Friday, December 16, 2011


I intend to visit R. S. Thomas's Christmas poems next week, but, for now, the following poem by him is a nice companion piece to Norman Nicholson's "December Song," which appeared in my previous post.  (If nothing else, they both contain robins.)


Evening.  A fire
in the grate and a fire
outside, where a robin
is burning.  How they both
sing, offering a friendship
unacceptable to the hand
that is as vulnerable to the one
as it is treacherous to the other.

Ah, time, enemy of their music,
reducing fuel to feathers, feathers
to ash, it was, but a moment ago,
spring in this tinder:  flames
in flower that are now embers
on song's hearth.
                                 The leaves fall
from a dark tree, brimming
with shadow, fall on one who,
as Borges suggested,
is no more perhaps than the dream God
in his loneliness is dreaming.

R. S. Thomas, Mass for Hard Times (Bloodaxe Books 1992).

                  Alfred Munnings, "From My Bedroom Window" (1930)

I have little knowledge of the works of Borges, so I do not know the source of the reference made by Thomas at the end of the poem.  However, I once read something by Borges (I cannot recall if it was a poem, a story, or an essay) in which he referred to Chuang Tzu's parable of the butterfly.  The parable has some affinity, I think, with what Thomas writes about in the final three lines of the poem.  However, I have no idea if this is what Thomas had in mind.

Burton Watson translates Chuang Tzu's parable as follows:

"Once Chuang Tzu dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased.  He didn't know he was Chuang Tzu.  Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Tzu.  But he didn't know if he was Chuang Tzu who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Tzu."

Burton Watson (translator), The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (1968).

                          Eugene Jansson, "Hornsgatan by Night" (1902)


WAS said...

The reference comes from The Circular Ruins I believe - although it might as well have been dreamed up by Plato.

The Chuang Tzu quote is just as good - Borges is always playing with the notion of how the mind is not to be trusted, it is just an appendage of desire.

When I think of affinities with Borges, I think of William Bronk, a true winter poet, who took the notion back into the heart:

"It is always hard like this, not having a world,
to imagine one, to go to the far edge
apart and imagine, to wall whether in
or out, to build a kind of cage for the sake
of feeling the bars around us, to give shape to a world.
And oh, it is always a world and not the world."
[At Tikal, 1955]

Anonymous said...

Nay not revisiting, never departed.
Lingering, loitering,
In bliss; unallayed.
In erudition,
Sublime musings,
Flights of fancy,
Golden, gossamer, connections.
Which surpass
The original.
Hail! Stephen.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Sigler: thank you for the Borges reference, which I hadn't read before, and for the Bronk poem.

By the way, I came across this when I was browsing through a selection of Borges's fictions yesterday:

"God's voice answered him out of a whirlwind: 'I, too, am not I; I dreamed the world as you, Shakespeare, dreamed your own work, and among the forms of my dream are you, who like me are many, yet no one'."

"Everything and Nothing", from The Maker (1960).

It seems that Borges wrote about dreams so much, it may be hard to pin down what exactly Thomas was referring to. Or perhaps he was referring to Borges as a whole.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Hari: thank you very much for stopping by again, and for your thoughts.