Thursday, April 17, 2014

"It Is A Sort Of April-Weather Life That We Lead In This World"

"But it is a sort of April-weather life that we lead in this world.  A little sunshine is generally the prelude to a storm."  So writes William Cowper in a January 3, 1787, letter to the Reverend Walter Bagot.  Cowper, who endured much, knew whereof he spoke.  It is he who wrote two of the most despairing lines in English verse:

I, fed with judgment, in a fleshly tomb, am
                                     Buried above ground.

The entire harrowing poem may be found here, where I suggest a comparison with John Clare's equally  harrowing "I am -- yet what I am, none cares or knows."

However, I do not wish to misrepresent Cowper with those two lines: despite his periods of deep melancholy, he seems to have been a good-natured, amiable, and kind man.  This is revealed in his correspondence, which is a delight to read.

Allan Gwynne-Jones, "Spring Evening, Froxfield" (1922)


There lurks a sadness in the April air
     For those who note the fate of earthly things;
     A dreamy sense of what the future brings
To those too good, too hopeful or too fair.

An underthought of heartache, as it were,
     Blends with the paean that the new leaf sings;
     And, as it were, a breeze from Death's great wings
Shakes down the blossoms that the fruit-trees bear.

The tide of sap flows up the forest trees;
     The birds exult in every bough on high;
The ivy bloom is full of humming bees;

But if you list, you hear the latent sigh;
     And each new leaf that rustles in the breeze
Proclaims the boundless mutability.

Eugene Lee-Hamilton, Sonnets of the Wingless Hours (1894).

Lee-Hamilton led an "April-weather life":  for 20 years he was confined to bed and sofa with a paralytic illness that has never been identified. Sonnets of the Wingless Hours was published in the year in which he recovered from the malady, which departed as mysteriously as it had arrived.

James Bateman, "Pastoral" (1928)

                           April Gale

The wind frightens my dog, but I bathe in it,
Sound, rush, scent of the Spring fields.

My dog's hairs are blown like feathers askew,
My coat's a demon, torturing like life.

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

Gurney, like Cowper, was a gentle and afflicted soul.  Of course, things are much more complicated than that.  In most poets, a line such as "My coat's a demon, torturing like life" would seem over-dramatic -- an affectation. (So might:  "If one's heart is broken twenty times a day."  Or:  "The heart burns -- but has to keep out of face how heart burns.")  But not so with Gurney.  His was indeed an "April-weather life."  And he is only reporting exactly how it is.

Arthur Hathaway, "Spring Morning after Rain" (1940)

Sunday, April 13, 2014


Spring came in a rush this week.  Overnight (or so it seemed) all of the trees came into leaf at once.  Perhaps this was merely a trick of the light.  But the coming to greenness had a suddenness about it that was startling.

From a distance, the groves of hardwoods -- though the dark limbs of winter remain visible -- are now covered in a mist of light-green:  not yet the deep-green of summer.  "Nature's first green is gold . . ."

Richard Eurich (1903-1992), "Whitby in Wartime"

The following two poems are splendid arrival-of-spring poems.  They capture wonderfully the coming out of hibernation feel of the first long days of the season.   That sense of emerging from a winter burrow, eyes squinting and blinking, out into sunlight and color.

   The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush

Before the first visitor comes the spring
Softening the sharp air of the coast
In time for the first 'invasion'.
Today the place is as it might have been,
Gentle and almost hospitable.  A girl
Strides past the Northern Counties Hotel,
Light-footed, swinging a book-bag,
And the doors that were shut all winter
Against the north wind and the sea mist
Lie open to the street, where one
By one the gulls go window-shopping
And an old wolfhound dozes in the sun.

While I sit with my paper and prawn chow mein
Under a framed photograph of Hong Kong
The proprietor of the Chinese restaurant
Stands at the door as if the world were young,
Watching the first yacht hoist a sail
-- An ideogram on sea-cloud -- and the light
Of heaven upon the mountains of Donegal;
And whistles a little tune, dreaming of home.

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

"An ideogram on sea-cloud" is particularly lovely.

Richard Eurich, "Queen of the Sea, 1911" (1954)


The kind of rain we knew is a thing of the past --
deep-delving, dark, deliberate you would say,
browsing on spire and bogland; but today
our sky-blue slates are steaming in the sun,
our yachts tinkling and dancing in the bay
like race-horses.  We contemplate at last
shining windows, a future forbidden to no-one.

Derek Mahon, Ibid.

The lines "We contemplate at last/shining windows, a future forbidden to no-one" bring to mind two other poems.  Mahon's "Everything Is Going To Be All Right" (which has appeared here before) closes with these lines:

The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.

Derek Mahon, Ibid.

Philip Larkin's "High Windows" ends as follows:

                                 . . . And immediately

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.

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

Richard Eurich, "Dorset Cove" (1939)

Thursday, April 10, 2014


A watercolor painting of the Suffolk countryside, with Framlingham Castle in the distance, discovered in a Seattle antique store.  A tiny, carved agate hedgehog purchased in a tourist gift store on the shores of Lake Superior.

A black and white engraving (4 inches by 6 inches) of Archimedes being slain by a Roman soldier as he traces out a mathematical diagram on the floor with a stick (again, happened upon in an antique store).  A small, rectangular, ochre-colored flower vase acquired in a pottery shop in Hirosaki, northern Japan.

And an ordinary seashell -- a white cowrie -- found on a beach beside the Andaman Sea.  In light of an unexpected recent event, this last item now carries -- and will always carry -- the most emotional weight for me, in a way I had not foreseen.

All of the above are at hand as I write this.  Things.  You who are reading this likely have similar things nearby at this moment.  Things that have taken on a life of their own.

Robert Lillie (1867-1949), "At My Studio Window"


I had a bicycle called 'Splendid',
A cricket-bat called 'The Rajah',
Eight box-kites and Scotch soldiers
With kilts and red guns.
I had an album of postmarks,
A Longfellow with pictures,
Corduroy trousers that creaked,
A pencil with three colours.

Where do old things go to?
Could a cricket-bat be thrown away?
Where do the years go to?

Arthur Waley, in Ivan Morris (editor), Madly Singing in the Mountains: An Appreciation and Anthology of Arthur Waley (1970).

Through his translations, Arthur Waley (1889-1966) played a fundamental role in introducing traditional Chinese poetry to the English-speaking world.  (He and Burton Watson are the two best translators of Chinese verse into English.)  He also translated numerous Chinese and Japanese prose works into English, including Lao Tzu's Tao te Ching, The Analects of Confucius, and Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji.

I have only been able to find five original poems written by Waley.  "Song" is one of them.  It has a lovely feel to it:  like Po Chu-i writing in early 20th century England -- which makes perfect sense.

Robert Lillie, "The Paisley Shawl"


My cane, my pocket change, this ring of keys,
The obedient lock, the belated notes
The few days left to me will not find time
To read, the deck of cards, the tabletop,
A book and crushed in its pages the withered
Violet, monument to an afternoon
Undoubtedly unforgettable, now forgotten,
The mirror in the west where a red sunrise
Blazes its illusion.  How many things,
Files, doorsills, atlases, wine glasses, nails,
Serve us like slaves who never say a word,
Blind and so mysteriously reserved.
They will endure beyond our vanishing;
And they will never know that we have gone.

Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Stephen Kessler), in Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems (edited by Alexander Coleman) (Viking 1999).

Robert Lillie, "Part of My Studio Mantel"

Sunday, April 6, 2014


Long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall that I have a May poem (Philip Larkin's "The Trees") and a November poem (Wallace Stevens's "The Region November").  Although my reading of poetry is a matter of happenstance, I do like the thought of having certain seasonal stepping-stones.  I did not go in search of them, but now, annually and reliably, they await me.

The following poem is my April poem.  Given the climate of the Pacific Northwest, the odds are not long that I will visit "Wet Evening in April" on a wet evening in April.  And so it is.

                         Wet Evening in April

The birds sang in the wet trees
And as I listened to them it was a hundred years from now
And I was dead and someone else was listening to them.
But I was glad I had recorded for him the melancholy.

Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems (edited by Antoinette Quinn) (Penguin 2004).  The poem was first published on April 19, 1952.

I cannot say enough about the beauty of this poem.  Which means that I should keep my mouth shut.

Lucien Pissarro, "April, Epping" (1894)

March, April, and May:  they are not as wistful as September, October, and November, but they still have a high wistfulness quotient.  Last week I was walking down a city street when, after a gust of wind, the air was suddenly filled with white and pink cherry blossom petals.  For just an instant I thought they were snow flurries (usuyuki in Japanese -- a lovely word).

   Flowers and Moonlight on the Spring River

The evening river is level and motionless --
The spring colours just open to their full.
Suddenly a wave carries the moon away
And the tidal water comes with its freight of stars.

Yang-Ti (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1918).

Lucien Pissarro, "The Dunmow Road from Tilty Wood" (1915)

Of course, we ought not to get carried away in wistfulness, like the moon on a wave.  Which is not to say that wistfulness is a bad thing.  One can be wistful and perfectly content.  Some occasions call for it.  To wit:  standing in place as cherry blossom petals (and, in due time, sere leaves) spin down to the ground all around you.


That man's life is but a dream --
Is what we now come to know.

Its house abandoned,
the garden has become home
     to butterflies.

Sogi (1421-1502) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991).

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

Thursday, April 3, 2014


A few posts ago, I offered this bit of wisdom from Joseph Conrad:  "When once the truth is grasped that one's own personality is only a ridiculous and aimless masquerade of something hopelessly unknown the attainment of serenity is not very far off."  Joseph Conrad, Letter to Edward Garnett (March 23, 1896), in Edward Garnett, Letters from Joseph Conrad, 1895-1924 (1928), page 46.  I remarked in the post that it was nice that Conrad used the word "serenity" rather than "happiness."

Happiness is overpromoted and overrated.  I cannot presume to speak for the universal order of things, but I venture to say that we are not put on Earth to be happy.  A quick look at popular culture (wherever you hail from) will convince you that "the pursuit of happiness" is a hollow business indeed.  "Distracted from distraction by distraction."

Serenity is another matter entirely.  As are peace of mind, tranquillity, and repose.  One can be sad but serene, unhappy but tranquil.  Peace of mind and repose can be maintained amid cacophony and chaos (the normal state of the world).

James Bateman (1893-1959), "Haytime in the Cotswolds"

Which is not to say that the attainment of serenity is easy, or, once attained, permanent.


When will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace?  I'll not play hypocrite

To own my heart:  I yield you do come sometimes; but
That piecemeal peace is poor peace.  What pure peace allows
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it?

O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu
Some good!  And so he does leave Patience exquisite,
That plumes to Peace thereafter.  And when Peace here does house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
                                         He comes to brood and sit.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, in W. H. Gardner and N. H. MacKenzie (editors), The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press, Fourth Edition, 1967).  In a letter to Robert Bridges, Hopkins stated that "reave [line 7] is for rob, plunder, carry off."  Ibid, page 278.

"Your round me roaming end" is very nice.  As is:  "And so he does leave Patience exquisite,/That plumes to Peace thereafter."  Yes, the pursuit of happiness tends to breed impatience.

Thomas Henslow Barnard, "Landscape with Ludlow Castle" (1952)

Charles Stuart Calverley wrote light verse and comic verse.  Thus, as I have noted in a previous post, we are perhaps supposed to view the subject of the following poem as a figure of fun.  However, I've never thought so.  I greatly admire him, and I would be pleased to follow in his footsteps.

                     A Study

He stood, a worn-out City clerk --
     Who'd toiled, and seen no holiday,
For forty years from dawn to dark --
     Alone beside Caermarthen Bay.

He felt the salt spray on his lips;
     Heard children's voices on the sands;
Up the sun's path he saw the ships
     Sail on and on to other lands;

And laughed aloud.  Each sight and sound
     To him was joy too deep for tears;
He sat him on the beach, and bound
     A blue bandana round his ears:

And thought how, posted near his door,
     His own green door on Camden Hill,
Two bands at least, most likely more,
     Were mingling at their own sweet will

Verdi with Vance.  And at the thought
     He laughed again, and softly drew
That Morning Herald that he'd bought
     Forth from his breast, and read it through.

C. S. Calverley, Fly Leaves (1872).

Adrian Paul Allinson (1890-1959), "The Cornish April"

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Thrush In Spring: "It Strikes Like Lightnings To Hear Him Sing"

If one goes in search of a poem about a thrush in Spring, it is not likely that one will turn first to the poetry of Philip Larkin.  Edward Thomas, John Clare, or Andrew Young, yes, but not Larkin.  But beware:  as I have noted before, we mustn't be taken in by the popular caricature of Larkin (a caricature he helped to create as a trap for lazy journalists and critics).

Here, then, is Philip Larkin's thrush in near-Spring.  Of course, that other Larkin (the one we know and love) makes an appearance as well.


On longer evenings,
Light, chill and yellow,
Bathes the serene
Foreheads of houses.
A thrush sings,
In the deep bare garden,
Its fresh-peeled voice
Astonishing the brickwork.
It will be spring soon,
It will be spring soon --
And I, whose childhood
Is a forgotten boredom,
Feel like a child
Who comes on a scene
Of adult reconciling,
And can understand nothing
But the unusual laughter,
And starts to be happy.

Philip Larkin, The Less Deceived (1955).

This poem encapsulates the genius of Larkin:  beauty and human truth side-by-side.  First, a lovely lyrical passage (which sounds vaguely like something a poet of the Nineties (e.g., Arthur Symons or Ernest Dowson) might have written).  Next, a beautiful turning point:  "It will be spring soon,/It will be bring soon."  A "nature poet" would stop there.  But not Larkin, because what makes him unique is his interest in human beings, and how they make their way through the world.  This statement goes against the commonly-accepted caricature of Larkin, I know.  But it is true.

I suspect that most of us have come upon the type of scene described by Larkin in the second half of the poem.  We know exactly how that experience feels, even if we cannot put it into words.  Larkin's poetry is full of shared human experiences that we often find difficult to put into words.

But here is where Larkin's genius lies:  he takes this shared human feeling and links it to the feeling of hearing the first thrush of Spring.  In the yellow light of evening.  In a still-bare garden.  From that link, the poem folds inward and unfolds outward, and the two scenes -- and the emotions associated with each -- play off each other endlessly.  This movement occurs time and time again in Larkin's poetry.

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

Now, seemingly a world away from Larkin (but not really), here is Gerard Manley Hopkins.


Nothing is so beautiful as Spring --
     When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
     Thrush's eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
     The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
     The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
     A strain of the earth's sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. -- Have, get, before it cloy,

     Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
     Most, O maid's child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

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

It has been suggested that Ivor Gurney was influenced by Hopkins's poetry. On the evidence of this sonnet, I would agree:  the onrush of words and images and the slightly odd syntax are very similar in both poets.  For just one example, compare "Spring" with Gurney's "The Cloud."

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

"Thrush's eggs look little low heavens" is beautiful.  Andrew Young makes a strikingly similar comparison in a lovely poem which has appeared here previously.

                       The Nest

Four blue stones in this thrush's nest
I leave, content to make the best
Of turquoise, lapis lazuli
Or for that matter of the whole blue sky.

Andrew Young, Collected Poems (Rupert Hart-Davis 1960).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Glamis Village" (1939)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Perspective, Part Fourteen: Artful Dodges

It is impossible for us to be objective about ourselves.  How could it be otherwise?  We have been pent up in our cocoon of body, mind, and soul since we first emerged, bawling, into the world.  The most that we can hope for is a smidgen of self-awareness.  If we are attentive, and try our hardest, this smidgen of self-awareness may be accompanied by humility about ourselves and kindness towards others.

Joseph Conrad, that wise man, offers us this:

"If one looks at life in its true aspect then everything loses much of its unpleasant importance and the atmosphere becomes cleared of what are only unimportant mists that drift past in imposing shapes.  When once the truth is grasped that one's own personality is only a ridiculous and aimless masquerade of something hopelessly unknown the attainment of serenity is not very far off."

Joseph Conrad, Letter to Edward Garnett (March 23, 1896), in Edward Garnett, Letters from Joseph Conrad, 1895-1924 (1928), page 46.

And this:

"No man ever understands quite his own artful dodges to escape from the grim shadow of self-knowledge."

Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (1900), page 84.

Yes, recognition of our own follies and self-deceptions is a necessary precursor to any serenity we may be able to arrive at in life.  And it is wonderful that Conrad speaks of attaining "serenity," not "happiness."

Robin Tanner, "The Gamekeeper's Cottage" (1928)

The above thoughts were prompted by coming across the following poem:


Engrossed in the day's 'news', I read
Of all in man that's vile and base;
Horrors confounding heart and head --
Massacre, murder, filth, disgrace:
Then paused.  And thought did inward tend --
On my own past, and self, to dwell.

Whereat some inmate muttered, 'Friend,
If you and I plain truth must tell,
Everything human we comprehend,
     Only too well, too well!'

Walter de la Mare, Inward Companion: Poems (1950).

Each and every day we encounter the "incomprehensible" via the media and incorrectly conclude, as the saying goes, "Now I've seen it all!"  No, we have not seen it all, and we never will see it all, given the by turns lovely and nasty inventiveness of human beings.

De la Mare's neat trick is the movement from "incomprehensible" in the title to "comprehend" in line 9:  from "beyond the reach of intellect or research; unfathomable" (OED) (i.e., the daily horrors of the news)  to "to take in, comprise, include, contain" (OED) (i.e., us).  And, once the movement is made, one is in turn compelled to revisit "incomprehensible," which now turns out to refer not just to the contents of the daily news, but to each of us individually -- body, mind, and soul.

Robin Tanner, "Wiltshire Woodman" (1929)

All of this merits a return to the lovely three-sentence prose statement by Czeslaw Milosz.


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

Czeslaw Milosz (translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass), Road-side Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998), page 60.

Robin Tanner, "Martin's Hovel" (1927)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Perspective, Part Thirteen: No Choice In The Matter

Something obvious:  in the aftermath of the sad and painful events that life inevitably brings our way, one may gain some perspective on what really matters during our time above ground.  Which is not to say, mind you, that the gaining of perspective outweighs, or completely compensates for, the pain and sadness.  No, I'm not willing to go that far.  I need to think that one over for a while (and live longer) before I accept that proposition.

I'm reminded of the final five lines of Randall Jarrell's "90 North" (which appeared here in full a few years ago):

I see at last that all the knowledge

I wrung from the darkness -- that the darkness flung me --
Is worthless as ignorance:  nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness.  Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom.  It is pain.

Randall Jarrell, Blood for a Stranger (1942).

My view is not as bleak as Jarrell's:  I'm simply offering his view for what it is worth.  I'd say that, while I don't wish to engage in wishful thinking, I'm willing to learn while I'm here, with sadness and pain as part of the package.  Not that I have any choice in the matter, of course.

John Brett, "Southern Coast of Guernsey" (1875)

This much I do know:  one mustn't be seduced by the many Siren songs of false security the winds waft to us.


Quarterly, is it, money reproaches me:
          'Why do you let me lie here wastefully?
I am all you never had of goods and sex.
          You could get them still by writing a few cheques.'

So I look at others, what they do with theirs:
          They certainly don't keep it upstairs.
By now they've a second house and car and wife:
          Clearly money has something to do with life

-- In fact, they've a lot in common, if you enquire:
          You can't put off being young until you retire,
And however you bank your screw, the money you save
          Won't in the end buy you more than a shave.

I listen to money singing.  It's like looking down
          From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
          In the evening sun.  It is intensely sad.

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

The final four lines are, I think, among Larkin's finest:  that inimitable plain-spoken and elegant combination of matter-of-fact honesty and sheer beauty that he often achieves as a poem comes to an end.  Of course, I say this as one who loves Larkin's poetry.  Others may find that the lines exemplify exactly what they don't like about him.  Perhaps one test of whether Larkin is your cup of tea is how you react to:  "It is intensely sad."

John Brett, "Forest Cove, Cardigan Bay" (1883)

Yes, better pain and sadness -- for they are direct evidence of love and affection -- than false security.

                 Remembering Golden Bells

Ruined and ill -- a man of two score;
Pretty and guileless -- a girl of three.
Not a boy -- but still better than nothing:
To soothe one's feeling -- from time to time a kiss!
There came a day -- they suddenly took her from me;
Her soul's shadow wandered I know not where.
And when I remember how just at the time she died
She lisped strange sounds, beginning to learn to talk,
Then I know that the ties of flesh and blood
Only bind us to a load of grief and sorrow.
At last, by thinking of the time before she was born,
By thought and reason I drove the pain away.
Since my heart forgot her, many days have passed
And three times winter has changed to spring.
This morning, for a little, the old grief came back,
Because, in the road, I met her foster-nurse.

Po Chu-i (772-846) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, Chinese Poems (1946).

Do not be taken in by Po Chu-i's affectation of a gruff manner in a few places in the poem:  he is never one to wear his heart on his sleeve, and he is always wary of sentiment.  For instance, I think we know that this is whistling in the dark:  "By thought and reason I drove the pain away."  As is this:  "my heart forgot her."  Hardly.

John Brett, "The Norman Archipelago (Channel Islands)" (1885)