Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Life Explained, Part Twenty-Three: "They Are Not Long, The Days Of Wine And Roses"

Christina Rossetti and Ernest Dowson lived in wholly different Victorian worlds.  She was a devout Anglican who lived a quiet, somewhat reclusive life.  He was the quintessential 1890s Decadent figure:  a dissipated poet who wandered between London and Paris, dead at the age of 32.

Dowson wrote what are perhaps the two best-known poems of the Nineties:  "Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae" ("I am not the man I was under kind Cynara's rule" is one translation of the title, which is from Horace's Odes, IV.i.3) and "Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam" ("the short span of our life forbids us to indulge in long-term hope" is one translation of the title, which is from Horace's Odes, I.iv.15).

Despite the differences between Rossetti and Dowson, Rossetti's "One Certainty" (which appeared in my previous post) and Dowson's "Vitae summa brevis" have, I think, much in common.

                         James McIntosh Patrick, "A City Garden" (1940)

Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
          Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
          We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
          Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
          Within a dream.

Ernest Dowson, Verses (1896).

Dowson lacked the religious comfort that Rossetti had.  Still, the way he puts it, the prospect of what awaits us after the "One Certainty" does not seem frightening.  Our fate seems peaceful, restful:  "Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes/Within a dream."  He sounds like a Taoist or a Buddhist.

     A temporary lodging
on this side of the road all
     must go, in the end.

To recover the time he rested,
The traveller hastens on.

Shinkei (1406-1475) (translated by Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen), Heart's Flower: The Life and Poetry of Shinkei (Stanford University Press 1994).

                                 Karl Hagedorn, "Winter Sunshine" (1932)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Life Explained, Part Twenty-Two: "One Certainty"

Christina Rossetti had what some might call a fatalistic (and what others might call a realistic) view of our time on Earth.  I thought of the following sonnet because of the phrase "twilight grey" in its final line -- an admittedly tenuous affinity with my previous post on Arthur Symons's fondness for the words "grey" and "twilight."

But there is much more afoot in Rossetti's poem than "twilight grey."  I am among those who find Rossetti's view of life to be realistic, not fatalistic. On the other hand, supposing that she is indeed fatalistic, there is a great deal to be said for fatalistic beauty (accompanied by an Explanation of Life).

         Adam Bruce Thomson (1885-1976), "From My Bedroom Window"

                    One Certainty

Vanity of vanities, the Preacher saith,
     All things are vanity.  The eye and ear
     Cannot be filled with what they see and hear.
Like early dew, or like the sudden breath
Of wind, or like the grass that withereth,
     Is man, tossed to and fro by hope and fear:
     So little joy hath he, so little cheer,
Till all things end in the long dust of death.
Today is still the same as yesterday,
     Tomorrow also even as one of them;
And there is nothing new under the sun:
Until the ancient race of Time be run,
     The old thorns shall grow out of the old stem,
And morning shall be cold and twilight grey.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862).  Lines 1-3 and 11 have their source in Chapter 1 of the Book of Ecclesiastes (King James Version).

Yes, I know, the poem may elicit a "Whew!"  Perhaps it is not the thing to start the day with.  But Rossetti is more adept than even world-class fatalists such as, say, Thomas Hardy or A. E. Housman (although Housman comes close to her) at delivering a grim message in a soothing fashion.  To wit:  "Like early dew, or like the sudden breath/Of wind."  Or: "The old thorns shall grow out of the old stem."  Or even this:  "Till all things end in the long dust of death."  (All those lovely monosyllables!) The prospect (nay, the "certainty") of our mortality has never seemed so . . . reassuring?  Comforting?

                  Adam Bruce Thomson, "Still Life at a Window" (c. 1944)

Friday, January 27, 2012

"When The Grey Moth Night Drew Near"

"Twilight" and "grey" are two of Arthur Symons's favorite words.  This is not surprising given the oftentimes ethereal and, well, twilit ambience of much of the "Decadent" poetry of the 1890s.  However, unlike many Decadent poets, Symons wrote a fair number of poems which have a natural setting (as opposed to being set in, say, an absinthe bar or some other seedy night-time establishment).

     On Inishmaan (Isles of Aran)

In the twilight of the year,
Here, about these twilight ways,
When the grey moth night drew near,
Fluttering on a faint flying,
I would linger out the day's
Delicate and moth-grey dying.

Grey, and faint with sleep, the sea
Should enfold me, and release,
Some old peace to dwell with me.
I would quiet the long crying
Of my heart with mournful peace,
The grey sea's, in its low sighing.

Arthur Symons, Images of Good and Evil (1899).  Symons includes a note to the poem stating that it was written at Tillyra Castle on August 13, 1896. The phrase "some old peace" in line 9 reappears in "By the Pool at the Third Rosses," which was written at Rosses Point, Sligo, on September 1, 1896:  "some old peace I had forgotten" (line 19).

"On Inishmaan" is, I suppose, quintessential 1890s poetry:  "I would quiet the long crying/Of my heart with mournful peace," et cetera.  (Which, to my mind, is not necessarily a bad thing.)  Most importantly, however, one line makes it all worthwhile:  "When the grey moth night drew near." (And, close behind, "the day's/Delicate and moth-grey dying.")  Yes, it is dreamy and "Decadent," but it sounds lovely.

                             Spencer Gore, "View from a Window" (1909)


The pale grey sea crawls stealthily
Up the pale lilac of the beach;
A bluer grey, the waters reach
To where the horizon ends the sea.

Flushed with a tinge of dusky rose,
The clouds, a twilit lavender,
Flood the low sky, and duskier
The mist comes flooding in, and flows

Into the twilight of the land,
And darkness, coming softly down,
Rustles across the fading sand
And folds its arms about the town.

Arthur Symons, Amoris Victima (1897).  Symons notes that the poem was written in Dieppe (of course!) on August 22, 1895.  Earlier in his career, Symons wrote a three-poem sequence titled "Colour Studies," the first poem of which is titled "At Dieppe."  I think that "Twilight" also qualifies as a "Colour Study" of Dieppe.

                                   Spencer Gore, "Letchworth" (1912)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A. E. Housman: Three Variations On A Theme

The two great themes of A. E. Housman's poetry are love (unrequited, or requited and lost) and death (or, put differently, the fleeting nature of life). These subjects are addressed in verse that some may find "old-fashioned" or "quaint."  And it is certainly true that, even though his final collection was published in 1922 (the year in which Eliot's The Waste Land was published), Housman was not a "Modernist."

For my money, Kingsley Amis appropriately responds to quibbles about Housman's poetry:

"Of course I think it ungrateful and wrong that Housman should never have been conventionally admitted as a great English poet, one of the greatest since Arnold, but not so surprising when you consider some of the people who have been so admitted.  What are the objections to him? . . . His themes are restricted:  I started to make a list of them until it occurred to me that the same objection would exclude from the canon Milton, Herbert, Pope, Wordsworth, Keats. . . . He turns his back on the modern world:  next question.  He made no technical innovations:  get out of my sight."

Kingsley Amis, The Amis Anthology: A Personal Choice of English Verse (1988), pages 331-332.

The theme of the following three poems is love, and they are tied together by similar imagery.  The first poem was published while Housman was alive.  The other two were published posthumously.  As is the case with most of Housman's poems, they are untitled.

The half-moon westers low, my love,
   And the wind brings up the rain;
And wide apart lie we, my love,
   And seas between the twain.

I know not if it rains, my love,
   In the land where you do lie;
And oh, so sound you sleep, my love,
   You know no more than I.

A. E. Housman, Poem XXVI, Last Poems (1922).

Lest one think that this is technically a "simple" poem, one should consider Housman's use of assonance, consonance, and alliteration both within a given line, and across lines.  The fact that the moon is a "half-moon" is not a matter of happenstance.  And consider this as well:  is the absent lover in another land?  Or is he or she dead?  Or, just possibly, is he or she now sleeping in the same bed as the speaker of the poem?

                    Doris Boulton-Maude, "The Garden Window" (c. 1940)

The following two poems are expanded versions (not strictly translations) by Housman of a poem by Sappho.

The weeping Pleiads wester,
   And the moon is under seas;
From bourn to bourn of midnight
   Far sighs the rainy breeze:

It sighs from a lost country
   To a land I have not known;
The weeping Pleiads wester,
   And I lie down alone.

A. E. Housman, Poem X, More Poems (1936).

"Bourn" in this instance probably means "a bound, a limit" or, perhaps, "a boundary" (OED).  According to Bulfinch, "the Pleiads were daughters of Atlas, and nymphs of Diana's train.  One day Orion saw them and became enamoured and pursued them.  In their distress they prayed to the gods to change their form, and Jupiter in pity turned them into pigeons, and then made them a constellation in the sky."  Thomas Bulfinch, The Age of Fable (1855).

The rainy Pleiads wester,
   Orion plunges prone,
The stroke of midnight ceases,
   And I lie down alone.

The rainy Pleiads wester
   And seek beyond the sea
The head that I shall dream of,
   And 'twill not dream of me.

Ibid, Poem XI.

                   Doris Boulton-Maude, "Mayes Farm, Sandon" (c. 1940)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Snow, Concluded

The snow that we received earlier this week has mostly vanished. However, the remaining bright white patches upon the lawns (which stay green all winter long in our temperate climate) and in the hollows of the open fields (grey-brown underlaid with green) are lovely.  All of which evokes the titles, at least, of the following two poems.

               Wet Snow

White tree on black tree,
Ghostly appearance fastened on another,
Called up by harsh spells of this wintry weather
You stand in the night as though to speak to me.

I could almost
Say what you do not fail to say; that's why
I turn away, in terror, not to see
A tree stand there hugged by its own ghost.

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

                                           John Nash, "Winter Scene"

          Hedges Freaked with Snow

No argument, no anger, no remorse,
       No dividing of blame.
There was poison in the cup -- why should we ask
       From whose hand it came?

No grief for our dead love, no howling gales
       That through darkness blow,
But the smile of sorrow, a wan winter landscape,
       Hedges freaked with snow.

Robert Graves, New Poems (1962).

                       John Nash, "Melting Snow at Wormingford" (1962)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

"In The Gloom Of Whiteness, In The Great Silence Of Snow"

Edward Thomas wrote the following poem on January 7, 1915.  According to R. George Thomas, "the child in the poem is the poet's younger daughter, Myfanwy."  R. George Thomas (editor), The Collected Poems of Edward Thomas (Oxford University Press 1981), page 135.


In the gloom of whiteness,
In the great silence of snow,
A child was sighing
And bitterly saying:  'Oh,
They have killed a white bird up there on her nest,
The down is fluttering from her breast.'
And still it fell through that dusky brightness
On the child crying for the bird of the snow.

Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 2008).

                         Harald Sohlberg, "Winter, Hvalsbakken" (1926)

In her annotation to the poem, Edna Longley states that "the idea is traditional, as in the riddle of the snow and the sun, which begins:  'White bird featherless/Flew from Paradise.'"  Ibid, page 175.  Longley also notes that the image appears in the "December: Christmass" section of John Clare's Shepherd's Calendar:

And some to view the winter weathers
Climb up the window seat wi glee
Likening the snow to falling feathers
In fancy's infant extacy
Laughing wi superstitious love
Oer visions wild that youth supplyes
Of people pulling geese above
And keeping christmass in the skyes.

(Spelling and punctuation (or the lack thereof) are as they appear in Clare's original manuscript.)  I have previously discussed Thomas's admiring discussion of Clare's poem "Love lies beyond the tomb."  Perhaps Thomas had the above passage in mind when he wrote "Snow."

But, beyond its historical sources, the poem shows Thomas's acute attentiveness to the world around us, and his ability to memorably describe what he sees.  Those of us fortunate enough to have experienced a snowfall will likely agree that these phrases are right on the mark:  "the gloom of whiteness"; "the great silence of snow"; "that dusky brightness."  In one sense, the phrases may seem deceptively commonplace;  we may say:  "Yes, of course, that's exactly what it is like."  But it is the function of the ("true and not feigning") poet to tell us what we all know (or ought to know), but have not yet seen.

                               Harald Sohlberg, "Mainstreet, Roros" (1904)

Thursday, January 19, 2012


Today, we have had an unusually heavy snowfall for this part of the world. Unfortunately, it will disappear in a few days.  But, there it is, for now:  the world transformed.  If you live near the Arctic Circle, do you ever lose this sense of wonder?

                     Explicit Snow

First snow is never all the snows there were
Come back again, but novel in the sun
As though a newness had but just begun.

It does not fall as rain does from nowhere
Or from that cloud spinnakered on the blue,
But from a place we feel we could go to.

As a great actor steps, not from the wings,
But from the play's extension -- all he does
Is move to the seen from the mysterious --

And his performance is the first of all --
The snow falls from its implications and
Stages pure newness on the uncurtained land.

And the hill we've looked out of existence comes
Vivid in its own language; and this tree
Stands self-explained, its own soliloquy.

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

           Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), "Mount Yuga, Bizen Province"


And so at last it has come.  Quietly.
Has quietly come and changed everything.
This, as we watch, is what we always say:
"It changes everything.  Now we can live."
And we all want to walk out into it.
Walk out into it, at night, and look up,
Thinking that this world is a simple world
While all around us it never ceases.
We can walk for miles down an empty road
And see it swirl down beneath each streetlight.
We can turn and watch our path disappear.
And it continues to quietly come.
It has come, at last, and changed everything.

sip  (Written in Tokyo a long time ago.)

                         Utagawa Hiroshige, "Snow Falling on a Town"

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


As I began my afternoon walk yesterday, I could see a snow squall out on Puget Sound, approaching from the northwest.  Towards the end of the walk, it overtook me from behind with a sweeping hiss.  Just like that, a swirling white world.

In the following poem, Stanley Cook (1922-1991) takes an antic view of what falling snow might consist of.  Perhaps our new-fangled floating electronic world has rendered Cook's vision quaintly obsolete.  I think not.

                        Douglas Percy Bliss (1900-1984), "Snow at Sheen"


A bitter wind is tidying the attic of the sky,
Tearing the past into little pieces of snow
That dodge in three dimensions.  Unable to read
So many bits, I can but guess
They are codings, receipts and final demands
For income tax, insurance and rates,
Or threats to take it out or cut it off
And make you wait and pay to have it back;
Banker's orders you were asked to sign
And haven't to save the treasurer and covenants
You haven't signed either to save him money;
A list of dates of the century's rarer pennies
And a parody, satirising Social Security,
Of the twenty-third psalm; instructions
To sharpen the mower that had you had at the time
Would have saved your tipping the binmen to take it away,
The good reports the children had from school
And a list of pages to look at (Penguin edition)
For character and use of symbolism;
Directions for reaching a wedding once you have left
M62, forms of voting for people
You didn't know or didn't like or liked still less
When you read their guff -- supposing you did --
And apparently didn't vote for anyway, holiday ads.
A flurry of testimonials, too faded to use
In case you imagined at your age
Anyone would offer you another job,
Mixes opaquely to obscure the view;
Bits of a letter melt upon an eyelash.
All about you the bushes, every branch
As stuck with white as a park-keeper's spike,
Retain the litter, the lightly falling debris
Scattering as far as the eye and the mind's eye can see.

Stanley Cook, Woods Beyond a Cornfield: Collected Poems (Smith/Doorstop Books 1995).

                  Douglas Percy Bliss, "A London Square in Winter" (1941)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Skating On Thin Ice, Revisited

Edmund Blunden's exhortation to continue skating despite the darkness beneath us is echoed by A. S. J. Tessimond.  Tessimond's darkness is of a more psychological sort -- his life was not haunted by the horrors that Blunden experienced in the trenches -- but his advice bears consideration.

            Skaters' Waltz

'. . . So tempting to let freeze
   One's deepest, darkest pools
And learn to skim with ease
   Thin ice; for who but fools

Dive into who-knows-what?'
   'But if the ice by chance
Breaks?'  'But if not, if not?
   And how it glitters!  Dance!'

A. S. J. Tessimond, Selection (1958).

                 Andreas Schelfhout, "Skaters and a Horse-Sledge" (1857)

The topic of skating inevitably brings to mind (at this point I ask my younger readers to please bear with me) my favorite Jethro Tull song. (Owen Wilson's line from the movie Armageddon just popped into my head:  "I'll tell you one thing that really drives me nuts, is people that think that Jethro Tull is just a person in the band.")  The song is "Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day" (from the album War Child, which was released in -- ah, Time! -- 1974).  It was written, and is sung by, the inimitable Ian Anderson.  This is from the third verse:

And as you cross the circle line
The ice-wall creaks behind
You're a rabbit on the run.
And the silver splinters fly
In the corner of your eye
Shining in the setting sun.

                        Andreas Schelfhout, "Skating in Holland" (1846)

Friday, January 13, 2012

Skating On Thin Ice

Given his experiences in the First World War, Edmund Blunden had a much keener appreciation of what lies beneath the ice than most of us ever will.  But he was a kindly man, and he would not, I think, have held our innocence against us.  Thus, he gives us the following poem, which is both a warning and an exhortation.

          The Midnight Skaters

The hop-poles stand in cones,
   The icy pond lurks under,
The pole-tops steeple to the thrones
   Of stars, sound gulfs of wonder;
But not the tallest there, 'tis said,
Could fathom to this pond's black bed.

Then is not death at watch
   Within those secret waters?
What wants he but to catch
   Earth's heedless sons and daughters?
With but a crystal parapet
Between, he has his engines set.

Then on, blood shouts, on, on,
   Twirl, wheel and whip above him,
Dance on this ball-floor thin and wan,
   Use him as though you love him;
Court him, elude him, reel and pass,
And let him hate you through the glass.

Edmund Blunden, English Poems (1925).

               Jan Abrahamsz Beerstraten, "Skating Scene" (17th century)

On the subject of skating at night, the following passage from John Cheever's journals comes to mind:

"Skating one afternoon at the Newberrys'.  The end of a very cold winter day.  The ice, contracting in the cold, made a noise like thunder.  Walking up the frozen field to the house we could hear it thundering.  We went back that night.  There was no one else on the pond.  The G.s' dog was barking. There was no moon and the ice was black.  It seemed, skating out into the center of the pond, that the number of stars I could see was multiplied. They seemed as thickly sown as a rush of snowflakes.  As I skated back to the end of the pond, the number seemed to diminish.  I was confounded.  It could have been the whiskey and the wine.  It could have been my utter ignorance of cosmology."

Robert Gottlieb (editor), The Journals of John Cheever (1991), page 3.

                                        Jan Abrahamsz Beerstraten
       "A View of the Regulierspoort, Amsterdam, in Winter" (17th century)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

"I Heard The Sighing Of The Reeds"

Among the "Decadent" poets of the 1890s, my favorite is Arthur Symons (1865-1945).  Like the others, he wrote his fair share of poems about the lamp-lit, absinthe-tinged world that is usually associated with the Nineties.  However, he also wrote a number of fine poems that, although they reflect the Decadent penchant for world-weariness coupled with dreaminess, provide lovely descriptions of places that he visited.

In particular, he is a wonderful poet of the sea-side.  Not surprisingly, he wrote quite a few poems set in Dieppe, a favorite haunt of the Decadents. He also wrote poems about places on the coasts of England, Wales, and Ireland.  Symons identified the following poem as having been written on September 1, 1896, at Rosses Point, which is located in County Sligo, Ireland.   Rosses Point, Rosses Upper, and Rosses Lower are three villages (or townlands) on a peninsula in Sligo Bay.  Hence the phrase "the Third Rosses" in the title of the poem.

     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 (1899).

                    Christopher Nevinson (1889-1946), "The Old Harbour"

Symons wrote an essay about the time that he spent in Sligo.  The essay contains the following passage:

"And if you go a little in from the sea-edge, over the green lands, you will come to a great pool, where the waters are never troubled nor the reeds still; but there is always a sighing of wind in the reeds, as of a very gentle and melancholy peace."

Arthur Symons, "In Sligo: Rosses Point and Glencar," Cities and Sea-Coasts and Islands (1918).

I presume that he is writing about the same reeds and the same pool that appear in the poem, and it is interesting to see how the poetry goes beyond the prose.  The poem is built upon repetition, both of phrase and of rhyme. First, of course, "I heard the sighing of the reeds" begins each of the first four stanzas, changing to "I hear the sighing of the reeds" in the final stanza.  Further, in the first three stanzas, "sighing" in the middle of the first line rhymes with the final word of the third line.

In addition, consider the repetition of sounds in "the whirring wild ducks" (line 7) and "the sea-gull's wheeling flight" (line 8).  Consider also "day after day, night after night" in line 6, followed later by "night after night, day after day" in line 10, and "some old dream I had forgotten" in line 15, followed later by "some old peace I had forgotten" in line 19.  And, finally, notice line 18: "is it in vain, is it in vain."  The poem is an embodiment of the sound and the movement of the reeds (and of the wind and the sea).

                      Christopher Nevinson, "Silver Estuary" (c. 1925-1927)

Monday, January 9, 2012

"To Mend A World You Had Not Made"

My posts in the new year have all been, by chance, bird-themed.  Hence, a change of subject may be in order.  However, R. S. Thomas's "A Marriage" prompted a memory of the following poem by Michael Roberts (1902-1948), in which birds once again make an appearance.
                      Poem for Elsa

That day the blue-black rook fell pitifully dead
You wept and stormed, tossing your lovely head,
Hurling commiseration into broken skies
That wept and wept, vainly as any eyes.

You pitifully wept, nor would be comforted
Till a bedraggled robin chirped unfed
Begging for comfort-crumbs, and sought your aid
To mend a world you had not made.

You who compassionately wept, be with me still,
Though the wind lash the dark, the wooded hill;
The hand that let the wild wet creature ache
Moulded the heart that grieves, but shall not break.

Michael Roberts, Collected Poems (1958).

                   C. F. A. Voysey (1857-1941), Wallpaper/Textile Design

I suspect that some may find the poem to be too "sentimental" (i.e., a dead rook, a bedraggled robin, a weeping child).  In fact, Roberts was not a sentimental type.  He is probably best known now as an anthologist who championed the political poetry of the Thirties.  In addition to writing poetry, he wrote prose works about science, philosophy, and politics (including an early study of T. E. Hulme).  Of course, this does not mean that he was incapable of writing a sentimental poem.

But, come to think of it, what of it?  After all, Roberts has written about something that actually occurred, a type of incident that I wager most of us have experienced in our lives.  If one is moved by such an incident, does that make one "sentimental"?  And I am sure that most of us (I would hope) have experienced pity.  Of course, a sea of ink has been spilled on the subject of pity by those who attempt to "analyze" exactly what it is, and to speculate on exactly what it means to feel pity.  Pshaw!

                          C. F. A. Voysey, "The House That Jack Built" (1929)

Saturday, January 7, 2012

"We Met Under A Shower Of Bird-Notes"

As I noted in my previous post, R. S. Thomas and Mildred E. Eldridge (he called her "Elsi") were married for over 50 years.  As the old saw goes, none of us can ever know (or should presume to know) what goes on inside a couple's marriage.  However, I will nonetheless hazard a guess that 50 years of living with R. S. (as he refers to himself in his autobiographical piece "Neb," which translates into English from Welsh as "no-one") may not have always been a bed of roses or a walk in the park or a piece of cake (take your pick).

                             Mildred E. Eldridge, "Forest Friends" (1980)

Eldridge died in 1991.  A year after her death, Thomas's collection Mass for Hard Times was published.  It bears the following dedication:  "To the Memory of My Wife, M. E. Eldridge, 1909-1991."  The collection includes the following poem.  Thomas subsequently placed the poem at the end of his Collected Poems.  No other poem from Mass for Hard Times was included in the Collected Poems.

                                                  Mildred E. Eldridge
                          "Study of a Redpoll; Study of a Stonechat" (1975)

        A Marriage

We met
           under a shower
of bird-notes.
           Fifty years passed,
love's moment
           in a world in
servitude to time.
           She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
           closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
           'Come,' said death,
choosing her as his
           partner for
the last dance.  And she,
           who in life
had done everything
           with a bird's grace,
opened her bill now
           for the shedding
of one sigh no
           heavier than a feather.

R. S. Thomas, Collected Poems (1993).

                                                     Mildred E. Eldridge
                                      "Study of a Turtle Dove at Bardsey"

This is one of those poems that I am reluctant to say anything about for fear of destroying it.  (Although this is true of any good poem, isn't it?)  At the risk of sounding fuzzy-minded, sentimental, and romantic, I'm afraid that my "literary analysis" of the poem begins and ends with this:  it took my breath away when I first read it 18 or so years ago, and it took my breath away when I read it today.  Others, of course, may feel differently.

              Mildred E. Eldridge, "Musicians and Bee-Keepers" (c. 1950s)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

"A Blackbird Singing"

Thomas Hardy's frail thrush flinging his soul upon the gloom brings to mind R. S. Thomas's blackbird.

Thomas was a devoted bird-watcher.   Although he seldom travelled abroad, he did go on bird-watching excursions to Denmark (where he "had a chance . . . to enquire about Kierkegaard, the Danish theologian [nice piece of wit and/or understatement, that!], although he did not get time to find his grave"), and, later, to France and Spain.  In France, after he and his companion were spotted getting out of their car carrying binoculars, "officers from the air force arrived and arrested them for spying!  The rest of the day was spent answering silly questions from the air force and the police, who had come all the way from Bordeaux to cross-examine these two dangerous men!"  R. S. Thomas, "Neb" ("No-one"), in Autobiographies (translated from the Welsh by Jason Walford Davies) (1997), page 68.

                                                      Mildred E. Eldridge
                                        "Birds on the Seashore" (c. 1950s)

               A Blackbird Singing

It seems wrong that out of this bird,
Black, bold, a suggestion of dark
Places about it, there yet should come
Such rich music, as though the notes'
Ore were changed to a rare metal
At one touch of that bright bill.

You have heard it often, alone at your desk
In a green April, your mind drawn
Away from its work by sweet disturbance
Of the mild evening outside your room.

A slow singer, but loading each phrase
With history's overtones, love, joy
And grief learned by his dark tribe
In other orchards and passed on
Instinctively as they are now,
But fresh always with new tears.

R. S. Thomas, Song at the Year's Turning (1955).

                            Mildred E. Eldridge, "Rain on the Hill" (1936)
R. S. Thomas and Mildred E. Eldridge were married for over 50 years.  She died in 1991.  He died in 2000.  I intend to look at "A Marriage," his wonderful poem about her, in a future post.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

"To Fling His Soul Upon The Growing Gloom"

As I have observed on more than one occasion, each generation believes that it is living in a time in which the world is going to Hell in a handbasket.  (The Baby Boom Generation -- of which, alas, I am a member -- is particularly prone to self-regarding, self-aggrandizing delusions about its historical uniqueness and importance.)  Thus, some may look upon the coming year with a bit of trepidation.  I respectfully suggest that, in order to gain some perspective, they have a gander at, say, Herodotus. 

Reading the poetry of Thomas Hardy also gives one a sense of perspective.  Hardy dated the following poem "31 December 1900," and it is directed at the turning of the century, not simply the turning of the year.  Yet, it provides a reminder that -- along with Human Nature -- we will always have thrushes (in some form or another) with us.  

           The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
        When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
        The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
        Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
        Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
        The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
        The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
        Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
        Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
        The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
        Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
        In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
        Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
        Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
        Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
        His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
        And I was unaware.

Thomas Hardy, Poems of the Past and the Present (1901).

                        Evelyn Dunbar, "Winter Garden" (c. 1929-1937)

Several times each year, I figuratively slap myself on the forehead and say:  "Why do I always forget how good Hardy is?"  This occurs either after I have stumbled upon a wonderful poem unknown to me among his 940-or-so poems, or, alternatively, after I have revisited a familiar poem and am struck anew by its excellence. 

"The Darkling Thrush" is one of Hardy's most-anthologized, best-known poems.  Thus, it is easy to take for granted.  But then something new hits you.  For me, this time, it was these lines:  "Had chosen thus to fling his soul/Upon the growing gloom."  "Gloom" is endemic in Hardy's poetry, so its appearance comes as no surprise.  No, what struck me this time around was "fling his soul."  These are the moments that bring one back to Hardy.

                      Edward Bawden, "Lindsell Church, Essex" (1959)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

"The Seasons Flit Like Linnets, And Years Whirl Past Like Planets"

I think that the following poem by Norman Nicholson provides a fitting start to the New Year.  I confess that I have never been a big fan of New Year's Eve celebrations.  (I know, I know:  "Killjoy!")  I do, however, like the bigger picture that Nicholson provides.

           For the New Year

The stars wheel past the windows
Like flocks of winter sparrows;
The bell clangs out the hours,
And frost sparkles like stars,
And the wind blows up the dawn
With spring behind it and rain
And the spikes of daffodils
And June on fire in the hills.
The apples crowd the bough
Beneath the frosty Plough,
And autumn snow is blown
White as the harvest moon
On currant and raspberry cane.
And the wild ganders fly
Nightly across the sky.
The seasons flit like linnets,
And years whirl past like planets,
And the earth's orbit mars
The changeless map of stars.
The splintered light which now
Gently probes my eye
Is of a star that burned
When the Scots fired the land,
When the Norsemen robbed the dales
And hacked their names on the fells,
Or when the iceberg lakes
Elbowed among the rocks
And carried the Devil's stone
To the hill above the town,
Where through my dormer bay
Drizzles the Milky Way.

Norman Nicholson, Five Rivers (1944).

               Harald Sohlberg, "Winter Night in the Mountains" (1924)