Thursday, September 19, 2019

Autumn Evening

For those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, the calendar tells us that autumn will arrive next Monday.  However, as we all know, the timing of the turning of the seasons is a matter of the heart and of the spirit, not of the calendar.  Equinoxes and solstices are of no moment.  Light and color -- and darkness, contrasting or complementary -- are everything.

         The Trees at Night

Under vague silver moonlight
The trees are lovely and ghostly,
In the pale blue of the night
There are few stars to see.

The leaves are green still, but brown-blent:
They stir not, only known
By a poignant delicate scent
To the lonely moon blown.

The lonely lovely trees sigh
For summer spent and gone:
A few homing leaves drift by,
Poor souls bewildered and wan.

William Kerr, in Edward Marsh (editor), Georgian Poetry 1920-1922 (The Poetry Bookshop 1922).

I am fond of "The Trees at Night," and I try to visit it each autumn.  It is a waif of a poem, hidden away in the middle of the final installment of Georgian Poetry, a series of anthologies that was popular in its day, but is now a footnote to "literary history."  As for William Kerr, he published (to my knowledge) only a single volume of poetry (in 1927), and his appearance in Georgian Poetry 1920-1922 represents the peak of his visibility as a poet.  "Literary critics" have had no occasion to debate whether Kerr was a "major" or a "minor" poet:  he briefly appeared and then disappeared.

But I have no interest in "literary history."  Nor is the spurious taxonomy of "major" and "minor" poets of concern to me.  At the risk of trying the patience of long-time readers, I am afraid I must repeat my First Poetic Principle:  It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet.  As I say, I am fond of "The Trees at Night."  I understand the objections that might be forthcoming from moderns:  the poem is "sentimental" and "romantic," and its anthropomorphism ("The lonely lovely trees sigh"; "A few homing leaves drift by,/Poor souls bewildered and wan") places it beyond the pale.  We have progressed beyond such things, the undeceived and knowing moderns say, all irony and self-regard.  They are wrong, of course.

William Knight (1872-1958), "Autumn Afternoon"

Ah, yes, the loneliness of autumn.  Kerr knows it well:  "By a poignant delicate scent/To the lonely moon blown."  And:  "The lonely lovely trees sigh/For summer spent and gone."  He is in good company:  the Japanese haiku poets know a thing or two about autumn loneliness. For instance:

     Still lonelier
Than last year;
     Autumn evening.

Buson (1716-1784) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, A History of Haiku, Volume 1 (Hokuseido Press 1963), page 283.

Among the traditional four masters of haiku (the other three being Bashō, Issa, and Shiki), Buson is perhaps the least prone to the melancholy of loneliness.  Having said this, I must immediately qualify my statement:  melancholy, whether it be the melancholy of loneliness, the melancholy of each of the seasons (and of autumn in particular), or the melancholy of mortality, is never in short supply in any of these four wonderful poets.  We are speaking of a matter of degree.  Moreover, given that the essence of any haiku is its embodiment and presentation of a single moment in all of its evanescence -- an ephemeral moment in an ephemeral life in an ephemeral World -- one might naturally expect a high quotient of melancholy in each of the four masters.  And yet . . .

     An autumn eve;
There is joy too,
     In loneliness.

Buson (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 1: Eastern Culture (Hokuseido Press 1949), page 229.

We must never lose sight of the fact that the melancholy of haiku is, above all, a joyful melancholy, a beautiful melancholy, a grateful melancholy.  How could it not be?  It is life.

     Not quite dark yet
and the stars shining
     above the withered fields.

Buson (translated by Robert Hass), in Robert Hass, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa (The Ecco Press 1994), page 104.

William Knight, "Autumn Evening"

Monday, September 9, 2019

All There Is

This afternoon I sat beside an open window, reading a poem.  I heard rain falling on the leaves of the maple, apple, and cherry trees in the garden.  Softly.  This is what I read:

            Rest Eternal

I shall not forget that place
Where the dead were:
Only the rain, the rain,
No-one astir,
None with me when I found
The church in its fallow ground;

Oh there was nothing there
But nettles and rain and grass,
So tangled you could not tell
Where the churchyard was,
And below in the plain
Grey fields and fields of rain.

Only the ebony rooks
Into the early light
Out of the ebony trees
Silent took flight.
I was afraid to hear
A voice in my ear.

No sound but a rook on the wing,
And of endless summer rain
The vasty whispering,
Yet close to my ear again,
(No stir from the tangled weed),
I heard, "Perpetual seed,"
And still, "Perpetual seed."

Joan Barton, The Mistress and Other Poems (The Sonus Press 1972). A subscript to the poem states: "November 1931."  Joan Barton turned 23 in that year.  For more about her, please see my post from March of 2011.  "Rest Eternal" previously appeared here in November of 2011.

Rain on the leaves.  A poem.  A late summer September afternoon. These things arrive in their own time and after their own fashion, don't they?

John Mitchell (1862-1922), "The Waterfoot, Carradale" (1921)

Last Friday morning, I read this waka:

On an evening
     set aglow with the crimson
          of plum blossoms,
the willow boughs sway softly;
and the spring rain falls.

Kyōgoku Tamekane (1254-1332) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 244.

Of the many wonderful things about Japanese waka and haiku, perhaps the most wonderful is that each poem you read provides you with a beautiful reminder that life is to be lived in the present moment, and that the entire World is present in that moment.

Charles Kerr (1858-1907), "Carradale"

Sunday, September 1, 2019


The signs are here.  The telltale angled golden light.  The tree shadows lengthening across the meadows.  In a wind still warm, the first few dry fallen leaves scraping along the sidewalk, dogging one's path.

               "Summer Is Ended"

To think that this meaningless thing was ever a rose,
          Scentless, colourless, this!
     Will it ever be thus (who knows?)
               Thus with our bliss,
        If we wait till the close?

Tho' we care not to wait for the end, there comes the end
          Sooner, later, at last,
     Which nothing can mar, nothing mend:
               An end locked fast,
        Bent we cannot re-bend.

Christina Rossetti, A Pageant and Other Poems (Macmillan 1881). The title comes from Chapter 8, Verse 20, of the Book of Jeremiah (King James Version):  "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved."

I have been reading Christina Rossetti's poems and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius for the past week or so.  The poet and the emperor have provided me with daily reminders of our transience, evanescence, and mortality.  They are two peas in a pod.  One Christian, one pagan, but more alike than one might imagine.

"Consider frequently, how swiftly all things which exist, or arise, are swept away, and carried off.  Their substance is as a river in a perpetual course.  Their actions are in perpetual changes, and the causes subject to ten thousand alterations.  Scarce any thing is stable. And the vast eternities, past and ensuing, are close upon it on both hands; in which all things are swallowed up.  Must he not, then, be a fool, who is either puffed up with success in such things; or is distracted, and full of complaints about the contrary; as if it could give disturbance of any duration?"

Marcus Aurelius (translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor), Meditations, Book V, Section 23, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).

Eleanor Hughes (1882-1959), "Boleigh Farm"

The following poem is one of Christina Rossetti's many strange and wonderful contemplations, part autobiography, part religious confession, but withal a thing of Beauty and Truth.  It is also a fine end of summer poem.  The final two lines are two of the loveliest I know.

               From Sunset to Star Rise

Go from me, summer friends, and tarry not:
     I am no summer friend, but wintry cold,
     A silly sheep benighted from the fold,
A sluggard with a thorn-choked garden plot.
Take counsel, sever from my lot your lot,
     Dwell in your pleasant places, hoard your gold;
     Lest you with me should shiver on the wold,
Athirst and hungering on a barren spot.
For I have hedged me with a thorny hedge,
     I live alone, I look to die alone:
Yet sometimes when a wind sighs through the sedge
     Ghosts of my buried years and friends come back,
My heart goes sighing after swallows flown
     On sometime summer's unreturning track.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market, The Prince's Progress, and Other Poems (Macmillan 1875).  There will be no attempt at explanation or explication from me.  One thought, however:  it is well to consider how the title of the poem relates to the poem itself.

"Sometime summer's unreturning track."  "An end locked fast,/Bent we cannot re-bend."  Ah, well, time will tell.  Perhaps.

"Observe continually, that all things exist in consequence of changes. Enure yourself to consider that the nature of the universe delights in nothing more than in changing the things now existing, and in producing others like them.  The things now existing are a sort of seed to those which shall arise out of them.  You may conceive that there are no other seeds than those that are cast into the earth or the womb; but such a mistake shews great ignorance."

Marcus Aurelius (translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor), Meditations, Book IV, Section 36, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.

Eleanor Hughes, "Boleigh Farm"

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Enchanted Or Disenchanted, Part Six: The Stars, The Planets, And The Wind

On a recent late-summer-declining-into-early-autumn afternoon, as I walked toward a distant big-leaf maple, watching its green boughs swaying high in the cloudless sky, I suddenly felt the same wordless wonder and joy at the mysterious miracle of the World that I felt when I was a child.  The feeling came out of nowhere, and lasted only an instant.  Yet, for that instant, I was who I was fifty or sixty years ago.  Nothing had changed.

Fear not, dear readers!  I do not intend to launch into an apostrophe about how we ought to "see the World through the eyes of a child."  I am simply reporting a fact.  As for reconciling how we experience the World as children with how we experience it as adults, I would refer you to William Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood."  I cannot hope to improve upon that.

The morning after my fleeting return to childhood, I happened upon this:

                          Escape at Bedtime

The lights from the parlour and kitchen shone out
     Through the blinds and the windows and bars;
And high overhead and all moving about,
     There were thousands of millions of stars.
There ne'er were such thousands of leaves on a tree,
     Nor of people in church or the Park,
As the crowds of the stars that looked down upon me,
     And that glittered and winked in the dark.

The Dog, and the Plough, and the Hunter, and all,
     And the star of the sailor, and Mars,
These shone in the sky, and the pail by the wall
     Would be half full of water and stars.
They saw me at last, and they chased me with cries,
     And they soon had me packed into bed;
But the glory kept shining and bright in my eyes,
     And the stars going round in my head.

Robert Louis Stevenson,  A Child's Garden of Verses (Longmans, Green 1885).

I am particularly fond of ". . . and the pail by the wall/Would be half full of water and stars."  A friend who read the manuscript of A Child's Garden of Verses at Stevenson's request had proposed a revision to the lines.  Stevenson's response is worth noting:

"For line 12 [Sidney] Colvin suggested . . . 'Twinkled half full' instead of 'Would be half full.'  RLS sharply rejected this:  '"Twinkled" is just the error; to the child the stars appear to be there; any word that suggests illusion is a horror'."

Roger Lewis (editor), The Collected Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson (Edinburgh University Press 2003), page 364.

Exactly.  The World of the child is one of wonderment and enchantment and mystery.  Anything is possible.

William Miller Frazer (1864-1961), "A West Coast Fishing Village"

Stevenson's poem put me in mind of this:


Wide are the meadows of night,
     And daisies are shining there,
Tossing their lovely dews,
     Lustrous and fair;
And through these sweet fields go,
     Wanderers amid the stars --
Venus, Mercury, Uranus, Neptune,
     Saturn, Jupiter, Mars.

Attired in their silver, they move,
     And circling, whisper and say,
Fair are the blossoming meads of delight
     Through which we stray.

Walter de la Mare, Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes (Constable 1913).

As in "Escape at Bedtime," the World of "Wanderers" is an enchanted and enchanting place.  Stevenson's "thousands of millions of stars" have been transformed into daisies shining in "the meadows of night."  A lovely image.  I am reminded of two instances in which the image is reversed:  Thomas Hardy's "constellated daisies" on "the grassy ground" ("The Rambler") and Andrew Young's "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" ("Daisies").  (There is never an end to the ways in which poets invite us to see the World, is there?)

But that is not all:  an enchanted and enchanting World is a World of mystery.  "But the glory kept shining and bright in my eyes,/And the stars going round in my head."  "And through these sweet fields go,/Wanderers amid the stars . . . And circling, whisper and say,/Fair are the blossoming meads of delight/Through which we stray." Where is our place in this World of stars and planets and daisies?  A child's question.  An adult's question.

[A side-note:  I like the fact that de la Mare and Stevenson do not patronize the children for whom they write.  (The same is true of Christina Rossetti.)  I also like the fact that "Escape at Bedtime" and "Wanderers" could be mistaken for "adult poems" if one encountered them outside the context of a book of "children's verse."  (This is true of a great many of the "children's poems" written by de la Mare, Stevenson, and Rossetti.)  Of course, modern ironists might scoff at this latter assertion, but they have ironized themselves out of Beauty and Truth long ago, haven't they?  Alas, there is no hope for them, so knowing and so undeceived.  Their World is disenchanted.]

William Miller Frazer, "East Linton Pastoral Landscape"

A disenchanted World holds no mystery.  Where do we come from and whither do we go?  Once again, this is both a child's question and an adult's question.  Early and late, it is a question one asks in an enchanted World.

               Nobody Knows

Often I've heard the Wind sigh
     By the ivied orchard wall,
Over the leaves in the dark night,
     Breathe a sighing call,
And faint away in the silence,
     While I, in my bed,
Wondered, 'twixt dreaming and waking,
     What it said.

Nobody knows what the wind is,
     Under the height of the sky,
Where the hosts of the stars keep far away house
     And its wave sweeps by --
Just a great wave of the air,
     Tossing the leaves in its sea,
And foaming under the eaves of the roof
     That covers me.

And so we live under deep water,
     All of us, beasts and men,
And our bodies are buried down under the sand,
     When we go again;
And leave, like the fishes, our shells,
     And float on the Wind and away,
To where, o'er the marvellous tides of the air,
     Burns day.

Walter de la Mare, Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes.

Is this a poem for children or a poem for adults?  A passage from another context comes to mind:

"Philosophiren, says Novalis, ist dephlegmatisiren, vivificiren.  The service of philosophy, of speculative culture, towards the human spirit, is to rouse, to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation."

Walter Pater, from "Conclusion," The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (Macmillan 1893), page 250.

I would suggest that we may substitute "poetry" for "philosophy" in Pater's sentence.  Whether "Nobody Knows" is a "children's poem" or an "adult's poem" is thus of no moment.

William Miller Frazer, "Morning, Newburgh-on-Tay"

"Escape at Bedtime," "Wanderers," and "Nobody Knows" carry us off into the vast and unknowable cosmic mystery of the World.  This is a fine thing.  Now and then.  But most of our life consists of making it through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon (to borrow from Walker Percy).  Yet the quotidian (not a pejorative term) is a vast and unknowable mystery as well, isn't it?

The World is as it was when we were children.  It is still here in all of its enchantment and mystery, in all of its beautiful particulars.  How we experienced the World as a child may sometimes return to us in evanescent moments of clarity, shot through with emotion.  This is a wonderful occurrence.  Like the sudden return of how it felt to fall in love for the first time.  The heart catches in the throat.  Ah, that was it!  But there is no going back.

This is no cause for sadness or despair.  Our daily task is to be attentive, receptive, and, above all, grateful.  An enchanted or a disenchanted World?  The choice is ours.

                        Boy's Song

I walked as a boy by evergreen hedges
And glancingly fingered their leaves as I passed;
Pictures in colour rose fluttering from them
Complete with accurate field notes of song.

I listened delighted to easy lessons
In a high summer school of brilliant birds --
If this were learning I wanted to be
A scholar of evergreen hedges for ever!

Clifford Dyment (1914-1971), Collected Poems (J. M. Dent 1970).

William Miller Frazer, "A Lincolnshire Fen"

Sunday, August 11, 2019


One might not expect the poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson and A. E. Housman to share a great deal in common:  Stevenson, teller of tales, inveterate traveller, doomed to die at an early age, and knowing full well his fate; Housman, exacting classical scholar, ostensibly impassive, but harboring an unrequited love for over forty years, until the death of the beloved in a foreign land.  But I would suggest that, in their poetry, they are kindred souls.  One needn't look far to find the thread of mortality running through their poems, now at the surface, now receding.  Yet it is always there, despite the bluff and hearty manner they both often affect.

On two occasions, this consonance of spirit is displayed in a clear and lovely fashion.  One occasion involves poems by Stevenson and Housman that have their source in a traditional French children's song.  The second involves a self-penned epitaph transformed into an elegy.

While living in France in 1875, Stevenson wrote the following rondeau:

   Nous n'irons plus au bois

We'll walk the woods no more
But stay beside the fire,
To weep for old desire
And things that are no more.
     The woods are spoiled and hoar,
The ways are full of mire;
We'll walk the woods no more
But stay beside the fire.
     We loved in days of yore
Love, laughter and the lyre.
Ah God but death is dire
And death is at the door --
We'll walk the woods no more.

Robert Louis Stevenson, in Roger Lewis (editor), The Collected Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson (Edinburgh University Press 2003).  "Nous n'irons plus au bois" (which may be translated as "we will no longer go to the woods") is the first line of a children's song. The second line of the song is:  "Les lauriers sont coupés" ("the laurels are cut down").  Stevenson likely had read a poem by the French poet Théodore de Banville (1823-1891) which begins with these two lines.  This may have inspired the rondeau.  Ibid, page 560.

The poem first appeared in a collection of Stevenson's letters published in 1899, five years after his death.  Sidney Colvin (editor), The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson to His Family and Friends, Volume I (Methuen 1899), pages 105-106 (letter to Frances Jane Sitwell, August 1875).  It has been suggested that Housman may have come across the poem when reading this volume.  Roger Lewis, The Collected Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson, page 560.

Sometime between 1900 and 1922, Housman wrote this:

We'll to the woods no more,
The laurels all are cut,
The bowers are bare of bay
That once the Muses wore;
The year draws in the day
And soon will evening shut:
The laurels all are cut,
We'll to the woods no more.
Oh we'll no more, no more
To the leafy woods away,
To the high wild woods of laurel
And the bowers of bay no more.

A. E. Housman, Last Poems (Grant Richards 1922).  The final handwritten draft of the poem contains the title "Nous n'irons plus au bois."  Archie Burnett (editor), The Poems of A. E. Housman (Oxford University Press 1997), page 70.  The poem served as the untitled epigraph to Last Poems, but without the title; the text was italicized.

Is Housman's poem an intentional echo of Stevenson's, or is its existence merely a coincidence, a case of each poet being separately enchanted by the haunting sound and sense of "nous n'irons plus au bois"?  We will never know.

David Murray (1849-1933), "The Tithe Barns" (1905)

No speculation is necessary when it comes to the second crossing of paths between the two poets.  The connection is clear.  We begin with Stevenson's best-known poem:


Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
     And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
     And the hunter home from the hill.

Robert Louis Stevenson, in Roger Lewis (editor), The Collected Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson.  The poem was originally published in Underwoods (Chatto & Windus 1887).

The poem was written between 1879 and 1880.  Stevenson lived fourteen more years, but he was never under any illusions about his prospects.  This is evident throughout his poetry, but there is no self-pity, no complaint.  For instance:

I have trod the upward and the downward slope;
I have endured and done in days before;
I have longed for all, and bid farewell to hope;
And I have lived and loved, and closed the door.

Robert Louis Stevenson, in Roger Lewis (editor), The Collected Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson.  The poem is untitled.

Stevenson died in Samoa on December 3, 1894.  On December 22, 1894, the following poem by Housman was published in the weekly issue of The Academy above an obituary for Stevenson.

                       R. L. S.

Home is the sailor, home from sea:
     Her far-borne canvas furled,
The ship pours shining on the quay
     The plunder of the world.

Home is the hunter from the hill:
     Fast in the boundless snare
All flesh lies taken at his will
     And every fowl of air.

'Tis evening on the moorland free,
     The starlit wave is still:
Home is the sailor from the sea,
     The hunter from the hill.

A. E. Housman, in Archie Burnett (editor), The Poems of A. E. Housman (Oxford University Press 1997).

Housman's writing of "R. L. S." within such a short time after Stevenson's death, and seeing it into print within three weeks, is something to ponder.  Bear in mind that A Shropshire Lad was not published until May of 1896.  In 1894 he was known only as a professor of Latin at University College London, not as a poet.  He was not in the habit of seeking to publish poetry in periodicals.  It would seem that something had moved him.

As for the poem itself, my oft-stated principle applies:  Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  "R. L. S." is a fine and lovely thing.

David Murray, "A Hampshire Haying" (c. 1895)

Perhaps I am being too reductive in suggesting that Stevenson and Housman are kindred souls.  An argument can be made that death is the ultimate subject of all poetry.  Their death-haunted poetry is arguably no different than that of scores of other poets.  Moreover, an alternative argument can also be made, as articulated by Edward Thomas:  "all poetry is in a sense love-poetry."  (Edward Thomas, Feminine Influence on the Poets (Martin Secker 1910), page 87.) Then again, beauty is a candidate as well, isn't it?  But this in turn leads to a further thought: "Death is the mother of beauty."  (Wallace Stevens, "Sunday Morning.")  And on it goes.

Enough of that.  As ever, it is the individual poem that matters.

                      An End of Travel

Let now your soul in this substantial world
Some anchor strike.  Be here the body moored; --
This spectacle immutably from now
The picture in your eye; and when time strikes,
And the green scene goes on the instant blind --
The ultimate helpers, where your horse today
Conveyed you dreaming, bear your body dead.

Robert Louis Stevenson, in Roger Lewis (editor), The Collected Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson.  The poem was written in Samoa. It was first published in 1895 in Songs of Travel and Other Verses, a posthumous collection.

David Murray, "The Stream" (1892)

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Three Thoughts

One evening this past week, after sundown, I sat beside an open window that looks on to the back garden, reading Wordsworth's "Louisa: After Accompanying Her on a Mountain Excursion."  I soon heard, from a few blocks away, a live band begin to play.  A birthday party?  A wedding reception?  Simply a summer soirée?

I read and I listened.  I discovered that the band was playing mostly Top 40 songs from the 1970s:  my high school and college years.  I was compelled to pay closer attention, for part of my life was being played back to me.  I bid farewell to Louisa.  The sound came and went on the breeze:  it took me 30 seconds or so to recognize each song after it began.  "Take It Easy."  Of course.  "Blue Bayou" (via Linda Ronstadt, I presume, not Roy Orbison).  Steve Miller's "Jungle Love."  And so on.

Later in the evening came a moment of inspiration from whoever was selecting the songs for the band's playlist:  "Amie" by Pure Prairie League.  What a wonderful surprise.  I always loved that song, but I hadn't thought of it for years.  The World is forever bestowing unbidden gifts upon us.

Earlier in the week, while browsing in F. L. Lucas's Greek Poetry for Everyman, I came upon this:

Of the Gods and these other matters none knows the verity --
No man that lived before us, no man that yet shall be.
However full-perfected the system he hath made,
Its maker knoweth nothing.  With fancy all's o'erlaid.

Xenophanes (c. 570 - c. 478 B.C.) (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951), p. 257.

A fine thought.  Beware of the architects, and the bearers, of systems. We are all ignorant.  The sooner we acknowledge our ignorance, the better.

Bertram Priestman (1868-1951), "Wooded Hillside" (1910)

I have spent most of this month with ancient Greek poets, Walter Pater, and William Wordsworth.  This was not a plan, just a happy accident.  I am finding they go well together.  A day or so after reading the four lines by Xenophanes, I read this:

"He was always a seeker after something in the world that is there in no satisfying measure, or not at all."

Walter Pater, from "A Prince of Court Painters," Imaginary Portraits (Macmillan 1890), page 48.

Another fine thought.  A lovely thought.  Or so it seems to me.  A thought that some may feel the force of.  Others, not.  That's how these things go.

Bertram Priestman, "Suffolk Water Meadows" (1906)

Awaiting me at the end of the week was this:

Treat well the living.  Dead men are but dust
And shadow:  our nothingness to nothing goes.

Euripides (translator unknown), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1938), page 460.  The lines are from Meleager, a play of which only fragments exist.

A third fine thought.  The lines brought Philip Larkin to mind:

. . . we should be careful

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

Philip Larkin, "The Mower," in Philip Larkin, Collected Poems (Faber and Faber/The Marvell Press 1988).

Those are the three thoughts that came my way this week.  I feel fortunate they found me.

One more thought:  the hydrangeas in this part of the world seem unusually brilliant this year.  The blue takes your breath away.  I wonder:  has this always been the case?  Have I been asleep all these years?

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

Monday, July 15, 2019

Enchanted Or Disenchanted, Part Five: Halcyon, Dragonfly, Grasshopper, Cricket, Cicada

It is July, and the sweet peas -- purple-pink, pink-purple, and, now and then, white -- are in bloom on both sides of a path I walk along between two large meadows, one sloping down to Puget Sound, the other bounded on its eastern edge by a long row of big-leaf maples. In the afternoon, the swallows dive and curve and rise across the path as they fly quickly back and forth over the meadows, feeding.  On a day with wind, the dry grass rustles and whispers.  Bird sounds can be heard overhead, and from all corners of the World.

The past few weeks, I have returned to ancient Greek poetry.  (Alas, in translation, I'm afraid.)  As I walk through the meadows, I am apt to fancy that I have returned to that golden land and time, surrounded by small and beneficent gods inhabiting the fields and trees and sky.  Am I in Arcadia?  Ionia?  Attica?  Somewhere in the Cyclades?

Ah voices sweet as honey, ah maiden songs divine,
Faint grow my limbs and fail me!  Would the halcyon's lot were mine!
Wherever the white foam flowers, with my fellow-birds to fly,
Sea-purple bird of the springtime, blithe heart where no cares lie.

Alcman (7th century B.C.) (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951), page 235.

Oh, to abide in Alcman's world of halcyons and flowering white foam! The prevailing modern world-view (a spawn of the so-called "Age of Enlightenment") is reductive and soulless.  Whether one accepts this state of affairs is a matter of choice.  Fortunately, there are alternative paths on which to make one's way through "the vale of Soul-making":

"The longer we contemplate that Hellenic ideal, in which man is at unity with himself, with his physical nature, with the outward world, the more we may be inclined to regret that he should ever have passed beyond it, to contend for a perfection that makes the blood turbid, and frets the flesh, and discredits the actual world about us."

Walter Pater, from "Winckelmann," in The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (Macmillan 1893), pages 235-236.

Another translation of Alcman's four lines:

No more, O maiden voices, sweet as honey, soft as love is,
No more my limbs sustain me. -- A halcyon on the wing
Flying o'er the foam-flowers, in the halcyon coveys,
Would I were, and knew not care, the sea-blue bird of spring!

Alcman (translated by H. T. Wade-Gery), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra, The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1938), page 190.

William York MacGregor (1855-1923), "Summer Landscape"

Pater is exactly right:  one of the many evils of the modern world-view is this "contend[ing] for a perfection that . . . discredits the actual world about us."  I couple "perfection" with the modern gospels of Progress and Science.  No room for halcyons, white foam-flowers, and small and kindly gods in that world.  Pantheism is out of the question, beyond the pale.  Wordsworth continually reminds us of what has been lost.  One small instance, in a fragment of verse:

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

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

[A side-note:  one might be surprised, but Pater was actually quite sympathetic with Wordsworth's poetry, and with the view of the World that is embodied in it.  I recommend reading his essay "Wordsworth" in Appreciations (Macmillan 1889).  Among many other fine things, he says this:  "Against this predominance of machinery in our existence, Wordsworth's poetry, like all great art and poetry, is a continual protest."  Appreciations, page 61.]

But it is time to return to Greece:

Being but man, forbear to say
Beyond to-night what thing shall be,
And date no man's felicity.
        For know, all things
        Make briefer stay
Than dragonflies, whose slender wings
    Hover, and whip away.

Simonides (556-467 B.C.) (translated by T. F. Higham), in The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation, page 234.

Consider Simonides' poem in the context of another passage from Pater:

"Modern science explains the changes of the natural world by the hypothesis of certain unconscious forces; and the sum of these forces, in their combined action, constitutes the scientific conception of nature.  But, side by side with the growth of this more mechanical conception, an older and more spiritual, Platonic, philosophy has always maintained itself, a philosophy more of instinct than of the understanding, the mental starting-point of which is not an observed sequence of outward phenomena, but some such feeling as most of us have on the first warmer days in spring, when we seem to feel the genial processes of nature actually at work; as if just below the mould, and in the hard wood of the trees, there were really circulating some spirit of life, akin to that which makes its energies felt within ourselves"

Walter Pater, from "The Myth of Demeter and Persephone," in Greek Studies: A Series of Essays (Macmillan 1895), page 96.

Pater qualifies his statement:  "as if just below the mould, and in the hard wood of the trees, there were really circulating some spirit of life."  (He had been accused of being a pagan based upon the controversial "Conclusion" of The Renaissance.  Perhaps he did not want to fight that battle again.)  Still, the dichotomy he posits is clear: a "mechanical conception" of the World as opposed to "an older and more spiritual" view of the World, a World in which "some spirit of life" circulates.  Again, the choice is ours.

Democritus slept soundly, thanks to me
     Of silver sounds the wingèd minister,
And thanks to him this little grave you see,
     Nigh to Oropus, holds his grasshopper.

Phaennus (3rd century B.C.) (translated by Hugh Macnaghten), in Hugh Macnaghten, Little Masterpieces from the Anthology (Gowans & Gray 1924), page 113.

William York MacGregor, "Oban Bay"

But who am I to judge?  I have never been at home in the modern world, and never will be.  Not surprisingly, this feeling intensifies with age.  One reaches a point where one becomes comfortable with the idea of departing.  In the meantime, I am, and will be, quite content with ancient Greek poets, Walter Pater, and William Wordsworth.  And with all those others who you see pass through here.

Though little be the tombstone, O passer-by, above me,
     Though it lies thus lowly in the dust before your feet,
Give honour to Philaenis, good friend, that she did love me,
     Her once wild thistle-climber, her clamberer in the wheat,
Her cricket, her sweet songster, whom for two years she cherished,
     Loving the sleepy music of my whirring wing.
She has not forgot me:  she gave me, when I perished,
     This tiny tomb in honour of so versatile a thing.

Leonidas of Tarentum (3rd century B.C.) (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman, page 316.

Another passage from Pater, which is a continuation of the passage quoted immediately above:

"Starting with a hundred instincts such as this, that older unmechanical, spiritual, or Platonic, philosophy envisages nature rather as the unity of a living spirit or person, revealing itself in various degrees to the kindred spirit of the observer, than as a system of mechanical forces.  Such a philosophy is a systematised form of that sort of poetry (we may study it, for instance, either in Shelley or in Wordsworth), which also has its fancies of a spirit of the earth, or of the sky, -- a personal intelligence abiding in them, the existence of which is assumed in every suggestion such poetry makes to us of a sympathy between the ways and aspects of outward nature and the moods of men."

Walter Pater, from "The Myth of Demeter and Persephone," Greek Studies: A Series of Essays, pages 96-97.

Halcyons, dragonflies, grasshoppers, crickets.  And cicadas as well:

        To the Cicada
   From the Greek of an 
     Anacreontic writer

We bless you, cicada,
When out of the tree-tops
Having sipped of the dew
Like a king you are singing;
And indeed you are king of
These meadows around us,
And the woodland's all yours.
Man's dear little neighbour,
And midsummer's envoy,
The Muses all love you,
And Apollo himself does --
He gave you your music.
Age cannot wither you,
Tiny philosopher,
Earth-child, musician;
The world, flesh and devil
Accost you so little,
That you might be a god.

Edmund Blunden, Halfway House (Cobden-Sanderson 1932).

William York MacGregor, "Nethy Bridge"

Saturday, June 29, 2019


I am easy to please.  Mind you, I make no claim to uniqueness of character or to philosophical attainment.  No, any easy-to-pleaseness that I may possess is, I suspect, due in large part to growing old.  I can perhaps trace it back to the day when it occurred to me that, purely as a matter of simple, incontrovertible numerical reckoning, the number of years left to me above ground was now, beyond a doubt, less than the number of years I had already lived.

A thought of this sort tends to focus your attention.  After the initial dismay and wonderment pass ("where did all those years go?"), you may develop a new sense of what is important, what is not.  There is certainly no reason to brood over what is unchangeable:  a boundary has been set.  So be it.  No need to mourn.  At the same time, a feeling of freedom arrives.  And that which is extraneous begins to drop away, day by day.  Vistas open up.  After all, why not live?

                    The Traveler's Moon

A traveler has come from south of the Yangtze;
when he set out, the moon was a mere crescent.
During the long long stages of his journey
three times he saw its clear light rounded.
At dawn he followed a setting moon,
evenings lodged with a moon newly risen.
Who says the moon has no heart?
A thousand long miles it's followed me.
This morning I set out from Wei River Bridge,
by evening had entered the streets of Ch'ang-an.
And now I wonder about the moon --
whose house will that traveler put up at tonight?

Po Chü-i (772-846) (translated by Burton Watson), in Po Chü-i, Selected Poems (Columbia University Press 2000), page 109.

Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935), "Night" (1904)

Each morning, I read a poem to start the day.  One morning this past week I read "The Traveler's Moon."  After doing so, a Japanese waka came immediately to mind.  Or at least the gist of it.  I went to one of my bookshelves, and found it where I suspected it was.

     Down from the mountain,
The moon
     Accompanied me,
And when I opened the gate,
The moon too entered.

Kotomichi (1798-1868) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 388.

Kotomichi's poem has stayed with me since the day I first read it. How lovely it was to now discover Po Chü-i's poem, and to have the both of them together, paired, for the rest of my life.  At around 8:30 in the morning, my day was already overflowing.  I read no more poems that day.  The two poems deserved to be left alone.  I was content to let them sit.  I am easy to please.

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

Tuesday, June 18, 2019


Today, as I walked beneath a green-canopied tree tunnel, I remembered that the summer solstice will arrive later this week. Despite the vaulting, airy boughs above me, the late afternoon -- grey, windless, still -- felt  somehow stifled and close.  It did not seem as though summer was poised to make a grand and sweeping entrance.

Soon after I emerged from the green light of the trees, the word "susurration" floated up.  I have no idea why.  But, yes, the grey and breathless afternoon was indeed in need of a susurration.

I continued to walk.  A few minutes later, as I neared home, a brief breeze stirred the leaves of a pear tree next to the sidewalk.  Drops of water from an earlier rain shower pattered from the leaves onto my shoulders.  A susurration.


Repose is in simplicities.
Perhaps the mind has leaves like trees
Involving the luxurious sun
And tossed by wind's intricacies,
And finds repose is more than grief
When failing light and falling leaf
Denote that winter has begun.

James Reeves, The Imprisoned Sea (Poetry London 1949).

Charles Kerr (1858-1907), "Carradale"

All is well with the World.  Meanwhile, in this odd and wonderful country of mine, land that I love, there are those who are already in the thrall of next year's presidential election.  Every four years we witness a battle to the death between Absolute Good and Absolute Evil, with the Fate of the Republic at stake.  I have now lived through sixteen of these contests for the Soul and the Destiny of the nation.  I continue to wait for the sky to fall.

As I write this, the robins warble and chatter in the garden outside my window.  The sun will set before they stop for the day.  Tomorrow morning, they will begin again well before it rises.


Through the pale green forest of tall bracken-stalks,
Whose interwoven fronds, a jade-green sky,
Above me glimmer, infinitely high,
Towards my giant hand a beetle walks
In glistening emerald mail; and as I lie
Watching his progress through huge grassy blades
And over pebble boulders, my own world fades
And shrinks to the vision of a beetle's eye.

Within that forest world of twilight green
Ambushed with unknown perils, one endless day
I travel down the beetle-trail between
Huge glossy boles through green infinity . . .
Till flashes a glimpse of blue sea through the bracken asway,
And my world is again a tumult of windy sea.

Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, Neighbours (Macmillan 1920).

William Lamond (1857-1924), "A Coastal Village"

Sunday, June 2, 2019


A four-line poem written in China in the Fourth or Fifth Century A.D. Perhaps a song.  The poet is unknown.

I heard my love was going to Yang-chow
And went with him as far as Ch'u Hill.
For a moment, when you held me fast in your outstretched arms
I thought the river stood still and did not flow.

Anonymous (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, Chinese Poems (George Allen and Unwin 1946).

Long-time readers of this blog may recall my two essential poetic principles (i. e., truisms that no doubt try your patience by now).  The first:  It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet.  And, begging your forbearance, the second:  Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.

A poem such as this is timeless and eternal.  It comes from China and from the universe.  Of its Beauty and Truth, nothing more need be said.

Thomas Hennell (1903-1945)
"The Guest House, Cerne Abbas" (1940)

Nothing more need be said.  But, if we are lucky, those four lines may cause us to catch our breath:  Ah, yes, I know, I know, I know.  

                      While You Slept

You never knew what I saw while you slept.
We drove up a wide green stone-filled valley.
Around us were empty heather mountains.
A white river curved quickly beside us.
I thought to wake you when I saw the cairn --
A granite pillar of that country's past --
But I let you sleep without that history.
You did, however, travel through that place:
I can tell you that your eyes were at rest
As the momentous world moved beyond you,
And that you breathed in peace that quarter hour.
We seldom know what is irreplaceable.
You sang old songs for me, then fell asleep.
I worried about what you were missing.
But you missed nothing.  And I was the one who slept.

sip (Glen Coe, Scotland, c. 1986).

Thomas Hennell, "The Beech Avenue, Lasham" (1941)