Sunday, October 14, 2018

What The Leaves Say

We have now well and truly entered the season of bittersweet wistfulness, the season of wistful bittersweetness.  Is there anything more heartbreakingly beautiful than a sunny, wind-swept brilliant autumn day?  Here, in this corner of the World, we have had five of them in succession, with more on the way.  How can so much joy and so much sadness abide together?

"A brilliant autumn day."  "The brilliant autumn sky."  "The brilliant autumn leaves."  Yes, cliché after cliché:  at times like these, I am only capable of evocation, not exact and accurate description.  I will offer this as an excuse:  you had to have been there; words fail.  Of course, dear reader, you can say the same thing to me, from wherever you are.  Each of us has our own "brilliant autumn day," incommunicable, ineffable.  Some beauty (all beauty?) is beyond words.  In the presence of autumn, anything other than silence is a diminishment.

Still, we have the human urge to articulate . . . something.  What, for instance, do the leaves say?

                  Imitation

Far from your own little bough,
Poor little frail little leaf,
Where are you going? -- The wind
Has plucked me from the beech where I was born.
It rises once more, and bears me
In the air from the wood to the fields,
And from the valley up into the hills.
I am a wanderer
For ever: that is all that I can say.
I go where everything goes,
I go where by nature's law
Wanders the leaf of the rose,
Wanders the leaf of the bay.

Giacomo Leopardi (translated by J. G. Nichols), in Giacomo Leopardi, The Canti (Carcanet Press 1994).

The poem is a translation of "La Feuille" ("The Leaf") by the French poet Antoine-Vincent Arnault (1766-1834).  Hence the title "Imitation."

John Milne Donald (1819-1866), "Autumn Leaves" (1864)

On leaves, Wallace Stevens (he of the wonderful poem titles) gives us this:  "Continual Conversation with a Silent Man."  There are "many meanings in the leaves,//Brought down to one below the eaves . . . It is not a voice that is under the eaves./It is not speech, the sound we hear//In this conversation, but the sound/Of things and their motion."  A caveat, however:  Stevens was of two (or three or four) minds about this conversation with the World.  Thus, for example, there is this from "The Motive for Metaphor":  "You like it under the trees in autumn,/Because everything is half dead./The wind moves like a cripple among the leaves/And repeats words without meaning." (As for the identity of the "silent man" in this "continual conversation," that is something else altogether, and is beyond my ken.)

Yet, if the leaves are saying something, why not listen?  The message may be beguiling.  It may be comforting.  Or full of portent.

            Fast Fall the Leaves

Fast fall the leaves: this never says
To that, "Alas! how brief our days!"
All have alike enjoy'd the sun,
And each repeats, "So much is won:
Where we are falling, millions more
Have dropt, nor weep that life is o'er."

Walter Savage Landor, Dry Sticks (James Nichol 1858).

Alexander Docharty (1862-1940), "An Autumn Day" (1917)

"I sometimes look upon all things in inanimate Nature as pensive mutes."  (Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), page 117.)  So wrote Thomas Hardy in a notebook entry made on May 30, 1877, in his thirty-sixth year.  He lived nearly 51 more years.  As one might expect, during that half-century Hardy's thoughts on the volubility of inanimate Nature underwent further elaboration and qualification, as evidenced in his poetry.  (He, like Wallace Stevens, was of many minds.)  Moreover, as is characteristic of Hardy, the observation contains its own qualifications.  "I sometimes look upon . . ."  And, of course, "pensive mutes":  incapable of speech, but nevertheless capable of thought and reflection.

This brings us in a roundabout way to a poem which has appeared here several times in the past.

   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!" is what the poem leads to.  But, for me, the loveliest and most affecting words in the poem are the six words that come next:  "Will not, when missed am I."  Simple, piercing, serene. Is this what the leaves say?  You will have lived your life well if you can come to speak those words and know their truth in your heart.

William Samuel Jay (1843-1933)
"At the Fall of Leaf, Arundel Park, Sussex" (1883)

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Madness And Life

A native of any country goes through periods when he or she becomes convinced that his or her nation has gone stark, raving mad.  The past few weeks have done it for me.

I am not here to discuss the details, for they are of no moment. (Should you encounter a person who feels otherwise, give them a wide berth.)  The madness is the point.  Mind you, most of the country's inhabitants have not taken leave of their senses.  But they know full well where the madness resides.

For me, the solution is simple.  Tonight, I sought out some beloved lines, sat down and read them, and all was well with the World.

Constant Penelope sends to thee, careless Ulysses.
Write not again, but come, sweet mate, thyself to revive me.
Troy we do much envy, we desolate lost ladies of Greece;
Not Priamus, nor yet all Troy, can us recompense make.
Oh, that he had, when he first took shipping to Lacedaemon,
That adulter I mean, had been o'erwhelmed with waters:
Then had I not lain now all alone, thus quivering for cold,
Nor used this complaint, nor have thought the day to be so long.

Anonymous, in William Byrd, Psalms, Sonnets, and Songs of Sadness and Piety (1588), in E. H. Fellowes (editor), English Madrigal Verse 1588-1632 (Oxford University Press 1920).  The eight lines are untitled.  They are a translation of the opening lines of the First Epistle of Ovid's Heroides.  E. H. Fellowes (editor), English Madrigal Verse 1588-1632, page 254.

As I fall asleep tonight I will be thinking of constant Penelope and her lovely complaint, and of nothing else.

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

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Threshold

Please bear with me:  I have already entered autumn.  I did so a few weeks ago.  Because it is my favorite season, each year I try to hasten its arrival.  Something along these lines:  "When I said autumn, autumn broke."  (Elizabeth Jennings, "Song at the Beginning of Autumn.")

The irony of my annual attempt to hurry along the advent of autumn is not lost on me:  each season has its own beauty, but autumn's is the most evanescent.  I hurry autumn's beauty along only to watch it vanish.  I suppose there is a lesson in this.  Ah, yes, of course:  "first known when lost."

When I was young, not knowing the taste of grief,
I loved to climb the storied tower,
loved to climb the storied tower,
and in my new songs I'd make it a point to speak of grief.

But now I know all about the taste of grief.
About to speak of it, I stop;
about to speak of it, I stop
and say instead, "Days so cool -- what a lovely autumn!"

Hsin Ch'i-chi (1140-1207) (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 371. The poem is untitled.

George Vicat Cole (1833-1893), "Harvest Time" (1860)

A few days ago, while out on my afternoon walk, I looked to the west at a row of tall pine trees at the far side of a meadow, near the bluffs above the waters of Puget Sound.  The pines -- swaying silently in the distance -- were set against a deep blue and purple, steel-grey wall of approaching dark storm clouds.  The scene seemed to betoken all that is to come.

"This is the beginning of the pageant of autumn, of that gradual pompous dying which has no parallel in human life yet draws us to it with sure bonds.  It is a dying of the flesh, and we see it pass through a kind of beauty which we can only call spiritual, of so high and inaccessible a strangeness is it.  The sight of such perfection as is many times achieved before the end awakens the never more than lightly sleeping human desire of permanence.  Now, now is the hour; let things be thus; thus for ever; there is nothing further to be thought of; let these remain.  And yet we have a premonition that remain they must not for more than a little while."

Edward Thomas, The South Country (J. M. Dent 1909), page 272.

George Vicat Cole, "Iffley Mill" (1884)

We have seen this passing and vanishing before.  But we never tire of it.  Or we ought not to.  If we ever do, our life may as well be over. This is the World we were made for.

     Sitting at Night on the Moonlit Terrace

Fall days are not entirely free of heat,
but fall nights are clear right through to dawn.
So the old man for several evenings running
has been sitting outdoors until the third watch.
The wind blusters, stars bright one moment, gone the next;
clouds scud by, the moon greeting them, sending them off.
You chase after delights, chase in vain,
then when you think there're no delights, suddenly they come!

Yang Wan-li (1127-1206) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century, page 349.

George Vicat Cole, "Autumn Morning" (1891)

Monday, September 10, 2018

A Life

I suppose I'm just a sentimental old fool.  (Although, as I have noted here in the past, I find nothing wrong with sentimentality, and will choose it over cold and soulless modern irony any day of the week.) Hence, certain poems never fail to move me.  An elegy for Thomasine ("Tamsin") Trenoweth of Cornwall.  An epitaph for Claudia of Rome. A haiku written in memory of the nun Jutei.  Names.  But more than mere names.

Over the past weekend, I came upon this, and another name.

                         Anne's Book

And so, Anne Everard, in those leafy Junes
Long withered; in those ancient, dark Decembers,
Deep in the drift of time, haunted by tunes
Long silent; you, beside the homely embers,
Or in some garden fragrant and precise
Were diligent and attentive all day long!
Fashioning with bright wool and stitches nice
Your sampler, did you hear the thrushes' song
Wistfully?  While, in orderly array,
Six rounded trees grew up; the alphabet,
Stout and uncompromising, done in grey;
The Lord's Prayer, and your age, in violet;
Did you, Anne Everard, dream from hour to hour
How the young wind was crying on the hill,
And the young world was breaking into flower?
With small head meekly bent, all mute and still,
Earnest to win the promised great reward,
Did you not see the birds, at shadow-time,
Come hopping all across the dewy sward?
Did you not hear the bells of Faery chime
Liquidly, where the brittle hyacinths grew?
Your dream -- attention; diligence, your aim!
And when the last long needleful was through,
When, laboured for so long, the guerdon came --
Thomson, his Seasons, neatly bound in green --
How brightly would the golden letters shine!
Ah! many a petalled May the moon has seen
Since Anne -- attentive, diligent, aetat nine --
Puckering her young brow, read the stately phrases.
Sampler and book are here without a stain --
Only Anne Everard lies beneath the daisies;
Only Anne Everard will not come again.

Mary Webb (1881-1927), Poems and The Spring of Joy (Jonathan Cape 1928).

Mary Webb was born in Shropshire, and lived there most of her life. After her death, an edition of James Thomson's The Seasons was found in her library.  The signature "Anne Everard" appears on the front flyleaf of the book.

Stanley Gardiner (1887-1952), "Lamorna Valley, Evening"

Something written by Thomas Hardy in one of his notebooks comes to mind:

"The most prosaic man becomes a poem when you stand by his grave at his funeral and think of him."

Thomas Hardy, notebook entry for May 29, 1872, in Richard Taylor (editor), The Personal Notebooks of Thomas Hardy (Macmillan 1978), page 10.

F. T. Prince uses Hardy's observation as the basis for a poem:

          Last Poem

Stand at the grave's head
Of any common
Man or woman,
Thomas Hardy said,
And in the silence
What they were,
Their life, becomes a poem.

And so with my dead,
As I know them
Now, in his
And her
Long silences;
And wait for, yet a while hence,
My own silence.

F. T. Prince (1912-2003), Collected Poems: 1935-1992 (The Sheep Meadow Press 1993).

I find it surprising that Prince chooses to use the word "common" in the second line, rather than Hardy's "prosaic":  the transition from "prosaic" to "poem" is what makes Hardy's thought so touching and beautiful.  Still, Prince's poem is lovely as well.

We are all "prosaic," we are all "common," aren't we?  But, when I read of Anne Everard, Tamsin Trenoweth, Claudia of Rome, and the nun Jutei, I feel compelled to say: Not entirely.

There cannot be, confusion of our sound forgot,
A single soul that lacks a sweet crystalline cry.

W. B. Yeats, "Paudeen," in Responsibilities and Other Poems (Macmillan 1916).

Kathleen Wilson (d. 1936), "Thatched Cottages"

If I may, this is for Anne Everard, Tamsin Trenoweth, Claudia of Rome, and the nun Jutei.

            Parta Quies

Good-night; ensured release,
Imperishable peace,
     Have these for yours,
While sea abides, and land,
And earth's foundations stand,
     And heaven endures.

When earth's foundations flee,
Nor sky nor land nor sea
     At all is found,
Content you, let them burn:
It is not your concern;
     Sleep on, sleep sound.

A. E. Housman, More Poems (Jonathan Cape 1936).

Lewis Fry (1832-1921), "View from Clifton Hill"

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Autumn

Each year, a moment arrives when we say to ourselves:  Autumn is here.  That moment varies from year to year:  the angle or the color of the sunlight; the appearance of the first red or yellow spray of leaves near the top of a tree; a warm breeze with a single chill thread running through it; the look of swaying bough-shadows on the dry grass of a meadow; beside a path, a bush with unknown, deep red berries.  The list goes on.

                              Autumn Begins

Autumn begins unnoticed.  Nights slowly lengthen,
and little by little, clear winds turn colder and colder,

summer's blaze giving way.  My thatch hut grows still.
At the bottom stair, in bunchgrass, lit dew shimmers.

Meng Hao-jan (689-740) (translated by David Hinton), in David Hinton, Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China (Counterpoint 2002).

Cecil Gordon Lawson (1849-1882), "The Minister's Garden" (1882)

This moment of recognition does not move in step with the autumnal equinox.  In my experience, it can occur any time from the middle of August onward.  It happened for me this past week.  On a late afternoon, I was walking down a slight slope towards a wide yellow field.  A tree-lined road (closed to vehicles) ran through the middle of the field.  The sky was deep blue, mottled with white clouds.  I suddenly noticed that the entire scene, despite its clarity and brightness, was suffused in a golden, soft-edged light that came from everywhere and nowhere.  Autumn had arrived.

     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).

Despite its references to "the green land" and "the green hill," "By the Pool at the Third Rosses" has always felt like an autumn poem to me. "The sighing of the reeds," of course.  Not to mention the melancholy and wistfulness of my beloved poets of the 1890s.

According to a note by Symons, the poem was written at Rosses Point, Ireland, on September 1, 1896.  One hundred and twenty-two years ago today.  Imagine that.  It seems like only yesterday.

Cecil Gordon Lawson, "The Hop-Fields of England" (1874)

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Quiet

We live in a puritanical time.  The current version of puritanism, like all that have come before it, is a matter of faith.  The faith in this case is entirely secular and political in character.  The world of the modern puritan is not a numinous world.

As is the case with puritans in all times and in all places, the new puritans know what is best for the unenlightened (in other words, the rest of us).  They believe that they have attained access to certain truths that must be acknowledged and accepted by all unbelievers. (The new puritanism is a religion of sorts, albeit one without gods.) To believe otherwise is to be a heretic.

In today's version of puritanism, everything is the opposite of what it seems.  Our puritans think of themselves as being "tolerant" and "open-minded."  In fact, they are the most intolerant and closed-minded set of people you will ever come across.  The new puritans are fond of describing themselves as "progressives."  Beware:  within the heart of every self-styled "progressive" lies a totalitarian.

The following poem first appeared here back in January of 2015. Since then, things have only gotten worse.

               Smuggler

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

Nobody with such luggage
has nothing to declare.

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

The poem was written in June of 1964.  Fifty-odd years later, the "bulging words" are the same or similar.  The smugglers have changed.

Albert Woods (1871-1944), "A Peaceful Valley, Whitewell"

Ah, well, we each make our own way in "the vale of Soul-making," don't we?  The allure of puritanism is understandable:  it offers simplicity, certainty, and a sense of superiority.  All false, but hard to resist.  Puritans find it difficult to sit still and be silent.

     The quietness;
A chestnut leaf sinks
     Through the clear water.

Shōhaku (1649-1722) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 231.

But the false assurances of simplicity, certainty, and superiority come at a grievous cost:  puritanism leaves out of account both the individual human being and the World itself.  The world of the puritan is without truth and beauty, without poetry.  It is a joyless world.

"Quiet stream, with all its eddies, and the moonlight playing on them, quiet as if they were Ideas in the divine mind anterior to the Creation."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, notebook entry (March or April, 1802), in Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1804 (Pantheon Books 1957), Entry 1154.

John Anthony Park (1880-1962), "Heart of Exmoor"

The world of the puritan is a clamorous, harsh, and distracting world. Moreover, I imagine that keeping up with the ever-expanding list of perceived injustices in that world, and then fashioning perceived solutions to those injustices, must be exhausting.  I much prefer to remain a heretic.

"The trout leaping in the Sunshine spreads on the bottom of the River concentric Circles of Light."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, notebook entry (May or June 1802), Ibid, Entry 1200.

Over the past week, the sunlight has begun to take on its angled, honey-gold autumn cast.  The first red leaves have appeared. Something is afoot.  As always, there is too much going on in the World for me to pay any mind to the puritans and their preoccupations.

     A trout leaps;
Clouds are moving
     In the bed of the stream.

Onitsura (1660-1738) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn, page 253.

How each of us awakens in -- and to -- the World is a miraculous and ineffable mystery.  A mystery as unique as each of our souls.  This awakening is a matter between our soul, alone, and the World.

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

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, notebook entry (1795 or 1796), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1804, Entry 54.

John Downie (1871-1945), "A Perthshire Stream"

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Particulars

As I am wont to do, one recent sunny afternoon I stood beneath a tree (a big-leaf maple), looking upward, marveling at the infinite, ever-changing, ever-revolving greenness of it all.  Fortunately, I am both simple-minded and easily pleased.  Thus, this sort of activity is more than enough to keep me occupied during my remaining time above ground.

               A Short Ode

All things then stood before us
        as they were,
Not in comparison,
But each most rare;
The 'tree, of many, one,'
The lock of hair,
The weir in the morning sun,
The hill in the darkening air,
Each in its soleness, then and there,
Created one; that one, creation's care.

Edmund Blunden, A Hong Kong House: Poems 1951-1961 (Collins 1962).

The quotation in line 5 ("tree, of many, one") comes from William Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood":

          But there's a Tree, of many, one,
A single Field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
          The Pansy at my feet
          Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Does Blunden intend "A Short Ode" to be a response to Wordsworth's "Ode"?  Perhaps, if we attend closely to the beautiful particulars of the World, we shall discover that "the visionary gleam" has not fled, never flees.

Hubert Lindsay Wellington (1879-1967)
"Overhanging Tree, Frampton Mansell" (1915)

One way to enter the greenness of the overarching canopy is to begin at the outer edge, focusing upon a single leaf, then moving your way slowly inward and upward.  Leaf by leaf, spray by spray, bough by bough, until you reach the sky.  "Each in its soleness, then and there,/Created one; that one, creation's care."

On the other hand, there is something to be said for simply losing oneself (or one's Self) in the trembling green constellations overhead. The key to this approach is to avoid all thinking.  As I have said here on more than one occasion:  thinking is highly overrated.  The more thinking, the less feeling.  The more thinking, the less beauty and truth.

                              Values

Till darkness lays a hand on these gray eyes
And out of man my ghost is sent alone,
It is my chance to know that force and size
Are nothing but by answered undertone.
No beauty even of absolute perfection
Dominates here -- the glance, the pause, the guess
Must be my amulets of resurrection;
Raindrops may murder, lightnings may caress.

There I was tortured, but I cannot grieve;
There crowned and palaced -- visibles deceive.
That storm of belfried cities in my mind
Leaves me my vespers cool and eglantined.
From love's wide-flowering mountain-side I chose
This sprig of green, in which an angel shows.

Edmund Blunden, Near and Far (Cobden-Sanderson 1929).

William Ranken (1881-1941), "Beech Trees, Carmichael"

In the meantime, as you gaze upward, one or more of the following events may occur.  Two sparrows may circle the tree trunk, hopping through the dry summer grass as they peck at the ground, twittering. A crow may caw from one of the tall pine trees swaying on the other side of the field.  A single brown leaf, perfectly symmetrical, may drift down and land at your feet.  (Not a portent.  Merely a leaf that falls through the sunlight of an August afternoon.)

"Each most rare."

                Lark Descending

A singing firework; the sun's darling;
     Hark how creation pleads!
Then silence:  see, a small gray bird
     That runs among the weeds.

Edmund Blunden, Choice or Chance (Cobden-Sanderson 1934).

George Allsopp (b. 1911), "Wharfdale Landscape"

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

How To Live, Part Twenty-Eight: Waiting and Watching

As I'm sure is the case with many of you, I have certain poems floating around inside me to which I return again and again: touchstones and talismans that have emerged from the winnowing of life and time.  A trail of breadcrumbs disappearing into -- or leading the way out of -- a dark forest.  Beauty and truth that, if we let them, find their way into an ordinary Wednesday afternoon.

"To those who value it, the one thing certain is that poetry, like wisdom, is a singularly rare thing, that the price of it is above rubies, and that it cannot be gotten for gold.  Once given potential life in words, it need never die; an ardent delight in it, and of this, too, there are many degrees, may be not only the joy of childhood, but a supreme and inexhaustible solace to the aged.  So long as we ourselves remain faithful, it will never prove false."

Walter de la Mare, Poetry in Prose: Warton Lecture on English Poetry, British Academy, 1935 (Oxford University Press 1935), page 42.

Stanhope Alexander Forbes (1857-1947)
"The Inner Harbour, Abbey Slip" (1921)

Thus, one evening last week I suddenly and unaccountably felt the urge to return to this:

          Waiting Both

A star looks down at me,
And says:  "Here I and you
Stand, each in our degree:
What do you mean to do, --
          Mean to do?"

I say:  "For all I know,
Wait, and let Time go by,
Till my change come." -- "Just so,"
The star says:  "So mean I: --
          So mean I."

Thomas Hardy, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles (Macmillan 1925).

"Waiting Both" is the opening poem in a collection that was published in Hardy's 85th year.  I suppose that some (for instance, modern ironists) may find it to be of no interest, or, at best, quaint. Not I.  I may not think of this poem every day, but I know it is constantly with me, and has been since the day I first read it.  This is how poetry works.

"What [poets] say is not chosen to represent what they feel or think, but is itself the very substance of what had before lain dark and unapparent, is itself all that survives of feeling and thought, and cannot be expanded or reduced without dulling or falsification.  If this is not so, and if we do not believe it to be so, then poetry is of no greater importance than wallpaper, or a wayside drink to one who is not thirsty.  But if it is so, then we are on the way to understand why poetry is mighty; for if what poets say is true and not feigning, then of how little account are our ordinary assumptions, our feigned interests, our playful and our serious pastimes spread out between birth and death."

Edward Thomas, Feminine Influence on the Poets (Martin Secker 1910), page 86.

Stanhope Alexander Forbes, "On Paul Hill" (1922)

Still, one must be careful.  Poetry is not life.  Each of us knows this, of course.  "He has read well who has learnt that there is more to read outside books than in them."  Thomas Hardy, notebook entry for November 29, 1875, in The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), page 110.

Mind you, "Waiting Both" articulates a beautiful truth.  As do all those other poems that are talismans and touchstones and breadcrumbs for us.  But they are nothing without the World.  "May. In an orchard at Closeworth.  Cowslips under trees.  A light proceeds from them, as from Chinese lanterns or glow-worms."  Thomas Hardy, notebook entry for May of 1876, Ibid, page 112.

And so we wait.  And so we watch.  Enough to keep one busy for a lifetime.

waiting for what?
each day     each day
more fallen leaves pile up

Taneda Santōka (1882-1940) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, For All My Walking: Free-Verse Haiku of Taneda Santōka, with Excerpts from His Diaries (Columbia University Press 2003), page 102.

The World is a daily miracle of beautiful and inexhaustible particularity amidst beautiful and inexhaustible multiplicity.  There is no better place to bide one's time.

     On Something Observed

Torn remains of a cobweb,
     one strand dangling down --
a stray petal fluttering by
     has been tangled, caught in its skein,
all day to dance and turn,
     never once resting --
elsewhere in my garden,
     no breeze stirs.

Kokan Shiren (1278-1346) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Japanese Literature in Chinese, Volume 2: Poetry and Prose in Chinese by Japanese Writers of the Later Period (Columbia University Press 1976), page 27.

Stanhope Alexander Forbes
"Village Rendezvous, Copperhouse Creek, near Hayle" (1938)

Friday, July 13, 2018

Awake

This past week I spent an afternoon idyll in the emergency room of a local hospital, where I became acquainted with atrial fibrillation (also known, more familiarly, as "AFib").  New encounters of this sort are always salutary:  we should never take anything for granted.  One emerges from these episodes with a  freshened sense of gratitude.

How much time we have on our hands!  How little time we have on our hands!

The previous weekend I had read the following mysterious and wondrous poem.

     The Song of the Mad Prince

Who said, 'Peacock Pie'?
     The old King to the sparrow:
Who said, 'Crops are ripe'?
     Rust to the harrow:
Who said, 'Where sleeps she now?
     Where rests she now her head,
Bathed in eve's loveliness'? --
     That's what I said.

Who said, 'Ay, mum's the word'?
     Sexton to willow:
Who said, 'Green dusk for dreams,
     Moss for a pillow'?
Who said, 'All Time's delight
     Hath she for narrow bed;
Life's troubled bubble broken'? --
     That's what I said.

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

Ah, well:  each of us a fluttering heart, a flickering soul.

David Murray (1849-1933), "Crofts on the Island of Lewis" (1921)

Later in the week, something floated up out of my past.  I hadn't thought of it for years.  I beg your forbearance for its presence here.  I offer it, not as poetry, but as an instance of how we meander our way through life, of how things vanish and then return.

                            Breathless

And then -- never a doubt -- that day shall come.
You think -- wrongly -- that you can "handle" it.
(As if all before has been "handled" well.)
But it will be the last thing you expect.

Oblique and aslant shall be its approach:
Without stealth, and with utter certainty.

How little we know!  It leaves you breathless.

sip (March, 2004).

Alex Kirk (1872-1950)
"Cranborne Chase, Dorset, a View towards Horton Tower" (1935)

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Beauty

When all is said and done, Keats is exactly right:

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

A great deal of critical ink has been spilled over those two lines.  At the outset, there is a textual question as to whether the entire two lines should be placed within quotation marks, or only the first clause: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty."  This question is related to the issue of whether the lines (or the first clause, depending upon where the quotation marks are placed) are spoken by the urn or by the poet. The predominant view is that the lines are spoken by the urn, and that the entire two lines should be placed within quotation marks.

The remainder of the spilt ink relates to the meaning of the two lines, both on their own, and within the context of the entire poem.  In her edition of Keats's poems, Miriam Allott summarizes the conflicting views as follows:

"Opinions about the meaning of the beauty-truth equivalent and its relevance to the rest of the poem can be roughly divided as follows: (1) philosophically defensible but of doubtful relevance ([John Middleton] Murry); (2) a 'pseudo-statement,' but emotionally relevant (I. A. Richards); (3) expressing the paradoxes in the poem and therefore dramatically appropriate ([Cleanth] Brooks); (4) meaningless and therefore a blemish (T. S. Eliot); (5) an over-simplification, but attempting a positive synthesis of the oppositions expressed in the poem (F. W. Bateson); (6) emotionally and intellectually relevant when properly understood, but 'the effort to see the thing as Keats did is too great to be undertaken with pleasure' ([William] Empson)."

Miriam Allott (editor), The Poems of John Keats (Longman 1970), page 538.

Well, yes, of course T. S. Eliot would say that the statement "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" is "a serious blemish on a beautiful poem."  In partial defense of Eliot (only partial) he follows up with a qualification of sorts:  "and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue."  (T. S. Eliot, "Dante," in Selected Essays (Harcourt, Brace and Company 1950), page 231.)  As one who is fond of Eliot's poetry and his critical writings, I would respectfully suggest another possibility:  (1) Eliot fails to understand the statement and (2) the statement is true.

But I am not here to unwind all of this . . . humbug.  Long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall one of my fundamental poetical precepts:  Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  Moreover, I am simple-minded and credulous: hence, I take what Keats says at face value.  And what he says accords with my experience of the World and of life.  Nothing more needs to be said.

William Ratcliffe (1870-1955), "Bodinnick, Fowey"

Enough of that digression.  Keats's lines appear in this post because they came to mind when I read a poem by Walter de la Mare a few days ago.  The monstrous and passionless existence (I shall not call it "life") that the lines have taken on in the hands of literary critics is nothing but a frolic and a detour (a combination of words I first heard in law school about 35 or so years ago, but which is apt when it comes to the tomfoolery of critics).

Here, then, is the poem that led me to think of "Beauty is truth, truth beauty":

     The Song of the Secret

Where is beauty?
          Gone, gone:
The cold winds have taken it
     With their faint moan;
The white stars have shaken it,
     Trembling down,
Into the pathless deeps of the sea:
          Gone, gone
     Is beauty from me.

The clear naked flower
     Is faded and dead;
The green-leafed willow,
     Drooping her head,
Whispers low to the shade
     Of her boughs in the stream,
          Sighing a beauty --
          Secret as dream.

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

One of the many things I like about Walter de la Mare is that, unlike most 20th century poets, he was not afraid to use the word "beauty" in an unironic sense.  It is hard to imagine, but there was a time when "beauty" was a philosophical or a metaphysical concept, not merely an empty word from the worlds of advertising, movies, television, and music.  For example, early in his life, before he began his political career, Edmund Burke wrote A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.  ("Sublime": another word that has lost all meaning in our time.)

Granted, "beauty" seems an ethereal, will-o'-the wisp thing in "The Song of the Secret," but that does not make it any less real.  Consider this:

"A thing is beautiful to the extent that it does not let itself be caught."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by John Taylor), from "Blazon in Green and White," in Philippe Jaccottet, And, Nonetheless: Selected Prose and Poetry 1990-2009 (Chelsea Editions 2011), page 53.

William Ratcliffe, "Cottage Interior" (1920)

Another poet who has no qualms about using the word "beauty" is de la Mare's friend Edward Thomas.

                              Beauty

What does it mean?  Tired, angry, and ill at ease,
No man, woman, or child alive could please
Me now.  And yet I almost dare to laugh
Because I sit and frame an epitaph --
'Here lies all that no one loved of him
And that loved no one.'  Then in a trice that whim
Has wearied.  But, though I am like a river
At fall of evening while it seems that never
Has the sun lighted it or warmed it, while
Cross breezes cut the surface to a file,
This heart, some fraction of me, happily
Floats through the window even now to a tree
Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale,
Not like a pewit that returns to wail
For something it has lost, but like a dove
That slants unswerving to its home and love.
There I find my rest, and through the dusk air
Flies what yet lives in me.  Beauty is there.

Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems (edited by Edna Longley) (Bloodaxe Books 2008).

In "Beauty," Thomas is unsparing in disclosing the despair and misery (melancholy is not a strong enough word) that dogged him throughout his life.  But he makes clear that the despair and misery are not the whole story.  We know this from the beautiful particulars of the World that appear in his poems.

Yet, although the beautiful particulars are pervasive in his poetry, there is a wraith-like figure beyond them that is ever out of Thomas's reach.  It is, for instance, the song of "The Unknown Bird":  "Oftenest when I heard him I was alone,/Nor could I ever make another hear. . . . As if the bird or I were in a dream./Yet that he travelled through the trees and sometimes/Neared me, was plain, though somehow distant still/He sounded."  There is also the ambiguous female figure in "The Unknown":  "The simple lack/Of her is more to me/Than others' presence,/Whether life splendid be/Or utter black. . . . She is to be kissed/Only perhaps by me;/She may be seeking/Me and no other: she/May not exist."

This is the beauty "secret as dream" of which de la Mare speaks in "The Song of the Secret."  It is Jaccottet's elusive beauty:  "A thing is beautiful to the extent that it does not let itself be caught."

William Ratcliffe, "Regent's Canal at Hammersmith"

It is appropriate to give the last word to Keats:

"I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination -- What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth -- whether it existed before or not -- for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love[:] they are all[,] in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty."

John Keats, letter to Benjamin Bailey (November 22, 1817), in Robert Gittings (editor), Letters of John Keats (Oxford University Press 1970), pages 36-37.

William Ratcliffe, "Old Cottage at Worth, Sussex" (1920)