we reach a certain age (that age differs in each of us), the themes that govern our mind, heart, and soul can be counted on the fingers of a hand (or less).

Bashō is, I think, correct:

     Journeying through the world, --
To and fro, to and fro,
     Harrowing the small field.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 290.

Harrowing one's own small field is an excellent way to spend a life.  There are too many busybodies abroad in the world, most of whom seem compelled to tell us how we ought to live our lives, while their own fields are full of brambles and tares.

Is Housman's grief attributable to unrequited love?  Or does it reflect a preoccupation with our mortality?  Neither?  Both?  It doesn't matter. Whether we want to or not, and whether we are aware of it or not, we each develop our own philosophy of life.

I find nothing wrong with Housman's view of existence.  He is harrowing his field.  Moreover, we must be careful not to be too reductive.  If one sees only "gloom" in Housman's poetry, then one has not looked closely enough.  He could enjoy a walk in spring as much as any of us.

When green buds hang in the elm like dust
     And sprinkle the lime like rain,
Forth I wander, forth I must
     And drink of life again.
Forth I must by hedgerow bowers
     To look at the leaves uncurled
And stand in the fields where cuckoo-flowers
     Are lying about the world.

A. E. Housman, Poem IX, More Poems (Jonathan Cape 1936).

Albert Rutherston, "The Pump, Nash End" (1931)

Have no fear, gentle readers, I do not intend to turn this blog into "The Diary of My Hip Replacement."  But I must say that my recent foray into medical technology has given me a renewed appreciation of the simple wonder of being able to walk, without pain, among rhododendrons and azaleas on a spring afternoon.  I say this as someone who has, in the past, expressed skepticism about the modern gods of Progress and Science.  The technological products of Science and Progress can indeed be blessings. Blogs?  Yes!  Hip replacements?  Yes!  "Selfies"?  No.

Where does one draw the line in this technology business?  I don't know.  I suspect that it has something to do with whether -- like poetry, like art in general -- a particular product of technology brings us a renewed gratitude for the world around us, and for the human beings who inhabit that world. One step at a time.

          The Stepping Stones

I have my yellow boots on to walk
Across the shires where I hide
Away from my true people and all
I can't put easily into my life.

So you will see I am stepping on
The stones between the runnels getting
Nowhere nowhere.  It is almost
Embarrassing to be alive alone.

Take my hand and pull me over from
The last stone on to the moss and
The three celandines.  Now my dear
Let us go home across the shires.

W. S. Graham, Collected Poems, 1942-1977 (Faber and Faber 1979).

Harold Jones, "The Black Door" (1935)

Saturday, April 23, 2016


Gentle readers, I beg your indulgence for the brevity of this post.  By way of explanation for the brevity, I must also beg you to indulge a brief foray into the personal.  First, nothing dire has occurred!  Rather, I am the grateful recipient of one of the many Modern Miracles of Medicine:  a hip replacement (right) as of this past Monday morning.

Given all that goes on in the world from moment to moment, I feel embarrassed for even having provided this information.  I consider myself both fortunate and coddled to live during a time, and in a place, in which such miracles are available.  I have nothing to complain about.  And I do not for a second take anything for granted.

     What a strange thing,
To be thus alive
     Beneath the cherry blossoms!

Issa (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 350.

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

Everything is a matter of perspective.  A hip replacement amounts to absolutely nothing in this world of ours, but it does provide an occasion for perspective.

I can only feebly echo Patrick Kavanagh, who was a trillion times more entitled than I to feel gratitude after having dodged death by lung cancer in 1955.  Soon after, he wrote this:

                              The Hospital

A year ago I fell in love with the functional ward
Of a chest hospital:  square cubicles in a row,
Plain concrete, wash basins -- an art lover's woe,
Not counting how the fellow in the next bed snored.
But nothing whatever is by love debarred,
The common and banal her heat can know.
The corridor led to a stairway and below
Was the inexhaustible adventure of a gravelled yard.

This is what love does to things:  the Rialto Bridge,
The main gate that was bent by a heavy lorry,
The seat at the back of a shed that was a suntrap.
Naming these things is the love-act and its pledge;
For we must record love's mystery without claptrap,
Snatch out of time the passionate transitory.

Patrick Kavanagh, Come Dance with Kitty Stobling and Other Poems (Longmans 1960).  Kavanagh was a patient at the Rialto Hospital in Dublin in March and April of 1955.  The Rialto Bridge spans Dublin's Grand Canal, which Kavanagh walked along during his recovery period.

Charles Ginner, "Chrysanthemums" (1929)

As I have stated here in the past, I know nothing whatsoever about how to live.  But, as one ages, certain key themes begin to emerge, however thick-headed one might be.  This week, one word keeps returning to me: Gratitude.


That shining moon -- watched by that one faint star:
Sure now am I, beyond the fear of change,
The lovely in life is the familiar,
And only the lovelier for continuing strange.

Walter de la Mare, Memory and Other Poems (Constable 1938).

Charles Ginner, "Plymouth Pier from the Hoe" (1923)

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Some Trees Of Scotland And Japan

Trees are wonderful providers of perspective.  This past week, I have been preoccupied with various mundane errands and chores.  Then, a few days ago, I looked out into the backyard and noticed that the apple tree is now in full white bloom.  I thought to myself:  "When did that happen?  Where was I?"

             Message Taken

On a day of almost no wind,
I saw two leaves falling almost, not quite,
perpendicularly -- which
seemed natural.

When I got closer, I saw
the leaves on the tree were
slanted by that wind, were pointing
towards those that had fallen.

When I got closer than that, I saw
the leaves on the tree
were trembling.

And that seemed natural too.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2009).

As I have noted in the past, I have no objection to anthropomorphism in poetry.  I am completely comfortable with the Pathetic Fallacy as well.  This is especially true when it comes to trees.  We humans need all the resources we can muster in our futile attempts to articulate the beauty of these wondrous beings.  And, thankfully, we will only ever scratch the surface.

Take a good look:
even the blossoms
of the old cherry seem sad --
how many more times
will they see the spring?

Saigyō (1118-1190) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991), page 43.

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

Science?  Botany?  They are of no account in this matter of trees.  The poems by Norman MacCaig and Saigyō that appear in this post are all about individual trees, not about "the tree" as a concept.  I understand the human compulsion to "explain" how the natural world works, and to classify everything in it.  But part of me doesn't see the point.

I am more sympathetic with, for instance, the Shinto belief that particular trees are sacred because they are inhabited by, or serve as a portal for, spirits (kami).  Shimenawa (ropes made of rice straw) are wrapped around such trees in order to notify people that they are approaching a sacred space.

               Old Poet

The alder tree
shrivelled by the salt wind
has lived so long
it has carried and sheltered
its own weight
of nests.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig.

I have been acquainted with the apple tree in the backyard for nearly 21 years.  I don't know how old it is, since it was here when I arrived.  Some of its branches are now lichen-covered.  At times I imagine that it is feeling a bit weary.  But year after year, following the dark and soaking winter, its magnificent cloud of white appears.  Perspective.

A seedling pine in the garden
when I saw it long ago --
years have gone by
and now I hear the storm winds
roaring in its topmost branches.

Saigyō (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home, page 214.

Leslie Duncan, "Birchwood"

I received yet another gift earlier this week:  stepping outside the back door to open the mailbox, I suddenly smelled lilacs.  In addition to missing the blooming of the apple tree, I had also missed the blooming of the purple lilac tree that stands between two yew trees along the side of the yard.  Too much daydreaming and sleepwalking.

                  In Memoriam

On that stormy night
a top branch broke off
on the biggest tree in my garden.

It's still up there.  Though its leaves
are withered black among the green
the living branches
won't let it fall.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig.

Paying attention seems simple, but it can be difficult to do in a distracting world.  The media and entertainment and political worlds have no interest whatsoever in repose, reflection, or serenity.  Their stock-in-trade is agitation, restlessness, and empty desire:  a grasping that never ends.  All of these trees around us have no part in those worlds.  They gently shake us by the shoulders and say:  Wake up!

In a tree that stands
on the crag
by abandoned paddies,
a dove calling to its companion
in the desolate twilight.

Saigyō (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home, page 154.

Walter Schofield, "Godolphin Pond in Autumn" (1940)

I harbor no illusions:  "beneath/[My] feet are implacable fate, and panic at night, and the strumble/Of the hungry river of death."  That is not going to change.  But these trees that all of us come to know along the way provide perspective.  There is a certain reassurance in their yearly rise and fall. Constancy within constant change.

                  Rowan Berry

I'm at ease in my crimson cluster.
The tree blazes
with clusters of cousins --
my cluster's the main one and I
am the important berry in it.

Tomorrow, or tomorrow's tomorrow,
a flock of fieldfares
will gobble our whole generation.

I'm not troubled.  My seed
will be shamelessly dropped
somewhere.  And in the next years
after next year, I'll be a tree
swaying and swinging
with a genealogy of berries.  I'll be
that fine thing, an ancestor.
I'll spread out my branches
for the guzzling fieldfares.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig, The Poems of Norman MacCaig.

At some point, the apple tree, the lilac tree, and I will all be gone.  This makes perfect sense.

         On Looking at the Pine
  that Stands in Front of My Hut

Live through the long years,
pine, and pray for me
in my next existence,
I who'll have no one
to visit the places I once was.

Saigyō (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home, page 184.

W. G. Poole, "Savernake Forest" (1939)

Friday, April 8, 2016

Staying Put

I suppose that most of us played this game as children:  close your eyes, spin the globe, and choose with a finger the exotic place to which you will travel in your future life.  As an inveterate daydreamer, I still play the game in my mind.  Thus, for instance, nearly every painting that I have ever posted here is one that I have walked into in my imagination.  I suppose there are worse habits and vices.

With these dubious credentials, I am not well-qualified to extol the virtues of staying put.  Nonetheless, that is what I intend to do.  Albeit with a fair amount of hemming and hawing.

     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.

Dane Maw (1909-1989), "Scottish Landscape, Air Dubh"

Mind you, I do not wish to be thought of as a stick-in-the-mud or a curmudgeon.  I am as subject to wanderlust as the next person.  I concur with the old saw that "travel broadens the mind."  But Pascal's well-known pronouncement also comes to mind:  "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, Pensées (translated by Joseph Walker) (1688).

                          Against Travel

These days are best when one goes nowhere,
The house a reservoir of quiet change,
The creak of furniture, the window panes
Brushed by the half-rhymes of activities
That do not quite declare what thing it was
Gave rise to them outside.  The colours, even,
Accord with the tenor of the day -- yes, 'grey'
You will hear reported of the weather,
But what a grey, in which the tinges hover,
About to catch, although they still hold back
The blaze that's in them should the sun appear,
And yet it does not.  Then the window pane
With a tremor of glass acknowledges
The distant boom of a departing plane.

Charles Tomlinson, Jubilation (Oxford University Press 1995).

The title "Against Travel" should be taken with a grain of salt:  Tomlinson travelled extensively during his life, and he wrote dozens of fine poems about the places that he visited (which included Italy, Greece, Portugal, Japan, Mexico, and various locations in the United States).  Yet, the poems of his which seem the most heartfelt and evocative are those in which he writes about his native England.  (Of course, other admirers of Tomlinson's poetry may disagree with this assessment.)

Eric Bray, "Allington, Dorset, from Victoria Grove" (1975)

Perhaps what I am circling around is the distinction between the living of an "extensive" or an "intensive" life that Hilaire Belloc makes in his essay "On Ely":

"Everybody knows that one can increase what one has of knowledge or of any other possession by going outwards and outwards; but what is also true, and what people know less, is that one can increase it by going inwards and inwards."

Hilaire Belloc, "On Ely," Hills and the Sea (1906), page 44.

In connection with travel, Belloc suggests that, either way, you will likely end up in much the same place:

"You may travel for the sake of great horizons, and travel all your life, and fill your memory with nothing but views from mountain-tops, and yet not have seen a tenth of the world.  Or you may spend your life upon the religious history of East Rutland, and plan the most enormous book upon it, and yet find that you have continually to excise and select from the growing mass of your material."

Hilaire Belloc, Ibid, page 45.

I have no answers.  On certain days, I feel that I ought to spend the remainder of my life immersed in, say, the four volumes of R. H. Blyth's Haiku or Thomas Hardy's Collected Poems.  There is more than enough in those books to fill a lifetime.  On the other hand, if someone I trust knocked on my door tonight and asked me to travel with them tomorrow to a village in the Carpathian Mountains or to one of the former cities of the Hanseatic League, I would be sorely tempted.

                         Angle of Vision

But, John, have you seen the world, said he,
Trains and tramcars and sixty-seaters,
Cities in lands across the sea --
Giotto's tower and the dome of St. Peter's?

No, but I've seen the arc of the earth,
From the Birsay shore, like the edge of a planet,
And the lifeboat plunge through the Pentland Firth
To a cosmic tide with the men that man it.

Robert Rendall, Shore Poems (Kirkwall Press 1957).

Myrtle Broome (1888-1978), "A Cornish Village"

The Siren song of an escape to paradise is nothing new.  The choice between views from mountain-tops and the religious history of East Rutland seems obvious.  But we mustn't be too hasty.

"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 (1903), pages 13-14.

Don't get me wrong:  we need to get out.  I'm not suggesting that we should hole up in a roomful of books.  But, in a world that encourages short attention spans and ephemeral desires, there is something to be said for staying in place.

     The Man from the Advertising Department

There's more to see
In the next field.
Not much here
But grass and daisies
And a gulley that lazes
Its way to the weir --
Oh there's much more to see
In the next field.

There are better folk
In the next street.
Nobody here
But much-of-a-muchness people:
The butcher, the blacksmith,
The auctioneer,
The man who mends the weathercock
When the lightning strikes the steeple --
But they're altogether a better class
In the next street.

There'll be more to do
In the next world.
Nothing here
But breathing fresh air,
Loving, shoving, moving around a bit,
Counting birthdays, forgetting them, giving
Your own little push to the spin of the earth;
It all amounts to
No more than living --
But by all accounts
There'll be more to do
And more to see
And VIP neighbours
In the next world.

Norman Nicholson, Collected Poems (Faber and Faber 1994).

William Peters Vannet, "Arbroath Harbour" (1940)

There is a restlessness that comes with being human.  There is also a natural tendency to think that something is missing in our life.  Hence the allure of movement, of travelling in search of paradise.

Is this an argument for staying put?  I don't know.  But perhaps this is where poetry, and art in general, come in.  They are not a substitute for life. Nor are they aesthetic trifles.  For all of their beautiful variety, their message is actually quite simple.  In one of our ears they whisper:  Pay attention.  In the other ear they gently remind us:  Time is short.

                          In the Same Space

The setting of houses, cafés, the neighborhood
that I've seen and walked through years on end:

I created you while I was happy, while I was sad,
with so many incidents, so many details.

And, for me, the whole of you has been transformed into feeling.

C. P. Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard), in C. P Cavafy, Collected Poems (Princeton University Press 1975).

Bernard Ninnes (1899-1971), "Nancledra"

Wednesday, March 30, 2016


Many of the blossoming trees -- cherries, plums, magnolias, dogwoods -- are now at their peak.  Above, below, and all around, it is a pink and white world.  Ah, if this world could freeze in place!  I understand what Wallace Stevens is getting at in "This Solitude of Cataracts":  "He wanted to feel the same way over and over. . . . He wanted his heart to stop beating and his mind to rest/In a permanent realization . . . Just to know how it would feel, released from destruction . . ."  Not in the cards, of course.

             Night Rain -- Worrying About the Flowers

I sigh on this rainy late spring night:
the reds and whites that filled the forest are falling to the dust!
Late at night, my soul in dream becomes a butterfly,
chasing after each falling petal as it flutters to the earth.

Ishikawa Jōzan (1583-1672) (translated by Jonathan Chaves), in J. Thomas Rimer, Jonathan Chaves, Stephen Addiss, and Hiroyuki Suzuki, Shisendo: Hall of the Poetry Immortals (Weatherhill 1991), page 49.

As I have noted here before, during the Edo (or Tokugawa) period (1603-1868) a significant number of Japanese poets devoted themselves to writing poems in Chinese.  The poems they wrote are known as kanshi (a Japanese word meaning -- no surprise -- "Chinese poem").  Ishikawa Jōzan is perhaps the most admired kanshi poet.  He possessed a deep knowledge of both Chinese poetry (including its intricate and demanding prosodic rules) and Chinese philosophy.  Hence, it is not unlikely that he had the following passage from Chuang Tzu in mind when he wrote "Night Rain -- Worrying About the Flowers."

"Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased.  He didn't know he was Chuang Chou.  Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou.  But he didn't know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou."

Chuang Tzu (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings (Columbia University Press 1964), page 45.  A note: Chuang Tzu's family name was "Chuang;" his given name was "Chou."  He later came to be known as "Chuang Tzu" ("Master Chuang") because of his philosophical teachings.

Allusions to Chuang Tzu's butterfly dream appear often in traditional Japanese poetry, particularly in haiku.  Here is one instance:

     O butterfly,
What are you dreaming there,
     Fanning your wings?

Chiyo-ni (1703-1775) (translated by R. H. Bkyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 257.

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

When it comes to the seasons, the wistfulness and bittersweetness quotients for spring and autumn are, as I have observed in the past, quite high.  So many reminders of our transience, and of the constancy of change!  Thus arises the irrational (or is it irrational?) desire to freeze things in place.

Here's a thought:  what if we could transform our existence into a spring or an autumn version of a snow globe?  Shake the globe, and you can live in an eternity of fluttering pink and white blossoms or, alternatively, in an eternity of flying and falling yellow, red, and orange leaves.  Would we in time find these eternal worlds monotonous?  I think so.  Wistfulness and bittersweetness are wonderful and essential human things, sorrow and all.

                 Fallen Blossoms on the Eastern Hills

Cherry blossoms filling the ground, sunset filling my eyes:
blossoms vanished, spring old, I feel the passing years.
When blossoms were at their finest I neglected to call.
The blossoms did not betray me.  I betrayed the blossoms.

Ishikawa Jōzan (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jōzan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990), page 16.

Here is an alternative translation:

      Falling Cherry Blossoms at Higashiyama

Filling the ground -- cherry blossoms,
     Filling the eyes -- pink clouds;
the blossoms have faded, spring grown old,
     I feel the passing of years.
When the blossoms were at their peak,
     I did not come to visit:
it's not that the blossoms are unfaithful to me;
     I was unfaithful to them.

Ishikawa Jōzan (translated by Jonathan Chaves), in J. Thomas Rimer, et al., Shisendo:  Hall of the Poetry Immortals, page 43.  A note: Higashiyama is a district in Kyoto.  Higashi means "east."  Yama means "mountain."

James McIntosh Patrick, "Glamis Village" (1939)A

It's funny how life works.  When you are young, an afternoon can seem to last for ever.  But at some point you come to notice that a year -- even a decade! -- can pass in the blink of an eye.  The fluttering petals are trying to tell us something.

             A Contemplation upon Flowers

Brave flowers -- that I could gallant it like you,
          And be as little vain!
You come abroad, and make a harmless shew,
          And to your beds of earth again.
You are not proud:  you know your birth:
For your embroidered garments are from earth.

You do obey your months and times, but I
          Would have it ever spring:
My fate would know no winter, never die,
          Nor think of such a thing.
Oh, that I could my bed of earth but view
And smile, and look as cheerfully as you!

Oh, teach me to see death and not to fear,
          But rather to take truce!
How often have I seen you at a bier,
          And there look fresh and spruce!
You fragrant flowers, then teach me, that my breath
Like yours may sweeten and perfume my death.

Henry King (1592-1669), in Norman Ault (editor), Seventeenth Century Lyrics (William Sloane 1950), page 57.

These lines in King's poem seem to anticipate what Stevens would say three centuries later in "This Solitude of Cataracts":  "You do obey your months and times, but I/Would have it ever spring:/My fate would know no winter, never die,/Nor think of such a thing."  A fond but futile hope.

James McIntosh Patrick, "City Garden" (1979)

It seems to me that the appropriate response to all of this "change and chancefulness" (Thomas Hardy, "The Temporary the All") is gratitude. Gratitude (and joy) amidst the wistfulness and bittersweetness (and sorrow) of this fluttering world.

     Recalling Blossoms After They've Scattered

Once I see
the new green leaves,
my heart may take to them too --
if I think of them as mementos
of blossoms that scattered.

Saigyō (1118-1190) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991), page 46.

Is life as complicated as we make it out to be?  Are the particular times in which we live uniquely parlous and complex?  I wonder.

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

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

James McIntosh Patrick, "Springtime in Eskdale" (1935)

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Souls And Stars

It is always a pleasure to encounter a poet who harbors no doubts about the existence of the human soul, and who writes about it without skepticism and without irony.  This is one of the reasons why I am fond of the poetry of Walt Whitman.

                                       A Clear Midnight

This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest           best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1881).

The progression of the final line is lovely, isn't it?  "Night, sleep, death and the stars."  In thinking about the aptness of that progression, it is well to remember that, in Whitman's view, we have nothing to fear from death.  To wit:

Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.

Walt Whitman, from Section 7 of "Song of Myself," Ibid.  "I hasten to inform him or her" is wonderful, as is the certainty of "and I know it."

Or, consider this:

            Gliding o'er All

Gliding o'er all, through all,
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing,
The voyage of the soul -- not life alone,
Death, many deaths I'll sing.

Walt Whitman, Ibid.

William Shackleton, "The Mackerel Nets" (1913)

Whitman turns up in unexpected places on the other side of the Atlantic. Here, for instance, is Gerard Manley Hopkins writing to Robert Bridges in 1882:

"I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman's mind to be more like my own than any other man's living.  As he is a very great scoundrel this is not a pleasant confession.  And this also makes me the more desirous to read him and the more determined that I will not."

Gerard Manley Hopkins, letter to Robert Bridges (October 18-19, 1882), in R. K. R. Thornton and Catherine Phillips (editors), The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Volume II: Correspondence 1882-1889 (Oxford University Press 2013), pages 542-543.

As a product of Victorian England who had converted to Catholicism and then become a Jesuit, Hopkins was pretty much obliged to refer to Whitman as "a very great scoundrel."  But I don't think his heart was in it.

                         The Starlight Night

Look at the stars!  look, look up at the skies!
     O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
     The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves!  the elves'-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
     Wind-beat whitebeam!  airy abeles set on a flare!
     Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare! --
Ah well!  it is all a purchase, all is a prize.

Buy then!  bid then! -- What? -- Prayer, patience, alms, vows.
Look, look:  a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!
     Look!  March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks.  This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
     Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, in W. H. Gardner and N. H. MacKenzie (editors), The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press 1967).

"The Starlight Night" was written in 1877.  I do not know whether Hopkins was aware of Whitman's poetry at that time.  (His first reference to Whitman in his correspondence appears in a letter to Robert Bridges dated January 30, 1879.)  However, the octave of the sonnet (rampant exclamation marks and all) sounds like something that Whitman could have written, had he ever taken it upon himself to write a sonnet.  As for the sestet:  well, Walt Whitman was never a Jesuit, but I believe he would understand, and respect, Hopkins's devotion and passion.

Phyllis James (1911-1973), "New Walk at Night, Leicester"

I am not suggesting that Hopkins's poetic technique or themes were directly influenced by Whitman.  (For one, Hopkins was preoccupied with technical matters of prosody that would have been of no interest to Whitman.)   Rather, I think that Hopkins and Whitman were both mystics at heart, and shared an emotional bond that was based upon their deep-felt sense of the capaciousness and timelessness of the human soul as it makes its way through a wondrous universe.

This in turn brings us to Ivor Gurney, a mystic as well, who was influenced by both of them, but particularly by Whitman.

                           To Long Island First

To Long Island first with my tortured verse,
Remember how on a Gloucester book-stall one morning
I saw, brown 'Leaves of Grass' after long hesitation
(For fourpence to me was bankruptcy then or worse).
I bought, what since in book or mind about the dawning
On Roman Cotswold, Roman Artois war stations;
Severn and Buckingham, London after night wanderings,
Has served me, friend or Master on many occasions,
Of weariness, or gloriousness or delight.
At first to puzzle, then grow past all traditions
To be Master unquestioned -- a book that brings the clear
Spirit of him that wrote, to the thought again here.
If I have not known Long Island none has --
Brooklyn is my own City, Manhattan the right of me,
Camden and Idaho -- and all New England's
Two-fold love of honour, honour and comely grace.
If blood to blood can speak or the spirit has inspiring,
Let me claim place there also -- Briton I am also Hers,
And Roman, have more than Virgil for meditations.

Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems (edited by George Walter) (J. M. Dent 1996).

A key phrase in Gurney's poem articulates how I see Whitman's influence at work in both Gurney and Hopkins:  "a book that brings the clear/Spirit of him that wrote, to the thought again here."  It was "the clear spirit" of Whitman that moved both Hopkins and Gurney.

This spirit is manifested in the cascading rushes of images and in the catalogues and lists that are characteristic of all three poets.  Hopkins's "The Starlight Night" is but one example.  Another instance is this poem from Gurney (which has appeared here on more than one occasion, but which is always worth revisiting):

                            The Escape

I believe in the increasing of life whatever
Leads to the seeing of small trifles . . . . .
Real, beautiful, is good, and an act never
Is worthier than in freeing spirit that stifles
Under ingratitude's weight; nor is anything done
Wiselier than the moving or breaking to sight
Of a thing hidden under by custom; revealed
Fulfilled, used, (sound-fashioned) any way out to delight.
.     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .
Trefoil . . . . . hedge sparrow . . . . . the stars on the edge of night.

Ibid.  All of the ellipses appear in the original manuscript.

In fact, "The Escape" serves well as a description of the essential forces that are at work throughout the poetry of Whitman, Hopkins, and Gurney:  "the increasing of life," "the seeing of small trifles/Real, beautiful," "freeing spirit that stifles/Under ingratitude's weight," and "the moving or breaking to sight/Of a thing hidden under by custom."  Most importantly, all of these activities end in "delight."  If not, why write poetry?

Merlyn Evans, "Window by Night" (1955)

But the last word should go to Walt Whitman, with a return to souls and stars.

                    When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure               them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause           in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

Walt Whitman, Drum-Taps (1865).

Harald Sohlberg, "Flower Meadow in the North" (1905)

Sunday, March 13, 2016


Upon reading the following poem for the first time, my reaction was: "What the heck is that all about?"  My next reaction was:  "What a strange and wonderful thing!"  (The "thing" referred to is the poem, not the object that provides the occasion for the poem.  Although, as you will see, that object is a strange and wonderful thing as well.)

                         The Berg
                        (A Dream)

I saw a ship of martial build
(Her standards set, her brave apparel on)
Directed as by madness mere
Against a stolid iceberg steer,
Nor budge it, though the infatuate ship went down.
The impact made huge ice-cubes fall
Sullen, in tons that crashed the deck;
But that one avalanche was all --
No other movement save the foundering wreck.

Along the spurs of ridges pale,
Not any slenderest shaft and frail,
A prism over glass-green gorges lone,
Toppled; or lace of traceries fine,
Nor pendant drops in grot or mine
Were jarred, when the stunned ship went down.
Nor sole the gulls in cloud that wheeled
Circling one snow-flanked peak afar,
But nearer fowl the floes that skimmed
And crystal beaches, felt no jar.
No thrill transmitted stirred the lock
Of jack-straw needle-ice at base;
Towers undermined by waves -- the block
Atilt impending -- kept their place.
Seals, dozing sleek on sliddery ledges
Slipt never, when by loftier edges
Through very inertia overthrown,
The impetuous ship in bafflement went down.

Hard Berg (methought), so cold, so vast,
With mortal damps self-overcast;
Exhaling still thy dankish breath --
Adrift dissolving, bound for death;
Though lumpish thou, a lumbering one --
A lumbering lubbard loitering slow,
Impingers rue thee and go down,
Sounding thy precipice below,
Nor stir the slimy slug that sprawls
Along thy dead indifference of walls.

Herman Melville, John Marr and Other Sailors (1888).

Long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog are aware by now of one of my fundamental tenets:  Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  Hence, I do not intend to engage in any metaphysical, theological, or psychological speculations about what "The Berg" may "symbolize."  Melville's works (including, in particular, that book about a whale) have been subjected to far too much symbol-mongering.  Sometimes an iceberg is just an iceberg.  And sometimes a whale is just a whale.  More or less.

However, the lovely particulars certainly deserve our attention.  For instance, my favorite words in the poem are these:  "Hard Berg (methought)."  The capitalization of "Berg" is a fine touch.  And I love the parenthetical "methought."  "Hard Berg":  now what is that supposed to mean?

(An aside:  Melville's use of capitalized words is a topic in itself.  Consider the following passage from Chapter 112 ("The Blacksmith") of Moby-Dick: "but Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried; it is but the first salutation to the possibilities of the immense Remote, the Wild, the Watery, the Unshored.")

I also like the repetition and the echoing of "the infatuate ship went down" (line 5), "the stunned ship went down" (line 15), and "the impetuous ship in bafflement went down" (line 27).  "Infatuate," "stunned," and "impetuous":  what are we to make of those word choices?  And there is this intriguing final echo:  "Impingers rue thee and go down" (line 34). "Impingers" is something to mull over.

Finally, there is the pure sound of it.  "Seals, dozing sleek on sliddery ledges/Slipt never."  Or this:  "Though lumpish thou, a lumbering one --/A lumbering lubbard loitering slow."  (Such a comical description of such a portentous, menacing object.)

Samuel Bough, "Edinburgh from Leith Roads" (1854)

I presume that it is not mere happenstance that Melville elected to place the following poem immediately after "The Berg" in John Marr and Other Sailors.

                          The Enviable Isles

Through storms you reach them and from storms are free.
     Afar descried, the foremost drear in hue,
But, nearer, green; and, on the marge, the sea
     Makes thunder low and mist of rainbowed dew.

But, inland, where the sleep that folds the hills
A dreamier sleep, the trance of God, instills --
     On uplands hazed, in wandering airs aswoon,
Slow-swaying palms salute love's cypress tree
     Adown in vale where pebbly runlets croon
A song to lull all sorrow and all glee.

Sweet-fern and moss in many a glade are here,
     Where, strown in flocks, what cheek-flushed myriads lie
Dimpling in dream -- unconscious slumberers mere,
     While billows endless round the beaches die.

Herman Melville, Ibid.

Melville apparently intended to use the poem in a prose and verse narrative he tentatively titled "Rammon."  However, he never completed the larger work.  Howard Vincent (editor), Collected Poems of Herman Melville (Packard and Company 1947), pages 472-473.  In a surviving prose fragment, Rammon, "the unrobust child of Solomon's old age," develops an interest in Buddhism.  Rammon meets Tardi, a merchant who has travelled in Asia, and asks him what he knows of Buddhism:  "Fable me, then, those Enviable Isles."  Ibid, page 416.  The poem constitutes Tardi's response. The description of the Isles seems to be a blending of Melville's memories of the time he spent in the South Seas in his younger years and of a vision of Nirvana.

Samuel Bough, "Dunkirk Harbour" (1863)

What, then, is our destination?  The "hard Berg"?  "The Enviable Isles"? Or is it, perhaps, both?

Thinking about Melville's poems, another possibility occurred to me.  This option is offered to us by an Anglican vicar from Dean Prior, Devon.

     The White Island: or Place of the Blest

In this world (the Isle of Dreams)
While we sit by sorrow's streams,
Tears and terrors are our themes

But when once from hence we fly,
More and more approaching nigh
Unto young Eternity

In that whiter Island, where
Things are evermore sincere;
Candor here, and lustre there

There no monstrous fancies shall
Out of hell an horror call,
To create (or cause at all)

There in calm and cooling sleep
We our eyes shall never steep;
But eternal watch shall keep,

Pleasures, such as shall pursue
Me immortaliz'd, and you;
And fresh joys, as never too
                                        Have ending.

Robert Herrick, His Noble Numbers: or, His Pious Pieces (1647).

Samuel Bough, "Fishing Boats Running into Port: Dysart Harbour" (1854)

In John Marr and Other Sailors, "The Berg," as noted above, immediately precedes "The Enviable Isles," which is the penultimate poem in the volume.  "The Enviable Isles" is in turn followed by a closing sequence titled "Pebbles," which consists of seven short poems.  "The Sea" is the unifying element of the sequence -- "the old implacable Sea" (Poem V), "the inhuman Sea" (Poem VII).  The all-encompassing Sea?

Here is Poem II of "Pebbles":

Old are the creeds, but stale the schools,
     Revamped as the mode may veer,
But Orm from the schools to the beaches strays,
And, finding a Conch hoar with time, he delays
     And reverent lifts it to ear.
That Voice, pitched in far monotone,
     Shall it swerve?  shall it deviate ever?
The Seas have inspired it, and Truth --
     Truth, varying from sameness never.

Herman Melville, from "Pebbles," John Marr and Other Sailors.  A note: commentators suggest that "Orm" (line 3) is an allusion to a 12th-century monk who wrote a manuscript in Middle English verse consisting of homilies intended to explain biblical texts.  The manuscript is titled the "Ormulum" (after its maker).

Melville's thoughts bring to mind a poem that was written by Walt Whitman in 1888 -- the same year in which John Marr and Other Sailors was published.  Melville and Whitman were nearly exact contemporaries: both were born in 1819; Melville died in 1891; Whitman died in 1892.  It is marvelous to think of those two extraordinary American characters passing side-by-side through nearly the whole of the century.

                 The Calming Thought of All

That coursing on, whate'er men's speculations,
Amid the changing schools, theologies, philosophies,
Amid the bawling presentations new and old,
The round earth's silent vital laws, facts, modes continue.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1891-1892).

Perhaps, after all, destinations do not matter.

Samuel Bough, "Shipyard at Dumbarton" (1855)

Monday, March 7, 2016

Earth, Lie Lightly

"Earth, lie lightly."  What a lovely request.  Much more evocative than, say, "rest in peace."  But it is not a phrase that one is apt to encounter first-hand in our times.  Which is a pity.  It is the cumulative tiny losses of such graceful touches that ultimately take their toll on the decency, seemliness, and nobility of civilization, not the day-to-day events of politics or economics, which are nothing but passing distractions.

"Earth, lie lightly."  One is likely to come across this gentle supplication (and variations upon it) in English poetry written prior to the 20th century. For instance, it is found in several translations of poems from The Greek Anthology.

Take to thy bosom, gentle earth, a swain
     With much hard labour in thy service worn.
He set the vines that clothe yon ample plain,
     And he these olives that the vale adorn.
He fill'd with grain the glebe; the rills he led
     Through this green herbage, and those fruitful bowers.
Thou, therefore, earth! lie lightly on his head,
     His hoary head, and deck his grave with flowers.

Anonymous (translated by William Cowper), in Henry Wellesley (editor), Anthologia Polyglotta: A Selection of Versions in Various Languages, Chiefly from the Greek Anthology (1849).

Stanley Spencer, "Bluebells, Cornflowers and Rhododendrons" (1945)

Too sentimental?  Too quaint?  Too old-fashioned?  It depends upon what sort of world you wish to live in.  One can, of course, take the ironic, hard-boiled "modern" approach and say that this sort of thing simply won't do anymore:  we have moved beyond it, we are now more knowing.

Ah, yes, have a look around you at the current state of the world.  What a wonderful place our superior knowingness and our irony have created for us!  I prefer this:

Full oft, of old, the islands changed their name,
And took new titles from some heir of fame:
Then dread not ye the wrath of gods above,
But change your own, and be the Isles of Love;
For Love's own name and shape the infant bore
Whom late we buried on your sandy shore.
Break softly there, thou never-weary wave,
And earth, lie light upon his little grave!

Crinagoras (translated by John William Burgon), Ibid.

Stanley Spencer, "The Roundabout" (1923)

Mind you, I am not suggesting that the essential humanity that one finds in The Greek Anthology has vanished from the world.  The love, hate, joy, sorrow, beauty, and transience of the ancients are ours as well.  Being human has always been a matter of life and death.

                            Life and Death

The two old, simple problems ever intertwined,
Close home, elusive, present, baffled, grappled.
By each successive age insoluble, pass'd on,
To ours to-day -- and we pass on the same.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1891-1892).

"Insoluble."  Yet, it is entirely possible that the acceptance of this insolubility may be the only solution we need in order to pass our days in tranquility.  In any case, solution or no solution, we each have a choice to make:  shall we live in an enchanted world or a disenchanted world?

Earth, lightly press Ausigenes, for he,
Mother, ne'er set a heavy foot on thee.

Meleager (translated by John Besly), Anthologia Polyglotta.

Stanley Spencer, "Garden at Whitehouse, Northern Ireland" (1952)

Yes, we ought to tread softly.  As I have done here on more than one occasion in the past, I can only repeat Philip Larkin's lovely advice:

                . . . we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

Philip Larkin, "The Mower," Collected Poems (Faber and Faber 1988).

A task for a lifetime, never completed.  And, if we are fortunate, a kind soul will request on our behalf, when we have vanished:  "Earth, lie lightly."

Lay a garland on my hearse
     Of the dismal yew;
Maidens, willow branches bear,
     Say I diëd true.

My Love was false, but I was firm
     From my hour of birth.
Upon my buried body lay
     Lightly, gently, earth.

John Fletcher, from The Maid's Tragedy (1622), in Norman Ault (editor), Elizabethan Lyrics (William Sloane 1949).

Stanley Spencer, "Scarecrow, Cookham" (1934)