Saturday, October 30, 2010

On The Eve Of An Election

Please note:  this is not a political blog and this is not a political post.  Rather, it is a post about one's nation, and about the political class (not the people) of one's nation.  The following poem is by C. H. Sisson, an Englishman who was described, in the Telegraph's 2003 obituary, as a "doughty defender of traditional Anglicanism" who held "unfashionable high Tory views."  (As I have said before:  A man after my own heart, even though I am not an Englishman, an Anglican, or a Tory.)

               Thinking of Politics

Land of my fathers, you escape me now
And yet I will in no wise let you go:
Let none imagine that I do not know
How little sight of you the times allow.
Yet you are there, and live, no matter how
The troubles which surround you seem to grow:
The steps of ancestors are always slow,
But always there behind the current row,
And always and already on the way:
They will be heard on the appropriate day.

C. H. Sisson, What and Who (1994).

                       A future presidential candidate at the age of 42.
                            Headquarters of the Army of the Potomac.
                                   Cold Harbor, Virginia.  June, 1864.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"Lost The Wind's Warning": Ivor Gurney

Derek Mahon's "Leaves" (please see my post for October 24, 2010) brings to mind the following poem by Ivor Gurney -- the wind and the leaves, of course, but Time and Loss as well.  According to the editor of the collection in which the poem appears, it was "written on the back of an Oxford University Press letterhead dated 6 March 1929.  [It was] signed 'Valentine Fane' by Gurney; he frequently used such names on his later manuscripts."

                  The Wind

All night the fierce wind blew --
All night I knew
Time, like a dark wind, blowing
All days, all lives, all memories
Down empty endless skies --
A blind wind, strowing
Bright leaves of life's torn tree
through blank eternity:
Dreadfully swift, Time blew.
All night I knew
the outrush of its going.

At dawn a thin rain wept.
Worn out, I slept
And woke to a fair morning.
My days were amply long, and I content
In their accomplishment --
Lost the wind's warning.

Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems (edited by George Walter) (1996).

                                     A. J. Casson, "Pike Lake" (c. 1929)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"The Plain Sense Of Things": Wallace Stevens

In 1952, the editor of the periodical The Nation asked Wallace Stevens if he would be willing to submit a poem to the publication.  Stevens agreed to do so.  In response to the request, Stevens wrote seven short poems in the late summer and early autumn of that year.

On September 29, he observed to a correspondent:  "To-day there is a light as of the end of the boulevards -- the extra hour of lateness and the sense of autumn."  In a letter dated October 8 to another correspondent, Stevens wrote:  "This morning I walked around in the park here for almost an hour before coming to the office and felt as blank as one of the ponds which in the weather at this time of year are motionless.  But perhaps it was the blankness that made me enjoy it so much."

On November 12, Stevens submitted the poems to the editor of The Nation.  In the final paragraph of the letter that accompanied the poems, Stevens wrote:  "Now that these poems have been completed they seem to have nothing to do with anything in particular, except poetry, and you will have to determine for yourself whether they are appropriate for use in The Nation."  All of the poems were published on December 6, 1952.  The following poem is one of those submitted by Stevens.

                 The Plain Sense of Things

After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things.  It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.

Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined.  The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.

Wallace Stevens, The Rock (1954).

                  Stanley Spencer, "Farm Pond, Leonard Stanley" (1940)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

"An Infinite Rustling And Sighing": Derek Mahon

I fear that I am wearing out my autumn welcome, but please bear with me as another leaf-tinged offering arrives.  The following poem is by Derek Mahon.


The prisoners of infinite choice
Have built their house
In a field below the wood
And are at peace.

It is autumn, and dead leaves
On their way to the river
Scratch like birds at the windows
Or tick on the road.

Somewhere there is an afterlife
Of dead leaves,
A stadium filled with an infinite
Rustling and sighing.

Somewhere in the heaven
Of lost futures
The lives we might have lived
Have found their own fulfilment.

Derek Mahon, Selected Poems (The Gallery Press/Viking 1991).

                       Robin Tanner, "The Gamekeeper's Cottage" (1928)

Friday, October 22, 2010

"Weaker And Weaker, The Sunlight Falls In The Afternoon": Wallace Stevens

Rilke's "Herbsttag" brings to mind an autumn-themed poem by Wallace Stevens that has a German title: "Lebensweisheitspielerei."  One annotator of Stevens's poems translates the compound-word used by Stevens as "worldly wisdom's game."  Another annotator translates it as "practical wisdom's amusement."  In any event, here is the poem.


Weaker and weaker, the sunlight falls
In the afternoon.  The proud and the strong
Have departed.

Those that are left are the unaccomplished,
The finally human,
Natives of a dwindled sphere.

Their indigence is an indigence
That is an indigence of the light,
A stellar pallor that hangs on the threads.

Little by little, the poverty
Of autumnal space becomes
A look, a few words spoken.

Each person completely touches us
With what he is and as he is,
In the stale grandeur of annihilation.

Wallace Stevens, The Rock (1954).

As I suggested in my previous post on "The River of Rivers in Connecticut," I think that the poems that Stevens wrote late in his life (from, say, 1950 onwards, when he was in his seventies) are wonderful.  The verbal playfulness and rhetorical flourishes are still there, but they are toned down, and there is, I believe, an emotional element that is not often found in his earlier poetry.

                           Edward Hopper, "Rooms by the Sea" (1951)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"Autumn Day": Two Versions Of Rilke

In keeping with the autumnal turn that this month's posts have taken, Rainer Maria Rilke's poem "Herbsttag" ("Autumn Day") came to mind.  When it comes to Rilke, I rely upon translators.  The poem has likely been translated into English dozens of times.  I am familiar with the following two versions.

                            Autumn Day

Lord:  it is time.  The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.

Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

Translated by Stephen Mitchell in The Selected Poetry of  Rainer Maria Rilke (1982).

                           Samuel Palmer, "The Bright Cloud" (1834)

                            Autumn Day

Lord, it is time.  The summer was too long.
Lay your shadow on the sundials now,
and through the meadows let the winds throng.

Ask the last fruits to ripen on the vine;
give them further two more summer days
to bring about perfection and to raise
the final sweetness in the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now will establish none,
whoever lives alone now will live on long alone,
will waken, read, and write long letters,
wander up and down the barren paths
the parks expose when leaves are blown.

Translated by William Gass in Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation (1999).

                         Samuel Palmer, "The Gleaning Field" (c. 1833)

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Single Leaf (Revisited): Dorothy Wordsworth And Samuel Taylor Coleridge

I came upon the following information in Maurice Hewlett's essay "The Crystal Vase," which first appeared in the December, 1919, issue of The London Mercury.  The essay begins as a discussion of the merits of various writers of published letters, journals, and diaries.  However, it soon turns into an appreciation of the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth -- William's sister and Coleridge's friend.  Hewlett notes:  "We may see deeply into ourselves, but she sees deeply into a deeper self than most of us can discern."

Hewlett writes:

   Coleridge was with them most days, or they with him [in the late winter of 1798].  Here is a curious point to note.  Dorothy records:
   "March 7th. -- William and I drank tea at Coleridge's. . . . Observed nothing particularly interesting. . . . One only leaf upon the top of a tree -- the sole remaining leaf -- danced round and round like a rag blown by the wind."
   And Coleridge has in Christabel:
          The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
          That dances as often as dance it can,
          Hanging so light, and hanging so high,
          On the topmost twig that looks up at the sky.

Maurice Hewlett, A Green Shade: A Country Commentary (1920).

I have since discovered that her brother and Coleridge relied upon Dorothy Wordsworth's observations of nature on more than one occasion, putting them to use in their poetry.  But it is best to go to the source and read her journals, which are indeed wonderful.

                                                 John Constable
        "Hampstead Heath, Looking Towards Harrow at Sunset" (1823)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

"Beauty": Edward Thomas

In my recent post on Edward Thomas's poem "October," I opined that the combination of beauty and melancholy is a common occurrence in his poetry.  I also stated that "beauty was absolutely real for Thomas -- it was not a poetic conceit."  In retrospect, I fear that those blithe pronouncements sound a bit high-falutin'.  In order to partially atone for my sins, here is a poem by Thomas about . . . melancholy and 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.

             Martin Johnson Heade, "Newburyport Meadows" (c. 1876)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

"The River Of Rivers In Connecticut": Wallace Stevens

The following poem by Wallace Stevens is not explicitly about autumn.  However, something about the season -- the clear and slanting light, perhaps -- always brings it to mind.  The poem is, I think, one of Stevens's finest.  He wrote it late in his life -- a time when he tended to pare back a bit the preciousness and abstraction of his earlier work and to speak more directly.  (Something that he seemed to acknowledge in "First Warmth" ("I wonder, have I lived a skeleton's life . . .") and its successor, "As You Leave the Room.")    

          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 intellligence 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 Rock (1954).

                       John Constable, "Harwich Lighthouse" (c. 1820)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Single Leaf

Out for an afternoon walk the other day, I paused in a grove of trees.  No wind stirred the branches overhead.  After a moment, I heard the sound of a single leaf rattling down through the boughs.  The leaf settled to the ground a few feet away from me. 


A last flame,
sole leaf
flagging at the tree tip,
is dragged through the current
down into the water
of the air, and in this final
metamorphosis, spiralling
swims to earth.

Charles Tomlinson, The Way In and Other Poems (1974).

                 John Nash, "The Lake, Little Horkesley Hall" (c. 1958)

     One Day of Autumn

One day of autumn
sun had uncongealed
the frost that clung
wherever shadows spread
their arctic greys among
October grass:  mid-
field an oak still
held its foliage intact
but then began
releasing leaf by leaf
full half,
till like a startled
flock they scattered
on the wind:  and one
more venturesome than all
the others shone far out
a moment in mid-air,
before it glittered off
and sheered into the dip
a stream ran through
to disappear with it.

Charles Tomlinson, The Shaft (1978).

                                    Paul Nash, "The Orchard" (1914)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

"October": Edward Thomas

Edward Thomas being who he was, it is not surprising that, in a poem of his about autumn, melancholy makes an appearance.  At the same time, it is likewise not surprising that Thomas's melancholy goes hand-in-hand with beauty.  This combination occurs often in his poetry.  (And beauty was absolutely real for Thomas -- it was not a poetic conceit.)  But enough.  Here is the poem.             


The green elm with the one great bough of gold
Lets leaves into the grass slip, one by one, --
The short hill grass, the mushrooms small milk-white,
Harebell and scabious and tormentil,
That blackberry and gorse, in dew and sun,
Bow down to; and the wind travels too light
To shake the fallen birch leaves from the fern;
The gossamers wander at their own will.
At heavier steps than birds' the squirrels scold.

The rich scene has grown fresh again and new
As Spring and to the touch is not more cool
Than it is warm to the gaze; and now I might
As happy be as earth is beautiful,
Were I some other or with earth could turn
In alternation of violet and rose,
Harebell and snowdrop, at their season due,
And gorse that has no time not to be gay.
But if this be not happiness, -- who knows?
Some day I shall think this a happy day,
And this mood by the name of melancholy
Shall no more blackened and obscured be.

                                  Paul Nash, "Behind the Inn" (1919)

Friday, October 8, 2010

Progress: "England Lies Lost To Silence Now"

I cannot gainsay the importance of freeways and motorways and expressways to the felicity of our Modern World.  I have driven the length and breadth of the U.S.A. on more than one occasion, and there is nothing finer than travelling beneath a huge sky on Interstate 40 out in the Texas Panhandle, heading toward Albuquerque -- particularly if you are listening to Gram Parsons sing "Return of the Grievous Angel" with Emmylou Harris.

And yet, one wonders . . . I have seen, high up on the Great Divide in Wyoming, the remnants of wagon wheel ruts on the Oregon Trail.  And I have seen, just off the Natchez Trace Parkway near the Mississippi River, the sunken, shadowy trail beneath the trees that marks the old Natchez Trace.  In both places you could hear a pin drop.


The arteries, red lane on lane,
   Cover the engineers' new maps:
England lies lost to silence now:
   On bridges, where old roads cross
The chasm of the new, the idlers
   Stand staring down.  Philosophers
Of the common run, some masticate pipe-stems,
   And seem not to hear the roar in Albion's veins,
As though the quiet, rebegotten as they lean, survived
   Through them alone, its stewards and sustainers,
For all these advancing and disappearing lives.

Charles Tomlinson, The Way In and Other Poems (1974).
                    Winifred McKenzie (1905-2001), "The Tree" (1990)

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"October Trees": Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon is not a "nature poet" in the sense that, say, John Clare or Andrew Young may be thought of as "nature poets":  close observers and recorders of what many of us might not otherwise see.  That being said, the English countryside was a beloved part of Sassoon's life.  Many of his poems are set in the landscape around Heytesbury, Wiltshire, where he lived from 1934 until his death in 1967.  Here is an autumn poem by him.

          October Trees

How innocent were these
Trees, that in mist-green May,
Blown by a prospering breeze,
Stood garlanded and gay;
Who now in sundown glow
Of serious colour clad
Confront me with their show
As though resigned and sad.

Trees who unwhispering stand
Umber and bronze and gold,
Pavilioning the land
For one grown tired and old;
Elm, chestnut, beech, and lime,
I am merged in you, who tell
Once more in tones of time
Your foliaged farewell.

Siegfried Sassoon, The Tasking (1954).

                                  Paul Nash, "Berkshire Downs" (1922)

Monday, October 4, 2010

"When I Said Autumn, Autumn Broke": Elizabeth Jennings

Because October is my favorite month and because autumn is my favorite season, please bear with me as I pursue a seasonal theme.  Here is a poem by Elizabeth Jennings from one of her early collections.  (Collections which are well worth returning to.)

   Song at the Beginning of Autumn

Now watch this autumn that arrives
In smells.  All looks like summer still;
Colours are quite unchanged, the air
On green and white serenely thrives.
Heavy the trees with growth and full
The fields.  Flowers flourish everywhere.

Proust who collected time within
A child's cake would understand
The ambiguity of this --
Summer still raging while a thin
Column of smoke stirs from the land
Proving that autumn gropes for us.

But every season is a kind
Of rich nostalgia.  We give names --
Autumn and summer, winter, spring --
As though to unfasten from the mind
Our moods and give them outward forms.
We want the certain, solid thing.

But I am carried back against
My will into a childhood where
Autumn is bonfires, marbles, smoke;
I lean against my window fenced
From evocations in the air.
When I said autumn, autumn broke.

Elizabeth Jennings, A Way of Looking (1955).

Ah, those long-lost innocent days before the authorities banned the burning of leaves!  Yes, yes, our World is no doubt a healthier and cleaner place than it was in those benighted times -- with the help of experts we are surely progressing toward a pristine state.  And yet, is autumn autumn without the scent of leaf-smoke?

                                              Stanley Roy Badmin
                       "Matlock Bank on an Autumn Afternoon" (1962)

Saturday, October 2, 2010

"The Fall Of Leaf Across The Shoulder Of The Northern World": Howard Nemerov

Howard Nemerov (1920-1991) is a wonderful poet of autumn.  (He is also particularly good when it comes to trees and snow.)  Here is a poem of his for this time of year.

                         The Crossing

September, and the butterflies are drifting
Across the sky again, the monarchs in
Their myriads, delicate lenses for the light
To fall through and be mandarin-transformed.

I guess they are flying southward, or anyhow
That seems to be the average of their drift,
Though what you mostly see is a random light
Meandering, a Brownian movement to the wind,

Which is one of Nature's ways of getting it done,
Whatever it may be, the rise of hills
And settling of seas, the fall of leaf
Across the shoulder of the northern world,

The snowflakes one by one that silt the field . . .
All that's preparing now behind the scene,
As the ecliptic and equator cross,
Through which the light butterflies are flying.

Gnomes and Occasions (1973).

                                      Paul Drury, "September" (1928)