Tuesday, November 22, 2016


This week, I returned to the following poem:

            From My Window

An old man leaning on a gate
Over a London mews -- to contemplate --
Is it the sky above -- the stones below?
     Is it remembrance of the years gone by,
     Or thinking forward to futurity
That holds him so?

Day after day he stands,
Quietly folded are the quiet hands,
Rarely he speaks.
     Hath he so near the hour when Time shall end,
     So much to spend?
What is it he seeks?

Whate'er he be,
He is become to me
A form of rest.
     I think his heart is tranquil, from it springs
     A dreamy watchfulness of tranquil things,
And not unblest.

Mary Coleridge (1861-1907), in Theresa Whistler (editor), The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (Rupert Hart-Davis 1954).

What led me back to the poem?  I suspect that I needed relief from the overwrought reaction (in some quarters) to the presidential election.  There are those who believe the End of the World is at hand.  Of course, if the other candidate had been elected, there would have been an overwrought reaction (in some quarters) from those on the other side, some of whom would have believed the End of the World was at hand.

I can see why the elderly gentleman in Coleridge's poem beckoned to me.

Alexander Sillars Burns (1911-1987), "Afternoon, Wester Ross"

Alternatively, I may have been subconsciously called back to the poem by this, which I had come across a day or so earlier:

"Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality:  only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear.  Silence, as it is used in this context, does not mean 'dumbness' or 'noiselessness'; it means more nearly that the soul's power to 'answer' to the reality of the world is left undisturbed.  For leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation."

Josef Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture (translated by Alexander Dru) (Ignatius Press 2009), pages 46-47.  The text of the book is based upon a lecture delivered by Pieper in Bonn in 1947.

Can one maintain "a receptive attitude of mind" if one's life is bound up with politics?  I have my doubts.  The reprehensible stereotyping engaged in, and the bigotry and sense of superiority displayed by, those on the losing end of the Brexit referendum and the American presidential election demonstrate how a preoccupation with politics can destroy one's sense of fellow feeling and humanity.  But I will leave that topic alone, having visited it in my previous post.

As for silence:  the culture of politics is nothing if not noisy, isn't it?  "Those who do not remain silent do not hear."  Yes, exactly.

     How Sordid Is This Crowded Life

How sordid is this crowded life, its spite
And envy, the unkindness brought to light:
It makes me think of those great modest hearts
That spend their quiet lives in lonely parts,
In deserts, hills and woods; and pass away
Judged by a few, or none, from day to day.
And O that I were free enough to dwell
In their great spaces for a while; until
The dream-like life of such a solitude
Has forced my tongue to cry 'Hallo!' aloud --
To make an echo from the silence give
My voice back with the knowledge that I live.

W. H. Davies, The Collected Poems of W. H. Davies (Jonathan Cape 1942).

Ian MacInnes (1922-2003), "Harvest, Innertoon" (1959)

Yesterday evening I was walking south beside a meadow as the sun neared the ridgeline of the Olympic Mountains.  In a few minutes it would vanish.  The sky overhead and to the west was clear, but grey-purple clouds, shot through with orange and pink, lay along the horizons to the south, east, and north.  The deep-blue waters of Puget Sound were darkening.

I noticed a wordless calling sound -- a bleat of sorts -- coming from behind me, up in the sky.  It grew louder.  I soon realized that the sound was the honking of a flock of geese.  I stopped and waited for them.  They passed directly overhead -- three or four dozen Canadian geese in a ragged, shifting V-formation, all of them honking.

I have been hearing that sound for more than half a century.  Autumn is not autumn without it.  Continuity and certainty within ceaseless change.

                    Thoughts on T'ien-chin Bridge

The countless great lords and statesmen of past regimes --
later ages know them merely as a list of names.
Only the water under T'ien-chin Bridge
goes on year after year, making the same sound.

Shao Yung (1011-1077) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), page 336.

David Macbeth Sutherland (1883-1973), "Drambuie, Wester Ross"

I will always prefer wild geese to politicians ("a list of names").  But I shan't attempt to impose this preference on others.  For me, politics is the destroyer of repose, reflection, and tranquility.  I understand that others may feel differently.  So it goes in this "vale of Soul-making."

"[T]here is also a certain serenity in leisure.  That serenity springs precisely from our inability to understand, from our recognition of the mysterious nature of the universe; it springs from the courage of deep confidence, so that we are content to let things take their course."

Josef Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture (translated by Alexander Dru), page 47.

I am not fond of the assumption of certainty that accompanies political discourse.  So many utopian master plans!  All of them based upon classes, categories, and caricatures.  All of them chimerical.  All of them leaving individual human beings and individual human souls out of account.

                      A Recluse

Here lies (where all at peace may be)
A lover of mere privacy.
Graces and gifts were his; now none
Will keep him from oblivion;
How well they served his hidden ends
Ask those who knew him best, his friends.

He is dead; but even among the quick
This world was never his candlestick.
He envied none; he was content
With self-inflicted banishment.
'Let your light shine!' was never his way:
What then remains but, Welladay!

And yet his very silence proved
How much he valued what he loved.
There peered from his hazed, hazel eyes
A self in solitude made wise;
As if within the heart may be
All the soul needs for company:
And, having that in safety there,
Finds its reflection everywhere.

Life's tempests must have waxed and waned:
The deep beneath at peace remained.
Full tides that silent well may be
Mark of no less profound a sea.
Age proved his blessing.  It had given
The all that earth implies of heaven;
And found an old man reconciled
To die, as he had lived, a child.

Walter de la Mare, The Burning-Glass and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1945).

With respect to the final two lines of the poem, it is important to remember that de la Mare considered childhood to be a charmed and magical time, the loss of which is to be regretted.

Adam Bruce Thomson (1885-1976), "Harvesting in Galloway"

Friday, November 11, 2016


As I mentioned in a recent post, I did my best to completely ignore the presidential election.  I also chose not to vote in it:  I do not consider it my civic duty to cast a vote for the least unappealing candidate in a given election.  So I sat this one out.

However, I have been paying attention to the reactions of those who are not happy with the result of the election.  Their reactions are remarkably similar to the reactions of those who were not happy with the Brexit vote.  I expressed my feelings on this subject in a post I made on June 29 titled "Humanity."  Please bear with me, dear readers, but I feel compelled to restate those feelings at this time by reposting some of my thoughts:

"What concerns me is how the politicization of culture and of individual consciousness encourages people to adopt stereotypical, patronizing, and dehumanizing views of those who are on the other side of a political issue. This has been glaringly apparent in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, and it has been an ongoing feature of the presidential campaign.

"Who among us is in a position to adopt such views?  Do those who hold these views realize that they are in fact dehumanizing themselves in the process?  They have become exactly what the politicians, political 'activists,' and media oversimplifiers and crisis-mongers want them to be: political animals."

"Being politicized leads to evaluating and judging the world and other human beings in terms of classes, categories, and clichés.  Never underestimate the allure of a priori conclusions.  For the politicized, everything appears to be simple and subject to explanation.  Us and them. The enlightened versus the benighted.

"All of this has nothing whatsoever to do with the individual human being or with the individual human soul."

Thus concludes the homily for the day (and my unseemly quoting of myself, for which I apologize).

   Neither Out Far Nor In Deep

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be --
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

Robert Frost, A Further Range (Henry Holt 1936).

Make no mistake:  each of us is standing there on the sand.  "There cannot be, confusion of our sound forgot,/A single soul that lacks a sweet crystalline cry."

Stanley Spencer, "Scarecrow, Cookham" (1934)

On the morning after Election Day, I stepped out into the garden.  Birds were chirping.  Squirrels were busy gathering seeds and nuts for the coming winter.  The World was still here.  My beautiful and wonderful country was still here.  Nothing had changed.

     The autumn wind is blowing;
We are alive and can see each other,
     You and I.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 413.

Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979), "The Cottage Window"

Friday, November 4, 2016

Leaves And Clocks

The wistful exhilaration of autumn is all about the passage of time, isn't it? Yes, I realize that I am stating the obvious.  Moreover, you may well say: "But isn't everything about the passage of time?"  You will get no argument from me.

Wistful exhilaration ought to be something we feel every day -- every moment, as a matter of fact.  Consider this:  "Manage all your actions and thoughts in such a manner as if you were just going to step into the grave." Marcus Aurelius (translated by Jeremy Collier), Meditations, Book II, Section 11, in Jeremy Collier, The Emperor Marcus Antoninus, His Conversation with Himself (1701).  This bit of advice is not morbid, nor is it intended to engender panic or a sense of impending doom.  And it is not a recommendation to embark upon a course of carpe diem hedonism. Rather, it is an instance of practical and ethical Stoic wisdom:  the present moment is all that each of us ever has; how do we intend to act?

The awareness of time passed and of time passing is present, explicitly or implicitly, in nearly every poem that Thomas Hardy wrote.  As one might expect, this is particularly true of those poems of his which are set in autumn.

   The Upper Birch-Leaves

Warm yellowy-green
In the blue serene,
How they skip and sway
On this autumn day!
They cannot know
What has happened below, --
That their boughs down there
Are already quite bare,
That their own will be
When a week has passed, --
For they jig as in glee
To this very last.

But no; there lies
At times in their tune
A note that cries
What at first I fear
I did not hear:
"O we remember
At each wind's hollo --
Though life holds yet --
We go hence soon,
For 'tis November;
-- But that you follow
You may forget!"

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

James McIntosh Patrick, "Byroad near Kingoodie" (1962)

"But that you follow/You may forget!"  Hardy and Marcus Aurelius are of the same mind.  Yet, we mustn't go through life thinking of time as the ticking of a clock.  Life went on perfectly well for millennia in the absence of clocks.  The earth's "diurnal course" and its seasonal round sufficed. Eventually, bells began sounding from steeples and towers.  Music in the air.  Perhaps we should have left it at that.


We had the sun, stars, shadows.
In Greta's house, a box
Of numbers and wheels
And cleek-cleek, click-clock, that insect
Eating time at the wall.

George Mackay Brown, from "Seal Island Anthology, 1875," in Voyages (Chatto & Windus 1983).

"Anyway, the thing about progress is that it looks much greater than it really is."  Ludwig Wittgenstein chose this as the "motto" for Philosophical Investigations.  (The sentence appears in a play written by Johann Nestroy (1801-1862).  A discussion of Wittgenstein's use of the quotation may be found in David Stern, "Nestroy, Augustine, and the Opening of the Philosophical Investigations," in Rudolf Haller and Klaus Puhl (editors), Wittgenstein and the Future of Philosophy: A Reassessment After 50 Years (2002).)

In his own words, Wittgenstein says this about progress:  "Our civilization is characterized by the word 'progress.'  Progress is its form rather than making progress being one of its features."  Ludwig Wittgenstein (translated by Peter Winch), Culture and Value (University of Chicago Press 1980), page 7.

So, yes, clocks represent "progress."  Of a sort.  I am haunted by thoughts of "time-saving devices" and of "multitasking."  Progress?

                             Empty Room

The clock disserts on punctuation, syntax.
The clock's voice, thin and dry, asserts, repeats.
The clock insists:  a lecturer demonstrating,
Loudly, with finger raised, when the class has gone.

But time flows through the room, light flows through the room
Like someone picking flowers, like someone whistling
Without a tune, like talk in front of a fire,
Like a woman knitting or a child snipping at paper.

A. S. J. Tessimond, The Walls of Glass (Methuen 1934).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Stobo Kirk, Peeblesshire" (1936)

Yesterday afternoon, in the declining sunlight, I walked to the north beside a row of big-leaf maples, now emptied of leaves.  Each day the sun is setting further and further into the southwest.  The shadows of the bare branches of the maples stretched 50 yards or so to the northeast across a green expanse of grass.  The yellow, orange, and brown leaves that had departed from the maples were strewn across the sward.

The shadows of the empty branches were covered with fallen leaves.  One could imagine that the leaves had been reunited with the trees.

   Autumn in King's Hintock Park

Here by the baring bough
     Raking up leaves,
Often I ponder how
     Springtime deceives, --
I, an old woman now,
     Raking up leaves.

Here in the avenue
     Raking up leaves,
Lords' ladies pass in view,
     Until one heaves
Sighs at life's russet hue,
     Raking up leaves!

Just as my shape you see
     Raking up leaves,
I saw, when fresh and free,
     Those memory weaves
Into grey ghosts by me,
     Raking up leaves.

Yet, Dear, though one may sigh,
     Raking up leaves,
New leaves will dance on high --
     Earth never grieves! --
Will not, when missed am I
     Raking up leaves.

Thomas Hardy, Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses (Macmillan 1909).

"Earth never grieves!"  This is a cry of joy, not of despair.  Hence:  "New leaves will dance on high."  As I have noted here in the past, the thought that the seasons will continue to come and go long after each of us has turned to dust can be a comforting one -- a source of serenity.

James McIntosh Patrick, "White Poplar, Carse of Gowrie"

In this part of the world, we received a record amount of rainfall in October. It was a month of puddles.  On those days when the sun briefly emerged, the puddles were a wonderful gift.  Fallen leaves floated on the still water. The endless blue sky and the empty branches of trees filled the spaces between the drifting leaves.  There it lay:  the entire World.

     It is deep midnight:
The River of Heaven
     Has changed its place.

Ransetsu (1653-1707) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 366.  "The River of Heaven" (ama-no-gawa) is the beautiful Japanese name for what we, in English, call "the Milky Way."

The River of Heaven turns above us.  Leaves fall at our feet.  Everything is in its place.  The World is perfect just as it is.

     The autumn wind is blowing;
We are alive and can see each other,
     You and I.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 413.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Glamis Village" (1939)

Sunday, October 23, 2016


Autumn simplifies things.  It reminds us of that which is elemental and essential in the World, and in our life.  This is good, since existence is not as fraught with complication as we think it is.

The prevailing culture tries to convince us that certain things are important, and deserve (nay, require) our attention.  Nearly all of these things are of no account, and may be completely disregarded.  Thus, for instance, as a native of this fair and wonderful land I am exercising my freedom by ignoring the current presidential election.  I have assiduously avoided hearing even a whisper of the goings-on.  Of course, I know who the two candidates are (in this day and age, some snippets of information always leak through), but why should I devote a single moment of thought or emotion to either of them?

This is not a political statement, for I have no interest in politics.  Nor am I denigrating those who find the election important.  I expect that some of you who are reading this are appalled at my disinterest.  Please be assured that this is not a matter of me feeling superior to those citizens who participate in the process.  You will have to take me on my word that I am neither supercilious nor cynical.  But, for me, it is a very simple proposition: why should I let either of those people into my life in any way, shape, or form?

Look outside.  The leaves are falling.

     People are few;
A leaf falls here,
     Falls there.

Issa (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido 1952), page 364.

Earlier this week, after a two-day spell of rain, the sky cleared in the late afternoon.  Cast upon the damp and dark paths,  fallen leaves (brown, orange, and yellow in all their variations) glittered, lit by the declining sun.

"The small yellow acacia leaves lie on the dark earth like immobile glimmers, mute, lighted mirrors."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), notebook entry for October, 1975, in Philippe Jaccottet, Seedtime: Notebooks 1954-79 (Seagull Books 2013), page 268.

John Milne Donald, "Autumn Leaves" (1863)

The haiku that appear in this post are ones that I visit each autumn. Although I have been returning to them for years, and by now know them by heart, they remain fresh.  The comparison is inexact (works of art being one step removed from the particulars of the World), but the thought occurs to me:  are the leaves of autumn any less brilliant, any less beautiful, because we have seen them before?

     Blown from the west,
fallen leaves gather
     in the east.

Buson (translated by Robert Hass), in Robert Hass (editor), The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa (The Ecco Press 1994), page 91.

The grass of lawns and of fields in parks, having been browned by the summer sun, is turning green again with the arrival of the autumn rains. Palls of bright leaves are spread across deep green.  Soon only the grass will remain.

"How the yellow, pink or purple leaves released suddenly, one by one, at almost regular intervals, falling silently and serenely, magnify the light. We are not capable of this."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), notebook entry for November, 1978, in Philippe Jaccottet, Seedtime: Notebooks 1954-79, page 329.

Alexander Docharty, "An Autumn Day" (1917)

This past week, on two separate occasions, I watched caterpillars (one black and tan; one black) cross the path in front of me.  I felt charmed and grateful for having encountered them.  Moreover, they served as a reminder that I am always in need of:  Pay attention!

The wind has brought
     enough fallen leaves
To make a fire.

Ryōkan (translated by John Stevens), in John Stevens, One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryōkan (Weatherhill 1977), page 67.

Caterpillars and human beings:  each of us in the midst of our own singular journey, crossing a brief, bright space from one dark wood to another.

Am I oversimplifying?  Anthropomorphizing?  Sentimentalizing?  If you spend time with the haiku of the masters (Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Shiki), you will soon become intimately acquainted with the lives and fates of fireflies, cicadas, spiders, fleas, mosquitoes, flies, caterpillars, and butterflies (to name but a few).  You will come to realize that, in this existence of ours, notions of oversimplification, anthropomorphization, and sentimentality are beside the point.  You will learn to banish modern irony from your life.

"Autumn trees:  as if covered with yellow and white butterflies."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), notebook entry for October, 1975, in Philippe Jaccottet, Seedtime: Notebooks 1954-79, page 268.

William Samuel Jay, "At the Fall of Leaf, Arundel Park, Sussex" (1883)

From a caterpillar in autumn to a butterfly in spring.  Is this what autumn's poignant mix of sadness and exhilaration is telling us?

"Continually regard the World as one living thing, composed of one substance and one soul.  And reflect how all things have relation to its one perception; how it does all things by one impulse; how all things are the joint causes of all that come into being; and how closely they are interwoven and knit together."

Marcus Aurelius (translated by Hastings Crossley), Meditations, Book IV, Section 40, in Hastings Crossley (editor), The Fourth Book of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (Macmillan 1882), page 35.

How does one incorporate this sort of perspective into one's own life?  A difficult task.  But think of this, for instance:  the seasons will continue to come and go long after we have returned to dust.  This can be a calming realization.

     The grasses of the garden,
They fall,
     And lie as they fall.

Ryōkan (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter, page 366.

Wistfulness amid beauty.  Is this a unique autumn state of mind?  I used to think so, but now I'm not so sure.  This seems to be the way the World works.  For which we should be grateful.

"This unexpected gift of a tree brightened by the low sun at the end of autumn, as when a candle is lit in a darkening room."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by John Taylor), from "Notes from the Ravine," in Philippe Jaccottet, And, Nonetheless: Selected Prose and Poetry 1990-2009 (Chelsea Editions 2011), page 343.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Autumn, Kinnordy" (1936)

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Flowers And Stars

It has taken me far too long to get it through my thick skull (and into my head and heart) that Keats has been right all along.  But better late than never.  To wit:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," -- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

John Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Poems (1820).

One comes across those lines in one's youth, and one is likely to be enraptured.  I know I was.  Yet (at least in my hopeless case) it takes a lifetime to feel them.  Having at last reached that point, I will not brook any of the usual modern cavils:  "What is 'truth'?  What is 'beauty'?  Everything is relative.  How can we 'know' anything?"  I will have none of that, thank you.  Life is too short.

Thus, I will turn to flowers in a field.  And stars.

Where innocent bright-eyed daisies are,
     With blades of grass between,
Each daisy stands up like a star
     Out of a sky of green.

Christina Rossetti, Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872).  The poem is untitled.

One need not limit this lovely image to daisies.  The subject of the following passage is daucus carota (commonly known as wild carrot or Queen Anne's lace).

     "In the shade of tall oak trees in stately array, an airy nave in which you become calmer as soon as you have stepped across the threshold -- as in a big house.
     "You then see white spots slightly wavering, seemingly floating, like flecks of foam scattered here and there, and higher than the dark, vague mass of grass.  At the same time, equally vaguely, because things thus seen are vague, you think of ghosts hovering in this shadowy light so favorable to uncertain, unlikely forms of life . . .
     "Sparse umbels in the shadows, constellations of sorts that are more familiar, less bright, less cold and especially less fixed than those that could seemingly respond to them from above the trees once the day's beautiful veil has been drawn.
     "So I have arrived on the threshold of a kind of grass sky on which seemingly hover within arm's reach -- instead of sharp single stars -- fragile little galaxies that are floating, nearly weightless, and white just like milk or like sheep's wool when it stays snagged on gorse in the Breton islands."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by John Taylor), from "Daucus, or Wild Carrot," in Philippe Jaccottet, And, Nonetheless: Selected Prose and Poetry 1990-2009 (Chelsea Editions 2011), page 209.

Hans Wilt, "Spring in Wienerwald" (1909)

Rossetti's stars in a sky of green and Jaccottet's galaxies hovering above the dark floor of a grove of oaks are "all ye need to know."  No further comment is necessary.  It would be the height of folly to say:  "Rossetti's poem is lovely because . . ."  Nothing can be added by saying:  "Jaccottet's passage is wonderful because . . ."  One of the besetting illnesses of the modern world is the compulsion to "explain" and "explicate" everything. We don't know when to leave well enough alone.

My acquaintance with the image of flowers as stars began with the following poem.

                 The Rambler

I do not see the hills around,
Nor mark the tints the copses wear;
I do not note the grassy ground
And constellated daisies there.

I hear not the contralto note
Of cuckoos hid on either hand,
The whirr that shakes the nighthawk's throat
When eve's brown awning hoods the land.

Some say each songster, tree, and mead --
All eloquent of love divine --
Receives their constant careful heed:
Such keen appraisement is not mine.

The tone around me that I hear,
The aspects, meanings, shapes I see,
Are those far back ones missed when near,
And now perceived too late by me!

Thomas Hardy, Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses (Macmillan 1909).

I cannot recall when I first read the poem.  But the phrase "constellated daisies" has always stayed with me.  In one sense it is merely a passing image that is used in service of the overall theme of the poem.  But, if you spend enough time with Hardy's poems, you come to realize that small images such as these account for a great deal of the wondrousness of his poetry.  Over the years, scores of them accumulate within your mind. Unexpectedly and unaccountably, they float up long after you first read them, for who knows what reason.  Well, Beauty and Truth, I suppose.

Carl Stolz, "Meadow with Flowers" (1939)

A good poem (or any good work of art) brings us back to the world.  It prompts us to take a fresh look at things.  This fresh look encompasses both human and natural particulars.  These particulars are not always lovely and cheerful -- poetry is not mere escapism -- but, in the hands of a good poet, they bring us into the presence of Beauty and Truth.

     "Beauty:  scattered like a seed, at the mercy of the winds, the storms, not making a sound, often lost, always destroyed; but still it blossoms haphazardly, here, there, fed by shadows, by the funereal earth, welcomed by profundity.  Weightless, fragile, almost invisible, apparently without force, exposed, abandoned, surrendered, obedient -- it binds itself to what is heavy, immobile; and a flower blooms on the mountainside.  It is.  It persists against noise, against folly, unwavering amidst blood and malediction, in life that cannot be assumed, cannot be lived.  Thus the spirit moves in spite of everything, inevitably ridiculous, unrewarded, unconvincing. . . .
     "I've said it a hundred times:  I am left with almost nothing; but it's like a very narrow gate through which we must pass and nothing indicates that the space beyond it is not as vast as we have imagined.  It is only a matter of passing through the gate and of it not swinging shut for ever."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), notebook entry for March, 1962, in Seedtime: Notebooks 1954-1979 (Seagull Books 2013), pages 57-59.

This prose passage is followed by an untitled poem:

Let silent grief
At least brood on this last chance
Of light.

Let this utmost misery
Harbour the chance of flowers.

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), Ibid, page 59.

Mind you, the purpose of poetry (and of art in general) is not to edify or to instruct.  This is why, for instance, "political poetry" is not poetry.  I return to a Buddhist piece of wisdom which has appeared here in the past:  we mustn't forget that a good poem (or any good work of art) is merely a finger pointing at the moon.

Tina Blau (1845-1916), "On the Schleissheimerstrasse"

But all this talk of Beauty and Truth, Truth and Beauty, means nothing outside of the larger context:  "How to Live.  What to Do."  (To borrow the title of a poem by Wallace Stevens.)  Once again, Keats is our guide.

"Call the world if you please 'The vale of Soul-making.'  Then you will find out the use of the world (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it)."

John Keats, letter to George and Georgiana Keats (February 14 - May 3, 1819), in Robert Gittings (editor), Letters of John Keats (Oxford University Press 1970), pages 249-250.  A side-note:  Keats wrote "Ode on a Grecian Urn" in May of 1819, the same month in which the letter was posted.  This particular passage was written sometime between April 21 and April 30, 1819.

The phrase "the vale of Soul-making" receives a great deal of attention, and rightfully so.  It is a marvelous thing.  But the passage that immediately follows the two sentences quoted above deserves our attention as well.

"I say 'Soul making' Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence -- There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions -- but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. Intelligences are atoms of perception -- they know and they see and they are pure, in short they are God -- how then are Souls to be made?  How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them -- so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each one's individual existence?  How, but by the medium of a world like this?"

John Keats, Ibid, page 250.

"How, but by the medium of a world like this?"  Wonderful.  Yet I harbor no illusions:  this world contains evil, ugliness, falsity, pain, and sorrow.  We experience them every day.  But withal it is a world of Beauty and Truth.    

A world of flowers and of stars.


The stars are everywhere to-night,
Above, beneath me and around;
They fill the sky with powdery light
And glimmer from the night-strewn ground;
For where the folded daisies are
In every one I see a star.

And so I know that when I pass
Where no sun's shadow counts the hours
And where the sky was there is grass
And where the stars were there are flowers,
Through the long night in which I lie
Stars will be shining in my sky.

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

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

Thursday, October 6, 2016


A few posts ago, I considered Matthew Arnold's use of the "Sea of Life" metaphor in his poetry.  Recently, however, my thoughts have turned to a more homely image of life:  a boat adrift on calm waters.  I have in mind a wooden rowboat.  Or perhaps, even though I am not a sailor, a small wooden sailboat.

Our life in this world --
to what shall I compare it?
It is like a boat
     rowing out at break of day,
leaving not a trace behind.

Sami Mansei (8th century) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991).

I prefer this image to that of a three-masted Ship of Life, under full sail, cleaving the stormy waves of Time, et cetera.  We all know the inevitable end of such a journey:  "As a rule, everyone ultimately reaches port with masts and rigging gone."  (Arthur Schopenhauer (translated by E. F. J. Payne), "Additional Remarks on the Doctrine of the Vanity of Existence," Parerga and Paralipomena, Volume 2 (Oxford University Press 1974; originally published in 1851), page 284.)  An oceanic circumnavigation is far too dramatic.  I fancy this instead:  "a boat amid the ripples, drifting, rocking."  (Christina Rossetti, "Pastime.")

Frank Jowett (1879-1943), "In Mevagissey Harbour, Cornwall"

Sami Mansei's boat is "rowing out at break of day," bound for a preordained end.  But it is in no hurry, and the scene is suffused with tranquility.  There is a great deal to be said for idle drifting, with a bit of occasional rowing. We will arrive when we arrive.

"These men you wander around with -- none will give you any good advice. All they have are petty words, the kind that poison a man.  No one understands, no one comprehends -- so who can give any help to anyone else?  The clever man wears himself out, the wise man worries.  But the man of no ability has nothing he seeks.  He eats his fill and wanders idly about.  Drifting like an unmoored boat, emptily and idly he wanders along."

Chuang Tzu (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (Columbia University Press 1968), page 354.

Be assured:  Chuang Tzu is advising us that "the man of no ability" who "emptily and idly . . . wanders along" -- "drifting like an unmoored boat" -- deserves our approbation, not our condemnation.  "The clever man" and "the wise man" have both got it all wrong.


Naught moves but clouds, and in the glassy lake
Their doubles and the shadow of my boat.
The boat itself stirs only when I break
This drowse of heat and solitude afloat
To prove if what I see be bird or mote,
Or learn if yet the shore woods be awake.

Long hours since dawn grew, -- spread, -- and passed on high
And deep below, -- I have watched the cool reeds hung
Over images more cool in imaged sky:
Nothing there was worth thinking of so long;
All that the ring-doves say, far leaves among,
Brims my mind with content thus still to lie.

Edward Thomas, in Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 2008).  Thomas wrote the poem in May of 1915.  Ibid, page 235.

China in the 4th century B. C., England in 1915, or now:  there is no difference.

Walter Goodin, "Bridlington Harbour, East Riding of Yorkshire" (1951)

Chuang Tzu is correct:  why aspire to be clever or wise?  (Besides, who in their right mind would, or could, claim to be clever or wise?)  If it is serenity and contentment that we seek (I see no reason to grasp after "happiness," whatever that may be), idle drifting seems to be the proper course of action. But one mustn't equate idleness with sloth, disinterest, or ennui:  it is an active state of being that requires attention, patience, receptivity, and humility.  One never knows when a message may arrive.

"Lessons from the world around us:  certain localities, certain moments 'incline' us towards them; there seems to be the pressure of a hand, an invisible hand, urging a change of direction (of the footsteps, the gaze, or the thoughts); the hand could also be a breath, like the breath behind leaves, clouds, sailing boats.  An insinuation, in an undertone like someone whispering 'look,' 'listen,' or merely 'wait'.  But is there still the time, the patience to wait?  And is 'waiting' really the right word?"

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), Cherry Tree (Le Cerisier) (The Delos Press 1991), pages 13-14.

Stanhope Forbes, "The Inner Harbour: Abbey Slip" (1921)

Given the distractions of the modern world, Jaccottet asks a valid question: "But is there still the time, the patience to wait?"  Popular culture, the media, and technology all urge us to pursue ephemeral chimeras at ever-increasing speeds.  But each of us has it in us to step into a drifting boat at any moment and to say good-bye to all that (to borrow from Robert Graves). In my experience, this becomes easier as one ages.


When little lights in little ports come out,
Quivering down through water with the stars,
And all the fishing fleet of slender spars
Range at their moorings, veer with tide about;

When race of wind is stilled and sails are furled,
And underneath our single riding-light
The curve of black-ribbed deck gleams palely white,
And slumbrous waters pool a slumbrous world;

-- Then, and then only, have I thought how sweet
Old age might sink upon a windy youth,
Quiet beneath the riding-light of truth,
Weathered through storms, and gracious in retreat.

Vita Sackville-West, Orchard and Vineyard (John Lane 1921).

"Quiet beneath the riding-light of truth."  Well, I doubt that "old age" in itself leads us to the discovery of "the riding-light of truth" (intimations or glimpses of Truth perhaps -- if we pay attention and are lucky).  But, as for "gracious in retreat":  that is a laudable goal, and one that may be attainable as long as we keep our wits about us.

Frank Jowett, "A Sunlight Harbour"

As one who has no wisdom, and who knows nothing, my musings on being able to idly drift on calm waters are purely aspirational.  There may be moments (mere instants) when such a life seems within reach.  They immediately vanish.

Yet, we wouldn't wish it otherwise, would we?

                 Old Crofter

The gate he built last year
hangs by its elbow from the wall.
The oar he shaped this summer
goes through the water with a swirl, a swivel.

The hammer in his great hand
pecks like fowl in the grain.
His haycocks are lopsided.
His lamp stands on the dresser, unlit.

One day the rope he has tied
will slither down the rock
and the boat drift off idly
dwindling away into the Atlantic.

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

Henry Moore, "Catspaws Off the Land" (1885)

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)