Sunday, January 30, 2011

"The Climate Of Thought": Robert Graves

I suspect that Robert Graves is best known, not for his poetry, but for Good-Bye to All That (his memoir of the First World War), The White Goddess (a mythological/anthropological/philosophical work), and his historical fiction (I, Claudius, et cetera).  Which, as they say, is a pity, since his poetry is very good.

Given the hundreds of poems that he wrote over a writing life of 70-odd years, it would be misleading to suggest that a particular poem is "typical" of Graves.  Thus, I offer the following poem because I like it, and because the title reminds me of the title of a poem by Wallace Stevens (who I have had on the brain for a couple of months): "The Poems of Our Climate."  (I am not suggesting that there is any literary link between the two poems.  I am only explaining my arbitrary choice.)

                    The Climate of Thought

The climate of thought has seldom been described.
It is no terror of Caucasian frost,
Nor yet that brooding Hindu heat
For which a loin-rag and a dish of rice
Suffice until the pestilent monsoon.
But, without winter, blood would run too thin;
Or, without summer, fires would burn too long.
In thought the seasons run concurrently.

Thought has a sea to gaze, not voyage, on;
And hills, to rough the edge of the bland sky,
Not to be climbed in search of blander prospect;
Few birds, sufficient for such caterpillars
As are not fated to turn butterflies;
Few butterflies, sufficient for such flowers
As are the luxury of a full orchard;
Wind, sometimes, in the evening chimneys; rain
On the early morning roof, on sleepy sight;
Snow streaked upon the hilltop, feeding
The fond brook at the valley-head
That greens the valley and that parts the lips;
The sun, simple, like a country neighbour;
The moon, grand, not fanciful with clouds.

Robert Graves, Collected Poems (1938).

                   Cecil Gordon Lawson, "Cheyne Walk, Chelsea" (1870)

Friday, January 28, 2011

Late MacNeice Revisited: "A Hand Beckons To All The Life My Days Allow"

In a previous post, I suggested that Louis MacNeice regained his poetic form in the collections published between 1957 (his fiftieth year) and 1963 (the year of his death).  That post featured poems from Visitations, which was published in 1957.  The following poem is from Solstices, which came out in 1961.

The title of the poem has its source in the first two lines of Canto I of Dante's Inferno:  "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita/mi ritrovai per una selva oscura."  One translation (out of hundreds):  "Midway in the journey of our life/I found myself in a dark wood."

                              Selva Oscura

A house can be haunted by those who were never there
If there was where they were missed.  Returning to such
Is it worse if you miss the same or another or none?
The haunting anyway is too much.
You have to leave the house to clear the air.

A life can be haunted by what it never was
If that were merely glimpsed.  Lost in the maze
That means yourself and never out of the wood
These days, though lost, will be all your days;
Life, if you leave it, must be left for good.

And yet for good can be also where I am,
Stumbling among dark tree-trunks, should I meet
One sudden shaft of light from the hidden sky
Or, finding bluebells bathe my feet,
Know that the world, though more, is also I.

Perhaps suddenly too I strike a clearing and see
Some unknown house -- or was it mine? -- but now
It welcomes whom I miss in welcoming me;
The door swings open and a hand
Beckons to all the life my days allow.

Louis MacNeice, Solstices (1961).

                               Samuel Palmer, "A Hilly Scene" (c. 1826)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"Humbug Still Walks Our Land On Stilts"

When it comes to politics, I try to keep my mouth shut.  I will simply say that, although I am an American, I trace my political principles (such as they are) back to Edmund Burke.  Samuel Johnson said of Burke:

If a man were to go by chance at the same time with Burke under a shed to shun a shower, he would say, "this is an extraordinary man."  If Burke should go into a stable to see his horse dressed, the ostler would say, "we have had an extraordinary man here."

James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson (conversation between Johnson and Boswell on May 15, 1784).  Johnson was not usually given to such praise.  He seems to have had a great fondness for Burke.  (They did disagree about the unruly American colonies, however.)   

As for contemporary politicians (including all current presidents, prime ministers, premiers, and potentates), the following poem by W. R. Rodgers suffices:

                    The Pier

Only a placid sea, and
A pier where no boat comes,
But people stand at the end
And spit into the water,
Dimpling it, and watch a dog
That chins and churns back to land.

I had come here to see
Humbug embark, deported,
Protected from the crowd.
But he has not come today.
And anyway there is no boat
To take him.  And no one cares.
So Humbug still walks our land
On stilts, is still looked up to.

W. R. Rodgers, Awake! and Other Poems (1941).

                                Edward Bawden, "Newhaven" (1935)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Life Explained, Part Twelve: "This Being Baffled Is Itself The Thing"

I came across the following sonnet by Joseph Treasure in the December 19, 1997, issue of The Times Literary Supplement.  I have not been able to find any other poems by Joseph Treasure.  Is the name perhaps a pseudonym?  At any rate, the poem is a fine one.  It has a bit of a Larkin atmosphere, I think.

                         Being Here

Somewhere I was to go, where I could stand
Steadily on the earth and breathe the air.
And so I've bundled up my courage, and
Felt somewhere else the urge to be elsewhere.

Someone I was to meet who'd make things clear.
But though I've found comfort in company,
Answers I haven't found, and what I fear
Is having no-one left to ask but me.

Something I had to learn, but cannot guess
Now what it was.  Yearly more baffling
I find this place, yearly more ill-defined

Truth and untruth, so nothing's done.  Unless
This being baffled is itself the thing,
And minding just the habit of the mind.

                            Richard Eurich, "Fog Bank, Whitby" (1934)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

How To Live, Part Four: "Next To Nothing Known Is The Last Thing One Learns"

Ludwig Wittgenstein was quite skeptical of science's role in the modern world and in the working out of one's Fate.  One of his classic statements about science is this:

We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.  Of course there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer.

Proposition 6.52, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) (translated by D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness) (emphasis in original).  As I have suggested previously, Wittgenstein can often be mistaken for a Taoist or a Buddhist.  "There are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer" sounds like an answer to a Zen koan, or like something out of Lao-Tzu's Tao Te Ching.

Wittgenstein's thoughts have to a great extent been corrupted out of all recognition by academic philosophers.  Hence, it is important to recognize that he simply wished to figure out how to get through an ordinary day.  (Which is perhaps why he abandoned Cambridge and other centers of "learning" in order to spend long stretches of time alone in a cabin on a fjord in Norway and in a stone cottage in the west of Ireland at the edge of the Atlantic.)

All of which brings us obliquely to a poem by Siegfried Sassoon:

                         A Belated Discovery

Admitting ignorance, comprehensive and uncharted,
Of all that is beyond my localized concerns,
I come to the conclusion -- cocksure though I started --
That next to nothing known is the last thing one learns.

This world, encyclopaedic subject, for my mind
Remains existent as an undiscovered land:
Therefore the apparition named myself I find
The only matter that I can hope to understand.

Siegfried Sassoon, in D. F. Corrigan, Siegfried Sassoon: Poet's Pilgrimage (1973), pages 45-46.

                                       Norman Clark (1913-1992)
                          "Flying Kites By A Gas Works Near Bexhill"

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Life Explained, Part Eleven: "On Change Of Opinions"

Like Arthur Symons, Victor Plarr (1863-1929) was a poet of the Nineties -- one of his friends was Ernest Dowson (of "they are not long, the days of wine and roses" fame).  However, he left the life of absinthe behind to become the librarian for the Royal College of Surgeons.  The following Explanation of Life displays a bit of the gloomy, romantic fatalism of the Nineties, but there is something about the poem that the lovable pessimists Philip Larkin and Thomas Hardy might find to their liking.  For instance, "as you lie and die" sounds like vintage Larkin.  And "old gray Death upon his crutch" carrying his "Bag of Nought" would be quite at home in a poem by Hardy.

          On Change of Opinions

As you advance in years you long
   For what you scorned when but a boy:
Then 'twas the town, now the birds' song
   Is your obsession and your joy.

And, as you lie and die, maybe
   You will look back, unreconciled
To that dark hour, and clearly see
   Yourself a little wistful child.

Into the jaws of death you'll bring
   No virile triumph, wrought with pain;
But only to the monster fling
   The daydream and the daisy-chain,

The lisped word, the gentle touch,
   The wonder, and the mystic thought,
For old gray Death upon his crutch
   To rake into his Bag of Nought.

Victor Plarr, The Garland of New Poetry by Various Writers (1899).

                                              Christopher Sanders
                          "Sunlight Through a Willow Tree at Kew" (1958)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"A City Like A Water-Lily, Less Seen Than Reflected"

After a sojourn in the icy land of "No Possum, No Sop, No Taters," a visit to Venice is in order.  This visit shall be in the company of Arthur Symons (1865-1945).  I have a soft spot in my heart for the "decadent" poets of the 1890s -- those tortured souls who, after spending long nights in an absinthe haze, taking trips across the Channel to Dieppe, and writing a poem titled "Spleen," tended to become Catholic priests or university librarians (if they did not die young).

Symons is in many ways the quintessential Nineties poet.  Much of his poetry is of the melodramatic romantic sort (the lost angel-demon lover, et cetera), but he did, I think, write some fine poems.  His best poems tend to be evocations of particular places -- Dieppe, Venice, the coast of England (particularly Cornwall), and Spain, for instance.  (He also wrote a number of interesting prose pieces about his travels.  Most of the pieces may be found in Cities and Sea-Coasts and Islands.)  Venice -- that alluring and vaguely disquieting place -- was, not surprisingly, a favorite of the Nineties poets.


Water and marble and that silentness
Which is not broken by a wheel or hoof;
A city like a water-lily, less
Seen than reflected, palace wall and roof,
In the unfruitful waters motionless,
Without one living grass's green reproof;
A city without joy or weariness,
Itself beholding, from itself aloof.

Arthur Symons, Knave of Hearts (1913).  The poem was written on August 6, 1907.

                                            John Wharlton Bunney
                            "Palazzo Manzoni on the Grand Canal" (1871)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

"No Possum, No Sop, No Taters"

Now, "in the bleak mid-winter" (to borrow from a Christmas poem by Christina Rossetti), let us once more turn to that poet of winter, Wallace Stevens, and to a poem of his set in "deep January."

          No Possum, No Sop, No Taters

He is not here, the old sun,
As absent as if we were asleep.

The field is frozen.  The leaves are dry.
Bad is final in this light.

In this bleak air the broken stalks
Have arms without hands.  They have trunks

Without legs or, for that, without heads.
They have heads in which a captive cry

Is merely the moving of a tongue.
Snow sparkles like eyesight falling to earth,

Like seeing fallen brightly away.
The leaves hop, scraping on the ground.

It is deep January.  The sky is hard.
The stalks are firmly rooted in ice.

It is in this solitude, a syllable,
Out of these gawky flitterings,

Intones its single emptiness,
The savagest hollow of winter-sound.

It is here, in this bad, that we reach
The last purity of the knowledge of good.

The crow looks rusty as he rises up.
Bright is the malice in his eye . . .

One joins him there for company,
But at a distance, in another tree.

Wallace Stevens, Transport to Summer (1947).

For many years, Stevens vacationed in Florida in order to escape the New England winters.  In January of 1940, he wrote to a friend who lived in the South:  "How happy you all seem to be down there; how you go on living in a land of milk and honey, or, to be more exact, possum, sop, and taters."  Peter Brazeau, Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered (1983), page 109.

                                    Pekka Halonen, "Winter Day" (1910)

Friday, January 14, 2011

"Days Are Where We Live": Derek Mahon And Philip Larkin

I was of a mind to begin this post with an apostrophe to human folly.  But then I went for an afternoon walk in a blustery mist above the waters (grey and white-capped) of Puget Sound.  The wind roared (what else?) in the intricate and empty branches of a row of trees.  I realized that the folly was all mine.  Who among us is not enmeshed and implicated?  Better to think of the days.    

               Dream Days

'When  you stop to consider
The days spent dreaming of a future
And say then, that was my life.'

For the days are long --
From the first milk van
To the last shout in the night,
An eternity.  But the weeks go by
Like birds; and the years, the years
Fly past anti-clockwise
Like clock hands in a bar mirror.

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

                  John Constable, "Cloud Study, September 25, 1822"


What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings (Faber and Faber 1964).

                          John Constable, "Cloud Study, July 28, 1822"

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How To Live, Part Three: "A Single Grain Of Rice Falling -- Into The Great Barn"

The Chinese poets of the T'ang Dynasty are a great source of wisdom.  Seamus Heaney writes, in a poem about reading the poetry of Han Shan:  ". . . enviable stuff,/Unfussy and believable."  ("Squarings XXXVII" in Seeing Things.)  The wisdom of the T'ang poets is of particular value in a time of media and political hysteria.  In recent days, I have been reminded of lines from Patrick Kavanagh's "Leave Them Alone":  "Newspaper bedlamites who raised/Each day the devil's howl."  Kavanagh concludes:

The whole hysterical passing show
The hour apotheosised
Into a cul-de-sac will go
And be not even despised.

Here is Po Chu-i (as translated by Arthur Waley) on How to Live with perspective and humility (which are both, I fear, in short supply):

          Climbing the Ling Ying Terrace and Looking North

Mounting on high I begin to realize the smallness of Man's Domain;
Gazing into distance I begin to know the vanity of the Carnal World.
I turn my head and hurry home -- back to the Court and Market,
A single grain of rice falling -- into the Great Barn.

                 Samuel Palmer, "The Sleeping Shepherd" (c. 1831-1832)

Monday, January 10, 2011

"When The Night-Processions Flit Through The Mind"

My previous post featured Elizabeth Jennings's "The Rabbit's Advice," which contains these lines:

. . . imagine those nights when you lie awake
Afraid to turn over, afraid
Of night and dawn and sleep.

I am sure that we have all had our share of those kinds of nights.  I am reminded of a poem by Fleur Adcock:


There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m.  All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse.

Fleur Adcock, Selected Poems (1983).

                        Harald Sohlberg, "Fisherman's Cottage" (1907)

Thomas Hardy was certainly no slouch when it came to regret.  (Consider, for starters, his self-lacerating Poems of 1912-13, which were written after the death of his first wife.)  Hardy has this to say about unwelcome night visitations:

     The Peace-Offering

It was but a little thing,
Yet I knew it meant to me
Ease from what had given a sting
To the very birdsinging

But I would not welcome it;
And for all I then declined
O the regrettings infinite
When the night-processions flit
     Through the mind!

Thomas Hardy, Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (1917).

                    Harald Sohlberg, "Winter Night at Rondane" (1914)

Saturday, January 8, 2011

"The Rabbit's Advice": Elizabeth Jennings

As a follow-up to Wallace Stevens's "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts," and thinking once more of the upcoming Year of the Rabbit, here is a poem by Elizabeth Jennings.

                    The Rabbit's Advice

I have been away too long.
Some of you think I am only a nursery tale,
One which you've grown out of.
Or perhaps you saw a movie and laughed at my ears
But rather envied my carrot.
I must tell you that I exist.

I'm a puff of wool leaping across a field,
Quick to all noises,
Smelling my burrow of safety.
I am easily frightened.  A bird
Is tame compared to me.
Perhaps you have seen my fat white cousin who sits,
Constantly twitching his nose,
Behind bars in a hutch at the end of a garden.
If not, imagine those nights when you lie awake
Afraid to turn over, afraid
Of night and dawn and sleep.
Terror is what I am made
Of partly, partly of speed.

But I am a figure of fun.
I have no dignity
Which means I am never free.
So, when you are frightened or being teased, think of
My twitching whiskers, my absurd white puff of a tail,
Of all that I mean by 'me'
And my ludicrous craving for love.

Elizabeth Jennings, After the Ark (1978).

                                         Howard Phipps, "March Hare"

Thursday, January 6, 2011

"A Rabbit As King Of The Ghosts"

In recognition of the upcoming Year of the Rabbit, here is a poem by Wallace Stevens.

           A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur --

There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk
And August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten in the moon;

And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light,
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of.  It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter.  The grass is full

And full of yourself.  The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,

You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,

You are humped higher and higher, black as stone --
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass.

Wallace Stevens, Parts of a World (1942).  

                                      Albrecht Durer, "Hare" (1502)

As is often the case with Stevens, the question arises:  "But what does it mean?"  How about this:  the cat is the World, or everyday reality;  the rabbit is us;  the cat is ever-present, but the rabbit has its own meditative, imaginative "rabbit-light" that can transform and transcend (temporarily, alas) the cat World.  But to think of the cat as "a bug in the grass" -- however briefly -- is no small thing:  "King of the Ghosts."

Well, that's more than enough of that nonsense!  Here is what the poem may just as likely be about:

One side of my bed there is nothing but windows; when I lie in bed I can see nothing but trees.  But there has been a rabbit digging out bulbs:  instead of lying in bed in the mornings listening to everything that is going on, I spend the time worrying about the rabbit and wondering what particular thing he is having for breakfast.

Letter from Wallace Stevens to Ronald Lane Latimer, May 6, 1937, Letters of Wallace Stevens (1966), page 321.

Please disregard what I wrote previously about the "meaning" of the poem.  The poem is about a rabbit in Wallace Stevens's garden in Hartford, Connecticut in the late spring of 1937.  

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Vanished America, Part One: "My Darling Clementine"

John Ford's My Darling Clementine was released in 1946.  It tells the story of Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  By "modern" standards, Ford is old-fashioned, unsophisticated, and (of course) politically incorrect.  He preferred to film his movies in black-and-white rather than in color.  He regretted the demise of silent movies, because he liked to tell his stories with images, not words.

Wordsworth, Hardy, Yeats, Frost, and Stevens each wrote hundreds of poems.  Of the two or three thousand poems that the five of them wrote, a few score achieved something approaching perfection of feeling, thought, and form -- in other words, beauty.  In the same way, of the hundreds of scenes that John Ford directed, a few score achieved beauty as well.  As it happens, that beauty often has quite a bit to do with the U.S.A.

In the following scene from My Darling Clementine, nothing happens.  It is Sunday morning.  Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) leans back in a chair on the porch of a hotel in Tombstone.  The townsfolk are heading to the church-meeting up the street.  The church has not yet been built:  only the frame of a bell tower and two flagpoles with flapping American flags stand against the sky.

Chihuahua (Linda Darnell) arrives.  Henry Fonda leans his chair further back, holds out his arms, and places one foot, then the other, on the post, lightly bouncing up and down.  No words are spoken.  Chihuahua walks into the hotel to meet Doc Holliday.

An aside:  this scene demonstrates that, as far back as 1946, Henry Fonda was way cooler than Marlon Brando, James Dean, Paul Newman, and Steve McQueen (and any actor after them) ever were.

Monument Valley, Arizona -- one of John Ford's favorite locales --lies in the distance.  (Monument Valley is actually about 400 miles away from the real Tombstone.)  Wyatt is likely thinking about Clementine Carter.  "I sure like that name . . . Clementine" is the final line of the movie.  Vanished America.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

"A Swan And Cygnets, Nothing More"

The arrival of the New Year leads inevitably to thoughts of Time -- "implacable fate" and "the strumble of the hungry river of death" as Hilaire Belloc says in "From the Latin (but not so pagan)."  But that is too bleak a way to begin anew, isn't it? 

Perhaps it is best to stick with the present, with moments.  Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his mystical and puzzling way, says this:

If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Proposition 6.4311 (1921) (translated by D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness).  A bit on the abstract side, I'm afraid.  Better to think in terms of, say, swans swimming on a tree-lined river on a summer's day.     


A swan and cygnets, nothing more.
Background of silver, reedy shore,
Dim shapes of rounded trees, the high
Effulgence of a summer sky.

Only a snap-shot.  Just a flash,
And it was fixed, -- the mimic wash,
The parent bird on-oaring slow,
Her fussy little fleet in tow,
The all-pervading sultry haze,
The white lights on the waterways, --
A scene that never was before,
A scene that will be -- Nevermore!

Alas! for us.  We look and wait,
And labour but to imitate;
Vainly for new effects we seek . . .
Earth's shortest second is unique!

Austin Dobson, Collected Poems (1920).  The poem was written in 1904.

                                                   Stanley Spencer
                                "Swan Upping at Cookham" (1915-1919)