Saturday, September 24, 2016


On a recent sunny afternoon, as I walked down an avenue of trees, the thought occurred to me:  This is enough.  What, you may ask, was "enough"?  The ever-restless dappled light and shadow on the path before me.  The equally restless interwoven leaves and blue sky above me, changing kaleidoscopically in the wind.  Intermittent warbling, whistling, and clucking in the meadows and in the woods beyond the meadows.  An overall sense of things-as-they-ought-to-be.  A feeling of being in the presence of perfection.  Yes, all of this was enough.

Majestic panoramas (mountain ranges, seascapes, cloud kingdoms) can arouse similar feelings, but an avenue of trees -- and much, much less (although I am reluctant to use the word "less" when referring to the beautiful particulars of the World) -- can provide us with more than enough upon which to build a life.  Consider, for instance, reeds.


Sounding even
more mournful
than I'd expected,
an autumn evening wind
tossing in the reed leaves

Saigyō (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991), page 70.  The poem is a waka.

Earlier this year, I noted Hilaire Belloc's suggestion in his essay "On Ely" that, in exploring the World, we have the choice of "going outwards and outwards" or of "going inwards and inwards."  We may live an "extensive" life or an "intensive" life.  As an example of the latter, Belloc opines that you could devote your life to the study of "the religious history of East Rutland" and never reach the end of your explorations.  The same can be said of a life spent in contemplation on the beauty of reeds.

Edward Waite (1854-1924)
"The Mellow Year Is Hastening to its Close" (1896)

Belloc does not argue that an "intensive" life is preferable to an "extensive" life, or vice-versa.  In fact, he points out that, whichever path we choose, we will never exhaust the possibilities of the World.  However, I'm inclined to favor the "going inwards and inwards" approach.

This may simply be a reflection of my current location on the mortality timeline:  I have not yet reached the banks of the River Styx, but Charon will be within hailing distance before too long (although I hope to make him wait for quite some time).  Hence, exploring the manifestations of Beauty and Truth in a clump of rustling reeds seems to be a reasonable way of passing the time that remains.  As opposed to, say, conquering the seven summits.

   By the Pool at the Third Rosses

I heard the sighing of the reeds
In the grey pool in the green land,
The sea-wind in the long reeds sighing
Between the green hill and the sand.

I heard the sighing of the reeds
Day after day, night after night;
I heard the whirring wild ducks flying,
I saw the sea-gull's wheeling flight.

I heard the sighing of the reeds
Night after night, day after day,
And I forgot old age, and dying,
And youth that loves, and love's decay.

I heard the sighing of the reeds
At noontide and at evening,
And some old dream I had forgotten
I seemed to be remembering.

I hear the sighing of the reeds:
Is it in vain, is it in vain
That some old peace I had forgotten
Is crying to come back again?

Arthur Symons, Images of Good and Evil (Heinemann 1899).  The poem was written on September 1, 1896, at Rosses Point, which is located in County Sligo, Ireland.  Rosses Point, Rosses Upper, and Rosses Lower are three villages (or townlands) on a peninsula in Sligo Bay.  Hence the phrase "the Third Rosses" in the title of the poem.

It is not surprising that one of my beloved wistful poets of the 1890s would be bewitched by "the sighing of the reeds":  spring, summer, autumn, or winter, the whispering of the wind in the reeds is the embodiment of wistfulness.  This wistfulness edges into melancholy and mournfulness in autumn and winter, as Saigyō's waka demonstrates.  (When it comes to these feelings, poets such as Arthur Symons and Saigyō or Ernest Dowson and Bashō have a great deal more in common than one might imagine.)

The repetition of "I heard the sighing of the reeds" at the beginning of the first four stanzas (replicating the never-ending rustling) is lovely, as is the slight variation in the fifth and final stanza:  "I hear the sighing of the reeds."  Yet I am also fond of something as seemingly simple as this:  "In the grey pool in the green land."  As I have observed here in the past, the Nineties poets are not everyone's cup of tea, but no one does this sort of thing better than they do.

Edward Waite, "Autumn (Russett Leaves)" (1899)

On the subject of the World's beautiful and wholly sufficient particulars (an avenue of trees, a clump of reeds), one of Ludwig Wittgenstein's poetic philosophical aphorisms comes to mind:  "Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 6.44, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) (translated by C. K. Ogden).  It is important to consider this statement in conjunction with the two statements which immediately follow it:

"To view the world sub specie aeterni is to view it as a whole -- a limited whole.
Feeling the world as a limited whole -- it is this that is mystical."

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 6.45, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).

The phrase "a limited whole" is not a phrase of disparagement.  Rather, it is a description that makes clear that something lies beyond the limited whole.  A clump of reeds soughing in the wind is part of the limited whole. Make no mistake:  it is sufficient in itself.  But there is something more.

           The River

Stir not, whisper not,
Trouble not the giver
Of quiet who gives
This calm-flowing river,

Whose whispering willows,
Whose murmuring reeds
Make silence more still
Than the thought it breeds,

Until thought drops down
From the motionless mind
Like a quiet brown leaf
Without any wind;

It falls on the river
And floats with its flowing,
Unhurrying still
Past caring, past knowing.

Ask not, answer not,
Trouble not the giver
Of quiet who gives
This calm-flowing river.

Patrick MacDonogh, Poems (edited by Derek Mahon) (The Gallery Press 2001).

"The giver of quiet" lies beyond the "limited whole."  The same is true of Symons's "some old dream I had forgotten" and "some old peace I had forgotten."  But we mustn't forget:  in the absence of the "murmuring reeds" and "the sighing of the reeds," we would have no inkling of that something which lies beyond.

Edward Waite, "Fall of the Year"

Who, or what, is "the giver of quiet"?  Wittgenstein again:  "There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words.  They make themselves manifest.  They are what is mystical."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 6.522, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).  These thoughts by Philippe Jaccottet, which appeared in my last post, are also apt:  "there is something unknown, something evasive, at the origin of things, at the very centre of our being.  But I am incapable of attributing to this unknown, to that, any of the names allotted to it in turn by history."  Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), Landscapes with Absent Figures (Delos Press/Menard Press 1997), page 157.

Which brings us back to Wittgenstein:  "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 7, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).

But I fear that I am leading us into the brambles of abstraction.  What ultimately matters is a single clump of reeds.  Swaying and sighing in the wind.  In medieval Japan, in 19th century Ireland, or anywhere else at any time.

When all the reeds are swaying in the wind
How can you tell which reeds the otters bend?

Michael Longley, Selected Poems (Jonathan Cape 1998).

Edward Waite, "Autumn Colouring" (1894)

Saturday, September 10, 2016


Earlier this week, I awoke suddenly in the middle of the night.  As I came to consciousness, these words floated up:  "out into the phoenix world." Complete nonsense?  The sole remnant of a forgotten dream?  Most likely. But I was intrigued by the phrase.  So please bear with me, dear readers.

Why the word "phoenix"?  I haven't been pondering the myth of the phoenix.  I haven't visited Phoenix, Arizona, for at least ten years, and I have no plans to travel to that fair city.  It has been quite some time since I heard Glen Campbell sing "By the Time I Get to Phoenix."

Nor do I recall seeing the word "phoenix" in anything I have read recently. Yet, might my reading choices account for the unexpected appearance of "out into the phoenix world" in the dead of night?  At the beginning of the week I read Alfred Tennyson's "Ulysses."  The entire poem is wonderful, but these four lines have been preoccupying me:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.

Alfred Tennyson, "Ulysses," lines 18-21, in Poems (1842).

I have been thinking in particular about the lovely line "I am a part of all that I have met."  Why didn't Tennyson write instead:  "All that I have met is a part of me"?  This would seem to be more "logical."  Thus, one might say:  "I have been to [insert name of place] only once, but it will always be a part of me."  On the other hand, "Ulysses" is a monologue by Ulysses, who is not known for his humility.  The line is immediately preceded by these two lines:  "And drunk delight of battle with my peers,/Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy."  Yes, Ulysses did leave "a part" of himself on "the ringing plains of windy Troy," didn't he?  And, thanks to Homer, he haunts the place to this day.  But I do not wish to explicate the line to death. Needless to say, I defer to Tennyson:  the line is perfect as it is.

Did my reading of "Ulysses" give subconscious birth to "out into the phoenix world"?  There is a phoenix-like element of rebirth or regeneration in the poem:  in the end, Ulysses decides to embark on yet another journey in pursuit of a world that for ever "gleams" in the distance:  "Come, my friends./'Tis not too late to seek a newer world."  It is worth noting that the image of an unreachable "gleam" in the distance reappears in "Merlin and the Gleam," a poem written by Tennyson near the end of his life.  The poem concludes with these lines:

O young Mariner,
Down to the haven,
Call your companions,
Launch your vessel
And crowd your canvas,
And, ere it vanishes
Over the margin,
After it, follow it,
Follow the Gleam.

Alfred Tennyson, Demeter and Other Poems (Macmillan 1889).

But I do not wish to overreach:  I've never been fond of analyzing dreams for hidden psychological messages, nor do I wish to read too much into riddling phrases that appear from out of the realm of sleep.  Still, if a message arrives from a mysterious place, we ought not to reject it out of hand.

Richard Kaiser (1868-1941), "Landscape (Werratal)" (1939)

Autumn has been making its presence felt in gentle increments since mid-August.  It begins with a slight change in the angle of the light, which also takes on a deeper tinge of yellow.  This is accompanied by the lengthening tree shadows, which move across the streets and paths earlier and earlier in the day.

Recently, while I was out on my daily walk, autumn moved a few steps closer:  the afternoon was sunny, but there was a slight chill in the breeze that came from the west -- a just perceptible undercurrent in the stream of air.  As I strolled north in the sunlight, the left side of my body was in balmy August, while the right side was in cold October.

"All I have been able to do is to walk and go on walking, remember, glimpse, forget, try again, rediscover, become absorbed.  I have not bent down to inspect the ground like an entomologist or a geologist; I've merely passed by, open to impressions.  I have seen those things which also pass   -- more quickly or, conversely, more slowly than human life.  Occasionally, as if our movements had crossed -- like the encounter of two glances that can create a flash of illumination and open up another world -- I've thought I had glimpsed what I should have to call the still centre of the moving world.  Too much said?  Better to walk on . . ."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), Landscapes with Absent Figures (Delos Press/Menard Press 1997), page 4.  The ellipses appear in the original text.  The book was published in France in 1979 under the title Paysages avec Figures Absentes.

Philippe Jaccottet is now 91 years old.  He was born in Moudon, Switzerland, but he has lived in the town of Grignan in the Rhône-Alpes region of France since 1953.  The prose passage quoted above is characteristic of the quiet, ruminative, and lovingly attentive beauty of Jaccottet's prose and poetry.  Earlier this week, prior to the appearance of "out into the phoenix world," I read the following poem by Jaccottet, which is part of a sequence titled "To Henry Purcell":

Imagine a comet
returning centuries hence
from the kingdom of the dead,
crossing our century tonight
and sowing the same seeds . . .

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Derek Mahon), in Derek Mahon (translator), Words in the Air: A Selection of Poems by Philippe Jaccottet (The Gallery Press 1998).  The poem is untitled.  The ellipses appear in the original text.

A comet "returning centuries hence/from the kingdom of the dead" perhaps has something in common with the phoenix, which, according to some traditions, lives 500 years, its successor then arising from its ashes.  Might this be the source of "the phoenix world" of my dream remnant?  There is no way of knowing.  The phrase is probably nothing more than a non sequitur released from the fortune cookie of the mind.

Emanuel Baschny (1876-1932), "Village in the Sun" (1910)

At this time of year our eyes are drawn to the leaves.  On a September afternoon, towards sunset, you look up at a tree and notice that the leaves of a single spray or bough have turned yellow, orange, or red.  There they are, set against a backdrop of deep green.  There is no doubt a scientific explanation for this phenomenon.  There always is.  I prefer to remain ignorant.

At the moment, a meadow that I pass by on my daily walk is full of pink-purple and purple-white sweet peas.  In this part of the world, they usually bloom in July and August, and then dry out before autumn arrives.  Their appearance now may be due to a spell of wet weather we had a few weeks ago.  Whatever the reason, it is delightful to see them fluttering in the slanting, butter-yellow sunlight.

     The Oak

Live thy Life,
     Young and old,
Like yon oak,
Bright in spring,
     Living gold;

     Then; and then
     Gold again.

All his leaves
     Fallen at length,
Look, he stands,
Trunk and bough,
     Naked strength.

Alfred Tennyson, Demeter and Other Poems (Macmillan 1889).

The oak's yearly transitions from "living gold" to "summer-rich" green  to "soberer-hued gold" to emptiness do not proceed in lockstep.  Red leaves and blossoming sweet peas exist side-by-side.  The World's beauty is in its fragments, and in their juxtapositions, ever-changing.  "The flecked river,/Which kept flowing and never the same way twice."  (Wallace Stevens, "This Solitude of Cataracts.")  Or:  "the half colors of quarter-things."  (Wallace Stevens, "The Motive for Metaphor.")  We do not live in an all-or-nothing World.  For which we should be grateful.

We live in a World of constant change.  But that change takes place within a cycle of renewal and recurrence.  With the promise of an end for all that is mortal, of course.  There's no getting around that.  But here is something to consider:  "If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present." Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 6.4311, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).

Richard Kaiser, "Landscape in Oberbayern" (1939)

What, then, of "out into the phoenix world"?  If I ever receive messages from other realms, I do not expect them to arrive in words.  Thus, when I awoke in the middle of the night, I was only talking to myself.  I suspect that I needed to give myself advice:  "Whatever you are looking for is out there, not in here."

Weight of stones, of thoughts
Dreams and mountains
are not evenly balanced
We inhabit yet another world
Perhaps the one between

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), Landscapes with Absent Figures, page 156.  The poem is untitled.  It is immediately followed by this prose passage:

"This is how I once tried to capture in a poem the feeling that there must be two measures, two orders of measure; because what we experience -- pain or joy -- in a lifetime, or even in a brief moment, we clearly see as unrelated to the millions, the billions of years or miles of science. . . . This feeling of somehow escaping from, or having some essential inner resistance to what can be quantified, could perhaps be the beginning of a hope.

"Of all my uncertainties, the least uncertain (the one least removed from the first glimmers of a belief) is the one given to me by poetic experience:  the thought that there is something unknown, something evasive, at the origin of things, at the very centre of our being.  But I am incapable of attributing to this unknown, to that, any of the names allotted to it in turn by history."

Philippe Jaccottet, Ibid, pages 156-157.  The italics appear in the original text.

Emanuel Baschny, "Before a Thunderstorm" (1913)

Friday, September 2, 2016

"The Sea Of Life"

I may certainly be wrong, but I suspect that most of us believe that our minds our capacious, that we are "open-minded," and that we have the flexibility to change our viewpoints in order to fit changing circumstances. This may be true from an intellectual standpoint.  But I wonder.  A stanza from Philip Larkin's "Continuing to Live" seems accurate to me:

And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is clear as a lading-list.
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
        To exist.

Philip Larkin, Collected Poems (Faber and Faber 1988).

But let's move beyond the mind, which is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg of who we really are.  I would suggest that our emotional sense of life and of the World (how we feel in our heart and, yes, in our soul, about our life and the World) revolves around a handful of long-standing, deeply-entrenched intuitions and images that embody the essence of who we are. This is not a bad thing.  Concentration and depth are preferable to dispersion and distraction.

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

Matthew Arnold, in Kenneth Allott (editor), The Poems of Matthew Arnold (Longmans 1965).  The poem is untitled.  The five lines appear in an essay ("St. Paul and Protestantism") that was published in the Cornhill Magazine in November of 1869.  Arnold never included the poem in any of the collections of his poetry that were published during his lifetime.

Samuel Bough (1822-1878), "Edinburgh from Leith Roads" (1854)

"The central stream of what we feel indeed."  This is what I am getting at. Perhaps this can also be described as our emotional inscape (to borrow a lovely word from Gerard Manley Hopkins and to use it in a different context).  Which brings us to Matthew Arnold and "the sea of life."

                  To Marguerite

Yes!  in the sea of life enisled,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.
The islands feel the enclasping flow,
And then their endless bounds they know.

But when the moon their hollows lights,
And they are swept by balms of spring,
And in their glens, on starry nights,
The nightingales divinely sing;
And lovely notes, from shore to shore,
Across the sounds and channels pour --

Oh!  then a longing like despair
Is to their farthest caverns sent;
For surely once, they feel, we were
Parts of a single continent!
Now round us spreads the watery plain --
Oh might our marges meet again!

Who ordered, that their longing's fire
Should be, as soon as kindled, cooled?
Who renders vain their deep desire? --
A God, a God their severance ruled!
And bade betwixt their shores to be
The unplumbed, salt, estranging sea.

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

I am quite fond of this poem.  There are very few opening lines as fine as "Yes!  in the sea of life enisled."  Likewise, there are very few closing lines as fine as "The unplumbed, salt, estranging sea."  And, of course, there is this:  "We mortal millions live alone," with the telling and lovely italicization.  It is a wonderful poem, and Arnold is a wonderful poet, a fact that tends to be obscured by the circumstance that he essentially stopped writing poetry at about the age of 45 and turned himself into a literary and cultural critic (an excellent and prescient one).

The poem was written in the aftermath of Arnold's final parting from "Marguerite," the mysterious woman he met twice in Switzerland (in September of 1848 and September of 1849) and never saw again.  These encounters led to a poetic sequence titled "Switzerland," which includes "To Marguerite."  But did the encounters actually occur?  Much scholarly ink has been spilled debating the issue of whether Marguerite was a blue-eyed, lilac-kerchiefed young woman from France, another young woman from England, or an imaginary "lost love" invented by Arnold.

(Anyone interested in the question may wish to begin with the chapter titled "Arnold's Marguerite" in Paull F. Baum's Ten Studies in the Poetry of Matthew Arnold (Duke University Press 1958), the chapter titled "The Idea of Love" in G. Robert Stange's Matthew Arnold: The Poet as Humanist (Princeton University Press 1967), or the article "Arnold and 'Marguerite' -- Continued" by Miriam Allott in Victorian Poetry, Volume 23, No. 2 (Summer 1985), pages 125-143.)

I prefer to believe that Marguerite existed.  But, whether she did or not, there is no denying the passion of "To Marguerite," and the depth of feeling in Arnold's articulation of how we find ourselves in the World.

Samuel Bough, "Seascape"

Arnold returned to the image of "the sea of life" in "The Terrace at Berne," his last poem about Marguerite.  It was inspired by a visit he made to Berne in 1859, ten years after their final parting at Thun, which is not far from Berne.  Here are the closing stanzas:

Like driftwood spars, which meet and pass
Upon the boundless ocean-plain,
So on the sea of life, alas!
Man meets man -- meets, and quits again.

I knew it when my life was young;
I feel it still, now youth is o'er.
-- The mists are on the mountain hung,
And Marguerite I shall see no more.

Matthew Arnold, Poems (1869).

The islands of "To Marguerite" have been supplanted by "driftwood spars": we are adrift rather than fixed in place.  But we are still separated from one another and alone.  I find "I knew it when my life was young" to be particularly affecting.  I don't know why.  It just is.

But was Arnold's parting from Marguerite, and the accompanying feeling that he had lost (forsaken?) the love of his life, the sole source of his passionate apostrophes on "the sea of life" in "To Marguerite" and "The Terrace at Berne"?  I think not.  Consider these lines:

For most men in a brazen prison live,
Where, in the sun's hot eye,
With heads bent o'er their toil, they languidly
Their lives to some unmeaning taskwork give,
Dreaming of nought beyond their prison-wall.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And the rest, a few,
Escape their prison and depart
On the wide ocean of life anew.
There the freed prisoner, where'er his heart
Listeth, will sail;
Nor doth he know how there prevail,
Despotic on that sea,
Trade-winds which cross it from eternity.

Matthew Arnold, "A Summer Night," lines 37-41, 51-58, in Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems (1852).

Although "the wide ocean of life" may appear to be an escape from "prison," alas, it is not:  the escapee seeks "some false, impossible shore" and, amid "the roar/Of sea and wind," "he too disappears, and comes no more."  ("A Summer Night," lines 69-71, 73.)  These lines are not the product of lost or unrequited love.  Rather, they reflect Arnold's essential feelings about the nature of our existence on earth, as does this prose statement from one of his notebooks:

"We lie outstretched on a vast wave of the starlit sea of life, balancing backwards and forwards with it:  we desire the shore, but we shall reach it only when our wave reaches it."

Matthew Arnold, The Yale Manuscript (edited by S. O. A. Ullmann) (University of Michigan Press 1989), page 195.

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

The idea that our life is set on a predetermined course, and that we are in the hands of "destiny" or "fate," is one that recurs often in Arnold's poetry, and in his contemplations on "the sea of life."  Arnold is by turns resigned to, and resentful of, this state of affairs.

                         Human Life

What mortal, when he saw,
Life's voyage done, his heavenly Friend,
Could ever yet dare tell him fearlessly:
'I have kept uninfringed my nature's law;
The inly-written chart thou gavest me,
To guide me, I have steered by to the end'?

Ah!  let us make no claim,
On life's incognisable sea,
To too exact a steering of our way;
Let us not fret and fear to miss our aim,
If some fair coast have lured us to make stay,
Or some friend hailed us to keep company.

Ay!  we would each fain drive
At random, and not steer by rule.
Weakness!  and worse, weakness bestowed in vain!
Winds from our side the unsuiting consort rive,
We rush by coasts where we had lief remain;
Man cannot, though he would, live chance's fool.

No!  as the foaming swath
Of torn-up water, on the main,
Falls heavily away with long-drawn roar
On either side the black deep-furrowed path
Cut by an onward-labouring vessel's prore,
And never touches the ship-side again;

Even so we leave behind,
As, chartered by some unknown Powers,
We stem across the sea of life by night,
The joys which were not for our use designed;
The friends to whom we had no natural right,
The homes that were not destined to be ours.

Matthew Arnold, Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems (1852).  "Prore" (line 23) is an obsolete form of "prow."  Kenneth Allott (editor), The Poems of Matthew Arnold, page 140.  "Stem" (line 27) means to hold to a fixed course.  Ibid.

Arnold's equivocation is apparent.  On the one hand, he suggests that we have been "chartered by some unknown Powers" who have laid out a course for us, from which we ought not to deviate.  On the other hand, one senses his regret at having to surrender the ability to "drive/At random, and not steer by rule."  And how sad the final three lines of the poem are!  Look at what we must leave behind as we accept the course of our destiny:  "The joys which were not for our use designed;/The friends to whom we had no natural right,/The homes that were not destined to be ours."

Arnold wrote the poem soon after he parted from Marguerite for the final time, which gives an added poignance to those three lines.  One is left to ponder whether "Human Life" is an exercise in rationalization or a cry of despair.  Perhaps both.

Samuel Bough, "Looking Across the Forth" (1855)

However, in the following poem, Arnold leaves equivocation behind and wonderfully speaks from his heart and soul.  Here is "the central stream" of what he "feel[s] indeed."


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

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

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

"Destiny" was another of the poems written by Arnold soon after Marguerite's disappearance from his life.  The passion of the poem makes clear that he knew exactly what had happened and what he had walked away from.  He attempts to shift responsibility to "destiny" and to "the Powers that sport with man," but I think he knows better:  after all, it is his "heart of ice" and his "soul of fire."

I suspect that the emotion expressed by Arnold in the poem took him aback: although he subsequently published collected editions of his poems four times in his life (in 1869, 1877, 1881, and 1885) he did not reprint "Destiny" in any of those editions.  It remained hidden away in Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems, a volume that does not even bear Arnold's name as author:  the title page states simply:  "By A."  It is worth noting that, in the volume, "Destiny" appears immediately before "To Marguerite." Yes, Arnold knew exactly what had happened.

Samuel Bough, "Shipyard at Dumbarton" (1855)

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


We humans make a great deal of racket, don't we?  Talking.  Always talking.  And to what end?  Long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall one of my favorite statements about the mystery of existence:  "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 7, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).  Here is an alternative translation (by C. K Ogden):  "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

This sort of statement befuddles moderns, for they have been taught to believe that everything is ultimately subject to explanation.  This belief (and it is a belief, not a fact) accounts for most of the noise around us:  a never-ending, purportedly "rational" discourse about the causes and effects of the World's minute particulars, which are often perceived as "problems" or "crises" that need to be solved.  Words and yet more words.

Confronted with this barren and tedious state of affairs, my response is to keep my mouth shut.  Why add to the clamor?

But perhaps there is another path available.  Not utter silence, but a type of communication that takes inspiration from the World around us -- the real World.

     All the long day --
Yet not long enough for the skylark,
     Singing, singing.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 195.

The World around us never stops singing.  But it does so in a reserved and seemly fashion.  Without grievance.  With no agenda to pursue.  I would rather attend to the World's music than to the human welter of words, words, words.  With one exception, of course:  the words of poets.

Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), "The Small Meadows in Spring" (1880)

As one might expect, our mortality enters into this.  Time is short.  The final two lines of L. A. G. Strong's poem "Garramor Bay," which appeared in my previous post, come to mind:  "O visitor, fugitive creature, thing of a tide,/Make music, my heart, before the long silence."

Imagine the life of a cicada.  All those years biding your time in the dark earth.  Then one day, suddenly, there you are:  out in the bright blue and green.  What else would you wish to do but sing?

Knowing what we know -- that they will live but a few short weeks above ground -- their singing takes on a sad and wistful aspect.  How much do they know?  "Nor dread nor hope attend/A dying animal."  (W. B. Yeats, "Death.")  Is this true?  I'm not in a position to say.

     Nothing intimates,
In the voice of the cicada,
     How soon it will die.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 234.

I once lived in Japan for a year, and I was astonished when I first heard the sound of the cicadas in summer:  a shrill, piercing vibration, a chorus consisting of a thousand dentist's drills, magnified and echoing.  The Japanese word for cicada is semi (pronounced "se-mee").  One of Bashō's poems captures perfectly the intensity of the sound of the semi in summer and early autumn:

     The silence;
The voice of the cicadas
     Penetrates the rocks.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 229.

That's it exactly:  a fantastic and breathtaking drilling-down.  But here's the wonderful thing:  my initial astonishment at the screeching chorus soon turned to fondness.  From the outside, the semi is an unlovely creature, but, as singers, they are soothing and endearing.  What's more, we and the semi share the same destiny:  a short time spent above ground. "Make music, my heart, before the long silence."

Alfred Sisley, "A Turn of the River Loing, Summer" (1896)

The songs that emanate from the World come in many forms, and from unexpected quarters.  A fragment of blank verse by William Wordsworth, which appeared in my post of July 31, seems apt in this context:

                                Why is it we feel
So little for each other, but for this,
That we with nature have no sympathy,
Or with such things as have no power to hold
Articulate language?
And never for each other shall we feel
As we may feel, till we have sympathy
With nature in her forms inanimate,
With objects such as have no power to hold
Articulate language.  In all forms of things
There is a mind.

William Wordsworth, fragment from the Alfoxden Notebook, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume 5 (Oxford University Press 1949), page 340.

Wordsworth expressed his concern about our having "no sympathy" with nature, or with "such things as have no power to hold/Articulate language," in 1798.  What can we say of the state of that "sympathy" now, more than two centuries later?

In Japan, in the late 17th century, a poet could write this:

     With what voice,
And what song would you sing, spider,
     In this autumn breeze?

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 85.

A vast, empty space of "reason" and "enlightenment" lies between us and the World as Bashō and Wordsworth experienced it.  But, fortunately, that World has not vanished.  It is a World in which one can still imagine a spider singing.

Alfred Sisley, "The Path to the Old Ferry at By" (1880)

As I have noted here in the past, the choice is ours to make:  we can live in an enchanted World or in a disenchanted World.  Although, come to think of it, I'm not sure that this is a matter of choice.  One feels that there is something immanent within, beneath, and behind the beautiful surface of the World or one does not.  I do not say this in a judgmental fashion.  Our emotional sense of how we fit into the World is a wholly mysterious thing, and I am only qualified to speak of how the World feels to me.

It will come as no surprise that I opt for an enchanted, singing World. Skylarks and cicadas and spiders.  And a hototogisu beneath the moon.

     What!  Was it the moon
That cried?
     A hototogisu!

Baishitsu (1768-1852) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn, page 167.  The hototogisu is the Japanese cuckoo.  The word is pronounced thus:  hō-tō-tō-gē (with a hard g) -sū.

The following passage appears in a discussion by Gilbert Murray of the Greek dramatist Euripides.  It eloquently articulates one way of seeing the World.

"Reason is great, but it is not everything.  There are in the world things not of reason, but both below and above it; causes of emotion, which we cannot express, which we tend to worship, which we feel, perhaps, to be the precious elements in life."

Gilbert Murray, A History of Ancient Greek Literature (Heinemann 1897), page 272.

I know next to nothing.  But it seems to me that we ought not to limit our potential sources of illumination and revelation.  Here is yet another voice from the World:

All was grey dust save a little fire
and the oriole said:  Who are you?  What are you doing?
Nothing was moving yet to its end.

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Michael Hamburger), in Philippe Jaccottet, Seedtime: Extracts from the Notebooks 1954-1967 (New Directions 1977), page 24.  The poem is untitled.

Alfred Sisley, "Flood at Moret" (1879)

Sunday, August 14, 2016

A Stroll

A poem that catches our fancy is likely to stay with us our entire life.  If the poem moves us sufficiently, we may discover that we have committed it (or at least part of it) to memory without even knowing we have done so.  At different times in our life, a stray phrase from the poem may return to us out of the blue.  We may think that this is mere happenstance, a quirk of memory.  But I suspect that more is afoot.

This past week, the title of a poem resurfaced in my mind.  I have no idea why.  But I returned to the poem.

   The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water

I heard the old, old men say
'Everything alters,
And one by one we drop away.'
They had hands like claws, and their knees
Were twisted like the old thorn-trees
By the waters.
I heard the old, old men say
'All that's beautiful drifts away
Like the waters.'

W. B. Yeats, In the Seven Woods (Dun Emer Press 1903).

I read this poem for the first time at the age of 19 or 20, when I was taking a course in college titled "Yeats, Pound, and Eliot."  I was quite smitten with Yeats at the time.  When I returned to the poem this week, I discovered that I remain quite smitten with Yeats -- the Yeats of the 1890s and early 1900s and of the Celtic Twilight.  I am aware of his faults as a person (vain, supercilious, et cetera), but I am willing to let all of that pass:  I cannot forget -- and I am ever grateful for -- the scores of beautiful lines he wrote when he was a young man.  Perhaps I have not changed a whit emotionally in the intervening years:  "The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water" moves me as much today as it did on the day I first read it.

Ian Grant (1904-1993), "Winter Scene, Provençal" (1938)

The poems we love begin to accumulate over the years.  (Please bear with me:  I intend to contemplate the obvious in this post.)  Our personal anthology of poems in turn leads to one of the many wonders of poetry:  one remembered poem often carries us on to another, and, before we know it, we are out for a stroll.

Thus, reading "The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water," I was reminded that Yeats is in fact one of my beloved poets of the 1890s.  This brought Ernest Dowson to mind, who, along with Yeats, was a member of the Rhymers' Club in London in the Nineties.  "All that's beautiful drifts away/Like the waters" led me seamlessly to this:

          Vitae summa brevis spem nos
                 vetat incohare longam

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
          Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
          We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
          Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
          Within a dream.

Ernest Dowson, Verses (Leonard Smithers 1896).  The source of the title is line 15 of Ode 4, Book I, of Horace's Odes.  The line may be translated as: "the short span of our life forbids us to indulge in a long-term hope." Ernest Dowson, Collected Poems (edited by R. K. R. Thornton) (Birmingham University Press 2003), page 225.  An alternative translation is:  "the brief sum of life does not allow us to start on long hopes."  Horace, The Complete Odes and Epodes (translated by David West) (Oxford University Press 1997).

The poem has appeared here on more than one occasion, but I never tire of revisiting it.  Encountering it in conjunction with "The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water" broadens and deepens both poems.  I realize that not everyone is fond of the poets of the Nineties.  But this is undeniable: they wrote poetry as if their lives depended on it.

Paul Methuen (1886-1974), "Bathampton"

As you have no doubt noticed, my incipient stroll had by now developed a theme of sorts:  transience.  But my stroll was a leisurely amble, not a purposeful walk with a specific destination in mind.  Hence, I was content to spend a day with Yeats's old, old men, and to spend the following day in Dowson's misty dream.

Although a great deal of unread poetry lies before me, hurrying through it would be antithetical to the essential character of poetry:  a poem asks us to pause and pay attention to the World, and to our existence within the World.  Reading a poem should be an act of repose and reflection, not a task to be completed.  Knowing that my stroll would resume, I waited.  On the next day, this floated up:

                              Garramor Bay

Now the long wave unfolded falls from the West,
The sandbirds run upon twittering, twinkling feet:
Life is perilous, poised on the lip of a wave,
And the weed that lay yesterday here is clean gone.

O visitor, fugitive creature, thing of a tide,
Make music, my heart, before the long silence.

L. A. G. Strong, Northern Light (Victor Gollancz 1930).

Yes, "transience" had definitely become the theme of my stroll.  Strong was a mid-20th century English "man of letters," a writer of novels, short stories, plays, poetry, and literary criticism.  However, "Garramor Bay" has that wistful, death-haunted 1890s feel to it, particularly the final two lines, which sound as though they could have been written by Dowson or Yeats.

Ian Grant, "Chesire Mill" (1939)

Long-time readers of this blog may by now be familiar with one of my oft-repeated mantras:  It is the poem that matters, not the poet.  Each poem is a singular and sovereign act of creation.  Of course, few would dispute that W. B. Yeats wrote more fine poems than either Ernest Dowson or L. A. G. Strong.  But is each of Yeats's fine poems "better" than "Garramor Bay" or "Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam"?  I think not.

We ought to be catholic in our search for Beauty and Truth.  We never know when and where we may happen upon them.  When I purchased a volume of Sylvia Townsend Warner's poems, I had no idea what I would find within it, but I was in search of Beauty and Truth.  I had a hunch they were there.  And, sure enough, I found them a few years ago when I came upon this untitled four-line poem:

Not long I lived, but long enough to know my mind
And gain my wish -- a grave buried among these trees,
Where if the wood-dove on my taciturn headstone
Perch for a brief mourning I shall think it enough.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Boxwood (Chatto & Windus 1960).

These lines unaccountably reappeared the day after I read "Garramor Bay" this past week.  I immediately felt that my stroll was complete.

Paul Methuen, "Magnolia Soulangiana at Corsham"

Saturday, August 6, 2016


It is entirely possible -- and perfectly acceptable -- to live one's life without holding opinions on the political issues of the day.  As the years pass, I have been steadily throwing these sorts of opinions overboard, and I feel none the worse for having jettisoned them.

Mind you, I do hold some opinions.  For instance, it is my opinion that we should be kind to one another.  (Long-time readers of this blog have heard me quote Philip Larkin numerous times on this point:  "We should be careful//Of each other, we should be kind/While there is still time.")  I am also of the opinion that it is rude to carry on cell phone conversations in public, particularly while waiting in lines at post offices and banks.  I confess that I favor dogs over cats.  (Although I have known and loved many wonderful cats.)  Further, it is my opinion that those who commit murder in the name of religion (any religion) are evil.  So, there you have it: I am not opinionless.

Granted, most of my opinions are in the nature of truisms.  (With the exception of my preference for dogs over cats, for which I beg the forbearance of those who prefer cats.)  But, as I have noted in the past, I am perfectly content to live my life in accordance with truisms, which are, after all, true.

                 Mute Opinion

I traversed a dominion
Whose spokesmen spake out strong
Their purpose and opinion
Through pulpit, press, and song.
I scarce had means to note there
A large-eyed few, and dumb,
Who thought not as those thought there
That stirred the heat and hum.

When, grown a Shade, beholding
That land in lifetime trode,
To learn if its unfolding
Fulfilled its clamoured code,
I saw, in web unbroken,
Its history outwrought
Not as the loud had spoken,
But as the mute had thought.

Thomas Hardy, Poems of the Past and the Present (Macmillan 1901).

Adam Bruce Thomson (1885-1976), "Still Life at a Window" (1944)

I understand the allure of constructing a well-ordered set of opinions.  The world can be a chaotic, horrific, and dispiriting place.  It can be comforting to believe that one's opinions are correct, and that the implementation of those opinions will lead to a better world.

But this is where problems arise.  A great number of people believe that holding the "correct" opinions is de facto evidence of one's personal virtue and morality.  More alarmingly, there is a disturbing totalitarian undercurrent in modern opinion-holding:  We are right.  You are wrong. And you had better adopt the correct opinions.  Or else.  Anyone who believes that totalitarian tendencies are limited to one side or the other of the political spectrum is deluding themselves.

But I mustn't rant.  I wish all opinion holders well, as long as they don't expect me to believe what they believe.  In any case, the end result of political opinion-holding amounts to a hill of beans.

                The Pier

Only a placid sea, and
A pier where no boat comes,
But people stand at the end
And spit into the water,
Dimpling it, and watch a dog
That chins and churns back to land.

I had come here to see
Humbug embark, deported,
Protected from the crowd.
But he has not come today.
And anyway there is no boat
To take him.  And no one cares.
So Humbug still walks our land
On stilts, is still looked up to.

W. R. Rodgers, Awake! and Other Poems (Secker & Warburg 1941).

Yes, Humbug will for ever walk the lands in which you and I dwell, dear reader.  There will never be a dearth of snake oil salesmen, whether of the left, right, or center.

Adam Bruce Thomson, "Melrose Abbey" (1953)

Opinions on political issues are beliefs, not statements of reality.  In the wake of the so-called "Age of Enlightenment," belief in utopian political schemes has in large part replaced religious belief.  Political believers can be every bit as fervent as religious believers.  This is not a criticism of fervency.  Everyone is entitled to hold their own opinions.  But it is important to recognize the critical role that utopian political beliefs play in the lives of a large number of people.

Most political true believers are not aware that their opinions are the tenets of a religion.  Political religions are as rife with controversy as the early Christian church:  doctrinal disputations, denunciations, apostasies, and schisms abound.  Words are paramount, and are worshipped.  The niceties of creedal language are parsed in a fashion that rivals the labors of the Council of Nicaea.


Watch him when he opens
his bulging words -- justice,
fraternity, freedom, internationalism, peace,
peace, peace.  Make it your custom
to pay no heed
to his frank look, his visas, his stamps
and signatures.  Make it
your duty to spread out their contents
in a clear light.

Nobody with such luggage
has nothing to declare.

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

Adam Bruce Thomson, "St Monance"

Holding opinions is a tiring and tiresome business.  Think of the amount of mental, emotional, and psychic energy that people expend on defending their own opinions and attacking those of others.

As for me, I am one of Hardy's "large-eyed few, and dumb."  And happily so.  I am content to remain mute.  There is a great deal to do.

              Consider the Grass Growing

Consider the grass growing
As it grew last year and the year before,
Cool about the ankles like summer rivers,
When we walked on a May evening through the meadows
To watch the mare that was going to foal.

Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems (edited by Antoinette Quinn) (Penguin 2004).

Adam Bruce Thomson, "Harvesting in Galloway"

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The World

The world is perfect just as it is.  I would not change a thing.  We dwell in Paradise.  I am reminded of this each day when I take my afternoon walk.

Of course, Paradise is in a constant state of change.  And, as for you and me, our time in Paradise is short.  This is something that takes getting used to.  Encountering a lovely distant prospect (the waters of Puget Sound stretching away towards the Olympic Mountains) or a local miracle (the swallows diving and curving above the wild grasses in a meadow), my desire is to freeze things in place, to somehow make the moment eternal. "He wanted to feel the same way over and over.//He wanted the river to go on flowing the same way,/To keep on flowing." (Wallace Stevens, "This Solitude of Cataracts.")  Not in this world.  Otherwise, where would beauty have its source?

Hence, transience is a given.  But I cannot escape the feeling that there is something else afoot.  The world seems to be saying something.  It seems to have a life of its own.  This is where one enters the realm of ineffability. Here is one way of putting it:  "One feels the life of that which gives life as it is."  (Wallace Stevens, "The Course of a Particular.")  Or, consider this:

"To every Form of being is assigned,"
Thus calmly spake the venerable Sage,
"An active Principle: -- howe'er removed
From sense and observation, it subsists
In all things, in all natures; in the stars
Of azure heaven, the unenduring clouds,
In flower and tree, in every pebbly stone
That paves the brooks, the stationary rocks,
The moving waters, and the invisible air.
Whate'er exists hath properties that spread
Beyond itself, communicating good,
A simple blessing, or with evil mixed;
Spirit that knows no insulated spot,
No chasm, no solitude; from link to link
It circulates, the Soul of all the worlds."

William Wordsworth, "The Excursion," Book IX ("Discourse of the Wanderer and an Evening Visit to the Lake"), lines 1- 15, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume 5 (Oxford University Press 1949), page 286.

John Lawson (1868-1909), "An Ayrshire Stream"

"Spirit that knows no insulated spot,/No chasm, no solitude; from link to link/It circulates, the Soul of all the worlds."  This possibility seems perfectly reasonable and congenial to me.  Can it be proved?  Of course not. But here is the marvelous thing:  it can never be disproved either, no matter how many scientists and philosophers and theologians are brought to bear on the proposition.  It is a possibility that lies beyond their limited areas of competence.  They cannot touch it.

Rather, it is a matter of human truth and poetic truth.  It is also a matter of deciding whether one wishes to live in a disenchanted world or in an enchanted world.  I've never been fond of the so-called "Age of Enlightenment" and the putative "triumph" of Reason, Science, and Progress.  We all know how well that has worked out.  I prefer the notion of "the Soul of all the worlds" circulating around me.

     The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man

One's grand flights, one's Sunday baths,
One's tootings at the weddings of the soul
Occur as they occur.  So bluish clouds
Occurred above the empty house and the leaves
Of the rhododendrons rattled their gold,
As if someone lived there.  Such floods of white
Came bursting from the clouds.  So the wind
Threw its contorted strength around the sky.

Could you have said the bluejay suddenly
Would swoop to earth?  It is a wheel, the rays
Around the sun.  The wheel survives the myths.
The fire eye in the clouds survives the gods.
To think of a dove with an eye of grenadine
And pines that are cornets, so it occurs,
And a little island full of geese and stars:
It may be that the ignorant man, alone,
Has any chance to mate his life with life
That is the sensual, pearly spouse, the life
That is fluent in even the wintriest bronze.

Wallace Stevens, Parts of a World (Alfred A. Knopf 1942).

"As if someone lived there."  That is what I have in mind.  "Life/That is the sensual, pearly spouse, the life/That is fluent in even the wintriest bronze." In other words, a world that is enchanted.

John Lawson, "Dean Quarry"

From July of 1797 until July of 1798, William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy lived at Alfoxden House in Somerset.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived nearby.  During this time, Wordsworth was immersed in writing the long multipart poem which bore the overall title of "The Recluse."  The poem proceeded by fits and starts and in many permutations:  "The Excursion," "The Ruined Cottage," "The Pedlar," "Home at Grasmere," and "The Prelude" are all predecessors or portions of it.

A manuscript notebook (now known as "the Alfoxden notebook") survives from that period.  It contains fragments of blank verse that reflect Wordsworth's preoccupation with "the Soul of all the worlds."

Of unknown modes of being which on earth,
Or in the heavens, or in the heavens and earth
Exist by mighty combinations, bound
Together by a link, and with a soul
Which makes all one.

William Wordsworth, fragment from the Alfoxden notebook, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume 5 (Oxford University Press 1949), pages 340-341.

The lines "bound/Together by a link, and with a soul/Which makes all one" echo "from link to link/It circulates, the Soul of all the worlds" in the passage above from "The Excursion."  Thoughts such as these are dismissed by ironic moderns as a quaint form of outmoded pantheism.  The modern mind is actually quite limited in the scope of what it deems to be acceptable thought.  It has no idea of what to make of lines such as these:

                               Why is it we feel
So little for each other, but for this,
That we with nature have no sympathy,
Or with such things as have no power to hold
Articulate language?
And never for each other shall we feel
As we may feel, till we have sympathy
With nature in her forms inanimate,
With objects such as have no power to hold
Articulate language.  In all forms of things
There is a mind.

William Wordsworth, Ibid, page 340.

Even though a thing or an object has "no power to hold/Articulate language," isn't it possible that it has the power to hold inarticulate language?  Thus:  "In all forms of things/There is a mind."  There's that archaic pantheism again.

Here is another lovely fragment:

                                              These populous slopes
With all their groves and with their murmurous woods,
Giving a curious feeling to the mind
Of peopled solitude.

William Wordsworth, Ibid, page 341.

"Peopled solitude" is a wonderful phrase.  As is "murmurous woods."  (An instance of inarticulate language on the part of the world, I would suggest.) Those who are not fond of Wordsworth have little time for this sort of thing.  I will not argue the point.  I will only say that Wordsworth was onto something that is neither outmoded nor quaint.  The possible world that he describes has not been replaced or superseded by the newer, ironic world.

John Lawson, "Landscape, Dunlop"

For all of its soi-disant "freedom," "openness," and "progressivism," the modern world is in fact alarmingly (and risibly) narrow-minded.  This is not a political comment.  (I have no interest in politics.)  Nor is it a theological comment.  Rather, it is a comment on the limited range of possibilities that most moderns are content to live with.

Poets such as William Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens shake us by the shoulders and say:  Look, there is something you are missing.  There is more to the world, and to your life, than meets the eye.  They expand the range of possibilities.  They open vast territories that would otherwise be beyond our ken.

Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow . . .
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mâché . . .
The sun was coming from outside.

That scrawny cry -- it was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away.  It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf 1954).  The poem is the final poem in Stevens's final book.

John Lawson, "Killermont House"

Sunday, July 24, 2016


My daily walk takes me through several tree tunnels.  Here is my variation on Wordsworth:  "My heart leaps up when I behold". . . a tunnel of trees awaiting me.  I never tire of walking down the tunnels, and I hope I never will.  Wordsworth again:  "So be it when I shall grow old,/Or let me die!" These Romantic effusions are nearly always correct, despite what ironic moderns may think of them.

The delights of being cocooned beneath the trees are innumerable and ever-changing, but one sunny afternoon this past week it was the sound that enthralled me.  In a strong breeze out of the northwest, coming off the water, the boughs and leaves soughed and rustled and whispered overhead. "Yet still the unresting castles thresh."  I thought of this two-line poem, which has appeared here on more than one occasion:

The riverbed, dried-up, half-full of leaves.
Us, listening to a river in the trees.

Seamus Heaney, The Haw Lantern (Faber and Faber 1987).

Recently I have been thinking about the presence of rivers in the poetry of Wallace Stevens.  Heaney's lovely joining of trees and rivers has much in common with Stevens's preoccupation with the motion of rivers:  rivers as rivers, and rivers as the World flowing around us and past us.

       The River of Rivers in Connecticut

There is a great river this side of Stygia,
Before one comes to the first black cataracts
And trees that lack the intelligence of trees.

In that river, far this side of Stygia,
The mere flowing of the water is a gayety,
Flashing and flashing in the sun.  On its banks,

No shadow walks.  The river is fateful,
Like the last one.  But there is no ferryman.
He could not bend against its propelling force.

It is not to be seen beneath the appearances
That tell of it.  The steeple at Farmington
Stands glistening and Haddam shines and sways.

It is the third commonness with light and air,
A curriculum, a vigor, a local abstraction . . .
Call it, once more, a river, an unnamed flowing,

Space-filled, reflecting the seasons, the folk-lore
Of each of the senses; call it, again and again,
The river that flows nowhere, like a sea.

Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (Alfred A. Knopf 1954).

The poem was published for the first time in a section of The Collected Poems titled "The Rock."  "The Rock" was the final collection of Stevens's poems published prior to his death in 1955.  "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" is the penultimate poem in the collection.  A note: Farmington and Haddam are towns in Connecticut near Hartford, where Stevens lived and worked (as a lawyer and executive at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company).

"The River of Rivers in Connecticut" has appeared here several times.  It is perhaps my favorite poem by Stevens.  In fact, it is one of my favorite poems, period.  But please, I beg you, don't ask me to explain what it "means."  I can only tell you that my life would be different without it.

James Paterson (1854-1932), "Moniaive" (1885)

Vast tracts of Stevens's poetry remain impenetrable to me.  He can fall into an abstract philosophizing that is baffling and, at the same time, cold.  Yet he is one of my favorite poets.  Why?  Because he wrote a large number of poems that I return to again and again (even though a fair number of them still puzzle me).  I long ago concluded that the beauty outweighs the obscurity.

Randall Jarrell has observed of Stevens's poetry:  "the poems see, feel, and think with equal success."  (Randall Jarrell, "Reflections on Wallace Stevens," Poetry and the Age (Alfred A. Knopf 1953), page 133.)  Of course, what Jarrell says is not true of every poem that Stevens wrote.  In particular, there is often far too much thinking going on in many of the poems.  But Jarrell's point is an excellent one:  at their best, Stevens's poems capture what it means to be fully human.  For that reason, they can provoke an exhilaration that is hard to find in poetry.  "Beauty is truth, truth beauty."  Another of those Romantic effusions that turn out to be exactly right.

In the same essay, Jarrell writes:  "A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great."  (Ibid, page 134.) As long-time readers of this blog know, I am not fond of classifying poets as "good" or "great" (or as "major" or "minor").  But I do believe that Stevens was struck by lightning quite often.

               The Countryman

Swatara, Swatara, black river,
Descending, out of the cap of midnight,
Toward the cape at which
You enter the swarthy sea,

Swatara, Swatara, heavy the hills
Are, hanging above you, as you move,
Move blackly and without crystal.
A countryman walks beside you.

He broods of neither cap nor cape,
But only of your swarthy motion,
But always of the swarthy water,
Of which Swatara is the breathing,

The name.  He does not speak beside you.
He is there because he wants to be
And because being there in the heavy hills
And along the moving of the water --

Being there is being in a place,
As of a character everywhere,
The place of a swarthy presence moving,
Slowly, to the look of a swarthy name.

Wallace Stevens, The Auroras of Autumn (Alfred A. Knopf 1950).  Swatara Creek is a tributary of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania.  It lies to the west of Reading, Pennsylvania, where Stevens was born and raised.

"The Countryman," which was written several years prior to "The River of Rivers in Connecticut," feels like a rehearsal for the later poem.  It retains some of the wordplay of Stevens's earlier years:  "Swatara" and "swarthy;" "cap" and "cape."  But the characteristic mood of Stevens's final years -- the willingness to accept the World on its own beautiful terms -- emerges in the final stanzas:  "He is there because he wants to be/And because being there in the heavy hills/And along the moving of the water --//Being there is being in a place."

Alfred Parsons (1847-1920), "Poplars in the Thames Valley"

I am one of those who believes that Stevens wrote his most moving, most human (and his best) poetry in the last five years of his life, between the publication of The Auroras of Autumn in September of 1950 and his death on August 2, 1955, at the age of 74.  These poems are found in "The Rock" and in a section titled "Late Poems (1950-55)" in Collected Poetry and Prose (edited by Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson) (The Library of America 1997).

Mind you, Stevens's essential theme never changed from beginning to end: the belief that the back-and-forth between the Imagination and Reality is the central element of what it means to be human.  This opens him to the dangers of abstraction and coldness that I mentioned above.  Stevens seems to have been aware of this:  "I wonder, have I lived a skeleton's life,/As a disbeliever in reality,//A countryman of all the bones in the world?"  (There's that word "countryman" again.)  These lines appear in "As You Leave the Room," parts of which were written in 1947 (when he titled the poem "First Warmth" -- a hint in itself), but which he apparently revised as late as the year of his death.

But there is a softening and a warming at the end.  "As You Leave the Room" contains the following lines:  "as if I left/With something I could touch, touch every way."  These lines contain a single revision of the same lines in "First Warmth:  "as if I lived/With something I could touch, touch every way."  (Italics added.)  Interestingly, a speech that Stevens gave in 1951 when he received an honorary degree from Bard College contains an echo of the lines:

"The poet finds that as between these two sources:  the imagination and reality, the imagination is false, whatever else may be said of it, and reality is true; and being concerned that poetry should be a thing of vital and virile importance, he commits himself to reality, which then becomes his inescapable and ever-present difficulty and inamorata.  In any event, he has lost nothing; for the imagination, while it might have led him to purities beyond definition, never yet progressed except by particulars. . . . He has become like a man who can see what he wants to see and touch what he wants to touch.  In all his poems with all their enchantments for the poet himself, there is the final enchantment that they are true."

Wallace Stevens, "On Receiving an Honorary Degree from Bard College," in Collected Poetry and Prose, page 838 (italics added).

Here is the first poem in "The Rock."  Stevens did not place it there by chance.

                         An Old Man Asleep

The two worlds are asleep, are sleeping, now.
A dumb sense possesses them in a kind of solemnity.

The self and the earth -- your thoughts, your feelings,
Your beliefs and disbeliefs, your whole peculiar plot;

The redness of your reddish chestnut trees,
The river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R.

Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.

Given that the "explication" of Stevens's poetry is an academic cottage industry in the United States, a great deal of ink has been spilled over what "An Old Man Asleep" "means."  I will only say that "the river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R" is an exceedingly lovely line.  There is no need to speculate as to whether the "R" in "the river R" stands for "reality" or "are."  Read in conjunction with "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" and "The Countryman," the line makes perfect sense (in addition to being perfectly beautiful).

James Paterson, "The Last Turning, Winter, Moniaive" (1885)

See how easy it is to get diverted into a discussion about "the poetry of Wallace Stevens"?  But it is the words of the poems that matter.  "There is a great river this side of Stygia . . ."  In the beginning, and at the end, the river is always present.

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

Wallace Stevens,  Poem XII, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," Harmonium (Alfred A. Knopf 1923).

"Call it, once more, a river, an unnamed flowing."  "The river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R."  "Call it, again and again,/The river that flows nowhere, like a sea."

     From out of the darkness
Of the short night
     Comes the River Ōi.

Buson (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 29.

Alfred Parsons, "Meadows by the Avon"

Sunday, July 17, 2016


In a week such as this, when we are once again reminded of the presence of evil in the world, and are saddened at the loss of innocent lives, I suspect that many of us wonder:  how does one go about the business of living in times such as these?  We all know the answer to that question:  we must live in a manner that preserves and perpetuates everything that evil hopes to destroy.

Are poetry and art trivial and of no account in an age of barbarism?  Of course not.  They are never more important than in times such as these. The barbarians have no conception of what it means to be human.  Poetry and art embody all that is good and humane in civilization.  They stand as a direct reproach to, and a repudiation of, evil and barbarity.  Moreover, evil and barbarity cannot touch them.

                                     St. Ursanne

Leaving the viaduct on the left, and coming over the hill,
We came to a small town, four towers at the corners,
The streets narrow and not dark,
The children playing in green gardens by the waterside.

Was it at the Swan or the White Horse that we stopped?
We walked up to the church and the stone cloister,
Grass growing among the tangle of votive ribbons,
The wax flowers and the twisted wire.

We heard the town-crier ringing a bell under the town clock --
Something about a wandering cow and a job for a waggoner,
Then we looked at the watermill by the stone bridge,
And went back for a Rossi or a Cinzano.

That was at Eastertide, and the fields and meadows
Mellow with cowslips:  there were boys on bicycles
With bandoliers of jonquils, and there was an old lady
With a basket of primroses and violets.

It was a quiet town, and not yet broken,
The people kindly, and the priest "a good one as priests go,"
There was a football team, and a lad who enters from the country in the
Singing:  Ohé Oh, Ohé Oh!

Michael Roberts, Orion Marches (Faber and Faber 1939).

The poem was first published in April of 1938, on the eve of that generation's age of barbarism.  The horror and suffering that followed are incomprehensible, and cannot be minimized or forgotten.  But do they render the poem irrelevant?  Quite the opposite.  The human world of the poem remains unchanged.

John Maclauchlan Milne (1886-1957)
"Mountainous Landscape with Fir Trees and a Lake" (1931)

In this post I intend to give mountains their due after my recent paeans to seasides.  But "St. Ursanne" brings to mind a wonderful seaside poem by   R. S. Thomas that has appeared here in the past.  In both poems, a quotidian scene casually unfolds before us.  (I do not use "quotidian" in a pejorative sense.)  Nothing of importance takes place.  Or so it seems.  Yet both scenes contain all of the beauty and truth of life.


There was that headland, asleep on the sea,
The air full of thunder and the far air
Brittle with lightning; there was that girl
Riding her cycle, hair at half-mast,
And the men smoking, the dinghies at rest
On the calm tide.  There were people going
About their business, while the storm grew
Louder and nearer and did not break.

Why do I remember these few things,
That were rumours of life, not life itself
That was being lived fiercely, where the storm raged?
Was it just that the girl smiled,
Though not at me, and the men smoking
Had the look of those who have come safely home?

R. S. Thomas, Tares (Rupert Hart-Davis 1961).

John Maclauchlan Milne, "Loch Tulla" (1933)

A good poem is a complex and ever-evolving thing.  It has its origin in the minute particulars of the poet's personal experience of the world.  Those particulars are reconstituted and transformed through the poet's act of imagination.  A good poem is also an act of preservation:  it preserves the poet's imaginative response to a unique set of particulars.  This begins as a wholly personal act on the part of the poet:  Michael Roberts and R. S. Thomas felt compelled to preserve their experiences of a particular day in St. Ursanne and of a particular day in Abersoch.  But, by reading their poems, we in turn preserve and perpetuate those experiences.

Each of us comes to a poem with our own unique set of feelings, thoughts, and circumstances, all of which influence how we react to the poem.  This does not mean that we change the poem into what we want it to be.  (This is where most modern "literary criticism" goes wrong.)  Rather, the poem, which was a wholly personal act of imagination and preservation by the poet, now awakens a wholly personal response in each of us.

At this point, one of the wonders and beauties of poetry emerges:  each poem carries with it the possibility of commencing a never-ending and ever-multiplying chain of human responses.


High and solemn mountains guard Rioupéroux,
Small untidy village where the river drives a mill:
Frail as wood anemones, white and frail were you,
And drooping a little, like the slender daffodil.

Oh I will go to France again, and tramp the valley through,
And I will change these gentle clothes for clog and corduroy,
And work with the mill-hands of black Rioupéroux,
And walk with you, and talk with you, like any other boy.

James Elroy Flecker, The Bridge of Fire: Poems (Elkin Mathews 1907).

There you have it:  by reading "Rioupéroux" we have just preserved and prolonged a sequence of human interaction that began when the poem was published in 1907.  James Elroy Flecker died of tuberculosis in 1915 at the age of 30.  But we have just renewed his life as a poet.

John Maclauchlan Milne, "Cioch na h-Oighe" (1942)

Bernard Spencer wrote the following lovely and moving poem after his wife Nora died of complications from tuberculosis in 1947.  Prior to her death, they had been planning a holiday in the Alps.

                          At Courmayeur

This climbers' valley with its wayside shrines
(the young crowned Mother and her dying flowers)
became our theme for weeks.  Do you remember
the letters that we wrote and how we planned
the journey there and chose our hotel; ours
was to be one "among the pines"?

Guesses went wide; but zigzag past that ridge
the road climbs from the Roman town; there stand
the glittering peaks, and one, the God, immensely
tossing the clouds around his shoulders; here
are what you asked for, summer pastures and
an air with glaciers in its edge.

Under all sounds is mountain water falling;
at night, the river seems to draw much closer;
darling, how did you think I could forget you,
you who for ever stayed behind?  Your absence
comes back as hard as rocks.  Just now it was
those hangdown flowers that meant recalling.

Bernard Spencer, With Luck Lasting (Hodder & Stoughton 1963).

The lines "darling, how did you think I could forget you,/you who for ever stayed behind?" refer to the couple's frequent separations due to Spencer's foreign postings while he was employed by the British Council.  This included a long separation during the Second World War, when he was stranded in Greece and Egypt, while she remained in England.

Thus ends our brief Alpine tour (with a detour to Wales).  St. Ursanne, Abersoch, Rioupéroux, and Courmayeur as seen through the eyes of poets: all beyond the reach of evil and untouchable by barbarism.

John Maclauchlan Milne, "Lairig Ghru" (1931)