Thursday, February 2, 2012

"The Soul's Progress"

Please bear with me as I stay in the 1890s a moment longer.  Ernest Dowson's "Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam" is reminiscent of "The Soul's Progress," a sonnet by Dowson's fellow Decadent, Arthur Symons (he of "grey" and "twilight").  Symons's poem was published in 1889, seven years prior to the publication of "Vitae summa brevis."  I am not suggesting that "The Soul's Progress" was a direct influence on Dowson.  However, the two poems do, I think, show the common dreamy world inhabited by the Decadents.

                     Ethelbert White, "The Farm by the Brook" (1928-1929)

                  The Soul's Progress

It enters life it knows not whence; there lies
A mist behind it and a mist before.
It stands between a closed and open door.
It follows hope, yet feeds on memories.
The years are with it, and the years are wise;
It learns the mournful lesson of their lore.
It hears strange voices from an unknown shore,
Voices that will not answer to its cries.

Blindly it treads dim ways that wind and twist;
It sows for knowledge, and it gathers pain;
Stakes all on love, and loses utterly.
Then, going down into the darker mist,
Naked, and blind, and blown with wind and rain,
It staggers out into eternity.

Arthur Symons, Days and Nights (1889).

Come to think of it, Symons, like Dowson, echoes Christina Rossetti, a non-Decadent if ever there was one.  "Stakes all on love, and loses utterly" is perhaps a line that Rossetti would particularly sympathize with.

                          Ethelbert White, "Edge of the Village" (1924)


zmkc said...

"It staggers out into eternity" is a great line, as if this life were just some exhausting trial from which we emerge punchdrunk into forever.

Stephen Pentz said...

That line is nice, isn't it? Coming after all of the dreamy, misty language that precedes it, it perhaps has more of an impact than it otherwise would.

Thanks for visiting again, zmkc.

Fred said...

"It enters life it knows not whence; there lies
A mist behind it and a mist before."

Very Taoist--we come from the Void and we return to the Void.

Also quite ironic--what we hope for and what we get are very different.

James Russell said...

Another lovely post... I always enjoy a beautifully written poem or song with a gloomy 'message' because the evident enjoyment of the writer in composing the work far outweighs the mournful content. cf any song by Nick Drake, Morrissey...

And Ethelbert White... where do you find all these wonderful old pictures?!

Stephen Pentz said...

Thank you for the tie-in to Taoism, Fred -- that hadn't occurred to me. It sounds like something that Han Shan or another of the Taoist or Buddhist poets might write, doesn't it?

Thanks for stopping by -- it is always good to hear from you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Russell: thank you for visiting again, and for the kind words.

I agree with you about "gloomy" songs and poems and the enjoyment of those who create them. Nick Drake and Morrissey are fine examples -- take "River Man" or "Everyday Is Like Sunday" or "There Is a Light that Never Goes Out" for instance: wonderful. (And, of course, Morrissey is very funny anyway, whatever he is writing about.)

I discovered Ethelbert White through a long-standing interest in British wood-engraving as used in fine press books in the pre-World War II era -- a subject that you are more qualified in than I am. As you know, Ravilious, Gwen Raverat, the Nashes, Agnes Miller Parker, Eric Gill, and many, many others all did engravings for books, as did White. I forget what book I first found his engravings in. You are probably familiar with the annual publication Matrix, which is published by The Whittington Press in Gloucestershire -- I discovered many artists through it, as well as through the Press's other books featuring specific engravers.

As ever, thank you for stopping by, and for your thoughts.