Saturday, March 28, 2020


"Tightly-folded bud."  This is the first line of Philip Larkin's "Born Yesterday," which was written in January of 1954 "for Sally Amis" (Kingsley Amis' daughter) to celebrate her birth.  I thought of the line each afternoon this past week as I walked past the low-hanging branches of trees that are now in bud.  As I write this, two lines by Larkin from "The Trees" (that lovely poem of spring) come to mind: "The trees are coming into leaf/Like something almost being said." Everything changes.  Every thing changes.  Nothing changes.


Some ask the world
        and are diminished
in the receiving
        of it.  You gave me

only this small pool
        that the more I drink
from, the more overflows
        me with sourceless light.

R. S. Thomas, Experimenting with an Amen (Macmillan 1986).

Bertram Priestman (1868-1951)
"The Sun-Veiled Hills of Wharfedale" (1917)

Thousands of buds at the tips of twigs, yet each in its own singularity: delicate and full of intent.  "Tightly-folded bud."  A flower of leaf. Mostly shades of green, though often streaked, speckled, or swirled with browns or yellows or reds.  Suspended beneath the sky, precarious.  But lucent, potent with life.  And, from all around, the singing of robins.

               The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it.  But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it.  I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it.  Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past.  It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

R. S. Thomas, Laboratories of the Spirit (Macmillan 1975).

Francis Armstrong (1849-1920), "Cader Idris, Snowdonia" (1918)

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

A Thought In Passing

The neighborhood dogs are quite pleased with the current state of affairs.  People are working at home.  The schools are closed.  The weather has been lovely.  What better thing for a family to do than take a walk, or frolic in the park?  I have been doing so nearly every afternoon for many years, and I always return home in a state of contentment.

Look at the dogs walking with their families, or chasing a ball in the park:  they seem a bit perplexed by this sudden turn of events; but, dwellers in the moment that they are, they couldn't be happier -- more time with the people they love!  We humans are alone with our thoughts, as ever.  Well, thinking about the plague isn't going to change anything.  Why not go for a walk?  You never know what you may come across as you fare through the World.

               The Mayo Tao

I have abandoned the dream kitchens for a low fire
     and a prescriptive
          literature of the spirit.
A storm snores on the desolate sea.

The nearest shop is four miles away.
     When I walk there
          through the shambles of the morning
for tea and firelighters,
     the mountain paces me
          in a snow-lit silence.

My days are spent in conversation
     with stags and blackbirds;
          at night fox and badger
               gather at my door.

I have stood for hours watching
     a salmon doze
          in the tea-gold dark,
for weeks watching a spider weave
     in a pale light, for months
listening to the sob-story
     of a stone on the road --
          the best, most monotonous
sob-story I have ever heard.

I am an expert on frost crystals
     and the silence of crickets,
a confidant of the stinking shore,
     the stars in the mud.

(There is an immanence in these things
     which drives me, despite
          my scepticism, almost
     to the point of speech --
          like sunlight cleaving
     the lake mist at morning
or when tepid water runs cold at last from the tap.)

I have been working for years
     on a four-line poem
          about the life of a leaf.
I think it may come out right this winter.

Derek Mahon, Poems 1962-1978 (Oxford University Press 1979).

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "Springtime in Eskdale" (1935)

Saturday, March 14, 2020


As ever, spring arrives in fits and starts.  On a sunny day, there seems to be no stopping it:  the deep green lawns and fields are bordered with purple, yellow, white, and red.  The next day, a cold wind settles in.  Up in the grey sky, the branches -- budding, but still empty of leaves -- click and clatter, and the thick limbs groan.  A lone goose passes overhead, calling.  Where has its flock gone?  Out on a wide meadow, a group of crows stand in a circle, quarreling.

Yet, as I noted in my previous post, a threshold has been crossed:  the cherry trees have begun to blossom.  You may recall, dear readers, that I am wont to visit A. E. Housman at cherry blossom time.  To wit:  "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now/Is hung with bloom along the bough . . ."  But I have been reading Horace's odes recently, so this year a translation by Housman of one of the odes will take the place of my old standby.

                        Diffugere Nives

The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws
     And grasses in the mead renew their birth,
The river to the river-bed withdraws,
     And altered is the fashion of the earth.

The Nymphs and Graces three put off their fear
     And unapparelled in the woodland play.
The swift hour and the brief prime of the year
     Say to the soul, Thou wast not born for aye.

Thaw follows frost; hard on the heel of spring
     Treads summer sure to die, for hard on hers
Comes autumn, with his apples scattering;
     Then back to wintertide, when nothing stirs.

But oh, whate'er the sky-led seasons mar,
     Moon upon moon rebuilds it with her beams:
Come we where Tullus and where Ancus are,
     And good Aeneas, we are dust and dreams.

Torquatus, if the gods in heaven shall add
     The morrow to the day, what tongue has told?
Feast then thy heart, for what thy heart has had
     The fingers of no heir will ever hold.

When thou descendest once the shades among,
     The stern assize and equal judgment o'er,
Not thy long lineage nor thy golden tongue,
     No, nor thy righteousness, shall friend thee more.

Night holds Hippolytus the pure of stain,
     Diana steads him nothing, he must stay;
And Theseus leaves Pirithoüs in the chain
     The love of comrades cannot take away.

A. E. Housman, in Archie Burnett (editor), The Poems of A. E. Housman (Oxford University Press 1997).  This is the seventh ode of Book IV of the Odes.  "Diffugere nives" are the opening words of Horace's Latin text, and may be translated as "the snow disperses" or "the snow melts."

One can understand why this poem appealed to Housman.  There is a lovely anecdote about Housman and the poem.  The anecdote has appeared here before, but it is worth revisiting.

"During my time at Cambridge, I attended [Housman's] lectures for two years.  At five minutes past 11 he used to walk to the desk, open his manuscript, and begin to read.  At the end of the hour he folded his papers and left the room.  He never looked either at us or at the row of dons in the front.  One morning in May, 1914, when the trees in Cambridge were covered with blossom, he reached in his lecture Ode 7 in Horace's Fourth Book, 'Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis.'  This ode he dissected with the usual display of brilliance, wit, and sarcasm.

"Then for the first time in two years he looked up at us, and in quite a different voice said:  'I should like to spend the last few minutes considering this ode simply as poetry.'  Our previous experience of Professor Housman would have made us sure that he would regard such a proceeding as beneath contempt.  He read the ode aloud with deep emotion, first in Latin and then in an English translation of his own.  'That,' he said hurriedly, almost like a man betraying a secret, 'I regard as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature,' and walked quickly out of the room.

"A scholar of Trinity (since killed in the War), who walked with me to our next lecture, expressed in undergraduate style our feeling that we had seen something not really meant for us.  'I felt quite uncomfortable,' he said.  'I was afraid the old fellow was going to cry.'"

Mrs. T. W. Pym, Letter to The Times (May 5, 1936), in Richard Gaskin, Horace and Housman (Palgrave Macmillan 2013), page 12.

Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979), "From My Studio" (1959)

The snow has vanished and the cherry blossoms (soon to flutter down in a drift of petals, alas!) have arrived.  But this is never the end of "change and chancefulness" (Thomas Hardy, "The Temporary the All"), is it?  How could it be otherwise?  Why would we expect it to be otherwise?  (With the exception, in my case, of wishing to spend Eternity lying in the grass on a never-ending late summer or early autumn afternoon, looking up into the green-leaved, sun-and-shadow-mottled, wind-swaying boughs of a tree.)

Marcus Aurelius has wise words for us:  "How ridiculous, and like a stranger is he, who is surprised at any thing which happens in life!" (Marcus Aurelius (translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor), Meditations, Book XII, Section 13.)  Spring is here.  But not for long.  Anything is possible.


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

Derek Mahon, Collected Poems (The Gallery Press 1999).

Derwent Lees (1885-1931), "Aldbourne" (1915)

Recently, the robins have changed their tune.  The flat, matter-of-fact chirping of the short winter days has been replaced by song.  From all directions, from out of the fields and the bushes and the trees, come the voices of the unseen singers.  The music continues into the night.

  Flowers and Moonlight on the Spring River

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

Yang-ti (Seventh Century A.D.) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918), page 92.

Trevor Makinson, "Maryhill Goods Yard"

Friday, February 28, 2020

In An Election Year

In this great and wonderful country of mine, land that I love, we are in the midst of an election year.  This past week the cherry trees (and the plum trees and the pear trees) have begun to blossom.  What is one to do?

             The Valley Wind

Living in retirement beyond the World,
Silently enjoying isolation,
I pull the rope of my door tighter
And bind firmly this cracked jar.
My spirit is tuned to the Spring-season;
At the fall of the year there is autumn in my heart.
Thus imitating cosmic changes
My cottage becomes a Universe.

Lu Yün (Fourth Century A.D.) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, Chinese Poems (George Allen and Unwin 1946), page 89.

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "A City Garden" (1940)

Friday, February 14, 2020


The vision of life as the flowing of a river (or a stream, a brook) is a lovely and felicitous one.  Not surprisingly, poets return to the image again and again, in all times and in all places.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am fond of the fragments of blank verse that appear in William Wordsworth's Alfoxden notebook, which he kept from January through March of 1798.  In the notebook, one finds this:

                    They rest upon their oars
Float down the mighty stream of tendency
In a calm mood of holy indolence
A most wise passiveness in which the heart
Lies open and is well content to feel
As nature feels and to receive her shapes
As she has made them.

William Wordsworth, in James Butler (editor), The Ruined Cottage and The Pedlar (Cornell University Press 1979), page 115.

"Holy indolence" deserves our attention.  As does "a most wise passiveness," another beguiling combination of words.  However, since our subject at the moment is life as the flowing of a watercourse, we shall have to save our consideration of these lovely combinations for another time.  This brings us to "the mighty stream of tendency."  Wordsworth was quite taken with the phrase.  It first appears in a fragment on the previous page in the Alfoxden notebook:

Some men there are who like insects &c
dart and dart against the mighty
stream of tendency[,] others with
no vulgar sense of their existence
To no vulgar end float calmly

William Wordsworth, Ibid, page 113.

The phrase eventually found its way into Book IX of The Excursion, as part of the "Discourse of the Wanderer":

What more than this, that we thereby should gain
Fresh power to commune with the invisible world,
And hear the mighty stream of tendency
Uttering, for elevation of our thought,
A clear sonorous voice.

William Wordsworth, The Excursion (1814), Book IX, lines 85-89 (edited by Sally Bushell, James Butler, Michael Jaye) (Cornell University Press 2007).

In addition to "the mighty stream of tendency," in an earlier section of The Excursion Wordsworth gives us these lines, spoken by "the Solitary":

                                                         The tenor
Which my life holds, he readily may conceive
Whoe'er hath stood to watch a mountain Brook
In some still passage of its course, and seen,
Within the depths of its capacious breast,
Inverted trees, and rocks, and azure sky;
And, on its glassy surface, specks of foam,
And conglobated bubbles undissolved,
Numerous as stars; that, by their onward lapse,
Betray to sight the motion of the stream,
Else imperceptible; meanwhile, is heard
Perchance, a roar or murmur; and the sound
Though soothing, and the little floating isles
Though beautiful, are both by Nature charged
With the same pensive office; and make known
Through what perplexing labyrinths, abrupt
Precipitations, and untoward straits,
The earth-born wanderer hath passed; and quickly,
That respite o'er, like traverses and toils
Must be again encountered -- Such a stream
Is human Life; and so the Spirit fares
In the best quiet to its course allow'd:
And such is mine, -- save only for a hope
That my particular current soon will reach
The unfathomable gulph, where all is still!

William Wordsworth, Ibid, Book III, lines 974-998.

One either likes this sort of thing in Wordsworth or one does not.  I am among the former.  Walter Pater wrote one of the finest essays on Wordsworth.  Among many other perceptive observations, he notes: "And the mixture in his work, as it actually stands, is so perplexed, that one fears to miss the least promising composition even, lest some precious morsel should be lying hidden within -- the few perfect lines, the phrase, the single word perhaps, to which he often works up mechanically through a poem, almost the whole of which may be tame enough."  (Walter Pater, "Wordsworth," in Appreciations, with an Essay on Style (Macmillan 1889), page 39.)

Samuel Birch (1869-1955), "Our Little Stream, Lamorna" (c. 1926)

"Such a stream/Is human Life; and so the Spirit fares/In the best quiet to its course allow'd."  These lines fit well with "the mighty stream of tendency," "holy indolence," and "a most wise passiveness." Once again:

                    They rest upon their oars
Float down the mighty stream of tendency
In a calm mood of holy indolence
A most wise passiveness in which the heart
Lies open and is well content to feel
As nature feels and to receive her shapes
As she has made them.

It is the floating, the "calm mood," the "passiveness," "the best quiet to its course allow'd" that are alluring:  a willing surrender to an unceasing flow.

I return to an entry from a notebook of Samuel Taylor Coleridge which has appeared here before:

"The Whale followed by Waves -- I would glide down the rivulet of quiet Life, a Trout!"

Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1804 (Pantheon Books 1957), Notebook Entry 54 (1795-1796).  As I noted in my previous post, there was a time when Wordsworth and Coleridge were thinking the same thoughts.  Another way to put it is that they were completing each other's thoughts.  A wonderful time it was.

These two passages in turn bring this to mind:

         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).

Samuel Birch, "A Cornish Stream"

All this talk of rivers and of life inevitably brings me to one of my favorite poems.  I beg your forbearance, dear readers, for it has appeared here on three previous occasions.  My only excuse is that I have carried this poem within me for over forty years, and, although I do not think of it daily, I know it is always there.

    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).

Samuel Birch, "The Stream at Lamorna" (c. 1914)

Friday, January 31, 2020


We live in a mysterious and wonderful World, dear readers.  Each of us is on a one-way journey to a certain end.  But the date and place of that end are unknown to us.  In the meantime, the seasons come and go, and our planet hurtles through space.  And they will continue to do so long after our flesh and bones have turned to dust.  As for the fate of our souls, we each work that out on our own, alone.

As I have noted here before, an awareness of one's mortality within the ever-turning, never-ending round of the seasons and the universe can be a source of serenity and equanimity.  This will all go on without me.  A comforting thought.  It can be quite exhilarating as well.  And an occasion for gratitude on a daily basis.

Poems can be reminders of this mortality within Eternity.  This past week, I have been reading the poetry of Janet Lewis.  I have long been fond of this:

     Kayenta, Arizona, May 1977

I fall asleep to the sound of rain,
But there is no rain in the desert.
The leaves of the trader's little cottonwoods
Turn, turn in the wind.

Janet Lewis, in R. L. Barth (editor), The Selected Poems of Janet Lewis (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press 2000).

Lewis' poem always brings this to mind:

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).  The poem is untitled.

What would we do without the sound of the wind in the leaves?  My wish is to spend Eternity lying on the grass, looking up into swaying green boughs and the blue, cloud-dappled sky, as the leaves flutter and flicker in sunlight and shadow, rustling and sighing in the wind. Not likely, you say?  Consider this:  "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 (1921) (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).)

Dudley Holland (1915-1956), "Winter Morning" (1945)

Here is another of my favorite poems by Lewis:

          Early Morning

The path
The spider makes through the air,
Until the light touches it.

The path
The light takes through the air,
Until it finds the spider's web.

Janet Lewis, in R. L. Barth (editor), The Selected Poems of Janet Lewis.

I often return to the fragments of blank verse found in William Wordsworth's Alfoxden notebook, which he kept between January and March of 1798.  In one fragment  he writes:  "In all forms of things/There is a mind."  (Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume Five (Oxford University Press 1949), page 340.)  For a few charmed years, Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were thinking the same thoughts.  Thus, it is not surprising to discover this in one of Coleridge's notebooks:  "The paradise of Flowers' & Butterflies' Spirits." (Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1804 (Pantheon Books 1957), Notebook Entry 1736 (December 1803).)

An outmoded way of looking at the World, some moderns might say. Oh, I don't know.  Who is in a position to exclude any possibility? Wittgenstein again:  "We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched."  (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 6.52 (italics in the original), Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).)  And this:  "There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words.  They make themselves manifest.  They are what is mystical."  (Ibid, Proposition 6.522 (italics in the original).)

But I have gone too far afield.  Poems can bring us back to what is in front of us at each moment, if we pay attention.  A gossamer and timeless World.

Drops of dew
strung on filaments
of spider web --
such are the trappings
that deck out this world.

Saigyō (1118-1190) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991), page 200.

Charles Dawson (1863-1949), "Accrington from My Window" (1932)

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Rocks And Stones

One of my long-term projects is to work my way through Coleridge's notebooks.  My progress has been fitful, but I intend to persist, since the rewards are great.  I have been keeping a commonplace book in which I enter gems that I come across.  In preparation for my latest visit, I reviewed some of my entries, and found this:

"The rocks and Stones seemed to live put on a vital semblance; and Life itself thereby seemed to forego its restlessness, to anticipate in its own nature an infinite repose, and to become, as it were, compatible with Immoveability."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1802 (Pantheon Books 1957), Notebook Entry 1189 (April-May, 1802).

The striking-through of "seemed to live," with the change to "put on a vital semblance," is interesting.  Coleridge's observation appeals to the pantheist in me, to the part of me that is prepared to encounter Immanence at any moment.  On another note, the observation demonstrates why Coleridge and Wordsworth developed (at least for a time) such a close bond.  (More on Wordsworth in a moment.)

James Whitelaw Hamilton (1860-1932), "Glen Fruin"

But it is the movement from the opening clause to the conclusion that makes Coleridge's entry so wonderful:  "Life itself thereby seemed to forego its restlessness, to anticipate in its own nature an infinite repose, and to become, as it were, compatible with Immoveability." This is a beguiling, moving, and beautiful thought.

The word "Immoveability" brings to mind Wallace Stevens' "This Solitude of Cataracts":  "He wanted his heart to stop beating and his mind to rest//In a permanent realization . . . Without the oscillations of planetary pass-pass,/Breathing his bronzen breath at the azury center of time."  However, the comparison is not wholly apt:  Stevens' conception is colder and more abstract than the warmth and emotion in Coleridge's observation -- in Coleridge, one senses a poignant longing for serenity, for a home.  "Infinite repose."  Of course, Coleridge's thoughts and emotions were a maelstrom and a universe unto themselves, so I am not trying to reduce him to a single strand of his personality.  But I do think this feeling is one that often recurs in his prose and poetry.

In mid-December, I read the following poem, and I immediately thought of it when I came upon Coleridge's entry.

            The Stone on the Hilltop

Autumn wind:  ten thousand trees wither;
spring rain:  a hundred grasses grow.
Is this really some plan of the Creator,
this flowering and fading, each season that comes?
Only the stone there on the hilltop,
its months and years too many to count,
knows nothing of the four-season round,
wearing its constant colors unchanged.
The old man has lived all his life in these hills;
though his legs fail him, he still clambers up,
now and then strokes the rock and sighs three sighs:
how can I make myself stony like you?

Lu Yu (1125-1210) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Old Man Who Does As He Pleases: Selections from the Poetry and Prose of Lu Yu (Columbia University Press 1973), page 42.

James Whitelaw Hamilton, "Upper Wharfedale"

In his selected edition of Coleridge's notebooks, Seamus Perry provides this comment on Notebook Entry 1189:

"Rocks and stones are invested with life in [William Wordsworth's] poetry: there is a sea-beast-like stone in 'Resolution and Independence' . . .; and the Pedlar, an idealized self-portrait [Wordsworth] had described in blank verse written in the Coleridgean spring of 1798, enjoys the same sort of enlivening vision: 'To every natural form, rock, fruit, and flower,/Even the loose stones that cover the highway,/He gave a moral life' ('The Pedlar,' ll. 332-4: Jonathan Wordsworth, The Music of Humanity (1969), 182)."

Seamus Perry (editor), Coleridge's Notebooks: A Selection (Oxford University Press 2002), page 172.

The lines that Perry quotes first appeared in Wordsworth's manuscript of "The Ruined Cottage" before making their way into "The Pedlar" (and eventually into Book Third of "The Prelude").  This is the passage in which the lines are originally found:

To him was given an ear which deeply felt
The voice of Nature in the obscure wind,
The sounding mountain and the running stream.
To every natural form, rock, fruit and flower,
Even the loose stones that cover the highway,
He gave a moral life, he saw them feel
Or linked them to some feeling.  In all shapes
He found a secret and mysterious soul,
A fragrance and a spirit of strange meaning.

William Wordsworth, "The Ruined Cottage," Part 1, lines 273-281, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume Five (Oxford University Press 1949), page 388.

I am aware that there are those who have no time for these sorts of passages in Wordsworth.  I am not out to convince anyone to change their opinion.  As for me, passages such as this are what keep me coming back to Wordsworth's long narrative poems.  I confess that I avoided the poems for years.  And I will not deny that they can at times be prolix and tedious.  But then I arrive at lines like these, and the effort is rewarded.

[A side-note: one cannot speak of rocks and stones and Wordsworth without mentioning this:

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

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

William Wordsworth, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume Two (Oxford University Press 1952), page 216.

I have written about this poem previously.  Hence, I will not repeat myself, other than to say that the poem is indeed a marvelous thing.]

James Whitelaw Hamilton, "Loch Long Hills"

In Chinese poetry, one often hears of recluses living in the mountains amidst the rocks and stones and trees and mists and white clouds. They might be Buddhist monks or Taoist adepts or woodcutters. Chinese poets would go in search of them in order to obtain wisdom, but would usually come back without having found them.  They would then write a poem about their journey.

However, a few of the recluses were themselves poets.  They are more circumspect than Coleridge and Wordsworth when it comes to the place of rocks and stones in the larger scheme of things.  They are not fond of abstractions and explanations.  They point things out.

                   In Reply to Questions

I happened to come to the foot of a pine tree,
lay down and slept soundly on pillows of stone.
There are no calendars here in the mountain;
the cold passes but I don't know what year it is.

The Recluse T'ai-Shang (T'ang Dynasty; dates of birth and death unknown) (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 294.

James Whitelaw Hamilton, "Wharfedale"

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A New Year

I've never been one for participating in New Year's Eve celebrations. But I am not a curmudgeon about it:  if others find the countdown to the arrival of the New Year exciting, I wish them well in their merrymaking.  I, however, will be sound asleep as the year turns.

Mind you, I am not insensible to the Inexorable March of Time or to "the strumble/Of the hungry river of death."  For example, on Sunday evening Marcus Aurelius brought me this:

"Remember also that each man lives only the present moment:  The rest of time is either spent and gone, or is quite unknown.  It is a very little time which each man lives, and in a small corner of the earth; and the longest surviving fame is but short, and this conveyed through a succession of poor mortals, each presently a-dying; men who neither knew themselves, nor the persons long since dead."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book III, Section 10, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).

After reading the passage, I sought out Jeremy Collier's translation. Although Collier has been criticized for his lack of fidelity to the emperor's Greek text, his late 17th century-early 18th century English prose is often lovely and colorful.  And such is the case in this instance:

"Remembering withal, that every Man's Life lies all within the Present; For the Past is spent, and done with, and the Future is uncertain:  Now the Present if strictly examin'd, is but a point of Time.  Well then!  Life moves in a very narrow Compass; yes, and Men live in a poor Corner of the World too:  And the most lasting Fame will stretch but to a sorry Extent.  The Passage on't is uneven and craggy, and therefore it can't run far.  The frequent Breaks of Succession drop it in the Conveyance:  For alas! poor transitory Mortals, know little either of themselves, or of those who were long before them."

Marcus Aurelius, Ibid, in Jeremy Collier (1650-1726) (translator), The Emperor Marcus Antoninus: His Conversation with Himself (1701).

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

Marcus Aurelius' thoughts in turn bring this to mind:

            The Old Year

The Old Year's gone away
     To nothingness and night:
We cannot find him all the day
     Nor hear him in the night:
He left no footstep, mark or place
     In either shade or sun:
The last year he'd a neighbour's face,
     In this he's known by none.

All nothing everywhere:
     Mists we on mornings see
Have more of substance when they're here
     And more of form than he.
He was a friend by every fire,
     In every cot and hall --
A guest to every heart's desire,
     And now he's nought at all.

Old papers thrown away,
     Old garments cast aside,
The talk of yesterday,
     Are things identified;
But time once torn away
     No voices can recall:
The eve of New Year's Day
     Left the Old Year lost to all.

John Clare, in Edmund Blunden and Alan Porter (editors), John Clare: Poems Chiefly from Manuscript (Cobden-Sanderson 1920).

I recognize that the combination of the emperor's thoughts and Clare's poem may not be everyone's cup of tea on the cusp of the New Year.  You'll certainly not find me criticizing those who wish to sing "Auld Lang Syne" in good cheer with their fellows at the stroke of midnight.  We are in "the vale of Soul-making," after all, and there is more than one path through it.

James Paterson, "Autumn in Glencairn, Moniaive" (1887)

Here is a final New Year thought from yet another time and place:

     Swift is their passage
as the flow of the Asuka,
     "Tomorrow River" --
the long months I spend saying,
"yesterday," "today," "tomorrow."

Harumichi Tsuraki (d. 920) (translated by Helen Craig McCullough), in Helen Craig McCullough (editor and translator), Kokin Wakashū: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry (Stanford University Press 1985), page 82.

The poem (which is a waka) appears in Kokin Wakashū, an anthology that was compiled in approximately 905.  (Ibid, page v.) The headnote to the poem states that it was "composed at year-end." (Ibid, page 82.)  "Tomorrow River" is an alternative translation of Asukagawa ("Asuka River"), and is based "on the pun inherent in its name -- the sound asu meaning 'tomorrow'."  (Steven Carter (editor), Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 480.)

There are many paths.  And all of those yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows.  Happy New Year, dear readers!

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

Tuesday, December 24, 2019


In his poems, Norman MacCaig occasionally takes good-natured digs at modern philosophers and academics, digs that serve as reminders and cautions to the rest of us as well.

    Woodcocks and Philosophers

The woodcock I startled yesterday
clattered off through the birch trees
without starting to philosophise
and write a book about it.

That's his way.
And that's how he survives.
It amazes me that loafing philosophers
Don't all die young.

Unless, of course, when reality
saunters by, they crash off
through book after book, without reading
one blessed word.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2005).

A side-note:  like a great deal else, philosophy isn't what it used to be, is it?  One longs for those passionate, not-suffering-fools-gladly, intemperate, entertaining, exasperating, eccentric characters of yore: Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Leopardi (a poet-philosopher or a philosopher-poet, as you wish), and Wittgenstein come to mind.  Or, to go back even further:  Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, Heraclitus.

When it comes to sensibilities such as these, one has the feeling that philosophy is a matter of life and death, that it has something vital to do with how we live and how we die.  Now, we have academic philosophy.  Shot through with politics, social "science," and semantics, as one would expect.  Posturing and word-play.  No wonder MacCaig was skeptical, in his kindly way.

John Noble Barlow (1861-1917), "Autumn at Lamorna, Cornwall"

Here is MacCaig again:

    Compare and Contrast

The great thinker died
after forty years of poking about
with his little torch
in the dark forest of ideas,
in the bright glare of perception,
leaving a legacy of fourteen books
to the world
where a hen disappeared
into six acres of tall oats
and sauntered unerringly
to the nest with five eggs in it.

Norman MacCaig, Ibid.

He is exaggerating for effect, of course.  We are not woodcocks or hens:  we are not as at home in ourselves, or as elegant, as they are. He is not calling for an Edenic "return to nature."  His poems are full of human beings -- their joys and sorrows, their goodness and badness, and everything in between.  "The great thinker" and the "loafing philosophers" are us.  As are his crofters, shepherds, postmen, bus drivers, old men in pubs.  Still, nature is ever-present in his poetry:  mountains, lochs, trees, the sea, flowers, rain and snow, the moon, the stars, and the planets -- and the birds, always the birds.  There is a back-and-forth, a balance.  Human beings and nature are, by turns, the foreground and the background.

John Noble Barlow, "Marazion Marshes, Cornwall"

In an interview, MacCaig said something wonderful:  "I'm bombarded with things that are loveable."  (Ibid, "Quotations from MacCaig," page xlviii.)  This is a capacious and beautiful view of the World, of existence.  "When reality saunters by . . ."   When reality saunters by, as it does each day, we should be receptive and attentive. And grateful.

Onto the rain porch
     from somewhere outside it comes --
a fallen petal.

Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 443.

John Noble Barlow, "Dewerstone, Shaugh"

Monday, December 9, 2019


Each week I watch a 30-minute episode of a series titled Document 72 Hours on NHK World.  In each episode, a film crew records the human activity in a particular place in Japan over a 72-hour period. The locations have been various and interesting:  a post office, a restaurant, a bargain shoe store, a wig shop, a Shinto shrine, a butcher shop, a traveling library truck, et cetera.  The emphasis is on the people in these places:  the crew politely draws them out, and they tell their stories.  The episodes are always moving.

In this week's episode, the crew followed home care nurses on their visits to patients in Higashikurume, a suburb in western Tokyo.  In one segment, a nurse visited a boy with cerebral palsy.  It was his sixth birthday.  She sang him a song, and gave him and his mother a birthday card she had made for him.  She then bathed him (an event he always looks forward to, according to his mother).

After the visit, while driving her car to the home of her next patient, she said this (as translated into English subtitles):  "Since starting this job, I've often thought about the true meaning of happiness. Everybody is completely different.  Nurses try to help each patient find small moments of joy.  I always try to ask myself what would make my patients happy.  I hope to continue helping them that way."

Ah, these human stories.  These glimmers all around us.

Earlier in the week, I had read this poem:

                              Sitting Up at Night

Spinners' lights from house to house brighten the deep night;
here and there new fields have been plowed after rain.
Always I feel ashamed to be so old and idle.
Sitting close by the stove, I hear the sound of the wind.

Lu Yu (1125-1210) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Old Man Who Does As He Pleases: Selections from the Poetry and Prose of Lu Yu (Columbia University Press 1973), page 67.  Lu Yu wrote the poem at the age of 83.

[For anyone who may be interested, the episode of Document 72 Hours mentioned above is available until December 17 in the On Demand section of the NHK World website.  The title of the episode is:  "Nurse Visits: Home Is Where the Heart Is."]

Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935)
"Winter Night in the Mountains" (1914)

Lights that "brighten the deep night."  Please bear with me, dear readers, as I return to lines that have appeared here on several occasions in the past:  "we should be careful//Of each other, we should be kind/While there is still time."  (Philip Larkin, "The Mower.")  It really is as simple as that.

There is a great deal to complain of in our age, isn't there?  Yet, each successive "modern" age seems clamorous, base, and hollow to a large number of its inhabitants.  For instance, the politicized world that surrounds us is paltry and mean.  How could it be otherwise?  It has always been thus, and it will always be thus.  It is one manifestation of human nature, and it will never change.

But none of this is cause for despair.  And so, as I return to Philip Larkin, I must also return to John Keats:  we are in "the vale of Soul-making."  Which leads to this:  "There cannot be, confusion of our sound forgot,/A single soul that lacks a sweet crystalline cry."  (W. B. Yeats, "Paudeen.")


Last thing at night
he steps outside to breathe
the smell of winter.

The stars, so shy in summer,
glare down
from a huge emptiness.

In a huge silence he listens
for small sounds.  His eyes
are filled with friendliness.

What's history to him?
He's an emblem of it
in its pure state.

And proves it.  He goes inside.
The door closes and the light
dies in the window.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2005).

"Crofter" is paired in my mind with this:

             The Shepherd's Hut

Now when I could not find the road
Unless beside it also flowed
This cobbled beck that through the night,
Breaking on stones, makes its own light,

Where blackness in the starlit sky
Is all I know a mountain by,
A shepherd little thinks how far
His lamp is shining like a star.

Andrew Young, Speak to the Earth (Jonathan Cape 1939).

Harald Sohlberg, "Winter Night in the Mountains" (1901)

This afternoon, while out on my walk, a thought occurred to me: "The greyest of grey days."  As I walked on, similar thoughts arose.  "A day of a thousand greys."  "The greyest day imaginable."  Such was my mood.

I continued to walk.  Lifting my eyes, I noticed a thin strip of pale yellow light far off, just above the northwestern horizon, below the unbroken ceiling of grey, darkening cloud.  Somewhere out on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, near the border of Canada, the World was aglow.

I was walking in that direction.  Moments later, a few of the robins who stay here for the winter began to chatter from within a grove of pine trees.  A dove flew across the path in front of me, and disappeared into the dim woods.  (I wonder: was it the same dove I saw a few weeks ago, and mentioned in my previous post?)

Yes, a grey day, but . . .

     The long night;
A light passes along
     Outside the shōji.

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 356.

Shiki wrote several haiku that feature solitary gleams of light. Another:

     Farther and farther away it goes, --
The lantern:
     The voice of the hototogisu.

Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 168.  The hototogisu is the Japanese cuckoo.

The lantern vanishes.  The call of the cuckoo arrives.  As I have noted here before, the World tends to provide us with compensations, doesn't it?

And, finally, there is this:

     The light in the next room also
Goes out;
     The night is chill.

Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 328.

Harald Sohlberg, "Winter Night in the Mountains" (1924)