Monday, August 18, 2014

"Yon Far Country"

I would like to stay in "the land of lost content" for a moment longer.

Into my heart an air that kills
     From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
     What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
     I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
     And cannot come again.

A. E. Housman, Poem XL, A Shropshire Lad (1896).

In my previous post, I placed this poem in apposition to the phrase "the past is a foreign country."  The "far country" referred to by Housman is the lost, irredeemable past.  In Housman's case, the defining feature of that irrecoverable past is the boundless prospect of love, a love that proved to be unrequited.

George Rose (1882-1955), "Fyfield, Essex" (c. 1951)

The "far country" of the past can be found in another poem by Housman.

Alas, the country whence I fare,
     It is where I would stay;
And where I would not, it is there
     That I shall be for aye.

A. E. Housman, More Poems (1936).  "Aye" is used in the sense of "ever, always, continually."  OED.

Housman's two poems bring to mind this:

                         Memory

Is Memory most of miseries miserable,
Or the one flower of ease in bitterest hell?

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in William Rossetti (editor), The Poetical Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1903).

Although Housman was at pains to point out that he was not a Stoic in the Greek and Roman philosophical sense, I would suggest that he was nevertheless a lower-case stoic in terms of the expression of his emotions. He would likely find Rossetti's poem to be a bit florid.  But I think it fits.

George Rose, "Breaking the Clod"

I am also drawn back to J. L. Carr's novel A Month in the Country, which, as I have noted before, contains echoes of Housman's poetry.  Some brief background:  the story is centered on Tom Birkin, a veteran of the First World War who has received a commission to restore a Medieval wall-painting in a small church in "Oxgodby."  Here are the novel's concluding paragraphs (for those of you who have not read the book, and may wish to, there are no "spoilers" in the following passage):

"And, standing before the great spread of colour, I felt the old tingling excitement and a sureness that the time would come when some stranger would stand there too and understand.

It would be like someone coming to Malvern, bland Malvern, who is halted by the thought that Edward Elgar walked this road on his way to give music lessons or, looking over to the Clee Hills, reflects that Housman had stood in that place, regretting his land of lost content.  And, at such a time, for a few of us there will always be a tugging at the heart -- knowing a precious moment gone and we not there.

We can ask and ask but we can't have again what once seemed ours for ever -- the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face.  They've gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

All this happened so long ago.  And I never returned, never wrote, never met anyone who might have given me news of Oxgodby.  So, in memory, it stays as I left it, a sealed room furnished by the past, airless, still, ink long dry on a put-down pen.

But this was something I knew nothing of as I closed the gate and set off across the meadow."

J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country (1980; revised 1990).

George Rose, "The Usurper's Field"

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Sixteen Lines

Over the past few days I have been preoccupied with sixteen lines of poetry. The lines are straightforward and simple.  Apart from two words (of three syllables each), the words in the lines consist of only one or two syllables. The syntax is not convoluted.  The emotions expressed are ones that we have all felt.

The lines are found in two of the best-known poems in the English language.  I suspect that many of us know the poems by heart, perhaps inadvertently:  a single reading of them is sufficient to embed them in your memory.

I revisit the poems often (and they have appeared here before), but it was not until recently (I am slow on the uptake when it comes to these matters) that I began to think about how the two of them play off of one another. Another instance of failing to pay attention.  Another reason to be thankful for the gift of tiny revelations.

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

Here is the first eight-line poem, which is untitled.

Into my heart an air that kills
     From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
     What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
     I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
     And cannot come again.

A. E. Housman, Poem XL, A Shropshire Lad (1896).

"The past is a foreign country."  (Until I looked it up today, I didn't know that this phrase comes from the first sentence of L. P. Hartley's novel The Go-Between (1953):  "The past is a foreign country:  they do things differently there.")

"Blue remembered hills" and "the land of lost content":  don't you get the feeling that those once well-known phrases are disappearing from cultural consciousness?  But I suppose that, even in Housman's own day, there were those who found the words too "sentimental" for the Modern Age. Imagine their chances of survival in our ironic world.

Should anyone ever ask you for a definition of poetry (an unlikely possibility, I concede), I recommend directing them to these three words: "blue remembered hills."  What if Housman had given us "green remembered hills" or "dark remembered hills"?  There you have it: poetry.

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

I was sitting in my chair, musing over Housman's poem, when the following eight lines (again, untitled) made an appearance.

A slumber did my spirit seal;
     I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
     The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
     She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
     With rocks, and stones, and trees.

William Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems (1800).

I realized that I had never thought about the two poems together.  What first caught my attention were the surface similarities:  two four-line quatrains rhyming A-B-A-B (common metre or common measure, to be technical about it) -- the standard form for traditional ballads.  The ancient heart of English poetry.  Then I thought about the words themselves:  all of them consisting of one or two syllables, save for two:  "remembered" and "diurnal."  Think of the weight each of those words bears in its respective poem.

And, of course, there is the human link between the two.  What shall we call it?  The pain of irrevocable loss?  The sudden awareness of mortality? The keen yearning for time gone for ever?  But enough of that.  As I have observed on more than one occasion:  explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  The sixteen lines speak for themselves.

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

Sunday, August 10, 2014

"And August The Most Peaceful Month"

As long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall, I, being a creature of habit, have previously identified my "April poem" (Patrick Kavanagh's "Wet Evening in April"), my "May poem" (Philip Larkin's "The Trees"), and my "November poem" (Wallace Stevens' "The Region November").  At the risk of trying your patience, gentle readers, here is my August poem.

           A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur --

There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk
And August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten in the moon;

And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light,
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of.  It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter.  The grass is full

And full of yourself.  The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,

You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,

You are humped higher and higher, black as stone --
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass.

Wallace Stevens, Parts of a World (1942).

Is August "the most peaceful month"?  There is a sense of fullness, of culmination, isn't there?  Yet, in about a week or so, an ever-so-slight slant of yellow light will become noticeable, accompanied by an ever-so-slight lengthening of shadows.  Something will be announcing its approach . . .

Norman Rowe, "Span" (1985)

On a previous occasion, I made a feeble attempt to explain what this poem may "mean," but ended up suggesting that it may simply be about a rabbit that was eating the bulbs in Stevens' garden at night, beneath the bedroom window.  This seems perfectly acceptable to me.

But let's put "meaning" aside for a moment and consider only the sound of the poem.  Notice the lovely repetitions (something at which Stevens is a master) -- unobtrusive, but with a cumulative effect:  "And August the most peaceful month.//To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time"; "The grass is full/And full of yourself"; "The trees around are for you,/The whole of the wideness of night is for you"; "A self that touches all edges,//You become a self that fills the four corners of night."

And then there are the lines that are simply marvelous in their own right as perfect combinations of words, regardless of what they mean:  "Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk"; "And east rushes west and west rushes down"; "The whole of the wideness of night is for you"; "the four corners of night"; "And the little green cat is a bug in the grass."  Not to mention the title.  (As I have noted before, reading the table of contents or the index of titles in Stevens' Collected Poems is a delight in itself.)

In one sense, the poem is a humorous nursery rhyme.  In another sense, it is a deeply serious meditation on how we ought to live our life, and what it means to be truly human.

Norman Rowe, "Garden with Chairs" (1978)

Turning back to "meaning" for a moment, perhaps a good way to approach "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" is to compare it with another poem by Stevens.  The two of them play off one another quite well.

       The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain

There it was, word for word,
The poem that took the place of a mountain.

He breathed its oxygen,
Even when the book lay turned in the dust of his table.

It reminded him how he had needed
A place to go to in his own direction,

How he had recomposed the pines,
Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds,

For the outlook that would be right,
Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion:

The exact rock where his inexactnesses
Would discover, at last, the view toward which they had edged,

Where he could lie and, gazing down at the sea,
Recognize his unique and solitary home.

Wallace Stevens, The Rock (1954), in Collected Poetry and Prose (Library of America 1997).

I would suggest that, in both poems, Stevens is describing the same unique and fundamental human activity.  The activity that, he would say, makes us human.

Norman Rowe, "Water Lilies" (1979)

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Poetry: A Coda

I must ask for your forbearance today.  As a follow-up to my previous post, I hope to offer a humble instance of the mysterious way in which poetry may unfold in our lives when we least expect it.  The request for forbearance relates, first, to my need to provide a personal anecdote, which I am customarily loath to do.  It relates, second, to what could be perceived as an attempt to place myself in the company of Robert Frost -- believe me, nothing could be further from my intentions.  My personal experience only serves as a necessary prelude to Frost's poetry.

In the summer of 1977, I lived in a cabin on the south shore of a small mountain lake in the panhandle of Idaho, up near the Canadian border.  By some quirk of long-ago governmental land title issuance, the cabin was the only dwelling on the lake.  The lake was roughly circular, about three-quarters of a mile in diameter.  I spent a great deal of time reading in a deck chair on the lawn beside the water or out on the dock.  An odd detail that I recall:  I was reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's August 1914 much of that summer.

Every week or so, a moose would swim across the lake from the north shore at a steady, leisurely pace.  Each time this occurred, he or she would swim in a straight line towards the dock.  It emerged slowly out of the water and stepped into the reeds and cat-tails along the shore, only a few yards from the cabin.  It then walked calmly off into the trackless woods, paying me no mind.

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

Twenty years later, thinking about the moose, I felt prompted to write this:

                    Watching the Lake

One summer, day after day, I watched a lake.
Nothing of that time remains in my hands.
Even then, I knew it would soon be gone.
None of it was, of course, mine to hold on to --
I'd watch the wind ripple from shore to shore
Till the rushes whispered in the shallows;
Once a week, a moose swam across the lake,
Stepped ashore, and walked off into the woods.
None of this, I knew, would pass my way again.

sip (October, 1997).

I offer this not for its negligible poetic merit, but solely as a record of the persistence of the moose in my memory.

Stanley Spencer, "The Ferry Hotel Lawn, Cookham" (1936)

I am ashamed to say that I did not begin to go deeply into the poetry of Robert Frost until about 15 years ago, when I decided to move beyond the old chestnuts.  Six or seven years ago, I came across this  poem for the first time.

                     The Most of It

He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree-hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder-broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter-love, original response.
And nothing ever came of what he cried
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff's talus on the other side,
And then in the far distant water splashed,
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush -- and that was all.

Robert Frost, A Witness Tree (1942).

So that's it.  End of story.  Nothing earth-shattering.  A simple anecdote about life and poetry 30 years in the making.  You can imagine my emotions as I came to the end of "The Most of It."  Surprise and joy, of course.  And then a kind of serenity.  All serenity being short-lived.

I do not propose to draw some sort of all-purpose, all-encompassing moral to the story.  Poetry is not life.  Life is not poetry.  But, still . . .

Stanley Spencer, "Scarecrow, Cookham" (1934)

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Poetry

I have suggested on more than one occasion that it is the individual poem that matters, not the poet.  Yes, there are poets who stand apart from others, the so-called "major poets":  Wordsworth, Keats, Yeats, and the like.  But individual poems written by "minor," little-known, or largely-forgotten poets are every bit as valuable as any poem written by the eminences who attract much of the attention.

Part of what I attempt (humbly) to do here is save these wayside poems (and the poets who wrote them) from neglect, for each of them is a potential stepping stone as we cross the stream or the moor, not quite knowing which direction we are headed.

Yes, we should by all means read Yeats and Keats and Wordsworth.  And long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog are aware of my affection for, say, Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas, and Philip Larkin.  But I do not for a moment forget:  "Listen; a clumsy knight who rode alone/Upon a stumbling jade in a great wood/Belated" or "Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake."  Nor would life be the same without: "I long ago/As a child thought the tree sighed 'Do I know/Whether my motion makes the wind that moves me?'" or "Happy were he could finish forth his fate/In some unhaunted desert."  The treasures are endless.

Walter Bayes, "A Mill at Braintree" (c. 1940)

       The Songs I Had

The songs I had are withered
Or vanished clean,
Yet there are bright tracks
Where I have been,

And there grow flowers
For other's delight.
Think well, O singer,
Soon comes night.

Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems (edited by George Walter) (J. M. Dent 1996). "Other's" (line 6) appears as such in Gurney's manuscript.  It has sometimes been emended (rightly or wrongly, I do not know) to "others'" in later printings.

Walter Bayes, "Colchester from the North Station" (c. 1940)

We live in an age in which one can obtain an academic degree in the writing of poetry.  Imagine that!  Card-carrying poetasters, and their poems, proliferate like bluebell meadows in Spring.  Or something like that.  As to what this says about the current state of poetry, I will keep my mouth shut.  Besides, I am still working my way through the poems of the T'ang Dynasty and The Greek Anthology.  I shall not be within hailing distance of contemporary poetry any time soon.

                                 The Poem on the Wall

My clumsy poem on the inn-wall none cared to see;
With bird-droppings and moss's growth the letters were blotched away.
There came a guest with heart so full, that though a page to the Throne,
He did not grudge with his broidered coat to wipe off the dust, and read.

Po Chu-i (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, More Translations from the Chinese (1919).

Waley provides this note to the poem:  "Yuan Chen wrote that on his way to exile he had discovered a poem inscribed by Po Chu-i on the wall of the Lo-k'ou Inn."  Yuan Chen was a poet, and one of Po Chu-i's closest friends. Waley dates the poem A.D. 810.

Walter Bayes, "Middle Mill, Colchester" (c. 1940)

It's odd to hear or read the word "truth" nowadays, isn't it?  Especially in the media or in public discourse.  In those spheres, the word has no content whatsoever.

In this untitled poem by Ivor Gurney, "truth" retains meaning.

Soft rain beats upon my windows
Hardly hammering.
But by the great gusts guessed further off
Up by the bare moor and brambly headland
Heaven and earth make war.

That savage toss of the pine boughs past music
And the roar of the elms. . . .
Here come, in the candle light, soft reminder
Of poetry's truth, while rain beats as softly here
As sleep, or shelter of farms.

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

Walter Bayes, "The Abbey, Little Coggeshall" (c. 1940)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Messages

I once visited a Buddhist wat (temple) in southern Thailand.  A peanut-shaped concrete island -- about 30 feet long, 10 feet wide, and 2 feet tall -- had been built in the courtyard of the temple.  A carp pond had been hollowed out in the center of the island.  Soil had been brought in to create a border, and small flowering trees had been planted beside the pond.  One could sit on the concrete edge of the island and enjoy the (relatively) cool shade.

Hanging by strings from the branches of the trees were rectangular, blue plastic placards, swaying in the breeze.  Buddhist homilies had been painted in gilt lettering on the placards:  Thai on one side, English on the other.  Two of the homilies struck me at the time, so I wrote them down on a piece of paper, in case they might come in handy.  "A wise man always tames his restless mind."  "A well-guarded mind brings about happiness."

I am not a practitioner of Buddhism.  However, for many years I have been drawn to it as a philosophy.  It keeps returning to me, often through Chinese and Japanese poetry.  It sees things as they are, in a common-sense, down-to-earth fashion.  We do need to tame our restless mind.  A well-guarded mind, although it may not bring about happiness, may bring about a measure of serenity.

Hence:  if you should ever come upon unexpected messages swaying in the wind amongst flowering tree branches, take heed!

Geoffrey Rhoades, "Winter Afternoon, Chalk Farm" (1935)

One can arrive at these timeless and placeless truths from any number of directions.

                       Vain Questioning

What needest thou? -- a few brief hours of rest
Wherein to seek thyself in thine own breast;
A transient silence wherein truth could say
Such was thy constant hope, and this thy way? --
          O burden of life that is
          A livelong tangle of perplexities!

What seekest thou? -- a truce from that thou art;
Some steadfast refuge from a fickle heart;
Still to be thou, and yet no thing of scorn,
To find no stay here, and yet not forlorn? --
          O riddle of life that is
          An endless war 'twixt contrarieties.

Leave this vain questioning.  Is not sweet the rose?
Sings not the wild bird ere to rest he goes?
Hath not in miracle brave June returned?
Burns not her beauty as of old it burned?
          O foolish one to roam
          So far in thine own mind away from home!

Where blooms the flower when her petals fade,
Where sleepeth echo by earth's music made,
Where all things transient to the changeless win,
There waits the peace thy spirit dwelleth in.

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

In some parts of the world more words are needed than in others.  For instance, might not the essence of de la Mare's poem be boiled down to this?

     The quietness;
A chestnut leaf sinks
     Through the clear water.

Shohaku (1443-1527) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido 1952), page 231.

Or this?

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

Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 90.

Charles Cundall, "Temeside, Ludlow" (1923)

Returning to the other side of the world, we find a similar brevity and wisdom.

                              Precept

Dwell in some decent corner of your being,
Where plates are orderly set and talk is quiet,
Not in its devious crooked corridors
Nor in its halls of riot.

James Reeves, The Questioning Tiger (Heinemann 1964).

It is all one and the same, isn't it?  Location is mere happenstance. Centuries are of no moment.

Charles Frederick Dawson, "Accrington from My Window" (1932)

Saturday, July 26, 2014

"What Will Survive Of Us Is Love"

In a comment to a recent post, a long-time (and much-appreciated!) reader called our attention to W. H. Auden's poem "September 1, 1939" and, in particular, the line:  "We must love one another or die."  In later years, Auden famously (or infamously) disavowed both the line and the poem, and directed that it be omitted from any future editions of his Collected Poems.

"Rereading a poem of mine, 1st September, 1939, after it had been published, I came to the line 'We must love one another or die' and said to myself:  'That's a damned lie!  We must die anyway.'  So, in the next edition, I altered it to 'We must love one another and die.'  This didn't seem to do either, so I cut the stanza.  Still no good.  The whole poem, I realized, was infected with an incurable dishonesty -- and must be scrapped."

W. H. Auden, in John Fuller, W. H. Auden: A Commentary (Faber and Faber 1998), page 292.

Of course, Auden had no control over the ultimate fate of either the poem or the line.  The poem is one that people tended to gravitate to whenever some fresh horror appeared in the 20th century -- and tend to gravitate to when some fresh horror appears in the 21st century.  And "we must love one another or die" is the line that is usually sought out.

George Price Boyce (1826-1897), "At Binsey, Near Oxford"

Auden's line is paired in my mind with this poem.

           An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd --
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor's sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read.  Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time.  Snow fell, undated.  Light
Each summer thronged the glass.  A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground.  And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth.  The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

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

George Price Boyce, "Thorpe, Derbyshire" (1879)

To begin with, an aside:  although Larkin is not a "nature poet," few have written lovelier descriptions of the World around us.  He does this quite unobtrusively.  For instance, consider the wonderful sequence in the fifth stanza.  "Snow fell, undated."  "Light/Each summer thronged the glass."  (An image which anticipates "High Windows":  "Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:/The sun-comprehending glass,/And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows/Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.") "A bright/Litter of birdcalls strewed the same/Bone-riddled ground." Granted, not John Clare, Edward Thomas, or Andrew Young.  But beautiful.

And so comes the final stanza, which is Larkin through and through. First, there is the characteristic undeceived (or, to quote the title of one of his books, "the less deceived") Larkin:  "Only an attitude remains://Time has transfigured them into/Untruth."  But then (as so often happens in the closing stanzas of Larkin's best poems) there is this:  a giving, followed by a taking back, followed by a returning (with perhaps one or more qualifications) unfolds:  ". . . to prove/Our almost-instinct almost true:/What will survive of us is love."

I have no doubt that these equivocal reversals come from deep within Larkin.  They are not feigned.  But I also think that he learned some of this from two poets he admired who often did the same thing in their final stanzas: Edward Thomas and Robert Frost.  I have quoted more than once what Larkin said of Thomas: "What a strange talent his was:  the poetry of almost infinitely-qualified states of mind."  Philip Larkin, Letter to Andrew Motion (May 16, 1979), in Anthony Thwaite (editor), Selected Letters of Philip Larkin 1940-1985 (Faber and Faber 1992), page 599.  Yes, exactly.

George Price Boyce, "Landscape at Wotton, Surrey: Autumn" (1864)

My view is this:  Larkin labors to keep his undeceived posture intact.  He is wary of appearing sentimental.  But in his heart-of-hearts he wants to write that final line, and he wants to believe it is true.

In an interview published in 1981, he said this:

"Interviewer:  But did you feel sceptical about the faithfulness that's preserved for us in stone?

Larkin:  No.  I was very moved by it.  Of course it was years ago.  I think what survives of us is love, whether in the simple biological sense or just in terms of responding to life, making it happier, even if it's only making a joke.  I was delighted when a friend asked me if I knew a poem ending 'What will survive of us is love.'  It suggested the poem was making its way without me.  I like them to do that.'"

Philip Larkin, interview with John Haffenden, in Philip Larkin, Further Requirements: Interviews, Broadcasts, Statements and Book Reviews (Faber and Faber 2001), page 58.

So be it:  "What will survive of us is love."

Arundel Tomb, Chichester Cathedral

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Lantern

I've been thinking about the passage from P. J. Kavanagh's autobiography The Perfect Stranger that I quoted in my previous post, and, in particular, this:  "Once you've experienced the infinite significance of another person's life you feel something of the same for all lives, and for your own."  Is this merely a statement of the obvious?  I suppose the exemplary among us may find it to be so.  But I am not among that select group.  I have not lived in a manner that is a reflection of the truth Kavanagh states.  Too much sleepwalking and daydreaming.

But then an event such as the one that was the subject of the previous post occurs.  Or, as happened to me earlier this year, someone vanishes from your life for ever (a wake-up call from half a world away at 2:15 in the morning bringing news of death).  At these times "the infinite significance" of which Kavanagh speaks hits home -- at last, at long last. And, suddenly, there you have it:  the fragility and the evanescence of all we are and all we hold dear.

So, to quote again (please forgive me) from my previous post, this time from Philip Larkin:

                  . . . we should be careful

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

Thomas Train (1890-1978), "Headlights"

     When I looked back,
The man who passed
     Was lost in the mist.

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume II: Spring (Hokuseido 1950), page 85.

     A lantern
Entered a house
     On the withered moor.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume IV: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido 1952), page 283.

Trevor Makinson, "Maryhill Goods Yard"

For all the evil that we witness as human beings, a deeper current runs always, invisible.  Thus, worlds and centuries apart, Robert Herrick and Masaoka Shiki saw, and felt, the same thing.

          Once Seen, and No More

Thousands each day pass by, which we,
Once past and gone, no more shall see.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides (1648).

William MacLeod, "London Wall and St. Giles Cripplegate" (1941)

And now, from Japan and Devon, to Cumbria in the twentieth century.

                    Five Minutes

'I'm having five minutes,' he said,
Fitting the shelter of the cobble wall
Over his shoulders like a cape.  His head
Was wrapped in a cap as green
As the lichened stone he sat on.  The winter wind
Whined in the ashes like a saw,
And thorn and briar shook their red
Badges of hip and haw;
The fields were white with smoke of blowing lime;
Rusty iron brackets of sorel stood
In grass grey as the whiskers round an old dog's nose.
'Just five minutes,' he said;
And the next day I heard that he was dead,
Having five minutes to the end of time.

Norman Nicholson, The Pot Geranium (1954).

Norman Clark (1913-1992), "Flying Kites by a Gas Works near Bexhill"